Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

I found this absolutely fantastic TED talk via Thejeswini:

There are far too many brilliant quotes to choose one as a teaser. Truly one of those instant epics that we'll refer to frequently for a very long time to come. As always, I'm too lazy for structure, so here's ever-reliable SoC.
  • de Botton's definition of a snob is perfect. Superiority complexes, looking down on people, elitism, etc. are all important features, but quick judging is a very important part of snobbery. I am reminded of this little anecdote I read a long time ago:
    It is reported that former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was once introduced by a chairman who jokingly said, "I had expected to find Mr. Lloyd George a big man in every sense, but you see for yourselves he is quite small in stature."

    Not amused, Lloyd George rebutted, "In North Wales we measure a man from his chin up. You evidently measure from his chin down."

  • His insight into the fixation on society-set emotional rewards was bang on target - as was the one on fearing ridicule and low-opinion more than the direct consequences of failure themselves.

  • Equality causing Envy - brilliant! Absolutely true! Equality is the necessary cause, randomness is the sufficient one. "Anyone can do anything" is pernicious!

    I also think it applies to positive emotions - I think people can only fall in love with people who they somehow imagine to be 'equal' to themselves. Extending it a bit further, I think any kind of engagement happens only on the premise of equality. The fact that you cannot engage with everything is a glorious gift - "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." - H.P.Lovecraft

  • Meritocracy-illusion bashing - absolutely agree. I have never understood why Meritocracy is held as such an achievable (oˆ Shreevatsa), infallible ideal, when there is no way to reliably measure merit. I won't comment on the ideal itself, but surely there should be no misunderstanding that such a thing is even remotely possible!

    Of course, in the very limited context of education in India, 'Meritocracy' has a very specific and mostly sensible meaning. But while the other options available are worse, that doesn't make this good - just marginally better. It is carrying the problem of giving opportunities to deserving people one level further - to the level of measuring peoples' deservedness, and I am utterly unconvinced that any exam has that kind of resolution. I'm not in the least comfortable with that, and find it dishonest that we wring our hands saying "We can't do any better, can you?" and think we've solved it.(In this context, I am reminded of Churchill's quote - "Democracy is the worst kind of government, except for all the others that have been tried.").

  • "Nothing at its center that is non-human"  - My thoughts exactly! "Escape from the human anthill" is a brilliant way of putting it.

  • "Your ideas of success are sucked in from others" - Absolutely! Related must-see documentaries: 'Century of Self' and 'The Merchants of Cool'.

    I remember seeing a trailer for Mad Men in the Wabash 9 theatre in July 2007, and one quote from it was branded onto my memory. The protagonist is a successful advertising executive in the heady 1960s, when the true power of PR was being discovered. His secretary tells something naive about love, and looks straight into her eyes and says in an inimitable tone: "The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." I didn't (want to) believe it then, and neither do even today, but there's something to the idea. (The line is in the first episode, which you can find on Sidereel).

  • "It's bad enough, not getting what you want. But it's even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out at the end of a journey,that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along." - That could be the headline of my blogdungsroman :-)

There were some ideas I wasn't too happy with - the one about showing sympathy for a guy with a Ferrari for being 'insecure' sounded extremely naive and somewhat self-deceptive (or maybe condescending?). The needless focus on the idea that every successful man has some aspect of his life where he wasn't successful also made it seem like he stubbornly didn't want to believe there could be a successful life without a stain. The talk could have done without that bit of whining. Overall though, it's hands-down fantastic :-)

As a person, too, he is quite interesting. For one, I absolutely love his acquired British accent. Acquired accents tend to be more 'perfect' than natural ones, because there is an active effort in identifying what defines the accent. There's a kind of maturity, power, smoothness and elegance associated with his British accent that I can't quite explain. The few minutes starting from 10:00 are just brilliant in this aspect!

His family is Swiss, and is insanely rich. His father was one of the founders of UBS' Global Asset Management group, and left the family £200 million in a trust fund. The wiki claims that in spite of that, de Botton has made a living solely out of his book sales. Do take a look at his wiki page - his books, especially everything he has written after, and including, The Art of Travel seem very interesting.

In one of his interviews, he says this:

Why did you pick Cambridge?

I was attracted to the prestige of either Oxford or Cambridge and picked Cambridge because I liked the flat, rather Dutch quality of the surrounding countryside. I also hoped that I would meet beautiful and intelligent girls with whom to have long conversations about love and truth. It didn't quite turn out that way, in fact rarely have I felt more starved of female company than at Cambridge.

LOL :D Anybody's who has thought that of any university and met with that fate is hereby instantly promoted to the highly coveted rank of "Co-suffering Comrade" :P

(Harsh's epic jab to this: "I see you've been flying Virgin America too" :D )

"Anything else you worship will eat you alive"

Just one of those days when I remember something in the shower, and feel compelled to write about it.

Exhibit A:

The Mukunda Mala is a fantastic poem in praise of Lord Krishna. The author, Kulashekhara Azhwar, is one of the 12 canonical Azhwars. The poem is notable not just for the evident devotional meaning, but also for little 'easter eggs' of grammar, meter and figure of speech in every nook and corner. Here's one of my favourite verses from there:

नाथे न: पुरुषोत्तमे त्रिजगताम् एकाधिपे चेतसा
सेव्ये स्वस्य-पदस्य दातरि परे नारायणे तिष्ठति |
यम् कन्चिद् पुरुषाधमम् कतिपय-ग्रामेशम् अल्पार्थदम्
सेवायै मृगयामहे नरम् अहो! मूढा वराका वयम्! ||

naathe na: puruShottame trijagataam ekaadhipe chetasaa
sevye svasya-padasya-daatari pare naaraayaNe tiShThati |
yam kanchid puruShaadhamam katipaya-graamesham alpaarthadam
sevaayai mRRigayaamahe naram aho! muuDhaa varaakaa vayam! ||

(This is from Shreevatsa's excellent Sanskrit transliterator page. The really nice part is how all the standard schemes are right in one place, and updated in realtime. Very easy to fix errors and type quickly)

The broad meaning, deliberately translated to be very general, literal and simplistic, is:

"Our refuge, the best of those filled with life, the overseer of everything, he who is very easily accessible by the heart, the granter of great bliss, is sitting right in sight. And yet, we struggle hard to seek and serve some silly king, who at most can throw us some money - surely, we are fools!"

The tone is hard to translate, but I think it is a self-critical ruing, though not in pathetic sense. It almost becomes exhortative in the choice of words near the end ('to seek to serve' - sevaayai mrigayaamahe). The censoring is about choosing the 'right' thing to struggle for.

Exhibit B:

David Foster Wallace's absolutely fantastic commencement speech at Kenyon College, about leading a compassionate life:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

(The speech is really amazing, and worth every minute of your time.)

Exhibit C:

Russell's brilliant essay, 'On Youthful Cynicism', for other commonly glorified things that will also eat you alive. The parts about Progress, Beauty and Truth are particularly amazing. The introduction of the idea of 'comfort without power' being a cause for unhappiness made me look around in my head to make sure ol' Bertie wasn't peering into my head with a time-traveling legilimens spell.

Exhibit D:

[oˆ Mukund] In Africa they won’t feel lonesome tonight - Very nice article, contrasting the individualism of the West with the more communal environment of Africa. It is written with a positive bias towards Africa, but the points it raises are still valid.


A joke about God goes thus - 'Devaru iddana?' 'DevaraaNegu illa' ( 'Does God exist?' - 'I swear to God, No.').

I was reading the corporate history of the parody newspaper, The Onion, when I stumbled upon this chronology:
  • 1922: Onion Radio founded.
  • 2009: The Onion and all corporate holdings sold to a Chinese conglomerate, Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corporation.
  • 2009: The Chinese conglomerate, Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corporation, having felt misled in its acquisition of The Onion, has placed The Onion up for sale less than one week after purchasing the paper.
Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corporation, ROFLMAO!! I don't remember laughing so much at a wiki article since the Uncyclopedia article on the Top 100 Worst Movies of all time!

It turns out they've made it extremely elaborate. The website for the corporation is absolutely hilarious, and has fantastic attention to detail. Everything, right from the y-axis having the dependent variable to the random stock pictures and the absolutely fantastic Chinese-English quotes ("This is why SATISFACTION is synonymous with YU WAN MEI.", "ROBUSTNESS IS UNAVOIDABLE with the consumption of YU WAN MEI products."), random quotes from the CEO ("Fish Time Is Success Time") and random others (“To Extract The Entrails, One Must First Extract His Ego”, “Capital Proliferation Cannot Be Stopped”, "Eternal Solutions for Yesterday and Tomorrow", "Internationalized Style of Management"). They even have a super fantastic promo video!

