Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Brass Verdict

Book Review : The Brass Verdict
Author : Michael Connelly
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

Michael Connelly has written numerous best selling mystery books - based on 3 main protagonists - the detective Harry Bosch, or the lawyer Mickey Haller or the reporter Jack McEvoy. "The Brass Verdict" is a Mickey Haller (or called the Lincoln Lawyer) book with a guest appearance from other 2 characters as well. That was the main reason for me to try this out as my first Michael Connelly book - 3 in 1 !

A movie producer is arrested and being charged for a double murder of his wife and her lover. The first lawyer hired by the movie producer is also murdered and the case lands on the laps of Micky Haller. As he starts building his defense, naturally he realizes that there is more than meets the eye. Giving any more synopsis, would give out some surprises.

As a mystery, this is quite decent and well-structured. Everything falls neatly in place by the end, nothing seems forced, there are no logical holes and the conclusion is quite satisfying.

What made me give this only 3 stars is they way clues are tied together. In spite of being written as a first person account - we are not given enough insight into the mind of our protagonist. Of course complete insight will mean no surprises, but some of the real investigation is done by Haller's helper and we are never told what he discovered. We just hear the deductions made by Haller. The best mysteries are where the reader has almost the same amount of information as the investigator, but it's presented in such a way that the reader is never sure how to tie it all together - till it's explained by say someone like Hercule Poirot.

Nevertheless, this is a very nice book to read. Connelly excels at building a real multi-dimensional character of Haller - who is far from perfect. He takes his time, so the book may feel slow to some. To me the character development was a big plus point. We are given a nice tour of how the justice system really works, and the subplots are interesting too.

I definitely recommend this book. Personally, for the next book by Connelly, I would read a book from his other series - featuring detective Bosch - than by the same Mickey Haller.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Attack of the Frogs !

I have an epidemic of frogs in my backyard. There are harmless to plants, but there are just too many. But I cannot kill them, because they are "aaawwww so cute".  Now they are expanding their territory and climbing over walls and windows !

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Big Bank Theory

The only real financial journalist in the country happens to work for the comedy channel ! Why is it only Jon Stewart's responsibility to catch someone lying ? This time it's The Bernanke who is lying about "printing money".

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Invention of Lying

Movie Review : The Invention of Lying
Directors: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Genre : Comedy
Released : October 2009
Starring : Ricky Gervais, Jenifer Garner, Rob Lowe
My Rating : 6 out of 10

"The Invention Of Lying" is a very rare comedy that can make you ponder as much as it can make you laugh.

They idea is innovative. Imagine a world where no one ever lies - because they simply cannot ! It's not a matter of choice for the people in this alternative universe - they just speak the truth. All the time. Even when it's the harshest thing to say.

Mark (Ricky Gervais) is a loser who works in a movie producing company. We meet him as he is going on a blind date with an attractive woman Anna (Jennifer Garner). First look, and she announces to him that he is not good enough for her. But out of politeness they go to a restaurant where the waiter tells him that she is way out of his league. This is how people talk to each other in the movie. Not in an insulting tone, but politely stating things as they are. It's a simple and cruel world.  And it's hilarious.

Mark discovers by accident that he can lie - and things get very interesting. Instead of using that ability to lie for his own petty benefits, he starts using it to comfort people. What an idea ! Saying things that are not true can help make someone feel better. Note that there is no such words as "lying" or "truth" in their vocabulary. And there is no word for "God" either.

That's where the movie transcends itself from being just a comedy. It's a funny take alright - but the viewer cannot escape the questions that are being posed in an indirect way. The entire notion of Mark's "Man in the sky", relies on just make-believe statements in order to make people feel better.

That's what I mean when I say, the movie forces you to ponder as much as it can make you laugh. Is lying all that bad if it makes you feel better ? Is that the basis of all religions ? If these unverifiable beliefs actually help people live their life, is that a justification enough for spreading them ? Of course, a comedy movie cannot be expected to answer those questions - these debates have been going on ever since humans developed an ability to introspect. I prefer these subtle questions far more than the extravagant philosophical discussions spawned by the "Matrix" trilogy.

This turns out to be a double edged sword. As much as it helps the movie rise to a different level, it also makes it a bit unwieldy. The comedy sputters and the movie gets very unfocused in the end.

Nevertheless, Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner, both make it work. Their acting is spot on. I recommend this movie - it's short, funny and thought provoking. It's not for kids.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Last Crop Of 2010

Now that the temperature is dropping below freezing, I decided to remove all the tomatoes and jalapenos (and other peppers) from the plants. Made a huge batch of Insane Hot Tomatillo Salsa.

Take this quick quiz. How many tomatoes and peppers are there ? :-)

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Tipping Point

Book Review : The Tipping Point
Author : Malcolm Gladwell
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference".

When I read "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, I had mixed reactions. I thought the author wrote a very nice to read book but was portraying some great insight which we already know via common sense. Still I was interested in trying his earlier books. After reading "Tipping Point", I hate to say this, but I don't think I will read his other books.

The books have the same format - interesting anecdotes mixed with author's assertions. In "Tipping Point", Gladwell is examining how a certain product suddenly becomes popular, how something becomes a fad - in short how a "meme goes viral".

This is a very interesting investigation. Gladwell classifies the concepts into various labels - Mavens, Connectors, Salesperson, Power of the context, Law of the few, Stickiness factor etc. Gladwell explains his labels well. There are enough interesting people and stories to keep the reader engaged. Gladwell supports his assertions using diverse stories that range from children's shows to religious groups to crime rates in New York.

