Ripping off the locals

One expects that as a tourist you are going to be ripped off. But locals getting ripped off? That seems to be a Costa Rican specialty.

Most national parks and attractions are priced in dollars with an equivalent price in colones.  As one would expect the conversion rate is quite bad. But think about it.

The folks paying in dollars get a good deal but the locals get ripped off!

Why a cheapskate might buy a book

Some one who knows how cheap I am (about buying books at least) was curious about my previous blog post. "The Norman library doesn't have that 24-hour bookstore book yet," she remarked, "how did you read it?".

Some context here: I typically reserve books/e-books at the public library as I hear about them, and then read the book whenever my turn comes . If the library doesn't carry the book, I suggest the book and then they automatically add me to the waiting list.  It may be six months between when I hear about a book and when I actually read it.  It's usually not a problem -- books usually keep and if I didn't have this attitude towards read-once-and-throw-away books, I'd be spending thousands of dollars every year on them. I had to purchase the book in question though obecause a book club I'm part of was reading it for December. No way to wait six months if we're going to be discussing the book in a few weeks ...

This conversation about the blog post about books brought to mind an earlier conversation with someone else who remarked that I'd posted about 1Q84 just as she was reading it, and that she thought that was pretty cool.  That was a book that I'd prefaced saying that I didn't really expect anyone else to take up my suggestion, so I suppose I am underestimating how many of my "real-life" friends do read and do take book suggestions from my blog.

If you live in Norman, and you know me, and you'd like to join the book club let me know. We're going to be reading Ted Dekker's Adam for January.  We try explicitly to cover as wide an array of books as we can (previous selections: The Round House and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore), and it has been a long time since I've read one of these mass-market thrillers. Should be fun!

UPDATE: This is truly creepy.  Amazon recommends, just for me:
What's creepy about this? That book happens to be one of the suggestions floated around for the month after next ...

A novel for nerds

If you love books, technology, distributed computing, maps, visualization, typography, (i.e. if you are anything like me), there's a new book that you ought to read. And even if you don't care for any of these things, if you like well-spun yarns of young love, I think you would love Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Unfortunately, though, this is a book-of-the-moment. The book has so many references to current technology (Google, Twitter, etc.) that it may seem very dated a couple of years from now. Still, it would make a nice 2012 Christmas gift.

Canada intervenes

I just finished reading a hilarious book called America, But Better: The Canada Party Manifesto.  The idea that Canada, which has been watching America go to the dogs, decides to stage an intervention.  As the book puts it:
We’re offering you the chance to kick back for a while and let a trusted friend cook your meals and fluff your pillows, giving you time to do some healing and generally reevaluate your place in the universe. So this is not an invasion; it’s an intervention ... Sure, we’ve had a few rough patches. The War of 1812. Vietnam. Celine Dion. [Again, we are really, really sorry about that.] But we’ve weathered these storms to develop the largest trading partnership, most integrated militaries, and weakest beers in the known universe. Both of our Constitutions are based on the personal liberties outlined in Mom’s Magna Carta, and it is this—our mutual status as beacons of freedom to the rest of the world—that unites us in cause and makes us continental BFFs. Which is why it has been with great sadness, and more than a little nausea, that we’ve witnessed our American brothers and sisters betrayed over the past decade by privately owned politicians who have created franchises out of persecuting the disenfranchised, fetishized ignorance at the expense of reason, deprived citizens of their civil liberties in the name of a very profitable notion of security, and driven up taxpayer debt
Don't worry.  The book is not as serious as all that.  Seriously funny one-liners litter the book.  Here's a sampling:

Exxon and WalMart are now the largest people in the United States. But the average American is catching up.

It’s not like we don’t have our own faults. Our prime minister makes Dick Cheney look like a human-rights crusader. Our oil program is so apocalyptic it was given a “Special Thanks” credit in the book of Revelations.

1789: Pennsylvania ends its prohibition of theatrical performances, allowing the signing of the Constitution and the centuries of drama it would incur. [Although drafted while medicine was theoretical and man-tights all the rage, it is still referenced literally in modern American law.]

1941: America and Canada cooperate to send 133,000 of their citizens to internment camps as part of a Japanese Community Outreach Program.

1972: Canada realizes Richard Nixon is a Dick. 1974: America realizes Richard Nixon is a dick, pretend they noticed first.

Quebec and Boston, two cities where visitors can’t understand the locals

We understand that diabetes affects the eyes, but if you are going to televise our games, we beg you not to add a streaking fireball indicating the puck’s location. It hurts our tummies.

[on not getting on board with the metric system] America is shooting itself in the foot by sitting on its perch, stone-faced, chained to its furlongs and miles, in league with no one, not an ounce of unity, ignoring their backyard neighbors by the pound for reasons we can’t fathom.

Terminally ill patients will have the right to end their lives on their own terms. Religious groups opposing this policy have the right to heal said patients.

Irish views

Storms over Galway
It has taken me a long time to sort out and arrange pictures from my Ireland trip.  Because I was there on work, most of my pictures are from around the time of sunset.
Galway city center and docks

This place in the pedestrian-only city-center area claimed to serve the best fish and chips in Ireland. I liked it, but my colleague who is English was not so impressed.
"Best fish and chips in Ireland"
Fortunately, I did a have a weekend in between, had a rental car, and the weather sort-of-cooperated (it only rained half the time), so I was able to drive out to the Cliffs of Moher and to the Connemara mountains.

Cliffs of Moher

Dunguaire Castle

Driving was interesting to say the least. The stick shift and the mirrors are all on the "other" side, so my instincts were all wrong. Within town, driving on the left was not a problem, because there were cars on the other side keeping me constantly aware of this. Out in the country, it was not quite so trouble-free. I scraped the car on a few stone walls. Stone walls! Apparently, because the area is so rocky, the way to make the land halfway-useful was to physically move the stones to the periphery of the plots. This explains why the country is dotted with lovely stone walls. But so are the roads. On both sides of most roads were 3 foot high stone walls. The roads were about as wide as the shoulder on an American interstate, and the speed limits were 100 kmph (about 60 mph), so yes, driving was quite interesting.

An Irish highway.

View of the Atlantic Ocean


Totally worth it though.

Oklahoma state questions: my thoughts

I'm sure there have been TV ads and such regarding the state questions this year, but I haven't watched TV in a while.  So, based on my reading of the state questions for my precint, this is what I am thinking.  I'm quite open to suggestions and corrections, so feel free to chime in.  Unlike say, a certain election for commander-in-chief, my mind's not made up on any of these topics.

