Putting one over dad

One of the neighborhood kids rang the doorbell asking if S2 could come out to play.  The weather has been unseasonably warm the past couple of days and was in the 70s today.

S2, who would have preferred to play in her room with dolls, was persuaded to come out.

"Can I and A- go play in the park?" she asked.

"Okay," I said, "but come back in an hour because you have a New Year's eve party to go to."

She went out to get her watch (more to show the watch off to A- than to actually use it), looked at the time and asked whether she could come back at 6 o'clock (it was 4.50pm).

"Okay," I told her.

And then she whispered hoarsely to her friend, "let's go! let's go before my dad changes his mind! We can get to play for 70 minutes!"

Travails of English as a second language

For the most part, I can forget that I learned English relatively late, but sometimes it strikes me that I view the language differently from most native speakers.

My son, for a school assignment, wrote that "the tractor had no breaks".  "Do tractors have fuses?", I asked him, before I realized that he meant "brakes".  Because I learned to read and write English before I could speak it, words like "break" and "brake" have no relationship to me. They are completely and totally different. This has advantages -- there is no way I could mix up "their" and "there" in a sentence. Or even "it's" or "its" because I don't tie an English word with its sound.  They are just a sequence of letters. In fact, there are thousands of words that I've never pronounced and the first few years in America, I learned to listen somewhat carefully to figure out the general scheme of pronouncing words and place names. (Incidentally, this listening thing is something that many immigrants never seem to latch on to. I spoke to someone who'd lived in Tulsa for over 15 years who pronounced the name of the town he lived in: "Toolsa".  I didn't have the heart to correct him.). But it has the disadvantage in that misspellings can throw me for a complete loop.

Thus, when a colleague writes, in a blog about a missed forecast of freezing rain, that:
 the freezing drizzle didn't have the dramatic appearance of huge amounts of ice forming that most drivers look for as queues to take action to slow down.
it takes me a long while to realize that he is taking about "cues".  My first thought was that the drivers would slow down only if there was a queue of hitchhikers in an ice storm and only when that mental image didn't make sense did I finally puzzle out the intended meaning. Meanwhile, you probably read through the sentence and had to go re-read it to see that he'd used "queues" instead of "cues".

Crediting the money men, not the technology people

One of the places we always take visitors is the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. It's a world-class museum, full of world's-largest this and the world's largest that. One of the cool things they now have is a baby apatosaurus:
Of course, an exhibit like this doesn't just happen.  A few bones are found and they are combined (painstakingly) into the structure on display. The skeleton is never completely intact, so missing pieces have to be created.

I happen to know the person in whose lab the bones were pieced together and where the missing pieces were manufactured.  Hundreds of thousands of man-hours and sophisticated technology solutions went into creating the skeleton.

But is that work even mentioned in the credits (see below)? No, only the money men are mentioned. And people wonder why young people do not go into STEM fields. Well, duh. Ambitious people want respect, but in America, it's a catch-22. Science doesn't pay well, and scientific contributions are not publicly appreciated to the level that monetary contributions are.

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Invented Languages

Languages are not my thing -- in spite of growing up hearing multiple languages, I can barely speak two. (I grew up on the border of a French-speaking country, amid people who spoke about 15 different West African dialects and went to college in an Indian city, where at least three languages were commonly spoken). Now, I can speak just two languages fluently.

So, I didn't expect to get much out of a book by a linguist about invented languages. Before you can invent a language, you've got to have the ability to quickly learn a new one, and I can not see myself being able to do that. But every once in a while, I try to read something I don't expect to like much. And a book about invented languages -- Esperanto, Klingon, etc. -- seemed to be just the thing.

"In the Land of Invented Languages" turned out to be an engrossing read. First of all, did you know that there are so many of them? She lists 500 invented languages, and makes it clear that the list is totally incomplete!
The book starts out with Wilkins, a contemporary of Hookes and Newton, who decided to create a language and started out by cataloging everything in existence. His work essentially led to the Thesauraus. And oh, Esperanto which came about as a pan-European, simple language? It's now started to pick up slang and historical accidents of spelling. The way the English word "light" is spelled the way it is, because that's how it was pronounced or that the past tense of "eat" is "ate" because in Old English all past tenses involved changing the vowel sound. Some time later, the rule changed to "add -ed", but no one could change very common words such as "eat" and "know". Another neat aside that I remember, because I had the same misconception. It's not that Koreans can read Chinese in their own language. The characters are very stylized, so it's not the case that the characters represent real-world things. Instead, Koreans make sense of Chinese similar to how a Spaniard makes sense of English -- because many of the Latin-derived words look familiar.

The coolest part about the book, though, is when the author turns to natural languages and points out how is the "flaws" in the language that make them suitable for thinking out loud, for collaboration and for communication. An awesome book. Really. You'll love it even if you don't care a whit about languages.

p.s. There were lots of neat tit-bits throughout ... I loved the book so much that I knew I wanted to write about it. So, I started highlighting various cool passages using my Nook. And then when I went to retrieve the highlighted passages, I learned that there is no way to list all the highlights! So, I'm writing these mainly from memory.  Forget the Nook -- it sucks.  If you are in the market for an e-reader buy a Kindle.

The Nook Touch is worse than the Original Nook

At a time when we take technological progress for granted, it's terrible when new versions of a good product are not as good as the old ones.  What were the designers thinking?

