Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Maxwell's Demon experiment

Somehow, there has been very little exposure on the net about a really nice experiment that is an attempt at an actual realisation of a Maxwell's Demon scenario that we all learn in our undergrad years, and how to extract energy from the system using information about it.

A popular exposition is here where I first noticed it. The original Nature article is here (subscription required). If you don't have a subscription to Nature, look at the free arXiv version here.

You might want to see this Abstruse Goose :-)

Monday, November 22, 2010

App Store and Marketplace

I am horrified to find that my last few posts were so serious, I find myself almost going into depression reading them. So here is an about-turn -- and on something that's loads of fun -- Apps from the App Store of Apple, and Apps from Google Android's Marketplace. Android phones and the iPhone are the two smart phones of the future (sorry, Nokia and Blackberry guys, you are history, even the new N8 again with Symbian can't stand up to either of the above two in the marketplace IMHO). The iPhone App store has some 250,000 apps as of last count and the Google Marketplace has far 'less choice', close to a mere 100,000 ! It's a measure of our expectations that these days a mere 100,000 apps are not considered good enough.

Few people around me have smart phones with smart apps -- why is that, I wonder? Laziness, techno-challenged abilities,... So, in this and the next post, I will give a few apps which I have found very useful, funky or just plain interesting. I start with the Android Marketplace since I have an Android phone (Motorola Droid or Milestone) and in the next post will discuss some Apps for the iPod Touch (I don't have the iPhone so some 'only for the iPhone' Apps will be missing). I know that many places, including the New York Times give lists of useful Apps, (for example here is Pogue's recent list) but many of them are less than useful in India. For example, Urbanspoon does not work in India (it gives a list of nearby restaurants, depending on your GPS enabled position) or live updates of Traffic conditions. Here we don't even get updates on new roads or one way streets!

So here goes (I am leaving out standard Navigation Software and stuff like Google Latitude which comes pre-bundled. These, by the way, are great fun and you should check them out at Google and get them if they aren't on your phone already). These are not in any particular order but I have tried to give the most useful ones first.

GPS Test: This is used with your GPS receiver built in the phone. It shows graphically all the satellites with which your phone is communicating, the signal strength, your Lat and Long and Elevation, speed of movement and your exact location on Earth (in case you didn't know that!). It also has a built in compass. However you can also download the stand-alone

Compass: This is a compass (:-)) and allows you to set the ring outside to align with whatever direction you find convenient. It doesn't do much else but is very useful as a compass. It work with or without GPS and also can point to the true North. It allows navigation using the compass points and allows you to make short notes.

Scientific Calculator: Android comes with an ordinary calculator (with some basic scientific functions but it's very clunky) but there are many scientific calculators in the Marketplace.

Google Sky:Hold your phone above your head and based on your GPS location and the date and time, Google Sky will show you the relevant part of the sky -- identifying the stars, the constellations, the planets, and other heavenly bodies. Of course it works during the day too since a view of the sky is not necessary!

The Weather channel: Get the weather in different parts of the world. Useful when travelling and about as reliable as the standard weather sites :-)

Google Goggles and Layar: This is truly a great piece of software. Point your camera at a book or DVD, or some landmarks like say the Qutb Minar, or some artwork, bar codes, business frontages and they will try to match it with their database and identify it. It works almost perfectly with book covers and artwork (particularly Western Art), a little less well with buildings in India unless they are really well known and fairly well with logos (the Coco Cola logo works instantly of course!). Layar allows you to switch on various layers which will tell you whether you are near some restaurant or spa or some park. It can work without the GPS but of course works really well when it is turned on.

Convert:This converts anything to anything else (of the same type) -- area, distance, speed, thermo electric units whatever. It even converts currency but you need your GPRS on for that purpose.

Taskos: This is a standard task reminder -- it could be birthdays (though I would use the calendar for that which is pre-bundled) but usually it's to keep a list of pending tasks with notes which you could look at and tick off -- of course you can prioritize them, set up alerts and all that.

Sound Hound: Truly a great piece of software. It identifies music. Turn it on, hold the phone in front of the music source and in about a minute it identifies the song and the players. I have even tried it in a restaurant with a lot of ambient noise and it has identified the background music. It identified the second movement from Beethoven's 6th, (no surprise that) but it even got the orchestra and the conductor right - that was impressive. The free version only allows five identifications per month, the unlimited version costs $5 -- well worth it in my opinion.

Internet radio: I listen to a lot of internet radio stations in my office, off my desktop. In fact some station or other is always on. However, this allows you to catch internet radio on your phone through your GPRS connection (3G is needed, 2G tends to break too often). The advantage? You can have it on in your car while driving. Connect the phone ear phone jack to the AUX input of your car audio system and you are done. Far more choice than the local somewhat mindless FM stations here. (Yes, you will pay 3G GPRS charges but BSNL charges very little). The two software I use are TuneIn Radio and Public Radio Live Stream but there are countless others.

Bar Code Scanner: Scans bar codes both the linear and the 2d ones (called QR codes) using the camera. Useful to get more information from a product label than just the price.

Send Contact: An incredible gap in the Android software is the ability to send a contact details to another contact. Even simple basic phones have a way to send, for example vcf cards (business cards) but not the Android. But fear not -- there is 'Send Contact' which does all this and I am told Android 2.2 will come with this feature (but surely it should have been there in version 0.1 !)

I invite you to send me your favourites for either the iPhone/iPod touch or an Android phone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyclone and weather forcasting

About 10 days ago we were warned that Cyclone Jal would hit North TN and South Andhra Coast. While the cyclone turned out to be a damp squib, what I found surprising is the extremely sloppy weather forecasting. As many people pointed out, the centre of the cyclone was already above Chennai sometime on Sunday 7th November afternoon. This was clear from the satellite picture. However the weather office kept predicting that the cyclone would cross the coast Sunday night. How could there be so much discrepancy? Or was the outline of the country wrongly superimposed on the cloud map.

Moreover consider the weather forecast. Here are a couple of samples.

Under its influence, rain/thundershower would occur at most places with heavy to very heavy falls at a few places and isolated extremely heavy falls (≥25 cm) over north Tamil Nadu and Puducherry during next 24 hours and at most places with isolated heavy to very heavy falls over Rayalaseema and South Coastal Andhra Pradesh during the same period.

Rain/thundershowers at most places with heavy to very heavy falls at a few places would occur over South Interior and Coastal Karnataka during next 48 hours. Isolated extremely heavy falls would also occur over south Interior Karnataka during next 24 hours

UNDER ITS INFLUENCE, RAIN/THUNDERSHOWER AT MOST PLACES WITH ISOLATED HEAVY TO VERY HEAVY FALLS WOULD OCCUR OVER SOUTH INTERIOR AND COASTAL KARNATAKA DURING NEXT 24 HOURS.

Apart from the completely arbitrary use of lower and upper case, it seems to me that the IMD has a simple algorithm of concatenation of phrases. These are of two kinds a) (light, moderate, heavy, very heavy, extremely heavy, isolated extremely heavy) rain and b) (few, some, many, most) places. Combine one phrase from a) and another from b) and you have got a prediction, even though in actual content it leaves the hapless residents in those places totally at sea (regrettably sometimes literally).

Surely Mausam Bhavan and our own Chennai weather forecasting stations under S. R. Ramanan are capable of somewhat more precise forecasting? A lot of it appears to be lazy thinking. If you say isolated rain in some areas, moderate in a few, heavy in isolated pockets, you have covered most possibilities and nobody can accuse you of having got it wrong. I think our weather men could try a little harder in this day and age.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi

Today is Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru's 121 birth anniversary, celebrated in India as Children's Day. Nehru's moral position on many international issues were a cause of much irritation with India amongst the Western Powers who felt India's Prime Minister spent far too much of his time pontificating. Whatever be the truth behind those sentiments, there is no doubt that India's moral standing in the world, particularly amongst the newly independent or soon to be independent countries of Africa and Asia owes much to Nehru's uncompromising stand on freedom and democracy.

Aung San, the celebrated Burmese nationalist and freedom fighter, like many others of his ilk, was a close friend and admirer of Nehru. Today, Nehru's birthday, I cannot help feeling that he would have been deeply overjoyed that his friend Aung San's uncompromising daughter had been released from house arrest after a total of about 15 years. Nehru spent over 10 years in jail and became Prime Minister of an independent India at the age of 59. Aung San Suu Kyi is today 65, somewhat older than Nehru when he became Prime Minister, but considerably younger than Nelson Mandela when he was freed. Nehru's encouragement and blessings, had he been alive, would have been with her, as she continues to fight the corrupt and despotic military regime in her country. Unfortunately, present day India, as Shashi Tharoor put it (see my last post) no longer has the soul to consider this an important event. Not a single statement has emerged from the bureaucratic mandarins of the External Affairs Ministry.