(758/358) Changes the cap on increases in real-estate taxes from 5% to 3% on property.

I am inclined to vote "No".  Capping property taxes is why California's excellent education system unraveled.  We already have a 5% cap. Let's not make it worse.

(759/359) No affirmative action programs in employment, education and contracting.

In general, I am for anything that helps guarantee equality of opportunity and against anything that seeks to enforce equality of outcomes. So, I agree completely with avoiding affirmative action in contracting and employment. But I am torn about affirmative action in education. It can and should be about equality of opportunity but it now mostly favors affluent minority kids at the expense of everyone else.  On the grounds that 2.5/3 is a pretty good ratio for a state question, I will vote "Yes".

(762/360) Remove governor from parole process, leaving it to a board.

I agree. We need to reduce the prison population in this state, and since politicians are reluctant to do anything that could conceivably cause blowback, a technocratic solution might be best

(764/361) Allow Oklahoma Water Resources Board to issue bonds.

This is an organization that makes loans to towns within the state, and these bonds are a way to finance these projects.  Since the individual bonds will be voted on by the communities who take on the projects and loans, there is nothing to see here.  Vote yes.

(765/362) Abolish Oklahoma Dept. of Human Services.  Instead, create a new agency to do the job that DHS currently does.

This is a bipartisan reform effort headed by Republican Greg Treat and supported by minority leader Sean Burrage.  So, give them the benefit of the doubt. Vote yes.

(766/363) Exempt all intangible personal property (patents, land leases, licenses, trademarks, etc.) from taxation based on the value of property.

How is the revenue lost here going to be made up?  The "land lease" seems ot imply that this is something inserted by oil special interests. Vote no.

What's the matter with Indian-Americans?

It's an interesting political question.  Why do 69% of Indian-Americans identify as Democrats (second only to blacks)? On one hand, they are a minority, and minorities in the US tend to support the party that keeps talking about tolerance and fairness. But on the other hand, Indians are the richest minority in the United States, with a median income nearly twice the national median income. We have one of the fastest assimilation rates. More than 90% of our children live in two-parent households. Large numbers of us are entrepreneurs and small business owners. For us, America has been the land of opportunity. We do not like it when the Democrats take potshots at outsourcing low-skill service jobs to Bangalore. George W. Bush, for all his faults, really improved the US-India relationship bringing it back from the disastrous state it was during the Cold War. All these should argue for at least half of Indian Americans plumping for the Republicans. But no ... 84% of Indian Americans voted for Obama the last time around.

Two articles, one from the right and another from the left, examine this conundrum. Both articles identify one key factor: encounters with any proselytizing faith creeps Hindus out. We are just not used to people who assume their religion is better than ours, and tell us we are going to burn for eternity if we don't come around to their beliefs. So:
when the Republican Party loudly touts its allegiance to “Christian values” and insists that Christianity is inextricably interwoven into the DNA of this country, it doesn’t anger Indians, it nonplusses them. It effectively signals to them that they don’t fully belong in America or their party. And the sight of Haley and Jindal on the Republican convention stage, both of whom rejected their faith and embraced Christianity, doesn’t reassure Indians -- it creeps them out!
So, yes, religious intolerance is a key factor.  As far as I am concerned, the GOP can not shake off the extreme right wing intolerant faction soon enough.

But both articles leave out two other factors. A group consisting of highly educated engineers and doctors does not react well to fact-free, expertise-dissing rhetoric, and the Republicans increasingly do this on climate change, evolution, efficacy of tax cuts and other matters that most Indian-Americans would consider purely empirical, non-ideological matters.

To understand the third factor, take the minority community that was, until recently, the richest minority in the United States. Jews also vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and the reason is that views of social justice are part of the fabric of that community's makeup. In spite of intermarriage, in spite of reduced observance of Kosher and other religious laws, that tendency has not changed. Similarly, the cultural makeup of Indians arcs towards non-violence.  No matter how much we assimilate into America, that affinity towards non-violence defines Indian-American culture. When one of the parties in America is excessively militaristic, it drives us towards the other party.

Third-grade dilemma

The daughter came home with a math review test.

One of the problems read: Jean did a survey of ages of children in her block. She created this frequency table. Find the maximum, minimum, and range of the ages.


S2's answers were: min=1, range=5 and max=6, but there was evidence that she had first written down 2, 6, 8, then erased them and wrote down 1,5 and 6.

"These are not correct, S2," I told her, "you had it right the first time and it looks you erased the right answers and wrote these wrong answers."

"No," she protested, "the teacher said we always had to do things with the data that she collected, not with the first numbers."

"If that's what your teacher wants you to do, then her question is wrong. Because she asked for ages."

My third-grader then got down to the key issue at hand.

"I know that these answers are not right," she said, "but this is what my teacher said we have to do. When she gives these questions on the test, I have to do things her way. Otherwise, she will take points off."


The Gish Gallop Party

Surprisingly, I don't see any tea party types worried that Romney "won" the debate by backtracking on so many of his primary promises ("If my tax cuts for the wealthy will increase the deficit, then I won't do the tax cuts.").

But that may be because in his debating style, they finally recognized him as one of their own. Romney's debating style was heavily borrowed from the creationist and climate change denying crowds. It even has a name: Gish Gallop.

It's style over substance with the Gish-Gallop crowd. As long as Romney argues like them, they don't care that he shook that etch-a-sketch and sounded like the out-of-town roofing contractor who cruises your neighborhood after a hail storm.

The Seinfeld effect

More people will read a rant about the overuse of "Really!" because of Seinfeld's hilarious letter to the NY Times editor riffing on it.

A delinquent loan

Rohinton Mistry, the author of A Fine Balance, is in Norman to receive the Neustadt prize and I went to hear him give the keynote.  The entire speech was an extended metaphor that ended with his statement that "a delinquent loan can be a blessing". That metaphorical explanation of why he writes was very good, so I'll share it with you.

Mistry grew up listening to Western music, reading Western books and imbibing Western culture. Part of this was because organizations like the British Library would loan out books to anyone who registered. Besides, the consulates were all airconditioned -- no small advantage in a city like Bombay. But any loan comes due and has to be repaid. The loans of books and music and theater and culture had to be repaid and it was repaid in terms of the minds and souls of all the impressionable young people who frequented these premises. That was why Mistry emigrated to Canada. India was never going to be enough for him. He would not be fenced in.

He was, however, too sophisticated to fall into the justifications that most immigrants fell into. He would not insist that he was going to spend only a few years abroad. He was not going to believe that he could ultimately take all this family and friends and connections with him to Canada. Mistry knew he could never go home again.

