Yesterday

This is a heartbreaking poem by W.S. Merwin which I came across a couple of years ago. Then I thought it was beautiful. Over the years, it has become more and more personal and private. Today on the occasion of my father's birthday, I thought I should celebrate it with you.

Poems need to be read, and read aloud. None more than this one, because it's about things unsaid and undone.

video

Great poetry is like that. First you read it, then it reads you.

By and by

The best way out is always through.
- Robert Frost, A Servant to Servants

Indian Summer

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Last week with temperatures in the 70s it was an Indian Summer. Running on trails is fun, but you can't stop and stare an beautiful sight. But for once instead of lacing my trail running shoes, I took a camera and walked through the trails that I love. After a run on a beautiful day, I always swear to myself, that I will be back with a camera. But, I never make it back with a camera.

This was my last chance to capture the beauty of the fall in two of the two greatest trails in Ann Arbor. The brutal and beautiful Nichol's Arboretum and a trail less traveled - the Huron River Trail.

More pics from Fall.

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How Many Neurons Must One Man Have?

Every year, my colleagues and I put up a joke/satirical/thought poster at Annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting under the teaching section. This poster is usually finished last minute. More last minute than our regular posters (There was more controversy this year which I shall get into some other day as it deserves a couple of posts.)

However, coming back to November 2006:
Borrowing a riff from Bob Dylan, our poster posed the question, "How Many Neurons Must One Man Have? (Before you call him a man)". We have about a 100 billion of them, but how do these neurons makes us what we are? How do we remember? Why and how do we forget? As is usually the case, the poster sort of evolves over the week with us, the pranksters/jokers/dunces, feeding off ideas and encouragement from the gallery and adding ideas. While, Tim and Greg were getting parts of the poster printed after the conference began, I started scribbling a back-of-the envelope equation which was pretty close to this -

At some point, it struck me that there is no better place to put a back-of-the-envelope equation than an envelope itself. Everybody simply loved it! Nothing gets scientists/engineers more amused than jargon puns.

After coming back from the meeting, Tim and I decided to do something beyond a few laughs. Which means in scientific currency - a publication. We worked on it in our free time. It was an interesting question and as we scoured the literature, we discovered that the research on the subject was rather thin. We read interesting papers from Bell Labs, papers on pigeon learning, autistic savants (Daniel Tammett), phenomenal mnemonists (A.K.Luria), artificial brains (Jeff Hawkins). At one point, we both realised that we were just enjoying this garage science project so much, that we weren't really making any progress with a publishable manuscript. Our research was all over the place and it took some work to curb our enthusiasm and coalesce collected ideas into one coherent manuscript.

Even then the road was not easy. One unrelenting reviewer took a while to 'get it' and made us go through what seemed like endless and silly revisions. Yet, to his credit, the manuscript was a little less folksy-sounding and perhaps more rigorous than we were planning. Also, since we decided to go for hand-drawn illustrations harking back to a simpler and purer time in magazine publishing, it was somewhat of a chore to redraw the illustrations.

So, finally almost after exactly two years since that scribbling in an Atlanta Holiday Inn, the ideas have been honored to be oozed with ink in IEEE Potentials Magazine. Tim's friend Thad, a commercial artist, gifted a wonderful drawing to use as the opening cover. However, the editor disagreed with us last minute and decided to go ahead with an computer image over the wonderful black-ink sketch. We were a little upset with some of odd-looking coloring.

This is the actual IEEE Potential Article as it appeared.

This how the article would have appeared, had we got our way:
Our Aesthetically Pleasing Article. We leave you, the reader, to decide if you agree with us.
As they say: Ars longa, vita brevis

---------
Previous post on the 2007 Poster:
Published in the Annals of Improbable Research: The Cingulate Cortex does Everything!

Networks going green

I feel bad for the network folks. After enjoying high-ratings for the past year and a half, people are mostly back to watching sports. It was pathetic to watch Larry King last night showing "The Best of Obama". Yeah, you heard that right! Larry King suffering some withdrawal symptoms of his own and had to overcome his nostalgia for Ghost of Election Just-Past by re-running Obama's speeches and interviews. While the rest of the staff takes a much needed holiday, the networks have gone green. Recycle yesterday's election news for today. Make do with less. Change has come to America!

Do it Yourself

The primary motivation to learn how to frame stuff was that framing is super expensive. The local arts-and-crafts store Michael's was quoting about $100-$120 to frame a Madhubani painting that we had got from India. Like most people who decide to have something framed for the first time you realise that the artwork being framed is the cheapest component of all the costs. Going to get framing done is like getting car-insurance. There are so many different options and picking one over the other can result in drastically different costs. There is a choice of mats - standard, acid-free, rag-paper. Then the choice of the frames - thin or thick wooden, metal, or fancy wooden. Choosing the correct kind of glass is not transparent business at all - there is plain glass, plexi-glass, non-reflective glass, UV-ray protected glass and other varieties. Soon you realise that $120 quoted was simply the base price. I walked away thinking it's not a coincidence that they call it framing.

Even if the initial driver to do-it-myself was cost (being a starving student and all that), DIY is not an option for cheapskates or the impatient. It's probably going to cost more and take much longer than you think.

First, is the research: I spent the next two months reading up on the subject (with books from the library, of course!) and another month buying the equipment and tools. If you thought the frameshop had too many options, wait till you decide to buy framing tools. There are mat cutters that are $25 and then there are mat cutters that are a few hundred dollars. It is ironic, that as a newbie you often better off getting the more expensive equipment, as it is the easiest to use. That never happens does it? So, you have to deal with the frustration of a fumbling beginner with less than ideal tools.

Second, is practice: Work on projects that don't matter. It's not a bright idea to start framing your masterwork while you are still learning to control the cutter. This process takes time and patience and perhaps a few bloodstains. After being off by an eight of an inch on one side and seeing the resulting disaster you really understand one the maxims of life: "Measure twice, cut once". It is rather humbling that after two decades spent in school, no one taught me this.

Slowly, but surely the pilgrim makes his progress. A few months and a couple hundred dollars later, I had the Madhubani painting framed. Factoring in the bamboo frame and non-reflective glass, the cost of getting it done and doing it myself were about the same. But, at the end of it that's not your first thought. The first and last thought is pride, despite the slight imperfections. And they call pride one of the seven Deadly Sins.

My friend, Tim has been trying to restore a vintage El Camino for the past couple of years. I have begun to believe that he never really intends on calling it quits on working on the car. It's always a work-in-progress. If he quit then there would be nothing more to learn, it will be just be like any other car. I have sat in another one of his rusty-but-not-trusty cars, an 1981 Toyota Tercel, thinking that a wheel might fall off any moment. But, unlike with some other people I haven't been the least bit scared since I know that Tim will be able to fix that car even if it may be a temporary fix with duct-tape. The powerful uses of duct-tape, that's another thing they don't teach you at school.

Undecided?

If you are one of the undecided voters, here's what David Sedaris has to say.

I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?


******
I have generally stayed away from the insanity of the election. What turns me off is stories like Sarah Palin spending $150,000 on her new wardrobe being given so much attention. The Democrats scream, "She calls herself a hockey-mom and then goes shopping at Neiman Marcus with a big fat check from the RNC." Yeah! So? Is this even really relevant?
One would expect that the someone who is running to be #2 to the most powerful job in the world, should at least be well-dressed, hockey-mom or not. As far as the ethics of the RNC paying for it goes, everybody is spending so much money on the boob-tube that this expense is peanuts compared to that. It's advertising by other means, no?

