Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fascinating Reads !

Now, I am sure that everyone has encountered a fascinating read at least once during their reading adventures, right ? The one that I am currently engrossed in is called "The Dream Machine, J. C. R Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal" by M. Mitchell Waldrop. It's long (~500 pages) and each page contains an absolute treasure trove of information on the story that you never hear when you read about personal computers. It is absolutely amazing to read that there was a large number of people who had started to think of individualized or personal computing as far back as in the early 1960s. And these are the people whose writings and visions led to where personal computing is today. For example, did you know that a prototype the first actual desktop computer was built in 1962 and was called the LINC (named after MIT's Lincoln Labs where it was conceived by creator Wes Clark) ? Did you know that the Alto was the first personal computer to use a bitmapped graphical display and a windowing environment written in Smalltalk ?

There are also some things about the popular PC folklore that I did know at all. For example, the story about Steve Jobs visiting Xerox PARC and stealing the concept of a graphical user interface is not entirely true. What actually happened was the Xerox's venture capital arm was anxious to invest in Apple (seeing as how popular the Apple II was) and so a deal was struck - "... Xerox would be allowed to invest $1.05 million in Apple's private stock sale and, in return, it would allow Apple full access to PARC's technology." (emphasis mine). Even though they were blown away when the actual capabilities of Smalltalk were demonstrated by the PARC staff, no actual technology transfer every took place. The partnership fell apart soon and Apple's chief programmer, Bill Atkinson, basically re-implemented almost everything from scratch.

I think calling this book a fascinating read does not do the book justice. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the real history of the PC revolution - which started somewhere in the 1950s and not in the 1970s, as most people (including me) believed.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Summer Happenings

A bunch of stuff has been happening since Summer started. First, some good news on the research side - four of my research papers have been accepted to be published this year. I already presented the first one in Rochester at the Document Understanding Conference. The second one is at the biennial European workshop on Natural Language Generation to be held at the prestigious computer science research center at Schloss Dagstuhl in Germany. The third one is at the annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Prague. So, the upshot is that I will be visiting Germany and the Czech Republic for a couple of weeks starting June 16th. Pretty excited about that ! Did some research on what I could do during the downtime after the conference ends each day at 5. Found that the National Theater in Prague will be hosting Milos Forman's new play Dobře placená procházka while I am there. That definitely sounds like something worth checking out.

Finally the last paper was something that I had been wanting to write for a long time now. It's an introduction to Natural Language Processing for computer scientists published by the peer-reviewed ACM student journal Crossroads. I use the excellent Python-based Natural Language Toolkit for most of the article and it turned out to be pretty nice, from what I have been hearing. I am also planning to use NLTK extensively in the Introduction to Computational Linguistics class that I will be co-teaching with my adviser in the fall. One more thing I am really looking forward to !

More updates as the summer progresses.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something old, something morose

I was going through some old writings and found a short story that I had written in a fever-induced fit of creativity back in college. I remember that we were having final exams that week. I woke up with a 102 fever in the middle of the night and wrote a story about a terminally ill author who has been told he only has six months to live. I literally wrote it on the back of the nearest piece of paper I could find. I woke up the next morning, feeling much better and looked at this and I was a little bit surprised. The legibility of the actual text notwithstanding, the story and the presentation were not half bad. I thought of fleshing it out into a longer piece but I never did - the fact that the length of the piece was reminiscent of the amount of time the protagonist had left somehow felt right. Anyway, enough behind the scenes drama. I reproduce below one of the most morbid (and cheesy, if you don't like this sort of stuff) pieces of fiction I have ever written.

[Update: Just found out that this story also has been published on blogchaat. A big thank you to the kind folks there ! ]

Six Months

Indignation is what I feel first of all. That, followed by nausea, fear, pain ... and then nothing - a void. I stagger out of the doctor's room, into the waiting room. I almost collide with a young boy - he looks up at me and smiles. Then he sees something in my face - something I can't, may be for the better - and runs away to where his mother is sitting. I see a father bending down on his knees and putting a spoon in his daughter's mouth. Have I ever fed Arpana like that ? I can recall nothing.