Not being able to go home was only one part of the paradox. The remainder of the paradox was that home never leaves you either.  He was always going to be homesick. The way he resolved this was to recreate the home, the sights, the smells of the life he had left behind and scaffolded it with language.  The loan, in other words, could be delinquent -- the West would not require a clean break, and would be quite tolerant of divided loyalties -- and that would be a blessing.

Writing was Rohinton Mistry's answer to the age-old immigrant's lament.

The audience was mostly young students, in their 20s, born into the cultural milieu they inhabit. I wonder how much of this keynote they really grokked.  To me, it was moving, because the extended metaphor of a delinquent loan does capture my intellectual life, captures my desire to visit India every summer, to find ways to work in India when I can.

A delinquent loan, indeed.

Innumeracy: Andrew Sullivan edition

If you see a post titled "Romney360", does this mean:
  • Romney is back where he started from?
or does it mean:
  • Romney has abruptly changed direction?
A circle has 360 degrees, of course, so it should be the former, right?

But while everyone gets their panties in a twist if someone misuses the word "literally" (on the subject of which, see today's XKCD), no one cares a hoot if someone misuses math.

To reverse course, which is what Andrew Sullivan meant to say, you do a 180.

Eerily quiet, email-wise

It has been a very quiet day today.

NOAA's email, hosted on Google, is apparently down.  No reasons have been forthcoming. There are no emails coming into my NOAA address.

My personal email, hosted on GoDaddy, is down due to an attack on GoDaddy's servers by the group Anonymous.

The only email that is working is the one that comes to my OU address.  That's lucky, because at the top of the pile of things I am working are two proposals that go through OU's proposals office. If I had to choose one email that needed to work today, that would have been it.

Still, it is eerily quiet.

Obama recognizes a meme

As part of his campaign to motivate disillusioned young people into voting for him again, Barack Obama did a reddit interview. Reddit users posted questions, other reddit users voted up questions, and Obama answered the questions that bubbled up to the top.  The interview was so popular that it essentially crashed Reddit.

There was nothing much to see in the interview itself. Nothing, that is, but a talented politician using words to avoid actually answering any of the questions.   Take for example, this question/answer pair:
Are you considering increasing funds to the space program?
Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level - so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.
Notice that he doesn't actually say whether he is considering increasing funds to the space program.  A lot of words on a related topic, but not directly to the question at hand.
Wait, there is something worth noting: Obama's answers contained no outright lies -- these days, it appears that every speech by every Republican is full of lies, so perhaps it is worth noting that Barack Obama was saying only true things.  He was ducking questions, but he was not actively lying.

So, anyway, the interview ended with Obama's take on the whole Reddit interview process: "NOT BAD". This is a reference to a wildly popular meme that dates back to a year ago, when the Obamas visited Britain and were caught in this pose.

See more on Know Your Meme

I suppose that some young staffer would have pointed out to Obama that there was an internet meme centered about a candid photo of him.  Still, it was quite clever of Obama to reference it in a situation.  So much so that one of the Reddit posters was prompted to remark:

Not really, let's be real here.
Although it's funny to imagine President Obama sitting in the oval office giggling and looking at photos of cats.
EDIT: I'm enjoying the fact that for the forseeable future my comment with the most upvotes will be one about President Obama looking at cat photos on reddit.

This easy empathy with an audience is what makes Obama the talented politician he is.

Innocence Lost

Sunday school for the kids started today.  As we turned into the temple parking lot, we saw a police car at the entrance. Apparently, the temple board was jittery enough after the Wisconsin shootings that they asked for the police presence. They didn't ask for the police presence round the clock, mind you. Only for a couple of hours a week -- times that the building would be full of children.

The stimulus worked

A must-read interview.  If you have been watching Fox News, you may not recognize the picture it draws:

When will Americans be able to look out and recognize measurable, wonderful gains from the stimulus?

Well, we’re already able. For example, 95 percent of us received Making Work Pay tax cuts of up to $800 a year for a family. But they were dribbled out through reduced withholding, because behavioral economics suggests that we’re less likely to spend money when it arrives in a big chunk, so fewer than 10 percent of us noticed them. The backstory of that decision will make Obama supporters cringe.

Similarly, anyone who received expanded unemployment benefits or food stamps or Cobra subsidies or Pell Grants in 2009 or 2010 benefited from the stimulus. The stimulus saved more than 300,000 education jobs, and preserved over $100 billion worth of health services for the poor. We’re already using more clean energy and less energy overall because of the stimulus; the electric vehicle industry is here because of the stimulus; the domestically manufactured content of U.S. wind turbines has increased from 20 percent to 60 percent because of the stimulus. There are over 100,000 stimulus projects that have upgraded our parks, subways, hospitals, food pantries, and so forth. On our last vacation my family visited Ketchikan, Alaska, where the stimulus upgraded the nature center. It was a very nice nature center.

Also: The stimulus helped prevent a depression, and as Romer says in the book, depressions really, really suck. They create horrible human suffering, and horrible deficits, too. The economy is quite lousy, but it really could’ve been a lot lousier.

The stimulus will produce more good stuff in the future. By 2015, almost all of us will have an electronic medical record because of the stimulus. The stimulus is also pouring $1 billion into desperately needed “comparative effectiveness research” that will help doctors and patients learn what kind of treatments actually work. There’s billions more for data-driven education reforms—Investments in Innovation and School Improvement Grants as well as Race to the Top—that will seek to scale up promising approaches in public schools. And the most exciting changes will transform the way we generate and consume energy. For example, a company called Envia Systems that got a grant from ARPA-E—a modern version of the Manhattan Project—has already developed the world’s most powerful lithium-ion battery, which could slice $5,000 off the price of the next Chevy Volt.

Will Americans associate any of this change with the 2009 stimulus? I doubt it. Maybe they will if my book becomes a runaway best-seller.


I don't know how many of my book suggestions get acted upon. I know for sure that this particular one will fall on mostly deaf ears. Most of you lead busy lives, and a 900+ page novel translated from the Japanese will probably not get on your short list any time soon.

Still, 1Q84 is a smart and genre-defying book -- it's part science fiction, part metaphysics, part love story and part thriller.  Haruku Murakami, the author, sure knows how to drive a narrative and the translators (it was published as three volumes and different translators worked on different volumes) have done an excellent job of getting out of the way.  In a little while, you'll forget the length and you'll forget the original language. You'll be in the alternate reality of 1Q84.

