Thank you, Syracuse!

Apartment – Syracuse, NY

I remember that warm and clear summer night in Syracuse like it was yesterday. The little United jet from Washington Dulles was headed in to Syracuse late at night. Looking down, I saw darkness, some hills, tree covers, and then we emerged into a small set of city lights. The plane didn’t have to circle at all – no waiting for clearance to land – it pretty much headed straight for the runway, landed and arrived at the terminal. Syracuse Hancock is one of the quietest airports I have seen. Once it touched down, I saw a red neon “Syracuse”, and I remember my first feeling, it was one of horror – “What have I gotten myself into, and how do I get out of this?”

Prior to this I had primarily lived in Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore – three bustling metro cities, and I thought a couple of years of grad school in a small city (but within a 4 hour drive of NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa) sounded like it would be an experience. But I didn’t know if I was ready for this. Being a big city kid all my life, this was a countryside experience for me! (Some people would argue that Syracuse is the fifth largest city in NY state, but I mean I’ve been a really-big-city-kid, 5m+ people, Syracuse is 150k).

Sighing, I got off the plane, deciding that I would graduate early and leave, not knowing I’d spend the next seven years in this city. My friend had come to pick me up, and we headed directly to Alto Cinco. But I was crazily tired and couldn’t wait to sleep, so we didn’t hang around long. We left soon.

The next day, we headed to Atlantic City early in the morning. I had hardly seen Syracuse in daylight. I was sleepy, but my friends asked me to sleep off in the backseat of the car. So, I was a washout on the trip, but it was quite a welcome to grad school life, before I even said hello to the folks at the university.

Syracuse University is very pretty in the summer, good to be outdoors, to play cricket in the quad or in the nearby park. Central New York is awesome to be driving around in the summer. I hadn’t bought a laptop yet, so I used to head out to the campus to check email, the then very popular Orkut, and of course, to roam around – the nomad in me always wanted to aimlessly roam. I met a bunch of people also holding maps in their hands (no smartphones yet), and hey, new friends. While wandering around checking out the new campus, I found a “Chess for Kids” camp happening, and thought I’d volunteer. It was fun playing chess with kids, although I admit it was more like playing marbles with the pieces.

Overall, it was a good first ten days. It was an eventful beginning to my stay in Syracuse.

I was told that we pay for the awesome summer privileges in the winter, but why worry about it in the summer – cross the bridge when you get to it. Winter has its beauty too, although I’m not too much of a winter guy. Winter treks, skiing, etc. haven’t (yet) really appealed to me, although I did get fond of ice skating, especially with some good music playing. I found that the same songs sounded much better on the ice.

December came, I went on a break to India, came back into the Spring semester, which got over in another blink of an eye. Played a lot of “Bangalore vs. Chennai” cricket in Thornden Park in the summer, which again zipped by. Soon I was staring at graduation in December.

“Hey, what the…?!”,  was in my mind as the fall sem began, “didn’t I just get here?” I was getting used to this city and was enjoying being back in school, and in the aforementioned 2-3 blinks of my eye, it was all coming to a close. I had started off on a masters thesis, I was lucky to have had a very friendly advisor. It was my first time doing research. I was half-heartedly applying for jobs, but I didn’t feel like I was done with grad school just yet. Finally, after weeks of thinking, and listening to my inner voice, and my advisor’s voice, I decided to start off on the long road towards a PhD.

Now, it was the other end of the previous problem. PhD is well-known to drag on and on. So, while I’m at it…

I signed up for a Tae Kwon Do class in the gym. I didn’t know then that I would continue it for the next five years! Had to sleep on one side for a couple of weeks because of a bruised rib, had to limp a few days, needed a few ice packs, learnt the hard way that sparring without head gear is not recommended. Nevertheless, TKD was one of the best things I did here for sure. I will try and keep the practice of a martial art as a regular thing in my life.

And while I was at it, I also played some chess, percussion at the odd classical music event, and managed to learn a bit of scuba diving too. I must admit though – Skaneateles Lake is very clear (and is also the drinking water source for Syracuse), but there was nothing much to see underwater, and was always cold.

Chess was pretty good here. It was a pleasant surprise. Who knew that there would be titled players on campus?! I played many chess games with them and other strong players on campus, and even got to play a GM in a simul in Cornell!

I used to hate the game of Scrabble when mom taught me as a kid. I tried playing a few games on my iphone, and found out that a club had just started. Spent quite a few pleasant evenings in Recess Café playing scrabble. I’d never thought that the day would come when I’d actually like Scrabble. I also threw in a little bit of Badminton and Aikido, and all of these probably explain why I took so long to finish my PhD, but what the heck, it was quite a ride!

