The one bit machine

My daughter is two weeks old today and she continues to be a “one bit machine”. The extent of her outward communication is restricted to a maximum of one bit of information. There are basically two states her outward communication can fall under – “cry” and “not cry”, and given that the two are not equally probable, the amount of information she gives out is strictly less than one bit.

I had planned to write this post two weeks back, the day she was born, and wanted to speculate how long it would take for her to expand her repertoire of communication and provide us with more information on what she wants. Two weeks in, I hereby report that the complexity of communication hasn’t improved.

Soon (I don’t know how soon) I expect her to start providing us more information – maybe there will be one kind of cry when she’s hungry, and another when she wants her diaper changed. Maybe she’ll start displaying other methods of outward communication – using her facial muscles, for example (right now, while she contorts her face in a zillion ways, there is absolutely no information conveyed), and we can figure out with greater certainty what she wants to convey.

I’m thinking about drawing a graph with age of the person on the X axis, and the complexity of outward information on the Y axis. It starts off with X = 0 and Y = 1 (I haven’t bothered measuring the frequency of cry/no-cry responses so let’s assume it’s equiprobable and she conveys one bit). It goes on to X = 14 days and Y = 1 (today’s state). And then increases with time (I’m hoping).

While I’m sure research exists some place on the information content per syllable in adult communication, I hope to draw this graph sometime based on personal observation of my specimen (though that would limit it to one data point).

Right now, though, I speculate what kind of shape this graph might take. Considering it has so far failed to take off at all, I hope that it’ll be either an exponential (short-term good but long-term I don’t know ) or a sigmoid (more likely I’d think).

Let’s wait and see.

Andhra Meals in Religious Rituals

A long time back I’d compared massage parlours in Bangkok to Andhra meals, where there is a “basic menu” (the core massage itself) which everyone orders, on top of which other add-ons (such as happy endings) can get tagged on.

Today, while performing a religious ritual (it’s 10 days since my daughter was born, so there was some ceremony I’d to perform), I realised that every religious ritual, happy or sad, also follows the “Andhra meals” principle.

So the “meals” part is the stuff they teach you to do as part of your daily “sandhyavandane” ritual immediately after your thread ceremony. Starting with the aachamana (keshavaaya swaaha, narayanaaya swaaha etc), going on to reciting the Gayatri mantra, repeating the aachamana several times in the middle, and then ending by apologising and atoning for all the mistakes in the course of the ritual (achutaayanamaha, anantaayanamaha, govindayanamaha, achutanantagovindebho namaha).

This is the basic sandhyaavandane you’re supposed to perform three times every day, and the interesting thing is that most other rituals are add-ons to this. Be it a wedding ceremony, worship of a particular god on a particular festival or even a death ceremony, all these parts remain and don’t go away. What changes from ritual to ritual are the add-ons, like the meats you might order during Andhra meals.

And so in the wedding ceremony, there is the wedding itself. In a death ceremony, there’s all the part where you wear the sacred thread the wrong way round (praacheenaavEti) and build rice-til balls (piNDa – have you noticed how similar they are to sushi?). While worshipping a particular god, you perform the worship in the middle of the regular sandhyaavandane ritual. And so forth.

I must say I’m fairly impressed with our ancestors who devised this “modular form” of performing rituals. What rocks about this practice is that pretty much everyone who wants to perform these rituals will know these rituals (the “basic Andhra meals”) bit, which makes it that much easier to “consume” the “extra fittings” appropriate to the occasion.

Acknowledgements

As I continue my progress towards publishing the book whose manuscript I’ve completed, I’ve started to think about the acknowledgements section, which I’m yet to write. Each time I read a new book now, I make sure I read the acknowledgements, and see who all people have thanked. I’ve not gone to the extent of formally collecting data from these acknowledgements, but I must say the effort is underway.

Based on a recent discovery, though, I think all this research is moot. Recently I was cleaning up an old cupboard (the kind that comes embedded in a cot) in my grandfather’s house, and happened to stumble upon my B.Tech. project. I’d brought it home and kept it aside, and happened to open it today.

