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Count me out

I usually take the campus bus to my office and it is usually overflowing with undergrads. I am usually witness to some remarkable conversations. For example,

Girl: "... at least, you wake up when the alarm goes off. I overslept once by like six hours."
Boy: "Seriously!?"
"Yeah, I had set an alarm for 7:30 but I didn't wake up until 11:30."
"That's only 4 hours."
"8:30, 9:30, 10:30, 11:30..."
"Oh, I mean I woke up at 12:30."
"That's still not 6 hours."
"Whatever, shut up!"

In her defense, she said "like 6 hours" and not "literally 6 hours" or the more ambiguous "literally like 6 hours".

R.K. Narayan's Malgudi

I am often reminded of this quote by Orhan Pamuk who wrote in the Foreword to ‘Exile and Kingdom’ by Albert Camus:

“We admire writers first for their books. But as time goes on, we cannot remember reading them without also revisiting the world as we then knew it and recalling the inchoate longings that they awoke in us.”

Truer words may have never been penned.

I had recently bought an R.K. Narayan omnibus. I had bought it once but I gave it to my friend as a parting gift. I really enjoyed reading him in high school. I find many of my tastes from that time puerile. So it is with some hesitation that I started reading this omnibus.

I don’t remember exactly how I felt when I first read Swami and Friends. I think I remember it best for its humor. Swami’s various schemes and his struggles with his father, who is persistent in teaching Swami arithmetic. I had forgotten how powerful Narayan’s spare prose was, I didn’t think I would be moved by Swami’s disappearance from Malgudi causing him to miss his cricket match. Malgudi may have been a thinly disguised version of Bangalore/Mysore of yore (apocryphally the name Malgudi is supposed to be a portmanteau of Malleshwaram and Basavanagudi and I live nearby Basavanagudi). So it it not surprising that I related to his stories and their themes. But after rereading them, I realized the stories and the writing have a universal quality to them. Narayan’s Malgudi is a magical town filled with interesting characters; I almost wish that I lived there, despite it being pre-independence India. Sarayu river is the refuge of the spurned lover, the adulterous husband, the hopeful bachelor, the occasional thief. The best description of his work is by V.S. Naipaul: "small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means.” I also very much enjoyed Shankar Nag’s screen adaptation and so did my family.

I remember liking some of his tragic stories like ’The Vendor of Sweets’ best although I very much enjoyed his tragi-comedies like ‘Painter of Signs’, in which Raman is attracted to someone who is obsessed with family planning, a powerful KLPD. I also remember a very funny story in which a character from Malgudi meets a traveler from Timbuktu and exclaims that he now knows that Timukutu is as real as Malgudi is - of course, in reality, Timbuktu is real and Malgudi isn't. Perhaps the one major novel that I hadn’t read was ‘The Guide’. And now after reading this omnibus (some of the books I hadn’t previously read), I can’t wait to read the rest of his work.

Why I ran away from Indonesia

On the way back to Stanford after visiting my home in Bangalore I stopped off for a week to visit some friends in Singapore. I had traveled to Malaysia for three days where I saw Malacca and Kuala Lumpur before returning to Singapore. My friends were busy working, so they suggested I go to the island of Bintan, in Indonesia, which is only an hour long by ferry from Singapore. I entered and left Singapore within a few hours and on the ferry ride to Bintan I endured videos of Dora the explorer and as the journey progressed, I saw ominous dark clouds on the horizon. My sunny vacation was going to be ruined.

I land on the shores of Bintan and while getting a visa on arrival, I am asked for a bribe by the official which I gave because I didn’t want to be stranded. After customs, I realized I had no plan or knew what I was doing. I negotiated with a driver to take me to a hotel. I expected to be taken in a car or auto-rickshaw, but to my shock, he brought his motorcycle. I was scared whether he would leave me on the street and rob me, but seeing no other option, I mounted on the pillion. On the way, there was a torrential downpour. We headed for cover. The rain stopped for a bit and we reached the hotel. But soon there was more rain, there was little for me to do that day and maybe even the next day.

This was the time before I had a smartphone and my only means of entertainment was an unfortunate book I happened to be carrying - ‘Elisabeth Costello’ by J.M. Coetzee. I have to explain how depressing this book is. J.M. Coetzee is known to be so serious that to quote Rian Malan, "A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.” The book is built around 8 lectures that she gives, modeled from actual lectures by Coetzee himself. The story in between these lectures is one of a strained relationship between Costello and her son’s family. One of the chapters (and lectures) was Costello's (and hence Coetzee’s) position on Vegetarianism and Animal rights. She argues that our current practice of Factory Farming of animals is similar to Nazi Germany, an indirect empirical verification of Godwin's law. Obviously, Coetzee does not make this claim lightly.

What I want to convince you of, is that it was not light reading material. After an hour of boredom, I was done with the intellectual masturbation. The prospect of spending a lonely evening in Indonesia was too much for me.

I packed my bag, haggled with the concierge (who couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave so soon) and then got a ride to the pier. He was nice enough to give me most of my money back. I bought a ticket for the last ferry to Singapore, where I had friends I could hang out with. In my hurry, I lost my book in Indonesia but I was not in any great hurry to get it back. I returned to Singapore by Ferry with a re-run of Dora the explorer, and clear skies on the horizon.


