Goodbye Dr. Bob


Dr. Robert Phillips, better known as Bob to the Lanza lab people, passed away this Sunday and here is my very insignificant remembrance. If a doctorate degree still holds some classical and substantial importance, relating to the besting of obstacles, making of tough choices and living with them, not letting life merely take its course as one watches from the sidelines, and, finally, the opening up of the mind, I can safely say that Bob was deserving of it more than (much more than) any of us and anyone else that I know of. And he did it all while taking himself not too seriously, with refreshing cynicism and a great sense of humor. A person who, after working in a blue collar position for many years, decides to pursue B.S, M.S, and PhD degrees in his 40s must overcome self-doubts and the doubts of others the likes of which I will never know and never be able to appreciate. Perhaps this is why humility and self-effacement came so naturally to him. Perhaps this is why he never seemed to think of any kind of work as below him. I think there is something enormously important that Bob embodied. It didn't directly have to do with him doing a doctorate which was the only time I knew him. But it was about working very very hard for your dreams, whatever they might be, and being humble in the process. Goodbye Bob. I was lucky to have known you.

The ideal human

The following might sound like a defense but it is not meant as being so. That I might come across as a pessimist and a cynic to others is not surprising but it would be missing the point if those were the only conclusions one came to. I have, what I think, is a lofty idea of an ideal human being, an ideal that is unsurprisingly and consistently negated in the real world which leads to my disappointments. However, the ideal itself is noble, and as far as I can tell, achievable to varying degrees. I have come across some people who have succeeded on that ideal to different levels and it is those people whom I find attractive and interesting, at the inevitable cost of finding mundane those who do not succeed on it very well.

My ideal human being, whom I will refer to with the feminine pronoun with the implicit understanding that the idea itself applies equally to males, is, first and foremost, incredibly alive. Her most fundamental characteristic is strength from which may (or may not; it is inconsequential) derive other secondary properties. She might be helpful, sympathetic, understanding, altruistic, and humble but not because of weakness, not because she has been taught the virtues of these qualities by "lesser" people, but because of a certain charity, because she has strength to dispense. The trait that she does derive from strength is fairness. Fairness which allows her to admit to her "mistakes" and her "follies" and the strength which allows her not to be bogged down by them. Fairness which allows her to treat others with respect and with contempt as and when their actions deserve them (in her judgment of course). Fairness which allows her also to have a deep sense of human dignity, essentially expecting others to be responsible for their actions, to help them if they are ready to help themselves and to simply move on if they'd rather perish. In this sense she is not very emotional (and, therefore, not very traditionally human) seeing emotions as merely a clouding effect on good judgment and an impediment to being fair to others and to herself. She sees the world as a worthy stage and a worthy adversary, a necessity which makes possible a life such as hers, a life full of experiences, of victories and defeats, both equally interesting. She is neither proud nor humble but, in a sense, has the biggest conceit of them all, seeing herself, and not humanity at large, as the measure of all things, which, of course, simply derives as a necessity from her strength. She holds no grudges and no regrets and is too strong to feel the need to forgive, forgiveness being the exclusive domain of those who are too weak to do anything else. The most I can say is that she forgets without actively making an effort to forget. It is the sniveling and petty in this world who remember the "wrongs" done to them, in the hope that one day they will get their revenge either through some delayed action or through a divine agency (the concept of hell). They are too small and too inconsequential to even be remembered by someone as strong as her. There is a beautiful set of lines by Dinkar:

क्षमा शोभती उस भुजंग को जिसके पास गरल हो
उसका क्या जो दंतहीन विषरहित विनीत सरल हो

which translates as:

Forgiveness suits only those who have strength
Not those who are toothless, poison-less, mellow, and simple

because, let's face it, what other option does the latter group have but to forgive? I think this is pretty spot on but I don't think Dinkar goes far enough. Forgiveness, to the person I am idealizing, is entirely unnecessary. To her, others, on initial assumption, are just as strong as her and, by extension, would feel offended with such emotions as pity, sympathy, and forgiveness directed towards them.

This is a courageous conception of a human being and is in direct conflict with a religious and social one which implicitly forbids individual strength, independence, and immodesty. In my opinion this is also a very human, honest, and even sympathetic conception which is probably in line with an evolutionary perspective of life. It is uncomplicated, precisely like the rare person whom I find so fascinating.


Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies - pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters. is when I recall that particular day that I see with the utmost clarity the sun-sprangled river; the bridge, the dazzling tin of a can left by a fisherman on its wooden railing; the linden-treed hill with its rosy-red church and marble mausoleum where my mother's dead reposed; the dusty road to the village; the strip of short, pastel-green grass, with bald patches of sandy soil, between the road and the lilac bushes behind which walleyed, mossy log cabins stood in a rickety row; the stone building of the new schoolhouse near the wooden old one;

These are some lines from Nabokov's Speak Memory which made me ask a question of contemporary importance; what will we remember? What will we remember with fondness and nostalgia from the time spent in this digital age? From the thousands of pictures that lie rotting in our Facebook feeds and Google accounts, from the cemetery of the hundreds of hours of videos that seems to be the only proof that we did actually exist in the past, from the pathetic, miserable insecurity of being alone and unappreciated which forces us to grovel for the likes of others on the myriad platforms which analyze, compartmentalize, and dehumanize us. There's a tangible world out there which still responds to our human senses of touch, sound, smell, and vision. It doesn't need to be framed perfectly and uploaded online for the pathetic act of garnering approval of others. I think we can form fond and lasting memories only when freed from technology. Nostalgia is a winged seraph which shrivels away when reality is seen through the inhuman and impersonal lenses of silicon and algorithms.


While trawling through the interwebs sometimes I come across an article which provokes a strong reaction in me. Most of the time spent on the internet, let's face it, is a complete waste but sometimes one is made to think a bit. I came across an article where one Mr. Sam who has just turned 30 tries to give life advice based upon his experience during the last decade. Most of it is pretty generic stuff (Life's not a dress rehearsal, pick the right thing to do, have parties) which is precisely the kind of lowest common denominator babble that an average person who has just turned 30 is expected to say. The tone of such a person is always very optimistic and life to him/her would always be just right if one followed this, this, and this step. It doesn't take a rocket scientists (or maybe it does...) to see how much of a load of crap such an attitude is because obviously we would fix things if we could and the reason that we often cannot is because our goals often conflict with each other and we tend to have a very poor understanding of where the conflict is coming from and how to resolve it. Simplistic and optimistic points of views are only for rank idiots and absolute geniuses. I am neither so I have to think. It made me think of what would I say if I had to give advice. After all I also turned 30 a couple of years ago and why should Mr. Sam have all the fun? But advice can never be divorced from context so I'll talk about the context first.

My personal experience of the world around me has been one of responding less and less to its stimuli as time has passed. In a sense I accept it more than I used to and I see less and less reason to change anything about it. There is an inevitability to it and it's neither a cause for optimism nor pessimism, neither happiness nor sorrow. It just is. My outlook towards the world is fatalistic then but the outlook itself personally fills me neither with hope nor with hopelessness. I have the experience of looking at it and at myself from a detached point of view, of appreciating all that is constantly in flux about the world and all that is ephemeral about myself. The result is an attitude where things need not be taken very seriously, for the most part at least. There is not much to be wished because one needs to be careful about what one wishes, both for oneself and for others. There is no need to find coherence in oneself either because there exists none. In fact, I have a distinct feeling that most of our issues result from trying to resist the incredible forces of life whose inevitability we appreciate so little. And this inevitability invariably includes, as a necessity, different cross-sections of people with different views towards life, often conflicting with each other. And they will look down upon each other and they will try to impose their own views on others. Sometimes they will also be sympathetic to each other and help those out who are considerably worse off than them. And the same people would often harbor hateful feelings which would make them feel bad about themselves because they are supposed to be, oh so nice. All very amusing of course. Amusement then is my central response to the human condition, almost all of the time. There are times when I feel contemptuous of others and I don't try to correct it, not seeing it as a defect but as a trait which is necessarily human. And then there are times when I feel sympathetic to others and try to help them but I don't feel proud for doing so either. Secondary emotions, especially emotions which make people feel good like respect and pride are utterly incomprehensible to me. Most of the time they are distinct signs of pettiness and I try not to put up with those who appear proud or respectful or unnecessarily complex in other ways. My short time here on Earth is too precious to bother with such people whose cardinal fault is taking themselves and others too seriously.

