Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Broken - Part 1

 I wrote this article a while ago and forgot to post it.

 This saga began on a Friday. It had been a fruitful day for my research. I had had an optimistic meeting with my advisors and a great lunch with colleagues. I went back home in the evening mightily satisfied with my life. After taking a nap and browsing through thirty restaurant pages on Github, I told myself that I had to kickstart my productivity by taking a walk to this really nice place that sells homemade ice-creams. 

Halfway through the walk, I thought to myself that my biggest fault seemed to be the fact that I keep squandering my potential by giving into impulses. After all, I had spent all summer intensely working out. I was swimming more than a 1000 yards every other day and weight training on other days. Late night ice creams did not fit into the plan, for you see, I had a plan.

Instead, I decided to walk towards the gym. It was about 9:00 PM and I thought I could take the late night shuttle back home that would drop me at my doorstep. With new pink shoes, new pink shirt and teal shorts, I felt empowered. I was walking towards the university and I told myself that how my life worked itself out and how nice it was to be where I was. I told myself that I should never drive myself crazy and think about how happy I felt at that moment on what was a beautiful Friday night in Pittsburgh. I am not making this up to build this into a story. I was truly happy and in a weird way, what happened after this makes me worried about feeling happy about anything, ever again. I am forever going to be haunted about how I jinxed myself.

Ten minutes later, at the gym, I had 10 pounds in each hand and was doing lunges. After three lunges, a voice popped in my head and told me that I ought to be doing reverse lunges because the forward ones were too easy. I happily stuck my leg back and as I bent my knee, I realized I was losing balance for my other leg was tripping over what was a free weight on the floor. I had just broken what I now know as the golden rule for lunges - never stick your leg in an unknown direction assuming that no one would leave a free weight lying around. Along with these rules, I had also broken a whole bunch of things in my knee.

Since my knee was in a bent position, when I lost balance and fell down, my knee cap (patella) was slingshot out of its groove as the ligament that holds it in place tore. My patella also managed to tear a piece of cartilage and break a chunk of bone on its path of destruction. For more details and an animated explanation see here

It took a couple of days to understand that this was more serious than it initially appeared to be. It was a week before I saw an orthopedic doctor, two more days to get an MRI and get a diagnosis.

Two weeks later, the surgeon patiently explained my options to me - I had to get the torn cartilage re-attached to the bone and get my medial patellofemoral ligament reconstructed. I could also get the torn cartilage taken out and get my knee closed up without doing anything about reattaching it. He told me that this would leave my bone unprotected and I would almost certainly get arthritis in ten years and strongly discouraged this. He told me that I was going to get a surgery one way or another.

In short, I was in for a long ordeal. Sometimes it is so difficult to acknowledge accidents. I had a carefully prepared plan for what was going to be crucial two months and all my plans smoldered when I was gasping on the gym floor holding my knee. I keep trying to understand what made me change my mind from getting that ice-cream - I could have been safe. Why did I have to go to gym on a Friday night when the rest of the world was taking a break. And even if I did go to the gym, wasn't it a good thing? Wasn't I honoring my body with my commitment? 

When I come to the "Why me" question I keep remembering this quote that was once a tie-breaker question in a quiz that I lost. Arthur Ashe contracted HIV due to infected blood that he received during a heart surgery in the early 80s. Apparently, he received tons of letters from his plans asking "Why you". Arthur Ashe was supposed to have said "The world over-- 50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5, 000, 000 learn to play tennis, 500, 000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach the Wimbledon, 4 to semi-finals, 2 to finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked God "Why me?". And today in pain I should not be asking God ‘Why me?’ "

Of course, I haven't achieved anything close to what Arthur Ashe did and it would be extremely presumptuous of me to overstate my sense of purpose, but it feels like a great way to think about adversity. I have always been that person for whom statistically improbable things happen - I get business class upgrades, I win raffles, my name comes up in a random draw, I get picked up for TV game shows and win them. I have accepted all this unquestioningly and the only way to accept this suffering is to do the same. Not that I have a choice. 

