The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, Susan Orlean

The author is (was?)  a writer for The New Yorker, and I picked this up more for studying her style of writing. Consider crafting statements such as this:

She has an apartment in Paris and a house in Beverly Hills, a room key in Manhattan, the story of Hollywood of the late sixties and seventies in her head, and no particular plans.

Wow!

There is a beautiful structure to her articles, most end with a poignant, wistful, cliff-hanging quality that leaves the reader wanting more. 

Much to learn…

 

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Whatever Arises, Love That: Matt Kahn

I came across an amazing quote from this book, so picked it up. However, I’m putting it down after a couple of chapters. There was no coherent framework or logic, and what I read just came across as a series of disconnected platitudes. I suppose in a couple of hundred pages, one would accidentally come up with a few sentences that sound like deep philosophy…

I guess I’m being overly critical, but I’m going to stick with the stoics and the Gita.

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Desiderata, Max Ehrmann

An old favorite:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. 

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

— Max Ehrmann

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AlgoAsylum Interns 2020-21

Looking forward to changing the world with a fantastic group of interns: Abhishek DeshpandeRaghav GaggarYash DamaniaYash ChaudhariSiddharth SrivastavaSamik PalRuchi PendsePurva BhalekarJanhavi SatheTahiti DeyShambhavi DeshpandeShruti DixitPallavi Raut, and Soham Joshi


And excited to be collaborating with (and learning from) Varad Deshmukh once again.


We’re working on applications (dyslexia detection, satellite image analysis, pollution monitoring, pandemic modeling, and vehicle modeling) and on technologies (information theory, TDA, decision trees, parallel computation, SVMs, and Fourier transforms) and the only common thread amongst all of this is that they’re all fun and exciting!

 

Stay tuned for more details once we figure out just what the heck is going on!

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Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

I took an extremely long time to read this book, savoring each story for its originality and philosophy. And for the superlative writing. 

Arrival (the movie) is based on The Story of Your Life. I watched this as well as Tales from the Loop, which may very well have been based on Ted Chiang’s writing. 

As to the stories… I don’t know if I’m reading too much into this, but a common theme that I found was some form of circularity. Going back to the beginning, sometimes spatially, sometimes temporally, sometimes logically, sometimes physically (in the sense of physics) and sometimes emotionally. 

The Story of Your Life is meticulously crafted; Chiang conveys emotions by describing what happens rather than what is felt. And the key insights into how the visitors view time builds up slowly and is up to us to interpret more than him serving up explanations. The overall concept and perspectives on life and time left me with a wonderful analysis framework.

 

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Personal Philosophy?

From a strictly non-religious perspective:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
— John Wesley

 

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Bad Money – Inside the NPA Mess and How It Threatens the Indian Banking System, Vivek Kaul

This book makes my blood boil. 

I’ve been pretty mad at the amount of money the government spends on propping up white dinosaurs like Air India. It’s our money – the citizen’s and the taxpayer’s money. And it represents a lost opportunity, where that could have solved many other problems that need funding. 

The scale of the NPA mess is astounding. Rs 200,000 crores! Can you get your mind around this number? I can’t. And all because of short-sighted, selfish, lazy, asinine, idiotic policies. And because the people in power are lazy. And don’t care. And don’t want to do the right thing. 

I’m going to stop before I blow a fuse.

The book itself is fairly easy to understand. It should be required reading for all of our armchair economists. And every time we moan about India being a poor country, and the lack of funds for everything from basic necessities to education to infrastructure to defense… we should keep in mind the sums that are flushed away (okay, deep breaths, Shrirang,  count to ten…).

I do wish that the publisher had hired a competent editor. I daresay even Grammarly would have fixed quite a few of the odd punctuations, turns of phrase, and downright weird typos.

If you are close by, please pick up my copy. If not, buy one. But read this book. We all need to. 

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The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham, Jason Zweig

I first read this book in the early 2000s, and I think I missed the point completely! The intelligence pointed to is not in selecting the right investments, but in the emotional intelligence needed, and the maturity required for avoiding the wrong ones. The core message is more defensive in nature (don’t lose money!).

Unfortunately, in my case, the book makes sense in retrospect. Unfortunately, in the case of most young ‘uns who aim to make their millions ‘trading’, it makes zero sense. Maybe we should make it required reading for anyone opening a brokerage account?

