Monday, April 24, 2006

Whoa!

Confession -- one of my previous posts wasn't strictly true. Even when I was composing it, I felt mildly uneasy about the liberties I was taking with the truth; taking statements made by a person who was only the faintest zephyr of an acquaintance many years ago out of context to make for a funnier post.

Well, I got called on it. Literally. Turns out, on googlewhacking for this person's name, my blog entry was the only hit that came up. And this link was discovered by this person's mommy. Out of the blue, I got a phone call from the offended party (who'd looked up my cellphone number off the net), who in the sweetest possible manner asked me to remove the offending article.

And so I did (well, edited out all parts pertaining to this person).

Of course, none of this makes any sense to you. Which is as it should be.

Let this be a lesson to all of you funny-post-writers, you taking-liberties-with-the-truth-and-damn-the-worlders. The truth will come and bite you in the ass. Aided by Google.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

All's well that ends well...

... all right, folks. It's been a wild and enjoyable ride, but it's time to take a break from this blog before it becomes yet another chore. It'll probably still be updated, but much less frequently, and only when the mood strikes -- it'll work for me, rather than me for it.

Here's something to fill the void...

[Post on an egroup of friends last night. Said Nisha about Sam...]

Maybe it's the case I'm working on right now [1], maybe it's the lateness of the hour; but it occurs to me that we on this list have our own version of a great American revolutionary: Sam Anand, *almost* a brewer and a patriot.

[Replied Sam...]

Heh? Please to enlighten. Closeness of name to Sam Adams?

I don't have long, brown hair. I would look positively gay if I did.

Question for class discussion: was Sam Adams gay?

sam.

(not Adams. Not, I say.)

[Which inspired...]

> Question for class discussion: was Sam Adams gay?


--
Sidharth Jaggi

"Never doubt that a small group of concerted fingers can change a
photograph -- indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I was at the gym a few minutes ago...

(... I now look like this)



Huffin' and puffin' I bench-pressed 95 lbs, and the guy after me (whom I spotted) did 150 no sweat. Still got a ways to go...

... we got to talking, and it turns out the man does theoretical computer science, and I'd actually seen his advisor (Santosh Vempala) talk about some of his work. Good stuff, and Santosh is a good speaker, so I'd enjoyed those talks. Quirky, but that's de jure for CS theory (much more so than in the significantly stuffier environs I inhabit), and the enthusiasm about the work shone through it all and made it worth watching. That's the thing about mathematicians -- they know they're not getting paid to spin or be useful -- they're getting paid to look pretty. Or rather, do pretty... research.

Anyway, this reminded me of a talk I attended this afternoon. This was a crypto seminar; I had been warned about the crypto seminars by Sudan (the one with the Sudan algorithm -- his name's Madhusudan...) -- he'd told me that they really dig in at these talks, ask questions like it's nobody's business, actually understand stuff; you have to be a man to give a talk there.

I saw what he meant -- the speaker, an extremely good sport, on top of his game, a man with a brilliant Colgate smile, and obviously expecting this grilling, spent more time fielding questions throughout the talk than actually speaking. Related problems were explored, sharp questions were asked, naïve questions were asked, bad jokes and multi-lingual puns were made, tongue-in-cheek slides a la Seinfeld were shown, people laughed, and in general people had a good time. It was fun.

This is the world I've been entering, bit by bit, these last eleven years. It's very different from the external, non-scientific world's image of theoretical research. It's populated by a wide spectrum of people -- sure, there's some people who're... socially challenged reclusive eggheads, but there're also some of the most charismatic, knowledgeable and finger-in-every-pie sort of people I've ever met. It's also a lot more social an activity than people imagine -- much more research happens between people than happens in a single mind -- "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

I also couldn't help but contrast this talk with one I attended yesterday by "the thinking man's Tom Friedman" (which is how he was introduced by the host). A sad underutilization of my time -- he said nothing really new, had no real insights. But in comparison, the most significant difference was really the one that always exists between talks in soft sciences and harder sciences -- in the latter, if you understand it, you walk away with a replicable, undisputable, truth; not a subjective opinion, but a honest-to-god absolute truth. The truth can be "useless" in almost every sense of the word (most research is, and if I'm honest, much of my research is), but that's not the point -- it needs to be judged by it's own internal standards of beauty (and in my humble opinion I've been lucky enough to stumble across some really pretty results in my research).