All this is fine, and the book is easy to read. It did become a big long and repetitive for me by the end. But that could be just me. The real problem is - the whole premise feels unscientific. This is not real new research in any field of study, but it's presented as such. Like "Outliers", Gladwell is just quoting other researchers in this book. He does a good job of connecting their inferences and there is no plagiarism, but there is very little original contribution. And much less in the way of any new insight. Most of it is just common sense deductions arranged in a pseudo-scientific package.

In spite of giving it the 3 star rating, I may be coming off as a bit too harsh and negative. It's not a bad book, it's just that it doesn't deliver what it promises. The superficiality is frustrating. I know that books should be fun read in order to appeal to as much audience as possible, but serious research and original insight can be fun as numerous books have done - like "Freakonomics" or "Guns, Germs and Steel". This book may help you pass an idle evening or have some nice discussions around lunch table. But that's about it. Expect more, and you will be disappointed.

Friday, October 29, 2010

They Really Said It ! [9]

Love him, or hate him, you have to hand it to Peter Schiff on how correct he was and how well he handled all the slander and ridicule he received.

This is a compilation from 2006-2007. Some choicest statement from Peter Schiff's opponent Art Laffer
- US Economy has never been in better shape
- The monetary policy is "spectacular"

The next one have an "expert" proclaiming a return to "only" 10% annual appreciation as that's how the "normal" market works ! Another one shouts "what artificial lending standards you are talking about" and starts laughing at Peter Schiff.

Then we have the famous Ben Stein claiming that the "credit crunch is way overblown" and "subprime problem is a TINY problem". He further advises us as "buying opportunity of the lifetime" when Dow was over 13K. It dropped nearly 50% from there and even today is 15% below his lifetime buying opportunity. Peter Schiff retorts - "The party is over for US". Then everybody proclaims, "Worst is over" and only Pter Schiff says, "the worst is yet to come". Oh, and it gets even hilarious - everyone loves financial stocks - and only Peter Schiff says, "they are toxic".

The following video is just too brutally hilarious. What else can you expect when a Realtor goes against Peter Schiff ?

Click here for previous installment in this chain.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE Simplest Recipe for Artisan Bread

Who doesn't like eating fresh, hot from oven bread ? But most people find the entire process of baking bread very intimidating. First you have to use the right ingredients, get the proportions just exact, then knead the dough to a perfect consistency, let it rise and proof for just the right duration and then bake it at exactly for so long at an exact temperature. The amount of parameters that you have to think about make buying a digital camera seem like a child's play.

What's so special about this recipe ?
I have a very simple recipe, based on ideas from a few books and it will give you a very good artisan bread. It won't win you any prizes in bread baking competitions, but what makes it great is

1. It's very forgiving, you don't need to be super-perfect in order to get it right.
2. It uses the minimum possible ingredients, and can be very healthy if you use 100% whole wheat flour.
3. It provides ample scope for your creativity to do variations on the same theme to get very different breads. More on that later.
4. It's very flexible and can be adjusted to meet your schedule. I will cover that later, for now, let's keep things simple.
5. And it's tested. I have used it many times. I have told others about it and they have had great success with it.

The ingredients :
Generally, bread recipes call for 3 cups of flour. For the first time, use the following measures, and if you want a 3 cup bread, just double everything.

- 1 1/2 (One and one half) cup of flour. You can use bread flour, all purpose flour or 100% whole wheat flour. Whole wheat bread will be denser and heavier, as is to be expected.
- 2/3 cup water - but if you are using 100% whole wheat flour you will need 3/4 cups of water. Don't worry about the temperature of the water, just use regular water.
- 3/4 tsp table salt
- 3/4 tsp yeast (active dry or instant yeast)

Nothing else, this is as pure as bread can be (except of course breads using starters that catch air-borne yeast). Neither sugar nor fat of any kind is needed.

The first thing to note here is, the amount of water is way higher than recipes that require kneading. That's right, there is no kneading in this recipe, in fact so much water makes kneading impossible. We are relying on higher hydration to do the work for us. Apart from eliminating the kneading, high level of hydration will also give us soft, open crumb with big holes - typical of what is often called as an "artisan" bread.
In a large glass bowl (don't use plastic/metal) stir together flour, salt and yeast.

 Add all the water to it.

Using a big spoon, keep stirring the dough for a couple of minutes. You won't be able to do that with your hands. The dough will be very sticky. As you begin, it may feel too wet or too dry, but don't worry. Just work the sides of the bowl to keep the dough in one lump. All you are trying to do is to eliminate any dry spots. It won't take more than 2-3 minutes. That's it. The dough will look like a very sticky lump.

Cover it, and keep it away from sunlight for about 4 hours. Don't worry about the exact duration. The rising won't be done in less than 3 hours, and won't need more than 5 hours. Use the following photos as a guide to decide when it's time to bake.

Halfway during the rising, it will look something like this.
When the dough starts looking bubbly like this, it's ready for baking. By this time, the dough would have tripled in size, if not more.

Liberally sprinkle a cookie sheet with flour. You can use a foil to line the sheet, I prefer parchment paper.

Now, very gently pour the dough - which will look like a thick batter - on to the sheet. Just remember to not force the dough, or you will punch it down. We want to protect the air bubbles as much as possible. Tilt the bowl, and let gravity do the work for you. If you have to, just nudge it around edges. But do NOT scoop it out. Do NOT press it. Sprinkle it with flour.