There’s something unique about student life…it’s not days or weeks that fly – it’s semesters. So now, the time has come to leave. There’s a feeling of relief in these last few days before graduation. There’s also a slightly unsettling empty feeling – no more student life, the end of a long program, leaving a familiar place and familiar people…in short, change. They say that change is essential – things just can’t remain the way they are. They also say that there’s a time and place for everything, and it looks like my time is up in this place.

Apart from friends, peers, professors, there’s a lot of places to thank as well. Starbucks on Marshall Street and Tim Hortons on Brighton Ave for keeping me caffeinated regularly, Westcott’s Alto Cinco with the awesome Mexican Pizza/Dos Equis combo, and then Inn Complete, and Faegans, and Carousel Mall/Destiny USA’s Coldstone, and…

The list of acknowledgments is pretty big, so I think it’s easiest to say – Thank you, Syracuse! After Bangalore, my hometown, this is the longest I’ve ever stayed in one city. And it’s been a blast – no matter how cold it gets here, no matter how many times I have had to dust the snow off my car, and no matter what it lacks by not being a big city. It will remain my American hometown. Thus far, I used to miss only Bangalore, but now I will miss Syracuse as well. I’m now into my last couple of weeks in Syracuse, and will try to make it count.

I have no idea how many butterflies were responsible for me being here and now. I owe them for my memorable time here. So here’s to whatever these butterflies are setting in motion as I write this, by flapping their wings wherever they are. For now, Seattle beckons.

A tribute to Sachin Tendulkar – Thank You, Sachin!

Lab – Syracuse, NY

The day that Sachin Tendulkar had announced his retirement, I had just woken up and seen my friend’s text message asking me if I saw the news and that he felt old. I immediately opened my news reader, and read all about it. It was slowly sinking in over the next few days, there was a disbelief, and the thought – Hey, there’s two more matches…ten more days of cricket with Sachin.

My mind was racing through the role that cricket had played in my life through my childhood, teen years and my twenties too. Cricket began being a part of my life as a kindergarten kid and in primary school, before I even knew that there were six balls in an over, and it intensified into a craze afterward.
The first cricket matches I remember consciously watching were in the 1992 world cup. I remember watching New Zealand win almost all games in the group games and then losing their way in the knockout stages, eventually leading to a Pakistan win. Since then, every open space looked like a cricket ground, anything remotely spherical was a ball, a clipboard, wooden plank, anything made a bat. I didn’t know about the magic of Sachin then, but remember that he was a member in the Indian team around then, when Mohammad Azharuddin was the captain.
Four years later, I consider myself to be very privileged to have watched the India-Pakistan world cup quarterfinal match live at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore. I remember very clearly Ajay Jadeja going berserk in the final overs and hitting Waqar Younis all over the park. I also remember the Prasad-Sohail incident in that match. Sachin was playing too, but I remember that he hadn’t scored much, just 2-3 boundaries, and about 30 runs. But he was there, and India had won.
As a teenager, I’d also developed an interest in other sports. Tennis, Formula One, Chess, Football (Soccer). And through my twenties, many dreams were fulfilled of watching my biggest heroes in these sports live. Watching M.S.Dhoni’s huge sixes at one of the earliest Twenty20 matches, World XI vs. Chemplast (Chinnaswamy stadium, Bangalore, 2005), Roger Federer winning the title by defeating Novak Djokovic (Arthur Ashe Stadium, New York, 2007), and Michael Schumacher at 300+km/h (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal, 2010) remain very special to me. Though I’m still interested in many of these sports, none of them has been as longstanding an interest as cricket (and chess, but I’ve definitely watched many more cricket matches live than chess!). And playing a big role in keeping this interest, was the feel-good presence of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar at No. 3 and No. 4. While they were still unbeaten in a match, there was this hope, this sometimes crazily optimistic hope that India would pull off the win.
I’ve been upset many times over some result in some sporting event. But hardly ever felt actual tears well up in my eyes during the sad moments in sport – well, it is just sport after all, eh? The first was when South Africa and Australia tied in the 1999 World Cup after Lance Klusener’s almost perfect late blitz ended in an unfortunate manner with Allan Donald getting run out and Australia advancing to the finals. Being a big fan of Klusener and South African cricket, I could feel my eyes moist. Another instance was when Michael Schumacher announced his retirement from Formula One in 2006, and I’d felt upset that I hadn’t got a chance to watch him race live on a track. I was incredibly lucky that he came out of retirement, and I managed to watch him live in Montreal in 2010, albeit not in his prime form, nor in his Ferrari…whatever, I watched him race live. And today, when Sachin gave his moving speech. Partly because he was retiring. Another part was because he was always there, perhaps taken for granted…India at 10/2 chasing 330? Doesn’t matter, Sachin is still not out. But mostly because, through all the years of growing up watching cricket, a bunch of other sports, people debuting or retiring, many world cups in cricket and football, many seasons of tennis and the Olympics, Sachin Tendulkar was there during of the entire process – the process of me growing up through all these sports. And for that, I’m very grateful to him. He’s been an integral part of me, and probably a billion or so others.
Here’s wishing him all the best for the future. A simple thank you for what he has meant to me. A wish that he will still be active in cricket by commentating, coaching, writing. A dream that someday I’ll get to see him play that classy straight drive again, maybe in some exhibition match. A hope that the younger generation will be lucky enough to have somebody like him to make their childhood that much richer.
My childhood is now over, long after it was actually over, I was clearly in denial until now. An entire 80s (and perhaps early 90s) generation just got older today. If my life was scaled down to a single day, I feel like I’ve just had brunch.