The title is a play on 1984, and there are traces of Orwell's anti-authoritarian screed in this book, but here, it is conformity that Murakami skewers.  Every character, even those who are introduced as thugs or villains, turn out to be quite rational and sympathetic.

Chekhov is famous for saying that if you introduce a gun into a play, it had better be fired. Murakami is of the same ilk -- there is no prop or subplot that is introduced that doesn't circle its way into the plot. No prop, that is, but for one ironic item. I will let you read the book to figure that out.

Where's the outrage?

I was travelling to the US from India around the time of the Wisconsin shooting, and because that journey takes up 24 hours, I heard about the incident only after I arrived here.  What can I say?

(1) As a country, we seem to have decided that occasional bouts of senseless slaughter are the price we pay in order to keep guns readily available.  Unlike the Colorado shooting, it was clear that the shooter this time was a ticking time bomb, but he still had no problems getting a gun.  Yet, neither Romney nor Obama, Republicans nor Democrats, in their boilerplate statements would mention the problem of guns.  That issue, it appears, is settled.

(2) It is ironic that Sikhs, of all people, should bear the brunt of terrorism in the United States. They are a monotheistic religion, and the closest that one can come in the Indian subcontinent to a Christian faith.  The religion was founded, in part, to resist Islam and the first few gurus of the new faith were martyred by Moslem monarchs.

(3) The police officer, Brian Murphy, who was first on the scene, was ambushed by the killer and who waved off help in favor of the other victims shows what is great about America. Worldwide, such quick reaction by authorities to protect a minority community is rare. Instead, an attack on minorities is usually occasion for police to foment even more violence: take recent incidents in India or Pakistan for example.

(4) The forgiveness, and the lack of anger, espoused by the Sikh community after this slaughter is remarkable. It reminds me of the reaction of the Amish after a gunman massacred their community.

They may not be outraged, but we should be.  How many more such "incidents" before we reconsider the ready availability of guns?  Australia revisited its gun laws after a massacre in Tasmania, and the results have been predictable -- no large-scale killings have happened after that.

The attempted shooting of a Congresswoman didn't prompt any examination of our gun laws; neither did the shooting at a theatre, nor did this shooting at a gurudhwara. What will it take?

Two Indias

I was in Delhi all of Monday and Tuesday, but I learned about the massive grid failure from the New York Times. The hotel I am staying in, the restaurants I eat in and the building I go to work at all have their diesel generators.  When the power grid went down, lights flickered, went out and then came on again in a few seconds as these generators kicked in. This is a common enough occurrence that I never gave it another thought.

It turns out that half the country has been without power for 2 days, the Metro is shut down, etc. I wouldn't know it, because everyone I work with comes in to work in a car. Driven by a driver paid for by their work place -- no company would dare rely on Indian public transit, it seems. So, some folks came in late, but that was also because the monsoon started this morning, overcoming the city's storm drains.  Traffic was snarled for hours, but I assumed that it was because of the rains. The city's traffic signals no longer worked, but traffic signals do not play that big a role in Indian driving.

Consequently, the impact on high-tech India of the massive grid failure is probably zilch.  Okay not zilch. Their monthly diesel budget is probably busted.  But, meanwhile, low-tech India is in the dark. Literally.

The quality of life shows its head in other ways as well. A restaurant bill for one in the posh areas of Delhi will run you about Rs. 1200 ($24).  A restaurant bill for one in middle-class Delhi (in a clean, well-run restaurant) might run you Rs. 200 ($4).  For the same food -- I am not comparing filet-mignon vs. taco-salad here. Meanwhile, in my parents' village, that meal would cost you about Rs. 50 ($1).

As you can imagine, then, the way people think about money in the two Indias is different. At my parents' village, I went to get my glasses repaired. The nose piece had broken off and was replaced, inclusive of labor, for Rs. 20 (40 cents).  The optometrist said that he recognized me.  "You are S2's dad, aren't you?," he asked.  I said I was surprised that he knew my daughter.  "Yes, yes," he said, "I know. Last year, you paid Rs. 350 ($7) to enroll her in that dance class even though you were going to be here for only a month." Normally, that tuition was for six months and my throwing away $7 on the dance class made me so notorious that all the other parents of little girls in that town probably remember me a year later. Meanwhile, high-tech Indians routinely drop Rs. 350 for a coffee and a snack.

When Americans bitch about the 1% and all that, we don't know what we are talking about. To see real inequality, come to India.

The mechanics of speaking: Shashi Tharoor edition

It's always impressive to see a master at his craft.  Shashi Tharoor is an excellent speaker and I was fortunate to be able to observe him in action in Delhi today.

I hadn't actually planned on it, but my meeting at the India Meteorological Department finished early and so I looked at the usual suspects in that area of Delhi for something to do.  The film festival at the Habitat Center was running a Hindi movie without subtitles; the art gallery was full of paintings of dark and forbidding gargoyles and the Islamic center had nothing going on because it's the month of Ramadan. The final choice of the quartet in that neighborhood is the IIC.  And I struck gold there! Sashi Tharoor was going to speak and in fact, he arrived just as I was walking in.

I wish I'd had the courage to go up to him and say that I'm a big of his writing. But I'm no good around celebrities, so I satisfied myself that merely taking this photograph would drive J. jealous (did I succeed?)

He had his whole speech written out and was reading his speech. However, he managed to keep eye contact with his audience throughout.  That itself is quite a feat -- most American politicians need a teleprompter to manage this. While giving his speech, I noticed him taking out his pen and marking corrections and elisions.  If I had not been watching his hands, I would have never known this -- he did his editing with nary a pause.  So, not only was he reading his speech while looking at the audience throughout, he was managing to note his edits to the speech as he gave it!

Of course, his delivery style was impeccable -- he had a clear voice without any slurring or filler sounds.  When I grow up, I want to be able to speak like Shashi Tharoor.

What about the content of his talk, you ask ... well, the speech was on "Freedom of Expression in the Age of the Internet".  Shashi Tharoor is a diplomat-turned-writer-turned-politician who was among the first politicians to embrace Twitter.  As one would expect from that biography, the speech was mostly anodyne -- he praised free speech, rolled out Oliver Holmes' quote about fire in a crowded theater and moved quite naturally on to justifying the Indian government's request that Facebook, Google, etc. avoid inflaming the masses with anything that any body might consider blasphemous.

He never quite addressed why religious belief is uniquely deserving of special protection from the marketplace of ideas. But for one whole hour, Shashi Tharoor's mastery made me forget that I was not on his side at all.   He truly is a wonderful speaker.


The best thing about Delhi before the monsoon:

In South India, mango season is over and so what mangoes we got were about on par with the Mexican mangoes one gets in the United States. Nothing to write home about.

