Note to recruiters

Note to recruiters: We are quite aware that recruiters, interviewers, VCs and other professionals generally perform a Google Search before they interview someone, take a pitch from someone, et cetera. Please keep in mind that not everything put on the Internet must align directly to one's future career and/or one's future product portfolio. Sometimes, people do put things on the Internet just because. Just because. It may be out of their personal interests, which may have nothing to do with their professional interests. Or it may be for some other reason. Recruiters seem to have this wrong-headed notion that if somebody is not signalling their interests in a certain area online, then that means that they are not interested in that area at all. It is worth pointing out that economics pretty much underlies the areas of marketing, strategy, operations and finance. And this blog is about economics. With metta, let us. by all means, be reflective about this whole business of business. Also, see our post on "The Multi-faceted Identity Problem".

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Google Glass demo from the I/O conference today :

Incredible! With that, it is time to declare the theme for the month of July : "Innovation and Competitive Strategy".


We have talked about innovation in the area of operations management in the first column. In the video, we get a peek at one of the more exciting developments in a different area, one that is very close to my heart in computer technology : augmented reality. Below is a slick new ad from Google promoting their very cool Project Glass. Watch and enjoy!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Conway's "Game of Life"

Where is the Java? Trust me - it is coming. First, look what I found! A cool simulation of Conway's "Game of Life" on Youtube :

What is the Game of Life? If you don't already know what the Game of Life is, it is a sort of artificial simulation of life. It basically works exactly as the video above shows. A set of rules is specified in a square grid consisting of cells and based on these rules, the game evolves. It is a game in the sense that it is similar to the sorts of games (such as "Go" and "checkers") that you and I might play but it requires no players at all. Once you set up the initial configuration, the 'game' plays itself. The Game of Life was devised by the mathematician John Conway, and the rules of the game are the following three simple ones:

1. A dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (birth).
2. A live cell with two or three live neighbors stays alive (survival).
3. In all other cases, a cell dies or remains dead (overcrowding or loneliness). 

As the video says, the Game of Life is a simple illustration of 'emergence', that is, the idea that the application of a few simple rules can generate complex systems. A Java applet simulation of the Game of Life is available here. It is quite fun to play around with this thing. You can start out with some of the patterns they have on the webpage and press "Go" on the applet to see how things evolve from there. You can create a number of complex patterns starting with very simple ones. Check it out if you get the chance.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A modest proposal towards modernizing the Tamil writing system

It is June, but May and the theme of language and Talk were not so long ago. Given that, I will post on this here blog a modest proposal that goes towards modernizing the Tamil writing system. This post was occasioned by a comment on a Quizzing forum from earlier today. I have been meaning to talk about this for a while, but never got the chance to do so on my blog or my List.

The point came up on the forum that there is a rule in Tamil against using consonant clusters (like 'Tm'). This was brought up in the context of a controversy around the naming of a road in Tamil Nadu (the 'Mahatma Gandhi Road'). The controversy was around - get this - the use of the word 'mahATma' for a road in Tamil Nadu. The problem apparently is that 'mahATma' is a word that is of Sanskrit origin. Now, Tamil Nadu happens to be a state that is very proud of its language, but at the same time, there is a great deal of politicking on linguistic identity going on out there, especially during election time. All that posturing and politicking over linguistic identity seems utterly pointless, and it is really little more than a cynical ploy on the part of the politicians. However, the threat to Tamil from Hindi seems to be an always popular theme among voters in Tamil Nadu, and this bit of linguistic populism still has popular support. So what is to be done?

I would like to suggest the following : let us modernize the Tamil language to the greatest extent possible. Many of the rules currently governing Tamil come from premodern rules of language. This includes rules from Middle Tamil, et cetera. The solution is simple : copy Hindi. Do whatever Hindi does in terms of the writing system in Tamil as well. This would allow adopting words from Hindi and other Indian languages without change in Tamil. My proposal below includes allowing for aspirated consonants, for consonant clusters, and for better distinguishing of what I like to call the 'soft' consonants (as distinguished from the 'hard' ones.) My proposal would involve the following three simple changes to the Tamil writing system :

1. Consonant clusters: The proposal here is simple : allow for all consonant clusters. Mix and match as you please. Basically, allow the 'sTrI's, the 'zrIs' and the 'sprees'.

2. The soft consonants ('ga' versus 'ka', 'ja' versus 'cha', et cetera): there is a total of 20 consonants (velar, palatal, retroflex, dental and labial) in the primary table in DevanAgari (see table linked here). Tamil could simply use the same set of sounds in its writing system. It does so in any case in practice. It would be relatively simple to introduce a new mark to distinguish the first consonant from the third consonant in each category (velar, palatal, retroflex, dental and labial) (noting that the second and the fourth consonants are aspirated sounds). One could add the horizontal bar on top of the symbol for the third consonant in each category to distinguish that one from the first. This would be a way of acknowledging the role of Sanskrit (and Panini) in the development of this writing system.

3. Aspirated consonants: The proposal here is pretty simple again : allow for aspirated consonants. Aspirated consonants are ones for which you expel a extra bit of puff of air as you pronounce them. (Anyone who knows Hindi can tell you what the aspirated consonants in Hindi are.) I am talking, of course, about the 'kha' consonant (as opposed to the 'ka' consonant), the 'gha' consonant (as opposed to the 'ga' consonant), et cetera. The writing system could easily accomodate this using some symbol to distinguish the aspirated consonants. I would suggest for us to use the 'therefore' symbol (already used in Tamil to distinguish 'fa' from 'pa') following the letter to distinguish aspirated consonants from non-aspirated ones.

