Wednesday, August 29, 2007

If Not Then What??

Ever wondered what you’d be if you were not who you are? No, I do not mean what would be the alternative career options or alternatives in locales, spouse, significant one, or whatever. You could tell me that if you were not a software engineer working in one of the leading companies in Bangalore today (just let’s say), you’d have taken up medicine and would be a doctor. But no, that is not what I mean. Have you just looked at random people around you and wondered that you could have been this person? Just looked at the woman in the bus and wondered- What if I was not what I was and I was this woman? Or maybe looked at someone and thought- I could never ever be this person. Never with a capital N !

I have been wondering for some time now the hows, whys, and the dynamics of who we are and who we are not. It is a difficult question to answer, deeply philosophical, and yours truly is not going to delve into things so complicated. But more than philosophy, I believe that who we are is only a matter of chance, probability, randomness, and a gamut of other factors like people and circumstances. What if you were not born into the family you were born into, but were born into the neighbor’s family? Would you still be the person you are? Or would you be something akin to the next door neighbor’s kid?

What we are is essentially a meshwork of our genetic framework, surrounded by an even more important network of our ambience, and essentially the environment that we live in and that continuously affects us and shapes us.

When the guy next door failed in his finals, I thought- Gosh, I could never be like him.

When R died due to alcoholism and reckless driving, I thought- Gosh, I could never be like him.

When my friend gave up a lucrative job to marry someone she did not even know, I thought- Gosh, I could never be like her.

When the astronaut I met recently showed me Jupiter and its moons, and told me all about the stars and the planets, I thought- Gosh, he is so smart. I could never be like him.

And then, there were a couple of other people I met that made me think- God, I wish I were like him.

You get the drift, right?

Why is it that we compare our lives in terms of other people’s lives? Why is it that we sometimes want to (or don’t want to) live other people’s lives? It is something I’ve often speculated when my mind just went blank and run out of ideas to think of.

Anyway, coming back to the point, I was wondering who I was if I was not who I was. What if I wasn’t born into the family I was born in? What if I had not come to the US? What if I was not Indian after all?

I wonder if I am beginning to show incipient signs of lunacy.

So the other day I came up with a theory that I called the random theory. I just forgot who I was for a moment and wondered who I could be. And I was surprised because the first thing that came to my mind was- I could have been a homemaker in a family who lived at Ballygunge Place. I don’t know how did the Ballygunge part (or the homemaker part either) came to my mind. Ballygunge by the way is one of the upscale neighborhoods in South Kolkata. The first vision I saw was the tall housing localities near the Ballygunge post office that smells of affluence.

But then, I could have been anyone, and I could have been anywhere. Maybe a hundred times different from who I am or where I am. I might have been a banker in Singapore. I might have been a rancher in Australia. I might have been a rodeo man in Spain. Who knows?

Have you ever randomly wondered about who you would be if you were not what you are?


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How Internet Made Me Homeless.

Forgive me if I seem to be babbling about my new home a tad too much. It is almost three times as spacious as my previous home, I have a roommate I am pally with, and the view outside the window is breathtaking. One look outside and all I see is the lush greenery, the bikers biking and the sports enthusiasts jogging. There is no insane noise of the traffic outside. Lots of storage space in every nook and corner of the house. What else could someone like me want?

Yet I have literally been homeless the last few days. To be specific, I do not go home at nights like good children do to cook a decent meal and then to go to bed watching a movie.

Instead, the walls of my lab in the department have been seeing me almost every night now.

I do not claim to be a great researcher, the next best thing on the earth after Einstein. No, I have not been burning the midnight oil either.

The reason is simple. Internet has not yet been set up at my new home !

Now this seemed absurd and ridiculous to my mom, whose voice was coated with the “What's going on? Are you crazy?” suspicion. Welcome to the US mom.

Even a few years ago in India, internet use was restricted to chatting with unknown people called “cool dude 2000” or “friendly hunk from Bombay”. Checking emails came next, but then again, so few people among friends and relatives were net savvy that there were not many people you could expect emails from. This was back in the early 2000s.