Once it's on the sheet, let it be. Don't try to shape it. Our bread is very similar to ciabatta - which literally means "carpet slipper" in Italian. The only drawback of higher levels of hydration is difficulty in shaping. I would recommend that you don't try to shape it at all. Don't even score it. If you are trying out for the first time, you will almost surely punch it down while doing so. Just keep it simple, avoid the work and as a bonus, you will get a nice bread !

This may look flat - but trust me, you will get a nice oven spring once the dough is in the oven. For first few minutes, the warmth of oven and high water content will send the yeast into a frenzy and before it gives up it's life as the temperature of dough goes over 200, it would have secured you a very airy crumb.

Pre-heat the oven at 425 F. Ovens are different. But you cannot bake it below 400 and anything over 450 is too high. If you have to adjust later based on the result, be within that range.

Put the sheet in oven and bake for about 22 minutes. Again, it won't be done in 20 minutes, and over 25 minutes, it will be almost over baked. Whole wheat may take 25 minutes, but not more.

During baking, the bread will rise and spread. It won't be a super-tall loaf. It needs room to increase its size sideways, so don't bake it like a cake in a pan to give it shape - this needs to be a free standing loaf.

Once it's baked, remove it from oven and let it cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes. It's tempting to just cut it and eat it, but you have to let the steam, that's trapped inside, complete its job.

Use a sharp serrated knife and try not to squeeze the bread while cutting. Best time to cut is when you are ready to eat. This bread will stay for a couple of days, but it will start to dry out once cut - remember there is no oil to keep it soft.

This bread is perfect with an Italian menu and for many Indian dishes like "Paav-bhaji" and "Usal Paav" etc. It will be fresh, homemade, without any chemicals/preservatives and healthy. And very simple to prepare.

If you have any questions or need to make some changes or need variations, let me know.

UPDATE : See the troubleshooting guide for more help if you need any.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Movie Review : Changeling
Released : 2008
Director : Clint Eastwood
Genre : Drama
Starring : Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich
My Rating : 8 out of 10

Clint Eastwood has established himself as a foremost contemporary director with a distinctive style. With well developed characters, a strong focus on the story and a very deliberate pace, his movies capture our attention and never let it go. Even when the movie is over. "Changeling" is no exception.

The movie is based on a true story. In late 1920s, a single mother (played by Angelina Jolie) is living with her only son, about 10 years old. One day, her son goes missing. Most likely kidnapped. The police claim to have found him. But when the boy is returned to the mother, she claims it's not her son. Why do the police pressure her to accept the boy as her son ? That's not hard to figure out, as the movie shows how corrupt the cops were. But what happened to her real son ? And will the police accept their mistake and find the real son before it's too late ?

That's the real focus of the movie, and hence I won't divulge any further. The movie takes its time in developing the story. But remember, true stories do not have neat fiction like endings. So more than the ending, how the movie reaches there is important. The story progresses on at least 2 lines. The struggle against the corrupt police system, and the real investigation that becomes more and more disturbing as it progresses.

These 2 lines eventually merge together. Neither one is pleasant. Eastwood doesn't take any easy routes and no parent can remain unmoved by what gets discovered in the investigation. This movie is not for the faint of the heart.

Everything about this movie is top class. Great direction, great script and superb editing. John Malkovich does a perfect job in the role of a pastor supporting Angelina Jolie's fight. All other actors perform admirably, especially the alleged kidnapper (played by Jason Butler Harner) is evil personified.

Angelina Jolie received an Oscar nomination for this role, and I happen to disagree with it. She did a good enough job, but I wasn't wowed by it. A role like this offers a lot of scope to the actor to be great. Her acting was very good, but should have been great. That and the length of the movie, stops me from giving it a full 10.

This is correctly rated as R, and kids should be kept away from this movie. For serious movie buffs, this is highly recommended.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My tomato is bigger than yours

Had a nice crop of tomatoes this year. Some of them were quite big. The following is a tomato, NOT a pumpkin - it's bigger than a red delicious apple. Wish they had a tomato competition like they have for pumpkins. Maybe I should carve a tomato for this year's Halloween !

Friday, October 22, 2010

Your next crisis

This century has began with a series of crisis on the economic front. From the dot com bust to the housing bubble to financial crisis and to sovereign defaults.  I think the US Govt debt - as bad as it is now - is dwarfed by the political and economic crisis that will be brought upon us by the financial disaster waiting to happen at state levels.

This is NOT something that will happen in distant future. It's going to happen soon. See this story on Bloomberg ...(emphasis mine)
California, which has the largest U.S. public-pension fund, faces liabilities that may exceed its annual state-tax revenue fivefold within two years unless lawmakers rein in benefits, according to a study.
To keep their promises to retirees, the California Public Employees Retirement System, the biggest plan, the California State Teachers Retirement System, the second-largest, and the University of California Retirement System may have combined liabilities of more than 5.5 times the state’s annual tax revenue by fiscal 2012, according to the study released today by the Milken Institute. Levies are forecast to reach about $89 billion in the year that began July 1. 
This will not be just a financial problem for the pension funds. This will be an economic issue due to tax implications and a polarizing political issue with potential social unrest. Why ? Because every California resident - is either paying for these pensions or receiving these pensions. A neutral stance is unlikely to be available :-(

California is not the only state in this situation. And this hasn't even started catching the attention of the masses. I have no idea how this is going to play out, but I suspect, it won't be pretty.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The "Lara Lappa" girl

This song was played often on TV when I was growing up in India. It's from the comedy movie "Ek Thi Ladki" (released in 1949), but who really was that girl ? The tune is catchy, Lata's voice is very sweet, the lyrics are funny and the actress is cute enough to make you ignore the outdated and forced acting style. But what happened to that beautiful face ? I could never gather much information about the actress herself.