Overall, in hindsight, I seem to have done a better job of my project than I’d imagined. I’ve always remembered that rather than solving the problem I’d taken up, I’d constructed a proof to show why it couldn’t be solved (something my mother always made fun of). But reading the report, it appears that I’ve gone beyond that, and constructed some approximate and randomised heuristics to tackle the problem – so I’m happy about that.

The more interesting bit is the acknowledgements section. It pretty much encapsulates my life at IITM. Again, I remember having done some research looking at other people’s acknowledgements to see who all they’d thanked, and I followed the same process – guides, professors, lab mates, etc. And then I’ve mentioned some friends.

The first part of the acknowledgements section is not particularly insightful so I’m not pasting it here. The second part makes for fun reading though, in hindsight. I like the way I’ve been fairly informal (in such a “formal” document as my B.Tech. project report), with puns and all.

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The key thing to note is the last paragraph. I seriously mean it (even now) when I say that the best part of my life at IITM was the time spent at Patisserie, and all the discussions I had there. The discussions were diverse, with lots of different people, and we spoke about different things on different days.

It may not be a stretch to claim that I learnt more during my discussions there than during the time spent in classrooms. And if I today considered well-networked in my batch (and surrounding batches) at IITM, it’s again due to the time I spent there.

Now to think about how to adapt this acknowledgements section to something that makes sense for the manuscript I’ve written!

Wedding videos and optimising reception queue lengths

In the past I’ve dissed wedding videos, claiming that they don’t add any value (as no one ever watches them) and only serve to slow down the queues during receptions. While I maintain that the way they are currently shot still hold up reception queues, I’ve revised my opinion about their general usefulness.

So my in-laws are preparing for the wedding of their second daughter (my sister-in-law), and in order to “revise” what needs to be done, my wife suggested we watch our wedding video. So since last night we’ve been watching our wedding videos, and I must say it’s been quite useful.

For not only are wedding videos inherently entertaining, they also capture nuances of the wedding that still photographs cannot capture. It was pertinent, for example, to observe the order in which my relatives were garlanded as we were being welcomed into the wedding ceremony.

We also got to observe how bad the crowd was immediately after the wedding when people rushed to wish us and hand over their gifts (bad but not that bad). And rather embarrassingly for me, the video showed my failed attempt at cutting the ceremonial ribbon to enter the wedding hall (I have astigmatism which my contact lenses don’t correct, which affects my perception of depth). The video also allowed me to note that the scissor to cut the ribbon was handed to me by a bureaucrat aunt, someone who I guess is well used to handing over scissors in that fashion!

Having watched the reception part of the video, though, I continue to maintain that video recordings hold up the reception procedure, and result in inordinately long queues. Moreover, the way videos are currently shot cause severe embarrassment and discomfort for the guests.

For those that are unfamiliar with south indian wedding receptions, this is what happens – you join a (typically long and wide) queue, and when you get to the head of the queue, walk on stage to greet the couple and hand over your gift. Then you all line up for the photo. So far so good.

Then you hear the click of the photographer’s shutter, and start moving, and the videographer instructs you to stay. For he is taking a “panning shot” across the width of the stage. Some 30 seconds later, the videographer instructs you to move, and the bride and groom ask you to have dinner and show you the way off stage.

The embarrassing bit for the guests, in my opinion, is that having struck a photogenic pose for the photo, they are forced to hold this pose for the duration that the videographer pans. Considering that photogenic poses are seldom comfortable, this is an unpleasant process. Moreover, guests aren’t aware when exactly the videographer is covering them, so there’s a chance they might be caught on camera making awkward body movements (possibly due to the discomfort).

Thus, I propose that rather than having the video camera straight on (next to the principal photographer) and getting a panning shot taken, the videographer should position himself on one side of the stage (the opposite side from which the guests are entering), and take a profile view of the guests wishing the bride.

