Monday, June 30, 2008

A Date with Sushi

(No, I am not getting kinky!) It might surprise most of you who (well, ok, like me) think of Chennai as a small outlying provincial backwater as far as eating out goes, that it has one of India's oldest Japanese restaurants Dahlia - and I am talking of a standalone restaurant and not an appendage of a five star hotel. Dahlia has been around for something like 14 years and till about 8 years ago, when one more Japanese restaurant Akasaka came up, it was the only one. (Of course it is a provincial backwater - as also the only coastal city in the world with no traditional of high quality sea food - but that is probably the subject of a future post). And so, it might surprise you even more to learn that even though I have been maintaining a Eating out Guide to Chennai for the last 10 years or so, I had, surprisingly, never visited Dahlia. We decided to remedy this defect this weekend and finally 'did' Dahlia. The first challenge is to find the place. Even though it's in the centre of town, off Nungambakkam High Road inside Kaveri Apartments, neither the restaurant nor the apartment complex seems to have found the need to put up a sign anywhere indicating its presence. To compound the problem, some imbecile has marked it on the wrong side of the road on Google Earth. The old traditional method of asking people seems the only way. After making two futile rounds of the area we discovered Kaveri apartments only because we were told to take the left turn next to a 'Calcutta Pan Shop'. Having crossed this first hurdle, there was no indication that there was at all a restaurant on the premises. Finally walking along a narrow corridor of shops we stumbled upon an entrance with Japanese lettering and bamboo mats hanging over the door which told us where to enter. Nowhere anywhere is there a single sign announcing the existence of this place. Truly indeed for the cognoscenti... Dahlia is the quintessential Japanese Udipi restaurant. Its a no-frills, no-pretensions eat and leave place with spartan furniture and decor, catering almost exclusively to the Japanese expat crowd who come direct from office (they even had their jackets slung over their chairs), to eat and go. In all the time we were there, there was just another Indian couple. Catering to the office crowd, there were predictably no Japanese women either. The advantage of all this is that you get a proper hearty Japanese meal shorn of all frills, pretensions, bells and whistles of a typical five star meal. In fact the informal atmosphere is a major attractive feature. If you are unfamiliar with Japanese food, it's best to stick to the set meals - they have combos like the classic Nigiri Sushi (various fish slices wrapped around sticky rice) which come with Miso soup, pickles, ginger slices and Wasabi sauce. There are also Tempura platters and Udan soup bowl servings all of which make more or less a meal in itself. With a bit of sake to wash it all down, the bill comes in the range of about Rs. 1000. (Amusingly enough, all the Japanese were drinking Kingfisher beer, we were the only ones having sake). The service is friendly without being cloyingly deferential as in high end hotels and restaurants. A word of warning, since I am in Chennai -- I am not sure that this is a place for vegetarians to visit. Apart from the ubiquitous smell and taste of fish in everything, there is very little point in replacing fish slices with sweet potato and pay Rs. 450 for it.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Winter of December 1971

I was in my teens in December 1971, when the India-Pakistan war began. Delhi in those days was the only city, if I am not mistaken, which had daily Doordarshan transmission for a limited number of hours. I remember the daily bulletins on Doordarshan about the progress of the war, delivered in Melville De Mello's sonorous cadences, facts mixed with, as we might guess with hindsight, a generous dose of fiction. In one of those programs, I recall today, General Manekshaw making a tour of the hospitals in which the injured were being tended, with the camera following him. I recall vividly, in one scene, 'Sam Bahadur' approaching the bed of a soldier and asking him in his gruff no-nonsense tone - कितने गोली लगे ? (how many bullets did you get?). the soldier replied -- दो (two). The General patted the soldier and said -- मुझे छे लगे -- General बन गया ! (I received 6 - and I became a General!). I never knew Field Marshal Manekshaw, except what little I saw of him in newspapers and TV though he remained a hero to many Indians for being the architect of the Indian victory in that war (he himself was of course very conscious of it). But the recent extensive coverage on his life in the newspapers (on his passing away on 27 June 2008) brought back memories of December 1971. Truly he must have been a soldier's general - one for whom a ordinary jawan would be willing to lay down his life. I don't know if any general in the Indian Army since then has commanded the same level of devotion and loyalty as an individual, rather than for his rank. R.I.P

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Size of the Indian Middle Class

