Category Archive: Humor


Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics is a brilliant selection of his short stories. Each story takes a scientific fact and weaves a very imaginative fantasy around it. All these stories are told from the point of view of a know-it-all and ever present narrator called Qfwfq. Some of the stories are a little bit of a stretch in terms of the patience required of the reader but most of them are just pure inspired storytelling of the highest order. What I find amazing about his stories is a certain kind of absurdist humor which I have found in some other places (most conspicuously in Woody Allen's insanity defense, Alice in Wonderland, parts of Catch-22, and to some extent in Vonnegut and Douglas Adams)  and which, in my opinion, is incredibly hard to do well.

As an example, his story 'All at one point' begins with the scientific fact that back in the day all the matter in the universe was concentrated at one point (Big Bang) which is followed by Qfwfq casually saying 'naturally, we were all there.' The story goes from there but to me there is something amazing about that first sentence as well. It represents a discontinuous leap of imagination which makes possible lines of fiction which are unattainable to most of us. There is a certain logic behind it (I mean, of course everybody was there!) which makes this line so much more funny than a scenario which doesn't necessarily have a logic of its own (like a man falling over a banana peel). The story carries forth this style which is the hallmark of such absurdist humor. In which characters behave in manners which appear highly unnatural to the reader but which make complete sense to the characters themselves. These characters state the most jaw dropping of facts in the most natural manner and often find themselves in situations which are perilous but ultimately ridiculous. It is their incapacity to tell how ridiculous their situation is which makes their stories so funny. Which makes me think, if there is a God looking down at humans he must be having a damn good time. I find that in such stories, as important and satisfying as the actual fantasy is, it is almost more important and funnier how the author maintains that internal logic of the characters themselves. The former part appealing to the creative side and the latter to the rational one.

Such internal logic is also necessary because it shows that just because the book is a fantasy the author is not taking the reader for a ride by freeing himself of all rules. This, I feel, is what makes it so difficult to write good fantasy because a good fantasy must have an additional responsibility to be coherent and logical since it is so easy to write something which isn't. Any Tom, Dick, and Harry can come along and spew his dreams and nightmares over the sorry pages of a novel. Unfortunately when that happens the world has to make room in the cosmic trashcan for another 'Kafka on the shore'. Guided with beautiful logic, however, we get Calvino's book which treads the trembling and faint line between believability and absurdity with such finesse that reading his stories becomes a pleasure.

A tale of negative density

While thinking about some of my research problems today, my mind wandered off to a time many years ago when on one morning during an undergrad class of solid mechanics I was first introduced, rather unceremoniously I must say, to the revolutionary concept of negative density.

We were trying to figure out some academic arcana about a pendulum, a water tank, an accelerating vehicle, and that universal scourge of high flyers everywhere, gravity and as it often happens in matters of little consequence, the stakes were enormously high. I was standing at the blackboard having just drawn a schematic of the problem under discussion, the quality of which stood as a testimony to the complete lack of the artistic strain in my blood. My sorry efforts at trying to draw a container of water had given it the kind of waves which the moon would be proud of generating in the Pacific on one of its 'in the zone' days. And the pendulum hung there inside the bowl with the pathetic visage of one who has just learnt that his parole application has been denied. The motion of the vehicle on to which my ghastly contraption was supposed to have been placed was indicated by a few swooshes in the opposite direction - an effect that was no doubt the result of having read one too many comics.

So there I stood fidgeting alongside my hesitating contribution to postmodern sketching and it should not be hard to imagine that in that moment of vulnerability in front of my classmates, my attitude towards the problem at hand was inspired by the old adage of attack being the best form of defense. I don't remember the exact train of arguments but I do remember it being broken by the voice of a friend who has always been surer of himself than I have been of myself. Confrontation with him on a good day is quite an ordeal but he had chosen to speak up at a time when the iron had just been removed from the kiln and lay red and embarrassed on the side of the subpar schematic.

What about negative density, he asked. I eyed him suspiciously unable to comprehend the level at which I should refute that incongruous little quip of his. Suddenly I found myself face to face with a question far greater than any that I could have dreamed of. Not only was I not able to establish my position as to the effect of negative density on the problem, I was not even able to comprehend if he was joking or not. I eyed him suspiciously like I have often found myself doing when faced with someone whose character evinces a certain unidentifiable shiftiness and asked after much internal deliberation, what about it.   What if the liquid had negative density, he persisted? What happens to your pendulum then? I looked at my sorry pendulum in my sorry jar and wondered how much more it would have to go through at the hands of sadists such as him. It had already been through enough under my penmanship, its whole substance reduced to a dented bob of arbitrary circularity flimsily attached to a feeble wire and left to brave the torrential waves of a bowl of badly drawn liquid. Surely the pendulum had been through enough and could do without further torment. And moreover, said I to myself, what the hell is a negative density liquid anyway. In the face of a complete lack of evidence that such liquids existed, I promptly concluded that subjecting my down and out pendulum to such an alien ambiance must constitute as some sort of a violation of the Geneva convention or something. In fact I was so incensed by the suggestion that I instantly snapped at my friend for the mere mention of so ghastly a possibility.

I have since realized that my impatience that day was misplaced and that fate, in the semi cruel and semi sadistic sort of way in which it likes so much to operate, designed my life so that eventually I ended up doing a major part of my research in the field of materials with negative densities. And that one question on that fair day in Guwahati which elicited such a visceral response from me has come to serve as a persistent reminder that the true worth of an idea, howsoever ridiculous it may appear at the first, second, and fifth glances, must never be judged based upon irrational emotional attachments to one's sketching abilities, especially to sad looking pendulum faces. I also realize now that I need to learn how to extract useful morals out of life events.

The incident of the final t-shirt

There are some incidents in life which you just cannot flush out ever. You keep brooding over them trying to make sense as to why they happened and what curious logic lay behind the actions of those who were involved. There was one such incident which I have never been able to make sense of and it involved a close friend. I never really shied away from asking him, in all earnestness, what motivated him to do what he did but he never gave me a direct answer, leaving me with a constant sense of doubt about my own powers of logic and rationality.

Graduate housing in UCSD has community washing and drying facilities. You have to take your clothes, stuff them in a washing machine, come back after some time to transfer them to a dryer and then come back again in some time to take them back. It's pretty routine generally but every now and then, sheer probability dictates that some poor grad student's clothes will get stolen during the time that he's not there to watch over them. That it would happen to a friend of mine whose complete disregard for conventional niceties meant that his wardrobe was perhaps the poorest of them all is just another indication that God likes to have his little pleasures and enjoys his little cosmic ironies. I can picture  him drawing from his big brown bag of half-folded slips, the monthly names of the students whose clothes would be stolen, and I can picture him disregarding those names until he got to my friend for whom the loss of his faded blackbrowngray unironed clothes would be that much more ironical. So it happened and his clothes did get stolen and that incident, by itself, had the humor equivalent of a conventional humor hand-grenade but what made it positively nuclear was what my friend chose to do. Perhaps he was taking decisions under unreasonable psychological stress which must surely accompany a sudden disappearance of most of one's clothes, perhaps he really understood something that I haven't been able to, but he took one of his last remaining T-shirts, one of those sorry little pieces of garment which after years of use crosses the line of presentability into that vague murky zone where it becomes indistinguishable from a dust cloth and lies in a corner with no further hope of being washed again, put it in a plastic bag, went to the laundry room and hung it there in the hope that the rest of his clothes would be returned. The next day he went to the laundry room only to discover that his T-shirt had also been stolen! He may have gotten the plastic bag back but we have to agree that in the face of such a massive disaster the loss or gain of a puny little plastic bag is of little consequence.

