Thou mayest


“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”

“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have — and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this — it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shall thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”

Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.

Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”

Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”

Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”

“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”

“Yes. I can talk better with it.”

“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”

“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”

Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee, fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”

Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.

“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”

“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”

“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”

“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”

“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”

“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.”

“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”

Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”

Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”

“And you?” said Samuel.

“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too — ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing — maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed —  because ‘Thou mayest.’”

[An excerpt from “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck]

Atheism, Agnosticism, Theism

I had written this a long time back and recalled it today while reading Life of Pi.

I feel like there are too many interpretations of the concept of God to discard the concept altogether.

There are some that I can identify with. For example, that of a non-judgmental listener – someone to talk to in solemnity, for however long you want and one who, silently, listens without providing any solicited or unsolicited “advice”. The solicitation might be the immature stage where you expect Him to help you out but with time, one would realize that everyone is purely on their own here. Another thought is that may be God is just another name for one’s conscience and conversations with Him are essentially soliloquies. The advice or epiphanies you get or perceive to get are borne out of your belief system, morals, thoughts and experiences. Also while everyone around you could change, one might consider Him as the solitary, unwavering point of faith – someone who cares about your good and looks after you. This thought can be comforting in its own way and I respect that.

Sometimes, I feel that it would be quite a boring life if everything could be explained and reasoned out. Despite being from a Science and Engineering background which, broadly, concerns reasoning about the physical world, I think we are, at the same time, quite fond of mysteries too. Sometimes, when things seem out of hand, it might be comforting to believe that there is someone “up” there who is looking over and has a reason for all the mess (Slightly relevant :)) Sadly it’s a double-edged sword – while one can use this to motivate oneself and get back up in hapless situations, it can also be used to shirk responsibilities by the “everything is pre-destined” philosophy. But then again, this doesn’t take anything away from the idea itself – nothing is inherently good or bad anyway. It’s what we make of it – our attitude towards looking at set-backs and failures.

This quote from Friends by Phoebe to Ross about evolution always comes up when I think of such things.

Wasn’t there a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the world was flat? And, up until like what, 50 years ago, you all thought the atom was the smallest thing, until you split it open, and this like, whole mess of crap came out. Now, are you telling me that you are so unbelievably arrogant that you can’t admit that there’s a teeny tiny possibility that you could be wrong about this?

Though I admittedly twitch while writing this, I guess it would be foolish to discard the teeny, tiny possibility about His “existence”. Quoting Yann Martel from Life of Pi

If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?

At the same time, I strongly believe it is important to distinguish this from religion though. The concept of religion as is followed in today’s world, I still don’t buy. Related concepts such as rituals, sacrifices, horoscopes too I find BS – work of a few people who exploited the system and people’s credence when science was probably not that well advanced or reachable for the common man. And that if you serve Him well, do as He says and pray and he will reward you – these conditionals piss me off. For instance, if you do x, then something good will happen to you or y happened to you because you were “bad” and committed this “sin”. This sort of suggests that I don’t believe in karma which is not entirely true. If one is good to people, they will recognize and probably remember it and that goodness might in turn be reciprocated, directly or indirectly. However, that one must do good deeds because He is up there keeping a record of them I find quite laughable. There are enough judgmental people around and one’s life would be really sad if he adds God to that list who is apparently going to “rate” you based on the “goodness” of every activity you do. He must have better things to do, surely!

I particularly like the last statement of the following conversation from The Kite Runner between Baba and Amir. This is what I’d like our teachings to kids be like. Not instill them with fears of  being punished or something bad happening to them because they didn’t adhere to some made-up ways of pleasing God!

“Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.

There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir. A man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man.

If there’s God out there, then I would hope he has more important things to attend to than my drinking scotch or eating pork”.

