Monday, December 26, 2011

Goodbye Woes

Saying goodbye to old friends was never easy. After having shared an exceptionally great (almost) three years with my camera, I bought an upgraded model this Christmas. For the longest time, I was undecided about whether I should do it or not. You see, I realized the fun of photography after I purchased my first D SLR in 2009. I started going places, and my camera always went with me. Be it road trips, parties, outdoor events, or hikes, my camera always accompanied me. I sometimes used it to get through boring events when I would shy away from conversations in the name of taking pictures. I was so proud of it, and so proud of all the pictures I took using it. But sometimes, knowing more is harmful. As I started to read up more about photography, I realized that my camera can only take me so far. I realized I had (almost) learned everything that I could learn using this camera. It was perhaps the right time to graduate to the next level.

I felt my new camera would make me ecstatic, especially after all the money I spent on it. I am not so sure about it. I like it alright, but I feel guilty as hell. I feel guilty that I decided to part with my old camera. The previous two cameras I had (which were not D SLRs by the way), I gave it away to my father. So I never really felt bad about them, knowing they are still in the family. Now, I no longer require my old D SLR camera. I should sell it, and I tried spreading the word. But something in me felt so sad and guilty when I did that. Perhaps this was attachment, and the result of spending every significant moment of my life for the past three years with my camera. I have lost count of the number of pictures I have taken, of the numerous occasions I have witnessed with my camera. I have often ventured out on my own, for hikes or for long drives, just with my camera. I realized that I could close my eyes and use my camera, I am so used to it by now. Somewhere down the line, a typical human emotion like fondness, usually reserved for animate beings, got transferred into an inanimate object. An inanimate object I learned to call my own, and shared three years of my life with.

I have given myself some time. If by the end of it I still have a sad feeling about it, I will perhaps hold on to my camera. Not a very wise decision perhaps, but a little bit of irrational emotion, especially an emotion like attachment, never hurt anyone.


Friday, December 02, 2011

In My Good Books

The library materials were clearly overdue, but I had no clue why they showed me an amount that I did not owe. Was not it about a dollar late fee per day? I think I had not noticed the date of return for two days, before I renewed it. I usually do not delay returning stuff, but confusingly enough, I had received no automated email that prompts me to renew the items. To add to it, it was Thanksgiving holiday, and the librarian, probably an undergraduate who was filling in at the last hour, had no clue why they were showing a late fee of $14 for a delay of 2 days. She was not of much help on the phone, but asked me to call back the next business day, which was a 4 days away. No big deal, just that I had to remember doing that think in between the one hour break between classes on Monday. I wrote it down in my calendar. I hope they were not charging me for those 4 days between Thanksgiving break and Monday.

Monday morning, I went and explained the situation. The librarian looked up my records and found the $14 arrears. I explained my situation. I explained the mistake in calculation. I was ready to pay upfront, but I had no idea why it was showing me that extra amount. He had no clue either. It just compounded the confusion. He asked his manager to help out. This meant another round of explanations on my part, about how I had delayed renewal by two days, about how I never received that renewal email, and so on. Mercy !!

I started explaining to the manager, and must have blabbered for a full minute when he pulled up my account, did something, and smiled at me. He told me he had cancelled the late charge. Clearly there were a series of confusing events, of missed emails and incorrect account balances. He figured it wasn’t worth all our valuable time. No explanations, no paperwork, nothing !

Little things people do around me make my day. I walked out of the library, happy, smiling, and debt-free.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why Rockstar Rocks

We sometimes find ourselves wondering how a particular movie could do well when it had nothing really to show or say. On the other hand, some movies are made so well, yet are not appreciated by the larger audience. I have a theory about the disparity between the personal appreciation and mass appreciation of movies. We often find ourselves attracted to a form of art we connect to at a certain level. Movies are no exception. For example, I absolutely loved Rockstar despite the poor reviews it got. I connected to it at a certain level, which perhaps others did not. I loved the movie despite its obvious shortcomings, breaks in the linearity, many logical flaws and unanswered questions it evoked, the bad acting by Heer, and the non-uniform pace of the movie. No one knows why JJ visited Kashmir and still had to wait for a trip to Prague to meet Heer’s husband. No one knows what seeing a psychiatrist had to do with bone marrow aplasia. There are several such unanswered questions, unanswered to the logical mind. Yet the movie resonates at a certain level, probably echoing the artistic self. This is a dark movie, and some people do not appreciate darkness. I do not watch a movie expecting it to be realistic. Yet it is a work of art, and while we sometimes connect to art, we sometimes do not. It doesn’t matter who the female protagonist was, she might as well have been a tree trunk. For the movie is about JJ, his pain, his passions, his darkness of personality, and his saga of unrequited love. Have you ever read Wuthering Heights? JJ so reminded me of Heathchiff. The novel does not make sense at the logical level, and I have always thought Heathcliff’s obsession for Catherine was paranormal. Yet the novel is an epic, probably because it has appealed to generations at a certain level. The same goes for Rockstar. It was not so much a realistic tale for me as it was a work of art. The visuals, the cinematography, the music, the locales, and Ranbir Kapoor are the best things in the movie in no particular order. I loved seeing Prague on screen. I absolutely loved the character JJ, his passion, and Ranbir’s superb acting. Other than Ranbir, I think only Saif Ali Khan (who is a veteran in the field) could have done justice to the role (according to me). The character of JJ got me riveted. Who knows how things would turn out if this was a typical love story, where JJ meets Heer, they fall in love at first sight, he finds a job, they get married, have triplets, and so on? Ever wondered what happens to those love stories that do not fall in the socially normative spectrum? How do they find closure? Do they move on and find love with different people, or do they live in hopes that unrequited love will find closure someday? No one knows.

