গানের কান

ইংরেজিতে একটা কথা আছে, “train your ear”। এই কথাটা মিউজিক স্কেলের ক্ষেত্রেই বেশি ব্যাবহার হয়। কিন্তু আরেক ধরণের কান ট্রেইনিং এর কথা মাথায় ঘুরছে, আশেপাশে নানা কথা শুনে। যারা রক মিউজিক প্র্যাকটিস করে তারা অনেক সময় হাসির পাত্র হয়। শুধু চাচা খালা বয়সীরা না, আমার সমবয়সী অনেক বাঙালিরা এখনো ভাবে যে অন্তত রবীন্দ্র সঙ্গীত বা ক্লাসিক্যাল সঙ্গীতের মত শুদ্ধ কাতারে রককে ফেলা যাবে না। আবার অনেকের ধারণা কিশোর-তরুণ থাকা অবস্থায় এই ঝোঁক মানুষের আসে, আবার বড় হয়ে এটা চলে যায়। রক ক্ষণিকের পশ্চিমা আগ্রাসন, ক্লাসিক্যাল চিরস্থায়ী।

এটা অনেক biased চিন্তা। আমাদের দক্ষিণ এশিয়া অঞ্চলে সাধারণ মানুষের কাছে মিউজিক বলতে গলার কাজই বোঝায়, কখনো instrumental গান নিয়ে কেউ তেমন একটা কথাও বলে না।  অন্য অনেক সংস্কৃতিতে বাদ্যযন্ত্র একটা বড় মাধ্যম, বাদকদের গায়কের মতই কদর দেয়া হয় অনেক ক্ষেত্রে। আমাদের কাছে ‘মিউজিক’ শেখা মানে গলার কাজ শেখা। গায়কের অভাব নেই কিন্তু ভালো বাদক পাওয়া যায় না দেশে। রক একটা বাদ্যযন্ত্র নির্ভর মাধ্যম। যেটা অনেকে বোঝে না সেটা হচ্ছে বাদ্যযন্ত্র এখানে কন্ঠের মতই বা কন্ঠের থেকেও বেশি অবদান রাখে। শুধু আমাদের কান এইসব বাদ্যযন্ত্রের কাজ বা টোন উপলব্ধি করার জন্য তৈরি হয়নি।

এছাড়াও, সংস্কৃতি বহমান একটা প্রক্রিয়া। বাংলা রক পশ্চিমা রক থেকে বেশ ভিন্ন, আমাদের সংস্কৃতিতে এর নিজের একটি সত্ত্বা আছে। লিরিক, সুর, পরিবেশনা সবকিছুর ঢংই অন্যরকম। “সেক্স, ড্রাগস অ্যান্ড রক এন রোল” আন্দোলন কিন্তু আমাদের দেশে আসেনি, আমরা মূলত সুরের ঢংটাই  উপযোজন করেছি, আর কিছু না। হেড ব্যাং করলে অনেকে সমস্যা ভাবে, কিন্তু সুরের সাথে শরীরের গতিবিধি নানা সংস্কৃতিতে সবসময়ই আছে। রবীন্দ্র সঙ্গীতে নাচলে কিন্তু সমস্যা মনে হয় না এসব মানুষের। অনেক রক মিউজিশিয়ান ক্লাসিক্যাল সঙ্গীতও উপভোগ করে (কিছু poser বাদে)। কিন্তু ক্লাসিক্যালের মানুষরা আমাদের ছেলেমানুষ ভাবে, সেটাই আসল ছেলেমানুষি। আমার ক্লাসিক্যাল চায়নিজ মিউজিকের প্রফেসরকে Led Zeppelin এর গান এবং গিটার সোলো উন্মত্ত হয়ে শুনতে দেখেছি। ভালো সুর এবং বাদ্যযন্ত্রের কাজ যারা মিউজিক বোঝে তাদের কান ঠিকই ধরতে পারে।

প্রথম যখন ইলেক্ট্রিক গিটারে distortion tone বাজাই, কিছুক্ষণ বাজানোর পর মাথা ঝিমঝিম করছিল। আট বছর পর, এখন যদি টানা কয়েক ঘন্টাও বাজাই, তাহলে বেশ রিফ্রেশিং লাগে। অবশ্যই কান তৈরি হতে সময় লেগেছে, কারণ আমি ছোটবেলা থেকে এক্সপোজড ছিলাম না এই টোনের সাথে। সবার কান তৈরি করতে হবে তা বলছি না, কিন্তু রক সঙ্গীতকে অশুদ্ধ ভাবার কোন কারণ নেই। সঙ্গীত সবসময়ই acquired taste।

When/if possible, compute.

