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Journalists, power and Shekhar Gupta’s memoirs December 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, politics.
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I just read two articles from journalists that have known Benazir Bhutto personally – Shekhar Gupta during his many years of reporting and Karan Thapar from their college days. Both articles make for an engaging read and are replete with anecdotes from the yesteryears.

Reading some of these writings one wonders what must it be like to be a journalist – with close association, understanding and friendship with a country’s (and often international) ruling class. A journalist-friend of mine in the Indian Express says that is one of the main lures of the profession – the contacts you make. Understandable, but then again not all politicians are great human beings, the nice to know types. Some of them are not only miserable people themselves but are also liable for misery and bloodshed elsewhere, either willfully perpetrated or condoned or done in their name. [ More on politics ] What would it be like to have such people in your phone book and among your email contacts and vice-versa ? Also most people in power (or those that have been) have egos that need to be pandered to. Not my idea of a day job.

~~~

Talking of Shekhar Gupta, I have admired his writings for years now. And having watched/read him interviewing people, I almost feel like I can see inside his mind. He sets the stage gradually to extract that one headline, almost like the leg spinner who bowls four consecutive balls moving away from the right hander and finally nails the batsmen with the fifth that remains straight. If a potentially controversial question is evaded, he rephrases the question and as he does so, may even add a controversial statement that elicits a reaction from the interviewee. When the interviewee decides to react, the interviewer has won.

Yet, if there is one aspect of his writing that I am ambivalent about, its how he makes it clear to the reader that he is important, that he has been there and done that and that he is aware of his place in post-1975 Indian political reporting history. Or at least that he has one. For example, a number of times he writes in his newspaper columns that what he is about to tell us is something that he had originally reserved for his memoirs but will tell us right now anyway. Look Shekhar, I am starting to find this funny, maybe even condescending. 🙂

A simple search for (“Shekhar Gupta” “my memoirs) [ Retain the quotes, remove the parenthesis if you want to do the search yourself ] revealed at least 5 columns – 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 and 5. And the other day on a TV debate when he was asked to call what will happen to the Gujrat elections (before the results came in), while everyone else on the panel took a shot, Shekhar from atop his high horse went – “From my 27 years in journalism, one thing I have learnt is to never call an election….”. When pressed he said he would prefer to “respect the voter.” Really ? Or is it because if he were proved wrong, 20 years from now Vikram Chandra (who moderated the discussion) is going to keep this story for his memoirs ? All said and done, I will continue to follow him and read everything he writes. Putting up with some of the above is a small price to pay to get some insights and read some very interesting anecdotes.

~~~

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Mind and language December 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, weird.
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That line there in the boxed part of the picture below. Read it once. Pause.

resume.png

What does it mean ? Read it again. Does it mean something different ?

Maybe its too late in the night but the first two attempts I thought why would somewhat want resumes of missing people ? Finally I concluded that the word “resume” has a meaning I don’t know, which is that it can just mean the contact details of individuals so as to help them be located/identified, and not a job pitch.

Until that is I visited the page and found the real story. (And all this inspite of knowing the sense of the word that means “restart/continue”.)

P.S: I would be curious to see to which interpretation of the sentence would statistical parsers or/and language models give a higher probability. (Of course they are actually two different words rather than being homonyms, but most automatic Natural Language Processing systems disregard the “whatever” that appears above the letter ‘e’ and build consider the two words as being homonyms.

P.P.S: My post title is another deliberate attempt at misleading the reader. Is that v divided by n or resume as in verb or noun ? Now you know

I changed the title without realizing I did and ended up misleading you about having misled you already when I had only misled myself. Smart ass me.

Inner luddite December 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, technology.
2 comments

Every once a while at the freakonomics blog, Steve and Steve conduct informal polls, sometimes to get data for back of envelope calculations (see example) and sometimes just seeking advice from what one may expect to be a very intelligent and well-informed reader community (thats another of those nice things about top economics blogs). A while back Levitt went :

I’m a notoriously late adopter of technologies. It is not a conscious decision, and I don’t take any pride in it.

… As such, I need some advice from blog readers: what are some technologies I need the most that I’ve been slow to adopt?

I’ve been relatively slow myself. Cell phone in late 2003 that too because someone was selling it :p . Did not learn driving until I was way past 18.  And after 40 months in the US, have not got my license yet ( just use my international license 😉 ). I have not bought an ipod and may not in the foreseeable future primarily because I hate to carry around things that are really small and forget/lose and all that. And of course, not things that are too big either, simply because they are not meant to. 😉 [ Except a bicycle maybe 😀 ]. I did not buy a Mac either because back then I could not afford it, but now that I have one from work, I am so used to it that I am not that impressed any longer.

I have been a recent adopter of 2 technologies (if you can all them that) and I am loving it. Hold your breath for here it goes

  • RSS reader
  • Tabbed browsing in Firefox (I don’t use IE unless that is the only way out)

( So, if your blog stats have come crashing down, its because I am not showing up on your blog that often 😉 )

Mobs that empower December 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, rant, reminisces-2000.
2 comments

For a long time I thought that rediff has the worst online community in terms of the quality of the discussion forums/message boards. Turns out I forgot about the usual suspects – TOI. A member from the “Times of India sucks” orkut community sends me this link, while requesting me to take a stand on this issue. Visit the link and you will truly wonder if there are indeed so many people who will have spent so many hours writing/copy-pasting material.

What are these people like in real life I wonder (I know we are again revisiting topics we have in the past week, but let me use the occasion to make a related comment). I suspect a good number of them could be any of us, or our close friends and that won’t surprise me. Among two circumstances under which I don’t trust most people, even some of my good friends – anonymity and mob membership.

Mob is empowering ; its trading sovereignty for power. A mob accomplishes far more than the individual constituents can – not because of the larger physical presence, but its the alternate mental space that it inhabits. One of the most inhuman practices I have witnessed time and again (never been party to either way) was the manner in which the presumably happy occasion of one’s birthday is celebrated in most Indian colleges with lifting the person and handing him kicks on his bum – “Birthday Bumps”. Repeatedly kicking one person as hard as one possibly can, the whole occasion inviting even until now uninterested onlookers to contribute their kicks – some of who may not even know who the landing surface belongs to. I know people who will defend this practice (after all its consensual adult activity on a large scale with (almost) no victims). Yet, my point is that it brings out the most raw instincts and the worst in people and when it involves some of your good friends, its not a pretty sight.

This video here – where one of the kickers had planted 6 kicks so hard that he is almost limping by the end of the video.

Actually being in a group and anonymity are really much the same thing. In the end, its boils down to absence of accountability because of the aggregation, of becoming one among the many. A benign version of this is how as a child you are relieved to know that you are not the only one in class to have not completed your assignment. 🙂

Authors and bylines – Academia effects ? December 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, education, media.
3 comments

In a comment to my post on why I am not too enthusiastic about anonymously authored blogs, Sudhir raises an interesting question, one that did not occur to me when I wrote the post. He asks:

I’m just left wondering if a persons identity has such an impact on a reader. I’ve never really given it any thought before! We probably cannot take anonymous bloggers too seriously because we cannot draw a mental picture of what they look like. Having said that I never seem to look for a journalists name in the newspaper even if i really enjoyed the content. Do you? just curious..

Yes, No and Sometimes.

“No” for news reports, “Yes” for analysis and opinion pieces that are either very moving or are on polarizing topics. And then there is an non-deterministic component that I will categorize under “sometimes” – where I look up for no particular reason. There are also times when it works the other way around – where you go scouting for articles by certain columnists and journalists. Too many to name they are, but as regular blog readers would know they are mostly from the NYTimes, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Hindu, Slate, Outlook, Livemint and The Pioneer.

So yeah, the identity matters. Why ?

I don’t know if this has got to do something with spending some time in academia/grad school where you talk of research papers and results in terms of the authors and groups/labs/locations and often over 15% of the paper content is “saying who said what before you say what you intend to say.” Any serious, life long academics want to weigh in on that ? 🙂

What do you think ?

Culture as competition, not legislation December 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people.
7 comments

The story so far.

prettybluesalwar puts up what appears to me a half-serious post (and what she claims as not-at-all-serious 🙂 ) trying to sell T-shirts with India related one-liners. Thambi, a commenter on her blog is offended and accuses prettybluesalwar of being “a white person trying to capitalize on some rudimentary knowledge of Indian culture to make a quick buck.” Now this exchange seems to have gone on to the next level with Thambi taking on more pseudo-identities and leaving messages on prettybluesalwar’s blog. He sends her this article by Sunita Puri, while also asking her to refrain from “being an ambassador for all things Indian.”

prettybluesalwar has written a post in reply here. I find prettybluesalwar’s stance to be unnecessarily defensive and that of Sunita’s article astonishingly xenophobic.

From Sunita’s article :

…is cultural imperialism at its worst. Pop icons like Madonna perpetuate a faulty understanding of Indian culture by selecting exotic images from India, such as the bindi, taking them completely out of cultural context and popularizing them in the West. What people like Madonna don’t realize, however, is that appropriating the bindi in such a way has devastating effects on the symbol’s meaning in South Asia.

I have only two points to make and had I been in prettybluesalwar’s place, my reply would have been thus.

Dear Commenter,

I have 2 points to make in reply.

  • Culture is competition, not legislation. If evolution of genes is through process of natural selection (in presence of environmental factors), then progress of culture is through human selection, again not without environmental influences, which Dawkins put it so well to call it a ‘meme’. Bindi is a meme thats lived through a few thousand years and so is the Sari. They must have evolved from different forms and it is fair to say that neither you nor I are aware of the first ever form. So what are we trying to defend and protect -that which we last saw ? For example, the pallu of the Sari is predominantly worn on the woman’s left. Yet in some places (primarily in Northwestern India), its worn on the right. It would be foolish of a Tamilian lady to object to a Gujrati woman wearing the pallu on her right. I am sure there must have been resistance when some woman somewhere first saw her reflection in the water and quite playfully (or maybe mistakenly) decided to switch the pallu. There must have been Thambis then too. Yet that is a meme that has survived.
  • If you believe that everything is getting homogenized, you are failing to see second-order effects. Self-expression, by definition, cannot fall prey to homogenization beyond a point. There will be enough homogenization and standardization to enable the society to function – anything more will be boring, anything less will be inefficient. In geekspeak, the error surface is one with several locally optimal solutions, not one global optimum !

Culturally yours,

Sharath

P.S: So much for the commenter’s objection – among the things I consider myself to be one among the ambassadors for : Indian, Men, Single men, Mid-twenties youth, blogger, Indians in America, Former Indian Graduate Students, Computer Science Researchers and the almost bald and maybe somewhat overweight.

Any objections anybody ?

3 questions I never thought of before December 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, ideas.
2 comments

1. How much do you know about each of your 8 great-grandparents ?

My answer :

Dad’s dad’s dad – Know his name.

Dad’s dad’s mom – Nothing

Dad’s mom’s dad – Nothing

Dad’s mom’s mom – Nothing

Mom’s dad’s dad – Nothing

Mom’s dad’s mom – Nothing

Mom’s mom’s dad – Whole lot of stuff

Dad’s mom’s mom – Nothing, except the place she grew up (Mangalore)

By “nothing”, I mean absolutely nothing. Ever thought about this – surely we know a lot about our grandparents (and so do our parents know of theirs) but the knowledge that really flows from one generation to another is barely anything (unless you are Priyanka Gandhi’s son). Of course, this is almost entirely be attributed to human life spans being almost capped at 100 something.

This of course works down the tree as well, although technology might as well change this just a bit. So next question becomes :

2. Say you answer this question on your blog, then what is the probability that your hypothetical great-grand daughter will read the post (and maybe get to this one ?)

While you think about that, here comes the next question, which is really a few ridiculous steps ahead.

3. There is a chance that my great-great-great-<go back another 65 generations>-great-great grandfather who as a food along with his tribe-mates,  attacked your ancestors’ village, looted their food sources, burnt their houses, kidnapped their children and raped their women and killed your corresponding ancestor ? Do you feel angry about that ?

Queer isn’t it – we are almost incapable of personalizing such distant relationships and empathizing with people who lived more than x years ago (x probably varies from person to person but is surely not very large). In fact, we are even talking casually so about it right now. And thankfully so !! 🙂

But if you think about it, these relationships are distant in time, not in genes. Or in other words, in all probability I share more in my genes with the above looter/rapist than with a randomly chosen person who is currently walking down the main street in Santiago, Chile, South America. But then, like I care ! Afterall, the truth is that I feel closer and relate more to the latter than the former.

Who says blood is thicker than water !

Stars R us December 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, reminisces-1990s.
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What will Madhuri Dixit think when she reads this sentence ?

“Moreover, to the new generation of cinegoers, Madhuri’s name does not mean anything so all the talk of a comeback did not make much sense. There was curiosity among the people for Madhuri but when they saw the promos and got to hear about the script, the curiosity was killed,” Mirani added.

One way of thinking about this is to go back to what you were doing when Madhuri just came on the scene. When was the first time you heard of her, if you remember at all (I don’t). Quite the same with Tendulkar, except that his arrival on the scene was such that many more would have good recollections. He is still of course still around.

Ask someone who grew up in the 50s and 60s of who his favorite stars were ? Ask the same of the 70s crowd, the 80s and the 90s. Isn’t our “favorite star” most likely to be from the time when we were in our teens and 20s ? Probably. Surprising ? Probably not. Will this continue to be so ?

Which famous person do you feel you have grown with – your careers growing parallel ? Who you remember from a time from which your recollections are reliable ? To go a step further, is there anyone whose lean patches and purple patches have coincided with yours ? Or so you have thought for reasons I won’t ask you to explain ?

My previous Madhuri post was almost an year ago.

When ? November 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
6 comments

In conversation with a friend I have known for 20 years asking him to give his take on turning 26. Lets turn over the mike to him.

Its hard to believe that I am 26. There was a time when people would talk about “today’s kids” and they would mean us. Its not us any more.

When was the first time you used the phrase “Current generation” to refer to another group ? Kids People of what approximate age would you consider to be of your generation ? How old should a person be so you can use the phrase “current generation” and he/she won’t think its him/her ? When did you first think that you should not desist from engaging in certain activities because life is too short and life in a healthy body that can take strenuous shocks is even shorter ? When did it first occur to you (if it did) as to what kind of a place your grand kids would grow up and how much technology would have changed things by then ? Rather among the many future developments that you anticipate, which do you think will not happen in your lifetime ?

No you don’t have to be the brooding Eeyore when it comes to the above thoughts. I am talking about the first time many of these thoughts you actually felt – not read, not heard, not spoken to – but felt personally.

Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance November 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, reminisces-1990s.
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For the last 2 weeks my bicycle tires deflated on their own (volition??) and that made for depressing days 😦 . The front tire would deflate in about 18 hours and the back in 3-4 hours. The simple solution would be to just replace the tubes for a not-at-all princely sum of $16 for 2 tubes. Or else you can buy yourself a patch kit – a little box with glue, patches and sandpaper and then patch the tube by yourself. What did I do ? Surprisingly this time I turned to the latter option.

And there is a reason I choose the word ‘surprisingly’. Over the years things have turned out such that given a choice between working with my hands versus the mind, would prefer the latter (exception being my love of cooking (an earlier konfession). It was not always like this – my free time as a young teenager was spent in the garden digging pits, watering plants, climbing coconut trees, painting something (not art, maybe furniture, walls etc.) or cleaning something else.

This was until about 1996. Starting class XI (1997) though I got busy with books and learning – of all kinds , including of course academic. Most of my vacations were spent doing something to further career interests and general curiosity. If they weren’t spent on the IISc campus, they were spent in the MIT (Manipal) library catching up with (what were then) obscure periodicals like the HBR, IEEE Spectrum , Potentials etc. If one of those (vacations) was indeed spent partly at my native place, it was spent either online or at an old public library (where I first laid my hands on this disgusting book).

The long term optimization was heavily geared towards saving time, being efficient and quickly washing my hands off anything that uuh… required washing hands ! Lazy weekend meant lazily lying on the bed with the laptop. Anything physical that is broken would lay broken until it became life threatening and anything digital/virtual that were broken would be fixed as if it were (life threatening) when it almost never was. Reality became little more than a really really good simulation and the comfort of algorithmic certainty was too much to let go of in favor of something more nuanced that life’s realities tend to be.

Today 10 years after that phase of life began and after completing what might turn out to be all of my formal education, life seems to have come a full circle ellipsoid ! There is an incredible urge to open up those old cupboards of life-skills, hone them just a little bit and get my hands dirty.

So I sat down on the kitchen floor and before me was the ‘ungainly’ sight of my cycle on the floor (not this bad !), the tubes ripped out of the tire as if it were an accident spot. With some effort that involved dipping the tubes in water to see where the leak is, finding it, gluing in a patch, rediscovering practical physics 101 on the way and then putting it all back, blowing air into the tubes and leaving my cycle overnight (to recuperate (!)) to make sure its all okay. And it was !!

When drunk poets wrote about experiencing the joy of little things in life, it wasn’t the alcohol. 🙂

Why do people stop blogging ? November 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, contemplation.
7 comments

Update appended at the end of article

Who is the most famous blogger you know who stopped blogging ? Or lets say who among frequent bloggers do you know of that stopped blogging ? Why ? Why do people stop blogging ? And I am not talking about bloggers who blogged infrequently and indifferently in the first place, not those who have one ‘bad day at work’ and none to come home rant about it. My question is about regular bloggers who seemed like they will go on and on. Maybe the phenomenon of blogging has not seen cycles and recessions (!!), so its hard to find bloggers who cease to blog. I don’t know.

I am trying to understand the place and role of blogging in a blogger’s life. Its not like tennis players who stop playing – surely you can play only that long. But blogging does not require physical activity. Its not even about say violinists – playing a music instrument is special skill and very few do that in the first place and few give up. Its not even a full-time job for most that you retire from one day.

I think blogging is somewhere in between – it requires some skill, but once that is out of the way and once you have a dedicated (even if small) readership, what you need to keep blogging is time and sense of lack of indifference about the world around you. Or Ben puts it :

When someone maintains a blog, it usually means their mind is cranking so quickly that they need one more outlet through which to channel that energy and express their thoughts. It usually means they’re engaged with the world and what’s happening. It usually means they like to write and believe in the idea-generation that comes from writing well. Yes, it probably means they’re a little self-involved and self-important, but I prefer that to someone who lacks self-confidence. In other words, I like people who have a “posture” in the world.

What other real world activity does blogging compare to ? Reading ? Probably, but if you get busy for a couple of months and stop reading, you can still get back to it. With blogging it might be harder.

