musings on music and life

October 28, 2015

Assassin’s Creed 2 Screenshots

Filed under: Video Gaming — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 9:05 pm

After completing Assassin’s Creed, I also played through Assassin’s Creed II a few months ago. This game represents a huge step up from AC1 in terms of playability, game mechanics, storyline, and complexity of the plot. Since the game starts with the birth of the protagonist, Ezio Auditore, the player feels immersed in the game and develops an instant emotional connection with Ezio, a suave, brash, street-smart young man whose family is brutally murdered in front of his eyes. Ezio’s search for justice and the truth behind the killings forms the plot of Assassin’s Creed II and the sequels, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: RevelationsAssassin’s Creed II is historically based in Renaissance Italy, and during the course of Ezio’s adventures he encounters notable figures of the time including Lorenzo di Medici, Caterina Sforza, Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pope Rodrigo Borgia.

Fortunately I was able to retrieve these screenshots since I had saved them to a cloud file-sharing service (in this case Jumpshare) in order to share them with a friend. My desktop computer (which I had played these on) is getting old, and even though I had installed a new SSD, it got mysteriously corrupted sometime in July/August. I have other stuff on the hard drive which I need to recover when I get back home to the US; I know what it’s like to lose precious data, and the feeling sucks.

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October 16, 2015

on being fooled by randomness

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — sankirnam @ 10:35 am

Taleb_Randomness

In “Fooled By Randomness”, author Nassim Taleb makes a very incisive point: what we percieve as survivorship bias is oftentimes just a randomized effect. One can illustrate this by the following process that Taleb also makes in the book. Suppose you have 100,000 people engaged in some activity with a large element of luck or randomness involved (i.e. stock trading/forecasting, or scientific research*). If at every stage you eliminate 90% of the participants, after 5 stages, you will be left with 10 people. Are these people necessarily “better” than the others who were not eliminated? At the outset, before the process began, we might not have said so. However, once everything is over, the mental process of “survivorship bias” kicks in to make an ex post facto rationalization as to why these remaining 10 people are superior.

*One might find the use of “scientific research” in this context odd; after all, it is supposed to be a methodical process, right? Well, as someone who completed a PhD in chemistry, as a practitioner of scientific research, and as a scientist, I can attest that the process of research is all luck. Think about it: research operates on the frontier of human knowledge, whereby the outcomes of what you plan to do are basically unknown. One can make an educated guess, and these educated guesses (or “hypotheses”) form the direction of research inquiries. However, at the moment of doing the experiments, you do not know which one will yield the results you want. This is how science (especially chemistry) operates – by running a lot of experiments, and seeing that one of them worked (due to chance), and then retroactively fitting a model or theory around that result.

This makes me uneasy, in much the same way that finance makes Taleb uneasy, because the conclusion is that scientists are no better than financiers at dealing with randomness! And these are the people we look to for improving our quality of life, solving some of the most pressing problems we as a species collectively face, and furthering the boundaries of human intelligence!

It is disturbing to me that so many processes are now due to luck, or can be described as a “numbers game”. Activities falling in this category include job applications and dating, among others. The very fact that dating has become a “numbers game” is exploited by the numerous dating apps that have proliferated recently, including Tinder, Hinge, and Coffee Meets Bagel. These apps attempt to make the process of meeting people easier, by removing the necessary barriers (i.e. proximity) necessary for communication; however these same barriers are also lowered for rejection! By dramatically lowering the barrier for rejection, people are more prone to wait for someone perfect to come by (even if that is an ideal that may never be materialized), rather than giving existing people of the opposite/same gender who may have expressed interest in them a chance. A similar situation exists in today’s job market; with the current saturation of job seekers in the market, employers can afford to wait for the perfect “purple squirrel” candidate, and if he/she doesn’t turn up, complain that there is a “shortage of STEM workers” and bring in more H1-B workers**.

In short, processes that used to be systematic have now become stochastic. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but my observations about the world around me seem to be consistent with this sentiment.