Six months. That would make Arpu six and a half. The thought of Arpu makes me smile. Ever since she turned five and could just barely understand what it was her father did, it was impossible to make her stop bragging about it. "Papa is a writer. He just won the pooleeter award !!". I would laugh and try to correct her. "No, Arpu, that's Pulitzer." She would nod, exasperated, and then run away to find the next one. What would she tell everybody six months from now ? "Papa was a writer. He had won the pooleeter award !!". And then the inevitable questions would follow. "What happened ? How old was he ? I am so sorry !" These would be directed not at Arpu, but at Meera, who would then ask Arpu to go and play outside. I think that'd be the routine until Arpu grew up - old enough to understand the abrupt - six month, to be exact - transition from the present tense to the past.

No, I say to myself. I must take this like a man ! Face up to it ! Fight it ! Suddenly everything in my stomach rushes up and out - "the man" lies on the floor, indistinguishable from the blood or the remains of my breakfast. The nurse runs up to me and asks me to lie down on one of the couches. She tells me half an hour later, when I am sitting up, that I was delirious. I kept laughing and mumbling "There goes your man !" Probably something from my ongoing book, I try to explain. She nods sympathetically as she walks me out.

I lie awake in bed at night. The light probably hurts Meera's eyes but I still keep the lamps on. Somehow, at this moment, darkness symbolizes more than just loss of sleep to me. I try to remember Mamma. Her hands. The hands that were successful in driving away every ailment - until this one happened. I try to remember Papa and Didi and their hands. I can't. I get out of bed and pick up the old family album from the shelf. I come across one family photo ... no hands. I start looking for another one, turning the pages frantically. My stomach rebels again and I rush into the bathroom and close the door. Dinner with blood. "Recurrent vomiting of blood" - yes, that was one of the projected symptoms. The clock is ticking. Not much longer now.

I make a mental note to see my lawyer in the morning. Meera shouldn't have to struggle. Arpu must continue with her violin lessons. I am roused out of my reverie by Arpu's voice. I step out of the bathroom. She is telling Meera that she can't sleep in her room. Can she sleep with us ? Of course, you can, dear. Then she sees me and her eyes light up. "Papa, Papa, did you know that I said Pulitzer right today ? It just came to me." I smile and tell her that's great. That's one item off the checklist. Then, as if remembering something, she says, "Papa, we had a life sciences class today. The teacher told us about the life cycle. I don't get it. Why do peoples die ?". I am about to correct her, "No, Arpu, that's people. Not peoples." I don't. I just sit there, the tears in my eyes obscuring her pretty face. Yes, why do they, Arpu ? I wish someone would tell me something I could tell you.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Talking Inspiration

I am not sure if I have talked about this before but I am hooked on Google Tech Talks (RSS feed here). The Google folks seem to host weekly (at least) talks from invited and distinguished speakers (much like the seminar series in any research group but a lot more diverse). I have found an absolute treasure trove of illuminating material in there - some arcane, some delightfully anecdotal, some extremely relevant and useful and some ... just plain genius.

Oh, and speaking of inspiring talks, there are inspirations aplenty at TED - the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference. I hate to play favorites but the one that made my hair stand on end (quite literally) was given by the brilliant Anna Deveare-Smith.

So, the next time you find yourself with a decently speedy internet connection and nothing to do, watch and learn !