For every review that did not speak highly of the movie or Ranbir’s acting skills, I claim that I loved the movie. True, it is not the best made movie, and there are obvious flaws, but if you can watch the movie for what it is, rather than what it is not, you will perhaps enjoy the experience as much as I did.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Strategies for Successful Coding

I was never exposed to the world of coding before I started graduate school. I thought it was mostly for computer programmers, but apparently, statisticians do it a lot. Earlier this semester, I started learning Stata, and I must confess, I went slightly crazy learning it. I spent hours staring at the data and none of the codes I wrote for cleaning and analyzing data made sense to me. The weekly assignments were due every Monday 9 am, and I have never been more traumatized at the prospect of spending 14-15 hours every weekend coding. I am perhaps one of those outlier cases with an extremely slow learning curve, and some things just don’t make sense to me unless I draw diagrams and flowcharts. However, I am beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel, and you will never know how much joy a simple 20 line code running successfully brings you, unless you have spent 4 hours writing that code and staring at the data wondering why it would not run. In the process, I picked up some strategies that have worked for me, and I might be rehashing things that already seem obvious to you, but I will share my wisdom nevertheless.

1. Organize

Try to be extremely meticulous and careful about organizing data. Make folders and subfolders, but do not overdo it to the point that it increases work for you. Unlike Indian parents who take credit for naming their babies something that will take years for them to master enunciating or spelling, keep simple names and avoid using “underscores” if you can. If naming a file M9ScoreSummary suffices, do not try naming it Mathematics_Grade9_Score_Summary. You will waste time typing a long name every time, and will significantly increase your chances of making mistakes. Keep a separate notebook as a key for identifying actual names, lest you forget it at some point. The more time and effort you put in organizing your initial data, the better off you are in terms of not splitting hairs. Most importantly, don’t leave it to your brain for remembering things. Write them down.

2. Engage

Imagine spending a good whole week learning to code, getting codes running, and then going away for a month long trip to Timbuktu. Chances are that nothing would make sense to you when you are back. You spent all this time and effort boosting your learning curve, and now it is all gone. The more you do it, the better you get at it. So while in the initial stages of learning, spend some hours every day doing that. Remember as a child how your mommy insisted you spent at least two hours solving math problems every day, and that too first thing in the morning if it was a weekend? Not that all of you went on to become math majors or math professors. However, since the learning is so application oriented, and requires you to develop skills observing, getting dexterous, analyzing, and learning the logic, you should spend every day practicing it during the learning phase.

3. Attention to detail

There is a lot that can go wrong over a missed semicolon, an extra underscore, or simple typing an N for an M (the same reason why the more succinct your data naming system is, the better). Don’t run a code blindly unless you have a clear reasoning of why you are doing it. Don’t use the “cd” command unless you know it is meant to change directories, else you will keep looking for your file in a random folder all day long. Remember the “i” command overwrites your original file, so always make sure to save it as something different, like “i_different” if you do not want to mess with your original dataset. Pay attention to coloring details, it once took me six hours to figure out that my data will not run because all my numbers were coded red (string variables) and not black (numeric variables). Learning a coding language is no different compared to learning a language. It is very intuitive and logical. There is a reason your teachers taught you to begin every sentence with a capital (upper case) letter, end every sentence with a full stop, and use punctuations. Every bit of code you feed into Stata has some meaning to it. Stata is not crazy (although I have often alleged it to be), and it will not spew output if you screw up even a single alphabet. What more, even if it spews output, there is no guarantee that it is the correct one. So use your brain, and pay attention to minute details.

4. Seek help

Learn to look for help whenever you are stuck. It is great to cogitate and analyze issues in your head, but staring at numbers can get so overwhelming that by the time you have figured out a solution, you will be too tired to do anything with the solution. Sometimes you overlook a single missing command that makes all the difference, and a fresh pair of eyes looking at the data spots it right away. Google is a wonderful resource, and so are colleagues and professors.

5. Work hard, and work smart.

Learn to use various tools that make your life easy. Why wash clothes by hand when you can access a washing machine? Don’t write a thousand lines of code if you can get away with a hundred. Learn to use loops, macros, egen commands, foreach commands, and the various other tools that make your life easy. I resisted it for the longest time because it did not seem intuitive first, and looked scary. My codes did not run when I used the tools, the data messed up, and I gave up. Eventually I sat with my professor for three hours and figured it out (somewhat). Those three hours you put into learning it is going to save you 300 hours of future work and 3,000 lines of writing codes. I see it as a difference between calculating mathematical solutions by hand and then learning to use a calculator. First, you learn the entire process of doing calculations by hand. Then you have the added responsibility to learning how to operate a calculator. You realize it is not worth your time (especially if you have deadlines) and continue to calculate things by hand. Here is my advice. Be thorough about how to calculate without a calculator. Then invest some more time getting used to a calculator. This way even if you make mistakes, you would have developed the intuition to go back and see what went wrong. If you only knew how to use a calculator, you would never be able to function without one, or detect coding errors if you ran into one.