A set of pictures and a couple of videos can be seen at the New York Times website.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Burma, China, India and all that

It almost seems mandatory, given the press coverage of the Obama visit, to say something about it. However, rather than talk of Michelle Obama's Koli dance, I would like to speak about something that I have talked of before -- the military dictatorship in Burma. When I first wrote about it, some commentors asked why I was passing up on China -- equally a dictatorship, if not a military one, albeit with a far better record of governance (sans democracy) and economic growth for its population. (Well, I didn't quite ignore the issue but wrote a post on it but that is not the point here). I would like to quote President Obama too on this, in his speech to the Indian Parliament
Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community — especially leaders like the United States and India — to condemn it. If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries. It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It’s staying true to our democratic principles. It’s giving meaning to the human rights that we say are universal.
Nicolas Kristof, one of the few Op-Ed columnists of the New York Times worth reading, comments on this on his blog. Since this is not part of his usual Op-Ed column, it hasn't found much exposure. I quote from the end of his piece
The truth is that the world needs developing countries as leaders on political and humanitarian issues, and India would be a natural. The U.S. and other developed countries can’t play that role, because we’re regarded as heavy-handed imperialists with secret agendas. China can’t play that role because it’s too authoritarian and is regarded with growing suspicion in Southeast Asia. Brazil can play it to some degree, and should, and so can South Africa. But India would be a natural leader as the conscience of the developing world, and it would be hugely important if it would speak out more forcefully about abuses in countries like Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe. Given its experience and place in the world, India has credibility and moral and political capital, and it should use them.
I don't know how much credibility and moral capital we have, but if we do, we should indeed use it rather than pussyfooting on these issues. However, the question that was posed to me in my earlier post remains and is applicable equally to President Obama and Nicolas Kristof -- why is China getting a free pass in the comity of nations, despite its autocratic political system? The answer does not need a rocket scientist -- its the money, stupid. Nobody can afford to ignore China's economic might, but if we are going to bring in moral and political arguments, there is no excuse for letting China off the hook.

Update:See also Shashi Tharoor's article in the Times of India.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sedition and the Roy

Let me begin with putting my cards on the table -- I disagree with virtually everything that Arundhati Roy says or writes. I find her views infantile and polemical with no attempt at deeper analysis. She has no knowledge or understanding of context. Her 20,000 word diatribes are verbose and content-less. She criticises state sponsored schemes like Salwa Judum (and indeed she should) and defends the Naxals but has nothing to say about all the innocent people they kill regularly by blowing up railway tracks or buses or members of the police forces, including those not involved in anti-Naxal activities. Her most egregious, not to say outrageous statement was to blame the 26/11 massacre on Government policy towards Muslims in India. Not a word about the fact that it was engineered by the ISI in the friendly country across the border, nor the fact that those carrying out the attack were not Indian Muslims taking revenge on the state, but Pakistanis trained and brain washed in camps across the border. Her most recent claim was that Kashmir never acceded to India, ignoring the fact that Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession. If this is not legally valid, as she seemed to imply, then neither was the accession of all the princely states or Hyderabad. Are we planning to undo those? She finds much that is wrong with Indian policy in Kashmir (regrettably here she is right) but finds nothing wrong with sharing the dias with Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani is not just a separatist leader -- there are many in Kashmir. He is amongst the most morally and intellectually corrupt leaders of that movement. He incites young impressionable men to go and throw stones at the security forces thereby running the risk of facing a bullet. He, on the other hand, and in fear of his life stays safely indoors, unwilling to risk life and limb. His jihad involves sacrificing lives other than his own. He takes money for his 'cause' from Pakistan and yet, when he fell ill with cancer, got the Indian Government to pay for all his medical expenses in Delhi. (An average citizen of India, on the other hand, needs to depends on our notoriously ill equipped, ill managed and indifferent Government General Hospitals). And this is the man Ms. Roy sees fit to join common cause with.

And yet, is her speech worthy of a case of sedition being slapped on her? I am astounded that there has been so much discussion about this issue in the media. A couple of posts earlier, I wrote about China. Do we want to be like them? Are we like them? Do we want to put behind bars every person who says things that is against the official Government line? The BJP has of course gone overboard in asking for the death penalty for such people. But the BJP, far from becoming a mainstream right wing party, continues on its path of fascism. Does it mean P. Chidambaram must rise to the bait every time Arun Jaitley taunts him with being 'soft'? Does he or the UPA Government have no self confidence that they need to make common cause with the BJP? Where was the need to ask the Delhi Police to investigate? The Supreme Court has already ruled that freedom of speech, enshrined in our much beloved constitution by our founding fathers is not to be proscribed, except in cases where there is actual threat of war or rebellion to overthrow the Government, "Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section".

Ms. Roy's statement(s) deserves indifference, not action under sedition laws. A mature democracy cannot afford to be sidetracked by irrelevant, uninformed and infantile criticism. Even the statements of Mr Geelani (a far more dangerous and contemptible person) deserve to be ignored. As I believe they have been this time. I hope this sense continues to prevail in the future and we will be spared the pathetic 'Pity the nation...' statement of our erstwhile Booker Prize winner. It is this pitiful nation that allows her the freedom to utter whatever drivel she takes a shine to.

Update:Classic Roy! Check out the last para.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Magical Moments

At Railway Stations. From Nanopolitan.(Did they get the idea from the last scene in Slumdog Millionnare?)

The Nobel Committee Speaks up

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee explains why they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Evil Empire

It is painful to call one of the most economically successful countries in the world an evil empire. But consider this
...freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.
Thus speaks the apparently infamous Charter 08 penned largely by Liu Xiaobo (the 2010 Nobel peace prize winner) and signed by, by now, thousands of people. The complete text of the charter is here. It calls for more freedom and an end to single party rule in China. And for this, a document, nobody in India, Western Europe or the Americas would glance twice at for subversive ideology, the Chinese Goverment has jailed Liu Xiaobo for 11 years! Perhaps I have a small mind that cannot grasp big ideas -- but a 11 year jail sentence for penning this Charter? The perfidy and viciousness of the Chinese Government does not stop here. The New York Times reports
The wife of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, was allowed to meet with her husband on Sunday at the prison in northeastern China where he is serving an 11-year sentence, but she was then escorted back to Beijing and placed under house arrest, a human rights group said...
Even private parties are not safe
On Friday night, the police detained 20 bloggers, lawyers and academics who gathered for a celebratory banquet at a private room in a Beijing restaurant. By Sunday night, 10 guests had been released, according to a prominent activist, Zhang Zuhua, another of Charter ’08’s main authors. Three were given eight days in detention for disturbing the peace, and seven have been escorted out of Beijing, Mr. Zhang said.
To me, these are the classic signs of an evil empire -- a powerful one, capable of doing great damage, to itself, to its people and eventually to the world. And yet, is China unique in this? Aren't there other countries equally intolerant of dissent? Then why does China get all the flak?

One of the favourite positions of the left liberal Indian establishment is to point out that we, or rather the Indian Governmemt is equally intolerant of dissenting opinions. They point to our practice of meeting unarmed protesters (or armed only with stones) with live ammunition, in Kashmir, the North East and elsewhere. And indeed, our policy (if indeed we have a coherent one) in this regard is seriously condemnable. But to compare Indian attitudes to dissenting opinions to the Chinese one, is to my mind, unadulterated balderdash. Government policy, not just in Kashmir but on everything from the economy to the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme faces daily and virulent criticism, not just in the mainstream press but also in gadfly magazines like Tehelka. And while there are occasional half-hearted attempts to harass such agencies, nobody seriously tries to throttle free expression any more. Sixty three years of a free press (and a bad 2 years of emergency) has meant that dissent is firmly entrenched in the Indian psyche and a Government can only interfere with it at its own peril. Include opinions in non anonymous blogs and you see an even more extreme and at times hysterical level of criticism. I think a comparison with China is laughable and just plain odious. At the same time, strong publicly expressed public opinion has meant that frequently the Government is forced to take cognisance, whether on Kashmir or on the Right to Information Act or on the Commonwealth Games or on a hundred other subjects.

Th other issue is about China's unique position. After all, countries like Burma (Myanmar), North Korea, or even the tin-pot desert kingdoms living off their oil, aren't exactly epitomes of democratic governance. In fact to my mind, they are worse. China today has made enormous progress, in eliminating poverty, improving education and the material wealth of its people, in its infrastructure. Its economy is a challenge to the rest of the world, which is beating a path to its door, to do business with it. And that is what makes China so much more dangerous, than those countries I mention above. In their need to do business with China, virtually all countries from the US to India are willing to overlook China's by now abysmal record of human rights. China has the potential for setting the agenda with other countries, on its own terms, and that bodes ill for the future.

Update: If you think I am prejudiced about China, maybe this Op-Ed by Paul Krugman will convince you. He is talking of the Japan China 'tiff' but the idea is the same. If I am prejudiced, then at least I am in good company.

