The Local Shiva Temple

A couple of evenings ago, we went to the local Shiva temple. This is just a typical temple in rural South India. It's not an archaeological treasure, has no great history associated with it, and is still primarily a place of worship. Think of your garden-variety Protestant church out in the Midwest, not an European cathedral.

The entrance to the temple is called a gopuram. This is what people think of when they think of South Indian temples:

A detail from the gopuram. Actually this is from inside the temple, but the gopuram consists of carvings like this:

A carving on a pillar inside the temple:

The great hall of the temple was mostly empty (it was a weekday after all, and we went just as it was getting dark). There was one person there singing a hymn at the top of this voice. The sound you hear is his natural voice, with no microphones. It's just that the acoustics of the hall are so awesome:

Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma

I'm a big fan of the Nature Conservancy -- it's one of the few organizations I've consistently donated to over the years. They got some really bad press a few years ago, causing their donations to really dry up. So it's good to see their work in Oklahoma highlighted in the New York Times.

I'm often asked what it feels like to live in Oklahoma (usually by people on the East coast) and it's always hard to get across to them the feeling of the limitless horizon that you get in Oklahoma. The photograph accompanying the article captures the wondrous awe of the landscape beautifully.

It ain't over til ...

We were coming back from the wedding when S1 piped up:

"So when's the wedding going to be?"

"That's where you were all morning!"

"But when is it going to be over?"

"Why do you think the wedding is not yet over?"

"But the boy and girl didn't kiss"

Images of nostalgia

The road from Chennai to Devakottai is a familiar one, especially the last part of the journey. I would often take the route to visit my grandparents when I was in high school. The nostalgia hit as I saw the familiar sights again.

The thatched roofs of low-slung mud houses:

The entrance into Tiruchi, as one crosses the Vaigai river with the temple at Sriragam rising dramatically over the landscape:

The gate to the palace at Pudukottai. The palace is just a bunch of government offices now, so it's not that impressive inside. However, the red brick of the entrance gate is still arresting:

The fort at Tirumayam. I plan to take the kids there next week sometime. So, there should be a lot more pictures of Tirumayam ...

Wedding Traditions: Temple Elephant and Movie-style Hoardings

One of the reasons we took a car from Chennai airport instead of taking the vastly more comfortable train was to make it to Devakottai for the wife's cousin's wedding. Weddings in this part of the country happen in the brides' ancestral home, so the wedding is going to be at the same place where our wedding was a dozen years ago. It's been interesting to get an outside view of a wedding that is extremely like what ours was.

One of my father-in-law's friends had come for the wedding. About a half-hour before the ceremony, he wanted to know when the priests were coming. "There are no priests," I told him, "the wedding will be conducted by elders in both families". According to legend, it dates back several centuries to the Chola period. The mercantile community was becoming powerful and wealthy, thanks to developing far-flung trade routes all along South-east Asia. The priests said that Hindus who crossed the ocean were to be considered impure and outside the caste system. The merchants retaliated by setting up their own temples (those temples still exist, and still have priests who are not Brahmins). And dating from that period of competition between Chettiars and Brahmins, no Brahmin priests officiate at Chettinad weddings.

The differences have since been patched up and most Chettiars consider themselves Hindus in good standing. But the separate temples still exist and are still supported by the descendants of those original renegade merchants. My wife's family donated and pays for the upkeep of an elephant at such a temple. So, weddings in their family are attended by the temple elephant.

The kids got "kissed" by the elephant yesterday and thought that was extremely cool. But just as I was getting a warm feeling about all the neat traditions of a Chettinad wedding, I saw the hoarding on the left. Apparently, it's the in thing these days to have a movie-poster style hoarding of the wedding couple. Maybe a hundred years ago, having a temple elephant visit a wedding was considered tacky ... I can easily imagine a secular blogger a century ago offended by the creeping in of religion into one of the few events in religion-drenched India that is completely secular.

