Sunday, December 31, 2017

Twenty things I will remember from 2017

1.    I got my first competitive research grant here. I started my first research study as principal investigator.

2.    I traveled (only) with dad for the first time. We went to Cambodia. We went to Thailand.

3.    In Nepal, I took a mountain flight to see Mount Everest up close.

4.    I got a summer position at TIFR, my first significant gainful employment in India. I taught my first graduate-level course there.

5.    My first Airbnb experience. This was in San Antonio. Ever since, I have become an Airbnb fan.

6.    My first time editing a book that got published this summer.

7.    I was hospitalized for peripheral vertigo. I also had dental surgery the day Trump assumed presidency. And this year, my lower back pain came back with full violence.

8.    I attended and presented at my first medical conference.

9.    I spent another year without driving.

10.I also touched the waters of the Arabian Sea for the first time.

11.I taught my first graduate-level course this spring.

12.My late-grandfather would have turned hundred this year.

13.My parents attend my public talk for the first time.

14.I installed a name plate outside my office in my mother tongue.

15.I gave my first talk at the American Center.

16.I went to watch exactly one movie at the theater (Murder on the Orient Express) and slept through most of it.

17.I started learning Urdu. On and off.

18.I went to my first American Thanksgiving dinner.

19.I packed all my things into suitcases, put them in my office, gave up my rental apartment and went off to spend a few months of summer traveling.

20.I got my first award after the name of a Bengali scholar. My CV got its first Bengali name (other than mine).


Saturday, December 09, 2017

Traveling with Baba

Fifty years ago, a young boy saw fascinating, hand-drawn pictures of the ruins of Cambodia in his school textbook and was blown away. He made a wish, a dream to be able to visit the ruins someday. Later, he went on to study history in college, but could never fulfill his dream. Finishing college led to gainful employment, family, children, and he only sunk deeper in responsibility. Then, a few years ago, he told his daughter about his dream, in passing. So off went Baba and I to explore the ruins of Cambodia together earlier this summer

Of course Ma refused to join us outright once she figured that it would be a physically exhausting trip. That it would be hot and humid, that we would spend hours every day exploring the ruins and climbing up and down high steps. So we respected her wishes too, and for the first time, went somewhere without her. 

The best way to know someone is by travelling with them. Baba and I have never spent one-on-one time before this (without another member of the family being around), and it was very enlightening. It was like knowing a person all over again, something that would not have happened if we traveled together as family. True to our nature, we had our hilarious and hardly-matters-in-the-long-run conflicts and arguments. And true to our nature again, we had a blast!

Baba is a history buff, whereas I have very little brain space for remembering dates and historical facts. He uses a historian's lens while I use a social scientist's lens. So while he spends weeks reading up and learning about a place even before he has arrived there, I arrive with a blank slate and take in whatever I see at the moment- what people look like, what do they wear and eat and talk about, how are physical spaces organized, and so on. 

The moment I reached Kolkata, Baba started enthusiastically reading me excerpts from all the books on Cambodia he had recently amassed, not that I got much of what he was saying. One night, I fell asleep while listening to him, floating in a soup of names of many unknown people that ended in "varmans." I might have even dreamed of a tune or two in my sleep composed by the famous R.D. Burman. Baba even prepared thorough hand-written notes about the history of Cambodia. I am not too sure if he thought that we would be taking a history exam at the passport control office in Siem Reap. Who prepares detailed, chronological, history notes before traveling somewhere?

Our host in Cambodia, Mr. Kim, is also a tour guide. He shows us a map, chalking out the things we could do in the next few days. I continue to listen with enthusiasm, although, my energy levels are depleting alarmingly. It's 3 pm, I still haven't eaten lunch, our flight was delayed, I have barely slept the previous night, and all I wanted to do is have lunch, drink a green coconut or two, come back home and fall asleep. Mr. Kim says something about some king building some temple, and that sets Baba off. Baba does not agree with a historical fact Mr. Kim said. Or maybe, he is convinced that Mr. Kim did not get the name or number of the king right. 

