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Krulwich wonders well

Robert Krulwich, author of the wonderful blog 'Krulwich wonders' and the host of a radio show is sadly moving away from NPR. You can find the announcement here.

Krulwich's blog is one of the best I've read on issues of popular science. He is not a scientist himself but manages to understand and convey interesting minutiae about the scientific world. It is in equal measure like the 'The Oatmeal' comic by Matt Inman and part like XKCD's 'What If?' blogs, both of which are frequently featured on Krulwich's blog. At other times, this blog feels like a curator of pop culture like 'Open Culture' and 'Brain Pickings' and frequently posts funny videos. Krulwich and his team manage may not necessarily tackle difficult questions such as the cosmos, like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson do. They look at simple, interesting topics such as the regenerative planarian worm and manage to distill years of scientific research into a simple narrative, illustrated with loving cartoons. At other times he writes about interesting back of the envelope calculations and thought experiments.

He is still involved with another popular project, Radiolab. Teaming up with MacArthur prize winning Jad Abumrad (see their interview with Colbert), they tackle interesting scientific issues. The first one that I ever listened to was called 'The fact of the matter' (also perhaps their most controversial). One of the vignettes in the podcast tackled reports of yellow rain during the Cold war which was believed to be due to Chemical weapons but there was strong evidence that it was really bee poop. An interview with a Hmong survivor and his translator turned out ugly, they accused Kruwich and Abumrad of completely ignoring the issue of genocide (typical Western attitude). They had expected the interview to be their chance to shed light on the horrors they had escaped from. Krulwich's aggressive line of questioning about the rain, upset them and the interview ended in their tears. Radiolab's position is defensible, even if a little misguided. Despite this one episode, I think Radiolab is a very interesting experiment. Here are a list of interesting episodes.

See also his entertaining commencement speech here, in which he talks about his career from law school to journalism.
I was working at the Starbucks from the second floor that had an amazing view of Harvard Square - a view that is likely to be reconstructed in a future movie with great attention to detail capturing the zeitgeist and clothing of the millennial generation in a show worthy of Mad Men’s story telling. I packed my bags and walked to the train station right outside the cafe, walked down the steps with reggae music playing and into the dimly lit Harvard station, mechanically swiped my Charlie Card without even taking it out of my wallet and went to the platform with the inbound train to Kendall Square. Here I was going to meet a friend and we were going to watch the 8:10 show of the movie ‘Her’.

I walked the long platform to find a region with low density of people and before long I was near the end and my mind was occupied and I stopped somewhere near a street musician playing an acoustic guitar. I payed little attention to him and I was absorbed in my own thoughts, occasionally glancing at the train schedule to get information about the delayed train. I recognized the guitarist playing the intro to Stairway to Heaven before devolving into a rendition that was far from the original. The man had now stopped playing and when I turned behind out of instinct by now there was a man in a blue overcoat and I assumed that he was giving money to the guitarist but he continued to accost him and soon it became clear that he was harassing the man.

Apparently this guy had taken offense at the way he played Stairway to Heaven and repeatedly made it a point to say how shitty it was. We had all turned behind to see this commotion and the people around me were vocal in their condemnation of this blue coated asshole. Another guy with a wheat colored woolen cap and a brown worn out coat took upon himself to also trade insults with this dude. The guitarist looked weak and got up to speak up and he spoken with broken English but the blue overcoat made it worse by mocking his stutter. It was a cringe worthy moment.

I would have willingly joined in the verbal abuse that was being openly traded but in moments of public altercations my entire grasp of the English language fails me.

In support of the poor homeless guy a lot of people gave him money and offered their support to him. A few moments later, the train arrived and most of the crowd got in including the two people who were on the verge of a fist fight. I was a little disappointed because I wanted to see a lynch mob. We all got into the same compartment. The righteous man was checking to see if the man in the blue overcoat was still harassing the guitarist and was prepared to wait for the next train. The train ride was eventless except I heard a girl with a handsome face, her blonde hair tied back with a gray floral headband and a strand of hair in her face narrating this incident to her fellow passengers pointing out the man who was not too far from us.

I thought no more of this incident and after two stops I got out of the train station and walked towards the theater.

I finally had my revenge. I was entering the theater to join in line with the burgeoning queue and the same guy was in front of me and he opened the door for me while I rudely cut in front of him and joined the queue. I hope he missed the first few moments of a violent preview of a terrible movie. I hope he had a shitty evening.

P.S. Hopefully, my encounters with homeless will become an ongoing series.

Hunger was good discipline

At Tufts, I have an office that is far from the main campus at Medford and even further from my house. It has few people and none that I know very well. Maybe that will change. There is a bus that comes quite close to my apartment and takes me right in front of my office building but it comes once in every hour or so and I always seem to miss it. So, I either walk to a cafe that is on campus or off-campus. I frequent some of these cafes and I go to my office 1-2 days of the week and I spend the rest of the week alternating between these cafes. I prefer the ones with a good internet connection. Some of them are too crowded during the weekends and I try to avoid them.

As nice as they are, I find them highly overpriced. They have tempting sandwiches but they are close to $10 and not filling. Even as a vegetarian I am forced to pay the same amount (or sometimes more) for a malnourished, overpriced sandwich because they use exotic ingredients like avocado and goats cheese which is not native to the terribly cold Boston and whereabouts. I usually go there after a good breakfast and I order a coffee of some kind (au lait or latte) and settle myself in a comfortable position with easy access to a charging point. Sometimes after a while I order a scone or muffin. The morning is usually gone keeping abreast with the latest news and opinions. For lunch, I avoid buying these expensive sandwiches, partly as a misplaced protest, and mostly with the intention that I will go home soon and cook myself a heavy meal. If there are nearby places to eat, I sometimes grab a cheap lunch. The whole process of packing and wearing the thick winter coat with gloves and scarf and caps is tiresome and sometimes you don't feel like leaving because you have found a comfortable location.

On good days, when I have sometimes skipped my meal, I have very productive afternoons and I accomplish more than I expect to. I like to think that it is because of hunger. Hemingway said when he was a impoverished writer in Paris, he too used to skip lunch and go see paintings and he came to admire Cezanne. (The title for this post comes from a chapter Hemingway wrote in 'A moveable feast'.) Hunger was good discipline sometimes. Then, feeling a little accomplished (mostly the illusion of accomplishment), I walk back home and sometimes I pick up something that I can make for dinner. I went to a crowded market one Saturday and after skillfully dodging bargain hunters and after gathering my supplies I wanted to pay and go home but the line was interminable and the checkout lines were packed with families wielding shopping carts overflowing with groceries. The couple in front of me were Brazilian and this was a Brazilian dominated supermarket and they spoke to the cashier in Portuguese. They paid some money in cash and handed some checks to the cashier for the rest of their purchases and this took an unusually long time and my hunger was not helping. Even though I was extremely patient, the person behind me was loudly voicing his disapproval. I later realized that they were probably paying using food stamps. I felt sorry for the young couple. My hunger was self-inflicted and in the grand scheme of things, foolish.

The worst question

There is no question that this is the worst possible question that one could ask someone is - "What do your parents do?"

As an Indian this is a very natural question to ask. You have just been introduced to someone and after you have exchanged pleasantries and traded insights about the weather and are afraid of lapsing into an awkward silence, so you naturally ask "What do your parents do?" The answer is something banal, like "Oh, my dad used to work for a watch company and now he is retired and my mom is a house-wife." "How nice" you say and social awkwardness has been averted, if only momentarily, as your new acquaintance can also inquire about a banal triviality.

Asking this question can be the worst possible thing. Not because it is a bad question but I am always afraid what the answer will be. Some story about a broken home, or how one of them is dead, dying, handicapped or crazy. "Oh." you say and wished you had never asked it. An innocuous question has become a conversation ender. It is not because they are embarrassed by whatever the circumstances are, but the realization that you have asked something deeply personal and perhaps something that has caused, or is causing significant distress.

Best to avoid this topic. Instead ask, "What are you doing for the rest of your life?"

Thoughts about completing a PhD

I knew for a long time that I wanted to do a PhD but now I can't remember the reasons why. I wanted to be involved in research, in one way or another, and I think getting a PhD was the natural way forward. I genuinely enjoyed by summer research experiences, even more so than the course work I had at college. The most important thing for me back then was to get into a top-level research university. By whatever stroke of luck I managed to get into Stanford.

Oscar Wilde (or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw) once said, "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." I can't complain about the former but it was definitely not the latter. But now that I got what I wanted - I realized that I had no real ambitions in life left. This was deeply disappointing. I only wanted to do something because it was highly regarded, thus creating an "external locus of identity" (in Dr. Beverley Hofstadter's words) for myself. How could I aspire to something so vacuous? But thinking about what to do next soon took a back seat to surviving at Stanford.

Stanford is a place where cutting edge research happens and one is acutely aware of it but you always tend to forget it. However, success is judged by very superficial terms - the number of publications that you produce. And if you are in a field where journal publications are the norm, then your entire stay (of 6 years, if you are lucky) is summarized by a number like 3 (again, if you are lucky). In fields that involve writing conference papers, it is somewhat easier to publish in a conference for the following reasons: there are a large number of them that happen frequently, the turnaround time is much smaller than that of a journal and I think deadlines for conferences are good motivating factors for progress. The downside is that they are not always well polished. This gross reduction to a single digit number is deeply demoralizing, especially in the early years.

If you think about it - there is very little to feel good about while doing a PhD. You earn a meagre amount when your friends are working more structured hours, getting paid better and at the very least have their weekends free because they haven't slacked off during the week. If you are anything like me, you will be constantly comparing yourself to other PhD students who are extremely smart. Then you try to work but you often encounter several dead-ends, and you have pick yourself up, dust and start all over again. And have nothing to show for it. You can always say that you learned something new but hearing that is tiresome and insufferable after a while and even you don't believe it anymore. In the early years, taking classes feels somewhat good because it provides a minor sense of accomplishment. When you are not seeing any tangible results, when you find yourself envying someone else for publishing a paper, when you lose the courage to get up and work because you secretly hope that some miracle will happen in later years and you will get the results and papers that you want. I think many days, even week days, I have done nothing but watch TV. Although it is mostly hopeless, but there are some redeeming qualities, you almost always have a sense of satisfying an intellectual curiosity. Then most days you do nothing. This is not bad at all.

I should also explain a little about what I did. Actually it doesn't matter what I did but how I was supposed to do it. I am a computational mathematician which means that I design numerical schemes for solving analytically intractable mathematical problems that usually have real-world applications. Although I enjoyed the fact that what I learned was so widely applicable, I never wanted to teach a real application with a ten-foot pole. Real-world problems always require some more effort. I was in the business of developing numerical schemes that were always more efficient in terms of computational time and computer memory. Thus, there was the strange predicament of already knowing how to solve it but now having to find a new, faster method to solve it. These two things combined were hard to achieve together. If you were a application specialist, you would mostly care about solving a problem correctly (not if there was novelty in your method). This is not entirely true; application journals are frequently peddling applications of well known numerical methods as new methods. What I don't like about what I did was that I would often try to derive a new algorithm that exploited some structure and then I would go and look for a real-world-like problem with those features. I think this is not a very good way of doing science. Doing this, however, is much harder and more destined for failure but success is ultimately very rewarding. If you discover and exploit some structure or some connections between seemingly disparate fields or ideas, your work may be widely read and better yet, used. Then there is the issue of novelty. This is very hard to justify - most published work is just an arduous struggle towards a substantial contribution. Most papers are not really novel. But even to make minor improvements one has to read and understand a lot of existing material. This is very time consuming and it is often disheartening because most ideas that you may have, have already been done.

Although this ended up a bleak description, at no point did I doubt that I couldn't complete a PhD at Stanford. But that is not to say that I did not do stupid things to hurt myself.

Good writing

I don't consider myself a good writer, even though I am highly opinionated about writing. I have limited patience while reading and I like authors who get to the point very quickly. Of late, I am trying to make it a point to limit my use of "big words" and try to explain what I want to say as simply as possible. I will try to elaborate on what writing practices annoy me immensely but for now I will provide a link to George Orwell's essay on "Politics and English language" which you can read here.