Is blogging like friendship in some ways ? Lots of friendships are disrupted just because you were too busy to call/meet for a few months and then you don’t know where to start. They are also disrupted when you get married, have children and suddenly have limited time. In general, for any number of reasons and events in life that suddenly demand a diversion of commitment of time and energy friendships may be disrupted. And blogging too.

And several years after you have stopped blogging you may come back to read your blog and think about the times you wrote those posts, how aroused you were about the world around you, how naive and self-important your thoughts were and how there seemed to be no end in sight. Just like old friendships.

Why do people stop blogging ? 🙂

Update: Another reason to wonder why people stop blogging. (NSFW)

Marriage Research November 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life.
2 comments

Tyler links to Divya Mathur’s research on arranged marriages in India.

 …when parents are involved in mate choice, sons are significantly less likely to marry college-educated women and women engaged in the labor force, after controlling for individual and family characteristics. I show that these effects are driven, at least in part, by parental preferences and cannot entirely be attributed to correlation between arranged marriages and unobserved characteristics.

Comments section of the above post is worth a read as well.

Why do parents have a say in any of this ? They should probably have a say if :

a) You are too young to know enough – but if you are old enough to marry, you are old enough to know whom to marry.

b) You want them to have a say (for whatever reasons)

c) The prospective spouses’ parents want your parents to approve of the alliance. Dubious at best, but believe me it happens. In-laws who demonstrate such preferences are unlikely to stop at that.

How can be make the already most complicated matching problem even more so but adding variables like the above ? I can’t think like a parent of a 20 something year old. (actually I can’t think like a parent at all). Its interesting if there is a website (like the PostSecret blog) where parents anonymously what actually prompted them to choose a particular bride/groom for their child and of course, the “just married” ones anonymously post about why they actually rejected all the proposals that came in and finally accepted the one they did. 

My own nonsensical wishes apart, a systematic study of the topic was long overdue – even more creditable if that thesis is coming out of a prominent economics department and is being supervised by the likes of Gary Becker and Emily Oster.

“What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it ?” November 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
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There is this really cool website called Edge.org. One of the many things they do is to ask over 100 odd experts and public thinkers from several fields one question each year and have their answers put up online. You can catch the series of questions here and clicking on each of those the answers as well.

One of the questions asked (2005) was “What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it ?”. Of course, my answers won’t really deserve to show up there anyway, but hey, I will answer anyway !

I think social networks are overrated.

I have lot of respect for and faith in the ability of experts to explain the past. Seldom in their ability to predict the future in matters such as these. We just don’t know.

What else explains things like sub-prime lending crisis – entirely man-made, partly wall-street made and they have some of the smartest brains, right ! What about the tech boom/bust at the turn of the century –  all those entrepreneurs and venture capitalists hailed as superstars ?

Go back to read some of the magazine articles from 1999/2000 and am sure most of the guys making predictions were around then as well and often it looks like mistakes have not been lessons. Or maybe its whole new set of people doing the same mistakes. Today we make fun of how people (that often includes ourselves) evaluated companies from their market capitalization even if that number was 100 times the actual revenue. Now with facebook at $250 M in revenue and $15 B in evaluation (thats 60 times), its interesting to see where this goes. And each time you hear the same thing – “This time its different because blah…blah..blah.”.

A relevant link from Abi : A video

P.S: Somebody else concurs too.

Reading Vs. Commenting November 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, contemplation.
6 comments

Bloggers get feedback from readers – through page views/unique visitors the blogger gets an idea whether it is mattering that she/he is blogging at all, assuming of course that a blogger gainly some satisfaction/utility from being read (a fair assumption).

What about comments ?While comments reinforce this point every now and then, they are an incomplete and a not-so-comprehensive indicator of a blog’s popularity. Here are some possible reasons in the increasing order of political incorrectness.

  • Comments require more effort and thought and are rather time-consuming – if people read blogs at work as a 5 minute diversion, they are unlikely to comment.
  • There are other biases where some people comment only when they agree with your view and others only when they don’t. So there is an effect of the kind of readership you have rather than the absolute number.
  • Some are hesitant to comment – much like public speaking fright, commenting online is not something everybody is willing to jump at.
  • It might also be culture dependent. I was surprised to see that when a really popular Indian blogger opened up some of the posts for comments, there were far fewer than one might predict from the blog’s popularity. This may partly be due to the fact that different countries are at a different stage of adoption of blogging as a technology and a medium of influence.
  • Not everyone is efficient and competent at putting their thoughts in writing – somehow they haven’t practiced writing for any other purpose other than when it was the only way out ! ( Note : this is different from not having a enormous vocabulary which is neither a necessary nor sufficient pre-requisite for writing well. Note also that this is different from not willing to comment as in point 3.)

In summary, while the absence of comments is not necessarily a bad thing, the presence is certainly good news for the blogger. (Not for everyone though)

Its kind of going to be tricky to request those readers who don’t comment to now comment to indicate whether there are reasons I have left out. 😀

sort -n +increasing_political_incorrectness foo.txt > bar.txt November 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor.
1 comment so far

Today ( or if I last, today onwards ), everything I ever write/speak/list will be sorted in the order of increasing political incorrectness.

I think its a win-win – if you are reading through a list I wrote, you know exactly when to stop. If we are talking face to face, I know exactly when to stop.

For those of you who prefer it the other way around, just let me know in advance – we can also do sort -n -r +increasing_political_incorrectness foo.txt > bar.txt .

Mini-FAQ :

1. WTF is your title about ?

Sort reference.

Are you a better writer or a better ‘type-writer’ ? November 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
10 comments

I was trying to write something today – write, not type and not fill a form which is a more structured activity, but write something as unstructured and impromptu as writing a letter. I realized how awful it had gotten over the years given that there has been little writing activity. Hardly taking notes during college and grad school, you lose that art of writing anything at all, without mistakes, misspelling, poor construction. Infact, don’t be surprised if this also takes a toll on your ability to ace exams where you have to write long answers ;  it sure did to me, or so I am given to think.  ( a good enough reason to take notes in class).

I don’t know at when in the last years I must have crossed the point where I had typed more characters than I ever wrote (I used to keep count, you know 😉 ). To be sure, its impossible to know if it ever did, but I imagine it must have. Also interesting – and I am sure this happened – is the point in life where your fastest typing speed just exceeded your best writing speed (for a given number of mistakes).

I still feel that I am a better writer with the keyboard than I ever was writing on paper. Its not just the obvious advantage of the backspace key but the ability to move entire sentences around which I often tend to do overdo. And once you move sentences around, you tend to (often justifiably) modify sentences themselves and this can often mean moving around sentences again 😀 . But then one might argue that one sentence very well thought that went out on paper is better than several iterations of a sentence where the most frequently occurring ‘letter’ is the backspace.

Its hard to measure any of this however, even assuming you come up with a measure of what good writing really is. This is because there is an inherent bias in that most of my writing on paper was done a few years ago and arguably one might have improved writing skills over time by just having hung in there and written more. Ideally then you would need snapshots from around the same point in life where you wrote quite a bit and typed in as well. Fortunately for me, the time around 1997-2000 would qualify for such a study, except having to do any automatic analysis of paper-written material is rather cumbersome and time-consuming. And the nature of content is such that there is little scope to outsource the typing work.

Sorry about that silly, ungrammatical title – the best I could come up with. Maybe if I were writing this post, I would have come up with something ….well, whatever !

Wallet, photocopy and “What I have lived for” October 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, KREC, reminisces-2000.
2 comments

For a long time my book reading algorithm has been running as follows –

1. Get book

2. Read blurb, appreciation.

3. Read contents, foreward, preface and acknowledgements

4. Read chapter 1.

5. Put the book away.

6. Months later return to a random page on the book. Read until bored/distracted which easily happens

7. Back to step 5.

Along the same lines, sitting in the KREC library sometime in Dec 2000, I found the autobiography of Bertrand Russel. I opened the book to the preface. I remember being so impressed by it that I went up to the Library photocopy center known for those notorious delays, misplacing material and never having change for any amount over Rs. 10.

Yet I took it on. I kept a photocopy of that preface in my wallet for a while. In April 2002, a bunch of friends gifted me a new wallet (lets call it wallet A) as a token of appreciation for having moderated a group discussion their club conducted. This photocopy promptly found a place in that wallet.

Just before I boarded me first flight out of India on August 8th, 2004, my father gave me a new wallet (call it wallet B) in which I kept the dollars, cents and all that I needed for my journey and after. And among the few things that went from wallet A to B was this preface copy which after 4 years in several different wallets was beginning to look soiled. As I left India, I swapped wallet A for B. When I landed in Bombay for the first time on Dec 22nd, 2005, I just swapped my wallets again. It already had everything I needed and therefore, the only thing that jumped from one wallet to another was, yeah, this piece of paper now 5 years old. And the whole thing repeated when I left for Pittsburgh 3 weeks later.

3 years of wear and tear on wallet B and last month I bought a new wallet. As I started moving contents from wallet B to wallet C, I saw this piece of paper which by now was so soiled as to be almost unreadable. I decided that this paper is better left somewhere safer than exposed to the elements, wither away.

But just what was the preface all about and why did it mean so much. Read on.

What I have lived for

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

In December 2000 when I first read this as that impressionistic, idealistic 19 year old, it was almost as if Russel was speaking to me. Although I have read it a few times in the intervening 7 years, as I read it now, I remember how I was so passionate about it, about showing it to a friend who was not as impressed, but unswayed, deciding I will have a copy nonetheless.

Today, although I have no disagreement with what the preface says, I feel more attached to that piece of paper than what it says. In other words, its an attachment and respect for my passion from another age than for the object of that passion. (Okay, I wont spent another sentence explaining this, I know you get it 🙂 )

Linked from here.

The North-South divide October 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india.
2 comments

Vishnu has an honest personal account of the North-South divide.

If the southern states were not so hospitable, tolerant and unjudgemental of this so called dominance of North Indian intruders into their society incidents like the ones erupting in North-eastern states (of Biharis being abused by ULFA) would have erupted long ago in every IT-hub down south (Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore). And further such hubs are found and are prospering in southern part of INDIA more than northern part only because people have been more accommodative down south than in the north.

…although he concludes on a more cordial note.

I am happy speaking Hindi, English, Telugu as well as Kannada and this post pains me for being so harsh on Hindi speaking people, but I couldn’t help but convey the facts I observed.

I have personally had very good relations across this ‘divide’ ….and will have no similar experiences to recollect. Also 12 years of CBSE schooling and Hindi education therein for more years than even kannada has meant that my Hindi is more fluent than Kannada. 😦 And of course, 2 years of stay in Assam never hurt !!

Ask Germans about Polish and the French about the English and these grouses seem only inevitable. And they do so because of our expectations from the country the size and diversity of India. I very well recognize that the artificial and freak emergence of such an improbabley diverse country as India has certain costs. But it has opportunities too.

I  know I am probably preachy here, but its exactly what I think.

P.S : Just a relevant observation – at every level of granularity, from family to extended family to community to state to country, when we are with people like our own, we seek to distinguish ourselves. And in the company of strangers, we seek out our own to blend with.

Assorted observations today October 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, assorted, contemplation, rant.
10 comments

Today was another sad day – I saw what appeared to be a 6/7/8 year old girl in a neck-to-toe burkha. Yeah, in California. I got into lyrical mood and went (to myself ofcourse)- “We need no indoctrination, we don’t need no clothe control…..hey ! parents leave the kids alone ! “

~~~

Public libraries in America – they are crowded. There is always someone, there are kids in the kids section, teenagers in the teen section. There are older people on the internet or the magazine section. There are moms helping kids with their storybooks and dads picking DVDs. The library employees anywhere are some of the most courteous, helpful and polite types among humankind. There are people trying to rush in just before the door closes for the day.

Makes one wonder what then is supposedly wrong with America’s education (just a sentiment, not an assessment 🙂 ) ? And what was it like before the internet ? Before Amazon and Alibris ?

