Monday, 28 May 2012

HWR - 3

It was an emotionally turbo-charged week. I am out of IIT Roorkee...

(I'll write a post on it some time)

This week's round-up has variety and I hope you like the links. As usual, please comment and disagree:
  1. Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech at The University of the Arts. Really inspirational stuff.
  2. A highly readable short piece on how minor and generally insignificant research is excitedly taken up by the media and grotesquely misrepresented.
  3. Facebook has been lambasted too many times in the past 10 days and I thought I'd post this article on how it threatens to take down most of the net based companies as well.
  4. I've shown this link to several friends but for those of you who have missed it, take a look at Darth L. Jackson.
That's all for this edition of HWR. 

P.S. My companions at my Alma Mater are sorely missed.


Update: The Neil Gaiman Vimeo link has been causing problems for a lot of people. You can watch it on Youtube.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Battle for Grammar

There was a time not very long ago when I used to feel very proud of my control over grammar. You know, your ears prickle when you hear an incorrect sentence, you have the ability to catch hold of the best way to express a thought and you’re able to correctly apply some of the more rigid rules (those that are less conducive to being explained through simple logic) of the Queen’s. I lived in a happy bubble. Even after turning incredibly lazy and occasionally spewing out a dirtier combination of easy-to-use phrases, I still turn red whenever I make a blatant error. I wasn't the only person to harbour a feeling of supremacy and quiet contentment. The number of grammar conscious people constantly increased in my circle and all was well.

Or so it seemed. Peers play a crucial role in moulding your tastes. I had no qualms about using SMS slang in chats and texts. I had no problem not using the proper sentence case while typing. Not until I experienced deep disapproval from my seniors that I changed my preferences and started looking down upon the lowly classes. “That guy writes ‘hawt’!” or “I can’t understand why they spell ‘kool’ when the original’s in four letters too”.  I was part of the elite, the Right, a protector of the sacrosanct ways of English. I could only generate sympathy for the other side in a good mood, and scorn otherwise.

Things started changing soon. For one thing, your friends are a mirror of your own self and I could see how I looked to the outside world- patronizing, insensitive and deluded. Besides, there was a limit to my desire of emulating my peers. As the years went by, I thought I had narrowed my view of the world. The argument that resulted from my mental meanderings was this: as long as you can convey your thoughts to the intended recipient does it actually matter if you use proper grammar? And who sets the rules anyway? If we had not digressed from the standards set by the pre-eminent linguists of the era we’d still be using old English. Shakespeare would have been convicted for gross sacrilege and hanged as he invented words on the go to suit his need and distorted verbs and tenses that go far beyond anything else done by a writer in the name of poetic license. Language is a living body; it reflects the pace and needs of our times. We might just end up with Newspeak. But the difference is that people aren’t being forced onto a newer language, we’re adapting it to our lifestyles. On the other hand, a Hagrid sort of a guy generally wouldn’t get a chance to speak at an international conference of leaders. His language may be a natural consequence of his environment but it’s like the FPS system. It’s good enough for the entire course of a person’s life but wouldn’t fetch him/her an entry into a science seminar where the de facto standard is the SI.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to search very far to receive a context to my tribulations. There is a raging debate going on in the academic world, the battle between the Prescriptivists and the Descriptivists.

A brief description is warranted. Precriptivists are the conservatives. They demand the need to define and regulate the form of language. There are rules and these must be followed to maintain the beauty of language and to keep out all forms of ambiguity or dilution of standards. A case in point is the difference between the use of “who” for the subject and “whom” for the object in a sentence. They say that rules are important to avoid chaos and to keep everyone in line (at the expense of losing those who couldn’t be inducted in the right way). Descriptivists are those who believe that rules are nothing but the current predominant state of usage. It’s enough for a child who learns a language from his environment and then uses it to communicate effectively with others. An emphasis on rules necessitates bias against certain dialects and forms. Language is a living system of internally consistent logic. Many of the rules, they say, have no basis in them. They are, to use Steven Pinker’s words, “old wives' tales”.