Update 2: The Pakistan Government has come out in strong support of the Chinese position on the Nobel Prize. How does the Government of Pakistan manage to be on the wrong side every instance? And amusingly, the only Indian newspaper to report on this is the Hindu :-)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Toilet Training

Now that the noise (and noise it was) about our (un)preparedness for the Commonwealth Games has gone down, with news desks even predicting sone ki bauchar (rain of gold (medals)), I want to come back to a statement Lalit Bhanot, the Organising Committee spokesperson made, implying that Indian hygiene levels were in some sense inferior to those of Westerners. The wrath of a million or more Indians descended on his head, with Salman Rushdie, whose ghost permanently hangs around the Gateway of India, suggesting that he be spanked. Even the venerable New York Times which usually ignores all games where the US is not involved felt called upon to comment on it.

I would like to take a somewhat different perspective on this issue. I don't mean to imply that Indians are generally less hygiene conscious -- far from it -- though it is true that we have double standards as far as private and public cleanliness issues go. A person who would not dream of leaving even a shred of paper on his floor in his own house, will willingly sweep all the detritus out on the road and sometimes in front of his neighbour's house, or throw garbage on the road without thinking twice. Homes in India are regularly swept and swabbed daily (sometimes twice!), bathrooms are cleaned with gallons of water being poured all over. Most Indians in fact have a holier than thou approach towards these issues, particularly with regard to the West. We use water, they use toilet paper, how clean is that? -- is the common refrain. (Some Indians, after a stint in the West take to the Western way, considering it to be somewhat less messy. I even know a colleague who claims they have toilet trained their child to use water in Indian toilets and paper in Western toilet -- I think I am missing something here...).

But to return to my point. While the Bhanot statement was frankly stupid, there is an element of truth in it. Most Indian bathrooms, except the more modern ones, and despite the use of liberal quantities of water, would not appear clean to a Western eye. And the reason is precisely the use of water -- or rather the difference between a dry and a wet bathroom. Western bathrooms have a separate area (usually on one side) for a bath/shower. The rest of the bathroom is dry, and frequently does not even have a water outlet. In India, essentially the whole bathroom is a 'wet' area. A full scale bath/shower/bucket wash involves the liberal splashing of water in all directions, making the whole bathroom wet. (This is not helped by the fact that most Indian bathrooms are designed to have a bath area in the centre rather than a shielded off area to one side). The net result of all this is a generally higher humidity level causing mold and fungus to grow around cracks and crevices, to say nothing of water stains from the use of hard water. Most of these are tough to clean or even to prevent. Moreover, old Indian bathrooms had cement floors which are impossible to keep clean. In fact, this is the main reason why people are always asked to take off their shoes before entering a bathroom -- the danger of leaving muddy footprints, which would never happen if the bathroom were kept dry in the first place.

Overall, the idea of a dry bathroom is contrary to the Indian concept of a bathroom where liberal usage of water is considered the norm. Fortunately this is changing albeit slowly, and modern apartments do try and keep a separate area for a shower complete with shower curtain.

None of this excuses the fact that our use of public facilities is totally atrocious. We believe we have almost a right to pollute any and every public space -- assuming that there is always 'someone' to clean up after us. I am of the firm view that this attitude harks back to our old caste system. There always was someone to clean up after us, at least for the upper classes, and we continue in that mode. Which suggests that it will be a long time before these attitudes change.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bt Egg(plant) on the Face

Much has already been written about the Bt brinjal report fiasco by six of India's National Academies. If you don't know what I am talking about Nanopolitan has a nice summary including all relevant links. Yesterday one of the many distinguished fellows of INSA received a 'mea culpa' mail from the President of INSA. I am not at liberty to quote it since I was only shown it informally but the mail, if anything, makes things worse and carries traces of the same sloppy work of the main report.

To begin with, it even misspells the name of the Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh as Jayaram Ramesh. You would think Jairam Ramesh has been in the news long enough for his spelling to register in most people's mind. Secondly after much talk about how this was the first attempt to bring six academies together (as if six academies together should be excused for sloppiness but one shouldn't), it actually admits that they could have done a better job and that the present report should be withdrawn and re-written. However, and this is interesting, the 'baby should not be thrown out with the bath water' meaning I suppose most of the conclusions should stand. I wonder why that should be so, since it also turns out that this is not an independent report but a rehashed version of a report by one Anand Kumar. Why should be assume that a genuine independent study by the academies would throw up the same conclusions?

The second interesting point is that the President of INSA chooses to present his defense to what might be called his biradari -- the fellows of the academy. Should not this mail have gone to the public in general and specifically to the media which mounted this campaign along with an advocacy group against GM crops. Why keep the justification within the family -- what purpose does it serve? Of course, one does not know if the President of the other academies have even sent a letter justifying a stand or they just hope if they wait this out, it will all blow over.

This is not an isolated incident. Many people will recall the episode of the Mashelkar report and accusations of plagiarism. Why do these things happen?

I really don't believe that these scientists are mediocre or are plagiarists -- far from it. Both the Presidents of INSA and IAS (Bangalore) are very distinguished scientists. However, there is a tendency in India to pass off work to a low level flunky, particularly if it is considered not so important (and definitely not a paper one is writing for a reputed journal). I suspect this is what has happened here too. The work was probably palmed off to some low level functionaries who used that well known research tool 'Google' to do their 'research'. The top bosses glanced cursorily at the result (surprisingly not noticing that a cornerstone of research papers -- proper referencing -- was non existent). There was, in other words, no serious oversight, no proper attribution, and yet, the heads of the academies were willing to put their reputation on the line by putting their names on the report. They presumably assumed that the report would just end up in some dusty cupboard in some government office never to see the light of day. Instead of which, it landed on the table of one of our most pro-active ministers!

Just as a comparison, here is the report on global warming by the American Physical Society. Click on the link to get the PDF version of the full report.

P.S. Just learnt from Nanopolitan again that the National Academy of Medical Sciences has dumped the report! Hmm....a case of rats deserting a sinking ship? Wonder what else will unfold in the next few days....

P.P.S.: Here is the letter of the President of INSA to the Fellows of the Academy, complete with misspelt name and all (courtesy a colleague).

P.P.P.S.: See also a recent letter by Gautam Menon and Rahul Siddharthan on this issue.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Speaking Paper

This morning the venerable Hindu newspaper arrived, complete with an implanted chip on the back page that, in a disembodied voice, extolled the virtues of the Volkswagen Vento . Hapless souls like us who also subscribe to the Times of India, got the effect in stereo. Interesting, it would stop on closing the newspaper. Since we had two samples, I tore off one and here is what it looks like from the outside

And here is what it looks like on the inside, on tearing it off the page

No big surprise there -- a small chip with batteries and a small speaker. Apart from the sheer irritatingly repetitive yammering which is not going to win the Volkswagen Vento any friends, I got to wondering if this was going to be the wave of the future.

For example, one could think of the whole daily newspaper converted to audio and arriving with an implanted chip which would read out the news. This could be a boon to the visually impaired. Of course one can do the same I presume with the on line versions of newspapers but that involves having a computer, an internet connection, and other such paraphernalia. This, on the other hand, could be as easy as picking up the paper from your doorstep and then just listening to it. In its present form, you would have to listen to the whole newspaper which is a pain, since there are no user controlled functions on this object. But those could eventually come.

Small sound producing chips aren't new by any means. In the 80s I recall sending friends and relatives, from the US, greeting cards which played a song when you opened it, much to the excitement and amusement of the recipients. Compared to those, this one is surprisingly bigger in size. Also the cost of such an object, even though small, can hardly be included in the price of the newspapers, which typically are Rs. 3 to Rs. 5. So it would have to be ad revenue supported. But in today's world of the internet, SMS, cell networks, is there a genuine place for such a product? Are there some innovative uses one could put such a device to, other than the single one I mentioned above?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Teppanyaki Juggling

A new restaurant has recently opened in Chennai called Teppanyaki as an addition to the old Thai restaurant Benjarong on TTK Road. Teppanyaki, as Wikipedia informs us stands for teppan (iron plate) and yaki (grill) and is a style of Japanese cooking which grills and stir fries on an iron griddle. It is usually done in front of the diners so that the chef can show off his prowess. Most of the food is of the stir fried style, but produced with great style and elan.

So here is our chef warming up, throwing his weapons around with great abandon, and rather worryingly, missing occasionally. (I apologise for the poor quality -- the light was insufficient, and I also couldn't find a way to turn some of the videos around).

Some tricks with a bowl

And then with eggs. Watch carefully how they land on his spatula and yet don't break - though there are a couple of mishaps as you can see. Can you figure why the eggs don't break despite landing on a solid steel spatula? (you will need to turn your head to see this video).

And finally, here is a generic one of him doing the actual cooking.

A set menu (soup, salad, main course, which is the teppanyaki, noodles/rice and a dessert bar) costs around Rs. 950 to Rs 1150 depending on which set you choose. There is also a la carte which will probably set you back a similar amount, though without as many items, but with more choice.