This way, they capture on camera guests in more natural gestures, and the “best” front view would have anyway been captured by the still photographer. The guests can then be asked to move on as soon as the photographer’s shutter clicks (a more natural exit moment), and the time spent by each group of guests on stage could come down by more than 50% (thanks to panning time saved). And this can result in a drastic reduction in expected waiting time for a guest!

While I’d like to implement this procedure at my sister-in-law’s wedding (so what if I thoroughly failed to keep the queue length under control at my own wedding? At least I should use my learnings elsewhere!), the problem would be in finding videographers who are willing to reposition themselves.

In some sense, the videographer standing straight on, and guests waiting for a long time is a kind of a Nash equilibrium, and videographers won’t move to side on unless there’s sufficient demand from hosts to cut queue lengths at their weddings! And since moving videographers to side on is not an intuitive solution, the demand for this move from hosts will also be small.

So I guess unless we can find a videographer who is willing to experiment (not too easy), we will be stuck with front-on videos, uncomfortable guests in front of the camera, and impatient guests in the line!

Randomising wear and tear of safety razor

A few months back, having mostly given up on my Gillette Mach 3, I decided to go all old school and get myself a safety razor. While I cut myself occasionally (one day I cut myself right on my Adam’s apple, giving me a minor scare that I’d slit my throat), I’m significantly happier with the results of this razor, compared to the Mach 3.

I find that I need to shave only a single time, compared to two rounds with the Mach3, and cleaning the razor in the middle of the shave is also far easier. And while it isn’t absolutely smooth, it leaves me mostly satisfied at the end of the shave. And I’m not even mentioning the cost saving here!

The only “problem” with using an old-school safety razor is that it takes in double-edged blades. Having used multi-blade cartridges all my shaving life thus far (my father had bought me a Sensor Excel when I was first ready to shave, which I later traded for a Mach3), I started using a single side of the blade to complete the entire shave.

In my experience, a decent blade should last about 6 shaves, as long as you use both edges of the blade equally. The challenge here was to know (visually) which side of the blade you had used, so that you could get the maximum out of the blade!

Initially I thought of using stickers or some such paraphernalia to indicate which side of the blade I’d used each time. After a little thought, however, I realised that if this was a common problem, the razor itself would’ve come with an asymmetrical head, so I could keep track. There should be a better way to keep track, I reasoned.

And so I decided that I would use each edge of the blade half-and-half in each shave. The first day, it worked. The second, I had finished shaving half my face, when I realised I’d suddenly forgotten which side I’d used. An improved method was required.

So the solution I’ve finally hit on is to randomise the edge of the blade I use each time I rinse my blade in the middle of the shave. So each time I rinse the blade, I give it a random twirl, and use whatever edge that twirl turns up for my next set of strokes. And so forth. This way, in terms of expected value, both edges of the blade are likely to wear by a similar amount by the end of each shave!

And so if I find one day that an edge is blunt, it is highly likely that the opposite edge is also as blunt, and it is a clear indication to put in a new blade!

It is remarkable how so often randomised algorithms can help you trivially solve problems that cannot easily be solved by deterministic methods!

Offshoring and the daNDapiNDagaLu moment

Sometime in the early 2000s (2000 or 2001, if I’m not mistaken), there came a sitcom on Kannada television (Udaya TV, if I remember correctly) called “daNDapiNDagaLu” (no direct translation to English available, but it translates to something like “waste bodies”).

The sitcom was about the travails of five boys who had studied one of {B.A., B.Sc., B.Com. } and were subsequently unemployed. Directed by Phani Ramachandra, of the Ganeshana Madhuve and Gowri Ganesha fame, it was rather funny and mostly well received. The most memorable part of the sitcom, however, was the iconic title song (the version on Youtube is audio-only, but that will suffice for our purposes).

For non-Kannada speakers here, the song is about people who study B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. and subsequently fail to find a job, and then roam the streets with little to do. The song also talks about the unwillingness of these people to do menial jobs, of not being of the “right caste” to avail reservations, and not having the ability to get good marks which can get them a job.

