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".

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

INNOVATION: Never forget a face

From MIT:
Do you have a forgettable face? Many of us go to great lengths to make our faces more memorable, using makeup and hairstyles to give ourselves a more distinctive look. 
Now your face could be instantly transformed into a more memorable one without the need for an expensive makeover, thanks to an algorithm developed by researchers in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). 
The algorithm, which makes subtle changes to various points on the face to make it more memorable without changing a person’s overall appearance, was unveiled earlier this month at the International Conference on Computer Vision in Sydney.

Friday, December 20, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Research shows how MacBook Webcams can spy on their users without warning

Via the Washington Post:
The woman was shocked when she received two nude photos of herself by e-mail. The photos had been taken over a period of several months — without her knowledge — by the built-in camera on her laptop. 
Fortunately, the FBI was able to identify a suspect: her high school classmate, a man named Jared Abrahams. The FBI says it found software on Abrahams’s computer that allowed him to spy remotely on her and numerous other women.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

ECONOMICS: What does one make of the Aam Aadmi Party? - "Do well but don't do too well" : extract from a Facebook discussion

So I was discussing on Mayank Bawa's   Facebook page the one year old Aam Aadmi Party. Here is an extract from that discussion.
One of the main successes of the Aam Aadmi Party is to highlight corruption in Indian government. That is why my concluding thoughts in the above post were to wish the AAP well. At the same time, my wish for AAP is - "do well but don't do too well." Doing too well => capturing a majority in any state => a completely confused economic system for that state.
Below is an extract of my comments in that discussion on the issue of foreign direct investment (abbreviated FDI) in the retail sector in India:
The idea of FDI in retail should be delinked from the aspect of Western policy norms. 
Re: FDI in retail: I think the idea of allowing FDI in retail is inherently a good one. The question of whether it is a blind application of Western ideas is also a reasonable one. But one mustn't discount good ideas (say, the idea of wearing spectacles or eating Bulgogi) merely because of the source of these ideas. Whether it is a Western idea or not is not as important as whether it is a sound one. The fact is that with better retail infrastructure (kirana stores are not exactly selling the best quality stuff), you will get better quality products at lower prices which translates to better purchasing power. One could regulate the heck out of them (e.g. tax them a lot, force them to have their locations be far away from major urban centers, et cetera), but there is no reason to not have more investment in retail. If you care about the poor, which is most people in India , then it is good for country for the most part. The very poor segments of Indian society are precisely the people for whom marginal increases in purchasing power will make a big difference.

Update: updated the post a bit, fixed typos. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

ECONOMICS: What does one make of the Aam Aadmi Party?


What does one make of the Aam Aadmi Party?

The Aam Aadmi Party seems to be an oddball mixture of ideas. Their "How are we different" page may be visited for an idea of their "vision":
  • There is no central high command in Aam Aadmi party. The party structure follows a bottom to top approach where the council members elect the Executive Body and also holds the power to recall it.
  • No MLA or MP of this party will use red lights or any other beacons on his or her vehicles.
  • No MLA or MP of this party will use any special security. We believe that elected people's representatives need the same security as a common man.
  • No MLA or MP of our party will live in opulent and luxurious government housing.
  • No one would need to buy an election ticket in our party. Candidates contesting elections from an area will be selected by the people of that area.
What should one make of this party? On the one hand, their idealistic zeal is to be commended. It is good for India to have lower levels of corruption. On the other hand, their lack of an economic philosophy is a problem. And this is a point of view I have debated before - I believe that the Party lacks a coherent economic philosophy.

Concluding thoughts? Well, here is something I have to say to the AAP.
Dear people of the Aam Aadmi Party - dear friends, Indians, countrymen, 
Lend me your ears. Do well but don't do too well in the elections.
          Thank you for your time. I have already captured in about three lines all that I have to say to you. See you around.    

One wishes the Aam Aadmi Party some success so that they continue to do some of the good stuff that they are doing such as monitoring electrol poll booths, et cetera. But one wouldn't want them to actually come to power. The prospect of a party without an economic ideology coming to power is a scary one. So, hope you get a seat or two or three. But not too many. One wouldn't want to wish any country to end up with George W. Bush-like inconsistency at the top.

Update: What AAP has is a lot of ideas but there seems to be little reason to believe that there is anything at the core. There is good reason, based on the economics literature, to believe, for instance, that barring FDI in retail is not a very good idea. Costs will reduce for the consumer. Kirana stores are few in number. Consumers are many. It ought to result in lower costs for the many. Any time a Wikipedia entry for a party goes like: "Party X believe that the promise of equality and justice that forms a part of the constitution of Country X and its preamble has not been fulfilled and that the independence of India has replaced enslavement to an oppressive foreign power with that to a political elite.", you have reason to be concerned. Very concerned.

Monday, December 2, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Using computers, scientists simulate movement of largest-known dinosaur

Via the Washington Post:
Using laser scanning and sophisticated computer modeling, scientists in England and Argentina have simulated the likely lumbering gait of the largest known dinosaur, according to a new study. 
“It’s really spectacular,” said Bill Sellers, a University of Manchester professor and lead researcher of the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, which examines how and whether the enormous Argentinosaurus could have roamed the South American landscape more than 90 million years ago.

Friday, November 15, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: NSA infiltrates links to Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say

Via the Washington Post:
The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials. 
By tapping those links, the agency has positioned itself to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans. The NSA does not keep everything it collects, but it keeps a lot.

Friday, November 1, 2013

INNOVATION: Our non-profit Digital Green has won the Google Impact Challenge Award (yay!)

Via IBNLive.com:
Search giant Google announced the four winners of its 'Impact Challenge in India' competition, which asked Indian non-profit organisations to show how technology can positively impact India and the world. The winners - Agastya, Digital Green, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship & Democracy and Sana - will each receive a Rs 3 crore Global Impact Award, 10 Nexus tablets and support from Google to make their project a reality, Google Senior Vice President Nikesh Arora said announcing the winners here.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

INNOVATION: United States government teams up with Coursera

Via the New York Times:
Coursera, a California-based venture that has enrolled five million students in its free online courses, announced on Thursday a partnership with the United States government to create “learning hubs” around the world where students can go to get Internet access to free courses supplemented by weekly in-person class discussions with local teachers or facilitators. 
The learning hubs represent a new stage in the evolution of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, and address two issues: the lack of reliable Internet access in some countries, and the growing conviction that students do better if they can discuss course materials, and meet at least occasionally with a teacher or facilitator.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

MATHEMATICS: Gathering for Gardner - "How to win at Wimbledon" - additional thoughts

A couple more points : (1) the first related to  Bayesian updating; and (2) the second related to framing of problems.

-+-

I believe that the choice you should make depends on how good you are at tennis (at base level). If your only chance of getting even one point against Federer is if he makes a double fault, then you should choose 6-0, 6-0, 6-6 (6 - 0). If you are good enough to perhaps win a game against Federer with non-vanishing odds, then your optimal strategy may be different. The reason for this is Bayesian updating.

- Supposing you choose 6-0, 6-0, 5- 0 (40 - love). If you are really bad, then Federer will adjust his game once he realizes how bad you are. He may choose to serve differently with an intention to avoid double faults as much as possible at the risk of making a bad serve. He has essentially adjusted his per-point win probability. If you, dear reader, are really bad, then one must adjust one's model to account for this Bayesian updating. Thus, 6-0, 6-0, 6-6 (6-0) might be the more realistic solution. Once FedEx realizes you are terrible, you will be toast.

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Another thing to consider - this one very tricky judgement bias and psychological effect, namely, the "Overconfidence effect". Consider the following two examples :
(1) A survey of 1 million high school students showed that 70 percent think they are above-average leaders (only 2 percent rated themselves below average). [1]
(2) In another study 94 percent of college professors claimed that their research was above average. (See Seed magazine reference below : [1])

People may think that they may actually have a chance of taking even one point off Federer whereas in reality, that probability p may be much, much closer to zero. The "6-0, 6-0, 5- 0 (40 - love)" solution may suffer from this bias for people who are somewhere between the good to great spectrum.