But in Delhi, the mangoes are delicious. I don't know what variety they are (Langra maybe?) -- the outside is all green even when the inside is perfectly ripe. Anyway, I'm pigging out on at least two mangoes a day. Hope the doctor doesn't have to come calling.

Kinsella's got my number

Ugh. I just finished reading a chick-lit book ... and ... I actually enjoyed it. This is not the kind of thing I would normally admit in public, but I do also like to post about books I enjoyed reading. So, here goes.

A few months ago, I was browsing my public library's e-book site.  In a physical library, a book can be placed in only one section and so, Sophie Kinsella's "I've got your number" would have been safely esconsed in "Romance", far from any shelf I would be browsing. Online, though, it was cross-listed in "literature" (what snarky soul would do such a thing?) and I misclicked, mistakenly putting her book on hold.

And so, last week, when the library informed me that I could download the book now, I did.  I'd completely forgotten that this was a chick-lit book.  By the time I got to the third chapter, I was hooked, though, and so I ended up reading the whole thing.

Of course, you can see the romantic angle coming about 30 pages in, so the book is not thrilling or anything. There is nothing I know now that I didn't know when I started the book. There was no uplift of any other kind either. There is precious little social commentary. Still, it is a fun, happy book and I strongly recommend it if you want a light, breezy book that you can read with only a tenth of your brain active. You deserve the break.

Kindle DX: poor software on great hardware

I own a couple of Nooks but the Kindle DX is my first Kindle. Based on about a month of use, this is what I like and don't like about the Kindle:

Where Kindle DX is better than the Nook:
(1) The screen size rules: I can now read research papers (PDF) quite clearly.
(2) The user interface hardware buttons are very nice. I thought I'd prefer the Nook's swipe screen, but I was wrong. The Kindle's buttons & keypad are very convenient.
(3) The blackness of the device means that it pretty much disappears. I've found that I get immersed in a book quite quickly.
(4) The larger page size means that there are fewer page turns.

Where the Kindle DX could be better:
(1) I have never encountered corrupt epub books on the Nook in 3 years of reading (over 200 books). However, 3 of the 8 books I have read so far on the Kindle DX were corrupted. I had to delete them on the device and re-download them from Amazon. One of the books had the last three pages in a crossed out font because of some software glitch.
(2) Need way to annotate PDFs. I bought the Kindle DX so that I could read research papers. Not being able to add notes to these is silly.
(3) It would be nice to have page turn buttons on both sides of the Kindle. Having them on the right-hand side means that I can not read books holding the Kindle with my left hand (unless I were to turn the device upside down and learn to ignore the arrows on the buttons).
(4) The software user-interface is terrible. You need several clicks to just open up a browser. The browser is quite bad, so this does not matter much. But then, the Nook's browser is also quite bad; I can count on my fingers the number of times (in 3 years) that I have used the Nook's browser.
(5) Need way to see what music is loaded on the Kindle, to move to a specific song, to randomize the playlist, etc. Having only the option to play music in order is very limiting.
(6) Need way to set time interval before Kindle goes to sleep. I was trying to look at a paper and graph a formula (using my computer). The lKindle frustratingly kept going to sleep.

Ultimately, the corrupt books and the inability to annotate PDFs are huge problems. I hope Amazon plans to address these two issues in a software update soon ... the hardware is great, but the software for the Kindle DX is still quite raw and unfinished.

Bringing the mountain

The central figure in Murugan temples honor Shiva's second son and the general of his armies. Hills being good locations for fortified temples, Murugan temples are normally built on hills. The most famous Murugan temple, for example, is in a town called Palani which is located in the Western Ghats; the name of that temple translates to "six battle-camps". 

This, of course, poses a problem for people who'd dearly love to build a Murugan temple but have the unfortunate problem of living in a flat town. In the course of the last year, someone in my parents' village came up with an innovative solution:
Yes, he built the temple on stilts!  You climb the stairs and presto, you are in the "hill temple" (its actual name). What else could a Murugan devotee ask for? My dad tells me that on festival days, the space on top is not enough and the crowds stretch down one flight of stairs.

Having always seen my parents' village from street level, it was quite cool to get a panaromic view. Forget what I said about "the standard panaroma" -- an unfamiliar view of a familiar landscape is something else altogether.

This, for example, is the view looking to the North-East.  The gopurams (temple spires) are those of the town's Shiva temple (I've blogged about this temple before):

Taken for granted

It's amazing the things one takes for granted.

Take something as simple as showing numerals using your fingers ... If you wanted to say that you have 3 thingamagies, which fingers do you hold up? In North America, one shows the three middle fingers of one's hand, with the thumb and little finger forming an "o".  In France, they show the thumb and two fingers. If you're not prepared for this, you immediately discount the left-most finger and think that you're being shown just two fingers. Our first hotel in France, therefore, I thought we were on the third floor (I'd turned away and only heard the clerk say "trois") but my wife who'd been facing the clerk and had seen him sign thought we were on the second floor of the hotel.

Meeting an older couple in Chennai (India), the other day, we were regaled to the best new thing that had happened in the city. It was a new library that had been built by the state government.  It was very clean. There were security people everywhere enforcing silence and no food. There were books from all over the world, even expensive foreign books. They had a computerized catalog, so you didn't have to actually search the shelves. The building was all air-conditioned and had nice, large glass windows that looked out onto the street.  No, you couldn't borrow books, but the selection was awesome. I totally had to take the kids to go see it. They didn't realize it of course, but they could have been talking about a public library anywhere in the USA ... except that you would get to borrow books, have community meetings, get children's programs and author talks and even have a pretty good e-book selection to boot.  The next time I go to our public library, I will try to look at it through the eyes of that couple.

We were in an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) when the driver realized that his route had been blocked by construction. As in completely blocked. "These corporation guys should put up a sign or something," he groused, "before they start to scratch the roads."  The word that I loosely translated as scratch (நோண்டு) is a word more commonly used to refer to pulling boogers out of noses, so his grouch was pretty funny. I tittered, and he thought I was laughing at the very idea. "They could, you know," he suggested tentatively, "they could put up a sign at the corner just before the street saying that you shouldn't go on, that the street is blocked. They could. It would be a lot of signs, but they are spending a lot of money to dig up that street, and one small sign won't cost much and it would save people like me a lot of petrol."  I didn't have the heart to tell him that his idea was not far-fetched at all.

Funky France

France has never been high on my list of places to go simply because I think of it as a destination for the snooty and the senile. My choices veer towards Peru or Ladakh ... France could wait until we turn senile.

