— by Arnab Gupta

☞ The ugly scandal that cancelled the Nobel prize in literature

July 18, 2018

From the Guardian:

In the eyes of its members, there is no more important cultural institution in the world than the Swedish Academy. The members, who call themselves The Eighteen (always in capitals), are elected for life by their peers, and meet for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. And once a year, at a ceremony brilliant with jewels and formality, the permanent secretary of the academy hands out the Nobel prize in literature and all the world applauds.

But this year there will be no prize and no ceremony. In November 2017, it was revealed in the Swedish press that the husband of one of the academy members had been accused of serial sexual abuse, in assaults alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years. Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and cultural entrepreneur, is married to the poet and academician Katarina Frostenson. In addition to assault accusations against him, the pair are accused of misusing academy funding. Arnault has denied all accusations, and Frostenson has refused to comment.

The academy is paralysed by the scandal, which was followed by a slew of resignations and expulsions. Six of The Eighteen have withdrawn from any part in its deliberations; another two were compelled to do so. The statutes say that 12 members must be present to elect any new ones, so with only 10, no important decisions can be taken and no new members elected.

What a mess this is. I’m tempted to say “you can’t make this stuff up”; would that be too ironical?

☞ Disposable America — A history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the straw. Seriously.

July 11, 2018

By Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic:

The invention of American industrialism, the creation of urban life, changing gender relations, public-health reform, suburbia and its hamburger-loving teens, better living through plastics, and the financialization of the economy: The straw was there for all these things—rolled out of extrusion machines, dispensed, pushed through lids, bent, dropped into the abyss.

You can learn a lot about this country, and the dilemmas of contemporary capitalism, by taking a straw-eyed view.

This is a very well researched article on the humble drinking straw, and its correlation with the evolving American societal outlook. The pervasiveness of the drinking straw in this society probably makes this a pretty good correlation to make.

Go read, this is quite an interesting, albeit long, read. (I did not know, for example, that the original straw was made from actual straw.)

☞ New free street library in Kolkata!

July 02, 2018

The Indian Express reports:

If one gets down at Netaji Bhavan metro station and walks towards Rammohan Dutta road straight to Northern park one would stumble upon a rather curious sight. College-goers can be seen crowding the area and a familiar smell of books envelops it. Several books are exhibited in bookshelves on the footpath and it almost seems like a bookstore at first glance. This, however, is no bookstore, instead, it is an expansive library that houses books by authors ranging from popular Bengali comic books to Sidney Sheldon. The name of the place is Street Library.

This is such a lovely concept. Anyone who wants to read can pick up a book and return it once they are finished. People who have books that they don’t plan on keeping can donate and improve the collection. People with organization skills and some spare time can chip in and organize the collection every once in a while.

This is an excellent program that encourages reading, sharing and selflessness. It also depends on a community working together to keep a good thing going. I wish this all the best, and really hope that there is enough community interest and investment to overcome the occasional miscreant. Although Kolkata is home to the National Library of India, and hosts several other libraries, they are either not free or not easily accessible for many people. Street libraries are an excellent idea for people short on time and energy but an interest to read.

If you’re in Kolkata and have some books to spare, perhaps you can consider donating to this? Or better yet, perhaps you can see if something similar can be organized in your part of the city?

☞ Indian banks contemplate ‘face reading’ to spot doubtful loan seekers

June 29, 2018

From the Times of India:

Private banks in the western coastal state [Gujarat] have approached the Gujarat Forensics Science University to prepare a facial micro-expressions manual, to train its employees in recognising doubtful high net-worth customers like fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya demanding loans.

This is straight out of the American TV series Lie to Me (IMDB Link):

In the show, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and his colleagues in The Lightman Group accept assignments from third parties (commonly local and federal law enforcement), and assist in investigations, reaching the truth through applied psychology: interpreting microexpressions, through the Facial Action Coding System, and body language.

Have the Indian bankers in question seriously been watching too much TV reruns? In the show, the protagonists use micro expressions to evaluate suspects and their testimony to solve crimes. That’s slightly different from the real world case of deciding whether to give out large loans, no? (For context, India has had a slew of recent large loan frauds.)

I am completely bewildered by this. If there have been some large loan frauds, shouldn’t the most important step be a complete overhaul and re-evaluation of how credit-worthiness of prospective clients is determined? In a financial sense? In a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis sense? In an available collateral sense? Especially given that investigations have been called for on bank employees, it has been alleged that a bank CEO “failed to initiate steps” to prevent the fraud after there were red-flags, and bank officials have been charged?

