End of George Whitman and the end of the bookshop

George Whitman, the legenday owner of the Shakespeare and Company, died last night at the age of 98. Among bookshop owners he was a bookshop owner's bookshop owner. There are bookstores and then there is his. As he said,

“I wanted a bookstore because the book business is the business of life.”
In a sense it isn't much too look at. There is the famous front in green and yellow and the wishing well in the front. Inside it looks like any other used/rare bookstore - books mostly arranged in some fashion with piles of others in the aisles waiting to be organized. And yes! the library feel with dust on old hardbound books that seemed to have not moved in decades. NY Times: George Whitman. I won't repeat the biographical details, names and his connection with another legendary bookshop in San Franciso - City Lights Bookstore. It's all in the article. What seemed to me most important is that he wanted this bookshop to be a nursery for aspiring writers. A place where they could work and stay (for free). He gave them lodging upstairs. There are no baths and the aspiring writers used the public baths in the 5th/6th arrondisements. The lodgings were spare, but with a view.- it's within a stone's throw away from the dead center of Paris (the Notre Dame) and on the left bank of the Seine. Of the 40,000 or so people that Whitman gave shelter to, I have yet to read that anyone of them became particularly famous. That's not the point. The point is that his man loved books and supported the written word. As a failed novelist, he realised that hungry artists need a refuge. (Listen to interview on The World) A few months ago, Borders (a local Ann Arbor company) shut it doors. When the other leading light of Ann Arbor bookstores Shaman Drum closed a few years ago, some people blamed Borders. Actually, we did it. As far as I can recall, the last 20 books that I have purchases have been from Amazon. I also admit rather shamelessly that whilst a graduate student, I did browse books from Borders, but only 10% of the time I actually bought books there (I did buy some coffee). You, me and the rest of the world in wanting things cheaper and faster have caused newspapers and bookstores to fail. Our natural tendency is to find patterns or make much of mere coincidences. Ideas seem to sort of converge in time. I watched the documentary Page One on the New York Times on Tuesday night. It talks about the changing nature of media and the end of newspapers. There are very few blogs that actually generate original content. Everything (including this blog) is meta-commentary. The internet (Craigslist, Amazon, Zillow, company websites) killed the revenue streams for the newspaper. Also, the internet has fostered this mistaken idea that everything should be free. here has to be a new model. In the documentary which was largely sympathetic to the NYT and its survival did present the view as echoed by the editor of the Atlantic - 'there is critical difference between "it shouldn't fail and it can't fail".' The market will do as it must. Shaman Drum was supposed to be replaced with a non-profit community center for writers. In an ironic twist it's now Five Guys - a burger and fries joint - that now purveys real food. No more food for the mind. I say this half-facetiously, as there has been no real material loss. Its more than adequately made up by Amazon and other websites. You can still get books. It's completely true that the selection, cost, suggestions, reviews online are greatly better than trying to look for the same from a bookstore. At the same time, the cultural loss is quite great. I greatly miss the Borders on Liberty. I spent many a cold, wintry day browsing through the shelves, discovering new books and reading introductions and prefaces of books (that I didn't buy). Yet, it's now a big hole on that street. The great center of learning - Ann Arbor - now has one large bookstore - Barnes and Noble, far away from campus on Washtenaw Avenue. How soon that fold? The question asked at the end of the BBC World News report on George Whitman was, "Do you think anyone would want to open such a bookstore now?" One would like to believe "yes", but in reality, no one will. The old model is clearly outdated and won't survive except as a charity case. The only way that such 'institutions' (it's fair to call them that) will survive or revive is that they need to be managed more like National Parks. Public goods that need to preserved by those who need them the most - the public. Public goods that Adam Smith's invisible hand is always blind to.

Only in Ann Arbor...

Only in Ann Arbor (or few other places) it's okay for your local ice-skating arena to be given the nerdy name of "The A 2 Cube 3" to stand in for its actual name - The Ann Arbor Ice Cube, or for cars to have custom license plates that read "VOXEL", a Mini Cooper that has a plate that reads "EZ2PARK", the owner of Zingermann's Coffee has a Merc with a plate: "NODECAF", and more than a few people with bumper stickers that read "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen".

Where's George?

At a toolbooth in Evanston, we were handed a one-dollar bill that is being tracked by whereisgeorge.com. This website is an interesting exercise is seeing how money flows from place to place. Too bad that many people don't enter the information. This poor bill spent a year wandering around before it was entered in the database.

This is our entry:
Where is George?

Time to put the bill in the bottle and toss it into the sea. Will be tracking it over time. Hopefully, it has more librarian-minded finders.

A YouTube Video explains the coolness of the idea. Where do your dollars go?

Is he a robber?

A few days ago, I walked out of the gym in my black track pants and black jacket and I overheard a mom say to her child,

"No, darling! He is not a robber. People often dress in all black clothes"

The Marketplace of Ideas: Menand's book on the American University

Though much of what Louis Menand argues in the book is about the teaching and production of PhDs in the humanities, and more specifically about English PhDs, it makes interesting reading for anyone interested in higher education in the United States.

Now that I am past that hurdle of graduate school anxiety, meaning having to answer the question "What hell are you still doing in graduate school?", this book was pleasurable reading. When I say graduate school, I mean graduate school that leads to a PhD and not a professional degree such as Law, MBA, or a master's degree.

T. M., a colleague, often remarked that friends were thinking about law school, went to law school, graduated from law school and got a job, all in the time that T.M. took to working towards his PhD degree in Neuroscience. (Law school takes 4 years, an MBA 2 years, and the average PhD in the sciences about 5-6 years, and in the humanities much more).

The first part of Menand's book covers General Education. Questions about what should be taught in college that is common across disciplines. This has been taken up in more detail and better addressed by Menand in the New Yorker article that is a must-read. (Menand's article on: Why we have college? in the New Yorker) 
It's sometimes claimed that learning any scholarly field well developed general mental faculties, which may the be applied to problems and issues encountered in life after college. But problems and issues in the academic world are not always analogous to problems and issues encountered in life after college... and there are matters [such as law, architecture, engineering] that everyone has to deal with in life, and knowing something about them is important to participate effectively in the political process. But college students have no more sophisticated an understanding of them than people who have attended only high school do.
It is fairly obvious to anyone who went to college in India, that Menand would be horrified if he learned about the Indian system. To most Indians Menand might well be splitting hairs. It is perhaps a popular, and in my opinion, an incorrect idea that Indian undergraduate education is far superior to an American-style undergraduate education. That reeks less of an objective comparison and more of a subjective, or patriotic idea. A related post in the NYTimes (thanks to J.) that shows that it ain't that easy getting in.

The second part of the book covers the Crisis of Legitimation that is faced by the humanities. As a science major it was somewhat fascinating to read the description of anxiety that faces a PhD student in the humanities. Not only does it take the average English (or anthropology) student about 9-10 years to graduate, he/she is often faced with existential anxiety about their discipline. Menand in his book writes, that while most people don't really understand what physicists are studying, yet they believe that having a physics department is a good 'return on investment. Such a question when asked of the humanities could not be satisfactorily answered and that lead to anxiety about their disciplines. His remarks on 'interdisciplinary' made hilarious reading. That word is so popular that it is hard to see any conference, or program at a university not mention it. Menand writes, "Interdisciplinarity is an administrative name for an anxiety and a hope that are personal."

