Saturday, December 19, 2015
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 9:24 AM
Friday, October 02, 2015
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 1:06 AM
Saturday, May 02, 2015
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.]
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 11:57 AM
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
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 ...
I think this is the 10% of doing a PhD that everyone says makes up for the 90% of work.
Fun times, indeed.
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 9:50 AM
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 10:45 PM
Thursday, January 22, 2015
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.
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 11:48 PM
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.
Posted by Uttara Ananthakrishnan at 6:25 AM