Obviously this is one of those sequence of events which are all too rare in this world and which must be savored for all their comedic potential and my friend who is a great sport when it comes to these things went along with all the mirthmaking that accompanied the subsequent divulging of the details. But he never quite explained the incident of the final T-shirt and I have racked my brain trying to figure out why he did what he did, only to raise my hands in exasperation and accept defeat. I haven't been able to fathom the motive behind that final T-shirt. The only reasonable scenario which I can come up with where the sight of a lonely T-shirt would induce a return of the stolen clothes is one where this was a group job. In a situation where a bunch of thieves planned scrupulously and worked in unison to steal my friend's clothes, there is a possibility that the sight of the T-shirt might have invoked deep feelings of regret in a weaker member who could subsequently have gone against the other members and brought the clothes back. He/she may have had to overcome fierce resistance, dispose off a few bodies and make good his escape in the middle of the inky night by dressing like Robin Hood, but we shall not bother with wild conjectures here. The fact that it is only wild conjectures like this which seem to be logical enough to serve as possible solutions to the conundrum just goes on to indicate how deep the conundrum itself is. Perhaps I will figure it out one day when I am wiser than I am now, but I'm afraid that the unraveling of the incident of the final t-shirt would require wisdom which would forever be out of my reach.

Tab 3

A friend asked me recently if I still post on my blog. He was surprised that I still keep at it after 6 years but his surprise was perhaps not more than mine. I mean, really, what's there to say which could not be said in 6 years? There are no arguments to be made, absolutely none. Not about religion and not about evolution, neither about politics and nor about sports. All those subjects on which serious people can get together and have solemn important discussions are strictly off-limits for me. Personal finance, international geopolitics, economics, the environment and many other such subjects come in this category. Not only do I find these topics dreary but I know that I understand just enough about all these topics to know that I can't contribute to a discussion in any constructive way. In fact I tend to think that there is really no such thing as a constructive discussion. Nobody, to my knowledge and experience, has ever come out of a discussion with a meaningfully changed viewpoint. Either we agree with other people, in which case there is no need for a discussion, or we disagree with them, in which case there is no point of it. Young people who stand to learn the most from an adult discussion should really be the ones to avoid them like the plague because they would either learn all the wrong things or come out confused.  I completely agree with Wilde's statement that one should avoid learning from those who are older than oneself. And Feynman catches the same spirit in a very tongue in cheek manner when he says that 'you go through life, make your own mistakes, learn from them if you like and that's the end of you'. Calvin actually hits the nail on the head when he says that anything which cannot be explained to me in 10 seconds is not worth thinking about. Why am I saying all this? I don't know. It's a long weekend and I'm a little bored. Also, I feel that there is a conspiracy by those who know more than me (or perhaps they know less than me, I cannot be sure. They may even know exactly as much as I do but I rule that out on probabilistic grounds) to project life as more serious and more noble than I think it is. It's serious business, they say. They get together and discuss important stuff and when I jump in with a funny/sarcastic observation, I'm met with searing stern looks of disapproval. And meanwhile a supermassive black hole in a far away galaxy gobbles up a few more stars. Sometimes I wish there was a real time counter which would show the number of stars gobbled up by supermassive black holes. Then when people would be smugly discussing about their atheistic positions or giving me a hard time because I don't separate my trash in 7 different kinds of recycles or boasting about how their 1 year old has already started walking, I'd be able to direct them to that rapidly changing counter and politely point out that nobody cares.

I see that I have digressed a little but then all the interesting stuff in life is made of digressions. Meanwhile, in the spirit of this post, the title is completely unrelated to the subject matter. It has to do with the fact that at the time of writing, this post was open in the second tab of my browser.

Finally a joke worth something!

So I got pulled over first thing in the morning today. For those who are not in the US, a pull-over is what a cop does to you when you have just flouted a traffic rule. He asks you to stop so that he can come over and make you feel guilty and miserable about your little mistake and just when you are feeling all that, he slaps you with a hefty fine, effectively decreasing your bank account balance while simultaneously augmenting that of the state by the precise amount. The rule that I flouted was stopping at a stop sign. I did what's called a rolling stop and I think that doing this and getting caught carries a fine of around 300$ in California. I won't say that it's a stupid rule because there is no such thing but it's one of those rules which are, let's say, easier to find yourself breaking than others. Anyway, the cop pulls me over and the following conversation takes place:

Cop: Do you know why I've pulled you over?

Me: I suppose it's the rolling stop, isn't it?

Cop: That's right. Care to explain why you did that?

(Now there is really no explanation for doing such a thing except, maybe, the assertion that such a generalized rule is ridiculous and that life must be more fair with different rules for those who are better at driving than for those who are locomotionally stunted. The argument is a slippery slope though and pretty soon you would find yourself trying to justify eugenics. Something told me then and there that that was not the conversation I wanted to have with a police officer.)