I love my Nook e-reader (the "Original Nook"). I can borrow books from the public library, regardless of where in the world I am.  It's no strain on the eyes (I have read 14 hours straight on planes). The Nook has an expandable micro-USB slot, so I can put my music library on it and listen to music as I read.  It's a self-contained travel companion.

But it's been a couple of years since I bought the Nook and the battery life is not what it used to me.  Now, I get only 7 to 8 hours (in airplane mode: I have not used the WiFi much).  So, I started musing about getting a new one.

The new Nook Touch is better in some ways. It has a white background (the Original Nook had the color of parchment), so that letters stand out more.  It does away with the ugly, useless LCD screen and makes the entire surface touch-enabled.

But ... there is no audio jack.  What? No music when I read? Why on earth would they get rid of a really useful feature like that?  When the battery runs out, I'll take it to Interstate Batteries and ask them if they carry replacement batteries. That, or, buy the Amazon Touch.  It does sport an audio jack, and it now supports public library books.

No New Nook for me.

Patent madness to affect a doctor's office near you

The madness of software process patents (e.g: Amazon's "1-click" patent or Microsoft's "loading images before text" patent) is all set to affect medicine.

The next time a doctor decides that he is going to increase your dosage, of say, statins when you break your leg, he's going to get sued for violating the patent of the researcher who showed the linkage between statins and a period of inactivity.

Instead of fixing the problem with software patents, the Supreme Court is all set to unleash the craziness on yet another field.  How can the court system be this oblivious?

A breezy read

Breezy novels are hard to come by.  Especially  breezy novels that are not piffle.  So, I heartily recommend Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower for the next time you need something to occupy a few hours of your time.

I won't spoil the story by telling you what it's about, except to say that it's not about events that spin tragically out of control (she tells you the ending on the first page, so I'm not spoiling anything by telling you this). Instead, it's about the power of books, and of family -- the typical coming-of-age-novel, except from a unique viewpoint.

Read it!

How to debunk a myth: Skeptical Science doesn't follow their own advice

An excellent article on how to debunk myths (by Skeptical Science):

  1. Lead off with the facts.  You need to state the facts, not the myth. Otherwise, the myth gets reinforced.
  2. If you have to explain the myth, precede it with a warning. State the myth. Then, provide an alternate explanation.
  3. Three facts are better than twelve.
  4. Use simple, clear language. The power of myths is that they are usually simplistic. Your facts need to be able to replace the myth.  Shoot for an explanation simple enough that they can repeat it.
  5. Focus on the undecided; there will always be an unswayable minority especially if it runs contrary to their core beliefs.
  6. Use graphics.
Here's an example of myth-busting done right:

But here's the thing.  Right now, on the Skeptical Science website is this graphic:
If that doesn't reinforce the myths, I don't know what does!

Lose 1000 euros every time or 7000 euros one time?

Apparently, if Germany bails out the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), it will cost Germany about 1,000 euros per capita.  Germans naturally balk at having to send a thousand euros down to the lazy bums (incidentally, the national stereotypes are wrong: Italians work longer hours than Germans, but it's similar to how a poor Vietnamese farmer works longer hours than an American farmer -- the American has more machines and more land and is therefore more productive).

On the other hand, if these countries default and have to leave the euro for their second-tier currencies, then German banks will lose enough that every German will in effect lose 7,000 euros per head the first year and incur smaller losses in future years. That's because the loans that the banks have on their books are worth far less.

So, is it rational to just bail the countries out? I'm not sure. Because you can be sure that it's not going to stop with this one-time. There will be another bailout a few years now, and as these things go, that bailout is going to be more expensive than this one. Therefore, it's probably time to stop throwing good money after bad. I don't think Germany's reluctance to carry out a bailout is irrational.

Penn State vs. UC Davis

Penn State students rioted because their football coach was fired for not doing enough to stop the abuse of children.

UC Davis students lodged a silent protest against police abuse.  The video is powerful if you have not seen it:

The two campuses seem to have completely different moral compasses.

China battling for scientists' minds

Coincident with a NY Times opinion about how China can defeat America:
China’s quest to enhance its world leadership status and America’s effort to maintain its present position is a zero-sum game. It is the battle for people’s hearts and minds that will determine who eventually prevails.
is an email I got from a Chinese scientific conference. They offer to pay me an honorarium to participate in the conference if I would organize a session consisting of scientists from outside China:
 The first author of each paper in an invited session must not be affiliated with an organization in China’s mainland. "(Invited Paper)" may be added below the title of each paper in the invited sessions. Invited session organizers will solicit submissions, conduct reviews and recommend accept/reject decisions on the submitted papers. 
Is this "buying affection" or is it something much more strategic? Invited papers at scientific conferences are quite prestigious, so they are giving me the ability to distribute favors and offering to partially pay my way.  At a time when science budgets in America are disappearing, the Chinese are actively building up their scientific expertise and gaining international exposure.

Google needs to think of G+ as a network, not as a destination

Google just doesn't get it.  They had a good social thing going with Google Reader, but they had to mess it up.  Here's an email that someone sent to my wife:

Please forward this link to Lakshman ... Previously, we used to share good articles via Google Reader. That service has been disabled now ...
Sent to you via Google Reader
Karachi to Bombay to Calcutta | History of Flight | Air & Space Magazine
I used to follow him on Google Reader.  Anything he shared was sure to be good and here's the clincher: I would see it when I was in the mood to read longish articles.  Google killed the share/follow feature on Google Reader, killing the one social thing they actually did well.

