1 Broken Scooter, 4 Iron Cots, 1 Used Ford, 3 Cats, and 1 Small Room

Yet another Self-Important Blog.

Rohit Singh
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Sun, 26 Aug 2007

That's The Question, Isn't It?

More on the Indo-US nuke deal. Writing in the Newsweek, Sumit Ganguly speculates if the commies will bring down the current government:

"But such an outcome remains unlikely, since voting against the Congress-led government would mean voting with the chauvinist BJP, whom the communists loathe even more than the United States."

That's the question, isn't it? That is, if the commies dislike the Americans more than the BJP? I'm betting on BJP, but you never know.

Vir Sanghvi has another article denouncing the commies. But he also wonders if the nuke deal is worth staking the government over. I can't believe he wonders about that. One, the deal has long-term implications for India that are almost wholly positive (new technology, credibility, enhanced status). In fact, Indian diplomats seem to have negotiated a surprisingly *good* deal. Two, how can you go back on an agreement when the parliament has (a few months ago), in principle, approved it!

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Amazing Graphic at NYT

If you wondered why the New York Times is thought as one of the world's best newspapers, here's a demonstration.

A few weeks ago, there was a minor storm in the blogosphere over a restatement of NASA's figures about mean annual temparatures in the U.S. At the time, I'd actually tried to make sense of the various blog posts to figure out who's right and who's not. But the mess of data and (mis)information was just too much. Andrew Revkin wrote an article on that episode. It included this graphic:

What a clear, informative way of conveying the various pieces of data! It simultaneously conveys that: (1) there are two different sets of Top-10 rankings, (2) only some of the years have changed ranks between the two sets, and (3) the rank-change is because of underlying numbers that actually changed very little between the two sets.

Of course, this is not to say the NYT can't be bone-headed and biased at times (e.g., Somini Sengupta's reporting is usually annoying).

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Fri, 24 Aug 2007


I've been on the other side of the situation this article describes: looking for my net fix while on vacation in India. I'm sure I sounded just as annoying as the article describes to the people I bugged.

A particularly annoying thing was dealing with net-cafe owners who don't know the first thing about computers. They were terrified of me downloading a program that'd let me ssh to MIT and work on the command line, and thought that a USB key would inflict unimaginable damage to their computer just by being connected to it.

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More Weird Stuff From John Tierney

But this one is interesting: aggregated across all of humanity's history, far fewer men (than women) have descendants who still live today. In other words, the average man is much less likely than the average woman to leave his/her genes hanging around. Also, a researcher is speculating that this may be a reason why men are hardwired for aggression and what not.

Recent work in connecting psychology, anthropology and evolution is quite interesting. Some of it will turn out to be fallacious, of course.

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For *That* Smoldering, I'll Suffer Through The Somnolence

Holden on Scarlett Johansson in the Nanny Diaries:

"With her heavy-lidded eyes and plump lips, Ms. Johansson may smolder invitingly in certain roles, but The Nanny Diaries is the latest in a string of films that suggest that this somnolent actress confuses sullen attitudinizing with acting."

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Thu, 23 Aug 2007

What Is The Matrix?

John Tierney thinks there may be a 20% chance we are living in one, i.e, we are "avatars" in somebody's version of Second Life. My question: simulating many of the basic physical and biological processes (protein folding, quantum physics etc.) is very very hard. These simulations boil down to very hard computational problems (NP Hard, to be precise), i.e., one can prove that there's a very good chance that they are so hard that even a computer orders of magnitude faster than anything we have will have trouble solving them quickly (especially, when it's simulating the entire universe as we know it). And this conclusion is based solely on logical arguments that follow from basic mathematical axioms, i.e., I believe they are just as true for the Mega-Computer that (possibly) contains us all as it is for the computer I'm writing this post on. So does that not go against the Matrix theory?

Tierney writes weird crap at times.

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Go Read This

Reckless profiteering goes well with extremism in religion. Always.

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The Economist is running a good article on how the FSB (and its officers) are gradually taking over the Russian State and state-run industries. This is not really a surprise--- anybody who even sporadically follows the news over the past few years will have seen the Russian state re-asserting itself, especially against the oligarchs and perceived slights from the West. The article does a good job of describing who the main players are and confirms one guess I had: this is not merely one set of rich people supplanting another set (the oligarchs). The new set also derives it power from its militaristic inclinations.

