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".

Friday, May 31, 2013

Google Glass could spur wearable tech boom

Via the Washington Post:
Scan any waiting room, and you’ll probably get a good survey of the tops of people’s heads, with row after row of folks hunched over their smartphones. But heads up: That common sight may change as tech companies bet that users are so attached to their screens, they’ll start to wear them.

It’s more than sci-fi speculation. The first testers for Google’s Glass device — which puts Google Search, Maps and other services on a screen mounted in front of someone’s eye — are sporting the devices on sidewalks across the country. Other companies, such as Samsung and Pebble, are working to get apps and data streams to users’ wrists through Web-connected watches; some reports say Apple, Microsoft and other tech titans will also jump into the mix.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Deep Learning

Via MIT Tech Review:
When Ray Kurzweil met with Google CEO Larry Page last July, he wasn’t looking for a job. A respected inventor who’s become a machine-intelligence futurist, Kurzweil wanted to discuss his upcoming book How to Create a Mind. He told Page, who had read an early draft, that he wanted to start a company to develop his ideas about how to build a truly intelligent computer: one that could understand language and then make inferences and decisions on its own. 
It quickly became obvious that such an effort would require nothing less than Google-scale data and computing power. “I could try to give you some access to it,” Page told Kurzweil. “But it’s going to be very difficult to do that for an independent company.” So Page suggested that Kurzweil, who had never held a job anywhere but his own companies, join Google instead. It didn’t take Kurzweil long to make up his mind: in January he started working for Google as a director of engineering. “This is the culmination of literally 50 years of my focus on artificial intelligence,” he says. 
Kurzweil was attracted not just by Google’s computing resources but also by the startling progress the company has made in a branch of AI called deep learning.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tamil writing proposal in closing, and, as a bonus, a Theory of History

It is now time to close this series of posts. I have had this proposal for a new way of writing Tamil kicking around my (many) laptops for a while but posted it to this blog only following the Pizza and Panini column for Panini, in a sense, lives on!

Below are the links to all the posts on the Tamil writing proposal:

And in closing, something pretty. Below the fold is the brAhmI alphabet/alphasyllabary. It is, of course, studied by Buddhists for them to be able to understand ancient Buddhist texts, some of which were written in Pali. Just in and of itself, the brAhmI alphabet bears witness to the extraordinary influence that Panini still has around the world. I have a Theory of History which I have never posted about before. Want to know more? Click below to go to the rest of the post.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

NASA uses smartphones as satellites

From InformationWeek:
Over the weekend, NASA successfully launched into space three satellites consisting mainly of smartphones aboard a rocket. The nanosatellites, known as PhoneSats, have been transmitting signals to ground stations on Earth and will remain in orbit for as long as two weeks.

Orbital Science's Antares rocket took off from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia containing two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites, dubbed Graham and Bell, and an early prototype of PhoneSat 2.0, called Alexander. What makes the satellites unique is their use of commercial off-the-shelf smartphone components. PhoneSat 1.0 was built using HTC Nexus One, and PhoneSat 2.0 -- which has improved software and more sensors -- is powered by Samsung Nexus S.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Diamond shows promise for a quantum Internet

Today's Internet runs on linked silicon chips, but a future quantum version might be built from diamond crystals. Physicists report today in Nature1 that they have entangled information kept in pieces of diamond 3 metres apart, so that measuring the state of one quantum bit (qubit) instantly fixes the state of the other - a step necessary for exchanging quantum information over large distances.

Entanglement, which Albert Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance', is one of the weird phenomena that make quantum devices promising. A quantum Internet would use entangled photons travelling down fibre-optic cables to in turn entangle qubits, with the aim of one day providing super-secure communications, or delivering software and data to future quantum computers.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

DHS creates cyber security internship for community college students, veterans

The Homeland Security Department on Thursday announced a new honors program designed to draw students to cybersecurity programs at community colleges. 
The new Cyber Student Initiative, which is part of the Secretary Honors Program announced last fall, is an attempt to engage community college students, including veterans, in cybersecurity work at DHS. 
The program will begin at Immigration and Customs Enforcement computer forensic labs in 36 cities nationwide, where students will be trained and gain hands-on experience within the department's cybersecurity community. The unpaid volunteer program is only available to community college students and veterans pursuing a degree in the cybersecurity field.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tamil writing system proposal - Overview

This series of posts is intended to have the same precision of language and exposition as an academic paper but is written in an informal style so as to appeal to a broad audience. Here is an overview of the proposal that is intended to serve the same purpose as an Abstract in an academic paper.


