Monday, July 31, 2006

Geek world

I've been surrounded by supergeeks for the past 5-6 days. One of them is carrying his own wireless router so that he could get wireless access in his room. A bunch of them have been wearing T-shirts with math jokes on them and some with formulas in the front and references on the back. The chief geek is the main organiser of the workshop, WS and has an interesting autobiography on his webpage. He's assembled a computer with 64GB of ram and once took apart a wristwatch and converted it to calculate some sophisticated math formulas.

This workshop is about using computer programs to have a more hands-on approach to number theory rather than use just abstract reasoning. So, half the participants (like me) are here with zero knowledge of programming while the other half is full of geeks (like WS) who're obsessed with telling each other about the latest tricks or codes they've cracked. Lecture notes, slides, etc are updated realtime on the conference website rather than the standard math conference which has only blackboard presentations with no slides.

I've been sitting in a corner with my laptop at an angle so that nobody can make out I'm actually reading cricket and baseball scores. Over the last few years, I've perfected the art of looking busy and involved in a math lecture. A little bit of fidgeting, some scribbling on a piece of paper, a deep frown and then a quick nod of the head to make people think I follow what's happening. Very reluctantly, I've let people know that I'm not a student anymore so I can't keep hiding behind the magic words "I don't know". In this workshop though everyone else around me is writing code at the same time as listening to the presentations. I feel like a con artist sitting out here surrounded by nerds.

The location of MSRI, a math research institute, is spectacular and is the first math building I've seen which is not the ugliest and most boring place imaginable. The Berkeley math dept is ugly, but MSRI has a breathtaking view of the university, the SF skyline and the Golden Gate. I have a great view from my office and watching the sun set is quite magical.

Friday, July 28, 2006

San Francisco diary

Shaking off the jetlag wasn't too hard. Since I reached in the middle of the day all I had to do was stay up till around 8 or 9 pm. Went out for a walk and saw a grungy side of San Francisco which I hadn't seen on my previous two trips. The last time I came here was with my older brother and we stayed in a hostel on the north side. The hostel I'm in on this trip is on the south side (SOMA - south of market) and it's not as gentrified as the other side. Went out for a walk as staying in the hostel would have resulted in crashing out and waking up at an awkward hour. Saw more weirdos and homeless people in 30 minutes than I could recall from the last two trips. Walked around aimlessly and then headed back to the hostel. Am sharing a room with a guy called Ben who's been living in the same hostel room for more than a year. He's about 50 and makes Tamales for a living. Told me he came up from LA to San Francisco for a weekend 2 years back, loved it completely and then never went back. Decided he'd had enough of working for other people and decided to live here. The hostel owners treat him like one of them and he's converted the 4 person dorm into a small home with his bike, CD player, TV, clothes neatly organised. He goes to bars which don't have food where he makes and sells Tamales. He was on his way out to *work*, tied a bandana, put on a bowler hat, shrugged his shoulders and said "I guess I'm just an old hippy".

The other guy (he moved in tonight) is even weirder. A 48 year old Hungarian immigrant, Gabor's here to run the San Francisco marathon tomorrow. It's his 45th marathon. Yes, 45 marathons. He ran 12 marathons last year all over the world including one in Sydney where it was 104 degrees. 12 marathons in one year! What's even funnier is how stingy he is. He's a self employed tax lawyer but is staying in a cheap rundown hostel after taking the greyhound to come up here from LA. He has two daughters who are now in college and was talking to me about expensive it is to pay for college tuitions. The marathon starts at 530 tomorrow so he was grumbling about missing the free breakfast. I told him *breakfast* consisted of a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and starts at 9 am. He thought it about and realised that he wouldn't be able to make it back from the marathon in time so he asked me to make a sandwich for him and keep it on his bed. Since there's no free pre-marathon pasta dinner he's just drinking some water and maybe a couple of energy bars. His rationale for running marathons is to avoid illnesses and diseases when he gets older which would mean saving money on doctor's fees. Wow!

The last time I came I loved the Italian district especially Cafe Trieste and City Lights bookstore - both within a minute's walk of each other. It's a 30 minute walk from the hostel through the grungy south side, chaotic chinatown to the hip Italian district. Since I need to get back to math mode, I've been camping out in Cafe Trieste with my laptop and papers trying to shake of the rust of not having done any math for more than 2 months. Much harder than shaking off the jetlag. Cafe Trieste is an interesting place. It has a large number of regular customers who the staff knows well and who sit around and just chat, tourists who come with cameras and keep staring at the pictures on the wall and students or independent professionals plugging away on their laptops. But, it's not overly crowded or loud. Almost the perfect atmosphere and decor with a staff happy to let people sit in a corner all day. After pottering around with math and surfing in between (free wifi) I've rewarded myself by going up to the reading room loft in city lights bookstore with a bunch of graphic novels.