A few weeks ago, was Obama's association with a 'terrorist'. Then there are nonsensical totems such as 'Joe the Plumber' standing for Middle America. The strategists really know how to work words. Sadly, the media gladly laps up this stuff. Instead of stating that this is bogus distraction, they dwell on it more because it is a bogus distraction. They love angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-needle kind of stories.
Everyone claims to be taking the high road, and the chief among them are the media.

The coverage on CNN, a relatively less-biased channel, has not been about policy as much, as talking about winning and losing in the manner of discussing a sports team. Where is the talk of policy? the real investigations into the implication of Obama's or McCain's policies?

Please, nok

RUF2T?
C this Gr8 NYker piece
u shud read it.... it's :-) i was ROFLAO
BTW I luv the Germans 4 coming up wit nok its Gr8
B4now tc
CU tom pls.. nok ;)

The Inner Eye

If one photographs people it is the inner look that must be reflected. One must reveal what goes on inside them, as well as their relation to the other world.
As I photograph with my little Leica, I have the feeling that there i something so right about it: with one eye that is close one looks within. With the other eye that is open one look without: one see the shapes, the living quality of what moves one to photograph. W passion, without working with the emotion of the heart and the enjoyment of the eye, nothing vital can be put down.

- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Concert Music

I have returned to Alex Ross's excellent book - "Rest in Noise". I'll let him explain the title and the idea behind the book:

The title I chose for the project, The Rest Is Noise, played off Hamlet's last words ("The rest is silence") and, more widely, the perception that classical composition devolved into noise as the twentieth century went on ...

... The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music still sends ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, its influence can be felt everywhere. Atonal chords crop up in jazz. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalism has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.

The book was nominated for whole bunch of awards and won quite a few of them. What makes this book especially interesting is the listening list. More importantly, Alex Ross has made a lot of the audio available on his website, including additional pictures and material.

Rest is Noise Audio Archive
In a perverse way, it made me abandon the reading of the book as I got sidetracking in the listening. I craved for more; and went and got myself some Debussy and Mahler. Then I got stuck there. Most people are used the Germanic traditions of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, but not the French. So, Debussy is rather refreshing, a sort of aural version of Impressionism.

Then there are practical difficulties. I needed good headphones to capture the dynamic range and subtleties. The ones that come with the iPod are mostly junk. So, I invested (read:indulged) in the Mercedes(not a Ferrari) of headphones and the difference was striking. People listen to rock music while jogging, Mahler isn't recommended. Listening to that stuff takes time and concentration. Eating McDonald's fries doesn't take any concentration, but trying to eat salmon with a delicate sauce from a French restaurant takes some engagement in the meal.

There whole serious ambiance of the classical music wasn't always the case. In this case, the much-maligned middle class IS to blame (New Yorker article on concert history ).

So, I have returned to reading the book. This time, the new notion is to chase down the live concerts at the music school. Perhaps another diversion in the works? Given my limited time left at this wonderful university, I should be getting some sort of education, right?

Hilary Hahn's list of things to watch at a concert

Where literature comes in

Sometimes as a scientist, you wonder if literature has anything really important to say that science won't be able to answer given adequate time, resources and techniques. Can everything be reduced to some laws, even they are quantum or probabilistic ones? Experiments in giant fMRI machines are showing which areas of the brain are responsible for what affective qualities in decision making. While we still try to understand these phenomena literature fills that void. That void is literature's essential subject matter.

More from Menand's piece on Lionel Trilling:

In Trilling’s view, the faith that liberals share, whether they are Soviet apologists, Hayekian free marketers, or subscribers to Partisan Review, is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight road to health and happiness. A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy. The argument of “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple — for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.

What kind of liberal are you?

From Menand's piece on Lionel Trilling:

" ... As a matter of political theory, very different types of liberals. There is, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, the liberal who believes in negative liberty, “freedom from,” and the liberal who believes in positive liberty, “freedom for.” There is the classical liberalism of free markets and individual rights, and the left liberalism of state planning and class solidarity..."

I consider myself a liberal. Now what kind is a difficult question. I am wrestling with the idea of positive or negative liberalism. At the same time, I believe that the labels 'positive' and 'negative' are unfortunate as they seem to connote that negative liberalism is lesser than positive liberalism. It easier to think of them simply as labels and focus on the question.

What if I believed in both kinds of freedom, does that make me a positively negative liberal?

The truth about bags and bags

Interestingly, today's WSJ reported on the topic of the last post - reusable or not. Of course, the chief issue is about learning to change behavior. Unless the shops themselves don't raise the bar on the bags, or in the absence of legislation there is a great tendency to slide into the convenience of the plastic bag.

There are bags and then there are bags. A high-end designer made these bags that are cool, but completely impractical unable to store anything other than a head of a lettuce.

It was rather sobering to note that I would have to first use my reusable bag a number of times before I start reaping the green benefits. In the short term at least, my house is relatively clear of plastic bags and I am happier for it. There were about 100 billion, yet 100 billion plastic bags used.

The Price of Convenience

Two weeks ago, we decided to stop using plastic or paper bags from the grocery store. We got some nice, sturdy, reusable bags that are relatively inexpensive from the grocery store.

Current behavior
Our behavior was to make a list, jump into the car and tear halfway through Ann Arbor to the grocery store. Then laden with about a dozen plastic bags we trudged back to our car. In contrast, I always remember my mother taking a large bag before she went grocery shopping. Grocers in India expect you to show up with your own bag. Of course, that has changed over the years and plastic bags are available everywhere and supermarkets in India are like supermarkets anywhere else.

American sales clerks are rather liberal with the use of bags and in their offers to use more bags. They always want to double-bag the milk container. I can see why, but do it really need them? I use the bags for about 30 seconds to load them from the cart into the trunk of my car, and then again for another 30 seconds to unload them back at home. Every week, we ended up with a litter of a dozen plastic and paper bags and I wondered if there was any justification in using a dozen bags for less than a minute to justify the convenience (read: or laziness) to not bring our reusable own?

Interestingly, when I visited my friends in Germany I was a little amazed as they began to packing the small stuff in their purses and backpacks. The concern for the environment is perhaps more in Europe because they are affluent and overpopulated. Americans have such ubiquitous resources and abundant space that they are yet to feel the pinch.

There are reasons to do it apart from the obvious tree-hugging ones.

1)The bags are larger than plastic bags and hence you can carry more stuff per bag. It's a real pain to carry nine bags when you can stuff all of it in six.

2)The bags are sturdy. What plastic bags are notorious for is giving up on your when you are halfway up the stairs by tearing and out tumbles the jar of salsa.

3)The bags look cooler and don't make one of the most annoying sounds in the world: people fiddling with plastic bags

How hard is it to change behavior?
Last week, we actually forgot to take the reusable bags to the car before we set off. I cringed at every plastic bag that we ended up using. That was rather instructive. Changing the habits of the past is harder than you think. I expect that the personal and private embarrassment of last week will affect future behavior.

Hopefully, the planet and we will be a little cooler next week.
Changing the world, a bag at a time.

Why there is a God

If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.
- G. K. Chesterton

FIFA!

For the wage slaves out there it's TGIF. For me considering the stuff that I need to get done in this fine first week of Fall it's FIFA

FIFA = Fuck! It's Friday already?