The other day, I mused glumly to a friend that if I had been a horse or a dog, I would have been put down at this point. He pointed to me that I was neither a horse nor a dog and that for a person who tries to build counterfactuals for a living, I was terrible at coming up with a positive one. Accordingly, I have told myself that if I had gone to eat ice-cream something worse would have happened anyway and I should be very glad for the kind of friends who help me keep my sanity.

 What happened after this is best left to another post.






























Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gospel of Wealth and such

One of the things I love about this country is its amazing network of public libraries. I went from 0 books in 2014 to about 21 in 2015 without spending a single cent. All thanks to the magnificent Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) and its tie-up with Amazon to e-borrow books and to deliver it straight to my Kindle, for free. Even the $40 audio books can be borrowed through Amazon, for free, if you have a public library card.

The really nice thing about using a library is that sometimes one needs to wait until the book becomes available. Waiting actually makes you want to read a book, because in a sense you have "worked" towards it by not giving into instant gratification. CLP and Amazon seamless work together, put me on auto-hold, so that when the book becomes available it is auto-delivered to my Kindle and 21 days later it is auto-checked out. No more late fees to the library or walking/sliding through icy sidewalks just to pick up a book or worse to return an unread book.

Since Amazon owns Goodreads, I get all my recommendations through Goodreads where I follow people who seem to like the books I do but are more regular and avid readers. So what is in there for Amazon to facilitate such a fantastic process?

Since Amazon knows at what time I start a book and what time I take to read a book, it can model my purchase behavior. Thus, in a Machine Learning induced sales frenzy, Amazon follows me around the Internet desperately trying to sell me the third part of a thriller series that it knows I generally finish in a day. Amazon also knows that the third part is on hold, I am fifth in the queue and I am the kind of a customer who quivers tremulously when presented with a deal. Amazon is very likely to have figured that I have self-control of a two year old and it would just be a statistical anomaly if I don't buy the third part when I am targeted the right way.

It is a win-win here. Not only are people more likely to use the library, they are more likely to enjoy the material, search for good books and might even buy the ones that they like. Something that Amazon tried with Kindle Unlimited - but why would you use Kindle Unlimited when you have the mighty American libraries at your disposal?

Getting the books delivered to my sturdy refurbished Kindle (surpassed in robustness only by Nokia 1100) is fantastic. I remember my childhood in Madurai, hanging around in private libraries for hours, so that my parents don’t have to pay the 15% borrowing charge on books that will last for less than a day. I recall waiting agonizing months for the latest Harry Potter to make it to the library because it was so expensive that it was too much to ask for. To me, a free, well-stocked public library in itself is a thing of wonder and a one that just makes reading so much more convenient that it weans me off 30 Rock re-runs on Netflix, is truly awesome.

Interestingly, so many of Andrew Carnegie’s legacies are powered by cutting-edge technology and this has truly changed the way people benefit from his great altruism.


Friday, October 02, 2015

Dear self, X years ago ...

I came across this wonderful video today where a bunch of folks talk to their slightly younger friends about things that that they wish they had known just a year ago. So the 20 year old says “Dear 18 year old, do not put on so much make-up” while the 28 year old goes “Dear 26 year old, back up your hard-drive now.” I was so thrilled by this video and I thought I could do my own version of this. Since it is very hard to empathize with a 10-year old self as an 11-year old self when I am 26, I am fixing my view-point in my current timeline, so that the story does not have annoying jump cuts.


 “Dear 10-year old – your handwriting does not matter at all. Stop moping that your favorite gel pens were taken off production.”

“Dear 11-year old – do not attend any Tamil weddings even if you are tempted by the live Dosa counters and the limitless possibilities that the buffet line has to offer. The PTSD is not worth it.”

“Dear 12-year old – You can never be tall enough. One day you are going to understand how painful it is to dabble in 4-inch high heels and if some moronic relative cackles with a funny, funny joke about how they have to rebuild their ceilings when you visit them, don’t stand just there and fume in adolescent anger. Try breaking their TV before you leave. 'Tis not vandalism if it is for a good cause.”

