Election Day as a Poll Worker

Last Tuesday, California voted in a gubernatorial recall election (Newson wasn’t recalled). I served as a poll worker at a local precinct in my neighbourhood in San Francisco, where my duties as a clerk included setting up the polling station, collecting mailed-in ballots, facilitating in-person voting, and counting the ballots at the end of the day. This was my first time ever doing this, and I quite enjoyed the day. Sharing some thoughts and anecdotes from throughout the day.

  • Our poll booth was staffed by four poll workers having four distinct ethnicities, and four distinct accents — Asian guy with a west coast accent, white dude with a British one, Latina woman with a mexican one, and me. That’s America and San Francisco for you!
  • An elderly latino gentleman walked into the polling station slightly breathless from the single flight of stairs. He sat down to catch his breath, and confessed, “I don’t read too well” as I handed him his voting materials. Yolanda helped him understand the questions and fill out the ballot. It took a good 15 minutes, but as he submitted his ballot and the machine chirped its “Ding” to indicate the vote was accepted, the biggest grin cracked on his face. ‘¡Viva la me!’, he yelled out. Turns out that he had only just gotten naturalized last month, after living in the States for some 20 years. He couldn’t be prouder of himself to manage to have successfully voted. ‘¡Viva la me!’
  • A man came in all excited, and started having a conversation in rapid Spanish with Yolanda. He grew increasingly agitated, eventually causing this older lady who was resting there after having cast her ballot to snap, ‘¡Tonto!‘ at him after which he left dejectedly. Turns out, he thought the polling booth was where you applied to get your Green Card. Welp! Way above my pay-grade as a poll worker.
  • Another older man walked in to vote, but started looking around and examining the school cafeteria where we were set up. When I went to inquire if he needed assistance he explained that he had attended this same school some 60+ years ago, and he was just reminiscing on the time he spent there. It wasn’t named after César Chávez back then, (I forget which US president name he said the school name was before), but the building was pretty much the same. Further, his mom went to the same school some 20 years before him when the building wasn’t yet constructed and they used to do classes in some shacks where the playground now stands.
  • I’d read that schools in San Francisco were bad, and indeed César Chávez elementary is rated 3/10 on GreatSchools. Never having been at an American school before, I was expecting that to mean apathetic overworked teachers, and students who didn’t care about learning. Speaking with the principal, teachers, and observing the students all day, however, I found this couldn’t be further from reality — in a charming building with striking murals, I found teachers who genuinely cared, and wanted the best outcomes for their students; many students who didn’t yet speak English still learning; volunteers running an after school program — everyone seemed to be trying their best with what they had. Totally seems like a school I’d love for my future kids to go to.

I thought working the polls was a great way to experience American democracy first-hand up close, and get to meet my neighbours who I normally wouldn’t. Will definitely sign up again when the next election comes around!

House Buying

(originally on Facebook, but also cross posting here, now that Facebook Notes is deprecated)

Until recently, Manasi and I never really thought of buying a house as something we particularly wanted to do — certainly not in the short term. Several of my friends recently bought houses, though, and these are people we know and trust to make wise decisions. So is there something we’re missing? Much discussion, research, and deliberation ensued, and we decided to study the topic thoroughly, to make sure we’re making the best informed choice and not just letting inertia do the decision-making for us.

As is typical, we started with obsessively reading up everything we could find on the topic on the internet; and there’s oh-so-much material! From rent-vs-buy calculators where you put in numbers and tweak some knobs, to this very thorough article on the history and the politics of the Bay Area’s housing crisis. We also put out a post on Facebook, asking friends to help us figure this out. This led to an outpouring of advice, comments, and conversations, all of which were super helpful in learning more.

Sharing back what we learned from the process. Some of this might seem like common sense, but it was useful to us, hence putting it on paper.

House-buying is a life goal

Get a college degree, find a good job, get married, have a kid, buy a house — these are life goals not in the sense that you’re incomplete if you don’t accomplish them, but that they are seen as the ‘default choice’, and choosing not to do one of these is often something you need to justify to yourself. House-buying is an important one, and perhaps the first life goal that you achieve truly independently as an adult.

Recognizing this helped us understand why several folks interpreted our FB post soliciting information about house-buying as us thinking of buying a house now, and we received plenty of advice about how to maximize the approved loan amount, minimize interest rates, and recommendations for realtors. Further, several folks we talked to who aren’t buying a house now or here, do see themselves buying a house eventually.