There is even a product line up, and the best of it's products is the Yu Wan Mei Device:

The description reads "The device has been completed and is now available for sale. Code 41-Virtue-00B"

Coming back to the Onion, there is even the CEO's statement on the disastrous acquisition, "Why Did No One Inform Us Of The Imminent Death Of The American Newspaper Industry?". I LOVE the laboured English drenched in metaphor. It reminds me of this fantastic short story by Anil Menon, "Love in a Hot Climate" (small PDF), which has English 'more Indian' than Indian English. In one of those now-ungooglable articles, I read about how caricatures strike a chord because they are more real than the object they represent. The caricature of a politician with a big nose has such a big nose that it tickles our subconscious identity of him. People skilled at making caricatures have a knack for identifying what it is about a person's face that makes us identify him.



You want a story? Here's a story. A formula for the roots of a quadratic equation is simple enough to be taught to sixth-graders. But how about one for a cubic equation? Just one more degree and you have a story full of intrigue, challenge, vagaries of fate, lots of money, misunderstandings, medieval curiosities and finally sweet revenge by a disciple.

(All quotes below are sourced originally from wiki article on Cubic polynomials; I just followed the links to the later parts.)

In the early 16th century, the Italian mathematician Scipione del Ferro found a method for solving a class of cubic equations, namely those of the form x3 + mx = n. In fact, all cubic equations can be reduced to this form if we allow m and n to be negative, but negative numbers were not known to him at that time. Del Ferro kept his achievement secret until just before his death in 1526, when he told his student Antonio Fiore about it.

Whoa! Negative numbers not known, formulae kept secret for life, a final change of mind on the deathbed, a lucky student,...

In 1530, another mathematician Niccolò Tartaglia announced that he could solve cubic equations. He was soon challenged by Fiore, which led to a famous contest between the two. Each contestant had to put up a certain amount of money and to propose a number of problems for his rival to solve. Whoever solved more problems within 30 days would get all the money. Tartaglia received questions in the form x3 + mx = n, for which he had worked out a general method. Fiore received questions in the form x3 + mx2 = n, which proved to be too difficult for him to solve, and Tartaglia won the contest.

Aww.. poor overconfident young Fiore, who lost so badly that his name is now almost ungooglable, and the fiendishly lucky Tartaglia. Grr, do we want revenge, or what!

Later, Tartaglia was persuaded by another mathematican, Gerolamo Cardano to reveal his secret for solving cubic equations. In 1539, Tartaglia did so only on the condition that Cardano would never reveal it and that if he did reveal a book about cubics, that he would give Tartaglia time to publish. Some years later, Cardano learned about Ferro's prior work and published Ferro's method in his book Ars Magna in 1545, meaning Cardano gave Tartaglia 6 years to publish his results (with credit given to Tartaglia for an independent solution).

Cardano's promise with Tartaglia stated that he not publish Tartaglia's work, and Cardano felt he was publishing del Ferro's, so as to get around the promise. Nevertheless, this led to a challenge to Cardano by Tartaglia, which Cardano denied. The challenge was eventually accepted by Cardano's student Lodovico Ferrari. Ferrari did better than Tartaglia in the competition, and Tartaglia lost both his prestige and income.

Take that, vile Tartaglia, you beater of poor students in public contests and usurper of their meagre RA stipends, you! Revenge is a dish best served cold, particularly by a disciple! (And apropos of Revenge: "Today, I was thinking about the expression 'revenge is a dish best served cold'. Then I considered that 'revenge is sweet'. I've come to the conclusion that revenge is ice cream. MLIA")

The story ends there. But as all good stories, there are layers upon layers of history and depth to everything, and they lead to more stories of their own. For example, why was the origin of the story, Del Ferro, so secretive?

Instead of publishing his ideas, he would only show them to a small, select group of friends and students. It is suspected that this is due to the practice of mathematicians at the time of publicly challenging one another. When a mathematician accepted another's challenge, each mathematician needed to solve the other's problems. The loser in a challenge often lost funding or his university position. Del Ferro was fearful of being challenged and likely kept his greatest work secret so that he could use it to defend himself in the event of a challenge.

Ha! And to think today's profs whine about losing tenure and not getting an NSF Career award :P

But as every good story-within-a-story, there's a lovely big red button begging to be pushed to take you deeper:

Despite this secrecy, he had a notebook where he recorded all his important discoveries..

Ahhhhhh, now that's a few more hours of wikiing :-)

OK, enough about this old guy. Let's look at another guy with character. What about this Cardano chap? He had to do quite a bit of self-justification and 'miserable pettifogging in the court of his own conscience' when he went ahead and published Tartaglia's work in spite of his promise. What of him?

He was born in Pavia, Lombardy, the illegitimate child of Fazio Cardano, a mathematically gifted lawyer. In his autobiography, Cardano claimed that his mother had attempted to abort him.

Assuming Cardano's psychological problems weren't the cause of this, imagine how it is to live knowing that.

He went on to do a whole lot of work, like being the first to describe Typhoid fever, publishing many results in algebra and probability, building several mechanical devices like the combination lock and universal joint, being instrumental (heh) in the development of high-speed printing presses through his work on hypocycloids (Mukund note), etc. Top notch all-rounder, fits the image of a Enlightened European Engineer+Scientist perfectly.

Significantly, in the history of Deaf education, he said that deaf people were capable of using their minds, argued for the importance of teaching them, and was one of the first to state that deaf people could learn to read and write without learning how to speak first.

And yet, in the same Enlightened Europe, a thought like that was so unconventional that it had to be noted down. But tragedy looms:

Cardano's eldest and favorite son was executed in 1560 after he confessed to having poisoned his cuckolding wife. His other son was a gambler, who stole money from him. He allegedly cropped the ears of one of his sons. Cardano himself was accused of heresy in 1570 because he had computed and published the horoscope of Jesus in 1554. Apparently, his own son contributed to the prosecution, bribed by Tartaglia. He was arrested, had to spend several months in prison and was forced to abjure his professorship.

:-( Grr, that vile bastard Tartaglia. Richly deserved his fate of penury, didn't he? What of him, anyway?

Niccolò Fontana was the son of Michele Fontana, a rider and deliverer. In 1505, Michele was murdered and Niccolò, his two siblings, and his mother were impoverished. Niccolò experienced further tragedy in 1512 when the French invaded Brescia during the War of the League of Cambrai. The militia of Brescia defended their city for seven days. When the French finally broke through, they took their revenge by massacring the inhabitants of Brescia. By the end of battle, over 45,000 residents were killed. During the massacre, a French soldier sliced Niccolò's jaw and palate. This made it impossible for Niccolò to speak normally, prompting the nickname "Tartaglia" (stammerer).

Ouch, he doesn't seem much like a villain anymore :( Reminds me of an article a long time ago about how in most of Indian mythology, there is no villain or bad guy or Evil. Good people just assumed the role of the villain temporarily, just to let God have a little bit of leela. In the end, it's one big happy family.

Thinking a bit, what I find most amazing about this whole story and array of characters is that like life itself, it's all spectacularly pointless. What was all the fight for? A closed form solution for cubics? Why? Today, if you give me a cubic equation, the first thing I'll think of doing is to graph it with Wolfram Alpha. Um no, actually the first thing I'll do is to try to convince you that we're both better off by not solving that equation and chilling out instead,

but I'm assuming you didn't fall for that. Graph it, read off the roots and be happy in life. One might object that I am able to do so because of the efforts of all these people, but that is beside the point, that the exact thing these people were fighting for is no longer useful; further, one can always counter that every single fart of every single ant since the beginning of creation has been necessary for me to able to be sitting here and being able to graph cubics. Causality is a very tricky devil.

And that gives me an opportunity to quote one of my most favorite lines:

Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.


Osmosis Jones

I was speaking to Vimal about the subjects of my past two posts (Path of Love, More worms), and was reminded of one of the most wonderful animation movies I have seen, Osmosis Jones. I'm surprised how few times it comes up in conversation -  I never even remember talking about it in the past 3-4 years!

Ever since I was a kid, I remember constructing elaborate fantasies about how my own body works. I always imagined me to be some kind of a planet, and there are lots of 'little people' going around doing their job. Brain cells, "immune cells", liver cells - all of them were characters in this big world called me. Sometimes they used to break out of character and talked about their lives! I still do that, but it's mostly when I'm sick and I imagine epic battles taking place.

Osmosis Jones is ALL that, and much much more! It's the story of a white blood cell, Osmosis Jones, a 'cop' in the City of Frank Police Department (FPD) in the City of Frank. Frank is a zoo keeper who couldn't care less about his health. Life's as usual in Frank, till a mysterious and very dangerous intruder gets in - and it's up to Frank and his new friend Drixenol the cold pill to stop him! Jones' great-great-grandfather was a celebrated hero who fought the measles in his day, and there's been a Jones on the force ever since his ancestors came over on the umbilical cord. He's  determined to save Frank in spite of opposition from the Mayor of Frank, who is Frank's complacency personified. Fantastic stuff!

Everything about the movie is fantastic - the plot, the voices, the music, the jokes, everything! And it has its  tearjerker moments, too! Fantastic stuff, every minute of the 1.5 hours is gold. There are tons of copies floating around, here's one.

