Tuesday, September 13, 2016

An ounce of responsibility

We consider information and knowledge to be the most valuable assets that we, humans, accumulate. Information and knowledge once gained have been handed down through the ages to the subsequent generations. It is the blatant disregard for the integrity of information, from the very people who are supposed to be its guardians, that pains me.

Yet again, I'm cribbing about irresponsible journalism, and an article that I chanced across earlier today, in the front page of a prominent daily. The article runs thus:

These Paralympians Ran The 1500m Faster Than The Rio Olympics Gold Winner. Wait, What!


Our paralympians ran an absolutely fantastic race, no doubt. So, why am I complaining? 

Unfortunately, I find this to be a classic example of lousy reporting, if done out of ignorance or an example of unethical reporting, if it was shooting off people's sentiment for our wonderful paralympians.  Here's why.

1500 m races are not run as a sprint, where the goal is not to have the fastest time, but to be tactically faster and tougher than the current set of runners. It is a long distance race where the runners have to combine physical prowess with mental acumen to outpace the competition while considering the entire duration of the race. This is no simple task, as one has to evaluate the strength, stamina, and sprint abilities to decide on the pace and strategy on-the-fly during the race.

To give a concrete example from not too far long ago, this is what happened last month at the vary same stadium, in the able-bodied Olympics. In fact, this is same 1500m event, that is referred to in the article. 

This was the results in the finals:

And this is what happened in the semi-finals, 

And surprise, surprise ! This is what happened in the qualification rounds. 

While the gold medalist had a timing of 3:50 min in finals, about 24 people had run in less than 3:50 min in the semi finals, and about 35 runners have less than 3:50 min in the qualification rounds. 

To compare two 1500 m races is therefore logically flawed. In fact, the very same paralympians, may clock a very different time if they reran the race. However, to say this "But here's one story that may put able-bodied athletes to shame." in an non-satirical article is denigrating the efforts of all the wonderful athletes (both able-bodied and differently-abled). 

Not long ago, I had written about journalists needing a pinch of responsibility to do their research before penning down an article that thousands would read to acquire information and knowledge. But it looks like we now need not a pinch, but an ounce of responsibility! 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The lemon and the spoon

Coffee shops and I share a very unique relationship, as my readers would have realized by now. Many (in)significant posts in this very blog has been inspired by what I had observed during my solitary coffee sessions (where I have successfully pretended, so far, to be thinking deep) at the nearby coffee shop. And while I was immersed in one such session today, I happened to notice someone order a grilled 'something' sandwich and followed it up with some whispered request (note: being the gentleman that I am, I didn't try to overhear what they asked. Ahem! ). Nothing quite out of the ordinary so far. Until I saw the maître'd gripping a whole lemon between two spoons and take it to the table with the something sandwich.

What ignorance! What horror! This is not how one honors the unique relationship that a whole lemon shares with the spoon. As a kid who had spent his childhood in a society where lemon-and-spoon races are serious sporting events for any child until he/she reaches middle school, this is just blasphemy beyond proportions. While seemingly simple in concept, the science behind lemon-and-spoon races have been perfected over the many years in India, so much so that it can be called an art now. It is a sport that requires rapt attention (balancing a pseudo-sphere on a hemispherical surface is not easy), swift athleticism (it is a race!), keen insight (optimally trade-off pace for stability) and deep strategy ('accidentally' knock the lemon off your opponents' spoon). To top it off, you might encounter vicissitudes of fortune, if the wind decides to play rough on you, toppling the lemon despite your desperate nose-dive to balance it. 

Wait! Did I tell you that the spoon is not to be held with your hands, but with your mouth? Yeah. Now that's how we roll in the Shire! If you still think this is a trivial sport, suit yourself. 

Our colony (with around 200 households) used to organize an annual Pongal festival, where the lemon-and-spoon was an integral part of the event, year after year. Quite unsurprisingly, this sport is extremely popular among all age-groups. This, of course, complicates the strategy for the elderly aunties having to delicately balance themselves (and the lemons too) without tripping on their sarees. To give you an idea on how seriously this event was taken up, some of them had dared their inhibitions towards non-traditional south-Indian wearables and wore salwar-kameez to gain that distinct advantage. They even engage in the ritualistic pre-race and post-race trash-talk, which goes around for another year within the community gossip circles.  