(Everybody seems obsessed with size these days, including 90% of your SPAM folder) In a recent PBS documentary on the rise of the Indian middle class (brought to my attention by my friend Omar "He who is not AMOK" Karim), one of the numbers bandied about was that the middle class in India was 30% and defined as those earning between $5000 and $25000 per year. (The documentary is worth watching, if not for anything else, for observing the paranoia that seems to be afflicting Americans about how the rise of consumerism in India and China will impact the American way of life). In a subsequent discussion with my colleague Kapil Paranjape here, we tried to figure out how such a number was at all possible. Let me start with a very simple analysis. According to Nationmaster the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in India is $128 (all numbers are for yearly incomes). Let us assume for extreme simplicity that the middle class is 30% and there is only one more class whose income is x. We will ignore for now say, the super rich and the super poor. Then it is clear that if N is the population of India .3 * 5000 * N + .7 *x * N = 128 * N (The N is fake anyway and can be factored out and we can work with GNI per capita but I am keeping it just for the sake of clarity). Notice that the above equation cannot be satisfied for any positive x. Even if we assume that there are many other classes earning y, z, etc. with suitable fractions, these will be added contributions to the left hand side (LHS) of the equation, and while we would not be able to solve the equation since there are multiple unknowns now and one equation, we could still conclude that positive solutions of x, y, z ... are not possible since the first term on the LHS is already substantially bigger than the RHS. One of the reports that Kapil dredged out from the Economic Times claims the GNI per capita to be $750. Note that this number on the RHS of the above equation still does not allow positive solutions for x etc. Now that its a free for all, since nobody seems to have any reliable numbers, let us keep $750 on the RHS, and 30% as a size of the middle class. Then the maximum earning (i.e the upper threshold) that the middle class can have is $2500 obtained by putting x=0 i.e. assuming no other strata of society (which, I think, is also the middle class dream!). Clearly for any positive x and keeping the fraction as 30%, the yearly average earnings of the middle class would be quite a bit below $2500. While this analysis has been fairly simplistic, it exposes some gross features of this problem which clearly need correcting. How do we correct this?
  • The size of the middle class is substantially lower
  • The yearly earnings of the middle class are substantially lower
  • Combination of both
  • The GNI per capita is substantially higher
  • Since black money is supposed to be 50% of the Indian economy, double the figures for GNI (which GNI?) per capita. The point being that black money is usually not invisible to GDP calculations which are based on turn-overs but black-money is often hidden from GNI which is usually based on IT revenue calculations. (this idea is due to Kapil).
Anyone have the true numbers or knows where to find them? Update: See the comments by Debajyoti. Assuming these are family incomes we are talking about (say 4 members per family) the first term on the LHS of the equation gets divided by 4 allowing a reasonable solution to the equation for a GNI per capita of $750 or $800. (The figure of $128 by all accounts seems far out!). Thanks Debajyoti for a Occam's razor solution. Of course the GNI per capita is indeed per capita since these are statistical quantities based on total tax returns divided by population and so on, whereas the $5000 for the middle class is based on a general perception of salaries of earning members of the middle class.

Friday, June 20, 2008

To Nap or not to Nap

The answer is 'To'. Have you ever felt your eyes closing after lunch and have tried desperately to keep awake. Well, you don't have to feel guilty any longer. A short nap (which can be as long as 90 minutes) rejuvenates the body, enhances creative thinking, boosts sensory processing, clears your mind (not completely we hope), improves memory recall...well, you get the point. All this and more with detailed instructions (yes, nothing is simple any longer) here. Here is an interesting point, in case you missed it -- drink a cup of coffee before a short nap (yes!). Coffee takes about 20 to 30 minutes to kick in, just in time to make you alert when you wake up. Time to ask the boss for that couch in the office....(well, he has one!)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

