Saturday, May 31, 2008

Free photos

I once took a photo of a waterfall at the Ajanta caves (if you didn't know there was one, you haven't been there in the monsoon - it's seasonal and quite spectacular). It made a beautiful wallpaper for my laptop. Eventually I tired of it, and my photographic feat could never be repeated no matter where I went. So I started browsing the net for nice wallpapers. Well it didn't turn out so easy to find good ones. For a start, many are copyright and some even have the url of some stupid website printed over them.

Well today I chanced upon Wikipedia's gallery of 514 photos that were contestants for Picture of the Year 2007. They're all wonderful (unless you count the Royal Arms of Scotland - who cares??). You can download them from here.

Enjoy, and legally!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pondicherry - first impressions

Last Monday I went to Pondicherry for the first time. It's funny how you "save" a place to see later, and then more or less let it drop out from your consciousness. Until now, pretty much all it meant to me was incense made in Auroville. And I recently discovered a bottle of jam from Pondy with the label "Naturelle Udyogam". On going there I realised how accurately this French-Tamil juxtaposition brings out the spirit of the place.

I can't provide any deep insights here as we had all of four hours in Pondy and needed to achieve something during that time. But we got to walk around the French quarter (called "White Town"). Saw three heritage hotels: Hotel du Parc, Le Dupleix and Calve. Most often luxury hotels induce in me a sense of acute boredom and a desire to smash the vase into the TV set and pour the result onto the bed. But here it was different. The beauty of the rooms was almost too much to bear. I found the aesthetic sense unique and appealing, even if in parts it invoked other places I had visited such as Kerala.

But compared with tourist spots in Kerala (like Cochin or Kovalam) the prices here, for this quality of room, were quite reasonable - starting at Rs 3000 per night at Hotel du Parc, my favourite of the three hotels. In Kerala a similar room could have cost three times as much (and they would have forced an ayurvedic massage on you, which for some reason always carries a four-figure price tag). Also the staff here were smiling and friendly and did not exude that contempt I've always experienced from hotel staff in Kerala.

I asked if the price of the rooms included tax and was told "no taxes in Pondicherry". Couple this with inexpensive liquor (cheaper than Goa, I was told) and the place seems quite unbeatable!

Walking in the French quarter is a pleasure. The locals have adopted radical French principles of architecture such as: "a building that's freshly painted in a bright colour looks nice". And the French residents all speak Tamil. I'm going again in December and just can't wait for the "Poulet roti avec vazhakai puli kulambhu" accompanied by a fiery "pepper rasam au Châteauneuf du Pape".

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Let's lighten things up on this blog! I'm attaching a photo I took some months ago at the TIFR Housing Complex.

Here's the puzzle. The poster in the photo refers to something called an "Aedikod". What on earth is that? I think I know the answer! (Hint: the poster also refers to "Belause", which I think means "Blouse".)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bombay Ducks

I'm happy that Sujata Anandan in yesterday's Hindustan Times wrote a spirited attack on the two-faced people who think they are de-colonising our city by making it impossible to use the name "Bombay".

I don't know the long-term plans of Bombay Dyeing, but at present their shop on Colaba Causeway, which I pass every day, has the "Bombay" covered up and I find it really painful to see that. If industrialists are being cowardly about freedom of speech, they deserve to be labelled "Bombay Ducks".

And while Bombay ducks, I plan to stand up for my freedom of speech. 13 years ago I took the conscious decision to use the name "Mumbai" as often as possible. I believed that the Marathi speaking population of this city sincerely felt hurt and left out, and I wanted to display some sensitivity towards them. This was in sharp contrast to many of my friends and relatives who seemed to find the name "Mumbai" - and everything else Marathi - somewhat ridiculous. I didn't agree with them, and I still don't.

But as of today, my original decision stands undone. I'm not saying I will consciously use "Bombay" to upset anyone (that would be childish), but I'll use it whenever I feel like, as an exercise of my freedom of speech.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mumbai Dying

A couple of days ago some learned members of a noted political party destroyed part of the "Bombay Dyeing" sign at Worli. They toppled the letters "B" and "O". Had they been any good at making things instead of merely breaking them, they would have doubtless made an "M" and a "U" and converted the sign into "Mumbai Dyeing" in consonance with their love and respect for the Marathi language and their heartfelt desire to have others share that love and respect.

