Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cuisines of the World (or how I cook my vegetables)

I have frequently pointed out to my long-suffering French friends and collaborators that the quality of a nation's cuisine is a monotonically decreasing function from East to West. Start from South East Asia, China, India, move progressively westwards towards Western Europe ending finally at its nadir, the United Kingdom, and you will know what I mean (to my admittedly prejudiced tastes). Since on this travel, France appears just before the nadir, my view cannot be expected to please the Gauls with their fierce pride in their cuisine.

Mistake me not. A lot of fresh meat and fish preparations grilled or pan fried or roasted taste wonderful, with little or no assistance from spices. (I am actually quite a fan of Japanese food, a large part of which dispenses with cooking altogether :-). It's nice to feel the original flavours of the meat or fish, without it being submerged by a ton of spices, oil and other greasy ingredients which is often the fate of 'Non-Veg food' in Indian Restaurants. However, since in my view it is far more challenging to make good vegetarian food than meat or fish, I think a country's cuisine should be weighed against its ability to deal with vegetables in attractive ways. And here, regrettably the West does not fall flat on its face, it is completely comatose from the start.

All this and more flitted through my mind while having dinner in the CERN cafeteria yesterday. The CERN canteen is really one of the best I have seen in any academic institute or centre. The choice is large at lunch time - at least 6 - 7 hot platters consisting of everything from meat, fish, pasta, as well as an exotic 'Wok' corner offering some version of Thai/Indian meat and veggie curries, stir-fried vegetables and meat Chinese style and so on. It has a large salad bar and a truly wonderful collection of desserts (pies, tarts, flans, gateaux, mousse, pastries, tortes, ...). In fact in the matter of desserts, I truly feel the West beats the East hollow with its profusion of flavours and styles. (Yes, I know as a 'Bong' I am not supposed to say such things, but ....). However dinner is frequently depressing. The little hot food that is available disappears fast and as it happened yesterday, I was reduced to the mercy of the salad bar. And this is where I started thinking these hard thoughts which have culminated in this post.

First of all, whatever cold cuts there were, were polished off by a large Russian just in front of me in the queue. So what were the options -- corn which you picked up and it dripped water, broccoli which you picked up and it dripped water, peas which you picked up (you got it, it dripped water!). String beans, well, ok you have got the idea. Even the shredded tuna had been boiled in water. What kind of cuisine is this that only knows to boil? I picked up some grated carrot (wrong! it did not drip water - that's because it was raw and grated) and some grated radish. (Even some lentils, essentially whole masoor, was available just boiled). I challenge anyone (including any Westerner) to truly admit that shoveling grated carrot into your mouth (even with some dubious dressing on it) is an exciting culinary journey. Only if you are convinced that with every crunch, truckloads of vitamins and minerals are being poured into your bloodstream can you put up with such an experience. Occasionally some small slivers of ham and bacon are added to the peas to enliven them - not only does it do nothing to the overall taste, it also puts it out of bounds for the poor vegetarians.

Spinach is another wonder vegetable. Can there be anything as sad as a soggy mass of coarsely chopped greens with tendrils dripping water? Is it any wonder that the West has to resort to artifices like Popeye cartoons to make children eat their spinach? My heart goes out to all those kids like Calvin who have to eat those gooey blobs on their plates. (It's so easy to liven up spinach - add some cumin seeds, chopped garlic, a few dried red chillies to hot oil, add coarsely chopped spinach, stir fry for some time, add some salt and allow it to cook in its own juices and voila, you are done! You could add onions along with the garlic, though I don't). The French do a mean creamed spinach but that's just a way of making something attractive by adding a fat based ingredient to it - a bit like Russian salad.

Ok, ok, I know. Salads are GOOD for you (don't get me started on the lettuce obsession) and Indians just don't eat enough fresh vegetables and fruits. But surely it must be possible to eat healthy without boiling!

I think I will rest my case here. I do hope all those vegetables I consumed did wonders to my health. It did nothing to my mood....

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Do you want to be a Top Quark?

Yes, indeed. The well-know blog 3 quarks daily has just announced four prizes every year in the respective areas of Science, Arts & Literature, Politics, and Philosophy for the best blog post in those fields, to be awarded on the two solstices and two equinoxes.

The Science Prize will be awarded this summer solstice June 21st, to be judged by Steven Pinker. Time is short (June 1st is the last date for nominations), so hurry!

The first place award will be called the "Top Quark," and will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the "Charm Quark," will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the "Strange Quark," along with two hundred dollars. For details, see the link above.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Swiss Organisation

The organisational abilities of the Swiss are famous world over (apart from their ability to stash away other peoples' ill-gotten wealth). So when I reached CERN, Geneva last Sunday and checked with the security guard about my key, which I had been told, would be kept, on holidays, with the guard, I was more than a little disconcerted to find that he had absolutely no clue about any key whatsoever. Since the taxi driver was getting impatient, I let him go, who disappeared after unloading my luggage on the sidewalk.