Till man invented internet, of course. I found all the information I was looking for, at UpperStall.
From being the heart throb of India (being known as the 'Lara Lappa girl' at her peak) to begging at a film function in the 1980s in Pakistan for money to marry off her sister's daughters, Meena Shorey's is the classic riches-to-rags story one often finds in the filmline, the world over.

Much more information at the link. Looks like a nice site.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Book Review : The Quants
Author : Scott Patterson
Released : Feb, 2010
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It".

The financial collapse of 2008, has generated a lot of information on many facets of Wall Street via books, news articles and TV documentaries.  This book focuses on the secretive world of "Quants", or hedge funds primarily using quantitative analysis as their investment strategy.

The people who run these funds are not in the tradition of Warren Buffet, rather they are Math wizards. They depend on their statistical analysis skills and a deep understanding of probability theory to manage huge sums of money. Their models are built on massive number crunching, rather than fundamental economic analysis.

How different it is than traditional investing philosophy ? How did these funds come to manage such huge sums of money ? Who are these people ? How did they do it ?

The book tells us, that it all started with Ed Thorpe. He literally wrote the book on winning in blackjack, "Beat the dealer". He then extended those ideas about using probability, computer modeling and statistical analysis to beat the stock market - the grandest of all casinos.

Calling Wall Street a casino, is not just a cliché. Many of these quants are very good poker players. Peter Muller has won many poker tournaments. They are obsessed with gaining a complete control over risk, not in just managing it. Understanding probabilities and positioning for various outcomes is what they excel at. In that sense, there is a lot of common mathematical ground on which strategies for both poker and trading can be built on.

This is a fascinating story to say the least. Part history, part rough biographies, and part commentary - the book presents a lot of information in a very reader-friendly style. In spite of the heavy sounding title, this book makes for a very light entertaining read - the target audience is general public like you and me.

The author, Scott Patterson is a journalist, and that style is obvious. Very readable, but often time feels very superficial. There is a lot of research done on the historical aspects, no doubt, and it's very informative. On the other hand if you are interested in finance/investing, you will most likely not encounter anything new on that aspect. I also found the order of presentation a bit distracting. It's almost chronological, but shifts back and forth between different people and the transitions are not smooth.

I can definitely recommend this book to everyone. But it left me wanting for more, and only half satisfied. Is the author blaming the quants for the financial collapse ? Of course they played a part in it and the over-reliance on models is one of the main culprits. But how much blame goes to quants ? What about the over leverage in the entire system ? And outright fraud at all levels starting from borrowers to mortgage originators and to all the steps in securitization. Not to mention the bad regulation (repeal of Glass-Steagall) and failure of Federal Reserve. This context is not mentioned at all.

If you keep that in mind, I think you would enjoy the book.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Jon Stewart Goes Nuclear On Fox News

They are either Evil or Stupid !
And the conclusion is : If you do not want your money to be used for terrorism, stop watching Fox News !!

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Movie Review : The Trigger Effect

Movie Review : The Trigger Effect
Released : 1996
Director: David Koepp
Genre : Thriller
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Elisabeth Shue
My Rating : 6 out of 10

While browsing the TV Guide, I came across this movie - it had an interesting enough synopsis, that perked my curiosity enough to record it on the DVR and watch it later.

Which movie would you prefer to watch about some Aliens attacking planet earth ? Is it "Independence Day" or "Signs" ? (Maybe for you the answer is "neither", but that's beside the point !) Do you prefer loud action ? Or do you prefer to see how ordinary people would react to extra-ordinary circumstances ? That answer should decide if you want to try "The Trigger Effect" or avoid it.

The situation in this movie is not post-apocalyptic, but has certain resemblance to it. Here a mysterious power outage throws a family's life in disarray. The movie does not explain why exactly the outage happened, and that's fine by me. What it tries to do is to show how common people would try to cope up with complete lack of electricity, no telephone, no radio/TV, no communication of any sort. This is 180 degrees opposite of "Mad Max 2". People in this movie are close to a breaking point and there are indications that if power is not restored, there will be anarchy. But everyone's trying his or her best to hang in there.

This is the kind of treatment I like. And if the movie is willing to go off a beaten path, I am more than willing to take a tolerant view of it. So while such a movie may seem boring to some, I am drawn to any such attempt of "new treatment". In spite of such biases, the movie was not entirely satisfying to me.

Generally this happens because of a hasty, contrived ending. The problem here is quite opposite. The latter half of the movie is quite tense and well crafted. The issue I have is with the setup. It takes forever for director David Koepp to establish the characters and their relationship. And even then, we don't really learn much about them. So chances are many viewers would start yawning and switch off before the 1st quarter of the movie is over.

Fortunately, there is no preaching about how over-dependence on the technology is bad. The movie is far away from being a Sci-Fi. I think the movie is incorrectly labeled as a "thriller", and "drama" would be a better genre for it.

I have very mixed feeling about recommending this movie. It's rated 'R' and is not for kids. It's definitely not a waste of time, but I don't see any compelling reason to go out and rent it either.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bumper Stickers - 2

Not very politically correct in this economic climate, but in it's own insensitive way, does have a point.
Work harder ! Millions of people on welfare depend on you.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

if Furlough then Salary++ ;

The Law of Of Unintended Side Effects, strikes again.