I would had advised them to remove the "E" from "Dyeing" as well.

But more seriously - whenever something like this happens, there is a lot of head-shaking about "politicians" and "political parties" as though they are the root of the problem. They are not. Remember, we are a democracy. In a democracy it is evident that no political party would express an opinion unless there is a significant part of the citizenry, i.e. their own supporters, holding the same opinion.

So let us not blame parties ending in "S", or families whose surname starts with "T". Let's ask who are the enlightened souls on whose behalf such childish, mean-spirited destructive acts, that weaken the very fibre of our country, are carried out. Are these souls, like the gentlemen who broke the "Bombay Dyeing" sign, some sort of disaffected unemployed youth living in slums? Not at all.

Supporters of destructive agendas like forcing "respect" for one's language by breaking things, or humiliating other communities and destroying their places of worship, are to be found in very respectable middle-class homes. Some of them are colleagues of mine.

Here is an example. On the morning of December 7 1992, I came to work and expressed my distress to a colleague that the Babri Masjid had been destroyed in a completely illegal and pointless act of public vandalism on the previous day. "Yes it's a pity" he said, though his smile indicated he was not quite so distressed. He then added "of course, now that it's gone, no point thinking of re-building it, is there". And he smiled again.

In early 1993 when riots were raging in ..mbay, as a direct result of this destructive act, some of us collected old clothes and food to distribute to the worst-affected families. During this collection in my housing complex, a colleague stopped me. "I think religion is a personal thing", he said. "It should not be politicised". I agreed with him. "But there is one thing that always puzzles me" he added. "Whenever a rape is committed during these riots, it is always by a Muslim man on a Hindu woman, never the other way around".

I collected my jaw from the ground to which it had dropped, and walked away as fast as I could. But this person is still a colleague of mine. And I swear I'm recounting his comment nearly verbatim.

So the next time Mumbai is Dying, remember it's not the petty vandals (who in this case are now in jail) but the armchair poison-minds who are really responsible. Some of them are very highly educated.

Am I guilty of bad astronomy?

In case you didn't know (I didn't, till today) there is a website called Bad Astronomy. And there's another called Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum. Why they exist and what they're about, I really haven't been able to tell. But I could have sworn they had no relation to my research, which is about string theory.

Until today, when I spotted the following posting on the latter forum, in the context of "unexplained forces acting on asteroids" (the link is here):

I suppose I should elaborate on a speculated connection to string theory suggested earlier in the thread. I am not a string theorist and probably should not be making comments, but I found the discussion in a recent paper by Mukhi and Papageorgakis suggestive of a paradigm shift:

M2 to D2

In suggesting an interpretation of their newly permitted derivations they said, as an alternative:

“An alternative interpretation of our results is that giving a VEV to a scalar field takes
us onto a Coulomb branch where one M2-brane has moved far away from the others, in a theory with no compactification involved.”

I think of the string theory as always having exitsted, and the string theorists are like paleontologists who are digging up the bones of the 11 dimensional Monster theory. But, unlike normal dinosaur bones in 3D, this Monster has many duals. What looks like claws from one view looks like jaws from another dual. You just don’t want to have free parameters invovled if possible. While those that dig up dinosaurs have well established tools like drills, chisels and brushes to clear the matrix from the bone, the string theorists often have to also discover what tools to make and use that won’t destroy the M-Theory bones in removing the matrix. The authors of the above paper made a breakthrough by finding that essentially turning a chisel face down would permit them to persevere in their derivations without destroying the “bone”. (See comments after equation 3.14)


I've reproduced this incredible piece of rubbish verbatim, typos and all. The only reasonable sentence in it is "I am not a string theorist and probably should not be making comments", a profound observation that its author tragically ignored right after making it.

Now I'm proud of my recent work with Papageorgakis, which has sparked off considerable research on the theory of "membranes", related to strings. But (i) it's not a paradigm shift, (ii) it's not related to unexplained forces that baffle Nasa, (iii) it's not related to astronomy at all.

If I get the time I'd even like to explain some aspects of my work on this blog. For the present, I'm bringing up this story mainly to point out that it's not always us string theorists who give string theory a bad name....