So with this context if I were to give advice what shall it be? I'll first have to preface it with the statement that a 32 year old need never be taken seriously. In fact, most people, if not all people, need never be taken seriously when it comes to them giving advice on issues of most importance. Most people have absolutely no understanding of the whirlwind they are in and are, in any case, too insecure to admit to their own deep follies and the pointlessness of their own lives. I may fall in the first category but I don't think I fall in the second one. I think it'd be healthy for an individual to take themselves and others less seriously and to try to find amusement in the intricate brilliance that is this world. There are more issues than one can solve and one need not feel bad about those which are too difficult. To accept this life and this world in all its imperfections, to realize that one is limited, and to try to make peace with their own flawed selves since it won't last for very long in any case, in the grand scheme I mean. I also think that this is an optimistic view of life to someone who chooses to see it in such a light. And I think I do.

Payoji Mainein

Some of my most beautiful memories from my childhood are those of waking up in the mornings of weekends to the tunes of certain Hindu devotional songs that my mother used to listen to while she went around her daily morning ritual of cleaning up the house and preparing for breakfast. Some tunes, called bhajans in this case, have made an incredibly deep impression on me and, as I discovered today, they still have the kind of power of transporting me to my past which is simply unavailable through any other means. Music of a certain kind contains within it that elusive key to my past which I can never seem to grasp during moments of coherence and control. Some specific tunes are simply made of nostalgia, built up, as it were, completely of beautifully chosen moments from crisp winter mornings when I used to wake up rubbing my eyes to the sights of fine columns of Sun pouring in through the window and to the intoxicating smell of semolina being cooked in ghee.

I was listening to, among other bhajans, the brilliant rendition of Payoji Mainein by the ever sonorous Lata as I felt being transported to a time far separated from the present. In that moment of, for lack of a better word, clarity, I realized something which I had not realized earlier, at least not with the same force. In the great debate between religion and atheism I have always, and without hesitation, taken the side of religion, even though I can only describe myself as an atheist. In that moment I felt what an incredible loss it is to lose the ability to have faith. This conclusion has been a consistent conclusion of mine for some time now but seldom have I realized it with the same kind of gravity. That tune, with its aching beauty and with the immense weight of culture that it carries on its shoulders with such effortless grace, stands mockingly in contrast with the ugly, shambolic, and bitter structures of reason. So while I may be cursed with knowledge I still lay claim to some morsels of my own humanity. And that humanity allows and forces me to vote for beauty over mere process. And to the modern and proud flag bearers of reason and science, I can only offer my perplexity. That they are proud and not miserable can only mean one thing; they don't understand their terrible predicament yet.

Mill on the Individual

Following is a very interesting passage from Berlin's book on liberty where he talks about John Stuart Mill and his ideas. Even though they were laid down a long time ago they appear just as relevant now. In a society which I fundamentally see as getting more homogenized, in which the space within which an Individual can be both creative and destructive, harbor unappetizing views which go against the grain and be independent, is continuously decreasing, where the very idea of tolerance of those notions which we find absolutely abhorrent is being seen as debatable, the following thoughts appear very relevant. If I were to point out one distinctive barometer of the sophistication of civilization of a society I'd say it is how fiercely it protects the freedoms of those whose ideas it finds the most detestable. With this, on to the passage:

Mill's overmastering desire for variety and individuality for their own sake emerges in many shapes. He notes that 'Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest' - an apparent 'truism' which nevertheless, he declares, 'stands... opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice'... He remarks that it is the habit of his time to impose conformity to an 'approved standard', namely to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression,..., every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity... 'Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them... All the political changes of the age promote this assimilation, since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influence... Improvements in means of communication promote it, as does the ascendancy of public opinion. There is so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality that 'In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom is itself a service.' Conformity, and the intolerance which is its offensive and defensive arm, are for Mill always detestable, and peculiarly horrifying in an age which thinks itself enlightened... Mill's suspicion of democracy as the only just, and yet potentially the most oppressive, form of government springs from the same roots. He wondered uneasily whether centralization of authority and the inevitable dependence of each on all and 'surveillance of each and all' would not end by grinding all down into 'a tame uniformity of thought, dealings and actions', and produce 'automatons in human form'... Men's disposition to impose their own views on others is so strong that, in Mill's view, only want of power restricts it; this power is growing; hence unless further barriers are erected it will increase, leading to a proliferation of 'conformers', 'time-servers', hypocrites,.. and finally to a society where timidity has killed independent thought.