The beauty of the game (sport, not game, sport!) lies in its innate ability to flex the rules and make it infinitely complex than a chess game. For example, simple deviances like allowing a certain number of pit-stops where you could re-balance the lemon, and creating a lane (within which you should run) can create a variety of strategies that you could adopt. In fact, in a certain event, we even took this to the extreme where one had to move around obstacles and climb stairs like in a cross-country race.  

Like with any major sport, there are serious obstacles that we have to get out of the way for this sport to flourish. For instance, like in Formula one, there is a potential health hazard warning here as well - especially if the spoons aren't sterilized properly after each round of the race. Thankfully, solutions do exist for most real world problems. In this instance, we enforced the BYOS (Bring Your Own Spoon) rule, but had to enforce regulations on the dimensions of the spoon with the help of our regulatory committee. Another issue that had risen time and again is the use of adhesives (like sugar syrup) on their spoons by the athletes. Also, the impact of gender in this sport is not conclusively established. Whether lemon-and-spoon can be a co-ed sport, has been discussed extensively till date with little avail. This, I believe this is one of open questions faced in this sport and has to be addressed peacefully through dialogue (we believe strongly in peace and secularism) within the committee and by careful analytics.
Given these amazing facts, it is nothing short of sheer genius that this game is wonderfully cost effective as well. For example, the used lemons can be consumed as lemonade soon after the race, making it both economical and attractive to the athletes. These lemons can also be hung in front of our bicycles as mementos (which also effectively double up as charms in collusion with our Indian mythological beliefs). Little wonder that lemon-and-spoon enjoys such wide popularity ! 

You might think, Cricket is the unofficial national sport of our country (for the records, hockey is still the national sport of India). I beg to differ. Lemon-and-spoon for the win !


PS. I strongly suspect (unofficial news from undisclosed sources) that following the success of IPL, IHL, IBL, etc., talks have begun with sponsors about hosting an annual ILaSL (Indian Lemon-and-Spoon League). Hush ! 

Image courtesy: Internet and Flickr and Google Search. No infringement on copyrights intended !  

Monday, October 28, 2013

A pinch of responsibility

My habitual ritual of reading through "The Hindu" (an Indian broadsheet that I grew up reading) with my cup of morning coffee led to a pleasant surprise today. An article, the title of which read thus, "He has arrears in engineering, PhD. in physics" (Original article). Being a research student myself, the story was appealing and inspirational to a certain extent. It was very heart warming to see a student not only identify his passion so early, but also pursue it and succeed as well.

I immediately google-scholar'ed the student's work, wanting to understand more about his work - an instinct that I had developed over the last 4 years. The search landed me on to a couple of papers (listed at the bottom), reading through which had me stunned. The paper was quite naive, largely unedited and published in a journal that had an impact factor of 1.4.

What appalled me was not the journal's content, but the article which had led me to this. While it is well known in the academic circles that some journals literally publish "anything", I find it hard to digest that reports published in well known newspapers can no longer be trusted. A minute's research on the story, something as simple as a Google search for the journal articles, and reading it's contents would have been more than sufficient. For the love of physics, it even had a reference to Resnick & Halliday and NYTimes! A simple background check on its content like looking up the Journal's website or the UC Berkeley's pages would have easily raised doubts on the validity of the story.

This brings me to the part that irked me enough to write it up - the need for responsible reporting. I find it sad when news reports are misleading due to lack of responsibility and ownership of what is being published. While the broadsheet did published a correction soon enough (Follow-up article), the article has done enough damage. For starters, this has tarnished the belief of its many readers (including me), which is a critical cornerstone for any newspaper. Instead of a false claim (if indeed it was made by the student) being reported to the University authorities for corrective measures or a responsible research conduct coaching, the article has now exposed the student  in a bad light to the world (I really hope that this does not affect the future prospects of the student, all he needed was a little guidance and support).

All this and more could have been avoided if a minute's thought was spent on the article, a little more care when the article was written. All it needed was a pinch of responsibility.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tuning replication in distributed datastores

What the heck have you been researching?  