Still, circumstances turned out such that a family vacation in France was the most convenient thing we could do this year, so it was to France that we went. Can a visit to France be funky, when one doesn't care too much for people-watching in Parisian cafes or go weak-kneed at the thought of 200 varieties of cheese?

Our favorite part of the trip to France was the day we rented a car and drove out into the country side, specifically a visit to Cordes sur Ciel, a medieval village built on a hill. The setting was beautiful, the drive was nice and the hike up the hill through the village was charming. Too bad no one lives in the place but people who ply the tourist trade.
 The ride back, through the vineyards of Galliac was also quite nice. We didn't stop though, because we were traveling with kids ...

In the Versailles palace, our attentions were drawn to the playful over the regal.  Thus, I loved the lion in lace:
while the wife & daughter were drawn to the shoes in a hall full of chandeliers:
The shoes, in case the picture isn't clear, were made of pots, pans and lids.  I'm sure there's some feminist message in this choice and its placement in the fanciest hall in the palace, but that message escaped most visitors to the palace.

We gave the kids the choice of one place to go to.  The 7-year old wanted Disneyworld (of course), but I vetoed that, so she used her choice to decide that we'd climb the Eiffel tower. The views as one climbs the tower were wonderful -- the hard steel against the shimmering water of the Seine provided some breathtaking views:
From the top of the Eiffel, though, it was just a standard panaroma.  Even the Arc De Triomphe has been copied so much (there's one in Pyongyang of all places) that this panorama could very well be any city in the world:

For his choice, the ten-year old chose the sewers of Paris.  The city-beneath-the-city, the location of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables ... this was a choice I wasn't going to veto, even if the son's only reason for choosing the sewers was to gross out his sister.  So, off we went.  This was a bit of a let down since the tour through the sewers seemed a little haphazard, but it was still quite fun:

One more off the bucket list

I think I know why Disney chose Paris when they were looking for a place in Europe to put their new theme park -- Paris makes tourists get used to standing in long lines.

We waited 2.5 hours in line to enter the chateau at Versailles and ended up having no time to go around the gardens. Having learned our lesson, we got to the Louvre earlier. The line to enter it, which stretched over 1 kilometer, took "only" 1.5 hours.
Line to enter the Louvre was 1 km long
The palace at Versailles was rich and fascinating. I have seen palaces elsewhere, but nothing really compares to this one.  It's one thing to have a fancy chandelier
but a hall full of them?  No wonder royal heads rolled in the French revolution.

At the Louvre, we saw the "highlights" first.  The kids remained in the game through the Winged Victory, Wedding Feast at Cana, Mona Lisa to the Venus de Milo. And then their interest flagged. We never managed to interest them in seeing the Dutch paintings or the Egyptian wing ... oh, well!

Once we were in the palace and in the museum, the crowds ceased to be much of a problem -- you could always catch a moment at every spot, but it was rare that you would find the opportunity to take a photograph without a few strange faces in it.  And so, I got this one knocked off my bucket list:

That didn't take long

18 hours after the 7-year old landed in France, she says:  "what? another church?"

Interestingly Structured Deal on Amazon Kindle DX

If you've been eyeing the Kindle DX (the large e-ink one), Amazon is running a weird deal until Father's day.  The Kindle DX by itself is $379, but if you buy it with the official Kindle cover, the price drops to $299.

I find this kind of deals fascinatingly innumerate -- why would any one buy the Kindle by itself? Why doesn't Amazon simply give a discount on the device instead of applying the discount only if you also buy the cover? Don't they essentially lose money on the covers?  It can't be advertising for the cover (the razor-blade analogy) because most people buy a cover only once.

Of course, Amazon is probably not doing this without a reason -- it's probably a price discrimination scheme. But what does the scheme discriminate for? People in a hurry vs. cautious buyers? People who read the product page vs. people who don't? People who can do math vs. people who can't? People who are willing to throw away a cover they need vs. people who won't want to waste it?

Change your password. Now.

LinkedIn's hashed set of passwords has leaked (6.5 million of them) and apparently they were doing Mickey-Mouse stuff in terms of password security (full details here).

So, public service message:
  1. Change your password for your email, online banking, and Facebook.
  2. Use three different passwords for each of the above.  You don't want to use the same password for each.
  3. An easy-to-remember, very secure password scheme is explained in this XKCD cartoon.
  4. Reuse a fourth, easy-to-remember password (abcd1234) for all the other junk, like newspaper subscriptions.
Some explanations:
  1. I think we all understand why your bank password should be secure. Your email should be even more secure because anyone who gets into your email can reset any password they please.  Why Facebook? So that people don't get into your social network and send letters claiming you are stuck in Madrid. You know that old aunt of yours might fall for that one. Protect her by choosing a secure Facebook password.
  2. Why use different passwords? So that a leak of one password, like the one on LinkedIn, does not compromise your other accounts.
  3. Passwords should be easy for a human to remember and hard for a computer to guess. One option is to create a catch phrase, rather than letters.  So, for example, a very secure password for Facebook would be  DontWorryImNot./Madrid  (I am using the Unix dot-slash instead of the word in).  The length of this password, along with the use of symbols makes it extremely secure.

Why fracking in North Dakota makes Rajastani farmers happy

Fracking, the technology that has dramatically increased oil and gas production in the American Plains, is also having an equally dramatic effect in the desert northwest of India.

It's not that the Thar desert in India has oil. It's that it grows cluster beans and cluster beans are used to produce a type of gum that is needed to increase the viscosity of the liquid used for fracking.

It's a small, globalized world when fracking in North Dakota puts money into the pockets of a farmer in Rajastan.

Macroeconomics for kids

One of the unanticipated joys of fatherhood is coming up with explanations that are simple but not simplistic.

The 7-year old: "Appa, you know how China makes all the stuff that is in the stores? Why do they keep sending the stuff to America?"

Me: "Well, some of the money we pay at the store goes back to China. That's why they send us the stuff they make."

The 10-year old: "But in China, they have different money.  What will they do with our dollars?"

Just when I was wondering how to explain treasury bonds and China's need to industrialize to the kids, I found out that I didn't have to because the 10-year old had found an acceptable answer  "Oh, yeah. ATMs."

One of these days, I need to talk to them about unexamined assumptions. But today's not the day. Today, I'm glad of my narrow escape.

The Buddhist cowboy

How did I not know of this book?  I'm talking about a 100-year old classic that I discovered by accident.

