Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thinking grooves

PS has an interesting post on how the quality of citations in a topic depends on how easy it is to search for papers in that topic. I've been reading something on related lines: I get the feeling that a large part of our thinking is driven by tools that are popular only because they win in a "fast time vs slow time" setting.

Stop Press: This Slate article on the Slow Photography movement tells everything you need to know about slow and fast time.

"Fast time vs Slow time" is a very interesting idea in Thomas Hylland Eriksen's Tyranny of the Moment (which I found via Shreevatsa).  It really does deserve an entire book, but the short gist is this: "Fast time" is the state of mind associated with instant gratification; you feel hungry, and the next instant you have a ready-made hamburger in front of you. You feel bored, and the next instant you have a truckload of information porn about news of the stock market  and purported explanations for every half-decimal change, which somehow satisfies the urge for information. Fast time is the frame of mind where one indulges in these transactions.

Slow time is an almost 'opposite' state of mind. It's a slow picnic meal where there's no hurry to go anywhere, and the food itself is something of great interest. It's a slow, reasoned conversation with no sense of hurry or depleting attention span or need to put thoughts into 140 characters or less; the kind which you will remember a week later.

One of Eriksen's main points is that when fast time meets slow time, fast time always wins. I think of it in a slightly different fashion: Suppose there are many ways to do something. They are all somewhat balanced in how 'hard' they all are, and each of them have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Then, if a much 'easier' way to do the same thing comes up, all the old ways will be lost irrespective of their advantages. I think a lot of this is happening to us.

Consider the idea of doing a literature survey on Google. It's barely a decade since Google (and the Internet) acquired critical mass to give some results on queries. But now, just because Google exists, any other way of doing lit searches seems inordinately difficult and remote. I frankly don't know what to do if I didn't have some kind of electronic search for lit searches, and suspect most people don't, either. The other day, I saw some chap giving a very interesting lecture on the 'mood' in the Kannada cinema industry during the 70s. I don't have the first clue where to go read up on it, because Google gives nothing!

I seem to be implying that the presence of armchairs increases the number of armchair anarchists, and in general makes real anarchy appear "harder"; the presence of reddit and it's infinite nuggets of bite-sized tl;dr-ified information makes reading real books harder. Seems like a stretch?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The education market in India and the US

When I think of the education market in India, I see tremendous opportunity. Anyone with a bit of panache can make an absolute killing giving tuitions for 11th and 12th students, and for variety and recreation can teach engineering students part time. The kind of income one can make if one is keen easily surpasses what the best of MNCs can pay several times over. Of course, an important component of this income is from rent-seeking from several sources: the brands one flaunts on one's resume, the education bubble and the brands the crowd is after. Even charlatans who know little more than the contents of the last 10 years' question papers are highly sought after.

However, when I think of the education market in the US, my first thoughts are extremely pessimistic. High school teachers are paid a pittance compared to even the most regular 'decent' engineering job. There's no major tuitions market to speak of (maybe here and there for SAT, but I don't think one can think of it as a viable career option as here). The moment we get to universities, it's an absolute clusterfuck. Extremely talented, extremely hardworking people with PhDs and multiple years of experience shuttle around teaching part-time and barely eking out a living. One of the surest of certainties today is that a career in academia in the US is an absolute no-no except for exceptionally passionate people willing to sacrifice everything.

There is something wrong here. Either my understanding of one or both of the systems is wrong, or the market in India will cool down, or the one in the US will hot up. I feel the latter is not possible, and it doesn't fit the general trend that the US is 'ahead' in the saturation curve. Like a lot of what is hot in India, the market here is driven by caprices of regulation. What am I missing?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Open letter

Dear Classical Sanskrit Poets of yore,

 Would you PLEASE lay off these INTENSELY IRRITATING fixations:

1. Lotuses. Oh GOD. Someone should cleave out a special 'Padmopama' and 'Padmarupaka' alankArAs. They should then be summarily banned, and treatises should be written on how many centuries one would spend in Raurava hell if one employs them.

2. Cows

3. Said cows' (and sundry other) udders

4. The unimaginable enormousness, pinkishness, and full-of-milk-ness of said udders. "भ्रुवं कोष्णेन कुण्डोध्नी मेध्येनावभृतादपि, प्रस्नवेनाभिवर्षन्ती वत्सालोकप्रवर्तिना" "Having a pitcher-sized udder, showering the entire earth with a flow of lukewarm milk streaming forth at the sight of her calf, and more sanctifying than even a sacrificial ablation" - I mean, this is ridiculous!

5. While we are at it, could we please also take it easy with the elephant-trunk-like thighs and vanishingly narrow waists? The rest of us would like our heroines' midriffs to be at least simply connected, thank you very much.

6. Ah yes, Elephants

7. Said elephants' secretion of temporin during musth

8. All manner of obscure floral anatomy. It is hard enough in these bachelorly times to have a firm grasp of human anatomy, let alone worry about the sodding pistils of the blighted Crateva Religiosa.

9. In general, ALL elaborate descriptions of flowers and plants

10. CHAPTER LONG encomia on deer, rabbits and other wholly harmless and BONE-CRUSHINGLY BORING hermitage-animals and their god damned fluttering eyelashes and brows.

11. Birds, almost always some obscure species that can only be referred to now with Latin names. "Like the song of a Sylvia atricapilla" FFFFFFUUUUUUUU!

12. What the hell is this fetish of 'strictly abiding by scriptures' that is spoken of every other verse? WE GET IT, now will you PLEASE STOP REPEATING THE SAME THING A ZILLION TIMES?!!

Monday, November 08, 2010


Roads that are practically impossible to cross are so passé - Every Bangalorean worth his salt either bravely crosses them, or dies trying. Ours not to make reply, ours not to reason why, ours but to cross or die seems to be the spirit of the times.

Therefore, the BBMP, sadaa namma seveyalli, has taken the next step forward in urban innovation: roads that are theoretically impossible to cross.

Behold this marvel of topology and urban Development:

The triangles are the traffic signals, pointing towards the expected direction of traffic flow. The yellow dots are likely places you will be in right after you get out of IISc. If you are trying to go anywhere south in the image, you have to cross CV Raman Road - just that it's theoretically impossible because there will always be traffic coming from either the south or the west because the two western signals are perfectly in sync. The fact that the pavements on all roads in the picture have been razed down with a vengeance and asphalted till a few inches up the IISc walls also helps.