“Dear 13-year old. Quizzing is fun but it is not as big as you think it is”

“Dear 14-year old, it is okay if you cannot do two digit multiplications in your head. The rest of your family might not know it, but there are things called calculators and doing Math really fast in head will become as obsolete as having a good handwriting. Actually, scratch this. Instead, avoid all contact with extended family. When they quiz you in Math in social gatherings, tell them to go to hell and add some gory details if possible. You have a morbid imagination. Use it.”

“Dear 15-year old, memories of reading Harry Potter will remain extremely salient all through adult life. Cherish it.”

“Dear 16-year old, no amount of practice tests is going to prevent you from misreading the question in the final board exam. It is three rolls of two dice and not two rolls of three dice. It might bump you down by 500 in the rankings for getting into a good school, but you will do okay with what you get.”

“Dear 17-year old, pay attention in the calculus class. Despite what your seniors say, understanding how to get a Thevenin’s equivalent right is never going to help in life.”

“Dear 18-year old, this year you will have Electrical Engineering laboratory. You would think that all that character building should mean something, but it never will. You will survive even if they kick you out of the lab multiple times. Blown fuses are not your fault. Well, though we both know the truth deep down. If only you had not distracted ...”

“Dear 19-year old, eat all idli from all the restaurants that the splendid city of Coimbatore has to offer. Someday, you will be mortified to unfreeze idlis and dip them in what passes as coconut chutney. You will long for the beet-root chutney at RHR Idli Kadai.”

“Dear 20-year old, IBM is not going to give a free bag that says “I am the chosen one” during recruitment like they did the year before. Stop basing important decisions in your life on free stuff you get at job fairs.”

“Dear 21-year old. Hot chocolate does not mean melted chocolate. It is just a fancy way of saying Bournvita. That does not  justify drinking a whole bottle of Hershey's syrup to deal with the disappointment.”

“Dear 22-year old, this is the first year in life you will begin to know that you cannot always make things happen by working really hard. Actually, this will be the worst and the best time of your life. Remember every day." 

“Dear 23-year old, stuff yourself with Google food. You will only have the memory of such indulgence to carry you through grad school when you are deciding between going hungry and the saddest salad you have ever seen.”

“Dear 24-year old, five cups of coffee is not good for health and not doing dishes for a month is such a terrible idea.”

“Dear 25-year old, do not binge watch Netflix, on your laptop, lying on bed. Your eyes can get remarkably screwed in a very short period of time. Gilmore girls is not even riveting story-telling. Also, do not panic. God works in mysterious ways.”


Check out the video I was watching here .

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Gather around kids ...(for a note on storytelling)

Words used in the right context make all the difference between good writing and great writing. All those Wodehousian summers have made me particularly sensitive to clever turns of phrases in good writing. I grew up reading about Lord Emsworth pottering around the Blandings Castle while the hedonistic pig, Empress of Blandings, chomped on her potatoes. Wodehouse could have used "ate" her potatoes but somehow the rather onomatopoeic chomp makes you understand the vigor with which the Empress of Blandings tackled tubers.

A thwack from a cat's tail, the trill notes of a girl's voice, clomping down a passage with uncomfortable heels -really helps you feel what the faceless characters do, with a distinctive sound. Most of the writers I enjoyed reading were the ones who paid attention to describing things really well. For example, Enid Blyton’s scones were not just scones, they were hot, buttery and smelled heavenly of all good unknown things from an English pantry and of a potential adventure that was just around the corner.

The challenge I see in good writing is the imagery. I have always wondered how people see what they read inside their head. In mine, the characters are always charcoal silhouettes with mild, very blurry faces that alter depending on circumstances. For example, I would feel how Dumbledore would look like and not exactly see his face. It is a mixture of certain defining features that you associate with the character - a long flowing white beard, a robe and let us say, a certain ebullience that Dumbledore brings to the table. Is my Harry same as yours?  How can I approximate even a silhouette version of a Geisha in Japan while reading the Memoirs of Geisha when I have no idea how the Geishas look like? Heidi from the Swiss Alps looked nothing like the cartoon that later came on TV. Particularly difficult ones were the fairy tales from the kindergarten - how did Cinderella look like? I did not have a Disney Princess to compare it with and in my head Cinderella was like the doll I had, blonde and blue-eyed. All the princesses looked the same way. Now they are replaced by the “Frozen” version and that makes me sad.

