Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Random funny things

Did you check out Krish Ashok’s inverse square law of taxi fares yet? Do take a look…I associate his factor S with service and attention given by wait-staff in an Indian Restaurant in the US!

And for those of you that have not seen Om Shanti Om either because you lacked the time/opportunity, or made a conscious intellectual choice to avoid “junk” of that kind, please do check out Akshay Kumar in “The Return of Khiladi”. You might loose a synapse or two in your brain because of watching it, but it will be compensated by the aerobic exercise of rolling on the floor laughing!

And finally, here is the ICL ad for the Chennai superstars? I know, it is all over the internet, but it is too…funny I think (I so hate the pink we have been stuck with, it dampens my enthusiasm some)….for me to pass up ot it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Changing Chennai

No, no, I am not trying to change Chennai, I am saying it is changing. Apparently there are people in madras that crave waffles for breakfast and there seem to be a whole bunch of places you can get those too. And the linked post mentions so many meats... if I had still been living in Madras, I sure as hell would not know the difference between salami and sausage! Terrible or wonderful? Yet to make up my mind. (dyed in the wool tam-brahminism preventing me from making the "right" choice, i.e., wonderful...the baggage of conditioning dammit!:))

Theory of Everything?

First I saw this. Then, I went to the physics archive, the democratic forum where anyone can post and found this. I printed it, skimmed it and formed a minimal impression (to the effect that it is a good idea but ways to go before it can be a theory of everything). But, I am not well versed in the relevant jargon, so I need to spend some time and talk to people who are well versed (and that is the advantage of being in a physics department, all kind of help is just a stroll down the corridor away!) before I can tell you about it. But, in the mean time do go and check out this post, and scroll through the comment thread, we have Garret Lisi in there trying to explain this stuff himself.

PS: The pretty picture is the polytope with E8 symmetry, the group that has that nice property that the fuss is all about. I know, I know, I just put it in because it is pretty :)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Birthday!

To cc (my blog persona) and the Curiosity Shop. We have been in existence for a year and we had fun! When I started blogging, I said “I don't know why I am doing this”. I still don’t. But it has turned out to be a lot of fun. In the year that was, I have made friends and foes, I have laughed and cried, even awarded titles and been asked to “kneel down and beg forgiveness”, pretty much the whole spectrum you would go through if you had a real life (I clearly don’t).

And I found one side benefit. The blog has become a compendium of odds and ends that catch my attention (not comprehensive though, for, whole months went by when I noticed things and thought about them but did not blog about them). For example, the other day, I was looking for a Scientific American article on creationism I had read a while back to revisit something. I did what I always do, go to the filing cabinet and reach for the folder “This and that: Colloquium”. It was not there. This usually means I was reading the said paper in a plane or a train and did not bring it back. Under normal circumstances, the next step would have been to google. But now, I have a blog and I know I said something about it here and so I went to the Shop and looked and there it was! So, just for that reason, the Shop should become a more complete and better organized filing cabinet for the junk in my head!

Anyways, thank you to my readers who stop by here to say things to me and help me keep up the necessary illusion that other people read this stuff as well. Now wish me well for the future (most of you are my seniors in the blog world, right? So this is asking for “aashirwaad”). And do come back to read some more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ideas and such

This past week, I have been watching a TED video a day to keep boredom away. Just thought will share some of them with you. But, if you have not seen them already, be warned, each video is 20 minutes long. It is totally worth the 20 minutes, so only click on it if you have the time.

1) Larry Lessig : This is the Creative Commons License guy. I only know of him slightly, due to press surrounding the Microsoft law suit and he is not saying anything that gives me goose bumps. But his talk is, for me, representative of how to build an argument using analogies. Fantastic, for just that one reason.

2) Dan Dennett: In his talk, he is essentially making the point that “ideas” take the role of genes in social evolution. We know this. But he articulates this beautifully. And towards the end, he says things that did give me goose bumps.

3) Richard Dawkins: We all know this guy. Who has not read the Selfish Gene right? In this talk he talks about the fact that our so called “intuition” is evolutionary conditioning associated with the length and time scales we are able to probe with our senses (a point I had made earlier in a different context), and this is the reason we find fundamental physics on small scales and large scales counterintuitive. But he does this beautifully, or at least I thought so, because it resonated with the thoughts in my head.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Terrible stuff…

I just saw this…it upsets me, to the extent that I am not able to articulate what I want to say just now.

Never thought of it…

“Fairness" is often described in terms of equality of outcomes. But in a game, the “fairest” rules are often those that make the ablest players mostly likely to win, instead of those that distribute wins most evenly among players.

Even outside of games, a wide range of otherwise puzzling common intuitions about fairness can be understood if the fundamental "game" of life is seen as wooing, i.e., attracting mates by showing that you have fit genes. The fairest social institutions are then those in which success correlates as much as possible with genetic fitness.

For example, it can seem fair that the most attractive witty athletic folks get more mates and money, but seem unfair that the rich can buy better education for their children. Makeup can seem fair, while breast implants seem unfair.