Also, this passage was interesting:

"The rise to power of the KGB veterans should not have been surprising. In many ways, argues Inna Solovyova, a Russian cultural historian, it had to do with the qualities that Russians find appealing in their rulers: firmness, reserve, authority and a degree of mystery. The KGB fitted this description, or at least knew how to seem to fit it."

The notion that societies have cultural preferences for specific types of leaders certainly seems true. For example, the presence of political dynasties in Indian democracy can be traced somewhat to the influence of casteism and feudalism on Indian culture. Similarly, many of the oddities of American politics can be traced to quirks of American culture (e.g. interplay between religiosity and issues like abortion and stem-cell research).

However, this notion is also somewhat unsettling. Democracies are supposed to enable a free market of ideas, letting the best idea win. For better or for worse, voters are not rational beings--- they are influenced by their culture in picking their leaders. In particular, they may pick a leader who resonates with them culturally but has poor ideas.

Does this mean that certain societies are condemned to a generally poor choice in leaders than others? To extend the argument, are some cultures worse than others?

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Wed, 22 Aug 2007

Go Read This

Powerful stuff. Amazingly well-written. I love this kind of writing-- simple and direct.

Iraq now is a huge, hairy mess. Peace there in the forseeable future seems unlikely, with or without U.S. military presence. However, if the Americans leave, the mess may well spill out of Iraq. Given how fragile the Mid-East is and how "flat" the world now is, nobody may be immune.

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Vir Sanghvi on Muslim Communalism

The recent boneheaded response of some Muslims to Taslima Nasreen's work prompted a column from Vir Sanghvi a few weeks ago. He argued that the silent (and presumably, vast) majority of moderates in the Indian Muslim community need to do a better job of standing up to the extremists within. Sure, they have a much harder task of it than Hindu moderates, but the stakes for them are also much higher. He also mentions the abysmal quality of political leadership that Indian Muslims have:

"Sadly, Indian Muslims have the worst political leadership of any community in India.

Worse still, it is a leadership that is illegitimate. Muslims are affected by many of the same issues as Hindus or Christians: inflation, law and order, economic growth, corruption etc. So why then do they need Muslim leaders? Why cant secular leaders represent them on secular issues? The short answer is that, of course, they can. And Muslim leaders, fearful of their own irrelevance, needlessly whip up sentiment on religious issues to try and ensure that Muslims vote only as Muslims and not as Indians. So, an insult to the Prophet by Taslima will be manufactured; some Samajwadi thug-cum-minister will offer a reward for the death of a Danish cartoonist that his constituents have never heard of; The Satanic Verses will be burnt by people who would never otherwise have read it; and a bogus cry of Islam being in danger will be raised."

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Why Don't I Have "The Knack"!

I'm an engineer, no? At least, I used to be one.

At IITK, one of the frequent things that happened with people in their first summer back home was a greater expectation that they'll be able to, you know, fix stuff. I mean, what's the point of being an electrical engineer if you can't fix the fan.

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The Indian Left and The N-Deal

The commies have been loonies for a long time-- opposing perfectly sensible policies and bullying the current goverment. With the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, the Manmohan Singh government finally stood up to them. Vir Sanghvi, Shekhar Gupta, B. Raman and others are all rejoicing.

There's a certain amount of brinkmanship going on between the political parties, but I can't believe that they (the Left and, also, BJP) will let India's biggest diplomatic success in a long time go to waste. Actually, I believe they well might, but I'm hoping they won't.

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Dynastic Democracy

Indian P.M. hosts a private dinner for the Japanese P.M. So far so good. The invitees includes scions of 3 political families that are part of the current government. An exercise in grooming the next generation of India's leaders, perhaps?

I'm guessing that Rahul Gandhi was the main invitee among the Young Turks, and the others were invited for appearances' sake. But, at the very least, they could've also invited young politicians who don't have powerful dads or are from the opposition parties.

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Thu, 16 Aug 2007

Olive Garden?

That does seem a wee bit cheap, no?

The cheapest "business" lunch I've heard of? A friend of a friend at CMU ran into a guy from U. Pitt. when buying lunch from a food truck. Names were overheard, introductions were made, interests were shared and, in due course of time, papers were co-written. Not bad for a $5 (or maybe, $4) entree.