The Economist wrote a lengthy economic analysis of the value of the Phd (see my related comment) and concluded that it was not a good return on investment. But, people still do them.  We would not have any poems, novels,  painting or music if everyone was homo economicus and chose to make the best return on investment decisions. There is more to life than money, and also aspiring PhDs must realise that only 5% of them actually end up with jobs in academia. Unfortunately, the academy chooses to ignore this fact and makes many of them ill-prepared for life outside academia. The Economist and Menand seem to agree that it's actually in the universities' interest that supply of aspiring PhD students exceed the demand for the finished product. The unfinished products, the graduate students, or the ABDs (all but the dissertation), are a highly qualified talent pool for jobs such as research and teaching that save the universities tons of money instead of hiring full-time faculty.

The Marketplace of Ideas On Amazon

Thoughts on the Wallenberg Medal 2011 for Aung San Suu Kyi

It was a rare privilege to witness the Aung San Suu Kyi being presented with the Wallenberg Medal by the University of Michigan last night. As Aung San does not leave Burma due to the fear that she may not be let back in, the medal was presented in absentia and her lecture was pre-recorded. The highlight of the evening was the question and answer with Ms. Kyi that was live (via Skype). Even after years of captivity and sporadic contact with the outside world, Ms. Kyi's face showed no signs of bitterness, defeat or exhaustion. She was very animated and showed a great sense of humor in her responses. She talked about the struggle against fear (quoting Tagore's Where the Mind is Without Fear) and oppression that are universal and that her case was only very particular. It's only extraordinary people that think that their lives are quite ordinary.

Not once did I hear her use the word 'I' while talking about the Burmese struggle for democracy. It was always 'us', 'we', or 'the Burmese people'. She was quick to praise the achievements of others. She believes the struggle in Burma is a personal and a limited one - meaning, it is for her people and her society, as opposed to Raoul Wallenberg's, which was for a different people and a different religion. Her modesty was genuine. Giants standing on the shoulders of giants.

In her curious accent that seemed to be a mix of her education in Burma, India and Britain, she narrated a humorous story about the three happiest days in a Burmese man's life: the day he becomes a novice monk, the day he gets married and the day he is released from jail. She said that reflects on what the Burmese think of their own society.

Why now?
In no way reflecting on Ms. Kyi's courage, I have some issues with the university for giving her the medal now. Arguments which I have taken up in another forum. In summary, I felt that this award has come too late and that it would have been more imaginative of the university to give it someone new and focus attention on people who are still relatively unknown. (check back for updates) instead of trying to cash-in on Ms. Kyi's celebrity.

Women in power? or not really?
In 1988, Ms. Kyi got swept up in protests and became a part of movement that she no initial intention of being a part of.  There was a question from an undergraduate about the role and suitability of women in leadership and if this hindered her role in the movement. I feel bad for American women who despite all their advances seem to be plagued by the fact that there has no woman President so far.  Is is true as Ms. Kyi mentioned in her response that "women are equally capable as men" and "the first female head of state was a woman - Srimavo Banradranaike from Sri Lanka..", but there is slightly pessimistic view. Women are not so much the issue as  South Asian seems to gravitate towards dynastic leadership.  It seems like a perversion to think that  while South Asia has been replete with examples of women being in power - Indira Gandhi in India (and now Sonia Gandhi), Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, Bhutto in Pakistan, the average women in all of these countries is far from equal than men. This is not so much a gender issue as it seems but that South Asian seems to love and trust dynastic rule. In Ms. Kyi's case as the daughter of the first leader of Burma it was around her that people rallied. It seems contradictory that appears as democracy prima facie is patrimonialism in another guise.

As someone who has had greatness thrust upon them, Ms. Kyi has done remarkably well to keep her celebrity out and to give credit to others in the struggle. It is the world's fault that we cannot name a single leader apart from Ms. Kyi. Surely, as she herself said in as many words that  there are many unknown people who are leading lives of even greater courage, who are still unsung. It was a great honor to be in presence of such a great person. She is really a steel magnolia, the softness and gentle eyes overlay that indomitable courage and resilience.  She talked about her struggles as a child in conquering her fear of the dark.  She said she walked in dark rooms for two weeks and then it was gone. Since 1988, she has been under, more or less, house arrest. One wonders how long she will have to wander in the dark rooms of Burma before she conquers the tyranny of military rule.

Wallenberg Medal and Lecture website at Umich

Dos Gardenias - Buena Vista Club

The great Ibrahim Ferrer singing Machin's Dos Gardenias. Lovely phrasing!

Dos Gardenias
(Antonio Machin)

Dos Gardenias para ti 
con ellas quiero decir 

te quiero; te adoro; mi vida. 
Ponles toda tu atencion 
porque son tu corazon y el mio. 
Dos Gardenias para ti 
que tendran todo el calor de un beso.
De esos besos que te di 
y que jamas encontraras 
en el calor de otro querer.
A tu lado viviran 
y te hablaran
como cuando estas conmigo.
Y hasta creeras 
que te diran: te quiero.
Pero si un atardecer 
las gardenias de mi amor, se mueren 
es porque han adivinado 
que tu amor se a terminado
porque existe otro querer.

(translated by h.p.)
Two gardenias for you
with them I want to say
I love you; adore you; my life
Give them all your attention
as they are your heart as well as mine
Two gardenias for you
that  have all the warmth of a kiss,
Of those kisses that I give you
and that you'll never find
in the warmth of another.

By your side they will live
and they will talk to you
as if you were with me
and if you will believe
that they will tell you: I love you
but if one dusk
the gardenias of my love die
it is because they have discovered

that your love is finished
because another love exists

Apples vs. chips: an experiment into food behavior

Last week I conducted an informal experiment at work. This the kind of 'scientific' experiment that J. classifies as needless and silly, since the general conclusion is quite obvious. My reasons to do that experiment were:
a) People could surprise you with their behavior,  and b) mainly, because it's fun to do experiments, c) I had a grant (meaning the raw material was paid for)

The main motivation was  to determine if people make good food choices when such choices are available. As a graduate student I often found that when stuck in the lab late in the evening or  night the only 'food' option was  the vending machine mostly full of all kinds of crappy snacks. The kind of snacks that Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi food has decided to re-brand as 'fun for you'. Their other labels are 'good for you' and 'better for you'. Of course, the irony of Pepsi marketing itself as a health-food company and the relativistic nature of their labels is inescapable.  Another disturbing story that I read was that experiments on rats have shown that babies could acquire a taste for junk food in-utero.(In review of Lindstrom's book on advertising in the Economist).

At some point, I wrote to the President and the authorities to make such healthy snacks available. The University did make this available and called it M-healthy. They were not not that healthy, but better than just chips and other crap that's usually in vending machines.

Yet, it begs the question - do people actually want to eat healthy?  When polled people  it is unlikely that anyone would say something other than - "I want to eat healthy, if such choices were available." Though what people say and what they do is quite different. The actual pattern of behaviors exposes their 'revealed preferences'.

The question is that faced with an apple or a potato chip what does one do? More honestly speaking, what would I do?

The Experiment
In the company lunch room where people leave stuff to share/ give-away I placed the following items last Monday morning:
18 apples ( 11 Red Delicious, 4 Fuji, 3 Granny Smiths)
3 bags of chips (regular, multigrain and tortilla chips without any salsa)
2 packets of crackers

Null Hypothesis:
All free food is equal and will be eaten in equal amounts.