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Random Musings

Now that I have found some breathing room between the relentless conference deadlines, I thought I would ... err ... muse randomly ?
  • While browsing the winners for the 2006 IndiBlog Awards, I came across Blogchaat, the winner for best community blog which allows talented and struggling writers to send in their wares while still retaining the ownership over them. I don't claim to be talented but I am certainly struggling so I thought that I would send in my depressing riddle-ish creation that I have previously shared with the reader(s?) of this blog. That didn't make the cut so I thought I would send in something new that pretty much highlights the fact that I cannot write well enough to be published in a place like Blogchaat. Ironically enough, that was accepted to be published. I will post the link when it gets published. I think Blogchaat is doing an excellent job of promoting writers that deserve attention but don't get it. I plan to contribute a lot more in the future.

  • Spring is here. It's actually a toasty 75 degrees out today and I am a happy camper. I am sure I mentioned this before ... The winter season and I don't quite see eye to eye. Ah, who am I kidding ? We despise each other !

  • I am almost finished with the first season of House. To put in a way you kids would understand, Hugh Laurie FTW ! BTW, if you want hilarious, stiff upper-lip, non-medical funny, Bertie is your man !

  • Currently reading "The Best American Science Writing 2006. Brilliant and highly recommended !

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Old Blogger Lives

I have not been able to post anything to the blog for a while because Blogger would not let me. It kept asking me to upgrade to the new version and then kept failing to upgrade. So, there was no way for me to log in. I posted in the Blogger Help group and the good people at Blogger helped me out. I really appreciate that. At least, now I can post to the good ol' blog even if I don't have any of the fancy features that the new blogger version boasts of.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Take my advice

I could spend hours and not be able to say it as well as Bobby McFerrin. So, without further ado:

Don't you feel better ? I do.

PS: Did you notice a cameo by someone famous ?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Simpsons + India = Make Laugh

The Borat-esque headline notwithstanding, it really is true. I just watched one of the funniest Simpsons episodes in one of the more recent seasons. Just the other day, I was thinking to myself that The Simpons seems to have lost its edge. This episode, entitled Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore showed me !

Plot: Mr. Burns outsources all the jobs in the nuclear plant to Bangalore, India. Homer survives the layoff but has to move to India. I won't say that the portrayal of India is right on the money but it's definitely one of the funniest I have ever seen on American television. The episode also contains one of the best illustrated arguments for outsourcing set in Mo's Tavern.

Add in :
  1. A healthy dose of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom
  2. A smidgen of Apocalypse Now
  3. A catchy Indian song from the 1970 Hindi movie Johnny Mera Naam (Lyrics in English and Hindi)
  4. The whole cast dancing (Go Smithers !)
and you have an all-around funny episode. Well done, Simpsons.

PS: For all of you who want to watch this episode on the web in its entirety, here's an encrypted word to the wise: There is constant motion in the world. In fact, I will go so far as to call it "daily motion". Enjoy !

Monday, October 23, 2006

Back With A Bang !

Kiran Desai is in the news again ! Nothing too big ... except she has won the 2006 Man Booker Prize !! I remember reading Kiran's first novel - Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard - while I in my second year in college. In fact, I even remember where I read it. - during a bus ride from Delhi back to school in Chandigarh. I remember saying to myself, "Wow ! She is going to go places". After that, I never heard anything more about her, until now.

Kiran is not the first writer in her family. Far from it ! Her mother, Anita Desai, is more than accomplished writer. She has been shortlisted for the Booker herself 3 times. She was, until recently, a professor at the MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and was one of the two reasons for my *almost* abandoning 4 years of engineering instruction and switching to writing full-time (if you are one of the very few regular readers, you would know that the other reason is Salman Rushdie).

Anyway, I digress. Kiran won the coveted prize for her new novel The Inheritance of Loss (Oh, it's already in the mail !). Guess what Rushdie says about Kiran's latest ? "Kiran Desai is a terrific writer. This book richly fulfills the promise of her first." I am sure that feels good, Kiran ! As one of your earliest fans, I wish you many more of such feelings in the years to come ! Oh, and tell your mom she rocks !

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The thread grows stronger ...

