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.