Cars, to me, are particularly disturbing. I am seeing all those cars I knew as a child being so different to how they appeared in my head. Nancy Drew had a Mustang. Particularly fishy guys would lurk in a Toyota Camry to stalk an innocent victim before proceeding to do something that involved grisly details. Chet Morton in Hardy Boys had a “jalopy”. Some cars were convertibles while other were coupes. In my head, everything was one single car. When a character went into a car, it took the shape of an Indian car I was used to, which at that point was an ambassador. And if it was a fancy car, it was a nameless sedan, and beyond that the cars took a cartoonish block car style. Remember this was an age before Internet, before you had the luxury to “Ok Google, what is a jalopy?”.

This is probably why you should "Never judge a book by its movie". Movies almost always disappoint fans because of "my Hermoine is not yours" problem. Imagine a million fans and a million different versions of Harry Potter and then you get a movie that defines the vague silhouettes with real flesh and blood, which is perhaps an average of all these versions. JK Rowling might have chosen Daniel Radcliffe, but that is how her version of Harry looked like. Dumbledore looked more intimidating and showy in the movie. In the books, when I read about Dumbledore being angry, he goes away from my baseline of a happy bumble bee, the blur becomes more pronounced and all I can feel is that Dumbledore is angry with no figure to support it. In the movies, Hermoine was way too pretty from my baseline and her hair never grew “more and more bushier as she bent over a cauldron in the potions class” like it did in the books. The movies miss the tiny details - "they heard a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink" which refers to how Ron stopped kissing Lavender. You can show the kiss on screen, but cannot reproduce the plunger analogy. Nor can you take away anything that Wodehouse says, not because it is funny, but because it paints a much elaborate picture of what is happening and gives the blurs just enough focus, if you pay attention -"She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season", "He walked as if on air, and the whole soul had obviously expanded, like a bath sponge placed in water"

That is the beauty of writing fiction. I found the distinct difference after letting a year pass without reading a single book and then one day, I sat at a cafe and started reading Bill Bryson. Out of nowhere the grey blurs start forming. I am inside the frame, feeling the protagonists walking through forests and I get sucked into this timeless void of storytelling. That is good storytelling because you don't get tired. That's when I realize how much I missed this experience and how I have been let Netflix easily define my picture of a womanizing Madison Street executive instead of working my way through an introduction to get a picture in my head.

There is some research to back up how important the story and the imagery is. This was a work done at Carnegie Mellon in the Machine Learning department. Based on the regions of the brain that lighted up, they could identify with 74% accuracy the paragraph that the subjects were reading in Harry Potter. "The test subjects read Chapter 9 of Sorcerer's Stone, which is about Harry's first flying lesson. It turns out that movement of the characters — such as when they are flying their brooms — is associated with activation in the same brain region that we use to perceive other people's motion. Similarly, the characters in the story are associated with activation in the same brain region we use to process other people's intentions."

If you can make someone feel the rather unnatural act of flying on a broom, it is a job really well done. So well done, that you can force Amazon to sell your books only through Pottermore on Amazon. Take this from Gabriel García Márquez

"A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread."

No wonder it is called magical realism.

What makes me sad is what passes for best sellers these days. It is not that I am put off by the vampires or women waiting to be swept by Mr. Grey. I was pretty okay with the whole Mr. Darcy’s "In vain have I struggled. It will not do". What puts me off is not even making an attempt to use the right words because sexy, dominating male persona and vapid women are enough.

English is a beautiful language. You have words that swirl in your mouth waiting for the right context and there is nothing like a word well placed that makes you smile fondly. You can even reflect on inane things like Ice-Breaking like Ogden Nash did and come up with clever, clever one-liners like 'Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker'. I think the trick is to disassociate GRE flashcards and pretentiousness from words and look at them on how they well they let you express what you want to say.

