Archive for July, 2010

Four unfruitful years

It was sometime in May-2006 that I first got into “research”. In four years, many of my friends have gotten themselves a 200 page Thesis and a few papers, a couple of trips to Europe/ Hawaii etc for conferences and a DEGREE! My friends in Computer Science average 3 papers a year. Their resume’s are 3 pages long because 2 pages have to be dedicated to papers and conferences.

In the same 4 years, I have 0 papers, 0 conference talks and 0 results that I can proudly write in any thesis as my contribution to science.

I did not expect anything great from my M.Tech project. It was a downhill project from the beginning. Initially, I took more than I could handle, and as I slowly got to grips with the process, I had narrowed my scope vastly. Yes, I learned a lot about Monte Carlo simulations, model reduction, system identification, markov chains and master equations and such, but the end result of my research was as badly thrashed by peer-reviewers as Portugal thrashed the North-Koreans. Did the work have any merit? I guess not, otherwise the paper would have been accepted!

In Wisconsin, I took up Supply chain optimization using MPC. I was super excited when I started, because the topic looked full of awesomeness!

Nobody expected anything great to come out of Jan-08 to Jan-09, and I was not too disappointed with what I achieved. I could run some simulations of things that looked practical and useful. But it was too simple to be anything. I don’t even remember what I did in the spring and summer of 2009, except that I wrote up a huge simulation, which took almost 2 months and finally ended up not working ( I nibbled on the non-working idea again in Spring 2010, and still it remained the same: non-working!). Fall-09, was spent in making up innocuous Game theory examples and reading loads of papers on game theory. But by the end of December, I had no idea where I was going with the multitude of examples that I made up. Each of them were too simple to get any result out of, and in-fact because it was out of our group’s domain, the published papers had stuff with much greater detail in them. One such idea, I got to work on again during my internship this summer, but which again died a swift death, with it not adding much benefit.

Spring-10 was spent in vain trying to come up with a solution to yet another different problem. As you would guess by now, in vain! And today’s meeting with my boss and super-boss: 2 hours of discussion and we are back at the starting point of summer. It was a strange deja-vu during the meeting today, because we ended up discussing the same thing that we discussed at the start of the internship. I was asked to come up with another new idea, which I partially did by the end of the day, but going by past history and my luck with ideas, I  think I can guess where it is going to end up. (To add to my misery, the other intern that joined with me, has 11 papers/publications and he finished his intern project 1 month ahead of schedule)

To add salt to injury, during the summer, I attended quite a few talks given by applicants to jobs in my group. As the talks varied over a wide range from supply chain design, tactical supply chain optimization, advanced controls, scheduling, monte carlo simulations etc, I realized I have more than a decent grasp on all these subjects but without a paper, and a few “good” results, I would remain a dud! I mean how else would you show that you have prove that you have working knowledge of the field AND innovative research potential. Maybe, I just don’t have any research potential.

I remember the interview with Shell in the December of ’06. In the technical interview, I was asked to talk about my project. I explained it to them, about thin films growing on a substrate, about how the process was stochastic, about the intractable “true” solution to the problem, about the need of a simpler control relevant model and about my unsuccessful attempts at finding one. The feedback at the end of the process was that  I could cannot complete a given task.

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Happy Birthday

“Come stay with us in the hotel tonight. You can go to college from the hotel tomorrow”, Ashish’s parents urged him. However, Ashish was adamant that he had to return to the hostel in the evening because he had to finish his lab report for class the next day. Thus, he took an auto back (when parents are in town, you don’t look to save money) to the campus. And by 10 PM, he was back in his room.

He knew the drill well. He kept the door to his room slightly ajar, played Floyd on his computer and kept the lights switched off. When Atul stopped by his room to ask him for the nightly sutta, he politely refused and pretended that he had an headache and needed to sleep. Atul, uncharacteristically  did not  pester him and left by himself. Ashish knew that even that was the part of the drill.

He had been lying awake on his bed for nearly an hour when the clock stuck midnight. It was now that he had to pull on his comforter and pretend that he has been woken up from deep slumber when his gang of friends will storm his room. He played the rest of the drama in his mind. His friends will drag him to the grounds, strip him to his underwear, kick him, and then someone will pour a bucket of cold water on him. Then there will be the cake with something absurd written on it, which will be eaten less and smeared more. And then, there will be some vodka and chicken kababs at the inn across the street (The money for the treat had already been transferred to his wallet).

It was a couple of minutes past midnight and there were no signs of people gathering near his room. “Well, my watch must be fast”, he concluded and continued to pretend to be asleep. And then, it was 12:05, and he said to himself “They will be here any moment”. Slowly, the clock ticked to 12.30, and by then Ashish knew that his birthday was not going to be celebrated in the hostel that night. He walked into Atul’s room and asked him if he would like to come for a sutta, hoping that Atul, will suddenly remember on seeing him. That did not happen, and the two of them walked upto the sutta shop discussing Spain vs Netherlands.

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India or USA?

This weekend, I had the opportunity to visit  the relatives belonging to the American branch of our family tree. A cousin was getting poonal-ed. As I have already mentioned in this blog earlier, my patti had 5 brothers (mama-thatha for me) who had ridden the first generation of brain-drain and settled in America during the 1970’s. Now, their kids (my aunts and uncles), born and raised in America (better known in Indian circles as the ABCD) arranging the  Poonal ceremony for their kid, who has never visited India.