After about half an hour in the middle of the road (with the guard helpfully offering me his chair to sit on for want of any other help he could provide), another and clearly more clued in guard appeared who pointed out that since the hostel reception was open till 1 PM on Sundays, I should just go ahead to the CERN hostel, except for the small problem of now having to drag my bags along with me for something like half a kilometer. Fortunately a kind soul (who turned out to be Indian and knew me, though I, for the life of me couldn't recognise him) gave me a ride just as I was starting the trudge. And of course, the key was indeed at the reception, and the story had a happy ending and I didn't have to spend the day sitting on a sidewalk.

A small incident really but the number of missteps is quite amazing. The secretary omitted to tell me that if I arrived by 1PM I could go to the reception directly but instead asked me to pick up the key from the security gate (despite knowing my exact arrival time). The guard, even more surprisingly was totally clueless -- all the more astonishing when you consider the hundreds of visitors CERN gets all year round. You would think that visitor handling would move like clockwork (its Switzerland after all!) in a place like this. I can't help feeling that, whatever be their shortcomings, all guest houses in India are geared to handle visitor arrivals at all possible hours. This is, after all, not rocket science, and CERN handles far more difficult problems!

As one wag pointed out, that's because Geneva is really not Switzerland, it's more a French city :(

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Indian Election 2009

The results were more or less obvious on 16th and today is the 18th, so it might seem a bit late for a post on the results. In extenuation, I have been travelling and it's finally only today, that I have settled in peaceful and serene Geneva, surrounded by the Jura mountains, and a long distance from the mad, chaotic 15th general elections that have just ended and for all purposes, given us five more years of Congress rule.

My colleagues and fellow bloggers Sunil Mukhi and Rahul Siddharthan have substantially said all that I would have liked to have said about this verdict of the masses. So this post is really just to show my hand and celebrate this victory of the UPA and the (probably sadly temporary) fall in fortunes of the left and the right.

Here I would like to make a distinction, which I think is important. I think the BJP (along with its fellow travellers the Shiv Sena and the MNS) are the truly retrograde parties of India. They have no redeeming features. L. K. Advani and Narendra Modi (the projected future PM) have the blood of thousands of people on their hands (even if they never fired a single shot) from the early 90s when Advani started the Babri Masjid movement with his Rath Yatra that left a blood-splattered trail of riots in its wake and whose effects continue till today.

The left on the other hand -- in the hands of the demagogic Karat - is just a prisoner of the past. Its economic policies are infantile, and in some of the greatest real life experiments in the world, been shown not to work. Its mindless anti-Americanism, a relic of the Cold War, has been jettisioned by all of America's former antagonists, those from whom presumably Mr Karat obtains inspiration -- China, Russia, Vietnam (the US is Vietnam's largest trading partner). People like Karat and Bardhan are unable to make a nuanced distinction between individual policies of people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the advantages of two of the world's largest democracies having close relations, yet maintaining their independence. It's laughable when Karat accuses Dr Manmohan Singh of jettisoning India's independent foreign policy. If anything, India's foreign policy today is far more independent than that during the Cold War when we essentially behaved (perhaps helplessly so) as a surrogate of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The denouncing of the nuclear deal between the US and India by mainstream, 'liberal' newspapers like the New York Times as a 'sell out to India' clearly showed that this was not one which was obviously only to the US's advantage, but clearly to India's too. However, Karat's blinkered and knee-jerk reaction to anything American precluded any reasonable debate on the issue.

Having said that though, I believe that the left has a very constructive role to play, not just in secular matters, but also indeed in economics, if it could only get more pragmatic and less dogmatic and ideological. The tendency to follow a laissez-faire capitalist model with no regulations, allowing the markets to correct itself is a view propagated by many of our business houses and right wing economists, with results that are now there for all to see. Relaxing labour laws, in a country with no safety net, allowing private banks to play with people's hard earned pension funds are actions that are ill-suited even to the US, let alone India and it helps to have a gentle restraining hand to curb some of these excesses. The Montek Singh Ahluwalias of this world, (tipped now to become the Finance Minister) trained in some of the discredited policies of the IMF and World Bank need this control and now with the left having, well, left, we hope that Mr Ahluwalia has learnt some lessons from the disastrous actions of his Wall Street friends to not try and emulate that environment.

The challenges to the country (even in the absence, if that were possible, of the al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the LTTE) continue to be many, the hopes of hundreds of millions continue to remain unfulfilled, but for now, let us celebrate the return of the Congress and, please pardon this rhetorical flourish, the diminution if not the destruction of Darth Vader and the Dark Force.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Elections, voter apathy and all that

We made one last attempt to go and check our names in the voters' list and cast our vote and returned disappointed. This is the third time our names have vanished from the rolls. (Is this a conspiracy - or sheer incompetence?). In any case I take heart from this little note that my friend and colleague Arunava Sen from ISI Delhi has written for this blog...take heart all ye of little faith - you don't matter anyway :)

We have recently been subjected to a barrage of messages from corporations, Bollywood stars and page three familiars exhorting us to go out and vote. The subtext is that if you do not vote, you do not "care". After the poor turnout in South Mumbai, there was much anguish and soul-searching by perpetually anguished, professional soul-searchers such as Barkha Dutt on exactly this matter.