[I started writing this, because I thought it was particularly clever of an author to note how in books "girls giggle", but "boys always chuckle" and how a character laughed was closest to what can be described as a “guffaw”. Oh, what good times.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

33.33%

There are certain times I know that people around me define my happiness. Today is one such day. I defended my first research paper today. This contributes to 1/3rd of my PhD requirements. Instead of qualifiers, we are required to have done 144 units of PhD level coursework with one research paper at the end of the second year. I am done with coursework and the first defense. Therefore 33.33% of my PhD is done. There is a second paper due the same date next year and yes, yes, I am getting to it in just about five minutes.

I cannot have more supporting advisors. For the entire week they have been trying to work on my paranoia, constantly telling me that I was going to do great. It was so nice to stand in this crowded room (with a heater than just wouldn't switch off), knowing I could turn to the familiar smiling faces for support if things went horribly wrong or if I ventured into la-la land, which I have the propensity to do, when things become uncomfortable.

My quorum consisted of the best people in their fields, extraordinary Statisticians and Economists who took time off their schedule to stop by my talk and I think that is really nice of them. It is not everyday one gets to listen to all these people telling me that I had done good work.

I was pacing the corridors all day yesterday for no reason until a professor took pity on my fragile nerves and offered to listen to my talk. She took about forty minutes off her schedule and gave me such good advice on the really small but really important details on how to talk. She arrived to my talk and I could see her beaming as I spoke. She then told me that she was incredibly proud of me. Doesn't happen everyday.

The other PhD students took turn to listen to me ranting, sacrificed their weekends sitting with me so that I obsessively time and re-time the talk. They were people who told me that they were going to nod sitting in the front row so that I get to be reassured during the talk in case I need reassurance. People cannot get better.

All my friends showed up stood for good forty five minutes at the back of the hall because it was full though they knew what exactly I was going to talk about. My best friend spent just about four days helping me to script the talk so that I knew what exactly I had to say.


It is not everyday that someone gets to defend a paper while both the advisors taking pictures of me talking just so I can mail them to my mother or they can congratulate me on Facebook. Seriously, I don't know how many PhD students can say this, my advisors are the coolest. Refer to Figure 1 below. You have to click on the picture to see the whole picture.

Fig 1: One of my advisors posts a photo on Facebook


What strikes me is that there are so many many people invested in my success here more than at any point in my life which is just wonderful. I was a kid brought up on a staple diet of acerbic taunts which left me so cynical about goodness in people. As someone who does Bayesian work, this might be the time when I should acknowledge that my data overwhelms my prior about humanity. There are so many nice people who genuinely want me to do well and it is a pity that I spent about twenty years obsessing about how people were fundamentally jerks, using a limited and a very biased sample.

 Speaking of family, my mom's voice always radiates happiness whenever I do something good that involves a lot of public speaking. Believe me that this a woman who is very hard to impress and the voice very rarely radiates that much approval. She spent a considerable portion of her life writing fiery speeches in Tamil for me. I remember all the evenings sitting on the terrace working painfully on the small finer details for hours. This was for competitions that happened in some corner of a dusty school hall which no one on the earth would care about as much as my mom did. I was high on her approval meter today and she told me that all her time was not wasted after all.

 I never really wanted to write this post because I didn't want this to be jinxed, but I did, because this is one day I want to remember in the future when I start whining about how difficult doing a PhD is


So, what was my paper on?

This is what my professor asked me to say when I asked him how to succinctly summarize my research in ten seconds.


My research sits at the interface between two fields: Combining Social Science techniques to understand the drivers of fraud and consumer responses to fraud, with Computer Science and Machine Learning techniques to develop managerially relevant responses to review fraud.

It is called A Tangled Web from ...



“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive”

Sir Walter Scott, 1808, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field 




I think this is the 10% of doing a PhD that everyone says makes up for the 90% of work.

Alright. That's all the happiness a grad student is allowed to have every year. Now, to sleep and wake up to a morrow filled with programming a 29 page Hidden Markov Latent Drichlet Allocation model from scratch.