S. R. I. -- Fact or Fiction?

S.R.I. -- System of Rice Intensification -- the brainchild of Cornell scientist Norman T. Uphoff, is a system for increasing rice yields per hectare by improving the quality of individual paddy plants rather than increasing the total number. Perhaps I am more ignorant than most, but the first I heard of SRI was recently in a Times of India news item that reported that Tamil Nadu, the state I live in and work, is planning to increase the area under SRI cultivation from 4.2 lakh hectares to 7.5 lakh hectares this agricultural season. (A lakh is a hundred thousand). It is claimed that the areas under SRI cultivation in Tamil Nadu had achieved the optimum yield of about 13 to 14 metric tonnes of paddy per hectare (compared to 2 - 5 tonnes for the normal variety). Soon thereafter I found an article in the New York Times profiling Dr. Uphoff. (I cannot find the link to the Times of India article - I read it in the hard copy version of the newspaper). The idea behind SRI is that during drought months, rice plants and particularly roots become much stronger so as to better withstand the drought. This turns out to be the key to healthier plants. By keeping the soil moist but not wet to allow better soil aeration and root growth, coupled with wider spacing letting plants absorb more sunlight, each plant sends forth more tillers (the side shoots that a plant gives out) and each tiller produces 200 to 500 grains instead of the usual 100 or so. Moreover, an added benefit is significant savings in water utilisation. Unfortunately, the issue of greater productivity per hectare is still mired in controversy. The world famous International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has dismissed Dr Uphoff's claim as either overblown, or the result of poor book-keeping or just plain wishful thinking and difficult to replicate on a large scale. It has also been criticised for increasing drudgery for farmers, particularly poor women who work in the fields. However 28 countries among them Vietnam, Cambodia, India, China, Indonesia (mostly countries with rice intensive farming) have become some of the top SRI users, and there has been uniform praise from these countries for improved yields that have come from SRI varieties. More details can be accessed at the SRI website. Links to many Indian newspaper articles on SRI are also available here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Delhi Laws

I got these from a friend of mine from Delhi. You don't have to be from Delhi to appreciate them, but it sure will help. (Some of these are universal and are valid across India). The 12 Rules of Delhi
  1. The Other Side Law : If my side of the road has a traffic jam, then I can start driving on the wrong side of the road, and all incoming cars will be rerouted via Meerut.
  2. The Queue Nahin Rule : If there is a queue of many people, no one will notice me sneaking into the front as long as I am looking the other way.
  3. The Mind Over Matter Law : If a red light is not working, four cars from different directions can easily pass through one another.
  4. The Auto Axiom: If I indicate which way I am going to turn my auto rickshaw, it is an information security leak.
  5. The In Spit Of Thing: The more I lean out of my car or bus, and the harder I spit, the stronger the roads become.
  6. The Cinema Hall Fact: If I get a call on my mobile phone, the film automatically goes into pause mode.
  7. The Brotherhood Law: If I want to win an argument, I need only to repeatedly suggest that the other person has illicit relations with his sister or mother.. .
  8. The Baraat Right: When I'm on the road to marriage, all the roads in the city belong to me.
  9. The Heart Of Things: If I open enough buttons on my shirt, the pretty girl at the bus stop can see through my hairy chest into the depths of my soul.
  10. Parking Up The Wrong Tree: When I double-park my car, the road automatically widens so that the traffic is not affected.
  11. The Chill Bill Move: When I park and block someone else's car I am giving him a chance to pause, relax, chill and take a few moments off from his rushed day.
  12. The Brrrrp Break: The louder I burp in a public place; the more it helps other people digest their food.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Citations and other animals

