The best response to the Charlie Hebdo killing is…

13 January 2015

… Joe Sacco’s “On Satire”.

This is wisdom.

Look it up, I am not going to post it here.

In a related note:

In 2008, Siné’s article and cartoons in the magazine Charlie Hebdo relating to Jean Sarkozy’s marriage to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress, touched off a controversy, after journalist Claude Askolovitch described them as anti-Semitic. The magazine’s editor, Philippe Val, ordered Siné to write a letter of apology or face termination. The cartoonist said he would rather “cut his own balls off,” and was promptly fired.

RIP Alexander Grothendieck (d. 2014)

12 January 2015

I just learned that Alexander Grothendieck died in November last year.

Who is Alexander Grothendieck? He was perhaps the finest mathematician of the 20th century, whose work in algebraic geometry have given birth to one of the most illuminating, productive and ambitious mathematical developments in the 20th century.

He was a colorful character who led an eventful life. His father perished in Auschwitz. He taught a prestigious mathematical seminar at IHES Paris. He was involved in radical leftist activism, which made him a pariah in Parisian academe. He gave math lectures and preached pacifism in the jungles of Vietnam during the war while Americans bombs were exploding all around him. He won the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics. He decided later in his life to give up mathematics totally. Finally, in 1990, he gave up on society in general, and left behind everything he had, to live alone in the Pyrenees.

After that, his reputation took a romantic turn: popular accounts talk of a genius mind, disillusioned with worldly honors and insincere colleagues, who sought enlightenment in solitary life. He wrote screeds against what he viewed as a reactionary society, and became somewhat of a mythical figure of the French Left (Fortunately he didn’t become like the other brilliant mathematician, who stopped doing mathematics and went to live alone in ramshackle cabin in the Montana woods).

During his self-imposed exile, Grothendieck would write letters to his former departmental colleagues, to ask them to destroy anything he had ever written, whether published or not. We are lucky that they collectively decided to ignore his request, lest we would be deprived of some of the most sublime mathematical ideas ever concocted by our species.

Now that Grothendieck had passed away, mathematicians the world over are working on a mammoth task: translating the whole Grothendieck oeuvre into the major languages, so that his mathematical ideas and programs can be disseminated outside the French-speaking world. Not that these are easy to read; it is estimated that the number of people who understand his whole work is no more than ten, that including his most brilliant and most devoted proteges, like Rene Deligne.

I’m happy to see that Grothendieck is not totally forgotten, although response to his death in the English speaking media was a bit muted. I can imagine science editors the world over asking “Alexander who?”. His obituaries appeared in some major English newspapers like The New York Times, The Independent, and The Telegraph (no BBC?). There is no such problem in France. In a country that places mathematics as a source of historical pride, Grothendieck is considered a national hero. Now if only we can locate his autobiography that is rumored to exist somewhere…


He is the bald one


The best write-up on the life and work of Grothendieck that I can find online is by Pierre Cartier: .

Quote from The New York Times obituary:

He avoided clever tricks that proved the theorem but did not develop insight. He likened his approach to softening a walnut in water so that, as he wrote, it can be peeled open “like a perfectly ripened avocado.”

“If there is one thing in mathematics that fascinates me more than anything else (and doubtless always has), it is neither ‘number’ nor ‘size,’ but always form,” he wrote in a long memoir in the 1980s, “Reapings and Sowings.” “And among the thousand-and-one faces whereby form chooses to reveal itself to us, the one that fascinates me more than any other and continues to fascinate me, is the structure hidden in mathematical things.”

Softening walnut in water: a brilliant heuristic. RIP, AG.

The important things in life

10 January 2015

A wise person once told me that as you get older, more and more things become unimportant.

A teenager would get worked up over the teeniest minutiae: size of pimples, level of popularity in class, which t-shirt to wear with which jeans, which team will win the football game tonight, and so on. Things that amount to nothing on the very next day.

In your 20s, you start to think of the “important” matters, i.e., impressing members of the opposite sex, getting a college degree, landing a job. Then comes the 30s, which means kids, a house and a stable income. Once you have a child of your own, all things pale in comparison (A friend told me this; I wouldn’t know since I have no kid of my own yet. He also told me that when he was holding his newborn son for the first time, he thought about the follies of youth and laughed. Especially at the part where he’d move mountains and part oceans to impress girls, so that he could land one of them into a marriage, resulting in, among others, the baby he is holding in his arm.)

And then the baby becomes a small kid, and then other babies arrive in succession, and before long you have to send the oldest one to school. You scrap all your “ambitions”, “passions”, and “desires”. You start to live vicariously through your children. In other words, reality sets in. You sacrifice your dreams, so that the kids can achieve theirs. You throw out your old guitar, discarding along with it the one-time dream you’ve had of forming a rock band with your former college mates (all of whom, by the way, are now overweight and balancing babies on their arthritic knees). Then comes deteriorating health: decreasing stamina, the occasional joint pains, and blood pressure numbers that would worry your doctor slightly. Nothing really bad, just enough to remind you that the train of Life had left the Youth station.

This is half-time. But hey, you’re in your prime: you are not struggling to make a living anymore, you are secure in your job as a middle-manager at some department at some company, along with the perks and disposable incomes that come with it. Life is good. And your kids. The kids! All grown up, fine men and women, arms akimbo, full of life, ready to conquer the world like the cocky world-changers they are meant to be (exactly like you were 20 years ago). But first, their dream weddings, which you have to pay for (that is the “dream” part, for the children that is).