Thinking a little further, the amazing part about the movie is really the attention to detail. I think this movie beats even Futurama in that department. Everything is amazingly well thought-out and consistent. The brilliant bits are very subtle, and you'll most likely miss them in the first viewing. But even if you don't observe any of them, the movie will still be a nice, fun experience. When you do observe something in the middle of the movie, you go "Fuck, that's brilliant!" and you go back, and you see that it's been there all along. For example, in the Mayor's office is a statue of a sperm cell, and the plaque below it reads "Our Founder" :-)

In another instance, Jones and Drix encounter a virus and Drix is about to shoot it, but Jones stops him, saying "Hold it, this one's on our side. He came in on a vaccine and ratted on the Flu, and is now on our Virus Protection Program".

In a seedy bar near the Liver-more area, a sign reads "No cilia, no cytoplasm - no service!", obviously displaying the area's stark racism against non-Frank cells.

There's a rock band playing in a bar, and it's called 'Kidney Rock' (and part of the full song). Also, earlier in the film one immune cell tells to another sitting in a cop car, "Y'know, this weekend I'm taking my girl down under to the kidneys to see the stones!". The other cop says, "Good, they might be gone soon!"

In one of the scenes, the Mayor is asked by a journalist, "What is your opinion on the latest fat housing crisis?". He replies in a typical politician's drone, "We're beginning construction of a third chin". The Mayor then announces a trip to a chicken wings festival, and there is great cheer through out. The loudest cheer comes from the locality of "Love Handle", which has a sign next to it, "Frank's fastest growing community!" like a housing advertising sign!

The awesomeness only increases as the movie progresses. After a turn of events where the Mayor calls Drix a 'TEMPORARY relief cold pill', Drix gets disillusioned and books his tickets to the Bladder. He's almost got there, and is boarding the ship scheduled for 9:47 Pee 'Em  when Osmosis comes to the dock and tells him the villain's still out there, there's more work for them to do and tries to cheers him up. Drix is still depressed, and says "I can't do anything, I'm just a cold pill. I'm useless.". To which Osmosis replies, "Come on Frank, you can do it! I've known sugar pills that cured cancer, just because they believed!" BRILLIANT! Just BRILLIANT!

After a very heroic and close rescue, Osmosis' girlfriend (of course he has one) sighs with relief, "Thank Frank!"

Fantastic movie. Go see!

IMDB collection of quotes from the movie.

The real world is no less amazing:

White blood cell engulfing a bacterium. Just look at the chase! Go Osmosis!

Look at how at 0:03 our Hero thrusts abruptly - "And take THAT.. dang the little bastard is fast". Near 0:07, there's a second bacterium - "Hey, what's this, ANOTHER one? Damn. Should I...? Uh let me just extend a bit over, I can get him... naah, I gotta nail the first one". And at near 0:15, "Aha! Got you now, you sonofa.. DANG can't any o' these RBCs stay STILL? Now you really got me mad!!". This should be set to music, and there should be a commentary!


It never really rubs in, but when I do stop and think for a minute, I'm always amazed at the human body.  I'm this walking-talking-thinking universe of 10000 billion cells, all of them alive! Reminds me of this Groucho Marx quote: "Life, n.: A whim of several billion cells to be you for a while."

It's a sobering thought, knowing that so much is happening within each one of us. A billion movies could be made about how T-cell #14,567,933 just pwned that bacterium in your gut, only to discover that his co-pwner just got digested, and how an injudicious choice of pizza topping by the big guy above caused a genocide of 60 million stomach lining cells wiping out friends and family, but ONE guy survived it all, and... :-)

The single best pep-quote I have read ever is this (paraphrased, don't know source): If ever you're feeling down, if ever you think you're not good enough, just remember the first goddamn thing you did in life was to win a race against 300 million motherfuckers!



Update: I'm reminded of a very nice article Karthik wrote at >> : "Why are you producing so few red blood cells today?"

More worms

Some stuff I thought were related to my previous post: The second most amazing disease I've encountered so far is the Plague. The mechanism of transmission, and the circumstances that lead to finding it are also amazing. From the wiki page:

It is mainly a disease in the fleas that infested the rats, making the rats themselves the first victims of the plague. Infection in a human occurs when a person is bitten by a flea that has been infected by biting a rodent that itself has been infected by the bite of a flea carrying the disease. The bacteria multiply inside the flea, sticking together to form a plug that blocks its stomach and causes it to starve. The flea then bites a host and continues to feed, even though it cannot quell its hunger, and consequently the flea vomits blood tainted with the bacteria back into the bite wound. The bubonic plague bacterium then infects a new victim, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.

As an aside, one of the classic 'punishment births' in Indian mythology is a preta, a state defined by voracious, unsatisfiable hunger.

Easily the most mind-numbing disease I've read about is Syphilis. [You can wiki it, but the page contains graphic images of diseased penises. I suggest you disable images and then load it if you are not sure]. Here's a paraphrased, simplified and dramatized version of the diseases's effects: The victim gets the bacteria via sexual contact. In a few days, a few small, painless boils appear near the point of contact and elsewhere. In most cases, they are hard to even find. They go away without any incident in a few weeks.  Nothing happens for the next few months. Then, lesions appear throughout the body and go away without incident again in a few weeks. In most of cases, people don't even bother to visit doctors because the symptoms are not debilitating in any way. Even if they do go to a doctor, it is very hard to diagnose because the symptoms are extremely commonplace and similar to tens of other simpler diseases. It's for this reason that Syphilis is called 'the great imitator'.

Next, the disease waits for as much as 30 years before manifesting itself seriously! This stage is precipitous, and many large organ systems fail at the same time, including drastic changes in the victim's personality itself. Imagine that! 30 years!

Another reason why Syphilis is amazing is the history of cures people have attempted for it. One of them was mercury fumigation, and here is another one of those all-time-epic articles about mercury: The magical properties of Mercury.

The Path of Love is never smooth

Easily the single most amazing thing I have read about animals in my entire life: Reddit page on the Emerald cockroach wasp.

Make SURE to read the comments too - they are the reason why reddit is amazing.

And you thought your sex life was bad :-)

Update (23 Dec): Here's a somewhat 'corresponding' version about plants: "Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too"

The title is from the classic song, Finite Simple Group of Order 2


Full Metal Jacket

I have the distinction of not having a clue about what most people consider to be the cornerstones of the edifice of Good Stuff. Shortage very succinctly lamented when I was raving on about Scarborough Fair a few weeks ago, "What a late discoverer of delights you are!". However, if we are to see the putative half-full part of the glass, this ignorance seems to allow me to discover good stuff at a time when I am more able to appreciate it. I was wallowing in this self-same ignorance when I was browsing youtube for videos of Winston Wolf (from Pulp Fiction; Lord have mercy, I do know about that) for probably the 20th time now, and I saw this video:

Full Metal Jacket - Motivational Speech

By God, and great homecoming fuck fantasies with erect nipple wet-dreams of Mary Jane Rottencrotch! What a scene! I threw all warnings of piracy control policies to the wind and went ahead and watched the movie.

Full Metal Jacket is actually two movies in one, much like Wall-E is. The first part describes military training at camp and the second one is about actual warfare. I couldn't appreciate the second one too much, and I probably need to re-watch it a few times to understand nuances better. But the first one - ah, that's what this post is about.

One thing that stood out, in my view, was that the first part was actually just a series of rather disjoint clips, with no smooth transition. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps and make the story, and if this technique is done well, the movie gives a better experience than any possible transition scenes. Sort of like this old joke about bikinis [1] :

Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

The viewer's imagination fills it up most satisfactorily. This has a double-advantage, in that the director can also focus on getting each chunk perfectly right, and not worry about how it fits in with the rest of the movie. One of the most important ingredients of this technique however, is that the scenes must be distinct enough for the viewer to detect a clear difference, but not so distinct that the jump is too big to fill. If the scenes are too close, the imagination-filling part doesn't kick in too well and you get a jagged experience. There's definitely some kind of uncanny valley here. Tarantino is one of the people who have got the pre-valley peak bang on. I can't think of one right now, but there are tons of examples of a director trying too hard with transition scenes to keep the narration self-contained, and thereby ruining the feel.

Back to the movie. Without doubt, Sergeant Hartman is the absolute star. I can't stop raving about the guy. Take ANY scene he is in. There's an almost magical power to his screen presence and the power, the raw power that he exudes on screen is palpable. I have had a few teachers who wielded a similar kind of power. I detested them and dislike them even now, but if you were to sneak up behind me and do an imitation of one of them and ask me jiggle my balls with my left pinky, I will unquestioningly jiggle my balls before thinking. This kind of power over people is different from the abstract notion of power that is popular today. Having armies march in front of you doesn't quite cut it - it's more a one-to-one thing. Here's another favorite scene of mine where this power is demonstrated:

Pulp Fiction - Breakfast scene. Just observe the way Jules asks Brett to sit down at 4:06. The way his hand keeps moving, slowly, till 4:09. That's what I'm talking about.

The terror is tetrated later on, when Jules fears Marsellus Wallace so much. If Jules himself is so scary, and he is scared of Marsellus Wallace, how powerful must Marsellus Wallace be! Surely far more powerful than anything that can depicted on a movie screen!