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Wed, 15 Aug 2007

How do you feel when you see this picture?

Happy or Sad?

This one should be easier:

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Happy Independence Day

India's 60 today. The party, as they say, is just getting started. I just hope the various neuroses of Indian people (an inferiority complex and an entitlement complex simultaneously!) do not screw up things. I don't think they will.

Some good writing on the day [1,2,3]. Some atrocious writing [4,5]. Some deluded writing [6]. Some well-meaning-but-badly-written stuff [7]. Some annoying-but-true stuff [8]. The inevitable China comparison [9]. Here's an article in praise of the British [10]. While I agree with the article, may I re-rant that Churchill was-- as far as India is concerned-- a jackass of the highest order. Here is a bad case of projection (the author didn't have a Muslim friend in school/college and so he assumes no one else did).

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Map-making is an exercise influenced by politics. Surprise.

Maps do elicit fairly strong emotions. Whenever I see a map that has India's political boundary in it, I can't help but check how it shows Kashmir. If it's something I'm considering buying, the map should ideally be as we were taught in school-- all of Kashmir (including Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and Aksai Chin) as part of Kashmir. I may buy it if it shows PoK in a different color than either India or Pakistan. But if it shows PoK as a true part of Pakistan, I look for another map.

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Tue, 14 Aug 2007

Disruptive Innovation

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Go read this.

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Review: Mr. Bean's Holiday

In this movie, which is apparently the second and last Mr. Bean movie, Rowan Atkinson comes back as the mute, clumsy, and dumb Mr. Bean. In a lottery, he wins a free trip to France and a camcorder (which he makes ample use of). The movie's plot is quite pointless, really, and serves only as a vehicle for a sequence of gags. Suffice to say that the plot involves Mr. Bean messing up in a snooty Parisian restaurant, separting a kid from his father, walking into a movie shooting, befriending the actress and gatecrashing the movie's Cannes premiere.

I've seen --- and liked --- snippets of Atkinson's work elsewhere (especially in the Rat Race, which is awesome). I watched the Mr. Bean movie on a flight and was hoping to like it, but was somewhat disappointed (I skipped the last 20 or so minutes). Maybe a mute actor channeling Charlie Chaplin still has a place in today's cinema but the repeated gags along the lines of mute-stupid-guy-does-stuff get old after a while. Perhaps Mr. Bean is best enjoyed in moderation, when he is only one of the funny characters and not the sole entertainer.

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The Hobbit

I've been reading The Hobbit and one thing that strikes me repeatedly is how much more informal this book is than the LoTR books. The latter have a self-conscious tone of narrating epochal events. The former just reads like a rollicking adventure story (at least it seems to be, till now!).

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit before the LoTR books. I'm guessing its success made him a bit more self-conscious and stilted his story-telling a bit.

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Mon, 13 Aug 2007

This Is Interesting

Some Israeli soldiers refused to carry out certain orders directed against Orthodox Jewish settlers in the Israel-occupied territories.

I found this interesting because it points to a delicate balance that a State has to strike when using force against (parts of) its own population. Usually, the police (and, to a smaller extent, the army) are the agents forcing the State's will. A key part of their training ethos is discipline and the importance of following orders, i.e., they are supposed to inflict violence on people as ordered, even if they don't want to. But what happens if the State pushes them too far? Maybe the army/police is at fault, but what if the State is the one that's wrong?

The First War of Indian Independence can be thought of in these terms. The various riots in recent Indian history also have a related angle-- the State (at least, the Indian Consitution) would've liked to protect the victims regardless of their religion, but the police often weren't disciplined enough to do so: they were probably more keen on protecting people from a particular religion.

But some of the most interesting such conflicts happen with Israeli Defence Forces. I think this is because of their compulsory military service, due to which Israeli soldiers come from a much broader ideological/political spectrum than in other armies. Sometimes, you might even agree with the dissenters.

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Ooh, this makes me so happy. Parents who push their kids to be the next prodigy are quite annoying.

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The Sum Of Node-Degrees Is The Same For Either Part Of a Bipartite Graph

By appealing to some very sophisticated math, researchers demonstrate that guys and/or girls lie about how many people they sleep with (the former overstate it, the latter understate it).

And you thought all those surveys about sex in various magazines were actually onto something.