Totally cool essay…some of the logic as applied to policy implications I am unable to buy just yet, but still…

Link [via]

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Random stuff again

I pissed off more than my normal share of people today, among them, one of my paymasters. Foot constantly in my mouth kind of day. So, I thought I will take refuge in my feed reader (which contains now even the feed from the physics archive) and came across the following video on SepiaMutiny. If anybody says Shah Rukh Khan cannot act, they should take a look at this, where he says some outrageous things with a straight face!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Journal club – Immunization and terrorists

I was whiling away some time yesterday when I read this paper [1]. What the paper is about is “effective immunization strategy for scale free networks”. First let me tell you what each of these words mean. If you already know or are not interested, skip to the last two paragraphs.

What is a network? It is a collection of points (nodes) that are connected to each other in some way (links), so that you can get from one point to another though some path along these links. What are the real world systems a network can represent ? The Internet (each computer is a node and each hard wired connection is a link), the world wide web (each website is a node and each link is a link…), social networks of people, biological networks of chemical reactions, epidemiological networks that map out how a disease spreads through a social network of people in physical contact and so on and so forth. In fact, I think there is a subset of mathematicians and physicists who would have you believe that any problem in the world that is worth solving is actually reducible to a question about some property of some network!

What is immunization? It is exactly the same as in English. I give a vaccine to a node (person) so that it cannot be infected by a disease and hence cannot spread it. What is an immunization strategy? Given a network that you do not know much about (only the fact that it is a network) what scheme should I use to immunize nodes so that with least possible immunization I can guarantee that I will not have an epidemic?

And finally, what is a scale free network? You can find some info here, but in my mind, when somebody says scale free network, I imagine airports as nodes and flights that emanate from them as links. Supposing I draw this, it looks like the image alongside [2]. The first thing you notice is that there are hubs. Suppose you close your eyes and pick one point on the network, like as not, that point will be connected to one other point and that point will be a hub, i.e., connected to a whole bunch of other points. You can do this exercise in your mind with airports if you like and you will see the same thing. Mathematically, such networks turn out to have some nice properties, but for the purpose at hand let us leave it at that.

Alright, so much for preliminaries. What is this paper about? Well, it turns out that if you used a “random immunization” strategy, i.e., if you randomly chose a fraction of people that are connected by such a network and immunized them and asked “Is my population now protected from an epidemic?”, you find that you basically have to immunize everybody before you can be sure there is no epidemic. So this is no good as a strategy. So, what is a better strategy? The authors of this paper say that instead of randomly picking people and immunizing them, you do the following. You randomly pick a person, then randomly pick one of his/her acquaintances (a node that is linked to the node you picked) and immunize them instead. In this way, your network becomes protected from epidemics way sooner. This is their primary result [3].

Now if you think about it, it is easy to see why this is true in scale free networks, again using the airports analogy from earlier. Suppose I wanted to shut down air traffic in the USA. I have a list of airports. The way I want to accomplish my mission is by randomly picking airports to shut down. Now suppose I randomly picked an airport and shut down the airport that I picked, it will take me forever to do this for I will choose the hubs with the same probability as I would choose the hundreds of other itty-bitty airports around. Instead if I said I will pick an airport at random and shut down one of the airports it is connected to, I am way more likely to shut down hubs than in my first route. And hence the strategy described in this paper is indeed better for scale free networks.

But what made this paper priceless in terms of amusement obtained for the time spent was the following sentence…”As a final remark, we note that our approach may be relevant to other networks, such as ecological networks of predator prey [32,33], metabolic networks [34], networks of cellular proteins [35], and terrorist networks. For terrorist networks, our findings suggest that an efficient way to disintegrate the network is to focus more on removing individuals whose name is obtained from another member of the network.” Homeland security…are you listening?

Caveats and Disclaimers

[1] I know squat about networks theory, so if you are an expert, correct me and if you are not, do not trust me entirely.

[2] It is actually an image of stock trades in the new york stock exchange stolen from here…thanks to google’s image search, but same difference.

[3] As far as the mathematics go, there are other assumptions in here…the network must a) have a tree structure, b) be undirected, c) uncorrelated, d) unweighted. But for the resolution I have of such things…same difference.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Politics of the blogsphere?

Apparently people either love Amit Varma or just plain hate him…strange. No wonder comments are off on his numero uno blog. As I said, strange…

Monday, November 5, 2007

Hindus and Atheism

Patrix got me thinking this morning when I read this post on his blog. Rather than take up his comment space, as I will probably end up being verbose and not clear at all, I thought I will express the thoughts that came flooding into my head here. The question that started this flood of thoughts was “Are Hindus more likely to be Atheists?” And the first sound in my head is a resounding and joyous “YES”! Now why is that? Let me try and explain.

First, some caveats. This is a theoretical physicist’s answer in the sense that it is correct in the context of the ideal system and may not be valid in the more complex real world. The reason I need this “ideal system” assumption is that Hinduism is really a social construct rather than a religion. And the society is complicated. The simplifying assumption I am making here is that I am visualizing a Hindu society where there is no caste. Caste is just a designation of your profession and comes with no associated mental stigma or physical discrimination.