Instead, Google has replaced it with two buttons:  a +1 button and a G+ share button.  The problem with these is that there is no way to subscribe to someone's +1s on G+ -- there is no RSS feed for it.   And the G+ share is simply too invasive. While I do want to hear status updates from all my friends, I don't really care to read all the articles that all my friends post. I know which ones have reading tastes similar to mine.

Instead of thinking of G+ as a destination, Google would be better served to think of it as a network. With different clients and different services.  And Google Reader would be the client of G+ when it comes to reading longish articles.  Such an architecture would be a lot better than what they have now.

Patent madness

Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble over their Android-based e-reader (the Nook). Microsoft is now squeezing more money off Android manufacturers than they can make selling Windows Mobile. Apparently, the patents they are suing B&N over are:

1. placing a loading status icon in the browser.
Really? This is novel? Here's somebody demonstrating a framework for doing this for Ajax-web applications:

2. browser that recognizes background images and loads them after text.
Images loading after text has been a feature of pretty much every browser since the original Netscape.

3. Tab controls for use by all applications instead of application-by-application.
This has been a feature of Macs since forever.
4. Using handles to change text size.
This is standard functionality in any text reader. I think even emacs used to have it.

5. storing and annotating text that is not modifiable
Again, pretty standard functionality in most readers.  Even Ghostscript used to have this.

Software should never be patentable. All we'll end up with are these types of bogus patents.

p.s. A commenter on Slashdot uses irony to make the same point:

People have known for decades that it's sometime useful to give users feedback about something that takes a long time, by displaying a progress meter or at least "Please wait" or "loading" or "initializing the galaxy." When GUIs got popular, displaying it as an icon was natural. When small screens started to get more popular, it became somewhat common to eschew fixed-position widgets in favor of using the entire screen as a "content area" because there was so little to spare for scrollbars, status displays, or whatever. 
Yet despite this situation, no one could figure out how to display a loading status icon in a content area. Or at least no one easily could. But then Microsoft Research applied themselves to the problem, and with a lot of insight, experiments, trial and error, hard work, and just plain luck, they figured out how to do it. I've never seen a Microsoft handheld computer, but presumably they used the novel solution in a product. But nobody wanted it, so it died. And Microsoft, too, may some day die. 
The secret for how to display a status icon in a content area, could become lost when Microsoft dies. But no. Not willing to let their efforts be buried by the sands of time as a lost trade secret, they took advantage of patent law, which gave them a brief monopoly (a mere 20 years within themillennia that people have been doing mathematics) for which We The Public received public disclosure for how their invention works. 
And what did Google and Barnes & Noble do? They renegged on the disclosure-for-monopoly deal!! Instead of having to figure out on their own, how to display a status icon in a content area, they dishonorably read through all of Microsoft patents, learned all the secrets ("aha! That's how to display a status icon, where the icon is in the content area! Ingenious!") and defied the monopoly. 
And here you all are, blaming the victim, Microsoft. Yet without Microsoft, would you know how to display an icon inside a content area instead of outside it? Or would you be pounding your keyboards in frustration? "It doesn't compile!" or "It doesn't run right! There's my icon, but it's outside of the content area! How did they do it!" or "There's my icon inside the content area, but WTF, it doesn't say 'Loading'! How is the user supposed to know it's loading something, if I can't figure out how to make the icon say 'Loading'?!" Please, people, think of the inventors and their technical solutions. Without the monopoly, they might not have had any incentive at all, to solve the long-standing mystery.

What's a photograph worth?

Nice photo, this ... right? How much do you think it is worth?

It recently sold for $4.3 million dollars.

The next time you are by a rural riverside, see if you can take a picture like the one above. Don't be surprised if you don't find anyone willing to pay you the $4.30 it'll cost to print it out.

Seriously ... who pays $4.3 million for an easily reproducible photograph?

Can radar see earthquakes?

Enough people have now asked me if we can use radar to predict tsunamis that I've now started treating it as a serious question that deserves a serious answer.

But ... maybe all those people were just ahead of the curve ...?

Images courtesy National Weather Service Forecast Office, Norman.

One more thing I can not do

When I recently got a government grant for some weather research, I had to sign this document:
Human trafficking! Can't do that no more.

Seriously ... congress in its wisdom has decided that it's a good idea to make government contractors promise not to use slave labor. Good intentions, but this is what it means in practice -- schmucks like me getting science grants have one more piece of paper to sign.

Patent madness

Sometimes, pigs can fly. I hereby quote an article from the ultra-libertarian Cato Institute:

... software development is an individual, creative activity, more akin to writing a novel than designing a jet engine. A single programmer can inadvertently infringe dozens of software patents in the course of a single project ... We don't expect novelists to hire patent lawyers before publishing their work; nor should we expect computer programmers or their employers to have patent attorneys on retainer
I am sure that the code we write for weather forecasting probably violates dozens of patents. Luckily, we have no money, so no body sues us.  Still, being judgement-proof is no way to operate.