Fun times, indeed.




Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reflections on Yoga in America

My first introduction to Yoga was in America when I was visiting Mountain View in 2011. Before my initiation,  my idea of Yoga was a bunch of freestyle arm twirling that my mother did at home and insisted that it worked miracles on her carpal tunnel syndrome. 

My mother was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome when I was in 9th grade. She was terrified that she was going to be at the mercy of doctors, whom she hated with such vehemence and thus resorted to do Yoga. A year later, the recurrences decreased and she became a Yoga evangelist and preached the miracles to everyone who would listen to her. She did Yoga everyday at home. However, the original poses that were taught to her disappeared and she swung her arms and legs in a weird PT teacher way. It was a mixture of aerobics, kick-boxing and Bhagyaraj dance moves. She demonstrated this to anyone who visited my house with such passion and claimed that this was the way to a life full of happiness.

The other kind of Yoga I knew was about sitting in a quiet room and being calm. None of the words in the previous sentence resonates with my persona. I was not new to meditation. I had been forced to meditate before my Math tests all through my life to somehow empower me with the elusive gift of concentration and it never worked. People gave up and decided I was not going to be an IITian after all which was the whole point of doing Math anyway.

So, when I first visited a Yoga class in America, I saw a bunch of very fit people doing incredible things. Three minutes into the class, I was yelping with the imminent fear of some body part breaking. However, my arms and legs ached for the next two days, so much so that a year later, I was doing Yoga on a daily basis at the office back in India. My mother was overjoyed that I was finally listening to her.

I had two Yoga teachers in India. The first one was a traditional Yoga guy who was pretty old school. His idea was Yoga was sun salutations and doing breathing exercises through the throat. He focused on lifestyle changes. For example, he asked me to fast and consume only liquids once every week. He didn't quite expect the amount of different liquids I can scour around in the cornucopia that my office was. I brightly went to him on the eve of my first fast and recited my meals for the day - 3 milk shakes, 3 juices, 1 coconut water, a bunch of coffees and masala chai. He was gaping at me and I hadn't even included the pani puri that I had eaten, which counted as liquid food in my head.

My second Yoga teacher was fantastic. She was quite young and came from one of those new age yoga places. This is the kind that is taught under different brand names in America. It was strenuous and a lot of people believed that it was power Yoga when it was not. It just felt like power yoga because anything feels like power yoga for people like me.

As a kid, I had been rejected for the role of a snake in the "snake dance" owing to my lack of grace and also because I couldn't really bend in any direction without yelling in pain. My mother insisted because "snake-dance" was all the rage. The post-traumatic stress of trying to be a snake led to my assuming the male roles in dances. One such example is "Singa" that just required nodding and tapping my feet occasionally to give the illusion of dancing . Singa was a roadside gypsy who had a wife Singi and they went around preaching the morals of a good life not unlike my mother talking about Yoga. You see how the nodding plays into this? Given this background in flexibility, I performed a perfect Chakrasana before the amazed audience that my family was after a year of Yoga. My mother quickly took credit that it had been my years of training in Bharatanatyam that was finally helping me with my flexibility. To the true spirit of a trained Singa, I nodded my head.

Then, I came to the US for doing a PhD, which is when all of my fitness initiatives went to hell. I decide to take charge every now and then and attempt to do Yoga in this country, which leads to these reflections.

1) I have never known these many kinds of Yoga in India. Really, hot Yoga in Madurai will be something akin to setting the place in flames and doing a snake dance in it.  There is a whole breed of hot Yoga centres here in Pittsburgh. I heard they crank up the heat and it helps in stretching the muscles. By that logic everyone in India should be really flexible. I should have been a killer snake girl, for it was never less than 100 degree F in Madurai. Maybe the American muscles react differently to change in temperature. There is Hatha, Vinayasa, Iyengar, Bikram and Anusara. Honestly, the only school of Yoga I knew all my life was Yoga Meenakshi school of Yoga whose notable alumnus was my very own arm-twirling mother. Jillian Michaels Power Yoga is one of my favorites. She yells at you from the video "that booty isn't going to burn on its own" as I pant and wheeze. I call it the booty-burning school of Yoga. 