Then I was about to graduate, and internet saw a new use for me. I was applying to various schools in the US and soon I was browsing the websites of various institutes. The Google search engine seemed like a magic word for me then, and it was marvelous how putting a simple word like “recipe for chicken curry” got so many results. I remember I would often browse the website for the Indian Armed Forces, marveling at the men and women who made it there. But then, these needs could be easily fulfilled in a couple of hours in the evening, and that is what I usually did every alternate day on my way back from college. The nearest café “Cyber World” soon started to charge a whooping Rs.20/hour after he installed air conditioning. Thus I would walk two bus stops off the route to go to a café that charged Rs.10/hour for a membership, and did not boast of an air conditioner. The walls were damp, only one out of the seven computers had a webcam, and one would usually wait for 30 minutes during peak hours to find a place. We had a computer at home by that time. But it was strictly used for making word documents and excel spreadsheets. The floppy had seemed the only magic window as the link to the world of the internet then. For I would download information, save it on the floppy, and later watch it at home. Someone convinced my dad that getting an internet connection would only make the home computer prone to virus infections. Dad must have thought that it was a real virus and declared, No net at home! The chapter was closed.

Post-masters, I decided to apply to US schools. People who have been on the same track would know that it takes browsing all day on the net to select the schools and garner information till you finally dozed off on the computer. It is not that it is not doable in a cyber café, but it is so very convenient at home. It took me months of convincing dad that I would be browsing for information and not chatting with random “cool dude 2001”s (I was out of the habit of using Yahoo Messenger by that time anyway). He finally consented to take the internet connection at home.

But then again, mom would be very curious about what I did all day in front of the computer, squinting with a notebook on my lap. I was taking online GRE tutorials, finding information about the US schools I would apply to, finding online SOPs to take a look at, and so on. I don’t blame mommy for wondering how would people “in their times” make it to the US without the internet. Even I wondered that.

All this while, neither mom or dad were very net savvy. Dad would check emails and type replies very slowly, make spreadsheets, and that’s about it. Mom was even scared to start the computer.
When I came to the US, the internet life took a very different role. I had a university net id now and I was soon to realize that it was no fancy stuff to mail others in India from and get them wondering- “Wow, you have a net id that says something something dot edu”. My friends from IIT had those ids, and I had been jealous !

Anyway, here people use the internet as a substitute for telephones or personal meetings. Appointments are fixed and rescheduled, profs inform us about classes and their office hours, and every conversation possible happens through the official emails. People sitting side by side would be emailing each other about the orientation dinner they were going to. And it made sense in a way because that way there were records of all the conversations. We did everything online now, saw timetables and course websites, sent emails, browsed text books and e journals, booked air flights, bought laptops and mp3 players, ordered stuff, borrowed books and DVDs from the library, booked library rooms for group discussions, etc. Everything you could think of was being done online.

I was calling less frequently and emailing my folks more. I was sending my pics. I was chatting with them using Gtalk (by this time, my mom had transformed herself to a super mom who could start the computer and do simple stuff like send emails or connect to the webcam on messenger). I was showing my folks my home using the webcam. She would see the new dress I bought or the new drapes I had picked at a garage sale. Everything was being done online now.

Sometimes I wonder if research could be possible without the net. I was looking for papers, corresponding with the profs, digging up data and statistics, all with a click. Unlike 5 years ago when emails were checked once in seven days, I was checking emails once in 10 minutes. BBQ party, what to wear? Come and pick me at 8:30. Get some pineapple ice cream with you. All these one-line instructions were being sent through emails checked in between work. No, I would not say it was being checked in between work in a hushed hushed way, away from the glances of others. Checking emails and replying to them was a part of work now.

When I shifted to my new home, I almost suffered from acute depression the one day I spent without the internet. The internet guy would not be available to set up things for the next 7 days now. Seven days without uninterrupted internet? Enough.

Every night after dinner, I pack my bags, toothbrush and all, and come to the department. I browse through the internet for as long as I can, the earphones plugged in my ears while I happily listen to music. Sometimes when I am in no mood for work, I YouTube. Watch a movie. Read blogs. Write blogs. If nothing works, I read scraps. And then I sleep on the couch in the department. If I crave for some caffeine at the middle of work, I go get myself a coke or a bar of chocolate from the wending machine. And while I walk through the empty corridors at night, my hands thrust in my pockets, my footsteps echoing, I tell myself- Wow, it is cool to be a grad student here. There are no safety issues as long as you are inside the building. You have the wending machine. You have the couch. You have the microwave to heat up stuff. And most importantly, you have the internet.