One of the areas in which I have had some recent interest is one of metamaterials with their application to cloaking. The fundamental problem is to be able to design a cloak which would render a region invisible to either light or sound. The mathematical background was provided in two papers which were published in the same issue of Science about a decade ago. One by Leonhardt and the other by Pendry et. al. These papers were for electromagnetism but it is a rule of thumb that anything that works for light can be made to work for sound (except travel in vacuum if one were to be pedantic about these things). These initial ideas were quickly transferred to sound and subsequently to elastic waves (Norris, Cummer, Willis, and Milton are some important names in here). Since then the field has exploded. The goal is to make waves do something like this (simulations done in Comsol by Valentin Serey, graduate student at IIT):

Cloaking_left_source (1)Cloaking_point_source_3D (1)


If one believes as I do in the essential randomness of life, in its inherent lack of value, I wonder if trying to attain a deep level of peace and a lack of complexity can then not be taken as a worthy goal in itself. I think everyone would take it with arms spread if they could manage it and I think almost everyone fails miserably at achieving it. In a certain philosophical sense it may be said that people fear of it getting too peaceful and yet disdain the dual of peace which is complexity. They are afraid of being left alone and yet cannot stand those that they find themselves among. This is a curious predicament. There is a deep dread of achieving what one truly wants and a deep discontent, in many little ways, of what one has.

I feel that the discontent arises because in a sense the level of complexity that exists in the world muddles up our own sense of self worth, tying it to other people, the standards of others, and a whole cornucopia of other things. Almost none of it is in an individual's control and, more importantly, there is a sinking realization that although most of these external agencies should have no business defining oneself in a deep personal way, they eventually end up doing so. And I feel that the dread of peace arises precisely because this is the only reality that we have all been taught. To derive meaning from external agencies. To let them define us. Take them away and our self worth plummets because we were never told how to cultivate it in vacuum.

I think it is possible to achieve a measure of peace in this world, despite the worst intentions of those who'd rather see us fail and, more importantly, despite the best intentions of those who love and care for us, of those who want us to succeed. I think ultimately the question of finding meaning and self worth is a superfluous question, merely a means to an end. It would vanish as an important question precisely when one is able to find an answer to it in vacuum.

Even though I do not believe in a god, I have found myself being on close terms with very many people who do believe. In fact, of the many people that I have come across, I think I can safely say that it has invariably been those who had some sort of a faith who I found easiest to connect with. These people have tended to have, consciously or subconsciously but certainly very ironically, a better grip on reality than people who profess not to believe. In fact, I'd say that I have had the misfortune of knowing far more atheists than I'd have cared for in this life. Some of them have been most brilliant and interesting people but the vast majority have been absolutely insufferable and embarrassingly simpleminded.

There are two questions which come to mind at this point. What is it about religious people in general which I, being a nonbeliever, find so attractive? I think they tend to have the kind of priorities in life which make for a generally contented and helpful person. These tendencies are deeply ingrained in them as they appear almost as a dictum from the powers that be. They do not have to reason these qualities and reason, in any case, can never be as strong as emotion can be. These people tend to be far less materialistic because they have the luxury of finding meaning in an agency which has little to do with the material world. The upshot of it all are people who tend not to drive me nuts by talking about food, clothing, gadgets, sports, and financial investments. Their lives amount to more than a simple distraction, something which cannot be said about a lot of people knocking about.

The second question which comes to mind is why, if I find the other side so attractive, do I not just join the camp. I think the answer to this is a deep predicament, perhaps the deepest that there is. I think my inability to believe has taken a very deep root and it is connected now to all sorts of other character traits of mine. At some level it is connected to a contempt for authority of all kinds and at another level it is connected to a deep seated lack of sympathy. At yet another level it is connected to my eternal suspicion that people generally do not know what they are talking about and, therefore, cannot be taken very seriously. The latter, of course, comes with the frank admission that I know very little myself, that my faint efforts at coherence are merely the stabs of a blind person in the dark, that life, in general, is merely Brownian motion, the random walk of a thoroughly inebriated tramp.

It is this view which makes it easier for me to connect with people who believe as I do not see any reason to feel smug or superior to them on account of the supposed power of logic and reasoning. Life to a nonbeliever must be arbitrary and it most certainly is to me. Fortunately enough, in the day to day workings of it, I find it not impossible to see it exactly as such and it thus becomes merely amusing. Amusement is my primary reaction to the vicissitudes of life and I think the good souls who do believe are not too offended by it. They are probably amused as well.


I hardly ever include technical matters in regular posts but I'd like to move towards changing that to some extent. Following is a review paper which summarizes one of the fields I am currently interested in. Although this one is mine, in the future I intend to post others' contributions which I find interesting: