Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sporting chance?

Sports and religion are two fields of human activity where absurd statements seem to pass unchallenged a lot. Actually there are a few prominent people who challenge statements made on behalf of religion: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are prime examples, quite different from each other too. But when it comes to sports I don't know of any prominent critics, so I'll just have to try my own hand.

The present posting is inspired by this article wherein Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton says he accepts the risks of racing. Commenting on the recent deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli in racing accidents, he admits this is on the minds of the fraternity as the Grand Prix starts in Delhi and then comes out with the following gem:

"But you have got to do what you do because you love it. It is a sacrifice and a risk that we all take. No one wants to be in those situations but, for me, if I was to pass away, I cannot imagine a better way, personally. I have always said if I was going to go, then in a racing car would be the way to do it. It is what I love."

This statement may not appear absurd to people and it certainly doesn't appear to have invoked a chorus of condemnation. But imagine the same thing said by a modern-day version of Timothy Leary who liked experimenting with mind-altering drugs: "If I was going to go, then high on LSD would be the way to do it. It is what I love". What an outcry there would be!

In fact you don't have to imagine it - music legends Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse died prematurely because of their excessive dependence on drugs (and alcohol in the latter case) and in the popular view their deaths are far from glorified.But if Mr Hamilton's comment is appropriate then we must reconsider. Presumably MJ and AW were doing what they loved. There is plenty of evidence that the success of their art was correlated with their wild abuse of chemicals. Without heroin there would have been no Amy Winehouse album "Back to Black", recently judged the biggest selling album in the UK in the 21st century. I've listened to it a lot and it's a truly brilliant work: depressing and deranged but original, powerful and intelligent. Comparison with a Van Gogh painting would not be out of place.

It's obviously not my point that musicians or other artists are right to fry their brains and die at 27 like Amy or 50 like MJ. But why is it OK, even noble somehow, to get in a machine and spin round a racetrack like a maniac and occasionally collide, spin out of control and die? Wheldon was 33 and Simoncelli a mere 24. Compare their short lives to that of drug guru Timothy Leary who not only experimented with drugs during the heady 1960's but urged others to take them. He was imprisoned and even called "the most dangerous man in America" (by the most dangerous man in America at the time, Richard Nixon). Yet he lived until the ripe age of 76 and even inspired a nice song, "Legend of a Mind", by the Moody Blues. It makes you wonder.

They are like that only

Readers of my blog will know that "profiling" (racial, ethnic and other) is a form of injustice that disturbs me considerably. I blogged about a recent incident here.

Over the years I realised that my strong distaste for profiling was not universally shared. A decade ago I spent a year at Princeton, starting a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and read with dismay as numerous incidents of profiling unfolded, some leading to deaths and others merely to absurd situations like this one (on balance though, I have to say that the number of such incidents was extremely modest in post 9/11 USA compared to say the anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim pogroms in India). But when I sought to raise the issue at the lunch table in Princeton, a very respected physicist shocked me by saying that a few people being wrongly profiled was quite natural and acceptable in the prevailing situation.

Since then I've encountered this sort of "tolerance" of injustice on a surprising number of occasions. What disturbs me is not that it exists but that it can be found among people who are (or believe they are) well-meaning liberals. These people may themselves bear no ill-will toward the community being profiled, but for some reason are willing to express opinions that end up encouraging the biases of others far less liberal than themselves.

Which brings me to the topic. Recently the Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University ended up in a confrontation with students at his university who hail from the North-East of India. According to the reports, it started with a couple of incidents of alcohol-fueled violence on campus, in which some students from the North-East were implicated. Thereupon the VC is said to have convened a meeting of faculty members from the same region and "informed them that the university administration would carry out a series of reform measures to curb consumption of alcohol and drugs on campus and that he would "start" with the northeastern community." (the quote is from this Times of India article). This led to considerable resentment from the students, and accusations of racial profiling. In particular an association of students from the North-East pointed out during their protest that other non-North-Eastern students had been involved in the drinking incidents that provoked the row. They also complained that they themselves were constantly being profiled by students around them ("are you cooking dog meat?" etc) and the VC's action would only make things worse.