Whatever it is, he sprinted to his backpack, dug out his notes as reference material, and you should have seen the look of shock on Mr. Kim's face. Never has his knowledge been challenged by a man who had barely stepped in his country for 30 minutes. For the next hour or so, they animatedly discussed kings, their names and numbers and achievements. With every new varman for a king in a new generation they discussed, I saw my lunch stepping away from me further. Facepalming, I accept my fate of a hungry, grumpy, dispassionate listener, not understanding what difference it makes whether Yasovarman built monasteries or Indravarman, whether Prithvindravarman was the grandchild of another varman, and whether Harshavarman was more powerful or Suryavarman II or Rajendravarman or some other varman. That discussion on varmans led to both of them uncovering all their cumulative knowledge about Cambodia, the Khmer empire, its history, religion, and what not, lunch and everything else momentarily forgotten. And that is how Baba and Mr. Kim bonded, both of them deep in conversation with their notes and maps.


Friday, November 17, 2017

A random day in the life of a faculty

As a PhD student, research seemed hard. Protocols did not work, data did not make sense, and I often found myself stuck between false positives and false negatives. We have all been there.

As a faculty, research seems the most cherished part of my day. And that is because I actually get so little time to do research. Here is what a random workday of my life looks like:

1. 6:30 am: Woke up. Stayed in bed for the next 45 minutes, wondering if the "revise and resubmit" comments I wrote last night would work. Then hurriedly scampered to work.

2. Made a mental note not to miss the Skype call tonight. The last time, I thought that it was at 9pm while the meeting was at 8pm and I missed it.

3. Made a note to reply to the fifty-seven emails that have been pending a response for the past five days since I was traveling.

4. Chatted with a colleague who hates the words "seminal work" and "dissemination" because of their roots in the word "semen" (hence, male; hence, power). I added my bit by saying that I hate the morbid terms in academia such as "deadlines," "terminal degree," and "publish or perish."

5. Almost slept through a committee meeting that lasted ninety minutes. I have no idea what they said. I was more surprised by how much people talk, make printouts, and waste paper at these meetings. I am pretty sure everything they said could be summarized in ten minutes.

6. Checked my Google Scholar citation for the umpteenth time. The numbers haven't changed since the past month. It is a strange addiction of seeking external validation I have developed of late, similar to counting Facebook Likes. This is only more consequential and more harmful.

7. Kept thinking about the annual review that I will be writing in January. Have I made enough progress this year? The process is so rigorous, it makes the PhD defense look like child's play. How can I hit a couple of sixes in the last six weeks of the year and look great on my annual review?

8. Read a bunch of student assignments. One, most students have horrible handwriting. I wonder if they ever had compulsory, daily, cursive writing lessons in schools. Two, many have bad grammar too, which is surprising since most people here can get away knowing just one language- English. I was also amazed by the number of times they used the word "cool” -- The book was cool. The program was cool. The class was cool. The professor was cool. Such informal language in academia- not so cool!

9. Registered for an upcoming conference in Boston. This is the first time I paid more than a thousand dollars for registration alone. So I sat at my desk and whined for a while.

10. Filled out a bunch of paperwork to get my student enrolled in the system.

11. Filled out a bunch of doodles indicating my availability for future meetings. Created a Doodle myself and sent a reminder email to those who need to fill it out on time.

12. Conducted an interview to collect data, which also meant inputting mundane information into an excel spreadsheet that my hypothetical undergraduate student should have been doing. Hypothetical, because I do not have one.

13. Prepared a bunch of expense bills from a previous conference travel. This involved painstakingly putting together every receipt with comments and scanning all of them.

14. Called our communication manager to chat about how I would like my new business card designed.

15. Thought of new research ideas. It means mostly sitting at my desk, staring blankly into the ceiling until a new email pops up or someone knocks on the door, and repeating the process till it is time to go home.

