Friday, April 15, 2011

Spintronics: Moving Closer to Reality

I did a story on Spintronics as far back as December 2006… Spintronics: Keeping the Computer’s Tryst with Quantum Physics…at which point of time, it was still a big idea with little implementation! There were some prototypes from IBM and Freescale but no large-scale implementation except for the iPod’s memory.

It was therefore good to see today’s news in EFY Times about the first electronic circuit that merges traditional inorganic semiconductors with organic spintronics.

Now, I really wish to see those dot-sized memory chips and power-saving, instant-boot computers!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fanfare!

I always used to wonder how the emotions related to fanfare emerge in a person, you know... the kind of craze that makes you obsessed with an actor, a movie, a character, a music band, whatever! I think it is kind of seeded in a person at a very early age. In fact, I am seeing such emotions surfacing in my two-year old son now!

He has become such a great fan of Thomas, the Tank Engine, that every time we switch on the television, he wants to see Thomas. He wants to keep wearing the same Thomas t-shirt everyday. He threw a tantrum at a superstore the other day to make us buy a Thomas toy. And, every time we boot the computer he insists that we play the Thomas & Friends theme song on YouTube. Just because we spun a tale about that t-shirt being infested with ants (to make him remove it for washing), he went about repeating the story very sadly to everybody he met! As in, he has become very fond of Thomas... he has become a FAN... at the age of two!

I remember by nephew was also in love with Thomas around the same age. I guess fanfare begins with cartoons... your favourite engine, your favorite character, your favourite super-hero, whatever. And I feel that this emotion strengthens either because others encourage or discourage it. For example, when Teju first started pointing to Thomas or saying things about it, we felt very happy (in superlative) and kept encouraging him to watch Thomas shows, speak about it... because we wanted to encourage his recognition of objects and his descriptive skills. As a result, he started to like Thomas even more.

In order to wean him away from the Thomas t-shirt, I started creating an excitement around the images in his other t-shirts as well... and when I told a story about a monkey or a bear or Mr. Bean, or whatever character was there in a t-shirt, he began to like that too and insisted on wearing that repeatedly for the next few days! Then, I would have to make up another story about another doggie or bunny or whatever was there in another bright t-shirt, to make him switch loyalties! As in, if you create an excitement around a character, children become fond of it.

But, well, despite condescending to wear other t-shirts and despite beginning to take a look at other characters, Teju continues to be an ardent fan of Thomas'... first love, I guess! He also likes Barney, Bob the Builder and Finley the Fire Engine, but not as much as he likes the cheeky Thomas! It makes me wonder again... what made him a 'fan'?

I also wonder what it is with Thomas! I haven't yet met a single kid who doesn't love Thomas. Why, I love Thomas too!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Madras onion rasam

Shallots (also known as Madras onions, small onions and sambhar onions) are very healthy. They are believed to have good cooling properties, ideal for the summer. In any case, I'm sure you will agree that they are extremely tasty! I agree they are very difficult to peel, but nowadays one can easily find peeled shallots at supermarkets.

Shallots are used quite liberally in Keralite and Tamilian cooking, especially in recipes originating around Coimbatore, Chettinad, etc. We would all have used shallots in sambhars and chutneys, but here is a rasam recipe I came across recently. It is extremely tasty, and seems to be a 'comfort food'... that is, it can be served to those who are unwell also, as it tastes very soothing and warm, and also helps cure common colds. Have it mixed with rice, or like a soup... it fits both roles!

Here is how to make it...

1. Soak a small lemon-sized ball of tamarind in a glass of water. Extract the pulp and keep aside.

2. Coarsely pound a little pepper, cumin and coriander seeds. You can vary the quantities of these according to your taste. Ideally, just pound them using a manual spice mill, else if using a mixer-grinder, just give it a twist or two... do not grind it finely as the whole texture and flavour will change.

3. Heat a tablespoon of ghee in a vessel, season mustard, asafoetida and two red chillies. Then, fry the coarsely powdered spices till a good aroma comes.

4. Add 5-6 shallots, halved. Saute till a good aroma comes.

5. Add one chopped tomato, the tamarind pulp and salt. Boil till the onions and tomatoes are soft.

6. Add 1 to 1-1/2 glasses of water (this depends how much the tamarind pulp has already reduced), simmer the stove and heat till the rasam starts foaming on top.