Since I browse the e-book section of our public library website by looking at the recent additions, Owen Wister's The Virginian showed up.  It's recently gone out of copyright, being 110 years old. So, there are free e-books of the text aplenty (for example, at Project Gutenberg or at Google).

Sure, it's a Western.  It's apparently the grand-daddy of them all, the book that set the image of the tall, silent cowboy who's quick to the draw.  But the book is a lot more than that. It's sad that the genre that this book spawned ended up so debased. Because The Virginian is a book with a moral code, a philosophy, an outlook on life.

If one didn't know better, one would say that the Virginian's moral code is quite Eastern (and I mean Eastern as in Buddhist or Hindu). He will never start trouble, but once in a battle, he will do his duty even if it involves killing.  As he says about himself, he has never killed for pleasure or for profit. Krishna could have saved himself a thousand verses of the Bhagavadgita if he'd simply used that line.

It's also a quite good love story, and a story of a man's connection to the wild, untamed frontier.  As a bonus,  you'll find references galore to Yellowstone, the Tetons and the Snake river -- places that to this day remain quasi-mythical.

If, like me, you hadn't heard of this book before, do yourself a favor.  Read it.

Making a cynic rethink

I'm as cynical about journalists and financial companies as the next person, but some things have to make a cynic rethink.

On Saturday morning (i.e. after the markets closed), the New York Times published a story that said that Walmart had been paying bribes in Mexico. Apparently, they wanted to build stores and build them fast. Other large chains, notably France's Carrefour, left Mexico because they couldn't navigate Mexico's bureaucracy fast enough. Walmart, though, was willing to pay "gestores", essentially middlemen who would (for a 6% fee) take care of paying off the bureaucrats.  As a result, they pretty much captured Mexico's retail market. A Wal-Mex employee, disgruntled at being passed over for a promotion, first complained to Walmart's management in Arkansas about the bribes. Walmart, though, buried the resulting investigation and the NY Times reporter sniffed this out after five years. This is big news because paying bribes in foreign countries is as illegal in the United States as it is in France.

What is it about this story that makes me less cynical?  On Monday, after the markets opened, Walmart stock fell by $12 billion.  Think about it.  Hundreds of people knew about the NY Times investigation -- the NY times reporters, their editors, office staff, their sources including the disgruntled employee who sat on this for five years, the SEC, Walmart management.  The list goes on. Yet, it was a surprise to the markets.  The story did not leak for over 6 months.

The New York Times is based on the same island as the largest, richest hedge funds in the world -- people who would have paid a fortune to learn that this story was in the works. And yet, the newspaper story was a $12 billion surprise.

Not the Whole Truth

The ten-year-old's class is going to be taking tests all of next week. This is part of the whole No-Child-Left-Behind bench-marking as far as I can tell. The teachers are all quite nervous and since many Oklahoman kids come to school hungry, the teachers wanted some of the parents to send along nutritious breakfasts to the entire class. This is on the theory that a non-hungry kid might concentrate better on exam day.

The wife volunteered to send muffins for Monday morning.

The kid was lobbying for lemon-poppy-seed muffins. "Just make it out of a box you buy at the grocery store," he recommended.

"Why", I asked.  "So mom doesn't make something weird," he pleaded, "I want it to be normal."  That's his new mantra. He wants things to be normal, not weird. We are raising a total conformist!

"What kind of muffins are you making," asked the 10-year-old when he came in to see the mixer on the counter-top.

"Zucchini-carrot muffins," he was informed.

"Awwww!", said the kid. Of course he doesn't realize that this was not the only thing to awww about. He doesn't realize that "normal" muffins are made of all-purpose flour. All he's known his whole life has been whole-wheat stuff.

Later, he inspected the muffins. "Can I just tell people they are chocolate-chip?," he asked, "they are brown."

"No ... you can't make up stuff."

"I can't see the vegetables in them anyway.  And mom's put raisins in them. Can I just say they are raisin muffins?"

Facebook friends: please keep me entertained

You know the two topics you are supposed to avoid at dinner parties? Politics and religion? Some days, it seems that my Facebook feed is nothing but those two topics.

The day after Easter are these two competing status updates:

Meanwhile, the political left is screaming about judicial activists, over-testing of kids, global warming deniers, etc. ...

Somehow, I seem to have no political right-wingers on my Facebook friend list.  I'm pretty sure they're screaming about something though.

In case you are wondering, my favorite Facebook posts are pictures (with people is better, but I can't post an example on the internets):

and status updates like these:

Get cracking people!

Not just women

I wish this trend, of manufacturers changing sizes upwards so that women's feelings are not hurt ("I'm still a size 12"), had been limited to women.

Unfortunately, it now affects even men's jeans.  This is horrifying because a size 32x34 is supposed to indicate a 32-inch waist and a 34-inch length.  It used to be that I could just go pick up a pair of jeans. Now, I have to actually try them on because the size on the label can be as much as 2 inches off.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: great book, but ...

I devoured Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity" in one sitting. It is an engrossing narrative of life in a Mumbai slum.

Gross national statistics do not really the tell the story of how India is growing at 8% a year, pulling millions of Indians every year out of poverty. "How do the poor become less poor?," Ms. Boo asks, and sets out to try to answer the question by following a group of slum dwellers over several years.

Three primary ways, she summarizes: (1) being able to find a niche and work really hard (2) working political connections and widespread corruption to run various scams (3) pursuing education to gain a toehold in the service industry.  Nicely enough, as happens in tightly woven narratives, she has one protagonist for each of the ways by which poor people pull themselves by their bootstraps.

The problem though is that the endemic corruption of Indian society makes life unpredictable. Although progress is gradual, poor people are apt to regress very quickly: corrupt government officials and the system can kill the poor off (literally) or jail them or simply extort their new-found prosperity away.

Much as I loved the book, I had the same concerns that one has about photographers of natural disasters: (1) is it really true or was the photograph staged? and (2) why didn't the photographer rush the bloodied victim to the hospital instead of taking pictures? (3) does the victim in question want to be photographed that way?

In Ms. Boo's case, she takes great care to address the first question. She says that no names have been changed, that everything is cross-validated and that many of the events depicted are on videotape. But this makes the question of #2 much more urgent because the frame around which the book is wrapped is that of a wrongly accused young man. If Ms. Boo had videographic evidence of what happened (and she claims she does), why didn't she use it to get the lad out of the jail where he was severely beaten? As for #3, she claims that the residents of the slum cooperated even when they knew they did not have any say over what she wrote about them in the book. Such an approach is very good to retain balance when reporting on powerful people, but when reporting on the extremely poor, it is highly manipulative. At one point, she relates how a wannabe-middle-class woman has a sexual encounter with a police man on her 40th birthday. That this 40-year old is the mother of Ms. Boo's best sources makes Ms. Boo's betrayal even more horrible.