Me: Well, I have to catch a bus at 10:00 and I was trying to make it to the stop in time.

Cop: Can I see your registration and license?

(I handed them to him. Everything was in order but having been pulled over several times before this I was perfectly aware that these formalities were just the first nails in the coffin. I was being written a ticket.)

Me: Officer, do you think you can leave me with a warning? I haven't had a ticket in the last two years and this is just a one off mistake.

Cop: This is a grave mistake and I cannot possibly leave you with a warning. What assures me that without the financial handicap you'd not do it again.

(There is frankly no argument that I could give. I knew the rule and had broken it. A lot of people do it but probability dictates that some of them get caught at times and they must simply pay up. I had given up to the possibility that I could get out of this so I just sat there waiting for the cop to write down that ticket and hand it to me. I must say that I was neither nervous nor too sad. I have had the experience far too many times to be nervous anymore and I understand that for the little fun that I have on my motorcycle I'll have to part with some money every now and then. At this point the cop starts making small talk and I start answering him with no particular importance. I knew how it was going to end and only wanted it to end soon enough for me to catch the bus.)

Cop: So, where are you from?

Me: India.

Cop: How long have you stayed here?

Me: 6 and a half years now. (The length of my stay in SD often doesn't register until I vocalize it.)

Cop: That's a long time! So you must really like it here. Are you done with your studies and are you planning to stay?

Me: I'm done with my studies but I'm not sure. I might go back to India.

Cop: Why? Don't you like it here?

Me: No, it's not that I do not like it here. It's just that I've been getting too many tickets!

And the cop burst out laughing. I realized that this was not too shabby a joke and his laugh was so infectious that I started laughing too. And now that I think about it, it was such a weird situation. Here I was pulled over by the side of the road with the cop's car going all blue and red and he was in the middle of slapping me a ticket, and during all this we both were doubling up with laughter. After the joke subsided, he said,

Cop: Man, that was a good one!

Me: I know. I think it was pretty good too.

Cop: You know what, I'll let you go this time. Drive safely.

And I realized that finally I had cracked a joke which was actually worth something. Several hundred dollars at least but more importantly it was worth a weird and deep sense of happiness and satisfaction at knowing that life can sometimes take a joke and laugh and let go, if only for a moment, its morose insistence on rules and efficacy.


If you were born in the eighties in the northern part of India it would be unlikely for you to not have come in contact with the rich tradition of Hindi comic books. I remember them with a fondness which I reserve for only a select few memories. Those comic books now appear to be an exclusive experience to me because they seem to have really picked up steam by the beginning of the eighties and waned by the end of the nineties. In essence, the best of them, the ones which were the most naively drawn and had the most amateur dialogues, exactly coincided with that phase of my life which for most people is slightly ridiculous, moderately impressionable and very gullible. With their wannabe-scientific bent and easy coincidences, those comic books still represent to me a bygone era which had the simple charm of innocence. The superheroes that my generation remembers as being often lanky and generally disproportional have since morphed into buffed up bodybuilders and while my heroes had to contend with 32 or 64 pages of rough paper, their modern avatars, driven by digital perfection, prance around on laminated sheets of super-digests. I don't necessarily rue their current manifestations. I just feel that what may have been gained in better drawings and tauter stories is probably lost in quirkiness.

My favorite was a guy called Super Commando Dhruv who actually did not have any superpowers apart from exceptional athleticism and a brilliant mind. He would patrol the streets of Rajnagar on his motorcycle at nights, preventing crimes and nabbing criminals. Now that I think about his character and about why I liked him so much, maybe it had something to do with his motorcycle. Also, unlike other superheroes who possessed superpowers I, in my naivete, perhaps thought Dhruv was someone I could emulate if only I tried hard enough! He was operating on principles which were coherent and understandable in my logical mind unlike someone like Nagaraj who would shoot snakes from his wrists. Even at that stupid age I realized, often with a mounting sense of resignation, that no matter how hard I tried, the singular talent of shooting snakes from wrists would continue to elude me. I would read Nagaraj's comics with an acute sense of derision which had its roots in a profound envy of those snakes. I would jeer at his victories and attribute them not to anything he had worked for but to the pure coincidence of his having been born with an unusual talent. My contempt was complete and Nagaraj's case wasn't helped with the poor quality of his initial drawings. I remember picking up his comic books and feeling a weird sense of happiness at how clumsy he looked compared to the highly agile and chiseled drawings of Dhruv. When the illustrator of Dhruv (Anupam Varma I think) decided to draw Nagaraj, I never really forgave him for doing that.