~~~

Joy wants to know what our Friday nights are like. Well, I guess almost all myo nights have for years now been like her Joy’s nights. 🙂

~~~

Nobel Economics announcement today !!

N

Moving about moving September 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, reminisces-1990s, reminisces-2000.
6 comments

Excerpts from a mail I received wrote today.

There is something moving about moving, about relocating, about transferring all your material possessions from one house to another. You first sit down to sort them all out into suitcases, cartons and bags and them sit down again with these boxes in a new house to find new places for them. They won’t always find a place that suits them, something they enjoyed in their previous house. If the house were really small, they may never even find a place and hence spend years in the basement.

Each time I pick up something, whether a business card, a cash voucher or a book, it sits there in my hand and tells me its story – where I bought it or got it, when and for what end. It also brings to light the larger context – was that a struggling me or an apprehensive one, a pensive self or a smug and accomplished one (ever??). And the best part is that often times these stories are about other people in my life and stories of their own. One after another these things take me to places I have spent time a fair time preparing for tomorrow (growing up, in other words 🙂 ) – Manipal, Guwahati, Bangalore, Boston and Pittsburgh. Some of these are from several years ago – like the bill from a phone call I made home from a PCO in the Suratkal bus stand on the evening of May 29th, 2000. And then there is a badge given to me at my orientation at Carnegie Mellon from August 2005 that said – “Sharath Rao K., 1st year Masters Student”.

This whole process to me is another kind of resume – materialistic resume if you will, as opposed to a professional resume. You can pull out your professional resume created at regular intervals over the years to see all the places you have been and what you accomplished there. Similarly, each process of moving brings you face to face with all that you have accumulated in life, chronicling everything from the trivial to the momentous times. The difference of course is that each of us have such a resume, no matter how unknown and obscure we are, or how uninspiring our stories are or how insignificant an impact we have had on the wider world (something that is true of most of us).

People talk about how they lost that old pen the last time their family moved. Yes, we lose things when we move. But then we find things too, things we thought we had lost. Sometimes it is that old photo, but often its ourselves – our people and places, our mistakes and misgivings, our apprehensions and anticipation, our gambles and gratification.

I am in Santa Clara, CA. Moved into a new house and it is day one at work tomorrow. 🙂

Books recent September 29, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, economics.
3 comments

Been reading 2 books sort of concurrently these days :

1. The Millionaire next door :

Its based on a study of millionaires in America and their findings are rather different from common perceptions that we have of rich people, almost to the point that most things we know about rich people (in America at least) ain’t true. Here are some :

* Only 19 percent receive any income or wealth of any kind from a trust fund or an estate.

* Fewer than 20 percent inherited 10 percent or more of their wealth.

* More than half never received as much as $1 in inheritance.

* Ninety-one percent never received, as a gift, as much as $1 of the ownership of a family business.

* Nearly half never received any college tuition from their parents or other relatives.

And they are rich because they are hardworking and lead mostly frugal lives and when its men, their spouses are almost always more frugal than they are. A typical millionaire is self-employed, and not on Wall street.

So, yeah while some are probably filthy rich, but some are just tidy rich. You can read the first chapter for free here.

2. The origins of life – Although this might end up as yet another failed attempt to become seriously knowledgeable in biology and genetics, what I have read so far has been interesting.

Last month I read “How Doctors think”. If you think that you will starting thinking even higher of doctors than you already do, then you will be disappointed. Its a very honest account of mistakes doctors can make, and how, especially in case of specialists, the rate at which they see new cases means they are not sure of the diagnosis. And most importantly, how they are susceptible to biases – action bias (doing something is better than doing nothing), confirmation bias (once you see a symptom that matches your hypothesis, stop searching for evidence against hypothesis), availability bias and anchoring. Do your own research if you think the doctor is not sure – there is enough online material that can help you get some idea on what the problem is and alternate approaches out there. Surgery is over-rated – once you cut through, its never the same again. MRI scans don’t always help because they give so much detail that you can find something wrong in even healthy people. And finally, the quote of the book :

There is nothing in biology that is so complicated that if explained in clear and simple language cannot be understood by any lay person. Its not quantum physics.

Read this book review, dont miss the part about the Vietnamese woman and her child.

retrospectives out there September 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, people.
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The beauty of hyperlinking that takes you from page to page with seldom any restrictions has a good chance of stumbling at some beautiful prose. From a shortindiangirl I don’t know.

As a young child, you are complete with your parents. There are no others. No siblings (yet – or if they’re older, they’re already there), no children, and grandparents are still not yet quite as close as mom and dad. There are no voids in your life and the family circle is closed. Complete. Full of love and magic.

As we grow older, and more aware of the world, our lives grow more complex. And the magic erodes with layers of knowledge and weary cares. A toothache today, an exam tomorrow, an application next week, financial aid next month, tax returns next year. A grandparent’s funeral, the death of a pet, a lost friend. Our voids grow.

No more can a shower of colored sparks and a poof change our world. We “know” that the only thing that can is our own deliberate effort. No more can a petite caucasian lady with a blonde up-do and gauzy wings create a new world for us. We are the makers of our own reality.

Never more can the fairy dust encircle us again in a complete unit with our parents. We are adults with lives and loves that spread us out in vague, unfathomably complex and incomplete networks.

In a way, believing in God is like believing in Magic again. I see the appeal.

And while we are there, there is more from Priya, final year student at my Alma mater, KREC, Suratkal.

It’s just that it’s mighty frustrating to be told again and again of taking up a step that’ll ensure you a worry-free life, and later finding out that it’s not true, not entirely anyway. And I was too naive that I believed that such a band-aid solution was possible, that just a single step could ensure that the rest of your life stayed made. The truth is, it’s never over till it’s over. The reward for hard work is only more hard work, and anything else you get can only be a by-product, or a side-effect. So don’t put in hard work unless you are not afraid of seeing more of it, unless working is really what you enjoy.

Your life will be “made” the same way if you do a Commerce degree, crack the CA exam, do an articleship for a while after which you do an MBA from IIMX. It’ll also be “made” when you do a degree in psychology, turn homemaker for a good many years, try your hand at various different enterprises, and finally when your kids are grown and gone, discover your true calling lies in a teaching career, which you then start actively pursuing. It isn’t a much differently “made” life you have when you are passionate about the written and spoken word since your childhood, take up science at Pre-University due to parental pressure, deliberately mess up your math scores so as to prevent the onset of a possible Engineering career, take up Arts and a career in journalism.

My previous post echoing somewhat similar sentiments.

How many cities do you ‘know’ September 25, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
1 comment so far

There is something about getting to know cities and large towns. When I say ‘getting to know’, I am talking about knowing your way around. And ‘knowing your way around’ includes –

a) Neigborhoods – residential and commercial. Maybe you know not what street is where – especially if they are named rather than numbered. But you know what is available where, which are the places to hang out, where the bus stops, tourist attractions, libraries (in my case) and food places are.

b) Navigation – and this includes how to get from A to B, either by road or public transport or just walking (includes knowing what is walkable and short cuts if any). Also how long does it take to get from A to B. It also means you know what areas to avoid for reasons like messy traffic or just shady and unsafe. You should be able to advise on how to get to and out of the city by air/train/bus/driving and be able to advise depending on criteria like time/cost.

c) Misc. – If a friend wants to rent a house, you should be able to give some advice depending on her/his needs and budget. And no, you dont have to have done a course in real estate or something. Just spent enough time. Another friend has one day in the city and you should be to advise on what are the places to really not miss. You get my point – these are subtle things but if you are confident, you can act in advisory capacity 🙂

So now, how many cities do you ‘know’ ? Consider only cities and towns that have at least say train connection and population over 50,000. You need not have lived there, visiting often enough qualifies.

For me that would be Mangalore, Bangalore, Boston and Pittsburgh. And in a while, that list might grown to include San Jose, San Francisco and rest of the bay area.

P.S : I could probably add Guwahati to the list, but maybe not. Although Guwahati was the first city that I got to know and thats back in 1991-93. Many things, I am told, have changed so I give it a pass.

Update: I could make it harder by saying you must know the relative positions on the map. Is place C east or south-east of B. For Bangalore, I once proposed (to a friend) ‘convenient’ polar co-ordinate system (radius, angle) with Majestic being (0,0) and say Koramangala being (1, 330). My friend took 2 seconds to dismiss it as unwieldy. Maybe I just chose the wrong friend to throw this idea at.

Some things NYC September 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, image, sport.
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My visit to New York City over the weekend was rather different from my previous 3 visits ( excluding transit ) where were mostly about ‘checking out’ the various landmarks, either by myself during vacation or taking parents around. This was a single point agenda – The US open. Although I would have preferred to watch the men’s final, I managed to get the tickets for the women’s final – Henin Vs Kuznetsova. Quite an experience, especially given that it was my first time being present to watch a live sporting performance of any significance.

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Each time you visit NYC, you see new things and you hear new sounds (to sound like a foreigner who is speaking about India :p) . Like this time two short Mexican guys who just walked into the train, played some really cool latino music ( so Goan actually ) and made good bucks in between train stops, when its time to hop onto another coach. Much like previous visits, I walked around a lot – but this time looking for used book shops, lying down in the parks reading something, feeding on peaches, cherries and apples from the farmer’s market at Union square. All those green places, the so many parks in Manhattan – just lie down somewhere in Central Park and you are completely oblivious to all that chaos out there – hats off to the New Yorkers. I remember reading about some part of the newly released textile mill land in Bombay which some citizens want turned into urban spaces – I am absolutely for such an idea.

Then there are some weird things like coming out of an underground subway station to find yourself completely disoriented about the four directions. Of course, this likely happens elsewhere but identical (to an untrained eye) square blocks of Manhattan take it to the extremes. And then finding thousands of boards with notices that sign off as “By order from Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City” …I wonder if all those boards have to be repainted when the mayor changes ! Most places just mention the designation.

Like many people I know, I love visiting NYC, but don’t see myself living there. People talk of big cities/urban centers as modern, fast, lot of privacy that the countryside does not bring. I am not sure, for I think NYC has more anonymity, but less privacy. Those little spaces, many of which are really carved out of what used to be just one big house, sharing kitchens and bathrooms with several random folks. Its okay as part of the single, young, college-going chaotic bunch, but not later in life. I know its more about personal preferences and upbringing, much like some of the Mumbaites would give anything to get out of Bombay and several outsiders would only consider short visits.

Staying back in US – men and women September 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, life.
39 comments

In a conversation with a good friend of mine (Male, 26 yrs, in the US for over 2 years), we were talking about a common friend’s marriage announcement. I then asked him about his own plans of getting married. He said he would like to hold it for a while and the reason he gave went along these lines.

He said that he would like to return to India within the next 5 years and getting married will hamper those plans. Apparently, in his experience Indian women are more likely than men to want to stay back in the US. Even when entire families have stayed back, its because the wives, irrespective of being employed here or otherwise, have insisted on this. Although my friend has no data to back this claim, he has tens of examples to show and few, if any, counter-examples.

As I listened he went to say that if one were to compare the marginal improvement in quality of life (India vs. US) for men and women, women get a better deal. Of course, whether there is an overall improvement in quality of life is debatable. But lets say we have a pool of 2000 Indians – 1000 men and 1000 women – who already claim that they see a better future for themselves in the US compared to India, and then see how much that improvement is, women have more to show. In particular, the independence, self-expression and freedom from harassment, from colleagues at workplace and from in-laws and extended family at home, are factors that dominate the reasons women have to insist on ‘settling’ down in the US.

Now I am a feminist, not the sloganeering/activist/street-fighting type, but of a passive, private variety – so I would love to see counterexamples. Yet, as I mentally sorted through people I knew, I found that in each case the above hypothesis held. Now this still does not mean the theory itself holds. But what has your experience been ? What about people you know ?

Update : A follow-up post based on your comments is here.

Leaving Pittsburgh – last day on Campus edition August 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, contemplation, education, image, landmark-post, reminisces-2000.
9 comments

Note : Post was written on Aug 27th, 2007, posted only today.

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Today is the first day of classes for several hundred students at Carnegie Mellon. For the last few days, I have seen them – the undergrads – walking down corridors, sometimes asking for directions, in cafes discussing courses, in bookstores buying text books ; I see on the lawn having barbecue parties amid music, games and getting-to know-each-other ice-breakers. And then yeah there are the graduate students too, though they appear to have no time for ice-breaker parties (yet), engaged more in search of funding, house-hunting and research advisors.

The irony then is that to me its the last day on campus. Done with my courses, research and pretty much everything expected of me, I walk around campus reminding myself that its going to be the last time for many months/years perhaps before I come back for a visit. Its going to be weird tomorrow when I walk up to meet the administrative assistant to surrender my college ID card, in the process losing pretty much all building permissions and other privileges that come with being a CMU student. I wonder why they need to do that – taking away something that is arguably the most valuable souvenir from our college days, something one had to be carried everywhere, everyday. Besides, my login account including email-ID and campus wireless network permissions die on Aug 31st, 2007. In all likelihood therefore this will be my last post from an IP address that goes 127.237.xxx.xx, the last from the Carnegie Mellon University network.

I have been here at CMU for barely 27 months. When I came here I was planning to be here for at least 5-6-7 years to get my Ph.D. Somewhere along the way I decided the drop plans of a Ph.D – its queer to say the least because when I started applying to US Graduate Schools, admission into the CMU Computer Science PhD program was something I would have given everything for. And now when there was nearly just that opportunity, I have decided to give it a pass and move on, albeit with the plans of a PhD not completely ruled out. Its amazing how things change that much in this little time.

Especially when the task of making it to the CMU program with full scholarship seemed totally unsurmountable. So much so that after one year of trying when funding finally came through, I wrote to a friend where I mention :

Why is this mail looking like such a hyperbole – replete with exaggeration of a past desperation and present fulfillment. If it indeed seems so, it is unfortunate. To an insider person like me, over 2 years of whose life have been spent in singular and mindless pursuit of this cause, whose several waking moments were occupied by an inadequacy and financial insecurity that this situation created, whom it taught, in a foreign land, some of the lasting lessons in handling ambiguity, pressure and humility, whose emails, letters, chats and conversations were surfeit with thoughts of these, some of whose relationships were built on or broken by this occupation and to whom it culminated in the greatest moment of sheer satisfaction involving 1 man, spanning 2 countries, over 3 years, across 4 cities and involving several direct and indirect contributors – it is no overstatement, it is just a fact of life.

Today though I feel at peace. Lot of good things have been happened in the past couple of months – graduated, got exactly the job I wanted, helped my parents to a very successful, worthwhile trip to the US, 3 conference publications went through and its been generally more peaceful since it was not really that hectic at work.

Of course, if I were doing my masters program all over again, I would do several things differently – read more research papers, spend more time on homeworks and submit them on time :-), pay more attention in some of the courses and develop a stronger social circle of geeks (and savants ?? and polymaths ?? :D) etc.

Overall, I am happy about the way things have turned out with my program, even about my decision to not immediately continue into a PhD program. I did not want to indifferently drift into the another 3-5 years commitment, nor did I want to be on cruise control and hurry myself into it. I now have a conscious discontinuity that will allow me to experience life as something other than a student (first since June 1985 I guess 😀 ), in a different place over 3000 miles away (albeit in the same country), working on similar but not quite similar problems, with a wholly different set of individuals, in a different (corporate) setup, with a substantially higher remuneration. In short, I am bringing about a complete overhaul in my ‘condition of life’.

Yet, there is sadness. I learnt a lot just being on campus at Carnegie Mellon and brushed shoulders with some great guys. 2 years there and I have come out a really different person.

Comparing this to other times of leaving school or college is called for. Mysteriously, leaving KREC meant pretty much nothing. As for Boston University, I mourned leaving Boston more than leaving BU . Leaving IISc was sad but anticipation of the unknown world was a compensation. Leaving Little Rock in 1999 (high school) and CMU will rank among those sad partings, but for entirely different reasons. Leaving Little Rock was about missing all those great times I had with that relatively large friends’ circle and the school, with its walls, grounds and buses, which was my home of 10 years. Leaving CMU is something which I may take a while to even describe to myself, a sadness that is intensely personal, one that has little to do with people out there.

On balance though, I now know its possible to be immensely happy and equally sad at the same time in a way that does not add up to zero (indifference). This is that one moment.

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Counterfactualism August 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, science.
2 comments

In counterfactual history, people debate over questions such as “What would have happened if …”, say the Atom Bomb was not dropped, India was not partitioned and the like. Now, its easy to say -“That is merely an an academic exercise (waste of time)”.

Is it ?

From an interview with one of my favorite academic/writer Steve Pinker :

DS: In your chapter, Cleaving The Air, you write of how people often mistake chronology for causality. As example, you cite two potential assassins who try to kill a man, and use this as an example of the ‘counterfactual theory.’ Please elucidate.

SP: Actually, the counterfactual theory arose to solve the problem that chronology is not causality. I take some herbs and my cold sore goes away. Does that prove that the herbs cured the cold sore? No, to show that you’d have to show that if the person failed to eat the herbs (the counterfactual scenario), the cold sores would have remained. The dual-assassin thought-experiment, for its part, was intended to make life difficult for the counterfactual theory. Specifically: two assassins conspire to take out a dictator at a public rally, with the first one to get a clear shot firing whereupon the other melts into the crowd. They end up killing him with simultaneously fired bullets. But if Assassin A hadn’t fired, the dictator would still be dead, and ditto for Assassin B. Hence, according to the counterfactual theory, neither one killed him! But that can’t be right. So the counterfactual theory has problems, too.

DS: In a sense, though, such an exercise seems akin to the Presidential parsings you mention. Also, it reminds me of one of Zeno’s Paradoxes- the one where one can never move because one would have to get halfway to a place, then a quarter of a way, then an eighth, and so on. Is counterfactualism merely mental masturbation?

SP: You haven’t watched enough Law and Order – courtroom examples pop up all the time. Can a widow of a smoking asbestos miner sue the tobacco company (who will say the asbestos killed him) or the asbestos company (who will say the smoking killed him)?

That last retort is interesting. See my previous post : Do Law.

An ex-teacher’s farewell note August 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, education, KREC.
8 comments

Staying on the NITK (KREC) topic, for several months now I have been hearing of “all kinds of politics going on at KREC Suratkal” and how the “college was going to dogs”. I had no real access to details but just heard isolated messages about some of the characters involved.

 

Just a while ago, I happened to visit this community on Orkut honoring Dr. P. Subanna Bhat, among the most admired, respected and loved faculty members at NITK, who after 24 years of service resigned from college, rather crest-fallen due to political machinations (partly targeting him) that appear to have driven the college from bad to worse. (Note: this has no effect on job placements or the overall ranking). One of the community members has put up his farewell letter online which I am reposting here.

A personal note by Dr. P. Subbanna Bhat, Professor, Dept of E&C Engg, on leaving NITK)

Dear friends,

Today (May 01, 2007), I have submitted my VRS papers to the Director, NITK with a request to be relieved from the service of NITK three months from now, on Aug 01, 2007.

In fact, for quite some time I was thinking of quitting NITK for good. It is a hard
decision, as I have lived 31 years of my life in this campus. It is in this Institute that I studied and it is here that I have spent more than two decades of my professional life (1+23 years). I have worked at all levels of faculty position (Asst. Lecturer, Lecturer, Asst. Professor, Professor, HOD, Senator etc), and I believe that God would be pleased with my devotion to duty and sincerity of purpose. I feel that I have made my contribution – along with others – to the quality of education in the Institute. I am leaving the Dept of E&C with a name and stature higher than what it was two decades ago. I have decided to terminate this association now, as I feel that one should live only as long as necessary and that my time is over. Though there are things to be improved on every front – that is always the case, in any Dept or Institute – now I should leave it to others to carry the torch.

This Institute has been some kind of a Mother to me. I came here as a boy of 16 from my village (Aug 04, 1969) ; and grew up to be some kind of a professional, and spent 24 years as a faculty member. During this period I served her like a son – with all my heart – no matter who sat on the Chair. The ride was by no means smooth – primarily because I was rather naïve at dealing with the ‘authorities’ – and at least three times during this interval I was emotionally shattered 1990, 1998 and 2005). The first two instances were related to my professional aspirations, and he last of them was due to the happenings in the Institute – following the Govt. order sacking irectors of several NITs (March 23,2005) – over which nobody seemed to have had any control.

I confess that I am naïve even now, and am unable to cope with many developments. I visualize two (extreme) models of professionals : one that works for the Institute; and the other works for oneself – but often projects it as working for the ‘boss’. Each of us is a mix of both, in varying degrees. [Personally, I have a difficulty in projecting the first component – which is sacred activity – as the second !]. For a number of years, I remained rooted in the belief that recognition and reward would follow the first model. The consequence of this naiveté was a devastating emotional experience, which I could barely handle (Jan 1990). I interpreted it as a consequence of my ignorance of the etiquettes of dealing (supplication, genuflection etc.) with the ‘higher authorities’ ! Though the experience was intense, it did not change my character; and as a consequence, I had to undergo a second lesson – eight years later (Oct 1998) – planned and executed with great skill and aplomb! It caused me considerable distress; even so, I was able to retain my personal dignity and poise. However, it made me very sensitive to the ‘messages’ emanating from the Chair! The last of my major ordeals started about two years ago – the intensity of which was in direct proportion to my attachment to the Institute. My current decision to quit NITK, is partly an attempt to bring it to a close.

As an alumnus of this Institute, I wish that my Mother’s face shines brighter and becomes visible across the Globe. The NITK vision is to become a ‘world-class Institution’. Over the years, we have been hearing it (from the podium) – that NITK has the potential to achieve just that – which may be true – but I feel sad that I may not live long enough to see it happening. I feel that the achievement of NITK – or that of any other NIT in the country – during the first 46 years of their existence is far less that what other Institutes of repute – Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc.- have achieved in comparable time frame s. When I seek the reasons for this impasse, I find two of them quite prominent:

The identity of an Institute is seen in the set of norms – declared, understood and observed – that serves as the Frame of reference for all those who work for the Institution. These norms may (or may not) be enshrined in the Vision & Mission statements – if they are, it is certainly helpful – but what is more important is that it should be enshrined in the traditions adhered and upheld by the Institute over a period.

Traditions are more forceful than the engraved (Vision & Mission) statements in the Book; for live traditions are intuitively understood and internalized by the people in the system. Healthy tradition of clearly defined norms applied uniformly without discrimination is the hard ground upon which Institutions are built; it is only on such ground that individuals feel comfortable that their contributions will be evaluated on merit, and they can hope for recognition and advancement on the basis of their contributions. It is the tradition of norms and values that provides a Frame of Reference upon which the delicate creeper of initiative leans and spirals upwards to finally bears fruits of achievement.

The soul of an Institute is its faculty – and its worth can be measured by the qualification, competence and commitment of its faculty members. The first of these parameters – the qualification – is the easiest to see. The second is more illusive – for judgment based on interviews and recommendations can be erroneous. The last parameter – commitment – may be person-specific to some extent, but to a large extent depends on the environment we create within the Institute. From a broader perspective, commitment of faculty is the most important parameter for an Institute, as a strong commitment can compensate for many other lacunae at various levels. For an Institution to grow and develop, it should create an environment where its own human resource feels comfortable, develops a sense of belonging, and feels motivated to take initiative to improve oneself and the Institute on a continuous basis. Such a policy has to have several components – decentralization (of responsibility as well as authority), a meaningful recognition-reward system etc. – but it can flourish only under a settled environment where norms – declared and understood – are applied uniformly without double standards.

If NITK has to evolve upwards into a ‘world class’ Institute, it has to have a paradigm (Frame of Reference), worthy of such an Institute. Qualitatively, KREC has achieved something noteworthy under its present model; but to achieve something more, it requires a paradigm – which can enthuse and motivate the faculty at a deeper level. I am deeply disenchanted with the present model; I do not wish to continue ploughing the same furrow as earlier, and keep reaping the same harvest as earlier ! I am sure of my ground on this; I have gone through the fire three times. Hence the decision to part.

The Institute is propelled by its own momentum. The joy or distress – even the presence r absence – of an individual like me, may not make much difference to the Institute; but it certainly makes a difference to me. I have spent 24 years of my life holding the Institute as the focus of my activities; now I wish to spend the remaining years on something more meaningful to my life. I am leaving the Institute with a strange mix of feelings – a quiet satisfaction and a stirring frustration – satisfaction on making the best effort at my station, and frustration because my achievement is neither significant nor concrete.

I wish to thank all my friends who made my life easier in the campus. Especially, those who shared my feelings at times of distress; those who lent clarity to my vision and support to my actions; and those who joined me in my prayers and worship.

#Note : The defining moment for the current decision came on March 17, 2007, when the Senate resolved to close’ the ‘bonafide certificate’ issue – without really resolving the basic questions that rise out of it. More than 20 months ago – on June 28, 2005, I had tabled a copy of a ‘bonafide certificate’ issued (to a foreign student, for the purpose of Visa extension) under the name and seal of director, NITK – requesting the Senate to ascertain whether the document was genuine or not. Under normal circumstances it would have taken less than 20 minutes to settle the issue. In this case however, the procession went on for 20 months : Enquiry by a Senate Committee, referral (deflection ) to the BOG (Oct 07, 2006), withdrawal (of the agenda) from the BOG (March 25,2006), re-entry of the agenda to the Senate (Nov 18, 2006), and finally the resolution ‘to close the matter’ (March 17, 2007) – without addressing the original question as to whether the document is genuine or not !

The 20–month long procession was useful: it enabled me to get a full and clear view of the NITK oaradigm – the emperor was on a high chariot, with very few clothes on – from all angles, at all levels! What is the message conveyed, when two top bodies of the Institute – the Board and the Senate – refuse to term a genuine document as ‘genuine’; and a violation as ‘violation’ ? A deliberate and calculated ‘violation’ – prompted by motives that could not be defended in public – further compounded by evasion and defiance (of the Senate (Enquiry) Committee) – was condoned without a word of disapproval; whereas my attempt at exposing such shenanigans was termed as ‘impropriety’ (BOG) ! [Great administrative skill was at play here: The health of the Administration is primarily the responsibility of the BOG – not of the Senate or the faculty. Even so, for all my efforts to expose the rot, the ‘boot’ was deftly placed on my back! That contain s a ‘message’ – my third lesson of the series!!]

If some friends are still hoping to build a ‘world -class’ Institution around this Model, I wish them well – but do not share their hope !

I was in the Electrical Department and as such was not Dr. Bhat’s student baring my participation in a 3-day course on Digital Signal Processing that he conducted at college. Yet, I feel for Dr. Bhat – in my 4 years in college and after, I am yet to hear a student make uncharitable statements about him (except that he was a bit too soft-spoken and his Vajpayee-sque pause in the middle of sentences (to teasingly stimulate thought perhaps) put some uninterested students to sleep during class hours)

 

 

 

Friday feedback August 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, reminisces-2000.
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There is nothing like coming across an old set of papers ( or these days even email will do).

A bunch of little pieces of paper (chits, if you will ) takes me back to a Friday in Nov 2004. I was a teaching assistant (TA) at the Boston University. All TAs were required to take a course that dealt with aspects of TAing like grading, relationship with students, public speaking, office hours and the like. During the last day of this course, the course instructor ( Dr. Hamid Nawab of the DSP textbook fame ) asked each of to speak to the rest of the class ( of about 30 ) on our experience as TAs. And while we did it, he preferred if some in the rest of the class could provide a feedback on the person’s talk.

The feedback was to preferably contain criticisms and compliments (if compelling), had to be anonymous and handed over to the speaker. So as you must have guessed, as I was rummaging through some old papers, I came across the feedback I received. Here I record each of those messages I received.

– Speaking a little bit too fast

– Nice job

– Clear points. Good

– Good job

– More eye contact, Very good job though.

– Changed theme over course of the speech. A little fast but very clear

And the best for the last :

– Good eye contact, projected voice very well for the large size of this room. (Must) dress appropriately !

Yeah, waking up late to attend the only class that cold Friday morning in Boston, sleepy, shaggy, unkempt hair, a nearly ragged piece of fall winter wear.

And the feedback that woke me up.

Whats the P-SOP ? August 5, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, education.
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I wonder what use college essays/Statements of Purpose (SOP) are. In other words, what is the purpose of the statement of purpose (P-SOP) ? Especially given that you can always hire someone to do that for you. And people do. For something like $80.00 per essay in this particular case from Jay Matthews. (Jay Matthews is from the Washington Post and in columns titled “Class Struggles” writes used to write on American Education, mostly regarding high school and after.)

Why do educators still persist with these essays ? If an essay is well-written, what really does it say about the applicant ? That she/he has a great story to tell ? Stories often not verifiable ? That the applicant has excellent command over the English language ? Or knows someone who does ? As with several other measures, these essays have a good purpose – they are pretty much the only part of the application where the applicant does not merely fill blanks with factual details and so it gives her/him some control, perhaps helping them stand out. But as with several other policies, we have to judge them by their results rather than the intention behind them.

Over the last 10 years, I have worked with over 40 essays – where ‘working with’ could mean helped draft/edited/reviewed and in some cases written in full. This is mostly helping friends, or friends of friends or in a scant few cases, juniors from college I have never known. They have ranged from applications for American grad schools to Indian B-schools to American med schools. In all but perhaps 4 cases, there was an existing draft which is somewhat changed – sentences reconstructed, cases of poor grammar edited, inappropriate/out of place words (out of the GRE wordlists) replaced by simple ones. I have now gotten (perhaps long gotten) to a point where I would puke at another request for working on the SOP. But each time I tell myself that this is the last SOP I am working with, I am proved wrong.

I don’t think this is a principled stand I am taking up – I am just numbed looking at a SOP and nothing seems new enough or innovative. Now imagine admission officers who read thousands of SOPs every year. Most SOPs are rehashes of previous SOPs, or some sample college essay ripped from the web. Most of these sample SOPs that I have read out of mere curiosity seem too good to be true, giving admission officers exactly what they expect to see, or rather what we think they expect to see. I have known people who have spent over 2 weeks drafting their essays – some kind of an iterative software design where you want to incorporate every little change that every friend-reviewer wants.

What discriminatory power then does a SOP exhibit ? I hope someone (or more than one 🙂 ) who has (have) been on admission committees in US graduate school or IIMs or just about anyone knowledgeable reads this post and has comments to offer.

While I wrote this post, I was reminded of my own graduate application days in 2003. I wrote my SOP in 2 sittings, got it reviewed by 2 people ( one of who said no changes were required). It was okay and it turned out the way it did – part mushy, part geeky – because a few sentences are from a letter to a friend. For 3 years now it has been a part of a zipped archive ( along with a few other SOPs and other material) that is the firs thing I send to friends who ask for help with application process (I then solicit specific questions, if they don’t find what they want in the archive). The SOP has gone to so many that its almost pretty much in the public domain. But never mind I thought, I will put it up myself.

Related Link : Previous post on the topic.

Knowing evolution August 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, science.
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How well do you know something ?

Lets measure ‘grasp of a topic’ by how many minutes you can talk on the topic without prior research, prior notice and slides. The audience of course needs to be defined and this case let it consist of a handful of experts and utter (but open-minded) novices. Your talk should not leave the experts unconvinced of your grasp on the subject and not be completely incredulous to the novices either. ( I will not further complicate things by trying to define ‘serious’ and ‘incredulous’ 🙂 ).

Anyway, from this rather loose definition of ‘grasp’, my grasp of the topic of “Evolution by natural selection” would be perhaps 3 minutes.

While I understand the mechanism of evolution to the first approximation, I have been fed up of my inability it to explain (mostly to myself) in a more substantial way. Yes, its a rather simple and appealing idea for those who are open to ideas such as these but I am really talking about knowing specific examples of evidence, having some domain knowledge (biology), knowledge of the history of the field, counter-examples (if any) and open problems and of course taking questions like – “When biologists say that humans and chimps have evolved from a common ancestor and this happened due to different adaptations in response to the environment (or lack thereof), then why were humans and chimpanzees found in the same geographical area ?” Or more stupidly, “Why are there chimpanzees at all – they should all have become human beings ?”, a question that lingers from my 6th standard class.

Of course, this is no doubting the theory, but merely acting agnostic in order that I can ask questions and seek answers. And thus I went to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and borrowed a book – Ernst Mayr’s “What evolution is”. Now, Ernst Mayr is apparently one of the greatest biologists ever and I had not even heard of him – another necessary but insufficient criterion to knowing a field would be to know the leading lights of it. 😉

Anyway, I have completed 3 chapters, but it might take more reading and more focussed at that, to push my grip to something like 30 minutes (by the above definition). I must admit that developing a feel for biology is hard and on second thoughts, I regret not having borrowed the book ‘Evolution for Dummies’ that was sitting alongside Mayr’s book. ( Remember that common grouse among high school students of 90s ( and most certainly even today ) is that biology is rather hard on facts and low on abstract, mathematical reasoning, as compared to er…physics or math ! )

Let us see how far I get but so far from my reading of Mayr’s book I have discerned that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming (as say, quantum mechanics) that it is suggested that we stop calling it a ‘theory’.

Advice to a 15 something year old July 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, reminisces-1990s.
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….and just about everyone else.

Somewhere sometime about 10 or so years ago I gave myself a some kind of a suggestion ! As you see I remember nothing else about the suggestion ( “metadata” – data about data ) other than the content of it (which of course arguably matters most )

The suggestion belongs to the class of those that are extremely simple but rather hard to follow. It went along similar lines –

“Give yourself one year and one topic. And for the rest of the year, read on that topic, watch documentaries on that, visit museums if and when applicable, try to meet relevant people who know stuff, listen to people talk about it, talk about it, encourage other people to take it up. And maybe you will become an expert on it. Or maybe you won’t. But do it as long as it does not disrupt your day job/day school and other commitments.”

When I say spend a year reading about it, its not like you give everything else up. And then it need not be something academic alone, it maybe something more hands on – carpentry, running, restaurants in Bangalore are good examples – essentially something that is vast and exciting enough to hold you for an year. ( Don’t ask me how do I know its interesting enough to take it up unless I take it up ? 🙂 )

Now imagine I had blogged about it 10 years ago and an idealistic 15 year old somewhere picked it up and religiously followed it. Imagine what kind of polymath she/he would be by the time she/he was 25 ? or 30 ? What would her/his breadth and depth of knowledge/skills/experiences be ?

I dig into my quote collection to find this quote attributed to Mark Twain –

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Of course, I will not read too much into the above quote – there is an inherent bias in the way we judge results of events that happened versus results of alternate scenarios. But that will not stop me from giving this advice to every 15 year old.

P.S : Then again, nothing sacred about 15, its never too late (only some things harder) to consider the suggestion. In fact, the closest I have come to following my own advice has been the past year. Surely, no points for guessing the topic though. 🙂

Computer Science – reflections July 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, education, littlerockers, reminisces-1990s.
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2 sentences that baffled me today :

1. Web search engines have become fixtures in our society, but few people realize that they are actually publicly accessible supercomputing systems, where a single query can unleash the power of several hundred processors operating on a data set of over 200 terabytes.

Thats coming from Randy Bryant, Dean, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

2. The year 2004 was the first year that human beings produced more transistors than grains of rice (~10 quintillion).

From Ed Lazowska, University of Washington and Chair, Computing Community Consortium

Reading more such facts and looking through the abstracts of the talks here you get feel for something that computer science is about and where it is going. And there is nothing like having an idea about the history of the field as well where it is going and where the medium term challenges lay (something to which I cannot make a claim). And then of course there is a need to make a distinction between Computer Science and Software Engineering (I am not talking about new programming languages).

 

 

 

 

Consider our Chemistry class in Class XI back in Little Rock, Brahmavar. We were taught Dalton’s model of the atom and then the next class we would told something was wrong with it and then Rutherford came along whom Bohr proved wrong and then great Max Planc along with other quantum physicists (which included Bohr himself) proved it all wrong or incomplete. It was amusing to see that much of the quantum theory developed even before the neutron was discovered (in 1934). I remember thinking what was point of learning about everything that was already proven wrong and incorrect. That science is a thought process rather than a mere set of facts or theories was something that missed me.

I am interested in education and make no secret of it. No, not just in the process of educating myself, but in looking back critically at my own education from primary school in early 90s. As a Computer Science student in high school and secondary school, our idea of the field of the Computer Science was rather limited – the science was often confused with programing and technology. I don’t know if things are too different today.

In fact I don’t consider myself much of a CS person, nor infact an EE person. Hence for those who still don’t know what I am talking about, this entry will be useful. (Try finding the word “C++”/”Java” on that page 🙂 )

Breaks – then and now July 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, ideas.
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As kids, young lads, maybe even as teenagers, the thing about vacations ( or perhaps shorter breaks ) was that hangover when you get back home – back to the same routine, same streets, buses and the same handful of faces in the neighborhood. But somewhere that has changed and the change reminds me that I am not one of those younger lads anymore.

Today, staying away from home for more than a few days – whether staying at hotels or friends’ places and however nice they may be – gets to you. And you long to come back home, where you can just be. No matter how small/hot/untidy your place is, its still yours.

For those who believe that freedom is just an idea or a figment of George Bush’s imagination, go away, stay in airports and bus-stations or at your relatives’ place, or other places, public and private where prior to every act committed questions of appropriateness, neatness and mannerisms abound. And then ask yourself what is it that you have lost.

You kinda get an idea about where I am now and how I feel about it. 🙂

Weird things few July 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, contemplation, science.
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In America, this can happen only in a University.

For the last four years, Elizabeth Okazaki has attended graduate physics seminars, used the offices reserved for doctoral and post-doctoral physics students and — for all intents and purposes made the Varian Physics Lab her home.

 

The only problem is that Okazaki appears to have no affiliation with Stanford and, according to physics professors and students, no real reason to be there.

One might view this as negligence/incompetence or apathy and in fact the rest of the article is quite critical of the authorities for their behavior. But to me the whole episode in some sense an evidence of just how open the general atmosphere is at (some) universities.

I remember being in a class here at Carnegie Mellon and suddenly a person who I had never seen before walked into the class, told the professor that he liked the topic and if he could sit in for a while. Professor had no qualms letting him be. All that really happened was that he was walking down the corridor and happened to see the title of the powerpoint slide in one of the classrooms and decided – “Hey, this is interesting, lets check this out !”.

However, I am aware that the university model is not portable for example to corporate/government settings and they often have reasons to do what they do. Hence, I won’t rant against organizations that are secretive about their work.

Link via Scott.