As a variation, you can dilute 1/2 cup of cooked and mashed tuar dal with 1 cup of water and add this to the rasam instead of plain water. This tastes better.)

7. Remove from fire, add one tablespoon of neem flowers fried in ghee.

8. Garnish with curry leaves and serve hot.

Alternatively, you can add shallots to any other rasam too, by cooking it along with the tomatoes or with the dal.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tell A Tiny Tale

I picked up a book called Peter Rabbit - Tell a Tiny Tale from the library last weekend, and found it extremely useful to tell tales to my toddler. A Penguin Group publication, this book uses characters from The Tales of Peter Rabbit authored by Beatrix Potter.

Each section takes one character such as, say, Peter Rabbit, and asks four simple questions related to that character, such as 'where does he live', 'what does he eat', 'whom does he play with', 'who chases him', etc. There are three pictorial answers to each question. You can mix-and-match these questions and answers and tell a story to your child. For example, you could say... "This morning, Peter Rabbit woke up early and got out of his home in the tree. He bathed at the pond and played with the duckies. Then, he went to grandpa's garden where he found some carrots to eat. The cat didn't like this and came chasing him. Just then, grandpa came out and saved Peter Rabbit from the cat."

In the process of entertaining and kindling the child's imagination, such an exercise actually peps up our grey cells too. It is amazing how many tiny tales you can make up with those simple questions and pictures! You are sure to recall (and thank) the mathematics teacher who taught you permutations and combinations in class 10!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All scientists need to observe nature; not just biologists

Thanks to billions of years of evolution, natural systems have gained a certain perfection in terms of structure, processes and functions. It is therefore not very surprising that many scientists have gained inspiration from nature for their own discoveries or inventions. We have been encountering such examples in our textbooks, right from primary school. Gravity was discovered when an apple fell on Newton's head and set him thinking. Velcro came about when a scientist noticed how the seeds of the burdock plant stuck to his coat and his dog's fur and stayed put there till pulled out.

The interesting fact is that nature continues to inspire researchers in all fields, including IT, electronics and communications. Neural networks based on the working of the human brain, semiconductor chip fabrication techniques inspired by the designs on butterfly wings, submarine designs inspired by the fins of whales, and a lot more. Sometimes, this inspiration comes completely by chance. But, a lot of times, scientists decide to consciously and systematically seek solutions from nature. There are different approaches to doing this - and that happens to be the subject of my article for Electronics for You's April issue.

Some scientists keep on, unrelentingly, observing nature confident that they will eventually come across some brilliant ideas. Some scientists observe nature keenly to find answers to specific research problems they are trying to overcome. Some scientists notice things in nature that could solve their research problems, but completely by chance. Some scientists merely take inspiration from nature while others try to also imitate the natural structure or process in their artificial system. Each of these is a different genre of bio-inspired technology.

While researching these different approaches to nature-inspired technology creation, I came across so many interesting personalities who have, in recent times, gained inspiration from nature for their research work. Dr. Akhlesh Lakhtakia of Pennsylvania State University, for example, was inspired by Ulexite or TV rock. Subsequent investigation and experiments led to the development of sculptured thin films (nano-engineered meta-materials). Dr. Vinay Vaidya and his team at KPIT Cummins came up with a patent-pending night vision system inspired by the cardioid shape of a leaf he noticed in the garden. Dr. Kwabena Boahen and his team at Stanford University have developed a million neuron system called the Neurogrid, a neuromorphic project based on the structure and functioning of the brain. Dr. Judith Braganca and her team at BITs-Pilani's Goa campus are developing a nature-inspired sunscreen. There are so many more examples of nature-inspired technologies by these and other teams across the world, and it is also interesting to note that many of these nature-inspired researches have gone on to become commercially successful products too.

However, we need to keep in mind that while nature-inspired research is truly fantastic, it is not fantasy. The inspiration is only the first step. A lot of in-depth, systematic, multi-disciplinary research is required to convert the inspiration into an impactful technology!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Starting simple

The National Library of Singapore has a very good children's section. Lots of interesting books, a very nice reading area, etc. We take Teju to the library almost every week, and find that he really enjoys it despite being the noisiest kid there (of course, that is more of a problem for us than for him!) All the other kids his age, even the sub-two ones, are so quiet. In fact, the kids section is almost as silent as the regular library. That turned out to be a huge surprise, but that is not the subject of this post.