Overall an interesting experience, though regrettably the food gets a B. But that probably has something to do with it being Chennai :-(. The one in Hip Asia (Connemara) is better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Foam Burst

This is the third time. The can of shaving foam I keep in the bathroom cupboard burst sometime during the day. We returned home to find a part of the bathroom looking like it had been hit by a snowstorm. Most of it had subsided so it wasn't as dramatic (the earlier one was more impressive, perhaps because we caught the event earlier). But here it is There was much more foam but some it was washed away before I could take this picture. The poor can can be seen lying on its side on the right of the washbasin. It appears that all these cans rust in the bathroom in the presence of water and humidity and finally the joints give way.

One nice thing about this is how trivial it is to clean. A jet of water from say, a hand held shower and directed appropriately washes it all off.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Floods in Pakistan

As of now a whopping 20 million people have been affected by floods that are still ravaging Pakistan. An estimated 5 million are homeless and the numbers continue to rise. The news is essentially off the radar for Indian news agencies. Both the Hindu and the Times of India run stories that are buried deep inside the newspaper.

As the primary 'enemy country' in the eyes of most Indians (just as India is, in the eyes of many Pakistanis), this is not very surprising though I am disappointed that main stream sober newspapers like the Hindu have not been more proactive at least in their reportage. However the poor, the homeless and the ravaged (like their counterparts in India) have nothing to do with terrorism, the Taliban, the al-Qaeda, or their many off shoots -- they are just trying to survive this horrific disaster made worse by a completely incompetent civic administration.

The Indian Government, in a remarkable pusillanimous move offered 5 million rupees dollars (a rupeedollar per homeless!) with some promise of more at a later date. Our Pakistani counterparts in a even more churlish mood, asked the Indian Government to route it through the UN. Surely both countries can rise to the occasion for once and not let our past colour the accessibility of civilian aid. However, overall international aid has also been slow in coming, which some news agencies have attributed to Pakistan's "image deficit".

For those who have been living on Mars and don't know what is happening, you can check here and older stories available on the same page. The BBC has been running a series on Pakistan Floods on TV and the extent of the horror became apparent to me after seeing one of these. Here is a series of special reports from the BBC. The BBC also has a story on why external humanitarian assistance has been so tardy (no, terrorism and corruption are only two of many other causes).

Now I come to the main purpose of this post (it was not just to pontificate). Here is a list of donor agencies you can contribute to. If you are worried that your money may fall into the 'wrong' hands, try one of the international agencies like Oxfam . This is what they have to say

Oxfam works closely with partner organizations on the ground, which helps ensure that our response to emergencies like the Pakistan floods is swift, effective, and culturally appropriate. But we conduct careful checks before accepting any local organization as a partner. We have well-developed financial reporting procedures, and we monitor and assess the work we fund to ensure that aid is being delivered in a fair and responsible manner. Neither Oxfam nor its partners has allowed its resources to be diverted to extremist organizations.
I have not been able to find any Indian agencies involved in this. If you do know of one, please let me know -- it would be easier to contribute to those. But I suspect Indian aid agencies would have trouble getting visas to go to Pakistan for relief work.

There is now a Wikipedia page on the Pakistan Floods but it may not reflect the latest situation.

The Indian Government has commendably now hiked the aid to 25 million dollars, making it next only to the US and UK. Let us hope it actually reaches those for whom it is meant. Wonder what happened to all those oil-rich sheikdoms?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ICM reportage

The best reports of the International Congress of Mathematicians is available at Tim Gowers' blog. He also has links to YouTube videos of the Field Medal ceremony.

He has some (non mathematical) interesting points to make. He comments on the tala that people keep with their hands in a Carnatic recital and the typical syncopated rhythm. He identifies the National Anthem to be in E major and the ending in as he put it "it was in a very clear E major — to describe it in Western terms — but strangely ended, in even quavers apart from a held last note, with E E F# F# G# G# F# G# A" - the Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya He.

For a Britisher he is strangely ignorant of some very common Indian customs. He seems never to have seen anyone do a Namaste which is truly odd since it is so common, not only in India but many parts of South and South East Asia. Instead he calls it a gesture he has only seen in Indian sculptures "she greeted us by putting her two hands together, pointing upwards, a gesture I was familiar with only from Indian sculptures".

He seems never to have heard of biryani (he thinks it is billani) -- again odd given how popular Indian food is in Britain.

A faint air of superciliousness runs through the account which I found a bit irksome

the president (of India, not the IMU) told us once again what the ICM was, but after that unpromising start she moved into a speech about India’s mathematical heritage and various other topics, all discussed in a way that made it clear that somebody — I presume not her — knew what they were talking about. She told us of an old Sanskrit saying, “Mathematics stands at the helm of all sciences.” I think I prefer the “queen of” metaphor that is more prevalent in the west. She told us that the concept of zero originated in India, and that calculus was anticipated in India in the 15th century. I wondered before the opening ceremony started how many times Ramanujan would be mentioned.
and particularly that irritating crack about Ramanujan.

But I suppose a Fields medalist is entitled to his upturned nose....

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mathematics promotes a scientific temper?

Our honourable President, Smt. Pratibha Patil while inaugurating the International Congress of Mathematicians (the largest and most prestigious congregation of mathematicians of the world, held every four years and for the first time in India) claimed that the study of mathematics leads to the development of a scientific temper.

To my mind this statement needs to be proved (though of course not in the sense my mathematician friends might want). Since neither she nor I are mathematicians, we are perfectly placed to comment on mathematics and mathematicians! The importance of mathematics is not in doubt. As a physicist, the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" is obvious to all practitioners of the subject. However using mathematics as a tool is very different from doing mathematics itself which is what mathematicians do. And therein lies the rub.

Mathematics, to put it somewhat simplistically, is purely Platonic -- that is, complete understanding is to be achieved, and in fact, is achieved through pure thought. Pure mathematicians needs no knowledge of the physical world to prove their theorems. In fact, many of them (like G. H. Hardy) would be horrified at the thought that their work had any connection, dependence or relevance to the real world. Unlike physics, which is based on observation and experiment (leading to a theory) and eventual falsification (leading to a new theory, in Popper's famous description) a correct mathematical theorem is for eternity. No new observation of the physical world, no new insights into nature's working can have the slightest effect on its correctness. The only thing that can topple a theorem is a realisation that there was a flaw in its proof. 'Laws' of physics, on the other hand, are continuously falling by the wayside, replaced by new ones, based on newer and better experimental observations of the real world. (Even String Theory, the most esoteric and mathematical of all physical theories needs to pay obeisance to some fundamental symmetries of nature).

In the absence therefore, of a scientific principle or method, pure mathematics cannot be classed as a science. It is a pure art form, existing by and of itself with no supporting scaffolding from nature. It therefore requires no scientific bent of mind from its practitioners (in the sense that it does not require that its practitioners demand rational explanations of all natural phenomenon). A stone thrown into the air at an angle could well follow a parabolic path because God so decreed it, rather than the laws of physics. It would make not an iota of difference to any theorem past, present or future. (In recent years, this supremacy of mathematics has been partly dented by its somewhat intricate dependence on other branches of science -- Jones Polynomials and Chern-Simons theory, or the proof of the four colour map theorem which required the use of computers to eliminate a few remaining counter examples).

There is therefore no evidence, in my humble opinion, that the study of mathematics either promotes or even requires a scientific temper. This is also the reason why mathematicians as a community are far more religious (Ramanujan being the classic but by no means the only example) than their counterparts in the physical sciences -- not because mathematics promotes a belief in the supernatural, but because it does not require you to relinquish your belief in it. This has also been my personal experience, though I obviously do not have statistics to prove this claim.

Disclaimer: I do not claim that physicists are not religious -- many are, surprisingly. However it is a matter of statistics. As a fraction, fewer physicists in my opinion are overtly religious or believe in non-rational explanations of natural phenomena, compared to their mathematics colleagues.

Note added: Morris Kline discusses some of these issues and many more and twentieth century mathematics in his book -- Mathematics -- The Loss of Certainty. In particular he discusses what he calls 'The Authority of Nature" in the last chapter and in and around page 333. I thank Rahul Siddharthan for acquainting me with this book.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Muslims in the Middle

Op-Ed by William Dalrymple in the New York Times.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

'Running' 64

We have just completed 63 years of independence, or as Indians like to call it, we are 'running' 64. Can we at least stop firing on unarmed civilians, no matter how misguided they might be?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tony Judt, 1948 -- 2010

From the obituary in the New York Times
Tony Judt, the author of “Postwar,” a monumental history of Europe after World War II, and a public intellectual known for his sharply polemical essays on American foreign policy, the state of Israel and the future of Europe, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 62.

...

After he passed the entrance examinations to King’s College, Cambridge, he volunteered as an auxiliary with the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, acting as an interpreter for other volunteers in the newly conquered Golan Heights. There he lost faith in the Zionist mission and began to see Israel as a malign occupying power whose self-definition as a Jewish state, he later argued, made it “an anachronism.”

...

His views on Israel made Mr. Judt an increasingly polarizing figure. He placed himself in the midst of a bitter debate when, in 2003, he outlined a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem in The New York Review of Books, proposing that Israel accept a future as a secular, bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed equal status.

