Like many, I was shocked to hear of Prashant Bhargava’s death. I just saw Radhe Radhe with Vijay Iyer’s live score at BAM, and Bhargava was there. I met him once, through Mimosa Shah.

Most people know Yoko Ono as “the person who broke up the Beatles” and think of her art practice as a joke. She’s a much more serious artist than that, and this article tries to lay it out a bit better.

Via Celeste LeCompte, a tool to explore MIT’s research finances. It’s still a work-in-progress. I wonder how hard it would be to make such a thing for Rutgers.

In lieu of taking this course offered by Amardeep Singh, I could at least read the books on the syllabus I guess.

Muscae volitantes, or floaty things in your eyes.


My friend Cynthia her friends have a tumblr on inclusivity in STEM. See also the quarterly Model View Culture, which I think I had seen an article from but didn’t realize it was a whole journal. Thanks to Lily Irani for the link.

This list of streamable Errol Morris movies is dangerous.

Maybe when I am in Bangalore I will get to learn more about The Ugly Indian.

How Chicago’s neighborhoods got their names. It does not explain Mr. Wicker’s crazy hat though.

Alex Smola gave a talk at DIMACS recently where he talked about the alias method for generating biased random variables. I think he even snagged the figures from that website as well…


I occasionally enjoy Thai cooking, so I appreciated some of the comments made by Andy Ricker.

I recently learned about India’s Clean Currency Policy which went into effect this year. I still have some money (in an unpacked box, probably) from my trip this last fall, and I wonder if any of it will be still usable when I go to SPCOM 2014 this year. That sounded a bit crazy to me though, further investigation indicates that an internal circular leaked and it sounds like a more sensible multi-year plan to phase in more robust banknotes. My large-ish pile of Rs. 1 coins remains useless, however.

An Astounding Result — some may have seen this before, but it’s getting some press now. It’s part of the Numberphile series. Terry Tao (as usual) has a pretty definitive post on it.

Avi Wigderson is giving a talk at Rutgers tomorrow, so I thought about this nice lecture of his on Randomness (and pseudorandomness).

There’s been a lot of blogging about the MIT Mystery Hunt (if I wasn’t so hosed starting up here at Rutgers I’d probably blog about it earlier) but if you want the story and philosophy behind this year’s Hunt, look no further than the writeup of Erin Rhode, who was the Director of the whole shebang.

Last year I did a lot of flying, and as a result had many encounters with the TSA. This insider account should be interesting to anyone who flies regularly.


Sorry Please Thank You: Stories [Charles Yu] — collection of short stories by the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Cute, heart wrenching, cutting, it’s all in here. They are more like snapshots than anything else, or fiction experiments. People may think that Yu is writing science fiction but space opera this is not. Some of the best ones are like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills — you wonder what the rest of the world is that engendered the slice you saw.

After Dark [Haruki Murakami] — this novel felt a bit more spare and ephemeral than some of Murakami’s earlier works. It’s certainly not as sprawling as 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore, but weeks later I still feel it’s a little haunting. Fans of Murakami will enjoy it because it’s different but I’m not sure it would make a good introduction to his work.

That Thing Around Your Neck [Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie] — a collection of short stories set in both Nigeria and the US. It’s a glimpse into a certain slice of the Nigerian immigrant community which I found both familiar (from similarities to the South Asian experience) and different (how Biafra looms large). I’m reading Americanah, her latest novel, right now, but this was available from the library earlier. I recommend it highly.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents [Terry Pratchett] — a cute twist on the Pied Piper thing. It’s Discworld without being too Discworld, and would have been totally up my alley when I was a kid. It’s a little less serious than Diana Wynne Jones, for example, but the humor adds to the adventure, rather than distracting from it (that may be a matter of taste though). A good present for kids at that early-YA reading level.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane [Neil Gaiman] — like the Murakami, this rural English weirding fairytale felt familiar and wistful. Unlike the Murakami, however, I found it a bit spare and… predictable I guess. That’s not wholly a bad thing, but I don’t find myself wanting to read it again, like, say, Neverwhere.