This Thanksgiving break, I spent a lot of my time sitting in my room and crunching a lot of numbers in my laptop and in a cluster. That’s my usual job, but I haven’t really been working too much with data in the last couple of months (been concentrating more on developing some sensor electronics for my thesis). This is the time of the semester I usually take a break for a day or two, forget about everything else and just relax. However, this will be a memorable break, and I was/am very excited, writing this update late at night because I simply had to share this experience with the world.

Computation is very powerful. I previously wrote that computation is not comprehension, always. But when it does yield comprehension, it can be the most beautiful thing ever. It can tell you stories that no one ever told before. And they are the best stories of all — beautiful truth disguised in a beautiful narrative of numbers.

For the last four years, I have been working (on and off) on developing a computational and algorithmic framework for analyzing religious texts, and associated scholars and historians relationships. A lot of the time has been spent crawling, mining, and cleaning the right form of data. Recently, our team (a few humanities professors from UC Davis and Stanford, and me) finished crawling and cleaning a few million hadiths (different versions of the teachings of the Islamic prophet), over 75000 scholar biographies and a few hundred thousand correct narration sequences. And based on some previous scripts I wrote, I worked during this break to reduce a complicated hair-ball like mess of network relationships (between scholars) to a handful of cleaner and important sub-networks.

A few eigen-analysis tricks were enough to pull this off, but the path to any mathematical project like this is usually not quite straight and rather convoluted. Some simple mathematical intuition can take you a long way in these things, and I hope to detail this journey later in the blog.

There are few exciting results so far, and they will be detailed in publications and talks. I will list the key experiences of the last two days, which is representative of what it is like to live the life of a data detective (when you have collected good data).

Time seemed to stop.

I saw a thousand years worth history unfold in front of me, in my computer, within two days. I saw trust, betrayal, self-interest, selflessness, and overall honest efforts of over 75000 scholars who lived in different cities/countries in different times, their lives condensed in network diagrams and eigenvectors. Each step taken to get from the hair ball mess to the cleaner networks was inspiring me immensely; solving each piece of that puzzle and not realizing when the day already became an evening. When I was getting close to making major inferences, the work did not seem work anymore. I had to push myself to get to bed, convincing myself against the fact that the results were knocking on my door. The satisfaction of doing this type of work is very high.

We need better visualization tools.

More than distributions and tables, I think we need better visualization tools to understand data, as our cognitive abilities can be fully utilized in that case. Visualizing networks and eigenvectors in clever ways at different stages of the analysis saved me a few weeks worth effort. More on this in later posts.

When in doubt, compute.

Hypotheses and intuition can take us quite far, but when the data is complex, we have no other choice other than falling back to standard mathematical tools. It is usually encouraged to not compute blindly, but certain gut feelings and a few semi-blind computations can yield accidental but good results.

Simple mathematical tools are usually good enough.

SVD, PCA, basic graph manipulation techniques provide results that are easily understandable. Many times, some unsupervised learning methods get on my nerves for the many parameters and tuning options they provide. Using them is like trying to get a 98% in an exam instead of being satisfied with 92%. Sometimes the effort is not worth the time and agony, and the results are confusing many times.

Collect data that matters, impact is a byproduct.

One billion Muslims and their cultures are directly or indirectly affected by these hadiths and narration trees. The people of other faith who live around them are affected by these teachings too. Hadiths can unite, divide, inspire, or confuse people. Yet, no one seems to care about looking through a computational lens on the system, which could be an immensely useful tool to check the reliability, sanity, and soundness of this knowledge. It is also a novel way to see how knowledge diffused in the middle eastern countries over centuries.

Our team’s initial aim was to collect the correct form of this data from reliable sources. Impact will come as a byproduct of the computational analysis, that’s my hope.