In this series of posts, we introduce new diacritical marks for the Tamil language. The proposal has the following five elements: (a) allow all consonant clusters; (b) represent the aspirated consonants using the aaytam symbol (the 'therefore' symbol in English, Unicode U+0B83) prefixing the consonant to be 'aspirated', i.e., to go from 'ka' to 'kha'; (c) represent the soft consonants using a horizontal bar (Unicode U+0955) going over the consonant to be 'softened' (, i.e., to go from 'ka' to 'ga', simply draw a horizontal bar over the 'ka'; optionally, place a backslash-underscore after the character); (d) use a horizontal bar to represent the 'R' (Unicode U+090B) sound found in Sanskrit in Tamil (the syllabic alveolar trill) (or, optionally, place a backslash-underscore after the character); (e) represent the additional vowel sounds in Modern Hindi using the crescent symbol (Unicode U+0945) to produce the two additional sounds for U+090D and U+0911 (or, optionally, place a backslash-parenthesis after the character); (f) represent long vowels using the 'avagraha' symbol from Devanagari (U+093D); and (g) represent consonant-vowel conjuncts using the 'pull' symbol (the 'dot' symbol in English going above the character in question) for the consonant followed by the vowel in question.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Tamil writing system proposal - more comments and examples

I am writing this post nearly a year after the first post and so in this post, I would like to summarize the proposal for the Tamil writing system and, furthermore, add a symbol for the 'R' sound (as in kRshNa) to Tamil and capture two more sounds from modern Hindi. The 'R' character would be represented as a horizontal bar on top of the Tamil 'r' according to this proposal. Here is the proposal thus far:

1. Soft and aspirated sounds: To get (ka), (kha), (ga), (gha) in Tamil, just use one of the following:

a. In Tamil script: k, .: k, k\_, .: k \_

(here, the ".:" denotes the 'therefore' symbol and the '\_' denotes the horizontal bar).

b. ASCII: To represent this in ASCII, one could use the convention above where a period followed by a colon is used to denote the 'therefore' symbol and the backslash followed by an underscore is used to denote the horizontal bar as used in Sanskrit.

Note that a different way to represent this in ASCII is, of course, Harvard-Kyoto.

2. Conjuncts/consonant clusters: We allow all consonant clusters. We simply use the dot character to allow for consonant clusters of arbitrary length (e.g. lakshmya would be written as 'la' + 'k' with a dot on top + 'sh' with a dot on top + 'm' with a dot on top + 'ya'.

3. 'R': We represented the 'R' character by a Tamil 'r' character with a horizontal bar on top. Optionally, this may also be represented by the 'backslash-underscore' combination following the 'r' character in Tamil.

4. Chandra/Crescent symbol for a: We represent the 'a' sound (as in 'hat') using the arc symbol used in Modern Hindi. The arc symbol would go either on top of the preceding consonant OR if there was no preceding consonant, it would go on top of the character for 'a'. (this is the same as in Hindi). This can also be represented using a backslash followed by a parenthesis. e.g. 'hat' could be written as 'ha' with a horizontal bar on top + '\(' + 'T'.

5. Chandra/Crescent symbol for 'o': We represent the 'o' sound (as in 'got') using the arc symbol used in Modern Hindi. The arc symbol would go either on top of the preceding consonant OR if there was no preceding consonant, it would go on top of the character for 'A'. (this is the same as in Hindi). This can also be represented using a backslash followed by a parenthesis. e.g. 'got' could be written as 'kA' with a horizontal bar on top + '\(' + 'T'.

6. Consonant-vowel conjuncts: We allow for consonants with a dot to precede vowels to create consonant-vowel conjuncts. (e.g. 'Union' could be written as 'y' with a dot on top + 'U' + 'n' with a dot on top + 'i' + 'ya' + 'n' with a dot on top). This is an optional feature that reduces the learning curve. Now, in order to able to write conjuncts in Tamil, you only need to know how to write the corresponding character and how to write the vowel.

7. Avagraha/long vowels: We borrow the avagraha symbol, again from Devanagari, for prolonging vowel sounds. It is particularly useful for representing the 'schwa'. (e.g. University would be written as 'y' with a dot on top + 'n' with a dot on top + i' + 'va' + avagraha symbol + 'r' with a dot on top + 'si' + 'T' with a dot on top + 'i'.

Below are some example words represented using the new diacritical marks.


