One ring to bind them

One of the most profound concepts that I came across late this year was of the 'organic circuit'. In The Metaphysical Club Menand writes on John Dewey:

... it assumes that the parts are prior to the whole, when in fact it is the whole that makes the parts what they are...

Meaning that divisions are artificial, there are no real discrete units, there is simply an organic whole. According to Dewey, we do not know, so that we can do, but doing leads to knowing. Knowledge in not the result of experience, any more than a response is the result of a stimulus; knowledge is experience itself in one of its manifestations.

As is usually the case, the same concept once discovered pops up more often and much sooner than expected in other places. At a different level was Jeff Hawkins's On Intelligence which presents a new framework for intelligence - ideas on how to build a human brain. Even after all these years AI did not produce a device that can perform the basic task that a three-year old can perform with ease. Bigger, faster is not going to get us there when the neocortex, the size and dimension of a dinner napkin still beats anything out there in telling a cat apart from a dog.

The key is to first understand how the brain actually does it. Neuroscience suffers from the the other problem - too much detail, no overarching theory. Echoing Dewey, we need to study the organic whole and not just the parts in isolation. Society is not a sum of individuals, but an aggregate of interacting individuals. The brain too works as an organic whole and there is no seeing that leads to perception that results in action, but all these acting together. No wonder that 80% of the connections in the brain are feedback connections.

There are always analyses, the breaking down in various ways. What about the synthesis? the putting together. Is that a tacit assumption that we know how to put together what we have pulled apart? If the market is any judge are there jobs for synthesists?

Eric Clapton on Eric Clapton

It's a goddammed impossible life
- Robbie Robertson

So described Robbie to Clapton the life on the road as a musician. It also neatly describes Clapton's own life. The facts of EC's life are well-known and there are no facts out of the ordinary and known in his autobiography - Clapton, the Autobiography . Yet, the book is a marvelous, fascinating read of an impossible life told by the incredible artist himself. It's not just what happened, but how it happened that interests me. The book is organized chronologically along the big events in his life. Clapton arrived and left quickly, often at the peak of a band's popularity. These quick, short events are convenient for breaking up the story in neat chapters. But, that is on the surface. Like his own songs, in which there is a main riff and then dizzying solos, the book is largely a rambling account, with years, events, and names flashing forward and backward. It feels like listening to an extempore narration of Clapton recounting his life based on bullet points printed on a 4x3 inch index card. There are no footnotes to help you along, as EC talks about people using their first names - e.g. Mick, Keith, Roger John - without introducing them appropriately. Sometimes there are lots of details that would have been excised by a more careful editor. It is quite unlikely that the book was ghost-written, and the somewhat poor editing gives the autobiography a rough authentic feel.

His musical wandering has been relentless - Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes. Life has been a constant journey and search. Is Clapton a seeker or just a wanderer? It depends on your point of view. He was an illegitimate child, told that his grandparents were his parents and his mother his sister. When the truth was told he was unable to handle it. He constantly wanted to hide, constantly felt he was being judged. That made him a perfectionist and made the desire to pursue music and play it the best he can his prime obsession (with the drugs and alcohol getting in the way, of course).

But, satisfaction and comfort came late. Subway graffiti proclaiming - 'Clapton is God' only made Clapton feel that he had some street cred, but did not give him the feeling of guitar divinity. He always felt uncomfortable with the 'guitar-hero' tag. His problem was always been about being comfortable in his own shoes. He writes that it was confidence that he lacked, not the chops to be a bandleader and a singer. He took him more than 50 years to really find his footing and come to grips with his talent, his origin, and his addictions. At the same time, he writes, "Once, I got what I wanted, I realized I did not want it any more." It's the same story with guitars, women, and success. And he had a lot of all three while riding on one form of addiction or another.

Throughout the book there is not one harsh word about anyone; Clapton reserves it mostly for himself. It wasn't about them, it was about that inner demon that lead him to both glory and despair. He writes, "There is a madman inside me that gets out under the influence." EC did a whole lot of wild things, but the tone of the whole book and every episode is even and matter-of-fact. He does not gloat over his crazy episodes or failures in relationships. They, sort of just happened. It hurt, and it hurt like hell, but he moved on, for the most part.