A social network

My dad met us in Chennai and we started on the most worrisome part of the trip -- a seven-hour, bone-wracking drive from Chennai to the town where my parents live.

I had expected my dad to hire a taxi and come to Chennai, but he had hired a taxi from Chennai. Taxis in India are not like the taxis in the US -- one can not just call a 1-800 number and schedule a pick up at a time in the future. So how had my dad gotten a taxi in Chennai willing to drive 400 km one-way? Thanks to one of my cousins -- he had arranged it with a taxi in Chennai that his firm often hired.

What about food on the way? I expected that we would stop at a roadside dhaba. But an aunt who lives in Chennai, on hearing that we planned to leave straight from the airport, got up at 5 am to make us a picnic meal. So, we got hot idlis and sambar. The normally finicky kids just wolfed it down.

I'd forgotten the extensive social network that one has in India, the thing that immigrants leave behind when they decide to go settle down in Oklahoma.

A six-year-old on Indian roads

The kids slept well on the plane from London to Chennai, so they were alert and awake for a few hours out of Chennai.

The six-year made all the hackneyed observations -- the reason they are so hackneyed is because even a six-year old can make them! I'm going to report his take on Indian roads. I report, you decide.

"The cars are different. The driver sits on this side when he should be sitting on that side."

"How come there are no seat belts?"

"I saw a man riding a cow on the road. The cow didn't die and the man was okay too."

"There's a kid going barefoot all alone. How can he do that?" I was waiting to hear something about how hard it would be walk barefoot in the heat, but S1 surprised me. "How will he know how to get back home?"

"How come the sugar sticks don't fall off the truck?" This was in reference to seeing tractors carrying sugar cane.

Shortest birthday ever

Until the wife called, I'd forgotten that I spent my birthday on the plane. And because we traveled east, I lost 10.5 hours in the journey. So, I officially had the shortest birthday ever.

S2 Rides a City bus

Ever since S1 started going to school on the school bus, S2 has been insanely jealous of his bus-going habits. She's wanted to go on a bus for a long time, but in Norman that's kind of hard. There's a metro bus system, but it doesn't go the places we normally go.

In London Heathrow, the terminals are far apart and to get from one terminal to another, you need to take a bus. To adult passengers this is a royal pain, because the bus takes you out of the secure area. You need to go through security again at the next terminal. But to S2, there was nothing more wonderful than to be able to get on a "city bus". And that's all she would talk about to every stranger who cooed at her for the next couple of hours.

The forlorn desi mom

The kids and I were sitting on the floor near the gate for the London flight. There was a power strip on the wall, so I'd plugged in my laptop and was typing the previous blog entry. S1 was reading a book on Dora the Explorer to S2. A desi family of four (desi is Hindi slang for a person of Indian origin) walked by. The guy's eyes lit up when he saw my laptop plugged in. They deposited themselves in a nearby seat. Dad plugged in his laptop and started typing away. The elder kid was being a nuisance, trying to get into the airline premier lounge every time a passenger went in. Mom kept shooing him back while keeping an eye on the toddler who was perambulating the gate area.

I'd told S1 that I would read him part of a Tintin story if he would read S2 the Dora story, so I had to shutdown my laptop and keep my end end of the bargain. The toddler started dropping in on story time in our huddle and I smiled at the mom to let her know it was okay. Mom didn't reciprocate; she had a wistful look about her. If she had asked, I would told her that our kids were not always this well-behaved. But she didn't ask. Meanwhile, Dad kept tapping away, oblivious to it all.

Children's Musuem at Chicago O'Hare

I remembered walking past a kids' play area at Chicago O'Hare a few months ago, so I asked information where it was. Thought it would get the kids off my back for 15 or 20 minutes. Instead, the play area turned out be a branch of the Chicago Children's museum and the play equipment, though simple, was innovative and laid out very well. The children happily spent nearly three hours in the play area.

To the Chicago Children's Museum and Chicago Mayor Daley, a heartfelt thank you.

Excitement on board

The kids were excited to be on a plane.

