Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Desserts and places

I’ve been on a constant eating binge since Diwali, a couple of weeks ago (and that’s a reason for not blogging much. Honestly). This thanksgiving was spent consuming unimaginably large quantities of food, with tons of sweets and desserts thrown in. And somewhere over the past few weeks, we drove by the little Czech town of West, Texas, and gorged on their famous kolache (which were rather good, I must add) (note: kolache itself is a plural word, so “kolaches” would be incorrect, though people popularly use kolaches as a plural for kolac). That, and a visit to one of the large Indian sweet stores here somehow led to a discussion on Indian sweets, and places in India that were famous for their sweets.

The insatiable sweet and dessert gourmand in me was delighted with the travels through Indian dessert land.

As far as Mysore pak goes, the name automatically and correctly suggests Mysore as the origin, and there are terrific Mysore paks to be had there, but I would argue that they can be just as good in Bangalore, or in Coimbatore’s Sri Krishna sweets. But there’s another uniquely Kannadiga sweet called Chiroti, flakey, layered and ideally eaten soaked in almond-milk. Bangalore and Mysore rule for this.

When it came to the delicious, milky peda, we were evenly split on our verdict. I’m partial to the tiny, dark Dharwad pedas that melt in the mouth, but the strong claim to supremacy from Mathura’s pedas could not be easily brushed aside.

Some sweets are almost synonymous with towns or cities in India. Apart from the just mentioned Mysore pak, there are the super-saccharine pethas from Agra (which I never really fancied). The little town of Tirunelvelli in Tamil Nadu is probably best known for its unique halva, quite different from the more common types of halva (such as those made out of semolina or carrots) found across India. Laddus (ladoos) are perhaps the most popular sweet across India. While I don’t particularly fancy them, the laddus from Tirupathi have made it to song and legend. On the other hand, a trip to Uttar Pradesh just to sample my favorite mothichur laddos there is long overdue. Some day I hope to complete a UP-laddu pilgrimage, starting at Haridwar, and steadily working my way across UP, through Muzafarnagar, Lucknow and finally to Kanpur’s Thaggu ke laddu.

While still in UP, I’ve been told by authoritative sources that the best gulab jamuns in the world are to be found in a little Podunk town in UP called Orai. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is the only claim to fame of this town, at least according to the omniscient wikipedia.

Sweet sojourns in India cannot be complete without indulging in Bengali sweets. There are two things that remain etched in my memory from numerous childhood visits to Calcutta (Kolkata); incredibly slow trams, and absolutely delicious varieties of Sandesh. And if you want to really go off the beaten Indian dessert track, go to Hyderabad and eat the absolutely sublime double ka meetha.

For some classic Indian sweets, we were hard pressed to say if some places were better known for them than others. I’ve had terrific jalebis in many places, as well as their South Indian counterparts, jangris, and cannot think of any place that can stake a claim on them. There are special types of kheer that each region claims to make better than others. And while the best Shrikhand I’ve had was in Pune, I’m sure a good chunk of Maharashtra and Gujarat will claim to make better Shrikhand.

I’m many of you guys have favorite desserts not just from India, but from across the world (a Florentine colleague told me Fritelle di riso was to die for, so I made it a point to eat some when I visited Florence some years ago).

Go ahead, educate me so that we can plan our next dream holiday accordingly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Animate this!

It almost seems unreal, but the first presentation I saw that was done completely on PowerPoint was only about seven years ago. Before that, almost all talks I heard used a combination of overheads (with the old fashioned transparency on an overhead projector, sometimes with a few impromptu scribbles along the way) and slides (and an old fashioned slide projector). But we were mesmerized by the power of the PowerPoint dark magic and the neat little graphic animations. At the time my unequivocal opinion was that PowerPoint was the most advanced and sophisticated tool ever created to enable effective presentations.

Of course, like most things, perspectives change over time.

While I haven’t quite classified PowerPoint presentations as the great evil, I’m slowly coming around to the point that PowerPoint, in most hands, can do more to damage talks than to enhance them. It has taken time, but by closely observing the really good speakers and their presentations and trying to learn from them, I’ve put together some thoughts on the pitfalls of PowerPoint, and what needs to be done or avoided in giving good thoughts (putting them to practice seems to be a completely different ball game though).

Perhaps because of the ease of making slides due to PowerPoint, many of us have forgotten what talks are all about. There is an auditory component in talks, and there is the visual component. Striking a balance between the two is essential. But what PowerPoint seduces us to do is to go overboard on the visual component. This means it is easy to overload the slide with data or words or to throw in too many bells and whistles. I remember a couple of occasions when I (shamefully) “winged” through some journal club style presentations, because I thought I could easily create some slides with a lot of verbal and visual content which I could use as a crutch to work through the talk. This ability to put a lot on the slide can easily allow laziness to creep in, and by not planning through the talk well enough, one becomes too reliant on what is on those slides. Almost always, the talk suffers, since you haven’t done enough homework on the content, or have put in so much information on the slides that the audience zones out due to a visual overload.

The second thing PowerPoint does (which sometimes takes a while to undo) is make you create slides that dictate the content of the talk. Instead of planning a careful outline of the talk, and systematically outlining the flow of the talk in your head, one might easily succumb to the temptation of making slides on the go. Traditionally, one would sit down and carefully outline all parts of the talk (usually on paper or a document), but the very ease of making and deleting slides might make you avoid that. Interestingly, PowerPoint does have an “outline” option which most of us don’t use but probably should.

