Showing posts from 2009

A graphical recap of the decade (2000-2009)

Courtesy: The New York Times

How religious is your state?

I am pleased to be living in America's least religious state.

The Best Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

The Best Books of the Decade (2000-2009)

Here's a rundown of the most useful compilations I've come across.
100 Best (Times)30 Best (Onion)Best (Salon)My own favorites are listed below.
My Stroke of Insight (Taylor)
Architecture (Glancey)Under the Banner of Heaven (Krakauer)Discovering the Sikhs (McLeod)The Spiral Staircase (Armstrong)The Undercover Economist (Harford)The Tipping Point (Gladwell)Freakonomics (Levitt)A Really Short History of Nearly Everything (Bryson)The Future of Freedom (Zakaria)My Job Went to India (Fowler)Effective Java (Bloch)Letter to a Christian Nation (Harris)A Little History of the World (Gombrich)Vows (Manseau)Step Across This Line (Rushdie)An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (Roy)The Algebra of Infinite Justice (Roy)Power Politics (Roy)War Talk (Roy)Holy Cow (Macdonald)


I once got caught traveling without a ticket in Paris's underground railway. I did not know much French and got out of trouble simply by repeating one word over and over -- Anglais!

Essential websites

An excellent list of essential websites assembled by The Guardian.

Don't throw away your scratched CDs/DVDs

At least not until you've read this advice on how to fix scratched CDs/DVDs.

Linux commands to treasure

Some lesser known but very useful Linux commands.

Caption Contest

Hippo Surfacing
Originally uploaded by ozoni11 An amazing image. Probably impossible to figure out without the caption.

Dubai's great crash

Potent analysis on why Dubai was perhaps never really meant to be anything more than a port and a vacation spot. As we know, the poorest are always hit the hardest. As this excellent article explains, Dubai's migrant laborers have already lost their freedom (their passports have been confiscated). They are overworked and underpaid. It may seem impossible, but their lives are probably about to get a lot worse.

NYT's most notable books of 2009

So much to read. So little time. My highlights from the NYT's list of 100.

1. Open: An Autobiography (ANDRE AGASSI)
2. The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street (JUSTIN FOX)
3. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (DAVID GRANN)
4. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (GREG GRANDIN)
5. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (T J STILES)
6. Columbine (DAVE CULLEN)
7. The Case for God (KAREN ARMSTRONG)

Free apps

A great list of free applications.

Jarnail Singh on the Sikh massacres of 1984

I was a youngster living in Delhi during the horrendous Sikh massacres of 1984 that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. Indira's assassins were avenging the Indian army's invasion and occupation of the holiest Sikh shrine earlier in the year. The army was called out and stationed near our house at IIT's Student Activity Center. However, the massacres in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) were allowed to continue uninterrupted for several days before the army was finally deployed. My family and I had readied our revolver and discussed a plan for tackling the rioters. Luckily, the students never allowed the mobs to enter the campus.

Fat America

Another illustration of my contention that poverties of all varieties (monetary, education, health) tend to go together.

Cheat sheets for web designers

An excellent collection of cheat sheets for web designers.

Poverty, illiteracy and poor health go hand-in-hand

As demonstrated by this story, poverty of all varieties (monetary, literary, health) tend to go hand-in-hand. Our society suffers from two major themes of bad eating habits. One, large portions are definitely a problem. Many people fail to distinguish between quality and quantity. As this eye-opening article on Japan's initiative to tax obesity points out, the Japanese are the world's least obese nation and they eat very small portions. Two, our rushed lifestyles are also a problem -- when food is eaten in a hurried fashion, one tends to overeat because the body isn't given the time it needs in order to register the food and determine that it is sated or full. As a result, the stomach is already over capacity by the time it gets around to registering the food and sending a signal to the brain indicating that it is all set.


The most amazing picture I have seen in a very long time.

Open source gems

A compendium of open source gems.

Tips and tricks for geeks

64 things every geek should know.