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Another point, this one related to the framing of problems.

A puzzle is not the same as a mathematical problem. Whereas a mathematical problem is in the abstract, a puzzle may add additional constraints because it is set in the real world. In my solution, the chances of Federer actually dying may seem like a humorous suggestion or an aside but such a probability must, in fact, be taken into account in the real world. Another thing to consider is that Federer may be tired (this point, which is Amit Chakrabarti's, is different from the situation of Federer actually dying).

Again, a puzzle is not the same as a mathematical problem. If constrained optimization is what you want, then the puzzle setter would want to state the problem more carefully. Settings in outer space are an oft-used techhnique for framing such problems so as to ensure strict mathematical correspondence. Use them. Robots are another useful device. Use them too.
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References

[1] http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/on_overconfidence/
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Update (July 8): fixed typos. updated the post a bit.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

ECONOMICS: Raj Chetty is wrong

Raj Chetty writes in the NYT that economics is a science. He is wrong.

My email to Greg Mankiw.

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As a computer scientist with an interest in the Philosophy of science, I am sad to see this title for an article in the NYT. 

For economics to be a science, it would need to have two capabilities, which it does not possess unlike the core sciences: experimentation and verification.

<stuff deleted>

-+-

Postscript: I love Krugman's elegant response to Raj Chetty's article. Elegant is the word for it. Note the use of the word 'maybe'. The reason why it is 'maybe' a science is that it is based on 'hard data'. The reason why it is 'maybe' not a science is that it is not based on reproducible experiments and verification.

-+-


Maybe Economics Is A Science, But Many Economists Are Not Scientists

Raj Chetty stands up valiantly for the honor of his and my profession, arguing that economics is too a science in which careful research is used to falsify some hypotheses and lend credibility to others. And in many ways I agree: there is a lot of good research in economics, maybe more than ever as the focus has shifted somewhat from theoretical models loosely inspired by observation — which, as he suggests, was my forte — to nitty-gritty empirical work.

MATHEMATICS: Gathering for Gardner - "How to win at Wimbledon" - solution

My email to Peter Winkler.

-+-

This is in reference to the "How to Win at Wimbledon" puzzle at :

I have a better solution to your problem. In fact, you can win at Wimbledon with probability 1.

My belief is that the theory advanced by Amit Chakrabarti (who I happen to know actually :) ) is correct. I can see that he is a man after my own heart. The only thing about his theory is that it does not go far enough. The number N that was chosen may not be large enough - assuming that the players can come back for the match if it goes beyond a certain limit, the players may not even be all that tired.

The ideal scores, then, are :

(i) 6-6 (LargeNumberN - LargeNumberNMinus2), 6-6 (LargeNumberN' - LargeNumberN'Minus2), 6-6 (6-0)
(ii) 6-0 , 6-6 (LargeNumberN - LargeNumberNMinus2), 6-6 (6-0)
(iii) 6-6 (LargeNumberN - LargeNumberNMinus2), 6-0, 6-6 (6-0)

Under (ii) and(iii), one needs to choose a sufficiently large N. In particular, one must choose an N that is so large that Roger Federer is at the brink of death. In fact, N is so large and the man is so close to death that if he serves even once more, he will die. Furthermore, it is his turn to serve. That is the situation to find oneself in. 

I believe that I and Amit, *we* are the Ones we have been waiting for. :)
- Anand

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Monday, October 21, 2013

MATHEMATICS: Gathering for Gardner - Winning at Wimbledon

As part of the Gathering For Gardner (G4G) celebrations worldwide, we will be pondering the following puzzle:

-+-

As a result of temporary magical powers, you have made it to the Wimbledon finals and are playing Roger Federe for all the marbles. However, your powers cannot last the whole match. What scoare do you want it to be when they disappear, to maximize your chances of hanging on for a win?

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

MISCELLANEOUS: Global warming slowdown linked to cooler Pacific waters

From the BBC:
Scientists say the slow down in global warming since 1998 can be explained by a natural cooling in part of the Pacific ocean. 
Although they cover just 8% of the Earth, these colder waters counteracted some of the effect of increased carbon dioxide say the researchers. 
But temperatures will rise again when the Pacific swings back to a warmer state, they argue.

Friday, October 11, 2013

DIET: The Classical Sanskrit Diet idea, or Decision Analysis for Diets - a summary

I would like to close out (or, at least begin to close out) the series of posts on the Classical Sanskrit diet by stating what you should take out of this exercise.

First of all, I must note that the Classical Sanskrit diet is not a diet per se. It is a set of tools to help you make good dietary decisions. Secondly, elements of the Classical Sanskrit Diet can be applied to a number of other diets and so you may want to think about how you can use the fundamental "Decision Analysis ideas", as it were, to your own diet. Thirdly, one of the basic ideas in the Classical Sanskrit Diet is that if we went back to eating like people did prior to the twentieth century, our dietary outcomes would improve. This seems to be a sound idea, generally speaking.

And finally, another of the basic ideas in the Classical Sanskrit Diet is that we should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables comprise the largest portion of this diet. Indeed, the set of foods to eat is directly borrowed from Dean Ornish's books. There is a list of foods listed in one of his books that essentially can be eaten in unlimited quantities. So, my thinking was that if all you did was to simply eat two out of three meals consisting only of foods in that list, you are probably already better off than you are right now. The diet I adopted was pretty simple : for breakfast and lunch, simply eat as much of the foods you want as long as they come from the list of foods that you can eat in unlimited quantities. By the time, it is time for dinner, you are probably already so full that you won't overeat. So, for dinner, I essentially allowed myself to eat anything I wanted - as long as the items were not in the "OUGHT NOT TO EAT" list. Items in the "OUGHT NOT TO EAT" list are reserved for special occasions.

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Enough of that. Let us get to business. Let us see how "Decision Analysis ideas" are applied in the Classical Sanskrit diet:

  • Parsimony in decision making: Do not make the process of deciding what to eat a very laborious process. Make it as parsimonious as possible. 
    • In the Classical Sanskrit Diet, you basically have to memorize the list of foods in the Sanskrit language just once. Once you do that, your analysis of which food to buy in the supermarket is not dependent on the following variables: what foods you have already eaten that week, what foods you have sitting in the refrigerator, et cetera. You simply have to check whether the foods you ate are part of this Classical Sanskrit Diet list.
  • Minimize decision time and minimize variable costs: Minimize variable costs of decision making. Allow for considerable flexibility in fixed costs.
    • Again, in the Classical Sanskrit Diet, you basically have to memorize the list of foods in the Sanskrit language just once. That is a fixed cost. Once you do that, everything else is just about referring to a fixed list. That should not be hard. 
  • Employ distinctions between SHOULD and COULD, employ distinctions between SHOULD and SHOULD NOT, employ distinctions between MAY and COULD: Try to invest a certain amount of "fixed costs" in terms of what foods you COULD eat, what foods you SHOULD try to eat and what foods you SHOULD NOT eat.
    •  It is a good idea to divide what you eat into four parts - the whitelist, the blacklist, a third list, which can perhaps be called the "ought to eat list", and a fourth list which can be called the "ought not to eat list". 
      • The blacklist consists of foods you absolutely should not eat. This may be because of dietary restrictions due to illness. e.g. sugary foods for a diabetic. You can come up with this list based on advice from your doctor.
      • The whitelist consists of the set of foods that is within the realm of possibility for the dieter. It is important to say, for instance, that a steak is part of a diet even if it is to be consumed very rarely. Save the steak for special occasions by all means, but put it on your whitelist. By doing so, you have identified the set of foods that are permissible. If you are a vegetarian, you would probably not put steak on there. Creating these distinctions creates "Clarity of Thought".
      • The "Ought to eat" list consists of the set of foods that the dieter ought to eat : to create this list, identify a set of foods that you think should be on the "ought to eat" list. Americans generally don't eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, so if you are anything like the typical American, you probably want to add a number of fresh fruits and vegetables to the "ought to eat" list. Again, creating this sort of distinction creates "Clarity of Thought"
      • The "Ought not to eat" list consists of the set of foods that the dieter ought not to eat : this is the list in which most people get stuck. The production process of foods in America is a very sophisticated one. A very large number of new foods are created and it is seldom recognized that many of them are not easy to analyze by means of conventional diet. The big mistake many diets make, including the Atkins diet, is that they don't sufficiently clarify what is on the "Ought not to eat" list. This again is a very important distinction to make.    
      • The problem of "known unknowns" : The problem with most diets is essentially that new foods are not correctly factored in. Consider a new food - say, deep fried Tootsie rolls - that comes on to the market. This new food is factored into the diet only by means of certain variables such as calorie content. However, certain other important variables such as the constituents of the food are actually not take into consideration at all. This is obviously flawed. Think about it. A new food has jus come on the market. We don't know what lecithin or tannin or whatever else the food contains actually does to your body. Why then should diets not take into consideration the fact that there is a significant "known unknown" about these new foods?
  • Employ mnemonics: It is very hard to keep all the above lists straight. So employ mnemonics.
    • In the Classical Sanskrit Diet, we utilize Sanskrit as a way of remembering the names of foods on various lists. However, you are free to employ other mnemonics.