These are not necessarily research. Just a bunch of mundane things that may lead to research in the future.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Read like you are eating rice

As academics, we read a lot of journal papers. This is the foundation work that helps us understand what is happening in the field. Long before we start doing our own research, we need to know what has been already done and what needs to be done next. The same is for grant writing. The precursor to good, productive writing is plentiful, goal-driven reading.

Speaking in analogy, have you ever climbed atop one of the churches in Europe? You keep climbing the spiral stairways and every few floors there is a tiny window that looks outside. The lower you are, the less you see (whatever you see is also in a lot of detail). The higher you climb, the more you see (the level of detail also decreases). Learning about a field is just like that. You keep reading papers until you have a bird-eye view of the field. But in order to attain a bird-eye view, you have to start with the detailed view first.

Reading journal papers is time-consuming. Typically, they start with an abstract and introduction followed by a literature review, methods, results, discussion, limitation and conclusion. The order could vary depending on the field, but this is a general overview.

Abstract (a summary of the study)
Introduction (what you are going to read)
Literature review (what others have already done)
Methods (what the authors did and how they did it)
Results (what they found)
Discussion (interpreting what they found)
Limitation (what they could not find)
Conclusion (closing along with a note on what could be found in the future)

As a novice reader, it is easy to get caught up in the details of a paper until you realize that it’s been hours and you are still reading it. A good program or department offers a lot of classes that involve critically analyzing a paper. It’s an art you master with time and practice. Students read one or multiple papers beforehand and spend time in class critiquing singly or in groups. I used to find myself being caught up in reading because I would read very slowly and in a lot of detail. This is especially because I was not familiar with the methodology (another reason why I always recommend that PhD students take as many methods courses as they can, even if they might not seem immediately relevant or rewarding) and often wondered how to make sense of what the authors did. I would soon lose attention and start doing something else, not wanting to come back to the paper again. Then I got some great advice from my advisor.

Read a paper as if you are eating a bowl of rice. You do not eat rice one grain at a time. You do not individually chew the grains. You take a mouthful and chew until it is of digestible consistency before you swallow and go for the next helping.

Similarly, don’t read a paper word by word. Don’t get caught up in the mundane minutiae. Read the abstract very well. Skim through the introduction and directly go for the methods. If you are not clear about why they did what they did, come back to the literature review later, but do not spend a whole lot of time on it. After methods, go to the results/discussion to see what they found. Again, skim through it until you find the area that gets your attention. Read that well. Don’t get caught up in words. Skim until you see something interesting. Read that in detail. Repeat process. Don’t read word by word or line by line. Read idea by idea.

I found this advice very helpful. For my dissertation, I had to read more than 500 odd papers (some were not relevant, but how do you know they are not relevant unless you read a little bit of it?). I had attacked those papers like a bowl of rice. As a faculty, I read between 10-20 papers every week, and many more when I am writing a literature review. On an average, I give myself five minutes for each paper. I start with the title, read the abstract, and go straight for the research questions and methods. If the paper doesn’t make much sense to me, I do not put a whole lot of time into it. It is a skill you master with time. The more you read, the more you can get away reading lesser of a paper. You learn to directly attack the core, the meat.

Time yourself when you read. If you take 30 minutes for a paper, try reading the next one in 25 minutes. The idea is not to read lazily, but be able to find and attack the meat of the paper directly. Read fast. Read smart. Read purposefully. Good luck! 


Monday, October 23, 2017

"We are going to Kolkata!"

This is a vivid memory from my childhood. I must have been around 5-6 years old, definitely not more than 8. We lived outside Bengal, and once or twice a year, we boarded the Madras Mail (an overnight train) as a family to visit Kolkata during summer or winter vacations. There, I spent significant amount of time in my mamar bari (my mother’s parental home). We were all a “joint family” back then, a family where parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, everyone lived under one roof. They show a lot of that in Greek and Italian movies.

