Saturday, March 22, 2008

Three books, two questions, one unanswered, a flop movie and a dilemma


I have been pondering over the unanswered question on and off. I sometimes wonder why did it never click for me. Maybe it is not to be visualized the way I visualize it. Maybe the concepts were too abstract for me.

The movie was an utter disaster according to me. Cheesy story line, pathetic timing, and some unbelievably sad acting and mind you I am not commenting about the special effects at all. I know it is quite a bit dated, but it is not as dated as Fireball-XL5 and it still provides me immense pleasure to watch Fireball-XL5 nearly 25 years later. It took me more than a week and unbelievable motivation to sit through the movie however.

The first question was a bummer when I first met it. Coming in the first chapter as an example, I was flabbergasted to see it and not understand it. Not that I have understood every example in every book that I have read till now. But this was different. This book was supposed to be easy. My friends were going ga-ga over how simple this book had made the subject for them.


Borland C++ programming for Dummies is quite an interesting book. I first started reading it when I could barely crawl in C. I was the quintessential teenager wanting to show to the world that I know everything about computers. C++ was the next step now that I could puts("Hello World\n"); in C. However, what I ended up getting out of that book was not entirely C++. I got a couple of takes on life.

Take #1. Good music is loud. Loud music is good.

That's a line that's present somewhere in the book. And, when I tried it out, I was surprised to find that it is true. Take any good music, make it loud by a couple of hundred decibels and now it is really good! Ah, Bliss! And, indeed loud music is good, especially if it has bass and is woofing through a 50000W speaker making your heart progressively hit your palate, the top of your skull, the room's ceiling and finally hitting escape velocity every quarter second. By the time the song ends, "Hey look, it's my heart on the moon!"

Take #2. C++ implies and is implied by Pizza. Consumption and Examples included.

Which again I found matches quite well with my real life experience, which was to come much later. A 12" pizza can be chowed down with such an ease while coding that only when you wipe your mouth with your hands later do you realize that you have added nearly 20,000 calories (including the Diet coke) to your already split-wide open frame and that the hands that you just wiped on your jeans had some sauce on them. Which means you'd have to change the jeans next week.

Take #3. Your education is sorely lacking if you haven't watched the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.


That last statement had quite a profound impact on me. And, I had to wait for nearly 14 years for the fulfillment of that statement. However, the nirvana I was expecting after watching the movie never happened. In fact, I found myself wanting to do other better things while watching that movie - like meditating on the karma of the lint between my toe-nails.  To think that I was thinking of doing other things while watching a movie! What a blasphemy! The movie had many things going for it. For one, it was recommended by a book which had made me aware of the virtues of loud music. And according to it, I would've been completing my education by watching this movie and finally, how could one not like a movie in which the hero was a rock star, a brain surgeon and a scientist all rolled into one who could video-conf with the president of the USA whenever he wanted to! Yet...

The nice folks who comment/review on amazon and imdb recommend multiple watchings of this movie. Like about 55 times, to actually get the movie. 55 times? What a let down!

But truth be told, the film does have its moments. It is not a complete failure. But the wait for 14 years to watch this movie...Unbelievable....


Discrete Maths was a good subject till I met Kolman-Busby or rather till my classmates recommended this book to me. Why did my classmates like this book? Because Mumbai University had chosen to use the Table of Contents word-for-word from this book but not mention the book. And, I now realise they must've had quite a valid reason for the same. Only the table of contents would've been the most useful feature of the book!

Mumbai University in its syllabus copy used to mention text books and reference books for each subject, and this book was not mentioned in either of the lists. I was happily learning the subject from Elements of Discrete Mathematics by C.L.Liu. However, I made the mistake of buying this book and using it as my primary study material. What exacerbated the problem was the example in the first chapter! The chapter was on sets and this example was a pretty basic one. I don't know if it is meant to prove something or assist in the thinking process. But this problem had me stymied for a very long time.


I finally posted the question on Experts-Exchange a couple of years ago (many, many years after I completed my engineering) and got a few answers, all of which clicked only after Dr. Venkat Subramaniam explained the example to me. Some days ago, I was discussing something with Kavya and this topic came up. And, Kavya had an explanation for the example which she details here. Now I can revisit the topics on posets and lattices Wink


Another topic which I was never comfortable with (and still isn't) was the equation which simply doubles the electron current in a doped semi-conductor. What I most dislike about electronics books is the matter of fact attitude that reflects in the writing as well as their equations. For one, all this material is so abstract that it borders on superstition (or magic depending on how you look at it. I prefer the earlier Tongue out) With the amount of assumptions and rounding offs and approximations, I am irritated by how they gloss over the basics. And, to top it off, they name concepts wrong! Boylestead which was "the" book for electronics fared no better than Millman-Halkias. I finally managed to get a bare minimum understanding to pass the exams by referring to Morris Mano (the size of the book rivaled Boylestead, but was much well written!)


However, I never forgot that I hadn't really understood the working of the p-n junction. And, the question has troubled me to this day. How can one simply double the hole current and the electron current, they are one and the same!

What I realized over the  years is that people differ in the way they learn. I am a visual kind of person and I need to see stuff happening in my head, and interact with the model, before I am comfortable accepting the model. There are many who rely on muscle memory to do the same. They write the concept down and it clicks for them. A few others repeat the words or the sounds they hear. What one needs to do is to go on trying various books on the same topic till it clicks for one. The book that works for many others might not work for you! And, this is the problem with referring others to books/other reading/learning material. Most words/concepts are understood slightly differently by everyone. Let's take the case of the set inclusion example above. For me, visually the set was inspectable. I could see that it contained A and B. So I would have never put A and B into a box while visualizing. I would've enclosed them in a 2-d boundary or put them in a room without a ceiling, which is why I was unable to reach the solution. Would I blame myself for the wrong visualization? Never. It is the job of the book and the elucidator to clarify various interpretations so that the student does not take a trip down the wrong path.


What prompted this blog entry? One- the infinite let down that was "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" after having waited for 14 years to see it. There is wisdom in the statement "the joy is in the journey and not in the destination." I have also been reading Prasno-upanishad lately and the elucidation is amazing. Although the upanishad as such can be misunderstood if read casually, Chinmaya's explanation ensures that one does not take the verses at face value and instead is prompted to think. The connecting thread happens to be the books that have either managed to bother me or helped me understand the world around me better!







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