~~~

A random cute couple. (no, not an image)

~~~

I saw this blog a while ago, managed to retrieve it via Google thus :

About a couple of months back, I remember reading that he was probably joining MIT, he had a conversation with someone during a flight about existence of god n such, he was a quantum phyicist from some Canadian university. I chose Waterloo because it has one of the best theoretical Computer science departments out there. Because I did not know this name, I used the keyword combination “quantum waterloo mit god” and bingo ! – his blog was the first link. I don’t know if its me the super-searcher or its about Google. 😀

Anyway, I don’t know Scott Aaronson, but reading this post I feel so good for him. Good luck Scott.

Looking ahead June 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india.
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..with hope that is.

Dharavi is often called the world’s largest slum, though this sobriquet is in all probability an exaggeration. The National Geographic magazine’s recent cover story on Dharavi says that a barrio in Mexico City has four times more people while a slum in Karachi, too, is now bigger than Dharavi. But Dharavi is now in the news because of a more recent sobriquet—Asia’s largest urban renewal project. This project seeks to tear down the old slum and replace it with residential towers, industrial parks, golf courses, a sports complex and hotels. Grime is to give way to glitter. The statistics are truly mind-boggling: 300,000 people, 500 acres, 40 million sq. ft of space to be sold commercially, Rs9,000 crore, seven years— and one man championing it all since 1996.

I wish Mr. Mehta well and nothing sarcastic about it. And no cynicism either. I ( and am sure millions of others ) would love to see this project no just because of what it will do people at Dharavi but really the spill-over effect of its success will reach millions others elsewhere. I remember reading an article a while ago about how at a press conference announcing the project, the government was surprised to see the presence of the international media. Of course, foreign and private Indian companies are (rightly) interested given the money involved.

I am sure though that in the months to come there will be controversy, allegations of corruption and other hurdles – after all, its hard to keep several parties happy and given the not-so-impressive history of such attempts, it helps to be vigilant. In the end though, I hope it turns out well.

Reviving the Little Rock alumni blog June 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, littlerockers.
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This post might be too specific to the Little Rock folks reading this.

As you guys know, there is some such thing called a Little Rock Alumni blog that Ashith, Aswin and I started back in may 2005. This was meant to serve the purpose of disseminating information about LittleRockers – mostly alumni – and often about news from our Brahmavar campus (well, that is the only campus really !!).

Over the months the number of postings have varied – it first hit a low sometime during the end of 2005. In February, there was a sudden revival with this post which was followed by significant activity until Dec 2006 (reunion time) before it went downhill again. Since Jan 2007, there has not been a single post. Mostly and unfortunately, the pattern of postings has reflected my own schedule over the months. Sustaining it ( and my own personal blog – this one !!) through the tough grad school schedule has been hard and enter final semester, with all sorts of other commitments, I never found time to update (not to mention a discouraging cynicism that set in ).

Although it was always a part of the plan to recruit alumni from different batches, we were discouraged by the damped response our initial efforts in this direction yielded. Perhaps, it is our own inability to make time to market the blog sufficiently well and to attract the right kind of people ( defined later ). Although passive organization building (where people just have to show up/sign up rather than actually invest more time) in terms of alumni networks and organic growth through Orkut have been more successful, maintaining that blog has been much harder.

These results are not surprising – aggregating 100s of people and giving them a platform like Orkut, having the message spread through word-of-mouth and get the community growing is much easier. But having even a handful of people across batches, generations, geographical locations, working with people who have other full-time jobs/student duties, who have requisite connections to harvest news, who have at least average writing abilities, regular internet access and mostly importantly, a sustainable ( make that Times New Roman, Red, Bold, Underlined, Font Size 48) passion for alumni networking and Little Rock is much harder. Here failures are more public and more glaring ( blog not updated for 6 months for example) than with a community of over 1500 members whose purpose is merely really to provide access points to individual members.

Aswin finally wrote in seeking yet another revival – maybe the last time we tried, the time was not yet ripe. The hope is that in the past 2 years internet access in India will have improved and with a reunion behind us, there is more awareness and enthusiasm about this. I am reproducing Aswin’s call for new contributors :

The littlerock alumni blog http://thelittlerocker.blogspot.com/ has been pretty quiet lately as the editors (sharath,me,ashith) have been tied up for a while with other things.

We are looking for juniors preferably from batch ’99, ’00, ’01 .. ’07 with enthu (and hopefully decent writing skills! 🙂 ) to join and contribute to the blog so we keep it happening and lively. It’s a great way to keep alumni in touch with school and vice-versa

Any volunteers please reply to this thread or scrap me/sharath asap .. thanks !

Although this may not be the best occasion to mention so, its hard to fool readers ( and not at least myself) into believing that I am not skeptical about this working out. BUT I am giving it one more shot, one more whole-hearted shot at reviving the blog. So with you, Aswin !

Lets see where we get from here.

On adoption May 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation.
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Long overdue post I have been sitting on, but never quite found <your favorite excuse> to write about.

Adoption is an interesting phenomenon – how it changes general family and society dynamics in addition to, of course, affecting the life of the individual concerned – is something I was thinking about as I read this article from Steve Levitt.

Almost seven years have passed since I shared breakfast with that New Jersey couple, yet I think about them often, and when I do, my eyes always fill with tears. I think about the little girl, now ten, living in a Chinese orphanage never knowing the life she missed. Should a three-year-old be punished for being attached to her caretakers in the orphanage? What if the New Jersey couple had just held out a little longer? Mostly, though, I think about how the second child learned those words in the cab, and how different her life is now because that first child put up such a fight.

For all the arguments about shaping our destinie and with due respect and credit to all those made it inspite of great odds, the great birth lottery is something that just cannot be wished away. It may not entirely be like algorithms that converge to different results depending on the initial conditions, but where you start with, the country/region/family we are born in sets up so much for the rest of our lives. A simple decision such as the school your parents thought you should go, the neighbourhood you choose to live in etc. can have a large bearing on one’s life.

Ofcourse, I don’t even hold the other extreme position – that in the ‘zero-sum game’ of life, people who made  it must take responsibility for those that did not. Such a position gave us the horrors of income scarcity poverty redistribution of Mao and Stalin. Let us not forget that humanity for more than 99% of its history has lived in extreme poverty. In fact I am reminded of Milton Friedman’s statements that the race of life should be ‘designed’ such that we all start at the same line, not finish at the same line. And of all such distortionary effects, adoption is probably one of those big ones.

Here is another such story that Levitt links to.

The comments section to Levitt’s post carries several responses from parents of adoptive children/children with special needs etc. I am quite amazed – for a blog that has a limited audience from a likely narrow and niche socio-economic strata, there were quite a few comments. Maybe then Americans are more likely to adopt babies than several other societies. Partly of course because they can afford to, then because its easier to do so in heterogeneous societies and also perhaps because a large number of them are aware of the lottery that birth is and wish to share it with those that got a raw deal from the lottery of birth.

Now reading – Secret thoughts of an adoptive mother.

The “First Thought Right” way, modeling life. May 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, weird.
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Thought will cross-post from here.

When people talk of science taking on religion and vice versa, they are talking of two ways of approaching life’s problems. They are 2 different ways, so different that they often give completely contradictory descriptions and prescriptions. One of them is always verifiable as either right or wrong. The other cannot be verified as certainly wrong, but often can be verified as deviating from practical experience.

Let me now invent a 3rd way of thinking which says – “The answer to any question is the first hypothesis you think of”. This does not rely on any book – holy or unholy. It gives all the power to the man himself – the first ever possibility you think of is correct. Period.

I call this third way as FTR (First thought Rightism). You will dismiss me as a quack, get me driven out of my house and maybe have me killed. However, I ( or rather my handful of FTR ‘disciples’) then manage ( by preaching/war/deceitful PR campaigns etc. ) over a few 100 years to attract 10 million people to agree to this FTRism by claiming that afterall it goes give ‘answers’ to questions like : Who am I? What happens after death? What’s the purpose of it all? etc.

Infact, the way FTRism works it gives an answer to any question you ask ! When you point out that it does not explain electromagnetism FTR followers tell you that its not fair to compare science/religion/FTRism. They are 3 different ways of looking at life and that each have a role to play and are not at loggerheads.

Will you buy this ? Will you buy this even if you are told that on a yet undiscovered densely populated island in the Southern Pacific, there are 200 million FTRs ? Will you buy this if the number of FTRs increased to 1 billion in the next century ?

On a related note, somebody here is asking the question I have always wanted to.

Look aheads April 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
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When I wrote about the note to grandparents post, I had this extract in mind. I read this over 2 years ago when I borrowed the book ( doesn’t ever mean I read even 10% of it) from the Mugar Library, Boston University. This is an extract from Vladimir Nabukov’s ( of the Lolita fame) auto-bio.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged — the same house, the same people — and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.

I am no chronophobiac – I think once in a while about times before I was around or even that after I am gone with much weird curiosity and certainly without much fear or discomfort. It happened again when I read this post that asks : “Which culture-things from our era do you suspect will have a long, long life? Will still be in circulation in, say, 2300?”

Well, quite obviously a fruitless exercise, none of us are going to be around to verify or feel bad having gone wrong or feel good at having got something right. But still it makes you think along dimensions you generally don’t. Why 300 years, even when I wrote something into the yahoo time capsule , I thought things I never before ( or since ) quite spent time thinking.

Link from MR.