...

“Today I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney-tunes leftie self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university I’m regarded as a typical old-fashioned white male liberal elitist,” he told The Guardian of London in January 2010. “I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

Link

A response to Arundhati Roy's fulminations...

The Reactionary

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shame!

Senior General Than Shwe (the Senior is a self assigned appellation.) This is the man India is wooing -- an unrepentant autocrat and dictator, who has presided over the disgraceful state of affairs in his country Myanmar, banned elections and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi for almost 20 years. It's a measure of the depths to which our foreign policy has sunk that even George W. Bush's exhortation to us appears more reasonable -- [India and the US] must stand with reformers and dissidents and civil society organizations, and hasten the day when the people of these nations can determine their own future and choose their own leaders”. And here we allow him to visit Rajghat (in deference to Gandhi we are told he didn't wear his military uniform, how touching) and play host to him, arranging his visit to various Buddhist holy sites and hope he will do something to control various insurgent groups that use Myanmar as a base.

All in the name of realpolitik, as a mealy mouthed article by Siddhartha Varadarajan informs us, ending with this almost laughable sentence -- "it should tell the senior general that if he is prepared to liberalise politically, New Delhi will do its bit to help end Myanmar's international isolation."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rahul's Recipes - a new blog!

Some of you may know that I have a Eating Out Guide to Chennai and so I have a more than moderate interest in food. (No, I am NOT a foodie -- I hate that term which out here stands for a hack reporter poorly informed, making the rounds of the local restaurants at some newspaper's expense, and writing inane and pointless information free articles in bad English pretending to be a review.) Over the last almost 25 years (well, ok, never mind my age!) I have collected recipes from all kinds of sources -- parents, aunts, friends, restaurants, books, newspapers -- and have often written them up or cut and pasted (physically, not digitally) in my recipe scrap book. They date all the way back from the time I was thrown into the graduate student world of a US university and had to fend for myself. I have decided to share some of these with the rest of the world -- out of the generosity of my heart :-) but also as a convenient repository of this somewhat eclectic collection. Just to belabour the obvious -- this will not be a restaurant guide for which you will have to consult the site mentioned above, but just a recipe repository. (I will try to update about once a week). Do try them out and let me know how well they work. I should confess that I have tried out about 80% of the recipes (and those work!) but I won't tell you which 20% is untried and untested. Have fun! The link is here and on the right.

I should clarify that these will not be standard recipes copied from Tarla Dalals and Sanjeev Kapoors or even my favourite -- Madhur Jaffrey. Apart from copyright issues, most people have access to such sources and so I will only give you recipes that I have discovered in long lost magazine issues (with proper attribution if available) or out of print books or other sources or by word of mouth.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Who do you write like

If you have low esteem, particularly with regard to your writing skills, despair no more. A site called I Write Like will statistically analyse your writing skills and tell you which famous writer you write like. (yes it is always some well known writer which is a comfort). It's an ideal site for a lazy Sunday afternoon or right after lunch, when the mind is wandering and you find yourself unable to concentrate on serious work.

Of course you are wondering who I write like. Well, it's no secret any more. I always knew I was talented. My Bhopal post is like James Joyce, my Shuttle post is like Arthur C. Clarke (not a surprise) and my Martin Gardner post is, surprise surprise, again like that of James Joyce (Jeez, I didn't know I was so unreadable). (I am not linking to any of these posts -- they are just below the present one).

Of course these are just some statistical black box results. The site does not explain how it does this analysis nor the algorithm used to reach its conclusions. It merely makes the cryptic claim that it's a site "which analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them with those of the famous writers". However, if you are interested in the more technical details about how this Bayesian analysis works, there is some information here. But I doubt it will leave you any wiser about your talents as a writer!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Satish Joglekar -- in Memoriam

Satish Joglekar of IIT Kanpur died last Saturday. He was feted as a great teacher, but he had also contributed significant papers on the renormalisability of gauge theories. Here is a little note I sent around:

I knew Satish Joglekar only marginally. We met in a few conferences and I was once on a thesis defence committee with him (where it turned out we both had very similar questions about the thesis, mostly regarding some Field Theoretical issues on which he was an expert!) . This note therefore deals not with him as a person, but with his work in Quantum Field Theory, the grammar of High Energy Physics, of which I came to know when I followed him years later to StonyBrook. A solid grounding in QFT was considered absolutely essential for working at ITP, StonyBrook, and it was not surprising that so many important field theoretical works emerged from that institute in the 1970s.

During his years in Stony Brook he had left his mark at the ITP (headed by C. N. Yang). He had written some seminal papers with his thesis advisor Ben Lee. He was much senior to su, so we never overlapped, but the mid 70s when he was in StonyBrook were the hey days of gauge theories and what we today call the Standard Model (and which was still called Weinberg Salam in those days). Most people know of Ben Lee from his famous review on Gauge Theories in Physics Reports (with Abers) which was the only reference at that time for learning about the structure of Spontaneously Broken Gauge Theories. But Ben Lee is also famous for his series of papers (some with Zinn-Justin) on various aspects of renormalisability of SB Yang Mill theories, some of which we struggled mightily to understand as mere graduate students.

Thus it was when Satish Joglekar joined Ben Lee to continue this work on renormalisability in the mid 70s. His first significant paper was titled appropriately "General Theory of Renormalization of Gauge Invariant Operators" and dealt with the crucial issue of non gauge invariant operators mixing with gauge invariant ones under renormalisation. Put briefly, they managed to show that it is possible to choose a basis in which the gauge non invariant operators decouple from the G. I. ones to all orders, which is crucial if one is not to have to calculate the full renormalisation matrix. Even though by present day standards of 'significant papers' this paper has few citations, a mere 172 (!), it was crucial for various aspects of renormalisation and gauge invariance.

His second set of papers which he wrote by himself were a couple on the renormalisability and gauge invariance of products of operators and their OPE. He considered here an unbroken non Abelian gauge theory and asked the question -- which subset of local operators have the property that their physical matrix elements are independent of the gauge parameter. I don't want to go into the details of these issues which may strike some people today as being too formal and esoteric. But the fact that we blithely use OPEs in our calculations is based on many theorems like those he proved, which clarified the issue of ghost mixing in covariant gauges, which in turn revolved around questions about the gauge invariant nature of the counter terms in renormalisation.

By then, Joglekar had moved to Fermilab following his advisor Ben Lee, from StonyBrook. Unfortunately their fruitful collaboration was to end tragically when Ben Lee died in a traffic accident in 1977. Subsequently he wrote a highly cited paper on Trace and Dilatation Anomalies during his post doc years in IAS, Princeton with Collins and Duncan (438 citations) but it appears that the shock of Ben Lee's death had a long lasting traumatic effect on Joglekar, affecting his steady record of publication for a long time.

Satish Joglekar continued to work on the more esoteric aspects of gauge theories. For many, the problems he tackled lacked relevance and topicality. But as a child of the golden era of the gauge theory revolution in Particle Physics of the 1970s to which he had contributed significantly, Joglekar's primary interest continued to lie in the formal nature of the structure of gauge theories of which he was a master practitioner.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The World's Youngest Profession

We all know the world oldest profession (though I never figured why). But the world's youngest comes as a surprise. Robert Boyle financed his experiments out of his own pocket. Isaac Newton was paid to teach, not to research mechanics and gravity. Albert Einstein's famous three papers were written when he was a patent clerk in Berne. Charles Darwin was never paid to do science. The transformation of science from a calling to a paid job is a recent phenomenon -- developed mostly over the last century gaining momentum after World War II.

Stephen Shapin at Seed Magazine traces the development of the scientist over the last century or so, and presents some interesting facts along the way. His analysis concentrates on American science, and it would be useful to know how India fares. For examples, it appears only 9% of Americans feel that their tax dollars should be spent of science research which has no immediate technological or social benefits. Today almost two-thirds of all American science and engineering degree-holders are working either in the for-profit sector or are self-employed; only 9 percent work for colleges or universities. (There seems to be something special about this 9%).

Even pure science has long had a significant presence outside academia. At the origins of corporate research in the early 20th century, big companies such as General Electric, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, and DuPont were the dominant sponsors of industrial science, and although the great majority of their money went to applied research and development, government and academia then supplied so little funding for basic research that most of that too was done in industry. It is now widely said that the research laboratories of big industrial firms are on their way out: The decline and fall of Bell Labs and the so-called “crisis in innovation” in global Big Pharma have both made recent headlines. Yet, if anything, the place of science in the for-profit sector has become more secure due to the past four decades of growth by small, entrepreneurial high-tech and biotech firms, where the boundary between making things and making knowledge is increasingly unclear and even irrelevant, and by the burgeoning commitment to all sorts of scientific research by such companies as Microsoft, Intel, and, most visibly, Google. The commercial sector now does about 70 percent of all American R&D in dollar terms. And while the overwhelming majority of corporate R&D remains biased toward development and applied research, about a fifth of US basic research is still done in industry.
I have no numbers for India, but I think it is obvious that the extent of 'pure science' supported by industrial or other commercial enterprises is negligible. This is clearly the result of our many years of socialism, and, of course has its good side -- scientists have a certain degree of autonomy which might not exist if they worked for commercial labs. (I do not see any industry in India with the kind of vision for unfettered research that the erstwhile Bell Labs had). On the other hand, there are always questions about how far the Indian Government can go to support basic science (this is even more true in my field of High Energy where applications to industry or to society do not exist, at least any time in the near future). And even with generous funding, its nature is highly skewed in the Indian context. Research Labs, IITs, IISERs are generously funded, whereas universities are starved of funds for even the most basic needs. Is the solution to look for at least partial funding (this can happen and is happening in condensed matter and in biology) from private sources and perhaps put up with some kind of partial loss of autonomy? Whatever it is, the article provides some useful talking points about the changing nature of the scientific profession.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

If you can't beat them, join them?

The National Advisory Council of the Government of India has a galaxy of some of the most distinguished social activists, development experts, scientists and bureaucrats that it is possible to find. Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander are well known social and human rights activists, the former a Ramon Magsaysay award winner, Jean Dreze is a well known development economist and one of the early drafters of the NREGA scheme of the Government, apart from being the co-author with Amartya Sen of many books on developmental issues. Madhav Gadgil, Mirai Chatterjee, M. S. Swaminathan and others are equally distinguished in their own fields. The NAC is headed by Sonia Gandhi the UPA chairperson and therefore they may be said to have the ear of arguably the most powerful person in the Congress Party, and consequently the Government.

And yet...

Khap Panchayats and 'ordinary' middle class families in urban areas like Delhi bump off their sons and daughters (and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law) and all that a mealy mouthed Government can do is to set up another Group of Ministers. Unarmed stone throwing mobs (perhaps misguided, perhaps even led astray by separatist forces) are met with lethal force from poorly trained and perhaps trigger happy CRPF jawans instead of standard methods of non lethal crowd control. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act continues to prevail in J&K and the North East. The Government continues to dither about how to handle the Maoists in large parts of central India (where, in a classic reversal of roles, the same poorly trained CRPF force is regularly massacred by a determined and highly motivated adversary -- only in India).

Are we to conclude that the NAC is a purely decorative and toothless body that plays no role in actual Governance issues? In that case why do these people, most of whose commitment to their causes is not in doubt, continue to be in the Council? The Focus Areas that come under its purview strictly would exclude virtually all the above issues. Or does it take its role in the social security agenda so literally that no other issue in the social and political sphere matters to it? The fact that they presumably have Sonia Gandhi's ear should allow them to take a pre-eminent and activist role in the issues facing the Government today. And yet, they are visible audible mostly by their silence.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comment moderation

For all those avid readers and commenters of this blog -- you might have noticed that there has been a sudden explosion of 'Japanese' comments which are thinly veiled (or rather not veiled at all!) links to pornographic sites. It is therefore with much regret that I am turning on comment moderation. No genuine comment, no matter how critical, will be turned away from these doors, but spammers like the above will henceforth be denied entry.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bhopal, 26 years later -- just a traffic accident

And so it's come to this. Unlike Jarndyce and Jarndyce, judgment has been passed in what was the world's worst industrial disaster. But what a judgment. The Chief Judicial Magistrate awarded a two year jail sentence, immediately bailable and the case promises to meander its way up to the higher courts of the land. 26 years, an incompetent prosecution agency, tens of thousands dead (about 3000 immediately), many many more maimed for life, and this is what we have to show for justice. But the CJM is hardly to blame. The august Supreme Court of India, the final arbiter of the laws of the land, reduced the charges in 1996 to 'death due to negligence', the same that is used in traffic accidents.

The Bhopal activists have always been left to plough a lonely furrow. The mainstream political parties, the Congress and the BJP are too beholden to corporate interests to be really interested in seeing justice done, no doubt fearing the flight of foreign capital from India Shining. What is sad is that the Communist parties, who never tire of thundering from the pulpit about neo-liberal policies, about the Indo-US nuclear deal, about US retail giants like Walmart coming to India, never seriously took up the cause of the Bhopal victims. The Karats (both B and P) and Yechurys would rather protest about their right to call a bandh or a hartal. The various groups representing the victims have had little access to the political bosses in Delhi who could in turn pressurise the Government in power.

And so, yet again, a 'resurgent India' fails its most deprived, its most dispossessed and impoverished citizens.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

End of the Shuttle Era

So Atlantis has flown for the last time and very soon the shuttle program will be wound up after some 30 years. I recall the first flight of the shuttle Columbia and its return when I was a graduate student in the US -- it marked the beginning of an era of deploying re-usable spacecraft for various purposes. And while it lacked the excitement of the moon landing, it was the newest endeavour in space.

Did the shuttle program achieve any spectacular? As far as the International Space Station (ISS) goes, I am afraid very little. Right from the start it was never quite clear what the ISS was supposed to achieve except to keep a few humans in a weightless environment as a test for future space travel. The so-called experiments carried out in the ISS were mostly juvenile, and in fact a large number of them were designed by high school students -- for example germinating seeds in a gravity free environment and stuff of that sort.

To my mind, presumably because I am a physicist, the greatest achievement of the shuttle was the launch of the Hubble space telescope and the subsequent trips it made, first to replace a defective mirror and thereafter to fix various parts and extend Hubble's life beyond the expected span. Hubble has allowed astronomers to see deeper into space (and thereby further back in time) than would be possible by even the largest terrestrial telescope, and has been of immeasurable value to the physics/astrophysics community. Hubble is an optical telescope and it was followed by gamma ray and X ray space telescopes which have also very valuable, though these were not launched by the shuttle.

The space shuttle had another minor achievement, (minor in the larger arena of achievement) though it was of immense value to India. The first of the Indian communication satellites, INSAT 1B was launched in the early eighties by one of the earlier shuttle missions (Challenger) and was the first step in the revolution that finally swept TV broadcast and telecommunication in India. (INSAT 1A launched earlier barely lasted a year and had to be abandoned).

Which brings me to a related topic -- the manned exploration of space. The sight of Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing along on the moon surface has a certain indefinable charm and excitement that is impossible to associate with a moon rover trundling over the moon surface. However, I think in the long run, the Russians had the right idea. Human beings are delicate and fragile creatures. They require an enormous amount of fail-safe technology to keep them alive and in good health during the long times that would be involved even to travel to Mars, let alone further along the solar system and beyond. A robot would do it at a tiny fraction of the cost, and not be any less effective, other than the romanticism of human space travel.

Which is why it is particularly troubling to see both China and India entering into a race for a manned mission into space as well as a mission to the moon, when most of the moon's surface has already been mapped. It is the somewhat infantile 'me too' factor which drives both these countries towards this absurd quest, wasting resources that could well be funnelled into more fruitful ventures, even within the space program. The indigenous launch vehicle program of ISRO has been very successful and it would be more useful to develop that than to launch technologically more advanced and cheaper satellites or even exploratory robots. But a manned space program is hardly the kind of venture that countries like China and India should be getting into.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Martin Gardner - a personal tribute

So Martin Gardner is no more. He died a few days ago, aged 95, having lived a full life, 'puzzling' and 'diverting' youngsters like me for decades. I discovered Martin Gardner in my undergraduate days, through a gift subscription to Scientific American that a kind soul in the US had sent me. (Scientific American also opened my world to myriad different things, including one of the first popular articles on Supergravity, written by two of its founders, Peter van Nieuwenhuizen and Dan Freedman from StonyBrook, where, though I didn't know it then, I was eventually to do my Ph.D -- but that's a different story).

Like many people, I have always had a fascination with puzzles but Gardner's Mathematical Puzzles were in an altogether different class. Some of them were not puzzles but just some quaint facts, mostly about mathematics, which were fascinating (sometimes called recreational mathematics, I suppose). He had a parade of characters, some fictional, some not (I think!). The Incredible Dr Matrix and the magician Sam Loyd, who apparently, like Gardener, was a 19th century mathematics dilettante. I was never quite sure whether he was real! He also introduced card games which we would play -- like Eleusis -- a game, as he called it, of trying to guess the mind of one of the players, who was the 'God'.

Some of his puzzles were quite unbelievable. In one of his numerous 'Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions' books, which were compendiums of his columns, he gives an ordinary division puzzle wherein neither the dividend nor the divisor is known, but the quotient is 80809. The number of long division steps were given but nothing else. It seemed almost unsolvable until I realised, to my great joy, that a little bit of thought could solve the problem and one didn't need to be an Einstein to do these things. One of those little things which showed that some thought, patience and concentration are often what is needed, not an IQ of 200 to solve many things - a salutary lesson for a young man embarking on a career of research in physics.

Martin Gardner was one of the first to annotate Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland with scientific jottings. I remember though, that with so much analysis, his annotations completely spoiled the book for me!