Idle thoughts (1) – Where is human evolution headed?

Apartment – Syracuse, NY

It is perhaps not wrong to say that human beings are on top of the evolutionary system, at least for now – that is, if the metric to measure it is the potential to control our environment; our brain has led us to be so. That said, clearly there have been many species which have hung around longer than we have, and can continue to live on even after our species is gone.

Consider for a moment, the shortcomings we have as a species:

1. Power: Nowhere close to the best there is: There are plenty of species which have far more powerful limbs or body structures – elephants can carry a few tonnes of weight; lions, tigers, bears have extremely powerful paws, etc.

2. Speed: Again, not even close to the best. Our legs are not designed to be so. An interesting article examines this in more detail and concludes that an ostrich’s leg is perhaps the best for bipedal organisms like us. And, of course, cheetahs are known to be the fastest at about 120 kmph. The current fastest human, Usain Bolt, has a top speed of 44.7 kmph. The same article says that even a common domestic cat can reach about 48 kmph.

3. Respiratory System: I learned from many websites that fish have perhaps the most efficient respiratory systems. The reason is that oxygen concentration is so much lower in water that such efficiency is needed for survival. On top of that, there are many amphibians having systems capable of surviving on land and water. Humans do not have such high efficiency. And since we are not amphibious, efficiency is zero in water. In spite of all our efforts, we are only able to go a few feet underwater for very little time with heavy equipment, as I learnt from scuba diving – for multiple reasons: limited air supply in cylinders, increasing pressure at depths, hazardous nitrogen absorption rates, etc.

4. Eyes: The Mantis Shrimp is said to have the best – according to this article, they can see polarized light, have advanced depth perception, and is equivalent to having “10,000 telescopes”

5. Bite strength: An article in National Geographic credits saltwater crocodiles as having the most powerful bites at about 3700 psi, whereas us humans have a measly 150-200 psi. Many other creatures such as poisonous snakes and frogs have extremely potent venom even if their bite strength may not be much.

And many other such examples of very ordinary features. In any case, the point is that we have probably no distinguishing features that are the best among other animals, or even close to the best. Other animal species have outclassed us in all respects.

All except one, that is – the human brain obviously. About 900-1400 cc of brilliance! In this sense, we are perhaps light-years ahead of other species…at least, for today. This is in spite of being one of the most early “intelligent” brains. Also, that we use just 10% of our brains is supposedly a myth. Our species’ survival arguably is only because of our brain. Not just survival, but our “superiority” as well. The quotes is because our superiority is pretty clear, biologically speaking…but fairly questionable, practically speaking, when we look at the plethora of examples of human stupidity :)

Let’s take a step back, and consider our species with no intelligence (again, biologically please – I can foresee lots of cracks about why this is so hard to imagine :)). Perhaps, we would never have survived even for a little bit, a few seconds on the evolutionary timescale, we would perhaps have made a nice snack for a few carnivores, and that would have been that – we would likely not have been fit enough to survive, à la Darwin. Or maybe, we would not have even formed in the first place!

So, in summary, that’s where we are on the evolutionary scale – very weak and inefficient body systems, but a primitive brain that is so advanced that we not only are able to survive, but are a superior species.

So, if…

(1) all our bodily features are inefficient (except perhaps opposable thumbs),
(2) we are using our brain close to capacity, and
(3) it is purely our brain that has taken us to where we are,

…then my vision for the future of human evolution is as shown in the figure below.

(I’m obviously not much of an artist, but this is just to illustrate the concept :))

Anyway, that was my lazy Sunday evening wondering what the future holds for us humans (provided, of course, that our species does not self-destruct). If you are an advanced “human” (that had the homo sapiens as your predecessors) reading this, please communicate with me by time travelling back to me using your extraordinary brain, and let me know how this prediction worked out.