The fast food epidemic

I recently stumbled upon Robert Lustig's lecture entitled Sugar: The Bitter Truth. I recommend it highly -- at least the first half, after which it becomes a bit too technical -- for understanding exactly why fast food is killing us. As Lustig explains, there are two killer elements in fast food. One, fast foods contain lots of bad sugars like fructose and sucrose (most of all in the biggie sized sweetened sodas that accompany each value meal), which cause the body to do a poor job of knowing when it doesn't need any more food. (Contrast this with glucose, the good sugar that is present in maple syrup or honey.) Two, fast foods remove the fiber so that the food will cook faster. The reduction in fiber causes the body to absorb more sugar and do an even poorer job of knowing when it doesn't need any more food. So, fast foods offer a double whammy -- extra sugar combined with little or no fiber. Similarly, fruit juice is worse than fruit, because (you guessed it) it has the …

The importance of sleep

Do not stay up late to read this. Grin.

Getting started with CMS

A gentle introduction to the world of content management.

A return to the gold standard

I recommend this piece of required reading, which also helps to explain the rising price of gold.

White House switches to Drupal

The White House recently switched its content management (CMS) platform to Drupal, the leading open-source CMS.

This development puts a major damper on the most frequently cited reason why companies say they prefer commercial software -- SECURITY!

Tim O'Reilly provides useful commentary here.

Hamid Mir expounds on the dire situation in Pakistan

Well-known Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir expounds on the dire situation in Pakistan. As Mir explains (sorry this is in Urdu, not English), the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have completely and thoroughly occupied a large region of Pakistan that is on the border with Afghanistan. He claims that the armies of Pakistan and the US are fraudulently claiming to be fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan. In fact, Mir asserts, the armies are active in the fringe areas and do not dare enter the actual strongholds. He challenges politicians to enter the Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds by road and travel even a portion of the 500 km stretch that constitutes the region of Pakistan that Mir claims has been irreversibly occupied by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Facebook Changes for Dummies

The "Highlights" panel on the right is gone. It has been merged into the "News Feed" (see below). This is where Facebook used to display the most interesting posts (photo albums, videos, links, etc) from the last several days.

"News Feed" contains posts from the last day or so deemed by Facebook to be most interesting to you. They tend to be either posts that are receiving the most comments/likes, posts that tend to generate the most interest (photos, videos), or posts from friends with whom you interact the most. This is the best option for those who visit Facebook infrequently.

"Live Feed" contains posts in chronological order from all your friends, with most recent first. So typically you're only seeing what has been posted in the last hour or two. This is the best option for those who visit Facebook frequently.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that you can hide the newly reintroduced "X and Y are now friends" items in the &quo…

Bollywood on 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan!

An abridged version of the song Ranaji, from the movie Gulaal, delivered by one of my favorite singers -- Rekha Bhardwaj.

Don't miss the references to 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan!

Rahman Enters Hollywood

An excellent review of the intriguing soundtrack for the film Couples Retreat, the latest offering from Mr Rahman.

Blue, Rahman's First Since Slumdog Fame

I have been eagerly looking forward to the soundtrack for the movie Blue, Rahman's first since the highly trumpeted twin Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire. There is precious little information about Blue out there but I am sharing the best link I could find. Yesterday, I finally got my grimy hands on the soundtrack and have listened to it several times now. Every movie soundtrack is different. On Blue, Rahman's attention is not on generating sweet melodies like Yeh Rishta (Meenaxi) or Ae Hairathe (Guru). Instead he seems to continue in the pop-dance vein of Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire). The tracks clearly demonstrate a talent for expertly weaving in genres. Jiggy Wiggy (Sonu Nigam) starts off as a slick pop number and then seamlessly blends in a bhangra flavor. My personal favorite, Aaj Dil, is a wonderful funk-jazz song with exquisite use of the piano and drums, delivered vocally by none other than Shreya Ghoshal and Sukhwinder Singh. Deliberate or not, there are a few bars in F…


I just watched the movie DELHI-6 and give it a rating of 10/10 (ESSENTIAL) -- various parodies rolled into one (including Bigfoot, Ramayan, and a slanted reference to the Babri Masjid episode), a delicious slice of everyday life in Delhi, a fabulous cast and characters, and perhaps AR Rahman's most versatile film score to date.