~~~

Random things today March 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor, india, movies, politics.
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Consider this account of this author’s meeting with Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv seemed to like that idea too, and said he tried to follow a maxim of Indira Gandhi’s that every policy should be seen in terms of how it affected the common man. I wryly said the common man often spent away his money on alcohol, to which he said at once it might be better to think of the common woman instead. 

Without taking ideological positions on the international women’s day, don’t you think the Congress’ slogan of “Aaam aadmi” is a sexist expression 😉 . 

~~~ 

 Not so random thoughts yesterday.

….I believe that of all the problems we face, many are of the type that merely demand a break. Not to say that sleep solves problems, but when you return, it gives you a different perspective, you are forced to start thinking afresh rather than remain latched to a specific train of thought that dominated your thought process the previous night. Some demand a month’s break, others demand a week; but by far a large number of them require just a good night’s sleep. Maybe many a historical war would have been averted if the king had fallen asleep to avoid listening to the querulous queen instead of staying awake thinking about what his commander told him.

….that was last night, before I went to bed. ( not that I need a reason to sleep 🙂 )

~~~

An insightful sentence I read today :

“I think people should have a right to be stupid and, if they have that right, the market’s going to respond by supplying as much stupidity as can be sold.”

Pretty much the reason why I don’t support bans on Times of India because of their yellow journalism or such. Let us not underestimate the market for stupidity. But you will also observe that I have almost never linked to the paper and that is because I seldom visit the site.  

~~~

Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” releasing tomorrow. I haven’t ever waited for a movie before.

Food for drought March 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india, rant.
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Let us spend the next two hours reconciling these two pieces of recent news coming out of India.

Item 1 :

In a country where millions go to bed hungry, Rs 1 million worth of food meant as a holy offering at Orissa’s Jagannath temple was destroyed on Friday because a foreigner had entered it — an act seen as defiling the premises.

The shrine administration decided to destroy the food that was prepared for offering to the deities, temple official Laxmidhar Pujapanda said. A mud pit was dug in the premises and the holy offering was thrown in it. The priests, who had stopped rituals since Thursday afternoon, performed purification rituals on Friday, he said. The kitchen areas of the temple were washed, he said.

Item 2 :

India, the world’s second largest wheat producer, has banned all exports of the grain for the rest of the year, according to a statement posted on an official Web site. No wheat was sold overseas in 2006 as the country was forced to import the widely-used commodity for the first time in six years following a poor crop.

You can get away with almost anything on the pretext of our ‘5000 year old culture’.

And oh yeah, its the Brits who are racist, isn’t it. :/

Links from here and here.

The Gender assumption March 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, sport.
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What is your default assumption of a person’s gender ? Weird question ? Read on.

Imagine this. You are reading a first person account whose author you don’t know. You read through 3-4 paras and by then you have a picture of what is going on and so far, nothing specific indicates the gender of the author. But you have already made an assumption that is not yet validated from the story. The assumption is (almost) necessary to picture what is going on. And then suddenly there is a mention and it turns out that your assumption was wrong. Is there a word for this feeling/situation ?

Thats what happened to me reading this article. Try reading it without looking at the author’s name, which gives it up.

<Gender spoiler ahead>

Consdier this sentence.

The lone woman, Marcy, who a few months later would fall on the snow and break her pelvis, offered to give me her old helmet.

When I first read this sentence, its was more of a schadenfreude. When I re-read the article knowing the gender of the author, I felt bad for Marcy ! Of course this is just one example, so its hard to say what is happening here.

Douglas Adam’s die hard fans ( which I am not one because I haven’t ever managed fiction, certainly not sci-fi ) know of his book – “The Meaning of Liff” – which is a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet”. Maybe there is a word for it, I don’t know. This is a site where people contribute their own “Liffs”. Take a look, funny some.

On a different note, this sentence was so typical :

I taught my son to ski when he was 5, holding him between my legs as we coasted down the bunny slope. By 12 he didn’t want to ski with me anymore. He’d stand at the bottom of the lift looking frustrated. “What took you so long?!”

If you are above 8 and reading this, you can so relate to this !

Just thinking … March 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor.
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Some are born <adjective>, some achieve <noun>, and some have <noun> thrust upon them.

Shakespeare’s quote is what you get when the adjective is “great” and the corresponding noun “greatness” is inserted in there. But think about it – a whole lot of other noun-adjective pairs also make the sentence meaningful. What is your favorite candidate pair ? Sorry Mr. Shakespeare, wherever thou grave might be, I promise to leave a flower behind for this impudence.

Just thinking… February 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india, politics.
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Random thought ( which means no link follows )

– In India when politicians say that they lost because of the so-called anti-incumbency factor, they are half-admitting that they did a shitty job.

– When politicians come into the studio for a 10-30 min debate, I want to know first what is it that they agree on, if at all there is something. I really don’t care what you disagree on ( which is generally everything ). That will probably make them less exciting and TV channels have a stake there.  But then this is not a school competition where you debate to improve your debating skills;  these debates hopefully should be used to let viewers know where the representatives stand on some issues.

I think I am expecting too much.

~~~

More random thoughts :

What makes you feel richer ?

a) A friend who owed you Rs. 5000 ( $100 ) returns the amount after constant reminders.

b) You unexpectedly find a  Rs. 500 note ($10) in one of the pockets of a trouser you no longer use.

Obviously this depends on the relative amounts. What else does that depend on ?

“Vows” people take February 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, life.
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Tyler Cowen posts about his media secrets – stuff that he reads but doesn’t quite link/cite on his blog and those that are rather non-obvious. Among them are some which would also get into my “media secrets” : Modern Love column of the NYTimes, Scientific American and the marriage pronouncements in the Times. The Modern Love column is certainly one of its kind and its harder to describe whats its about than to read it yourself and figure out.

The Vows columns ( which this post is about ) is more like news of people getting married – talks about people’s backgrounds, how they met and whole lot of other little details ( in about 800 words I guess ) with an accompanying photograph. It helps in understanding a small subset of a society so different from your own – what people do, people’s career curves, how marriages really happen, curves in personal life and the like. Ofcourse, its anecdotal rather than empirical, but for a subject of this nature, I would prefer anecdotal accounts rather than a 30 page .pdf report with charts, graphs and tables. ( some relations to the previous post ). Some of these stories are queer and incredible partly because a society that provides a wide range of possibilities, that is eseentially individualistic and encourages innovation in every sphere of life, the range of life stories and growth charts are huge. Like this couple who “began a conversation that with a three-decade interruption would last nearly a lifetime”, ( or here is another one ) these are ones that I would not imagine happening in India and for this reason alone it worth a read.

I would infact like to see another type of column – something to do with Ph.Ds and their graduate school thesis advisors. That is another relationship in society though far less common than marriage, still something I ( and certainly lots of aspiring graduate students ) would love to read about. Or perhaps between a favorite teacher-student pair from high school who perhaps later became friends. To someone who has many a teacher that he has adored over the  years,  its always a pleasure to exchange thoughts on how we used to be in school, what we thought of each other when they first met etc. I personally believe these columns are far useful, meaningful and uplifting, if you will, than the “agony aunt” sort of columns I make a point never to read.

Ofcourse if the purpose was merely “understanding a small subset of a society so different from your own – what people do, people’s career curves, how marriages really happen, curves in personal life”, then even this set of columns will in some sense serve that purpose. But then, as an understatement of the decade, let me assert that looking forward to one’s death is a bit less palatable than the possibility of being a witness to or a part of an extraordinary love story.

To some place else February 9, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life.
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Look around. Walk around. Sit down and pick up something to read.

Feel at home at my new residence here. I had heard about this place for a while and had been pondering over it. Finally, I made the move. And I moved for the same reasons most people move – better facilities, more picturesque neigbourhood, better future. Besides, we all move, to some place else – maybe to do the same old things. Or perhaps try out something new, to get rid of the old no matter how nice the old place has been to you, no matter how painstakingly built, you have to let go, even if for the sake of ‘let go-ing-ness’ 🙂

Its a good location though most of the people I know live elsewhere, I am sure they will like being here too. Maybe someday they will decide to move over, be my neighbours. I will be a good man, help them set up.

I know its a new place and as with all new places, it takes a while to get used to it, to get things running like a well-oiled machine. Not just for me, but for my guests as well. But in long run, I am sure we will all be okay. ( apart from being dead ) :).

Not all things change though, the name for instance.

I love this picture up here, let me tell you about it. Hmm..maybe not now, sometime later. Look around in the meanwhile.

Marginal tax on intelligence ! February 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics, humor.
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Brad Delong says :

Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer and the other millionaires and billionaires of Microsoft are brilliant, hardworking, entrepreneurial and justly wealthy. But only the first 5 percent of their wealth can be justified as an economic incentive to encourage entrepreneurship and enterprise. The next 95 percent would create much more happiness and opportunity if it were divided evenly among U.S. citizens or others than if they were to consume any portion of it.

To which I say :

Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer and the other millionaires and billionaires of Microsoft are wealthy and **justly brilliant**. But only the first 15 percent of their *brilliance* can be justified as essential for entrepreneurship and enterprise. The next 85 percent of their *brilliance* would create much more happiness and opportunity if it were divided evenly among U.S. citizens or others than if they were to use any portion of it.

Is he serious about that working out ? [ I am of course joking whether he is serious or not ! ]. Besides, why does he say US Citizens ? Moral grounds, political grounds ? Or because they made their money at the cost of their own citizens and so they should give it back ?

Actually even though I am joking, lets assume both are technically possible. And although I am against this kind of coercive redistribution, just for kicks, lets play along with Brad. What is preferable – to distribute the wealth somewhat equally or the intelligence (equally) somewhat equally ? Marginal tax on intelligence, so to speak ! Most would say money because money is better correlated to happiness than intelligence. Or is it ? The route to happiness from money is more direct than the one from intelligence to happiness. If not happiness, atleast to basic needs and a decent standard of living.

Via MR

My school, their schools January 29, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india, littlerockers, reminisces-2000.
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A really touching post ( with photographs ) about the state of the government schools and some unrecognized schools in India. Just take a look at those pictures and come back to see the pictures of the school I went to – here, here & here.

No, I come from a middle-class background – nevertheless, my schooling I understand was nearly top class – not perhaps like those Ooty/Dehradun schools, but pretty much value adding.

As Bill Gates says in this fascinating interview with Charlie Rose, birth is the biggest lottery you can get. Its quite another thing that lot of countries have reached a stage where institutions, opportunities and personal freedoms come together to ensure that the vicious cycle of poverty doesn’t set in. We in India will hopefully get there in a while.

Inequality as an issue January 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics.
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Talking about income inequality in the United States, Tyler Cowen in the Times argues that natural demographic factors account for it. [ Read it, a well written article ]. In the end though he adds :

The broader philosophical question is why we should worry about inequality — of any kind — much at all. Life is not a race against fellow human beings, and we should discourage people from treating it as such. Many of the rich have made the mistake of viewing their lives as a game of relative status. So why should economists promote this same zero-sum worldview? Yes, there are corporate scandals, but it remains the case that most American wealth today is produced rather than taken from other people.

What matters most is how well people are doing in absolute terms. We should continue to improve opportunities for lower-income people, but inequality as a major and chronic American problem has been overstated.

To which Berkeley Economist Brad Delong quotes Steven Kyle saying :

To this, I can only say that it takes a white middle aged economics professor with tenure to come up with a statement like that…. [I]n the real world [inequality] makes people distrustful of the system and causes them to lose faith in the fairness of society. General belief in the social contract is a long term asset to us all and one we should be very worried about losing. Only a very narrow view of the world could conclude otherwise…

I imagine what Tyler would say to that. I am undecided – I wouldn’t go as far as Steve did, but I wouldn’t side with Tyler either. I am worried about the larger problem of inequality especially the way it plays out in India, but the solutions the current center-left pursues aren’t something endorse either.

The last one January 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, contemplation.
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The first day of my last semester at Carnegie Mellon started today. Since I am not going in for my Ph.D. ( atleast not right away ), this might be last semester at Carnegie Mellon. Although in some sense I am looking forward to this day ( especially now that Natasha has put it so well ), in every other sense, its not a “good thin” ( this sounds like African-American :p ) ! I will have my longest ever post dedicated to this topic few months down the road.

With 2 courses, a lab, whole lot of research/project work and that thing called “job search”, posting will certainly be light starting today. If you have to kill time, you are encouraged to go down and sample some of the older posts you mightn’t have read. Some changes in the formatting therefore –

a) All the posts I ever have here are now displayed on a single page. If this takes years to download on your connection, mail me/leave a comment.

b) Archiving is daily.

In the meantime, I just realized I finished 300 posts the day before. This one. When I completed 100 and 200 posts, I made a big deal about it. This time I wont ( anymore than I just did 🙂 ).

Kinda "wow" moment January 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, science.
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From here.

Evidence can disprove a theory, but it cannot prove it. The most we can ask is that the evidence is not inconsistent with the theory.

Now, theory/model doesnt have to be a mathematical/economics model, its pretty much any world view that seeks to explain anything. Its not a foreign idea and it emerges in debates all the time ( and has always had ), but sometimes you just feel good when you read something you know put in pithy and precise manner.

Non-atheists and atheists alike will do good to remember this in their next debate “on the non-existence ( or otherwise ) of god”. The somewhat discomfitting phraseology in the previous sentence is entirely intentional :).

Spare a thought … January 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, science.
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and imagine a distance of 13,000 light years.

The most detailed x-ray image yet of one of the youngest known supernova remnants—the debris cloud created when a massive star explodes—solves a long-standing mystery about how the star died, an astronomer announced on Tuesday. About 400 years ago people on Earth, including the famous German astronomer Johannes Kepler, saw the light from a supernova. The explosion was so bright that it was visible with the naked eye even though it occurred about 13,000 light-years away.

I have written about these limitations before – to go where no mind has gone.

Now spare another thought for those depending on what Jane Galt calls the stamps of shame.

This put me in a curious mood the other day, when I was at the market checking out my groceries. I started to wonder: what is this “EBT” thing that’s on all the supermarket checkout card machines? So I asked the checkout woman. She stared at me. “That’s for food stamps,” she said, finally. She was black. I am so white that sometimes, in the early morning, I blind myself in the bathroom mirror. I have never felt like such a dumb, privileged middle class white girl in my life. Ever.

Why hearing is not believing ? January 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, reminisces-1990s.
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What is the earliest picture of yours ever shot ? Probably the day you were born or maybe a month old. If you are among the poorest in the world ( in which case you wouldn’t be reading this ), maybe you live an entire life without a picture of yours ever shot.

Now, what is the earlier dated recording of your own voice that you have access to ? That you or someone else recorded, that exists, maybe not with you, but exists nevertheless ? Most certainly the earliest picture is older than the earliest recording.

Keeping aside the possibility of video recording that makes available both visual and audio memories, why do we choose visual ( photograph ) over audio media to store our special moments ? Is it just about accessibility ? Cost ? Or thats just how we are – evolutionary reasons for prefering human faces over human voices, if at all such a comparison can be meaningfully made. Or is it because visual imprint is stronger owing to how hard it is to impersonate – its harder to look like another but relatively easier to sound like someone else ? Or even that its harder to change the way one looks than to change one’s voice and diction ? Why when friends and family get together you have elaborate photo sessions but rarely a session where you record the conversations ? Is it because we process images near instantaneously but sounds sequentially and hence less exciting ? When prospective alliances are sought, why do people exchange photographs, why not ( even in addition to photographs ), audio recordings ? 🙂

If you had to preserve a person’s memory and had to choose between a picture versus an hour’s recording of the person’s speech, what would you choose ? Why ?