The Girl From Foreign [Sadia Shepherd] — a lovely memoir by a Pakistani-American woman who discovers her grandmother was originally from the Bene Israel community of the Konkan coast. She goes to rediscover her Jewish roots in India and indeed, to discover this community. Definitely recommended for those who like historical memoir travelogues (think of Ghosh’s In An Antique Land, which is also a wonderful book).


The Fractal Prince [Hannu Rajaniemi] — the sequel to The Quantum Thief is a bit of an arabesque (fans of Grimwood or Effinger may like that aspect). There are some interesting ideas about stories/code/viruses in there but some of it felt more like poetic gesture. I rather liked the Oubliette as a setting, but Sirr has some interesting bits too. I found the sequel a bit thinner than the original. Recommended for those who have read the first book and who are fans of the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks.

One Red Bastard [Ed Lin] — Third in the series of police/detective novels about Robert Chow, NYC Chinatown cop. This one focuses on the murder of a mainland representative who was going to smooth the way for Li Na to defect to the US. A fun read, although you probably want to read the first two novels in the series first.

Kingdom’s End and Other Stories [Saadat Hasan Manto] — A collection of short stories by a Pakistani writer who lived through Partition (and hated it, more or less). The stories are often dark, and depict a sordid underlife of violence, sex, and drugs in post-Independence worlds of Bombay and Punjab. I had never encountered Manto before — his sour cynicism is a counterpoint to the kind of knowing parody typical of R.K. Narayan, for example. I also checked out a new book about Manto from the Chicago Public Library.

Railsea [China Miéville] — A young adult book set in a world in which the sea is made up of traintracks and instead of hunting whales people hunt giant moles (moldywarpes). Captains have philosophies — everyone is out to hunt for their Moby Dick. The narrator, Sham ap Soorap, is a well-intentioned but somewhat immature fellow, and the world is just-enough-imagined to make you want to go along with it. A fun read.

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice [Tom Slee] — A popular non-fiction book about how the rhetoric of “individual choice” is woefully misleading. Slee uses simple game-theoretic models to show how information asymmetries, power relationships, externalities, free-riding, herding, and other factors can make rational (and reasonable) individual choices result in (very) poor social outcomes. It’s a nice and accessible description of these results and a useful reminder of how dangerous it is to accept as an axiom that more individual choice is preferable. Collective action is also a choice. Recommended!

Linkage (desi edition)

An op-ed from n+1 on the safety of being brown.

Via Mimosa (I think), a profile of photographer Nemai Ghosh, who worked with Satyajit Ray.

Via my father, the story of Indian Jewish actresses in early Bollywood.

Things seems to be heating up on the LAC. Not a good sign.

The death toll in Dhaka keeps rising. This makes Matthew Yglesias’s reaction (see a stunningly poor example of self-reflection here) a bit more that the usual brand of neoliberal odiousness.

The history of new foods in India

Konnichiwa, Varshney-san. Your post on the potato inspired me to read the papers you mentioned as well as a reference suggested by a friend here in Chicago:

Sucheta Mazumdar, “The Impact of New World Food Crops on the Diet and Economy of China and India, ca. 1600-1900.” Food in Global History. Ed. Raymond Grew. Westview Press, 1999. 58-78.

The Columbian Exchange refers to the interchange of foodstuffs, technologies, and disease after European contact with the Americas. In exchange for offering pestilence, brutal colonialism, and genocide, Europeans got a variety of staple crops with which they could support their burgeoning populations and which would later sustain the Industrial Revolution:

The exchange introduced a wide range of new calorically rich staple crops to the Old World—namely potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. The primary benefifit of the New World staples was that they could be grown in Old World climates that were unsuitable for the cultivation of Old World staples. (Nunn and Qian)

In addition, the discovery of quinine in the Andes enabled Europeans to invade and colonize tropical regions. In addition to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this expansion introduced the widespread planting of cash crops such as rubber in Africa. Being an economics paper, there are some sobering quantitative measures to drive home the horrors of colonial exploitation:

The population of the Congo is estimated to have been about 25 million prior the rubber boom, in the 1880s. In 1911, after the peak of the boom, the population was 8.5 million, and in 1923 after the completion of the boom, it was 7.7 million. If one compares the population losses relative to the production of rubber, an astonishing conclusion is reached: an individual was “lost” from the Congo for every ten kilograms of rubber exported (Loadman, 2005, pp. 140–41).