"We are flying above the clouds," announced S1 cheerfully, "we are above the earth."

"That's right," I said, "we are flying above the weather."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said, "we are not getting wet."

"If it's raining," asked S2, "do the people have umbrellas?" (she's into umbrellas).

An hour into the flight, it got even more interesting. Two rows behind us, the passenger in the middle seat started to have a fit.

"Is there a doctor or nurse on board?," went the call.

A nurse, an orthopedist, a pediatrician and a cardiologist made their way to the seat. The flight attendants broke out all the first aid kits. A stethoscope came out, then glucose. The people to either side of him were dispersed. The nurse stayed to administer the glucose. I was asked to keep S2 in my lap, so that the cardiologist could sit by us. When we landed in Chicago, the paramedics met our flight and carted the sick man off.

The children now think that airline flights are very exciting.

"When you go to New York," asked S2, "do you always fly above the clouds?"

"Yes," I told him, "long distance flights fly above the weather." I didn't tell him any thing about the frequency of medical emergencies. Why disappoint him? There are two more flights to go before we reach India.

The 50 lb Hassle

The memo must have gone out. American Airlines announced this week that they will soon start charging for every checked baggage. We bought our tickets before the announcement, so our 2-bag allowannce was grandfathered in, but the memo must have told the agents to start really enforcing the 50-lb limits.

Since three of us are traveling, we are allowed 6 bags. We checked in 5 bags, but two of the bags were overweight by 10 lbs. Two others were underweight by 10 lbs. In total, therefore, we were one bag and 50 lbs below our allowance, but the agent was unyielding. She asked us to redistribute the weight amongst the bags to make each them no more than 50 lbs. We chose to simply take 10 lbs out of the two offending bags, add it our carry on and check it in.

But it was a bit of a hassle to be doing this at the ticket counter. And since I moved the kids' coloring books and paraphrenilia to my backpack, that bag's awfully heavy.

Rural India, too, has broadband

When I was planning our summer vacation, I sent out an email to several colleagues at the lab informing them:

My father claims that the town they live in (doesn't even have a supermarket) now has broadband. Assuming that he's not confused, I'll be answering emails but with a 12-hour delay due to the time difference.

Turns out my dad had gotten it right -- I am using his broadband connection to post all the blog entries I wrote during our journey.

I don't know what it says when rural India has better internet connectivity than east Norman.

King's Gambit: a great read

Who would think that a book about chess could be such a great read? I loved to play chess when I was in elementary school, mostly with my parents. But they stopped playing with me when I started beating them consistently.

I started playing again when I was a freshman in college, but then I discovered bridge. Bridge is far more social, so I pretty much gave up chess. I haven't played a serious game of chess in years.

Paul Hoffman is a A-level chess player, science journalist and former editor of Discover magazine. In other words, the perfect person to write an insider's view of chess. He captures the tense silence of a chess game and the depression that sets in after a loss (unlike bridge, you have no teammates, and no 'luck of the cards' -- you lose in chess because the other guy out-thought you).

It's also a gossipy history of modern chess because Hoffman somehow manages to hang out with the best players in the world. He even accompanies the Canadian national champion to Libya for the world championship and gets followed around because the Libyans suspect him of being CIA. He manages to get in Mikhail Tal's quip on why women don't play chess ("Women can't keep quiet for five hours") and why a player's explanation of why no one should be dismayed that computers now beat the best players in the world ("No one is disappointed that a car can go faster than a human athlete").

The book's about the author coming to terms with his father and about rediscovering chess in middle age. But that is a very thin veneer over a book that, if you are interested in chess or were at some point, is a great read.

Online videos of courses

My alma mater has videos of semester-long courses online. I haven't actually watched any of the videos (a single lecture is 40 minutes, and a semester-long course would be 30-40 hours of viewing).