The bookstore has a great section on graphic novels and till 2 days ago I'd only ever read one or two of them. I read R Crumb's Kafka and Spiegelman's Maus I and Maus II. I found all of them riveting especially the Kafka one. I never quite understood or appreciated Kafka's books nor a few films based on his books. This one captured and explained a lot of things about his life and work in a medium I've just started to explore. Maus I and II are about how a Polish Jew survived the holocaust and I finished both of them in one go.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

san francisco

I just reached San Francisco after a long and uneventful flight. Checked into a slightly run down hostel in the centre of the city. I'm here to attend a workshop at MSRI, Berkeley and will move into the campus housing on sunday. Since I need to prepare a bit for it and didn't want to be jetlagged and sleepy at the beginning I decided to get here a bit early. Getting to the hostel from the airport wasn't hard except lugging my gigantic backpack through the subway. It's lighter than it was when I left Boston 2 months ago but still not easy to fit into the subway coaches. It took me roughly 24 hours from the time I left for the airport to checking in to the hostel. Everytime I've flown from the US to India it always takes the same amount of time. It doesn't matter which direction you fly in or how connections you have to make. Almost like taking buses from Delhi University. No matter where you lived it always took (at least) one hour. Till the metro came about.

Speaking of the metro, I managed to finally go on the Delhi Metro two days before I left. Going from Connaught Place to Delhi University used to be a major hike (at least one hour!) but now on the metro it takes ten minutes! I was stunned by the metro and never thought something so modern, clean and efficient could be built right in the centre of Delhi.

I ended up going on the metro with two old friends from college, Karan and Latika, who I met after more than 7 years. The three of us lived reasonably close to each other when we joined college and used to take the same bus initially till Karan and I moved into the college residence halls and shared a room in our first year. The three of us also went on some hiking trips together and somehow lost touch after college. Going with the two of them on the metro to the university felt a bit surreal since commuting on the buses wasn't easy and we used to try hitching rides often. Feel envious of students now who can use the metro to get around.

Around the same time that I left Boston with nothing but a backpack, Karan was doing the same thing in Bangalore. He packed up everything in a backpack and gave away the rest of his stuff and set off. He ended up somewhere near the northeast and ran out of money. Sold his cellphone to get some money to go hiking. After that he showed up at his parents house in Delhi. When he saw my blog - homeless, jobless, broke and single - he knew exactly what I meant. Quite a coincidence that my roomate from 11 years ago was going through exactly the same stage. Between college and now, he's had an interesting life. He graduated from a prestigious business school and started working with Citibank. Got bored and tired and chucked it to go off to Switzerland to do some farming and worked with people with special needs. Then an NGO in rural south india which dealt with water conservation. After that he learnt reiki and tried teaching that but it didn't work out. Latika studied art history and criss-crossed the globe working on a massive project to document Indian art and sculpture. She's been to almost every major art gallery/museum over a lengthy period researching art. Both of them are living with their parents in Delhi, not much money in hand, no idea of what job to do and no signs of getting married. But no airs about saving the world, no disdain for people who aren't in the same boat, no standing up for pseudo principles or angst against the rest of the world. Meeting them both was reassuring.

Friday, July 21, 2006


I spent the last 5 days in Kumaon with my parents. For the uninformed, Kumaon is the region in the Himalayas where my parents, grandparents and every other ancestor was born and brought up. I wasn't born there nor did I ever live there but have always considered Kumaon as the region to which I belong. Ever since I can remember my whole family (and other friends who my parents would take along) would drive up to the hills in the summer and spend most of our time driving around in a convoy, staying with relatives and in old tourist resthouses. For my parents it was always a sort of homecoming as they spent a significant part of their childhood in the hills. For my brothers and me, it was a respite from the heat in the plains and a time to go for long, leisurely walks, enjoy some spectacular mountain views, play games in the old houses we stayed in and meet aunts, uncles, cousins and lunatics (some of whom were aunts or uncles).