2) The fitness regimens I have seen while growing up was just seeing my parents taking walks or my mother doing her calisthenics. After I started working there were always a bunch of middle-aged men and women walking around my apartment's jogging track for I was never a part of the hip group that went to gyms. So all the people I have seen exercising were really the people who needed the exercise and amidst them, I looked positively aglow with good health and youth. 

However, in America, whenever I walk into a Yoga class, ridiculously sculpted model like people surround me. One of the things I hear about this Hot Yoga places expounded in the paragraph above, is that women wear only tank-tops and shorts while men just wear shorts. I am wondering if this will cause a self-selection issue. So fat people who don't want to strip to the bare basics wouldn't really turn up to such classes and therefore everyone who does Yoga might seem healthier? Maybe the famous obese demographic of America, which I am yet to encounter, is staying indoors and doing all the booty burning at home.

3) Yoga is perhaps the most commercialized Indian thing in America, with Naan finishing second. Anything that comes with the Yoga prefix is almost always much more expensive than its non-Yogic counterpart. For example, I saw this ordinary jute bag at Target that costs $30 because it was a "Yoga bag". I am doubtful if that price is justified even if the bag does Yoga. This is not even the type that holds Yoga mats, which is rented out in Yoga classes if you don’t bring them.

You have Yoga towels. Do they wick Yogic sweat? Or maybe they are heavy duty if one does hot Yoga. Then there are the Yoga pants, which for the uninitiated are loose fitting pants.  You may wonder, like I did, about the non-Yoga pants, for all the pants I have owned all my life can be classified as Yoga pants by this definition. These athletic pants turned out to be viselike spandex shorts that chic women in gyms wear with matching headbands and sweat bands.

 To enter into an American gym dressed like I do is to completely internalize the dork-pride and be happy at the silver lining that I was at least more likely to eat my food with  lesser guilt than the rest of the people there. Americans dress very appropriately for each sport, so much so that there are separate sections, specialty shops and the corresponding luxury version.  Tell this to the neighborhood uncle in Madurai who strides nonchalantly around race course with his belly bouncing and attired in those stylish Lungis. The gleaming white Nike shoes that he wears is the only anachronism to the 1975 setting that Madurai is stuck at. Exhibit 2 is my own mother who walks 7 KMs a day wearing Rs.50 Liberty slippers glowing in the fluorescent yellow salwar and a deeply mismatched bright orange bottoms which she claims antagonizes the canine population on the roads.

Then there are Yoga accessories. There are blocks, yoga straps, and “toeless" Yoga socks - some of these terms that I cannot recognize despite being an Indian. The next stage in this game would be for fancy people in India is to introduce this stuff in the Yoga classes because the Americans use them and legitimize these Yoga modifications as a truly Indian practice. It is a vicious cycle, I tell you. There are also these luxury yoga items - lululemon thingamies. When I filter by lowest price on their website I get $48 which paints the picture. There are different Yoga wear for different types of Yoga. I wonder what it is for the booty-burning kind. The other accessories are incredibly expensive. For example, this "compassion" beads cost just $98 while the strength one costs only $108. One would think that it might be cheaper to be actually compassionate, but what do I know. 


4) Yoga teachers are always in terrific shape and radiate mysticism. In my head, I always hear sitar music when I talk to them. They chant out the instructions - cow pose, dog pose, cat pose, camel, dolphin, pigeon and cobra. But they always, you can notice it next time, if you haven't already,  say "Chatturangaasana" correctly. I wonder why Chaturangasana retains its Sanskrit roots more than any other pose.

5) One pose that Americans always struggle with so much is the deep squat. Even the strongest and the fittest tremble with strain that makes the instructor cry out "don't bite your lips". The Indians plop down with ease and look around wondering at their sudden finesse in performing Yoga. If you don't know what I am talking about you should see this pose and you can immediately understand why Indians rock this pose like a boss. Muscle memory, my friends, is an extraordinary thing.