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Sat, 11 Aug 2007

This is Good...

ITIs (trade schools run by the Indian govt.) have, for a long while, been in a rather bad state. With public-private partnerships, their condition seems to be improving. Part of this is market driven-- a growing manufacturing sector needs welders, electricians, mechanics etc. But the govt deserves credit too, for getting out of the way. The improvement in ITIs' amenities is itself a big deal but making the syllabus more responsive to industry needs and introducing placement support services is, I think, even more significant.

As the Indian manufacturing sector grows more, places like ITIs are going to be crucial in fulfilling the labor needs.

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Fri, 10 Aug 2007

Review: Hot Fuzz

Definitely worth watching, but I started with expectations a little too high. A nice take on the action genre, the movie starts well and its first one-third is good. After that, however, it falls a bit flat for a while. The last 10 minutes are awesome, though. They completely redeem the movie. Also, watch out for a few scenes of gratuitous gore, done funnily.

The In-house Economist didn't like it (but she left before some of the awesome stuff happened).

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The Subprime Mess

Nice article in the NYT. Some quotes:

"Nothing within [our current system of leveraged finance] allows for the hedging of liquidity risk, and that is the problem at the moment."

"The new financial system is not the one the Fed was created to deal with, but it is the one it must try to handle."

In some places, however, the article's reasoning seems to be flawed:

"At the heart of the new system was a decision to have loans financed directly by investors, rather than indirectly by bank depositors. Investors, ranging from hedge funds to wealthy individuals, had confidence in the arrangement because most of the securities were blessed as very safe by the bond rating agencies, like Moodys and Standard & Poors.

There's a reason SEC limits the kind of people who can invest in hedge funds. The latter have often given their investors extremely good returns over the last few years. That kind of return comes with higher risk. Buyer beware.

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Thu, 09 Aug 2007

The General: My Fellow Pakistanis, May I Take Away Your Freedoms?

He's the worst mixture of a politician and a soldier. Like a bad soldier, he wants to rule by diktat; like a bad politician, for every policy decision, he needs to float a trial balloon to see how the people will take to it.

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...turns out, running around in your birthday suit in space is a bit like scuba diving.

Okay, the article was about being without a space-suit in space, but being in your birthday suit covers that, doesn't it?

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On Powerpoint As An Admission Requirement

GoogleDude's complaining about Chicago GSB requiring MBA applicants to also send in a 4-slide Powerpoint, allowing the applicants to express their creativity. I agree with the G-dude.

Using Powerpoint well is an amazingly useful skill; in fact, I was surprised how valuable it is in research. These days, much of the dissemination-of-ideas in research happens by talks given using Powerpoints. And the majority of such talks are terrible. But there are some real gems and the people who give them stand out. Clearly, one can argue that it's valuable for students (including B-school guys) to be good at this lingua franca of presentations.

The problem is, using Powerpoint to evaluate someone's creativity is a rather narrow reading of "creativity" (why not allow video resumes?). Also, as G-dude says, most people are born with very bad skills at Powerpoints. Only those immersed in Powerpoint-rich environments start to get any good at it. A Powerpoint-based admission requirement is just favoring certain job types.

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Comments Turned On Now

After GoogleDude bugged me for the n-th time about comments("It's not a blog if it doesn't allow comments!"), I decided to figure out a way that'd turn them on without the spam. I like using Blosxom (the Python port PyBlosxom seems better maintained these days) for generating this blog, since it lets me create the blog just as I like. It is a simple script, fairly clean and easy to use. For each new post, I just create a simple text file; the first line of the file is the post's title. Very simple. I've complete flexibility in designing the entire blog-page (yes, it was designed at a time when I was really enamored with light-on-black color schemes).

However, commenting is Blosxom's bane. It can do comments but it's not built to deal with spam. Last time I checked, I found it hard to set up user accounts or captchas etc. in Blosxom. Still, just for kicks, I turned on comments a year or so ago. Within days, there was just too much spam. So I closed off the comments.

Today, I remembered that you can host comments etc. on a 3-party website. Haloscan's a really cool solution for people like me. In my templates, I just put in Javascript blocks that pull in the comment link and the number of comments currently posted. Haloscan handles comment creation, comment storage, user-accounts, spam etc. Easy.