The chips would be all eaten.
Apples would not be as popular.
Crackers would be more popular than apples


Wednesday: Two bags of chips were finished. Tortilla chips were not. 13/18 apples were eaten
Thursday: All bags of chips were gone. Packet of crackers gone. 11/18 apples eaten
Monday: One packet of crackers remained. 10/18 apples remained. Interestingly, all the Granny Smith apples were gone.

It must be noted that the experimenter also was part of the experiment and ate 1 apple and some amount of chips to keep the consumption roughly equal.

Possible explanations and factors at play.

1) Chips are tastier and pound for pound offer more calories and are a better 'investment'.
2) Apples have a higher 'adoption barrier', as they have to be washed, either cut, or bit into and it can be messy with juicy apples
3) Red Delicious is not so delicious. If there were more Granny Smiths, then the ratio could have been different leading to different conclusions.
4) People bring their own apples, and not chips and were supplementing their diet with the chips that were laid out.
5) Chips don't go bad, and apples do. So after Day 3, the apples were less appealing.
6) Eating chips requires less commitment, meaning that chips can be eaten in small quantities (one chip to a dozen or more), but you have to commit to eating an entire apple.
7) Corollary to the above: you may not be hungry for an entire apple. In a sense, an apple will actually increase your caloric intake in large quanta.
8) The chips were of better quality than the apples. The experimenter admits that this was not controlled for.

I leave that you to gentle reader.( I would hate to give it away). I am sure J. would appreciate my silence and absence of analysis).

What happens next?
I am curious to know what is the half-life of the apples. They still stand at 11.

Global Energy Transitions

The Economist's Global Intelligence Unit published a report on the transition of energy demand from East to West.
The trouble with reading such reports on controversial topics is that the first thing to look for is who is sponsoring the report, and who is writing the report. In almost all cases, the Economist does not have a byline, so the reports are mostly anonymous.  This report comes with the  caveat that the report and the conference was sponsored by Shell. Like all energy companies, their record has been less than stellar. One hopes that one can trust the authority of the authors: serious academics, policy makers and a long-time Greenpeace activist.
Report on Global Energy Conversation: Transitions from West to East
One the most startling facts is that India and China have increased their energy consumption by 116% and 149% in the last 20 years. In contrast, America has increased it by 19% (but their consumption was already very high). See: Key Findings

This brings me back to an excellent book that got a lot of press when it first came out, but has been somewhat been lost in the noise. Jared Diamond's Collapse. A review was posted on the literary blog. His main thesis is that civilizations have many reasons to prosper, but in many cases they fail because they fail to respond to environmental challenges appropriately. He presents case studies of  the past and present using examples from Rwanda, Easter Island, Australia, Montana, etc. 

Change of Guard: US Open 2011

What happened on Saturday was the final nail in Federer's coffin. I wished truly that I wouldn't be saying this, but after being up two matchpoints, flubbing a simple inside-out pass that hit the net cord, Federer's goose was cooked. In almost identical fashion he went down in the final set after leading 2-0. The world No. 3 ranking seems less of an aberration and more or less fitting. In my opinion his best chance to do something was at this year's US Open. He has missed that, and I would call it curtains for the Federer the Champion. Every subsequent tournament is going be a Second Act for Mr. Roger Federer. It is still true that for the next year or so, Fed will be still head and shoulders above the rest and will decimate them in a very similar fashion in the next few Grand Slams. The real problem is not the new kids on the block, the Dolgopolovs, Soderlings, Tipsarevics, Murrays and other current also-rans but the two men playing in tonight's final.

Rafael Nadal has taken tennis to another level, and Novak Djokovic has shown the  man described as a 'monster' by McEnroe can be vanquished. While my sympathies were with Federer, as a true tennis fan it is a great treat to watch the best two men in tennis battle it out in a few minutes. Federer seemed to have no problems with anybody else on the planet, and then Nadal happened and it seemed that he had some sort of mental block against the man. The lost first set at the French indicated a real issue. Quite interestingly, Nadal seems  to have 'Djokovic' problem. For the longest time Novak has been ranked No.3 and ended up meeting Federer more often. Though in recent times, as he assumed the mantle of World No.1. he's meeting Nadal more often and bested the Spaniard in the last five meetings including the Wimbledon final. Pressure seems nothing to Nadal, it seems to just vanish every time he plays a point. In comparison Djokovic seems more human. On Saturday, when he was two points from losing the match, he found humor and a smile to get back into the match, instead of the fierce glare that is the trademark of the Spaniard. That will certainly help him. At 24, he is in the greatest shape of his life, prepared to run every single ball down. Also, unlike Federer he has no issue with his backhand to combat the mad spin from Nadal's forehand court. It's going to be a great match.

I woudn't write off Nadal too easily. He has shown that he is as hungry as ever, but now he faces pressure from someone who is as relentless and cool as he is. As long as he serves well, neutralizes Nadal's spin, goes after his second serve, Novak should have no problem taking him out. He has been tested in a trying match with Federer and it will be his match to lose after the great run he has had.

My prediction #1: Novak in 4 sets if all goes well.
Prediction #2: Otherwise, whoever wins the first set.

As has been noted, the other modern great - Pete Sampras - didn't win anything for two years before his final US Open triumph. In comparison, Federer seems to be in much better shape. So, I am waiting for the aging champion to show that he still has the stuff. Though, he will need what he credited Novak for winning - luck, and a lot of it if Messrs. Nadal & Djokovic are still in business.

One era of tennis has ended and now it's the beginning of a new rivalry - Nadal and Djokovic. Men's tennis seems to have another new lease of life.

The Burden of Proof

The Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market; 
Jerome Groopman, in New Yorker, May 31, 2010

The  burden of proof rests on federal agencies and external universities. Link to New Yorker article

India much after Gandhi: Reading Guha and Mishra

Reading Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi and Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West. This was rather by accident, but they make good reading side-by-side.

For most historians, Indian history ended with Partition, or with some extension, with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The books on India history after Independence, he writes, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or two if one is more broad-minded. Guha's book was published in 2007, released to presumably coincide with the 60th year of India's Independence, is weighty and 700+ pages long. Only being about third through the book, I oddly felt that it should have been longer. Guha writes with an extraordinary skill: the laborious scholarship and copious footnotes do not disturb the urge to keep turning the pages. As far as I can note, Guha is content, as he should be to, to mostly describe and leave conclusions to the reader. I did somewhat catch some of the legendary debate in press between Ms. Arundhati Roy and him, though I am eager to understand some of his political convictions and motivations. While Ms. Roy did claim in an interview that her views with Mr. Guha's were worlds apart, at least the have an environmental and social conscience. A sort of conscience that I see lacking in many of my local peers, who have seemed to embrace "India Shining" with careless abandon.

While Guha seems, at least so far, to be quite optimistic of the strength of Indian democracy, reading Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West one is left with no illusions about Indian reality of democracy. Mishra is a journalist with a keen eye and a sensibility worthy of a poet. In contrast to the Doon-school,
IIM-educated Bangalorean Guha, Mishra was born in Jhansi, grew up in small-town North India, went to school in Allahabad and spent his youth in Benares. He comes from a different milieu than Guha and correspondingly his views are darker, and I would like to think closer-to-the-ground than the firmly-grounded academic historian. The rest of the book moves on further into the rest of South Asia (more on that later), but the Indian themes, or axes as Guha calls, are pretty much the same - caste-based politics, regionalism, proto-fascist Hindutva, being Muslim in India and others.

