Book review of Trevor Noah’s “Born a crime”


Being a fan of late night comedy talk shows, I am a fan of many fine speakers like Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. My favorite though is Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, who hosts the “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. What has impressed me most about Trevor is how he goes beyond mere slapstick comedy and puts in some emotion and character into the news so that it is more relatable. Recently he published his first book “Born a crime – Stories from a South African childhood” and in many ways it is even more impressive than his talk show.

Trevor Noah was born in South Africa during the apartheid regime when state sponsored racism against black people was rampant. The title “Born a crime” comes from the fact he was born to a black mother but a white father in the times where inter-racial sex was punishable by law.

This ‘crime’ results in a childhood filled with cat and mouse encounters where Trevor’s mother tries to hide him from the society which could take him way at any moment. South Africa’s tyrannical white rule is lifted when Trevor is still a child. Suddenly exposed to the new free world, the mischievous and restless young spirit inside him sets forth to hustle and grab every opportunity that comes his away; all with the support and encouragement of his fearless and rebellious mother whose relationship with her son forms the foundation of this book.

Autobiographies or self memoirs is not my preferred genre, but this book has a very refreshing and serene feel to it right from the first chapter. The book is filled with candid and expressive stories, ranging from setting up a pirated CD shop, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, dealing with an abusive step-father, to pitfalls of high school dating and many more.

This could have turned out to be a grim and sad narrative. But every story sparkles with Trevor’s incisive wit and subtle sense of humor elevating them to a moving but still enjoyable read. What impressed me was how Trevor goes about narrating important incidences in his life instead of just going in a chronological fashion which could induce boredom.

The book paints a very heartfelt and sometimes deeply moving portrait of a witty young man faced with racism and abuse, but with the adventurous spirit to rise above it. If you are looking for some storytelling which is compelling and humorous, have a read guys !

Where’s the science, President ?

When I first started this blog with my friend about 2.5 years ago, it was with an intention to put forward our ideas about science and math. I remember the high school days when we used to discuss vague topics in science, often baffling people around us. Never do I recollect talking about politics though. This blog followed the same trend with scores of articles about astronomy, statistics, economics but hardly any political commentary.

But the extraordinary events going on in the name of the great 2016 American Election have made me sit up and take notice. Everyone of us has an opinion about Donald Trump. I am not here to do any general Trump bashing. Much of that is available on youtube and probably in a more entertaining manner than I might present things here. The angle which I want to cover here is the amazing disregard for science and math that this presidential race has shown.

I have been living in the U.S. for more than 3 years now. Many things have surprised me about this country, but one aspect that has been reinforced is the level of scientific progress here. Countless researchers are involved in working on ground breaking technologies and discoveries all over the country. U.S accounts for more than 30% of scientific publications in the world annually. Equally impressive is the staggering number of students assisting in the endeavor.

But judging from how the presidential campaign is going on, one would hardly think that science is even a subject taught in high school. Right from the primaries, the focus has been on immigration and economics. In the primary debates, the only scientific topic that came up was climate change. It is perhaps the most important concern facing humankind right now. But most of the candidates treated it how a child treats the last 2 problems of his/her homework; they just want to finish it off quickly so that they can go out and play with their buddies.

A look at Hilary Clinton’s webpage shows only a tiny section about climate change as a representative for science. Donald Trump’s page doesn’t even have a mention about it.The whole point of this election has become about two grownups coming close to retirement age squabbling like 10 year old kids over petty issues. Important topics like space exploration, new manufacturing techniques and renewable energy development have been left in the dark.  We can make the world a better place if we give greater impetus to these, but they are almost absent in the hate and blame rhetoric that has characterized this election.

My other big concern is about how numbers and statistics have been blatantly disregarded. Much of this blame has to fall on Trump. Trump has often sought to use his cult of personality to make statements which are blatant lies. One of the many examples of this is how he claims that U.S. unemployment is growing worse. He once claimed that U.S. employment stands at a grand total of 42%. For people who believe in him, that might set big alarm bells ringing. Upon closer examination, his numbers actually include anyone who doesn’t have full time 40hr employment, and that includes high school, college or graduate student, a stay-at-home parent, a job-training participant and even retired senior citizens ! Factor all that out and the harshest number that you can come up with is 16%. That is more than 2.5 times smaller than Trump’s claims. Facts should be the cornerstone of our social lives and if we get blinded by rousing emotions and charisma of the person in front of us, then it can paint a very wrong picture of our society.