Resources To Help You Excel At Excel

Excuse the pun -- it was too hard to resist! However, here is a truly valuable set of resources for those of us who spend way too much time hunched over Excel spreadsheets, crunching data and information. PowerPoint and Excel are easily Microsoft's two biggest gifts to the business community. PowerPoint is relatively easy to master. With Excel, however, the learning can go on for a very long time. A true Excel power user is, in fact, a programmer with the ability to use Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and ODBC to extend Excel's behavior and connect to external data sources respectively. Use these resources to increase your command on Excel.

Bollywood Whirls To Sufi Music

Lately, either Bollywood (India's equivalent of Hollywood) increasingly seems to be entranced by sufi music or I've been noticing it a lot more due my growing interest in the sufi music genre. When a friend recently asked me to come up with a list of sufi songs featured in Bollywood movies, I figured it was a perfect idea for a blog post. Of course, sufi music has been far too prevalent in Bollywood for me to attempt a comprehensive listing. What follows then is a representative list that also calls out some of my favorite songs, singers, and composers. But before we begin let's briefly describe what defines the sufi genre of music. Sufism is a mystical tradition within Islam wherein there is a heavy emphasis on having the practitioner sing and dance (whirl) with extreme soul and passion in order to express love for Allah or God. It is no wonder that sufi songs evoke such a positive response from the audience. Note that whereas the qawwali (group) form of sufi music has be…

Are You A True Geek?

I highly recommend this fascinating list of 64 Things Every Geek Should Know by Blair Mathis. The article is an invaluable potpourri of the state-of-the-art in geekdom and a great reference to turn to in your moment of need.

Wish to recover data from a crashed disk drive?

Want to setup your home network so that you can connect from the office to grab a key document?

Need to digitize your old cassette tapes?

Looking for a new and interesting geek project?

An Insatiable Appetite For Rahman

It is true. I suffer from Rahmania -- an insatiable appetite for the music of AR Rahman. However, analyzed closely, it's merely a hunger for good music. And this longing for transformative music has, of course, led me to explore not only anything and everything put out by Rahman but to also to acquaint myself with his predecessors and potential successors. My search culminated with the discovery of two excellent pieces on Rahman. The first article is AR Rahman: The Road to the Oscars by Baradwaj Rangan, written for a forthcoming issue of the Rolling Stone magazine's Indian edition (launched in February 2008). This is a golden piece that could only have been written someone who has been living and breathing Rahman for much of the past two decades or so since Rahman burst onto the scene with his revolutionary score for the movie Roja (1992). Rangan offers juicy, must-read vignettes of Rahman's major musical milestones. The very well informed comments that follow the long pie…

Amit Trivedi Is Not Rahman

Comparisons are always unfair. Sachin Tendulkar isn't Sunil Gavaskar or Donald Bradman. Abhay Deol isn't Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan. And, you guessed it, Amit Trivedi, the up and coming music director who has given us memorable soundtracks for Aamir and Dev D, isn't Rahman. However, Trivedi is a rising star on the Bollywood music direction scene. He possesses an unusual talent for raw rhythm and excels at bass lines and percussion. For example, the opening of Chakkar Ghumyo (Aamir) is both inventive and raw. He also borrows creatively from Western influences. For instance, Phas Gaya (Never Mind) reminds me unmistakably of Jamiroquai. Here again, similarly to the opening for Chakkar, Trivedi employs verbal percussion very effectively. He experiments successfully with various genres, e.g. rock on Nayan Tarse (complete with guitar feedback) and Emosanal Attyachaar (Rock Version) and rap on Pardesi. Also worth noting is the use of sampling, e.g. on Nayan Tarse. To me, …

Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

I just watched Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and give it a rating of 8/10 (RECOMMENDED). Directed by Dibakar Banerjee who gave us the well received Khosla Ka Ghosla. The story is inspired by the true story of an imaginative Delhi thief seeking celebrity. Abhay Deol plays the lead character Lucky Singh and seems a better actor than his cousins, Sunny and Bobby. Paresh Rawal gives a fine triple-role performance. Last, but not least, Manjot Singh does a fantastic job of carrying the first hour or so with his portrayal of Lucky Singh as a teenager.