My biggest learning and advice from my experience is, learn to play around with data. There is no learning greater than the one that comes from playing around with systems, making mistakes, going back to fix them, and self-training yourself using structured resources (like professors, forums, and books) and a little bit of external guidance every now and then. Remember, learning to code is not research. It is just a tool you learn to help you do research. You are still dependent on your brain and your analyzing ability at the end of the day.

Happy coding.


My Thanksgiving List

Normally, I do not associate myself with Thanksgiving and Halloween as well as I do with Christmas. It could be the result of childhood associations, or the lack of it. It could be the cracks in my cross-cultural blending. However, one does not need to celebrate Thanksgiving in order to be thankful in life. Early Friday morning when my codes are running smoothly after laboring over fixing glitches for hours, I thought this should be reason enough to be thankful. My list below in no way captures things in entirety, it just helps me get some perspective in life as I plan to spend a five-day long Thanksgiving vacation writing papers, running codes, and preparing for the impending final exams.

1. I am thankful for the rich educational experience I have had. I am thankful I get to spend most of my time in academic pursuits. I am thankful for the cross-cultural and cross-national educational experience I have had in two different countries under very different educational settings.

2. I am thankful for an understanding family, who might not always agree with my views, but leave me alone most of the time.

3. I am thankful for my health. I know things will start going downhill someday, and it scares me to death to see people my age suffering from cardiac problems and cancer. Illness is definitely something that gives you perspective in life.

4. I am thankful to the world of creativity. Everything we do in life is in some way our effort to pursue creativity. Be it photography, be it writing, be it having children, or doing a PhD, all of us find some corner of creativity in this world for us.

5. I am thankful for the number of travel experiences I have had, both national and international. I have always wanted to see what the world looks like in places I have never been to, and with time and patience, I have been inching forward little by little.

6. I am thankful for the little nook and corner I call my space, my home. I realize not everyone is fortunate to have a home, and although I love traveling, nothing makes me happier when I am home.

7. I am thankful to God for being gainfully employed. I am thankful to God for my first job as a teacher. I loved that job, and I would not be doing what I am doing today if I had not had that job.

8. I am thankful that someone introduced me to the world of books, writing, and movies. My world would not be the same without them.

9. I am thankful that I am introverted, and do not mind spending time alone. I have known how scary the thought of being alone is for some people.

10. I am thankful for my belief in the resilience of humankind. I am thankful for this wonderful present that life is. It is great to live life with the knowledge that death is inevitable, that it is all going to end someday, and it is but the little time we have that we use in pursuing our beliefs, whatever they are.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

No Strings Attached

On a cold Sunday evening, starting from the evening until well past midnight, it has taken me more than 7 hours to figure out why a simple code would not run. I checked the data, I looked up Google, I emailed the professor, I posted a new thread of message in the class discussion forum. However, nothing worked. I could not generate a simple bar graph using two variables in stata. I took breaks, I paced up and down my home, I sometimes sipped some water. The assignment was due the following day, and the professor had promised it shouldn’t take that long. Then why was the code not working?

After seven plus hours of thinking, contemplating, frowning, agonizing, staring at the data, seeking for help, excogitating, and cerebrating, I finally spotted the problem. Every numeric information I had in my dataset, stata for some inexplicable reason thought was a string data. Now why would stata think an achievement score percentile would be string data, I have no idea. Some serious googling indicated that string data was coded red, and numeric data was coded black. With the sinking feeling, I went back to my dataset and checked. There was blood everywhere.

All it took me was a simple command, “destring, replace”. Within seconds, stata had converted most variables from red to black. There are a few that still look red, but I am past caring.

I cried the moment stata converted everything from red to black. I don’t know if the tears were for happiness, relief, or tension release.

I cried, because it took me seven plus hours on a Sunday evening to figure out that every numeric data was being read as string data. And all it took to fix it was a simple command. Whether I am stupid, naïve, or lack sharpness to survive graduate school, I will never know. This could be one of your unfortunate evenings if you were in graduate school. If you are interested in graduate school, please ensure that you have virtues like patience, hard work, and persistence in your toolkit.

Finally, my data looks as if there are no strings attached.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I Proposed … They Accepted

Last year this time, I was 2 months into my PhD program. I was fretting about my preliminary exam due in the next 3 months. I was struggling with learning to critique papers and write literature reviews.

The same time this year, I finished my qualifiers. Then I proposed, and they accepted. Not once, or twice, but thrice. This summer, I sent out 3 proposals for 2 national conferences. Academic daddy had made it clear that if I wanted to attend these conferences, I had to make sure that I had a research agenda, wrote a good proposal, and it got accepted. Fair deal. I was extra keen on getting accepted, since one of the conference venues was international. Hence, I sent out 2 proposals. Just to make sure I ended up going somewhere at least, I sent the last one to another conference.

One by one, all three of them got accepted in the last 4 days. First, it was the joy of delivering twins, and yesterday, I got the news they were actually triplets. When I checked the website for reviews, what I saw was a miracle. For one of my proposals, both my peer reviewers had rejected it based on certain methodological flaws. However, the editors still went ahead and accepted it because the topic was important enough, and flaws could be fixed. My last one made it despite a 100% rate of rejection.

Needless to say, I have been on cloud 9. As a student 14 months into the program, I had not even hoped for a single acceptance. However, I no longer attribute it to the lack of confidence or experience. When you are so new to the program, sometimes you do not know how important your findings are. I analyzed my data, looked at my findings with nonchalance and thought to myself, “Whatever”. My adviser looked at it and got really excited about the findings. That day, I realized that although I was learning to analyze data, I had still not developed the eye to chaff good data from bad data. I looked at diamonds and thought they were just stones.