Lab – Syracuse, NY

A famous quote by Albert Einstein goes: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

It immediately strikes us as true. Very apt indeed.

Let us examine the quote above. There is something big, viz. life. There is an everyday activity, viz. riding a bicycle. And there is an analogy between these two, the simplicity of which is attractive.

My friend also came up with a post about an interesting analogy – a break-up with a common cold. Read it here.

So, such quotes/analogies are of the kind:

X is like Y. (Connected by) Z. 

<X is a deep thought, perhaps philosophical, or just something larger. Y is an everyday activity or a common object. The statement Z connects the two>.

There seem to be many quotes on the internet. Some strike a chord, like the two above. Many others come across as dumb or lame – I won’t dwell on these.

The following exercise is to take everyday activities/objects for the variables X and Y and then try to create Z, the second part of the “newly formed quote”.

Before I begin this exercise, I must confess – I don’t know how to classify this post – perhaps somewhere between light-hearted humour and a valiant attempt at sounding meaningful. If you are in a serious mood, I hope some thoughts make sense. If you are just lazing, I hope the sarcastic humour is evident. But take with a pinch of salt – #fail alert :) Here goes.

Oh, and if by some chance, some already exist in the same or another form, please let me know and I’ll cite the source. I haven’t done much “literature survey” for this :)

Let’s first pick some candidates for X and Y.

Table: Sample values of X and Y
Trust Tree
Life A game of poker
Human mind River
Peace Musical instrument
Relationships Book

Let’s join these columns. Consider randomly chosen ordered pairs (X, Y), I don’t want to attempt all 25 combinations. I’ll do 10 instead. Each of X and Y are picked twice.


X is like Y. (Connected by) Z.

1. Trust is like a tree. It’s strength depends on its roots.

2. Trust is like a river. Deep enough, it can overpower anything; shallow and a little heat can dry it up.

3. Life is like a game of poker. The probability of your bluff working depends on your position.

4. Life is like a river. Starts off young and energetic, and ends up meandering its way to the ocean.

5. The human mind is like a musical instrument. You can work it and choose to play like a maestro, or keep it rusty and sound like something ran over a cat.

6. The human mind is like a book. Dog-ear it, don’t shelve it.

7. Peace is like a tree. As you sow, so do you reap.

8. Peace is like a musical instrument. Out of tune, the music can never sound good.

9. Relationships are like a game of poker. You don’t win much if you don’t put enough in the pot.

10. Relationships are like a book. The prologue must be interesting to continue.

There it is. Ten new “quotes” created. Let me know which work and which don’t!

Dec ’12 – Jan ’13 vacation at home

Home – Bangalore

First off, sorry about the big break in posting on this blog – first it was the end of the semester and then it was my vacation at home in Bangalore. Here’s a not-very-detailed-since-I’m-on-holiday-just-before-sleep summary of what took priority over blog posts :)

Quite a few trips squeezed into one month of vacation. Apart from a lot of eating of course – I’ve lost count of the number of idly/vadas, dosas, pista milk shakes, pista/badam flavoured milks, sugarcane juices, chaats, etc.

Roaming around was also pretty packed this time around. The first trip to Bhubaneshwar also included a trip to the Konark Sun Temple and to the Puri Jagannath Temple. It was also my first trip to Orissa state.

Then was a trip to Chennai, a city that I’ve stayed long in, know my way around reasonably and even used to the extreme heat that I always find there! Oh, and this was “winter” there, by the way :)

A much-awaited trip to Hyderabad was next. Apart from the usual sight-seeing spots, I found a (stupid?) thrill in identifying the spot where I was born there. Making the inevitable “life comes full circle” jokes followed, being back to (geographically) where I was born…although a new hospital has come up there. (I hadn’t been to Hyderabad since I was born, actually). Also managed a quick visit to Secunderabad.

The final leg was a visit to Guruvayoor Krishna temple with family. And then to Calicut, where a dip in the Arabian Sea was a must! A stopover at Mysore, was also squeezed in. Mysore used to be a quiet little city with no traffic at all, was pretty surprised this time around!

A good trip overall, and here’s a selection of a few pics that I clicked in a collage format…so I don’t bug you all with a complete album :)

Clockwise (from top left) – 1. Buddha statue, Hussain Sagar Lake, Hyderabad, 2. Sun Temple, Konark 3. A monkey posing for the camera, Bhubaneshwar, 4. View from the top of Golconda Fort, Hyderabad, 5. Western Ghats, En route from Calicut to Mysore

After a fun vacation, I’m scheduled to be back in Syracuse in a couple of days, back to work. Catch you then!