I waited several days before blogging about this, hoping that it would all somehow turn out to be a mistake and that the VC, someone I know well and who moreover blogs at this site, had never actually said what he was accused of saying: that he wanted to "start with the northeastern community". But though there has been a creditably profuse apology, which seems to have been accepted by the students concerned, there has in fact been no denial of the original accusation, neither in the press nor on the VC's blog. So I assume that he did decide to address this problem by "starting" with the NE students.

Which leads to a lot of possibilities, all very unsavoury and all taking place anyway. When riots take place or there are bomb attacks, the tendency is to "start with the Muslims". This demonises a whole community, some believe rightfully. The questions that rarely gets prominence are: (i) when placing human beings into categories, are we exercising objective choices or indulging in knee-jerk reactions? (ii) when singling out a category of human beings for reform, what message do we send to those members already completely innocent of the charge?, (iii) what is gained by focusing on entire communities rather than individuals?

To illustrate my points: about (i), one could well argue that terrorist attacks today are motivated by religious fundamentalism, so instead of drawing a bracket around Muslims, one could more appropriately draw it around religious fundamentalists of all hues. This is not to say one should actually do this -- even among religious fundamentalists, only very few are motivated to actually commit violence. The question should in fact be turned around: by bracketing very general categories ("North-Easterners", "Muslims" etc) one includes so many irrelevant people in the net that the real culprits can easily slip out of it. On point (ii), we have for years been seeing the effect of profiling on Kashmiri youth, who find they are all considered "suspected terrorists" and, not at all surprisingly, have reacted with a profound hatred for the Indian state.

There are other forms of profiling not based on ethnicity or religion. Some years ago I had a heated argument with a close friend (and reader of this blog). The issue at hand was an accusation of gender-based discrimination by a female faculty member against the Director of her institution. I had asked my friend if she knew the facts of the case, and my friend responded that though she did not have any hard evidence, she was inclined to believe the accusations because gender-based discrimination in academia was extremely common.

Now on the latter point, I heartily agree with my friend. The problem of gender-based discrimination in Indian academia is huge and its existence is almost totally denied even today (ironically a lot of it is based on profiling, e.g. "why admit girl students for an advanced degree when they'll just get married and stay home in the end"). Nevertheless, using this as "evidence" against the Director in a gender discrimination case amounts to profiling. While it may be good fun to profile Directors, it's not right.

Nor is it right when Directors - and VC's - resort to profiling. Moreover it's not constructive or helpful in any situation. So my advice to VC's is, when you feel the urge to place a community within brackets, Just Say No.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fine and dreary

There's a BBC weather report that still sticks in my mind though I viewed it at least a decade ago. That year the monsoon was showing signs of failing in and around Bombay. July had been largely sunny with very little precipitation and if it didn't rain soon, the city's water supply would be in a lot of trouble. During that stressful period I turned on my TV to see a cheerful BBC weather-person wave her hands airily (why do they always wave their hands airily?) in the direction of Bombay on the map, and say "the weather in the West of India is fine". I felt like screaming: "it's not fine you dummy!!!".

She was using a word that, in Britain, is synonymous with "sunny". The Oxford English Dictionary offers "bright and clear" as one of the meanings of "fine", but the word originates from Latin via Old French and its original meaning is "of very high quality". It's only British weather that establishes a connection between the two meanings.

What I wonder is, why don't weather-people stick to words that have a well-defined scientific meaning (e.g. "sunny") rather than those which include a value judgement, like "fine" (and while they're taking my advice, could they please stop waving their hands as if they're swatting gigantic Finnish mosquitoes!!).

My memory of the incident above was revived by a new and highly loaded adjective that's started appearing on my Android smartphone of late., from where it loads its weather report, describes Bombay's weather today as "dreary". This offended me instantly. Bombay can be hot and humid, and today it's rather hot and quite humid. That's typical October weather and it comes as a slight relief after all the rain we've been having.