1. rAma           = 'r' + the 'aa' symbol (the symbol that takes you from ra to raa) + 'm'
2. lakshmaNa  = 'l' (without the dot on top) + 'k' with the dot on top + 'z' (the first 'sh' character) with the dot on top + 'm' (without the dot on top) + 'N'
3. bharata          = '.:' + 'p' with a horizontal bar on top + 'r' (without the dot on top) + 't' (without a dot on top)
4. shatrughNa   = 'z' (the first 'sh' character) + 't' with a dot on top + 'ru' + .: + 'k' with a horizontal bar as well as a dot on top + 'N'
5. Tattoine         = 'T' + the arc symbol on top of the 'T' + 'T' with a dot on top + 'Too' + 'i' (small i) + 'n' with a dot on top.
6. Skywalker     = 's' with a dot on top + 'k' plus the prefix for the 'ai' (Harvard-Kyoto) sound + 'v' + the 'aa' symbol (the symbol that takes from ra to raa) with a crescent on top + 'k' with a dot on top + 'k' + 'r' with a dot on top.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tamil writing system proposal - a note on the alphabet

A very short note on the Tamil alphabet. There are (around) 36 characters in the Tamil alphabet. Here is the Harvard-Kyoto table with the Tamil characters underlined and highlighted. Not all the characters in Tamil are part of this list and not all characters in the list, as can be seen, are part of the alphabet. Just so people can follow along.

 a A i I u U R RR lR lRR e ai o au M H
   k kh g gh G c ch j jh J
   T Th D Dh N t th d dh n
   p ph b bh m y r l v z S s h

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The quality of the IITs - some (anecdotal) supporting evidence

Via Naveen Koorakula, who also happens to be an IITian, I came across a link to this somewhat peculiar story on a conversation between an IIT graduate and a rickshaw driver. I don't have the time to translate it (the conversation is in Hindi) but it is really quite the interesting chat.

I would like to present this as supporting evidence of my previous claim regarding the public reputation of the IITs. I am, of course, using public information (the reputation thing) such as this, and so it is theoretically possible that there is some privately held information which would show that this public information is, in fact, false. But given the transparency of the admission process, this seems highly unlikely. It is possible that someone is somehow tampering with the admission process while being careful enough to leave no traces of the act. But evidence for this would be very easy to find - from time to time, you would get an utter idiot who somehow manages to sneak in - but evidence such as this has, thus far, not been forthcoming.

It is very hard for me, therefore, to reject the hypothesis that the public reputation of the IITs is due to its high quality.


There were two rickshaw-walas vying for our business when we wanted to go to Sankat-Mochan temple in Benaras. I agreed to go with the one who was about 20, seemed like a regular young rickshaw-wala, but I found something interesting about this fellow in his eyes. I was not proved wrong.
He wanted Rs 50, we said Rs 30. We settled for 40. Here are the highlights of the conversation that ensued while he rode the rickshaw:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Energy Efficient Brain Simulator Outperforms Supercomputers

In November 2012, IBM announced that it had used the Blue Gene/Q Sequoia supercomputer to achieve an unprecedented simulation of more than 530 billion neurons. The Blue Gene/Q Sequoia accomplished this feat thanks to its blazing fast speed; it clocks in at over 16 quadrillion calculations per second. In fact, it currently ranks as the second fastest supercomputer in the world.

But, according to Kwabena Boahen, Ph.D., the Blue Gene still doesn't compare to the computational power of the brain itself.

"The brain is actually able to do more calculations per second than even the fastest supercomputer," says Boahen, a professor at Stanford University, director of the Brains in Silicon research laboratory and an NSF Faculty Early Career Development grant recipient.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Have the subsidies given to IITs been a good investment for the Indian government? - Further comments

Five further comments on the IIT post (I am moving my blog updates from Thursday into a post of its own and have added a fifth comment):

Comment 1: A very short analysis of what is wrong with Atanu Dey's argument : He assumes that education in the sciences does not have any value over and beyond getting into a university, institute or college, and he also assumes that education does not have sufficiently large positive externalities. That $1.3 billion estimate by Atanu Dey is a measure of value added to the Indian economy, not value destroyed. If the IITs were not there, this sector of the economy would not exist and so that is a net gain to the economy as a whole. The value of the education that students in these coaching classes get should be measured not in terms of whether they actually get into IIT but in terms of what value they get from it over their lifetimes.

Comment 2: Fixed up some typos. Note that $1.3 billion is a measure of the value added to the Indian economy, not an estimate. A measure simply gives you some idea of the variable being measured whereas an estimate must be at least somewhere in the ballpark of the actual value of the variable being measured.

Comment 3: It is not really very time optimal for me right now - given that I am on a long-awaited vacation and given my various other commitments - to spend any more time on this, and so I am going to be brief. Here are some very brief overall remarks on the matter of the IITs.