So, I loved the book but I do not recommend it.

Most Americans vote against their self-interest

I found this graph, by Andrew Gellman, quite interesting:

No, not the obvious thing -- that rich people vote republican and poor people vote for Democrats (he considers only whites, so it's not about race).

No, the thing I am surprised by is how pervasively Americans vote against their self-interest.

Only the undereducated show no impact of the news that they read and the circles they run around in.  If they are poor, they vote for democrats but if they are rich, they vote for Republicans.  In other words, they vote their self-interest quite logically.

People with some education (high school graduates and BS degree holders) start off with much higher levels of voting for Republicans.  Even when poor, they vote for Republicans (against their self-interest: this is the thesis of the famous book "What's wrong with Kansas?"). This must be an impact of the cultural war.  Simply put, these people believe Democrats look down upon them and so they feel more comfortable with the simple truths told by the right-wing echo chamber.

Meanwhile, people with graduate degrees, even if they are rich, vote against their self-interest, voting for higher taxes and voting for the government to give their money away to the poor (surely, they could that themselves?). Again, the reason is not hard to see.  An anti-science party that disparages education at every turn is hard to side with even if it would be better for your wallet.

Milton Freedman's advice

Via Tyler Cowen: one of the great "what-if's" is ... what if Nehru in 1955 had listened to the advice of Milton Freedman than to the advice of liberal economists?

Freedman suggested that the Indian government should stop trying to control the economy and instead invest in education and the creation of a free market.  Of course, Friedman was right (as was one lone dissenter on the Indian government's panel of 22 economists), but their advice was ignored.  Conventional advice gave us a "Hindu rate of growth" for the next 40 years.

India in a week?

People sometimes ask me if they can see India in a week or two. I tell them, "no, just pick one city and see its region well."  This has been my operating philosophy in travel -- when we go to Europe, for example, we visit just one part of one country. The continent-wide tours that take you to 20 cities in 20 days is something I can not fathom.

But this reporter had an assignment and he had to fulfill it. So you get crazy suggestions like:
While every guidebook instructs visitors to start out by seeing the lanes of Old Delhi, the Mughal sites like the Red Fort and the colossal mosque known as Jama Masjid, I gave up on the noise and crowds and filth of Old Delhi long ago.  
Seriously? Visit Delhi and not visit Chandni Chowk, not eat at Karim's? Why bother visiting Delhi then? On the other hand, someone did wisen him up to Mehrauli (which you'd already know about if you read my blog).

Having said that, though, no one ever takes my advice. They cram everything -- from the Taj Mahal to the Himalayas to Mahabalipuram all in one hectic fortnight and at the end of it, they remember nothing and have experienced even less.

A different tribe of geek

I'm at a radar aeroecology workshop (a relatively new research interest for me).  There be biologists here. 

One of them has a pair of binoculars around his neck. 

I think it plays the same part as a pocket protector plays in some circles. Or that a web-enabled backyard weather instrument plays in others.

Other web companies should be this good

I went to to look at all my Google accounts and see what kind of information is leaking out. Answer: nothing.

I don't see what all the hullabaloo about the "new" Google privacy thing is about. If anything, Google has improved the way they handle privacy concerns. It's all quite transparent.

The only thing I objected to was that I found that I was unable to delete my iGoogle setting -- I'd tried it at some point and Google has kept a record of it.  But that's more aesthetic than anything private.

If only other web companies were this good and transparent. Kudos to Google for doing this.

The grammar police

I was helping the daughter with her homework when I took a quick moment to dash off an email.  She caught a glimpse of what I'd typed.

"You should have proofread that," she scolded.

"Why?," I asked, "what was wrong?"

She started counting off on her fingers:
  1. You should start a sentence with a capital letter.
  2. You should start a letter off with Dear So-and-So.
  3. You should end the letter with Love or Yours something.
  4. You should use punctuation.
  5. You should use your full name.
"Don't you know all this?," she finally asked, in exasperation, "even I do, and I am only in second grade."

An informal writing style

Reviewers of my scientific papers often have one over-arching comment to make about my writing style. The reviewer of a recent article noted, "The writing style is informal, and does not read like a journal article." Another reviewer, reviewing the same article, was kinder: "The writing is informal, but it mostly works for this paper."  That second comment may even have been a back-handed slap; the reviewer might have been implying that the paper was light-weight enough that I could get away with writing informally.

I have kept to my more breezy writing style, however. Given a choice between active voice and passive voice, I'll choose an active voice. I have found that short, simple sentences leading to a conclusion make arguments understandable and intuitive. The problem is that, having read (and internalized) the simple thread of thought, reviewers become convinced that a concise statement of the "obvious fact" would have been enough.  I once wrote:
Using a single, hard threshold is subject to one glaring problem. The threshold is global
in nature and applies to the entire image. Mature storms may be more intense and cover
a large area, but initiating cells may have only a few points above the threshold. Thus,
based on a single threshold, it is not possible to distinguish between noisy points (some of
which may happen to be above the chosen threshold) and initiating cells which may have
only a few points above the threshold.
As a suggestion to improve my writing style to make it more appropriate to a journal article, I was asked to change it to:
Discriminating initiating cells from noise is difficult when employing a single threshold because it is necessary to employ a threshold that is high enough to limit the size of the mature storms that are identified using that threshold.
The changes here are instructive:

  1. Lack of an "informal" introduction (my sentence about a glaring problem)
  2. One long sentence instead of multiple, short sentences.
  3. Important implied knowledge (thresholds are global) that is dropped in suggested modification
  4. Use of weaselly words ("difficult") rather than strong language ("not possible")

Some times I refuse to make the suggested changes. But more commonly, I make the changes because, with review cycles on the order of a few months, negotiating these wording changes can lead to long delays.  The result is that I often feel that my first submission reads better than the final paper.

Sometimes, of course, the reviewer simply rejects the manuscript because it "does not have the right tone."  Fortunately, this is rare. But it is at such times that I wish the American Meteorological Society had a recommended writing style.  I should be careful what I wish for, though, because the status quo of AMS writing tends to the ponderous. It is very likely that any writing style guide would bless such language.

It would  be great if the AMS would just borrow the Economist's style guide.  It starts by quoting George Orwell:

  1. Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
  4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
All these rules are valid for scientific writing, except the fifth. The whole style guide is worth reading -- I am a fan of the Economist's writing style (if not, always, of the content).