This kind of transitive super-empowering is also done to perfection in The Usual Suspects. This description of Keyser Soze by Verbal Kint chills anyone's blood better than hours of gore:

Verbal's description begins at 1:50. Start there, turn off your monitor and just listen.

The other character in The Usual Suspects that I found as chilling as Keyser Soze was Mr. Kobayashi. In this link, please see the part between 1:04:50 and 1:10:07 - Megavideo link. (Ms. Finneran is Keaton's girlfriend)

Don't be lazy to navigate there. This is not a commonly remembered scene, and is one of the only good scenes from the movie not to be found on Youtube or anywhere on Google Video. The Megavideo link may go down anytime, so do use SideReel and find it if it's gone. In case everything fails, as the very last resort, here is the transcript of the most chilling part:

Get your rest, Gentlemen. The boat will be ready for you on Friday. If I see you or any of your friends before then, Miss. Finneran will find herself the victim of a most gruesome violation before she dies. As will your father, Mr. Hockney. and your Uncle Randall in Arizona, Mr. Kint. I might only castrate Mr. McManus's nephew, David. Do I make myself clear?

This transcript is nothing, I repeat, nothing, without Mr. Kobayashi's mild, educated - no, learned, calm accent. The austere serenity with which this threat is delivered - that seals the deal.

Another recent demonstration of such cold power is that by the fantastic Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. His every moment in the movie is brilliant - the first Jew-rat scene, the Cinderella scene - I can't count! He amazing cold power will keep you riveted whenever he's on.

Inglourious Basterds, the Jew-Rat analogy

His accent that is ever present but makes a distinct appearance at places - like 'never occur' in the clip above, and the derisive, sneering way he mentions 'dignity' - has this effect of marking him as an outsider, not one of us.  And he's an outsider with power, loads of it. Earlier in this scene, when he switches over to English, I went 'fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck' till the last bullet was fired. The dialog between him and Ms. Hammersmack which leads to the Cinderella sequence was another one of those gut-chilling moments of fear and tension.

(There are many other scenes in the movie I want to talk about, including ones not involving him. The Bear Jew scene where the German does not flinch, does not blink and looks straight into his killer's eyes; the finger counting scene; many more. I also want to rant about how much I hated the ending, and how much I hated Brad Pitt's character for winning everything with no effort on- or off-screen whatsoever. I also want to present my theory of optimally-constrained movie moments, but all that for another sunny day. Today is all about cold power.)

It is important to note that in ALL of these examples, none of the parties wielding supreme power have ever any weapon at all. If they have indeed held one, it is at best as powerful as what everyone in the scene is holding. No, it's subtler, more personal than that. Further, none of these people are really at the top of any scheme they are in. Hartman is just a measly drill instructor, not a General with supreme command. Jules is just a contract killer, like a thousand others, who quivers before Marsellus Wallace, and who wets his pants when he contemplates the prospect of a nurse coming home to see a dead body. Kobayashi is a simple lawyer, just an order-carrier for an unseen Kaiser Soze. Even Hans Landa is just a lowly Colonel. It is almost as if their low position clears any illusions of power vested by a hierarchy, and thus allows them to focus on personal power, over individuals. If Landa had been a General, he might have just got a platoon of soldiers to do a job. The power vested in him would have been textbook-like, and his exertion of that power is also textbook-like. If the General of an army gets people to listen to him with rapt attention and hang on to every word, there's nothing special about that. They're listening to him because he's the General. But when a lowly Colonel philosophizes over how rats are different from squirrels, and yet everyone listens to him at the edge of their seats, there you see the kind of power that we are celebrating.

As an aside, I'm quickly becoming a great fan of the techniques of British colonial administration. They were used against us, yes, but that fact should not come in the way of measuring their effectiveness, nor cloud our memory of them being used to root out some of our society's very worst diseases like Sati. Part of this appreciation is because of the brilliant way Dilip taught us Indian history. For example, let me quote Charles James Napier (of the 'Peccavi' fame) from Wikipedia:

The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed

This technique is recommended everywhere from wild animal domestication to keeping two-year olds under control. The entire system of ragging (or hazing) is based on just this. It operates at a kind of pre-intellectual level, and by god is it effective! Any intellectual response is necessarily weak, mild, balanced and quasi-static compared to the power of an instinctive response. Imagine how it would have been for someone to discover that millions of men could be controlled like dogs, just by harnessing this power over a few people!

As an aside to the aside, incidentally, wiki claims that Napier's brutality was because he believed 'So perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another'. Compare this with Gandhi's plea of a hundred years later (paraphrased):  "Please leave our country. For better or worse, we prefer to govern ourselves. We will graciously welcome you as our guests, but not as our rulers"

Alright, I've pushed you two far down, let's pop back to the movie level. Sergeant Hartman's raw power, yes. The casting for his part is an engaging story in itself. Here it is from the wiki article about the movie:

Former U.S. Marine Drill Instructor R. Lee Ermey was originally hired as a technical adviser and asked Kubrick if he could audition for the role of Hartman. However Kubrick, having seen his portrayal as Drill Instructor Sgt Loyce in The Boys in Company C, told him that he wasn't vicious enough to play the character. In response, Ermey made a videotape of himself improvising insulting dialogue towards a group of Royal Marines while being pelted by people off-camera with oranges and tennis balls. Ermey, in spite of the distractions, rattled off an unbroken string of insults for 15 minutes, and he did not flinch, duck, or repeat himself while the projectiles rained on him. Upon viewing it, Kubrick gave him the role, realizing that Ermey "was a genius for this part". Ermey's experience as a real-life DI during the Vietnam era proved invaluable, and the realism was such that in one instance, Ermey barked an order off-camera to Kubrick to stand up when he was spoken to, and Kubrick instinctively obeyed, standing at attention before realizing what had happened. Kubrick estimated that Ermey came up with 150 pages of insults, many of them improvised on the spot — a rarity for a Kubrick film. According to Kubrick's estimate, the former drill instructor wrote 50% of his own dialogue, especially the insults. Ermey usually needed only two to three takes per scene, another rarity for a Kubrick film.

The 150 pages of improvised insults - each syllable is gold! "Your days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her purtty pink panties are over!", "Do you feel dizzy? Do you feel faint? Jesus Saint Christ! I think you've got a hard-on!", "Bullshit. It looks to me like the best part of you ran down the crack of your momma's ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress! I think you been cheated!", "Are you a peter puffer? I'll bet you're the kinda guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I'll be watching you". I could go on and on list all of his dialog!

The brilliant part is these are constructed recursively from equally brilliant components. Consider the last quote. 'Peter Puffer' is a guy who sucks ('puffs') cock ('Peter'). What a name, and what consistent imagery in the rest of the quote! It is a kind of incandescent brilliance that is quite apart from the more intellectual kind of brilliance. I must read up further on it, but there's a kind of fundamental difference between the more literary and educated kind of intelligence and this unaffected intelligence. Urban Dictionary is full of the latter kind!

The marching songs are also quite the earworms. I just can't stop myself from humming 'Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch! Got the blueballs, crabs and the seven-year-itch!". And M.I.C; K.E.Y; M.O.U.S.E!  That's another thing extremely rare today. When was the last time you ever sang in a large group and felt the song? Can you even imagine a time you'll do it in the future? I can't!

The first part ends rather quickly, in about 45 minutes or so. It ends perfectly, in my opinion. There's a kind of delicious justice in Sergeant Hartman getting killed. I wanted him killed, I wanted him fucked after what he did to Lawrence. There was an unspoken, unthought, instinctive craving that was satisfied perfectly there.

It's a similar justice that happens when the mighty Marcellus Wallace, the most powerful goon in LA, he who has people thrown out of windows for giving foot massages to his wife and has suave henchmen debating the ontology of the act, he who has the power to demand "If Butch goes to Indochina, I want a nigger waiting in a bowl of rice ready to pop a cap in his ass.", he who has the audacity to fix a boxing match while philosophizing, "You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't. "- when THE Marsellus Wallace, who even my spellchecker fears and suggests 'Merciless Wallace', gets raped in the ass by a security guard, and with a billiards ball tied to his mouth to boot. There's a primal justice served in that scene. It is so well served, that you instantly feel sorry for the big old guy. Your heart melts, and now the villain's actually Zed the security guard. Talk about inversions! So you feel that primal sense of justice and satisfaction AGAIN when Butch picks up the Katana, and when Marsellus shoots Zed in the crotch. Primal justice has very short memory, and never have I seen that property exploited so amazingly to such perfection, EVER.

Right, this was to be about Full Metal Jacket, pardon me. The whole part did have a few imperfections. For example, the most pernicious one: in the last scene before Lawrence shoots Hartman, Hartman's lines chiding him are weak to say the least. "Major Malfunction"? The only explanation I have for such abysmally weak lines compared to the rest of movie was that Hartman had just woken up. But that doesn't quite cut it.