I think I started thinking about this after I watched “Life of Pi” and read Khaled Hosseini’s novels – The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini’s books make me very interested in reading the Koran. Islam (i.e its teachings) seems calm, sound and tolerant. I want to understand where the violence comes from – whether the Koran really talks about sacrifices and jihad – and why has it reached its current state where Islam has become synonymous with fanaticism. “Spirituality” is also something I would like to explore – how much “truth” there is in the power of human mind, meditation etc and whether it really does make one that peaceful. To be honest, I don’t even know if I understand spirituality correctly and whether it is the same as religion and whether what I’m talking about has a different name.

In any case, I feel like my stance on these issues has definitely changed over the course of the last few years. I believe I started ridiculing the concept of God and believed myself to be an atheist because it was cool and that’s what everyone seemed to do. I don’t really know what my current stance is but I feel like I am more tolerant now and, may be, much less of a non-believer than I was before. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t think it matters!

You cannot connect the dots looking forward

I’m a TA for Luis von Ahn this semester!!! Moreover, the class is Science of the Web which discusses interesting concepts like the graphical structure of the web, virality, game theory in networks and crowdsourcing! I have a feeling that this is going to be a class similar to Soumen’s at IIT Bombay but I’m going to enjoy it even more. On the downside though, TA responsibilities along with the notorious CMU OS course and another one that I require to complete my masters, I will most likely have to give up on research :-/ It was a difficult decision but whether I’m capable of and good at teaching is something I’d really like to know. And getting to work with and learn from Luis von Ahn isn’t something that happens often.

Working with Luis von Ahn, research with Christos Faloutsos, learning Queuing theory from Mor, statistics from Larry Wasserman, Machine Learning from Tom Mitchell and Algorithms from Manuel Blum, and getting to design and implement a working, albeit simplified, Linux Kernel, hell, just being in SCS at CMU — it’s sort of been a dream! I’m not sure but in hindsight, I feel like I’d have gladly agreed to pay more than USD 60k for all these things! Had I not been rejected by Quora, I would have probably deferred my admit or who knows, not pursued a Masters at all. It’s aptly said that one cannot connect the dots looking forward. It feels nice when things work out for the best!


After a quarrel with my parents over my insistence on not taking our own car to Mumbai, I wasn’t in a very cheerful mood. The queue at the Shivneri ticket counter did not help my cause. Also there was a old, Parsi, fidgety couple in front of me that alternately kept me and Smriti a bit annoyed with general, random and a few trivial questions. Basically, it didn’t seem like a journey I’d remember for long.

However the journey turned out to be quite unique. As it turns out, Smriti happened to get the seat next to me. It’s hard to describe in words the weather at that moment – you have to travel in a Shivneri during rains to be able to appreciate it. Large clear windows, small rivers flowing across them creating various patterns, waterfalls every two minutes on the Express Highway, low-lying clouds – you just cannot experience this in a car. Also, you’ll realize that this hasn’t been made deliberately dramatic only on actually making that trip once. Do travel Pune-Mumbai or the other way once during the peak of monsoons. There were numerous times when I wanted to say “Awesome weather, ain’t it?” as a conversation starter but the words just refused to come out of my mouth.

Sometime during the journey she offered me Bourborne biscuits. Why is my default reaction a refusal? No clue but I said “No. Thanks a lot” in spite of being hungry. I’ve had only one previous experience when I had tried to initiate a conversation with a stranger during travel and I had gotten an answer followed by a very stern, unfriendly look. So I was unsure whether to take this forward or not. About an hour of inertia and contemplation later, I started it off with “So where are you headed to in Mumbai?” She was from Delhi. Like me, had just finished her B.Tech (in Civil) from Pune and was headed back home with Mumbai being just a train-catching station.

The fact that I was from CS yielded an “Oh! A geek then!” I did try to convince her otherwise and stress that the stereotype is not valid. We shared examples of both geeky-CS as well as non-geeky-CS people and had a few laughs.