It is important for you to realize that what I am offering is not a new diet. Instead what I am offering is a new way of thinking about diets. 

Every day, you make a large number of choices about what you eat. Why not get more intelligent about that? Why not make better decisions?

Monday, September 30, 2013

INNOVATION: Miniature 'human brain' grown in lab

Via the BBC:
Miniature "human brains" have been grown in a lab in a feat scientists hope will transform the understanding of neurological disorders. 
The pea-sized structures reached the same level of development as in a nine-week-old foetus, but are incapable of thought. 
The study, published in the journal Nature, has already been used to gain insight into rare diseases. 
Neuroscientists have described the findings as astounding and fascinating.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

INNOVATION: Emmys tune up 17,000 tweets per minute

Via CNet.com:
Carrie Underwood's performance of "Yesterday" triggered 17,090 tweets per minute, while the Emmy awarded to "Breaking Bad" for Best Drama got the highest number at 62,150 tweets in total.

Monday, September 23, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison Debuts In-Memory Database To Kick Off OpenWorld

Via Forbes.com:
Oracle ORCL -0.32% CEO Larry Ellison was all positivity for a day as he kicked off his company’s annual OpenWorld conference with anticipated remarks debuting Oracle’s new in-memory database product it’s counting on to turn around tepid revenue growth. 
The tech billionaire, third richest American on the Forbes 400, tipped his cap to his team TISI +0.47% currently battling in the America’s Cup and then made his pitch for why In-Memory Database Technology can right the ship for his firm’s slowing growth. Oracle Team USA won both its races Sunday but must win four in a row to keep its title–and Oracle might face as tough a challenge in growing that revenue, which came in at just 2% for the quarter. On its earnings call last week, president Mark Hurd said the company is counting on the in-data option, which Ellison also previewed in writing for the earnings release.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

MISCELLANEOUS: Principled underpunctuation


So. The issue came up on the Bay Area Quiz Club regarding whether the Twitter feed should be opened up further. I am all for it; however, we haven't yet officially discussed it at the club. We have discussed it on Facebook, yes, but never at the Quiz Club. And Facebook cannot be considered to be a quorum because the people who ought to get to decide may not all be on Facebook. One cannot simply make private data public without the permission of the people concerned.

So, a discussion transpired on the Facebook group. 

During the discussion, I said things like the following :
========
Since N. works for Twitter, I have inquired with her about the possibility of Twitter sponsoring us.
========

Then in response to the following comments by a certain person I shall refer to as G. ("First, A M you missed A. S . He is the 3rd admin and not B. I don't think N. is suggesting that we move the club to Twitter. "), I said the following :
========
@G., yeah yeah okay.
> First, A M you missed A .
Great- thanks. I just included a subset of the admins.

I think it is okay to talk to B since he conducted the X.

I don't think moving the club to Twitter is practical. <and then more stuff>
========

That was meant to be a stiff reply. And stuff replies are exactly what are called for sometimes.

But, but, but... it is also good to make sure that there is no ill will. And so to make sure there was no ill will, I then went back to the discussion and added the following to the very end of it.

========
Principled underpunctuation. That is what I call it. When the matter is a matter as serious as data privacy, I think one must take a principled stand.

I have underpunctuated a number of the sentences.  There are some virtual smileys in these sentences, there is one after ". @G., yeah yeah okay :) :) :) :)".. and also one after "Great- thanks. I just included a subset of the admins. :) :) :)" it was all supposed to be there. That sentence " Since N. works for Twitter, I have inquired with her about the possibility of Twitter sponsoring us. :) :) :) :) :)". It is supposed to have a bunch of smileys afterwards too. Now that we are done with principle and punctuation, let us move on to business.

As for now, per my conversation with B., what we need is the following:

- some idea of what the policy is going to be for what is going to be made public and what is not (specifically, whether to go with a "whitelist" approach or a "blacklist" approach)
- some idea of what the Twitter feed is going to essentially consist of. I have some ideas on this, but would invite suggestions.

We can discuss this further at the next meeting. In the meantime, feel free to move this discussion further by providing suggestions, thoughts and, if you feel so inclined, fifty second boisterously bold Buffalax Bollywood mashups.
========

So, there you have it. Principled underpunctuation. The idea with principled underpunctuation is that if you detect a problem of principle with a stand that other people have taken on Facebook, and there is a matter of principle involved and, by the way, if you notice that other people are getting short and annoying and are not being sufficiently nice in their responses ("Be nice" is a good philosophy to live by), then you simply begin to underpunctuate your own responses. You do want to later go back and clarify everything that you said but, in the meantime, by word and deed, you make it absolutely clear that you are going to take a firm stand on the matter.

Worked out quite well for me. Try it out. See how well it works for you. I will warn you though that there is a certain Zen to the whole thing. A certain Zen.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Saratoga (Calif.) teen wins $50,000

Via today.com:

A potentially game-changing invention by an 18-year-old high school student grew out of a simple problem that plagues teenagers (and just about everyone else). 
“I’m a teenager and I have a cellphone and my cellphone battery always dies, so I was really looking for a way to improve energy storage,’’ Eesha Khare said on TODAY Tuesday. “That’s how I came across supercapacitors.’’ 
The Saratoga, Calif., teenager, who graduated from high school last week, won a $50,000 prize on May 17 at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for creating a device that can store enough energy to potentially charge a cellphone in 20 to 30 seconds. In addition, the device lasts for 10,000 charge-recharge cycles, compared to 1,000 cycles for most cellphone batteries. 
“It charges very quickly and can store a lot of energy,’’ Khare said. “The cool thing is it’s at the nano-scale, so (it's) really a lot thinner than one strand of hair.” 
Khare has not used her invention to recharge a cellphone yet, instead demonstrating its capability by using it to power a light-emitting diode (LED). If used on cellphones, the supercharger would slide on to the phone’s battery to juice it up in a matter of seconds. The technology is not available to consumers yet, and it could be years until it is. 
“I think it will take a couple years more,’’ Khare said. “There’s still a lot more to be done with the supercapacitor device, but it’s definitely coming soon in the future." At an Intel event in Phoenix, Khare won the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award, taking second place overall in the world’s largest high school science research competition. She beat out more than 1,600 finalists from 70 countries. She said on TODAY that she has been approached by several companies to continue her research, but is currently focused on attending Harvard University in the fall.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

INNOVATION: Our non-profit Digital Green/Rikin Gandhi mention in the BBC (yay!)