Nainital and Almora are the two big urban centres of Kumaon. My mother studied in Nainital till 16 and my father spent most of his summers in Almora and though both towns have now become dirty, ugly and congested for my parents they still retain the charm they had in the 50s and 60s. In the 60s Almora became popular with hippies including the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary. Somewhere around that time my father, who was in his teens, befriended a lot of the lesser known hippies. My father's parents were fairly strict and conservative but he managed to convince them that he was going to the temples as part of a religious awakening and not because of the crazy hippies hanging around. Every year, my brothers and I would be regaled with crazy stories of those years and somewhere that part of him hasn't gone away. On the other side, my mother went to a strict christian missionary school in Nainital and part of the training she received in those years hasn't gone away either. A trip to the mountains is a bit like a geography, history, sociology and family history lesson. As a result, even though my brothers and I didn't spend much time there we developed a strong attachment to the hills.

Since this was just a 5 day trip without my brothers or other friends or relatives, it was very different. There were no long walks, no chilling beer in a stream, no 2-3 day drives to reach what seemed like the end of the earth to us at that time, or late nights of board games and cards huddled underneath blankets. We spent 2 nights in Bhimtal at a cousin's house which resembles a resort. It was easily the most opulent place I've stayed in and there were more bedrooms than guests. One night in Almora at our ancestral home and one night in Jageshwar. The most we walked was about 30 mins and we stopped for tea almost every 15 minutes. This was also the first trip where we all put on weight after coming back.

The drive up consisted of stretches where the highway resembled world class roads which was a welcome relief after so many years but in between there were stretches through villages, dusty towns and potholes which reminded me of how tiring roadtrips in India can be. Throughout the drive my parents insisted on stopping every hour because a particlar town was known for mangoes, another for potatoes and a small 20 minute stretch for corn. My grandparents used to be like that years ago and seeing my parents behave like that was amusing. I went back to Kumaon after 7 years and the weird and unnerving part was meeting relatives who had aged rapidly, a favourite uncle who wasn't around anymore and cousins who were no longer kids but getting ready to join college.

Almora seems to have aged but going to Jageshwar was a refreshing change. Jageshwar is a town which seems to have been bypassed by inflation, development and globalisation. For a tourist it's reassuring though I'm not sure how the locals view the lack of progress. The claim to fame of Jageshwar is a stunningly beautiful stone temple built somewhere between the 8th and 10th century in the middle of a thick deodhar forest. It's quite mindboggling to think of how they managed to build a temple like that more than a thousand years ago. I went for a short walk one afternoon and since it was raining off and on, I followed the main road and resisted jumping into the forest and following some trail. Spent most of the afternoon sitting opposite the Dandeshwar temple and reading a book in a small tea shop. There were about 10 other people sitting around doing nothing except talking about the activities of the three monkies jumping around the temple. Sat and talked to the tea shop owner in halting Pahadi and he cursed the local politicians. After almost 3 hours of sitting there and endless cups of tea the bill came to about 10 Rs. It was about 2 Rs for a cup of tea - things haven't changed in a long time.

I didn't take a camera with me and really regretted it. Since it's the rainy season, the mountains are beautiful and almost every turn we took resembled a picture postcard like shot with low lying clouds over lush green moutains and red tin-roofs standing out prominently. Maybe next time.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

ban on blogs?

I just got back from a 5 day trip to the mountains and jumped at the computer to catch up on my mail and blog. Can't seem to read my blog (or any other blog). Just read on bbc that the Indian govt has banned blogs. If this post goes through then there's still a way to post on my blog but not read it. Crazy.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Big brother is watching over you

I recently started using gmail and love its features. Like all google products it's different from other existing products and easy to use and I wish I'd started using it earlier. The scary thing is the advertising content on the right. Ever since I started blogging and using google calendar it seems like google knows what I'm up to everyday. When I've emailed people about giving talks or staying with someone it asks me if I want to add it to the calendar. Below it are advertising links which seem very relevant. When I email people about staying with them it tells me about cheap hostels or bed and breakfast kind of places. When I email people about some math research it advertises math softwares and job sites. When I email people about plans in Delhi it advertises movies and restaurants. It's a bit unnerving to see how they read your emails and advise you on what to do. Now that I've started using so many of their products and can't bring myself to switch to other stuff I feel like I've been sucked into the world of google and soon will have daily reminders and updates on what to do, eat, wear, etc. At least microsoft only tried to dominate the software market. Google looks like it's going to take over the lives of geeks.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Conspiracy theories

1) The last time Italy won the World cup (in 1982) the Italian soccer league had a similar scandal about match fixing. 13 players in the squad of 23 were in the 4 clubs involved in matchfixing.

2) Ribery was probably the most exciting and consistent French player in the World cup. Henry was easily the best French player yesterday. I'm sure Henry is a good penalty taker. Why were the two of them taken off in extra time when penalties were obvious?