Is it dreary? Look at the photo, taken from my window a few minutes ago, and then at the OED's account of the origin of "dreary":

Old English drēorig ‘gory, cruel’, also ‘melancholy’, from drēor ‘gore’, of Germanic origin; related to German traurig 'sorrowful'

The photo certainly doesn't look melancholy to me, in fact it never gets melancholy around here. As for sorrowful... I can think of sorrowful German and English cities (Potsdam and Durham come to mind right away), but I'm sure their weather reports never say "dreary", even when it is.

Anyhow I expect this problem will go away in the next few decades once India becomes a dominant global power and wrests control of the weather reports. If I'm still alive, I'll be composing this report for Vancouver in mid-summer: "damp and chilly, major risk of depression, travel advisory in effect"...

Monday, October 3, 2011

My trip to the dark side

Like many others of my generation, my computer life first started with DOS. Dave Barry's article about it, which you can read here, still brings back memories and is funny enough to reduce me to tears. I imported an IBM PC for my brother in 1984 and managed to get out of the customs hall at Bombay airport without paying a penny in bribes. Not only that, several customs officers slapped me cordially on the back as I left, saying "it's good that scientists like you are returning to the country". Those really were the days!

It was on another IBM PC running DOS, which Ashoke Sen had imported from the US, that we typed out this humongous paper, processed it in TeX - which took more than an hour (at roughly one minute per page) - and then printed the final version on a dot-matrix printer, which took an entire night. I still have a guilty conscience about the last part, since after the first twenty pages or so I went to bed, around 4 AM, and when I returned at 10 AM my co-authors were still cheerfully watching the printer make noises like a diseased crow and spit out a page every ten minutes.

Thankfully the DOS phase didn't last very long and pretty soon Linux came along (printers got better, too). I was among the first Linux users in India (you can read about this here) and it's shaped my world-view for a couple of decades now. Initially there was all this tension about whether a new installation would work at all and if so, how one could set the screen resolution and colours, get TeX and LaTeX running and install a printer. Ubuntu rendered all that trivial, so for the last few years things have been quite pleasant. I keep a dual-boot laptop with Ubuntu/Windows, the latter primarily so I can make Powerpoint files for popular talks (ppt is by far the best thing Micros**t have ever made).

Talking of laptops, three years ago I bought a Dell XPS 1330, which is a wonderful machine if you can get over its principal shortcoming - it gets hot enough to fry an omelette, and could even burn the little rivulets of melted cheese that usually leak out from my omelettes.That I'm using it even at this moment is due to my wise decision of purchasing a three-year service contract with Dell at the outset. To date, they have replaced the motherboard four times and the screen twice, each time because of overheating and all for free and without complaint. In fact, whenever I'm bored I just phone Dell and they instantly ship me a motherboard and screen (only joking). I think I'll suggest a small fridge instead, it would be cheaper for them.

Before this vaporises, I'd like a new laptop, and it's not going to be a Dell. So what's it going to be then? My requirements are that it should be fairly small (ideally a 13" screen), lightweight, reasonably powerful and have excellent battery life. Price is not a major issue. I expected there would be loads of such machines these days and I could pick and choose, but that isn't the case. Netbooks are light but of course don't do very much. The non-netbook laptops that you see in stores in Bombay are all inexpensive 15 to 17-inchers that weigh a ton. I learned on the net that my preferred category is called "business ultraportables" and visited many dozen websites over the last week. The Sony Vaio S-series, Samsung's new 900 Series and the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 all seemed like interesting possibilities, with Intel i3-i5-i7 processors and 2-4 GB of RAM. All would allow me my favourite Ubuntu/Windows dual-boot configuration. Then there was the Macbook Air, though some years ago it had given me the distinct impression of merely looking pretty and doing nothing much. Anyway I wanted my beloved Ubuntu and have never been attracted to Apple products or Mac OS.

Now as you'll see below, it's one thing to ask how these machines mutually compare, and another to ask how their sales people compare, and yet another to ask how their sales people in India compare! For the machine comparison, some reviews I located on the net said the Samsung 900 series laptops are serious MacBook Air competitors (both 11" and 13" varieties). Other reviews praise the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 to the skies. Yet others believe Sony Vaio's are the best because unlike the other ultraportables they have optical drives. I tried to buy each of these in turn.