California Watch reported that :
Rather than receiving a 15-percent pay cut as intended, hundreds of state managers and other high-level workers brought home more money than usual during some furlough weeks thanks to an obscure federal labor law, a California Watch review of state records has found.
During furlough weeks between February 2009 and April 2010, state departments paid at least $1.6 million in overtime to salaried state workers who are not typically eligible to receive it, according to data provided by the state controller's office. At least 14 employees took home more than $10,000 in overtime payments during that period.
The payments were allowed because during furlough weeks, federal law requires the state to temporarily classify most salaried workers as hourly employees so their pay can legally be reduced.
But that shuffle has a side effect: It makes employees who are typically exempt from overtime rules eligible for a rare opportunity to collect the extra cash.
Ironically, the department that paid the most was EDD !
Of the three-dozen departments that paid at least some overtime to exempt workers, none shelled out more than the Employment Development Department, which paid more than $488,000. The department is charged with running California’s unemployment programs, which have been swamped in the down economy.
Department spokeswoman Loree Levy said demand for unemployment benefits and information technology projects within the department led to the overtime, which she said was closely monitored and approved.

Be happy, your tax dollars are working overtime !

Monday, August 9, 2010


Movie Review : Raavan
Released : 2010
Language : Hindi
Director : Mani Ratnam
Starring : Abhishek Bachhan, Aishwarya Rai, Govinda
My Rating : 1 out of 10

My only reaction to "Raavan" by Mani Ratnam, is "Hey Raam !"

I have loved many of Mani Ratnam movies. "Bombay" is on my list of best movies. So it makes me very sad to say that, this movie is not worth writing any review. Simply avoid it and send your ticket money to Mani Ratnam as a "retirement gift" and hope he gets the message.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bronze Statues In Pleasanton Downtown

Some very nice lifelike bronze statues are on display in Pleasanton downtown.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eureka Man

Book Review : Eureka Man
Author : Alan W. Hirshfeld
My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes".

I visited Nehru Science Center as I high school student. I still remember my astonishment after seeing the "Archimedes Screw" to get water up from a low point. The simple ingenuity made me wonder, how could he think of that trick ? That was but one small achievement for the genius mind of Archimedes, who is considered along with Newton and Gauss as the greatest mathematicians ever.

But he was much more than a mathematician. Among many other things, he was a physicist,  the greatest engineer of antiquity, an inventor and also a defense strategist for his native country Syracuse. His siege engines against the Roman army made him a legend for centuries. Galileo called him a super-human, Newton used his geometric diagrams to draw geeky graffiti, and countless other geniuses were awe-struck by the achievements of one man's mind.

So, when I saw a book on him, I had to pick it up and read. Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed.

The book has 2 parts. First part, talks quite dryly about the life of Archimedes and some of his achievements. Of course, the Eureka incident is mentioned, along with his work on levers, value of pi etc. His war engines and historical context also get a decent coverage. Little else is covered. Neither parabola, nor the spiral gets any mention. There are some nice pictures and photographs. The explanations here are OK, but what's missing is the passion.

A much bigger second half talks about the discovery of the Palimpsest - the copy from antiquity of Archimedes' original book. As interesting as the story is, it's way too much detail for me. For someone who is interested in the story of historical documents, this may be fun. Just maybe, as although it is informative, it's hardly gripping. I was bored.

It's a short book and it simply fails to respectfully treat the greatest polymath we have known. It's a shame.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is it all about Euro ?

Today the market broke many key levels (including the "devil's number") and is "officially" in the correction mode, at least according to CNBC.  Every journalist is saying the reason to be the trouble with Euro - which not so long ago was touted as the new reserve currency of the world. And once in a while, you would hear the mention of the cute acronym PIIGS. But is it really just about the ClubMed countries ? How about ...

1. UK and US having similar debt burdens ?
2. A very real possibility that China may crash ? How many empty cities can you build to pump up the economy ? The commodity prices (see copper and oil for example) have gone down - and it's not because of Europe, but concerns about China.
3. Most states in US are effectively bankrupt, and personal debt levels still very high.
4. The entire multi-trillion dollar web of interlinked derivatives still needs a lot of unwinding.

All this points to deflation and almost no growth prospects, which means P/E ratios for US equities are still very high. That's the reason IMHO for the on-going crash. Of course you will not hear this on CNBC - which can only tell you to buy on the dip so that their real masters can make you the bagholders.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Anand retains the crown !

Today, Vishwanathan Anand won the 12th and final game of the match against Bulgarian Topalov, to retain the crown. This was an incredible match and deserved the dramatic finish it had today.

It didn't start that well for Anand. He first had trouble reaching the venue in Sophia, Bulgaria as the volcano eruption in Iceland had stopped all the flights. Then he lost the very first game due to a blunder. He bounced back immediately by winning the next game and equalizing the match. That was followed by very high level complicated chess by both the players - undoubtedly the 2 best players in the world today.

The match was tied before today's game. Anand won it as black. Today, he was definitely helped by Topalov, who committed a crucial blunder. But it wasn't all easy after that and Anand had to play precisely.

Overall, both players played terrific chess. The result is fair, as Anand definitely played better both technically and psychologically. His match strategy was generally better than his opponent. Even today, he avoided a draw in an equal position and kept on playing, applying pressure. This battle of nerves was over just 10 moves later, when Topalov self destructed himself. Then a desperate attempt to save the game simply did not work against the calm genius of Anand.

