Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Meat Equation

I wrote this post on how to choose what to eat: "The Meat Equation". Enjoy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 book list

Here’s the list of books I read in 2013 in chronological order with a short review of each.

Bold = Recommended
*Bold = Highly recommended


  • Danziger's Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers by Nick Danzinger
  • Danzinger travels solo & often in disguise through Turkey, Iran, war-torn Afghanistan and China. Some of his adventures seem very thrilling, to the point of you questioning if they truly happened. Nevertheless, a entertaining read that tells you a lot about life in those parts of the world.

  • The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
  • Pollan dissects the American food industry, going into the roots of what we eat. It’s scary to learn about the industrialized food “generation” process and how far-removed we are from the way our ancestors ate.

  • Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Young Indian-American sociologist pals up with some of the gang members of the Chicago underworld to learn about its socio-economic impact. It’s like peeking into The Wire. It does’t go very deep into the violence & impact of the underworld, and as a result is more of a fun read.


  • *Last Chance to See - by Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine
  • Funny, yet deeply insightful. Adams & Carwardine go around the world to find endangered species. In true Douglas Adams style, he makes you laugh, but also makes you think as he talks about the impending loss of these beautiful creatures.

  • Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries  by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • A series of essays by NdGT about the cosmos. Very readable and funny. Having read similar books before, it wasn’t too educational for me, but I can imagine someone not very familiar with astronomy loving these. NdGT does seem a tad too obsessed with world-destruction scenarios.

  • *The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Not a real autobiography per se, but a collated set of writings by one of the greatest men of the 20th century. Highly recommended. I was greatly impressed by the man and the book. Read it now!


  • What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin
  • Series of articles about intolerance (racism, sexism, homophobia etc.) in sports and the athletes who fought against it. Its a good topic, but Zirin doesn't come off as a rational thinker and gives a very one-sided view of things which makes you question whatever he writes.


  • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
  • Good science fiction. At 192 pages, a quick read. The time-travel bends your mind a bit, so be prepared.

  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Foer goes from being a spectator to winning the US Memory championship in 1 year. He describes his journey and talks about how memory can be trained to remember almost anything. And you don’t have to be exceptionally smart to be a memory-guru. Delves nicely into the science of memory.

  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman by Christopher Sykes
  • Biography of the brilliant Richard Feynman. Feynman’s relentless drive to “figure things out” is amazing. I especially loved the bits about Feynman’s formative years. Feynman was a bit of a showoff though :).


  • Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood
  • John Wood’s drive and success are very commendable. The cause is definitely worth fighting for. The book does seem to be a bit of a publicity piece though.

  • The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • I expected a more autobiographical book, but it turned out more about science. Not much about NdGT's childhood and upbringing & what shaped him growing up. Having read 2 of his books, I think he's not as good a writer as Carl Sagan, but still very readable. The world needs more science “popularizers” like him.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ecuador trip - Part 3 (More Quito & Cuenca)

From the islands, we headed back to Quito. We took a walking tour of the historical district (old town) of Quito, which consists of a bunch of very old churches of different Christian orders (Franciscans, Dominicans etc.), and big plazas joined together by cobblestone streets. The architecture was pretty impressive, but the crowds and the traffic a little annoying.





There were armed guards everywhere to ensure tourist safety. The old town can get quiet and dangerous after dark, so we limited our walking activities to the daytime. We also rode up the Teleferico, which is a cable car that takes you to the top of a 13,000 ft mountain next to Quito. You get a good view of the city from up there.

From Quito, we headed down to Cuenca, which is another colonial city on the Andes. It's the 3rd largest city in Ecuador, albeit a distant 3rd. We spent a quiet couple of days in Cuenca, walking around its historic churches and cathedrals and enjoying the nice food & weather.






There were a lot less tourists here, and the vibe overall was more friendly. We stayed in a hotel where the entire staff only spoke Spanish, which lead to some fun conversations. Cuenca has a bunch of artsy places like Panama hat factories and ceramic studios, but we visited on Saturday/Sunday and most of them were closed. Cuenca was our last stop in the Ecuadorian adventure.