I mention Pinker’s name to stress that this is not a debate between the academics and the masses. It’s a battle that’s raging between the top psychologists and linguists of the world. A recent essay by Joan Acocella sparked off a skirmish between the two sections. On first glance and to an uninitiated mind the review is a lengthy discussion of the merits and fallacies of a recently published book. A more informed read tells you that the reviewer has launched a scathing attack on the decriptivists. It would have been all well too, except that Acocella makes several mistakes in her analysis. Consequently, her review has been lambasted  and ridiculed. You can’t launch an attack without knowing your terrain.

To my mind, the greatest difference between the two sides is the emphasis which they put on the role of rules in defining a language. It would be easy to state that a middle path is desired, one that allows language to evolve continuously but with the rules there in place to avoid confusion. It sounds simple. It isn’t. The hardest thing for an intelligent mind which has spent years on a problem is for it to concede or compromise. I don’t think rules are so important. I don’t find anything wrong with slang. Historically, truth and convention are defined by the majority. The day enough people regularly write hawt instead of hot will be the day it’s inducted into the dictionary.

Take it away, Bob:

For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


A big yawn to you all. I'm not really in a mood to be articulate today. Let's just get on with the round up:

  1. Theoretically, all electromagnetic waves can be refracted. The amount of refraction naturally depends on the wavelength and it's been very hard to see any such effect on gamma rays. Not anymore. Researchers have managed to bend gamma radiation, with many possible applications in technology.
  2. This one's for movie buffs. Here's a rare picture of the impressive gamut of stars MGM was once proud to possess. (1943)
  3. A link for the increasing number of committed friends around me. A list of 42 ways to break up. (Warning: The list is huge. I haven't gone through the entire thing myself)
  4. On to football now. I'm not sure how many people know about it because I haven't seen any talk or discussion. John Terry's photo was used by the Indian Health Ministry in its quit smoking graphic on all cigarette packs produced in India. Let the jokes roll.
That's about it. The week has been consumed by my BTP and all that lack of sleep has turned me into a wreck. I hope I can post something apart from an HWR next time. 


Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Haaris' Weekly Roundup

Too much of free time can kill you. It's a lesson I've learnt the hard way, after spending weeks in bed with a few painful excursions to the bathroom. It's at times like this when you must get all the grime off your life, or you'll end up like a sloth in the jungle.

I'm starting a new feature on my blog. It's not original but I don't think anyone else will be doing it in my fields of interest. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Haaris' Weekly Roundup, a collection of anecdotes, must read articles and other topics of interest for you and me to discuss. I'm sure a lot of you will crinkle your noses in disgust and say, "It's not going to work" but the thing is, life changes too quickly for anyone to regret a bad blogging decision. 

So (rubbing my hands together), let's kick off:

  1. Most of us keep the Economist in very high esteem, and it's not uncalled for- they have a measured style of writing and their way of putting forward their case is seductive- but it seems that their opinion articles are, well, highly opinionated. Several economists have questioned the supposed absence of balance and meaning in their articles. Par exemple, read.
  2. A lot of us (excluding me) have seen the Avengers movie and the response has been very good. The movie has earned about 200 million dollars beating the previous record set by HP 7-2. BUT, do our comic buffs know about the boycott of the same movie called by some prominent cartoonists . The reason (as I mentioned in a tweet) is the apparent injustice meted out to the illustrator of the Avengers and several other prominent Marvel comic characters, Jack Kirby. In an essay, read and feel.
  3. Moving on to astronomy, if you've missed it, do take a look at how a blackhole devours a star.
  4. Tom Alters has written a very sentimental and touching post on how Sunil Gavaskar has changed from being a stalwart of the Indian batting line-up to someone who has to endure amateurs discussing IPL cricket with him.
I can go on actually but I don't want to. I'll limit myself to a maximum of five links every week. Read the ones you're interested in, and do revert back and comment.

Never fracture your fibula. 


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Sporty Behaviour

If you’d ask me, I’d say all of sports is a big sham. Probably the biggest of them all. Millions or even billions of dollars going up in smoke over a bunch of guys in shorts who spend an hour or more grunting, cussing and running all over the place. Think about it. What have they done for us? Have they cured a life threatening disease? Have they stopped wars, or given birth to the steam engine or even the little Post-It notes that dot my desk? No, sir, they have not.