Jason Zweig does a great job in his commentary, using the post-dot-com scenario to highlight Graham’s original arguments. Of course, he has plenty of targets, given when he was writing! But then, he would have the same in the current situation as well.

I find it amazing with the current pandemic that the US market dropped — and came right back! It’s as though there will be no earnings impact due to the virus. In India (as of now) there’s been an about 30% drop, but I fear that there are other systemic problems that have not been taken into account yet.

The more money I lose in the stock market, the more sense the book makes. Now if only I could apply the lessons before I make my decisions

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Grass, Sheri S. Tepper

I don’t remember where I saw a recommendation for this book and it had been on my virtual pile for quite a while, so I had no preconception of what to expect. It started off slow, and I was having second thoughts about continuing, but man, it picked up steam. What a ride (no pun intended) (you’ll get the reference if you read the book)!

This is not so much sci-fi or fantasy as a mediation on the human mind. And what better way to examine it than through alien eyes? And what better way to measure a person than to see how they treat their tools? There are many other themes woven into the novel, from religion to selfishness to thirst for power. 

And since this was published in 1989, the reference to next-generation communication devices (“tell-me”) and locators (“locators”) is quaint.

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Atomic Habits, James Clear

I subscribe to the author’s 3-2-1 mailing list (it’s brilliant!) and on that basis, I had high hopes for this book. However, I guess I’ve read too many of this genre, and am too jaded…

Take a look, it may be right for you!

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The Current Education System is Dead

I don’t think this article will tread new ground, but its an attempt at organizing my thoughts.

Observe events of the past few months. We have been forced to go from classroom lectures to online classes  – video recordings of lecturers speaking about their topics. If we have a hypothetical college in Pune with ~400 students in a batch, and therefore ~7 divisions, we suddenly realize that we do not need 7 lectures, but can do with just one. And that one lecture can be conducted by the most effective teacher. So not only is a lot of labor saved, but students get the best instruction. 

Question: Why not do this as a practice, if there are benefits all around? Why subjugate students to sub-standard teaching?

Thinking further, extend this to all colleges in Pune. Get the best teacher for each topic, and we only need one lecturer and students get the best of Pune, not just the best of their college. 

Question: What differentiator is a college providing to justify locking in students to only their offering?

And naturally, why limit ourselves to Pune? Why not get the best teacher in the entire world?


There are two additional factors to take into consideration. 

First, evaluations. How do we give feedback to students so that they understand how much they have learned, and what they need to focus on (this is should be the primary goal of evaluations)?

Second, degrees. What purpose do they serve?


This leads me to wonder why we even have colleges and universities in today’s day and age. Companies have their own criteria for evaluating applicants, and if they use college scores at all, it is as a filter (which is pretty stupid!). There are many that conduct tests online, so it doesn’t matter where you studied, but what you know (see Hackerrank for continuous iterations of this). 

So:

  • I can attend courses online, learning from the best teachers in the world. In some cases, I can learn the same subject from multiple teachers, to get different perspectives, and deepen my understanding.
  • I can engage with mentors who have the right research, academic and industry experience to guide the subjects that I focus on.
  • I can build a portfolio of projects to demonstrate my capabilities. I can contribute to world-class open source projects so that I am gain experience working in teams large and small.

Why do I need to attend college at all?

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Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius in the Enlightenment, Ronald S. Calinger

I didn’t realize how little I know about Euler until I read this book. I had a hazy awareness of him as one of the great mathematicians (along with Gauss) and knew he had worked on number theory, was related to imaginary numbers, of course, the Konigsberg Bridge problem, Euler’s identity and my favorite number, e. I also knew that he worked at St. Petersberg and was almost blind when he died. 

This exhaustive (exhausting?) biography of Euler opened my eyes to the breadth of topics he worked on – not just mathematics, but also mechanics, optics, music and astronomy. I have a better understanding of how he is placed with respect to other mathematicians and how he contributed to the development of science and pushed the boundaries of what was possible. 