The scene where Hartman is impressed by Lawrence's shooting skills - that was unnecessary. It seemed to be an attempt to lend some kind of fairness to Hartman's character, but it didn't work for me. They might as well have removed it, made Lawrence still love his rifle because he had no friends, and made Hartman a 100% bad guy for him. That would have made the climax even stronger.

And the blanket party, where the entire platoon ambushes Lawrence. The motivation leading to that was very weak. That's the failure of the very tact that makes the movie sharp at other places, the tact of leaving of transition scenes. I never felt that the platoon as a whole was pained with Lawrence, it was just an inference. A scene or two  with grumbling recruits would have served that well.

But these are minor details.  Power - yeah :-)


[1] Yes, I know I need to go out more often when I think that was a joke about bikinis and not statistics.


Kapiratna Kolidasa

Just marking my territory, I can now ask my fans to google 'Kapiratna Kolidasa' to come to my blog :P I can't believe there wasn't one page on the internet that referred to this phrase!


It's too dangerous for someone who wants to live in Bangalore to tell the original context of the phrase, but here's a watered down samasya-purti: How would a Kannadiga mockingly call a Bengali poet who apes Kalidasa and has an insatiable craving for chicken? Kapiratna Kolidasa!


(Samasya-purtis are explained on page 49 of the document. The whole thing is a must-read, if you ask me!)


I was helping a friend out with mock MBA interviews, and read this somewhere when doing my research:
I'm Asian-American woman, and the school actually got an interviewer who was the same ethnicity and gender as I was, which was a little surprising. It was very comforting, and I really appreciated the effort on the school's part to ease my stress.

I was petrified when I read this. I would any day opt for a non-desi interviewer without batting an eyelid. It has nothing to do with liking or not liking people - it's the judgment that gets me all queasy. Intellectually, it's all about the job/application, and there's really no difference who conducts the interview. Instinctively though, there's tremendous discomfort, suspicion, sizing up, one-up-manship and double guessing. I should be the last person to complain about this, because all the interviewers I have ever faced have been exceptionally warm, friendly and willing to listen. But come now, it's no fun being not hypocritical :P


Perhaps it has to do with an abundance of Indian Crab stories we're inundated with. A representative , possibly apocryphal and correlation-causation-confused example: Circa 2003, X was a highly rated university for Computer Science in the US, though not in the top 4. Like nearly every university, it had senior grad students (3rd+ year) actively involved in their admission process, especially in gauging the achievements of the applicants given that there were so many country-specific factors like entrance exams, merit scholarships, etc. Y was a highly rated university in India, and many people from Y routinely got into universities ranked higher than X. For some reason though, during a 2 year period every single applicant from Y was bumped. This happened to coincide with the time a certain student from Y who had joined X happened to be on the admissions committee. No other university showed this trend, and there was no development in the CS department in X (known from other people from Y in X) that could explain this. It was later learnt that no application from Y managed to get into the final tabling by the profs.


There's a very common held belief among most desis that Statements of Purpose are 'full of cock' and that all resumes are lies. Which may be true many times, but that is not a comforting observation when you consider that your interviewer or the person reading your application has that  self-same impression in mind. Your 'unquenchable thirst for knowledge' and 'firm belief that my work should have an impact' - even if they are absolutely true statements you came up with yourself - don't seem as sincere when you know the guy you're pitching to  knows that the very same words have been recycled a million times. It is almost as if knowing that a dishonest SoP can exist invalidates all honest SoPs. It is not as if desis carry a special overcriticality gene - it happens even if they are perfectly fair in isolation, but just know that such dishonesty can exist. The common knowledge causes the situation to degenerate into a suboptimal Nash equilibrium.


Even apart from that, suffering-inflation ensures that even if you have a truly wonderful story of having overcome suffering and difficulty in your life - like having virtually no meaningful academic education from your school - it is so commonplace in India that they seem much less of a challenge to a desi interviewer. It is not fair to say "Look, every desi has been through that, there's nothing special about you". If you're looking for initiave, every desi is more likely to be better then, and that is no reason to be setting the bar artificially high!    


In general, wherever multiple groups of people are to be found, there is a tension between two poles. The first one is an instinct to help someone of your own kind. The second is a sadistic self-group-hate, the classic Indian Crab. If it's not full-blown hate, it is at least a pervasive discomfort or negative opinion. It's present among all races, and people have made a lot of money just observing that. But this takes on a fractal, chaotic dimension when you include things like language, religion, caste, or any of the million other turtles that go all the way down. An instinctive fear - and this may be due purely to pessimism - is that important encounters like an MBA interview may be closer to the crab end of the continuum.

F=ma [Made in China]

We have a confession to make, gentle reader. We're guilty of hubris. We used to think we were no lightweights at this business of re$earch trickery. Why, on a bright day we might even have ventured to put on our Sherlock Holmes hat, and just like Master Detective does with mud-stains in a 50 mile radius of London, we might have dared to claim we can instantly identify which murky alleys of fraud a published result has passed through. But the Grand Reviewer up there probably didn't like our active voice, and sent this whopper that has made our assessment even dimensionally incorrect. The impact of the realization is so large that we are even contemplating sanyasa from the exciting, high-stress life of research and settling down in the serene, peaceful life of a pit trader or an investment banking MnA analyst instead. But perhaps we should begin at the beginning.

A labmate casually remarked today that a very well known professor in a well known university has all his grad students in the US, and all his postdocs in Singapore.

Also, the lab was getting its experiments on mouse cells done in China.

BY GOD, and the entire editorial panel of Nature crossbred with the Economist's! It struck me like the loud report of the starter pistol did to Yeddy when his political race went Ready-Steady-Reddy: Outsourcing research! That must be the most ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC IDEA EVER! How could we be so blind to it for so long? For shame, for shame! Just take a look at the advantages, which I outsourced straight from an article on the benefits of outsourcing:

Advantage #1: Outsourcing can save you money.

Hell yeah! Customer satisfaction is always our #1 priority. The huge number of  research studies which end up with unremarkable conclusions is a tremendous waste of grant money. If for 1/10th the price the people over at Wipe-pro can provide value-added solutions to the Poincare conjecture, with relentless effort towards quality and project delivery excellence (PDE), leveraging their time-tested experience (TTE) of project management, industry best practices (IBP) and internally developed project management software (PMS), who are we to meddle with the free market? High quality results and 100% customer satisfaction guaranteed. All platforms, including NSF, NIH, DoE, ARC are fully supported. 150% moneyback policy if Tier-2 journal rejects work, Conditions Apply. Why needlessly spend money on costly grad students, supercomputers and lab facilities? All a grad student would do with his stipend would be live, eat and watch porn on the lab's projector or  Apple HD Cinema Display anyway.

Advantage #2: Outsourcing can help you share risk.

No shit Sherlock! Who wants to run a 3 month experiment only to find the correlation is only 0.4? Plus, universities have developed stiff-nosed Victorian standards of conducting research and it's impossible to be creative under such terrible constraints. Procedure, they harp, Procedure and Hypotheses and Validation and Double Checking and Consistency and Backtesting and yadayadayada. You don't want all that, you want a good life. Take a hint from the investment banker down the road with the Ferrari, and share your risk. Maybe if you imitate him well, you can hope for a Camry. You don't need to do Science the way old European fogeys did it. Peering at the skies for 30 years without a telescope to record observations accurate to 1/60th of a degree, and dying of a bladder burst, pooh! It's 2009 now. Risk is taboo. The seller will be eager to please, and you have the pleasure of perusing results with none of the pangs of Procedure.

Advantage #3: Outsourcing can help accommodate peak loads.

Of course! It was micro and stem cells a few years ago, it's bio, nano, energy and cleantech today, and it will be pervasive soc-nets and Cloud computation tomorrow. You never know when a funding source will chance by one day, so it's always best to be prepared with research power on the bench. GPU computations for resonant MEMS cantilevers? Our Korean team will handle it. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells for Clean energy for 2-stroke engines? Our brand-new benched team, which can't tell apart electron emissions from nocturnal emissions, is right on it, and wants to know what in colour you want the prototype painted. Long-term environmental impact of sulphur effluents on river systems? No problem, our India team has specialized on-ground expertise, and can deliver historical data, analysis and predictions all in a low-cost, 5 papers guaranteed package. Hurry, order before Thanksgiving and get a conference-friendly Java GUI FREE!

Advantage #4: Outsourcing can help develop your internal staff.

Very deep. First, you won't have wasteful grad students asking poking questions loitering around. Neither will you have pesky postdocs. Only you, tenure and a growing stack of publications. Bliss. You can finally take that long-deserved vacation without the headache of that algorithm not converging, or that shady simulation not coinciding with experimental results. It's Someone Else's problem now.

So what are you waiting for? Just pick up the phone and call 1-800-MOAR-PAP3RZ now!