But even without watching the videos, I think that this is a good idea, for everyone concerned. How does it help students? If a professor finds his students preferring web lectures by his compatriot in Delhi, that will prompt him/her to improve their teaching. And students all over India get the benefit of stimulating courses. The courses I had at IITM were much better put together, on average, than the ones at Ohio State or Oklahoma. And if a professor is good, there is nothing more encouraging than finding that your videos have been watched thousands of times. A 40-hour lecture series requires serious commitment and what teacher wouldn't like committed students?

UPDATE: A couple of weeks ago, I got voted in as an adjunct professor at Oklahoma , so I know I shouldn't say courses at OU are less stimulating than the ones at IITM ... but they were. I think this has something to do with the fact that IITM professors were very interactive. Everyone used a blackboard and built up the concepts as they went along. At Ohio State and Oklahoma, every one used projectors and nothing dampens down a class more than a rigid PowerPoint presentation.

Archaeologist or actor? Is there a difference?

I wish I could say that I'm making this up, but I'm not.  The Archaelogical Institute of America (an honest-to-God scientific society) has elected Harrison Ford to its board of directors.  Rather than be ashamed of mixing science and fiction, they are so proud of having the actor on their board that they tout it on their website:

"Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public's interest in archaeological exploration," said Brian Rose, President of the AIA. "We are all delighted that he has agreed to join the AIA's Governing Board."  ... In addition, the current May/June issue of ARCHAEOLOGY magazine, published by the AIA, features a cover story devoted to the mysteries surrounding the alleged crystal skull archaeological finds that inspired the new "Indiana Jones" film.

It appears that the AIA subscribes to the "no publicity is bad publicity" school, because their website goes on to note:

Harrison Ford is already helping to raise public awareness of the AIA and its mission as the news of his election to the Board has spread. Many media outlets have covered the story.

 "Twister" was being shot on location at the lab in 1995, the year I joined.  Several scientists advised on the film, but I'm thankful that nobody had the ridiculous idea of having Bill Paxton give a seminar at an AMS meeting. And may it forever be thus.

Statue of an impatient Martin Luther King, Jr.

There's going to be a monument for Martin Luther King Jr. on the mall in Washington DC, alongside the monuments to Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Jefferson. If the mall is going to start sporting memorials to great Americans who were not presidents, I would have liked to see one to Hamilton. But King's not a bad choice.

The statue is going to be made in China by a sculptor named Lei Yixin (knowing the US government, I was tempted to think that it was just the lowest bid, but apparently he's a well-renowned sculptor). The pose that Lei chose is based on the photograph of King standing by a photograph of Mohandas Gandhi.

Because the statue depicts King standing, hands-crossed, in a pose that intimidates (imagine a 25-foot-plus statue of a man standing arms crossed), the National Memorial Project Foundation objected to it. If they wanted a statue to be that of a non-confrontational black man, they could have commissioned a carving of Uncle Tom.

That said, the statue is sentimental claptrap - "stone of hope" indeed. It would have been a lot more imposing (and true to the spirit of a man who woke up his country's conscience) if Lei had depicted him towering over the landscape rather than like Superman walking through a wall.

Confusion about destination

When I tell people that I'm taking the kids to India, one of their questions is "are the kids excited?"

S1 is excited. He still remembers his grandparents, so he's looking forward to the pampering.  Plus, he happened to catch some pictures of Hampi on my screensaver and he's been looking forward to going to India and seeing some ancient temples -- Hampi is too far from where my parents live, but Thirumayam is only a half-hour away.

S2, though, is not too clear on what it means.  She's confused between going to India and going to an Indian restaurant.  I hope she doesn't take it out on poor dad when she finds that we're flying 20+ hours to go get good food.

Hard-working white people, please skip this post

What would you do if you were in Manhattan and on an expense account? I'm having fun eating food that isn't easy to find in Oklahoma. At the risk of losing all you hard-working, white friends out there:

Sunday evening: foie gras grilled, Asian style and grilled rack of lamb at Riingo. Great service and excellent food.