AR Rahman's Nokia Connections

I recently stumbled upon more fodder for my Rahmania. I've gotten my slimy hands on AR Rahman's latest non-movie-soundtrack album -- Nokia Connections -- a 60-minute collection of largely instrumental compositions with representation from several of India's folk traditions and influences. I can do no better than point readers to Amanda Sodhi's excellent review and discussion. My favorites are Jiya Se Jiya, Mann Chandre, and Mosquito.

Jiya Se Jiya (4:18); with great beats (apparently similar to those at wedding/pongal ceremonies in Kerala)
Mann Chandre (7:48); a Punjabi song featuring Sukhwinder Singh, among the highlights of this collection

Kural (5:24); a Tamil song featuring rapper Blaaze
Silent Invocation A (8:39); mellow flute
Silent Invocation B (8:50); mellow flute
Silent Invocation C (5:20); mellow flute
Mylapore Blues (6:03); guitar-based easy jazz blended with Carnatic percussion
Himalaya (3:23); piano-based, discernably oriental in flavor
Mosquito (9:06); a lovely Sar…

DeSantis's Blatant Grandstanding

Jake DeSantis's resignation letter published today in the NYT ( is a case of blatant grandstanding. Perhaps unwittingly, the former AIG executive agrees that he has probably been overpaid over the years. An unexpected acknowledgement, albeit in the form of a major understatement. And yet, he isn't willing to pass up his massive bonus during a year that has been horrible not just for AIG but for the entire world! This is nothing but greed. There is no sacrifice involved in his resignation and the associated donation. He is already stinking rich and will probably get an excellent offer from somewhere, especially now that he is a celebrity of sorts. I don't doubt that there might have been government missteps (i.e. the WSJ article). However, those don't absolve multimillionaires from the added responsibility to give something back from the huge rewards they raked in during the supposed good years. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary meas…

Facebook Is NOT Like Twitter

Those who claim that the new Facebook is like Twitter clearly have no clue what they're talking about. All that has happened is that Facebook has changed the label of its status update window to read a bit like Twitter's. The two applications have entirely different goals. Facebook is for social networking. Twitter is for marketing yourself. Twitter is also good for information fiends like me because the leading Twitters post a ton of useful updates and links in order to market themselves and improve their ranking (measured in terms of number of Followers). That makes Twitter the information superhighway of the web -- and Following the leading Twitters is a bit like drinking from a fire hose. What Twitter calls Followers are just called Friends on Facebook. And for good reason because anyone can choose to Follow you on Twitter -- you can follow me on Twitter by going to my Twitter page -- but Facebook Friendship requires mutual, two-way consent. Broadly, there are two types of…

Understanding the Economic Crisis

I highly recommend this set of visualizations and infographics aimed at explaining the current economic crisis from various angles. Each graphic explains the meltdown from a slightly different perspective. The graphic format makes it easy to digest in bite sized pieces. Especially eye-opening is the visual build up of what one trillion dollars look like.