The conversation shifted to our careers. She enjoyed Civil  (especially hydraulics) She was planning to give GATE for a M.Tech in one of the IITs. This is when she told me her problem. Her parents (both doctors) and relatives wanted her to do a PhD and become a professor (The conjunction and is pretty crucial) She told them that she doesn’t mind a PhD but she is not interested in professorship but that was just unacceptable to her parents. At the same time, she said she loves her parents too much to go against their wishes. She seemed quite down. It was a pretty hapless situation – I don’t know why but I said “I wish I could try talking to your parents about it. I think I can convince them.” She smiled and I think we moved on to CMU, my aspirations and what I was doing with my life.

Both of us were reading books at the beginning of the journey. Me Wodehouse and her Paulo Coelho. She preferred books that made her think a bit. I confessed that these days, I prefer to read intellectual stuff on the internet (read Quora and Google Reader). I love humor, sarcasm and absurdity a lot and so books like H2G2 or Three Men in a Boat appeal to me. We discussed a few other of our favorite authors as well.

I think by now, we were very close to Chembur where I was to get down. I did think of getting down at Dadar instead but thought it to be unwise considering the acad office formalities and visa interview the next day. Also here’s when I acted naive. We both said “Nice talking to you.”, “Take care” and the usual stuff. But I didn’t take any contact of hers – email, phone number or even her name for that matter. We had wonderful conversations. I would have really liked to talk to her again just to see if I could help her in any way regarding the PhD situation but it wasn’t to be. In spite of being a bit shy, I’ve always enjoyed making random, new and non-mutual friends. I did manage that albeit, in this case, it was just for 2-3 hours or so.

In hindsight, seemed like a pretty Before Sunrise-y story. Just wish, like in the movie, we had changed our mind and decided to meet again :) I guess I’ll just hold on to this memory of an ideal person with whom I had a great time once. Hence the name Smriti. Reminds me of this conversation from the same movie

Jesse: This friend of mine had a kid, and it was a home birth, so he was there helping out and everything. And he said at that profound moment of birth, he was watching this child, experiencing life for the first time, I mean, trying to take its first breath… all he could think about was that he was looking at something that was gonna die someday. He just couldn’t get it out of his head. And I think that’s so true, I mean, all – everything is so finite. But don’t you think that that’s what, makes our time, at specific moments, so important?

Celine: Yeah, I know. It’s the same for us, tonight, though. After tomorrow morning, we’re probably never going to see each other again, right?

Celine: We, maybe we should try something different. I mean, it’s no so bad if tonight is our only night, right? People always exchange phone numbers, addresses, they end up writing once, calling each other once or twice…

Jesse: Right. Fizzles out. Yeah, I mean, I don’t want that. I hate that.

Celine: I hate that too, y’know.

Jesse: Why do you think everybody thinks relationships are supposed to last forever anyway?

Celine: Yeah, why. It’s stupid.

You know, despite what I wrote, I did try looking her up :) But from what I perceived of her, I knew it was a long shot anyway. I wouldn’t expect her to be active on the internet. I do have quite a few details about her so if she does have an up-to-date FB profile, I think I’ll be able to find her. But I don’t think Google has the permissions to index FB profiles so didn’t yield much. In any case, it’s not at all a bad memory to have. I just wish we had Pensieves so that we could re-live memories :)


I am also one of those persons who keeps taunting and mocking the so called “Matkas” (M.Techs) of IITs for their incompetency. During the past 7-8 months, I have had the opportunity to work closely with a few of them and have those always-fun armchair discussions on topics ranging from ones of grave national importance to utterly inconsequential ones. And I just tried to find out their side of the story. It feels embarrassing to have made a judgement so haphazardly.

They might not be the brightest but they do substitute that with quite a bit of hard work – something that is seldom observed from us, undergraduates (I think) They have had miserable undergraduate years. Most of them have been undergraduates at local Indian colleges / universities and we aren’t oblivious to the state of these, are we? Here are a few (paraphrased) experiences I got to hear:

  1. Teachers / Professors are just not competent enough. for e.g. Graph theory instructor could never answer doubts. He adopted a text book because he couldn’t design questions. And that particular text book because it had a solution manual available. Also he did not accept any answers outside the solution manual – when asked for “a” Minimum Spanning Tree of a given graph, you had to draw “the” one that was in the manual and none other.
  2. In math, you were penalized if you used letters like a,b,c to denote variables – apparently x,y,z are the only honorable letters to have the variable status. a,b,c are reserved for constants.
  3. Electives were name sake. They were conditional on the fact that an instructor is ready to take that course. I was talking to X and he told me that for years, Network Security was the only course run in their college. X knew there was Neural Networks in the list and he wanted to explore that option. He got a plain denial from the department saying we don’t have an instructor. X convinced a Prof. who had completed a Neural Networks course in her M.Tech / Masters to teach. The Prof. finally gave in saying I’ll do it if there are decent number of interested students. X, on his own, prepared an introductory talk on NN for his class and managed to convince 12 students to take it up. X liked the field and went on to complete his final year project in NN and a M.Tech at IITK. He is a PhD at IITB now and one that I have developed immense respect for in the past few months. And BTW this Prof who taught him NN, he is also doing his PhD at IITB – he had applied for CS but couldn’t make it. He instead took up Education Technologies.

There are many more but I think you’ve got my point by now. Tell me how many of us have the passion and courage to do something like in the 3rd point? Of course, not all of the “Matkas” are going to be as passionate but then that is true of the undergraduates, having cleared the elitist exam JEE, as well. Not many of us are happy about the academic opportunities we have – having mostly good, and some exceptional Professors, the freedom of choosing almost any course as elective and many more. We keep crying, citing the US / First World education system. Talk to a few M.Techs and you’ll know how privileged they feel to be here – we would have too if we would have had to attend some of the local colleges. X had a nice suggestion – all of us should be sent to these colleges for a month or two as a part of an exchange program, we would be much more satisfied with the state of things after coming back.

Frankly, I don’t intend to be preachy. If you notice, I have used “us” most of times instead of “you”. This post is like a note to myself – a note that I hope will help me get rid of the habit of making a very early, irrational judgement at times. My point is, the next time we taunt a M.Tech, we should put it in the above context. If we are rational, we won’t feel that much of an aversion to him then. As for us complaining about courses / instructors being pathetic, I think we can overlook it as a one-off abnormality and be happy about other brilliant instructors and opportunities presented to us. Happiness is always relative, right? Watch Dan Gilbert: Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?

A Break Long Overdue

Its been a hell of a time – the past few months. Overly over-loaded five months with 4 courses and 2 heavy projects! I finally went home on the 26th of December. It was a nice 2 week break, coming at the opportune moment.

Its been a long time since I spent considerable amount of days away from academics. This seemed the right time to correct that. Most of the time was spent reading books – read a Marathi novel after a long time and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Trilogy of Four). Getting back (somewhat) in touch with current affairs in the country, reunion with old friends, home food – life was bliss!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is awesome! Read it NOW if you haven’t already. I’m currently reading it for the second time. Its hard to believe that a book can be so well written. Sarcasm and brilliant sentence construction time after time is a joy to read. I’m not sure everybody will be able to appreciate it though – not everyone enjoys excess absurdity and sarcasm.

“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”

It is sentences such as above that leave you in awe of Douglas Adams. And it’s not just amusement – deep and thoughtful ideas as well.

“Life is wasted on the living.”

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”

Its back to the usual stuff, though, now. Last semester, two paper deadlines in February, IFL, Football GC, hopefully a Goa trip – it’s going to be just as much fun as the other seven sems have been, if not more.


I guess this comes because it’s my last year here in IIT Bombay, though it seems surprising that these thoughts come so early. Yesterday, after the end of mid-semester exams and a filling dinner at 5-Spice with some close friends, I went into a retrospective mode where I started wondering what a privilege these 3 years have been. I strongly believe Prof. Soumen‘s paper had a large part in prompting this thought – do not be under the impression that it went well, in fact it couldn’t have been worse. Just that you should sometime appreciate the beauty of some problems and the paper setter’s skills. Frankly, I have never really enjoyed studying for a course as much. Usually, the questions being orthogonal to the course content infuriates you but somehow that feeling was replaced by the bliss of having attempted some nice problems and an awe for Prof. Soumen. Ditch, too much digression – Prof. Soumen anyway deserves an independent post.