(Update, Jan 6) Hark, unbelievers! "Chinese academia ghost-writing 'widespread'"


If our humble efforts have succeeded in piquing the interest of the gentle, generous reader, might we beg that he humour a fleeting thought toward a modest venture embarked upon by the One Post Phenomenon and your humble author, Soopper Turbo Suttifiers GmBH? We offer superior quality German acronyms beside our name, and ensure such high standards of service that you shall always leave our premises with a light heart and a lighter purse.


Gratifyingly, the website which I outsourced the bullet points from, Sourcing Magazine, 'the world's leading online content provider for the Outsourcing community', has its homepage stuck in an endless redirection.


Stuff Internet-savvy People Like: Pranav Mistry

There's a limit to the amount of adulation I can tolerate for raw ideas. Sure, wearable computers are the future; sure, querying the Cloud is Tomorrow's way of just asking someone if that brand of garlic bread tastes good; sure, information that you are now forced to get from slow Facebook stalking can come right from a few discreet thumb-presses, and you can impress that girl with a amazingly coincidental set of interests. ZOMG! She just can't imagine there's someone else in the world who has  cats with the same names!

All that granted. But the collective shagging on "the genius behind the innovative SixthSense application", Pranav Mistry, is nauseating. It is just a concept, an idea, like a million other ideas! The video that Pattie Maes showed in the TED Talk is, in my opinion, a reasonably well made funding-agency demo. Nearly everyone I know in grad school who is working on hands-on research has made a video like that. You get a funky piece of technology that is extremely common among some circles, but is surprisingly rare in general. In this case, it's a matchbox-size projector and a gesture recognition system. 90% of the people who see one in action are hypnotized just by the fact that something is being projected out of that small box, but every lab has tens of them lying around. Next, hook it up to a nice GUI, in this case a simple Cocoa-based one. Choose a sequence of examples that are of interest to the target agency - in this case, shopping. Hard code an application to follow a certain procedure to demonstrate a concept - in this case, look up something on the web and project it. And voila, instant internet recognition!

The demo comfortably sits inside the continuum ranging from completely hardcoded demos (everything is scripted) to completely open demos (like if instead of showing a video, a member of the audience was asked to come up, wear it, and do something in realtime). It's much more closer to the hardcoded demos - sure, the realtime web downloading is real, the projection is real, the keypad identification is real, even the gesture identification is real (he claims that it took 50,000 lines of code to get gestures+the computer vision part working - that seems about right for code written from ground up, but no way in hell is this new or even innovative [*]). But the entire thing together is scripted! A few typical scenarios are chosen, and a sequence of events of using those technologies is orchestrated. Getting a few parts of the demo to work would certainly have been challenging, and it does take several weeks to even get a simple computer vision code working for a perfectly defined object if we just vary the lighting and the angles. But it is impossible for that to be considered a completely general product!

The slashdot summary, on a story that says he graciously decided to use open source after having "put paid to the canard that open source and innovation are incompatible" reads:
Mistry’s decision has meaning beyond Sixth Sense. The desire of inventors is always to get their work into the market as quickly as possible. Usually this means waiting for it to be turned into a useful, profitable invention. Mistry is bypassing this by going straight to open source. (Italics mine)

Honestly, I think people are far too consumed in imagining elaborate visions of future technology and heralding the next victory for open source to really look hard and notice that this is just a slick frickin' demo! 
I've seen far too many demos and done enough of them myself to believe this is a real, open demo. If indeed it is a completely open demo and anybody today is free to try out the product if they wanted to, then I'm completely wrong and Pranav Mistry has achieved something that I believe is impossible  (in a 2nd law sense) with the time and resources available as a grad student.


[*] - Here's a product review of a $130 projected keyboard.
And a product demo of gesture recognition with video, on a mobile phone.


Reactions to this post, mainly from critiquing myself and some from others, have included 'Cynic!', 'Overly spiteful critical old crone!' , 'Pessimist!', 'Indian crab!', 'Unbeliever!', 'What have you got against the poor guy?', 'You're just jealous!', 'You try doing something like that!', 'What have you achieved?', 'You're going against public opinion just to seem cool', 'Inverted watermelon!' (Red outside, Green inside (Anger, jealousy)),  and I quite amusedly actually agree. I don't know what's possessing me to get so irritated at this.

Sirigannadam Gelge!

Happy Rajyotsava, dear reader! Instead of the usual fare of putting up "Udayavaagali namma cheluva kannada naadu" as my status message, I decided to go a wee bit further and quote a full song. 'Enda Endti Kannada padgOL' ('Booze, Wife, Kannada songs') by the amazing, amazing, amazing G.P.Rajaratnam is, well, amazing, amazing, amazing! It's from his 'Ratnana Padagalu', a drunkard's view of the world. The humor and intelligence in the song comes mainly from the use of drunk-slang and vernacular, which might be hard to understand if the song is not heard. So I'll post the original song, and my 'translation' of the song into more standard Kannada. I can't even imagine translating this to English! As always, please help me out if I've made any mistakes.

(In case you are having some font issues, here's a small PDF of this blog)

ಎಂಡ ಎಂಡ್ತಿ ಕನ್ನಡ ಪದಗೋಳ್

ಎಂಡ ಎಂಡ್ತಿ ಕನ್ನಡ್ ಪದಗೋಳ್ ಅಂದ್ರೆ ರತ್ನಂಗ್ ಪ್ರಾಣ, 
ಬುಂಡೇನ್ ಎತ್ತಿ ಕುಡುದ್ ಬುಟ್ಟಾಂದ್ರೆ ತಕ್ಕೋ ಪದಗಳ್ ಬಾಣ.

ಬಗ್ವಂತೇಂದ್ರಾ ಬೂಮೀಗಿಳ್ದು ನಮ್ ತಾಗ್ ಬಂದಾಂತನ್ನು,  
ಪರ್-ಗಿರೀಕ್ಸೆ ಮಾಡ್ತಾನ್ ನಮ್ನಾ ಬಕ್ತನ್ ಮೇಲ್ ಅವನ್ ಕಣ್ಣು.  

ಎಂಡಾ ಕುಡಿಯಾದ್ ಬುಟ್ ಬುಡ್ ರತ್ನಾ ಅಂತ್ ಅವನ್ ಎನಾನಂದ್ರೆ, 
ಮೂಗ್ ಮೂರ್ ಚೂರಾಗ್ ಮುರ್ಸ್ಕೊಂತೀನಿ ದೇವರ್ ಮಾತ್-ಗಡ್ ಬಂದ್ರೆ.  

ಎಂಡಾ ಬುಟ್ಟೆ, ಎಂಡ್ತೀನ್ ಬುಟ್ ಬುಡ್ ಅಂತವ್ನೇನಾನಂದ್ರೆ, 
ಕಳದೊಯ್ತ್! ಅಂತಾ ಕುಣುದಾಡ್ತೀನಿ ದೊಡ್ಡದೊಂದ್ ಕಾಟದ ತೊಂದ್ರೆ!  

ಕನ್ನಡ್ ಪದಗಳ್ ಆಡಾದೆಲ್ಲ ನಿಲ್ಲಿಸ್ ಬುಡ್ ಬೇಕ್ ರತ್ನಾ  
ಅಂತವನಂದ್ರೆ ದೆವ್ರಾದ್ರೇನು ಮಾಡ್ತೀನೌನ್ಗೆ ಖತ್ನ!  

ಆಗ್ನೆ ಮಾಡೋ ಐಗೋಳೆಲ್ಲಾ ದೇವ್ರೇ ಆಗ್ಲಿ ಎಲ್ಲಾ, 
ಕನ್ನಡ್ ಸುದ್ದೀಗೇನ್ರಾ ಬಂದ್ರೆ ಮಾನಾ ಉಳ್ಸಾಕ್ಕಿಲ್ಲ!  

ನರಕಕ್ಕಿಳ್ಸಿ, ನಾಲ್ಗೆ ಸೀಳ್ಸಿ, ಬಾಯ್ ಒಲ್ಸಾಗಿದ್ರೂನೆ!  
ಮೂಗ್ನಲ್ ಕನ್ನಡ್ ಪದವಾಡ್ತೀನಿ ನನ್ನ ಮನಸ್ ನೀ ಕಾಣೆ!  

ಎಂಡಾ ಓಗ್ಲಿ, ಎಂಡ್ತಿ ಓಗ್ಲಿ, ಎಲ್ಲಾ ಕೊಚ್ಕೊಂಡ್ ಓಗ್ಲಿ,
ಪರ್ಪಂಚ್ ಇರೋತಂಕ ಮುಂದೆ ಕನ್ನಡ್ ಪದಗೋಳ್ ನುಗ್ಲಿ!

My 'translation' into 'normal' Kannada:

ಹೆಂಡ, ಹೆಂಡತಿ, ಕನ್ನಡ ಪದಗಳು (ಪದ = song) - ಅಂದರೆ ರತ್ನನಿಗೆ ಪ್ರಾಣ 
ಬುಂಡೆಯನ್ನು (kind of bottle or small pot) ಎತ್ತಿ ಕುಡಿದುಬಿಟ್ಟರೆ (ಸಾಕು), ತಗೋ ಪದಗಳ ಬಾಣ!  