N.B. 1. This post is probably in the “Beats” category – although it is more along the lines of “City Beats” (and not quite the intended rhythm/music). So thought I’d squeeze in a post about travel as well, since I’m vacationing. And come to think of it, writing an occasional post about travel also seems like fun!

N.B. 2. Pista Milk Shake, in my opinion, is one of our species’ greatest creations. If you are making this at home, and I’m within driving distance, please ping me and make an extra glass or two.

My first online course, and my take on MOOCs

Marshall Street Starbucks – Syracuse, NY

I finally did a whole online course (a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC) starting this summer into the fall – a 7-week course on Listening to World Music offered on Coursera by Prof. Carol Muller of the University of Pennsylvania. I did this course for many reasons.

One was a quick introduction to different kinds of music – pretty likely that I’d never have heard of many of these. Having learnt some percussion music myself, having constantly interacted with musicians, and having attended many different concerts while I was growing up, I believe I have been exposed to many mainstream kinds of music, but would certainly have not come across many not-so-popular ones.

Second, I also thought I wanted to check out how the MOOCs work out, through a complete course. The lectures, homeworks, tests, grading, online discussions, etc. – the whole deal. Checking out the logistics also interested me.

Finally, I wanted to see if I had it in me to finish the course “successfully” when there was no compelling reason to. I mean, the certificate itself was not the motivation at all. It was a course just to learn. I’m happy to report that I did – I did not need a “do it or else” to finish the homeworks and tests :)

This course did not disappoint. It was definitely a fun course. I highly recommend it. A review article on the NY Times prompted me to blog about this course as well – my take on it.

I did enjoy the different kinds of music introduced by Prof.Muller and some stories surrounding them. Many forms of music remain indigenous to the place of origin and must be shared by experts so that we can learn about such cultures. I got introduced to very interesting kinds of music – Tuvan throat singing, Aboriginal traditional music, South African Isicathamiya, and many others. And since they were all YouTube links, you know how it goes – keep following links and suddenly it would have been many hours of browsing.

Some interesting comments that were raised during the course included concerns about plagiarism(!) such as googling for answers during tests, etc. Well, if such courses is purely to learn, what is the real point behind this? So, I’ll not really analyse this further, except that perhaps they just wanted the certificate. Now, if as there are discussions going around to offer college credit for such courses, this will be an issue to ponder over. There will be the additional overheads of supervised online exams, expert reviews on essays, etc. I’m curious to see how this works out, esp. if there are so many thousands in hundreds of courses. It will be a huge step in the format of education if this happens. And no, by way of credit it will not affect me, though. I will remain a bystander with regards to college credit – since I would have graduated by then! :)

I will admit, however, that I did skip or skim through many parts of the slides since I was not very keen on the details about the political scenes at the time. I just wanted the music and a brief story or two. But, of course, there were about 30-40,000 other students registered, and so, the course is tailored for students with varied interests, but the benefit of it being open and online is that you participate to whatever degree you wish to; pick and learn whatever you want to. I think this in itself is a very strong message.

Slightly off-topic, but my personal opinion on many of the “well-rounded education” theories after undergraduate degrees are somewhat overrated and it is perhaps not necessary. Most people I know just end up going through the motions and doing what needs to be done, not really with interest. And for a Masters or a PhD, it should not be essential. For high school and bachelors degrees, yes, it is essential – since students are still unsure about what they want to pursue and specialize in. But not later than that. Anyway, that is my two pennies worth on “core courses”.

That said, back to the main subject. I did suffer through the final exam because I had skipped through many slides and did poorly enough that I did not complete this course with distinction (>80%), but just received a certificate of completion (>70%). That’s fair though, I did just pick and choose whatever interested me most! My scores and the material skipping reminded me of my undergrad days :) However, as I mentioned before, the certificate was never the motivation, so that’s that on the certificate’s role in the course.

The grading was done by peers, and averaged out – the average of 5 anonymous reviews. Seems OK (students were generous and, in general, gave me high scores, and so did I), but perhaps multiple choice questions would have been more fun (I like MCQs), easier to have automated grading, and it is objective, not subjective. However, I understand that is perhaps hard to incorporate HWs as MCQs for all courses. This one, for example, had essays to write, so I don’t know how this would have worked out as MCQs.

Online discussions were pretty awesome, actually. (Although, I was kind of lazy, mostly used it as read-only.) There were so many interesting ideas put forth. If I had to pick out just one really fantastic feature of MOOCs, it would be this – online discussions by fellow students. You can see social networking, crowd sourcing, etc. at its best – a treasure chest of ideas pinged back and forth, very original opinions, hard to find in any textbook. This course had a few Teaching Assistants as well, and they did a fantastic job in their contributions to the discussion forums.