I remember as a lad when people used to start shedding tears whenever we lost a critical fixture at the Cricket World Cup. Not to mention all those who harangue their own senses by hockey’s "sad" demise in our sporting culture. These days we’re all obsessed with the Premier League, something that confounds my mind to no end. It’s the height of irony. People in India tend to support the predominant teams of the decade. In a way, you can tell when your friend started watching club football. If it’s Arsenal, it was probably during the Invincibles season, Chelsea for the Mourinho era and United does the job of ensnaring all our remaining die-hard fans. No Sunderland, no Blackburn (with or without Indian ownership) and definitely no West Ham (that’s taboo).

Don’t brand me a heretic. I’m ready to fight my case. When a team or an individual or a mix of both get famous, brands are all ready to splurge their booty for a 15 second commercial that leaves some of us salivating. Fuming in my case. You could do a lot with that cash. Give it to the families of those who’ve sacrificed their lives in the army, or use it to help the poor and the unfairly deprived. I get it when someone works to earn his money. I just don’t understand the logic behind the crunching of numbers in this case.

Of course, I can make an exception with certain sports. Or certain individuals. Take Roger Federer, for instance. One look at him and you can tell he’s special. The sort you see once in your lifetime. Calm, elegant, and with shots that speak of grandeur and understated efficiency in one go. Nadal’s good but he runs around too much for my liking. That’s a lot of hard work and getting brutishly physical. Achievable as well, I expect a horde of clones in the near future. Djokovic is on fire but then it’s hard to see how he can keep this up. Even today, when Roger plays, he makes his job look ridiculously easy. That is, I think, the mark of a true genius. You work as hard as you can to get there but not without some innate talent. If you can look at a sportsperson play, and then shake your head with a I-can’t-do-that-the-way-he-does look, the player is huge.

My obsession with Roger started in the summer of 2004. I was then an admirer of Andy Roddick. Boom-boom serve and all that. The Wimbledon final was on air. The match was a big one, Federer defending his title against a resurgent Roddick, looking for a shot at reclaiming his No.1 ranking. Federer won in straight sets. And I shamelessly switched allegiances. It was all smooth sailing from then on. For several years then, there was a juggernaut annihilating everything in its path, and as a fan I was happily sitting on the bandwagon. Things started to change after the Wimbledon 2007 final. You could see the great man was struggling. The victory was difficult, and mononucleosis followed the next year. In one swift stroke, I was thrown out of the lazy comfort of my courtside loyalty into the dark streets of uncertainty and doubt. Every point lost was terrible, each title lost was a pain that shot up my forehead. It reached a nadir when a victory could only bring relief while every loss brought days of disillusionment and despondency.

That’s when I realized the three stages of fan following. They don’t necessarily follow a particular order. But this is my story, and this is how it went. There’s this glorious phase of upsurge and triumph where you can only get better, when a loss is only a stepping stone to even more greatness. It’s easy to support your man, and you can let loose screams of vindication, and snarls of condescension. Then, the plateau. A phase of recurring patterns, of victories in familiar grounds, of defeats that shouldn't have really happened, it’s when you start coming to terms with the possibility of vulnerability and mortality. It becomes hard to accept things as they come and a lot of your mates have a thing or two to say about your erstwhile claims. And then there’s the last stage. You happily accept what comes your way. You will most happily revel in victory but a loss would only mean a kind shrug of the shoulders and a fatherly clap on the back of your man. 

All right I admit it. I am a hypocrite. Arrest me if you will. I don’t think sports is so great, that Lionel Messi is a lot more than a short kid who runs really quickly. I mean, think about it. What have these people done to our lives? Made us happier? Only if you are ready to immerse yourself in their victories and defeats. If I had my way, I’d tell every sportsperson that playing sports is deeply atavistic, a throw-back to the times when we had to live a Captain Caveman life. Grow up folks, we’ve evolved over the years, we need to get a thrill from sophisticated, metaphysical constructs. Not animalistic activities. I do make liberal exceptions and while I write this the French Open shall soon begin. Allez Federer! Get through the semi-finals and I’ll be proud of you!