From the BBC:
Or take the 26-year-old who co-founded a software start-up in Bangalore, and helped turn it into a global technology services giant. And then, 28 years later, Nandan Nilekani quit Infosys, to drive something he believed in: giving a digital identity to a billion Indians. 
That little start-up, and others like it, pushed India's information technology and business process outsourcing (IT-BPO) industry across the $100bn mark in 2012. Nearly 70% of that was exports, according to industry association Nasscom, which says that India supplies nearly 60% of the IT-BPO services that are globally-sourced.
Then there's Rikin Gandhi, who gave up his dream of becoming an astronaut just as he came really close to it. He left the United States and came to India to work with farmers, using digital video to change what and how they learned. This is also his story. 
Locally-produced video is a simple innovation for rural India, where internet penetration is low. Mobile use is ramping up, though.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

SCIENCE: Dominic Pettman on "Plant-Thinking"

IN APRIL OF 2000, Michael Moore launched a campaign to help elect a ficus plant to the Congressional seat in New Jersey’s 11th District. The joke was that a ficus is more intelligent and dynamic than any of the highly partisan and corrupt official candidates. After reading Michael Marder’s new book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life you may be convinced that plants are smarter than all of us. Theoretical work in the humanities has been branching out for several years now (if you’ll pardon the arborial pun), striving to go beyond the traditional human subject in order to account for other types of existence and experience, including animals and autonomous machines. A new field has emerged, loosely labeled “the posthumanities,” which attempts to fill in the millennia-long blind spots caused by our own narcissism. Such scholars are united in their efforts to expose or deconstruct ongoing “anthropocentrism.” The latest off-shoot of such thinking — known as Speculative Realism — goes so far as to consider objects like cameras, stones, pillows, cartoon characters, or electricity grids as “agents” in their own right. 
It is interesting then that plants have, on the whole, been ignored in this intellectual rush to lobby on behalf of non-human existence. And while Marder’s book is not the first to broach the subject (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s recent edited collection Animal, Vegetable, Mineral [2012] is of special note, as is Francis HallĂ©’s In Praise of Plants [2011]), it is possibly the most sustained study yet to emerge from the rather esoteric world of Continental philosophy. Marder wants to forge an encounter with vegetal life, all the while respecting the alien ontology of floral ways of being. For while a shrub may not consciously “experience” the world in which it grows, this does not, for Marder, mean that it is not thinking and doing in profound philosophical, and even ethical, ways. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

INNOVATION: University of St Andrews scientists create 'fastest man-made spinning object'

From the BBC:
A team of researchers claims to have created the world's fastest spinning man-made object. 
They were able to levitate and spin a microscopic sphere at speeds of up to 600 million revolutions per minute. 
This spin speed is half a million times faster than a domestic washing machine and more than a thousand times faster than a dental drill. 
The work by the University of St Andrews scientists is published in Nature Communications.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: LG puts buttons on back of G2 smartphone

Via the BBC:
LG is hoping to shake up smartphone design by placing the only physical buttons of its new flagship model on the rear of the handset. 
The firm says the G2 addresses the problem that mobiles become harder to control the bigger they get. 
The South Korean company recently reported its strongest ever mobile phone figures.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

ECONOMICS: A philosopher's skepticism on Prospect Theory (and its refinements)

So, I sent an email to Tyler Cowen who was kind enough to offer an explanation of what he thinks might be going on with Prospect Theory. I am still extremely skeptical about Prospect Theory being much more than a descriptive theory of what may be going on. 

Now: One may not be able to prove in a give situation whether Prospect Theory is operating. This much is already known. What I am arguing here is different. I am arguing that it may never be possible to know if Prospect Theory is happening in a given situation. 

I am raising the following epistemological question related to Prospect Theory (and its refinements) : how do we know that Prospect Theory is a true theory in the sense that is falsifiable AND one with provable predictive power? All I am asking is for Prospect Theory to meet a few basic requirements. How do we know that Prospect Theory is a true theory of human behavior in markets if it does not meet even the basic requirements?

The easiest thing to do would be to start off with an example. Let us first ask ourselves the following question. Prospect Theory adherents claim that Prospect Theory can provide an explanation for the fact that riskier investments don't always have greater returns than less risky one. We need to answer the following questions first. Why is there a reason to believe that there should be an explanation for the fact that riskier investments don't always have greater returns than less risky investments? Why not a plethora of explanations? 

Let us think about companies a bit. With companies, people have only a partial idea of what is actually going on within companies, that is, they don't have perfect iformation. Their aggregate guesses could be off with some non-zero probability p. Now given this (and here is the logical leap where Kahneman screws up), you can apply any number of "bias"-based theories to explain the exact same phenomena that Prospect Theory claims to explain. The "overconfidence effect" is as good as any. The "anchoring bias" could be used to explain the exact same thing. In fact, in the place of Prospect Theory (and its refinements), you could substitute many different theories (Theory X1, X2, ..., Xn).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

MISCELLANEOUS: Interview with Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is the uber-chillin’ philosophical physicist who investigates how the preposterous universe works at a deep level, who thinks spats between physics and philosophy are silly, who thinks a wise philosopher will always be willing to learn from discoveries of science, who asks how we are to live if there is no God, who is comfortable with naturalism and physicalism, who thinks emergentism central, that freewill is a crucial part of our best higher-level vocabulary, that there aren’t multiple levels of reality, which is quantum based not relativity based, is a cheerful realist, disagrees with Tim Maudlin about wave functions and Craig Callender about multiverses, worries about pseudo-scientific ideas and that the notion of ‘domains of applicability’ is lamentably under-appreciated. Stellar! 
3am: You’re a physicist with philosophical interests and skill. How did this begin? 
Sean Carroll: My own interests in physics and philosophy certainly stem from a common origin – I’m curious about how the world works at a deep level. I got interested in physics at a fairly young age, reading books from the local public library about relativity and particle physics. I didn’t discover philosophy in any serious way until I went to college. It was a good Catholic school (Villanova), at which every arts & sciences major was required to take three semesters of philosophy (as well as three semesters of religious studies, which could be fairly philosophical if you took the right courses). I really enjoyed it and ended up getting a philosophy minor. As a grad student in astrophysics at Harvard, I sat in on courses with John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Rawls in particular was a great person to talk to, although we almost never discussed philosophy because he had so many questions about physics and cosmology.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

INNOVATION: Tycoon unveils 'Hyperloop' transit idea

Via the BBC:
US-based entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled his proposed supersonic "Hyperloop" transport concept to link Los Angeles and San Francisco. 
The SpaceX, Tesla and Paypal founder envisions using magnets and fans to shoot capsules floating on a cushion of air through a long tube. 
If it is ever built, a Hyperloop trip between the two California cities would last about 30 minutes, he said.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Cybersecurity Pros in High Demand, Highly Paid and Highly Selective

Via CIO.com:
Experts in cybersecurity are among the most sought-after professionals in the tech sector, with demand for workers in that field outpacing other IT jobs by a wide margin. 
A new survey by Semper Secure, a public-private partnership in Virginia formed to advance the cybersecurity profession, offers a fresh glimpse at what security workers earn, what they look for in an employer and where the hubs of innovation are located. 
Cybersecurity professionals report an average salary of $116,000, or approximately $55.77 per hour. That's nearly three times the national median income for full-time wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 
But it's more than just the money. Cybersecurity professionals say that they actively seek employers with strong reputations for integrity and those that are recognized as leaders in their field.