Looking back, these have been some of the best years for me, more so being in Computer Science. You couldn’t have asked for a better blend of some of the best profs, excellent peers and a nice extracurricular activity-nurturing environment and facilities. I know why this department is rated as one of the best in the country – awesome profs, attract good students which attract better profs – it all seems like a stable balanced symbiosis. The time spent studying and fooling around with friends, figuring out a proof/solution on your own, the joy of being selected in the Inter-IIT football camp, the first time I won MOTM in IFL – small things that made an otherwise ordinary day special. Frankly, its these things that have cheered me up more rather than a 10 or a 9 in a course (not that I have got many of them :P) I know it’s gonna be difficult bidding adieu but no point fretting over that when there are still 7-8 months left.

It was not always so bright though. I have never really mentioned this to many people apart from some very close friends – I spent my entire first year hating myself for coming through the PH/PD reservation quota, cursing myself for “occupying” a deserved candidate’s seat – that I didn’t deserve on the basis of my JEE rank – in the esteemed CSE, IITB department. I believed that I should have taken the department that I would have got on the basis of my rank and then changed branch if my performance was fitting enough. But I wasn’t courageous enough to do that. It was a real torrid time for me – the “oh”s after I told them my JEE rank in the

X: Which dept?
Me: CS.
X: Cool! What rank?

conversations really hurt bad. However over the years, after seeing what some of the people, not just in CS but in various departments, have made of the opportunity, I’m convinced and have learned my lesson. Dumbledore’s (or rather JKR’s) statement :

“It is our choices, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”

inspires me. I do not regret my choice now – I do not know whether I deserved it but I know for sure that I have made the best possible use of the opportunity provided to me. And that is satiating – its difficult to put in words. It was like a mini-battle with my conscience that I finally won, at the end of last summer. I don’t know why that time – probably because I had loved my internship work, because I had had some positive BTP-related conversations with some profs and I was generally in a positive mood – I really don’t know. But I think I now know, atleast to a small extent, what “closure” means. I am glad the turmoil has ended. And even more glad looking back at the years I have spent on the campus – I believe the remaining stay here can only serve uplift that experience.


This is a result of some considerable amount of thought I put into Natural Language Processing related problems during my internship at Yahoo! So some days back, I was wondering how exactly is we detect sarcasm : rather “what kind of intelligence” was used in doing so.

A certain requirement, as you might observe, is the knowledge of the behavior of the person in question. But I was thinking of sarcasm in a different context – I want to get to the problem of automating this process i.e using computers to analyze text and detect sarcasm. The behavior of the author, in this context, seems quite weird to use. We cannot really have a database of the behavioral habits of all the people that contribute on the internet. Yet, I cannot think of any semantic or syntactic patterns in sarcastic text. Sometimes, there do exist pointers like words or phrases being enclosed in quotes that hint at sarcasm but it still seems shady – quotes don’t always signify sarcasm.

Why this problem caught my eye was because I believe we should at least be able to describe how WE do certain things, even if they cannot be converted into, what we call, algorithms. I think (but I may be wrong) that this is a rational belief if we set aside art-forms i.e questions like “Why is this piece of music / painting / poem etc special?” I discussed it at length with my mentor at Yahoo!, Nishant and quite a few people. The outcome of all discussions, in summary, was that it seems quite a hard problem.

Nishant had some novel things to offer : “Sarcasm is, vaguely, a knowledge of a person’s nature. But if the text is computer generated, what hope do you have? The most important property of sarcasm is that it should make sense. Funny sense, but sense. One thing that could be done is assign sentiments to text – like whether a line is happy/sad/angry/pensive etc. Then, for a given line, do a statistical check as to what are the most likely response sentiments to a certain line (from a trusted corpus) I guess sarcasm usually has an unexpected sentiment”
I think there are a few problems here :
1. Identifying sentiment (-ve vs +ve) is itself not easy. Getting that to the level of happy/sad/angry/pensive might be even more non-trivial.
2. “Making sense” is another problem. “Funny sense” even bigger.
3. The “most likely” response sentiments and “trusted corpus” concepts are a bit fuzzy.