Do the bankers really believe that there is nothing to improve on their financial evaluations side and in their employee honesty side? Or is this a case of putting their head in the sand and going ‘la-la-la’? Are the bankers too entrenched in their current practices and workflows, don’t want to go through the trouble — and the expense — of actually re-evaluating their own businesses, and are looking for guises to exculpate themselves?

I mean, seriously, if the banks want to go for next generation methods, artificial intelligence and machine learning would be an actual avenue to explore. Examples to be found here and here. There are even courses and available computer code(here and here) to get people started!

Come now, bankers in question: get real and find real solutions to your real problems, and stop with the hand waving TV-show inspirations.

☞ Indian Railways decides to enforce baggage limits

June 06, 2018

The Times of India reports:

As a result of numerous complaints regarding excess baggage being towed into train compartments, the Indian Railways has decided to strictly enforce its over-three-decades-old baggage allowance rules, which will see passengers paying up to six times the stipulated amount as penalty, if caught travelling with overweight luggage, an official said today.

I never even knew that these baggage rules existed. All these years, I’ve simply assumed that there were no formal baggage limits; that space constraints and being reasonable to fellow passengers is all that stops people from carrying waaay too much stuff with them on to trains. Unfortunately, people often do carry too much stuff with them, and to the level of straining and breaking limits of reason.

Which is why the rule enforcement itself, to me, is entirely justified. Even in the little travel that I have done via Indian Railways in the recent past, people carrying way too much luggage, both in quantity and physical size, is way too common for comfort.

The important question, though, is how much luggage is allowed? After all, the railways is used in a vast majority by people for whom expense is a major factor.

According to the prescribed norms, a sleeper class and a second class passenger can carry luggage weighing 40 kg and 35 kg respectively without paying any extra money and a maximum of 80 kg and 70 kg respectively by paying for the excess luggage at the parcel office. The excess luggage would have to be put in the luggage van.


For example, if a passenger is travelling 500 km with luggage weighing 80 kg in the sleeper class, he can book his excess baggage of 40 kg for Rs 109 in the luggage van.


Similarly, an AC first class passenger can carry 70 kg of luggage for free and a maximum of 150 kg, after paying a fee for the excess 80 kg.

An AC two-tier passenger can carry 50 kg of luggage for free and a maximum of 100 kg by paying a fee for the excess 50 kg.

Only 35-40kg for the second class passenger? That seems a little on the lower side. Barely a couple of suitcases, perhaps? In our international travel to and from the USA we’re allowed 46kg in two checked in suitcases, along with additional cabin baggage; surely a railway compartment should be able to accommodate more per passenger? The limits for the AC classes seem a little more reasonable, but still low considering that fewer passengers occupy the same compartment area.

The cost for extra baggage doesn’t seem too bad either. About Rs. 100 for essentially doubling the baggage allowance is hopefully okay, considering prices of other commodities, although I hope the baggage charges increase with the class of tickets. The cheapest tickets should really also have the cheapest excess baggage charges, considering the budget conscious traveler.

I’m most concerned, though, with two things. One, the excess luggage is to be placed in a separate luggage van. (Come to think of it, I’ve always known these luggage vans exist on trains. I always assumed they were for freight or oversized luggage. Huh.) I’m guessing the luggage van is perfectly safe with no fear of theft, but I’m also certain many, many passengers will take a long time to be comfortable with the idea of their bags not being right next to them. (Although, side benefit: if the bags aren’t just lying around in the compartment, they’re safer from theft.)

Two, they say they will “enforce” the law by random checks. This is bad, especially in India, where: (a) this situation is ripe with bribing opportunities, and (b) random checking introduces the concept of fairness between travelers who got caught and who didn’t. I really hope they figure out a more robust way of executing this.

In concept, the baggage allowance idea seems reasonable, but I hope they do a good job of the current idea, and I really hope they revisit the current ideas and update them based on feedback and usage data. The Indian Railways is a lifeline in India, and things like this can have a major effect either way.

☞ How the smallest programming bugs can be catastrophic

December 15, 2017

From way back in 1996:

It took the European Space Agency 10 years and $7 billion to produce Ariane 5, a giant rocket capable of hurling a pair of three-ton satellites into orbit with each launch and intended to give Europe overwhelming supremacy in the commercial space business.

All it took to explode that rocket less than a minute into its maiden voyage last June, scattering fiery rubble across the mangrove swamps of French Guiana, was a small computer program trying to stuff a 64-bit number into a 16-bit space.

One bug, one crash. Of all the careless lines of code recorded in the annals of computer science, this one may stand as the most devastatingly efficient.

More links here, and the report of the inquiry into the incident is archived here.

A fascinating, and from a programmer’s perspective chilling, read. This is the stuff of nightmares — an apparently innocuous line of code causing an exception that leads to disaster!

