Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tallahassee in the news

Two completely different alumni from my university, Florida State, were in the news the last couple of weeks. And only one of them had anything to do with football.

Jenn Sterger, a model and TV personality, was the object of football legend Brett Favre's lewd text messages. Her wikipedia entry recalls the moment she first shot to fame during the 2005 Florida State-Miami football game on national TV, when a commentator said (as the camera turned to her) "1500 red-blooded Americans just decided to apply to Florida State."

The other alumni in the news was hedge-fund manager Todd Combs, who was hired at Berkshire Hathaway to phase in as a/the chief investment officer - a position currently occupied by Warren Buffett. Not much is known about him at the moment (he graduated in 1993), but the spotlight is surely going to turn on him very hard, very soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Should journalists have tenure too?

I just learned that NPR fired veteran journalist Juan Williams for supposedly making anti-Muslim remarks during his appearance on O'Reilly's show on Fox. Here's what he said:
"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Being a longtime listener and supporter of NPR, I must confess I was surprised both by Williams remark, and by NPRs decision to terminate him. While William's remark is obviously politically incorrect, having listened to him for so long, it is hard for me to imagine that he is the kind of bigot, he is being made out to be.

As Jacob Heilbrunn comments in the Huffington Post.
Williams won't be the loser for leaving NPR. NPR will. At some point political correctness overwhelms common sense. Yes, their [sic] should be taboos when it comes to public discourse. Some taboos are necessary and even vital.
[I also think he means "At some point common sense overwhelms political correctness."]

Not the greatest day for NPR.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Computing the eigenvectors of a 3x3 symmetric matrix in C++

Every once in a while Google makes me wonder how people ever managed to do research 15 years ago.

Just today, I had to find a quick C++ routine to compute the eigenvalues and eigenvectors of a well-behaved symmetric matrix (principal components of the gyration tensor of a 3D random walk, this time). I found it here.

It took me less than 5 minutes to google it down, download it, and test it.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Untrained minds

I recently came across this interesting xkcd comic:

It reminded of me of an instructive personal incident from a long time ago, which serves to keep me humble as a teacher, to this day.

When I was in middle school, my school had this tradition of letting seniors teach juniors, a single class on Teacher's Day (September 5, in India). I distinctly remember that day, when I was teaching a bunch of second graders the difference between living and non-living things.

I neatly divided the board into two columns, and put "living things" on one side, and "non-living things" on the other, and proceeded to list their differences.

Living things move, non-livings things don't.
Living things grow, non-livings things don't.
Living things reproduce, non-livings things don't.
Living things die, non-livings things don't.

And so on.

Pretty vanilla, huh.

After I had smugly transcribed the contents of my memory, I turned around to see if there were any questions. I wasn't expecting any, really, so I was surprised when an eager hand shot up.

This kid asked me if a smart robot (like Giant Robot, from Johnny Sokko and his flying robot which aired on National TV) was living or non-living. Clearly, it could move, it could add stuff to itself, create new stuff, and be destroyed.

My response was something along one of the lines, in the comic above.

Of course, I now know the right answer should have started with "I really don't know."

PS: As a teacher now, I find the ability of untrained minds to ask penetrating questions extremely refreshing. They keep the fire alive.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Smoothing noisy data with GNU Octave/Matlab

Every once in a while, I find the need to summarize simulation or experimental data that are noisy using a smooth function. Smoothing splines try to pose the required regression as a least-squares problem.

A nice free program is the excellent Matlab version of Jerome Friedman's "supersmoother" by Douglas Schwarz. The program works fine without any tweaks on GNU Octave.

Take it out for a ride.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Blackboards v/s Technology

Yesterday, I sat through a talk by one of my former colleagues, Srinivas Palanki entitled "eLearning: An Engineering Professor's Viewpoint".

He sketched out a very brief history of education starting from the times of Socrates, during which one teacher under a tree would engage in a dialogue with four or five students, through the Nalanda University, in which the idea of "classrooms" was developed, to about 1801 when James Pillans introduced the blackboard, which served as a focal point, and allowed class sizes to swell even more. It solved the classroom analog of the question (source: Joey from Friends) "You don't have a TV? What does all your furniture point to?"

The rest of the entertaining talk was a demonstration of the practical tools one could use such as, how to easily make videos (Camtasia), annotate slides using a tablet PC, and track usage using a learning management software (Moodle). For a motivated student (like someone who works, and likes the asynchronous aspect of learning), this development can really be a blessing. We already see some of this via MIT OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy.

My only remark at the end of the talk was how far we seem to have come from the "Socrates model", where learning was primarily question-directed, to increasingly more industrialized, efficient, and unidirectional models.

As a counter-point, check out this blog in support of traditional classroom teaching. Crudely summarizing, it suggests two important points: (i) just because something is old doesn't mean it is out-dated, and (ii) so much of communication is non-verbal.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Todd Henderson controversy

You may already have heard of the University of Chicago Law professor (Todd Henderson) who posted (now deleted, but available cached here) a blog called "We are the Super Rich".

Although he and his wife make more than $250,000/year, in the process of attacking the upcoming tax hikes, he argues why he doesn't think of himself as rich.

Of course the response to that has been huge, with everybody from the Wall Street Journal dishing out advice on how to balance his budget, to Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman calling him the "whining Chicago professor", and many less-charitable folks in between, not holding anything back.

My initial response was "he's got to be kidding, right?", but as I read through the comments and his first few responses, I actually felt quite sympathetic for the guy.

Everybody can solve all problems, except their own.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

When I was in school, my favorite freedom fighters were Bhagat Singh, Veer Savarkar, and Subhash Chandra Bose. As a young boy, their courage was raw and palpable.

They refused to bow their heads, even before an empire that easily outmatched them. They possessed the ability to send shivers of fear down the enemy's spine, however temporarily.

The idealism of Mahatma Gandhi on the other hand, was outlandish. Nonviolence seemed like a cloak for impotence. The "turn-the-other-cheek" mantra was very hard to understand, let alone practice.

Passive civil disobedience and satyagraha seemed like self-flaggellation.

Why would you take injustice with a smile?

Well into my 20s, I believed that Mahatma Gandhi's leadership and India's independence from Britain were not causally connected. It was pure coincidence. And perhaps there is a grain of truth to that. Many countries got their independence post-WWII. Most did not have Mahatma Gandhis.

It was not until grad-school, that some of my long held beliefs against the man, slowly started softening. The trigger was a particular MLK day talk in Ann Arbor given by Prof. Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson).

I realized that anyone who could just land from South Africa, and integrate a fractured independence movement had to be special. Before Gandhi, the movement was essentially a fringe operation. Most people would grumble and complain, and stop there.

There must have been something mysteriously powerful about him, to persuade ordinary people to give up their comfortable enslavement, go on fasts, burn their clothes, and court arrest. He harnessed the collective idealistic zeal of men and women, young and old, and sculpted it into a potent force.

Non-violence itself is a pretty sophisticated concept. I had completely misunderstood it.

The key idea, which my school textbooks overlooked, is that non-violence appeals directly to the conscience of the oppressor. As Gandhi remarked, real "strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will."

Many oppressors are not heartless (there are exceptions, Hitler comes to mind), and you turn the mirror towards them, and force them to take a good hard look at their own misdeeds. Chances are, the oppressor will be shamed into guilt. Thus, you win the war against the oppressors, without really making enemies out of them. In fact, you make the oppressor himself feel good about the whole affair.

Gandhi knew war and violence are poor means even when directed towards exalted goals.

As he once said, "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"