I haven't finished reading either book and it would be premature to make a final judgement. One thing is clear that issues raging in the country today were pretty much the same in 1950. While some progress has been made, but much of the tribal population and rest of India lives in a feudal time. This sort of reality is hard to imagine from the eyes of an urban Punekar, now deracinated expat. One hopes that books help us bridge that distance.

I write this at a time when Anna Hazare's strike has just been called off after the government has acceded to his some of Team Anna's demands. The whole affair right or wrong, undoubtably signals the failure of constitutional democracy. Indeed, as Guha's book informs us that Ambedkar, the architect of the constitution, warned that Indians in Free India needed to abjure from Gandhian methods of fasts, hartals, picketing, and the like and use constitutional methods to achieve their ends. Of course, such methods have been mostly ineffective in the last 60 years. It may seem like a Quixotic idea to external observers that citizens need to move heaven and earth just to make elected representatives just accountable: meaning making them do their job.

Meanwhile I seek refuge in books.
Reality melts away.

Phrasing: Catching Song

Phrasing is super important in music and also in language. How you string words together and how you put hte building blocks together. Very intersting interview with Bobby McFerrin on  the importance of improvisation. He says that if were a teacher of music he would not start with the staff or written music. But, just with one note 'C' and let the students play that for a few weeks, then add another note 'D' and let them improvise.

He says in the interview that singing songs with lyrics sometimes interferes with interpretation. So, Bobby McFerrin tries to teach without words. He says that not many people can do it - babble nonsense syllables - for minutes on end.

Speaking of language that McFerrin uses:
Is singing for entertainment. Is it for more than entertainment? Inter-tainment?
He is full of endless word-play continues. In fact it calls it 'catching song' not 'singing song'. Words sometimes obscure meaning, but sometimes they can illuminate, especially when you are as original as Mr. Bobby McFerrin.

Bobby Ferrin: Catching Song.
Link to .mp3 of interview

Is Doing a PhD a waste of time?

This article showed up in the Economist a while ago (December, 2010) but I got to reading it only now. I am currently in what can be described as 'evangelical zeal to read magazines' that have been piling up.

While this article -- The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time -- might be late in coming, it's still an interesting read in the manner of the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight.

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle....Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
It's true that it takes a number of years, and perhaps your best ones. I sometimes felt that I spent all my youth in school. Of course I was much better off than students in anthropology and physics who on average take 7-10 years. As a PhD who is no longer working in academia, and for the record most of my friends who finished one are not working in academia either, I have never regretted for a moment taking/or wasting years finishing the degree. I enjoyed doing it and I had many rich experiences that were totally unconnected with academics, which I would never have enjoyed if I had a regular 9-5 job.
Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.
Now being done, I have not suffered greatly either. I admit that it may not reflect the experience of every PhD as it is in a 'somewhat useful' and currently 'somewhat hot' field of biomedical engineering. It may not make sense for everyone to do one. And as the article points out, everyone does not have the right motivation or reasons for doing one.
Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore drift into doing a PhD. But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs
As the article points out there are about 100,000 PhDs minted each year and only about 16,000 new academic positions. People have to find work elsewhere, or may choose to find work elsewhere. The central assumption of the article that the PhD should lead to a academic job is not entirely correct. There are lots of well-paying, and often better-paying jobs in industry, non-profits, think-tanks, government, and startups. The article states that only 57% of the student actually finish a PhD casting some doubt on the enterprise. People quit for various reasons and I think that for many it might be the right decision. As in most things in life, the training and experience can always come handy later. I do agree that it's best to quit early. I am not quite sure if you can treat it as a 'sunk cost' if you quit in the 6th year of your program.

I do agree that there is an oversupply and universities should practice, as the article calls it, more voluntary birth-control. In addition there should be more training for PhDs who will be looking for non-academic jobs and developing soft-skills given that 90% of the people will not pursue jobs in academia.
Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.


Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher.

It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.
Antoine de Saint Exupery
Wind, Sand and Stars (1939)

Got education? more likely to marry

From the Economist:

Data from the Census Bureau (US) show that married couples, for the first time, now make up less than half (45%) of all households.
This may seem to be bad news, but on the good news front the divorce rate has gone down with lesser marriages. This seems to imply that those who marry these days tend to stay married, or in other words, it is weeding out weak marriages.

There is more to the story, as it seems that marriage is now a privilege of the educated.
There barely was a marriage gap in 1960: only four percentage points separated the wedded ways of college and high-school graduates (76% versus 72%). The gap has since widened to 16 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Centre.
The article quotes that those without a college degree earn less and prefer to raise children out of wedlock as they cannot 'afford marriage'. I find that hard to explain. In the state of Michigan, you could walk over to the courthouse, fill out a few forms and get married for less than $30. You would probably pay more for a meal for two in the City of Ann Arbor than for getting married in court. It is perhaps understood that if that educated are more likely to get married, then they are older as well.

And as for the children born out of wedlock, the disparity is immense:
Only 6% of children born to college-educated mothers were born outside marriage, according to the National Marriage Project. That compares with 44% of babies born to mothers whose education ended with high school.

The article did not comment if those children born were out of choice. Another interesting question is: Are children better off, or rather, no worse-off in single-parent (more like single mothers) families? If there is a significant difference then the huge disparity between kids born to educated, well-off two-parent families vs. lower-educated, poorer single mother families can only get amplified in the decades to come.

Words: Misread and misheard

Over the weekend as I was transferring the clothes from the washer I noticed this scribbled on a piece of paper:


I was struck by the profundity of the message and chuckled at the absurdity of finding something like this in the laundry room. Sometimes life is like that - you never know what you find. Everybody's anger needs fixing. I am glad that the person who wrote that note at least acknowledged it. It drew a much bigger laugh a few minutes later when the reality of the message struck me.

The New Yorker (May 23, 2011) informed me about the 'karma chain' that was set in motion by Lama Pema in New York a month ago. It was an interesting experiment: Lama Pema played a version of 'Chinese Whispers' (called 'Telephone' in the U.S.). The idea was that Lama Pema at the start of the chain of 300+ people would recite three sutras that would be passed from person to person with the author Salman Rushdie at the very end of the chain to receive the final message. The Lama wanted to test the proposition "information can extremely volatile when words pass from person to person". The sutras that he read out (using his iPhone!) to person #1 in line were:

1) Like a shimmering star, or a flickering lamp
2) A fleeting autumn cloud, or a shining drop of morning dew
3) A phantom, a dream, or a bubble, so is all the existence to be seen

Even by the 20th person the messages were largely mangled from the original. Finally at the end, Salman Rushdie read out the final messages

1) Follow the glass stone. Follow the glass stone
2) The droid from hell
3) If anything exists it changes

These were 100% wrong as the Lama said. He said that not a single word that Rushdie read was the same, but in the end 'the words were not my message'. Accidentally and miraculously the listeners had listened to the gist of the message and then had collectively "put words to it". I am not sure I agree 100% with the Lama (considering #2), but it was an interesting exercise.

The scribbled message in my laundry room that sounded profound actually wasn't. It was more mundane and functional than spiritual and insightful than I had imagined. Because of the loopy 'Y' and the hastily scribbled cursive capital 'D', I had misread the first word: it was 'D-R-Y-E-R', not 'A-N-G-E-R'. Clarity had been restored, or not? My original misreading had actually lead to a moment of clarity. Everybody's anger needs fixing. It was a happy misreading.