P.S : My earlier picture would be within a week of being born in Oct 1981. It took over 15 years before a recording of my voice is available. To the best of the knowledge, the earliest recording of anything I said comes from this month 11 years ago – Jan 24th, 1996. It was enacting a ‘radio show’ at Little Rock – a recording of which I have a copy of.

Back to India stuff January 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, india.
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The Indian Express frontpage has a rather poorly written article on the dilemmas that the NRIs face with respect to returning to India.

I searched for “NRI dilemma” on google and found these articles written ( both written by the same person ) , a non-journalist who puts it all very well.

Not that good.

Not at all that bad.

Endlessly complicated and interesting January 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics.
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Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who, without taking a single course in economics, won the Nobel Prize in Economics recounts what attracted him towards psychology.

In one experience I remember vividly, there was a rich range of shades. It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers. As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.

Love and free trade January 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics, humor.
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This lovely analogy deserves a post of its own. Ofcourse he does warn you about the imperfections that accompany analogies, but I am sure each of us have heard analogies that are worse.

This just occured to be as I wrote the title and its interesting – the title of this post, the word love is a noun and “free” is an adjective that describes the noun “trade” is. Now, lets have some fun. Love and free are now VERBS and trade is a noun.

Hows that for deromanticising a weirdly romantic post ?

Unintended experiments ( and non-existent results ) in quasi-isolation January 5, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, weird.
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The last week has been one weird time, well, few weird times.

Starting last Thursday, Dec 28th until today Jan 5th, I went out of my house only twice. Once for a period of 1 hour to the shopping mall to buy some medication on Dec 31st night ( I cut my finger along with the cabbage ) and the second time to return library books that were accruing fines. I stay alone in a 1 BR apartment, so that means rare personal contact with human beings. The 7 days I spent mostly eating cereal ( cornflakes ), occasional curry and dal ( dalitoy, if you know what I mean ), drinking lemon juice/coffee/tea. My kitchen/drawing room ( kitchen is built into the drawing room ) is strewn with empty cereal packets. There was no rice at home and I didnt care to buy any. The way its going, if I buy any more rice, I will have to buy trousers as well.

I got up around 1 pm, did random things like reading stuff online/mail etc. until about 4 pm, then went to bed after working until 6 am the next morning. I am reasonably happy with the amount of effort put in, though not quite happy with the results. Ofcourse, working includes keeping tab on email/orkut scraps/Ashes and India-SA cricket scores on cricinfo i.e. watching the textual version of the match. and ofcourse answering phone calls if any. The weather ofcourse was dull most of the time, little sunlight, cold – not bitter cold – but just cold and no snow.

None of this was ofcourse intended. Nor is this a desirable state of existence. I am no misanthropist and love the company of a handful of people which is not the same as saying there are only a handful of people I love the company of. ( though it comes close 😉 ). I am no Seth Roberts and made no measurements on myself to see the effect of these weird schedules on any conceivable factors. These are simply things that one can more easily afford to do as – a) non-corporate employee. and b) bachelor. One cant do it on real vacation either. These are days when I am supposed to be working, though I dont have to attend classes or be at the lab to work.

Could I do this without the internet ? Conceivably, no. Actually its hard to conceive, so I take the short-cut and just say No. Its not just about reading something for which the books should substitute. I cant buy anymore books without buying a cupboard to hold them. But I guess they have stopped making cupboards to keep books that one buys not because you would love to read them, but because you love the idea of reading them. While I make merry reading stuff online, my books will await me to revert to the state where I turn pages lying down on the floor by the corner lamp. Until then, its Alt+N and Ctrl+D.

Sometime in 1999-2000 at the KREC library, I came across this magazine called Resonance, something I got hooked to for the rest of my entire KREC life until May 2003. I remember reading an article that talked about experiments in human isolation. I found the archived issues of this magazine but google site search would still not help me retrieve it. ( I should track their articles more often. I remember even Deepak Krishnan thinks very highly of it – remember reading that somewhere on his blog. ). Nevertheless, this gives you an idea. Ofcourse, my situation was nowhere close to this – neither in motivation/intention nor in execution. I mention this just for the intellectually naughtier ones. 🙂

Researchers of the Department of Animal Behaviour and Physiology (DAB&P) at the Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, Tamilnadu are trying to find out. In an experiment the scientists have roped in a group of volunteers and placed them in what is called the Human Isolation Chamber (HIC). The chamber is devoid of all kinds of physical time-keepers. The chamber which has twin-wall system is fully air-conditioned. The subjects cannot directly interact with the people outside but are provided with almost all basic amenities like tables, chairs, cots, kitchen ware, VCD & music players, books etc. The volunteers have to cook their own food and the required materials for the cooking including vegetables, groceries and vessels are given to them. Researchers outside monitor the activities of the subjects as regards their body temperature, sleep-wake cycle etc at regular intervals.

Observations over a period of one to two weeks revealed that the subjects inside drift from the normal 24-hour daily cycle, and begin to work within the chamber according to the dictates of their ‘biological clock’. For example when people outside go to bed at night, people inside may be having a cup of coffee. They also found that the duration of sleep began to vary. Out of the sixteen chosen volunteers there was one woman who slept straight for more than twenty hours.

Nevertheless, at a much less stringent level, for those 6 days, the only windown in the drawing room which overlooks a not-so-busy street and a 24 hour convenience store just across the road was literally my only window to the world.

That is, if you dont count the computer that would be switched on, logged on for all but 8 hours a day.

"This can’t be all there is" December 26, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life.
4 comments

This post is about 2 months overdue, infact, ever since Aswin put up this post a few weeks ago. I really loved the idea of the Time capsule. I will write about my own views in a separate post and spend this post putting up notes from other people. Although its not open to viewing anymore, I urge you to visit here before you proceed.

The Time Capsule itself is realized digitally so that the maximum number of people can have access. It is organized around ten themes, chosen to illuminate different corners of the human experience. The ten themes are: Love, Sorrow, Anger, Faith, Beauty, Fun, Past, Hope, Now, and You. Each theme harbors an open-ended question: What do you love? What makes you sad? What makes you angry? What do you believe in? What’s beautiful? What’s fun? What do you remember? What is your wish? Describe your world. Who are you? People respond to these questions in five simple ways – with words, pictures, videos, sounds, and drawings. 

Until a few weeks back one could actually log in and read what others wrote – you could view the data for selected group of people. For eg : What 30-40 year old females from Mexico have to say about what makes them angry ? etc.

I spent a few hours ( quite a few hours ) reading what people had to say. And I was particularly interested in what people above 50 had to say about their past and their future. Here I paste some of those that I found quite insightful at some times, rather touching at others.

A male in his 60s in the United States

I remember when candy bars were only 10 cents. I remember a simpler time when people could leave their homes unlocked and not worry about it. Also when people could trust their elected officials not to constantly lie to them. When employees could actually trust their employer not to screw them over in the name of the bottom line. I remember when people could walk around after dark and feel safe. I remember my wedding day. The best day of the rest of my life with the best woman to spend the rest of my life with. I remember our first apartment together,our first house and most of all when we first adopted our two kids. Children are a gift from God. They are grown now and starting their own lives. I can now look forward to grandchildren to spoil as I get older. When I open this email to myself 14 years from now I’ll be 75. My wife Mary will be 78. We will be celebrating 50 years of marriage. And we will remember the best 50 years of our lives. 

A male in his 60s from Puerto Rico

Hello! This is the year 2006…I was born in 1945 then I am 61 now. It took me time, 10 years ago, to become computer litteracy familiar with…so now I can send this e-message. If you are reading this in 2020 or 2050 I guess I will not be alive at that time. My message is: whoever reads this please take into account that life is a very particular phenomenon on Earth, maybe it doesn’t exist on other places in the Universe and we have this unique tool to communicate thoughs and feelings. Do not forget beauty, peace, nature, believings, art, history… without those things life would be so colorless, so sad. And of course, the last thing left inside the Pandora box: hope !!! 

A female in her 60s in the United States

I am a 60 year old grandmother whose beautiful, smart, 18 year old granddaughter is a freshman in college. I remember when I was 18 and eagerly looking forward to the future. That future is now a reality and I am so thankful that God let me live to see her poised on the threshhold of what I pray is a happy and productive future. I hope she’ll instill in her children the same values that I have tried to instill in her. I still remember how wonderful my teen years were. It’s hard to believe that our world has changed so much since I was my granddaughter’s age. Life is wonderful! 

This is a female in her 60s in Edmonton AB, Canada

I just experienced my 60th birthday and I feel very optimistic of the many wonderful things to do, to learn and to share. No matter what the impressions of today’s society, each individual I meet, whatever age, has his or her own story. All the stories are interesting and expressive. I feel compassion and poignancy of these times. 

A male in his 50s in mayiladuthurai, India

my son and my daughter-in-law..one of the best couple in the world.i love them so much they are in U.S. 

Now this is funny – a male in his 50s in Ahmedabad, Gujrat, India

AT RPESENT INTHE PHOTO I AM AT MY WORKPLACE. I WISH THAT DEARNESS ALLOWANCE ISNOT ONLY FOR GOVT EMPLOYEE BUT ALSO TO PRIVATE SECTOR. THIS IS WHAT MAKES ME ANGRY. 

A female in her 60s in the United States

I just got home from having my hair streaked for the first time and found this time capsule. I had my hair done to make myself feel better as I wait for word of a surgery date for lung cancer. My wish for the future is that all cancers will be a thing of the past long before this 20 years is up. Besides my own diagnosis, I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer and a sister to lung cancer. I also wish for an end to heart attacks and heart failures in general. I have a lot of words remaining but I don’t know of any other way to express my wishes so I guess this is it. 

A sad one finally.

My name is <>. I am a 52 year old mother of four wonderful children. I have four grand children as well ~ they are my heart. Still ~ I am lonely. I am re-married for 17 years this past weekend. My husband does not bother with me in the biblical sense. He is a good man but never treats me as a woman. I am so so lonely. Why don’t I leave? I am not sure. Where would he go? He is my friend. I am lonely. I look for love in every set of eyes. (Not physically) I talk to the Lord. This can’t be all there is… please tell me there is more here on this earth then this. I feel my health going down the drain as I age. My heart is still seventeen. What is one to do? 

This one is not. A male in his 60s in United States

Know this about me, I am not a loser. I have walked through life alone holding other peoples hand so that they would get to where they want to go. And when they have reached their destination, I rejoiced in their freedom as they let go of my hand and continued their journey. I am a winner because I help others win their race. Now I continue my journey alone, Yahshua will hold my hands and take me to the place he wants me to be. And when I have climbed the mountain I can look back and hear the words “Well done my good and faithful Son”, you have left no trampled backs in your path. Know this about me, I am not a loser. I have never quit, only delayed, I have never fallen, only stumbled, I have never stopped, only paused, I have never lost sight of my destination, only stopped to help someone find theirs. I will mount on the wings of an Eagle and I will soar to great heights not to achieve fame, but to fulfill my Heavenly Father’s will. 

If there is one thing that stood out, it was that even the layperson out there manages to find great expression to his/her feelings and thoughts. Its probably the benefit of anonymity or just the thought that writing something that is to be read 20 years from now, by yourself or by someone who has access to your email ID then or perhaps by nobody ever brings out something special in us. When I set out to write, it really made me think in ways I never did before.

A student and a teacher December 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, littlerockers, reminisces-1990s.
3 comments

I was in Chicago visiting Asha teacher. That little girl in that picture in the post before the last one is Rishelle, Asha’s 4 year old.

Chicago, Dec 16th, 2006 with Asha, Ritvik, Rishelle and Sadiq

Asha taught us English at Little Rock, Class VII ( 1993-94 ). Towards the end of Class VII just as we used to ask for people’s autographs ( kinda slam books), I got her autograph as well in addition to that of a few other classmates. During the summer vacations that followed in April 1994, on seeing her address in my autograph book I wrote to Asha. Quite surprisingly, she wrote back a long long letter in which she mentioned that she might be teaching us poetry in Class VIII. Wrote back again. This time she got back with her marriage invitation card. She was to be moving to Chicago after marriage. A teacher no more.
I attended her reception on May 23, 1994 to her utter surprise. I happened to be the only student who was invited in addition to 2 other teachers and I showed up there with my mom. I remember the exact events of that day at the Vimlesh international in Mangalore. I guess I still have, as a part of ‘my trivia collection’, that thankyou note with an Eclairs chocolate stapled that was given to all the guests. And not knowing what to do with the glass of wine that was served as a part of the wedding toast.
Cannanore, Aug 11th, 1999

Thinking about it today it seems weird. A 12 year old insists that he attend and drags his mom all the way to Mangalore for the event. We corresponded regularly via letters between Chicago and Manipal for several years, 19 of them between June 1994 and Jan 2000. On her visit to Mangalore in April-May 1996, she came visiting home in Manipal. I again went visiting her in Mangalore on May 14, 1996. Her visit an year later, I visited her again on May 13, 1997. Ofcourse I was 14/15 by then and was travelling alone.

By 1998 her parents had retired and moved to Cannanore. When she came down in August 1999, I went down to Cannanore from Manipal, changing 4 buses – at Udupi, Mangalore, Kasargod and Kanjangad. Stayed over at their place and took the train back the next day. Exhilarating, thinking about it now.

Manipal, April 16th, 1996.

She had a baby, May 4, 2000. Bringing up kids meant communication wasnt really that regular. When on Dec 12, 2000 I heard from someone that Y! messenger allows free calls to landlines in the US ( which they discontinued soon after), I went to a Cyber Cafe in Suratkal, talked to Asha and Mani, her husband for over an hour. Our next conversation was to be in Dec 2004. They had their second girl Rishelle on April 11, 2002. Remaining in touch was even more harder.

Cut to 2004. Since I came to the US in Aug 2004, I was in reasonably regular touch with the family, mostly talking to Mani 3-4 times a year. Over 2.5 years after coming here, the trip to Chicago finally happened. 3 great days with the family – the kids were so much fun. Mani was great in that he spent a whole Saturday with Sadiq and me taking us around Chicago. Infact I last met Mani at the reception in Mangalore in May 1994 !! Meeting the family here is like coming a full circle.

With Mani and Sadiq at a suburbian railway station

This isnt really an exception. I have visited and spent hours at the houses of several of my school teachers, know their kids’ by names and faces, written letters to ( and heard from ) a few of them, probably have more photographs with them than with some of family as well. Its probably got to do something with the fact that while I feel very endeared to them, I dont respect authority and hierarchy to the extent that inhibits communication. Depending on how the teachers in question took this attitude of mine, this has got me into trouble in the past. But then its also earned me teachers as friends.

As I wrote this I just think to myself that teachers are in some senses our confidants – because they are the only ones who read our answer sheets :), they know pretty well how good or bad we are at what we do. And isnt one of those tried and tested ways of making friends telling them your secrets :).

The written word December 7, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics.
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I dont know if Mankiw Chacha ( my very Indian way of referring one my favorite bloggers ) thought of these possibilities when he wrote the textbook. [ Linked from here ]. Closer home, nor did I when I wrote this post imagine that someone from Cambodia will be lead to the post through google for the search query – “sample essay about success inspite of struggles”. Good Luck mate, wish you well.

I wonder then if publishing, whether a book or a blog is like an arrow released from the bow, an unguided missile – its hard to localize either the soothing/emancipatory ( for want of a less presumtuous word ) or destructive effects of the written word.

Sleep cycles n all December 7, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
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This is not my first winter per se, but its my first winter since summer and thats what matters 🙂 Something ( arguably everything ) about winter drives you crazy. Sun rises late (about 7 am) and makes up for the time by setting early (4:45 pm) ! Short on sleep for a while, I come back from the lab at 8 pm , take a nap and wake up at 11 pm to catch up with some work. At this point its hard to keep track of whether its day or night, whether you had a full night’s sleep or otherwise, is it still yesterday or today etc. If you had some deadline to adhere to, you wake up wondering if you are 3 hours ahead of schedule or 9 hours behind it. You keep looking at the clock every 15 minutes on 2 different clocks because you dont really remember the time you saw the last time around because there seems to be a inherent disharmony about it all.

I guess humanbeings over millions of years have evolved to sleep when its dark and waking when its bright. This is probably what makes it weird to sleep when its dark and wake while its dark – you wonder if you slept for 2 hours or 26 hours. I dont have the data but I wonder if over the years the average sleeping and waking time of the human race has been pushed closer to the midnight thereby stretching the waking hours.

Its been a while I have felt this way. Back in 2003-04, at IISc Bangalore I work hours started at 5 pm and went on till 7 am more often than not. I choose so because the lab was more peaceful, the campus was night had quite an allure and most importantly, I was personally more productive during those hours. It took a while to get used to that but during early days, this discomfiture was common. Doctors on night shifts, 36 hour shifts ( very common in the US ), call-center employees and other emergency occupations will have more to say on this.

3 years on, November 30, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, littlerockers.
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This mail dated Nov 30, 2003 was in some sense the beginning.

Dear Friends,

I am Sharath Rao, Class of 1997, Little Rock. I am writing to you as alumnus of Little Rock. This mail is about a possible ALUMNI meeting of the Little Rock Indian School sometime in June 2004. Ofcourse an alumni meeting is not something that can be ‘announced’. Especially since this will be the first ever meeting of its kind, it is something whose details have to be discussed before arriving at a decision of this kind.

This topic came up during one of my recent visit to Little Rock when Madam ( Lali Mathew ) mentioned about a grand Silver Jubilee ( 25 years ) in 2007. She then added that its good to have a meeting before that..perhaps as early as June 2004. She said that Little Rock will provide every kind of support for a meeting of this kind.

However, it would be much easier if we alumnus can play a role in getting in touch with people and establishing a network before the first ever meeting. I personally feel its definitely feasible to get around and track down the Class of 1997. By this I mean anybody who in 1996-97 was in Class X and is a Little Rocker. It might somebody who left LRIS before 1996 or joined LRIS after 1996. I have started a yahoogroups ( littlerock_1997 ) so that the process of communicating becomes easier. Of the many people I am sending this mail to, several do not either have a yahoo ID or havent made it known. Therefore, I request you all to mail me your yahoo IDs so that you can become a part of the group and start receiving mails. I do hope that this idea of an alumni meet/ association finds supporters among you. Anytime you come across our batchmates, please mail me their IDs or recommend them to get in touch with me so that their IDs can be authorized to receive and send mails, post photographs etc.