How To Stop Terrorism

On March 4, terrorists in Lahore, Pakistan attacked a bus carrying the visiting cricket team from Sri Lanka. Many friends have expressed their horror over an attack on sports. Terrorists, by definition, appear to hold nothing sacred. They seek attention for their claimed cause, at any cost. Characterizing something (e.g. sports) as out of bounds only makes it a more attractive target. I agree with those who have suggested that the best possible response would have been to continue the game and the series per schedule. That clearly did not happen in this case. Therefore, terrorism won this round. Terrrorism is defeated only when the silent majority exhibits a level of imagination, selflessness, determination and solidarity that exceeds that of the terrorists. Here's a case in point. Four planes were hijacked during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The only plane that didn't crash into a landmark was the one on which the passengers and flight crew challenged and disrupted the terrori…

Rush Limbaugh Is A Nincompoop

Enough said. (In case you've been living under a rock, the reference is to Rush Limbaugh's recently expressed desire to see Barack Obama fail.) Although I was planning to stop here (not much really needs to be said on this topic), I'll go one step further and recommend David Frum's opinion in Newsweek.

Economic Crisis Explained

This short video explains the current economic crisis in a simple and fun way. I didn't notice the t-shirt until a friend (Deepak Kapoor) mentioned it. It's a funny depiction of oversized families who received most of the subprime mortgages.

How Facebook and Rahman Are Alike

Facebook and AR Rahman both seem to appeal to all demographics. Facebook launched around 2004 and has steadily been gaining popularity among young and old ever since. Personally, I love Facebook -- it has allowed expatriates like me to reconnect with friends and other nomads. And Facebook offers not just a reconnection but a rich, nuanced canvas on which to rekindle a relationship, albeit virtually. Rahman has been around a bit longer, but many folks seem to have jumped onto his bandwagon just recently after Slumdog's sweep at the Oscars. I consider myself an original mega-fan and have been following his work ever since my wife, Samita, introduced me to his very first score for the movie Roja (1992). I've created an MP3 DVD with every single one of Rahman's compositions -- almost 500 songs. It's a prized possession. Rahman's grasp of music is exceptional -- each soundtrack seems to contain a few songs with popular appeal and others (with classical leanings) for mor…

A Starter DSLR Kit

Those who are just entering the field of DSLR photography can easily be intimidated by the sheer vastness of the information and choices out there. Therefore, I'll describe what I think of as a good starter DSLR kit, i.e. my kit. But before I do that, I'll present you with the bare minimum terminology that you need to understand if you're going to engage in DSLR photography. There are two foundational concepts you need to get your arms around -- focal length and aperture. In looking at these two major topics you will also get introduced to some other peripheral terms, which I have underlined so that you don't miss them. Focal length. The focal length is the distance between the lens and the film. (In the case of digital cameras, the role of the film is played by the image sensor.) Focal length is measured in millimeters (or mm) and is directly proportional to zoom. That is, the larger the focal length, the larger the zoom. A lens with a small focal length (i.e. low zoo…

Not All Starbucks Stores Are Made Equal

I love Starbucks. In particular, I love their coffee-based offerings. I've noticed a huge variation in the quality of Starbucks stores. The facilities and quality of staff vary greatly. The low-end stores don't even have ovens and, therefore, don't carry the hot breakfast sandwiches. The high-end stores offer Clover-based custom brewed cups of coffee, available only at select locations in Seattle and Boston. The quality of the staff is more or less proportional to the facilities. The staff at the low-end stores can barely manage to create a Starbucks Doubleshot whereas staff at the high-end stores will happily engage in chit chat about the merits and demits of various coffees and brewing styles. The best Starbucks store in my area is the one near the Drum Hill Rotary at 101 Drum Hill Road, Chelmsford, MA 01824. Among Starbucks' food offerings my favorites are the lemon loaf (with delicious pieces of lemon zest) and the butter croissant.

Emerging Economies Aren't Isolated From the Recession

According to the decoupling theory, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies or emerging economies would be largely unaffected by a downturn faced by the advanced economies. Over the past few months this theory has been largely discredited, as evidenced by this report from the Reserve Bank of India (India's central bank) and this writeup on the decoupling theory. The reasons for coupling are primary related to India's globalization levels -- 34.7% trade globalization (measured by two-way trade as a proportion of GDP) and 117.4% financial globalization (external transactions as a proportion of GDP).