Thinking about it, the song was extremely appropriate for its times, and the release of the serial coincided with the low point of the value of a B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. degrees in India (I remember feeling rather proud when the sitcom came out that I was studying engineering, and hence wasn’t one of “them”).

Until the 1980s or so, the possession of a bachelor’s degree qualified you for a large gamut of opportunities, mostly in the government. So it didn’t matter that much what you studied, and if you weren’t particularly useless, you’d find a job to get by on.

To take an example, my mother had a bachelor’s in biology, but spent most of her career in an accounting job (she entered the workforce in the 1970s). In other words, it didn’t matter what degree you had, as long as you had one. So people gladly did whatever degree they could get into.

In the 1990s, however, with the government sector on the decline and liberalisation not having had enough of an impact to massively expand the job market, there was trouble for these graduates. Government was no longer recruiting as it used to, and the private sector wasn’t picking up the slack either. It was at this time that most such graduates started going jobless, and the value of these degrees diminished like crazy.

It is no surprise that around the time I finished high school (2000), everyone wanted to study engineering – opportunities for most other degrees were very few. With liberalisation in the education sector having kicked in, supply in engineering college seats expanded to meet the demand (in some states at least). It was a popular meme in those days that anyone who studied for a B.A. or a B.Sc. did so only because they couldn’t get an engineering seat.

It was around this time, the absolute low point for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. that daNDapiNDagaLu came out. The sitcom lost its relevance rather soon, though.

With liberalisation in full swing in India,development in communications technology, and slowing growth in developed markets, “offshoring” became a thing. Companies in developed western markets figured out that they could get routine stuff done for a lot cheaper by “offshoring” them to emerging markets, where labour was a lot cheaper.

And some of those jobs came to India, which had a large pool of (hitherto unemployed) graduates, most of whom spoke English. It started with call centre jobs (where Indians were trained to get Western or “neutral” accents, and Janardhans became Johns). Then came slightly higher value adding jobs, like accounting, secretarial services, etc. Business Process Outsourcing was soon a thing, and it didn’t take Thomas Friedman too long to write The World is Flat.

With the coming of these jobs, the market for people with B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. was suddenly opened up, and there was a range of jobs these people could do. Today, someone with one of these degrees, as long as they are reasonably capable, can expect to find a job after graduation.

Society hasn’t kept up, though. A lot of people are still in the daNDapiNDagaLu mode, and consider those studying B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. as potential “waste bodies”, not realising that the time now is different!

Callousness of the callus

When my wife went to the University of Michigan as an exchange student, she embarked on a “social experiment” that I later termed “Lord of the ringless” (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here already  that she’s a big fan of social experiments).

The hypothesis, based on advice from a senior in her own college, was that a married exchange student was unlikely to win too many friends, and find too many people to hang out with. With a number of potentially interesting conversations and friendships at her “home school” IESE having ground to a halt the moment the counterparty noticed the ring on her finger, she decided to leave her ring behind at home when she travelled to Ann Arbor.

The social experiment worked, for a while at least. She managed to find herself a solid assignment group, and a bunch of friends to hang out with, before she got “outed“.

Back home in Bangalore last December, she wore back her ring, and promised she would never take it off again. Simultaneously, she made me promise that I would never take off my wedding ring, either. I accepted conditionally. “Most of the time I’ll wear the ring”, I said, “but I need to take it off when I’m deadlifting. Else it will give me calluses”.

“Oh, but I love picking your calluses! Don’t deny me that opportunity!”, she shot back.

I may not have mentioned on this blog that she’s always been a big fan of picking out scabs and calluses, right from the time she was a kid. For a long time, this was restricted to picking out her own, but then once she found me, she has ensured that no scab or callus of mine has gone unattended.

And so, thanks to this arrangement, I continue to wear my ring while lifting, and that gives a big callus at the base of my right ring finger. And my wife enjoys picking out these calluses, and now she has her own incentive to make sure I remain fit and go to the gym regularly!

Though I’m considering buying a pair of weightlifting gloves now!