Today, I write this post as a tribute to my academic daddy once again. I have not had many academic role models in my life, but one fine day, I just got lucky. Like my data, one fine day, I found a gem of an adviser and didn’t realize it until I started to see the results of his advising. He has pushed me to the best of my abilities, and there were times when I was stressed, unhappy, and disillusioned. However, this has been a part of the rigorous training. And this reminds me of a quote from Newton,

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

For once, I do not feel the stress of the possibility of not finding a job. I will exult in the current achievements, get those suckers out for publication (my papers I mean), and try finishing the PhD aee ess aee pee now.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Diwali, Bollywood?

I always thought that Bollywood would have a healthy collection of songs suitable for any Indian festival, but I am not so convinced anymore. The lack of an optimal number of songs dedicated to the festival Diwali (optimal number n being greater than five) only reconfirms my theory that ours is a sex-driven race, just like any other species in the animal kingdom. Have you ever thought why there are hundreds of songs for Holi, Sagai, Sangeet, Shaadi, Karwa Chauth, God Bharai, or even Nag Panchami (characterized by the sinuous dance moves of a reptile-turned-heroine-turned-reptile cursed by some black robe wearing evil man) but only three songs for Diwali? I would argue that in a testosterone and estrogen-driven society where macro-level phenomenon like preening, grooming, mate hunting, courtship, marriage, and procreation exist in any random order, there is no respectable place for a festival which lacks the insinuations of the primal needs of man, namely rain, color, hormones, or the need to touch, want, and hug. Come to think of it, there are hundreds of songs not just for festivals, but for seasons, be it the cot-displacing brrrring of the winter when the khatiya is begged to be sarkaoed because of jaada, the jeth ki garmi waali dopahar (where the heroine instructs the hero - aake god mein utha thaam le baiyan), or the obvious tip tip barsa spawning season. After all, what could be so inviting about a festival characterized by crackers, ear-deafening sounds, the smell of gunpowder, and a bunch of cranky policymakers unhappy about noise pollution? Images of a heavily endowed woman in a flimsy white sari drenched in the rain running around while a male chases her with Holi colors rings a few familiar bells. However, imagine a woman gyrating her hips with a bunch of sparklers and crackers in her hand, hurling fire crackers at unsuspecting males every now and then and singing “Wanna be your chammak challo”? I fail to imagine the latent sexual overtones in this setting. No wonder Bollywood has never really considered dedicating entire songs to the pursuit of the celebration of light and sound, two very important concepts in an extremely dry subject called physics. Sure there are songs with occasional shots of the chick and the lad entwined, playing around with a bunch of sparklers (remember the song Mujhse Mohabbat Ka from Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke?), but a random youtube search for Diwali songs yields three results, one from the movie Home Delivery which is not really a “pataakha” item song in any respect, an old song from the time of Akbar where Mukesh’s adenoidal voice (although very melodious) of “Ek who bhi Diwali thi, ek yeh bhi Diwali hai, Ujda hua gulshan hai, rota hua maali hai” sets off a chain reaction of melancholy potent enough to extinguish any number of sparklers and crackers in the world (let’s face it), and another song from the year 1946, where the heroine’s sad state of mind reminded me of the day I had cried buckets at the scary thought of turning 30 because I was convinced that I was approaching senility and half-life decay at an alarming rate. Surely the Ramsay Brothers show more tactile actions (also known as touchy touchy) and hanky (s)panky (amongst ghosts and haunted spirits of course) than these songs do. Sure, there is one song in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham where SRK makes the grand Bhagwan Ram like entry, but then again, every song in that movie reeks of showoff, celebration, and affluence. No fault of Bollywood, which is just a reflection of the evolution of human race (or the lack of it), which brings me back to my irrefutable theory that everything in life ultimately boils down to preening, courtship, mating, and procreation. And anything that does not involve diaphanous clothing, the consequences of global warming (bouts of hot, wet, and cold weather, pun unintended), an umbrella, a few bees buzzing over a rose, a cot (khatiya), or even a reptile-dance number to save the mate from the curse of the evil man will never make it to the Hindi silver screen.

A very happy Diwali everyone, never mind the disappointment Bollywood has brought us.

[P.S.: I thank my friend S who made me notice the scarceness of Diwali songs in Bollywood, something that I had entirely overlooked for reasons not quite clear to me].


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Titanic is sinking … and she stays onboard