The fallacy of unlimited scientific understanding

I have often encountered scientists, students of science and mathematics, and science enthusiasts who think (or hope) that scientific exploration and mindset will lead to unlimited knowledge for the questions we ask. If not today, then after n years, but we will find an answer to many of our questions. Even though questions lead to more questions, we are only exploring deeper and farther, and eventually we will reach an understanding of the universe, of ourselves, and our individual and collective behavior. I will tell you why I think that’s a problematic approach towards doing science.

A Reductionist view sometimes yield incomprehensible depth

The most appealing part of building a mathematical model is its elegance and simplicity. We streamline data and hypotheses into a few symbols that represent past, present and future states of a system. We break down observations into smaller pieces, assign variables to represent each piece, and describe the relationships between each piece using different tools that mathematicians have developed. Working on describing a system mathematically gives me immense joy, reduced sleep and a lot of excitements in every line written down on a notebook. Writing every piece of numerical or machine learning code is a blessing.

All that’s good. However, tackling a problem by dividing it branches out many children in the tree. In some cases, we make connections between these children nodes, but sometimes we can’t. Not all the scientific community is working in a balanced way. Human choices and wishes factor in. If deep learning neural networks seemed successful in tracking faces, many will start running behind the concept to utilize its applications in other things, leaving other children nodes unattended. Graphene got some people Nobel prize, and the next decade of papers in condensed matter physics will be filled with work related to Graphene.

More dangerous than that is our human capability to understand data. Good data is expensive. We carefully set up questions to ask, and we build tools to test these questions. The data that comes out is carefully catered to our five sense organs. There could be many data lost during this projection. There could be data that we cannot build sensors to capture because we do not know what would the nature of these data be to begin with.

Computation is not comprehension

The data that we capture, and given the volume of the data we produce nowadays, is in many cases incomprehensible. Many people argue that we can compute — run algorithms and crunch numbers using supercomputers. Let me suggest that computation does not necessarily mean comprehension. Even if we manage to crunch numbers in the most elegant supercomputers of distant future, the results do not necessarily help us, we may not comprehend what it means, with our current cognitive abilities. It may take a more evolved ultra-human to ask smarter questions and answer them, but they might as well face similar troubles in their scale.

Human and social factors

Lastly, but not the least, science is done by social animals who want recognition and satisfaction from their work. Plagiarism pops up. Politics to publish in prestigious journals. Journalists misinterpreting conclusions and scaring/demotivating people. Or motivating people about the wrong things. All sorts of things happen that hinder the progress of asking questions that matter.

Why we still do science

I don’t know about others, but it provides me comfort and peace, just what faith provides to many. Humans are curious, and we want to explain the things around us. It is a miracle that our world is comprehensible and describable (as told by Einstein). I personally believe that we should find peace in that miracle, while accepting the fact that a lot of the knowledge around us are too complex to describe and make connections.

No, religion is still not an answer to big questions

It’s easy to point to an entity who has answers to all these questions. However, I think religion should not be favored by default though. There are questions that cannot be answered by science, and cannot be captured by the naïveté of miracles that religion promises. Religion has its place for a different level of comfort, but is not a substitute for scientific exploration.

MIT Shenzhen Bootcamp: Navigation 101

Getting a Visa

I had to apply for the tourist visa category. As an international student, specially coming from a South Asian region (Bangladesh), there were some extra hurdles for me. I had to submit my bank statement, a letter from MIT stating that I am currently a student at MIT, along with photocopies of my passport and current I-20 document. I also got a letter of invitation from AQS China (our host company in China) to go with my Visa application. A friend recommended that I go talk to some travel agent in Chinatown to make my life easy, and so I did. They charged me a fee of $125 (including the fee to apply for Visa), and I didn’t have to go to NYC by myself to apply. Within a few weeks, I got my passport back with a 60-day visa.

Tips:

  1. Prepare early for your visa if you are an international student.
  2. Travel agents can help you a lot, for a small fee you can get a lot done.

Arrival

The Shenzhen International airport is a pretty big, with no visible sign of English language instructions anywhere. Our bootcamp instructor Bunnie Huang was generous enough to come and pick me up to avoid any complication. I had no Chinese phone/SIM, my US carrier wouldn’t work (no roaming network), and I had quite a big luggage (as I was carrying materials for a workshop I was organizing in Bangladesh). I thought of getting adventurous, still, by calling a taxi, as I had the apartment address that MIT rented for us. Bunnie said in an email, “having no phone and trying to get to the apartment by a taxi is a recipe for disaster.” Alright, I waited at a star bucks inside the airport for this amazing friendly guy to show up.