Why Americans don't choose STEM careers

The NY Times has yet another article wondering why American students don't major in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). This time, it's on how many students start out in STEM fields and change:
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.
Based on my highly scientific sample of about a dozen second-generation Indian Americans who started out in science/engineering but switched careers, the article is wrong. It is not because the kids can't grok the math or find the subjects boring. On the contrary, it is solely because engineering and science in the United States are low-status occupations. Doctors are high-status, and so students stick with it. The reason the kids didn't pursue STEM careers is that they have better options -- bankers and lawyers make more money.

The reason why graduate students in engineering are mostly immigrants is the same reason that most fruit pickers in Georgia are Mexicans. Americans don't want to do this stuff.  Science, engineering and fruit-picking is what people fresh-off-the-boat do.

The Right kind of prayer

I think it is a bad idea when government officials attend overtly religious events in their official capacity. Still, it is a fine line when a state governor attends the ground-breaking opening ceremony for a new factory and the ceremony is quite religious:

Beshear attended a groundbreaking ceremony in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, for a new factory run by FlexFilm, a company based in India that makes materials for packaging, printing, insulation and other purposes. The plant represents a $180 million investment, and is expected to create 250 jobs in Kentucky. As the local newspaper the News-Enterprise reports, the groundbreaking included a Hindu ceremony, the bhoomi poojan.
The governor's Republican opponent was not pleased:
“He’s there participating with Hindu priests, participating in a religious ceremony,” Williams said. “They can say what they want to. He’s sitting down there with his legs crossed, participating in Hindu prayers with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don’t know what the man was thinking.”
Just in case you get the idea that this fellow is objecting to mixing religion and state, he clarified that it wasn't the prayers that he minded. They just had to be the Right kind:
To get down and get involved and participate in prayers to these polytheistic situations, where you have these Hindu gods that they are praying to, doesn’t appear to me to be in line with what a governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ought to be doing.
Me, I think there is no Right kind of prayer. And government officials should stay out of it in any official capacity. Having said that, if I were a government official and I had to attend an event that started with a prayer, I'd bow my head and keep with the ethos of what's happening. At that point, it's about respecting the host, not about religion.

Reasons for inequality

The United States is becoming more and more unequal. Part of the blame may be with the 1% rewriting the tax code and regulations to benefit themselves. But another part of the blame for poor social mobility has to lie with this:

Twenty percent of children in upper income homes have a TV in their bedroom, compared to 64% of those from lower- income homes.

How friendly are bridge experts?

Imagine that an athlete has just finished playing the quarterfinal of a world championship. He posts a quick blog entry stating that he's won the match and is headed to the semi-finals. You, a random bloke, congratulate him and, in a postscript, ask how he handled the opponents' mysterious (to me!) bidding.

So far so good. Could happen in any sport. Lots of athletes have blogs. And many of them are open for random netizens to comment.

But, here's the clincher. I got a reply to my question! In less than five minutes! It was late night in the Netherlands when he replied, and he had a big game coming up the next day. That could happen only in bridge.

Drunk and loaded

According to a Tennessee newspaper:
The sponsor of the law that made it legal to carry a gun into bars in Tennessee is facing charges of possession of a handgun while under the influence and drunken driving ... A loaded .38-caliber gun was found in a holster stuffed between the driver's seat and center console.
A police affidavit said Todd was unsteady on his feet, "almost falling down at times." Officers concluded that Todd was "obviously very impaired and not in any condition to be carrying a loaded handgun."

The police helpfully released the photograph of the state legislator at the time of the arrest.

This makes perfect sense of course. Who, other than a drunk, would want to make laws permitting the carrying of guns in bars?  What this says about the rest of the Tennessee legislature, who even overrode their governor's veto on this measure, I don't know.

HR 3012

One of the crazy things about the US immigration system (there are many crazy things, but this is one of them) is that there is a per-country quota for the number of green cards issued.  It's meant to be fair, to ensure that the US gets immigrants from a wide variety of countries.

But this is what it means in practice: if you are from a high-population country (China, India, Brazil, etc.), there is effectively a quota for you because larger countries naturally have larger numbers of anything, including immigrants.  There is now a 25-year backlog for some countries while there is no wait list for low-population countries like Mongolia or Bolivia. Why the US should prefer immigrants from Mongolia over those from China is something no one can quite explain.

Anyway, there is a bill pending in Congress (HR 3012) that would get rid of the quota system. It won't increase the number of green cards allotted in a year -- just remove the per-country quota.

To send a letter to your Congressperson, click here.

What I did in London

What would you do if you found yourself in a foreign city that you've been to before? You've done all the tourist things already ... and you can't go off into the countryside because you've got to work in the day time ...

Me? I decided to hit a couple of local bridge clubs. I went to the Acol Bridge Club on Sunday, and had quite a nice game.  You can read all about my game on my bridge blog.

Emboldened, I went to the Young Chelsea Bridge Club on Tuesday night. That was a bust, because I couldn't get a partner.
And in bridge, 50% ain't shabby.

How to make your nutritionist fall off her chair

Near the end of a dinner with some colleagues, I see one of them frantically noting down what she'd eaten for dinner. Turns out that she'd just started consulting a nutritionist (just that day!) and had been asked to keep a journal of what she was eating.

Hence, the list.  Put yourself in the nutritionist's shoes. The very first day, your new client sends over this list of what she ate for dinner.

In case you can not read that, here is part of the list:

  1. oak leaf salad
  2. duck terrine with pistachio
  3. pigeon (shown in the picture above)
  4. monkfish
  5. profiteroles
  6. LBV port
  7. pork cassoulet

To add to the insult, there is a marking in the margin. It says, in nice big letters, "1st night".