There was an entirely different genre of Hindi comics which doesn't really have an easy analogue in the Western canon. These were published by Diamond comics and featured such brilliant creations as 'Chacha Chaudhary', 'Billoo', 'Pinki', and 'Raman'. They were mostly drawn by this guy called 'Cartoonist Pran' whose biography has to be the most circulated one in the history of the world. His slightly plump face, as featured in every single one of those damn comic books, is forever etched in the pages of my memory. Diamond comics were characterized by hilariously bad drawings and mind-bogglingly ridiculous story-lines. Its world mostly consisted of green fields, awkwardly placed trees and criminally disproportional characters. They featured villains who, even at the worst, were merely naughty compared to Raj comics (Dhruv, Nagaraj etc.). I do think that Diamond comics, more than any other, derived its essence from the prevailing Indian sensibilities which implicitly stressed finding happiness and pleasure in the small things in life as the odds of achieving bigger targets were so small. I actually grew on to love those comics and now that I am thinking about it, I feel that that change was very analogous to how children, who begin by liking chocolate ice-cream, often go on to like vanilla as they grow old. There was something otherworldly and pure about their simple plots. An old affable uncle, a few kids up to no good, a dog, a family life dominated by a loving but overbearing female and a guy from Jupiter. How cozy!

Then there were all these other comic books which I never understood who read. Chief among these second raters were Manoj comics and Tulasi comics. I do not really have many memories of these since all my reading time was taken up by such superheroes as Dhruv, Nagaraj, Doga, Parmanu and the off-kilter characters of Diamond comics. There would be a thriving second-hand market for these and one often did not have to buy them as they could be rented for pretty cheap. I was fortunate to witness the essential progression of the Hindi comic. Beginning from what appeared like an isolated originality, it has now merged with the sophistication of the Western comic. I understand that I'm now dangerously close to sounding old and maudlin but I fear that despite the adaptations the era of the Hindi comic might have ended with my generation. Well, as they say, c'est la vie. I am sure that the current generation has its own preoccupations and that years from now it would look back at their demise with the same sense of bittersweet resignation that I have when I think of the surprisingly rich tradition of the Hindi comic (which, by the way, has no analogue in the Southern part of the country).

Smell, nostrils, and averted ugliness

I was talking with some friends today about how the nose senses smell and how one can tell where the smell is coming from when I realized a cute little hypothesis which might actually have some truth in it. It appears to me that if smell were to travel through air in the way sound or light travel, people would have been a lot uglier than they are now! And if you bear with me for just a little longer I'll try to present the arguments which support the case that I have not gone mad.

Both sound and light travel as waves through the air. I may now resort to writing the equation of a traveling wave but that would do nothing but cloud the issue. What is important is that if a disturbance travels as a wave through a medium, like sound and light do, then it is possible to make a measurement of that wave at more than 1 location and say something about the location of the source of the wave. That is why we have two eyes and two ears because if we had only one of each then we would not have been able to determine the location of sources of sounds or the depths of objects. The accuracy with which the location of the source can be determined depends upon the distance between the points at which the measurements are made. In general, the closer they are to each other, the more inaccurate the assessment of the location. Now it is not hard to see how the accurate and efficient evaluation of sounds and objects would have been a winning and desirable strategy in the game of evolution. Therefore nature, being the brilliant designer that she is, has separated our two eyes and two ears by a considerable distance. To my limited biological knowledge, it appears true with all other species but I would be interested to know if this assessment is not correct. In fact, I would go as far as saying that if a sufficiently evolved alien specie were to be discovered on another planet and if it had auditory and visual sensors, they would most probably be in pairs (if not more) and that they would be separated on the 'face'.