A guide to Somerville’s coffee shops

When I leave Boston after 2 years, one of the few things I will miss about the place is the access to incredible coffee shops. I showed up at the Tufts camp only 2-3 days of the week and my office rarer still because it was incredibly inconvenient to get there. The rest I spent lounging in coffee shops. I have no friends at work and few friends outside of it. My work, or lack thereof, doesn’t require me to actually be at a desk. Somerville is extremely hipster; a by-product of the recent gentrification in this area. The cafes often have a rotating display of art by local artisans and craftsmen. I frequently see artists drawing or doing graphic design. Some of the criteria that I use to decide on a coffee place - ease of finding a seat, WiFi, access to charging points, quality of coffee/food, cleanliness of bathrooms. I don’t mind the background noise here and I enjoy watching people and it doesn’t distract me. I have spent many productive and unproductive hours here. None of these cafes actually have free WiFi but here’s a neat trick: If you have an xfinity connection, you can use it to login anywhere into the `xfinitywifi’ network and what's more, they seem to be all over Boston. For a purportedly evil conglomerate bent on destroying net neutrality and outrageous customer service, this is a pretty good feature. Because the people who work here are hipster, the music they play here feels like it has been taken from my Spotify playlists. So even the days I forget to bring a pair of earphones with me, it is not so bad. To get a sense of what I mean by a cool indie coffee place, here is an explanation from Louis C.K. Here are some of the places I really liked.

Davis Square: Conveniently accessible by the red line T, there are three coffee shops here in close proximity - Diesel, Iyo and Starbucks. There are also good options for food around: Amsterdam Falafel shop, Snappy Sushi, etc. This is one of the larger Starbucks and except for the quality of coffee and food is a good place to work from. The other two coffee shops are hipster and therefore, quite pricey. Iyo has good coffee and good FroYo. They have special deal for FroYo, on a day cooler than 32 F, they give (32-T) % discount; so if it is outside 0F you get 32% off. They also have a 2 hour free WiFi coupon which you can get upon purchase. Diesel is my favorite coffee shop here. They have good coffee, soups, and pastries and I always manage to find a seat here even when it is really busy. It is also open late and has pool tables. Diesel is the main theme of the cafe, they have a motorcycle hoisted at the entrance, an ancient petrol pump, and writings on the wall with the history of Rudolph Diesel and the Diesel Engine (talk about gentrification).

Union Square: This is my favorite weekend haunt. There are two coffee shops here: Bloc 11 and Fortissimo. I discovered Bloc 11 by accident. I actually came to this area to go to Cafe Tango, which turned out to be a salsa dancing studio. Bloc 11 was conveniently opposite it and has now become my favorite shop here. It also happens to be close to Market Basket, my favorite grocery store here, and an Indian store. The other reason I enjoy this place enormously is that it is close to a really good comic book store, where inevitably I end up buying a good book or two. Bloc 11 has the same owners as Diesel, which I discovered because they had the same food and rotating cast of hipster waiters. It also has really good outdoor seating which is inactive for a big part of the year because of the cold weather. But in the summer, it is easy to get a table. A lesser known place is Fortissimo, which was run by Brazillians. The coffee is good, food okay, but it is very convenient in the winter months when Bloc 11 is overflowing. Bloc 11 used to be an old bank, you can actually eat inside the vault (talk about gentrification). There are a few good places to eat around here: Buk Kyung (Korean), Machu Picchu (Peruvian), Neighborhood restaurant (Portuguese), Dosa and Curry (South Indian). In summers, they also have their farmer’s market here. I really wish I lived near Union square; but maybe if I did, then the attraction of this place might wane.

Ball Square: For a place that is inconvenient by public transit, it has four breakfast places in close proximity that are packed and overflowing on weekends. For me it is convenient because I live quite close by and it is also nearby Tufts and my meetings. I frequent True grounds, where I always find a good seat. It is also along my bus route, so whenever I miss the bus, I spend a couple of hours in the morning here. I became friends with Christoph Borgers, who tells amusing stories and also treats this cafe like his office. I frequently tell my friends that almost no two things in the store are identical - the mugs, tables and chairs are all different maybe through long term accumulation from goodwill. Somehow it makes this place extremely cosy and cool. Some tables have an inbuilt chess board and there are also board games and some books. I also found Raymond Carver’s short story collection. They also have the cleanest bathrooms. Lyndell’s bakery is also nice, as is Pescatore restaurant (Italian).

Notable mentions in nearby areas: Tamper and Danish Pastry house (Medford), Bourbon coffee (Porter), Tealuxe, Cafe Crema (Harvard Square, although it is very touristy), Flour (Kendall, near MIT).

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 with Ivy 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 storytelling. 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 a 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 paid 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. I assumed that he was giving money to the guitarist but after a while, 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 and he spoke 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, maybe more than what he would have normally received. 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 seemed to enter into the same compartment. The righteous man was checking to see if the man in the blue overcoat was still harassing the guitarist and told the guitarist that he was prepared to wait for the next train should be harassed any more. 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.