Despite not being a professional scientist, Martin Gardner was also one of the first to take it upon himself to debunk pseudo-science. His Facts and Fallacies in the name of Science was such a book where he takes on everything from homeopathy to astrology, and that quintessential American obsession, flying saucers, long before it was fashionable to be a sceptic. I remember him antagonising many of even my scientist friends for his harsh judgment on homeopathy.

Martin Gardner was succeeded at Scientific American by Douglas Hofstader and his Metamagical Themas, (itself an anagram of Mathematical Games the title of Gardner's column) but even though Hofstader was a very bright computer scientist with a best selling Godel, Escher and Bach under his belt, the magic had gone out of the column and I soon stopped following it. It had lost that ineffable Gardner touch. (Douglas Hofstader charming personal reminiscences of Martin Gardner have been republished in the recent issue of Scientific American.)

I hope in his new and happier hunting grounds, he is providing as much joy as be gave many of us in our growing years. RIP, Martin.

Tailpiece: Readers of this post might want to read an interesting New York Times article on Martin Gardner when he turned 95.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

I too now have a silicone implant -- in fact two!

No! Not there, silly! . Recently I went through what is known as phacoemulsification surgery in both eyes. It's an impressive combination of micro surgery and physics. Under a microscope (with the patient under local anaesthesia) the surgeon makes a 2.5 mm incision in the cornea, through which he pushes in an ultrasound probe that, through a small cut in the lens, dissolves the cataractous inside of the lens and sucks it out (or aspirated as it is called), leaving the outer capsule intact. A foldable silicone lens is then inserted inside the capsule and allowed to open out, thus replacing the original lens with an new intra ocular one of suitable focal length. The new lens is usually chosen so that the patient has almost perfect distant vision, and is given glasses only for reading.

The surgery takes about ten minutes, (while the surgeon chats with you) though the preparation for the surgery takes another fifteen minutes or so. By far the most painful part of the proceedings is the injection of the local anaesthetic which mercifully acts instantly and shuts down the eyelid and also all feeling in that eye. One sees some bright lights and rather unnervingly the shadow of the triangular shaped scalpel that is inserted into the eye to make the initial incision. Bandages are removed the next morning, after which vision is normal though full recovery takes about two weeks.

The sudden perfect clarity of vision is uncanny. For me, who's been wearing glasses since high school, to be able to see every mark on a wall, every leaf in a distant tree, every blemish in the skin of a person sitting opposite can be quite unnerving and I still keep touching my face to feel my non existent spectacles. First thing in the morning, you no longer begin by groping for your glasses before getting out of bed. Everything is crystal clear -- in fact too clear -- the instant you open your eyes. The only problem is reading...since the new lens has a fixed focal length and cannot adjust, no amount of squinting helps you to read -- you have to use glasses for this.

It's possible now to get these intra ocular lenses which have the ability to change their focus, just as the lens you are born with. But they don't work quite as well, and most ophthalmologists advise against them. I suspect though, in a few years time, they will become the standard and it will be like having a zoom lens in the eye :-)

So do I now have a bionic eye?

Tailpiece: I hope this also explains my slightly longish absence from my blog.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Marauders' Map for Muggles

Google Latitude, of which I was reminded because of a recent comment in one of my posts, is a remarkable piece of software that allows you to see where all your friends are. It assumes that you all have locational software on your phones (wireless or cell towers for rough estimates, GPS for more precise tagging). Then once you enable Google Latitude on your phones, and allow your friends to see your location, each one can see the others' location on a google map on your mobile. If you are on the move, your friends will see a little blue dot tracing your movements around the city or wherever else (exactly as in the marauders' map). If you find your friends are nearby, you could SMS them to meet you for a coffee at the nearest Starbucks, or in Chennai, the nearest Udipi restaurant!

As Mr Weasley often says, it's amazing how many things Muggles can do without magic :-)

Update: Some pedants, for such creatures, I regret to say, do exist, have pointed out that the marauders' map shows up all marauders whereas in Google Latitude, you have to allow the software and your friends to tag your position. You have the option of hiding your location. Indeed, I bow to superior wisdom -- Google Latitude is not quite the Marauders' Map. What would we do without these nitpickers....

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Julie, Julia, Lobsters and all that

Just finished watching the movie 'Julie and Julia'. Hadn't seen it in the theatre and was therefore condemned to watch it on a 13.3 inch laptop screen as an .avi file. And yet, despite this, it is difficult to imagine that any person with half an epicurean soul would fail to be touched by it.

For some of us like me, though, the movie has a resonance way beyond what most people might feel. I was never a Julia Child cook, leaning more towards the 'Joy of Cooking' (JOC) magnum opus and culinary bible by the Rombauer family (the legendary Irma Rombauer's character makes a brief appearance in the movie) but there are scenes in the movie which I could have penned with my eyes closed.

During my years as a graduate student in the US, I picked up a taste, if you will excuse the pun, for trying new recipes. We had a large American friend, whom I will only identify as David so as not to embarrass him, an amateur weight-lifter and a lover of good food (sometimes it didn't have to be good, as long as there was plenty of it). He along with a bunch of us Indians decided to try and cook the largest live lobster that money could buy along the south shore of Long Island and David finally, after many days of scouring up and down the coast of LI, succeeded in finding a seven pound monster which we all pitched in and bought, having starved ourselves for days to save up enough greenbacks to pay for this creature. David extracted a suitably large pot from his grandmother's garage and we all retired to one of our tiny grad school apartment kitchens in order to cook it.

It had already been decided by common consensus that David would do the honours -- apart from the fact that none of us knew how to steam a lobster, he seemed to be the only member of the party large enough to take on the lobster on its own terms. Water along with some salt, wine and some 'erbs was added to the pot, it was brought to what JOC would call a rolling boil, David grabbed the seven pound behemoth by its midriff, posed with it for numerous pictures -- I still have pictures of this event somewhere -- (those of you who have cooked lobsters in the US will know that their claws are kept shut by thick rubber bands so there is really no danger, except in that occasional instance where a band might spring loose and, to top it all, David did not deign to wear gloves unlike Julie) and then plunged the poor thing into the pot of boiling water and shut the lid. We all clapped and cheered lustily, David took a modest bow, the lobster in its dying throes gave a wild twitch, and the lid flew off and one claw emerged tentatively out of the pot. In an instant, the kitchen had cleared, us puny Indians having decided this was clearly David's baby (or rather lobster) leaving him slightly shell shocked but with enough presence of mind to grab the lid and bring it hurriedly down on the pot and hold it there for about a minute. There were no further surprises and the crustacean turned out to be big enough to satisfy 5 hungry graduate students.

Other scenes from the movie bring to mind, for example, attempts to poach an egg. I was not involved directly in this -- a fellow graduate student (who is now a very distinguished scientist and will therefore remain unnamed) tried his hand at poaching by boiling water in a tureen and dropping an egg in it ('egg drop soup'?) and stirring vigorously. At the end of this exercise, the only way the remains of the egg could be salvaged was by pouring out the water through a fine meshed strainer. The consistency - well, let us draw a veil over these unfortunate events.

When I first went to graduate school, I could barely make tea...having been molly coddled at home as the only child of my parents. However, strangely enough I took to cooking with great gusto, and over the years, while I may not have turned into a michelin starred chef, perhaps because I never went through the Cordon Bleu training Julia Child did, I learnt to follow recipes and turn out perfectly respectable meals. For the Indian part of my repertoire, I have Madhur Jaffrey and her Indian cooking books to thank, particularly her first --"An Invitation to Indian Cooking" -- her subsequent books being more glossy coffee table type ones, though still with that infallible Madhur Jaffrey touch.

'Julie and Julia' the movie therefore speaks to my deepest epicurean dreams.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Milestone and MotoNav

I recently got a Motorola Milestone (aka Droid in the US). It's a mobile phone which runs the Android 2.0 O/S from google and like most 'smart' phones these days, does everything (music, GPS, GPRS, Mail, facebook, youtube, you get the idea) except make coffee. One of the nifty applications it has is GPS assisted navigation overlaid on Google Maps. (The Nokia phones have Ovi maps).

So as a test, a colleague and I took it with us for a short drive upto Adyar (just about 3 km from the institute) and back. It dutifully recorded the car speed and to our astonishment, almost all the roads and landmarks (including obscure details like Thiruvanmiyur HIG flats, 'going under the Adyar flyover'). It produced useful information like nearby restaurants (Pizza Hut, Adyar Ananda Bhavan....), and help areas like VHS (Voluntary Health Services) 300 metres down the road from where we were, and a bunch of other clinics we had never heard of. The wealth of detail available is truly impressive -- both regarding roads, as well as nearby landmarks, shops, restaurants and hospitals. Clearly someone, or some people have been at work, entering this information into the google database. Along the way you can even SMS your position to someone who might be waiting for you (it sends a http link to a google map) or you can email it (it uses gmail preferably or some other push mail interface through your GPRS connection).