My dadu or grandfather had two elder brothers, Boro dadu (boro means bigger or in this case, elder) and Mejo dadu (mejo means middle). They all lived in one huge, two-storied house in Howrah with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. The house had a “dalaan” or an open central courtyard that led to the well. There was a large wooden table in that dalaan. The table was so high for me that I needed support to prop myself and climb it. It is the same table where every male member of the family ate their breakfast before leaving for office. The table had a deep gash on one side and a nail sticking out on another. Even when I close my eyes now, I can still remember the feel of the table. For it was my favorite spot to lie on my belly, prop my chin with my hands, and watch the ongoing of the entire household; my three didas or grandmas lighting up their stoves to cook, the smell of burning coal that still makes me cry out of nostalgia, the domestic help, “Mongola’r Ma,” scurrying around to get chores done, my uncles busy eating rice and fish curry before leaving for work (always finishing the meal with “ombol”), and the neighbors dropping by to spread or garner news. 

I was too short to reach the wooden table, so I would use the adjacent chair to climb. That chair had a history too. “Buri pishi,” our widowed grandma (grandpa’s sister) sat there in the mornings, the two of us (the oldest and the youngest) being the only ones not in a hurry to get anywhere. So we sat side by side, buri pishi on the chair and I, belly flopping on the table, both of us with all the time to observe the world around us. Buri pishi often tickled my feet, catching me unaware, a constant source of annoyance. Till date, I hate anyone touching my feet. Given my size and height, the table offered an excellent vantage point to keep an eye on the ongoing of the entire household.

Sometimes, boro dadu or mejo dadu decked up early in the morning, wearing a fancy dhuti (a garment tied around the waist), a smart, cream colored shirt buttoned all the way without tucking in (unlike trousers), and dab generous amounts of Pond’s talcum powder on their face and chest. My own dadu never wore dhuti on a daily basis unless it was a wedding. He mostly wore a lungi or pajama. Anyway, the dadus would preen themselves, put on their best shoes, tuck a huge black umbrella under the armpit, and sit at one corner of the huge table for brunch before leaving home. Still lying on my belly, my chin propped on my hands, I would ask, “Where are you headed, dadu?” To which boro dadu or mejo dadu would beam proudly, “I am headed to Kolkata. I will be back in the evening.”

These words always made me giggle. I found this conversation hilarious. What do you mean, I am headed to Kolkata? We were already in Kolkata, weren’t we? How could one go to Kolkata while living in Kolkata? Back in our home, my mother used to tell everyone, “We are visiting my parents in Kolkata for the vacation.” To me, everything was Kolkata. I now understand the difference. We were technically in Howrah, a twin city to Kolkata separated by the Hoogli river. When we visited Victoria Memorial, we were in Kolkata. Whenever we took a bus and crossed Howrah Bridge, we were in Kolkata. When we ate moglai porota at the Shibpur tram depot, we were in Howrah. But in my little mind, technicalities were irrelevant and borders were non-existent. Everything was Kolkata, a nice and big city we visited during vacations or family weddings and met all the long-lost first, second, and third cousins, a place where a lot of people lived in one big house. Specifics did not matter to me back then. Demarcations were but only in the mind.

I have somehow held on to the trait even now. I continue to believe that Harvard University is in Boston although I have been corrected many times that it is in Cambridge. Seattle and the eastside are the same to me, one big place I call Seattle (unless I am in Seattle and have to go to Bellevue or Redmond).

“Where in Seattle do you live?” I have often asked people, only to be corrected and told, “We live in Issaquah/Bellevue/Kirkland/Redmond.” I know the difference, and I always laugh out loud when corrected. Little do they know that sometimes, I even refer to Portland as Seattle, although it is “just” 175 miles away. To me, Seattle means all of these- UW (which is actually in Seattle), my ex-office in Redmond, Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, Mayuri in Bellevue, and the amazing waterfront in Kirkland. Mount Rainier is in Seattle. Olympic National Park is in Seattle. You get the point. It is not that I cannot tell the difference. It is just that when it comes to Kolkata or Seattle, peripheries become all-encompassing and borders become non-existent.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The gas-pachu experience

The new city brought a new friend in my life, my first, real friend in bone and flesh and not an apparition from the virtual world. I am exhausted after my daily work where I am constantly either writing or talking or doing both. So, I cherish the silence that comes to me outside of work. As much as I enjoyed the silence this new city provided, with no social pressure of congregating during the weekends and making small (or big, or any) talk, my happiness at renewed real human contact knew no bounds.