Monday, August 12, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: How Jon Oringer became Silicon Alley's first billionaire

Via the BBC:
Jon Oringer, 39, founded 10 companies before he hit on the idea for Shutterstock, the successful stock-photo website that has made him Silicon Alley's first billionaire. 
"I'd failed a whole bunch of times before that and I was willing to fail again," says Mr Oringer of his decision to go into the photography business, something he knew nothing about. 
Now, after a successful stock market debut in October 2012 and with more than 28 million photos, videos and illustrations in its vast database, shares in Mr Oringer's Shutterstock are soaring. 
With an ownership stake estimated at more than 55% of the company, Mr Oringer has become the first billionaire to come out of Silicon Alley - New York's thriving tech sector - with an estimated net wealth of $1.05bn (£682m).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Shift in privacy versus security debate

Via San Mateo's Daily Journal:
President Barack Obama’s national security team acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that, when investigating one suspected terrorist, it can read and store the phone records of millions of Americans. 
Since it was revealed recently that the National Security Agency puts the phone records of every American into a database, the Obama administration has assured the nation that such records are rarely searched and, when they are, officials target only suspected international terrorists.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Whatsapp upgrade adds voice messages to chat app

Via the BBC:
Whatsapp is adding the ability to record and send voice messages to its smartphone chat software. 
The move will help it compete against Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Voxer and BBM which already offer the function. 
California-based Whatsapp has said 300 million people now use its app at least once a month.

Friday, August 9, 2013

MATHEMATICS: eHow : How to build a math model in your spare time

Who are you?
You are a professional who would like to build a mathematical model in your spare time.

Why?
You have spare time, don't you? Yes, the time between arriving at the bus stop and getting on to the bus. And the time between getting to the train station and actually boarding the train. And also the time between getting to the shuttle stop and actually boarding the shuttle. Well, this is your opportunity to use your spare time for practical purposes. This post will outline how you can build a mathematical model in all that spare time that you have. This spare time would otherwise be used up making pointless Facebook posts. Well, now you have options. No, not stock options. You have to do actual work for that.

How?
This post is inspired by Hal Varian's remarkable paper "How to build an economic model in your spare time". Like the author of that paper, we believe that it is the simple lack of the availability of a post such as this one that has made it difficult for people to develop mathematical solutions to hard problems. Please note that, as is obvious, extensive research on mathematical work done in far-flung countries like Russia and Japan has been done as part of background reading for this post.

For those new to building mathematical models, this post will provide you some practical tips and expert guidance on the steps you can follow to build a math model - all in just your spare time. Which, after reading this little piece, you will have none left of. Because you will be so busy either solving mathematical problems - like Prof. Shankar - or resting on your laurels - like Prof. Manikutty - knowing that you don't have to do any more research. But remember that Prof. Manikutty knows that, in Japan, he is already a "prominent person". Prominent because he is the tallest person around for miles and miles.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Help us stop cyber-bullies, or why the Rattlesnake is a gentleman

Ponder this : why is the Rattlesnake a gentleman? People can walk and chew gum at the same time and you, dear reader, can do more than that. You can think about a puzzle or a riddle, and read my post at the same time.

So. That brings me to the point of this post. The point of this post is to clarify the spirit in which I made two previous posts. I had made two posts on the Thunderdome theme : (1) I am the King Kong of the Internet; (2) I am the Bruce Lee of the Internet. I made these posts for the benefit of my Facebook page readers because I am seeing some comments there, sometimes from people I have just been introduced to, and I don't think they realize that I intend for the Facebook page to be an extension of my blog. So I wanted to put the Thunderdome posts out there by way of fair warning.

I have made sure that all conversations on my Facebook page are civil. I have, thus far, been able to manage each and every issue that has arisen. There has not been a single exception to this. I have put in a process to ensure that I get good quality comments and I am willing to share with people what I did to make this mini-zone of a cyber-bullying-free Internet mini-zone possible. Just call me during office hours.




Let us stop cyber-bullies. Really.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

LINGUISTICS: Proposal to ultra-modernize the Tamil language script

I have decided to rename the proposal "The proposal to ultra-modernize the Tamil language script". Because we are that cool.

I have made the Tamil language proposal even more user-friendly than before. It is now neatly arranged as a series of links over to the right hand side of this blog.

The proposal is the same as the one discussed before. With zero changes. It does have a new name. Think of it as marketing. :)

Remember the Tamil language is already extremely modern. This one takes it to the point of ultra-modern. Yes, we are that cool.

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Proposal to modernize the Tamil language script (yes, we*are* that cool)

Monday, August 5, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Facebook passes $38 IPO price

This news is about 2 weeks old but posting it anyway. Via San Mateo's Daily Journal:
Facebook has found redemption in the form of a soaring stock price. 
On Wednesday, the share price of the world’s most populous social network —and human data repository— briefly crept past $38 for the first time since its rocky public debut last May. In doing so, Facebook cleared a symbolic hurdle that has eluded the company for more than a year. 
Facebook’s ill-fated first trading day on May 18, 2012 was marred by technological glitches on the Nasdaq stock market. The stock closed with a disappointing 23-cent gain. And its performance didn’t improve, hitting a low of $17.55 last September. 
“I think Facebook in general and Zuckerberg in particular felt that they let everybody down,” said Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter of Facebook Inc.’s 29-year-old founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. “And by everybody I mean all their employees who had stock, all their early private investors who had stock.”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

DIET: Dean Ornish on healing through diet

A very interesting talk by Dr. Dean Ornish on healing through diet :

TECHNOLOGY: Struggling Zynga sues Bang app

From San Mateo's Daily Journal:
The once mighty Zynga is suing online app maker Bang With Friends for trademark infringement, saying the casual sex tool is marring its family-friendly brand of wholesome games such as Words With Friends. 
The suit was filed in San Francisco Tuesday and accuses the “Red Bull and vodka-fueled” makers of BWF of deliberately trying to trade on Zynga’s “With Friends” family of trademarks to get noticed quickly in the area of Internet applications, according to the complaint. 
BWF was just launched in recent months, developed out of an incubator in downtown San Mateo called Boost VC, co-founded by Adam Draper. The app has taken off quickly, however, with more than a million users signed up already.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 8 - Angels, demons and the Jughead analogy

My organizational perspective on Hindu Studies have been fully fleshed out in a paper I wrote for OB 280 under Prof. Siino at Stanford. I believe that the basic problem is one of incentives. Professors in certain fields such as Hindu Studies have no incentive not to publish controversial but biased studies. It helps them get recognition and later tenure.

It may be easiest to illustrate this using the Jughead cartoon below. The good guys (the angels) in Hindu Studies have an ongoing battle with the bad guys (the devils). The bad guys publish controversial but biased studies. The good guys react. The bad guys continue to pile more bad studies on top of the bad ones that already exist. It is then up to the good guys to both point out the errors in the analysis and then publish their own correct analysis. This takes time.

Given this problem of incentives, it should not be difficult to see why the good guys end up, in a metaphorical sense, mowing the lawn.



Update: fixed typos. Removed the first paragraph. I am going to choose to not reveal the hypotheses used in this study in order to prevent people from gaming the system.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 7 - An online survey at Stanford a.k.a. the Rich Scholar/Poor Scholar hypothesis of Hinduism

Please find below an online survey at Stanford:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1_ouIfWA6j0eUXkv6Ofr1LC7Dl6P_tJAGR10qiIoSXo0/viewform

It is useful in the social sciences to clarify your hypothesis/hypotheses prior to a study. Following this point as a guide to methodology, I will list out the hypotheses I am studying. (Update (July 29, 2:25 PM)): I have decided not to publish the actual hypotheses being used to prevent people from gaming the system. Instead, I have sent in my set of hypotheses to two professors. This is the usual methodology for the social sciences).

One of the main hypothesis in the theory of Hinduism I outlined earlier ("The End of History and the Last Hindu") is that Hindus after the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution fundamentally different from the Hindus before them. A theory is only useful insofar as it has predictive power.