There have also been discussions about whether MOOCs will replace traditional college educations completely in the future. I can see it being a powerful factor, but I don’t know about complete replacement, since a college education is much more than just doing a bunch of courses. However, this does bring about the issue of how much people will be willing to pay for “traditional” a college education and degree now that there are a growing number of such courses available for free online; and that too, all by leading experts. Well, I guess I’ll wait and see it play itself out – I’m curious about this as well, i.e. to see where the equilibrium lies.

One thing I’m sure of, this will not be my last MOOC. And neither will it be my last explorations of the exciting kinds of music that I was exposed to through this course – I sense many more hours of YouTube-link-following coming up!

Fahrenheit Scale – what’s the basis?

Marshall Street Starbucks – Syracuse, NY

Curiosity made me look up the logic recently. It was surprising!

What I mean by the title is that I know what the Celsius scale is based upon. Water freezes at 0C, boils at 100C, and using these two round values as base points, the scale is calibrated. Sounds reasonable.

Now, the Kelvin scale. The scale is the same as Celsius, but with an offset. That is, each difference of 1K is equal to 1C, but the base is not the freezing point of water, but absolute zero. In other words, any temperature in this universe, however cold, would be non-negative on this scale. Zero Kelvin is when all motion ceases (not yet attained experimentally but about 1E-9K has been reached). Very clear reasoning.

There’s other scales but they do not appear to be very frequently used, so I won’t comment on them for now.

This brings us to Fahrenheit. Water freezes at 32F. Water boils at 212F. Normal body temperature is 98.6F. Absolute zero is -459.67F. So what really is the basis for this scale? There should be some “round” number that means something. Why choose seemingly arbitrary numbers? We know what zero is in Celsius and Kelvin. What really is “Zero degrees F”, in  other words, what is the basis for this scale?

The only thing I could think of was that perhaps 100F is a likely threshold for a (serious) fever. 98.6-100F may not be a cause for much concern, likely a simple cold/flu. Although I must admit, this was not strong enough a reason, and I couldn’t think of any other round number, in order to calibrate.

It so happens that this scale is still popular partly because of the following “intuitive” sense of these numbers, that were easy to remember. 50F is a pleasant day. 100F is on the threshold of being too hot. 0F is borderline very cold. And so on.

But none of all this explained the logic behind creating the scale. I mean 99F is very hot as well. 1F is chilly too. 55F is even more pleasant. 100.4F is also a reasonable fever.

As it turns out, the scale just happens to produce values this way. The reason behind creating the scale as it is was very different. Fahrenheit, in 1724, determined the zero as the freezing point of a mixture of ice, water and ammonium chloride (in equal rations), essentially a kind of brine. At the time, this temperature was considered widely as the coldest possible.

32F was the freezing point of ice and water (also mixed in equal ratios). The number 32 came about as Romer’s scale (proposed in 1701) was modified by Fahrenheit to avoid fractions (he multiplied all values from Romer’s scale by 4). This new scale underwent further minor refinements by scientists which led to the scale being the way it is today.

OK, now the next (obvious) questions – 1. Why ammonium chloride and not other salts? 2. Why was Romer’s scale set to 7.5 for water/ice freezing mixture?

1. Ammonium chloride is a commonly available salt used in forming Frigorific mixtures, i.e. a mixture where the final equilibrium temperature reached by the mixture is fixed, no matter what the temperature of the constituents were, initially. I assume this particular salt was used (and not some other salts which also produced such mixtures) since it was commonly available, but I’m unsure.

2. Romer set 0 in the same way as above, the freezing point of brine. The boiling point was set at 60 degrees. Why 60? I tried searching on the net, but found no convincing answer. Well, it’s a round number. And the freezing point of water on this scale was 1/8 of the way, at 7.5 degrees.

So there’s my understanding of the scale. The availability of ammonium chloride abundantly, its contribution towards forming frigorific mixtures, a misunderstanding of what the coldest possible temperature was, and an (arbitrarily?) chosen boiling point of 60 degrees by Romer led to the scale that is still so popular today!

In my opinion, metric systems are the way to go!

Lava Simulation!

Lab – Syracuse, NY

When I say I ran into this project, I actually did. Last Friday, I was on my way back to the parking lot in a shuttle, and one stop before mine, I saw a demo in progress. I hopped off, curious. From a distance it appeared to be a glass making demo.

It turned out to be a really cool project. Well, a really hot project – simulating lava flow!