There is more of this $#@% coming?

What are the odds that somebody is going to be looking for a new nutritionist pretty soon?

Out of paper, out of mind: why e-books mean less loyal readers

I was explaining to some one why I didn't have any jet lag.  "I knew that I was arriving in London at midnight," I explained, "so I forced myself to stay awake the entire flight even though I'd barely had any sleep the night before."  Essentially, I'd had my jet lag on the plane where there was nothing much to do any way.

"So what did you do to keep yourself awake? Watch movies?"

"No, I whipped through five books."

"What books did you read?"

"Umm ... let's see. I read one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books."  (Equal Rites) They hadn't heard of Terry Pratchett, so I explained that his books were a nice combination of sci-fi and PG Wodehouse.

"Then, I read Loser Liberalism." I summarized the gist of that book and then I struggled to recall any of the others.

This is one of the problems with reading e-books on my Nook. When you read a physical book, you see the book cover with title and author every time you open the book. But an e-book opens to the page you left it at, so that constant reinforcement is no longer there.  As a result, I often struggle to remember titles and authors.

I had to pull out my laptop and look in Chrome's Downloads directory to recall the others.  In case you are curious: Tragedy of Arthur, Buddha in the Attic and something else that has since rolled off the directory and off my mind.  Of the lot, the only one I'd recommend (in case you are not a fan of Terry Pratchett) is Buddha in the Attic. It's about a bunch of Japanese mail order brides and their lives in California, told in the collective voice. Still, discount my recommendation by the fact I couldn't even remember the title of the book until I actively looked for it.

Turning around on a dime, well 50 billion of them

India used to be a socialist, state-managed economy until it couldn't anymore. What made the system unsustainable was government debt, but the amount involved shocked me:
Singh told the prime minister that the country immediately needed a huge standby loan of at least $5 billion. To manage the current financial year would only require $2 billion, he suggested, but it would be prudent to take a larger loan from the IMF in anticipation of ongoing problems in the following year
So the reason for India's economic miracle was the need for a $5 billion loan. Manmohan Singh (then the finance minister and now the prime minister) liberalized the economy in order to convince the World Bank to lend India the money. Liberalization motivated private entrepreneurs who swept in, and the rest is history.

How small is $5 billion in the context of governments? Germany essentially loaned $600 billion to Greece, and that was just today. This is widely believed to be not enough.  Obama's first stimulus, the one that kept the US out of depression territory, was $800 billion.

It amazes me that India turned around on $5 billion.

How to treat an illegal immigrant

I was talking to a colleague about Elie Wiesel and pulled up the Wikipedia entry on him. One sentence, deep in, stuck out:
In 1955, Wiesel moved to New York City, having become a US citizen: due to injuries suffered in a traffic accident, he was forced to stay in New York past his visa's expiration and was offered citizenship to resolve his status.
This could never happen now, could it? Can you imagine the US government offering citizenship to a foreigner who overstays his visa?

p.s. A blowhard presidential candidate is being raked over the coals for probably the two decent things he did as governor ... one of them being to allow children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. The Republican primary has been deeply revealing. The audience has cheered for hundreds being executed and for an uninsured person dying of toothache. They have a booed a gay soldier currently serving in Iraq.  I cringe to think that, as recently as the 2008 election, I voted for more Republicans than Democrats. Culturally and morally, I have nothing in common with these people. But I also am disappointed with Obama's ability to fight the good fight. Where does this leave me? I don't know.  Can I have a party that is centrist, like today's Democratic party, but is capable of fighting for what it believes in?

Towards a two-state solution

In 2005, fed up with terrorist attacks, Israelis decided to build a wall between Israel and Palestine. Israeli left wingers called Sharon mendacious for unilaterally building a wall between Israel and the Palestinians.  Meanwhile, the PLO was against the wall because "bad fences make bad neighbors".

In 2011, fed up with Israeli intransigence on negotiations and continued settlements, the Palestinians decide to go to the UN and ask for recognition of statehood.  Israeli right wingers warn ominously that this means that all previous agreements with the PLO will be null and void. The US threatens a veto.

Here is the thing. Both the wall and statehood are two sides of the same coin. By asking for statehood, but only on part of the land, the Palestinians are recognizing Israel's right to exist and essentially giving up on their pipe dreams of a right to return to captured lands. By building a wall (even with the settlements), Israelis were giving up their claims to the part of the land beyond the wall. This is the two-state solution that everyone claims to want, albeit with the boundary issues remaining unresolved.

So why the acrimony? Is it because everybody wants to be able to claim that they "forced" the other side to accede? Rather than negotiated solution where each side admits that it gave up something, Israelis and Palestinians are going for bragging rights. For saving face.

Clean sweep

Every one of the five pieces the wife entered into the county fair won first place in its category. Her knit shawl was selected "best of show".

Sometimes, when I'm out of town, she'll take the kids to the pottery studio if she has to finish off some trimming. And at that time, the kids play around with pieces of clay. They entered the best of those, and both of theirs won second place. S1's the brown "hut" and S2's is the orange cup.

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Yak horns on a stupa

Ladakh ("Little Tibet") is Buddhist, but the old-time animist religion was never far below the surface. So, while Buddhism is essentially agnostic on the subject of whether there is a God, the belief system in Ladakh favors stories of supernatural beings. There are Buddhist stupas everywhere.