In all, Yoga in this country is almost nothing like Yoga back at home. I don't even think Indians like Yoga that much because, you know, it is not American. But it is refreshing to see that Americans are not disappointing my mother's vision of an optimized life. It makes me think that doing Yoga in America is like wearing a suit in India. It is foreign, everyone does it, it is expensive, stylish, has a Facebookable value to it and you feel very hot.
  












Thursday, January 22, 2015

Resolution Resolution

I have decided to write more regularly. I don't intend to write huge posts but focus on just writing more.

I don't like reading instructions. Most of the time, I foolishly waste an hour trying to randomly fit things into slots and then begrudgingly admit my lack of expertise before resorting to the manual.

We as a family also think that we are immune to things that affect other people. My mother, for example, believes all the diseases can be cured by not being a sissy. I once sprained my ankle and yowled about it at home. Since I used to be the kind of kid who self-diagnosed a lot of diseases, my mother told me that I can cure the sprain by not being lazy and asked me to climb the stairs a dozen times. After three weeks of limping we finally qualified this as an injury worthy enough of a medical professional's help.

Anyway, when people tell us not to do things, we assume it doesn't apply to us. So when I read about caffeine keeping people awake, I always assumed otherwise for I trusted in my super powers.

When I came to America, I had atleast five cups of coffee a day. This combined with eating the first meal of the day at about 3 PM caused my stomach to whine like a petulant dog an effect that I observed only in America. In a place with hungry grad students, I have heard many a growl especially in the morning classes. I suspect that this is because the buildings here are very quiet with no fans and magnifies even small sounds - like the incessant clicking of ball-point pens in classes which drives me nuts.

I then realized that I had to get off coffee and started doing two cups a day which is my way of saying that I had "gotten-off" coffee. I have started noticing that having coffee after 11 PM pushes me off the Eastern Time work schedule and I start my days at times that would be considered late by the Pacific Time.

The other way work too. I can list out the things I have done on mornings I have not had coffee:

1) I have tried to walk through glass doors in the Dubai Airport. They felt really clean against my nose when I crashed into them.

2) I have fit myself with another person in a one person revolving door causing much anxiety to the person who was crammed with me in the door.

3) I have hunted for my glasses for a good ten minutes before comprehending that they were perched on my nose

So when I hear the sound of my coffee maker's whirr, I feel a Pavlovian response to become jittery.

Now I know that coffee has an effect and it is not really a myth by my family standards.


This is ...

This is going to have a lot of memes.

Whenever I think of Pandas, I picture myself gearing up for the eventual adrenaline rush. Working with data can be a pleasant, fantastic, immersive experience- but it is not for the feeble hearted.

 I cannot tell the days I have squealed with absolute delight to find a pattern that might be useful in my research. This is almost always followed by a victory jig.




There are days when I get so pleased with myself on figuring out a nuance that would have gone unnoticed if it hadn't been for my clever and careful inspection, only to discover (mostly when I am treating myself with an ice cream) that I had done something horribly wrong.




And then, there are the days I have crashed and burned because my computer had just placidly displayed a p-value of 0.98, thus invalidating months of work. I might not be the first one to say this, but I suppose when Fisher first popularized p-values, he would have never thought about how intricately his p-values are going to be tied with a grad student's self-worth.

In my head, the whole idea with data is a scavenger hunt. You have millions of corners where exciting things may or may not hide. This kind of digging appeals to the crazy deal seeker in me and I tell myself that this is why I love this gig. But there are times of almost cruel disappointments - for example, you would expect something fun to lie beneath 1 TB of data, which is always not the case. You just keep ploughing through hoping for your "high fiving a million angels moment". The uncertainty is a rush, but once you see the ugly side, you always know that things can go terribly wrong.

So when I think of Pandas I always steel myself for disappointments. It always feels like I am walking into a battlefield, like this.


But then I came across this video today and this is the first time I think of Pandas without getting riled up.





This is also Pandas - Just the cute and the cuddly kind!