One thing I noticed in Quito and in Cuenca was how little of the Inca & pre-Inca heritage is still remaining. Talking to people and going around town, you would be lead to believe that the Ecuadorian history began with the Spanish. In Peru (especially Cuzco) this was pretty different. People there took pride in their Inca-past. In Ecuador, it was as if the Incas never existed.

I'll end this with a shout out to Ecuador as a tourist destination. You don't require a visa to enter the country, and they use the US dollar for currency. It's pretty tourist-friendly, and hence safe. The weather is great throughout the year. Knowing Spanish is definitely a plus, but not knowing it leads to even more memorable interactions with the locals. We had a bunch of those :).

Ecuador trip - Part 2 (Galapagos islands)

Next up was the Galapagos cruise. The next day, we took the early, 2-hop flight to Baltra airport on one of the Galapagos islands and took a raft up to our cruise: The Galapagos Legend. The Galapagos has a bunch of islands, relatively far apart from each other, so taking a cruise is the best way to visit them. A cruise also ensures that you minimize your impact on the islands & help in preservation.



The Legend is one of the few big cruises (capacity of 100 visitors), running across the Galapagos. Most ships are much smaller (17-40 passengers). We decided to go with a big ship, because more people equals more fun. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Galapagos. The service was great and the schedule was optimal. Never did we feel that we were too rushed, or too bored. We had 2 excursions a day, 1 in the morning and 1 in the evening, where we visited one of the islands.

The islands themselves were quite different than what I had imagined. I had imagined a lush, green paradise, but most of the islands were dry, barren, rocky affairs. What makes Galapagos special is not the richness of life, but rather the uniqueness of it. A lot of the species at Galapagos evolved at Galapagos and hence you wont find them anywhere else on the earth. Some of the highlights in no particular order were:

The salt-sneezing marine iguana and the magnificently colored land iguana...






The blue-footed boobies, especially their straight vertical dive into the sea...



The frigate birds and their majestic flight...


And the overall lava-created landscape...



Yes and the tortoises were great too :). But you've probably heard a lot about them already.

A surprising fact that I did not know was that Galapagos has a permanent human settlement of almost 18000 with proper villages and farms primarily on the island of Santa Cruz. The settlement was originally created by the Ecuadorian government because they wanted to assert their control on the islands and didn't want any of the mighty European countries to claim it.

As we found out, Galapagos also suffers from the influx of invasive species introduced by humans. So the national park is hard at work eliminating rats, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, non-native plants and everything else that is non-native. It seems like a huge and a very hard undertaking.

Overall, I felt that the Galapagos islands are a unique tourist destination for casual tourists. A bit on the expensive side, but worth it.

Ecuador trip - Part 1 (Quito and Otavalo)


I thought I should write about our Ecuador trip before I forget. So here it goes.


We visited Ecuador for 10 days from late August to early September. Our first stop was the capital, Quito. We reached Quito on Friday night and took a cab to our hotel: Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna. This isn't really a standard hotel. It's a 120 year old house of the owner converted into a hotel.



The owners were very friendly with us and gave us the kind of personalized service you would never get from a standard hotel. The con was that the rooms were a bit noisy, it being a wooden construction and all. But all in all a great experience.

I was surprised at first with the size of Quito. I expected the city to be like Cuzco (in Peru), but it was more like Mumbai than Cuzco. The city is narrow (2-3 miles at its widest), but very long (25 miles), which gives you the impression that the city never ends. A city this big, nestled on the slopes of the Andes, at 9500 ft above sea-level is quite a sight. The traffic and the driving patterns in Quito are somewhere in between US & Mumbai (low lane discipline, moderate honking etc.).



The next morning we headed to Otavalo which is around 2 hours north of Quito. We took a bus there. I guess the buses are run by the government, which meant the fare was really cheap, around $2.5 per person.