She had walked from the department to the bus stop that afternoon, feeling the weight of the world weighing down on her shoulders. It was a cold, rainy afternoon in fall, and it seemed nature was crying at her predicament. She reached the bus stop just in time to see the bus leave right in front of her. The frustration of missing a bus becomes manifold when you actually watch it leave right in front of you, knowing that you do not have enough time to run and cross the road. This was perhaps very symbolic for her that afternoon, looking at the bus full of opportunities abandon her. Although she was suitably qualified for what she was aspiring to be, she did not have that powerful piece of document that declared her eligible for the job. It was the same document of citizenship or permanent legal residence that people in the past have killed, manipulated, and married for. Neither her parents had the foresight to visit the US and give her birth there, nor she had the foresight to get hitched to someone local. As a result, despite what she would have liked to think of as spectacular and scintillating academic potential, she was disqualified for the numerous teaching fellowships she tried applying to. Apparently, she did not fall under the category of people America deemed fit to allow to teach and educate their children.
She had always wanted to work as a science and math teacher. That was her forte, her calling. That was what she did in India, and that is what she eventually wanted to do in the US. Who said PhDs were overqualified to teach in schools? She was doing a PhD, training to be a professor, but she also wanted to take a few years off first and go teach in a public school setting. She thought she would immensely benefit from the classroom experience while developing her research agenda as a professor, and she loved teaching anyway. Hence, while most people’s careers took off on an upward trajectory, she was willing to step down and go teach in a school for a few years. Don’t get her wrong when she said “step down”, for she in no manner insulted teaching in a public school as an endeavor fit for the lesser achieving. What she meant is, she was overqualified for the job, and hence thought she would definitely get it. The minimum requirement for teaching in a school is a bachelors degree. Armed with two masters degrees, and a PhD on the way, she knew she would never struggle to find a good school to start teaching.
She forgot something very basic while happily making her future plans. She forgot that she did not belong to this country. She was an outsider, a foreigner. A very unwelcome foreigner in a country where she has been told, “The foreigners took our jobs!!”.
She started looking at teaching fellowships. That was when the truth hit her. Every teaching fellowship she tried applying for specifically mentioned that they require citizens and permanent residents only. They would not sponsor her visa. Desperate, she emailed them, each and every institution, asking if they ever made exceptions for doctorate degree holders. None of the answers came as affirmatives.
There was a clear disconnect between theory and practice. In theory, she was always told by different people, at different point of time that America was in dire need of good science and math teachers who were passionate about teaching. That was when she started to think that she would be a great fit in the setting. Even her professors assured her that visa sponsorship should not be an issue. Clearly, she now knew better.
Her thoughts were mostly sad as she waited for the next bus in the rain. She realized that she did not qualify even for an interview. To deny someone the right to employment by denying them the right to be interviewed, not because of lack of credentials or enthusiasm, but because of the lack of paperwork produced as a result of a random event of being born in the United States was perhaps the ultimate example of social injustice. While America embraced international students with open arms (statistics say so, not I), they were equally reluctant in creating job opportunities for them. No one had taken a look at her academic achievements that she had so painstakingly put in her resume. She was rejected - Just like that. It was an alienating experience. She was neither into chip making, nor into programming, occupations that highly commanded visa sponsorships. She was just an ordinary human being and all she wanted to do was teach. For the first time, thoughts of going back to India seriously occurred to her. Strangely, it was a freeing, emancipating thought. Not that there were any better jobs in India, but she would at least not feel like a foreigner, an intruder. True, millions of people immigrated and embraced this country as their own. Then how could she explain the chilliness, the hostility of the situation she was facing? Certainly there was no pride in living the life of a second class citizen from a third world country, trying to fit in a first world nation. Her ideals were conflicted. She had always wanted to excel at what she did, so that she would be in demand for the quality of her work, no matter where she lived. She wanted to be so good in what she did that the job would come looking for her, rather than the other way around. Clearly, she could have all the respect she wanted, as soon as she could produce proof of citizenship.
Various thoughts and incidents from the past flashed in front of her. She remembered the woman in her late thirties she had met at the Zumba class who had beamed in pride, “Why do I need to work? My husband is a professor. I have married well.” She thought of her friend, whose husband had applied for their green card the moment she married and stepped into the country. None of these women had trouble finding legal residency in the country, and were happily and proudly unemployed. However, when some people actually wanted to work and make a difference, they were denied the opportunity because they had probably not married well. Where was social justice in this God?
She remembered a scene out of a movie she had watched in her teens. The big ship was sinking, and the affluent people left in their lifeboats one by one. Clearly, she was staying onboard, sinking with the ship. After all, she was a second class citizen from a third world country, trying to fit in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Facebook Follies

Identifying a Facebook moron is easy. They are usually engaged in a predictable and repeated pattern of activities that tend to fall in one or more of the following categories.

1. They write a message on someone's wall informing them that they should check their cell phone voice message because they called them and they did not answer.

2. Someone else's profile picture on Facebook was taken by them, and they comment on it saying, "Wow, great picture. Wonder who the photographer is! Wink Wink!". They might be great photographers, but Facebook morons nevertheless.

3. They are husband-wife in real life and Farmville neighbors or Mafia mobs in the virtual world.

4. They recognize multiple and totally unrelated people in social gatherings like Dandiya or Durga Puja, who they do not know at all (complete strangers), whose pictures they have seen again and again on Facebook. Earlier, people met each other in person and found them later on Facebook. Now, they know faces from Facebook, and meet them later in person.

5. They live and document their entire lives on countdowns. 5 days to the Vegas trip. 6 months before summer vacation starts! 2 hours for the surprise romantic candle light dinner. 3 weeks befoe mother-in-law flies back to India. 9 days for the labor pains to start. And end their announcements with a "Yippiieee!!"

6. They frequently use terms like “awwwwwww” and “XOXOXOXO” in abundance, usually with members of the same gender.

7. They “like” every post you write, every picture you post, and even “like” every comment your pictures or posts earn, but never ever comment. When they occasionally comment, it is never anything more committal than “9ice”, “cool”, or “gr8”.

8. They post forward messages about cancer awareness and about loving their mothers that start with, “I have a request, and I know exactly which ones of you are going to post this ….” and ends with “repost and share this if you are a human, even if for one hour.” Talk about psychological pressure, huh?

