Monday, March 29, 2010

The Gates Foundation

There is a whole subculture out there which specializes in Windows bashing and I much confess I don't like the whole Windows culture very much, However, the work of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation is actually quite inspiring, even to cynics.

Do read it here in the Times of India or here in the Hindu, where the ubiquitous N Ram has to keep shoving his oar in and bring in his earlier interview with Bill Gates. However it's interesting to see a dyed-in-the-wool commie almost in awe of the contribution made by the Foundation and by Warren Buffet. Moreover they have “made a commitment that 50 years after the last of the two of us has died…all our money would have been given away.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Oh! for a bit of charge

This post is inspired by this article but I realise that one's woes don't end by reaching journey's end. Most of us these days travel with a) a cellphone, b) a laptop c) an iPod unless it is part of the cellphone d)a battery charger for your camera. Of these the last does not need to be charged too frequently unless you are a crazed Japanese tourist who takes 500 shots a day. However the first three need fairly frequent charging.

Unfortunately most guest houses in India have a severe paucity of plug points. (I am happy to report that at IMSc, we have consciously provided a large number of electric juice suppliers but we are an exception :) ). Most will have one, which if you are lucky will actually work. Often the only charging point I have found is in the bathroom, presumably placed there for people who use electric shavers. Surely the number of people who carry a,b,c,and/or d is far larger than those who carry electric shavers. Then why this discrimination? One could in principle, plug in one's mobile in the bathroom but that usually means you will never hear a call. Balancing a laptop gingerly next to the sink is not an exercise I would recommend to anyone, other than those who are trying to sabotage their laptop in order to by a new one. In a guest house of one of India's most prestigious institutes, I found all the plug points to be at floor level and usually just near the entrance to the bathroom. Apart from the mystery about why it should be so, here is the added risk of squashing your precious gadget while taking a nature call in the middle of the night.

But I am being unfair. Hotels, even in so called developed countries suffer from the same malaise. Charging any equipment usually means unplugging the bedside lamp which then means you can give up any thoughts of reading in bed. This is in addition, of course to having to carry one of these whacking big adapters for those alien sockets.

Here is a solution that works for me. If you have mobiles and ipods which have a (mini) usb port, then you can plug your laptop into the solitary plug point and plug in the other devices to the laptop through its usb port. However you cannot then put your laptop to sleep all night (poor fellow) for the charging to work.

For others, you just need to wake up a few times in the middle of the night to switch the device. Or stagger their use so that they don't all need to be charged on the same day. Who said technology had made our lives easier?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

P. C. Vaidya

Professor Prahalad Chunnilal Vaidya passed away on March 12, 2010 in the early hours. He was 92.

Prof Vaidya is famous for his solution of Einstein's equations for a radiating star. Much of his life was also spent in trying to make mathematics accessible to school children in a way that made it interesting rather than just rote learning. A news link is here. A short half an hour movie on him by IUCAA in collaboration with Vigyan Prasar is available here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Whipping Boy

The other day, having bought a small packet of strawberries at the price of a small ingot of gold at a Chennai market, I summoned up enough enthusiasm to make a strawberry shortcake. In my younger days, as an amateur baker, I had quite a reputation for making cakes -- resulting once in four visiting friends demolishing a strawberry cake by the simple expedient of only making 90 degree cuts.

This time we decided that there being only two of us, and living in Velacheri, that too on a road which has the appearance of slightly beaten up Sea of Tranquility crater on the moon, with little chance of anyone visiting, we would slowly work through the cake over a period of a few days.

The first part was easy. The sponge cake, made from my old bible The Joy of Cooking (which had lost its last few pages which was the index) was a breeze. I realised that I had lost nothing of my original talent. :-) It was soft, spongy and beautifully browned on top.

The cream was the next hurdle. The only kind available in any supermarket nearby was the tetrapack version that Amul sells which it calls Fresh Cream. Having occasionally beaten a cream to death (in other words beating it till the butter came out in big clods) I bought a spare packet in case of disasters. I need not have bothered.

The whipping, with an electric egg-beater, started at 7.15pm on a weekday soon after we had returned from work. At 7.30pm, I gave up and my wife took it up. Around 7.45pm she gave it back to me. At 7.50pm the motor gave a small groan and gave up the ghost, a slight acrid smell of burning plastic testifying to the finality of the situation. And the cream? What about it -- it continued in its pristine state (it did not even turn to butter).

At this point I poured the cream qua cream over the sponge cake (which had been neatly divided into two layers in the hope that we would make a layered cake). I carefully decorated the top with cut strawberries and there it was - somewhat the worse for wear, the (unwhipped) cream having soaked right through, but it tasted quite nice. After all why shouldn't it -- sponge cake, cream, sugar, strawberries - all necessary ingredients for a successful dessert if not in the right format :)

Oh! Before I forget -- anyone know how to make a strawberry shortcake without running through a beater each time? It might help my finances a bit... (something tells me getting proper whipping cream might help....but in Chennai?)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Tripos and us

The Tripos was a venerable Cambridge institution -- an exam that mathematics students took to get their degrees and perhaps earn a scholarship.