Unless you had a loved one waiting at home, why would you want to go home?


Thursday, August 09, 2007

“Studies” Are Fun.

And let me tell you that I am not referring to the mundane, monotonous chores of mugging up lessons and puking them on the exam sheets, whether or not you can make heads and tails out of them. I am referring to the various studies that go on in the different research labs on campus that recruit student subjects.

So what’s the deal?

As an international student, I am not allowed to work for more than 20 hours a week to earn my stipend. However, summer is the only time that the rules go lax. For not only am I allowed to work for double that time and earn whatever extra money I can (provided I can find other part-time jobs on campus), I am also allowed to participate in as many studies as I can. But of course all this has to happen within the campus.

So how to go about searching for studies to participate in?

Look for flyers wherever you can. You will find them in elevators, in departmental bulletin boards, in restrooms, in corridors, in offices, and in other unexpected places. If the departmental bulletin boards do not suffice, go to the other departments and visit their bulletin boards. You will find flyers with detailed information. At the fag end of the paper, there would be the contact telephone numbers and/or the contact email ids printed multiple times and cut into thin strips. You can conveniently tear out a strip like you tear those coupons, and you are set !!!!

So what studies am I talking about?

You wouldn’t believe the number of studies one could participate in. Of course the list is not exhaustive, but here is a little description about the various studies I have come across and participated/tried to participate in-

Computer keyboard study- in a nutshell, this was an ergonomics study where they were interested to see what design of keyboards make people type faster. I am not allowed to give out the details, but let it suffice to say that first I was given the normal keyboard and asked to type for certain lengths of time while electric pulses monitored the movement of my wrist. Then I was asked to type in a totally different (and cool) looking keyboard and was asked to type using that. My words per minute, frequency of spelling typos, and other hand movements were monitored. What else, I was given a check at the end of the study.

Garlic study- they try to see the usage of garlic in the cure for cancer. Of course you do not have to be a cancer patient to participate in this. For multiple sessions, you eat the food they give you, and then they do the blood draws and ask you to fill up a questionnaire. It lasts for about 8-10 weeks and you get monetary compensation depending on how far you have gone with them to complete the study. So it is not just the money, the food is free too !!!

Beverage study- similar to the garlic study, they would give you food, and then certain beverages, and monitor your rate of hunger.

Dental Study- they test you for sensitive teeth. Let us skip the procedure, but let it suffice to say that they paid me some $150.00 for a non-invasive (no scissors, scalpels, cuts, and stitches), 2 hour study.

Hearing study- what is the range of lowest frequency of sounds babies can hear? How different is it from the range in which adults can hear? They take you to a sound-proof recording room and you raise your hand when you hear a certain beat. The beat gets softer with time. What more, you get a check at the end of it.

Mental study- ever suffered a mental trauma? Ever been abused by someone close and elderly, and still feel traumatized? How do your sleep patterns change when you think of it? Does your heart beat faster? Is there more adrenaline flowing when you think of it? You get the drift, right?

And then, there are others, like the diabetes study, the arthritis study, the baby study, the elderly study, the vision study, the smell recognition study, and so on, and so forth.

The incentives?

Most studies pay a handsome amount for your time. And then you get the satisfaction of knowing that you have helped further the research interests of the university. Your feedback is valuable in helping companies design better products. These companies could be software companies, drug manufacturing companies, or any other company selling anything from electrical equipments to teeth braces. Lastly, you get to know interesting information about yourself, like how well you can identify soft sounds (compared to the others), how fast or slow you type on a new keyboard, how sensitive your teeth are to certain substances and certain temperatures, is there fluid accumulation in your ears, etc.

So what do we do?

I and G vigilantly remain on the lookout for such information. And when we bump into something that looks interesting, we call each other excitedly.

“Hey did you see the study they are doing on people who feel suicidal?”

“Err…. But I do not feel suicidal”…

“Well…. Then go for this hunger study. Am sure you will be a perfect fit”.

“Great. Give me the phone number. And by the way, they are recruiting human subjects for a heart rate monitoring study in the physiology department”….

And this way, we glean and exchange information, call up the recruiters, participate in these studies, and make good pocket money. I tell you, the ways of this country will never cease to amaze me. For now you know, even studies are fun !!!!!!!