This leads us to directly to a prediction of the theory : the ideas proposed by the Alternate School scholars of Hinduism (Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright) are likely to be rejected by the majority of Hindus. This is for the following reason :
  • Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright study the writings of Hindus prior to the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and make predictions about Hindus today. This is bad methodology. According to this theory, the ideas proposed by the Alternate School scholars of Hinduism will be rejected by most post-Enlightenment Hindus.
The point is that the work done by Paul Courtright and Wendy Doniger is not just biased. It is wrong. It is bad scholarship written by not-so-rich people. So I suppose you could call this the "Smart Scholar/Dumb Scholar" hypothesis of Hinduism. But in order to make sure I am keeping within the confines of academic discourse, I am going to call it the "Rich Scholar/Poor Scholar" hypothesis. The hypothesis is that rich scholars are likely to do better research than poor scholars. The reason for this is that rich scholars are likely not only to have more resources, but also a greater incentive in terms of alternative career paths. So they would be more inclined to preserve their reputations in case the research does not pan out. Now, if you are Wendy Doniger or Paul Courtright, you are probably looking at research without regard to whether the writer is rich or poor. This may introduce a bias in your research finding unless you actively work to remove it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hee-yah! I am the King Kong of Internet debates!

The 'Ask the Delphic Oracle' juggernaut marches on. The King Kong of Internet debates is still going strong.

As part of the mathematics and computer science community, we, of course, believe in hard data and evidence. Towards that, below is a documentary of a recent Internet debate that unfortunately turned ugly.



And finally, for something completely different -  an administrative note. The next office hours will be on August 5, Monday, between 7:30 and 8:15 am PST. Happy puzzling!

One campus, seven cafeterias

Here is a puzzle a friend asked me yesterday evening at Stanford. Might have been Palo Alto actually. Anyway, here it goes. It is in my own words. The mathematical problem is the same although the wording has been changed.

I solved it. Now, you try!

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College ThingamajigANameIForget on Mars is building seven new cafeterias. The college campus is a perfect planar circle with a radius of 1 km. The college wants to build the cafeteria so that each of them is located within the planar circle. The cafeterias should be so arranged as to minimize the maximum distance any student would have to travel to reach a cafeteria given that the student is located on campus.

In mathematical terms: you are given a circle C of radius 1 km and seven points. Arrange the seven points inside the circle so that you solve the following constrained optimization problem.

Let d(P, i) denote the linear distance between point P and cafeteria i.
Let dist(P) = min(d(P,i) for i ranging from 1 to 6)

That is, dist(P) is the minimum distance a student located at P would have to travel to reach some cafeteria.

Arrange the 7 cafeterias such that dist(P) is minimized when P is ranged over all points within the circle C.

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Update: fixed typo in post.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Eradicating Malaria, with the Tools at Hand: Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Notre Dame Will Create Computer Infrastructure to Support Global Malaria Project

Via Newswise.com:
A global partnership has set its sights on nothing less than making malaria — an implacable enemy that predates the human race — nothing more than a bad memory. VECNet, the Vector Ecology and Control Network, aims to get there by combining and supporting the ingenuity of researchers, engineers, public health officials, national decision makers and funding agencies.

The idea is to create a computer model that allows malaria-battling stakeholders to join efforts.

“VECNet is about bringing order out of chaos,” says Tom Burkot, VECNet’s principal investigator and professor and tropical leader at James Cook University, Australia. “The challenge we have is that we’re trying to control and eliminate malaria in a world in which, for example, there are 40 or 50 dominant mosquito species that are important for its spread.”

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tamil language proposal - follow up to Richard Sproat

To summarize Richard Sproat's main point - changes to script by itself is not likely to improve learning outcomes. I emailed Sproat because he is one of the people who has argued AGAINST improvements, or changes if you will, to orthography by itself improving learning outcomes. Our proposal seeks to make curriculum only one of the components in the integrated solution (details of the overall solution may be seen in my letter to Richard Sproat - see link above - that post should provide you all the details you need to see where we are going). In the end, Sproat said, IIRC, that it "sounds like we have a plan". That is good to know. I am happy.

To conclude this thread, here is my response email to Sproat.

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<stuff deleted>


Three comments on this:

1. We have both a curriculum and a process for teaching. One cannot view these in isolation.

2. The orthography itself also has a process involved which I did not talk about sufficiently. The idea is to teach the new orthography to Heritage Speakers of the language (http://heritagespeaker.wordpress.com). The new orthography is simpler for that population P1 to retain (and so it stands to reason that it would be simpler for the other populaton P2 - the set of all children in India - as well since P1 has generally speaking, higher IQ than P2 and more resources, but we don't have to argue about that population P2 since that population is so diverse - all sorts of issues like caste and level of incomes become factors). The Heritage Speakers would learn it as part of programs such as Teach for India (which is similar to Teach for America) and then teach that to the children.

I have tried out [the proposal on "users"] a number of times already. The learning curve for learning this system is about 5 minutes. It is entirely understandable even to somebody who does not even know that such a system is being used.

3. In addition to this, we can also do marketing around an idea such as this. This would be relatively cheap marketing

<stuff deleted>

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 7 - some comments on Socratic Hinduism

Earlier this week, I exchanged some emails with John Laxmi (South Asian Journalists Association). That reminded me that I need to take my post on SAForum on the SAJA's website which has some comments on Socratic Hinduism, and repost it to this blog here.

The comments are in the context of Namit Arora's post on Three Quarks Daily.

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It is interesting that Namit is planning to talk about how the epic was received by Nagarjuna and other people from pre-modern times. This is (part of) the usual methodology used by students of Hinduism, but I am not convinced that this approach (of looking at pre-modern commentaries) will yield significant, new conclusions given that these people knew far less than we do now. I am quite convinced that these "traditional scholars" lived such a long time ago that their opinions do not have much bearing on current theories surrounding Hinduism, and so it seems that this methodology has significant shortcomings. 

A particularly useful (and, in my opinion, a far more fruitful) approach to studying texts such as the Bhagavad Gita (and Hinduism, in general) is to use recent studies in neuroscience to see how the human brain has evolved ideas of morality, and to see how epics (and other religious texts) have contributed since premodern times in creating and imprinting various (perhaps different) notions of morality in us. This is (part of) the methodology I have used for the Socratic Hinduism framework that I have talked about before. 

Why is it useful to look at neuroscience to study how the human brain is wired for morality? Because it seems that some of the notions of morality we subscribe to seem to be pretty strongly wired in us. Milton Friedman once gave an example of how libertarianism works. He said that libertarians don't want to coerce other people into accepting some particular opinion as correct. However, he recognized that there were a few exception even for libertarians. The example he used, IIRC, was of a man who was going to jump off a bridge. Would a libertarian try to save him if he could? Probably. Now if the man proceeded to give reasons why he was committing suicide, would the libertarian then allow him to jump (because the libertarian, true to principle, would agree to disagree)? Probably not. No matter how strongly a person may believe in certain ideas not just politically but even personally, there are certain types of behavior that he may never be able to let go of. Another example of the resistance of people to killing others is evidenced in the trolley problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem). Both these examples would indicate that the human brain has certain notions of morality that it cannot easily let go of. (Note that none of this (scientific) discussion is considered in the least bit to be a heresy in Hinduism, and indeed, I consider the Socratic Hinduism a perfectly valid approach to view Hinduism for both Hindus and non-Hindus.)      

This methodological approach makes the Socratic Hinduism framework quite powerful. It makes it both academic and scholarly, thereby countering one of the major academic criticisms of "traditional" studies of Hinduism (such as by Wendy Doniger). In fact, we do not need to discuss our own beliefs regarding whether or not the events described in the Mahabharatha actually occurred. That is left as a matter of scholarly inquiry for historians. Instead, the idea is that the texts may be used as part of a Socratic discussion wherein by guided questioning, one delves deeper into some of the issues of ethics and moral philosophy that the epic presents. Indeed, the historical role of these religious texts has been to raise these question of ethics and moral philosophy and help people appreciate the complexity of some of these issues. That has always been the role of these texts, and that is what it continues to be under Socratic Hinduism.

Moving on to more pragmatic concerns : in America today, you typically don't find fundamentalist readings of these texts at any of the major universities. The text is generally taught with a spirit of 'tolerance'. In India today, the legal system defines Hinduism as one that recognizes 'multiple' ways (the legal status of Hinduism in India is a different discussion altogether). There is a real separation of religion and state in both countries, and so I don't see very much worrisome, or even concerning, about the particular opinions on war as expressed by the various religious texts of Hinduism (such as the Gita) as well as the various academic approaches to Hinduism (Socratic Hinduism, included). The Gita's impact on policy is likely to remain quite insignificant.
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Monday, July 15, 2013

Tamil language proposal : letter to Richard Sproat

My letter to Richard Sproat on the Tamil language proposal. Obviously, this is a very simplified and linear version of things.

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To come to the problem at hand - we are focused on trying to figure out what will help populations of people P1, P2, ..., Pn (primary population P{k} = elementary school children) learn better. There are several variables X1, X2, ..., Xn that may explain the outcome variable L (learning outcome). One of the most important variables X{j} is 'teacher absenteeism'. (This runs to as much as 40% even in states in Tamil Nadu). This is already known. Furthermore, some recent experiements show that the problem of teacher absenteeism can be amelioerated by appropriate incentive measures ('pay them to take a photograph of their classroom as proof of attendance and they get extra money for more classes attended as a bonus' -> this works very well in practice (very little cheating was observed)).

Now, the issues are around matters such as curriculum design. On this also some encouraging results appear to have been found.Adopting a factory model of production approach, the basic problem in teaching Tamil today for children is that the structure of the teaching is not tailored to the organizational environment. The organizational environment is such that there is a large amount of variance in terms of labor input from the teachers (i.e. there is frequent teacher absenteeism, student absenteeism, et cetera). The way to resolve this problem is to build 'resilience' in the curriculum. One way to do this is as follows :

- break down the teaching of literacy into subunits (teach letters T1, teach wordsi T2, teach sentencesi T3 and teach storiesi T4)
- break up children into small learning groups of 5 to 8. Call them G1, G2, G3, and G4. Each group Gi is involved in task Ti. Children progress through the learning groups starting off in G1 and as they pick up skills and demonstrate facility with skill in tier T{i}, they are moved to tier T{i+1}- this is a 'resilient' organization because even if teachers are absent, children can work through many of these exercises on their own in their individual subgroups G{i}. That is, children themselves provide the missing labor input.

The hypothesis is that for organizations wherein there is a large variance V{L} in the organization labor input L, such a system would have better outcomes because the variance inthe labor input is ameliorated by the fact that children themselves can provide some of the labor input.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Internet Thunderdome Projects



This post began when I was hungry. I was hungry and feeling pretty grouchy. I saw some comments posted by a friend on my Facebook page. It was by Manoj Saranathan, someone I know both as a Facebook friend and a fellow Bay Area Quiz Club quizzer. Now, my Facebook page is really just an extension of this blog. So I saw these comments from my friend Manoj, and I decided to be, well, a little less than my polite self. Not impolite, I am just about never impolite. It is simply that I made some pretty blunt remarks in my reply to him and also, I edited out some of his comments. This turned into a "fight". So, a fight it was, and in the end, he decided that he would rather unfriend me than be "censored", as he put it. I only edited his comments, to be honest. But there it was. An actual unfriending.

So. So, I have been turning the details of the "fight" over and over in my mind. What I felt was that there was something of Quality in my friend Manoj's comments and there was something about those comments that is present only in the best fora and the best commenters. (I and Manoj are still friends in the real world, by the way, and so that is all there is to say about that little spat). Anyway, that brings me to the topic du jour - Internet Thunderdomes.

With widespread public access to the Internet, pretty much anybody who is anybody is either on the Internet already or is deliberately keeping himself or herself off the Internet. There are now, I believe, several public fora that may be called, for the lack of a better word, Internet Thunderdome Projects. What, in the world, is an Internet Thunderdome? Well, this is how it is. The rule of a Internet Thunderdome is simple - "Two men enter, one man leaves". An Internet Thunderdome is a forum for public intellectuals to debate other people. Bad ideas get rubbished and destroyed. Good ideas are allowed to flourish. When anyone or any group of people builds an Internet Thunderdome, he or she (or they) must possess three things:

(1) knowledge : should know the literature in all the major areas of human inquiry
(2) skills : should be able to debate on the Internet skilfully
(3) experience : should have proven himself or herself in a number of Internet debates.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Office hours

The next office hours for the blog will be on Monday, August 5. It will be at the usual times - between 7:30 and 8:15 am. In the meantime, here is another interesting TED talk on food that is worth watching. The title of the talk is "What's wrong with our food system". Enjoy!


Update: All times are in PST, as usual. (Also, moved the post forward to July 12.)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hindi language proposal - executive summary

My proposal for the Hindi language is very similar to that for Tamil. The document is in preparation. Here is what the executive summary looks like.

The features of the proposal are as follows:

(1) the use of the wave on top of the horizontal line for the short 'o' and the short 'e' sounds (see the examples of 'Kobilka' and 'Fett')
(2) the alphabetization of the Hindi language : note the use of vowels and consonants alternating in, for instance, Brian. (The 'b' with the 'halant', the Hindi letter for 'ra', the Hindi letter for 'ya' and then the 'n' with the 'halant').



Update 1: the above image is the proposal. There is nothing more to the Hindi language proposal than this.
Update 2: That, btw, is page #459 of Foucault's Pendulum. I can attest to the quality of the writing in the book. By writing, I, of course, mean calligraphy. :)
Update 3: Moved the post forward a bit to later in the day.
Update 4 (July 9): There is an issue now. The image has disappeared. This was posted for the benefit of a professor at Harvard Business School. I am extremely busy right now. I will take a look at this issue later.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 6 - Hindus, no soup for you!

To give you just one more example of what the "End of History" theory implies for Hinduism, consider this next poem. This poem is also one that was featured on the Wondering Minstrels website. (Wondering Minstrels, FYI, is a collection of poems on the Internet and was run by two guys Martin DeMello and Abraham Thomas, both of whom I happen to know.) The particular poem I would like to draw your attention to goes as follows:

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Then there was neither Aught nor Nought, no air nor sky beyond.
 What covered all? Where rested all? In watery gulf profound?
 Nor death was then, nor deathlessness, nor change of night and day.
 That One breathed calmly, self-sustained; nought else beyond it lay.

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What is this really? It is, of course, a poem from the Rig Veda. It consists of a series of speculations about the origin of the Universe. The only trouble is that it is a poem written by a bunch of people.who had absolutely no idea how to even go about finding the answer to that question.

Here is the comment on the poem.

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The Creation Hymn is better known through Prof Friedrich Max Mueller's translation of it ([broken link] http://www.msci.memphis.edu/~ramamurt/gems/gem101.html) but I chose this version because I thought Muir had done a commendable job of metrification.

The hymn itself is a favourite of mine, ever since I first heard the Hindi translation sung as the opening tune to Shyam Benegal's televised version of Jawahar Lal Nehru's Discovery of India. The climactic note of perplexity, voiced after all the esoteric speculations made on no less a subject than the origin of the Universe itself, has always fascinated me. To me, it conjures up the image of a sage looking defiantly into the skies, thumbing his nose up at the powers above and challenging them, with all their
omniscience and omnipotence, to unravel this, the most mystifying secret of existence.