It was a slap in the face of the Traditionalists in India, for here was a second generation American-Indian parent, transferring an Brahmin tradition to a third generation American Indian, while many of us, having been bought up in the so called “cradle” of such traditions are apathetic to them.  For example, most of these relatives are still vegetarians (for religious reasons) while I, (although I try to avoid eating meat as much as possible) don’t mind eating it when the only other option is a salad or lettuce and tomato between two buns (My strategy to avoid meat is to pack my own lunch).

While driving back, it got me thinking about this question that many of us will have to answer in a few years time: Settling here in America or settling back in India?

There are just two choices: India or US. And as with many of these subjective questions, there is no universal correct answer. But here are my thoughts:

Among the two choices,  I think that the choosing US was the harder choice for my mama-thatha’s while choosing India will be the harder choice for us.

Back in the 60’s, what we call as the “staunch orthodox” was normal, and it would have been awfully difficult for my mama-thatha’s to decide to settle in the US, into the completely different culture and way of life. Air travel was  expensive and time consuming, meaning that settling down in the US would have to come at the expense of losing touch with family in India ( at that time, when postal service was erratic, telephones expensive and virtually non-existant in India and Internet still 20-30 years in the future). Also, the US, back then were still struggling to solve their own internal problems: Cold war, racial segregation, McCarthism etc, and was in general not as receptive to a new culture and new people as it is now. It would have been a a monumental decision to knowingly forsake the comfort of our own people, of our own culture to chase the “good” life. Economically India was stagnated at that time, with the “Hindu” growth rate of 2%, the babu culture in which talent and hard work were probably the least required attributes for some one to be successful. Chasing the “good” life in India was hardly an option to my mama-thathas (and many others in the “Brain-Drain” time), who had only their intelligence and hard work for sale. So, it came down to selecting between status-quo and the limited success of a career in 1960’s India or settling into a completely alien country and an even more alien culture, not much receptive to new people with the option of unlimited success. I believe the second choice to be the harder one to take.

Sunnyvale, CA is called Suryanagri. Arlington, TX is called Arlingapuram. Dallas, TX has a 24/7 Desi FM channel. Edison, NJ is so much in the news for having been taken over by Indians. US in 2010, is very much an extension of India. Air travel is cheap, takes 16 hours, much less than Delhi-Madras by train and call rates and internet have reduced the distance even further. You can live in the US, and yet stay connected with India more than ever before.  Move into an Indian community, and I bet it will be easy to find an maami samooham having Bhajan congregations every evening.  Economically and quality of life wise, India has drastically improved now. Although it may not be as comfortable and luxurious as living in the USA, a comparable lifestyle in India can be had. Talent can take you places, even in India now. But the most important reason to live and work in India now, is to be a part of the change, is to contribute, in whatever small way we can in developing our country. In being there, doing something, rather than being here, cribbing “Des ka kuch nahi hoga”.  The chance to be a part of an increasingly  political middle class, and the chance to have a say in shaping the path of our country. I am not saying that one has to go back to India and join a political party, but just living and working in India, we can be a part of the change, just by wanting to improve conditions just for our selfish goals.

The “good” life that was the reason for people to leave the country is no more a compelling reason. The easier choice is to sit cosily in an Indian neighborhood in America, drink beer while watching Football and crib that India cannot improve because of the culture in India. The harder choice will be to take a (rather big) pay cut, a small lifestyle change and move to work in India.

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I am well aware that I might end up taking the “easier” choice, just because it is easy!

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In my opinion, we have made a mess of our understanding of culture, tradition and religion. I believe that this mixed understanding is what is making our generation confused. Culture is something that has to evolve with time, and practices that made sense a century of two ago need not be practical today. For example, this whole business of Horoscope matching is a silly exercise in guess-work, but we still follow it.

That is what we are doing now, cutting, copying, pasting and reinterpreting and reinventing our cultural history, traditions etc.

I think there are two distinct point of views here. When the first wave of Indian immigrants came to the US (or Europe/ Australia), they have had the opportunity of distilling what they thought was important from their cultural/ traditional upbringing and mixed it up with the popular US culture here which has added a new flavour to our customs and traditions and has started the unique American-Indian culture of the US.

Back in India, people in our generation (or for that matter even in our parent’s generation) have started questioning various aspects of culture/tradition etc and are trying to forge a new set of rules, that is widely adaptable, with more and more people traveling west while still retaining, for want of a better word, the Indian-ness. The Americanized-Indian culture.

Both problems however, in my opinion are answering the same question: What to retain from what has been passed on to us, that is sensible in today’s world, and what is outdated, out-technologied, out-developed and out-thinked. The challenges though are unique. In America, it is about the will to resist being eaten by the American culture all together, while in India, the challenge is to form a consensus amongst the various people, ranging from the ultra conservative group who have a false sense of pride in declaring that “India has culture, which America/West does not have” to the  ultra-modern wannabe’s who think aping the west is the coolest thing to do.

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A few random thoughts:

  • A black car in which the A.C does not work is a recipe for sweating out a few kilos on long drives. The inside of my car was a furnace, and the temperature outside was uncharacteristically in the mid-90’s.
  • There are so many “firsts” and statues and art-muesuems in Philadelphia. I am neither a history or art-buff. I guess, such types will really enjoy Philadelphia.
  • The poonal and meeting  relatives were great, the evening at Janani’s parents house was also awesome. Aunty made up some awesome dishes and the conversation was fun. New Jersey is a continuous piece of civilization, and was fun driving through, after the long drive through the hardly inhabited Upstate New-York.

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