9. They post pictures of their newborns still bathing in the amniotic fluid or worse, lying helpless, shriveled up, and without clothes. No offense to mothers, babies, or motherhood, and you might blame me for not understanding the emotions since I have never mothered a baby, but I find it quite repulsive. I wouldn’t be very happy honestly if I found a picture of mine bathing in my mother’s amniotic fluid floating around for people to see.

10. They post messages like “TGIF”. You are darn right, you need to thank God it is Friday, just like you should sometimes thank God that you have a job and are gainfully employed. You might find it a luxury sitting in your plush office and cribbing about the work load on Facebook, because you make work sound like some kind of punishment you undergo five days a week, and not as your means for finding an identity, engagement, and intellectual stimulation. People like me never get to thank God it is Friday, because we work seven days a week, and do it because we love it. Think about well-qualified people who are unemployed, or about daily wage workers who don’t have a Facebook account and hence don’t get to post status messages like, “Thank God the strike was lifted. Now we will get to work and earn our daily wages.”


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A letter to my PhD

Dear PhD,

Today, I have come closest to the point of breaking up with you. I call it a break up because I have considered it a relationship, perhaps a longstanding, serious, intimate and the most meaningful relationship I have ever had. At some point in life, I decided that I want to spend most of my time in the pursuit of acquiring knowledge and wisdom. I could have been a journalist, a doctor, or a lawyer, but I decided I wanted to do hardcore research, and teach as well. Hence, I started training to be a professor. When I was done with my previous job, I had a few lucrative options. I could have found another job in the US. I could have moved to India. I could have done any number of things. Yet I decided to do a PhD. I decided to give it a second chance, since I had already opted out of PhD once a few years ago. Yet somewhere deep down, I hoped that I would once again enter the research arena. So, I chose you over a job. I readjusted to living on a meager salary, roughly one-third of what I was used to earning. I moved cross-country and tried adjusting myself to a completely different city, field, and work culture. The first year, I was on a roll. I finished my preliminary exam and passed my qualifiers 6 months in advance. I had three more steps to clear, and two more years to do it. However, the disillusionment started to set in the second year. The PhD trajectory became a curved tube I was stuck in the middle of, so that I could no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was taking four courses, doing research, TAing, and traveling. I was learning new statistical software, learning to code, and trying to be as productive as I could. That was when I started to burn out and disillusionment set in. I have never been a good test taker, or a person who works well under pressure. Perhaps as it happens in some relationships (I don’t know, enlighten me), I started to question the meaning of it. I started to wonder about how what I learned would fit in the bigger scheme of things. I was overworked, tired, low on sleep, but more than most things, I started to question the value of all of it. So I had the write this post.

I wrote this post because just like a relationship, I still love you, although I have had my moments of doubt. You are my priority, and I will try my best to ensure we stick it out together. I start my day thinking of all the things I could do in research, and go to sleep planning my next day of work. But like all relationships, things are never perfect and happy all the time. We have our lows, or periods of doubt, times like these when we question the necessity of it. I wrote this post so that someday when in doubt, I will read this and know how much I have wanted you, and how important it is for me to do what I am doing right now. I write this so that someday when you and I have come a long way together after years of partnership, I can look back on times like these when I doubted my abilities to do anything meaningful, and know that I was wrong. I will know that although I have had my moments and thoughts of breakup, I would never actually do it. Yes, I am having a low moment right now, especially since I need to teach a class tomorrow and send revisions for papers by the end of this week and a dozen other things, but this moment shall pass. I know I will be back to my old self when you were my priority, and continue to do some kickass research which will make our future meaningful.

With love,

A sincere PhD student.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Simplicities to Complexities: Seeking the Absolute Truth

When I was a kid, I was told that I could have the answers to most of my questions if I got myself a solid education. I somehow believed that theory, that as one grows old, one acquires more skills and knowledge, gets more experience in doing things, and life becomes less complex. I believed it at age 10 perhaps, but not anymore.

I wonder if the purpose of knowledge and education is meant to reduce, or increase ambiguity. As a kid, the answers to my questions were simple and absolute. There was no ambiguity about it. I learned that 2 plus 2 is always going to be 4. I believed that the harder you worked, the better your grades were. I believed that good behavior always earned you appreciation. I knew that no one dies before old age hits them. These were the absolute truths that I had verified with my little experience with the world. I had very set ideas about things, and those made complete sense to me. I knew that you could never fall in love with a man if he was younger to you or shorter in height (those were my theories then). In between grades 3rd and 7th, I was absolutely certain that I had found the right person for me (a classmate I had a crush on for years), and would marry him someday. I studied Moral Science as a subject and was absolutely certain about the presence of God (I knew he lived everywhere, but his favorite place was the church behind our school building). I knew students who worked hard studied science, and went to America. Another absolute truth for me then.

However, as I learned more and gained more experience, I realized that there is perhaps nothing called an absolute truth. Sure not working hard doesn’t get you anywhere, but working hard might also not get you anywhere. My inherent programming makes me want to believe in God, but honestly, I am not so sure of his existence anymore. I know that love can go unreciprocated and totally haywire. I also know that it is totally possible to fall in love with a man younger to you, or shorter than you are. The research papers I read usually end with “it is more likely that this is associated with that”, instead of a “we are absolutely certain that this combined with this leads to this”. I have vigilantly presided over my cookery and ended up with unpalatable food, but I fell asleep after setting something to bake, and it ended up being a crispy golden brown dessert that was totally worth eating. I now know that working the hardest doesn’t necessarily make you the smartest, and you could study everything and still flunk. The guy who got lower grades than you in school could be making ten times more money than you are, and not every good deed goes appreciated. Someone with almost no publications could get into Harvard, while someone with many publications could end up in a local small university.