When I got to the apartment building, I was explained why simply getting a taxi wouldn’t work. You see, the address was given to us as 66 South Park road. In reality, it was called 66 Nanyang Road, and most of the drivers wouldn’t get the translation. Also, most taxis won’t have GPS, and they navigate by popular landmarks in the city.

View from my apartment.
View from my apartment.

Tips:

  1. For the first few days, it’s good to have someone show you around the city.
  2. Trying to use GPS maps may not help, there’s no Google maps either. Your best bet is to ask people, use Bing maps, memorize manual maps etc.

Survival: 1

You need to have a VPN installed in your computer if you want to use Google, Facebook etc services. It’s good to change your passwords as Chinese hackers might attack and poison your computers. If your ip is found to be using google, facebook etc several times, your ip might be blocked. The MIT VPN from Cisco worked well for me. There are commercial services like Strong VPN etc in case you don’t have access to free ones.

Survival: 2

The next day, we were taken to the shopping mall nearby our apartment building to buy necessities, and also to familiarize ourselves with cash transactions with the shop attendants. Remember that everything runs on cash, there’s no card specially when you go out to the street shops to buy things.

  1. You might want to get extra cushion for your bed if you aren’t used to sleeping on hard beds.
  2. Tap water is not quite safe to drink. I bought mineral water bottles for a month.
  3. It seems inevitable that you (a foreigner) will catch attention of many kinds of people in the street. I was handed phone numbers and cards with titles like “girls for fun” etc. And then there are sellers who want to sell you all sorts of ‘things’. A piece of advice from Bunnie: “don’t do stupid shit!”
  4. If you are not used to flat/pan commodes, then may God help you. It’s very common in shops and restaurants.
  5. Food was a whole new deal for me, even after eating “chinese food” in my country and USA. I will post another entry just on the food culture.

A farewell note

I usually have a hard time letting people go.

Some friends and well-wishers told me that I don’t easily give in. I think they fail to realize that I do give in, only to my emotions.

I miss some people very badly. People who start a spark inside me, and then leave. A few months ago I was walking down the Boylston Street sidewalk, and noticed a violinist playing classical music. I stood there listening to him for 10 minutes, and then bought one of his untitled coverless CDs and came back home. After a few hours, I found myself going back to Boylston Street again in an attempt to find that guy. It’s not rare that a great piece of music brings tears to my eyes, only this time I had a chance to meet the genius who made it happen. I couldn’t find him obviously, but I keep an eye out for him in subways.

Speaking of subway, once I met this young lady who was playing a guitar and singing Arabic songs in the Central Square subway station. I sat beside her, smiling. A few Ashmont-bound trains passed by, I was getting really late for a meeting at MIT, but I was enchanted by her music. She understood, and smiled back at me. We were speaking through smiles, and she kept singing. I knew it was meant for me. I had to leave when the next train came. I looked at her, and she nodded. I had her permission to leave. We smiled at each other, and parted in our ways.

We walk away from these fleeting but strong bonds, because we have to. In some alternate universe, we might see relationships forming out of these simple yet powerful interactions, but may be not in this universe. This universe teaches us to move on, for our own good, because we have to. Logic pushes us to look away and walk our own path. And so I do, and you do. We all do. Ignoring the heart, listening to the head. Because we have to.

I know I will meet these people again, in some way or other, in strange circumstances. However, I know that it won’t spark the same emotion like the first time when we felt a bond. It will be a casual encounter.

Last night, Sujoy bhai was smiling back at me before I was leaving, and I couldn’t help but say, “bhai your smile is going to make me miss you.” Unfortunately I’m not good with words (read scared) in front of smart girls, so I just gave a hug to Tapoti apu.

Words can’t express how I feel when I have to kill these emotions — killing a newborn child is not easy. However, my human capabilities will only let me communicate through words. So here it goes, after the big preamble to explain the context behind these words:

Sujoy bhai and Tapoti apu, I will miss you.