Stupas are a very abstract representation of Buddha's teachings. But, near Pangong Lake was where I saw the perfect blend of Buddhism and animism: a collection of yak horns on top of a stupa:

Talking of Pangong Lake, it is a remote saltwater lake at 14,000ft, straddling Ladakh and Tibet. To get there, you go through a mountain pass that is at 18,000ft. The scenery is stark, so stark that my photos of Pangong Lake all look unreal, almost computer-generated:
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Close-minded ignoramii

Rumsfeld, for all his flaws, had a way with language. I particularly love his statement about known knowns (the things we know we know) and the unknown unknowns (the things we don't know we don't know). If anything, those are not the words of a close-minded ignoramus.

What brought that to mind was a recent study on climate change and politics that landed up in my email inbox. Based on a survey of self-identified Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Tea Party types, these are the relevant beliefs of Tea Partiers:

  1. Only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening
  2. The majority of Tea Party members (69%) say that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.
  3. Over half (51%) of Tea Party members say they are not at all worried about global warming.
  4. Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are “very well informed” about global warming than the other groups. Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they “do not need any more information” about global warming to make up their mind.
#2 is an objective fact, not an opinion: something like 95% of all climate scientists insist that global warming is happening. If you believe in scientific evidence then, and are willing (like most scientists) to give credence to the scientific literature in other fields, #1 is also an objective truth. 

But #4 is what is truly insane. It's the group of people with the most wrong views on a topic who believe that they are well-informed and are unwilling to listen to reason.

World Heritage Inflation

Thursday, we hired a car and guide to get us out of Kathmandu and into the hills. We drove up to Changu Narayan, a dilapitated Hindu temple from the 1600s and then started to walk towards Nagarkot, a hill station from where (on a clear day), you can see Mt. Everest (it was not a clear day).

Changu Narayan, like seemingly every 15th century temple in Nepal, was a UNESCO world heritage site. In India, the World Heritage sites are few and far between -- the Taj Mahal is one, so is the Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri. But the Lodhi tombs in Delhi, one of my favorite Moghul garden/structure, are not. So, having all these not-really impressive places in Nepal on the list makes me think there is some country-specific inflation going on.

Walking in the countryside finally made me appreciate Nepal. Get out of the polluted city of Kathmandu, and the country is okay.

On the way back, we stopped in Bhaktapur. I should saved my praise for Paton Durbar square, because Bhaktapur is even more impressive. It doesn't have a museum, though, so Paton is probably still better overall.

Needless to say, Bhaktapur's Durbar square is also on the Unesco World Heritage list.

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The sights of Kathmandu

It didn't take long to see all the World Heritage sights in Kathmandu. We went to the Bodhinath stupa, then to the Pashupathi (Shiva) temple, to Paton durbar square and to the Monkey temple. The Monkey temple was a let down -- nobody was worshipping any monkeys. It was just that the temple was in a wooded area and there were lots monkeys there.

Bodhinath stupa was impressive, and our first sight of the eyes that make Nepal's Buddhist shrines unique. We happened to arrive early in the morning, when all the local Buddhists were going around the shrine. We too circumbulated the stupa, and it was a nice experience.

We already knew that the Pashupati temple was going to be a pagoda, so the element of surprise that hits most Indian visitors was gone. And then, it was just as noisy and as full of hawkers as any North Indian Shiva temple. If you've been to Benares (Varanasi), you can imagine Pashupati. The river that runs behind the temple is the Bhagwati, but otherwise, it's much the same.

But Paton Durbar Square was what finally convinced me that Nepal had been worth the visit. It is beautiful, with a ensemble of buildings that somehow fits together in a small, cramped space. The erstwhile palace has been converted into a museum, and that museum was full of treasures too.

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Kathmandu: polluted and bizarro

Flying into Kathmandu, we got a glimpse of green hills dotted with houses. But Nepal is not a bucolic, South Asian Switzerland. Kathmandu is more polluted than even Delhi -- a local resident explained why. Apparently, in an attempt to make Nepal more environmentally friendly, the government had increased excise taxes to stiff amounts. A Maruti van which sells for 3 lakh rupees in India sells for 13 lakhs in Nepal! Naturally, the people adjusted by simply running their old, inefficient cars for longer. The upshot is that five minutes in Kathmandu, we were all coughing. And things only got worse. By the end of our four days in Kathmandu, we all had got serious colds.

Something that always strikes me whenever I go to Canada is how derivative Canada is, of the USA. Nepal strikes me as the same. Even the ice-cream brand sold by the pushcarts is Indian.

But some things were bizarro. The pagodas that I initially took to be Buddhist temples turned out to be Hindu temples. In fact, all the Hindu temples in Nepal were pagodas. The Buddhist shrines were more like stupas. It was always unsettling to enter a pagoda and see that the roof supports were Hindu images; and equally unsettling to peer closely at the stone statuettes in Buddhist shrines and realize that they were Boddhisatvas who happened to look remarkably like Hindu engravings.