Now you might think that a President has nothing to do with science. Let’s leave all that to the universities and industries, shall we ? Well, that’s way off the mark. Let me redirect your attention to Mohamed Nasheed, former president of Maldives, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean. Realizing that rising sea levels due to climate change could potentially sink his country, he launched a huge campaign to battle against climate change. He lobbied with leaders of countries far more powerful than Maldives to implement pro-climate measures. He also implemented policies to make Maldives a carbon-neutral nation by 2020. Today he is regarded as a climate change hero all over the world for his tenacity.

If any of the two candidates shows even a fraction of the regard for science as Nasheed showed, U.S could go a long way in helping solve not only the nation’s but the world’s problems, Instead of spreading communal hatred and mistrust, people need to be encouraged to believe in the power of reason and scientific truth. J.F.K’s words in 1961 about sending a man to the moon may have been driven by the cold war, but they revolutionized NASA and has led to a huge boost to space technology which is positively impacting lives all over the world. This once again shows what strong political will can achieve. As Carl Sagan once said, “The earth is but a pale blue dot”; Instead of wasting time on communal tensions, we can let science and math guide our way into a better future.

God gave us integers !


Mathematics has become such an integral part of our lives that we hardly stop to think about it. We check our bill at the grocery store;  even without realizing that the basic math we are doing is actually a great power we have to understand nature.

On one hand, mathematical constructs like series, functions, calculus sound like something which is fit for textbooks and in the hands of engineers and scientists. But the history of mathematical discovery is very rich and diverse; the various branches of algebra, geometry, calculus, probability, statistics etc have had very different origins.

Pascal and Fermat, two Frenchmen basically developed the modern theory of probability in a series of letters to each other. Pascal was a mathematician and Fermat a lawyer, both concerned with the question of fairness in splitting up the prize money of an unfinished game of chance. They calculated the probabilities of outcomes and gave the definition of expected value.

Calculus was formulated by Isaac Newton because the prevalent rules of math weren’t enough for him to explain his work in acceleration and gravitation. Calculus allowed him to explain gravity in quite a beautiful fashion and his science became the bedrock of physics for many centuries to come.

On the other hand, there are many mathematical concepts developed just for sake of logic with no immediate practical relevance in mind; but these turn out to explain physical phenomena in nature which are discovered years later. E.g. the brilliant Indian mathematician Ramanujan published numerous equations and theorems in his brief lifetime in first 2 decades of the 20th century. His work has pervaded many areas of modern mathematics and physics. This begs the question, is math a human invention or is it a discovery of some underlying principles of nature…just like other sciences ?

A perspective that can be useful is to see how math is essential to understanding the complexities of nature. Just consider the simple action of throwing a ball in the air in front of you. Newton’s laws will give us pretty much the exact position where the ball will land. So one might consider math as some sort of tool created by us which gives us the info we need.

But nature is not always as simple as throwing a ball in the air. When we consider complicated systems like nature, we start realizing that our basic laws do not seem to useful in predicting outcomes. So does math have a boundary in which it can’t operate? Well, that’s really not the case; math can actually help us understand why nature behaves so erratically and cause what mathematicians call “Chaos”.

We don’t even need a system as complex as the weather to understand chaos. Let’s consider a simple expression f(x)=1-2x^2. To introduce complexity, we loop this expression by itself in the foll way :

f[x]= 1-2x^2 ; f2[x]=f[f[x]] ; f3[x] = f[f2[x]] … f25[x] = f[f24[x]]…

Let’s graph values for this functions for many iterations. We will use a starting value of x=1/π but once with 16 decimals and once with 15 decimals. The results are presented in the graph below.


We see a very surprising trend after about 60 iterations. Even though the difference between two x values is very small, the function values start fluctuating wildly. Thus we can see how even a small difference in the initial conditions can affect the final result. This is known as the butterfly effect. It is said that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could possibly kickstart a series of events which can lead to a tornado on the other side of planet. Such is the fine margin that nature operates on. It’s important to highlight that this type of chaos generated is completely deterministic unlike truly random events.