বিন্দু আমি…

রবিবারের অলস দুপুরে গান শুনছি, প্রতিটা নোট গিলছি। গিটারের সোলো, ড্রামের হাই হ্যাটে মৃদু দুই একটা ফিল-ইন। বেজ গিটারে একটা লম্বা রিফের আমেজ, কিবোর্ডে ভরাট, ঘর গম্ভীর করা কোন কর্ড। লিরিকের মারপ্যাঁচ, গায়কের নিজের পুরোটা দিয়ে গাওয়া।

এরকম ভালোবাসায় বিশ্বাসী নও তুমি

অথচ তোমাকে দেখি আমি

অজস্র ছায়ার মাঝে দাঁড়িয়ে

কি যেন খুঁজছ তুমি।।

শুনতে শুনতে মনে হচ্ছে এই গানগুলো আর কোনদিন থামবে না। গানের চরিত্রগুলো যেন চোখের সামনে দেখতে পাচ্ছি।

সব আলো নিভে যাক আঁধারে
শুধু জেগে থাক ঐ দুরের তারারা
সব শব্দ থেমে যাক নিস্তব্ধতায়
শুধু জেগে থাক এই সাগর
আমার পাশে

সব বেদনা মুছে যাক স্থিরতায়
হৃদয় ভরে যাক অস্তিত্বের আনন্দে
হৃদয় গভীরে অবাক দৃষ্টিতে
থমকে দাড়িয়েছে মহাকাল এখানে

স্পন্দনের কাছে আমরা জিম্মি। oscillation দ্বারা প্রতিটা জিনিস পরিচালিত হয়, আমরা পৃথিবীর সন্তানরা বাদ যাবো কেন? শ্রুতিমধুর শব্দের কাছে, রিদমের কাছে আমরা আত্মসমর্পণ করতে বাধ্য।

তাহসানের প্রেমাতাল শুনছি, ওয়ারফেজের অবাক ভালোবাসার পর মাঝখানে ইয়েলো ব্রিক রোড শুনে আবার ফেরত আসছি অঞ্জন দত্তের কাছে। বেলা বোস আর মালার তালে গলা মিলিয়ে আবার ফেরত এসেছি বিন্দু তে।

বিন্দু আমি তুমি আমায় ঘিরে

বৃত্তের ভেতর শুধু তুমি আছো।

মাতাল আমি তোমার প্রেমে

তাই অর্থহীন সবই যে প্রেম লাগে।

বৃহস্পতির বলয় ঘিরে

শনিতে আজ আমি পৌঁছে গেছি।

তোমার প্রেমে পাগল হয়ে

পাগলামির ভাবসম্প্রসারণ করছি।।

গান আর না থামুক। চলতে থাকুক সারাদিন, সারা বছর, বছরের পর বছর। আমার চামড়া ঢিলে হয়ে পাকানো দড়ির মত হয়ে যাক। চুল আর দাঁত সব পড়ে যাক। থুড়থুড়ে বুড়ো হয়ে বেঁচে থাকবো, আর গান, গানের কথা, সুর আমাকে বাঁচিয়ে রাখবে। তারপর গান শুনতে শুনতেই একদিন বিদায় নেবো, কিন্তু কোন আক্ষেপ থাকবে না। সুখি হবার জন্য খুব বেশি কিছু লাগে কি?

nano fiction: recursion

Recursion

They read every page, but could not find the answer. Some of them examined the book closely. Debates ensued. Wars started. People died. They were divided, but everyone wanted to know the answer. So they went back to the book. Scrutinized pages after pages. This time their strategy was different. They sat together. Spoke for hours, days, months and years. Halley’s Comet kept passing by, they lost count at some point. Disputes ensued. Wars began..

“No! We can’t go on like this!” – exclaimed one of them.

An old man asked, “what do you suggest?”

“Burn The Book! It is the source of all evil!”

Everyone agreed.

The book was torn apart and thrown into fire. Smoke and fire shrouded the book, everyone looked at the mess with disbelief, pain, anger and frustration. A page was spit out from the ruin by the wind, almost burned but the text was legible. The old man went ahead and picked it up. He read the seven sentences written on the page, and suddenly realized what the answer was.

The very first page contained the answer that human beings forever sought to know.