In anticipation
Regards,
Sharath Rao
( http://www.geocities.com/raosharathonline )

I exactly remember my state of mind when I sent out that mail – cautiously hopeful. It was my first attempt at any kind of organization building if one might call it so. I wasnt exactly sure if people would heed to the above proposal. I thought more than the proposal itself (which wasnt at all unreasonable), the source of the proposal might rub people the wrong way. Although I did have a great time at school, over the years I had learnt of having been tagged (not entirely incorrectly) by my peers as having a disproportionately high nuisance value, arrogance value and such. I did think then that in starting off the alumni group, it was the wrong person doing the right thing.

Nevertheless, things happened, a lot happened in 3 years with a lot of help from people, mostly Ashith.

And the Orkut group saw a phenomenal group going from 30 in Nov 2004 to 100 in Nov 2005 to nearly 960 in Nov 2006 !! ( Ofcourse, no personal effort went into building the Orkut group, which largely built itself.)

That apart, quite a bit will happen in 2 weeks from now. From here.

Our website sees new registrations of our alumni every day. A vast number of old students are planning to come for the Alumni Reunion on December 16 and 17. I find that there are many coming even from distant cities in India, and some even from foreign countries to be here on this historic occasion. We are really overwhelmed by the response. We are indeed proud of our old students, much the same way as you are proud of your Little Rock.

I have no words to describe how unfortunate it is that I cannot make it to this event. Hopefully I will live long enough to make the 50th anniversary in 2031 🙂

Looking back this whole set of activities pertaining to the LRIS alumni network that I involved myself in, few hundred mails/phone calls/SMSs, the time and energy that went into it, will remain one of those things to feel good about. Earlier this year I felt that its all stabilized – things had got to a point where they became self-sustaining – we convinced several other batches to start off their own groups which were doing well. Since then I have been looking for something else, some other cause that is not necessarily/at all grandiose (spketicism tends to be directly proportional to the grandiosity and utopian nature of the task), that is within my reach and that is largely self-less ( no matter how narrowly the word is defined) and that wich is worth the time and the kind of passion that went into helping build the alumni network.

We arent on the same wavelength ? November 29, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, ideas, science.
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I dont know for sure but this direction of research might someday explain the real meaning of expressions such that “Our wavelengths dont match” or that “it was love at first sight”.

The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

As I put this up I am drawn to a possible grouse that this blog increasingly appears to be attempting to report or celebrate rational explanations/interpretation of things we hold sacred – things such as religion and deep human emotions such as love and friendship. Well, I dont know but for the moment the beautiful thing to me is the human quest to understand the demystify everything until it all makes sense, until something consistent is found. ( to the extent that the inherent inconsistency of the situation permits ). This spirit, this energy will one day have to encounter the law of diminishing returns. And then something else might come across as being worth my time and curiosity.

The (mostly) rational enquiry that is a man’s life November 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor.
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Or the unexalted ‘sophistication’ that is a dog’s !

Reminds me of myself last night. Link from here.

Random sunday afternoons November 12, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, rant.
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Quoting from a recent mail to a friend :

I dont know…on a completely unrelated note, there are a million things running in my mind…million questions/thoughts or mutinies as Naipaul would put it …only if had a million hours of nothingness to write/speak/blog about these …And on a even more unrelated note, I wonder sometimes some things may never come to the fore/written/painted/drawn/built just because there is a lot to do on a damn sunday afternoon !!

I recognize that was rather impulsive ; for the naivete is in assuming that if you knew something really important would happen by not working on a Sunday afternoon, you wouldnt be doing it.

Ironically, Sunday afternoons are the most stressful part of the week. When you have taken it easy late Friday and soft-peddled work much and most of Saturday, you wake up on a Sunday morning to realize what was pending over the weekend should happen that day. My only identity then is that of (an overworked) graduate student.

But nothing is as bad or as good as it seems or is made out to be. And so to turn coat again, its probably not at all that when on Friday evenings you feel :

One day you will see that it all has finally come together. What you have always wished for has finally come to be. You will look back and laugh at what has passed and you will ask yourself… ‘How did I get through all of that?

Yeah man, sometimes I crib. 😉

( Thanks to Natasha for the quote by the way )

On being (a) Nobel (Laureate) November 8, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics, humor.
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In some sense a continuation of the previous post, I thought let me put this up independently.

So yeah, the Swedes are known to make what turn out to be early morning calls to American Nobel Laureates informing them about the Nobel Prize and in the process perhaps catch them in ‘compromising positions’ as with MIT physicist Franz Wilczek.

Wilczek was in the shower when the call from Sweden came at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. “It was this person with a beautiful accent, and it was so early, so I was immediately hopeful,” said Wilczek’s wife, Betsy Devine. “Frank came in, dripped all over the floor, and talked to half the Swedish Academy.”

Ofcourse, there are exceptions as with Thomas Schelling last year.

He sits me down in his living room and tells me that unlike other Nobel laureates, he wasn’t woken at an ungodly hour but at 7am, just seconds before journalists started phoning him. “Somebody said I was supposed to get the call by five in the morning but they didn’t have my phone number. Which leads me to believe that Swedish intelligence isn’t very good – I’m in the telephone book.”

Staying on the theme, here is something that might happen to your neighbours (and perhaps relatives) if you win the Nobel or the other way around.

For a little grounding Schrock called his mother, who is a bit hard of hearing. He said ”Mom, I won a Nobel! She said, ‘A what?’ “

Schrock’s drowsy Winchester neighbors woke up just as confused with a phalanx of news trucks parked in front of their homes.”I heard it on radio when I was half asleep but thought, ‘That couldn’t be Dick,’ ” said Ellen Curran, who lives across the street. Then, when she saw the trucks she called her neighbor, Harry Werlin. Werlin said he had gone over to the Schrocks’ a bit earlier to ”borrow an egg and bust his chops.””Of course I didn’t need an egg,” said Werlin, who has jogged with Schrock most mornings for more than a decade. ”I just needed an excuse to go over there.”

By mid-afternoon, Curran’s 7-year-old daughter, Grace Lees, had written and delivered a new edition of Grace’s News, her very own newspaper, which has a circulation of one. The headline: ”Richard Schrock wins the Nobel Prize, Hurrah Hurrah!”

Werlin, who owns a Cambridge photography store, said he didn’t know how smart his neighbor was. ”How could I?” he said. ”I mean, I knew he was a little above the average guy and even the average professor, but I’ve asked what he does 30 times and I still couldn’t explain it to you.”

On an infinitely more serious note !, Paul Samuelson, 1970 Nobel Laureate asks “Is There Life After Nobel Coronation”. His conclusion is interesting :

Is the joy of the universe outweighed by the Weltschmertz of those who do not win? October can be a somber month in the Senior Common Room: many are called, few are chosen. On the other hand, science, scholarship, and human welfare are bigger than the passing mob of researchers who struggle with them. A more egalitarian society, with no differential payoff to effort and to ability, however acquired, might well be a more serene society. One must weigh against this how actual humans have evolved under the realistic Darwinian and cultural conditions of the past: perhaps cumulative progress might then result to be the less? Is there not some realistic tradeoff between more equality and more cumulative progress?

Anything more to know ? November 5, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life.
4 comments

Natasha’s blog which I frequent (frequently!) has a few nice words up there.

I know its a poem, maybe she doesnt ( or perhaps she does ) expect me to take it literally. But think about it – if you were to describe to person A all the attributes of another unknown person B that Natasha says are not the only attributes that matters, A will still have a really really good idea about the person that B is !! ( books, significant relationships, failures, where u grew up, good/bad habits, overriding passions, job etc. etc. )

Yes, I agree that there will still be lots of ‘undescribables’ about people – there is nothing like knowing a person for a length of time. But undescribable doesnt mean undeterminable – many of those undescribables will already be determined by all the attributes Natasha has covered.

Besides, the extent to which we intend to know a person depends on at what level, for what duration we deal with her/him. To be fair to Natasha, she is probably talking about intimate people in one’s life, presumably what you need to know before you choose a spouse or so, in which case that would be more accurate.

Namesake trailer November 3, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, india, movies.
2 comments

This has never happened before.

I have never waited for a movie to release, being way too anxious to know how it would turn out to be. Better yet, its never happened that there is a book I read that I loved so much and now that I know its going to be made into a movie, I cant wait to watch it !

I read Namesake in Jan 2004 when I was in Boston, the one year I went to Boston University Graduate School. I read it at at time when I was just 4 months into this country and was myself grappling ( as I still sometimes do ) with issues of my past, my present and everybody’s future. The book itself was set in Boston and written by Boston University Alumna and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. The streets and city squares she mentions in the book were those I took every week, if not every day – something that might be normal for NewYorkers but for me, that in itself made for a surreal experience.

Namesake is probably one of the less than 15 works of fiction I have ever read, and much of what I said above explains why it was the most endearing memorable of them all. Watch the trailer here – Irfan looks so real, Tabu’s performance snippets are arresting ! ‘Kal Penn’ rocks.

Rediff has a review up here. I previously wrote a post linking to Lahiri’s article ( read this if you havent ever ).

That rainbow family October 29, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor.
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Angelina adopted a Cambodian boy, then an Ethiopian girl and now possibly an Indian boy. She has an interesting thought here :

I want to create a rainbow family. That’s children of different religions and cultures from different countries. I believe I’m meant to find my children in the world and not necessarily have them genetically.

Well, I too want to have a rainbow family. Being an Indian, I will start by adopting Angelina Jolie – that would bring a Cambodian and an Ethiopian into the fold as well.

Okay, okay, just kidding. I am considering sponsoring a child through PLAN. I think its an amazing thing to do and I am just mulling over it. Also considering things like boy/girl, age group and most importantly which country.

A place for skepticism October 22, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, rant.
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What do I mean by “a place for skepticism” as I mentioned in my previous post.

Here again, I turn to Steven Pinker who put it beautifully when he talks on the topic that eventually lead to resignation of Harvard president Larry Summers – “on the research on mind, brain, and behavior that may be relevant to gender disparities in the sciences, including the studies of bias, discrimination and innate and acquired difference between the sexes.” Pinker took on Elizabeth Spelke in a debate on this topic which you can view here. He talks about just how sure Spelke sounds about her hypothesis when he says –

Now, I’m a controversial guy. I’ve taken many controversial positions over the years, and, as a member of Homo sapiens, I think I am right on all of them. But I don’t think that in any of them I would say there is “not a shred of evidence” for the other side, even if I think that the evidence favors one side. I would not say that the other side “can’t even make a case” for their position, even if I think that their case is not as good as the one I favor. And as for saying that a position is “as conclusive as any finding in science” — well, we’re talking about social science here! This statement would imply that the extreme nurture position on gender differences is more conclusive than, say the evidence that the sun is at the center of the solar system, for the laws of thermodynamics, for the theory of evolution, for plate tectonics, and so on. These are extreme statements — especially in light of the fact that an enormous amount of research, summarized in these and many other literature reviews, in fact points to a very different conclusion.

It is this certainity in matters where skepticism is deserved – religion, God, philosophy, much of humanities and social science – that puts off. In a lighter vein, people should be trained in probability and statistics so that they are more likely to use the terms “its more/less likely or there is more/less evidence to suggest that” when dwelling on these topics. 🙂

By the way, this post is not about the argument of ( women in science ) itself – more on which you can read here or continue reading this post.

Costs of Education October 22, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics, india.
1 comment so far

A post here from Atanu again supports my position that my education has been highly subsidized.

Just an approximate calculation of my education :

Rs. 350 per month for first 6 years, Rs. 550 per month for the next 4 years and Rs. 800 per month for the last 4 years = Tuition+Food+Transport = 350 x 12 x 6 + 550 x 12 x 4 + 800 x 12 x 4 = Rs. 90,000 + books + misc. = Rs. 1,100,000.

None of the above was ofcourse subsidized – Little Rock is a private school and the Army School in Assam though a Govt. school charged us civilians rates comparable to other private schools.

What was subsidized was Undergraduate Education at KREC – Rs. 10000 per year x 4 = Rs. 40, 000 == $800.00. I would think the subsidy is to the extent of about 90%. So I owe the Indian tax payer atleast Rs. 4,00,000.

I will remember that amount.

Compare that to the education here at Carnegie Mellon – undergraduates pay $40, 000 per year. ( My research work pays my tuition and pays me a stipend that is more than enough for a reasonable lifestyle.) Assuming a dollar to be equivalent is Rs. 15 ( not the official exchange rate mind you !), its about Rs. 24,00,000 for 4 years of Engineering. And no, not that they are all rich and pay up – most of them have a debt of $120,000 on their head. And no, its not their parents that pay up. Typically, people take 5-8 years to repay these loans.

Its time to think of Education as a business – only then will the government be able to charge full fees to those who could afford it. More importantly, only then will the public understand that while primary education might be a fundamental right, higher education is not. You have to pay for what you get. If you can afford, pay. If you cant afford but are credit-worthy, raise a loan. If you arent credit-worthy, government can lend at very low or zero percent interest rates. No, virtually nothing should be free.

P. S : On a totally unrelated note, this post by Atanu Dey best summarizes my position on the Art of Living ‘Guru’ Ravi Shankar.

Thinking about America October 19, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, life.
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I came across Granta – this amazing journal/magazine recently. The special issue was about – “What we think of America”.

Having lived here for 2 years now, next to my home country, this is the country I know the most about ( even though I know rather little ) – in any conceivable sense – history, personalities, geogpraphy, people, weather, education etc. So the issue caught my attention. Turns out, its been written by some eminent scholars and they have a very different things to say. I am linking a few samples herein.

A German who was ‘liberated’ by the ‘visiting’ American Army in 1945

Gradually it dawned on me that the better I knew the place, the less familiar it looked. Just because they speak a language rather similar to the one we had listened to during the war, thanks to the BBC, and consume much of the same stuff from the same kind of department stores, it does not follow that we think and feel alike. And I find the strangeness of America a relief, if not a blessing. Different rules and habits, different cities, different beliefs and obsessions. Think of a place where cigarettes are perceived as more of a threat to human health than machine guns, where a casual acquaintance will offer you the use of their apartment with all their belongings included, where almost everyone believes in some god or other and where the outside world, unless it intrudes with bombs, is largely ignored! Surely we cannot pretend to understand such a society entirely. It will always be something else, a world unto itself, a Western Heavenly Empire, a China of our imagination, a place to admire, to be grateful to, and to be baffled by forever.

Our own Ramachandra Guha

My wife got a scholarship to Yale, and I reluctantly followed. I reached New Haven on a Friday, and was introduced to the Dean of the School where I was to teach. On Sunday I was taking a walk through the campus when I saw the Dean park his car, take a large carton out of the boot, and carry it across the road to the School and up three flights to his office. That sight of the boss as his own coolie was a body blow to my anti-Americanism. My father and grandfather had both been heads of Indian research laboratories; any material they took to work or back—even a slim file with a single piece of paper in it—would be placed in the car by one flunkey and carried inside by another. (Doubtless the Warden of an Oxford College can likewise call upon a willing porter.) Over the years, I have often been struck by the dignity of labour in America, by the ease with which high-ranking Americans carry their own loads, fix their own fences, and mow their own lawns. This, it seems to me, is part of a wider absence of caste or class distinctions. Indian intellectuals have tended to downplay these American achievements: the respect for the individual, the remarkable social mobility, the searching scrutiny to which public officials and state agencies are subjected.

A British man who just cant take it anymore :

Still, the fatal flaw of arrogance need not be dignified by references to Greek tragedy. It is enough to remember that Twain’s trip to Europe was dominated by ruins. America, too, will not last in its present form. In due course, and by means as yet unknown, the United States’s global hegemony will go the way of the British, Spanish, Roman and all other empires. Byzantium? Babylon? The one is suing to join the EU, the other is in the grip of Saddam Hussein. Forget the ethical hand-wringing. It’s about power, stupid; and power eventually sifts through a nation’s grasp like sand.

A Czech woman – a balanced view

For more than a century now there has existed a sort of American dream. For some it means boundless affluence, for others freedom. I am not a devotee of hypermarkets or of grandiose mansions containing dozens of rooms for just two or three people and a few pedigree dogs and cats. I’ve never yearned for more than one car or a private plane, jet-engined or otherwise. I have an aversion to profligacy, but I don’t share the view that there is an indirect relationship between America’s affluence and Third World poverty. Without idealizing the policies of the big monopolies (either American or European), I am convinced that America’s wealth, which derives from the work of many generations, is chiefly the result of the creative activity of free citizens. The Americans are not to blame for Third World poverty, which is mostly due to the circumstances in the Third World and the demoralizing lack of freedom that most of the people there endure.

As for me, though I have not written an essay about it, for now I will just say I think when I return to India, there will be a whole lot of things about this place I will miss. No, not the cars or roads or the clean air – these are necessities – their absence hurts doesnt mean their presence is the stuff memories are made of ! I think its more to do with me, my times, my struggles and the fact that it forms the context for an important period in my life and the contributions this context has made to my growth.

8 PM and after less than 8 hours sleep in the past 48 hours, a bad exam later, I must go home.

P. S: And well, fair enough, then there are a whole lot of essays on how America sees the world. I havent read any yet.

All work and no play October 15, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, ideas, life.
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My leisure time is spent the most efficiently with nearly zero overheads and the reason for this efficiency forms the “About me” just alongside the picture you see.

Okay, let me back off – most of my work is done online – not just on the desktop/laptop but connected to the university network. So the romantic riversides and mountains will mean nothing to me if work is what needs to be done. No, dont get me wrong – not that they mean nothing to me per se, but unlike a writer or a theoritical scientist who can retire into the woods and mountains to become more productive, I have no such option. This by the way is true of many a graduate students doing experimental and indoor research.

So how is the leisure spent afterall. No surprises – reading and writing, mostly the former. And all I need to do is really just say “Ctrl+Tab” and the browser takes me into a world of hyperlinks. There have been a few saturdays when I have been reading articles/newspapers/blogs for 7-10 hours breaking only for a visit to the kitchen or the loo. Its unlikely ever that I would be found lying on my bed reading a book – those days seem nearly gone. The html page and the infinite links out of each one, to me is a dream come true. The only place I would be found reading a book is perhaps in the bus or waiting for one. I have been asked many a times if I get headaches or pain in the eye spending so much time reading stuff online. I will answer that question again – No. 🙂

I want to change this imbalance a bit. One problem is this low walls and thin lines between work and leisure is that its hard to keep track. Its easy to imagine ( and fool oneself ) that lot of work has been done while most of that time has been spent reading or writing stuff online.