Now you, reading this, gentle reader, have either experienced the numinous when you understood a beautiful truth, or you haven't. And it's sad, but true, that most people haven't experienced the beauty of a fundamental truth that arises from internally consistent logic (rather than having spiritual roots; I'll grant you -- those moments can probably feel similar).
Which is kind of frustrating, because so many people are missing out on so much.

Some popular science books, shows, and movies do try to tackle this and communicate the camaraderie of people who commune with truthful ideas -- Proof, Numb3rs, Contact... but
even the best of these can't help but sortof skip over the hard parts, the parts where the essence of the matter, the ideas, are involved. They deal more with the interactions between the people doing science than with the science itself. Quite understandable -- science is unforatunately a chore to people, and has little place in entertainment.

Other works -- the thinking man's science types... Cosmos, Gödel, Escher, Bach... are enjoyable reading, but they have two flaws -- however much they profess otherwise, they already aim at an audience which is already familiar with the material to some extent, and also, they often miss out on the human aspect of doing research. By the human aspect I mean more than just the historical treatment of a few stars -- I mean the environment in which ideas are generated. I mean something along the lines of that talk I attended today.


And now, ladies and gentlemen, the highlight of this post. Here's my solution -- a fictional account of a graduate stude... an apprentice alchemist working on the advanced theory... repeated additions (i.e., multiplication), at the Peloponnesian Institute of Technology and Science. He's worried about where his next free dolmades will come from. He has deep conversations about his work with his hovel-mate, who's working on repeated subtractions. He's afraid of the visiting scholar from the QUranic Institute of Technology, this venerable old sadist with the mind like a scimitar and a tongue to match, but whom his master has tasked him to speak to and learn from...

I could go on and on, but the idea here is to base everything around a problem which is simple enough (multiplication) that everyone already understands it to a reasonable level of approximation, and can follow the convoluted process of many bumbling fools blundering around discovering ever more efficient ways of doing it, with ever greater insights into related problems and resulting in a finished, polished product that school-kids can learn by rote. This is what research feels like, and even the best and cleanest ideas by the smartest people (say for example Newton's Law of Gravitation) have hidden nooks and crannies that their discoverers don't realize, have a cleaner exposition, a proof, a formulation, implications for other theories, all in all, an iterative approach that only infinitestimally slowly converges to a place in The Book.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Miscellanea

... not miscellania.

Huh. Who'd've thunk it?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

"With great power comes great responsibility"

-- Benjamin Parker (a.k.a. Uncle Ben)

I was just sitting in my underwear sewing my torn shorts, eating curry pizza, and watching the movie Spiderman... (Apologies if I just ruined your appetite with that mental image, but then that should teach you to read blogs while eating, shouldn't it?)... and I wondered, why is it that I'm watching this not-particularly-good movie?



One theory about comics (and I suppose, by extension, the related graphic novels, movies, video games, etc) is that they pander to our escapist tendencies. Surrounded by the drudgery of the dull-gray world, it helps to immerse oneself into a fantasy world with excitement and adventure. Also, there are no moral ambiguities in comics, good (usually) triumphs over evil; an admittedly satisfying feeling. Another theory, proposed by the famous comicologist Michael Novotny, goes like

"Later as I realized that I was gay I read them for a different reason. Because, in ways that maybe were not intended, these superheroes were a lot like me. You know, at work they were meek and underappreciated. They were the guys that never get laid... [students laugh] And when they're around other people, they can't let anybody get too close for fear that their true identities would be discovered. Within all the villians and the monsters and the evil forces that are trying to destroy them somehow they're survived. Even the one thing that can kill Superman, one thing against which he has no immunity, kryptonite, ultimately you know that he'll survive that and he'll go on and save the world. I believe the same about us. That's what the comics have shown me -- that despite everything, we'll survive. And we'll win."

(Season 2, Episode 6)

In other words, projection.