I started with the Sony Vaio. My IT team assured me that although these used to have the reputation of being smart but overpriced, their current stuff was cheap and plasticky - and still overpriced, of course. They were able to borrow a brand new S-series model from the School of Mathematics for me to look at, and I have to say that "cheap and plasticky" described its appearance very well. It was also a shade heavy, somewhat over 2 kg. Now, some of the premium S-series laptops are said to be much more elegant (according to international  reviews) but here's the rub - Sony India wouldn't actually show me anything, not even if I travelled to a shop of their choice. I could only get to see a given model if I bought it first.

Next came Samsung. Some reviews claimed it was the best competitor to the MBA in the market, and beautiful too, so I got my IT staff to phone their Bombay office. Turns out they don't visit interested businesses with a demo model - surprising given that their 13-incher carries a stiff price tag of a little over Rs 1,00,000 and is new on the market. Where can we see it then? Their reply was "Croma" - a chain of stores started by the Tatas where you can pay extra-high prices and enjoy rude service. I phoned Croma and was told (rudely! have to admire their predictability!!) that the branch I was asking about didn't carry this model. Where might I find it then? Oops too late, Croma hung up on me. Phoned Samsung. Which Croma branch in Bombay has your machine in stock? They asked for my name and phone number. I asked why this was a pre-condition to getting the desired information. They wouldn't budge. I declined to share my details and we had reached an impasse. So, no Samsung 900-series for me. The reviews did mention a poor battery life of two hours, so I didn't feel very bad.

Now it was Lenovo's turn. Like Sony Vaio, most of the models they market in India are obsolete elsewhere. But they do sell the Thinkpad X220 which is current and rather popular, and has impressive credentials. It has a 12.5" IPS screen (this is a relatively new LCD technology, IPS stands for "In-Plane Switching" and is supposed to be far superior to the TN or Twisted Nematic variety which offers a very narrow viewing angle). The 6-cell battery gives an amazing 8 hours of usage under actual test conditions. With a 9-cell battery and an optional "slice battery" base, this goes up to 23 hours. Clearly this is the laptop to have if you're planning to be shipwrecked! And it weighs just 1.6 kg.

So I called Lenovo's sales number at 1-800-425-3353 and got a recording in Kannada. Not sure what it said, but it definitely wasn't "swalpa adjust maadi", the only Kannada phrase I know. Twenty tries later I gave up and tried their Bombay office number. This answered with a voice menu that would not accept any inputs from me. Finally I called their Bangalore office and got a charming telephone operator who giggled when I recounted my adventures. She gave me the direct number of someone in Sales at their Bombay office, who I called immediately and - of course - he did not answer. For good measure I tried their customer service and it was consistently busy! Not reassuring.

Today came the final nail in the coffin - Lenovo India (contacted through resellers) reveal that they do not supply the highly rated IPS screen but only the NT. Moreover globally the IPS screen on the X220 turns out to have severe problems with image persistence (as 40 pages of complaints on this forum will attest). And the NT screen in a side-by-side comparison video with the IPS looks washed-out.

All this panicked me. In India there would be no replacement if I didn't like it. If I may permit myself a politically incorrect comment, in India a laptop, like a bride, is seen for the first time on the wedding day and thereafter is supposed to be for keeps!!

Having now run out of possibilities, I am going to take my friend Vishwanath's advice and go over to the dark side. The Macbook Air has the following plus points: (i) the same model is sold in India as everywhere else, (ii) it can be seen and handled at lots of shops, and frankly looks gorgeous, (iii) on the 13" version you can get an Intel i7 processor, 4 GB RAM and a 256 GB solid-state drive, (iv) it is slim bordering on anorexic and weighs just 1.3 kg. So all I have to do, really, is to give up Linux. I may be the first person to have moved over to the "fruit company" not just because of their product's dazzling looks, impressive build quality and clever advertising, but in large measure because of the combined crappiness of Sony Vaio, Samsung and Lenovo, particularly their Indian incarnations.