And then, I got invited for dinner.

Like Anastasia Steele in the terribly written 50-shades-of-whatever, my inner goddess jived in excitement. I asked her if I should bring something too.

"Like what?" she asked.

It was a weekend, and I had made polao and chicken curry for myself. I could share some of that. I think I heard her mumble something incoherent on the phone. Something like, carbohydrate ... umm.. protein.

"Hello?" I asked, unsure.

"So you will bring carbs and proteins? Good. Then I will bring veggies."

Her comment left me a little surprised. Who dehumanizes food this way, reducing it to carbs, proteins and roughage on the same phone conversation where a dinner invitation was being extended? And what was this "I will bring veggies"? The Bengali in me only knows of kosha mangsho, mutton biryani, fish fry, roshogolla and pantua for dinner invitations.

We decided to meet at her place, not too far from mine. Even the prospect of eating roughage for a start did not dampen my excitement, the excitement of the culinary kind I felt every time I received a wedding invitation in Kolkata. It’s been years!

We met. I watched her take out some soup-with-a-funny-name from her Trader Joe's paper bag. There was a yogurt container with sour cream and some chips that looked like wood shavings to go with it. That's all that came out of the bag.

The optimist in me thought that surely, this must be the appetizer bag. A chilled soup with cucumber pieces floating was a rather bone-chilling sight for the unforgiving, wintry December (this happened last December). She heaped a huge tablespoon of cold sour cream as she offered me a bowl, calling it a healthy, summer soup.

"So what is this called again?" I asked.

"Gazpacho soup," she chimed with excitement. I took a spoonful and sampled it, starting to shiver as I did so. It felt like the soup had been sitting in Antarctica for a while.

I was about to take the second spoonful in my mouth when she blurted out another bone-chilling truth with innocence. "You know, I do not enjoy cooking as much as you do. So I cook in bulk and freeze it. This soup that you are having was made in August."

I froze and died a little bit inside. Cryo-preserved soup made in August being thawed and served with love in December? I was not even in this country in August. I was still in Germany, waiting to get a date for my visa interview. Was this soup made on my birthday? My sympathetic nervous system, the part that controls fight-or-flight instincts, had kicked in full on.

There is no way I was going to have this soup. Not that there was anything else to have. What I suspected as the appetizer was her contribution for a non-potluck dinner where she was the host and I had only volunteered to bring in something. What was that name again? I had never heard of it until today. All I could think of was gas and pachu (a term of endearment for the ass, usually in baby language, and by ass, I am not talking of ass-the-animal).

She happened to be quite enjoying the polao and the chicken curry, wiping away tears and her nose in the process. It must have been a tad spicy for the average American taste bud.

"The soup is fantastic," my fight-and-flight inner goddess finally found her voice. "Could I pack it and take it with me to enjoy at home? I'd love to have it with bread tomorrow. You are welcome to keep some of my food for your husband too."

She was thrilled. She even helped me pack the soup, blobs of sour cream and all, profusely thanking me for the food I offered her.

With the dilemma of food behind us now, we started to chat and chatted up for the next few hours. I didn't have any appetite for the rest of the evening though. We spoke of US politics, travel, movies, and a whole lot of nothing. The next day, she told me that the husband loved the polao and the chicken curry. Ever since, we have become good friends. As I get home from work, I see a box or a jar of something at my doorstep once in a while. A jar of turmeric. A set of pyrex bowls. Such random acts of kindness thrill me, to know that someone is thinking of you and offering you something. However, I never had the courage to finish the rest of the "manufactured in August and served with love in December" gas-pachu soup. Forgiving her for that one incident, I forged a new friendship in this new city.