I wish to point out that it is perfectly rational for voters who "deeply care" (in a sense which I will make precise below) to abstain from voting. The argument is very simple and runs as follows. It is extremely improbable for a voter to be able to influence the outcome in a large election. A voter can be influential only if the other voters are exactly divided in their votes for the best candidate. One does not need a Ph.D in probability theory to realize that (i) this is an extremely unlikely event and (ii) this probability will decline rapidly as the number of voters increases. For instance if there are only two candidates and voter preferences over the candidates are equally likely, then the chances of being influential is 0.5 if there are three voters, about 0.03 if there are 1000 voters and very close to zero if there are 10,000 voters. Therefore, even though you care deeply about the outcome of the election, your expected payoff from voting is likely to be very small; if you have to offset these gains against the cost of voting (these costs are not necessarily monetary; they may represent the discomfort of standing in queues and so on) you may decide quite rationally not to vote even if these costs are very low (as they are in places like Delhi and Mumbai).

The argument above for not voting involves a curious inconsistency. Suppose all voters argued in the same way and concluded that they should not vote. Then every voter would be influential and would gain by voting! A formal game theoretic way of saying this is to say that for all voters not to vote, is not a Nash equilibrium of the game (Nash, here, is John Nash of ``A Beautiful Mind''). So what is the Nash equilibrium here? Suppose that there are N eligible voters (N large) with different voting costs denoted by c. Assume that the proportion of voters with voting costs less than c is given by F(c). Clearly F(c) increases as c increases. Assume that each voter benefits an amount α (let us not quibble at this moment about how these things are measured) if her preferred candidate wins. A "caring" voter has a large positive α and an apathetic one, presumably a small positive one. Let p(n) denote the probability of a voter influencing the outcome when n voters actually vote. It is clear that p(n) declines as n increases. Let c* be a solution to the equation p(NF(c*))α =c*. Some harmless assumptions regarding the functions p and F (continuity, etc) will guarantee the existence of a solution. The Nash equilibrium of the game is that voters with costs below c* will vote while those with costs above c*, will not. The point here is that the turnout on which voters' decisions to vote are based, is exactly the one generated by those decisions.

Is the discussion above "useful" in any sense? I think it is, if you are interested in motivating voters to vote. If your message is "Vote because you can choose a better Government", you are trying to get voters to increase their α. This is not likely to have a large effect because the p(n) term is already very close to zero. A better strategy is to emphasize that voting is duty just like paying taxes and not throwing garbage into your street. The effect of this is to add a positive constant K on the left hand side of the equilibrium equation. Voters get this benefit independently of the outcome of the vote - you can think of this as the "warm glow" you get when they put that ink on your index finger. It is quite easy to verify that if K is large enough, you get a corner solution where all voters irrespective of their voting costs, vote.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Art of Making Bread

Bread making is believed to date to Neolithic times. In today's world, many cultures and their culinary habits are defined by their techniques of bread making. Bread is an essential part of the cultural and religious structures of many societies (Give us this day our daily bread). While leavened bread is typically a product of Western cultures, many Eastern cultures such as in India, use unleavened bread (for example the chapati) though we too have versions of leavened bread like naan which is typically fermented with yogurt. Most East Asian cultures use noodles or rice, though there are instances of use of steamed bread.

I have always been fascinated with the techniques of making bread, to say nothing of the beautiful warm comforting smell of yeast that fills the house when you bake bread. In all fairness my bread making while adequate has never reached the professional levels that one aspires to. So today I attended a lecture by Craig Ponsford who is the Chairman of the Artisan Bakers of America and who was the coach of the US team that won the The Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (the world cup or Olympics of baking) in the Baguette ad Speciality Breads section of the competition.

I was disappointed by the fact that there was no live demo though he did show how to mix flour quickly. He has promised to return in a few months and conduct an actual class. However his 'theory' lecture was quite fascinating and exploded some cherished myths. For example:

  • Kneading and punching in the dough is absolutely not needed
  • There is no need to mix yeast in water to activate it anymore -- it can be used directly.
  • The best temperature for the dough to rise is 20-25 degrees not more. It's not a case of warmer the better.
  • Pre-fermenting is absolutely essential to get that texture and consistency.

Never having given up the nerdish habit of taking diligent notes, I copied all his instructions down and they are available at my recipes site (search for Bread). Some more stuff on bread making is available at Craig Ponsford's site.