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Firoz Dastur

Pandit Firoz Dastur, veteran Kirana gharana vocalist, passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

As I write this blog, on a Sunday morning, I'm listening to his rendition of Raga Bhairav recorded many years ago at the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune. I've always loved his recordings (I have roughly six hours worth, three from Sawai Gandharva performances: Darbari, Lalit, Bhairav, and three released by Rhythm House in their own cassette series). As per my usual practice I've digitised most of this onto the hard disk of my desktop in MP3 format, and I use the desktop as a music source, its output going into my amplifier and a gigantic set of JBL speakers.

As is apparent from his name, Firoz Dastur was a Parsi, albeit a somewhat unusual one. In addition to his deep involvement with the world of Indian classical music, I note that he was cremated at Chandan Wadi rather than taken to the Tower of Silence, and the Times of India mentions that "his last rites were conducted as per Hindu rituals by his disciple Girish Sanzgiri".

Dasturji's voice did not have the power for which Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal, his fellow-disciples under Sawai Gandharva, are famous. That is intriguing because the Kirana Gharana is noted for the purity of its "swar" or "note", which is sometimes interpreted to mean that singers should have the ability to shout a very clean and piercing note. Bhimsen and Gangubai have been justly famed for this sort of lung-power (I recall how Gangubai would cup one ear with her hand, emit one of these pristine shouts, and then raise her eyebrows in surprise at what she had just done!).

On the other hand the founder of the Kirana gharana, Abdul Karim Khan, had a nasal, pinched voice. And Dastur's style is in fact most reminiscent of Abdul Karim's - a thin, pleading, reedy voice that conveys emotion through subtle resonance rather than a booming attack. Despite this, in the heat of a performance he could boom with the best and like all Kirana exponents he took his breath control very seriously.

It is Dastur, not Bhimsen, who replicated Abdul Karim's famous "light" pieces most movingly: the Kirwani Thumri "soch samajha naadaan" and the bhajan in Raga Sarparda, "gopala mori karunaa kyon nahin aave". which you can watch here. It's a very happy indication of the pluralistic nature of our society that the prime exponents of the latter, traditionally Hindu, devotional piece were a Muslim and a Parsi. It is even said that Abdul Karim Khan's last act before he died was to sing a bhajan (on the platform of a railway station) and if this is true, I'm certain the bhajan was "gopala mori".

Late last light I listened to Firoz Dastur performing the Kirwani Thumri, and felt a deep involvement with his soul. I never met him or heard him live (stupid of me, he lived in Grant Road all his life and that's hardly 8 km from where I've lived all my life. Moreover, not being a "famous diva" type, he would certainly have welcomed visitors to his home. I should have just gone one fine day).

Dasturji's passing will not make the kind of headlines that are reserved for a very few "media star" Hindustani musicians. Many in the press and the chattering classes will not have heard of him. That is a pity and a sad comment on the state of popular awareness of Indian classical music - possibly the most authentic and unique Indian classical art surviving today. He represented the type of artist whose sole interest is art. As he did not seek publicity, publicity did not follow him. There is a lesson here - if you are looking for great achievers in any field, go beyond the most famous (who are sometimes but not always genuine achievers) and you will find many many more.

The drut bandish (composition in a fast tempo) in Raga Bhairav is "जो भजे हरी नाम, सो परम सुख पाए" (whoever repeats the name of God gains eternal happiness). Dasturji has certainly earned his happiness, and I thank him for sharing some of it with us.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sexist radio ad

Listening to the radio today (Radio City 91.1 FM, Mumbai) I heard the following offensive ad. It was in Hindi and I wasn't listening very carefully, but here is a rough account of it:

Daughter: Mummy, can we buy [some electronics item].
Mother: No dear, that complicated stuff is not for us women.
Patronising man: In XXX Electronics Superstore, we make it easy for women to shop, by offering highly simplified explanations of our electronic goods!


Friday, May 9, 2008

A painter has his own perspective...

Today I feel immense joy that the Delhi High Court has found allegations of obscenity against India's master artist Husain to be baseless.

Here is an excerpt from the press report:

"A painter has his own perspective of looking at things, and it cannot be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him," Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said in his order.

Well that is one extremely enlightened judge, and I don't think he could have said it any better! I feel extremely proud that people like Justice Kaul (and many many others) enrich the liberal, free-thinking intellectual environment of my country. As to those who pollute the self-same environment, namely the imbecile right-wing parties, evidently they believe Hindu goddesses were created fully dressed and share the absurd feeling of shame that most Indians harbour about their bodies!