Given all that, why do I think Hindus are more likely to become atheist? To understand this, I need to first say what an atheist is. Conventionally, an atheist is thought to be a person who says “there is no god”. This is not quite right in my mind. It should really be a person that says “I have no god”, in exactly the same tone of voice as one would say “I have no washing machine”. Hinduism has this freedom inherently built in. In the Hindu environment, gods come in all colors and flavors. There is the “goody-goody” Rama, there is the incorrigible flirt and master of cunning, Krishna, the manifestation of wrath and lust, Shiva and so on and so forth. This allows a mindset that necessarily separates the “religious” aspects as those associated with fables and the “social” aspect that is associated with conformity, morals ethics and so on. And the “spiritual” aspect of this religion is inherently personal, in that, rightly, there is no given path, there are guidelines to choose possible paths but that is it. All this makes it an easy step up to do away with the religious aspect altogether in our minds. Thank God for the absence of “Jesus this and Jesus that” to quote lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump!

Do you think you agree?

Guruvaayoor

I just saw this (via India Uncut). I did not know that they allowed women in in Salwar Kameez there. The last time I went there (12 years ago perhaps?), women had to be in Sarees or long skirts (the south Indian kind) and men had to be in Dhothis. I remember distinctly because my brother and a cousin usually wore short pants and had to buy dhotis in Guruvayoor just for the occasion and they were so pissed. I also remember thinking at the time that the required attire seems to be for the purpose of guraranteeing quick access for excretory purposes…Now, I am inclined to think more dirty things…

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ode to my darling

I love you. We had a good thing going. But you know I had to give you up. Had to move on ....It hurts me to do this, but I must. Surely, I will remember our time together with fondness.

In case you are wondering, I was talking to my jeans, my jeans of 6 and a half years that I had to retire from active service this past month. We were together almost everyday during that time. The only exceptions were days with weddings, funerals and thesis defense occurring during their course and hot summer days in Florida spent close to some water body and far away from air-conditioners (the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Wauberg, Ichetucknee river etc). As you can imagine, these were few and far between.

This pair of jeans was not the first one I ever had. But this is the first time I am bidding an emotional farewell to one. Now, why is that? It is because this is my “grad student jeans”. Before this, I had had a pair in high school and a pair in college. But then, it was not the same thing. In India, I had really cheap ones that I would now not call jeans at all, I wore them infrequently and then committed what I would now consider a crime of sorts, I washed and ironed them between wears! How na├»ve I was then!

And then, one day I went to grad school. I discovered that I had no time to do laundry. That was now designated a once in three weeks or even once in a month activity that you undertook only when your entire closet was in your hamper and you had no choice but to do it. I discovered that jeans are extraordinarily comfortable things if you just “broke them in”, something which takes you a week of wearing everyday to achieve, after every wash. And so I got hooked, to the pleasure of living in my pair of unwashed jeans. Once you discover this pleasure, you feel awkward wearing anything else. That is the beginning of the bonding. If you have felt it, you know what I am talking about.

And so I wore my jeans day in and day out. It began to fray in various places. This did not bother me. It almost completely lost color in parts. I did not even notice. A belt loop broke. I ran all the way to Ada’s tailoring the day this happened, paid what must have been close to 50% of the jeans’ original price and got it fixed. It was a given in my life that otherwise consists of what is known as the “Apartment, Department, Advisor, Budweiser” Routine. My jeans, my darling jeans.

And then, one day, a couple of months ago, it tore open right above the knee where the cloth had been worn down to mere threads. I was depressed. A deep inexpressible fear caused my stomach to knot up. But, I decided to set this aside. I continued to wear it torn, and planned to get the hole darned before winter came and I could not wear pants with a hole it. And I got it darned the first day I landed in India. And felt so good wearing it after more than a week’s hiatus (I could not wear torn jeans during the previous week for I was traveling for work in Europe, and Europeans tend to frown if you show up to give your seminar in torn jeans).

I thought all was well. I would go back to New York State without worrying about me getting cold in my torn jeans. I was happy. But then, the next day I squatted down on the floor to get something out of my back pack. And “trrrrrrrrrrrrr”. The death knell sounded. The jeans tore open right above where I had gotten it darned. The problem was that there was no cloth, just threads in the vicinity of the first hole, so the darning threads had nothing to hold on to. My heart broke just then, for I realized that our time together had come to an end. I HAD TO GIVE MY JEANS UP! A part of my world came to an end then. I was inconsolable for a time.

Of course, as with all things, time heals and I have moved on now. I have broken in my new pair, a Levi’s that fits like heaven even now…I can only imagine how well it will fit once we get acquainted to each other. It has been on me for two and a half weeks now. I am steeling myself to subjecting it to a first wash this weekend, as it is still reeking blue on my white sock when I walk through the rain. So, I am able to look back on my first love with nostalgia instead of pain and I hope it rests in peace in my mother’s closet where I left it with the promise of wenting my wrath on anyone responsible for trying to throw it away. And wish me luck with my new relationship that I hope lasts at least as long as my first one.