The intangibles outweigh the financials

Most people aren’t buying a house because they want to invest in it, but because they want to live in it. The fact that it also appreciates is a bonus on top. In a sense, buying a primary place of residence is more comparable to buying a car than it is to buying stocks or ETFs — you might buy a Toyota sedan over a Chevy because it depreciates slower, but you won’t buy a muscle car when you need a minivan, irrespective of the financial outcomes. And the intangibles are plenty:

  • Having to move and upend your life every time your rent increases unreasonably is stressful
  • Helps you “lock in” a good school district for when you have kids (or if you already have them)
  • The feeling of having a place that you can truly call your own
  • The feeling of being anchored in a place and a community
  • The freedom to make major renovations

Financial outcomes may not be vastly different

After having played with half a dozen different rent vs buy calculators, our conclusion was that neither renting nor buying looks like a slam-dunk obvious winner. Tweaking the numbers a few percentage points here and there lead to renting and buying each sometimes coming out ahead, but given that the expected stock market returns, expected real estate appreciation, expected rent increase, etc are at-best educated guesses, the conclusion was that with the current rents and house prices, renting and buying are both likely to lead to somewhat similar financial outcomes in the next ~20 years. Real estate is neither the silver bullet, nor the rusty nail of investing. The following caveats apply:

  • A more expensive house costs more than a less expensive one (duh!). Or, choosing between renting a one-bedroom apartment, or buying a 4-bedroom mansion, the latter is likely to cost more both in the long and short term, independent of the rent/buy decision.
  • A corollary of the above is that if you see yourself needing a 4BR house three years later, but don’t need it now, it is probably better to put-off buying one till then.
  • A savings account is a terrible investment vehicle. Buying a house is almost certainly the better choice if you’re not investing your money otherwise.

Discussion

Manasi and I decided to not buy a house right now, for several reasons:

  • Neither of us think of house buying as a life goal — Manasi because she spent most of her life living in government quarters, as her family moved from city to city; and me because I’ve never really felt a sense of attachment to any house I’ve lived in (instead feeling an attachment to the people I live with).
  • We like our current semi-suburban lifestyle with downtown shops, bars, and restaurants within walking distance. We won’t be able to afford buying a house here in the downtown area, and house-buying would likely mean moving somewhere more suburban and more car oriented.
  • We occasionally idly daydream about moving out of the Bay Area. While we don’t have concrete plans yet, buying a house here will make moving out that much harder. From an effort and cost point of view, our conversations suggested that one should not buy a house unless planning to live there for at least seven years.
  • Being responsible for your own plumbing and gardening and maintenance seems a lot more intimidating than just giving the landlord a call when something breaks. In practice, this is unlikely to be a major time-sink, but the mental effort seems undesirable, nonetheless.

Did you also go through a similar thought process? In what ways were your conclusions similar, vs different from ours? Did we miss something crucial? Would love to hear your thoughts, and discuss this more.

Death Throes of the Author

The last paragraph of O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi makes me like it a lot less. Had the story just ended with the reveal of Jim having sold his watch, the reader could’ve read the story as an everyday tragedy, as a snapshot of bitter ironies in life, or just a sardonic take of human nature. The author, though, chooses to moralize, saying “…two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house”, and imposing upon the reader his own interpretation.

Roland Barthes in his iconic essay Death of the Author argues against incorporating the author’s intentions and biographical context into literary analysis, and instead suggests analysing solely the text. Does the author wish to give up their text, though? I wonder if paragraphs like this one are the death throes of the author, a last attempt to exert control over their creation before it leaves them.

Take Sahir Ludhianvi’s Laaga Chunari mein Daag, immortalized by Manna Dey in raag bhairavi. The चुनरी, ससुराल, and दाग could probably have a dozen interpretations. The last antara before the tarana begins, however, goes:

कोरी चुनरिया आत्मा मोरी, मैल है माया जाल
वो दुनिया मोरे बाबुल का घर, ये दुनिया ससुराल

and just like that, the poet snatches away the dozen interpretations from the listener, by explaining their own interpretation of the metaphor within the text.

Mind you, the temptation to editorialize your own work is very real, and I’ve experienced it myself — perhaps most often when posting an Instagram story, and feeling the need to put a caption on it. My main reason, I think, is that people viewing my story won’t “get it”, because I’m not a good enough storyteller. Do the Ludhianvis and Henrys of the world feel this too? Perhaps more apt than death throes, then, might be to call this Insecurity of the Author.