The Federer

Last afternoon, Roger Federer or 'The Federer' (as Marat Safin calls him) won a thrilling five-setter versus Igor Andreev. When he lost to Nadal at Wimbledon it augured the end of the Federer era. That idea is nuts! The guy made it to 12 of the last 13 slam finals. Not even the Pistol Pete managed that, and if I remember correctly not even Rod Laver. Nadal has improved insanely and was impossible to defeat on the French clay. What we all saw at Wimbledon was two players playing at an incredible level that is way above the rest of the crowd. At that level, it's simply a toss-up. Nadal came close last year, but this time Federer couldn't close it.

What is gone was the aura of invincibility. After that, a bunch of players beat Federer. But, the champion is far from done. Since that loss in Wimbledon a different Federer has emerged. Before Federer became tennis's most gentle and elegant ambassadors he was quite a brat. He said that when he was younger he screamed at every point, lost his cool, was negative about lost matches. Then one day sometime after his coach died he decided that he would keep his emotions in check. The world has not seen a more gracious champion. He is elegant both in victory and defeat. The losses in the recent months have released the emotional Federer. It's great to watch him play with that newer intensity. Like he has something to prove.

Nadal on the other hand was always the underdog, but now the Mallorcan Minotaur is facing the pressure of being #1. He has struggled a bit in all the matches at the US Open and he has stated that he is feeling tired. Can you imagine Nadal saying he is tired? I think its more the pressure than fatigue. It's great to be on top but how long can you stay there?

Yesterday, Andreev played some impossible tennis and had Federer back. But, the Fed has some answers. Jim Courier believes that the mononucleosis infection has hit him worse than he lets out and even in bad year like this he made it to 3/3 Grand Slam semifinals. The road to the final and a possible meeting with Nadal could have Djokovic or Roddick in the way for the Fed. I think he is going to get the job done and we are going to some exciting tennis from the greatest.

*****
Update:

Andy Murray exposed how tired and weary Nadal is. Yet, to beat Nadal he had to play perfect tennis. His backhand shots were astounding and the strategy to stand 15 feet behind the baseline neutralized the Nadal serve. Even though Nadal had to struggle for his service games, he managed to hold through sheer will power.

To beat Djokovich is no joke. Roger played some of his best tennis in recent months to down Novak.

So, now we have the two greats - Nadal and Federer and then the young Turks who are a shade below - Murray and Djokovich. The rest of the field is way below what they guys can dish out.

Looking forward to the final between the latest British hope and the greatest. I would give Federer the edge and predict that he wins the championship in 4 sets.

Daily Grind



I think I am ready based on the number of coffee cups.

From Litmuszine -- part-blog, part-magazine and part-litmus test.

Olympians

Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
- Kurt Vonnegut


With the Olympics, the Presidential race has been put on the media backburner. Come September, the real games will begin. So far, Barack Obama has been losing some of his early faithful flock because of flip-flop. But, like any highly trained athlete Barack knows that in the final analysis what counts is whether you won or not. Only gold medal winners are remembered, silver medals are just glorified first losers. To win some, you have to lose some. Even liberal New Yorker ripped on him a while ago. Of course, he is politician. What did you guys expect?

I thought it was interesting that the Olympics and the US Presidential elections are always held in the same year. Also, they are always leap years representing a great leap forward perhaps? This year with these two candidates many believe that will be one of most sporting battles. I am really looking forward to the gladiatorial debates. The first one is going to be in a church, for heaven's sake.

Half Dome



View of Half Dome from Glacier Point. At some point, I will process the rest of the images from Yosemite.

Reciprocity

There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters.
- Alice Thomas Ellis

Gaps in History

Junot Diaz who won last year's Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a not-so-brief but wondrous book, says that he is fascinated with gaps in history. His book was is set in Newark and the Dominican Republic during the time of the infamous Trujillo. A dictator so brutal and merciless that there are almost no true reports of his republic. He once had a graduate student murdered for writing a thesis on the true nature of his regime. Junot Diaz's point is that if you look at somebody's or a country's history, the gaps in the reporting are the most interesting.

The current presumptive Democratic candidate oozes so much charisma that people who never voted before are now lining up to help him get elected. Of course, armed with an incredible story like Obama's, impossible is nothing. The image that is portrayed is that of a newcomer, a fresh face, someone who represents a new kind of politics. In the same breath one also cites that as a sign of his inexperience and naivety about Washington and the world.

Obama and Trujillo has poles apart, but there is a certain gap in Obama's self-reporting. The recent controversy over the satirical cover of last week's issue of the New Yorker obscured, in ironical fashion, facts that are relatively unknown about the junior senator from Illinois.

Ryan Lizza's story traces the making of Obama in his years as a Chicago politician. To forge an identity as a a nobody in in a city "which doesn't take kindly to political carpetbaggers" would be commendable enough, but Obama's sights were always higher than the tallest buildings in the Windy City. He always knew that he was slated for bigger and better things. People have been calling him President Obama for over a decade.

Of course, politics is always a Faustian bargain. On his way up, Obama has eschewed many of his old principles and let his old friends down. As President, things are not going to be any different even if Obama projects a different sort of image. Lizza writes:

Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.

Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.

Only the naive would call Barack Obama naive. If he does win in November, like all victors he can write his own history.

Speed dating issues

I would like to think that my dating days aren't over, but just in a perpetually suspended state. However, I was at a speed-matching event yesterday which attempted to have a bunch of people meet everybody else one-on-one in a space of an hour.



First, there were only fifteen ppl and it was apparent that at every round someone would have to sit out. Then another guy showed up and we were sixteen. Since that was an even number no one would have to sit out. The person in charge did the obvious thing - he made two concentric rings of chairs splitting ppl two groups - 'inners' and 'outers'. The 'outers' rotated around the inner ring. After the first rotation, everybody had met half of the people in the group, except the ppl in their own ring. Then he did the next obvious thing, made another two concentric circles of the rings themselves and repeated the process. After the second rotation, everybody had met 3/4th of the ppl. For the next round, these rings needed to be split further into similar rings. As you can see, this process stops when each of the two concentric rings have exactly one person.

Of course, since we had the fourth power of 2, i.e. 16 ppl, this scheme works beautifully. Since, I was part architect of the idea, I wondered if this arrangement would work for other even numbers, leaving the rather odd case of odd numbers aside for now. Very quickly, you can see that this scheme breaks down for 6 people.

Round I            Round II
A D             A-B       D-E
B E             C (sits out)       F (sits out)
C F

After the first rotation, you have Ring I meet everyone in Ring II. Proceeding as before, you end up with 3 ppl (an odd number) in each new sub-ring. Now every subsequent iteration will have one person in each group simply sitting one session out. As you can see from the example, we can form a pair with C and F in Round II, but they have already met each other in Round I. So, every subsequent period, one person will be sitting out and wasting his time. This would require 6 time periods.

Thus, the concentric circles thing is inefficient for all non 2n even numbers. I tried to come up with a pairing scheme for n=6. Since 6C2 = 15 total pairs, and we have 3 pairs at each stage, we should need at a minimum five rounds. With the schedule below no one sits out and we achieve efficiency.



Table for 6 ppl
Station12345
S1ADAE AB AF AC
S2BE BF CE BC BD
S3CF CD DF DE EF

The movement of people is non-intuitive and the schedule is complicated. You would need to hand people a schedule map: A would not move at all. B would move to stations: S2-S2-S1-S2-S2. I was certain that there was a solution to this problem, floating in graph theory or combinatoric literature. And indeed there is! But, this is no simple can of worms as I was to discover.