Otavalo is famous for it's Saturday market where local artisans sell their handicraft. It's very colorful and vibrant and Maitreyee had a lot of fun here.






We spent the night at Hacienda Cusin, which is a 17th century estate near Otavalo. The hacienda was peaceful and quiet, and pretty artsy as well.





The next morning, we visited the Condor Park which is located on a hill near overlooking Otavalo. The park has a lot of big birds: different hawks, owls & eagles and a huge condor. Twice a day they have a bird show where the trainers make the birds do their bidding. It was OK, not unlike anything you would find at other places.


We took the bus back to Quito that evening and tried to check out the "New town" of Quito. But it was Sunday and everything was closed. There were quite a few people in the parks, but everything else was pretty much dead.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mental health

I was at a middle school in Bellevue today. It's striking how there are predominantly 2 types of pamphlets on the message board there: those talking about therapists/mental health and those about domestic abuse.
This, in one of the top school districts of the the nation.

Also, check this trend out. This is from all the books scanned by Google written from 1900. It clearly tells us what people are more interested in.

Expected? Or do we take ourselves more seriously than we have to?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Social Q&A Systems

A lot of times you need answers to long or open ended questions. e.g. "How are hiking trail distances calculated?" or "Are there any places where you can watch the 4th of July fireworks over Lake Union while avoiding the crowds? " or "Any good popular science book recommendations?" (all questions which I've had in the past).


Current search engines don't do great for these queries, since they search by keywords aim for speed. But there are a lot of Q&A systems such as Yahoo Answers, Quora etc. out there which are meant to help you with these. Having tried out a few over the past 2-3 years, here is a rundown on them:


Yahoo Answers

Pros: Lots of users, has been around for a long time.

Cons: Not really useful for genuine questions. Funny/not so useful answers tend to be voted up.

Yahoo Answers is a good example of "what doesn’t work".


Twitter/Facebook status messages

Pros: Asks questions to your friends. Decent search capability.

Cons: Asks questions to your friends, which for most people is a limited set of folks with little or no subject expertise.


Quora

Pros: Focuses of collaboration. Almost wiki-like

Cons: No user-reputation system makes answering questions less gratifying. New and hence not many users.


Aardvark

Pros: Asks questions to topic experts as determined by their internal algorithms.

Cons: Not as many users. A lot of questions go unanswered. No reputation system.


Facebook Questions

Pros: Lots of users. Uses the social graph information for question discovery.

Cons: No reputation system. Very poor search functionality.


Stack Exchange websites (e.g. StackOverflow)

Pros: Very detailed reputation/badge system which incentivizes people to give good & thorough answers to questions. Decent search functionality.

Cons: Niche set of websites for specific topics like programming, hence not generic. Not many users because of being niche websites.


So based of these experiences, here is what I think will make an ideal Q&A system:

1. Has a lot of active users

2. Has a reputation system which incentivizes good "answerers".

3. Easy to use, via Desktop/Phone/IM.

4. All the questions and answers are well-tagged and easily searchable.

5. Seeks out topic experts for answering questions.

6. Has a social element (people prefer answering questions from their friends instead of random strangers), but does not overdo it (since you might want real experts a lot of times).


Points 2, 3, 4 are achievable design goals for a startup. 1, 5 and 6 are much harder since you need a critical mass of users to achieve them, which would be tough for a startup to achieve. So it has to come from one of the big players. Or a startup bought over by a big player (Aardvark was bought by Google recently). That said, Facebook seems to be best positioned to build such a system if they wish to. Yes, it's Facebook's world, we just live in it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Dark side of the moon

No, this post is not about the awesome Pink Floyd album. It's about the real dark side of the moon. As some of you well know, the moon has a dark side or a "far" side, which constantly faces away from the earth. And a "near" side which constantly faces the earth. In other words, it takes the Moon exactly the same amount of time to rotate around its axis as it does for it to go around the Earth once (~27.322 days). Ever wondered why this happens?