Researchers from the Geology Department and sculptors from the Department of Art were collaborating on this. I met a geology student and he was kind enough to explain what was happening and he also sent a few links across for me to read.

Now, I have hardly any knowledge on this, so I’m going to try to describe briefly only what I learnt (and not make up stuff!) as accurately as I can. I’d never seen such a simulation before. I imagine it must take quite some planning to keep that kind of unharnessed energy under control. I learnt that the temperatures generated were about 1200 degrees C plus! It occurred to me that this was about a fifth of the sun’s surface. In a parking lot next to a building!

The material was basalt, and it flowed through molten and re-solidified. It was apparently part of a 1.1 billion year old basalt bed from Wisconsin. So, this was already molten and solidified at least once before (long before humans existed!), and it went through the same process in the simulation. Check out the project webpage. There are many more details, and links to lots of great pictures and videos in the site.

Now the sculpting department will create some artistic creations using this molten lava, making it flow on certain molds or surfaces and allowing it to solidify.

I got to take a small piece with a little wavy design on it as a souvenir. From the site I gather this pattern arose as a result of pahoehoe flow.

This will now be on my desk for a while, a paperweight with a story!

Note to future species (Time capsule note)

If you are a bot or some other highly evolved super-intelligent species reading this (perhaps using your fiftieth sense? We primitive beings had a mere five senses in our time) 1.1 billion years from when I write this (I’m guessing it’s around 1,100,002,012 C.E. now), this piece of rock has melted and solidified at least twice before – in Wisconsin (It was the Proterozoic eon then – this rock was probably the home continent of a colony of cyanobacteria) and in Syracuse (man’s experiments described above). According to current human simulations and predictions around the time this picture was taken, this will melt at least once more – four billion years further ahead in time, when the sun engulfs the earth. If you have figured out the mysteries of life and death, and are able to communicate with past and future beings, I’d be interested to learn where this little piece of rock landed up, let me know!

Weekend scuba diving in Lake Skaneatles

Apartment – Syracuse, NY

This weekend was fun. We did a bunch of scuba dives and a little snorkelling as well. This was part of a scuba diving course taught by National Aquatic Service on our university campus. The basics of diving were taught in a swimming pool in our school, and this weekend was in Lake Skaneatles – it is also the fresh water source of Syracuse.

The water was crystal clear, and we could see 10-20ft, except for when we newbies were kicking up the silt from the lake bed due to poor buoyancy control and could see nothing! Here’s a pic of our dive site.

Well, the weather wasn’t quite this great when we got into the water. It was cloudy and the water had gotten choppy, but the dry suits did their job!

A summary of what I’ve learnt so far – Most of diving is fun, although setting up the equipment is a long and tedious process – there’s (i) wearing the dry suit for cold weather (a Syracuse signature :)) (ii) setting up the buoyancy compensator (BC) (iii) setting up the cylinder of compressed air, (iv) cleaning the mask with the solutions so that it doesn’t fog, (v) Even putting the fins on can be a bit of a hassle (vi) making the necessary air supply connections to the BC, and of course, the primary air source for us to breathe! Since tightness of connections is important and land does not provide the flexibility that water does, it can get to be quite a process especially when it’s cold outside and your fingers aren’t working so well :)

A little fish has all these systems built in, and here is man, with all his intelligence, struggling hard to spend a few minutes like a fish! Humbling, eh? :)

Continuing with what I’ve recently learnt – Things to keep track of while underwater include increases in pressure by 1atm per 33ft, air supply getting lower which requires monitoring. Then there’s the nitrogen absorption rates which matter, they are known to cause “bends” if rate of nitrogen release is not right, hence ascent is supposed to be always a slow process. Residual nitrogen amounts based upon depth and duration of dives also govern when, how long and how deep our next dives can be, although it was not quite a concern at these low depths and low dive durations. Also, our eyes are not adapted to look in the water, so the mask is essential. Water could get into the mask, hence the mask has be made such that there is a process to clear it. Light appears different since different colours are absorbed at different levels. There’s many others to keep in mind – with regards to air supply, somebody else needing assistance, etc.

Again, a little fish…

When I was under, I could see a few fish (I’m told they were bass/trout) and they seemed unconcerned about us and did not flee as I’d thought they would. Seemed like friendly fellows :)

I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive about going so deep (“so deep” is relative – perhaps this wasn’t nearly as deep as professional divers go, but it was by far the deepest I had ever been, the previous being 16ft in a swimming pool). To me it’s still a new and unknown world. Everything we take for granted on land, starting from the basic process of breathing, does not come for free in the water. OK fine, it’s not quite “free” on land either but that’s a different subject for another day!