For people who don't know me very well, the title of this post may not seem very significant. However, the subset of my family and close friends who read this blog will certainly be surprised, if not shocked. I am perhaps the most vocal critic of the drudgery that has been churned out in the last 5 years by the Bombay branch of largest movie industry in the world.

However, don't file this story under the tags "man" and "disaffected" yet. Sure, my faith in the venerable film institution only hangs by a very thin thread but it's a thread nonetheless. Each strand in this thread represents a movie that is NOT an aimless blob full of inane songs and dubious entertainment value.

Dor is another such movie, and a brilliant one at that. It has a very decent plot, an excellent assemblage of actors and brilliant direction by one of my favorite directors, Nagesh Kukunoor. And that's not all. It has something that I never thought a hindi movie made after the 1960s could ever have - cinematic metaphors. If you pay attention, you can find that every seemingly unrelated event in the movie has a metaphorical bond to the underlying story. I could talk about the various scenes here (and believe me, I want to !) but I would rather keep this post spoiler-free.

Of course, Dor is going to be a box-office failure. I am pretty much resigned to the fact that almost every movie I find stimulating is rejected outright by the Indian public. I don't want to get too much into the whole "masses vs. classes" debate except to say that all the masses seem to want are unfunny jokes, unhealthy vulgarity and unoriginal scripts. I know I probably come off as an arrogant snob here but I assure you, that is not my intent. There are plenty of movies that lie at the intersection.

With that disclaimer in mind, I wish Dor all the success in the world (I wish it was the official Indian entry to the upcoming Academy Awards, but I am also a big fan of the movie that was ultimately selected).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I return

I return to the blogosphere,
weary, yet undefeated.
I stayed away for my mind had only dark thoughts,
but I return cleansed, my exile completed.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Walk Down Memory Lane

For some reason, this morning was different than the others. At first, I could not figure out what it was - no matter how much I tried. It struck me when I reached the lab - I wanted to play Carmen Sandiego ! For those of you that don't know this game, there's always Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, this was one of the coolest games that I played on the old PC-XTs when I was over in my mother's office once in a while. Trying to catch thieves that stole the most interesting things (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome was one) was pretty cool. I think that was the biggest motivation for me to show any interest in the otherwise (seemingly) dull world of geography. You see, the whole point of the game was to follow the thief's tracks around the world (hence the name - Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego ?) The clues were of a geographical nature and you, the gumshoe, had to figure out which country was next on the list.

So, now that I have given you a little introduction, let me outline the steps I had to take to find and run this game. The fact that complicated things a little bit was that my laptop is an Apple Powerbook G4. So, the first thing I had to do was to find a DOS emulator - which was pretty easy. DOSBox is an open-sourced and extremely efficient emulator that was available as a prepackaged binary for Mac OS X. Once that was installed, I searched for the actual game and found a deluxe version of the same somewhere in the google wild. Getting it up and running was extremely simple and within 5 minutes, I was hot on the heels of Carmen, as the screenshots below will tell you. Needless to say, work was set aside and time was wasted.

The DOSBox emulator in action

Where are you, Carmen ?

Getting my next case details on the videophone from the Chief !

Of course, my hankering for nostalgia did not stop there. I was looking at another list of oldies online and found that they had Turbo Pascal 5.5 listed !! I could not believe my eyes. This was the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) that I had grown up with and written my first programs in. There was no way I could pass that up ! So, 10 minutes later, there I was, writing a Pascal program and reveling in the warmth of one of the best structural programming languages around. Borland had added object orientation to the language with the release of this version of Turbo Pascal and that was where I got introduced to OOP. I had forgotten how cool Pascal used to be:

1) Parts of the original MacOS were written in Pascal and Motorola 68000 assembly language
2) The most frequent high-level language used for development in the early Mac community was Pascal.
3) In addition, the popular typesetting system TeX was written by Donald E. Knuth in WEB, a variant of Pascal designed for literate programming.