I've written previously what I think about these parties and their understanding of Indian culture, in the context of language. But in the context of behaviour and specifically sexuality, they are even more odious - borrowing Victorian prudery and passing if off as Indian culture!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is Beijing watching?

I have a little widget on my blog that supposedly keeps track of where in the world people are accessing my blog from. Ever since I've installed this, there's a steady unblinking dot indicating "Beijing, China". Why would Beijing be reading my blog? I don't know, but just in case it's my favourite person there, Mr Wen Jia-Bao, I'm happy to remind him of my disgust at the Chinese government's campaign of abuse against the Dalai Lama. Most recently, his puppet media is going woof-woof at Lama-ji for his "monstrous crimes" and "perpetuating fraud". I find this kind of language so utterly shameless.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Let a hundred universities bloom...

I want to develop a theme that got started a couple of days ago when I posted a comment on my friend Rahul Basu's blog ( The topic was the allegedly sorry state of Indian science, and the discussion there was sparked off by a couple of recent articles in the press.

What struck me was that every time the decline (or death) of Indian science is invoked, there is a near-unanimous chorus from Indian scientists totally agreeing with this thesis. Now I don't say we should be dishonest and praise ourselves to the skies. But surely much of the perception of our subject is created by us, and if we promptly fall in line with some of the ignorant or motivated criticisms one sees in the press (most often written by people who couldn't tell capacitance from compactification), then we are doing a disservice to our field.

So I've come up with a constructive suggestion. I propose to the Indian scientific community (if any members of it are reading this blog, which is doubtful since no one ever reads this blog!) that we consciously take a different approach henceforth. In public we highlight the genuinely good things about Indian science and in private we try to address the problems. It's amusing how our fundamental inclination is quite the opposite: we moan and groan about the problems in public, and talk about the good things only amongst ourselves!

As to the actual articles which sparked off the discussion on Rahul Basu's blog, they are both written by scientists so I shouldn't call them ignorated or motivated. Unfortunately one of them seems rather motivated, and quite ignorant too. It's called "Science in the Sick Bay" and it would, if it were a research paper, be rejected on the grounds that it's few conclusions do not follow from the premises. As an example, the article starts out by blaming the state of Indian science on "drab" and "dingy" institutes, sexist and hierarchical attitudes, and jealousy. But all of these (particularly the sexism and hierarchy) are well-established problems of Japanese science too, and despite Japan's atrocious female-male ratio in science (and industry), these problems are not considered to have led to the decline and fall of science there. So the inference is rather weak. In fact, rather than an analysis of any general problem this article comes across as a string of personal complaints. To be fair, it ends with a concrete suggestion - to privatise science research. Which merits discussion, but sadly now that the author has finally figured out something to say, the article is over.

The other article, "Neither quality nor quantity", is a more serious effort. The author is not content to spend all his time cursing the darkness, but tries to light a few candles. His primary concern is the lack of well-trained students to input into science research programmes (note how the focus is the opposite of the previous article - asking how to create more science students rather than whine about the miserable treatment of science faculty). Concretely he recommends we follow China which has "set up 100 universities each with a budget of around 100 crore per year, and each handling 10,000 students". However at this point the author over-indulges his negativity by gloomily noting that "sub-critical efforts like starting three IISERs, each admitting 65 students a year, and declaring that we will start two more IISERs, eight IITs, 15 central universities and 14 'world class' universities will take us nowhere." Now if I do the math, I find that the "sub-critical effort" he is referring to amounts to no less than 42 new universities. Even if to start with they are far smaller than in the China example, the effort is on a much larger scale than anything in our country in the last few decades. I am personally filled with optimism by this and suggest we should applaud it for being a reasonable start and ask for more, rather than condemning it outright.

I want to end with a question. For the various new Indian universities under current discussion, I constantly hear the refrain "where are we going to find the faculty to teach in all these places". How then did China, with a poorer record of scientists returning from abroad than India has, actually staff its 100 new universities of 10,000 students each? Has it found competent faculty members for these, or could it be - horrors - that the quality of some of these new Chinese universities is mediocre? It's only a question, and I'm happy to be educated if I've missed something here.