We are not in Vienna, anymore Dorothy!

The abuse is finally showing. My body has been lately rebelling against coffee and I have to limit my intake to one cup a day. Oddly, the un(in)dependence from coffee has coincided with my graduating. Having switched to tea as the post-prandial drink of choice, I bravely discover the brand new world of tea.

Apart from region of origin, coffee is mostly coffee. The variety in coffee drinks comes from the method of combination and preparation. The basic tea leaf comes in more varieties than coffee. If you manage to stumble into one of the specialized tea houses like (eg: Argo tea) your problem won't be deciding between a grande or venti, but in deciding whether you want to have the South American matte or hibiscus tea. The choices are bewildering and it takes a while to develop a taste for the more exotic varieties.

Starbucks, the bellwether of the coffee industry, has recently reported to indulge in some stealthy, sneaky practices. In my opinion it's not so much the local coffee shop, but public tastes have shifted to tea. Coffee shops aren't as hip as they used to be. My own anecdotal observation supports more new tea-houses in Ann Arbor than coffee shops. The self-respecting hipster would rather be caught drinking tea than sipping a latte.

Personally, drinking tea from a bag is quicker and less messier than brewing coffee, especially an espresso shot. Of course, the right way to make tea is to brew it fresh with tea leaves and not use tea-bags. I treat this as coffee rehab, so nothing fancy.

Next year's trend: lemonade and energy-drink bars.

Classical Convention

Today's issue of the BBC magazine describes proper clapping etiquette:
To Clap or Not To Clap.

At a rock concert it is considered acceptable to applaud like a maniac, whoop, holler, punch the air, and even shout "rock 'n' roll" at the end of every song, should you see fit. But this is not the case in the world of classical music. You will find aficionados who sneer at "those people who clap after every movement". And the Time Out listing magazine's classical editor Jonathan Lennie has caused a minor kerfuffle in this rarefied world by going one step further and criticising those people who clap the microsecond a concert is over. In an open letter to the "Loud Clapping Man Who Sits Behind Me At Concerts", Lennie wrote: "Having sat through a long and profound work, why do you have to start making a racket as soon as you perceive it to be over?"
... He insists that for some sombre pieces, a period of dignified silence after the last note is played is essential to appreciation.
These conventions have been around for a while and as Alex Ross points out(New Yorker article) most of these conventions are bourgeois inventions. They made classical music such a class act in the middle of the 19th century. He quotes James Johnson’s “Listening in Paris,” describing a typical night at the Paris Opéra in the years before the French Revolution:
While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.
He further writes:
In other words, the opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé. Johnson quotes a nobleman writing, “There is nothing so damnable as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat.”
And to think of all that clamor about clapping at the right moment.

Novel Use of Cap and Trade

After this morning's 9am weekly lab meeting, I think it's time to adopt the 'cap and trade' idea used for carbon credits to discussions and questions during lab meetings. The idea occurred to me as someone droned on and on for the umpteenth time with impunity. There are always people who fear too silence, especially their own, during a meeting. They feel obliged to say something no matter how irrelevant or tangential it may be to the question at hand. Then there are those who take an unbearably long time to report on their activities of the past week. The 3-minute timer in their heads never goes off.

I put forth a Cap and Trade Meeting format for all the efficient managers of meetings everywhere. Assuming a lab group of 12 people, we start off with everyone getting 3 questions and 5 minutes of talking time. If you feel obliged to say more or cannot control your natural enthusiasm then you have to buy 'talking time' from someone who would rather be quiet. The currency of exchange can be money, or even something arbitrary, or more useful (as in the case of the present author) a mug of coffee.

This balances fairness and freedom. You can't really avoid the noise polluters from polluting but it does provide an incentive to talk less and talk more sense as a consequence. The wonderful aspect is that perhaps there will be a time when no once wants to say a single word and everyone preserves their talk time. Ah! then that silence will be so golden. It will be a Zen moment.

Outliers - Old Wine in a New Bottle

Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for sticky phraselogy, and why not? he wrote an entire book on it. His first book The Tipping Point made 'stickiness' a new buzzword. If his first book was about how things/ideas manage to cross a threshold after which there is no looking back, his latest book Outliers is about success itself. He looks at the fundamental reasons for success.

If you don't have time to read through the 300 pages of the book, don't be alarmed. It has chiefly four points. To be successful you need:

1) To work hard (>10,000 hours at something).
2) To be at the right place at the right time.
3) To be only above average smart, but not a genius.
4) To leverage or adjust your cultural advantage/ disadvantages.

None of the above are anything but conventional wisdom. Yet, the book is an interesting read only because Gladwell is so incredibly gifted at paraphrasing the obvious and coming up with interesting examples.

The 10,000 hour rule at first seemed a very good quantification of expertise, but then you realise that it's fairly obvious. A PhD takes about 10,000 hours of work (5 years x 50 weeks/year x 40 hrs/week), and about the same amount of time if you combined an undergrad + master's degree.

Once armed with the right stuff, we all know we have to also be located at correct spot in space and time to even have a chance to grab the opportunity when it comes knocking. It's an interesting observation that being born around 1955 was a good thing for Jobs, Gates, and others as it enabled them to jump into the PC revolution. Ultimately, is this really useful? We are simply unaware what skills will be valuable in 20 years that we can prepare. It's mostly just dumb luck to a large extent that some people come out on top.

We all know that to simply be smart is not enough. This reminds me of Richard Feynman, reported to have an IQ of 124 (just above average), who joked that winning a Nobel prize was no big deal, but to do that with an average IQ of 124, now that was genius!

There is no need to waste any more ink on cultural environment and the important role that it plays in eventual success. Sometimes it makes me guilty to think about my own accident of birth. There was at least one kid running around begging for a meal, who if he had half my advantages while growing up, would have done twice as much.

Most of Gladwell's work is good journalism, but he often falls short of good science. The most astounding leap that he makes is to draw the conclusion that rice farming teaches patience that makes Asians better at math since it teaches persistence and attention to detail. There is something to be said about language and how Asian languages are more calculation-friendly in terms of syntax. But, mathematics is not just merely arithmetic. Even if we consider calculation efficiency as an indicator of math skills, it would be interesting to show that American-born Asians who don't speak their mother tongues are somehow worse at math than their Asian counterparts who do. Indian languages are perhaps syntactically worse as we have more unique words for numbers than English, yet we are pretty good calculators. Why? A quick reason is that we have large families and children have to learn to add and count fast. I dislike these 'gee-whiz' sort of explanations.