In Chicago

As I gaze out of my plane window and I watch down, I see the lights of the Chicago night. Cars, skyscrapers, houses — all form these patterns, these constellations, these pictures. Look, isn’t that a mother chasing her laughing child around the house? And aren’t the lights on the coastline against Lake Michigan’s vast empty nothingness somewhat in Lincoln’s likeness, as he stares out into the infinite, contemplating about the future of the nation? Are those blinking lights next to the highway transmitting a message in code? Calling the mothership back to take E.T. home? The lights tell stories probably as fascinating and as vivid as the lives of all the people who form them.

Then I glance up at the sky and am horrified to see not a single star in sight! The brown smoggy emptiness of the sky is rivaled only by the oceanic lake below. But where are the stars? Where is Pegasus, spreading his magnificent wings as he rises to Mount Olympus? Where is Andromeda, waiting by the sea to be ravaged by the great sea monster? And as the plane passes above the clouds, and I still find the heavens empty, it dawns upon me that I had just left them down below. In Chicago. As the sun sets and night falls upon the city, the stars, not satisfied with telling the tale from far above, come down into the city to sing their tales to the dreaming millions. The heavens descend upon the earth — in Chicago. Could there be a greater human achievement?

At Gas Works Park, Seattle

As he gazes down upon people
playing
on his cool ferrous body, does
the metal giant
of Gas Works Park
feel
like
the last dinosaur
did, when he was displaced
by smaller agile creatures
on Earth?
Archaic, unwieldy,
irrelevant.

But beautiful.

Hello, Seattle

Pretend that you are in a plane. Closed. Flying 36000 feet in the air. Trapped. No escape. You try to sleep it off with the cheap alcohol. Fake smiles. Standing in line for the tiny toilets. Trapped. No escape. But then imagine your destination. Your home for the next five years. And the sense of curiosity and trepidation replaces dread. And then realize that you are already at your destination. “I’m here already!”, you whisper to yourself with wonder. There’s no apprehension anymore; just a question, “What’s next?”. Seattle welcomes you to an embrace – a cloudy one – but still strangely warm and inviting. “Welcome home, Ravi”, he whispers in your ear. And you smile as you step out of the airport, and reply,

“Hello Seattle! Great to finally meet you.”

Quick Almond Pie: My first ever original recipe

With a lot (and I mean a lot) of time on my hands, I am dabbling my hands in a bit of everything, including cooking. As I was sitting on the dinner table today, I suddenly felt enlightened, much like Buddha did under the Bodhi tree. The heavens proclaimed that I head to the kitchen, and create a masterpiece that the Gods wish me to create. Now, who am I to dispute the Gods? The item that I created in my creative frenzy turned out to be….well not too bad actually. So here is the crazily simple, yet decently tasty recipe

Quick Almond Pie

Image

Preparation Time: 5 minutes

Serves: 2 people

Ingredients

  • 8 Marie Biscuits
  • 4 tsp Sugar
  • 15 Almonds
  • 2 tbsp Butter
  • 4 tsp Milk (Replace with water/soy milk, if vegan)

Almond Pie Slices

Instructions
  1. Put the biscuits and the sugar in a mixer jar, and grind them to a fine powder
  2. Melt the butter and mix it together with the powder. Knead it lightly to get uniform consistency 
  3. Break the almonds into small, but not too small pieces, and mix into the mixture
  4. Take a 4-inch microwavable plate, and press it at the bottom, spreading evenly
  5. Sprinkle the milk on the top evenly
  6. Microwave for 1.5 minutes
  7. Remove and cut into triangular pieces
  8. Serve hot, with vanilla ice cream
End Note

You can probably replace almonds with walnuts or pistachios, to get the recipe for the corresponding pie

A Ghazal

As I sit here by your deathbed, gazing at thy tearful eyes
The memories flash before mine, me and the love of my life

देख तेरा हसीन बदन उमड़ा था दिल में उफान
मदिरा चख ले ‘इक बार, पानी से प्यास मिटती है कहाँ?

A mournful smile you smiled, and said, “In forty-eight moons; Fore’er
Leave you, I must. Can you live with a hole in your heart for life?”

हुस्न का दीवाना मैं, शमा की शहूत [1] – परवाना मैं
जिस्म का ही गुलाम है जो, मुस्तकबिल [2] देखता है कहाँ?

