Sunday Memories

Sunday mornings are meant to be lazy. I used to wake up at around 8; take a hot cup of tea from Amma, and head to the verandah and sit down with the Sunday supplementary papers, browsing through them, while waiting for Appa to leisurely finish the main Sunday paper. Without needing to get to office, Appa, over his second cup of coffee, would read the paper for hours (especially the ads, which he loves).  It being a no office day, there would be no breakfast, except for yesterdays rice mixed with curd.

After breakfast, my sister and I would make ourselves comfortable in front of the television, completely immersed in the world of  Mowgli and Uncle Scrooge (strangely, unlike the other kids, we never watched Chandrakanta). Appa would don his favourite blue checkered lungi and his dirty baniyan, mount a broom on a stick, and begin his weekly sunday chore of cleaning the upper reaches of the house, the corners with cobwebs, the fan blades etc. Often he would order us to clean our tables and book shelves, but Sunday was not supposed to be wasted cleaning. For me and my sister; doing anything was a waste of precious waste of Sunday time.  Appa’s sunday cleaning ritual earned him the nickname: “Kuppayo Saamio”.  The cleaning ritual would end with Appa dusting off everything in sight, disturbing our TV viewing with his cleaning of the TV, VCP etc.

Meanwhile, Amma would make her busy in the kitchen, and fill the house with the delightful aroma of the sunday afternoon special lunch. Often, it would be Vengaaya Sambhar (which is locked in a close fight with murungakka sambhar for the title of “King of Sambhars”) with aloo-deep fry  and parappu-usli, accompanied by rasam and papaddam. Another sunday favourite would be Keerai Molakootal (the eternal queen of molakootals) or Avail.  The light breakfast was the best appetizer for the delicious sunday lunch. As if the aroma was not appetizing enough, Amma would give me and my sister the awesomest tel-malish for the sunday head bath, making us more hungrier for the delicious food.

Delicious lunch would follow an siesta and an old Sivaji movie on the VCP (rented from Balaji rentals, whose collection of Sivaji movies, Appa would have exhausted, twice over) or a Rajesh Khanna movie on DD, with bhajji or bonda or some similar dish.  Sunday evenings were always a little sad. I would be jealous of the whole day that went by and angry at the school week that I had to wake up to.

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I completely waste Sunday’s in Madison, by staying awake till the wee hours on Saturday night. Winters are even more depressing, because by the time I wake up at 3 in the afternoon, the sun is getting ready to sink back in. So, basically, I just wake up into the sad Sunday evening, cribbing about a non-existant Sunday and the horrible work-week ahead.

*******

Today was surprisingly different. Despite sleeping late, I woke up at 9 AM (actually 8AM, thanks to daylight saving). On any other given Sunday, I would have forced myself to go to sleep, but fortunately, today, I decided to wake up. And, I woke up to a beautiful day, the sun shining brightly, the snow melting slowly. Made myself a piping hot cup of strong chai and settled down to continue reading the refreshingly funny novel : “Chinaman” by Shenan Karunatilaka, which is about a dying drunk journalist, trying to make his mark on the world by making a documentary on the best player that never played for Sri Lanka, Pradeep Matthew, a mysterious  left-arm spinner.  A little later, I decided to finish the long overdue laundry (I had to, I had run out of socks anyway), which slowly sucked me into a cleaning frenzy, which in-turn brought back memories of Appa’s cleaning on Sundays. After frenetic vacuum-ing, I had to cook. Eating out would have spoiled the sunday that I was re-living. While the vetha-kozambu and cabbage curry was busy cooking, I helped myself to an awesome tel-maalish and shower, and finished the afternoon with a piping hot lunch of vetha-kozambu sadam, in an lazy sunday afternoon set up by Rafi and Kishore (music from this site; highly recommended).

 

Appa does not drink. If he, he would know how perfect the beer I just finished was!.

 

*******

I am off to the Grand Canyon for four days. The first time, I will be spending spring break doing something, instead of being miserable with myself. Yay!

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Thoughts on the World Cup…

The announcement of the Aus-Ban 3 ODI series, right after the World Cup points to all that is wrong with cricket administration, especially viewed against the backdrop of the thrilling Ind-Eng ODI.

That the Aus-Ban ODI series is meaningless needs no reiteration. But to think ODI is on its death-bed needs revaluation. The series itself undermines the world cup. After all, what function does the new ODI series claim to do, coming at the wake of the tournament to find out the best ODI side in the world?

It is not the format that is dead. While it is capable of producing thrilling games once in a while, the fact that most of the other games are boring because they often form the bulk of un-necessary seven game series, most of which are played by un-interested teams with major players “rested” in front of bored audiences.  The best days of ODI cricket, in the 90s, were when each game had a significance. There were mostly 3 ODI bilateral series or interesting triangular series scheduled.  Without doubt, if the Ind-Eng WC game were one among 7 in a bilateral series, one of the teams would have given up halfway through the second innings. The game got so close, was that despite being out of it, India showed some fight in the end, and despite the chase looking to be a lost cause, England came out trying to win it.  In a 7 match series, there is always the next game, and in a world where the next ODI series played by the national team is probably a week after the current one, a loss does not matter to the fan or the players.

There is a tamil saying which tells that “Consumed in excess, even the best food will turn into poison”.  Over-consumption is the bane of the ODI.The road ahead for the ICC is to restrict ODI games in bilateral series, so that each game has its importance. What such an restriction will entail is that the revenue model for cricket has to be changed. IPL has led the way in showing what the revenue model should be. Restricting “international” cricket, to probably four or three bilateral series per team in a year, with each series being 2-3 tests and 3 ODIs, will not only free up the stars for more franchisee T20 cricket which could be the revenue stream for cricket but make the series itself more meaningful, and hence more competitive. The bilateral series, will have more implications in rankings, should infuse some extra patriotic fervour among the fans and open up new underlying rivalries, about franchisee team-mates taking on each other. (imagine a world T20 league, administered by the ICC, played all year round) (On that topic, Eng, Aus and SA could as well come up with one such league to compete with the IPL. Obviously BCCI will ban the Indian player from that. But it will be an interesting tussle that will be played out).

It is all but a dream. Come May, India will travel to England and play out 7 ODI’s with uninterested players and spectators.

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The Ind-Eng game, despite being a thrilling tie, was a disappointment for Indian fans. A team, billed as the hot favourites, has had its bowling exposed. Obviously, all of us thought that we could hide our weak bowling line up underneath the heavy duty presence of our strong batting. England showed that no matter what, the weak bowling cannot be hidden. The strong batting itself is partially to blame. Such a line-up demands that belters be prepared, which in turn means that opposition batters can hit the hide out of our hapless bowling.

Now that Yuvraj is back in some sort of form, team selection is also going to be important. Yousuf Pathan’s role in the team is under most question. Clearly, he is in as the hitter. Clearly, Dhoni does not value his bowling much. Which means that YP’s role while batting first would be only meaningful, if India loses its 4th or 5th wicket during the 40-41st over. While chasing, it might allow the top order to bat a little more calmly, but then the pressure is squarely on the man. YP is evidently not a cushion against top-order collapse. He is not that good a batsman to even provide that cushion. If India wanted such a cushion, then Raina was the better choice. So, going into the future games, we should hedge our bets on the strong, and now “in-form” top -middle order to fire, so that we can drop Pathan and get in a bowler. If I were the selector, I would get Ashish Nehra (unfortunately, we have to select the best amongst the worst) and Ashwin (in for Chawla, who in the England game bowled either too short or too full and was milked for runs). Dropping Pathan for a bowler is the more balanced side, in which we have distributed our risks equally. For far too long, we have had extra insurance against a top-order collapse. For a top-order which claims to be the best in business, it should be a shame to even demand that extra insurance by compromising the already weak bowling line-up.

If only the younger Pathan was not injured and in some respectable form.

 

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You’ve got it easy!

I ran into a second year Indian grad student yesterday, as just to make conversation, wished him luck for his upcoming prelim examination. He, in return, enquired about my prelim about two years ago; and my committee. When I told him about my committee, his instinctive response was “Ah! you got it easy”.

Instantly the bulbs for my two pet-peeves flashed.

The first is, without any rhyme or reason, slotting faculty members as good, bad, horrible advisers, examiners, committee members etc. The first year, I had other grad students advising me to stay away from certain faculty, and hope and pray that I do not get them in my committee (we are assigned one “randomly” chosen faculty). When I enquired further, the simplest question being: “How did the faculty member affect you?”, and the truth would just jump out, that the faculty failed some student a million years ago. The grad student did not even think that the student might have been failed for some valid reason. The same happened in IIT-B as well, when one faculty was literally outcast, and no student chose that person as their guide. The reason being that the faculty failed a student the previous year. This time, it was easy for me to find out more about the student, and it did turn out that he did not put in sufficient effort in his project. I try my best, not to pass qualitative judgment about faculty members. I often get emails asking me on which faculty is better as a adviser and asking me to compare two people working on completely different things. My answer is based on my personal interactions, if any with the faculty, and hence, in most cases completely useless to the person sending me the mail. But I know people, making the sort of quantitative appraisal that is being asked, and often on an arbitrary absolute scale.