It's been 20 years since Anand has been at the top of the chess world. It's a phenomenal achievement. In the first half, he was second only to the greatest player in the history of chess - Kasparov. After Kasparov peaked and retired, Anand has been the overall best player. Kramnik and Topalov have had their peaks, but Anand's the only one to have the continuity.

The revolution he has caused in Indian chess is no less remarkable. He did it on his own, without any help from Indian Government, against the mighty coordinated schools of Soviet and Eastern European players, in spite of the dirty politics at the top of the chess world. And still, he is the same humble player with easy manners – which has won him fans all over the chess playing world. Just because of the inspiration provided by him, India now has a growing base of talented chess players. This game does not require strong physique and ton of money, like most other sports. It's all in the brain, of which there is no shortage in India. So one day, it's quite possible that India becomes the dominant country in chess. If that happens, Anand deserves the lion's share of the credit.

If you want to play over the games of this match, you can do so at

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mendeleyev's Dream

Book Review : Mendeleyev's Dream
Author : Paul Strathern
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements", and frankly it's a bit misleading. This is neither a biography of Mendeleyev (that's how author chooses to spell his name) nor is it any introduction to the periodic table. It's a history of Chemistry that begins of course with Greek philosophers, takes interesting detours and ends abruptly without really talking about the periodic table.

As a book on history of Chemistry, it's quite fun to read. In a relatively short book, the author manages to cover many famous scientists, their life stories, their achievements and their impact. Most of it is touching and captivating. The personalities cover a wide range of spectrum. From many famous scientists like Lavoisier, Cavendish to not so well known (at least to a layman) Paracelsus and Scheele. The anecdotes about them range from weird to tragic. The zigzag development of theory covers "Earth, Fire, Air, Water", alchemy, phlogiston to near modern chemistry. This is a very broad scope.

In addition there is a lot of trivia packed into this book, and I mean a lot. I tremendously enjoyed these additional tidbits of knowledge thrown at me.

For good or bad - (and IMHO more bad than good) - there is a lot of opinionated commentary thrown in. I cringed many times while reading the book. Some views get dismissed as religious hocus-pocus, while some are branded as "the biggest blunder in human thought" ! These are admittedly shallow comments. It's akin to dismissing ancient thinkers as stupid, because they thought the universe was earth centric. Without proper understanding of the prevailing social context, available tools for scientific experiments etc. it's simply wrong to make these judgments.

Another drawback is the lengthy detour about scientific revolution. I would have preferred a shorter discussion and more attention to actual periodic table, which was the topic suggested by the book's title !

Overall, this is a very fun book to read. It's also a very good book for high-school students who are really interested in Chemistry and want some historical context.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pleasanton Murals

I pass this mural in Pleasanton every day on my way to work. There are always cars parked in front of it. On a Sunday morning, I got a chance to take a few photos of the complete drawing - just at the same time, when someone else was also taking a photo :-)

Look closely ..

The mural without the 3-D illusion effects is nice on its own ..


Friday, April 16, 2010

Why is Goldman Sachs being sued by SEC ?

Of course I am cynical - I don't think this is going to result in any meaningful change. All that will happen is the main employee mentioned (Fabrice Tourre) will be let go, GS will not admit to any wrong doing, pay a token file and then it will be business as usual.

Some things are interesting.
  • The announcement happened on an option expiration day. Why didn't the SEC do this over the weekend ? Or on Monday morning ?
  • GS was the top contributor (over $1M) to the democratic party in 2008 elections.
  • GS (not the company, but via employees and PACs) donated about $1M to President Obama's election campaign.
  • This is an election year. Maybe the political gods need a sacrifice. Maybe. Most likely not. Most likely, it's just to improve perception.
  • The Financial Reform Bill is on agenda. Maybe this is related.
So maybe I am cynical, or maybe not.

In any case, if you want to understand what exactly is the accused wrongdoing here, please see this video by my favorite news anchor Dylan Ratigan. He uses a simple analogy to explain and make this complex matter accessible to all of us.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tragedy in the backyard

I know it's overly dramatic to call this a tragedy, but I feel like my pet just died.

I had planted many cherry seeds in good soil and 5 of them germinated to give nice seedlings. I was excited and looking forward to grow them, but all of them died. Just like that. No sign of any insects, snails or decease. Just dead :-(

They looked fabulous when they were alive.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


The word "अफलातून" - meaning extra-ordinary - comes to Indian languages like Hindi, Urdu and Marathi from Arabic and Persian word "Aflatoon" - with blended "F" and "L" sounds (अफ़्लातून). Where did this word come from into Arabic ? Any guess on the origin of “Aflatoon” ?

It’s a name that comes from Greek ! Plato (the philosopher) becomes "Aflaatun" where the last N is sometimes pronounced as only a nasal sound. I have also seen it written as "FalatooN" in Urdu poetry.

Since Plato was indeed extra-ordinary, the word acquired that meaning in many languages.


Friday, April 9, 2010

The Camel Club

Book Review : Camel Club
Author : David Baldacci
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars
David Baldacci has written one best seller book after another. This is the first time I read any book by him.

Camel Club in the book is a group of 4 very ordinary citizens, who want to know the truth. There are many other characters, far too numerous to list. Apart from POTUS, head of NSA etc. the main characters are a secret agent and his girlfriend. As busy as Washington DC is, almost everyone’s path crosses with everyone else. There are also Middle-eastern terrorist and their plot remains secret for most part of the book.

Like most thrillers, Camel Club is about a conspiracy against US. Most such books require a suspension of disbelief, and this one is no exception. That's fine by me. This is not a news report. This is supposed to be a page-turner. So apart from the far-fetched plot, how good is the book ?