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Wed, 08 Aug 2007


Day before yesterday, I came across an ad for the book "A World Without Us", where the author tries to imagine how nature would manage if we weren't around. Sounds fairly interesting. One claim the book seems to make is that within 2 days of humanity's disappearance, the New York subway system will be flooded and unusable. Surely, I thought, he doth protest too much.

Apparently not.

Interestingly, the New York subway seems to have been shut down by 3 inches of rain (though it come down fairly quickly). In the 2005 Mumbai mega-pour, the city got 37 inches in a single day. No wonder it flooded. People often complain about India's infrastructure, and rightly so. But some of the nature-related challenges in India (heat, monsoon, dust etc.) are quite difficult to deal with.

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Yakub Memon

In the '93 Mumbai blasts case, more than one reporter now seems to be saying that Yakub is the wrong Memon to hand out a death-sentence to because: (1) he was not a core organizer and others with his level of involvement got 5-14 years, and (2) he came to authorities out of his volition, intending to cooperate. I dunno how much of this is true, but it's possible the guy's paying for the sins of his brother. The public pressure to hang any and all Memons the police got a hand on is quite intense, I imagine.

And now that justice is being served for the blast perpetrators, shouldn't the Mumbai riot perpetrators be tried too? More than any other criminal activity, riot-related crimes seem to receive the least prosecutorial attention (on a per-victim basis). Maybe India really is, as others have said before, a nation without a memory.

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Tue, 07 Aug 2007

Dumb. Freaking. Idiots.

The Indian Express article's title is quite appropriate. The commies don't want the India-U.S. nuclear deal because it is part of a "US quest to make India its reliable ally in Asia."

Whose ally they'd rather India be-- Brunei's? Pursuing one's national interest means finding allies (in contrast, enemies usually crop up all by themselves). Wonder what the left would rather want India to do.

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Go Read This

Seriously. It is an absolute gem. Articulate, insightful and written with humility.

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You read something like this and you wonder if there really are people who just don't deserve any second chances. I buy into a significant part of the current thinking that prisons should rehabilitate and not just punish, and that we should help a person redeem himself when possible. After all, maybe they were abused as a child, or racially discriminated, or just got unlucky when choosing their parents. But when you read what some men are capable of, you wonder.

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Mon, 06 Aug 2007

India at Sixty

Time (international editions) is running a cover story on India's 60th anniversary. Nice set of articles.

In an article, William Dalrymple trots out the argument --- it's almost a meme now --- that the recent prosperity of India and China is really just the start of a return to global historical balances (before the British colonized India, its economy is thought to have made up 22% of the world economy).

A bit too early to extrapolate at this juncture, I'd say. WD's claim is a bit like saying that because India and China were the best sprinters in the neighborhood, they'll also be the best auto-racers now that everybody's got cars. I really hope it happens, but we Indians (WD being an honorary Indian) can be a bit too quick in self-congratulations (and self-denigrations!).

Also, watch out for the piece by Ishaan Tharoor. I'm guessing he's the son of Shashi Tharoor.

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Being Rich

I'm not rich. But that won't stop me from pontificating on being rich. NYT is running a series of articles on the new "Gilded Age" and writing about the new rich and their attitudes about money, themselves, society and everything else.

As expected, some of the rich are quite obnoxious, convinced that they walk on water and that their wealth is entirely due to their skills and abilities. Surely their wealth has nothing to do with them being in the right place at the right time or having a great supporting team (members of which get a lot fewer rewards!).

There's a much larger category of people who are what the NYT describes as the working-class millionaires-- people who have a couple million in the bank but don't feel like they are millionaires. This isn't false modesty, necessarily. Some of it is probably situational: if you live in Manhattan or Los Altos and all your neighbors make twice as much, you are bound to feel poor. And I can see the point that a million needn't mean luxurious living: if one of your loved ones has a serious medical problem and insurance won't pay, you could run through a half-million or million very quickly. The high real-estate cost of areas like Silicon Valley only adds to the feeling that a million ain't what is said to be.

Still, it'd be nice if people counted their blessings. If you can take 18 months off from work and fly your entire extended family to Hawaii, you should at least acknowledge you have it better than most.

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Perl does give you enough rope.

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On Yakking

Cellphone networks influence talking patterns between friends. Conversely, people choose networks based on what their friends are on. Before I got married, I wouldn't have really believed it.

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