Using (2) and (3), you would end up with the same set of consonants as Hindi/Sanskrit. This would make communication using Tamil much, much easier. As regards (1), this requires no changes to the language at all. Even simply allowing all consonant clusters would greatly simplify matters and enable in modernizing the Tamil language. Wikipedia indicates that this process is underway in any case : "Contact with European languages also affected both written and spoken Tamil. Changes in written Tamil include the use of European-style punctuation and the use of consonant clusters that were not permitted in Middle Tamil" but it would be good to take it to a logical/rationalistic conclusion. As I mentioned at the forum, I went through Harold Schiffman's book on Tamil grammar at one point of time. It was an interesting book to read. At the same time, it is not very understandable for the naive user of the Tamil language. This grammar stuff does not have to be complicated. I only wish they modernize the Tamil writing system sooner rather than later.

Note that I have followed the Harvard-Kyoto convention throughout in this post for all italicized words (not that you need to know this to see where I am going with this proposal). Indeed, you could simply use the Harvard-Kyoto system for writing in Tamil and avoid all the problems I mentioned above. Many people use this in any case.

I have ensured that the suggestions in this proposal are as simple as possible to keep things constructive. If you had any comments on this, I would love to hear them. Please feel free to email me at the same email address as before. Enjoy!

Update (July 7th): In order to make things easier for Unicode users, I would like to add that the proposal includes using the Unicode symbol 0955 (which is unmistakably different from any other symbol yet similar to the horizontal bar in Hindi/Sanskrit) as an alternate way to add the horizontal bar for Tamil characters. Furthermore, preferably, the Unicode symbol 0955 ought to be placed on top of the 'therefore' symbol to indicate that this symbol is being used to indicate aspirated consonants. Please see the attached Unicode charts to see what symbols it is that I am referring to in this post. The symbols in question are Unicode characters 0955 and 0B83.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Javanese shadow puppet theater

And now for something completely different : Javanese shadow puppet theater.

I have not had the opportunity to see Javanese shadow puppets or watch Javanese shadow puppet theater performances except on video, but these shadow puppet theater shows are in many ways similar to shadow puppet theaters in India and Thailand and are, I am told, quite popular in Java. While in Thailand, I saw shadow puppets on sale in many shops. I would have bought one too for our home here in California except that they were a bit too big to fit in our travel bags. Also, I am afraid of monsters.

Times of India readers would be pleased to know that the themes of shadow puppet shows are often of Indian origin. Shadow puppet shows in Thailand often have stories that are made up by the puppeteers from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana. Shadow puppet shows in Java too have stories based in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And so to round off this post, a shadow puppet theater show from the motherland.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Weekend entertainment (featuring Java Man)

While on the topic of atl-atls and anthropology, I cannot resist pointing out the hair-raising work of the esteemed Kent Hovind whose creationist video ("Peking Man, Java Man, ...") below is worth watching for sheer entertainment value.

It is really not worth my time to point out the many mistakes in this 3:24 minute segment. I will simply caution readers to be very skeptical of the contents of the presentation.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Atlatls and office hours

I have been having some fabulous discussions with many of the respondents to the puzzles and with office hours callers. The topic of atlatls (believe it or not!) had come up with one of the respondents. A very brief interaction it was, but at the end of it, I sent him a couple of videos on atlatls. What is an atlatl? The atatl was the ancient man's missile launcher, a tremendous innovation by any standards that changed the "game" as far as early man was concerned substantially.

Watch the video below on atlatls if you want to know what an atlatl looks like. It is a pretty awesome demonstration, and so without further ado, over to the video.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Puzzle contest announcement

A question that just came in regarding the Column 3 puzzle: "Does the astronaut take out the boots one at a time or does she take out k boots all at once (where 0 < k <= 20)?" It is the latter. The astronaut takes out k boots all at once (where 0<k<=20). The question basically is - what is the minimum k such that she is guaranteed to have a pair of boots - one left and one right?

One could easily change the puzzle in subtle ways and pose variations of the same question, and one would get vastly different answers depending on the mathematics of the problem. And that is the beauty of it.

Anyway, the question came in in the context of the announcement of a contest for the puzzle in Column 3. We are running a contest for this puzzle in association with the Stanford Math Circle. The problem is really quite a bit easier than it looks. The prize is a $40 gift card. Anybody is eligible to participate but you have to pick up your prize at the Stanford Math Circle meeting. If you are not from the Bay Area, you could use a proxy to pick up the prize. That's about it about the puzzle contest. Happy solving!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Panini, de Saussure, Chomsky et cetera

A followup on the "Pizza and Panini" piece. The "Pizza and Panini" piece is a sly comment on the Eurocentricity of the way we view contributions to science by the ancient Greeks versus the ancient Indians. Panini was, in my opinion, one of the greatest innovators in the ancient world. His grammar was the world's first formal system of language. Panini's ideas of formal rules in natural languages, in fact, significantly influenced the 19th and 20th century linguists who came after him - de Saussure's work (de Saussure,1894) and Chomsky's (Chomsky, 1957).

I am also poking a bit of fun at the lengthiness of some of the works of the ancient Greek mathematicians, scientists and even philosophers. Many of their dialogues appear unnecessary lengthy when viewed by us today. This is because the ancient Greeks had not yet developed the theories of languages, physics, et cetera that were developed after the European Enlightenment. If Euclid's propositions were analyzed today, we would find that they could have been written far more compactly. Two examples follow. The stuff in italics is all that would have been required for a Proof or Algorithm for the two Propositions of Euclid that I deal with below.