ಭಗವಂತನೇನಾದರು ಭೂಮಿಗೆ ಇಳಿದು ನಮ್ಮ ಬಳಿ ಬಂದ, ಅಂತದುಕೋ. 
ನಮ್ಮನ್ನು ಪರೀಕ್ಷೆ - ಗಿರೀಕ್ಷೆ ಮಾಡುತ್ತಾನೆ ಅವನು, (ಏಕೆಂದರೆ ಅವನಿಗೆ) ಭಕ್ತನ ಮೇಲೆ ಅವನ ಕಣ್ಣು (=concern, ಇರುತ್ತೆ; widely held view that God will test (the faith of) his devotees). 

"ಹೆಂಡ ಕುಡಿಯುವುದನ್ನು ಬಿಟ್ಟು ಬಿಡಬೇಕು, ರತ್ನ" ಅಂತ ಅವನೇನಾದರು ಅಂದರೆ,  
(ಆಯಿತು, ನಿನ್ನ ಮಾತು ಕೇಳ್ತೀನಿ. ಇನ್ನು guarantee ಬೇಕು ಅಂದ್ರೆ here, I promise,) ದೇವರ ಮಾತಿಗೆ ಅಡ್ಡ ಬಂದ್ರೆ, ಮೂಗು ಮೂರು ಚೂರಾಗಿ ಮುರಿಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳುತ್ತೇನೆ ( ನನ್ನಾಗಿ ನಾನೇ ಶಿಕ್ಷೆ ಒಪ್ಪಿ ಕೊಳ್ತೀನಿ)  

"(ಆಯಿತು,) ಹೆಂಡ ಬಿಟ್ಟೆ, (ಈಗ) ಹೆಂಡತಿಯನ್ನು ಬಿಟ್ಟು ಬಿಡು" ಅಂತ ಅವನೇನಾದರು ಅಂದರೆ, "ದೊಡ್ಡದೊಂದು ತೊಂದರೆ ಕಳೆದುಹೋಯಿತು!!" ಅಂತ ಕುಣಿದು-ಆಡುತ್ತೀನಿ! (LOL :D)  

"(ಆಯಿತು, ಈಗ) ಕನ್ನಡದಲ್ಲಿ ಹಾಡುವುದನ್ನು ಬಿಟ್ಟು ಬಿಡಬೇಕು, ರತ್ನಾ"  
ಅಂತ ಅವನಂದರೆ [instant change of mood now] ದೇವರಾದರೇನು, ಅವನಿಗೆ ಮಾಡ್ತೀನಿ ಖತ್ನ! (ಖತ್ನ = circumcision! ROFLMAO :D also, religious poke at "cutting the dick" off ನಮ್ಮ ದೇವರು :D Brilliant!)  

ಆಜ್ಞೆ ಮಾಡುವ ಅಯ್ಯರುಗಳು ( ಅಯ್ಯ = ಯಜಮಾನ) ಆ ದೇವರೇ ಆಗಲಿ, (ಪರವಾಗಿಲ್ಲ),
ಕನ್ನಡದ ಸುದ್ದಿಗೆ ಏನಾದರು ಬಂದರೆ ಮಾನ ಉಳಿಸುವುದಿಲ್ಲ!  

(even) ನರಕಕ್ಕೆ ಇಳಿಸಿ, ನಾಲಿಗೆ ಸೀಳಿಸಿ, ಬಾಯಿ ಹೊಳಸಾದರೂ ಕೂಡ,  
ಮೂಗಿನಲ್ಲಿ ಕನ್ನಡ ಹಾಡು ಹಾದುತ್ತೀನಿ, ನನ್ನ ಮನಸ್ಸು ನಿನಗೆ ಗೊತ್ತಿಲ್ಲ!  

ಹೆಂಡ ಹೋಗಲಿ, ಹೆಂಡತಿ ಹೋಗಲಿ, ಎಲ್ಲ ಕೊಚ್ಚಿಕೊಂಡು ಹೋಗಲಿ!  
(ಆದರೆ) ಪ್ರಪಂಚ ಇರುವ ತನಕ ಕನ್ನಡ ಮುಂದೆ ನುಗ್ಗಲಿ!

ಸಿರಿಗನ್ನಡಂ ಗೆಲ್ಗೆ! :-)

I found the original at Prof. Holalkere Chandrasekhar's pages on Kannada. It's a fantastic resource, if you can get used to the slightly jagged font in the GIFs (It'll need a revolution in many areas to be able to search Kannada, so I'm not complaining about the GIFs themselves)

Understanding Rubel's Universal Differential Equation

[Many thanks to HKR for convincing me to get off my lazy ass and figure this out]

Karthik, dispassionately going about his chosen avocation of introducing mind-bogglingly awesome concepts via blog comments, wrote on the previous post a differential equation:

This equation is called Rubel's Universal Differential Equation [R], and has the amazing amazing amazing property that a solution 'y' to this equation can be made to approximate to any desired level of accuracy any (continuous) function on any interval of the real line, and with C-inf continuity! In other words, this is an 'Equation of Everything'! Take anything you possibly know that is continuous. The temperature in your room as a function of time. The position of the earth in space as a function time. The velocity of a comet as a function of its distance to us. The (smoothed) variation of a stock price with time. The degree of contraction of a heart cell as a function of its location. A solution of this one equation can be used to approximate all of these to infinite accuracy, and with infinite continuity!

I'll now attempt to try to reverse-engineer this equation in the manner I tried figuring out Tupper's math quine, and hope to find a plausible way to figure out how Rubel could have come up with this.

Edit (Dec 26): This is a very light, almost sand-sieveishly non-rigorous treatment of the topic written for and by someone with no formal training in Analysis. If you want to skip the foreplay, here's Rubel's original paper that's more intended for a peer in the math community.

All DEs are not born equal

Consider the trivial [1] equation y'' = 0. I can rightfully claim that this equation is the 'master equation' satisfied by all lines y = Ax+B.

The triviality bit, after a bit of thinking, leads us to a categorization: there are two kinds of differential equations. Consider the equation of SHM, y'' + y = 0. We'll call this a 'predictive' DE, because it predicts the behaviour of y, and tells us something about a physical system.

On the other hand, consider the equation: y''' = 0. Every parabola satisfies this equation, but we can't use this equation to predict anything. It's more an expression of the property of all parabolas, and so we'll call it an 'shrink' DE. It's like going to a psychiatrist to know more about yourself, but all you get is some general info that isn't predictive in any way :P

Rubel's UDE is a something like a 'shrink' DE [R2], not a predictive DE. This may come as somewhat of an anti-climax, because when we see DEs as engineers, we always assume that they are predictive. After all, every single DE an engineer uses is predictive. But note that when it was presented, it was not claimed that every continuous function satisfies the UDE; only that solutions to the UDE can be made to approach any continuous function with arbitrary accuracy. That is equivalent to the difference between saying "I have a hole that perfectly fits every shaft in the world" and saying "I have a tool that can make a hole that perfectly fits every shaft in the world."

Even if it's not predictive, there is a sufficient number of curiosities to motivate further analyzing this. For one, we are well familiar with the idea of interpolating a function piece-wise with straight lines.

We can achieve any desired accuracy by increasing the number of pieces we use, but there is one stark fact: The function that we build by stitching straight lines will have sharp corners - there is a discontinuity of some order at each of the stitch points. Even though increasing the number of pieces can reduce the least square error between the curve (called reducing "the error in the L2 norm"), the resulting stitched function will be bumpy. What precisely do I mean by bumpy?

This might seem like a childish construct from Calculus 101, but please humour me. Let's create a hypothetical car. This car has the usual odometer and speedometer, but it also has an accelerometer, a jerkometer, ... an infinite number of meters to measure every derivative of the car's distance function. By 'bumpy' in the last para, I mean that when I drive my car like the interpolated function, some of my meters jump.

Altius Fortius Happius?

We can attempt solve some of the problems of this bumpiness by using higher order interpolating functions that ensure "stronger" continuity. For example, when we use lines, we can claim at best C0 continuity. Using parabolic sections as the interpolating functions, we can, in principle, claim up to C1 continuity. (Thanks Shreevatsa) Following this path, we go into spline interpolation, but there's no way we can ensure C-inf continuity.

As an aside, the entirety of the Finite Element Method revolves around how to do this interpolation. The central property of the FEM, it's raison d'etre, is that it guarantees the best approximation to a function using a given set of interpolating functions, 'best' as measured by the L2 norm. However, higher order continuity requirements across segments are very hard to implement. In fact, even C1 continuity is very hard in 3-dimensions, and C2 continuity is exceptionally rare. It's a reasonably hot topic of research, and part of the framework Pota is working on attempts to grant higher degrees of continuity.

To summarize our conundrum, with what we already know of interpolations, we can have infinitely accurate interpolations when measured in the L2 norm (ie.. C0 continuity), but higher order continuity especially across segments is extremely hard [2]. Rubel's equation, on the other hand, claims that it can achieve C-inf continuity. How?