As a kid, I always thought there is an absolute answer that fits everyone’s questions. Not anymore. When I ask myself a basic question like, “Should I get married?”, I honestly don’t know the answer to it, even with all my knowledge and wisdom. On one hand, it sounds like a wonderful idea, companionship and all, but on the other hand, I am not so sure if it is that much of a value addition in my life. The honest answer is, “I don’t know”. Yet if you asked me the same question as a kid, I would have said, “Of course. Everyone should be married before they grow old and have white hair.” Then, there are other existential questions I struggle with, I have no direct answer to. Even in an experiment, the atoms and molecules all do not behave as predicted, and I hear that there is a certain probability of observing a difference or variation due to chance. There is nothing called the absolute reality, and our realities differ, and even exist in multiple dimensions. How else would you explain Dabang being a super hit, and Andaz Apna Apna being a flop?

With time, I see a major rift in the philosophy of my life. The assumptions of physical sciences do not translate to the assumptions of the human sciences. How humans make meaning of a particular phenomenon varies. I always thought science was singular, convergent, and fragmented, as opposed to being multiple, divergent, and inter-related. I always thought that if you can replicate a process and get the same answer, you have achieved the truth. But then you make errors, both type I and type II, where you can either wrongly agree to something which is wrong, or wrongly disagree to something which is right. Not everyone is free, liberated, and happy, even if they have access to similar resources or luxuries. Some people eat a lot and never put on a pound, while some hapless souls like me could live on oxygen alone, and still keep expanding. I once used to have a constellation of values and beliefs about the way the world works. I knew that as you add more to the database of knowledge, problems became clearer and solutions come up, leading to a less complicated and more simplistic world overall. However, the truth is neither generalized, nor can be triangulated upon. The best one can do is achieve the nearest approximation. Now if this is what my philosophy after 25 years of being in school (I discount the first 3 years of my life, and the 2 years in between when I worked), I wonder if my education is worth anything at all. I also question this after the adviser recently read something I wrote and said, “With these ideas of yours, you will never find a job.” If I cannot find a job after being in school for more than 25 years, I question the value and validity of all that I have learned so far.


5 Years !

Sometime earlier this month, I celebrated the completion of my 5 years of stay in the U.S. It meant a lot to me, since I have always considered moving to the U.S. as the biggest “good decision” I have made for personal reasons. It hasn’t been a smooth joy ride, I assure you, and it still isn’t. Things went wrong during the first few years, and I was never hopeful that I would be able to make it. I had to give up a lot, especially the security of a sheltered life, of a secure job, of the prospects of being gainfully married and raising a family. I was singly driven by my desire to pursue graduate school, and to establish myself as an academician. It became challenging and increasingly hard for me to keep myself rooted here (opting out of the PhD program in 2008, job layoff in 2009, resuming PhD in 2010, etc.). However, here I am, and here I was celebrating my 5 years of stay by taking a journey down the memory lane and remembering all the happy and not-so-happy moments that defined the latter half of my twenties.

Incidentally, I was out of town the day I completed 5 years. I was attending a conference, not presenting though. Academic daddy was invited to be there, and since he was traveling, he sent me instead. This was a huge privilege, much bigger than presenting at a conference, because in this case, someone revered in the field gave up his chance so that I could replace him temporarily and do the same kind of work that he was expected to do. I was expected to listen to the talks, evaluate the kind of research that was being done in the field, and prepare a synthesis report. This would not only give me a chance to network and meet the people in the field, but also train me in synthesizing information and making sense of them.

A quick scanning around the room revealed that as expected, I was perhaps the only “Indian-from-India” in the room, if you know what I meant. The conference started, people began to present their work, mostly in the field of developing education and bettering the school educational systems for scientific workforce development so that more students were motivated to continue into college. There was one spokesperson who got up on stage to present. I don’t remember the affiliation, but I remember listening to an impressive talk. The person had some great ideas, and was very enthusiastic about it. The person breezed through the presentation slides, and there was this last bullet point on the last slide that seemed somewhat odd, but did not register anything right away. I am not sure if I had read that point, or perhaps I was beginning to, but before I did, the person repeated what was written in the last slide.

“And hopefully this way, we will be able to stop the foreigners taking up our jobs.”

The crowd clapped and applauded. However, I sat there stone faced. You see, I had never once fooled myself into believing that this country is mine, and has embraced me lovingly. I was always reminded of the fact that I am here as long as I had my visa validated, for which, I had to struggle, compete, learn, and produce superior quality work. I had already faced the consequences of losing a job and thereby ending up without a visa (you get deported, what else?). Although I live here, I always knew I never belonged here, not only for the color of my skin or my Indian accented English, but because of the fact that I am a foreigner, and will always be one. But to be a foreigner sitting amidst a group of natives animatedly discussing strategies about how to keep the foreigners at bay was not necessarily the best conversation to hear. This country has given me a lot, taught me a lot of values. However, I believe that I have given this country at least a little bit in return, and I am not just referring to the taxes. I have given this country my hard work, my ideas, my skills, and my expertise. Look at the irony, on one hand, I was sitting there as the representative of my advisor, trying to become an expert in my field, trying to become “one of them” to help their children continue into college. On the other hand, I was also a foreigner and although this person never realized there was at least one foreigner in the room listening to the conversation, I was listening. I did not know then which side of the argument I was in.