Sometimes, when you make a really neat presentation with plenty of nice bells and whistles or cool pictures, you are tempted to use it no matter what, and end up recycling too many slides regardless of the audience. This goes back to the previous point of not planning through your talk well enough, which goes back to the ease of making slides (or reusing old slides) on the go. Sure, a lot of this comes from laziness, but hey, aren’t we all lazy?

Powerpoint also seems to take away the dynamic nature of talks. Talks are very personal, and the nature of the speaker really dictates the quality of the talks. But if the audience is forced to stare only at a large white screen and visually overloaded PowerPoint slides, the dynamism of the speaker and the interactions of the speaker with the audience are often lost. Also, if the speaker has this “eureka” moment during a talk, or thinks of something connected to his/her talk; it is really hard to incorporate that into the talk easily, since the slides dictate the content of the talk. Unfortunately, most lecture halls have lost the overhead projector, screen and transparency (which can so easily and effectively be used to illustrate a point or a tangential thought during a presentation). It’s a pity, since some of the very best talks I’ve attended were by speakers who almost completely used transparencies (with some writing and illustrations thrown in during the talk) while presenting their own thoughts very clearly in their words. The big screen with the PowerPoint slides also sometimes tempts the speaker (I’m certainly guilty of this) to hide behind the slides, as opposed to stepping up and making the talk his or hers, using the slides only to illustrate the point.

So essentially the effort has to be made by the speaker to use PowerPoint effectively to communicate with the audience, and that fact should never be forgotten. This starts with making a good outline of the presentation, and using dynamic headings on the slide (making statements, instead of stating detailed facts in the titles). Illustrations with fewer words whenever possible make life much easier for an audience (a picture does speak a thousand words, usually without putting the audience to sleep). But finally, the presentation must be made personal and about you. Every conscious effort needs to be made to avoid making the presentation glossy-generic (which PowerPoint almost automatically does). Presentations should be about standing and delivering, and avoiding the crutch of slides whenever it can be avoided. And every possible effort should be made to avoid slipping into slide mediocrity, and forgetting the fact that presentations are about the speaker communicating with an audience.

Have a good thanksgiving all, and pitch in with your opinions about the evil magic slide maker TM.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mirror neurons, phantom limbs and the Capgras delusion

I first heard about phantom limbs in a journal club some three years ago. I don’t know any amputees or people who have lost their limbs, so when I heard that a very large percentage of amputees experienced “phantom limbs” I was more than surprised. If a limb is amputated, it is gone, finis. But apparently many amputees can still feel their amputated limb moving. What is more, this is accompanied often by excruciating pain which they cannot control. Even more bizarre is the Capgras delusion, which is something practically taken out of Bollywood movies, except it is imaginary. Here, the person with Capgras delusion absolutely believes that some acquaintance (a friend or family member, say) has been replaced by an identical looking impostor. To the delusional patient, the impostor looks the same, sounds the same, feels the same, but is an impostor!

V. Ramachandran, at the center for brain and cognition at UCSD is one of the pioneer researchers of these phenomena. Almost more importantly, he is an engaging, eloquent and charismatic speaker. Not long ago, he gave a talk at TED, which is more than well worth your time.

Take 20 minutes off whatever you are doing, and enjoy the talk. (If the video doesn't work from the browser, you can view and download it here).

Monday, November 05, 2007

Where’s the science section?

A small, unexpected windfall in the form of a gift card made us go down to the nearest Barnes & Nobles bookstore for some bookshopping. It has been a while since I visited a large bookstore. While in Seattle, I’d always walk down to any one of the half dozen used bookstores all around campus, and delight in browsing through their collections amidst the irresistible aroma of old books. But once I moved to Dallas even that became a novelty, since there aren’t too many used bookstores around in these parts. Anyway, I do most of my bookshopping online, thanks to the wonderful choice of Amazon,, Abebooks and the likes. Essentially, it had been years since I had last stepped into a large bookstore like Barnes & Nobles.

So a good hour or more was spent browsing through the collections at Barnes & Nobles. There were impressive fiction and non-fiction sections and aisle after aisle of the latest bestsellers. There was an excellent section on history, from US through world history, and there were also excellent collections of books on travel and places. The religion section was, not unexpectedly, massive. There were three full aisles for bibles alone, and four or five more aisles for all sorts of books on religion (mostly Christianity). Clearly, the demand for such fiction knows no bounds here.

But I was looking for the science section. So I searched and I searched, and finally found it. There it was, one single shelf, tucked in between “oversize books” and “atlases”, with a tiny collection of books, most of which were on astronomy (stargazing, actually). I couldn’t believe that was it, so looked around some more, and finally found two more shelves, one with books on physics, and another shelf with books on chemistry and biology combined. In the biology section was a pitifully small collection of books, a couple on Darwin, three of Richard Dawkins’ books, and Michael Behe’s “Edge of Evolution”, which should rightly have been in the speculative fiction section and not in the science/biology section.

That was it. A whole massive bookstore with a gazillion books, and three small shelves devoted to all of science. If that isn’t disappointing, tell me what is.

I managed to pick up Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything”, which has been on my reading list for two years now, as well as a nice book (with superb pictures) on lost cities (great metropolises of the past that lie in ruin today) as what claims to be “the 30 best drinking games from around the world”, and all of this left me reasonably satisfied.

But talk about slender pickings! Sticking to Amazon might just seem better. I wonder if the store collections are similar across the country, or if different regions have slightly different collections, reflecting the demand and tastes of local readers?