It was impossibly arduous. Four days of problem solving, a break and another four more days of backbreaking labour that even future exceptional mathematicians found impossibly difficult. Most of the time the problems required a certain quickness in ability and the use of tricks to solve within the given time period. Mere aptitude in mathematics was not enough. It was and perhaps still is considered amongst the most difficult math exams in the world. (Some of us in the Indian system have a faint notion of the kind of problems that were set - what we called the S. L. Loney type - a sphere spinning on a needle that is balanced on an ellipsoid that is dangling from a pendulum or some such absurdity).

There was a certain caste system amongst those who succeeded. In the first class, the topper was the Senior Wrangler, followed by Second Wrangler, Third Wrangler and so on. The second class were the Senior Optimes followed by the Third Class, the Junior Optimes (yes, this is sounding more and more like Asterix). The last of the Junior Optimes was called a Wooden Spoon because tradition dictated that he (yes, always a he then) be given, by his friends a wooden spoon (actually a huge malting shovel lavishly decorated and inscribed in Greek) which the poor fellow was expected to take, hoist on his shoulder and carry it and himself out of the hall.

Senior Wranglers were God-like figures with all the attendant myth and mythology that would spring up around them. However they were not necessarily the best mathematicians, but, it was believed, would become the most influential one. After all, the Tripos stressed a certain knack in in solving problems fast rather than mathematical aptitude. Most future famous physicists and mathematicians were not Senior Wranglers (J. E. Littlewood was one notable exception). James Clerk Maxwell, J. J. Thomson, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) were all Second Wranglers. G. H. Hardy was, to his great consternation a Fourth Wrangler, Bertrand Russell a Seventh Wrangler.

Since the Tripos was impossible to 'max' without adequate practice, a whole alternate system of education cropped up around it. These were the coaching classes. Private coaches, for handsome fees, would coach you, not in the subtleties of mathematics but in how to take the Tripos. They would pour over old exams, make useful notes for solving problems, give you hours of practice all for the single minded purpose of taking the Tripos -- what someone called codifying mathematical knowledge into neat bundles. (Yes, yes, I know, it's familiar, but do bear with me, dear reader). The workload for students who took these mind numbing coaching classes was prodigious. For them, attending their usual lectures was a luxury they could ill afford. According to the famous mathematician J. E. Littlewood, himself a Senior Wrangler, one had to spend two thirds of the time practising solving difficult problems against time. Students frequently ignored the course material, in order to concentrate on the Tripos and hence the coaching classes. Hardy himself was coached by the legendary R. R. Webb, a 'producer' of many Senior Wranglers.

G. H. Hardy's aim was to eventually change this whole mind numbing examination system. His famous statement was that examinations (any examination, not just the Tripos) were necessary but only as an absolute minimum standard to get a degree. "An examination can do little harm as long as its standard is low", was his credo, instead of students and their tutors exhausting themselves to turn a comfortable second to a marginal first.

Hardy, despite his influence, succeeded in only marginally changing the system. On his pushing, a degree candidate still took the Tripos but was ranked only as Wrangler, Senior or Junior Optime, reducing somewhat the merciless pressure that the exam had created. The system had clearly more inertia than Hardy had bargained for, and he finally gave it to these minor changes.

The Indian analogy is obvious. The JEE is perhaps as stultifying, as mechanical as the Tripos (is or was). It stresses little knowledge of or ability in the subject, mainly a quickness of intellect and an ability to be able to use tricks to solve problems in the given time period. That is where coaching classes come in. It has today reached a stage where even the smartest students would not clear the JEE with a high rank without the knowledge of certain mathematical tricks in their kitty. Eventually all problems, even JEE problems can be solved without such tricks, but the race against time precludes a slow and methodical approach to any problem.

The Tripos system did produce some great scientists though few from amongst the toppers. Can the JEE boast of that? The numbers here are negligible and the names that spring to mind (for obvious reasons I don't wish to enter into a controversy about contemporary names who could be considered 'great') are hardly in the world class category of the Tripos toppers. More often than not, they end up in management, becoming CEOs or VPs of companies and only rarely a distinguished academic. The JEE is not a passport to greatness, not even as much as the admittedly flawed Tripos system. It's perhaps time for a significant change in the approach to this examination system -- though something tells me that that is not going to happen anytime soon. (It's also not in the interest of the coaching class companies to see it change). Like the British system which we inherited, the inertia in our system is large enough to neutralise even the most dedicated revolutionary.

Acknowledgement: As a product of the Indian and American education systems, I have little or no direct knowledge of the British Tripos system. Most of the stuff above is based on reading the literature, mainly the beautiful and fascinating account of the system in Robert Kanigel's masterful biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan.