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Sunday, December 22

क्या लिखूं?

छूटे कोई दीन दुखी ना, सबको करो शुमार लिखो,
दबी हुई चीखों को बुन कर, कर्कश इक ललकार लिखो।

धरम जो पूछे शरणागत का, जात जो पूछे साधो की,
हिंदुस्तानी दिल ऐसा भी हुआ नहीं लाचार लिखो।

लिखने दो उनको BSE, NSE और GDP,
तुम आम आदमी की जेबों में बची चवन्नी चार लिखो।

इस शोर शराबे में सहमा सा सच जो तुमको मिल जाए,
एक बार लिखो, दस बार लिखो, तुम उसको बारम्बार लिखो।

है वक़्त अभी कुछ कहने का, है वक़्त नहीं चुप रहने का,
नफरत के तूफानों में घिरते, इंसानों को प्यार लिखो।

सुनो अभागा बदल गए हैं यहाँ मायने शब्दों के,
देशभक्त ऐसे हैं गर तो, खुद को तुम गद्दार लिखो।

Wednesday, October 2

Aritificial Alien Intelligence

Like fashion, even scientific research is subjected to cyclical fads. Topics, techniques come into limelight and then fall out of favor when the gains plateau. 

In machine learning, NNs were in vogue in early 90s when SVM came onto the scene and blew them out of water on almost every problem and then got superseded in turn by the log-linear models, CRFs and others. Then in beginning of this decade, NNs have made a tremendous come back, this time becoming the tool of choice for NLP as well.

Due to their name and a very crude similarity to how the biological brain is organized, NNs tend to invite comparisons with human brain and every improvement achieved with their help tends to be seen as an step towards Artificial General Intelligence, at least in popular media and common people. 

Now, what would happen if tomorrow a different method, a different paradigm of Machine Learning were start performing better than NNs? There is no reason why it could not happen AFAIK. We do not have theoretical results that say that NNs are better then every other method imaginable. They are as capable as anything else possible but that only means that another method that is better at exploiting the given data may be able to beat them.

Would such a development still feel like a step towards AGI? When you hear about a CRF, it merely sounds like a fancy mathematical object which we have devised. We don't feel threatened by it. It is because NNs are presented in the form of neurons and similarity to biological brains that the question seems to have assumed this sense of urgency. Or is it because for the first time, these systems have started to come close to human performance in certain tasks?

How do you think the discourse will change if a method that cannot be presented as interconnected neurons firing takes the lead? Would we call it Artificial Alien Intelligence? Or we are now past the possibility of such reversals or upheavals and the next jump up will come within the same paradigm only?

Monday, November 26

काठ की हांडी

बचपन में पढ़ा था
कि काठ की हांडी दोबारा नहीं चढ़ती
और दूध का जला छाछ भी फूंक फूंक कर पीता है।
काठ मारे हुए समाज की हांडी को
नफरत की कलई लगा कर
भावनाओं की आंच पर बार बार चढ़ाया जा सकता है।
बेकारी के दूध में
धर्म की अफीम मिला कर
कुंठित आशाओं के चावलों से
उन्माद की जहरीली खीर बार बार बनायी जा सकती है।
क्योंकि दूध का जला
छाछ भी फूंक फूंक कर पीना
जल्दी ही भूल जाता है।

Friday, March 4

The Burden of Taxpayers' Money

Waste of taxpayers' money is not a new refrain. It comes up in contexts ranging from big cars for legislators to foreign jaunts on flimsy grounds for MPs. From memorial parks to IITians doing MBA.

It is present with extraordinary force in the ongoing JNU row as well. Commentator after commentator have chided JNU students for wasting government money by engaging in politics. Having myself availed of significant government subsidy for my undergraduate education and also having been accused of engaging in politics in campus (poli-poli as it was called derisively), this made me think.

First let's not confuse income taxpayers with taxpayers. While about 3% of the Indian citizens pay income tax, everyone pays the indirect taxes like VAT, service tax etc. So JNU students are also taxpayers. Also worth keeping in mind that constitutional rights are not dependent on how much tax you pay.

Waste of taxpayers' money can mean one of the two things. It may mean that while government is supporting the students so that they can get a good education, they are instead engaging in politics and not focusing on their studies. But how do the commentators know that someone is engaging in politics at the expense of their work or studies? Did they check the semester records of the students involved in the protest? Have they checked the research records, teaching records of the professors? Will they be satisfied if someone with good academic performance was leading these protests?

And how can we decide if someone is paying sufficient attention? By looking at their CPIs? By looking at the number of papers they publish? Turning the question around, is it a waste of taxpayers' money if some of the students who focus only on their studies don't do well?

Another view says that it is a waste of taxpayers' money since these students are anti-national. Since they are questioning the elected government, judiciary and the constitution, why should we bear the burden to educate them? For starters, let me point out that we do spend taxpayers' money on educating all kinds of convicted criminals: murderers, thieves, rapists, even terrorists. Jails do not fund themselves.

But let's get back to the question of anti-national. It is clear that there is no violent action or criminal conspiracy involved here. The police action was in response to the sloganeering at an event. So we are in the territory of thought and speech crimes. Question is what makes you an anti-national? Is questioning the government of the day sedition? You can answer that one yourself.

How about questioning the court? Scholars like Arun Shourie have written entire books criticizing the judges for pushing forward the progressive agenda. Wasn't Manu Sharma let go by one of the very same courts and didn't the whole country came out of streets to protest against that? For the society to work smoothly, you need to follow the court orders. It doesn't mean you have to agree with them.

How about constitution? Let's just say that we have already hit a century of constitutional amendments and there seems no end in sight. BJP itself is against the section 370 of the constitution, demanding its removal. A complete review of Indian constitution has been in their election manifestos. And the last time NDA was in government, they constituted a National Commission to review the working of the Constitution. So much for not questioning the constitution.

So the question becomes that is someone under increased obligation to tow the state line if he/she receives state subsidy for education? Do they surrender their right to criticize the state? Are they not to have political opinions and certainly not to express them? Is the state funding of education a charity? Isn't it state's responsibility to make sure affordable education is available to everyone? Can state discriminate between someone who criticizes them vs someone who supports them?

And to turn the question around, are the standards of patriotism different for those who can afford to pay for their education?

For me personally, one of the most cherished experiences from college life is of participating in the small scale democratic experiment that IITK was. It was nothing compared to big universities and the boundaries were strictly set but even within those limits, it was an eye opener and a great teacher. It helped me to see myself as a part of the society, to engage with it, to care more deeply about its issues rather than being just an individual on a mission to make the greatest fortune for myself while having a shallow institute loyalty.

That experience convinced me that political awareness and engagement is part and parcel of a good education. A education that makes us a good citizen instead of just a taxpayer.

Tuesday, November 24


लम्बा शेर लिखोगे तो पछताओगे,
सुनो 'अभागा' ट्वीट नहीं कर पाओगे।

तेज़ हवा है, आग भड़कने वाली है,
अंदर बाहर कहीं रहो जल जाओगे।

पैने शब्दों की फसलों के मौसम में,
हर ज़बान से लहू टपकता पाओगे।

देशभक्ति के नए बने पैमाने पर,
मुंह खोला तो तुम भी तौले जाओगे।

Friday, October 30


अंधश्रद्धा को बताया प्यार उसने,
खेल जादू का दिखाया यार उसने।

चाँद को देखा तभी एक कौर निगला,
कर लिया यूँ उम्र का व्यापार उसने।

साथ में भूखा रहा वो आदमी कल,
नारी जाति का किया उद्धार उसने।

वो बहू अच्छी रही होगी 'अभागा',
सह लिया चुप रूढ़ियों का भार उसने।

Wednesday, September 16

Reading Translations

Sometime back on Twitter, in the course of a discussion on translations, someone mentioned that translations of foreign authors seem to find more favor with Indian readers as compared to translation of Indian authors from Indian languages. While many love writers like Orhan Pamuk (Turkish),
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Spanish), not the same favor is accorded to Indian writers. There is a certain disinterest towards them. As is the wont of every Twitter discussion, someone soon mentioned "colonized minds" and that was that.
I'm not sure about the validity of original assertion, there are too many unverified assumptions here. How popular is Orphan Pamuk in India after all? But this discussion got me thinking about my own experience of reading translations. Do I have such a preference? I think I do.

Despite the multitude of languages, there is an underlying cultural continuity across India. Irrespective of the language of the story, if it is set in India, if it is about Indian society, you are likely to encounter familiar things, familiar situations in it. Reading about those familiar things in English often gets jarring. But when it comes to Turkey or Spain or Russia, I have little idea about the cultural idioms. So I can read peacefully in English without feeling awkward.

This problem is not limited to translations. I have run into the same problem with Indian English writing. "In Custody" of Anita Desai was ruined for me by the torturous passages upon passages trying to describe the beauty of Urdu poetry and the few translated couplets. I felt like shaking the author and asking her to just tell me the original Urdu couplet which I am fully capable of enjoying directly. I wish she'd have included those at the end of the book or in footnotes.

For the Indian books, my preference is to read the original if I can, read a Hindi translation or read an English translation if there is no other option. Although the sad fact is that even within India, quality and availability of English translation is often better than Hindi translations.