**On this note, I would like to point out Norman Matloff’s excellent blog. Matloff is a realtalker and makes a key distinction that people fail to observe with H1-B workers: while the program is supposed to bring in the “best and the brightest”, what it is actually accomplishing is bringing in mediocre immigrants en masse and displacing otherwise qualified Americans from their jobs. It’s ironic that I would be bashing the H1 program, as my family immigrated to the US as part of that; however, my father definitely belonged to the “best and brightest” category, having been given a job offer as CTO of a tech startup during the 90’s-00’s dot-com boom.

October 9, 2015

Tribute to Flute N. Ramani sir

Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: — sankirnam @ 11:07 am

It’s very rare to see individuals who achieve such a high level of mastery in music that they become synonymous with their instrument. I consider myself lucky to have heard concerts by a few of these legends of our time, such as Mandolin U. Srinivas and Chitravina N. Ravikiran. Flute N. Ramani sir was another vidwan who belonged to this category, as he was the first musician to take the Carnatic flute across the world. Unfortunately, I heard the news that he passed away earlier today. This is another terrible loss for Carnatic music as he represented the pinnacle of perfection in flute playing; he served as a benchmark for the younger generation of musicians to aspire to.

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Ramani sir (middle) with Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (violin) and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam).

N. (Natesan) Ramani was the nephew of T. R. Mahalingam (Mali), the maverick genius flute vidwan who first took the Carnatic style of flute to great heights with his fluid style of playing. Like so many other famous guru-sishya combinations, Ramani sir’s playing represents an extremely polished version of his uncle’s style. But, while Mali usually played his flute concerts at G#, Ramani introduced a deeper flute (not really “bass”) to Carnatic music, which was usually pitched around D#. Lowering the sruthi also demands an increase in breath control, as the instrument becomes larger, and the volume of air that must be pushed therefore increases; Ramani soon became the master of playing the instrument at this sruthi. The lower pitched flute is also more pleasant to listen to; the recordings of Mali playing at G# can be quite shrill at times. It is also much more convenient for mrudangam vidwans; most find it easier to play lower pitched mrudangams as opposed to higher-pitched ones, and maintaining very high pitched mrudangams (G# or above) is a challenge.

When one takes a look at the evolution of Carnatic music over recent decades, one has to look for changes that have succeeded and been taken up by future generations (which is a Darwinian perspective: survival of the fittest, that only strong mutations will propagate). Changes that are not successful will not be taken up by future generations and will die out on their own. On the other hand, examples of successful changes are Ariyakudi’s introduction of the modern kutcheri paddhathi, G. N. Balasubramaniam’s introduction of the medium-fast tempo that dominates modern Carnatic music, and of course Ramani sir’s pioneering of the D# sruthi flute. It is very rare to hear people play the flute at G# anymore these days.

This krithiGurulekha Etuvanti, is one of the pieces that Ramani sir was able to put his indelible stamp on; almost all instrumentalists (not just flautists) play this krithi the way he has played it here, with the patterns of 5, 6, and 7 in the pallavi at “Teliyagabodhu”. The swara patterns in the charanam at Tattvabodhanajesi” also feature classic combinations that quickly became popular among all artists. Another delightful aspect of this recording is how effortlessly M. S. Gopalakrishnan is able to match every brigha played by Ramani sir; I can just close my eyes and imagine him playing those with a smile!

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Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (Violin), N. Ramani (flute), Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam), not sure who the tabla player is… would appreciate any help identifying him!

One of the convenient aspects about lowering the sruthi of the flute is that it matches with the usual sruthi of other instruments, such as the veena and the violin. Thus, Lalgudi Jayaraman and N. Ramani soon started performing together, and in the 70’s, performed a series of concerts in the US under the “East-West Exchange” along with Trichy Sankaran and Ramnad V. Raghavan. This influence led to Ramani sir featuring a lot of Lalgudi’s compositions in his concerts, especially his thillanas. In addition, Ramani sir also participated in the “Violin-Veena-Venu” concerts featuring Lalgudi Jayaraman and Trivandrum R. Venkatraman, and was also in the original Sruthi Laya ensemble by Karaikudi R. Mani.

This recording demonstrates how nicely the three instruments (violin, veena, and flute) are able to blend together. Of course, this is all done without amplification, which is why the veena is not very audible in some parts.

Ramani sir also followed the gayaki style of flute playing, which attempted to emulate vocal music to the maximum extent possible. He was also a follower of G. N. Balasubramaniam’s style of music, and this was amply evident in every brigha and fast-paced piece he played.

Ramani sir’s mastery of the flute is demonstrated here in spades. The tight control over the kalapramanam, and the precision of each swaram, not just in the chittaswaram but in every sangathi and brigha is just amazing. This recording is sped up slightly; I think it was recorded from a spool tape being played at a slightly higher-than-normal speed. You can tell because the sruthi is in between E and F, as opposed to D#.

Ramani sir had a long and successful career, and basically everyone among the famous violinists, mrudangists, and upapakkadyam artists had played for him. He came to the US several times with Srimushnam Raja Rao, and served on the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana committee for several years. He was very close with not just Lalgudi Jayaraman, but also Thanjavur Upendran.

I particularly like this recording because of Bhaktavatsalam’s use of sarvalaghu, the continuity in his playing, and his clever shuffling of phrases. The phrases Ramani sir does at “Mahakavyanatakadhipriyam” are especially nice; these are only possible on flute. Such akara phrases would sound odd if done by a vocalist.

Finally…

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I apologize for the poor photo quality – this was taken on my old cellphone, a HTC Sensation; it does not have a very good camera. I am very glad that I attended this concert, as it is a rare “triple Sangeetha Kalanidhi” concert! Ramani sir (assisted by his son R. Thyagarajan and grandson Atul Kumar), M. Chandrashekaran, and Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir all received the coveted Sangeetha Kalanidhi title from the Madras Music Academy during the course of their careers. This was the inaugural concert for the December 2012 series of concerts at the Music Academy, and this concert took place after a speech by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha. This concert featured many of Ramani sir’s classics, including Shri Mahaganapathi (Gaula), Gurulekha (Gaurimanohari), and Enduku Peddala (Shankarabharanam). I should also mention that the ghatam in this concert was played by Giridhar Udupa – unfortunately he is hidden on stage!

October 8, 2015

Coursera Business Foundations Specialization

Filed under: education — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 2:17 am

So I’m currently taking the aforementioned series of courses on Coursera. They are offered by the Wharton School of Business, at the University of Pennsylvania. I finished the first course, Introduction to Marketing, in August, and am currently taking Introduction to Operations Management. I’m paying for Verified Certificates for all these courses, so that I can hopefully get something tangible out of this; hopefully this will help when I apply to MBA programs in the future.

The Marketing course was very good overall. The quality of the video lectures was excellent, and the topics covered were enthusiastically discussed by the professors in the course. I was under the impression that this was a “softer’ subject, in the sense that there is a lot less quantitative data research in these fields, but I was pleasantly surprised. The lecture did touch on the concept of the “Long Tail”, which was first discussed by Prof. Chris Anderson (UCLA). I’m also re-reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan now, and he also mentions the long tail concept and discusses it in length there.

I do have a few gripes, however. The course covered the market segmentation concept “PRIZM”, and one of the quiz questions asked how PRIZM segments markets. The way PRIZM works is not through “geographic” segments, and yet that was the answer! The really correct answer, which was actually discussed in detail in the video lectures, is “demographic” segmentation!

Also, check out these spectacular gaffes from the final exam:Screenshot 2015-08-27 15.23.58

I guess the course admins and the professors were feeling generous, so they improved the odds of getting that question correct from 1/4 to 1/3!

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I remember reading a lot of confused and angry posts from students on the course discussion forums about question 40. The correct answer to the question is there, but it is still hugely misleading to see “Correct option 3” and “Correct option 2”. Hopefully Coursera has fixed this in the future iterations of the course.

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