Well one might say that we could avoid such chaos by simply using a perfect value for the inputs in our calculations. But as we will show, that is often not possible. Let’s take the example of the number π.

π is defined as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is calculated by integrating smaller chunks of circular motion along the orbit. But we can only get results of this integration by approximating it to the best possible decimal. π is an irrational number, meaning the digits after the decimal place do not follow any pattern infinitely. The only way to get a value of pi is to approximate up to as many decimal places as our computing system allows.

Thus there is always going to be an error in measurement of inputs when it comes to any calculation involving π. In applications like space orbits when magnitudes are huge, this can lead to big differences based on what level of approximation that we use for π.

The German mathematician, Leopold Kronecker, once said that “God gave us the integers, all else is the work of man”. It seems to imply that most math is just pure human invention. It might be so on paper, but it is beautifully ingrained in nature and is vital for us to understand it’s mysteries. As we have seen, the best simulator of nature is nature itself and it seems like nature is unaware of its future. But math helps us grasp the depths of this uncertainty; so we can almost say that the closest we can get to nature is through mathematical ‘discoveries’.


Mystery of Pi

Chaos & Self-similarity

26 letters, infinite emotions !

books new

“Hillman shouldn’t be allowed to give you any more books” said my roommate with an exasperated look on his face. I had just returned from University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman library with another book to add to the plenty lying around in my room.

It was the spring semester of 2014. I was just into my second semester in my master’s program with a mountain of work awaiting me every day. But the feel of picking up a paperback often made all the stress go away. It’s been a year on; but as always I’m immersed in a book, finding solace in troubled times.

There is something intangibly good about reading a book. It’s all about building your own world. The world around us today is full of streamed media. Information and content is thrown at us from every device. The news anchor excitingly debating the day’s stock market rise, the youtube video showing us viral images, the Netflix account on our pc having enough shows to fill 24 hours and more. But nowhere is our mind more challenged than while reading.

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself.
–Angela Carter

A good book touches your deepest emotions. The world around us dissolves and we enter our own crazy space. A space filled with the joys and sorrows of the characters of the book. We often live their lives. It’s us flying across the field on a broom, not a young bespectacled wizard. It’s not the eccentric pipe smoking Holmes finding clues, around the house it’s us. It’s not the world leader telling the tale of his journey; it’s us living it. It’s not the pirate journeying across the seas, it’s us riding on.

This connect is unique; and that’s because a book forces us to think for ourselves and not just drink in images.  Every reader can interpret the story in his/her unique way; can enjoy the book with their own flow. That’s what makes a book such a treasured possession.

The Clock Ticks On ….


Let us rewind our clock to the very start of the twentieth century. It is a nice, cool day in Switzerland. A young clerk from the government patent department is sitting in his office. His table lies strewn with applications aplenty. But he is undeterred by the pile of work in front of him. He is lost in his own world. The world of time. His journey excites him. It causes him to dream. It is a journey unlike any other.

Remember the grand old clock on the bedroom wall? Remember that incessant ringing of the mobile phone alarm, that worry in your mind when you were late for an important exam? Small moments, but they all point to the existence of our life’s biggest overlord – Time.

Time is so deeply intertwined into our daily existence that we hardly pause to think about it. When was the last time you stepped back from your day and pondered what these moments of time really meant?

All of us have tried to control time. Let your mind wander to those wonderful last moments you spent with your loved ones. Maybe you haven’t met some of them for a long while. But still those memories are as fresh and refreshing as a cool early morning breeze. Don’t you pine for those moments to come back? You would probably want them to last a lifetime.

Let’s step back and think. What would a world without the flow of time be? A world where you could lock in that wonderful embrace for as long as you want. A world where you could stay a child forever… in the care of your loving parents. A world where you could live forever. A world where you could lie back on your favorite chair and read that book for whatever time you feel. Travel the whole world without worrying about moments ticking down to the end of your life. Seems like utopia, doesn’t it?

Now let the rest of the story unravel. Come out of that embrace and you will see that the rest of the world has moved along. You wanted to go to that nice place along the river. But it is no longer there. The friend you wanted to catch up with.. he has moved on to newer pastures.

If you leave your parents, you will see the world of opportunities you missed out while you were still a child. The world outside has evolved from the one you left.