Pretty good I must say. The book is gripping. It starts out slowly, introduces all the characters, builds their interactions and gives enough teaser glimpses of the terrorist plot. It's hard to put down once you start it. Baldacci undoubtedly has mastered the art well.

So why only 3 stars ? Not because lack of character development. I wasn't really keen on knowing any of these characters. But their dialogues feel very unreal at places. There is a quite a bit of preaching to the reader woven into these discussions.

Secondly, the plot depends a lot of coincidences - many many coincidences. Characters routines run into each other at appropriate moments.

But the biggest flaw is the end. The last few pages are so rushed that it simply ruins the whole build up. It's not that the suspense is bad. It isn't. Just that the characters do not really behave the way you expect them to behave. One of the main characters realizes some significant information in the end. But the reaction is so muted that it makes you wonder if the author was on a tight deadline to somehow finish the book.

Baldacci has followed up on Camel Club in 2-3 other books. I am not sure I will try them. But I might try his previous books.

This book is no match to even to sub-par attempts of Forsyth. Nor is it in the same league of Ludlum. Think of it like a typical Hollywood thriller and no more. Then you might enjoy it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

In Dodd We Trust

If there is a journalist who understands the financial mess we created and our inadequate reaction to it, it's Jon Stewart, who on this aspect, is miles ahead of etire CNBC crew combined. Watch this ...


Friday, March 26, 2010

Silly and Poor Jokes - 2

Heard this on "The Big Bang Theory".
Q: Why did the chicken cross the Mobius Strip ?
A : To get to the same side.

A neutron went into a bar and ordered a drink. The bartender served it and said, "No charge for you".
I am thrilled to hear geeky jokes on a mainstream sitcom.


Hydrogen : The Essential Element

Book Review : Hydrogen : The Essential Element
Author : John Ridgen
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars
When I picked up this book, I was expecting a treatment more from the point of view of Chemistry than Physics. As it turned out, this book covers the role Hydrogen has played in theoretical physics with almost no mention of chemistry.

This is still an interesting premise. Hydrogen was formed in very early phases of creation of the universe and is still the most abundant element. Being the smallest element, with just one proton and one electron, many theories of atomic structure were tested against the hydrogen atom. So it's very fruitful to survey the history of Theoretical Physics with only hydrogen in mind.

In spite of this novel idea and good penmanship from John Ridgen, I came out a bit disappointed. It's most likely due to expectation mismatch. Ridgen focuses almost solely on 20th century physics. As interesting as this trip is, it gets very detailed at many places. From the introduction, we gather that Ridgen wrote a biography of physicist Rabi. This explains the detailed knowledge Ridgen has about that period in history. But overloading this book with exact dates and who said what to whom, distracted me. The plus side was the details about lab experiments that are often skipped by popular science books.

On the other hand, I would have loved to see more explanations of the theories. There is some discussion, but that's not enough as the focus seems to be on history.

It's a short book. I enjoyed it, but didn't learn a whole lot about science as I have from many other books on popular science. And all the historical trivia I read, was soon forgotten. If you read it with right expectations, you will enjoy it as well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bumper Stickers - 1

Probably the best I have read so far.
Support American Democracy.
Buy a Congressman today !

Friday, March 5, 2010


Movie Review : Proof
Released : 2005
Director: John Madden
Genre : Drama
Starring : Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis
My Rating : 10 out of 10

Movies based on stage plays feel very different than other movies. Much of the story happens in limited settings, the focus is completely on characters and dialogues replace action. I have a strong bias towards such movies.

In addition, Proof is about mathematicians. Being in love with Math, I definitely was predisposed to liking this movie. But objectively, is this a good movie ? Yes, a strong resounding yes. In fact, in this genre, it's near perfect.

The story is simple. A famous mathematician Robert (Anthony Hopkins) - well past his prime, and suffering from dementia - has died. His daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) gave up her career as a mathematician to take care of her father in his dying years. Catherine's older sister (Hope Davis), who stayed away for all this time to pursue her career, comes back to take care of practical matters. In the meanwhile, Robert's student Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes over a pile of notebooks he finds in Robert's room, to see if there is anything worthwhile. And he finds a remarkable proof. Did Robert really write that ? Or was it Catherine ?

It's not much of suspense. But it's presented in a non-linear order and clues are offered via flashbacks, and hence there is a tiny bit of suspense for first half of the movie.

While the suspense if not the reason to watch this movie, Math is not the reason to avoid this movie. There is very little math-speak in the movie. There is almost nothing about the actual proof. Based on the very vague hints given in the movie, we can only speculate for fun about the topic. Could it be Goldbach's conjecture ? Riemann Hypothesis ? Doesn't really matter.

The movie is definitely about Catherine. And her interactions with 3 people in her life. Her father, her sister and her boyfriend. This is the core of the movie, and it shines brightly there. I was also particularly happy about the way her sister's character is portrayed in the script and played admirably by Hope Davis.

Gwyneth Paltrow gives an unbelievably breathtaking performance to bring out so many shades of Catherine's personality. She is strong at times, but very vulnerable at other times. She knows she is a genius, but sometimes wonders if she is mad. She knows her sister means well, but she is frustrated by the lack of understanding. Her acting is just perfect. Director John Madden teamed up with her before ,in "Shakespeare in Love", and although that movie is far better known, I think Proof is way much better for both of them.