Sitting here in my lab I can see so many books I have bought in the past year. I have been a regular at the 2 used book shops within literally a minute walk from my lab. A brief list :

The Universe and the teacup : The mathematics of truth and beauty

Cycles : How we live, work and buy – American popular culture

How to lose friends and alienate people – One man’s experience doing down the New York City social ladder

KGB : The secret work of Soviet secret agents

A Random Walk down wall street – How the stock market works

The Enigma of arrival – Naipaul

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Freedom at Midnight – Lapiere’s work on India’s freedom

Love Visions : Chaucer

Utopia by Thomas More – Satirical work suggesting how unrealizable a utopia would be

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta – About the City of Bombay

Einstein, the life and times

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond – The role of geography in western dominance

Waiting for the weekend – About how the concept of weekday has been historically and how its evolved

and perhaps 20 others – none of them technical !

Many of these are at different stages of reading and I hope to read a good number of these in the coming weeks – that might mean reading fewer blogs !

Infact I got so frustrated with this trend of having so many wonderful books here, lying unread that I ‘decided’ I would not buy anymore unless I am done with each of these or even 50% of these. That though doesnt work – sounds coercive and besides, I have fought this frustration by convincing myself quite successfully that I am infact a book collector, rather than a reader – rather a collector so that I can, one day become a reader. I admit that my success in deceiving myself into believing this ( and several other ideas ) bothers me.

To wind up though, I must not forget to mention what seems to me the prime reason why reading things online ( not just electronic, but with a machine connected to the internet ) is preferred to conventional lying on the bed, staring occasionally into the sky reading habits. Links and Search engines – the fact that you can at a moment’s notice ( to yourself ) wander off for no particular reason, or look up something if it were unclear – is a delicious prospect. Ofcourse, this sense of freedom and convenience, I once claimed, continues to ruin my life.

Gunning for Bhagwati October 9, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics, india.
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In some sense, a man and woman are married the moment they decide to live together for the rest of their life. Commitment then must be an amazing ( and unimaginable ) state of heart, or for the unromantically unchallenged, a state of mind ! That is probably what gets people wondering what afterall does a formal marriage ceremony do that has already not happened. ( the ‘permission’ to have kids ??, in some societies atleast )

Well, I think the same is true of economics. I am increasingly getting convinced that at heart I am an economist. I will never be hired as one and if hired, will definitely be fired as one ! Although I am not formally educated and informal knowledge itself is incomplete and half-baked, its one thing that engages me like few things else. There are more economists in my admired people’s list than any other category of individuals.

What else might explain that for the first time ever, I will be following the announcement of a Nobel Prize in Economics like I follow perhaps a Wimbledon winner or a World Cup football winner ( frankly I care less about these ). In a little over 8 hours from now, 7 am, EST, the Nobel prize for economics will be announced in Stockholm.

Two reasons why this is something I have been awaiting – firstly, my interest in economics that has deepened over the years means the names will be somewhat familiar as opposed to say a Medicine/Physics winner. Secondly, two Indians are on the favorites listAvinash Dixit of Game theory fame from Princeton and Jagdish Bhagwati from Columbia. The latter is better tipped infact.

Bhagwati, some may know, is one of the 3 with Amartya Sen and Manmohan Singh who are 1 year apart from each other that had parallel careers upto a point in the 1950s. They all went to Oxbridge for their studies, all of them returned to India and then the 3 took different paths – Manmohan stayed back in India, while the other two went back into Graduate school – Sen went back to the UK and Bhagwati came to MIT, Cambridge. Sen went on to win the Nobel in 1998 while Manmohan took an entire different path went on to make great and lasting contributions in a different sphere. The last time I heard Bhagwati speaking at a public event in India, he referred to the prime minister as Manmohan !

You must visit Bhagwati’s website that brings together remarks made by famous, some of them Nobel Laureate economists, on his 70th birthday celebrations. Here are two anecdotes.

From Paul Krugman, Bhagwati’s student and a likely Nobel Prize winner :

Those of you who missed the conference part earlier, there was a lot of discussion of who in the group was and was not an SOB – student of Bhagwati. And I am, of course, an SOB. And one of the things I came to learn, as I started to have students of my own, is that what your students remember is not what you hoped they would remember. You think they would remember your brilliant exposition of a model or your stunning blackboard technique, and instead they end up remembering the particularly good joke you told at some point.

And I have to say, one of my strongest memories of studying with Jagdish is a joke, which I have used in print – although the first time I was a little cautious, but I think I can attribute it explicitly to Jagdish right now. At one point Jagdish explained to us his personal theory of reincarnation, which was that if you are a good economist, a virtuous economist, you are reborn as a physicist, and if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.

From his wife and another distinguished economist, Padma Desai :

All of you know Jagdish as a brilliant economist, most of you as a loyal friend, some (including myself) as a close colleague, and a select few as a concerned teacher. I want to talk about Jagdish as I have known him, a devoted husband and an intellectual companion of nearly five decades, and a loving father to our daughter Anuradha.

Actually Anuradha and Jagdish have been, from day one, fun-loving, sparring companions rather than father and daughter. When she was hardly three, her day care teacher asked her: “Anuradha, what does your mother do?” “My mother goes to conferences.” “And your father? What does your father do?” “My father talks.” She had figured him out early on.

I leave you with an extract from a recent mail I wrote to a long lost classmate.

Coming to what you have been doing over the years, a wow went out of my mouth looking at your specialization – Economics, English, Psychology – yeah, if I had another chance to do it all, I would have gone for pretty much this combination, majored later in Economics, become an Economics. Prof and uuh, won a Nobel Prize in Economics. Okay, I overdid that one, cut that last part :P.

In the meanwhile, Go Bhagwati ! Is he going to sleep tonight ?

I am not. ( I have an assignment due ! )

Madhubala’s gentle reminder October 8, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india.
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A friend of mine in a jovial kind of banter sought to remind me, “Hey you, you remember that you are still an Indian” !

Ofcourse I am. Evidence – I prefer Madhubala in this Video rather than this one.( you might want to wait till 1:18 mins to see her face clearly). The difference – the presence of the bindi/dot in the first video versus the absence in the second. Why do I somehow feel infinitesimally more at home when the bindi is present ? I dont know.

Actually I know ! I dont think I want to get into a debate about how its mostly Hindu ladies wearing the Bindi/dot on the foreheads. So one might ask if I consider women of other religious denominations any less Indian ? Or someone prefering non-bindi women over bindi-ones is less Indian ? It might get worse – so do I discriminate against or find repulsive western white or Black women who also dont wear the dot ? No, I wont given into the tempatation of being drawn into a debate over this !

The point is simply this. Over 90% of my memories of seeing an Indian lady is with the Bindi. So while Madhubala’s bindi-less forehead by itself is not noticeable, watching the same fame within 10 seconds in the immediate next video with the Bindi, you tell yourself – wow, this is prettier/more at home/familiar-er !

Or for all you know, it wasnt about the Bindi at all. Maybe she was younger/older in one of the videos or maybe the setting, maybe one of the songs was more melodious or perhaps video quality is worse in one of them.

One is never sure. To irritate the reader a little more, Scottish Philosopher Hume went as far to believe that there is no such thing as cause and effect, its just perception. Nothing really is the cause of another.

I am not sure I understand that.

Honesty is hot ! October 8, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, rant.
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As days go by, the people we admire change. Ooops, that previous sentence has 2 meanings and I intended the non-obvious one. I actually meant to say we admire different qualities in people as we grow and not that people who we once admired grow or change as individuals ! Maybe I should have said something like – “As days go by, the kinds of people we admire, change.”

Some digression that ! Sorry.

Okay, so over the years, a new attribute has been rising steadily through the ranks and might quickly emerge in the top 3 qualities I admire in people. Intellectual honesty. I am talking in a broader sense than than the narrow sense of plagiarism rather something like this

We inherently generalize, categorize, prioritize, and harmonize what we see, and most of this takes place without our conscious awareness. While these aspects of thinking are of inestimable value, they also possess certain dangers; for example, they can inadvertently lead us into hasty judgments, and cause selective “blindness” toward new information. Perhaps the two most universal informal fallacies in thinking are generalizing from incomplete information and overlooking alternative explanations.

One of the reasons I feel this way is perhaps because atleast in my perception, I find very few such instances of demonstrated intellectual honesty. This is probably because its actually a sparsely valued and therefore rarely observable attribute. Or because I am generalizing from incomplete information and overlooking alternative explanations for why I have such a perception.

And to that most admired list, I would add intellectual breadth as well although its not that high up there yet. Lack of intellectual breadth, something I am myself working to fight in myself, could be related to disadvantages in upbringing ( no, thats not my excuse ) or a late realization of its value ( yeah, thats mine ). It takes time and is more quantitative in nature than intellectual honesty.

Is a good sign October 8, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, contemplation.
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I was just reading through my previous post when I noted what I wrote in there :

Just after two 90 hour weeks leading to a conference paper submission ( and hope that goes through !! ), while still maintaining to steal sometime reply to emails, write blog entries to maintain sanity ( as I am doing right now before another night out with a huge homework pending ), I just wonder if it can get any busier than this.

Wow, I think thats good sign because it means that this blog might just be here to stay, that things have gotten to a point where I need the blog more than the blog needs me. 🙂

My alterego ? June 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, economics.
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A blog I have been visiting a few times everyday – more often than any of the mainstream media newspapers/magazines – has this post today – and it had me dumbstruck.

For a while now, I have been thinking about this and I even for a moment thought that maybe I should write to Prof. Mankiw. Reading the post today, I was so shocked that for a moment I was wondering if I had written to him unknowingly …until ofcourse I came across a little piece of detail that would not hold for me !

I’ve also done a lot of reading on the subject (including your wonderful macro textbook).

As the readers of this blog and my other blog know and is somewhat evidenced here, here and here, I have done quite a bit of economics reading (see blogroll ), but ofcourse I have not read Prof. Mankiw’ s Macroeconomics textbook ( though I have his Principles textbook borrowed from the library ( that reminds me, its due today !! ) )

Weird indeed – so what next ? Let me think about it !

Notes from India, on India June 3, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
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Found a few harmless notes as I was cleaning up my machine. These are what I wrote on my first trip to India ( first, since I came here ) last December. They are infact the beginnings and the only remnants of my ‘resolve’ that I would obsessively document my first India trip ( Dec 22rd 05-Jan 14th, 06 ).

I happened to reach Bombay in the middle of the night ( as people usually do ) . And in addition to a mail that I sent off to my school group here within an hour of landing, I had this little thing which for some reason I didnt include in that mail.

Well, for now though everything in the past 1.5 years seems like an illusion – Temperatures below 25 celsius don’t exist. Trip to India is a dream. Ashith’s trip was a nightmare. Pittsburgh, Boston, New York – they are far-away cities on the map. Carnegie Mellon is a university somewhere. America is there. India is here.

Maybe I was just waiting to be sure its wasnt all that same !

Anyway, the next morning in a note, there was this –

“It was my first exposure to India in the daytime. Its been a complex set of emotions – but they have been anything unlike what I expected. There are different kind of complexities themselves – this is one of them. Almost a certain lack of complexity that makes it complex. It seems all quite simple.

I don’t seem to be at all perturbed or affected by the India – well, in a way, I cannot be because nothing much has really changed in the p500d. ( p500d – an abbreviation I used to convey “past 500 days” – the duration I was away from India ) Inspite of it though I thought I would – I wasn’t perturbed by the wait in the traffic, not the constant honking, people suddenly walk across the ….”

And thats all, I stopped there – that was from my Aunt’s place. I may have been interrupted for some stupid reason – maybe my aunt called to say that the hotwater ( for bath ) was ready or my grandmom called to ask whether she should make potato curry or cabbage curry or cousin came running into the room, jumped right into my bed and made me see one of the her paintings ( she is an artist). Or whatever the reason was – that really was my second and last note. And therefore, my India trip remains perfectly undocumented or better put, imperfectly documented !

Nevertheless, it atleast shows that I wasnt bothered by anything ( though I noted them) and took me no time at all to feel at home. I was expecting to be perturbed – partly because I was told I would and partly because it was not unreasonable to expect to – though ofcourse the question of whether 1.5 years is long enough time to make us easily irritable on freshly encountering certain old realities is debatable.

an immigrant’s life May 24, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, india, politics.
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Jeff Jacoby has an interesting post on the immigration problem in the Boston Globe….especially his starting is quite riveting ….

Amid the din over illegal immigration, I have been thinking about two immigrants I happen to know rather well.

One is a 3-year-old boy from southern Guatemala. He was brought to the United States in March 2004, one of 11,170 adopted orphans to immigrate that year. The other, who will turn 81 in August, comes from a small village in what is now Slovakia. He entered the United States in the spring of 1948, a few months before his 23d birthday.

Born an ocean and 78 years apart, these two immigrants might seem on the surface to have little in common. But as naturalized US citizens, they in fact have a great deal in common. English, to mention the most obvious example, is the primary language for both. Neither retains the customs of his native land. Both have a share in the American constitutional patrimony.

The little boy from Guatemala is my younger son. The older man from Slovakia is my father.”

Read complete article here. This was linked from an equally interesting, but more about the political debate on immigration, post here.

We guys who come from places where our parents’ native places are barely miles away or sometimes walking distances and often settle a few 100 kms from our ancestral homes – we will never know what it is to be in such a position. I particularly have in mind European and East Asian settlers in the United States. Cynics might speak of a identity crisis that it causes but if that were true, this nation should have been one of 200 million inferiority complexes.

Yes, such a thing as an identity crisis does exist – but in a majority of the cases, over time it disappears and if you not, people leave for home – because afterall, you leave or stay because you want to or otherwise. This ofcourse is the case of recent immigrants – people who immigrated from Europe or East Asian in the pre-war and post war years have decidedly made the United States their home.

At this point, I must refer to one particularly touching article that Jhumpa Lahiri, an engaging writer and a charming woman, wrote – I should link it again. Brilliant ones both articles !

Taxing Times April 14, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, CMU, contemplation, economics, humor.
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I just did my taxes this week – about after 1 hour of filling the forms, 4 envelopes go out to 4 different places – Federal Tax, Pennsylvania state tax, Massachussets state tax ( I was in Boston from Jan – May 2005 ) and the Pittsburgh city tax. And I must admit I feel good paying these taxes ! Yeah, I am probably insane, but somehow I feel like a responsible citizen – when I obey a law – especially one that some people find really hard to and would do anything to evade.

With April 15th being the tax time ( and taxing time ) in the United States, there are several articles in the media about various aspects of taxation. My casual interest in economics has only become deeper reading these articles and filling those forms. I used to wonder how people study taxation policy for years and write thesis on it – I wondered if there was so much at all to study – other than answering ‘simple’ questions like – whom to tax, how much to tax, what to tax and how to tax.

Well, questions they are, but simple they aren’t. Its amazing how taxes ( and incentives – these days my favorite word ! ) can matter so much as I discovered reading some articles on this topic – they aren’t talking so much about details of taxation but opinion pieces on some aspects of it. I will rest of the post to link to the articles I read or am planning to read.

Should taxes depend on age ?

Why should I pay taxes ?

Why a mugger is better than the IRS !

( IRS – equivalent of the Income tax dept. in the United States )

What happens to your taxes ?

What will you do (to me) if I dont pay taxes ?

Have a good time ( or a taxing time ) depending on whether you think taxes ( or reading about them ) is good for you !

When was the last time you failed ? February 26, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, statistics.
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Forgive me for saying this, but if you haven’t (failed), a huge setback is probably just around the corner !

I look around to see if I know somebody who hasn’t had the opportunity (note the use the word of the word ‘opportunity’) of having to bite the dust, of facing one of the life’s biggest setbacks, and its hard to find any. And even if I do manage to find a handful of such twenty some-things who indeed have had a jolly good ride all their life, it’s probably only because their time ( and ‘opportunity’ ) is yet to come.

I wonder if the person who coined the adage – “Every dog has its day” was really talking a day where one finds redemption, that unbridled joy of success or if it’s a day of dejection and despair. This is no cynicism or jealousy, this is simply a realization that there will always be times in our lives when life will hand us a rude shock in terms in failed project, a broken relationship or crushed ambition. I have had many of those myself too – and I have known people around me – friends and family members who have – who have been through some real tough times. Life, I guess, does not spare any of us.

A study of our attitudes to success and setbacks can be interesting indeed. I have seen different people go through motions and emotions of failure rather differently. There have been people who have withdrawn into a shell – out of humiliation and loss of confidence. And there have been those who have done so for a different reason – seeking a becalmed and mostly objective reassessment of circumstances in order to evolve a different strategy for the future. There have also been those who have forever downsized their expectations from themselves. Its amazing how some of us can be – no amount of success can boost our confidence, but a single setback can cause irreversible damage to our assessment of our abilities and strengths.

I have an interesting question to pose – what amazes me is not why people fail – but why people are successful at all! For most things we aim at, the probability of failure is far lower than that of success i.e. there are far more ways of getting something wrong than getting it right. If It is not true by nature, its true by design – the multiple choice questions are designed with more wrong answers than questions – this is to diminish the role of luck and effectively help separate the grain from chaff. It is a reasonable argument that we do not guess our answers when we write our exams – but what about the person who set the questions. If he had to choose 50 out of a bank of 100 questions and if he had chosen every even numbered question instead of an odd numbered question, the result might have been different. As an aside, I have always wondered why they aren’t called “multiple choice answers“– the choice we have to make is from the answers, not the questions!

My personal opinion on setbacks is not only that they are not accidental – they are inevitable! It’s impossible to do everything and do everything right – such a thing would violate the natural and empirical laws that govern our society. It’s probably Ted Roosevelt who said that one who never fails is one who does nothing! So infact
, I think it makes us look stupid when we expect to be successful in whatever we do. All you can do is minimize them and when do they happen, reduce the likelihood that such and similar setbacks repeating by learning broad lessons from them.

I understand that statistics and empirical science is probably not the only way to look at this – it doesn’t motivate anyone to tell them that probabilistically, they are (and in fact, each of us is ) more likely to fail than succeed. Or worse still, I don’t recommend that when your friends are in trouble, you tell them that it was inevitable and that they deserved it!

In conclusion, this is not an attempt by a desensitized unromantic statistician to invoke the laws of probability to explain success and failure in society. I myself have suffered the ignominy of failure many a times before and appreciate that success, failure and our response to them are far more multi-layered than that. It is however, imperative to remember that sometimes its not poor judgment alone, or the lack of preparation or preparedness or the proverbial black cat – it’s the empirical laws that govern human behavior and their consequences that have a role to play in things going wrong. We all understand this in some sense – and so there is no much novelty in what I suggest here – we have always known these factors, except we collapse them in all into one word – “bad luck”! It’s probably a word we must use more often – not of course as regular alibi but as a pragmatic tool to handling setbacks.

I hope our society exercises more tolerance in cases of one-time failures, (especially our own) and dare I say, at least a little skepticism of a one-time success!