All fine and dandy, but not really the reasons I allowed two hours of my life to vanish watching that pap. (If you must know, I don't like the movie 'cos of the soppy love scenes -- I grew up watching Spiderman every Saturday 1715-1745 (go figure, Doordarshan programme scheduling logic follows a different axiomatic system (need to change my writing style -- I'm in love with putting too many nested parenthetical remarks -- I think it'sa function of my thinking style)), and Spiderman would never have gone so mushy).

No, I think the real reason I've re-fallen in love with comics and their associated world-view in recent years is because they are the unselfconscious myths of our century. In a world where successful realist fiction must be internally aware of itself, where cheesiness is to be abhorred like the plague by us uber-mature rational individuals, where portraying the complexities of human nature has replaced moral absolutes as the driving force of storytelling, comics remain one of the few mediums which still provide a framework for being able to make a statement like the one that is the title of this post, and get away with it alive.

Think about it -- use "with great power comes great responsibility" as a quote, and everybody recognizes it; comics (and I suppose ad jingles) are the Iliads of today.

The eye-opener vis-a-vis comics as a medium worthy of respect came for me when I read the Sandman series some years ago.



After a couple of days of reading the series from end to end (ten books ("graphic novels") in a row) I posted this slightly frenzied email to a group of friends

______________________________

Subject: Days of little else...


... but reading Sandman. Neil Gaimon. Graphic novels. Brief Lives. The Doll's House. Season of Mists, A Game of You... and the rest.

Find them. Read them.

Others have judged them worthy of great praise, as do I.


Chacko wrote - "I find it increasingly difficult to waste my time with anything but excellence." Or something like that. Not a waste of time, Chacko.

A man needs excellence, and truth, and artistry, and all things similarly worthy to reassure himself that existence is not pointless ("If there be such Beings that walk this Earth proudly, then who am I to desire Oblivion?"). This is work which does not disappoint.

There is art which does not need to hide behind artifice. This are epics which have the strength to stand up to mimicry. There are dreams that are true enough that one is not ashamed of dreaming them. This is such work.


Others have judged this worthy of great praise, as do I. At this moment, tired, exultant and happy, brain-twisted by the works I write about, it is the least I can do to join in the paeans...
______________________________


The books really are worth it. Other favourites -- Alan Moore's Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (only the books -- the movie was crap), Art Spiegelman's Maus, and most particularly, some of the Batman collections (particularly the Frank Miller ones).

Even non-afficionados of comics will acknowledge the riveting power of the Dark Knight -- the excellent recent movie Batman Begins was unmistakably noirish, but with all the grandeur that a 67 year old myth embedded in the collective psyche (not to mention a humungous budget) can evoke, and some correspondingly unforgettable lines. One of these lines made it as the epigram of my thesis (more on that in a later post).

To be sure, there are other works that manage to pull it off. Off the top of my head, amongst recent experiences -- O Brother Where Art Thou, V for Vendetta (I haven't seen it yet, but friends I trust uniformly attest to its excellence -- oh, wait, that too is supposed to be based off a graphic novel, isn't it?), some of Dylan Thomas's recordings of him reading his own poetry... but already we're venturing out of the realm of the zeitgeist of the masses. And then again, perhaps the Greek myths never were part of the firmament of the masses psyche, but the butterfly effects of those myths still live on. As will the giants we've created these last hundred years...


So where does all this leave me? With a sewn pair of shorts, a plate that needs to cleaned of curry powder and pizza crust, a DVD that needs to be returned, and a hundred floors to be climbed as part of my current exercise regimen. Good night, and good luck.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Addendum

... to the previous post.

I was wrong. That whole idea was wrong. And so was the one of the next day, and the one of the day after.

However.

I, now, today, have a proof that works. And it's even more elegant than the previous one seemed.

At least, I think I have a correct proof.

However, a colleague also believes it.

Which means that either I'm a convincing demagogue, or a genius.

Either way, I win.

And off to debauchery and slothfulness.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Begging forgiveness from a neglected love

Heart of my heart, my darling, my love, forgive me. I nearly forgot you.