There was a time when a scientist was evaluated on the basis of his or her (mostly his, in those patriarchal days) published papers. Then, as science, and in particular my field, physics, became specialised, it became necessary to check a person's citation index to gauge the depth and importance of the work. The other advantage of citations was that it absolved the evaluating authority of the necessity to read or understand any of the papers of the person being evaluated (for appointments, promotions, awards etc. ). After all, in this dog eat dog world, if you could reduce a person's worth to an integer, (or fractions if you are looking at averages) what better way to make immediate comparisons? (Incidentally, a quirk about average citations is that if a person publishes a couple of highly cited papers and then goes more or less into hibernation, then the average citation can become very large due to a small denominator!!). Unfortunately, it soon transpired that in certain fields (such as String Theory for example) everyone quoted everyone else ("There has recently been a lot of activity [1-57] in ...") resulting in overall high citation indices, and it became necessary to fine tune the idea of citations. Thus was born the h index developed by Jorge Hirsch (the original paper is here). A researcher with an h-index of, say, 9, indicates that he or she has published at least 9 papers, each of which has been cited 9 or more times. There are of course no prizes for guessing that the physicist with the highest h-index is the string theorist Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who has an h-index of 110, which implies Witten has published 110 papers with at least 110 citations each. Other highly ranked physicists include: Marvin Cohen (94), a condensed matter theorist at the University of California at Berkeley; Philip Anderson (91), a condensed matter theorist at Princeton University; Steven Weinberg (88), a particle theorist (and Nobel Laureate at the University of Texas at Austin (more on him later); and Michael Fisher (88), a mathematical physicist at the University of Maryland (88). According to Hirsch a "successful scientist" will have an index of 20 after 20 years; an "outstanding scientist" will have an index of 40 after 20 years; and a "truly unique individual" will have an index of 60 after 20 years. Moreover, he goes on to propose that a researcher should be promoted to associate professor when they achieve a h-index of around 12, and to full professor when they reach a h about of 18. Of course the usual qualifications apply - it's different for different fields, there are always exceptions, (Feynman, Einstein?) but I am sure there are places which use the h-index in many (un)healthy ways. It would, of course, be interesting to see how these numbers stack up in the Indian context. One could use the ISI Web of Knowledge to get the h-index of a person, and perhaps Google Scholar, though I haven't done this exercise yet. Now comes the most recent development in this field (if it can be called a 'field'). This is the w index or Wu index, developed by Qiang Wu from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. The w-index (or the 10h index), indicates that a researcher has published w papers, with at least 10w citations each. A researcher who has a w-index of 24, for example, means he or she has 24 papers with at least 240 citations each. According to Wu, the index is a significant improvement on the h-index, as it “more accurately reflects the influence of a scientist’s top papers”. Again, no prizes for guessing Ed Witten from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who has the highest h-index, also comes top in the w-index ranking with a score of 41. Witten is followed by condensed-matter theorist Phillip Anderson at Princeton University, with a w-index of 26, and cosmologist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University coming third with a w-index of 24. Particle theorist Frank Wilczek (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Marvin Cohen (University of California, Berkeley) are joint fourth with a score of 23. While Witten, Anderson and Wilczek also took three of the top five slots in the h-index ranking, the big winner under the new criterion is Hawking, who has a relatively modest h-index of just 62, compared to Witten's score of 110. Again, according to Wu, .. a researcher with a w-index of 1 or 2 is someone who "has learned the rudiments of a subject". A w-index of 3 or 4 characterizes a researcher who has mastered “the art of scientific activity”, while "outstanding individuals" are those with a w-index of 10. Wu reserves the accolade of "top scientists" to those with a w-index of 15 after 20 years or 20 after 30 years. It's not clear to me that the w-index adds anything more to a person's reputation, since, as I pointed out earlier, it is just a 10h index. Presumably top-cited papers get slightly better billing in this counting. One presumes that as long as these indices are not taken too seriously, and exclusively, it is a pleasant Sunday afternoon exercise to browse and calculate the various indices for one's friends and enemies. It would be worrisome and a travesty, though, if a person's contribution to the world of science were to be reduced to a bunch of (in this case) integers. One aspect that I cannot help commenting upon are the relative h indices of Weinberg and Witten, both from the field of High Energy Physics (HEP). Weinberg is one of the authors of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, for all intents and purposes the theory of nature. The Standard Model is text book material and is the cornerstone of almost all mainstream Particle Physics activity today. As a result his original paper is rarely referred to, just as nobody quotes Einstein's 1905 paper when discussing relativistic transformations, or Feynman's paper when using Feynman diagrams, even though the Weinberg paper itself holds the record for the highest number of citations in HEP (> 6500). Ed Witten, a brilliant theorist from Princeton (and a Fields' medallist), works in the more esoteric field of string theory, which while contributing much beautiful mathematics and mathematical techniques useful in other branches of physics, has yet to prove itself relevant to the real world of elementary particle interactions. However, Witten's papers have had enormous influence in the development of string theory, which is the reason for his high index value. (Amusingly, (for non-physicists), there is also a Witten index though this is a pure physics quantity, nothing to do with the indices we are discussing). I should mention here that Witten has several highly cited papers in other areas of HEP - Skyrmions, Anomalies, 1/N, chiral symmetry breaking, supersymmetry etc. but he is of course best known for his work in string theory. He also holds the record for the top cited author (63958 as of today) compared to Weinberg (a mere 33712). But these numbers are more misleading than the other indices. For example, D. V. Nanopoulos has more total citations (27545) than David Gross, Frank Wilczek, Gerard 't Hooft and many others.