The Epilogue is one of the finest chapters in the book after rather anti-climactic last three chapters of domestic bliss with Melia (his current wife). If they ever make a movie about his life (which they will) it would start here.
As I write this, I am sixty-two years old, twenty years sober, and busier than I have ever been.... I am virtually deaf, but refuse to wear a hearing aid because I like the the way things sound naturally, even if I can hardly hear them.

After having been sober and clean for 20 year, he blames his addictions for not being able to forge close relationships with people during those years, especially Muddy Waters. Some the most famous concerts, he writes, he was too stoned to remember.

I was curious to know what he had to say about his relationship with Jimi Hendrix. Clapton says, he was devastated when he first heard Hendrix play. "I remember thinking here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing." Jimi and Clapton used to crash random bars, walk up onto to the stage and wipe everyone out. What would I not give to see this happen? Clapton was deeply shocked and saddened by Jimi's early death. He was going to present him a guitar the next day.

He has nothing but good things to say about musicians, and even managers, in the entire book. He hated the 'music machine' when he first started and he still hates it now. We like to glorify the 60s and 70s and think of that time as some sort of golden period of rock music, but he puts it into perspective.
The music scene as I look at it today is little different from when I was growing up. The percentages are roughly the same - 95 percent rubbish, 5 percent pure However, the systems of marketing and distribution are in the middle of a huge shift, and by then end of this decade I think it's unlikely that any of the existing record companies will still be in business. With the greatest respect to all involved, that would be no great loss. Music will always find its way to us, with or without business, politics, or any other bullshit attached. Music survives everything, and like God is always present. It needs no help, and suffers no hindrance. It has always found me, and with God's blessing and permission, it always will.


This seems rather late in the day decade, but I just found out that MIT has made about 1800 courses available online:
OCW. They started in 2001 (I found out only a few days ago). Sometimes I wonder, if all I should have done is invested in a super-fast internet connection years ago. It would have saved a lot of time and cash.

I am really interested in the access data. There is a long report on it which should make interesting reading on the knowledge needs(with some caveats) of the rest of the world.

The statistics are quite revealing. Not surprisingly, most of the access to the OCW is out of the US (>60%). North America(39%), China and Southeast Asia (21%), South Asia(7%), Europe(19%), South America(4%), and sub-Saharan Africa(1%). Are the South Americans and Africans not interested, or do they simply lack internet connections? Students from India have made their presence, and their gratitude felt.

The most visited course is Linear Algebra (link), a subject that needs to be emphasized more. The most visited courses are mainly mathematical or engineering courses, the traditional domains of nerds. Only psychology and macroeconomics manage to squeeze in as humane elements.

There are many courses that I will 'attend' in the next few months as snow drifts pile up at my door. I always find video-taped courses provide the much needed benefit of using fast-forward and being able to listen to them in your bed. This is a dream.

PS: I am trying to find a course that Chomsky taught.

Used or New? Forget it!

As any college student can attest, there is a HUGE secondary market in textbooks. The average price of a textbook is between $100-$120, and many students sell their books at the end of the semester, or buy used ones at the start of one. So, what do you do? Buy used or new?

There are cost, quality and time trade-offs. Many students order books online and have to wait, often up to 2 weeks, to get their textbooks.(Some online sellers are based in India and China and mail economy editions.) To save money, you lose time and might have to hunt the book down in the library, or check it out for a 4-hour reserve for the first couple weeks. For this reason, a student wrote in the campus rag asking professors to make the list of textbooks available before courses actually started.

The publishers aren't twiddling their thumbs either. To add insult to the injury of high-priced textbooks, they bring out new editions every other year. Once a new edition is out, the price of the old one falls considerably, and there are no used books to go around for that semester at least. One commenter (see below) wrote, "Does calculus change so much that it needs a revised edition every other year?"