So I had kinda formed an opinion that text alone would prove insufficient and inaccurate for detecting sarcasm. If we cannot pinpoint how we detect sarcasm, how can we ever tell a computer how to do it? But then came a Google search and swept this away : Sarcasm detector (There is also a kinda self-referential result in the search Sarcasm detector – I personally believe this is better :P) Well, the former link is certainly mind-blowing and I am currently trying my hand at their Paper. The pattern identification and classification technique that they mention and the existence of patterns in unexpected places makes me really excited and optimistic about what I wrote in this post.

“Good” Music

I couldn’t get through even the first chapter of Godel Escher Bach with complete satisfaction. The music (p)art is too intriguing. The author is all-praise and in awe of Bach and his fugues and compositions in general. I wanted to know why exactly i.e what is it that makes it special. So I browsed for some canons and fugues by Bach on youtube. With the minuscule amount of musical knowledge that I have, it wasn’t surprising that be it Bach’s or any other, they all sounded good.

This is how the author explains canons:

In canons, the theme enters in the first voice and after a fixed time delay, a “copy” of it enters, in precisely the same key. After the same fixed time delay, the third voice enters carrying the theme and so on. Most themes will not harmonize with themselves in this way. In order for a theme to work as a canon theme, each of its notes must be able to serve in a dual (or triple or quadruple) role: it must first be a part of a melody and secondly it must be a part of a harmonization of the same melody.

I was discussing this with Prashant. The concept of a canon is fairly easy to understand: Play a “tune” on one instrument. Time shift this signal by T, say and play the same “tune” (notes, to be precise) on another instrument. So at any point of time, multiple notes are being played, one from each instrument, located periodically. And here’s what finally led to this post. Quoting Prashant: “For each of those time instances to sound “beautiful”, the notes played at that point must be “musically good” w.r.t. each other. In a vague sense, “musically good” implies all notes of that time period lying in the same scale. (In reality, however, the best music pieces we know are mostly multi-scaled.) For our purposes though, we may say that harmonization is, kind of, a transform that permutes notes within a scale.”

I wanted to listen to a “bad” canon – a collection of notes that would sound cacophonous when played together. Well, I didn’t really try out random tunes on some simulator – this seems the best way to get a bad one, according to the author, since most themes do not harmonize with themselves. I only Googled for such a thing. I wanted to hear how “bad” they really sound if the notes don’t “harmonize”. I couldn’t find one though – I am not very good at Googling. I think I’ll appreciate the beauty more if I get a sample of each, good and bad, and contrast them with each other.

Thinking about “musically good”, I drifted towards wondering about “good music” and subjectively characterizing it. Define foo to be the “type” of songs that I like. Can we at least come up with something that fetches me new “foo” songs given a database of “foo” songs – basically can we identify a “pattern” in what one likes? I think there does exist one in my favorites. So I tried this: there is a Radio feature in Grooveshark that suggests new songs. I put in my playlist all the Shreya Ghoshal songs that I love – expecting (probably too far-fetched) that the suggested songs will be Shreya’s or may be only those in female voices. The 2nd song suggested turned out to be Himesh’s. Epic Fail.

Is all music that is present in the market “good”, just that only a certain group of people understand the “goodness” and hence like it? Its hard to say, I mean I’m quite biased by my likes. I cannot stand Heavy Metal / Techno / item-song type music – just that these days, I do not think “how can he like that?” I’ll end by quoting Prashant again: “How can anyone capture why music is good, in notation? हे Music, Art वगैरे भारी गोष्टी आहेत. त्याला JEE वगैरे परीक्षा पास होण्याचा काही फायदा नाही.” (This Music, art and stuff are very deep subjects. Even passing JEE like exams doesn’t help.)