Unfamiliar views

The iconic view of the Taj Mahal -- you've probably seen it on the billboard of numerous Indian restaurants -- is the view as you enter from the east gate. It's the one with the reflecting pool, a perfectly square pod and a gaggle of people. This one:

Maybe because the iconic view is so ubiquitous, I wanted to capture a different viewpoint. And the setting of the Taj -- did you know that it is on the Yamuna river -- provides it. Here is the view of the minaret of one of the two red sandstone mosques that flanks the Taj, with birds roosting on the white marble:

While the view below might look familiar, look closer. It is of the back of the Taj, taken from across the Yamuna river:

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Severe weather and buddhist chants

Leh, in the northmost state of India, is one of the highest airports (3500m; 11,000 ft) in the world. The only reason that a place this high up has an airport at all is beacause it is close enough to the Chinese border that the Indian military deems it necessary. You are not allowed to take pictures of the airport, but the military does let commercial airliners use the air field. And that is where I went last weekend.

You are warned that the approach to the airfield is purely visual, so imagine my apprehension as I saw these storm clouds over the Himalayas as we were nearing Leh. Luckily, it was clear in Leh, and we did land.

Leh is pretty much what you are led to expect -- a narrow valley of green that is watered by the Indus river amidst barren hills. It is gorgeous beyond belief, though. You have to see the area to understand how a place that is so dry and desolate can be so incredible.

Another thing about the altitude: you are advised to take a whole day of rest to get acclimatized to the very thin air. And I was light-headed soon after I landed.

However, I got talking to the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed in Leh (no, there is no Hilton there). He said that it was the one-year anniversary of the cloudburst and that there was going to be a big prayer in town. Buddhist chants associated with an extreme severe weather event ... how could I miss it? Altitude sickness or no, I went.

Seemingly, the entire local population had turned out for the prayer. It was at a school field and the entire field was filled with people. Volunteers went around pouring out tea for the attendees. Here is one of them:

I asked her permission before taking the picture above. She told me to wait and straightened out her beads, hat and cloak. And then she carefully looked away. Must me something about souls and pictures.

Even in my host's living room, all the pictures of the family featured the hostess looking away from the camera. Maybe it's just women who have souls.

All over Ladakh, Buddhism is strong. My host, for example, worshipped twice a day. And there were new prayer wheels being built all the time. Yet, the ancient religion was never too far below the surface. Even in the Buddhist gompas (monasteries), prominent place was given to Thanka paintings of the devils that Padmasambhava was supposed to have fought and won against.

I noticed that it was the devils who received much of the prayers at those monasteries.

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Vodafone's circles of hell

Like the many circles of hell, that's Vodafone's customer service.

First, the problem.  I used a vending machine to add minutes to my Vodafone prepaid phone. Put in Rs. 300, got a text message confirming the purchase and ... nothing. The remaining balance did not go up by Rs. 300.  Meanwhile, my minutes are fast dwindling.

What to do? Contact Vodafone to ask them.  Except ...

  1. The website has a link to "email" customer service. I type in the email.
  2. I get back an email telling me that I should fill out a form. Why isn't the form on the website? Oh, well. I fill out the form and email it back as per instructions.
  3. I get back another email telling me to fill out the form. The first circle of hell.
  4. I go back to the website to find a phone number to call. Their website tells you to call "178" to register a complaint. Except that the number doesn't work when you are roaming.
  5. The website lists an actual telephone number. I call it. There are multiple prompts about "information". Nothing about feedback.
  6. Try the number several times, trying to punch in zero, or to hang on to the line hoping to get to an agent. No go. Vodafone India has no problem about hanging up on its customers.
  7. I find someone else with a local Vodafone mobile and call 178. I get to a real person this time. get told that my telephone number is from Chennai and that I need to call a different telephone number.
  8. It turns to be an unlisted complaints line. I call them and get told that they can not find my telephone number. "So very sorry sir. We are here 24 hours a day. Please call us if you have any problems."
  9. I get online and find a "nodal officer" for Chennai. The number is busy. There is no wait queue. Vodafone India simply hangs up. Not very glad to help, are they?
  10. I keep dialing the nodal officer and get to him on the fifth attempt. Explain the problem. Turns out the Rs. 300 was a "world calling card".
Say what? Why is the Rs. 300 a world calling card?

India is largely an illiterate country and the way the telephone company handles it is by having special prices for different things. If you pay Rs. 365, you get a re-charge. If you pay Rs. 300, you get a world calling card. What in a sane world would have been handled by prompting the customer is handled by magic numbers. 

Because I inserted Rs. 300 into the vending machine, my account got credited with a calling card!

Could he please convert it to a simple top-up?

He said that I should have called 178. I did, I said, but it didn't work because I am roaming.  He then stated the complaints number in Chennai. (the unlisted number for those following along at home). I did that too, I said, and talked to person named Latha who claimed my number was not a Vodafone number.

"For this time, I will forward the case to the complaints department," he finally harrumphed, "and I will call you back on this number."

Thank you, I told him.  I actually thanked him for wasting an hour of my time over Rs. 300 (6 USD approximately). But I do need a phone with minutes left on it, because I leave for Ladakh in a couple of days. So, I'm hoping this gets resolved.

But all the good feeling I had towards Indian mobile operators -- the good prices and the great coverage -- has evaporated.

How to be found by Google

If someone asks for my email address or for the text of a paper, I often ask them to Google me. Provided they know the spelling of my full name (not always easy!) or can add in a common-sense search term like "nssl" or "oklahoma", my name pops up first in The Google. This is not that unique. Put in the name of any of my colleagues and they can be found just as easily on Google (provided they have an unusual name or you put in a common-sense search term).

