Readings

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman). This was recommended by Vivek Goyal, and is Kahneman’s popular nonfiction book about the psychology of decision making in humans (as opposed to rational-decision making models like those in economics). The System 1/System 2 model was new to me, even though the various biases and heuristics that he describes were things I had heard about in different contexts. While quite interesting and a book that anyone who works on decision making should read (I’m looking at you, statisticians, machine learners, and systems-EE folks), it’s a bit too long, I think. I found it hard to power through at the end, which is where he gets into prospect theory, a topic which my colleague Narayan Mandayam is trying to apply in wireless systems.

Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit). A slim volume collecting several of Solnit’s essays on feminism and its discontents, from the last few years. I was familiar with some of the essays (including the first one) but was surprised by her ultimately hopeful tone (many of the essays come with introductions describing their context and how she feels about them now). Highly recommended, but I don’t think it will help with any Arguments On The Internet.

The Idea of India (Sunil Khilnani). This book is a bit older now but provides a lot of crucial context about the early Indian state, the relationship between urbanism and social change, and the nature of electoral politics in India. Reading this gave me a more nuanced view of the complexity of contemporary Indian politics, or at least a more nuanced view of how we got here (beyond the usual history of communalism). The origins of the cronyism of Congress and the causes and effects of the Emergency were also a new perspective for me.

The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen). This is about an undercover Vietnamese (well, half-Vietnamese, as people keep pointing out) undercover agent who leaves during the evacuation of Saigon and embeds himself in the refugee community, sending coded messages about counter-revolutionary plans. Our unnamed narrator has a an epic adventure, darkly comic and tragic, initially told as a confessional in some sort of prison interrogation. He was educated in the US before going back to Vietnam — this puts him between two worlds, and the novel is fundamentally about this tension. Throughout people are archetypes: The General, The Auteur, the crapulent major. Although long, the novel is rewarding: the last quarter really put me through the wringer, emotionally.

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel). A novel about a post-apocalyptic future (split between pre-slightly post-and much post) in which much of the world has been decimated by a mysterious infection. The novel revolves around a series of connected characters: an actor who dies on stage in a production of King Lear, his ex-wife, who wrote a series of comics about a remote station, a child actor from the same production who survives to become part of a traveling theater company in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was once Michigan, an audience member who was once a paparazzo following the actor. The whole novel has a haunting air to it, a bit of a dreamy sensibility that makes it easy to read (too) quickly. The connections between the characters were not surprising when they were revealed, but they didn’t need to be — the book doesn’t rely on that kind of gimmickry. Read it while traveling: you won’t look at airports the same way again.

From 300 Ramayanas to The Hindus

With the recent furor over Penguin’s decision to pulp copies of Wendy Doniger‘s The Hindus after some intense pressure, I was reminded of Delhi University’s decision to ban a much less “controversial” essay by A.K. Ramanujan entitled Three Hundred Ramayanas. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and well worth a read. What it points to is the vast plurality of traditions and interpretations.

Mimosa reposted a couple of responses to the recent events that are also worth reading.

Linkage

Via Amber, a collection of grassroots feminist political posters from India.

Via John, some fun investigations on how 355/113 is an amazingly good approximation to \pi. Also related are the Stern-Brocot trees, which can give continued fraction expansions.

I had missed this speech by a 10 year old on gay marriage when it happened (I was in India), but it’s pretty heartwarming. For more background on how the principal originally deemed the story “inappropriate.”

What is a Bayesian?

Unrelatedly, ML Hipster — tight bounds and tight jeans.

SPCOM 2012

IISc ECE department sign

After a fun trip to Mysore this weekend, I have landed at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore (Bengaluru for those more PC), for SPCOM 2012. This is a 4 day conference (yesterday was tutorials) that has been held 8 times before (sometimes skipping years) here at IISc. I’ve never visited here before, but my father, grandfather, and great grandfather are all graduates, so it feels pretty special to finally see the place. My talk is dead last, so we’ll see how many people are still here by the time it rolls around.

Linkage

The NIPS deadline is coming up, so I’ve been a bit harried. However, there are many cool things out there on the internet…

IIT Kanpur wants to open an office in the US to recruit faculty.

Via my father, don’t you wonder where the center of mass of a pizza slice is? This is more of an issue for those New York-style fans — in Chicago the deep dish is a little more stable.

A fascinating post from the NY Times about ephemeral islands which appear and disappear as sea levels shift.

Via BK, a musical film about coffee. It’s part of the Jazz Dance Film Fest, which promises to be my undoing, productivity-wise.

An interesting article on the Dalit movement in Maharashtra.

Readings

Tiassa, by Steven Brust. As Cosma puts it, mind candy, and only worth reading if you’ve read the other 10 books in the series. Quite enjoyable, however.

Kraken, by China Miéville. A rollicking adventure involving a giant squid, horrific monsters and gruesome deaths, a dark underbelly of London, the end of the world, and… a ghost piggie. Among other things. I enjoyed it.

Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley. A travelogue of a gay Englishman who becomes an attaché to a gay Raja in a princely state in the early 20th century. Often full of colonial condescension (though in a light tone) about things Indian. Most of us are tragically sad of buffoonish. The homosexuality is not overt but explicit enough that the book was censored when published. Still, it’s an interesting historical read, just because it is so weird.

The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, by Risa Goluboff. A really fascinating book about the history of civil rights litigation in the US from Lochner to Brown. The term “civil rights” was in a state of flux during that era, transitioning from a labor-based understanding to discrimination-based standing. The main players were the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Service and the NAACP. By choosing which cases to pursue and which arguments to advance, they explored different visions of what civil rights could mean and why they were rights in the first place. In particular, the NAACP did not take on many labor cases because they were actively pursuing a litigation agenda that culminated in Brown. The decision in Brown and subsequent decisions shaped our modern understanding of civil rights as grounded in stopping state-sanctioned discrimination. However, the “lost promise” in the title shows what was lost in this strategy — the state-sponsored parts of Jim Crow were taken down, but the social institutions that entrench inequality were left.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. I had to read this since I just moved to Chicago and I work right near Jackson Park. This was a very engaging read (Larson just has that “style”) but a bit creepy in that “watched too many episodes of Dexter” way. I enjoyed it a little less than Thunderstruck, but I had more professional attachment to that one.

Linkage

Kenji explains the science of no-knead bread. I have to try making some this summer.

A nice post about Punjabi Mexicans in California, a little-known bit of South Asian immigration history in the US.

Detection of correlations is a snazzy title, but they mean something very particular by it. Also, why does everyone hate on the GLRT so much?

I want to see The Trip, especially after watching this clip. (h/t Adam G.)

P. Sainath on civil society in India. (h/t Soumya C.)