Undoubtedly, this has to be the most common question that any research student is asked while at grad school. And I'm no exception. It has been a mystery to so many of my readers as to what I have been doing over the past few years. Unlike some of my other research projects, I now have something that I am allowed to showcase and let others use it too. Over the last year, I have been tackling problems that are of highest priority.  How fast can Facebook or Twitter be ? Can world of warcraft be more responsive and real-time ? ;)

Jokes aside, the crux of the problem is more pervasive than WoW or Facebook. What we are really asking is - how fast can interactive applications be? Can our web services be that extra second faster than what they are today? And the answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the application can only be as fast as the underlying data is fetched. This problem is exacerbated in geo-replicated databases which have users literally from all over the world and the applications that use these datastores are striving to be as responsive as possible. We (the shenanigans at our university) mulled over this for a while (a good year or so) and the solution was born - D-Tunes.

And the first version of D-Tunes (Datastore Tune), as a web interface is alive here. As a precis, D-Tunes configures the replication in your datastore in the most optimal way for your application, thereby ensuring that the application receives the best possible performance from the datastores.

For the brave, here lies the heart of D-Tunes in all its splendor. As the Spartans would have said, In details, lie the glory!  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The functional illiteracy called Geography

Years ago, when I moved out of India, I was amazed to find that most conversations in the western world always begin with the weather, something that we never encounter in the subcontinent. If I were to say this now in India - Looks like it is going to rain today, the most compassionate remark I can hope to get is - Are you crazy ? Of course it will rain - it is monsoon now ! And there's good reason to it too. Unlike in the west, weather is totally predictable in India. During summer it is hot, during winter it is pleasant (cold in northern parts), during monsoon it rains. There you go. As simple as it comes. 

The obvious reason for weather to be a hot conversational material (despite the numerous weather apps in the smartphones that people checked N times a day) is because it works as a wonderfully polite, safe, universally approved, social-awkwardness substitute. Elevators, Subway trains, birthday parties,weddings, B-DUBS, you name it. Any imaginable awkward conversation can be handled effortlessly by progressively suggesting weather alternatives - starting off with a mild excitement, transcending to a reticent amusement, or a disinterested observation, moving on to an affable annoyance before finally settling down on explicit bitching. It works - always. 

Extending this thought, I have been consciously trying to experiment with geography as a possible conversational substitute for weather. Over the years, here are a few of the priceless nuggets that came up during the conversation, those which I managed to remember or document. I have tried to present them verbatim to retain their natural conversational flair.

Wait! Korea isn't an island ? I'd always thought it was.
Yeah. Too bad.

I need to take a vacation in the Andamans. That'd be cool. The Arabian sea, I've heard is beautiful. 
You mean the Bay of Bengal, right ?
Same difference.

Really? Hmm. What is the capital of Assam?
Nope. Its Dispur. 
Dude! You cant make stuff up. There's even an IIT there !

Japan to the United States is a long flight. 
Why ?
What why ? They are at the far end of the maps - that's why.

Which direction does the moon rise?
West, of course. Wait - that's opposite to the Sun right ?

So, if I need to get to Alaska, I have to catch a flight or take a ship right ?
Or you could drive. 
How? Isn't Alaska north-west of Canada ?
Yup. But Canada has roads too.

In the month of January, watching a game of cricket played between South Africa and India..
Why does the commentator keep talking about summer season games? Isn't that like another 5 months away. Brr...rrrr...

If I go across Antarctica, I should reach the Arctic circle right ? No ?

Do you know how many states India has now ?
Now, now. You're just getting political.

You know, the Musi river flows right beside Osmania campus..
He he ! Yeah., right.

The spread of South Indian culture northwards would have happened if not for the Vindhya ranges..
I dont think so. I remember reading that Agasthya had pushed those mountains back into the earth a long long time ago.

Malaysians are good badminton players.
Of course, they come from the Chinese sub-continent.
You mean, south-east asian
No, no. Chinese.

You know, India is divided roughly into two halves by the tropic of cancer.
The tropic of what ?

There are many more, but despite being free, online acreage is to be used judiciously. Jokes aside - the one thing that I want you to remember as a take-away is the value of questioning information that were fed into us as facts. Sun rising in the east is a fact - very few questioned, why? Fewer still, understood. True to the fact that humanity evolves and solves bigger and smarter problems, it remains to ponder what we traded off. A common example is the use of GPS navigators, an epitome of human innovation - replacing human directional skills. Good? Bad ? Your call. 

May our kids be able to spell Geography.