I became you, and you me. And as you giggled, when I kissed
The mole above your navel, wished that moment would last for life

हाँ, मोहब्बत हो गयी थी बन्दे को तुझसे ऐ ज़ालिम
और फिर तेरे साथ बीते चार साल न जाने गए कहाँ

As I sit here by your deathbed, gazing at thy tearful eyes
I wonder at the futility of the rest of my life

तरसता रवि, इक पल और तेरे संग मिलेगा कहाँ?
पर बाद घुरूब-ऐ-आफताब [3], एक किरण भी दिखती है कहाँ

(I wrote this as an ode to the amazing four years I spent at IIT Bombay, which are sadly about to end in the next two weeks. You are free to an alternative interpretation, of course. You can read about the poetic form of a ghazal here)

1. शहूत = lust
2. मुस्तकबिल = future
3. घुरूब-ऐ-आफताब = sunset

Faithful to the Original: Comparing Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes

(This piece has also been published in Proceedings of the Pondicherry Lodge, Vol 1: Issue 1. You can read that version on scribd)

I meant to write this a while ago, when the second season of the BBC TV show Sherlock came out, right after Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. But well, better late than never.

So this question often comes up in my Shakespearean Afterlives course. (Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Shakespeare!) What does it mean for an afterlife, or a contemporary work that derives from some past work, to be faithful to the original source? Film and television has had a revival of interest in Sherlock Holmes in the past few years. To be honest, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes has never quite been out of public gaze (see the numerous Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years), but a revival of interest for the mainstream and big-budget media is recent. In particular, Guy Ritchie came out with his interpretation of Sherlock as a spunky, funny, action-packed hero, played by the inimitable Robert Downey Jr, fighting villains and saving the world in the 1890s. And then there is the BBC TV series Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that has received accolades from fans and critics alike. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a savant like Sherlock who is quick to embrace gadgets and modern technology – anything that can help him get closer to catching the bad guys.So which of the two works is closer to the revered and canonized Doyle version of Sherlock Holmes?

The Setting

Ritchie’s Holmes lives in Doyle’s times. The horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned clothes and hats and the sepia tones paint the picture of Doyle’s London – surprisingly similar to what I imagined the setting to be when I read the short stories. Moffat’s Sherlock, on the other hand, lives in the fast, upbeat London of 2012. The characters travel in taxis, wear jeans talk on their iPhones – more of a setting for Doctor Who than Sherlock Holmes. However, recall that when Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories, he did not intend it to be a historical piece or a costume drama. Doyle’s Holmes is based not in the past, but in the present, and is in fact shown to be a man of science, gleefully using any new invention or discovery that may help him solve a case, including the recently discovered fingerprints, in a story whose title I don’t remember at the moment. Incidentally, this is picked up by both Ritchie – with his Sherlock shown driving the Ford Model T in a scene – and Moffat – with his Sherlock using SMS, GPS navigation and any other technology that can help. However, while forensics might have seemed cutting edge to the readers of 1890, Holmes driving the Model T is merely a funny scene in Game of Shadows. The horse-drawn carriages are seen as quaint and cute in 2012; they were a way of life in 1890 just like GPS and mobile phones are in 2012. The 2012 audience reaction to Moffat’s Sherlock, then is perhaps closer to what the 1890 audience reaction to Doyle might have been.

Note, however, that the modern reader (you and me) also reads Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The charm of the old that the book presents for us is perhaps robbed in the  Moffat and Gatiss version. Also, not all plot elements can work as well in a new setting. The photograph in A Scandal in Bohemia becomes a cellphone in A Scandal in Belgravia on the BBC show, since a digital photograph is so much easier to duplicate than a physical photograph of the 1890s. The change in the plot was done smoothly and brilliantly, in my opinion, but the fact that a change was required itself says that the plot wasn’t entirely faithful to Doyle. Or perhaps, since it is merely changing the plot to fit naturally into the contemporary setting, one could argue that it is in fact a faithful adaptation.

Holmes vs Holmes

The Sherlocks
Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Sherlock Holmes

Coming to the characters, both Cumberbatch and Downey Jr. play the same role – the role of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The character portrayed, however, is entirely different for both. Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock is an eccentric detective, clever, but ever ready to jump into a brawl. “Holmes is such a weirdo”, commented Downey Jr in an interview with the BBC once, and a weirdo is exactly what his Bohemian, comic Sherlock is. Comic is exactly what the Cumberbatch Sherlock is not. While he has his eccentricities, they tend to accentuate the intensity of the character rather than his funny side. The Bohemian Holmes is very much from Doyle’s text, but making him a comic character is taking it too far, in my opinion. While I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Game of Shadows, Downey doesn’t quite remind me of the short stories that I read so fondly as a child. Benedict Cumberbatch does. Though he uses nicotine patches instead of his pipe and lives in 2012 instead of 1890, he is in essence the Sherlock out of the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books.