But in India, this seems to provoke astonishment. "Google can find you?," I get asked, as if that makes me a celebrity. Curious, I got into incognito mode on Google Chrome and put in my name to see what comes up and why.

Here is a cheat-sheet on how to be found by Google:

  1. Work for a university or the US government. Sites that are university or government-hosted rank highly on trust, so my homepage comes up at the top.
  2. Have an account on linkedin. I never use linkedin, but do log in once in about 3 months to approve all connections. I suppose Facebook would work similarly, but I am off Facebook now.
  3. Publish a paper in a data mining engineering conference. I published one (just one) paper in a data mining conference and was promptly entered into the database of every AI researcher out there who builds data mining algorithms based on links between papers.  That one paper is the cause of more entries in my Google results than any other one.
  4. Review articles for NewsTrust.  It's been 2 years since I last reviewed an article for them, but those reviews are prominently featured.
  5. Get linked to by a government website. In my case, this is a NASA (I assume) website about GOES. They cached a poster I gave at a conference long ago.
  6. Have a blog. Not surprisingly, this blog itself doesn't come up. However, this blog at some point got indexed by Technorati, and that rating page comes up. The 37000th ranked blog in some category, in case you are curious.
  7. Get picked up by Bing Academic Search. Surprisingly, the Google Scholar page is listed far below the Bing one. Apparently, my H-index is 5. 
  8. Publish a couple of papers in one of the journals published by Scorpus. These tend to be engineering journals where I usually don't publish. However, a EE student whose committee I was part of published a paper in IEEE Transactions (I was 5th author or something!) and that was enough to get Scorpus to start a page on me. According to Scorpus, my H-index is 7.
  9. Post a question on a high-traffic newsgroup. I posted a question/bug report on netcdf and that post is heavily visible because a bunch of other sites mirror the netcdf forum.
  10. Post answers on a forum. I answer a bunch of questions on the WDSS-II forum, naturally, but it is not as heavily linked to as the netcdf forum. Hence, my 300 answers on WDSS-II get ranked lower than the one question on netcdf.
  11. Publish a highly cited paper. In this case, it's a paper on WDSS-II that has been cited 71 times. But notice how far down the list an actually-read paper is. Well below the data mining paper and the GOES poster ... The next real paper to be linked is on page 4 of my Google results.
  12. Teach a course at an university. I taught one measly course in Geoinformatics, and none of the graduate students who took the course actually rated me. Yet, the fact that I taught the course meant that some rate-my-professor site started a page on me and one on my courses (plural!).
  13. Put your papers on the web. At some point, Google Scholar starts to index them. Even if no one ever reads any paper you ever wrote.
  14. Get linked to from an article on Wikipedia.
So, looking back at the list above, one thing strikes me.  The way to be found easily on Google is to publish research papers. I now understand why people are astonished that my name gets 11 pages of results in Google. They don't realize that scientific researchers thrive on self-referential links!

Fishy business

The whole concept of jewelry has always struck me as kind of fishy. I can understand paying lots of money for a fast car or for a vacation to Tahiti, but I have never been able to wrap my head around why any one would want to pay lots of money for pieces of metal.

Art, I can understand, but most jewelry is not being prized as art. Instead, it is the material that is being prized, not the craftsmanship. After all, what craftsmanship is involved in stringing pearls together? So, it was with a chuckle that I read in the New York Times that:
A Chinese half-inch pearl now sells for $4 to $8 at wholesale, which is typically less than half of the retail price. A Tahitian pearl of similar size sells at wholesale for $25 to $35.
The reason for falling prices is not just China's low-cost workforce, but technical innovation. Pearl prices are falling as the technology to cultivate larger and more lustrous pearls improves.

Depravity on all sides

Ugh. The country's debt ceiling something that (in the words of the 14th Amendment) should not have been questioned at all. Yet, it has. And this is due to the depravity of both Congress and the President.

When Congress votes a budget, it implicitly approves the spending and revenues. It's ridiculous that there is a separate vote on the bottom line that is divorced from any hard decisions about what spending to cut.  Just to protect themselves from the electoral consequences of making such hard decisions, Congress was willing to jeopardize our economy.

Meanwhile, Obama should have refused to negotiate all at on this topic. He has had several outs proposed to him, any of which would have worked. Instead, he chose the worst of all possible deals, mainly so that in 2012 he can claim to have negotiated a "bipartisan" deal.  But bipartisan does not mean "right".

This focus by Congress and President Obama on elect-ability is depraved and shows a total lack of character.  Forget about "country first".  It seems that "country" was never considered by any of the parties in this charade.

Three favorites

Three of my favorite things in the National Museum of Art in Delhi:

This one I love for its sheer self-reference. It's a stone carving of a pair of stone carvers. The expression on their faces is an inexplicable mixture of focus and resignation. Who said postmodernism is new?

I never really got Indian miniatures from the Moghul era until I read Orhan Pamuk's novel "Red" which is set in the Isfahan. Islamic painters eschewed the use of perspective long after they knew the technique because they wanted to depict "God's view". That explains why you see people in every window, each doing their own thing. Meanwhile, the king in the bottom right is planting a tree to the approval of his entire harem. The colors are vivid, and the social commentary telling.

Take a load of this carving. They look sooo... comfortable, but it is not a comfortable pose. (try it). The illusion of comfort somehow lends dynamism to this pose.
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