Thursday, July 26, 2007

Indian Ocean concert

Couple of weeks ago we attended a concert by the band Indian Ocean. As I noted in a previous post, Indian Ocean is a fusion band that combines Western rock music with Indian classical music. The concert was a fund raiser for AID.

The concert was fantastic! They started around 5:15 in the evening and played for almost 4 hours with only one short break in the middle. I was completely enthralled by the whole experience! You can hear little snippets of their various songs on their website (click on "Albums" and select any album to hear songs from that album).

In addition to great music and great lyrics (Asheem Chakravarty has a particularly amazing voice), the songs also have meaningful lyrics. For example, Kya Maloom from the album Kandisa is about the Kargil war where they wonder why it is that people are killing each other in this deathly cold area. The answer: kya maloom (who knows). The Boll Weevil song from the album Desert Rain is about refusing to give a bribe. This song was particularly appropriate to the fund raiser since AID is focusing heavily on anti-corruption efforts. And the song Ma Rewa from Kandisa sings about the Narmada and was adopted by the Narmada Bachao (save the Narmada) activists.

But, as Rahul Ram noted in the concert, you don't need to think about the lyrics if you don't want to; you can simply enjoy the music! In addition to the above songs, the highlights of the concert included an amazing rendition of Hille Le to end of the first half, the hauntingly beautiful Kandisa, and for the encore at the end the song that I absolutely adore: Kaun.

All the above songs sound great on CD. But it's a totally different experience live. Not only is the sound much richer (and louder!), but seeing the band in action is great. In one of the songs (I think it was Hille Le) Asheem, who normally plays the tabla, started drumming on the strings of Rahul's bass guitar and played a jugalbandi with Amit Kilam, the drummer! And in Ma Rewa Amit played a strange little instrument that he held in his arm pit and made a sound like running water! I strongly recommend you go see them if they're in your area. You can get a list of their upcoming concerts here.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

IIT 2007: Cosmology

In a previous post I talked about some thoughts on leadership that I gleaned at the IIT 2007 Global Alumni Conference. There was another very interesting panel I attended. This one had two Physics Nobel Laureates: Arno Penzias and George Smoot. They were interviewed by UC Berkeley Physics Professor Alex Filippenko. Penzias got the Nobel Prize with Robert Wilson for discovering the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation---the most direct evidence we have for the Big Bang. Smoot got the Nobel Prize with John Mather for discovering that the CMB radiation is anisotropic, i.e., the temperature of the radiation is irregular, rather than smooth. The anisotropy of the CMB radiation in the early universe eventually evolved into the planets, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters. Filippenko is an amazing lecturer, having won two of UC Berkeley's most coveted teaching awards and being voted "Best Professor" on campus five times.

The panel started with Filippenko giving a fascinating 20-30 minute tour of the developments in cosmology over the last century, starting with Edwin Hubble's discovery of the expanding universe, through the discoveries of Penzias and Smoot, to recent conundrums in cosmology involving dark energy and dark matter (which together account for about 96% of all the "stuff" in the universe!). This exposition itself was worth attending the panel. He then interviewed each Nobel Laureate, asking them about their work and what it felt like to receive the Nobel Prize.

The most surprising thing they said was that they both spent roughly a whole year after their experiments were done verifying that there were no bugs in their experiment! They wanted to be absolutely sure that what they had measured truly provided evidence for the CMB and its properties. This involved a lot of grungy low-level work, unlike the cool and exciting work of taking the measurements in the first place. Penzias and Wilson would do things like ensure that pigeon poop wasn't corrupting the signals in their radio telescope! And Smoot offered a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world for any one on his team who discovered a problem with the experiment! This is an amazing demonstration of dedication to what we term QA (or Quality Assurance) in software engineering.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this panel. Before I attended the panel, I wondered why the IIT 2007 organizer had arranged it---it's not as if any of the panelists were IIT alums. But then it struck me that most of the attendees, being IIT alumni, were just as geeky as me and no doubt enjoyed the panel just as much!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter

So the last day of hype is almost over, and tomorrow we'll see how the book stacks up against the hype. There's been a lot written about Harry Potter over the last week or two. Here are some of the more interesting tidbits I picked up.

The NY Times had an op-ed back on July 8th where they asked four authors to write about how the series would end. The fourth one was particularly interesting, reminiscent of Stephen King's Song of Sussanah (book 6 of The Dark Tower saga) in which "...the author weaves his own character into this unpredictable saga...".

The Mercury News recently reprinted an article from back in May by John Orr where he makes some guesses about how the final book will unfold. He had a really interesting hypothesis about the events at the end of book 6 involving Dumbledore and Snape.

Of course, not everyone is a fan: a Washington Post op-ed by a book critic takes the rather unpopular view that Harry Potter has caused the death of reading! His main point is:

Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands -- and rewards.

Nonetheless, hordes of kids and adults will be at bookstores across the country at 12:05 am tonight to get their hands on the final edition of the Harry Potter saga. As for me, I'm going to get a good night's sleep and show up at Costco tomorrow at 10am to pick up my copy!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Freedom Writers

So we finally got around to seeing Freedom Writers last night. I had written earlier about attending a wonderfully inspirational and moving talk by Erin Gruwell. And I have to say that the movie definitely lived up to my expectations.