An infinitely lasting world means nobody dies. Nobody leaves an imprint on our minds. They are always around. There are no lasting legacies and no fond memories. No history will be unique. No story enchanting. Everything that has happened will happen again. The hands of our watches will tick away for infinity. But will we have truly lived? It’s hard to tell.  Maybe it’s the flow of time which makes the world as we experience it.

We are back to Switzerland. Many years have passed since the clerk first let his mind roam into the farthest reaches of time and space. In just some days, his ideas are about to transform him into a superstar. His signature grizzly moustache and the fuzzy hair will cast a huge shadow on the world.

Albert Einstein may have revolutionized the way science perceives time. But even after all these years, I wonder if we really have unraveled all the mysteries of time… What do you think?

Battling with Fear ….

Imagine sitting strapped in a cabin which can barely fit three people. A huge pile of solid rocket fuel containers are below you. Basically you are sitting on the top of a bomb which can blow you to pieces due to just a tiny malfunction. Even if you do launch off safely, your life is at the mercy of a machine. Terrified?

This is the reality of an astronaut every time a spaceship is about to lift off. The whole idea of spaceflight seems inherently so risky. A small spark, a tiny rip in a wire could turn a journey of a lifetime into a nightmare. The images of the smoky flumes of the Challenger shuttle and the visions of the startling, fiery bursts of light of the disintegrating Colombia are still fresh in people’s minds. How do astronauts deal with this kind of fear?

It turns out that the ways astronauts use to deal with fear holds very important lessons for how we can counter fear and insecurity in our daily lives. Nobody describes this better than Chris Hadfield, a senior Canadian astronaut, in his book “An astronaut’s guide to life on earth”. Hadfield, a former commander of the International Space station, says the way to combat this is to embrace the power of negative thinking. Seems strange? Read on..

All that can go bad, will go bad

This is the theme of how astronauts are trained. Each and every part of the proposed space flight is analyzed for things that could go awry. State-of-the-art simulators are built and the astronauts are trained in them until all the operations become second nature to them. An astronaut is not just someone who undergoes a driving test and is a given the license to fly.

Getting the privilege to go into space requires many years of dedication towards learning every possible thing about spaceflights. For an astronaut, skipping a chapter doesn’t mean just a loss of few marks in a test. That chapter might prove to be the difference between life and death in a bad situation in space.

“People tend to think astronauts have the courage of a hero- or maybe the emotional range of a robot.” says Hadfield, “But in order to stay calm in a high stress, high stakes situation, all you need is knowledge. Sure, you might feel a little nervous or stressed out. But what you won’t feel is terrified.”

Simulating Death

This is one of the stranger components of astronaut training. ‘Death Sims’ is what they call it. Before every human spaceflight, NASA performs some incredibly accurate drills for the possible death of an astronaut. The sim might start with a simple scenario – “ Chris is fatally injured in orbit’. On this the whole of the NASA disaster team revs into action – the ground crew, the medical staff, the program administrators… even the media relations people. Every step from how to inform the family, how to arrange for the safe return of the astronaut to Earth and also how to handle the PR situation that is bound to arise.

What do they gain by this ? Well, strange as it may seem, this drill actually gives reassurance to astronauts that things will be managed just fine in case of their deaths. Everyone always has this thing at the back of their minds. What will happen to my family in case I die ? This death sim gives them that extra boost of confidence when they finally step into the rocket ; a moment which might be the last time they see their families.

Power of negative thinking

“You have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster; convinced that the sky is about to fall” says Hadfield. If he walks into a crowded elevator, he will think about what can be done if the elevator gets stuck. When he puts on the seat belt of a plane, he will wonder what to do in case of a crisis.  

This is not being pessimistic. Rather by anticipating all possible obstacles,we can be more upbeat to face anything which life throws at us. We know what we have to do if things go wrong.  That’s the power of negative thinking.


Don’t just adopt, Innovate!


Technology goes global !

Our quest to solve our day to day problems and conquer new frontiers gives rise to new technologies which in turn gives birth to new and better products. Every country strives to invent or adopt technologies which could be used to address issues like security, transportation, communication, education and ensuring basic needs such as food and water to its people. Thus, a lot of effort, both directly and indirectly, goes into this activity, often capturing a major portion of a nation’s budget. In today’s globalised world, we have the advantage of having access to the technical know-how of technologies invented from all over the globe. Hence we need not ‘reinvent the wheel’ in each and every case. This saves us from investing large capital and resources by importing many components and adopting international design standards.