French Open Final 2011: Final thoughts on Nadal v Federer

So, in the end there are again the same two men in the final. The aesthetically most pleasing player versus the mentally and physically toughest.

Nadal has dominated the French Open (losing only once ever to Robin Soderling), but tomorrow Federer seems to be clearly the sentimental favorite after his heroics in the semi-final. To win tomorrow would be a near-miracle, but it's sure going to be entertaining tennis. I find it bothersome that commentators always about this shot or that, eg, if Nadal's bouncing forehand is going to make a difference. In actuality, it's mostly mental.

Nadal is much tougher mentally than Federer, and perhaps more than any man in the sport today. Nadal has intense focus, is tough to break, is getting to be a better server and his shot selection is impeccable. Federer might have somewhat of a chance on a faster court like the US Open or Australia, but on the red clay Nadal reigns supreme. I have intense respect for his game and his iron-will.

Federer has nothing to more to prove. Is it necessary that he defeat Nadal on the French clay once? Those writing his obituary sound like the fools they always were. He is still just as good if not better. He beat the most in-form man in tennis in a classic display where he out-served, out-played and out-thought Novak Djokovic. True he did not convert all those break-point opportunities and to win tomorrow, or put up some fight he will have to change that. Nadal seems impossible to break (Murray had a few looks, but couldn't make anything out of it). We all want to see somewhat of a contest. For that Federer should serve razor-sharp as he did against Djokovic, and not extend points. He can cover court, but nothing like Nadal, so he needs to hold serve and break Nadal once in a while. If he does go for his shots, taking chances Nadal might be seeing something different tomorrow.

Prediction: Federer needs to win the first two sets to have some chance of winning. If he does win he will do it four sets. Most likely Nadal will take the first set after which will be somewhat close in the second and then he will finish it in 3 sets.

Regardless, who wins tomorrow in Paris, it has been a joy to watch these finals between the two men (I missed the first two French finals). If one had to design two players with contrasting styles they couldn't have come up with something better than we have on hand here. I wish could've been there to watch it live. Looks like there might be one more such final between the finest I've seen.

It may be disputed if Mr. Federer and Mr. Nadal were the best tennis players of all time and if their rivalry was tennis's finest moment, but it beyond dispute that they were the most gracious tennis champions. Most gracious to each other, to the crowd and to the fine sport itself.

Materialism v. Innovative Consumption

Many years ago, T.M., a grad school colleague of mine introduced me to the term 'American consumer-whore-ism'. His exact words were, "This is America, man! Land of the consumer whores". As I understood he meant materialism which is a universal, but it is at its worst (or at its best) in America. And materialism is always bad, right? In almost every urban society from New York to Mumbai, it's hard to get away from consumptive activities, and the trend is towards even more conspicuous consumption. The hypocrisy of tree-huggers (myself included) is obvious -- I punch in the text to this blog on my MacBook. We consume more gadgets and technology every year. James Surowiecki's column in New Yorker offered a different perspective on consumerism: it stimulates innovation. Despite other many other faults American consumer whore-ism is somewhat responsible for innovation and the resulting increases in productivity.

From the New Yorker, May 16th Innovative Consumption by James Surowiecki

From a business perspective, the willingness of consumers to take risks means that new technologies can see profit faster here than they can elsewhere. That encourages inventors to invent, and investors to pour money into startups. (It’s no coincidence that the modern venture-capital industry got its start here.) And the speed with which successful products are taken up also allows companies to benefit from economies of scale sooner, bringing prices down and making it easier to reach even more customers. But it isn’t just a matter of speed. Venturesome consumers also provide companies with feedback that helps improve products, and often even repurpose them, in ways their inventors hadn’t imagined. In the process, the value of the innovations themselves increases. In that sense, our culture of innovation depends on consumers as much as on entrepreneurs

The thin line between consuming to spur innovation and being a consumer whore seems to be a fine one. But what is it? I need to think about this more.

Aside: The May 16th issue of the New Yorker is by far the best issue of the year. Among interesting topics it talks about Pepsi rebranding as a nutrition company, Pakistan and it's hobgoblin enemy India and its masterful manipulation of American aid, and Gladwell on XEROX's PARC. Great fiction by Michael Ondaatje. This also tells you I am little behind in my New Yorker reading.

Now I am One and Thirty

Now I am One and Thirty, so what would A.E. Housman say? Not that it's particularly relevant currently, but it was on my mind today. The old trope remains true - older and wiser. Plenty of sighs and rue.

When I was one-and-twenty...

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
'Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.'
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
'The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.'
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
- A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
Similar dark humor on loving and leaving was the theme on Poet's.org, my daily fix of poetry. For the record today's birthday poem on Poet's.org
Traveling Light

I'm only leaving you
for a handful of days,
but it feels as though
I'll be gone forever—
the way the door closes

behind me with such solidity,


our lives have minds
of their own.
- Linda Pastan
Full text of Traveling Light on Poets.org

Miksang- The Good Eye within

Red on Blue
Over the weekend I was at a Miksang photo workshop in one of my favorite cities - Chicago. The workshop called for digital camera. It could be simple, but it had to be digital. So I had to break my moratorium on digital photography and leave my beloved Leica and B/W photo-love behind. Since, Miksang - meaning 'good eye' in Tibetan promised to be purest of the pure in the digital world - no cropping, no digital alteration, and you aren't even supposed to real seek the picture. I felt that this was a worth exception (similar in some high-minded exceptions I make to eat meat).

Opening your eye
From What is Miksang?
Miksang, at its most basic level, is concerned with uncovering the truth of pure perception. We see something vivid and penetrating, and in that moment we can express our perception without making anything up—nothing added, nothing missing. Totally honest about what we see—straight shooting.

Haiku with a leaf
This being Level 1 the images are simple. The teacher gave a great analogy: "it's like practising your scales". So, for the two days, I put image-making and even image-seeking behind to make picture of pure perception, at least as best as I could.

The assignments were Color, Texture, Shadow and Light, Space and Dots in Space. Having never ever tried such pictures before it was an exhilarating and very meditative experience. I can see why it can be contemplative, as every tiny object, or mundane one gets imbued with beauty.

Curves in White

After a while you can't stop noticing. The world around you is so alive and rich with color, texture, and space. We shot for only about 1.5 hours, but I was exhausted. It was also interesting to see what others had shot in the same space and there were a few, but not too many similar pictures. Everyone had their own unique sense of beauty.

Link to my Miksang-Level 1 pictures

Against Foxholes

A friend K.S. posted on her Google chat status

There are no atheists in fox holes.

I always thought that there was something inherently wrong in that statement. Glad that the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut Jr. came to the rescue. It's not so much about atheism or theism, but mainly about foxholes.

People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it's a much better argument against foxholes.
— Kurt Vonnegut


There is always a debate as to which is the language that is most suited for poetry. It is easily argued that French and Italian lend themselves most to writing poems easily since they are abundant with vowel sounds. This makes French and Italian poetry sound musical, as even the harshest objects are heard as lush sounds. Anyone who has heard an aria before an operatic scene of death can attest to this. Apart from historical tradition, this explains to some extent that most operas, even those written by German composers, are in Italian or French. On the other hand, the consonants that seem to be so derided give German poetry a certain weight, a certain intellectual air that has a different sort of beauty. Last week after listening to one of the most famous bass-baritones Thomas Quasthoff singing Schumann and Brahms lieder at the UMS, I want to totally revise the common notion that German cannot be the language of love.