Overall a very satisfying experience. Perhaps this is all standard for GPS assisted navigation, but since this was my first, I am allowed to get a thrill our of it :-).

Friday, April 9, 2010

Thoughts on a 'Planned City'

I have been in the 'planned' city of Chandigarh for the last few days, teaching in a school for graduate students. Chandigarh, as most educated Indians have been taught, was designed by the architect Le Corbusier who was also responsible for various cities in Europe, Russian, North America and South America. The planned part in this case implies that the roads follows a Cartesian system of coordinates (nothing particularly unique about that -- so does Manhattan, except where it is broken by Broadway, and many other cities) which enclose identical sized sectors which can be confusing to a first time visitor since many of these sectors look completely identical. The other unnerving part is the habit of the residents to refer to Sector XX as if that is all that is needed for a visitor to find it. (I suppose that is true if you are taking a taxi or rickshaw but not if you are planning to find it yourself).

The first thing that strikes you when you reach Chandigarh is the traffic or rather the lack of it. Wide roads and avenues, flanked by trees and side walks where you can actually walk without being in danger of either getting knocked down or fumigated, with the occasional car zipping by is a familiar sight, totally alien from anything in any other part of India. Coming from a city where it now takes me about 40 minutes to traverse a distance of five and a half kilometers, this is as close to heaven as it is possible to get without actually getting run over ! Delhi also has wide roads, but every inch of space is taken over by all modes of transport. Which brings me to another aspect - auto rickshaws are few and far between, I never saw a bus, and few two wheelers. So here is my deeply thought out prescription for clearing Chennai roads -- remove MTC buses (ok, maybe keep 10 or 15), get rid of two wheelers (I am dreaming already) and cancel the permits of all auto rickshaws (I am drooling). Just cars and nothing else (perhaps pedestrians who are confined to Chennai's non existent side walks). The ultimate dream city of capitalist America (Los Angeles?) . How does it look?

And talking of cars, Chandigarh I am told has the highest standard of living in the country. This means big cars with few Altos and Maruti 800's . On my first day here, I counted seven Honda City's in the Physics Department parking lot in Panjab University (the rest were Maruti SX4, Ford Ikons and so on). Very different from a standard parking lot of an academic institution in the rest of the country. Presumably people have secondary sources of income since academic salaries are about the same everywhere. I also found out (yes, I like getting such information!) that these were all four to five years old which meant these were not the result of the largess of the sixth pay commission!

The other surprise is that motorists are regularly fined for traffic violations. This includes not wearing a seat belt, over speeding, jumping lights and other such infractions. As a result, traffic here, whatever there is of it is very organised and disciplined, and nobody tries to jump a traffic light even at night when there are no other cars at a traffic signal. (Am I really talking of an Indian city). The city is also full of parks, rose gardens, (the University itself has one) the famous rock garden, lakes, making quality of life distinctly a cut above the rest of the country.

The rock garden which most locals will tell you to visit is a concrete monstrosity, a park made up of the detritus of an upcoming city full of narrow tunnels with towering walls, the mandatory water fall and all kinds of items salvaged from garbage dumps set in formation with concrete. This is my second visit to the rock garden and I find it impossibly claustrophobic, with all that tonnage of concrete giving it a very hard and soulless character -- a three dimensional Jackson Pollock piece gone wild. I realise that this is probably a minority viewpoint but there you have it.

On the other hand the zoo, in the outskirts of the city is a pleasant surprise. There is a lion safari, a deer park and the usual collection of somewhat underfed lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and so on. But it's spread over a huge area and it's easy to spend a couple of hours there, though I am told that the animal collection used to be much better earlier. I also had my first Rainbow Trout caught in the Beas at the 'Flamme Bois' in Sector 35B and it was excellent.

So is this utopia where most of us would like to move. There you have me -- one should perhaps ask those who live here -- including some of my colleagues who moved here recently. My guess is that it would come as a breath of fresh air (literally!) in the initial period. In the long run, though, I wonder if one would miss the bustle of a standard Indian city, the cultural life, the eating out places, the general chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape. I leave it to readers of my post to comment. I am only a bird of passage, here for a mere 10 days.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Gates Foundation

There is a whole subculture out there which specializes in Windows bashing and I much confess I don't like the whole Windows culture very much, However, the work of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation is actually quite inspiring, even to cynics.

Do read it here in the Times of India or here in the Hindu, where the ubiquitous N Ram has to keep shoving his oar in and bring in his earlier interview with Bill Gates. However it's interesting to see a dyed-in-the-wool commie almost in awe of the contribution made by the Foundation and by Warren Buffet. Moreover they have “made a commitment that 50 years after the last of the two of us has died…all our money would have been given away.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Oh! for a bit of charge

This post is inspired by this article but I realise that one's woes don't end by reaching journey's end. Most of us these days travel with a) a cellphone, b) a laptop c) an iPod unless it is part of the cellphone d)a battery charger for your camera. Of these the last does not need to be charged too frequently unless you are a crazed Japanese tourist who takes 500 shots a day. However the first three need fairly frequent charging.

Unfortunately most guest houses in India have a severe paucity of plug points. (I am happy to report that at IMSc, we have consciously provided a large number of electric juice suppliers but we are an exception :) ). Most will have one, which if you are lucky will actually work. Often the only charging point I have found is in the bathroom, presumably placed there for people who use electric shavers. Surely the number of people who carry a,b,c,and/or d is far larger than those who carry electric shavers. Then why this discrimination? One could in principle, plug in one's mobile in the bathroom but that usually means you will never hear a call. Balancing a laptop gingerly next to the sink is not an exercise I would recommend to anyone, other than those who are trying to sabotage their laptop in order to by a new one. In a guest house of one of India's most prestigious institutes, I found all the plug points to be at floor level and usually just near the entrance to the bathroom. Apart from the mystery about why it should be so, here is the added risk of squashing your precious gadget while taking a nature call in the middle of the night.

But I am being unfair. Hotels, even in so called developed countries suffer from the same malaise. Charging any equipment usually means unplugging the bedside lamp which then means you can give up any thoughts of reading in bed. This is in addition, of course to having to carry one of these whacking big adapters for those alien sockets.

Here is a solution that works for me. If you have mobiles and ipods which have a (mini) usb port, then you can plug your laptop into the solitary plug point and plug in the other devices to the laptop through its usb port. However you cannot then put your laptop to sleep all night (poor fellow) for the charging to work.

For others, you just need to wake up a few times in the middle of the night to switch the device. Or stagger their use so that they don't all need to be charged on the same day. Who said technology had made our lives easier?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

P. C. Vaidya

Professor Prahalad Chunnilal Vaidya passed away on March 12, 2010 in the early hours. He was 92.

Prof Vaidya is famous for his solution of Einstein's equations for a radiating star. Much of his life was also spent in trying to make mathematics accessible to school children in a way that made it interesting rather than just rote learning. A news link is here. A short half an hour movie on him by IUCAA in collaboration with Vigyan Prasar is available here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Whipping Boy

The other day, having bought a small packet of strawberries at the price of a small ingot of gold at a Chennai market, I summoned up enough enthusiasm to make a strawberry shortcake. In my younger days, as an amateur baker, I had quite a reputation for making cakes -- resulting once in four visiting friends demolishing a strawberry cake by the simple expedient of only making 90 degree cuts.

This time we decided that there being only two of us, and living in Velacheri, that too on a road which has the appearance of slightly beaten up Sea of Tranquility crater on the moon, with little chance of anyone visiting, we would slowly work through the cake over a period of a few days.

The first part was easy. The sponge cake, made from my old bible The Joy of Cooking (which had lost its last few pages which was the index) was a breeze. I realised that I had lost nothing of my original talent. :-) It was soft, spongy and beautifully browned on top.

The cream was the next hurdle. The only kind available in any supermarket nearby was the tetrapack version that Amul sells which it calls Fresh Cream. Having occasionally beaten a cream to death (in other words beating it till the butter came out in big clods) I bought a spare packet in case of disasters. I need not have bothered.

The whipping, with an electric egg-beater, started at 7.15pm on a weekday soon after we had returned from work. At 7.30pm, I gave up and my wife took it up. Around 7.45pm she gave it back to me. At 7.50pm the motor gave a small groan and gave up the ghost, a slight acrid smell of burning plastic testifying to the finality of the situation. And the cream? What about it -- it continued in its pristine state (it did not even turn to butter).

At this point I poured the cream qua cream over the sponge cake (which had been neatly divided into two layers in the hope that we would make a layered cake). I carefully decorated the top with cut strawberries and there it was - somewhat the worse for wear, the (unwhipped) cream having soaked right through, but it tasted quite nice. After all why shouldn't it -- sponge cake, cream, sugar, strawberries - all necessary ingredients for a successful dessert if not in the right format :)

Oh! Before I forget -- anyone know how to make a strawberry shortcake without running through a beater each time? It might help my finances a bit... (something tells me getting proper whipping cream might help....but in Chennai?)