The Economist blog reports a new model of selling - FREE! For students, anything free is welcome. There are a number of additional benefits: It gives professors more options, and you can learn from a book that best suits you and not get stuck with the prescribed textbook that is too 'dry', or more plainly 'sucks'.

The question is, "Is this a viable business model? based on ads?" I don't think so. Since this is not YouTube, I would not visit the site again once I have downloaded my books for the semester. A better model would be to charge a fraction of the cost, say between $5-$10, to generate some revenue and give the author more money than he would make from royalties. The volume should compensate him enough since more people would be inclined to buy the book in the first place. Perhaps, this is what future textbook authors need - a low barrier to entry.

Blogs were laughed about when they first appeared as alternative media. Now they have been co-opted by every major company and publication. I cannot see why we don't have more of these textbooks download sites. Wouldn't you write one too? This is where market economics will best serve the purpose of giving more choices and options to both consumers and suppliers and sidestepping the middlemen - the publisher and the professor to some extent.

More aimless wandering on the internet

Remember the time they used to ask capitals of countries in quizzes? and then it all changed. The worst thing you can do as a quizmaster is to ask capitals. But, what do you do if you still know where Dushanbe is? Or, pinpoint Reunion on a map?

This Travel IQ will ensure that you gain a sense of power and superiority over your fellow men. It is totally addictive and an insane waste of time.

Even the WSJ has taken interest in it!

Album Art Grabber

This site does a pretty good job of grabbing Album Art. Apparently, Apple isn't too pleased about this and has blocked the high-res images.

Face Off

The biggest suggestion at a recent conference that I attended was not scientific at all, it was "You need to get on Facebook!".

For all my geek bravado, when it comes to social networking, I am still in the dark ages. When it first started on Friendster, and later on Orkut, it seemed rather pointless, juvenile, and silly. I figured - I am more than 20 years old, I have a blog, and a webpage, why would I ever need this? For people who could not set up their own webpages, or upload music MySpace, Facebook, etc. provide useful tools. To me, it looked like another digital time sink.

IMHO, there is little intrinsic value in these networking sites, but all value is due to the snowball effect. I have noticed friends and lab members check their Facebook accounts even before they check their email in the morning. Bizarrely, I was left out of a party invitation because the invitation was not sent on the email group, but on the Facebook group!! Not by choice, but by design - 'If you are not in, you are out'. Party snubs aside, it is time to take this thing a little more seriously.

For certain contexts, it has replaced email and even cell-phone messages. It's true that you cannot possibly email ALL your far-flung friends to know what's going on. Sometimes, you want to just say, "Hi". In a few minutes, you can get a pretty good idea of what your friends have been up to lately. There are tons of pictures on Facebook that are tagged, mostly Patel-shots of the me-at-the-EiffelTower variety. Then I heard about the graffiti wall, virtual gifts, and the virtual happy-hour (where you can invite your friends for a beer). This really got to me and I was a runaway again. I am content with my blog and my mostly static webpages.

But, I now understand that most people don't like to write, or even read what you have written (gentle reader, you are an exception!). Blogging freed tons of people who were simply aching to write and hungry for a space, some space. ( It also released a few that shouldn't have been let out of the asylum.) Alice was right (Who the ***k is Alice? from the Wonderland) - people like pictures. Some bloggers have strict 'no-pictures' policy, but then they are not so pretty. There is something rather inhuman about pages with only plain text than a book or webpage with pictures (some not a lot). Where does that leave a i-love-plain-text kinda person? Into digital exile.

Currently, I am still holding out. Things don't look so good, considering that even my Dad now has a Facebook account. Social networking is not the flavor of month, and now I feel like an ostrich.

A Word a Day: Some grain of truth

A link from my brother Darshan:

I am really intrigued by the interesting method employed to raise money for the UN World Food Program. Go to to work on your vocabulary and donate 20 grains of rice for every word you get correct.

This program is highly addictive, don't say I did not warn you! At least you won't feel as guilty.