Speaking in very traditional notions, despite Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, English poetry doesn't quite cut it as the language of love. Russian stakes a strong claim to being the sort of language that can be a strong contender. Word order is not strict and there are tons of vowel sounds. Apparently, it emerged as a winner at UN conference as 'the' language of love. Pushkin has everyone beat, so the story goes.

Closer to home and what I know - as any Indian is familiar - Urdu has the finest tradition of love poetry, of the sort that intoxicates and enthralls by its very beauty that the love object of those verses is a mere accessory. The poetry and its beauty is an end in itself. Urdu is a mish-mash of Hindi and Persian. It's remarkable that a language that arose from military camps in the Indian sub-continent was elevated enough to produce such wonderful poetry. Of course, any Persian worth his salt is going to argue that all the beauty comes from the Persian and the harsh consonants so to speak are all from the Hindi.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, poetry translated in any language would be just as sweet. Thanks to Mani for providing this gem from Muslih-ud-Din Mushrif ibn-Abdullah Shirazi or Saadi. A case in point that poetry is beautiful, even though it may be lost in translation to some extent.

هزار جهد بکردم که سر عشق بپوشم
نبود بر سر آتش میسرم که نجوشم

به هوش بودم از اول که دل به کس نسپارم
شمایل تو بدیدم نه صبر ماند و نه هوشم

حکایتی ز دهانت به گوش جان من آمد
دگر نصیحت مردم حکایتست به گوشم

مگر تو روی بپوشی و فتنه بازنشانی
که من قرار ندارم که دیده از تو بپوشم

من رمیده دل آن به که در سماع نیایم
که گر به پای درآیم به دربرند به دوشم

بیا به صلح من امروز در کنار من امشب
که دیده خواب نکردست از انتظار تو دوشم

مرا به هیچ بدادی و من هنوز بر آنم
که از وجود تو مویی به عالمی نفروشم

به زخم خورده حکایت کنم ز دست جراحت
که تندرست ملامت کند چو من بخروشم

مرا مگوی که سعدی طریق عشق رها کن
سخن چه فایده گفتن چو پند می‌ننیوشم

به راه بادیه رفتن به از نشستن باطل
و گر مراد نیابم به قدر وسع بکوشم

I made a few edits to Mani K's translation.

I made every effort to keep the secret of my love disguised.
However, it was impossible for me to not come to a boil from the fire.
I was cautious from the beginning not to fall in love with anyone.
When I saw you I lost both my patience and my caution.
I heard a story once about your mouth with the ears of my heart.
Since then people’s advice is just a story to my ears.
Only if you avoid me can this chaos settle down;
Since I cannot keep my calm and turn my eyes from you.
With such an untamed heart, it is better for me not to enter any dance ceremony.
If I enter on foot, people will be carrying me out on their shoulders.
Come in peace with me today and to my side tonight.
I didn't sleep last night in the hope of seeing you.
You sold me for nothing and I am still not willing to exchange a lock of your hair for the whole world.
I complain only to the injured about my wound; since the healthy will only blame me as I cry.
Don’t tell me: “Saadi, avoid the path of love”.
There is no point in telling since I am not listening to your advice.
Wandering off to the desert is better than sitting vainly; and if I don’t find my wish, I will try as hard as I can.

Kipling: You musn't swim till you're six weeks old

Kipling who was the first Indian-born (he was born in Mumbai) and the first writer in English to win the Nobel Prize in Literature presents somewhat of a difficulty in warming up to him. As seen from the eyes of someone 100 years later, his politics were all wrong and his advocacy of British imperialism makes one squirm. It's not hard to see why Orwell (one of my heroes and another Indian-born writer) was early to criticize Kipling for this. Yet, it would take the most churlish among us to not praise Kipling for creating two of the most beloved fictional Indian characters - Mowgli and Kim. And then there is of course Gunga Din. So, while Kipling might have been quite out of step with the winds of change that would set the 20th century in motion - to which someone like Orwell was more attuned to - there is no mistaking his genuine fondness for India and its people.

The Jungle Book is a world masterpiece and Kipling would have deserved all the fame just for that book. All poetry need not be weighty - it can be light and funny, and yet conceal a world of meaning.

Untitled [You mustn't swim till you're six weeks old]
by Rudyard Kipling

You mustn't swim till you're six weeks old,
Or your head will be sunk by your heels;
And summer gales and Killer Whales
Are bad for baby seals.
Are bad for baby seals, dear rat,
As bad as bad can be.
But splash and grow strong,
And you can't be wrong,
Child of the Open Sea!

Poetry - I too dislike it

Wandering around last evening I ended up the Hatcher Graduate library and in one of the display windows outside the main checkout counter they had this excerpt from Marianne Moore:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

It's part essay on poetry and part diatribe against mostly bad poetry. Making an excellent observation midway into the poem, " ... we do not admire what we cannot understand..."

Full text of poem

In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Interesting article in the Michigan Record on Poet Laureates at Michigan.

Previous posts in celebration of National Poetry Month:
E.E. Cummings
Mike Jarman
Neruda and Troy Jollimore

E.E. Cummings - Thank you God for most this amazing day

Of course, any poem is always yours(the readers) to keep, to have and to hold in way that you feel best. Though it's sometimes useful to know how the poet may have read it. A rare clip of
E.E. Cummings reading the poem below. Of all poets, it's perhaps most useful to have him read his poems since they can be read in so many different ways. Much has been made of his interesting word order and typography, but gimmicks apart he was the 'real deal' as the poem (Thanks J) below amply displays.

Isn't the answer to everything in life always - yes? For those seeking literary echoes: Joyce's magisterial chronicle of a single day in Dublin (Ulysses) ends with 'yes'.

i thank You God for most this amazing day

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

Mike Jarman's Dispatches from Devereux

Another poem shamelessly filched from Poets.org. If you are interested in poetry on a daily basis, then I highly recommend signing up for their Poem-A-Day list. They have a good mix of old and new and I've discovered some great work through it. A fine example is today's poem by Mark Jarman. It's absolutely sublime - of herons, egrets, seine nets, the waves. Perhaps alluding to the wetness of burning desire.

Dispatch from Devereux Slough
Fall, 2008
The gulls have no idea.
The distant bark of sea lions gives nothing away.
The white-tailed kite flutters and hunts.
The pelicans perform their sloppy angling.
The ironbark eucalyptus dwells in ignorance and beauty.
And the night herons brood in their heronry like yoga masters, each balanced on a twig.
The world has changed. The news will take some time to get here.
3am. What a time of day! Anyone who has been awake at 3am knows what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he wrote, "In the dark night of the soul, it's always 3am, day after day."
In one of the poems called Shorebreak, 3am he writes,
Awake, alone, at the right hour to hear it,
That hush, for all the sleeplessness behind it,
Can lead one, walking wounded, back to sleep.
See the full text of Dispatches from Devereux Slough. It's full of wonderful lines and images, including this last one in the series:

When we are reunited after death,
The owls will call among the eucalyptus,
The white tailed kite will arc across the mesa,
And sunset cast orange light from the Pacific
Against the golden bush and eucalyptus
Where flowers and fruit and seeds appear all seasons
And our paired silhouettes are waiting for us.

Rilke: Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen - I live my life in ever-widening circles

Thanks to J. who introduced me to Rainier Maria Rilke's poetry. This is the one that touched me the most. The poet trying to grow. Poetic echo of the day - lines from Robert Browning's Andrea Del Sarto:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.
Or what's a heaven for?