3) Zidane has a history of madness and 14 red cards. But the cool way he took his penalty and his almost emotionless reaction after scoring a goal and getting sent off seemed too weird. He's their captain and their best penalty taker. With his sending off France had no attack left and seemed in shock.

4) What the hell did Materazzi say to Zidane to provoke him? Racial slurs and abuse are an unfortunate part of international sport. Surely Zidane has dealt with worse through his career. You can't play at this level without being mentally and emotionally tough - which I'm sure Zidane is.

5) The shady way in which Italy got a penaly against Australia seems even worse now. Grosso faked a dive in the last 5 seconds and the referee knew that was the last kick of the game. Down to 10 men against a very fit Australian side I doubt if they could have survived in extra time.

6) How could FIFA give Zidane the golden ball? He was awful in the opening rounds, invisible against Portugal in the semis and pretty bad in the final. He pulled France through against Spain and Brazil but that was about it - apart from the 2 penalties. Cannavaro was the heart and soul of an Italian defense which conceded only two goals in the entire tournament (one penalty and one own-goal). He was rock solid throughout the tournament and easily the player of the tournament.

7) The main referee and the sideline referee didn't see the headbutt. Someone made them see the TV replay. Has that ever happened before in the middle of a football match?

My theory is that the world cup was fixed. After the scandal of matchfixing the Italian fans had only the world cup to look forward to. A loss would have resulted in the fans getting cynical and turned off the game. That would have resulted in huge losses in revenue which the Italian league couldn't afford. I think that's what Materazi must have told Zidane (the match is fixed and that's why Henry and Ribery were taken off) and Zidane had an idea about the whole thing. He probably didn't want to be part of it and decided to go off in dramatic fashion rather than take the loser's medal. The Golden Ball award must be a way to appease him.

PS This is obviously a very outlandish theory so don't read it too seriously. A lot like any theorem I might come up with.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

What the *&^(^*??

What happened to Zidane? 10 minutes to go for penalties. He's the captain, designated penalty taker and he headbutts an Italian for no apparent reason. Or maybe, Materazzi (right?) knew how to upset him but it was quite an unbelievable scene. The match was ok, not too great, not too boring. Still shaking my head at Zidane's behaviour. What a stupid and sad exit.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What a letdown

The France-Portugal match was such a disappointment. Both teams seemed to be playing without any plan or coordination. Zidane was invisible in the second half and only Ronaldo had some exciting moves in the match. The defending was sloppy and compared to Cannavaro's performance in the previous match it resembled a bunch of schoolboys playing defense. Maybe FIFA should nullify the match and make Italy and Germany play in the final.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Last night's match was the best so far. The first half was fast paced, evenly matched and both teams were playing attacking football. The defending and goalkeeping was what kept it from being a high scoring match. Not surprisingly, the second half wasn't as intense and it looked like the Italians were having an extended siesta. The extra time period was where the Italians stamped their authority on the game. The two chances at the beginning of the first half which hit the posts and then the desperate attacks at the end showed that they didn't want it to go to penalties - where the Germans have never lost. The pressure and home support might have been too much for the Italians. The two goals were so clinically executed and the finishing was perfect. Two beautiful curling kicks past Lehman showed how tough it was to score against him. Del Piero's finish was quite dramatic. An ageing superstar coming off the bench, he knew exactly when to make that great run on the counterattack (he was obviously not as tired) and the placement in the end was a dagger through the Germans' heart. Felt sorry for Klinsi and his team. Tonight's match will probably not be as intense but Zidane's in amazing form and he's a joy to watch.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Summing up

1) Brazil put up a very insipid and uninspired performance. They deserved to lose. I thought Zidane was excellent and he played a lot like he did in the 98 world cup. Seemed to be in control whenever he had the ball. Ronaldinho was the biggest disappointment.

2) Why did Argentina not bring on either Messi or Saviola in extra-time? They went too defensive after scoring a goal and it obviously wasn't their natural way of playing. Watching Germany fight back and attack relentlessly was quite exciting. Ballack was everywhere and Germany has been the most consistent team throughout the world cup.

3) Did Rooney deserve a red card? His trampling on the Portugese player's groin didn't seem intentional. That sending off changed the whole tempo though England had so many clear chances to score a goal. In the penalty shootout they looked too scared and since they've never won a shootout it didn't look they expected to win.

4) Italy and France have shaken off sluggish starts and in the beginning it didn't look they'd have a chance to be in the semis. Spain and Argentina looked more likely to get there.

5) Can't figure out who to root for. Probably Italy.