Gruwell had talked about many of the events portrayed in the movie and those were, of course, wonderful. But many of the events I hadn't heard about before were equally moving. I particularly liked the visit to the Holocaust Museum and the visit by Miep Gies (the lady who hid Anne Frank's family).

But I have to agree with my colleague: while Hilary Swank did a great job in the movie, Erin Gruwell is much more inspirational in real life! And I found the portrayal of the English Department Head to be a little too caricatured. But all in all, I highly recommend the movie.

IIT 2007: On Leadership

Last weekend I attended the IIT 2007 Global Alumni Conference in Santa Clara, CA. Naturally, the highlight was catching up with old friends and making new ones. But many of the talks and panels were also very interesting. Arun Sarin, CEO of Vodafone Group and 1975 IIT Kharagpur graduate, gave a compelling keynote on Saturday morning. The subject of his keynote was leadership.

Sarin started by encouraging, or even exhorting, members of the audience to work towards getting to leadership positions within their organizations. He outlined the three important parts of leadership:
  • Strategic leadership: This is what we commonly think of as leadership: the "vision thing". A leader has to have a clear, well articulated idea of where the organization should head.
  • Operational leadership: This is the execution skill: a leader should be able to make the vision come true. There are invariably a host of hurdles---competitive pressures, market conditions, internal politics, and so forth. The leader must have a single minded focus on the goal, and do what it takes to overcome all these hurdles.
  • People leadership: A leader must have the ability to inspire and motivate his or her team to pull together to overcome all the hurdles and get to the goal.
Sarin gave a number of examples from his own experience, including Vodafone's recent acquisition of Hutch Essar (India's 4th largest cell phone provider) and an internal initiative to increase female representation in the senior executive ranks of Vodafone from 1% to 20%.

Sarin then made an important point: one does not need to be born with these skills---they can be acquired. And the way to acquire them is to constantly seek out new challenges that take you outside your comfort zone. This is a crucial point. We all have some skills, but we are often comfortable staying within the comfort zone defined by those skills and are loath to take on new challenges where we lack the relevant skills. But it is only by going outside ones comfort zone that one can develop all the skills needed to become a leader.

Continuing on the theme, on Sunday there was a panel consisting of some very accomplished individuals, including IIT Delhi graduate Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, talking about leadership. In Khosla's view, leadership had two critical elements:
  • Forming a defensible opinion about where things are headed: This is analogous to Sarin's strategic leadership. But Khosla particularly emphasized the importance of the vision being "defensible". He gave an example of his recent efforts on ethanol (I've previously summarized his well thought out position here). He said he always likes to hear the opinions of naysayers so that he can further sharpen and strengthen the arguments for his position.
  • Empathy: This is possibly analogous to Sarin's people leadership. Khosla's point is that one needs to put oneself in the shoes of everyone affected by the stand you're taking: whether they by employees, customers, competitors, ... By putting yourself in their shoes, by empathizing with their viewpoint, one can more clearly see the hurdles and shortcomings in your position. And you can use this understanding to further strengthen your position to increase your chances of success.
All in all, I found both Sarin's talk and Sunday's panel quite thought provoking and insightful.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Lea Maurer

About two weeks ago, our daughter attended a swim camp at Stanford run by Lea Maurer, the coach of the Stanford women's swim team. Maurer swam for Stanford in the 90's and won the 100 m backstroke in the 1998 World Championships.

On the penultimate day of the camp, Maurer invited parents to join the kids for a wide-ranging question and answer session with her. She started with a brief overview of her own career, following which the kids (and some parents) asked all sorts of questions about how she dealt with her training, her failures and successes, and so forth. It was great to have the kids exposed to this discussion. Here are some of the most important points that came up.

Setting goals: Maurer emphasized the importance of setting big goals. Only if you set big, audacious goals can you reach your full potential. In her case, her coach had set them the goal of having her win nationals. This was a daunting goal, even for someone with with Maurer's talent.

Focus on today: When Maurer first started competing in the nationals, she would come in 65th or 69th out of a hundred participants. When this happened, she got quite down about it and went back to her coach not knowing what to do next. But her coach simply said that the next day they would go back to doing what they did every day: continue working on the goal of winning the nationals! This was a crucial lesson for Maurer: however poorly (or well) she swam on the previous day, today was a new day. Focus on doing your best today; don't dwell on the past.

Don't give up mentally: Your body can be pushed well beyond the point that your mind believes it's time to give up. To illustrate this, Maurer described an event in the weight room. Her swimmers were doing bench presses. Maurer had instructed the spotters not to jump in to help with the weights until the swimmer physically faltered. One of her swimmers did a set of bench presses and felt she couldn't do any more. So she asked for her spotter to help. As the spotter started to help, Maurer jumped in with a warning: no help until the swimmer physically falters. This caused both the swimmer and spotter to burst into tears----they clearly thought she really couldn't do any more. But she forced herself to try, and went on to do 6 more repetitions before faltering!

Importance of preparation: Maurer emphasized the importance of training and preparation. One cannot win in competition unless one is thoroughly prepared for every eventuality. You have to approach each training swim with a specific goal: whether it is speed, or endurance, or technique. And you have to practice your response to all kinds of situations. When you get to your race, you are never surprised by whatever situation you encounter---you've seen it all in practice.

While the above points were made in the context of competitive swimming, they apply equally well in any walk of life. The kids in the camp are fortunate indeed to have heard these from a role model like Lea Maurer.
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