Note: On the issue of copyright, I need to find poets who died before 1935.

First the original auf Deutsch and an English translation.

Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen

Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen,
die sich über die Dinge ziehn.
Ich werde den letzten vielleicht nicht vollbringen,
aber versuchen will ich ihn.

Ich kreise um Gott, um den uralten Turm,
und ich kreise jahrtausendelang;
und ich weiß noch nicht: bin ich ein Falke, ein Sturm
oder ein großer Gesang.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

And here is my attempt at a translation:

I live my life in ever-widening circles

I live my life in ever-widening circles
That draw themselves over all things
I may not perhaps complete the last of these things
but I want to make an attempt

I circle around God, around the most ancient tower,
And I circle for a thousand years
And yet I still don't know: Am I a falcon? a storm?
Or a much larger song.

April is the Cruelest Month - National Poetry Month

Either taking cue from T.S. Eliot's opening lines of the Wasteland, or for some other reason, April is designated as National Poetry Month. This has invigorated me to read more poetry and inspired me to write or at least post some gems that I've come across.

Since I should not post poems in their entirety, I will try to link to the full text on official sites, meaning sites that have obtained the appropriate permissions.

One of my favorite Pablo Neruda's sequence of poems called The Book of Questions.

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?


Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

- Pablo Neruda (trans: William O'Daly)
Full text of 'The Book of Questions, III'.

I came across On The Origin of Things by Troy Jollimore from the Academy of American Poets that faintly echoes the same imagery. The imagination is bolder and vivid, an imagination that is both very childlike and ludicrous.

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace ...

... nor will I allow
myself to address the idea that dance
began as a kiss, that happiness was
an accidental import from Spain, ...

- Troy Jollimore
Full text of: 'On the Origin of Things'

Rough Theater

Off to see 'rough theater' tonight. As opposed to the lavish productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Propeller performs it true to the text, but with modern touches.

Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theater that’s not in a theater, the theater on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theater in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes.
Carol Rutter on Propeller

They shall be performing Richard III. Updates tomorrow.

The ones we love - Camus

Another gem from Camus. He is so absurdly brilliant and insightful:

Nous nous trompons toujours deux fois sur ceux que nous aimons: d'abord à leur avantage, puis à leur désavantage

We always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love — first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage.

-Albert Camus
A Happy Death (written 1938), first published as La mort heureuse (1971), as translated by Richard Howard (1972)

NCAA Bracketology

I am participating in the March Madness NCAA basketball bracket for the first time. It's $5 to buy in and there are 7 of us in the office pool. The exercise of picking teams and the results with no clue as to what is good or bad is rather interesting.

For those who do this seriously, the whole picking the bracket thing is quite an arcane art. There are folks who will 'analyze' your bracket for a fee. Sports betting and stock markets are places where statistics are as a wit once said, "There is lies, damned lies and statistics". As in the stock markets there is no real optimal strategy. So what is promised is mostly some mumbo-jumbo with a generous dash of snake oil. Such knowledge gives someone like me comfort since chance levels the playing field for us all: noobs, rubes, and the armchair jocks.

The theoretically possible brackets are 2^63 ~ a few quintillion. This means that while a perfect bracket is possible, it is out of the realm of probable events. ESPN has offered a $1M prize for someone who manages to do that. There is a better chance of finding a cure for AIDS than getting a perfect bracket. After the first 32 matches -- only 317 people out of about 6 million brackets submitted had perfect picks. It should be mentioned that 5 people had it completely wrong which is a considerable feat as well, though easier to get it all wrong than all correct.

It is obvious that it can't really be a few quintillion possibilities. All match-ups are not even odds. So, if you factor the seeding in question adjusting probabilities (for eg: #1 has a much better chance then a #16) you come down to a more manageable number a probability of 1:150,000,00. Still an improbable event. As of this morning 9am EST, the leaders on the leaderboard do not have a perfect bracket. It's down to only 3 people who made just a single error so far and it's only Day 3. So, ESPN will most likely never give up its 1M prize in the course of NCAA history, or even in the course of human history.

Back to the office. K.T. who has picked straight seeds is actually winning the office the pool. She was winning quite handsomely till the first 32 matches were played. As there were only 3 upsets, she was on top. However, as of this morning, she was still winning, but she picked Pittsburg to win and they lost in an upset to Butler. Implication: She's not going to make too many points in subsequent rounds. Hence the default no-brainer strategy may do well on average, but will never win. You need to pick some upsets. You need to take some risks.

I decided to use a three-prong strategy:

a) the National Bracket
This is the average of everyone's bracket. It is said to be a good strategy, actually the strategy that is guaranteed to be so safe that you will avoid embarrassment - meaning you won't finish last in your office pool. This will overcome my lack of knowledge of the game. It's like picking an stock index fund. Nothing spectacular, but avoids personal manias. It was a little different from straight picks, accounting for sentiment. I had left sentiment out of while doing this, so I picked MSU to win (they lost) and my home school to lose (they won). If I had shown some loyalty I would've been 20 points richer and if Michigan continues to win, it's going to destroy my future earnings. Shameful!

b) Taking a few risks
But, winning is what counts, so to win some, you gotta gamble some. So, just by simple probability there are a few good gambles. For example, looking at past histories of the Elite Eight and Final Four, it's obvious that all #1's do not make it to the Final Four. So, I put in one #2 in the Final Four. Now, if I had taken advantage of the maximum allowed 10 brackets I could have hedged my bets across the different selections, but then that would ruin the fun of the office pool and also increase my exposure to more than $5. I picked Florida(#2) in the Final Four and gambled on UConn(#3) to make it the Elite Eight over SDSU(#2).

c) Game Theory
Since everyone mostly thinks OSU is going to win, it makes sense to just go with OSU to neutralize the points from that win. KT and LT had picked Pitt to win and since Pitt lost last night, the huge risk of picking a different winner did not pay off. So, now everybody else in the office pool has OSU picked that result is not that interesting. It's going to boil down to the Final Four picks that really going to make the difference.

So, as of today how am I doing? I am in third. It must be said that of all the people in the office pool, I have the largest possible points remaining (PPR). So while I am losing by 30pts, it could well go my way. Let's see. In full disclosure, I have not yet watched a single game.

Custom made

For fun, try turning a double walled rectangular box into a three-sided triangular cone. Not recommended without a paper sketch, or adequate dexterity with a box cutter, and only 20 mins to spare.
Saved by duct tape.

Oscars 2011 Prediction Scorecard

To go back to  Oscar Part I
To go back to   Oscar Part II
To go back to Oscar Shorts

Total Predictions: 15
Total Correct: 9
% Accurate:  60% (Chance ~ 20%)

Pretty decent?

Actress in a Supporting Role

This is subject to revision once I see Ms. Steinfield in True Grit. Helena Bonham Carter was very impressive and stands a good chance and may benefit from vote-splitting for The Fighter. Melissa Leo was most impressive as the mother of 10 kids. She wears heels, tight-fitting clothes, smokes, swears and so believably plays the blue-collar, lower-class mother that it's hard to imagine anyone outdoing that. Then, quite oddly in the very same movie, Amy Adams as Mark Wahlberg's girlfriend plays the a younger, tougher version of Melissa Leo and one is amazed. She is Leo's alter ego slightly updated and comically referred to in the movie as the 'MTV girl' (someone who is loose and wild). The votes will be split to negate either's chances.