Nothing is a surer sign of mediocre writing than the use of cliches. Yet, it seems political writing (which I will assume to be from newspapers and magazines) in the early 20th century seems as full of canned phrases as they are today. Mediocre writing I can tolerate, but not pointless rants, veering endlessly and I often wish people who write articles, take the time out to organize an article and are stern editors of their own writing by trimming off anything that doesn't contribute to the narrative.

Orwell makes the compelling case that the use of stale language, not only is a result of, but also enables poor intellect. Personally, I think I hardly use canned phrases or similes and metaphors. But after reading his diatribe about mixed metaphors and at the same time, his usage of rather new and superb metaphors I will try to take his advice to first think of what I want to say in terms of images and sentiments before using words to describe them. These two things - stripping out high-sounding words and trying to imagine fully what I want to convey, has made writing harder for me. I hope in the end that this effort will be well worth it.

P.S. If I ever manage the will, I will try to explain with examples the kind of writing in newspaper articles and research papers that gets me angry. Strangely, at least it is strange to me, I know sometimes people think exactly the opposite of what I consider bad writing.

Improving women's rights in India

Maybe when the hue and cry about demanding the death penalty or chemical castration for rape subsides, we will look at serious lasting solutions for reducing crimes related to women in India. Possible solutions must include police reform - adding women police officers, regular training to police officers to make them sensitive to women's issues, prioritize acting on such reports; judicial reforms - judges following the letter of the law, not making absurd suggestions such as marrying the perpetrator, fast-track courts for adjudication, adequate representation from women prosecutors and judges, including free psychological counseling; political reform - enacting laws that ensure safety of women at workplaces and on the street; and societal reform - accepting the fact that women have every right to be treated with the same respect and dignity accorded to men.

Some stomach churning facts that emerge from this recent nationwide about rape that I was definitely ignorant of - (1) several women are molested and abused by relatives or people that they know and possibly trust, (2) often times, instead of being treated as the victim, they are made out as the criminal, (3) the deep seated mentality that raped women had it coming to them (4) the appallingly low conviction rate, of an already extremely (likely) under-reported crime.

For starters, how about accurate reporting of crime related to women (rape, domestic violence, etc). I recently read this paper, skipping the data analysis, entitled "The Power of Political Voice: Women's Political Representation and Crime in India", which you should be able to download here. The authors make a convincing case that representation of women in politics increase in women related crime and police responsiveness. They conclude that the increase can be attributed to increased reporting, rather than a backlash against women's increasing role in government or increased crime rate, on account of women stepping out into the workplace.

To me it stands to reason that increased representation of women in lower levels of government might help improve several conditions of women - increased access to prenatal healthcare, improvement in education, as argued above more active role in police enforcement towards crime towards women, etc. and in general, possibly lower corruption. However, it doesn't seem to be the case that women in higher levels of politics seem to make any difference. Each one is worse than the other, and no better than most men in politics.

It is heartwarming to see so many Indians protest in support of the rape-victim. I continue to find it absurd that the girl is forever, unfortunately defined by what happened to her, rather than who she was; although, I understand that the family has a right to privacy. My own humble suggestion is we refer to the victim as Aparajita (unvanquished), rather than Nirbhaya (fearless).

Make good art

You might have seen or read Neil Gaiman's commencement speech And maybe you've even seen the Zen pencils cartoon

It almost seems like David Sedaris somehow followed this advice to the letter. He narrates stories of misfortune that a lesser person would probably be horribly depressed over and finds something humorous in them. Read him if you get the chance. He has several stories in the NewYorker that you should be able to find easily.


Take any sport. They have some inane names likening them to war or warriors, satanic cults, colors etc. That is only if they are lucky. Otherwise insects (eg. grasshoppers), animals young and old (cubs, bulls and bears). For some reason they have withstood the test of time. Some clubs started off a passtime of overworked, underpaid blue collar workers looking for something to momentarily forget the Sisyphean situation in the pre-information overload times.' Now, people swear lifetime allegiance to a rotating cast of heavily marketed, overpaid, greedy, egoistic buffoons who don't realize how lucky they are to be playing whatever inane sport they are playing, instead of suffering the soul crushing drudgery of a white collared job.