Without further ado, I reveal to you - the programming interface of my adolescence (I swear, I still remember the keyboard shortcuts !!)

Borland Turbo Pascal 5.5 running on DOSBOX

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Peace Of Wild Things

It's been a while since I have posted - I always thought that once I finished with the doctoral coursework, I would have a lot more time to post. However, it's been exactly the opposite - conference deadlines, research experiments and literature review for that in-the-distance dissertation has me completely swamped. Of course, I spend a lot of time listening to NPR(the podcasts while taking my daily constitutional and regular radio broadcasts when I get home from school) but that hardly counts, right ?

However, there are some events that you just can't pass up writing about. I am in Philadelphia this week (spending the spring break with my grandmother or as I call her - "Mummy"). I managed to catch an episode of ER this morning. This one was special because the word "favorite" kept coming up - my favorite episode of my favorite show with my favorite actor (Alan Alda) as the guest star, and last but certainly not the least, eponymous with one of my favorite poems - "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry. The scene where Alda recites the (somewhat paraphrased and shortened) poem makes for brilliant television.

Here's the amazingly poignant poem in its entirety:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I don't know about you but when I read this poem, I get this feeling of blissful serenity that's pretty hard to come by in today's world.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Justifiable Kowtowing ?

[It's been a while since I have posted anything new. What usually happens is that I start a story but never actually have the chance to finish it, what with the other few hundred things going on in my life. However, I didn't think I could put this particular story in the Drafts folder given my level of disappointment and curiosity.]

"Don't be evil" - a motto that Google claims forms the basis of their corporate policies and business practices. What compounds my disappointment is that I actually believed it until I read that Google has agreed to create new versions of its search and news-aggregation websites that will censor all results that the Chinese government deems to be objectionable. Here's what the head policy counsel at Google had to say, " will comply with local Chinese laws and regulations. In deciding how best to approach the Chinese --or any-- market, we must balance our commitments to satisfy the interest of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions."

Now, when I had read similar news stories about Microsoft engaging in similar reprehensible behavior, I was actually not that surprised. There were two reasons for that - (a) I believed that Google is still out there leading the charge against government censorship and intrusion, and (b) Microsoft, the company (I am not referring to Gates here), does not have a track record that attests to putting the benefits to the consumer above profits. I understand that - if they don't comply, they will lose millions, if not billions, by government regulation in the form of excessive regulation and non-compliance to drive out software piracy.

Google's stand seems to be that access to some information is better than no information at all. I am not sure how they expect that any reasonable person would stomach that. Isn't the logic simple ? In a country where the government already has control over most other media, the citizens would inevitably come to rely upon a service, such as Google, that can provide not only information but also a sense of connectedness to the rest of the world. If said service also kowtows to extremely unreasonable government demands, it is just a redundant source of government propaganda.

Let's try playing devil's advocate for a minute. Larry Page recently said that he has always wanted to change the world. I think he, along with co-founder Brin, has managed to make a significant difference in the dissemination of information. May be he actually believes that access to some information is better than no information. In that case, I will grant that he thinks a compromise is necessitated and that the company is still not violating their motto. However, just because you can't see the wrong doesn't make it right.

Strong words aside, I have an inkling of hope that Google will realize that sometimes taking a stand against an oppressive regime goes farther towards changing the world than pandering to their demands. I know other people share my feelings.

Google, Don't be evil.

Update: Here's an illustration of the censorship (a side by side comparison of and search results for the same query). If you want to try some queries yourself, change your browser language to Chinese so that your default google site becomes

Update 2: Google has finally spoken. They are not happy with the decision that they have had to make and they hope to be able to do away with the filtering one day. I appreciate the fact that Google felt it was important to provide a public explanation of their decision (unlike certain other companies that we know of). It indicates that they still believe they are responsible to the public at large, and not just a subset that holds Google's shares. I still don't agree with their decision but I am now willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.