Famously, in 1850 Reverend Thomas Kirkman sent a query to the readers of a popular math magazine, Lady's and Gentleman's Diary:
Fifteen young ladies in a school walk out 3 abreast for seven days in succession: it is required to arrange them daily, so that no two will walk twice abreast.

1 of 7 possible solutions

The more general case of problem is called the Social Golfer Problem: Determine the maximum number of days 'w' that 'n' golfers can play in groups of 'r' each without meeting each other. This is still an UNSOLVED mathematical problem!!! If you are interested in reading more see: Social Golfer Problem

My original question of dividing 'n' ppl in pairs has been solved at least up to n=200. Round-robin scheduling is a wonderful site for those scheduling matches, or speed-dating style events. There is no simple movement order that can be prescribed. You have to pretty much follow the schedule blindly. Some schedules are unique, in other cases there are over 1000 solution, usually when 2n numbers are involved.

Yeah! Even speed-dating has issues!

Ignoble Research

While my so-called 'real' publications are limping along, one of my side-projects got published in this month's Annals of Improbable Research. A journal that is self-styled as " the journal of record for inflated research and personalities" . These are the good folks who dish out the Ig Noble Prizes each year

For the past three years, at the Society for Neuroscience conference my labmates and I present a 'joke' poster in the vein of The Onion. The Cingulate Cortex Does Everything started off as a satire on the field of fMRI research in neuroscience. There are tons of papers in journals like Nature and Science that implicate the cingulate cortex in all kinds of behavior. Brain fMRI scans detect oxygenation levels in the blood and determine if blood flow to particular part of the brain increases or decreases with respect to a behavioral event. It seemed rather interesting to us that the use of fMRI correlates so strongly with cingulate cortex sightings. We suspect that since the cingulate cortex is above the saggital sinus, a major drainage vessel for the brain, it seems to light up in fMRI studies as an artifact.


On scanning recent literature on the subject, we saw an explosion in cingulate cortex research and reached our startling conclusion - "Cingularity", i.e. if current trends continue the cingulate cortex will not only take over neuroscience research, but everything!!

Another interesting fact is that the word cingulate is derived from the Latin word cingulum meaning belt. Specifically, a belt protecting your family jewels.

Quiz blog

Dinesh K. aka Dinky has set things rolling with the U of M Quiz blog. And for all you shameless people out there - Googling is allowed!

Dawkins's Mirror Question



A really good book is one that makes you want to put it down for a while so that you can think.

This is taken from Richard Dawkins's latest book The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. See the review in Science (Mail me if you need access).

For years as a college tutor at Oxford, I would try the intelligence and reasoning powers of entrance candidates by asking them at interview to muse aloud on the conundrum of why mirror images appear left-right reversed but not upside down. It is a provocative puzzle, which is hard to situate among academic disciplines. Is it a question in psychology, in physics, in philosophy, in geometry, or just commonsense? I wasn't necessarily expecting my candidates to "know the right answer." I wanted to hear them think aloud, wanted to see if the question piqued their interest and their curiosity. If it did, they would probably be fun to teach.


The book is maybe good bedtime reading, but not the paragraph above. I read the paragraph and I couldn't sleep till had some sort of satisfactory answer. It's rather intriguing and wanted to discuss this below. My friends in Mathematics have a better idea of this, but I am taking a stab at it here.


STOP HERE IF YOU WANT TO THINK ABOUT THE PROBLEM ...



It is about particular symmetry? That lead me away from thinking about mirrors to drawing mirror images and considering that we reflect images about a particular axis. This is a practical issue when it comes to making stamps, or printing for example.

(Pardon my sloppy drawing. It's much harder to draw accurate mirror images than is popularly believed.)
Upon drawing this simple figure, I realised that mirroring (reflection) is a not really a 2D transform, but is a 3D transform since there is no strictly planar or 2-D operation(rotate, shift) can be performed that convert A to B. Of course if you reverse the X-axis then you automatically reflect. It's like looking at the 2-D figure from the bottom instead of the top.

Thinking about it in another way, if you had simply an outline figure (shown on top), you wouldn't really see any lateral inversion. If viewed from one perspective, there is no lateral inversion. That's because the figure being hollow does not have a correct viewing side.

So, according to me it boils down to a frame of reference. By imposing your frame of reference onto the mirrored image you get the perception of lateral inversion. In that parallel universe of mirror images, the X axis is reversed and hence correctly speaking left is actually right! The absolute values of all the points along X have not changed, only the signs have.

Coming back to the other question of top and bottom inversion, the simple four figure shows that top bottom is achieved by rotation around the Z-axis, or by two repeated mirrorings on the Y and X axis. So, you can ask why rotation only changes top and bottom, but not left and right. They are simply two different transformations.


More generally speaking, there is really left or right, or top and bottom. It's all relative all perceptions are due to the frame of reference. So, if you perform a transformation then you have to choose the appropriate frame of reference or grid to view it correctly. In a more extreme case, even in case of a distortion, the square will be a square in the distorted frame, but appears warped only because you impose your original frame on the 'new' square.

So, I think the problem is one of pure geometry and not of psychology or even physics. Perhaps, humans are predisposed to think of particular frames of references which cause this effect.

The tall and and short of it

Life is an escape. Everyone is trying to escape or hide from something. I am trying to hide from labels. The specific label I seek to be furthest from is 'Starbucks latte-drinking liberal'. The first thing I ever bought in the United States was a coffee from Starbucks. After seeing that on city street corners Starbucks joints sprout like weeds after the rain, I have been avoiding them ever since. I have embraced everything local (Yes! I am that guy now). I have other more legitimate reasons to avoid Starbucks. My problem with Starbucks is their pretentious fancy sizes - tall, venti, grande. Can you trust such a place to give you a honest cup of coffee when they can't their sizes right? The other is that the coffee is way too expensive. I also learnt that if you drink their grande Java Chip Cookie Coffee don't bother eating the rest of the day.

It is well-known that all size and flavors of coffee that you order regardless of the price advertised are within a few cents of each other. The different prices are to fleece the price-blind, but not lose the price conscious customer. What economists call 'price discrimination'. One would think that price range between the cheapest and the costliest of about $7 dollars would keep most coffee shops happy and in business. But, not Starbucks. They have one more trick up their sleeve in this sneaky price discrimination business. Their smallest size is never advertised. You can order it at ANY Starbucks, but you will fail to see any mention of it on the chalk board or menu. Why? Tim Hartford has discussed this at length almost two years ago, yet the word hasn't got out.

I have tried the Starbucks short twice already and I been served without the barista batting an eyelid. The second time I was offered a second shot or espresso - 'free'. For my Starbucks savvy, I presume. Besides, saving valuable cash in this oil-strapped world, it tastes better for the reasons the article explains. Trust the Americans (Texans in particular) to ruin everything by emphasizing size over substance.

*In some fairness to Starbucks: Most of the money made goes into the pockets of the owners of the real estate. Corner shops don't come cheap.

O Pato

The great Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto and singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso singing 'O Pato'. Yeah! the song is in Portuguese and I when I first heard it I couldn't understand a word. But, the phrasing was so exquisite and the duet so lovely that it didn't matter. I like the look on Veloso's face at the end of the song showing his great admiration and respect for Gilberto. It's beautiful.



It's actually quite a fun bossa-nova song about a duck who goes samba dancing with another duck, a goose and a swan (Translation and lyrics).