This phenomenon is known as synchronous rotation and it is quite common between planets and their satellites. It is caused due to something known as tidal locking. Just like the moon affects the tides on the earth, the mass and speed of rotation of the earth influences the moon, but in a much larger way (because the earth is much more massive). Early in its life, the moon spun much faster. But slowly, its rotation locked in with its revolution around the earth due to the tidal forces, and we got the "near side" and the "far side". The Wikipedia link above has more info if you are interested in further reading.

Turns out almost all moons in the solar system are tidally locked with their corresponding planets. In fact, Pluto and its moon Charon, are tidally locked with each other i.e. both of them show just one side to other and revolve around each other as if joined with a rod. Astonishing!!!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Natural Selection and Free Markets

Since 4 billion years, life has evolved on this planet by a process called natural selection. Simply put, the individuals and species best adapted to their current surroundings survive and propagate their traits to their offspring, while the other struggle for survival and die out.

I think at some level, the concept of free markets is similar to natural selection. The people or enterprises best suited to the current market conditions survive and thrive. (Note that I am not saying that free market theory = natural selection, but merely that they are similar to some extent). And the one thing we know from our 4 billion year history is that the system works. Give it enough time and space and we might end up with something rich and diverse, like life on planet earth.

Does that mean laissez-faire free markets are the way to go for the various national economies today?

I think this is where we should think about this problem a little bit more. Here are a couple of my thoughts on this.

The first is that natural selection works, but only for the species best adapted to their surroundings. The rest die out. It is estimated that around 99.9% of all the species that ever lived are now extinct. Similarly free markets may not be the kindest to the folks who are least fit to survive in the market: people who are currently unemployed or poor, especially the kids born homeless and poor. Most of us don’t fall in this group, so we might not be the best set of people to decide for them.

Also natural selection kept species interdependent via the food chain i.e. change in the population of one species caused a change in the population of the other species up and down the food chain. This was only true until humans evolved and made all their scientific progresses. Now food can be produced in factories. We don’t need to keep the millions of species around to survive. A parallel can be drawn between invasive species like humans and the big monopolies which are bound to arise in a free market without regulations. A big enough monopoly can take control of the market and bend it to its will. It can kill all the competition exacerbating the problems I mentioned in the paragraph above.

So what’s the best solution if we had the option of choosing one? I’m not sure. Clearly the other extremes (e.g. communism) don’t work either, and have been utter failures wherever employed.

One thing I am fairly confident about is that in the long term, we cannot have a perfect system (economic or otherwise). Perfect systems are a myth. And in spite of the criticisms, I think the current American system is pretty good and ideal results might be achieved by making small incremental changes to it. Obama’s “reforms” might serve as a good experiment to test whether moving to the left of the current system works or not. They might succeed or they might fail, but we will come out wiser on the other side.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Change is gonna come

USA finally elected an African-American president. Even if the pre-election polls virtually guaranteed an Obama victory, I was afraid of the so-called Bradley effect coming into play. It's the theory that "some voters tend to tell pollsters that they are undecided or likely to vote for a black candidate, and yet, on election day, vote for his white opponent.". Thankfully it never happened. Maybe it is a sign of the changing America.

At the same time I'm still surprised that after 8 years of Bush, after such a negative campaign run by the McCain camp and such a poor running mate choice of Sarah Palin, 46% of popular vote still went to the McCain-Palin ticket.

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Losing my Religion: A brilliant piece in Cricinfo about the beginning of the end of era in cricket. For all of us who grew up watching Sachin and Kumble and Dada and Dravid, cricket truly is never going to be the same. Change is happening in cricket too, a slightly sad one.

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Finally a word on the global financial meltdowns. Some say this is the death of the free-market ideology. Some say this is further proof that we need totally unregulated free markets. There a whole bunch of "I told you so" opinionating, and very less rational thinking. It should be interesting to see how the Obama government handles this. If more regulations indeed fixes the mess, does that mean the free-market experiment is over? I hope not, but would not be surprised if we come out on the other side with a completely different way of running the economy.