A detour - the Curious Incident of exp(-1/x) during the Taylor expansion-time

Consider this innocuous looking function,

It looks like this when plotted:

If you have read about statistical mechanics, you'll notice that this is a very common form. The temperature dependence of a huge number of quantities varies as exp(-1/x).

What's special about this? It is trivially provable[R1] that this function is 'smooth'. All its derivatives exist at all points on the real line. If you drove our car on it, none of your meters would ever register a sudden jump.

But there's a deep evil that lurks here that strikes terror into the heart of all real analysts (umm..not really, but I couldn't resist :P ): Look at the function and its derivatives at x = 0. All of them are identically 0. That means that if you try to write a Taylor expansion about x = 0, it will predict that f(x+h) = 0 for a small h. Holy horror! This means that the Taylor series expansion doesn't sense the rise of the function just to the right of the origin! That means the Taylor expansion can never approximate the function if we start from the origin! The function is not analytic!

This is a phenomenal event! The function is perfectly flat at the origin - perfectly flat, with every derivative zero. And yet, the function bootstraps itself into rising! This is incredible, because you never see perfect flatness in any smooth function! There will always be some non-zero derivative that will tip you off on what the function will do! But here, all derivatives are 0! Flat! Perfectly Flat!

The Insight [3]

But wait - if it is perfectly flat, then if we stitch together the perfectly flat ends of two such functions, we can have an infinite degree of continuity! How would it be if we used this as our interpolating function?

That's it. That's the central idea of UDEs. Stitching together functions in regions where they are perfectly flat. All we need to do is find a differential equation that describes one 'piece'. The stitch region has all derivatives existing and equal zero, and so will trivially satisfy our equation. That means our thread, made of many pieces and stitches, is still a solution to the DE. Which means we can claim that we can make any thread that fits infinitely accurately with any given function. We have made our tool!

Some reflection, and dark forebodings

There are some minor things we need to take care of. In the function we described above, we have only one perfectly flat end. It's cumbersome having to flip the function around every time we need to stitch, and so a little bit of playing around gives us this function that has two perfectly flat ends:

(This is called the bump function.)

Uh oh. Wait a minute. We're screwed. Look at that function again. Our fundamental 'piece'. It doesn't do anything! It is zero, then rises, and is back to zero again! Forget about anything else, how can you stitch together pieces like this to form a simple parabola, say y = x^2 ? The piece as a whole doesn't rise or fall!
Note that even if we rotated this thread, we couldn't change the shape of the thread. Our thread of stitched functions can never deform!

Our knight in ∫hining armour

The solution to this problem is (imho) the second most brilliant insight in the paper. What is it that we love about the bump function? The fact that it's perfectly flat at the ends. What don't we like? That the function ends where it begins, and is on the whole flat.

Wait a minute - the function is perfectly flat at the ends - it doesn't matter if it lost a derivative! Eureka! We can integrate the function, and this makes it an increasing function on [-1,1], while still preserving perfect flatness at the ends! Here's what the integral of th function looks like:

Rubel calls these integrated functions 'S-modules', because of their shape. That's it, we've found our perfect interpolating piece: perfectly flat at the ends, and increasing monotonically over the interval [-1,1].

Observe that in Rubel's UDE, the lowest degree in which y appears is y'; There's no term with a raw y. This is what originally tipped me off into suspecting that there was an integration involved.

Cleaning up

Now the task is to simply write down a differential equation for the S-module:
(t is the abscissa) and write a generalized function of this with constants, such that it can be moved (translated) in the two directions and scaled in width and height. Some algebraic trickery to eliminate the constants and the abscissa follows. The exact thing to be done, as Rubel states, is:

and eliminate A, alpha, beta, B and t from these 4 equations.

Once that is done, we have a shiny UDE
all set for world domination. The exact details of the algebra can be found in Rubel's original paper, and I hope after reading this you will also be able to follow his very pithy style. The only catch is that our function will not be analytic at (i.e. cannot be expanded in a Taylor series around) the stitches. But so far as I know, there's no way to detect this sitting in our hypothetical car, so all's well.

Some Puzzles

We aren't fully done with Rubel's paper yet; he claims that his UDE is an analog to universal Turing machines. There is also much talk on Hilbert's 13th problem, and a classic proof by forthcoming publication [4]. I don't quite see the connects yet, and will update this if I figure it out.

Other UDEs

I skimmed through some of the others in the field, and have a rough idea of how they work (ooh don't you just love the sound of 'skim' 'rough idea' 'general sense' 'intuitive feel' ?). Of all of these, Rubel's is the most straightforward; but that may be because I spent the max time on him.

Duffin's paper in the PNAS [R] is a poor man's UDE: it has a parameter 'm', and the solutions are guaranteed to be Cm continuous. It's nice that he was able to condense a simple polynomial interpolation into one equation.

Brigg's paper [R] uses another trick to generate 'perfect stitches' - he uses Jacobi elliptical functions that are periodic in a chosen interval, and therefore have all derivatives the same. It's a nice extension to Rubel's 'perfectly flat' insight.

There's another paper by Boshernitzan [R] that's very interesting: he guarantees not only Cinf smoothness, but also everywhere analyticity. The price we pay is in our domain. We can no longer have our function spread on arbitrary domains. It has to be a compact region of the real line. Again, I don't understand precisely how he does this, that's for another day. Elsner's E functions [R] are worth a look, too.


There are two very nice insights in this paper - a general one of using an interpolating function with perfectly flat ends to ensure Cinf continuity, and specific one of deciding to use an integral of a bump function. Apart from that, there isn't any more information content in this UDE than in a least-squares fit equation.

My first (wrong) instinct was to think that the 'n' in Brigg's equation held information about the function. I thought that varying n would make the differential equation plot out different graphs. This is very similar to Tupper's idea in his math quine (the constant 'a' in my explanation). Raghu then pointed out that Rubel's original equation had no parameters. But if you think about it, we can indeed make a predictive UDE with one parameter that cycles through all functions. This essentially requires a constructive proof (as opposed to a simple existence proof) of the bijection (one-to-one ness) between the set of reals (our parameter) and set of infinite number of reals (the values of the function at 'every' point). Let's see if I ever can get to that level of joblessness in life :-)

I'm still amazed and can't quite fully digest the fact that a perfectly smooth function can be non-analytic. I mean, consider the exp(-1/x) function. If you stand at the origin, you have no clue what happens as you step forward! All the meters in your car will read zero at the origin, and yet, somehow the function bootstraps itself into rising! This never happens with analytic functions! If any aspect of a function has to change, (y, y', y'', y''', etc), then it can always be seen as being caused by a change in a higher derivative. For example, if you're going in our car near the apex of a downward-facing parabola centered at the origin, you'll see that y = 0 and y' (your speed) = 0. But your acceleration is not zero! So you can always predict what happens at the next moment using the info the car displays at this moment. We have so far thought that the only time you can't predict is when there are discontinuities - i.e, a 'god' tweaking the function definition. But here, there is no tweaking, and yet you can't predict! I'd instinctively think that infinite smoothness means that every point contains info that allows me to transverse every other point in the function. Apparently that is not so. This is a ripe area for some thought experiments, and I'll write more on this if I discover more.

My aim in writing this post is to provide a plausible way in which Rubel could have come up with his UDE. Almost the only way I can understand something is to mentally re-build it from scratch, so I hope this will be of help in clearing up some of the ideas. Though unavoidable when introducing a new topic, every 'Consider' is a non-sequitur. I've tried to minimize those, and the only place where a real detour is required is the idea that a function like exp(-1/x) exists.


[1] A joke about the use of the world 'trivial' in Mathematics on the wiki:
Two mathematicians are discussing a theorem. The first mathematician says that the theorem is "trivial". In response to the other's request for an explanation, he then proceeds with two hours of exposition. At the end of the explanation, the second mathematician agrees that the theorem is trivial.

[2] It's in bad form to ask why higher order continuity is required. It just is. It's also like asking why a real Peugot 206 is better than the one in this lovely ad.

[3] I couldn't resist using the [Blink] tag, just so that I can refer to this old classic. Many thanks to HKR for rediscovering this!

[4] A most lovely list of invalid proofs. My favorites are 'proof by forthcoming publication', 'proof by exhaustion (of audience)', 'proof by reference to inaccessible literature' and 'proof by funding'.

References, the real ones

[R] The Mathworld article on UDEs contains a list of all the works I have referred to here. That was also the first place I heard about UDEs.

[R1] The wikipedia page on Non-analytic smooth functions has a simple proof. I wish it were longer and had more discussion, though.

Also, Tim Gower's essay on continuity is a refreshingly clear read (compared to the shitstorm of epsilons and deltas rife in most analysis textbooks).

[R2] To tell the truth, y''' = 0 is not such a bad fella after all. It's still telling us a physical truth - that the curvature of a parabola is constant everywhere. Rubel's UDE on the other hand isn't telling us anything about the world! It is only we who observe that the solution to the UDE has some use as an interpolating function, and it is we who build the approximation. Talk of outsourcing, man!


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