Why the iPhone is like a razor

Yeah, the inevitable has happened - Apple has dropped the price of the iPhone by a whopping $200, or caused AT & T to step in with a subsidy. I felt a malicious glee in imagining the faces of all the suckers who bought the iPhone last year. The shiny new 3G iPhone was now within the reach of even this mostly starving, Ramen-eating grad student.

Shaving this morning (I occasionally make time for this activity) I realised, as P.T. Barnum once said, I was almost about to be the sucker of the minute. It's the razor blades thing all over again. The price of the razor is subsidized by the blades. Even the printer-makers like HP and gang figured this out long time ago. No wonder that printer is ridiculously cheap at $60. It's the paper and ink that's gonna get yer wallet.

So, AT & T are selling their razor blades at $69.99. Without taxes and surcharges that is $840. Add another $200 for the hardware (trust Apple to make it obsolete in a year's time). So you are paying about $1040 for the year, or about $2.85 per day. If you factor in taxes, etc. it is about $3 a day. Which is about the price of a small cup of coffee, or 5 packets of Ramen. So, if I give up eating and drinking, I can afford it. I may be hungry and naked but at least I won't get lost with the GPS and I can always check my email, ANYWHERE!

Take your pick!

This Is Just To Say

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

-William Carlos Williams


The poem above leaves me cold. To parody it was delicious and sweet. Some things are better appreciated in reflected light.


This Is Just to Say - I

William Carlos Williams
My poems
Are mere
imitations

Of the real which
readers were probably
savoring
last few seconds

Forgive me
and now listen to mine
so neat
and so bold


This Is Just to Say - II

I have drunk
the coffee
that was warming in
the pot

and which
you were probably
brewing
for yourself

Forgive me
I was drowsy
so tired
and the aroma so inviting


This Is Just to Say - III

I have run off
with that woman
that was in
my dreams

and so
you won't be
expecting
me for breakfast

Forgive me
It wasn't you dear
her lips are sweet
and alluring


This Is Just to Say - IV

We've gone and
wrecked this world
that was to be
your legacy

and which
you probably
wanted
to destroy yourself

Forgive us
we didn't wait
for you
and did it ourselves

My Ph.D. thesis

Why does this ring a bell?

Trail Half Marathon

They said that this Trail Half Marathon would kick your butt! And it sure did! After running a whole bunch of road halfs, I decided to do the non-wimp thing - run on dirt, through forest, and around lakes. (It was actually half wimpy, because some people ran the course twice for the full marathon)

I have been running trails for sometime now. They more fun and easier on your feet than the pounding on the pavement and roads. It was only last month after the ice melted that the trails were safe to run again. Snow on the streets melts, but due to the trees and a lower specific heat, the trails are still icy. A slip can land you in the Huron river!

I wasn't up to the miles for a half and then you train like you were cramming for an exam, I added hills, speedworkouts. After I ran 10 miles on the hills, I knew that at the very least, I would come out of it alive (Never forget that!).

But, hell the race course was tough! The course goes around the famous Potowatomi train in the Pinckney Recreation Area. At no point was the course flat. Either you were going up or down. In total, the course has 7,000 ft of vertical climb. Since the race began and ended at the Silver Lake, you had also 7,000 ft of downhills. While the downhills were welcome, a hasty step would be your downfall, literally. I saw a bunch of people trip and fall. The last thing you want, is to get injured and hobble through miles of forest. That would be a meditative experience in the forest.

Oddly, some miles are shorter and others feel longer. Up and down, then up again. Legs cramp up. Something aches. It goes away. Then after a point you are running from water-stop to water-stop, wondering when the torture will end. And there are people are still in bed somewhere. After a point, your mind shuts down and you are just running. You have no idea where you are, but just following the person in front of you.

But, like all races at the end you are mostly by yourself. At mile 11, I hit a root sticking out of the ground and that was really painful! Nature is beautiful, but you can't be idiotic out in the wild. My shoes have an ID tag, so they know where to deposit my body.

At mile 12, I think I hit my limit! But, who gives up with one mile to go? You calculate that it won't be more than 10 minutes. And then suddenly, you see the finish line. You get a sudden burst of energy to sprint to the finish. The race ends on 100 meters of a grassy flat and that was a relief after the relentless hills. The best part of the race? To ice my legs in the Silver Lake.

Twenty minutes later, it all seems worth it and you find yourself saying something that you would have never thought - "I should do this again!". The harder the race, the sweeter the taste of a finish.

A House of our Own

NY Times Magazine:

Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people who don’t feel like they need an organization ... they’re so independent that if they want to get involved, they usually don’t join an organization—they start their own.
- Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists

I never thought that atheism equated with nihilism. But, organized institutions?

Was Proust a neuroscientist?

Recently there as been a spike in number of popular books on the brain and a lot them have made it to the best seller list. Everybody wants know how the body's CPU works. The most ambitious of these projects has been the one by Jonah Lehrer, editor-at-large for SEED magazine, a Rhodes scholar and neuroscience blogger.


His basic premise about neuroscience is: Sub sole nihil novi est. (meaning, There's nothing new under the sun. It's remarkable how intelligent everything sounds when you quote in Latin, or talk in a BBC accent). Lehrer claims that artists and writers were incredibly prescient and had long discovered basic neuroscientific truths. He ascribes each of the following artists with different discoveries in neuroscience: Proust (memory and recollection), Woolf (mental states), Escoffier (taste and smell), George Eliot (neurogenesis), Whitman (unity of body and soul/mind), Gertrude Stein (internal grammar/syntax), and Stravinsky (neural plasticity). All modern science is currently doing is simply rigorously verifying their discoveries by rigorous testing, or re-discovering it.

Jonah Lehrer writes beautifully and the anecdotes of the giants of the arts are interesting to read. There are no new facts and the juicy anecdotes will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the particular artist (available cheap and free on Wikipedia). For example, the background on Stravinsky's premiere of The Rite of Spring was identical to the one I read in Alex Ross's excellent book on music in the 21st century, The Rest is Noise. I guess it is hard to come up with unique historical quotable quotes.

Where Lehrer's really contributes is in highlighting interesting experiments in neuroscience and explaining them. There is a great deal of misinformation and school textbooks have not been updated for decades. Why was Einstein smart? People believe that we use only 5% or 10% of our brains, and that Einstein used 20%, or some such figure. This is utter nonsense. But, someone has to inform the people and science is not always easy to explain and is not sexy. To complicate matters further, science is always forging ahead, not really waiting for things to be digested. The perverse nature of science overturns conventional wisdom and even central dogmas of science to create the 'latest' science.

Experiments have overturned what many believed to be true for a long time - "We all start with a set of neurons and they all die. No new neurons are created". This has been proven to be false. There is a great deal of life in the brain. Such experiments are fascinating to read and this book performs a great service in taking neuroscience to a broader audience.

The spectacular failure of the book is in putting the its title claim together. It's easy to find correlations if you look hard enough and the ones that Lehrer seems to suggest are rather tenuous and require a tremendous leap of faith. To reverse engineer Monsieur Proust and Ms. Stein as neuroscientists is more poetic license than science. The cover notes that Leher worked in Nobel prize-winning Eric Kandel's lab, but it is disappointing to report that he missed the essential lesson of the scientific method - framing a good hypothesis and then collecting data to confirm or disprove it. It is rather plain, even to a non-neuroscientist reader, that his hypothesis is weak and his conclusions are based on rather weak correlations.