I recently re-read (for the nth time)  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the parallels in development as described by Kuhn and what Euler does is amazing. Two striking points are – first, applying Newton’s laws to explain e.g., the motion of the moon was not straightforward and took plenty of debate and trial and error before it was accepted. I did not know this! Second, developing the calculus needed developing fundamental concepts like functions, logarithms of negative numbers  and 

It’s easy to study calculus today but to be in a state where even fundamental concepts of functions or co-ordinate systems do not exist

I’m actively thinking about current paradigm shifts, especially with respect to AI, and  

Newton’s laws were being debated for quite some time! How to derive the lunar orbit (3- body problem, but not like the book!) was a huge problem, and Euler relied on the ether to account for discrepencies

Motivation for deriving new maths (what is the current analogy?) ML is a paradigm shift, but no new maths (not that it is necessary…) well, maybe the attempt to describe how a NN works…

The energy and time spent on the Maupertuis-Koning affair are idiotic — it’s unknown today! (at least to me, till I read this book)

The effort to explain the motion of the moon & planets using Newton’s laws is fascinating. 

Before this, Euler was more than just a name, but mostly associated with e^i pi, series expansions and the bridges of konigsburg. Now he’s more real

would like to understand the proofs from number theory better. Add it to the list!

In those days mathematics and scientists had to contend with religion

So much of stuff we take for granted today had to be developed from scratch. eg differential equations, elliptic integrals, …

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The Weil Conjectures, Karen Olsson

I’m not sure what to make of this book. In terms of history and the individuals involved, it’s pretty depressing. In terms of mathematics, there isn’t much. There was the thrill of connection when the Japanese mathematicians Taniyama and Shimura (of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture) pop up — this was crucial in Andrew Wiles’ proof of FLT. And there’s the hilarious Bourbaki episode, we need more of these!

At the very least, I’ll look up what the conjectures are (though I doubt how much I’ll understand), and this puts algebra back on my radar…

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Identifying/Creating the Right Opportunity

What would you prefer:

  • Apply to any and all openings, and be forced to ‘accept’ the first offer that you get, or
  • Identify the right place for you, and proactively create your opportunities therein?

How can you go about getting the ‘right’ internship? It depends on what ‘right’ is — so the first thing to do is be clear about what you are (or are not!) looking for (see this previous article). Once you have this down, its time to search for opportunities that match your targets.

…Which is pretty much not going to work!

In my experience, you will not have much success if you look for opportunities. You don’t get opportunities by searching, you have to create them.

This process can be divided into the following factors:

  • What capabilities does your target internship require?
  • Who are the people and companies that you would like to work with?
  • When should you start
  • How do you create your opportunities?

Let’s dive into these.

Your internship is a combination of contributions and learning. A company is more interested in the former than the latter, and the more you can position yourself as someone who is going to contribute, the better chance you have of landing your opportunity. How can you position yourself thusly? Easy — figure out the skills that are needed and develop these. This does not mean getting certificates or doing well in exams; it is being able to demonstrably solve problems in your domain. Make a list of expected skills, learn, practice, and enhance these skills and showcase them.

Do you have a GitHub repository with all the projects that you have worked on?

Next, identify your targets – and I don’t mean the companies that you want to work at, but rather, the experience you want to gain. This goes back to having a clear idea of what you want to achieve with your internship. Once you have this, you can filter openings based on your goals. Speak with friends who have done internships and learn from their experiences. An internship at a large firm is going to vary drastically from division to division, and big names are not necessarily the best options.

If you are looking for a summer internship and start thinking about the process in, say, January….. you’re too late! Building the skills needed takes practice, which needs time. Creating a portfolio to showcase capabilities is a long-term and continuous activity. Determining what you really want is not a five-minute thought experiment.

Finally, how do you create your opportunities? This is the part that most separates the successful, effective students from everyone else. You have to build a network. Reach out to people and start having conversations with them. This is not asking for internships, but reaching out for advice, mentorship, and learning. Keep in mind that most people are busy, but are willing to help – as long as it’s not a waste of time. So when you connect with anyone, be clear and upfront about what you are looking for, and if possible, offer something in return. You will be surprised at the response that you get. And you will be amazed at the doors that your network can open for you.

Apply the perspective above to building your network — what do you need (be interesting), who should you approach (begin with invited speakers and visitors to your college) and when should you start (early).


In general, I have found that success comes to those who consciously pursue their goals. Some students “get” the right opportunity, and are labeled “lucky,” but luck has very little to do with it. Look behind the curtain and you’ll see initiative and effort.

I’ll end with two contradictory pieces of advice:

  • once you are clear on what your goals are, don’t settle, have the courage to say ‘nyet.’
  • if you are in an internship that is not to your liking, convert it into something that you gain from. There’s a skill that will make you a 10x contributor.
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