Slumdog Sweeps Oscars But Underwhelms India

Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars last night including best picture, best director, best cinematography, best adapted screenplay and best soundtrack. It is ranked #35 (with 68,758 votes) on IMDB's list of Top 250 (of all time). And yet, Indians, especially those living in India, remain largely unimpressed. The elite in India don't like the movie's emphasis on India's underbelly. The masses don't like the film because it is essentially in English and has little star power (the lead roles are performed by rookies). Furthermore, even though the great Rahman won two Oscars for it, the music will remain under-appreciated in India because the heavy influences from foreign genres have rendered it somewhat intangible to the masses.

The Emergence of Key/Value Databases

Key/value databases (KVDs) are emerging as a potential challenge to the long-held monopoly of relational databases. The weakly-typed nature of KVDs is not unlike the growing trend with weakly-typed programming languages such as VB, JavaScript, PHP, Python and Perl (programming by convention -- "strong typing is for weak programmers"). The KVD trend is emerging in concert with the maturing of cloud computing (see my post from yesterday). The KVD paradigm simplifies object-data mapping but suffers from data duplication in exchange for improved scalability (perhaps an acceptable tradeoff, given that disk space is cheap). The biggest mind-shift is that the responsibility for ensuring data integrity is moved to the application.

Berkeley's New Blog on Cloud Computing

This excellent white paper (PDF) from a group of professors at Berkeley serves to launch what promises to be an influential blog on cloud computing. The authors of the paper have shown foresight in providing an executive summary and a video so that individuals can absorb the material at the level that suits them. Start with the executive summary on the main page. And if you're completely averse to reading, check out the video.

Delhi-6: Rahman's Most Versatile and Accomplished Movie Soundtrack?

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've been listening to the Delhi-6 soundtrack almost nonstop for about a month now. A R Rahman, the composer of this soundtrack and so much wonderful music over the years, seems to have outdone himself on this one. The set really has a bit of everything.
Masakali. This hot and groovy cabaret number, perhaps the highlight of this set, has been delivered expertly by Mohit Chauhan.
Arziyan. A reflective sufi song by Javed Ali and Kailash Kher.
Dilli-6. A number of singers contribute on this electric rap song: Blaaze, Benny Dayal, Vivianne Chaix, Tanvi Shah, and Claire.
Rehna Tu. A melancholy piece, delivered by Rahman himself with assists from Benny Dayal and Tanvi Shah.
Hey Kaala Bandar. A cool hip-hop number by Karthik, Naresh Iyer, Srinivas, Bony Chakravorty. Embar is responsible for the rap contributions.
Dil Gira Dafatan. Ash King sings this soft ballad with support from Chinmayee.
Genda Phool. An exquisite folk song by Rekha Bhardwaj.
Bhor Bhaye.

The Canadian Solution

Americans don't have to look far to discover what might have prevented the economic mess they're in now. Their quiet, unassuming neighbor to the north -- Canada -- is the only country in the industrialized world that has not faced a single bank failure, calls for bailouts or government intervention. The current Newsweek has a cover story entitled We Are All Socialists Now and includes an essay by Fareed Zakaria entitled Worthwhile Canadian Initiative. Read and learn.

Who Is A Sikh?

The current issue of Outlook contains Chander Suta Dogra's excellent article on the age old and continuously fascinating question of what constitutes religious identity in general and Sikh identity in particular. The article is particularly topical given that today marks the 20th anniversary of the fatwa declared by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses.

Shoe Throwing Is For Retards

I hope I never have a shoe thrown at me. And, in case I ever spot an airborne shoe approaching my coconut, I hope my reflexes turn out to be as good as those of former US President George W. Bush. I can readily understand the dissatisfaction with Bush or Wen Jiabao. But seriously, I feel that shoe throwing is a most unimaginative and inarticulate form of protest. How handicapped does one have to be to succumb to throwing one's shoe? I'm guessing that the folks who throw shoes must have some serious speech impediments. I suppose I've developed a particular distaste for show throwing because it is a most common expression of disagreement in the national parliament and state assemblies in India, where I grew up. And I am totally disgusted at all the people joining Facebook groups that lionize shoe throwing as some sort of heroic act.