This would all have still been okay, but then Lehrer goes on to commit parricide. Drawing from C.P Snow's Two Cultures theory, scientists like Dawkins, Pinker and Gould formed the 'Third Culture', scientists who bridged the gap between science and the lay audience with their cogent writing. Lehrer faults them, however, for viewing everything from the lens of science and missing the arts and humanities completely. What is needed, is a new'Fourth Culture', one that combines the arts and sciences and brings them both to the lay audience. This book and Saturday by Ian McEwan are examples of such writing, Lehrer goes on to write in his Coda to the book. Anyone who has read Dawkins, Gould or Pinker would suggest to Lehrer that he first work on coming up with a decent thesis for books before trying to create a new genre of writing. Clearly, Mr. Lehrer does not believe in half-measures when it comes to being audacious. He's young, the severe panning won't kill him and hopefully make him stronger.

On the Two Cultures, I think
Salon.com
put it beautifully:

Science is material for the arts and art is material for the sciences, yet each must maintain its own integrity. After all, each has its own virtue: The sciences lift us outside of experience, so that we can more clearly survey it. The arts immerse us in experience, so that we can more fully encounter it.


My perception while reading the book was that I was reading two separate books at the same time. One on art, and the other on science. Take any random set of artists and you could come up with essentially an identical book. Maybe this book is a grand joke on everybody; if not, it's ripe for parody.

A few selections:
Genghis Khan was a cell-biologist, or
Napoleon was an investment banker,

There are others, which I will get to once I, like Monsieur Proust, am in bed.

Store for Later Use

It's been ages since I have conducted a quiz. I have been mooching off other people for months... err years. A quiz has been in the works for a long time and I am reminded of the fact every time I visit our quizclub page. It was last updated in 2005 and I have not done what was promised. It has been pricking my conscience every since. Finally, the gnawing into my brain along with collective shame brought upon the folks I have been mooching past the many months has resulted in actually conducting this Sunday's quiz.

Whether you are an active quizzer, a quizzer-in-exile, or quizzer-in-hibernation, once you have taken the plunge as a quizzer you will always be one. Anything you read and hear (no, not touch!) will be stored away for future use. It is an unconscious and automatic process to store all kinds of useless facts.

Now, having to set questions puts all this at a more conscious level. Now you are aware of this automatic filing process. After struggling to make the first few questions, the process becomes easy, too easy. Suddenly, everything you read or hear becomes a potential question. It's not the finding of the information that is hard, it is the framing of it: getting the right images, facts to make the question interesting, workable and informative at the same time. I have some a number of potentially awesome questions getting wasted because of poor framing.

Sample question (any guesses?)

while(1) {
Stephen Hawking ;
Eric Schmidt;
Adam and Eve;
a picture of Zeus;
}

The best way to set a quiz is to set questions in way that you like them best. I like questions like the previous one. At first, it makes no sense. Then the pieces connect and it all makes sense. In a few moments, you instantly know that you have the right answer.

At the end of the weekend, I had way more questions that I could fit into 2 hour slot. So, I have archived them. Stored for later use.

Sacks's Musicophilia

Review of Oliver Sacks's latest book - Musicophilia on the book blog.

Economics of God

From The Economist:

Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

Scientists in Europe have embarked on scientific quest for God. Even if religion or God are scientifically baseless, there can be numerous economic and social benefits. It is said that humans and chimpanzees are the only species that laugh; religion separates us from our cousins on the evolutionary tree. Really, a sticky 'meme' such as religion could not have survived if it did not confer any evolutionary benefits.
(the) long-term co-operative benefits of religion outweigh the short-term costs it imposes in the form of praying many times a day, avoiding certain foods, fasting and so on.

Indeed, research has shown the religion-based groups tend to survive longer as compared to secular groups, which are four times more likely to break up. The fear of the supernatural, or the after-life makes people cooperate. God is the ultimate stick and Heaven the ultimate carrot. We all know that incentives work!

As Dr. Wilson points out "... Secularism is very maladaptive biologically. We're the ones who at best are having only two kids. Religious people are the ones who aren't smoking and drinking, and are living longer and having the health benefits."

It is hard to separate religion from culture and group membership. Even there was a God, or not we want to belong to some group. Atheism can be intellectually and scientifically more honest, but can lead to impoverishment and even alienation in other ways.

Spring in your step

Officially, spring began yesterday. But, Michigan did not get the news. Just when you thought that the winter was over, it was finished, it comes back once last time with a snowstorm. Yet, the clearest sign that it has gone is that it is getting sunnier. The fabled grey skies are gone. We might have another winter surprise, but spring is finally here.

One of the great joys of this change in season is to be able to run outside. After slipping a number of times on the ice, I didn't thinking running outside in the winter was a great idea. You look forward to escape the forced circles around the indoor track to get a decent amount of miles in. Then there is the treadmill, but then there is no difference between you and your pet hamster.

Last weekend, when it was cheerfully sunny, I decided that it was time to finally hit the trail. No wimpy road-running for me. The Huron River Trail is beautiful. There was still some snow on the trail in isolated lumps. Due to the snow that had melted a few spots were turned into muck. It was a rather fun and muddy experience.

Getting down to a run is simply overcoming inertia. Once I am past that door in my shoes, I have never found cause to regret a run. After a couple of miles in the endorphins kick in and then you don't want to stop. I often wonder if I should take my camera along for these runs to record how beautiful it really is on the trail. I have run this trail a number of times in the summer, but early spring is something else. There is still a nip in the air. The leaves from the autumn are on the ground, dark yellow. The river is icy in spots and doesn't look very inviting for a swim. Puddles form below the tiny waterfalls created by the melting snow.

Running is a solitary activity. Even in a marathon when you run with thousands of people, you are still running your own race and alone. I used to run with music, but I have gotten out of that habit. There are plenty of sounds that you can listen to while running that can keep you entertained. Chief among them, being the sounds in your head. That's another reason you want to run alone, at least sometimes. After a while even that chatter in your head stops and you begin to hear other sounds. The sound of the Canadian goose, the branches breaking under your feet, the sound of another runner in the distance. Your lungs expand to take in the fresh air. Then you begin to take in the smells. There is a concert in progress and it took me so long to be aware of it.

Π Day

Today is Π Day. I should do something to do with math to celebrate the day. For a start, I could calculate how much I need to pay my credit card bill. Or, do something that has nothing to do with math. Something really irrational. Running Π miles wouldn't be a bad idea. I find it an interesting coincidence that running Π miles is like running five kilometers(about 5.055K). So, Π is also the most popular running distance.

Perhaps, I should make this a yearly thing and run Π miles every Π Day to gauge by physical deterioration over time.

Punching Numbers

This may be the most insane thing I ever did. Now you can call me using Grand Central. I one of those who will try anything, once!

What about noli me vocare, ego te vocabo? Throwing caution to the wind.

It was fun picking my number though which spells out: REHASH-5-PAD using phonespell.

On A Productive Day

I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.
- EB White

Oscars 2008

Has 2007 been a great year for the movies? I think so. Have the Oscars been reflective of that? Not so much.

Certain movies have overshadowed much of everything else that went on during the year. There are movies that are good, and those that do well at the Oscars.

In the former category, Before the Devil Knows You are Dead was largely unnoticed. It does have the oscillating non-linear narrative, but the dialogue is brilliant. Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are excellent in this fast-paced story of family, personal demons, and things spiralling quickly out of control. Nominations - 0.

