Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Everest base camp

Coincidences are always fun. For example, have you noticed how once you learn a new word you suddenly see it being used a number of times within a week! Something like that just happened to me with Mt. Everest. I hadn't really thought of Everest in a while, perhaps not since I read Into Thin Air many years ago. Then yesterday I read my friend Alon's blog post describing his recent trip to Tibet. It's a really nice and detailed account of their trip, including their 800 km detour to see Mt. Everest:

We started at 7am, and drove for 12 hours through multiple mountain passes, very rural areas of Tibet and a couple of other hurdles that I was advised not to blog about. At 7pm, we were standing at 5000m elevation, looking at Mount Everest and its sibling peaks (Makalu, Lohtse, and Cho Oyu). ... At 7pm we started a 300km drive back to Shigatse, the closest place with a reasonable hotel.

He did tell me about that-which-he-will-not-blog-about! It all sounds really exciting (and here's a picture they took with Everest in the background).

Now imagine my surprise when today's NY Times has an op-ed contribution by Michael Kodas on Mt. Everest! Those of you who have read Into Thin Air (or are mountaineering junkies like Ajit) know that it takes at least a hard week of trekking to get to Everest base camp on the Nepalese side. It's quite a different story on the Tibetan side:

... on the Chinese side almost all of the climbers have been arriving in vehicles for decades.

And within an hour of the base camp is:

A multistory hotel has been open for years now, ... with hot meals, cold beer, soft beds and a telescope aimed at the mountaintop.

And it's going to get even better... It seems the Chinese are building a:

...blacktop highway fenced with undulating guardrails...

running all the way to base camp to:

...ease the Olympic torch’s trip to the summit...

They're going to take the Olympic torch to the summit of Everest! I shouldn't be so surprised---it seems they've already done a dry run. In any case, read the rest of the article to see how Mt. Everest has become the:

...first arena, and profit center, of its Olympic Games.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Commencement speeches

Until very recently my favorite commencement speech was Steve Jobs's speech at Stanford. In this speech he tells three stories from his life. They are all great stories, but I found the first one most compelling. In it he talks about how he dropped out of college and happened to attend some calligraphy classes:

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

I love this sentiment: focus on doing what you love to do; the rest will take care of itself.

Any way, earlier this week my favorite commencement speech switched to being Bill Gates's speech at Harvard. I have long admired Bill Gates for the fine work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And his commencement speech lived up to this fine work. It starts by saying:

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world.

But decades later when he finally learnt about the seriousness of the problem, he was faced with the same challenge that we are all faced with, albeit on a significantly larger scale:

For Melinda and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.

He goes on to describe the work that the Foundation has been focusing on before issuing a compelling call to arms to the members of the Harvard community to step up to their responsibilities to the world:

My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.

What a wonderful sentiment. We are all so privileged. Are we doing enough with our gift?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What a gas!

I just read the Father's Day Freakonomics blog post by Steve Levitt discussing his father's greatest contribution to science. It is the funniest article I've read on a such serious scientific matter...! I guarantee it'll totally crack you up. More importantly, it will appeal to your inner boy! And even if you are not of the male persuasion, I guarantee you'll enjoy it---even though you may never admit to enjoying it!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ed Lazowska's defense of Computer Science research

Scott Aaronson writes the Shtetl-Optimized blog. Scott is a post-doctoral researcher in computational complexity and quantum computing, and a soon-to-be Assistant Professor of Computer Science at at MIT. I don't know Scott at all, but I enjoy reading his blog. His recent blog post is a report from FCRC (Federated Computing Research Conference). The most interesting part of this post was his summary of Ed Lazowska's plenary talk on "Computer Science: Past, Present, and Future". Lazowska is at the University of Washington (where he used to be the Chair), and as Aaronson puts it: this is the guy we want in charge of our field. Lazowska's talk was a rousing defense of Computer Science research.

I was able to locate the slides of Lazowska's talk. I won't summarize the talk; for that just read Aaronson's post for the highlights. But I must draw attention to the next to last slide entitled "Dispel these Myths". In that slide Lazowska highlights a whole series of myths about Computer Science research including:
  • Programming is a solitary activity
  • Eventually, all the programming jobs will be overseas
  • Computer science lacks opportunities to make a positive impact on society
  • Computer Science lacks compelling research visions
  • ... and many more
Presumably in the talk itself, he proceeds to dispel all these myths. The slides were good, but I wish I could have seen the talk.

Which brings me to my final point. My friend Alon (who was, until recently, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington with Lazowska) had a recent blog post on SigTube. The idea is to have a short 5 minute video presentation to accompany each paper presented at a conference. The idea is that:

A 5-minute presentation (done well) can give quite a bit of information and insight about a publication, certainly more than the 100-word abstract or the paper's introduction.

I think this is a great idea. The only difficulty might be the logistics of getting all these video presentations done. If this is too hard to do, I hope conferences will at least do the following: videotape all the plenary sessions and publish them on some video sharing site. These talks are often excellent overviews of a field, where it's been and where it's going. I know I'd love to watch such talks. And I would start by watching Lazowska's talk!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Enterprise in Dharavi

The other day we spent about an hour outside the Rahman concert in the cold waiting for our tickets to arrive. So the discussion turned to leather jackets. Mythili said that on her recent visit to Mumbai she bought very nice, incredibly low priced leather jackets in Dharavi. Dharavi is Asia's largest slum. So the prospect of going into Dharavi to buy leather goods is quite surprising. We made jokes about this and moved on to other topics.

Imagine my surprise a few days later while reading the Freakonomics blog when I encountered an article on the thriving enterprise in Dharavi:

But strip away its squalid veneer and Dharavi bares a unique entrepreneurial spirit, and multi-million dollar micro-businesses, that breaks all the stereotypes of a slum.

Every home in Dharavi is a little cottage industry ranging from recycling plastic to selling pickles.

Dharavi has about 5,000 single-room factories and hundreds of cottage industries that together have a turnover of around $1 billion.

That's one billion dollars! And, yes:

In Dharavi, leather is the main product, much of which is exported to the Middle East.

So Mythili went to exactly the right place for her jackets. Of course, Dharavi has lots of infrastruture problems:

Residents are only too aware of the basic lack of necessities: health care, sanitation, education and even a lack of toilets...

So Dharavi's economic engine chugs along in spite of a complete lack of very basic infrastructure. This makes it a microcosm of what is happening in many parts of India; Bangalore's vibrant software industry, set in the midst of Bangalore's crumbling infrastructure, is perhaps the most visible example of this. I hope the Indian government has the political will to address the infrastructure challenges facing India.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Map your DNA

I recently hiked up the PG&E Trail in Rancho San Antonio Park with my team from work. During the hike we happened to talk about 23andMe. 23andMe is a biotech startup that aims to bring you closer to your genome to provide you "... personal insight into ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits."

So the question came up: would you have your genome read so that you have a better sense for the health risks you face. That is, would you like to know that you are at a higher risk for prostate/breast cancer, or that you're more likely to get Alzheimer's? Mark was of the opinion that, as long as you understood probability theory and Bayes rule, you should be happy to get a better handle on your risks---the more you know, the better your decisions.

I wasn't so sure I wanted my genome read. Of course, there are situations where it makes sense: if your genome could make predictions with the certainty of a diabetes test or a blood pressure reading and one could treat the resulting condition much the way you can treat diabetes with insulin or hypertension with ACE inhibitors, then I'm all for having my genome read.

But if you get results that say something like "you are 10 times more likely to get cancer or Alzheimer's", then how is that useful? On the one hand, maybe your chances have gone from something like 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000---by no means a certainty. On the other hand, even if you did knew it with certainty, there isn't much you could do other than general healthy living: eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, keep your brain engaged with crosswords :-), that kind of thing! And on the downside, I can't help but think that knowing you're 10 times more likely to fall prey to a terrible disease only increases your stress levels. I'd rather do without the stress and simply engage in healthy living, blissfully unaware of what fate has in store for me!