Lip-Synching: A Growing Scourge?

Remember Milli Vanilli? They won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990. But the Grammy was revoked when it was discovered that the vocals on the record did not belong to the two frontmen (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus) with good looks and nice dance moves. In recent days there have been a growing number of examples wherein the audience has been duped into believing that they were watching a live performance only to discover much later on that they were witnessing a farce. More recent examples include the following.

The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Lin Miaoke lip-synched over the voice of Yang Peiyi, who was deemed unfit for the on-stage performance due to her buck teeth.

The inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill made the decision a day before Tuesday's inauguration after a sound check to use a previously recorded audio tape for the broadcast of the ceremonies. Car…

Remembering Isaac Asimov

Not being a fan of fiction or lengthiness, my favorite Isaac Asimov books are his Opuses (Opus 100, Opus 200, and Opus 300). These were published to mark his 100th, 200th, and 300th books respectively. Each Opus contained excerpts from his most recent previous 99 books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you're like me or if you're looking for a gentle introduction to Asimov's highly influential writings, you could do a lot worse than picking up Opus 100.

Qutub Minar: Delhi's Iconic Tower

The Qutub Minar is the world's tallest brick minaret and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower was a fixture throughout my years growing up in New Delhi. The image is etched into my memory since it is located just a few miles south of the Indian Institute of Technology's Delhi campus, where I lived. Somehow, as we moved from one campus residence to another over the years, we always ended up with a south-facing balcony and a clear view of Delhi's iconic tower. However, despite having lived next door to the famous Qutub for most of my childhood, there was much that I didn't know about it until last year when I set out to help my daughter, Ria, with a school project.
The tower is 72.5 meters high, consists of 5 storeys, and is made of fluted red sandstone and white marble (the first three storeys are pure sandstone; the fourth and fifth storeys are sandstone and marble)

The minar was built over a period of almost 200 years (1199-1369) by a succession of Mughal (Mongol) ru…

Unisex Water Closet (WC) Restrooms

I recently had a bit of trouble finding the restroom at one of my favorite restaurants. The restaurant is Coda in Boston's trendy Back Bay neighborhood. They have two restrooms in the back with doors labelled WC. I discovered later that WC stands for water closet. Both restrooms have the same design -- a sink and a sit-down toilet bowl -- and are, therefore, gender-neutral. If one of the two restrooms happens to be occupied, you can simply walk into the other one regardless of your gender. And each restroom is single occupancy, i.e. no sharing. I believe this design also alleviates the problems faced by homosexuals and transgender individuals who occasionally get challenged when using gender-specific restrooms. According to Wikipedia, "The water closet was the original term for a room with a toilet, since the bathroom was where one was to take a bath. This term is still used today in some places, but might be a room that has both toilet and bath. Plumbing manufacturers often …

Do We Know How to Measure Investment Risk?

Joe Nocera is one of the most influential business journalists in America today. His piece in the New York Times offers a good summary of the debate that is currently raging on whether VaR (Value at Risk) is a good enough model for measuring investment risk and predicting the sort of financial meltdown we're currently in the midst of. Detractors point out that VaR, at best, only considers risks that occur within a probability of 99% (3 standard deviations). It does not consider the other 1% -- the outliers or unknown risks that Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls "fat tails" (the tails at either extremes of a bell curve) or "black swans". Taleb and others compare VaR to "an air bag that works all the time, except when you have a car accident!" Proponents of VaR acknowledge that, like democracy, VaR has flaws but is the best we've got. They remind us that, after all, it is VaR (along with good human judgment) that allowed Goldman Sachs to do a better job t…