Something that surprises me even more is that despite the very large number of books that the library has, I find it quite difficult to select books for Teju to read. The reason is that most of the books, even some of the alphabet books, are too 'creative'... stick figures, sketches, cartoons, comic characters, and so on. Some of the images are so abstract that I, at this age, am unable to figure out whether it is a dog or a hyena! How can my son understand?

I feel that such books are not appropriate for beginners, especially two-year-olds. I mean, if I pick an alphabet book that has realistic images of apples, shoes, dogs and other everyday objects, Teju will be able to connect with the pictures. Stories with trains, planes, lions, dogs, rabbits, people... those are the ones I can read out and make him understand. The next time he sees a lion at the zoo, he will be able to recall the story I told him earlier, and perhaps even recount it to us. Instead, if I showed him dragons, he would want to see them at the zoo too! What would I do? How would I make a two-year old understand that a dragon does not exist?

Last week I picked up a book called Rangoli by a publishing house called Tulika. It was a very simple story, about a girl who looked out of the window and saw her grandma drawing a rangoli outside the house, and how ants and other insects came to eat the rice flour of which the rangoli was made. The setting was something Teju could associate with. He could understand all the images... the girl, the grandma, the rangoli, the lamps, the flour, the mynahs, the ants, everything. So, he understood the story, and even recounted it to his dad when he returned from office in the evening. That is the kind of engagement I expect from a book!

From such experiences, I am led to believe that alphabet or number books (or flash cards) with simple, realistic images; and short stories with minimal, realistic characters and a simple storyline (perhaps involving everyday activities) are more relevant to pre-schoolers and will help imbibe the reading habit in them. Once they understand the concept of 'imagination', and that some things are real and others imaginary, they will be better able to enjoy comics and such creative books. What do you think? How has your experience been?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Kadapa, a great side-dish for idlis

Idlis and dosas are quite neutral in taste, and rely a lot on the side-dish to make them attractive. While they can be had with almost any moderately spicy or spicy accompaniment, including sambhar, chutneys, gojjus and pickles, kadapa is one side-dish that many, especially from the Tanjore district, would die for!

I've heard that in Kumbakonam, especially, people line up outside the hotels on the days that kadapa is served with idli! I believe famous mess-style hotels serve kadapa only on one or two days a week, as it is considered a special item. Veteran foodies would know the fixed days on which kadapa is served in the various hotels.
  1. Soak coconut, khus-khus (poppy seeds), saunf (fennel seeds), green chillies, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves in a little water, for around 10 minutes, and grind to a smooth paste.
  2. Cook some moong dal and keep it aside. You can vary the quantity of dal depending on how thick you like your side-dish. Typically, it should a little thinner than sambhar.
  3. Cook one or two small potatoes, peel, crumble and keep aside.
  4. In a vessel, season mustard seeds, gram dal, asafoetida, green chillies and ginger.
  5. Add chopped onions (shallots give a better flavour and aroma) and tomatoes and saute for a while.
  6. Add the masala paste and saute for a few seconds (do not saute for too long).
  7. Add a cup of water along with the boiled potatoes and salt and boil for a few minutes till the aroma pervades the whole room!
  8. Pour in the cooked moong dal and boil for a minute or two.
  9. Garnish with loads of coriander and curry leaves.
  10. Serve hot.

Variations:

  • If you do not have much time, you can replace the paste with one or two spoons of garam masala and half a spoon of coriander powder. It will be close to the original flavour, but the coconut texture will be missing.
  • If you do not have time even to cook the moong dal, you can use a paste of besan (gram flour) and water. It will thicken and give the same consistency that dal gives.
  • While the original version does not have even tomatoes, more modern versions do use tomatoes to give a slightly tangy flavour. If you want it even more tangy, you can use tamarind water. Add the tamarind water, salt and potatoes after sauteeing the onions and tomatoes, and add the ground paste after the raw smell of tamarind goes.
  • You can make a healthier version by adding other vegetables like beans and carrots.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Try these quick recipes...