Recently the NY Times had an interesting editorial, entitled The Discoverer's DNA, that touched upon this very issue:

Recently, the director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine gave James D. Watson — who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule — two DVDs that contained the complete sequence of Mr. Watson’s DNA.

And what did Dr. Watson have to say about this:

Dr. Watson has asked not to be told about his version of a gene that has been linked to a predisposition for Alzheimer’s.

The editorial ends with the following:

The possibility of individual genomic sequencing inevitably raises feelings of hope and fear. Both emotions are caused by the same prospect — having a clearer idea of who we are. For now, the most appropriate response is patience.

As DNA science advances and we have a better sense for what companies like 23andMe can do, I might change my mind and have by genome sequenced. But right now, I'm happy to live in ignorance. What would you do?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ravi Kuchimanchi and AID

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with Ravi Kuchimanchi. Ravi and I were classmates at IIT-Bombay more than 20 years ago. Much more importantly, Ravi is the founder of the Association for India's Development (AID). AID describes itself as a "... volunteer movement committed to promoting sustainable, equitable and just development" in India.

Ravi founded AID in 1991 while he was still a doctoral student in Physics at the University of Maryland. I asked him how it started. Ravi said that he'd always been interested in doing something to help development in India. One day he decided to do something about it: he sent an email to a host of friends suggesting that they all agree to contribute $10 per month to fund a school in a village that had no school. When he sent this message Ravi didn't have any particular village in mind. But this email got people pretty excited, and soon somebody suggested a village that didn't have a school. And that started things off.

AID is quite a remarkable organization. It works with grassroots organizations and initiates efforts in a variety of different areas including education, livelihood, health, women's empowerment, and social justice. I remember reading that AID was one of the first relief organizations on the ground following the tsunami in southern India.

One of its distinguishing characteristics is that much of its volunteer corps is highly educated, often in science and engineering. This means they make an effort to get to the root cause of a problem before coming up with a solution. I asked Ravi for an example of such analysis. He gave me many such examples, but here's a nice one.

In spite of significant government investment in rural electrification, a large number of villagers in rural India live without electricity. A superficial analysis of the situation might suggest that this is caused by poverty. But a more detailed analysis shows otherwise. Most of these villagers who lack electricity use kerosene lamps to provide light in their homes. Kerosene lamps are not an efficient method for generating light---burning kerosene generates a lot of heat. One can generate equivalent, or more, light from an electric bulb for less money. So these villagers are more than capable of paying the monthly electricity bills to light their homes.

The problem turns out to be corruption: the villagers need to bribe a low-level official to have an electricity cable run from the main line (often running outside the home to a street lamp) to the home. And it is the bribe that is unaffordable. Once AID understood this problem, they assisted villagers by helping to prepare applications for a group of 50 or more homes. When the low-level official asks for a bribe, they threaten to take the case to a high-level anti-corruption officer. This leads to a negotiation where the low-level official agrees to provide electricity connections to poorer people without a bribe, as long as he can still get bribes from the rich! AID has used this strategy successfully in a large number of villages.

In addition to its development work, AID is now starting to fight corruption. It uses 2 landmark legislations as its tools: the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Watch. Ravi told some very interesting stories of how AID is using these laws; their work is a good example of the maxim "Knowledge is Power".

We have been supporters of AID for some years now. But as I told Ravi, it is easy to write checks; it is hard to be on the ground and do the work that AID's volunteers and staff do. I wish them the very best in their efforts.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The troops in Iraq

The Democratic Congress has come under a lot of criticism from the left for sending President Bush a war funding bill that does not require him withdraw troops from Iraq on a time-table. For example, some time before the veto, John Edwards said:

If he does veto funding for our troops, Congress should send the same bill right back to him. And they should do this again and again, until the President finally understands that he cannot reject the will of the overwhelming majority American people.

I'm all for withdrawing troops at the earliest. But is it the best thing to do? The danger of a thoughtless withdrawal is that utter chaos will ensue in Iraq (much worse than the current situation). For better or for worse, we went into Iraq and created this mess; we can't just withdraw without leaving Iraq in a reasonably stable state. Al Gore put it well in a recent column by Bob Herbert (Times Select subscription required):

There is no quick and easy formula, ... The objective, however, should be clear: “To get our troops out of there as soon as possible while simultaneously observing the moral duty that all of us share — including those of us who opposed this war in the first instance — to remove our troops in a way that doesn’t do further avoidable damage to the people who live there.”

Unfortunately Herbert's piece doesn't discuss what Al Gore would do to get the troops out.

Are there any good ideas on how to remove our troops while observing this moral duty? The best thing I've heard involves a political solution that incorporates Iraq's neighbors. But I don't see much talk of this. What do you think?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Rahman concert

Last Saturday we attended the A. R. Rahman concert at Oracle Arena in Oakland. What an amazing show! Three straight hours of some of Rahman's best compositions, performed by star singers and musicians: Hariharan performing Roja, Sukhvinder performing Chaiyya Chaiyya, Sivamani performing a stunning solo piece on his array of percussion instruments, Rahman himself performing Dil Se, and lots more. Even the Tamil songs (which I didn't know at all) were great. There was even one Tamil song that sounded suspiciously like Tamil rap! The only things we missed were songs from Lagaan (and that was because the original singers of the Lagaan songs were not on tour with Rahman like they were 4 years ago). Bottom line: don't miss a chance to see Rahman in concert.

Talking about concerts, Indian Ocean will be performing in Hayward, CA in July. I highly recommend going to this concert (or one near you). We saw them perform last year and absolutely loved their music. They are a fusion band combining "improvisational depths of Indian classical music with the cathartic intensity of rock" (that's from their website; I can't wax quite that poetic, but it does describe their music very well!). We own, and love, their album Kandisa.

Freedom Writers

Last Friday I attended an amazing talk by Erin Gruwell. Gruwell is the teacher, portrayed by Hilary Swank, in the movie Freedom Writers. Gruwell was a teacher in a high school in Long Beach, CA. Her students were some of the most difficult, at-risk students one can imagine: some were gang members, some had been to juvenile hall, some had lost a parent, some had a parent in jail, many had seen a friend or family member shot. As one of her students told her, they were kids in an "undeclared war zone". A normal school curriculum just did not make sense for such kids.

Gruwell decided to introduce these kids to the writings of other kids who lived in war zones: Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel (Nobel Peace Prize winning author of numerous books including Night which describes his experiences during the Holocaust), and Zlata Filipovic (who wrote from war-torn Sarajevo). In her talk, Gruwell recounted how her students felt that they would have nothing in common with these writers. But when one of them started reading Anne Frank's diary and encountered the line "I sometimes feel like a bird in a cage and just want to fly away", she felt as if Anne Frank was writing directly to her! This girl, whose father was in San Quentin and who had herself been to juvenile hall, was so taken by the diary that she read the whole book. And she was utterly crushed to find that Anne Frank doesn't make it---if someone as good as Anne Frank couldn't make it, what would become of her?

But then another student, a member of the Cripps gang, told her that, in fact, Anne Frank did make it---she lives to this day through her diary! That was an eye-opening moment for all the kids. And they resolved to document their experiences as they went through high-school. The diaries of these kids has now been published as the book The Freedom Writers Diary.

Gruwell's talk recounts all of this and much more. It is an utterly inspirational and moving talk. You will have tears in your eyes as you listen to her. (I will add a link to the talk as soon as it is posted on Google Video).

We haven't yet seen Freedom Writers (the movie), but we're definitely going to see it soon. However, a colleague tells me that Erin Gruwell is much more inspirational in real life than Hilary Swank is in the movie! So be sure to catch the video.
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