An Impotent United Nations

I have been astonished at the impotence of the UN resolution 1860 calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. Both parties have blatantly ignored the UN's call for peace. Hamas said "they would not heed a resolution they were not consulted about." Israel said "the state of Israel has never agreed that any outside body would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens." Wonderful! By this logic the UN can't tell North Korea or Iran to stop their nuclear programs either! The problem with such logic is that unilateral decisions are often not the best decisions. This is why private companies have boards, nations have parliaments, and the civilized world has the United Nations. I employ a very simple formula when it comes to determining responsibility resolving matters such as this: responsibility is directly proportional to power, i.e. entities with the most power have the greatest responsibility to help resolve the conflict. By t…

Why Madoff Is Out On Bail

I know that people are puzzling over this. My understanding is that white collar crime is treated differently from blue collar crime. Once a white collar crime has been uncovered the culprit is typcially no longer a threat to society and is, therefore, able to secure bail quite easily. Moreover, I believe Madoff was allowed out on bail in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation. Since this was a crime of great complexity, it is important to secure Madoff's cooperation in understanding exactly how he defrauded his clients so that appropriate new regulations can be put into place. There are generally no such compulsions when you're dealing with petty (blue collar) crime. Here's a news item that explains this in more detail.

Java Annotations, XDoclet, or Neither?

First, let me explain why I have "Neither" on the subject line. Annotations in Java have been and remain controversial. They are a way to place tags in your Java source code to facilitate the automatic generation of source code artifacts, e.g. XML configurations or other boilerplate Java code. A very common use might be to place annotations in your POJO (plain old Java object) that allow for the automatic generation of Hibernate object-relational mapping (ORM) XML files (i.e. the *.hbm files). Folks in the "Neither" camp argue that annotations clutter the code and that code and configuration ought to reside in separate files. Folks who favor annotations argue that having configuration inline with the code makes it easier to keep track of all aspects of the component -- only one Java file per component -- and reduces mundane work since tools can use brief annotations in the primary Java source file to generate elaborate peripheral artifacts. However, once we're …

Rahman's Latest Score: Slumdog Millionaire

Folks, I recommend this piece as a brief introduction, especially for Westerners, to A R RAHMAN -- a truly ingenious music composer who deserves a wide and varied audience. Perhaps what is most impressive about Rahman is his comprehensiveness and reach -- the way he combines classical music sophistication with an extraordinary sense for percussion, rhythm, and the various genres of music. Although everything he puts out is good and he has numerous gems hidden in obscure movie soundtracks (e.g. Chor Chor, Zubeidaa), my favorite movie soundtracks by Rahman include Bombay, Earth, and Water (note: they might take a few listens to grow on you). And I just discovered that the movie Slumdog Millionaire (Rahman's latest score) has climbed to #46 on IMDB's list of Top 250 movies (all-time).

We're All Gullible

I am recommending Stephen Greenspan's excellent essay from The Wall Street Journal. The piece is excerpted from Greenspan's new book on gullibility. The book is tipped to become definitive on the subject. The author has studied the subject in great depth and rightly refers to gullibility as a very common form of social incompetence. Those who fancy the idea that they're not gullible ought to check out the following sources that specialize in debunking myths: the Disinformation series of books, the website, and the Penn & Teller show on Showtime television. You will surely discover at least one myth you actually believe (or believed)!

Is Facebook Dangerous?

In his recent blog, Bob Cringely rightly warns us not to expose ourselves too much on social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and MySpace. I try not to say NEVER quite as loudly as Bob Cringely does. I am also not quite as paranoid. But I am VERY selective about which applications I install on Facebook (since all applications require access to the personal data on your Facebook profile and I don't want to clutter up my profile with applications I don't use). Some of the Facebook applications are actually fun and educational, e.g. Deadline, The New York Times Quiz, Who Has The Biggest Brain? (and all of the games in that series). If I suspect I might like an application I will install it and play around and then uninstall it if it doesn't measure up. How else do you find great new apps? I also regularly go through my applications and uninstall the junk I'm not using (I'm going to do that again right now). And one more thing - I don't have a lot o…