You know how it is -- remembrances of thee come at ever longer intervals -- always with that pang of guilt, but never with sufficient passion to jolt one into action. The minutes merge into hours into days, and as each memory of our last tryst grows fainter the mind wanders through thoughts of other, more immediate, mistresses. My fickle lust craves to jam every waking moment of my consciousness with images of their newer, younger, more nubile and seductive charms. You are a known quantity, the contract read from page to small print, the zeta already solved for -- the excitement of the newer hunt moves these loins to greater vigour than pallid memories of you could ever.

And yet, and yet, dear blog, you are a love I return to. I'm sorry for ignoring you this last week and more -- kiss and make up with a new entry?

Yes, what a week it's been, what a week. I've been here, there and everywhere, doing this, that and the other with her, him and everyone. A trip to Princeton to greet old friends, sit in on a conference without registering, and just in general hang. New research ideas, new ideas in life, possiblities in the job market, biking, several parties, older friends rediscovered, learnt a bit more about newer ones -- spring is in the air.

Gosh, where does one even start?

As always, somewhere, anywhere, as long as it works.

So, here's a little bit about my research life. Fascinating reading for most of you, doubtless, but do tarry a while -- I promise there will be no equations.

To begin with an anecdote -- I was at this conference in Japan, talking with a woman working at Sony Corp. She'd done her Ph.D. in pure math at Cambridge (the UK version), and was now working on more applied research in Tokyo. I was, as always on these junkets, gloating about how sweet grad student life was, and asked her if she didn't miss that?

"Well, you know how doing math is. It's a full-time profession, 24/7. You're constantly thinking about something, and it's exhausting. At least with this job anytime I'm not at work is time I have for myself."

"So what are your usual working hours like?"

"Well, I normally start at 0900, and stay until maybe... meh... 1900 or 2000. Oh, plus, of course, there's the 1.5 hour train commute each way."

You know, sometimes I envy her...

Naaaaaah, just kidding :)

Though, really, when an idea grabs hold of you, and you're convinced you're right, and you're this close to solving it...


... but haven't yet, and that last idea failed but the new one which replaced it has promise, and if only everything would line up correctly in your mind it'd be a truly beautiful edifice which people would look at and contemplate with awe (with some reflected glory on the architect, of course, and in those lovely interludes that you think you've licked it you devote considerable amounts of your (you allow yourself to think because of post-coital bliss) considerable brainpower to just this type of kissing oneself on the back of your neck), but (n-1)/n of the time the ugly-but-always-honest monster of truth rears its head from underneath the corner of the rug you'd shoved him under while you were fighting these battles with other beasts in your mind; meanwhile, of course, it's just this ugly mess you can't bear to write down on a piece of paper even though it'd help you organize your thoughts -- you dream about it, you obsess about it, you blank out in the middle of conversations, you lose contact with friends and the outside world, you fight your solitary fight for something that really only you and a few other solitary people would possible ever care to care about. You grow to know the woods because you've been lost in every nook and brook, multiple times coming from multiple different directions. You love yourself, you hate yourself, you wonder why life is worth all this trouble -- even stupid ditties are easier to get out of your head than this obsession.

Why do you do it? At some prosaic level there's papers one must write to get a career and so on, but that line of motivation sucks your soul out -- hopefully you do it because it's a truth that you find beautiful, and it deserves to be discovered. And at the end (if you reach it) you look back and wonder -- how could I have conceived of this thing larger than myself?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am currently in that pleasant interlude between thinking I've nailed a difficult problem with an elegant solution, and discovering a flaw in my reasoning. The reason for the optimism is, more likely than not, really just because it's morning, and as always I'm in that gentle halfway house whose windows are half-fogged with sleep, but is teeming with ideas that spent the night waiting to be let out. It's been a couple of weeks I've been fighting this mental battle of epic proportions (and little consequence in the grand scheme of things). These things happen maybe a few (fingers on one hand) times a year, and they're what makes it all worthwhile. Afterwards there needs to be a long dark teatime of the soul, with much debauchery and mental slothfulness.

There -- now I've gone and exposed part of my true current state of mind. Go ahead and make fun of it.