Another movie that sort of died too soon was The Darjeeling Unlimited. Wes Anderson is the heir to Robert Altman in many ways. The soundtrack was a homage to the Merchant-Ivory 'Bombay Talkies'. But, India was simply a backdrop. With the same actors and the same sort of story, this is what can be called a paraquel to the Royal Tenenbaums.

In the Oscar-friendly category we have Exhibit A - No Country For Old Men - lot's of great actors, wonderful locations, complex plot with parallel stories. The Babel of last year. Then there is a new kind of movie that is gaining favour, Exhibit B - Juno - a dramatic-comedy on a serious issue, with very likable characters, an unusual soundtrack, and new actors. The Little Miss Sunshine of the year. These two represent the two extremes - the much larger than life and the true 1:1 scale that are very Oscar friendly. The old staple - the biopic also always works. Everything else seems to fall between the cracks. The real shocker has been Michael Clayton. A good movie, but far from outstanding that I feel has been undeservedly been overrepresented. Perhaps indication of the clout of the people behind the movie?


Predictions up next...

Oscar 2008 - Predictions

Updated:
It's a pity that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly walked away with no awards. It was one of the finest movies of the 2007. Tilda Swanson came from nowhere to win that award. I was glad to see that Marion Cotillard's performance did not go unnoticed. Ellen Page will have to wait.
Other than that, most awards went as expected.

Reportcard: 8/12

* *
This is now a yearly ritual (thanks to the insistence of JRR and others). Let's see what tomorrow will bring. Most of the categories have been quite easy to call in contrast to last year. This is not to say that the nominees lack quality, but rather that the relative differences are apparent.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Daniel Day-Lewis has created a niche in playing deranged, driven maniacs and this is a role for him. It is more his voice than his acting that deserves the credit and There Will Be Blood is a movie that should be watched but also listened to. The others nominees can leave their speeches at home.
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood


Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Philip Seymour Hoffman has had a fantastic year. If Daniel Day-Lewis is sheer depth, then Hoffman is breadth. His role as the cocaine-sniffing exec in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead did not get much notice, but was one of his finest ever. It took me a while to realise that he was playing the CIA-agent Gust Avakatros in Charlie Wilson's War. If acting prizes were handed out in terms of batting averages, Hoffman would win many prizes. Unfortunately for him this time, Javier Bardem is standing with a cattle-gun with a killer performance that has been bested by only Day-Lewis.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men


Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett is in her own Golden Age as an actress. Even her tiniest role as Bob Dylan earned a nomination. Do you need to say more about an actress who can embody - Hepburn, Dylan, Elizabeth and Galadriel? Another fan. I thought Marion Cotillard playing Edith Piaf poured her heart into role. But, there are a few things going against her - the movie was in French, about a French superstar, and the musician-biopic has become a tired genre for this award. Ellen Page (not Julie Christie) is the fresh face and her role as the flippant, pregnant teenager is the best one of the year.
Ellen Page in Juno

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Ruby Dee's performance was good, but not great. I cannot say anything about Amy Ryan since I have not seen the movie. I was most impressed by Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. When I read the book, I had a Briony in mind. Now, after having seen the movie, I cannot imagine anyone but Ronan. She exudes that nervous energy, prodigious talent, and fanciful imagination of a thirteen-year old.
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement


Best animated feature film of the year
My real work involves rats, I confess to certain amount of Francophilia, and to being a foodie. Even if any of these did not apply to you, Ratatouille should convince you to save money to be able to eat once at a cafe in Paris. I did not have the opportunity (in terms of money) to eat at a Michelin three-star restaurant, but if the 'common' cafe food was so good, I cannot imagine what a real restaurant offers. I have missed the bus on rap-music and also on the graphic-novel genre. Persepolis stands an outside chance (it's the only movie that is really made in France!)
Ratatouille


Achievement in cinematography
Both, the American Westerns would not have been that majestic if hadn't been for the camerawork. But, Kaminski's job as portraying the life of man who can only blink his left eyelid is one of the finest achievements in cinematography that I have ever seen. It would be nothing short of travesty if the award goes to anyone else.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Janusz Kaminski


Achievement in directing
Schnabel's work is nothing short of spectacular. This is the movie that is going to make it to the textbooks. Juno has on outside chance, but the Coen brothers' tight, riveting piece of work in No Country For Old Men will most probably win.
If I had to choose I would give Schnabel the award and let the Coens take home the Best Picture. It takes a great deal of skill to portray the life of locked-in patient without pitying him and showing his spirit.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Julian Schnabel


Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
Incorporating the typewriter as part of the score is nothing but brilliant, and Marianelli's other selections, like the aria from La Boheme, will not go unnoticed.
Atonement - Dario Marianelli


Adapted screenplay
Ian McEwan's novel was written to be adapted. There are no challenges there. Large parts of the Diving Bell had to be written to show the second person perspective which was very nicely done. But, Cormac McCarthy's novel presented the greatest challenge and the end result speaks for itself. I cannot see Bardem or Lee-Jones being able to do what they do without this adaptation giving them the canvas.
No Country for Old Men - Joel Coen & Ethan Coen


Original screenplay
It takes effort to write a sentence with ten redundant 'likes', even if you are a teenager. The exchanges between Juno and her friends and Michael Cera are so uncannily real that you feel you have actually overheard them.
Juno - Diablo Cody

Best live action short film
It's a really pity that these gems are not as widely distributed. The Michigan Theater performs a great service by bringing these to Ann Arbor. There are novels and then there are short stories and these are truly the best of the best.

Tanghi Argentini had a great twist at the end and Il Supplente was a Robert Benigni-style riot. Every frame in The Tonto Woman could be in the National Geographic and I would watch out for Daniel Barber in the future. Going with the Francophile theme, the pickpocket movie was clearly the best. A very human story, told with a lot of wit, wonderful dialogue and a nice end.
Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)


Best motion picture of the year
Michael Clayton should not be here. I don't know what it is supposed to represent. Atonement was very tastefully done and, in this case, one can admit that the movie is as good as the book, and in some ways better. Using Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony Tallis was a nice touch. There Will Be Blood fails to offer anything beyond the ambition and mania of two men - Paul Sunday(Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). No Country For Old Men offers a lot of different things and speaks at different levels. The story is both old and young. Javier Bardem is the Grim Reaper and Tommy Lee Jones is the honest sheriff, a composite from all Westerns. Josh Brolin is the Vietnam Vet who is more a cowboy than anything. The themes are huge - Good and Evil, Chance and Fate, Contemplation and Spontaneity. In contrast to this Goliath of a movie stands the charming Juno. It's going to be interesting to see if soaring universal themes are cut to size by a pint-sized pregnant teenager with an attitude. For now, like God, I am sticking on side of the big armies.
No Country for Old Men

Press One, then Press Five For...

Sick of talking to machines?
Pressing one, then five, then six, yada...yada... yada?


Get me a human please!

In Defense of Food

Grocery lines at the local Meijer can be quite long and what can you do while waiting in line? One, read the pulp magazines on the rack, or two, talk on the phone. My preferred way to pass the time is to look into other people's carts - it tells you a lot. How much soda-pop? microwave-ready food? fruits? fresh veggies or boxed? You can make a pretty decent guess about their health, wealth, and lifestyle. You can even tell if they are single or married without looking for the ring finger. Try it!