The second being trying to justify that the other person had it easy. I must confess, I too have tried to do that a few times, but over the past two-three years, I have been making a conscious attempt to not indulge myself in “you’ve got it easy”.  Some examples:

  • This is one is a classic: ICSE vs CBSE. Millions of hours have been wasted debating ICSE toughness because of Shakespeare to CBSE easiness. The funny thing was ISC students would harp on about  Physics and Chemistry being harder in 11th and 12th, whereas the syllabus was almost the same. And, being from Calcutta, where ICSE schools just mushroomed because parents wanted their kids to study ICSE, it was tough times being a CBSE student, always having to defend your board.
  • During undergraduate, chemical was quite cheekily termed as “kam akal”: less brains. And constant chatter would be that chemical students have everything easy. I guess they were not too much off the truth. In my opinion, the undergraduate VTU chemical engineering syllabus results in brain atrophy. But back then, a clutch of the “kam akal” students had only an design course, in which we had to refer to a 5000 page book and draw nasty distillation towers as the only proof that chemical was hard.
  • Other masters students were at the receiving end of “you got it easy” at IIT. The ChemE department had a fairly challenging 1st semester, and personally, it was a refreshing change from the brain atrophy. While, I really enjoyed the hard work; a fair proportion of the rest of my batch mates were earning sympathy from other students by cribbing about how hard the course is.
  • Experiments and labs were beyond me; so I took up a simulation based project, which allowed me to soak up the experimentalists complain how easy it has been for me.
  • And in the first year and a half year, soaked up daily loads of “CS is so hard” from my CS friends.
  • With my working friends, I have been “reverse” doing it, painting a rosy picture of PhD life: no 9-5 types, no phone calls, long boring meetings etc etc.

I dislike “you’ve got it easy” comments because it is half baked, based on either perceptions and second hand information. But, the lot of us, have grown up, feeding from fake pity about our tough courses!

 

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Boring Conversations and some fears

It seems I have nothing left to say. I am bored with the two repetitive conversations, and the one, not so repetitive but most meaningless conversation:

  1. I visited Australia, holidaying with some close friends from Calcutta, and met up some old “friends” ( friend is just too general a term to describe such relationships. We went to school together, had most of our fun together, designed and executed high school pranks together, but have parted ways since school) in Melbourne. A few weeks ago, met with undergraduate friends in Chicago. And with all these people, after a few minutes of updating present details, a few more minutes of trying to talk about how our typical days are, the conversations jump back to memories. After some-time, I am just too tired of just reliving the memories.
  2. With friends in Madison: This has become so repetitive, that I can anticipate what my friend will say, what I will say in return and what he will say in return to that and so on. It will start with one of us talking about the wedding of some random dude from undergraduate. Then, we will all absorb in self-pity of our single lives and our inabilities to get a girl. Rinse and repeat, till last call. Early last year, one of the guys from Madison got married (sort of contradicts our conversations), and when he gets his wife over, we drown ourselves in whisky and endless games of UNO.
  3. Just sometimes, (and although I am grateful that we get out of this conversational infinite loop), 2-3 hours get lost in “discussing” India’s politics and how we can just not improve. I get in all my Rahul baba bashing in, someone tells stuff like indiscipline is our DNA etc and within a few minutes, I stop listening and just hear yada, yada, yada.

I’ve surrounded myself with so many like-minded people in Madison, that differences with my close friends seem to have blown completely out of proportion. (I guess, it is the case with my friends too. Unlike, school or college, my present contacts/acquaintances etc all have a similar background (nerdy, PhD types), while my friends, wherever they end up working, will have people with similar backgrounds.) It is my reaction to these differences that has startled me.

I’ve known Shriram  and Srikant from since 1989. And since that time, we have know the kind of people we are: Shriram is the enthusiast, the spontaneous person, someone, who does not care about plans and things to do, just follows whatever he wants to do. And a damn good “convincer”. Srikant, has this completely laid-back, whatever attitude. He does not care about plans and such, because anything is fine with him. I am the most meticulous of the three. Not spontaneous, not laid-back. I like to plan things out, think about decisions etc. I get specially irritated when things just don’t go according to plans (my dream is to go on an unplanned holiday, just drive wherever kind of holiday, but I know I can never do that)

The clash of personalities was always there. Especially between Shriram and me. The great part about it was, the differences never bothered us. We would get into small fights, but sort it out finally in a manner in which both of us were happy.