One of the primary reasons for sticking to shallow waters is that pressure increases rapidly, and the human body is not quite adapted for this. But at about 35-40 feet (the maximum depth of our dives this weekend), with 2 atmospheres of pressure, it was perhaps the mermaids of the deep giving us a warm hug – welcoming us visitors into their world!

Music and memories: key-value pairs?

Marshall Square Mall – Syracuse, NY

It has always made me wonder how a certain piece of music triggers a set of memories. A quick Google search reveals that there is scientific basis for this – a study published by LiveScience in 2009 shows that this is so. (There are probably other pieces of research on this as well.) In this study, they perform a survey with test subjects and scanned their brains for activity while playing some music which was popular when the subjects were 8-18 years old. They say that this scan showed spikes of mental activity when a song triggered some vivid memories. The article also identifies the part of the brain that is responsible for this – the medial prefrontal cortex which is just behind the forehead.

Obviously not all music has this effect. Interestingly, the memories that come flooding back are not the people/places/activities of the first time that I listened to it, but the first time I connected with it. (I don’t know if this is the same for everybody.) In other words, I would have heard that song before, perhaps on the radio or television, but would not have made this connection. Or perhaps I would have felt that it is a nice song, and forgotten about it. But there is that one unique point in time where I would have connected with it that keeps coming back, the time, place, what I was doing then, etc. And it is not always the expected connections – such as a girlfriend, or a party, etc. It could also be something really…blah.

For instance, I remember the first time I made a connection with Dido’s “Here with me” when I had just picked my uncle up from the railway station in Bangalore; when I got back home, I’d seen its music video on television. I also remember that I’d played a game of chess with my computer immediately after. I’ll list a few more in the table below.

So here’s the hypothesis – Listening to a good song while thinking about something creates a key-value pair that can never ever be modified.

(A key-value pair is a data structure, which is effectively a tuple. So it will have the format of <name, value>.)

Table: Some of my musical key-value pairs
Key Value
Song Artist(s) Location Season/Time of Day Blah Activity
Here with me Dido Bangalore 2000 Monsoon morning, ~8am Picked uncle up from railway station, came home and played chess with the computer
Iris Goo Goo Dolls/Ronan Keating Solihull 2006 Fall night, ~11:30pm Lying on the bed, looking out the window. (Playing that night on the radio was Ronan Keating’s version)
Urzu urzu durkut Shreya Ghoshal Bangalore 2006 Spring morning, ~7am Got on office bus, starting work in a new project/different location
Fix You Coldplay Syracuse 2008 Winter evening, ~4:30pm Killing a couple of hours while waiting to go downtown
Ondra renda Bombay Jayashree Chennai 2004 Summer Sunday afternoon, ~3pm Lazing indoors as it was too hot outside
Mar Jawan Shruti Pathak, Salim Merchant En route from Toronto to Montreal 2010 Winter afternoon, light snow Driving on Highway 401 E

Why this much (unnecessary) detail in the table? Exactly! I’m surprised at the kind of detail each song reminds me of, although nothing really extraordinary was necessarily happening at the time.

It was just another night when I was lying down on my bed. And what’s the big deal about picking my uncle up from the railway station? Or lazing indoors? Also, all these songs I had listened to before and remember thinking that they were good songs, but why do I not remember the first time I heard them? And why did I make a connection at these “blah” times? As I said, these were not the first time I heard these songs, and definitely not the last time either. These are some of my favourite songs and are usually part of most of my playlists.

There are many more examples, of course. These are all just ordinary moments. I’m not even getting into the personal stuff where connections with certain music is expected because that moment was special.

Looking at the above examples, I cannot find any similarities between why these songs connected when they did. The only correlation I can think of is that all these times I was thinking about something, can’t quite remember what for each instance, but my mind was drifting with thoughts. My conclusion from this one case study, i.e. me, (albeit not a very scientific conclusion) is that good music combined with exercise for your mind perhaps has this effect of reminding you of the scene at the time you connected!

In other words, you can hear it again and make all the connections you want again, but the one that keeps flooding back is the first time you make the connection, i.e. the initial key-value pair. So, the above table is now read-only, edits are not allowed! If you disagree, let me know. I’d be interested to hear other views on this. Please also point me to other articles on this subject in case you know of any.

In the study mentioned at the beginning of this post, the researchers also mention that even patients suffering from memory loss are also able to recollect musical connections, with the reasoning that the prefrontal cortex one of the last few regions of the brain to waste away.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good song creates a motion picture – and since, this is a set of many pictures, it is perhaps worth much more. But if it’s a bad song, it triggers nothing. So my ordering with respect to its worth in words is: Bad song < Any picture < Good song (with a made connection)