One day while eating Michael Pollan felt like asking, "What is it that I am eating? Where does it come from? He traced the story of four different kinds of meals - fast-food, organic, foraged, and hunted. Those simple questions lead him to discover some shocking and rather unpleasant facts and write the Omnivore's Dilemma. Most people think that they know what they eat, and where their food comes from, but they don't. For example, try looking at the package your bread comes in. How many of those ingredients do you recognize? Are you surprised to find some stuff you weren't expecting was in the bread you eat? If you are perplexed then grab hold of the book, or listen to this - NPR interview.

That book was the description, his latest book - In Defense of Food - is the prescription and it's bafflingly simple:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

There isn't anything more to it. How many books have you read whose first line IS the punchline?

Eat food
What food? you ask. Any food that is really food, says Michael Pollan. Much of what we eat is not food, but a 'product' of food science. Simple rules of thumb:

1)Anything with more than five ingredients is probably not food
2)Especially something that needs to advertise itself - low-fat, multi-grain, vitamin-fortified.
3)Something your grandmother(great-grandmother, if you are American!) wouldn't recognize

What you are left with after applying those three rules is very likely going to be food, whole food. I tried it this week and what you realize you are not left with much. As Pollan says, "The yam, sitting there silently in the produce section doesn't scream it health benefits" and I found, much to my shock, that my low-fat healthy yogurt contains high-fructose corn syrup. There is actually very little real food in the supermarket.

Mostly plants
I am what you call a 'flexitarian' - one who will eat meat if nothing else is available. People give different reasons for giving up meat or animal products - religious, ethical and health. I've discovered another, in my opinion, more compelling one - ecological. The entire livestock of the world emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry. I also ought to let you know that herbivores are being fed meat (mostly ground beef) for juicier steaks and cows drugged up with hormones. So, that bumper sticker you say is right - "Drink beer, not milk!"

Not too much
We all know this right? But, it's hard to follow it when the food is piled sky-high on your plate and you feel compelled to finish it. Okinawans who are known for their longevity as a community believe in hara hachi bu: Eat till you are 80 percent full. Again, hard to do since most meals are not consumed at dinner table, but are eaten in the car, in front of the TV and are eaten far too quickly or absent-mindedly that we cannot or don't respond to satiety cues. The French paradox is well-known. How do the French eat the most 'unhealthy' food and still manage to be so lean? First, they emphasize quality over quantity, second they don't take second helpings, and eat slowly and enjoy their meals.

Pollan says that - low-fat, low-carb, Omega-3, multi-grain, organic, etc. - are fads and not nutrition, but nutritionism in action. We have been eating food for centuries, and there is much evidence to suggest that most cultural practices are often healthier than the seemingly more healthy array of products of today. Food, real food, needs defending because it is rapidly disappearing from the marketplace.

So what's on your plate? - Make sure it's food, mostly plants, and not too much.

Ira Glass: now on DVD (the radio is better though!)

As an self-confessed NPR junkie I make no bones about my favorite show on radio - This American Life. The show is like the movies, except the stories are real (see old post).

Last Saturday, the show's host Ira Glass was in town. Being Ann Arbor, one the few places where if you don't listen to NPR you will be looked down by people, the local bookstore Borders was trying to restrict the audience by handing out wristbands when the store opened in the morning. In the evening, Borders did not have the executive power to enforce this and were letting anybody in. As a result, yours truly was stuck behind a pillar. This kinda of put dampener on the whole point of going there - "I came to see Ira, not to hear him!".

Ironically, Ira is on a tour to promote the DVD of his six-episode TV version of the show. Something, he said, he was reluctant to do for a long, long time. I have seen the pilot (on their website), but the radio show is better( and everyone knows it). From the straw-poll conducted at the bookstore, by Ira himself, not many people know the show from TV, which is small victory of sorts. TV or radio, the show is about real-life stories of real people.

The show is also well known for its beautifully put together music and one wonders if Ira who was born in 1959 was inspired by the music revolution in the 60s and 70s. He said that he was a nerdy Jewish-American kid growing up in Baltimore. He never heard any of the popular music while growing up. He said, "I remember a kid in my neighborhood asking me if I thought 'The Monkees' were better than 'The Beatles'. Imagine that there was a time when there was even a debate about this!. I grew up listening to Broadway musicals. The music of my people!". Musicals from the 40s and 50s, he said, have shaped his aesthetic and he tries to achieve a lot of that effect on the show.

I waited in line for about an hour to get the DVD signed. A bookshop is perhaps one of the few places in the world where I can wait in line forever. I picked up a book and 'almost read it'. Finally, it was great to meet and talk to Ira. He seemed to be in no hurry to conclude the conversation. The reason the line moved slowly was that Ira likes to talk to people, but which also made the wait worthwhile (not that I was complaining). I suggested that he should make a show on the show. There is a certain demographic to which the show appeals and, 'who really are these people?', and 'why do they listen to the show?'

Earlier, he said that for those in the creative profession most of the work is not in doing the work, but in simply finding the subject. As a young reporter, Ira tried really hard to sound like what he thought a reporter should sound like and he was terrible. He said that your best work is done when you are not trying to be what people think of you, but when you are doing it simply to amuse yourself. What does Ira do when he has all these wonderful stories from people to choose from. It isn't that hard -

Everyone has a story, but everyone does not have a story that needs to be told to two million people.
- Ira Glass

Orienting my Cartesian Coordinates

Go outside, the graphics are amazing
- Unknown quote

Upon reading this quote at the end of someone's email, my first impulse was to look through my window. Yes! the graphics were truly amazing. So, my excuse for not blogging in a while is that I have been out, in the real world, doing things that real people do. Mostly important stuff like doing the laundry, making enough to pay the rent, scraping ice off the windshield, etc., you get the drift.

The digital world does get a little too comfy after a while. Instead of blogs being about the world outside or about real people, they are mostly about themselves. Blogs on blogs. Opinions on other opinions. Links to links. I looked back at my last few posts and I was a little shocked to realise that I was describing myself.

Do I do anything that is unconnected with the digital universe and has something to do with the real world outside? Actually, I do. I am always up to something. Over the past four years, my yearly blog output has been remarkably consistent, with the exception of last year. Last year, I was extremely busy working or traveling or administering giving me little time to blog.
Which gives rise to the
Certainty Principle of Blogging: You can't be doing and blogging at the same time.

Thus, I have conveniently rationalized myself out of my responsibility to blog regularly and regale my readers with my posts.

Having said that, I have another thought - assuming that blogs are not recursive and do talk about something really interesting, like the graphics outside, then I do believe that the ancient Cartesian dictum of 'Blogito, ergo sum' holds. As any responsible blogger can attest, a lot of blogito requires a lot of cogito (There some who seem to manage fine without the latter). Logically speaking, if A ⇒ B, then ¬ A does not ⇒ ¬ B. However, I am not one to take chances.

Creating a blog is easy, the hard part is keeping it going. The Buddha told us that birth ⇒ there will be death. Many blogs are started with great enthusiasm, but after a few months most are simply trying to avoid blog-death. Writing blogs can get to be hard work, especially if you are attempting to say something meaningful or capture something memorable, not for others, even simply for yourself. For my part, I could be as well as yelling into a well. Ira Glass said something last night (see next post) that is really relevant to this idea. In any case, writing does makes you think harder. So, there could be a lot of doing, but not much thinking. Or, vice a versa.

Lab Notebooks

What good is a lab note-book,
if it doesn't have a coffee stain somewhere?

Right or Left?

This article by Steven Pinker is fantastic!


The science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way of our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.

A lot of issues are going to be debated in this election year and it has been an interesting exercise to frame the arguments using the spheres that Pinker describes.