Moriarty vs Moriarty

Andrew Scott and Jared Harris, as James Moriarty

Moriarty features only twice in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Sherlock Holmes’s respect and fear for him, however, make him a formidable opponent, and is often shown as an arch-enemy by contemporary works. Jared Harris plays the Moriarty of the Doyle books in The Game of Shadows. The master criminal, the mathematical genius – complete with a beard. Jim Moriarty of the BBC series, played by Andrew Scott is markedly different. He isn’t a professor, for one. “Moriarty is usually a rather dull, rather posh villain so we thought someone who was genuinely properly frightening. Someone who’s an absolute psycho”, Steven Moffat said, in an interview for The Guardian.  As in the books, Jim Moriarty commands absolute power in the criminal underworld. An unhinged genius with infinite power – Scott’s Moriarty is truly frightening. Perhaps he is a more relevant villain in 2012. But then, Jared Harris’s Moriarty is fairly frightening as well. Both Harris and Scott play formidable opponents to their respective Sherlocks, and are probably as clever as him. That, I believe, is the essence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, which both characters capture well.

Concluding Remarks

Perhaps faithfulness to the original isn’t a very relevant question. Indeed, I tremendously enjoyed watching both the movies and the TV show, irrespective of the liberties they take with the canonized text. Nonetheless, the differences are interesting to compare and contrast the differences between the three media(book, television and cinema) and the differences between Hollywood and British television. What do you think of the two versions? Which Sherlock did you like better? Which Moriarty did you like more? What about the two Watsons? Let’s discuss this in the comments below.

P != NP

If P = NP, then the world would be a profoundly different place than we usually assume it to be. There would be no special value in “creative leaps,” no fundamental gap between solving a problem and recognizing the solution once it’s found. Everyone who could appreciate a symphony would be Mozart; everyone who could follow a step-by-step argument would be Gauss… — Scott Aaronson

“…And hence P!=NP. QED”, wrote Ryan Brown. He could not believe his eyes. He had finally done it. The efforts of the past 23 years of his life had finally yielded fruit. He had proven the greatest mathematical problem of them all.

As an undergraduate student at MIT in 2011, Ryan came across the problem in his algorithms course. He was fascinated by how such a seemingly straighforward problem had stumped computer scientists for ages. It seemed obvious that you would have to try out all possible combinations in the 3-SAT problem to solve it. Or did it? He dwelled upon the problem, obsessed about it. Finally he decided that he could not be happy doing anything else. Ryan Brown would solve the P-NP problem, and would dedicate his whole life to it, if need be.

As he went from publisher to publisher, his despair grew. At first, he was confident that any journal would be glad, even honoured to publish this momentous result. Imagine his surprise, then, when he was politely declined by not one, but seven consecutive journals. As he went to the eighth publisher, his confidence in the result of the meeting was considerably lower than when he went to the first one. “…And hence, I proved this momentous result.”, Ryan explained to the publisher. The publisher listened patiently, but with a smug look on his face, as if he had already made up a decision. “But what use is it?”, he asked as Ryan finished his monologue. 

The third world war between USA and China broke out in 2018. Nobody could say that they did not expect it. That it wasn’t unexpected did not mean it wasn’t unpleasant, though. For Ryan, it meant that his research would have to halt, or at least slow down. He could not avoid conscription, as his research did not directly benefit the military. He was posted in South America, where he served for 9 months, till he was shot in the leg, and was allowed to return. His passion undeterred, he continued his research as before. However, the war had significantly changed the world’s outlook on research. There was a great degree of pragmatism that had crept into the mindset of the authorities and the researchers alike. Research in theoretical areas and mathematics was dismissed as mere mental amusement, and not deemed worthy of significant efforts or funding. Engineering, which could make missiles, radars and tanks that gave immediate tactical advantage in the war, received hefty funding and approval. Even when the war ended, the attitudes persisted. Ryan’s funding had dropped to a trickle. However, all he needed for his work was access to his books, papers, a blackboard, and his mind – all of which was intact.

“Fine, I’ll publish it”, said the thirteenth publisher Ryan approached, “Don’t expect me to pay you any royalties upfront, though. I doubt if this will earn me anything.” At that point of time Ryan was ready to accept anything – anything to get his idea out into the open, to let the world know that he had done what mathematicians had been struggling with for over 60 years!

“…And hence P!=NP. QED”, wrote Ryan Brown. He could not believe his eyes. He had finally done it. The efforts of the past 23 years of his life had finally yielded fruit. He had proven the greatest mathematical problem of them all.

Ryan Brown’s seminal paper turned out to be not so seminal after all. It didn’t really change the world view at all. Turned out that everyone who could appreciate a symphony was not Mozart after all. Ryan Brown died in 2035, a year after finishing his life’s work.

The world carried on as usual.