Too, the hymn, and subsequent commentary, evoke the academic intensity and diversity of theological debates in Vedic and classical Hindu traditions. This presents a marked contrast to the ritualism and orthodoxy that suffuse the religion today.
                                 
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What is notable in this comment to me is that the contrast between 'old' Hinduism and 'new' Hinduism is more or less taken from granted by the writer Sameer Siruguri (he is also somebody I happen to know). You don't find him trying to find answers to questions on the origin of the Universe, on Creation versus Evolution, et cetera, by carefully reading and re-reading this one little poem. Now, it is a different thing that he does not provide any evidence to show that the people who wrote this poem were themselves not as ritualistic and/or as orthodox as any Hindu you would find today (note the stuff underlined). The chances are that they probably were. In fact, they were probably quite ritualistic and quite orthodox precisely because most of them very likely did not know of any other way of living. Indeed, they may not have been open to ideas on other ways to live. It may be taken for granted that these guys did not have the sort of essential insights that modern anthropology provides. Assuming that the ancient Hindus were somehow masters of open inquiry is a mistake.

The main point of this post bears emphasis. Sameer does not try to read this poem to find answers to questions that have already been addressed by the efforts of physicists. The idea is obvious to him that finding the answer to what to believe about the origin of the universe, et cetera, is best addressed by going through books on physics and not books on Hinduism.

In 21st century Hinduism, the distinction between Faith-based answers and Reason-based answers does not really exist. And it is really as simple as that.

Update: moved the post forward to Sunday, July 7.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 5 - Elementary Hinduism, my dear Watson

I just posted this poem on my Facebook page, poem courtesy the Wondering Minstrels website.

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The first day's sun
 questioned
 the new appearance of being –
 Who are you?
 There was no answer.

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As I was reading through the commentary for the poem, this little bit caught my eye.

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For me, this poem catches the unanswered question of existence from the Hindu
point of view: "There was no answer." I find this profoundly sad. 

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Here is a very short critique of this comment and, indeed, the post itself.

It must be noted that there is no "the Hindu point of view". This is a very common, even elementary, sort of error that people make with Hinduism. It is a mistake to think that somehow, -all- Hindus believe that the question of existence has no answer just because there is a reference in some religious text somewhere that there was a reference to a "no answer" at some point to some question. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the existence of this reference somehow makes it a part of "the Hindu point of view".

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Remembering objects lets computers learn like a child

Via InfoWorld:
Always seeing the world with fresh eyes can make it hard to find your way around. Giving computers the ability to recognise objects as they scan a new environment will let them navigate much more quickly and understand what they are seeing.

Renato Salas-Moreno at Imperial College London and colleagues have added object recognition to a computer vision technique called simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM). A SLAM-enabled computer has a camera to orient itself in new surroundings as it maps them.

SLAM builds up a picture of the world out of points and lines and contours. In an office, say, chairs and desks would emerge from the room like hills and valleys in a landscape. "The world is meaningless since every point in the map is the same," says Salas-Moreno. "It doesn't know if it is looking at a television or the wall."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hee-yah! I am the Bruce Lee of Internet debates!

The way I like to debate these sorts of proposals is via a mailing list. Just now, I just got done with a debate on the iitmcs97 mailing list (IIT Madras, Class of '97, which includes this guy and this guy), and I posted the following note there.

What I wanted to say was that I do these debates in a very specific way - this technique is my own little invention. At the end of the debate, you are able to see how the debate actually went.

Here is an email I sent to the iitmcs97 list just now describing how this works.

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The way to visually follow this debate we have been having is as follows :

a. Log in to groups.yahoo.com/group/iitmcs97 via a browser (say, Firefox).

b. Click on the following original post :
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/iitmcs97/message/1732

c. Follow the thread down.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Enter stage left, Arun

So my buddy Arun Viswanath has a new blog on Heritage Speakers of Tamil. The URL is here. Check it out!

Continuing the conversation on the Tamil language: I was asked the following question on a mailing list earlier today:

can you clarify the motivation behind this? Why is there a need to 'modernize the Tamil script'?

Here is my response.

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I am asking two fundamental questions :
(a) why are there so many illiterates in India?
(b) what can be done to make Tamil more approachable for both poor people and
heritage speakers?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 4 - Hinduism and statistics - statistical truths versus certain truths

There seems to be a lot of information on Hinduism floating around on the Internet. The one common factor seems to be the poor quality of analysis. It is, generally speaking, bad enough to make you want to laugh. Or at least smile. The main problem is that to be able to critique material on Hinduism properly, you need to be a bit of a psychologist, a bit of a sociologist, a bit of a historian and so on. Thankfully, this blog covers it all. Between us, we have enough of these competencies to say a fair bit about Hinduism without the analysis getting bogged down into the typical sorts of mistakes that Hindu Studies material often gets into.

And that brings me to the joke of the day. Joke, courtesy Lalin Anik.

-Where are you going?
-To Germany (surprise surprise)
- Where in Germany? 
(long silence) 
- Dumbledorf (...)
- Yes!! It is so hard to pronounce it! I don't speak any German.
- Me neither. I only know 'danke'. 
<stuff deleted>
It means 'please'.

> I hope you two permanently stay in Dumbledorf.

What makes this joke funny is that you know what they are trying to say even though they don't get it right. Dusseldorf. Of course. You also kind of know why they are getting it wrong. It is because of the confusion with Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame. At least some of the Hinduism Studies literature seems to be have the same sort of problem. Funny because it is confused. Funny also because it is possible to see why there is the confusion.

The biggest problem that people often get into when it comes to Hinduism is that they confuse statements with a cetain degree of statistical support (and this level of support is always less than 100%) with statements of absolute certainty (where the level of support is exactly 100%). That is, statistical truths versus certain truths. This is the difference between a statement such as "Hindus don't eat beef" versus a statement such as "Hindus eat". One is a statistical statement; the other is an absolute statement of fact.

Let us take a look at a few of the claims on the Hindu American Foundation website under "Hinduism 101"

Brahman

Supreme Reality or God that is:
The all pervading and absolute reality;
Beyond description;
Worshiped in various forms, male and/or female, and by many names.

Moksha

The ultimate goal is:
Freedom from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation (the soul survives death to be reborn in a new body);
Achieved by self-realization and elimination of material desires and attachments.

Ultimately neither of these statements is true in the absolute sense.

As I have argued in the post "The End of History and the Last Hindu", Hinduism (or perhaps, better the "Hinduisms") that came after the Age of Enlightenment and the discovery of the Scientific Method are fundamentally different from the forms of Hinduism that came before. It is therefore neither mandatory nor binding that a Hindu should believe in the idea of reincarnation. It is not a scientific belief and it has very little scientific support. It is perfectly consistent with being a Hindu to reject the idea of Moksha. It is also perfectly acceptable to accept the idea. It is the same with the idea of "Brahman". Again, it is perfectly consistent with being a Hindu to reject the idea of the "Brahman" altogether. It is also perfectly acceptable to accept the idea.

What is going on here seems to be something like this - and I am guessing here : the Hindu American Foundation is run out of a single house, from what I have been told, and they don't realize that they get a lot of things wrong even if such is obvious to a discerning eye. The bigger problem is, of course, that there has been very little organizational support for Hinduism in the academe and the academic organizations that do engage in studying Hinduism are often funded by Catholic and Protestant lobbies which consider Hinduism to be a false religion in the first place.

In the end, there is very little about Hinduism that you read about in both the popular literature as well as the academic literature that is right, a point well made by Richard Sproat [Comments - 1, 2, 3]. This is not to say that the stuff you read in the New York Times is wrong. It is just that very little seems to have been done to view this in a social scientific sense. And I do believe that this blog is possibly one of the few places on the Internet to really get it right.

Update: Updated the post a bit, fixed some typos.