Update: I had to considerably revise the above after watching Hailee Steinfield in True Grit a little while ago. What a great performance! I had initially picked Helena Bonham Carter, but that role that pales in comparison to what I just saw. I do have a soft spot for Melissa Leo, but Hailee was superb as the precocious, headstrong, and gutsy Mattie Ross. Anyone who can across as an equal to the talent of a Jeff Bridges/Rooster Cockburn and a Matt Damon/Texas Ranger deserves it.
Who should win: Hailee Steinfield
Who will win: Hailee Steinfield
Who won: Melissa Leo 
Comment: Very happy to hear to know Ms. Leo even though I bungled the prediction with too much punditry.

Actor in a Supporting Role

I have not seen the other movies, but I would hazard that it's going to between Batman and Capt. Barbossa. Christian Bale so totally embodies the washed-up, crackhead former 'Pride of Lowell' that I thought that it would really be hard to top that performance this year. The Fighter is a wonderful movie and when you think that all the possible boxing movies have been made, what could possibly be done differently? An interesting exercise to list all the great boxing movies (Recently: Ali, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby come to mind, what else?) Then I saw Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech and he doesn't knock you out as much as astounds you like a magician - the precision, the control, it's a master at work. Nothing was overdone, not a single superflous action or gesture, not a single wrong note. The only thing that might count against Rush is that he has possibly won every accolade there is to win. But to deny this because of that would be a travesty. Sadly, The Fighter does down in this one.
Who should win: Geoffrey Rush
Who will win: Geoffrey Rush
Who won: Christian Bale
Comment: Guess in this case I was right in being a pundit? Glad that Bale and Leo are bringing attention to The Fighter

Animated Feature Film

Not much to say here.
Who should win:Toy Story 3
Who will win:Toy Story 3
Who won: Toy Story 3

Set Decoration

Inception captured everyones imagination over the summer and has made some lasting contribution in the 'weird thought-experiment movie' category and will be a perennial cult favorite. Though it truly deserves an Oscar only in this category, which it will and should win barring King's Speech mania that may have taken over the hearts and minds of the Academy members.
Who should win: Inception
Who will win: Inception
Who won:  Alice In Wonderland

Film Editing

Black Swan was very tight, and I don't really see a reason for the The King's Speech winning. If there was a close second, then I would put The Social Network
Who should win: Black Swan
Who will win: Black Swan
Who won: The Social Network

Foreign Language Film

Innaritu's Biutiful with Bardem was interesting and this movie got more eyeballs than the others. So, just based on the campaigning, I think it may win. This is always the most interesting category. On my list of things to do: I have to see every single Foreign Language Oscar winner since 1980. I have three more to go. So, if Biutiful wins my list will stay the same. So I am rooting for it.
Who should win: Biutiful
Who will win: No clue.
Who won: In a Better World” Denmark
Comment:  Okay!  +1

Music (Original Score)

To be frank, I seriously think the King's Speech has been over-nominated. I don't think it's going to win that many Oscars. I could well be wrong. We will find out tomorrow.
The soundtrack for The Social Network captures the frantic energy, the scheming, adrenaline rush of money and power and makes the entire movie more effective. Alexandre Desplat has been excellent as usual, but this will be on his rack as something that he did. His other work has been so much more memorable.
Who should win: The Social Network
Who will win: The Social Network
Who won: The Social Network


A bit of tough choice between The Black Swan and The King's Speech. would go with the former for the excellent filming of the dance sequences. For the first time we have so many nominees in this category for movies that don't really have panoramic locales.
Who should win:Black Swan
Who will win:Black Swan

Who won :“Inception” Wally Pfister

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Coen brothers did a wonderful job with the script and made a really gritty, realistic True Grit.
But, I would hand it to Aaron Sorkin. Beautiful work!
Who should win:The Social Network
Who will win:The Social Network
Who won:The Social Network

Writing (Original Screenplay)

I am bit surprised that neither the Black Swan nor Blue Valentine made it here. They would not have won. The King's Speech truly deserves this one. The other nominations barring Firth and Rush are just hype.
Who should win:The King's Speech
Who will win:The King's Speech
Who won: The King's Speech - David Seidler

Short Film (Animated)

(see separate post on descriptions and predictions on the short films)

Who should win: The Lost Thing
Who will win: The Lost Thing
Who won: The Lost Thing

Short Film (Live Action)

Who should win:Na Wewe
Who will win:Na Wewe
Who won: God of Love
Comment: Luke Matheny said on-stage that all the  movies are available on iTunes. I highly recommend checking them all out. 

Actor in a Leading Role

Franco gave a great performance but should be happy to be nominated and is the weakest prospect.
I wasn't particularly impressed by Bardem. Pretty decent job, but not enough to win. Jeff Bridges won last year, so that kind of goes against him slightly. The way John Wayne played it is almost syrupy in comparison. But, Bridges is not really a contender. The two strongest candidates are Jesse Eisenberg and Colin Firth. I should check the 'likes' on Facebook for his portrayal of the nerdy, egotistical, socially awkward Mark Zuckerberg. Colin Firth though deserves to win not just for this role, but turning in great performances throughout his career. This one's long overdue. This will be his first. The next time he wins would be when he plays an explosive (as opposed to implosive) angry man, a mad man. Do a Robert DeNiro sometime. But, he is the current champion 'Milquetoast of the Movies'.
Who should win: Colin Firth
Who will win: Colin Firth
Who won: Colin Firth

Actress in a Leading Role

Again, I have only seen the last two and I will wing it saying that there are the only ones that matter. I thought overall Blue Valentine was an excellent movie and both Ryan Gosling (where is he?) and Michelle Williams did an excellent job first playing the goofy, cute lovers and then a married couple that grows apart. This may not quite be the winner for Michelle Williams. Natalie Portman was indeed perfect as both the White and Black Swan. That movie has really creeped out many people and it's entirely to Portman's credit. In this movie, she really doesn't say much, or even do much apart from dancing. What would you credit an actor who can suck you into their dark, crazy, neurotic world by just using the veins on their neck?
Who should win: Natalie Portman
Who will win: Natalie Portman
Who won:  Natalie Portman


The Coens are in a class of their own. This is not their best work (or rather re-work). Aronofsky did an excellent job of marshaling the talent of Natalie Portman and adapting Tchaikovsky's wonderful ballet. I personally think that David Fincher deserves this award for presenting the whole story of Facebook (with some artistic license). He didn't really have a star cast of any sort and it's a tricky story to bring on screen. It's not a feel-good movie like The King's Speech and people have strong and differing opinions on their judgement is. Though what's going to happen is that The King's Speech is going to win the double. Invariably, this happens and I don't really understand it. Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain, but the movie lost the Best Picture to Crash. Despite Annie Proulx hissy fit I think it was the correct choice. So this year, I feel it should be similarly so.
Who should win: The Social Network
Who will win: The King's Speech
Who won: The King's Speech

Best Picture

True Grit is the weakest of the lot, despite the great work by the trio - Bridges, Damon and Steinfield. Black Swan was little better, but it's Portman's movie and owes to much to the libretto and the score. I was very impressed with The Fighter. We've had enough of boxing movies and many have won already. The big message, if there was one was sort of lost. But, that being said there was a lot of freshness in the acting, in the approach and in the story-telling of the bouts. It comes a strong third.

I personally believe that The Social Network should win the double and is clearly a better movie from a lot of aspects than the The King's Speech.
Who should win:The Social Network
Who will win:The King's Speech
Who won: The King's Speech