Monday afternoon: gravlax and cream cheese on a baguette at Mendy's Kosher deli. Gorgeous lunch ... I could totally live in New York City!

Monday evening: Grilled Dover sole, skeleton removed table side and "floating island" at Le Perigord ... A snooty French restaurant with excellent food, an attitude (the waiters kept talking to me in French) and an overpriced final bill (I got charged the fixed price meal even though what I ordered cost less a la carte).

Ah, well. In Oklahoma, the food's not nearly as good, but then they won't cheat you either.

The Roosevelt Hotel: Identity Crisis and Internet Scam

I'm staying this week at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. It used to be a real fancy hotel (connected by tunnel to Grand Central Station when that meant something) but is now reduced to catering to penny-pinching business travelers like me. But the hotel seems to have a midlife crisis, not wanting to let go of its glory days.

The lobby has vaulted ceilings and gold leaf all over. I think gold leaf is tacky whether in Hindu temples, midwestern McMansions or New York hotels, but I suppose it's a marker of opulence. But the gold leaf in the hotel lobby has plaster showing through in places. And that is just sad.

The best marker of the identity crisis is, however, internet access. Mid-priced, extended-stay hotels all offer free internet access but fancier hotels charge by the day (The Taj hotels in India charge by the hour and boy did that leave a bad taste in my mouth). So what will the Roosevelt do? It's gotta choose -- is it a midpriced hotel (free internet!) or a fancy hotel (Sock it to your customers!). The Roosevelt seems to have resolved the dilemma in a highly dubious way.

"Free unlimited high-speed internet connectivity", it advertises. And also "This room offers both wired and wireless high-speed internet access." Pause for a moment here. What do you think that means?

I powered on my laptop and connected to the Wi-Fi and was prompted with a screen asking me to accept a $15 charge. WTF, I thought, and called the front desk. Turned out "high-speed internet" was their code for "wired" and that was free, but wireless was not. And wouldn't you know it? Wired access is down for maintenance with no idea when it will be back up!

Not only has the hotel seen better days, it's now reduced to running a three-card monte for internet access.

Olympic Torch Mania in China

How big a deal are the Olympics in China? The picture is of the crowd when the Olympic torch was in Shenzen, China.

Taking Mom to India

Jeff Greenwald takes his 75-year old mom, a retired school teacher, to visit India. Actually, just the tourist drags of Delhi and Rajastan, but it's an interesting travelog all the same, mainly because they seem to have gotten out of the usual tourist itinerary. They even visited a girls-only school in Rajastan:

On our final day in Udaipur, I directed our driver to the Rajasthan Mahila Galeda Senior Secondary and Primary School. This was the first in Rajasthan to offer education to girls.

Usha Kiran, the vice principal, instantly arranged an informal tour. "There are 1,500 girls studying in this school," she said.

The grounds were spacious: big white buildings surrounded by arched porticoes, separated by gardens and playgrounds. Four teachers joined us; they were adept at answering my mother's questions about curriculum, testing and further education.

Mom was in her element. This experience clearly meant more to her than any marble monument. Here she could appreciate the similarities between her world and the lives of Indians. It was a hinge that swung everything into place and taught my mother what I had learned, with difficulty, nearly 30 years ago.

What use is a warning?

Cyclone Nargis, the cyclone that hit Burma over the weekend, had been tracked for days before it made landfall. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) named it a tropical cyclone when it was well east of the Eastern coast of India (on April 28) and by May 1, the tracks all pointed to Burma with peak winds of 100-135 miles per hour. This would have made it a Category 4 hurricane. It was 36 hours after that report that the storm made landfall in Burma.

In other words, there was a specific, hair-raising cyclone warning 36 hours before landfall. Had this been North Carolina or Florida, evacuations would have happened, people would have left the coast and the number of people dead would have been minimal. Louisiana or South Carolina may have been a bit worse, but the majority of inhabitants would have been safe. They would now be going back home to see how much of their homes could be salvaged.