The potato paper covers the effect of potatoes and tries to estimate (numerically) the impact potato cultivation had on population growth and urbanization in Europe. It is somewhat elusive to me what such a quantification “means,” but it’s of a piece with what Ian Hacking describes in The Taming of Chance : the torrent of printed numbers led to the publication of attendant “studies” slicing and dicing the numbers in statistical ways in order to “make sense” of them. The second Nunn and Qian paper covers capsicum, tomatoes, cacao, vanilla, coca, and tobacco, and contains some fun nutritional facts and trivia:

  • Capsicum is high in vitamins A, B and C, magnesium, and iron, and the extra saliva produced by capsacin helps digestion.
  • “Greece consumes the most tomatoes per capita… The tomato has been so thoroughly adopted and integrated into Western diets that today it provides more nutrients and vitamins than any other fruit or vegetable (Sokolov, 1993, p. 108).”
  • “[I]n Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole, his men were allocated 4,560 calories per day, of which over 1,000 came from cacao (West, 1992, pp. 117–18).”

My interest came more from vegetables that almost define Indian cuisine : tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies. Mazumdar’s article focuses on the effect new crops had on China and India. Specific to this context,

There were two major periods of introduction of American plants into Asia. The first wave, in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, included sweet potatoes, maize, potatoes, jicamas, capsicums (chile peppers), squashes, and peanuts, cashews, custard apples, guavas, avocadoes, tomatoes, papaya, passion-fruit, pineapples, and sapodillas… In the second wave, American plants, such as cocoa and the sunflower, were brought to India even more recently in the twentieth century.

With them came new words of course — South Asian readers may know of a certain fruit as sapota (in the south) or chiku (in the north), both of which come from a Meso-American word (not sure of the language) chicosapote. The word achar for pickles came from the Carib axi meaning chile pepper.

The paper draws a distinction between how land ownership practices in India and China made a difference in how fast new foods were incorporated into the common diet. In China, a number of reforms allowed “tenancy rights to become inheritable” for peasants, meaning they had an incentive to say in place and try to extract more productivity from the land they had. The new crops, especially the sweet potato, became staples because they provided more calories per acre, and because they were drought- and pest-resistant, required less labor (especially over rice), and could grow in poor soil. Mazumdar writes:

[In the 1920s in south China] sweet potatoes regularly provided a supply of at least three to four months’ worth or food for practically everybody living in the countryside… they were eaten fresh, baked, boiled, or mashed with pickles.. ground into flour and made into noodles, bread, or a gruel… or stirred into a hash.

The sweet potato revolutionized the lives of peasants in China, giving them more calories and freeing time and labor to grow cash crops. Corn and peanuts were also widely cultivated, since corn could also grow in nutrient-poor soils and peanuts are good nitrogen-fixers and could be grown with sugarcane.

India was a different story — there was more arable land and “relatively low population growth between 1600 and 1850.” Due to military conflicts and tensions with zamindars (landlords), villages would often up and leave, transplanting themselves further from conflict or interference. This meant that unlike China, rural farmers were not as tied to specific locations during this period. Colonialism changed all that — people were pinned down and agriculture was commercialized, so in the 19th and 20th centuries American crops started flourishing. The Brits promoted the potato heavily, and increased urbanization brought it and the tomato into the mainstream. Although it’s hard to think of Indian food without tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies, these ingredients were only integrated around 150 years ago!