But during the Australia trip, the differences just got to my nerves.

(eg. He wanted to spend an extra night in Port Campbell, I wanted to get back to Sydney as planned. We fought, I won, but I felt sour all trip long)

(eg. He wanted to rent a car in Cairns. I thought it was a waste of money. We rented one anyway)

(eg. I wanted to eat quick grab-and-go lunches from Subway, McD etc, he wanted elaborate restaurants. On the whole, this was even)

(eg. Both of us kept fighting on who would drive).

Both of us were expecting that we would get into fights. As we joked when Shriram’s wife tried to mediate: “Come on, we are on a holiday!”, that it is not fun unless we fight. These arguments did not bother me. It was just that, ever so often, I would get frustrated by our different takes. Negative thoughts like, I cannot even get along with my best friends etc would creep into me and make me miserable. It has me scared a lot.

It was not just the fighting, but our approaches to everything. Being surrounded by people who “think” just like I do, I have gotten very comfortable with the manner in which I go about things. To be then, suddenly meeting friends, but with a totally different approach to “go about things”, just yanked me out of my comfort zone.

There are these cliches about best friends just going on as if nothing ever happened. I hope they are just cliches. Time, work, colleagues, your location, have subtle ways of influencing us. I guess, accepting it and adjusting is also a part of “being” the best friend.

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Discipline

While talking with friends about 2011 resolutions, I listed mine as : “Work harder”. On, further thought, I think that should be changed to “Work regularly”.

I have sunk deep into a “chalta hai” attitude quick-sand.  My work mostly consists of pen-paper derivations or simple simulations ( ones which does not require a muscular computer), and lately, I have just kept pushing them for later, while horsing around on the internet all night long (like today). So much so, that there have been days this winter when I have hardly seen sunlight, and more days in which I have cooped up in my apartment, having fooled myself into thinking that ; a 10-15 minute “thought to the problem” is work.

It is one thing to be distracted by something and the distraction affecting your schedule, but to be distracted by nothing? I did not work, but thinking back, I achieved nothing else in that time.  In 2010, my casual reading decreased like anything, from 22-23 novels in 2009 to just around 10-11 in 2010. I hardly blogged or read anything useful online. All the time went away watching TV serials online.

But despite all this time wasting, November-December saw some exciting possibilities of solutions to the research problem that I have been “working” on for the past two years.

I know 2011 is going to be a very important year for me, and much of what I do (or not do) this year is going to decide, how soon I can graduate. 2011 is also going to be important because, I have to start thinking about graduation and job. I have to decide what job I want, research the preparation required to give good interviews for that, and prepare for the interviews. Importantly, If I am looking at jobs outside corporate research, I need a lot of reading and preparing to be done.

The foundation for all this comes back to the one thing that I have been lacking since school: Discipline and Focus.

I need to be disciplined to utilize time effectively. Determined to just work for a long periods in the day. I want to start with basic things like waking up at a regular time daily and going to the department at regular times. With the ideas that came up last month, bulk of what I need to do needs no inspiration but hard work. I need discipline to sit and get the code written, the proof completed etc.

Last year has been spent completely out of focus. I need to focus on finishing, on preparing for the future.

I need to get out of this rut. I have to. I must.

I hope I will.

I have always regarded self-help books as useless, but just a few moments ago, I got myself a “motivational poster” to remind me of the importance of staying focussed. I am beginning to think that a self-help book might help too. I know that, I cannot become an efficient person overnight; that the move towards efficiency has to be gradual etc etc, but old habits, especially the bad ones die hard. For instance, another restriction I made to myself was that I will refrain from doing a few “stupid” things, and 15 days into new year, I broke it.

I thought, after a refreshing holiday with a great start to the year, I will give a great start to my research this year. So far, it has been disappointing; having spent the last 10 days trying to convince myself that today is the last day of the old me.

I hope that as the year moves on, I become more and more Organized, Focused, Disciplined, Hard working.

I hope that, I be able to balance time on the stuff I need to do with the stuff I don’t need to do. I hope that I read more often (that gives me the most pleasure, but TV is addictive), blog more often. I used to love to read blogs, tweets etc, but since my internship, I have just refreshed FB a few million times a day (FB is internet’s TV, for sure).

Hope!

 

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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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