I tried out some quick pointers I got from cookery shows last week. Some of them turned out to be good. You could try these too...

a) Add some finely chopped orange peel along with the tomatoes when you make rasam. The flavour and aroma are awesome. (I think I've also caught the 'awesome' bug from playback singer Sujatha, who keeps using this adjective when judging Airtel Super Singer 3.)

b) Take some curry leaves and make it into a thick paste. Add this paste along with some finely chopped ginger, finely chopped and roasted cashews, chopped curry leaves, and a dash of grated or finely chopped coconut (optional) to dosa flour, and make 'Karuveppilai Dosai'. I believe it's a Chettinad delicacy. Tasted very good, and is also nutritious because curry leaves are iron-rich.

c) Grind half a cup of green chillies and half a cup of coriander into a fine paste. Take a kadai, heat til oil, season mustard seeds and gram dal, add the paste and saute till the raw smell goes. Add a few tablespoons of thick tamarind paste, a little bit of salt and a good dose of jaggery. Boil the mixture till it thickens. Bottle and refrigerate. This chutney can last for more than a month. You can use it as a side-dish for curd rice, dosa and roti, or even as a sauce for bhel puri.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Back to blogging

Found a little extra time today, and I thought I'll write a post about a few new recipes I tried this week. "It's been a few months since I last blogged," I thought, and opened Blogger! I was shocked to realise it has been over a year. But, I would have neither realised nor believed it if anybody had told me that it has been a year. Time has flown that fast.

With a home and a toddler to take care of, somehow the blog got relegated to the lower rungs of my priority chart. I could say Teju took up all my time, but I do not blame him for it. It's a choice I made--to give him the highest priority. Because, that is the greatest pleasure a mom can have anyway... to take care of her child hands-on.

The elders at home used to keep telling me to enjoy every minute spent with my child in the first few years, however hectic life might be. And, they were absolutely right. Well, the parent-child bonding will remain the same even later, so why are the initial few years so important? For many reasons.

First of all, in the initial few years, the child needs you most--for safety, reassurance, learning, and reasons aplenty. So, it is good to be around. Secondly, in the first few years the home is the child's primary society and we are his closest friends. As he grows up, the child's time gets shared with other societies--school, friends, extra-curricular activity groups, and so on. So, the initial few years give you an opportunity to be with your child almost all the time... something you might yearn for in later years, when he is away at university! More than anything else, it is fun to observe every stage in the transformation from baby to toddler. It is enjoyable and enlightening too. As the child grows, so do we. There is so much to learn--unconditional love, the power to forgive and forget, the ability to learn from the environment, so much more. Every hour brings a lesson in science, philosophy, psychology, nutrition... and these days, even technology too!

When Hurricane Teju is around, time no longer follows international standards or physical rules. When he drags the chair into the kitchen, threatening to climb on the kitchen top, a minute seems like a second; when he lies on my lap sleepy but unwilling to doze, the same minute seems like an hour--once again, it is relativity at work.

When Teju wants to, he hangs on to every word I say and repeats like a parrot, in the same inaccurate but cute way. When I want him to, he behaves as if his ears are out of order!

He loves to mock all that we do. When I clean and mop, he follows me with another broom and cloth. When we try to photograph him, he wants to grab the camera and do the same. He wants to work on the same laptop that I use (so now you know why I get so much less time to work than before). He wants to read the same books that we do, and eat the same foods that we eat. But, when we play with his toys, he doesn't want to follow suit!

His favourite haunt is the kitchen, and his favourite playthings are the utensils in the kitchen. At times, it is so much fun to watch him cook like a pro. At other times, it gets a bit tough, especially when he catches hold of tomatoes and purees them!

He loves to recall the day's happenings to Vikram when he returns from office. Teju can still not speak in sentences, but it is amazing how he does manage to tell Vikram about everything we did throughout the day using his limited vocabulary, actions and sound effects!

Sigh! There are innumerable such instances, every day, when I think of how lucky I am to be able to be by the child's side and observe all his doings. Although all these experiences are indelibly written in my mind, I wish to record/jot these down so I can recall them later in life, whether to pep myself up in more boring times (Daffodils?) or to show to Teju when he is older. But, well, we come back to the same problem... with Teju around, there is barely any time for anything but the routine tasks and urgent work!