This brings me to the point of this post. Smell doesn't travel through air like a wave and, therefore, its source cannot be as easily located in space as the sources of sound or light. The only way in which the source location problem can be tackled for smell, it appears to me, is by using its intensity and this is an inherently more inefficient way than by using the phase information for sound or light waves. Intensity processing also doesn't require measurements separated in space. It appears, therefore, that nature could do only so much for smell localization. It bestowed upon its creatures more sensitive noses but their nostrils were packed together because there is no inherent advantage in having them spread apart. And now the final picture emerges. If only smell traveled through space like sound and light do, our nostrils would most probably have been spread apart and what a ghastly scene that would have constituted! With twice the number of independent facial fissures humanity would surely have been a trainwreck, and for all we know it may just be possible that that quintessential fuel of the evolutionary machinery, mating, may have been resolutely refused by all. It would really have been a nightmare!

All Greek and Latin

The other day I was talking to a Greek friend of mine when I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, that there exist people in this world who actually use symbols like , etc. to communicate! I was so completely overwhelmed by this realization that I ended up spending the next half an hour imagining the various trials and tribulations that such a race must have to go through. It appeared to me, following almost as a corollary (!), that these people must be good at mathematics. That the sweet and elusive harmony of algebra which is buried somewhere deep within the machinations of the Greek alphabet must be transparent to them. By extension, obviously, these people must have a headstart in every other field which has chosen to express some subspace of this real world in this alphabet. This must evidently lead to unrealistic expectations from the young ones and it must invariably happen that every so often when a Greek is born whose genes may have mutated to not be automatically receptive to the Greek alphabet, thus leading to his subpar performance in mathematics, he must end up leading a socially isolated existence for the rest of his life. It would be a bit like being born an Indian and not being able to tolerate spice, or being born an optimistic Russian, or perhaps being born a centipede but with 99 legs. Even if we are ready to gloss over balance, such a centipede, I imagine, would try to fit in a society made up of centipedes but would be immediately frowned upon once the other centipedes count his legs. In much the same way, a Greek with subpar mathematics skills would find it difficult to justify his existence if he doesn't understand the function.

Then I started thinking about how the Greek alphabet is used by non-Greeks to express mathematics. It seemed to me that there exists an automatic and unsaid hierarchy of mathematical symbols in academia and one is expected to catch on to it without ever being explicitly told. People in academia tend to use Roman letters (a, b etc.) only to represent trivial things. Roman letters are likely to be used in a construction like, 'if a+b is 2 and a is 1 then what is b.' Such a construction is obviously primitive and no self respecting academician would ever accept to knowing the answer! The only people who still think seriously about such constructions are number theorists and that's only because they make the problem a tad more respectable by bringing in in the mix. Now I do this too. I do tend to use the lower case Roman alphabet for the most trivial of things - well mostly explanatory text. Then come the capitalized Roman letters which, on their day, may be used for vectors. But when it comes to higher order tensors it's got to be Greek alphabets. Lower case Greek alphabets for the garden variety order tensors but upper case ones for the most hardcore of equations which, as a corollary, must always be taken with a grain of salt.

Sometimes I wonder what the human society would have done without the invention of these symbols. This alphabet which is the mathematical equivalent of 'Here, now take me seriously,' has had a constant presence in most if not all serious scientific papers in the fields of maths, physics and engineering. I wonder how the Greeks actually deal with this problem. I asked this to my Greek friend and she thought for a bit and replied 'we use the Greek symbols for all the trivial stuff and the Roman numerals for some of the serious things.' 'Do they also walk on their heads?' I thought. I was completely stunned at this final revelation and was left reeling at the thought of reading one their papers. It would be a bit like the story of the boy who cried wolf. There was a boy who mischievously cried 'wolf' one too many times for others to believe him on the one time when he cried honestly. And there may very well be a Greek who mischievously said things were important one too many times for me to believe him on the one time when things actually may have been important.

Oh the donutity!

The other day Himanshu said, 'a donut and a bagel were sitting side by side.' And I doubled up laughing! The possibilities are limitless.

P equals NP

...I need to start hanging out with normal people.