1. A more rigorous analysis is called for to make the sort of bold claims that Atanu is making: It would be useful to take a look at the balamce sheets of the some of the companies I mentioned - Infosys - et cetera to get some idea of the size of the numbers in question when comparing costs (the cost per year of umdergraduate education vi the IITs) and benefits (the net taxes being paid by the IT companies in India). At any rate, to do any convincing on this matter, a more rigorous analysis is called for which makes clear what, if any, were the assumptions made in the analysis.

I am prepared to agree with almost anyone but I don't think I have enough reason to do so in this case. If you read any economics paper in any of the management journals, you at least have some idea of where the disagreements may lie. These posts are surely not well argued and seem to be full of holes. Now, whether these holes cold be later papered over is not the question. The executive summary, the thesis and the supporting arguments have to be front and center in the posts. Furthermore, there has to be some technical paper of some sort somewhere that tells me what the model being used is. So far, I have found very little.

2. Quick-and-dirty back-of-the-envelope calculations seem to indicate the IITs to be a good investment: Basically, here is how I did my back-of-the-envelope calculation. I just took a look at the balance sheets of Infosys and some of the other software companies, and used that to get some ballpark estimates of the benefits of the IITs. I wish I had more time to write up an actual post, but I leave this as an exercise for the reader. Just draw up an Excel spreadsheet listing out the cost factor, apply some time discounting of costs in the past and add some reasonable premium to just be conservative. The aim here is to get a very rough ballpark estimate of the net cost of the investment. Assume that a portion of the taxes paid by (I sometimes hate to use the word 'rent' because it is so non-specific in terms of actual numbers) some of the software behemoths is attributable to the 'founder effect'. (Nobody wanted to invest in Narayana Murthy's company when it was small. Trust me on this one. He came to a number of professors' faculty houses at IIMA to get some initial investment for the firm now known as Infosys. Very few wanted to invest.) This is because the only reason he even got his foot in the door was because he had an academic background from the IITs. You now have some idea of the benefits accrued. By way of comparison, Pakistan and Bangladesh don't have the IITs and don't have an IT industry to speak of either.

3. Small investment value: We are not talking about massive dollar investments here. There actually isn't a whole lot of corruption in the IITs and so the money actually gets spent on what it is set aside for. One must really believe that the Indian gvoernment is going to be able to better utilize the 30 million dollars or so it spends on each IIT since that is after all the opportunity cost of the investment. And to agree with the opportunity cost argument, one must believe - and I am not prepared to believe it - that there will be little or no corruption involved. 30 million dollars after the pigs have fed at the trough would be something like 5 million dollars - if you are lucky. (That is about 1/3th of the Las Vegas buffet's cost. Just sayin') I fail to see how this could bring about anything like the sort of results one can reasonably attribute to the IITs.

Comment 4: What are some empirically sound things that one could say about the IITs. a) They are probably never going to feature very high in World Rankings of Universities; b) The very high selectivity of the undergraduate program (at least until the mid-2000's) creates an undergraduate student population that is high in terms of motivation, scientific and/or technological talent and application, and given the very high level of selectivity, the undergraduate student population is - on academic terms- comparable to the student population in other institutes of technology such as MIT and Caltech ; c) The students in the Masters programs are harder to empirically analyze since less is known about them other than the fact that their entrance exam scores are high (the GATE entrance exams used to be multiple-choice and choosing people based on multiple-choice tests usually leads to skewed populations). This does not mean that they are less smart. It just means that we have a population that is harder to make strong statements regarding.

Comment 5: A couple of things that have not been sufficiently addressed in the arguments on IITs : the matter of the PhDs and this other business of public reputation. First, the PhDs. It is odd to completely ignore the PhDs in any analysis of an academic department or institution. What one would expect here is that (a) low investment research areas (projects in computer science can be very low investment) would be of excellent quality and (b) the quality of PhD theses in these areas would also be of very high quality. This is, in fact, what one sees. The Database Group at IIT Mumbai is very strong and is arguably one of the world's best. The PhD theses in theoretical computer science are often excellent as well. And second, the matter of public reputation. It would be very odd if an academic institution could sustain a very high public reputation over decades and yet have serious organizational failures. If anything, the IITs are a good example of how governments can run high performance organizations. If it is indeed the case that the IITs suffer from major organizational failures (just keep it real, folks!), then it is, by all means, okay to post about these. But nothing I have read so far in the couple of posts that I have gone through seems to suggest that major organizational failures actually exist. And finally, an acknowledgement : the phrasing "a good investment for the Indian government" is due to Prof. Ananth Raman at HBS.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Chef Jamie Oliver's TED wish - teach every child about food

I am back! Back to blogging and discussing nutrition- and obesity- related topics on this blog. Here is another video in our series on food and nutrition : Chef Jamie Oliver's TED talk on teaching children about food. Meanwhile, I am off to Bhutan for a week. Given my blogger responsibilities, I will certainly keep food on my mind ;)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Office hours, et cetera

Office hours for this month were held on Monday at the usual time between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. Another administrative note: Prof. Manikutty will be resuming his blogging with us this quarter now that his schedule has freed up a bit. A final note : this was a blog on puzzles and so a note on quizzing. The World Quizzing Championships will be held on June 1st next month. Additional information is available at their website. Please check the WQC's website for details.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Have the subsidies given to IITs been a good investment for the Indian government?

