15 July 2019

Book Review: “Humble Pi”

You want to impress somebody at a party next time? Ask them to take out their phone and Google “Texas License Plate images”. You will find in the first two or three an image which has the space shuttle on the left top and the half crescent moon on the right top. Now ask your friends what is wrong with the picture of the moon. Most won’t get it. The problem is that there are a couple of stars too close to it. Try mentally drawing the full circle of the moon. It will overlap with two of the stars. How can that be? Just because we cannot see that part of the moon does not mean it is not there!!! You can never see a star in that zone!

Have you seen those road signs pointing to a soccer field? Check the soccer field image. In all likelihood, it is drawn out of hexagons. In fact, if I asked you to draw a soccer ball, you will draw it with all hexagons in it. And therein lies the problem. Mathematically it can proven that a sphere ( Euler characteristic of 2) can never be formed entirely of hexagon (Euler characteristic 0) regardless of the size of hexagons. In fact a soccer ball is formed of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons!!

How about this? Have you seen those marketing pictures of three interlocking gears? Try Googling “three interlocking gear image”. There are lots of them (each gear is in contact with the other two). It may not strike you initially but such a combination is impossible. In fact in your mind, try to imagine that one of them is going clockwise… then the other two have to go anti-clockwise. But that cannot be – since those two are in touch with each other, they have to necessarily be moving in different directions!!

Did you know six F-22s when they were first released (at well over $100M a piece) while making a maiden voyage from Hawaii to Japan suddenly simultaneously shut themselves down? And could not be restarted for hours? (thanks to the mid air refueling planes, they never crashed). Turns out that they had crossed the International Date Line which completely messed up the programs in the onboard computers. So much for spending $100M+ per plane!

This book is filled with such hilarious and very interesting mistakes made by folks in the area of math, engineering and computer science. To be sure, many of those mistakes led to people losing lives and are not funny that way. But what makes this truly an enjoyable book is the author Matt Parker’s sense of humor. Australian born, settled in UK, he brings out all the subtleness of British humor.

This book is all about making mistakes. The dedication of the book goes to his wife… and it is written thusly:

“Dedicated to my relentlessly supportive wife, Lucie.
Yes, I appreciate that dedicating a book about mistakes to your wife is itself a bit of a mistake”


Finally, the book’s page numbering is a count-down counter. It starts with page number 314. Which in itself is irrational thinking. (That is the value of Pi – to the nearest two decimal – which is an irrational number). But the book has more than 314 pages. In fact, the page after 0 reads “4,294,697,295”. Some of my fellow computer science students will realize that this is an error every 32 bit chip will make. And yes, there is a story the author relates how this completely messed up a mission,.

Thank you Somshekhar for recommending another great book!

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15 July 2019

Meeting him for the first time after he received the Presidential award!!

Sharmila and I got to know Kaushik when he was doing his Ph.D. in Georgia Tech. In fact, I believe it was my brother’s brother-in-law who had introduced us. We had had Kaushik at our house (at least once that I can remember) and then met him and his new bride – Anwesha at the Durga Pujo in Atlanta once. Then they moved to Boston. That was about 10 years back. The only other time I had met them was when I was in Boston for business many years back and we managed to have a coffee together at a cafe near his office.

After settling down Nikita, our next stop was to head towards Boston where Sharmila had to catch a flight for India. I remembered that on our way would be Needham – which is where Kaushik lives. They had a baby about 15 months back and I had seen his pictures – full of mischief, I might add – on Facebook a few times. A couple of quick phone calls and text messages and it was agreed that we would swing by their house on our way to the airport.

As I pulled up to their house, I could see a young kid with an elderly gentleman in the yard. That is why I realized that the grandparents were here too. (Turned out to be Anwesha’s parents).

I was good to see Kaushik. Especially after he received the US President’s Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama in 2017, I was a bit afraid that he might not recognize me any more 🙂 Nothing of that sort. We felt as much at home at his place as we do at our own. Having Kabir (their son) around was total fun. He totally lived up to being as mischievous as the Facebook posts from Anwesha would suggest.

Coming to think of it, we would not have it any other way either.

15 July 2019

Family Reunion. Of sorts!

On Friday, after having dinner in Gastonia, NC, we decided we were tired. Booked a hotel in Charlotte about 30 minutes away and called it a day. Next day, we got started at 10am and then kept climbing up I-95 one state at a time. Every two and a half hours of drive, we took a break to relax at a Starbucks or have lunch and all that. Finally when we were an hour away from Washington DC – which is where I was targeting to stay the night, we realized that the roads were a mess. It was around 6 in the evening and all roads around DC were parking lots.

We got off 95 and headed towards Baltimore on 301 bypassing DC altogether. After driving thru some beautiful rural country, eventually, we got near Baltimore and we thought we had some more energy left. Booked a hotel in Wilmington, DE and crossed one last state border for the day. That was a marathon 12 hours on the road.

The good news was that it left only around 6 more hours to be driven the next day. Even better news was that we would be going thru New York! Guess who came out of the city to have lunch with us in a restaurant off I-95 in Secaucus? That was a family reunion of sorts!!! I think the last time the Roy family got together was after Natasha came back from Ghana last year!

14 July 2019

Battle of the deadlines…

I have to cover 1200 miles (nearly 2000 km) thru 12 states in 48 hours. (Dropping off Niki at Providence, RI and Sharmila at Boston, MA). Niki starts summer course in Brown and Sharmila is headed out to India and then Dubai.

Niki has to finish her online computing course by midnight of first day! Laptop, T-Mobile hotspot and a few hundreds of miles is on her side…