Why are there so few women mathematicians ? That's a controversial subject. Proof does not really address it directly. But keep the question in mind, and you will understand Catherine better.

I haven't watched the Pulitzer winning play on which this movie is based. To me this is as perfect as movies can be. This is a must see movie for every serious fan of this art.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Carmel and 17 Mile Drive

One of the standard tourist stops near Bay Area is Carmel and the near-by 17 mile drive. The Carmel town is very cute, but I find the 17 mile drive good but a bit overrated. Both offer numerous opportunities for photography.

I found a nice alley in Carmel downtown.
Carmel also has a mission.
The 17 Mile drive takes you via many famous spots. One being the Restless Sea.
And other picturesque locations.
Some of the beaches are easily accessible, with interesting habitants.
On that particular day, a squirrel and a bird were completely unafraid of the humans. Even without a decent zoom, I managed to take these pictures.


And of course, the drive is not complete without the famous Lone Cypress tree

Sunday, February 21, 2010

They Really Said It ! [8]

Book Review : Short History Of Financial Euphoria
Author : John Kenneth Galbraith
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

Most of the previous articles I wrote in this "They Really Said It" series were about criticizing people for denying the existence of the housing bubble. All my objections may seem as just another instance of 20/20 hindsight. Was it possible to identify the bubble before ? Were most of the people who warned about the imminent crash like a broken clock that's right twice a day ? Well, how about a book that was written in 1993, that analyzed historical bubbles and gave clear reasoning as to why these phases routinely repeat !

John Kenneth Galbraith was one of the most influential economist in 20th century. He was born in Canada, but lived most of his life in US. An adviser to President Kennedy, he was appointed as The US Ambassador to India. There, he often advised India's 1st Prime Minister Nehru on economic matters. For his service, he received 2 Presidential Medal Of Honors from US, the "Padma Vibhushan" from India and also Order Of Canada.

In "The Short History Of Financial Euphoria" he covers all the well-known bubbles and even some smaller ones - from the "Tulip Mania" to the Crash of 1987. It's a very short book and written in a witty style. Instead of merely reviewing, I would prefer to quote entire passages that I absolutely adore.

How does it start and how does it end ?

Galbraith argues that bubbles always begin on sound fundamentals. Then there are basically two types of participants. Majority are the ones, who believe in a new paradigm and a small minority who is there just for the ride, hoping to get off before the fall. But ...
For built into this situation is the eventual and inevitable fall. Built in also, is the circumstance that it cannot come gently or gradually. When it comes, it bears the grim face of disaster. ...... the speculative episode always ends not with a whimper but with a bang.
Galbraith is saying only disaster is assured in aftermath. Now, does anyone remember that Fed was going to engineer a soft landing ?

What about those who manage to not fall in above two categories ?
Given the pressure of this crowd psychology, however, the saved will be the exception to a very broad and binding rule. They will be required to resist two compelling forces: one, the powerful personal interest that develops in the euphoric belief, and the other, the pressure of public and seemingly superior financial opinion that is brought to bear on behalf of such belief.
He does not shy away from describing the groups as he sees it.
Those involved in the speculation are experiencing an increase in wealth - getting rich or being further rewarded. No one wishes to believe that this is fortuitous or undeserved; all wish to think that it is the result of their own superior insight or intuition. ... Speculation buys up, in a very practical way, the intelligence of those involved.
There are of course some who recognize the "mass insanity" as Galbraith calls it. How are they received ?
There are, however, few matters on which such a warning is less welcomed. In short run, it will be said to be an attack, motivated by either deficient understanding or uncontrolled envy, on the wonderful process of enrichment. More durably, it will be thought to demonstrate the lack of faith in the inherent wisdom of the market itself.
Yes, any critic of the euphoria was trivialized as just sour for "having missed the run". Galbraith gives more detailed account of this elsewhere in the book. He himself was accused as "Galbraith doesn't like to see people making money" !

But why do these bubbles keep happening ?
There can be few fields of human endeavor in which history counts for so little as in the world of finance. Past experience, to the extent that is part of memory at all, is dismissed as the primitive refuge of those who do not have the insight to appreciate the incredible wonders of the present.
That's a classic quote ! Another reason, he argues, that people have blind reverence for those who have a lot of money.  "Money is the measure of capitalist achievement" !
Finally and more specifically, we compulsively associate unusual intelligence with the leadership of the great financial institutions ...
Really ! Often in such episodes there is "financial innovation" involved.
The rule is financial operations do not lend themselves to innovation. ... The world of finance hails the invention of wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version. All financial innovation involves, in one form or another, the creation of debt assured in greater or lesser adequacy by real assets.
This is simply my most beloved quote in the entire book ! I wish Greenspan had read this book before arguing against any bubble due to financial innovation :-)

What happens after the crash ?
This, invariably will be time of anger and recrimination and also of profoundly unsubtle introspection. The anger will fix upon the individuals who were previously most admired for their financial imagination and acuity. ... There will also be scrutiny of the previously much-praised financial instruments and practices ... There will be talk of regulation and reform. What will not be discussed is the speculation itself or the aberrant optimism that lay behind it.
Now, did he have a time machine in 1993 ? This above does not seem like having been written before, does it ?

Now knowing all this and more, the obvious question is why can't the warnings be taken seriously ? Can these bubbles be avoided ? During the foreword, Galbraith offers his pessimism.
Recurrent speculative insanity and the associated financial deprivation and larger devastation are, I am persuaded, inherent in the system. Perhaps it is better that this be recognized and accepted.
Go read this book ! You will fee like reading Nostradamus.
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