Before long, come the grandkids, and then retirement. Finally you are free from worldly responsibilities. No more meetings to chair, no more bullshit paperwork to prepare, no more bosses to answer to, no more sales target to achieve, no more subordinates to lead and groom and inspire with your leadership. Your fiefdom is now severely curtailed. Now you’re the king of just your household. Welcome to retirement age!

Retirement involves the painful realization that nobody at the fish market gives a hoot that you were a bigshot. To other people, all retirees are alike. Your motor skills and cognitive skills are in decline. Doing things that you take for granted your whole life is now a chore. The joint pains are getting worse, you have to squint to read the newspaper, and you get extremely happy if the result of your medical checkup is “ok-lah, not terrible”.

Now, very few things matter anymore. It makes no difference whatsoever where you went to school, where you worked at, which bigshots you know, which positions you held, how much you made, or how much property you own. The only concern you have is for your immediate family (who, by the way, will do fine even when you are gone). And then the kids move further and further away, taking the grandkids with them: a son gets a job overseas, a daughter gets posted at a small town hundred of kilometers away. They have lives of their own.

At this point, even fewer things are really important. Nothing makes you happier than having your children come to visit. You try to take up an “old people” hobby like tai-chi or gardening, but your heart is really not into it. None of your friends from your bigshot days come to visit. You read the newspaper, and watch the TV, but you cannot connect with the dem young ones what with their funny music, funny fashion and funny way of speaking. You cling hopelessly to the remnants of your youth by watching old films and listening to old music. Reading doesn’t interest you anymore; you lost the intellectual spark years ago. You reminisce about the “good old days” even more.

Now it’s autumn. The leaves are falling. Your beloved spouse, the one you pledge to spend your life with, is also deteriorating, physically and mentally. It is a morbid race, of who will reach the finish line first, but instead of a medal, you get dirt. You make just enough friends and make good with just enough neighbors that you will not die alone. All the money in the world, all the prestige you accumulated in your storied career, all the honors and acknowledgments, all that amount to nothing. You just want to pass your final days in peace, with God and with the God’s green earth. And to have your loving family around you, as you move on. That’s the only thing that matters now.


Well, sorry for the long read but the point is: Very few things really matter in the big picture. Stop sweating over the unimportant stuff.



1. Wealth

2. Power

3. Status in society

Good to have, but not that important in the big picture:

1. Money (above what is necessary)

2. Education (above what is necessary)

3. Job (above what is necessary)


1. Family & friends

2. Health

3. Being a good person

Babadook is coming

4 November 2014

The Possibility of Evil

21 October 2014

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) wrote great short stories. The most famous of her short stories is The Lottery, a story about a bucolic American small town, with a very f-ed up ending.

Another one, which I have just discovered two days ago, is The Possibility of Evil.

Read it in its entirety here:


19 October 2014

I will be in Boston from 7 to 12 November.

Boston is the only city that I have lived in for an extended period of time, other than KL. Even though I hated the Boston weather, I still feel a close kinship with the city. Boston is a city of great politicians: when I was a student there in the early noughts, the Senators were Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, the Governor was Mitt Romney, and the mayor of Boston was (the lesser-known but no less great) Thomas Menino.

Boston is well-known for its great universities, foremost of which are MIT and the other university upriver which name I have forgotten, and also Boston University, Boston College (a different school), Brandeis, Tufts and Northeastern. The renowned Berklee College of Music is also in Boston. When I was there, the Malaysian saxophonist Jari (Ja’afar Abdul Rahman Idris) attended Berklee for his advanced music degree.

Boston has great sports teams, home to New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox (and also to Boston Celtics, which have seen better days). The Patriots and the Sox won the NFL and MLB championships in 2004. The Sox’s victory was particularly sweet because (1) the Sox last won the World Series in 1918, and (2) they defeated the hated rival NY Yankees in the semifinals. Bostonians were partying like crazy the night the Sox defeated the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series finals. But I remember a greater celebration after the semifinal win against the Yankees. Even the normally dorky environment at MIT turned jubilant that night, with people putting aside their problem sets (temporarily) and going out on the streets to rejoice. An Emerson student unfortunately got shot and killed by Boston police during the celebration:

Boston has a special place in US history — Paul Revere did his famed midnight ride in Boston, and the earliest battles in the US Revolutionary War took place in Lexington and Concord, just outside Boston city limits. Many of the founding fathers of the United States, such as Sam Adams, John Adams and Thomas Paine, were native Bostonians.

All that aside, what I really like about Boston is that the population are really chill and tolerant. There are places in Boston you’d like to avoid after dark, but most areas are safe. I shed a tear when the Boston Marathon bombing happened last year — it was like the city losing its innocence. People couldn’t imagine something like that happening in Boston, let alone at MIT. During the pursuit after the bombing, the bomber ran to MIT, and then killed an MIT campus police. I was hooked on the Boston police blotter feed and CNN throughout the ordeal.

Bal 019k

That was me in 2005, just before graduation. It was early summer, I was hanging out in Boston Common with my pal Irsal Mashhor (apa khabar bro? How’s NYC?).

Looking forward to the trip!

OMK result is out

16 October 2014

The OMK 2014 (Olimpiad Matematik Kebangsaan 2014) result is out:

Congratulations to all winners!

We hope to get more participation from schools in 2015.

Please do not contact me about the results. I am not involved in the organization of OMK, it is under the purview of the OMK coordinator.

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