So I emailed Prof. Ananth Raman, Professor at Harvard Business School and alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, regarding the IITs. The matter in question is whether the IITs have been a good investment for the Indian government. The short answer to the question is "Yes". Prof. Ananth Raman concurs with me on this matter.

My email to him is pasted below. Please note that the EdNotes (in italics) were added by me later in preparation for this blog post. Please note the typo in the usage of the word 'alumnae'. The correct term is 'alumni'. One of the great things about having been to Stanford and Harvard is that when you have typos in your emails, people do the auto-correction themselves. Stanford + Harvard joint reference FTW! 

I should add that I was at the Bacchanal buffet yesterday in Las Vegas. How much did the buffet cost to build? 17 MILLION DOLLARS. Two buffets such as this one and we are already there. In this age of easy, I wonder how anyone can believe that an investment in STEM education that amounts to less than 40 million dollars such as this one could be considered a bad one. Remember that we are talking about the Indian economy which is a >$1.8 trillion dollar economy in nominal terms and a >$4.5 trillion dollar economy in PPP terms. 

I fail to see Atanu's point regarding welfare maximization. How could the cost of the coaching classes be considered welfare decreasing even from a purely neo-classical point of view? I mean - let's forget about institutions. Let us do a simple purely self-interest based analysis. Here is a large number of people who independently, freely choose to spend money on a service. Would they do it if the option was not increasing their utility? And if it is increasing the utility of so many people, then how could the activity be welfare decreasing? I don't want to spend any more time reading through Atanu Dey's numerous posts on this topic. There are times when one must decide that there are other things that are a better use of one's time and this, frankly, is one of them.

P.S. This may well be the first ever post on the Indian economy which uses the sentence "Stanford + Harvard joint reference FTW!".

Dear Prof. Ananth Raman,

I trust this finds you well.

I recently came across a blog post by Berkeley Ph.D. Atanu Dey arguing that the IITs are : (a) "not all that they are cracked up to be" (which is a safe thing for anyone to say since it could mean anything); (b) a net welfare loss for the economy as a whole (wow! I mean, wow!) (EdNote: Exact quote from Atanu Dey : "One of my major points is that the subsidies given to IITs (and other tertiary education institutes) is regressive and welfare decreasing.") and (c) a drain on the economy since they represent a 'subsidy' and so the subsidy should, of course, be stopped (Link :

This sounds like one of those loony rightwing talking points memos which propose tax cuts as a solution for everything, and I say this even though my political beliefs are somewhat to the right of center even in America. To put it really bluntly, I find the post to be almost entirely nonsensical. IITs have turned up in a couple (if not more) of our discussions in the past (and speaking of our conversations, I must confess that I did not quite pick up on your cues on IIT during my conversations with you - there are several reasons for that which I shall not get into). Anyway, as alumnae (EdNote: sic), I hope I may broach the matter of whether the IITs should be paid for the Indian government (EdNote: <stuff deleted>).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pizza and Panini - Solution

Here is the solution to the puzzle posed in the "Pizza and Panini" column. It is a pretty straightforward puzzle and I have seen variants of it all over the Internet. I remember seeing Martin Gardner pose a version of it in one of his puzzle books as well, IIRC. Anyway, here is the solution.

I am posting this from Las Vegas. "Ask the Delphic Oracle" is here, obviously, to mathematically investigate mathematical games of chance in terms of the mathematics. Pictures to follow - although that might not be for a while.


(Whiling the days away on Chandrayaan 12) The solution to the puzzle is simply eleven. If the astronauts picked up a total of 11 boots, there could be at most ten of them of one type. The eleventh boot would have to be of the other type.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

World's first smartphone for the blind, made in India

From the Times of India:
The world's first smartphone for blind people is here. Soon, they will be able to read SMSes and emails on this phone, which converts all text into Braille patterns. 
"We have created the world's first Braille smartphone," says its innovator, Sumit Dagar, whose company is being incubated at the Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, located in IIM Ahmedabad campus.