In Burma, more than 20,000 people have died and more than 40,000 more are missing. Burma, obviously, is an extreme case -- it's been under the heel of a military junta for decades. There does not seem to have been any emergency response whatsoever. Had Nargis hit South India, would things have been any better? Knowing what I know about Indian disaster preparedness (I was part of a USAID project to help India build a disaster mitigation program last year), it would have been better than Burma but not as good as any American state.

The problem in India is not the warnings (the IMD identified and tracked Nargis for days before it made landfall) or the dissemination (there's a raucous press and reasonably efficient transmission mechanisms) but the lack of any serious options for the warned. Tell a resident of South India that a cyclone is approaching, and there is precious little that he can do. The road and rail infrastructure is too poor to carry out mass evacuations. And the thatched roof housing that is common in slums and villages is too fragile to withstand cyclone-strength winds.

Anything goes

After nearly 5 years, the wife and I went to a musical together.   One of her colleagues offered to take care of the kids today evening. So, we got a nice night out.

It was a revival of "Anything Goes", text by PG Wodehouse and lyrics by Cole Porter.  The Wodehouse talent for great one-liners was on display throughout the show. Samples:

"Billy Crocker, you led me on. You made me believe that you wanted to marry me."

"No I did not.  I treated you with respect."

"That's what I mean."

Or this:

"What chance have I got?  Hope is going to marry a rich Englishman ... some Earl or another."

"You are going to let an old tea bag get in the way of you and your girl?"

And probably the best line of all, this one spoken to a small-time gangster by his assistant.  The gangster wants to be known as a dangerous fellow ... he wants to be Public Enemy No. 1.  The assistant tells him:

"By the way the new public enemy list came out.  You got beat out by tooth decay."

P.G. Wodehouse lines, a big band jazz score, Cole Porter's rollicking songs and the University Theater's usual high quality.  It was a wonderful show.

Cars getting worse mileage

A New York Times story notes that with gas prices going higher, the sales of smaller cars have shot up and the sales of SUVs has dropped. This is one more reason the 18c pander by McCain and Clinton is a bad idea -- it diminishes, however slightly, this shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

But the graphic with the story made me do a double-take. A Honda Fit only gives 34 miles per gallon on the highway? My first car was a 1983 Honda Civic hatchback (bought in 1993 for $600). I used to get 35 miles per gallon from it in the city and nearly 50 miles per gallon on the highway. My current car is a 2003 Toyota Corolla. I get 28 miles per gallon in the city and about 45 miles per gallon on the highway. Worse than my 10-year old Civic ... why? Because the newer Corolla is bigger and heavier than my old car.

If the 2008 Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit only provide the mileage of my 2003 Corolla, the newer Corollas must have gotten even bigger and larger.

The public may be buying the smallest car they can ... but the small cars that manufacturers are producing are bigger than they were. Why can't they make small cars like they used to? Won't anyone buy them?

A real-time algorithm to find overshooting tops

Last year, I blogged about an algorithm to find overshooting tops from satellite images ... on 1km visible imagery from satellite data, overshooting tops identify initiating thunderstorms very well. After some changes, we now have a working algorithm.

What changes did we have to make beyond the simplistic variance filter I talked about in my earlier post? First, we had to correct for sun angle because the satellite visible channel darkens considerably as the sun gets closer to the horizon. Although this correction is different for every part of the image, it could be done from basic solar radiation principles. Another thing we did was to pick the brightest 3-4% of the pixels i.e. a histogram equalization.

But the technique works, and now it works in real-time. This illustrates my work cycle in a microcosm -- secure funding, identify data source, analyze data, implement ideas, refine algorithm over different scenarios, run in real-time, collect statistics, publish paper ...

Note that I did not add operational implementation to the list. With funding cuts at operational agencies, they're not actually moving anything new into their systems -- instead, weather forecasters simply start using our "experimental" web services and our real-time data feeds become quasi-operational. It's a poor way to do business, but that's what we now have.

UPDATE: Here's the link to the realtime overshooting tops products.