The cracks in the global dream..

In a way, this approach works quiet well for certain products and services but is not always the best solution. There are two basic problems with this approach. Firstly, the imported products have a very limited prospects for customization. Thus, there is a good chance that unwanted features are being paid for. Secondly, due to the lack of locally available infrastructure and spare parts for such products, the maintenance cost is much higher in the long run as compared to an indigenously developed product. In many cases, even if the product is being developed in-house, it turns out that the standards being used are adopted from completely different place. It is not uncommon to see companies using urban standards for products meant to be deployed in a rural setting. For example, for a rural setting the outer appearance of a product might not be as important as its durability. So, it would make a lot more sense to divert efforts towards increasing the durability than to achieve a highly polished surface.

Does the solution lie at home ?

A solution to this problem could be use of clever design techniques and locally available materials to churn out products for a specific market segment. This is not a new approach but has been adopted throughout history. Only recently, due to globalization, the trend has become to follow the standards of the more successful nations even if they may not be suitable for the existing local scenario.

For example, a simple outer structure for a cell phone and television set, made by using easily available and cheaper raw materials, might be sufficient for majority of rural consumers in a country like India. No need to get those special finishing conforming to international standards. This might seem to be going backward in time and on the development scale, only it is not. The use of local raw materials and local skillset would only promote the local industries and help them become independent and immune to external economic or political disturbances.

In addition to this, development of a local standard for products highlighting the features that are more apt for the particular region may help bring down the cost by eliminating unnecessary ones from the product design. No one understands the requirements better than the end users. Thus, involving them into product development cycle is absolutely vital. Also, this approach would help in figuring out the gap in demand and supply at the more grassroots levels. For example, in India, we have an ample supply of sunlight and wind energy. But we do not see many windmills and solar devices around us.

Why? The answer is that in most of the cases we wait for some multinational company to come out with a high quality product that could be deployed in these areas. Now, multinational companies will stick to international standards and thus, their products would have higher costs, making it infeasible to deploy them in large numbers. But why can’t we encourage development of cheap windmills using plywood turbines and speaker magnets that are cheaply available everywhere? At the end of the day, the goal should be to harvest whatever we could at whatever efficiency possible. If cheaper devices could be installed in larger number then they can surpass the total output of costlier, higher quality, higher efficiency windmills deployed in lower number. There are ample number of other examples that could be mentioned here.

Every coin has two sides…

But just like any other, this approach has many pitfalls which have to be carefully considered. Lets look at a few of them:

1)       Possible side effects: The approach suggested above always involves some compromises in the quality of some feature of the product. Care has to be taken to ensure that the drawbacks caused due to the compromise don’t outweigh the benefits obtained. For example, while making cheap bicycles from local materials, its necessary to ensure that it won’t break down under the weight of the rider.

2)      Innovation potential: Often an inexpensive customized product can be a good temporary solution for a problem. But if we continue making such products, then we might lose the opportunity to strive towards designing a really robust product which can solve the problem permanently. A robust product has the potential for a lot of resource and money savings in the long term.

3)      Problems in scaling up: As we advocate designing products which are minutely customized for specific market segments, it’s difficult to scale them up to a bigger market. The time and resources available to engineers and scientists is limited. So it’s essential to assess whether these resources would be better diverted to making products for individual areas or designing solutions for a larger market.

The bottom line is that, instead of importing products and solutions that are of high quality but are costly and time consuming to deploy, we should strive to innovate indigenously and see if we can achieve the same functionality in lower costs. This kind of approach can only succeed if the engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers and other people are well aware of the problems at hand and also the tradeoffs involved in the design decisions. Design is the king here. If we can strike the right balance in the design stage, then we will be helping a community to stand on its feet and move towards self-dependency and sustainability. We would like to urge the readers to takeout some time out of their daily routine and pick up a problem being faced by the community around them and then try to provide a solution using their ingenuity and using whatever is available around. Let’s innovate, not just adopt!

 – Co-authored with Sarwesh Narayan Parbat