Consider any sports website. You will find the following articles. Some new kid being compared to an old timer. Either he will be honored by that comparision, or he will insist that he is setting his own image and legacy. Or, some other forgotten player trying to weigh in his opinion (read, ego) by either confirming or denying this comparision. In addition, I have seen the following trend in cricket based websites: a misty eye tribute to a player, glorified for his gentlemanly behaviour. Lush cliches are evoked. What irks me most is a unnecessary narration of a childhood memory of why following a particular player was the most important event in one's life - or why they think he is very underrated. Why one player's abilities is the subject of much discussion, while another one's isn't. Will he or won't he retire. Someone is vilified for being a dick. Some one if praised for doing what one is overpaid to do. The less said about pre-match and post-match discussions, the better. "Yes, we will try to win." or "Yes, we tried to win."

There comes the occassional person, who doesn't like to talk much. You know who I am talking about. His opinion is worth listening to, but he doesn't want to give it anyway. Perhaps, we should be listening to that person. Or listening to the fact that he doesn't have much to say. He has an existential understanding of how lucky he is and how it could all come crashing down in the matter of seconds.

I don't understand why this outpour of hatred came out. Sport is fine. What I hate is the media, though. You manipulative bastards, you!

The West Coast trail - Day 0

Early morning found me on a shuttle ride to the airport. After enduring an extremely grumpy driver, had to endure daylight robbery by United airlines for excess baggage(i.e. my backpack). A short two hour flight later, I landed in Vancouver airport. The immigration officer was more inquisitive than the Americans I have had to deal with. That too passed by without incident. Jammy arrived shortly and we picked up exactly from where we had left. Ferry tickets for the boat ride to Victoria were purchased. A bus took us to the harbour and then to our suprise also got into the ship! We moved to the upper decks which had overpriced food, thoroughly lacking in vegetarian options and walkways around the periphery from which one could get a good view of the ocean, the coasts and snow-capped mountains. I suspected we could see parts of the US as well, including the Cascade range. We would be hiking the coast the next day and a preview of the scenery to be seen in the next few days was exciting.

The bus then dropped us off quite close to the hostel we were staying at. This hostel, surprisingly, was full of old people. They were on a budget too, I suppose. We dropped our bags there and went around to explore. I think one of the first things that struck me about the city was the colonial hangover it had. The street we were staying on was Yates and there were restaurants called James Joyce Bistro and pubs called Sticky Wicket (a cricket themed pricey pub, in a country, in which only immigrants play cricket. Then again, weren't most people immigrants.). I am told that there is a town just outside Victoria called Oakbay in which the snooty people that live there think they are more English than English people. Their accents were completely confusing, with heavy British influence. We had to do a bit of last minute food shopping for our trip. We bought some freeze dried food and a dry sack to hang my food from. By this time, we thought Victoria was a swell place and we wanted to spend more time in it after we got back from our hike. I conjectured that after the hike, we wouldn't feel like walking for the next few days. It turns out I was more accurate than I could imagine. I was right about myself, at least. But more on that later.

We did another British activity, namely, drank tea in the evening. Bhayak landed from Seattle and with him, we went around some more. We choose an Asian bistro run by whities and were surprised by the good food. A celebratory beer was consumed, a toast to a meeting long overdue and an adventure waiting to happen. Bhayak feeling invincible asked for a suicidal level of spiciness in his food and that he got. Despite repeatedly insisting that the food was amazing he was not able to finish the meal. We wanted to call an early night, so we headed back to our hostel to pack our backpacks and hope that it wouldn't be too heavy. We colonized a common space and in full view of curious onlookers, started distributing common gear and sorting out the food. Never having done a trip of this length, we could only guesstimate the amount of food we would need. Much debate was done and a consensus was reached. We had tonnes of excess food. We had delightful company. A lady from Scotland originally, kept us amused with stories from her various travels abroad. She cycled all over the world for her honeymoon. See that's just it: every backpacker I meet has this wonderful story about how they climbed Kilimanjaro, or visited India(parts of India that I had never been to or even heard of), or some amazing tale about how they had the most incredible experience. Lots of people say they'd like to travel. If they had the time and money.

We went to bed hoping to catch some sleep.