That single incident, ironically on the 5th anniversary of my entry into the US, changed the way I perceive things. It’s been a month almost, and memories of that initial awkwardness still remains fresh. Academic daddy, who is best known for his honesty and bluntness, listened to me recount this in pain, and told me somewhat impassively, “You get established for your skills, the value you bring into a group, and not because of who you are or what country you belong to. If you become a good researcher and have all the combined skills that most people in this field do not have, if you are the best in statistics and can analyze any large scale data set, America will value you. You can either sit and lament about what happened, or fiercely try to establish yourself in the field.”

Advice taken with respect daddy, but not without knowing that perhaps I would never be able to estrange myself from the things I felt at that point, being referred to as an outcast “who is taking our jobs away”.

On a different note, I had to fill out an expense sheet and a tax form by the end of it, listing my expenses. The lady at the conference counter looked at me and said harmlessly, “Oh, I am sure you do not need a tax form.”

Having known her for the last 3 days of the conference, I smiled and almost nodded a yes, assuming she knows best, but decided to confirm again. “You sure?”

“Uh, do international employees pay taxes?”

“Sure ma’am, I do pay my full share of taxes, I assure you”, I said as I helped myself to a form. “Surely us foreigners might be a potential threat who take up the jobs that your children rightly deserved, but we at least pay our taxes”, I thought with bitterness as I grabbed my form and left the conference venue.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

If Einstein was on Facebook…..

Graduate school is hard. Cold and colorless. Most often sleepless. Penniless as well. Whoever thought one should take all those 20 odd courses in order to survive graduate school. Then there is actual research involved. There is TAing, and grading. You need to publish, network, acquire academic currency (as papers), and be in the good books of your advisor. The advisor is always pushing you, making you work harder, never approving of or appreciating your potential. So what if he is paying you to get an education? If PhD was that easy or fancy, everyone would be getting one. It is certainly not that easy to have a smooth ride of a PhD. Not when so many other distractions are involved.

You see, the single most distracting factor is called Facebook (there are many others, I assure you). You wake up every good morning with good intentions of doing some path breaking, jaw dropping research. But, what goes with your morning cup of coffee is the compulsive need to look at the tiny red button that tells you the number of comments and messages you have on Facebook. I would not be writing this post if things stopped there. Between classes and meetings, there is this compulsive need to stay abreast of what is happening in other people’s lives. We “comment” on pictures where we are not to be found, “like” status messages from friends that have no significance to us whatsoever, “join” communities on “How to train your adviser” or “PhD sucks”, “poke” people we would never talk to in parties, and constantly check not just the comments of others made to others, but the comments to the comments that others made on a post where we commented. The professor who claimed you were bad with numbers was crazy. For some inexplicable reason, you cannot remember the principles of matrices or determinants you learnt in your last class, but clearly remembered the number of comments and likes your recent update on “I am going to have an awesome time in Yellowstone next weekend” garnered. There is this constant need to update status messages multiple times a day, to check updates from others, to post albums every now and then giving others a glimpse of your awesome life, and deriving narcissistic pleasure by updating the world on the minutest detail like “Worked out at the gym for 2 hours” (who cares?), or “my baby loved eating strawberries today, yumm yumm !!” (20 out of 25 comments for this post would be “awwwwww”). You suddenly know of everything and everyone, the Bangla aaNtel kobita that man you met just once writes (which you hardly understand), that friend of a friend’s friend you don’t know, but still stalk on Facebook, or the menu and guest list of the last potluck party you missed, whose pictures were just posted.

Things do not stop on Facebook. There are the blogs you read everyday, comment, and comment to the comment the previous commentator makes. You read news, you read other people’s secrets on Postsecret (to be fair, I do it only on Sundays). There is this compulsive need to check weather, not just where you live, but in some remote place like Ullhasnagar you might visit in future someday. There is random browsing on Craigslist, Amazon, and Yelp. You need to know of every possible deal in the city. You are still debating whether to cast a wider net on Google Plus and Twitter. Linkedin is constantly sending you updates about the people you recently added. Netflix is suggesting movies you should watch, based on the recent ratings you posted. There is a bunch of emails from stores and services you subscribed to. The local confectionary is giving away free cookies with purchases of $20 or more. There is this long email chain going on (45 emails and counting) about the upcoming Bijoya Sammelani potluck in 2 weeks, where the chicks are discussing what color of sarees they should wear, and if they should be color coordinated with their partners. And last, but not the least, the Google chat window is perennially open (who logs out of Gmail?), you constantly eyeballing who is online and who is busy, in the hopes that someone as jobless as you are will be nice enough to say hi.

Now with the human brain having a definite (and certainly measurable) attention span and the capacity to bear a somewhat fixed amount of cognitive load, I don’t blame you that you cannot finish deadlines on time, hardly get the time to do class readings before class, are perennially sleep deprived and grumpy, just asked for a project extension, and have started to question if getting a PhD is a waste of your youth after all. I am totally empathetic, being guilty of the same follies myself (everything that was written as “you” so far referred to “me”). You see, if Newton was sitting under the apple tree with his laptop, gravitation would never be discovered. Instead of thinking about what just happened, he would get busy updating Facebook, “An apple fell on my head, that’s a bad apple !!!” (a comment that would garner him 45 likes and 30 comments about the best cider places in town and the current recruitment policies of Apple). Imagine how Einstein’s life would be if he was Facebooking and Netflixing from his lab in Princeton. No wonder graduate school is hard these days, and advisers just do not understand.