Adios Cassini

December 12, 2017

A couple of months ago, 15 September to be precise, marked the end of an era in the human exploration of our solar system. The Cassini spacecraft was programmed to crash into Saturn’s upper atmosphere and burn up, thus ending an almost two-decade journey and exploration of Saturn and its moons. I was in middle school when this mission launched in 1997, and at that point, even reaching Saturn in 2004 seemed eons away. Twenty years later, perhaps it’s time to look back at some of the amazing insights we’ve gained.

Cassini is actually a shortened name for the Cassini-Huygens mission, and comprises the main spacecraft — Cassini — designed to travel as a satellite in the Saturn planetary system, and a small lander — Huygens — designed to actually land on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Giovanni Cassini was an Italian mathematician and astronomer, and discovered four of Saturn’s moons — Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. The Cassini spacecraft was the first to observe all four of these moons. Christiaan Huygens was, of course, a famous Dutch astronomer and scientist, and discovered — but of course — Titan, then the first known moon of Saturn. (He also invented the pendulum clock, was mentor to Gottfried Leibniz, studied optics and the wave nature of light, and derived the modern formula for centripetal force.)

Saturn by Cassini

Saturn by Cassini (via Wikipedia).

Of the many discoveries made by Cassini, I’ll focus on just two stories: those of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, and Saturn’s hexagon. Both of these fascinate me to no end, and I think reflect the best of Cassini’s contributions.

Of India’s high-speed rail ambitions, and lazy Indian journalism

September 18, 2017

India’s plans about building a high speed rail route connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad have been in the news lately. The project is funded by a low-interest loan from Japan (covering 80% of the cost of the project), and will make use of Japanese high-speed rail technology used for the Shinkansen.

Of course, along with the project being in the news, it is also subject to critique in news articles, as any expensive government venture is bound to (and should!) be. In many of the articles, though, I found one common piece of information mentioned over and over:

According to a study conducted by IIM Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train will need to make 100 trips daily and carry 88,000-118,000 passengers per day to be financially viable. This figure could well be way above the total number of passengers travelling between the two cities on any given day.

In fact, searching the internet with the name of the article in question (Dedicated High Speed Railway (HSR) Networks in India: Issues in Development) provides a result that looks like this:

Google Search Result

Google Search Result. (Source)

They all mention the same report, and all mention the exact same language about “requiring 100 trips a day”. None, however, actually provide links for the curious reader, nor provide any context or analysis. Well, I was curious, so I tried to find and read the actual report.

☞ Radiolab Podcast: Using flickering lights to treat Alzheimer’s Disease

June 14, 2017

Today, a startling new discovery: prodding the brain with light, a group of scientists got an unexpected surprise – they were able to turn back on a part of the brain that had been shut down by Alzheimer’s disease. This new science is not a cure, and is far from a treatment, but it’s a finding so … simple, you won’t be able to shake it. Come join us for a lab visit, where we’ll meet some mice, stare at some light, and come face-to-face with the mystery of memory. We can promise you: by the end, you’ll never think the same way about Christmas lights again.

I’ve been meaning to post about this particular episode ever since I listened to it. This is the Nature paper about this study. They found that simply flashing light of a certain frequency at a certain interval helps with some of the brain waves that are diminished in mice with Alzheimer’s. It’s absolutely fascinating.

(I’m not going into too much technical jargon here; go listen to the episode!)

If you don’t listen to Radiolab in general, you definitely should; it’s one of the best podcasts there are.

☞ UK Election: Interesting logistics of the Queen’s speech

June 13, 2017

In light of the recent election in the UK, the Queen, of course, is supposed to make a speech regarding forming the government by the party that has won majority. Now, however, after the interesting results of the election, the Queen’s speech is delayed, and the reason for it is very interesting.

The Telegraph UK reports:

The Queen’s Speech is going to be delayed because it has to be written on goatskin paper and the ink takes days to dry.

Apparently, the British monarchy are more concerned than others would be about the archival qualities of the paper that they use.

[…] goatskin paper is not actually made from goatskin.

The material is in fact high-quality archival paper which is guaranteed to last for at least 500 years.

Well, okay, but still, why the delay?

Well, ink on this special paper takes a few days to dry. And the monarchy had “ready to go” versions of the speech for (a) a Conservative party majority, and (b) a Labour party majority. But the results of the election, that resulted in a hung parliament, has put all pre-made plans into disarray. Since the political parties themselves don’t know yet how the government will be formed, the Queen’s speech isn’t finalized yet either.

Once the details are set in stone they can be committed to the goatskin paper and sent away for binding before being presented to the Queen.

I love how even the most apparently mundane things become fascinating just by being associated with the British monarchy.