Sunday, October 08, 2017

Being faculty: End of year one

This week, I completed one year of being faculty. Exactly one year ago, I had moved back to the US and landed here. My landlady, whom I had never seen before, had come to pick me up. This time, I celebrated my first anniversary with a goat that lay on my dinner plate as mutton biryani. That is one thing I will never grow tired of eating.

So what does faculty life mean to me after one year? It means no longer being able to play the "I am a new faculty and I don't know what I am doing" card. To say that time flew would be an understatement. Talking of time, I was reading about the research on biological clock that won the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year. Other than conceiving time as what we know, the lifespan clock and the biological clock, I have also come to understand what the pre-tenure clock means. I could fill an entire book with my thoughts and realizations of life as a faculty, perhaps some day post-tenure.

New currency

I have learnt many new things over the past year. Some of them were skills and the others, deep realizations. However, if I had to point to that one thing that has been my most important learning this past year, it is the concept of currency. We are used to thinking of money as currency.  But for the first time, I learnt that time and energy (and not money) are my new currencies. Time is non-renewable and it surely depletes fast. As a student, I spent a lot of time trying to earn some money. Now, I will happily spend money to earn time, which is what all the grant writing and making graduate students do the work is about. It also means learning money management. I protect my research money much more fiercely than my personal money. I am always bargaining and looking for better deals to buy stuff for my research group. I could not even bargain a pair of earrings for ten rupees less.

The power of “No”

I have mastered the habit of saying no. No, I cannot be a part of this committee, it will take away my research time. No, I cannot visit Seattle this month, I have a conference deadline. No, you cannot visit me either, because of the same deadline. No, I cannot attend this potluck or cook for twenty people, and no, I cannot go on a dinner date, no, not even coffee. I use my work as a shield to bail out of a lot of things I do not want to do. If you plot time versus "no", I think I have said no maximum number of times this past year.

Weird moments

Being faculty to me also means sometimes hearing, "How far in your PhD are you?" And I don't think it has anything to do with my youthful looks (or the lack of it, especially given the crop of grey hair I sport now). It comes from something called unconscious bias where women (especially minority women) are usually designated stereotypical roles with less power. Male doctor, female patient. Male professor, female student. Rich guy, poor girl. Older guy, younger girl. Such stereotypes not only penetrate, but also deeply cut through reality to make up fairy tale stories and Harlequin romances.

Being faculty also means getting some very strange emails sometimes. So far, I saw random strangers emailing me their GRE scores and asking what they should study and what university they should apply to. However, I recently got an email from a complete stranger asking to be my friend (with a few smileys following) and wanting to know how to get a faculty position and to also help their spouse figure out how to do their PhD and what prospects await the spouse after their PhD. Complete strangers from completely strange fields asking me strange questions. I was tempted to ask if their children also needed help looking for schools and while doing so, if I could also visit their home to help them fold the laundry.

What else?

It means looking at a potentially interesting guy and thinking, "Hmm... I wonder what his h-index and his citation number is." It means little joys like free textbooks (ask the publisher and they will send you a copy) and free bus rides. It means three months of freedom every year to go and work in any part of the world I want to. It also means "technically" not having to show up at work unless I have a class or meeting. It is an unthinkable idea to many working in other industries. I could show up to work every day at 3 pm and no one would care.

And it means sometimes hearing, "Oh, you are at this university? What does your husband do there?" (The assumption being that my fictitious husband is a faculty, not me, I might be a trailing spouse). It also means being asked "What do you teach?" all the time. Not all faculty teach, and not all the time. Teaching is less than 50% of my job. I have only taught one course so far.

But all this aside, one of the best things about being faculty is being able to chat with some very smart people. Only today, I chatted for an hour each with a space researcher who works on galaxies, a cancer researcher, and a NASA scientist.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Thank you for showing up

I rarely eat out these days. I love the discipline cooking at home brings in my life. But once in a while, the craving gets the better of me.

I had been daydreaming about Ethiopian food for a while, and after subduing it for a week, I ended up at the only Ethiopian place I knew in town. I had only been there twice before, with friends, and had loved their lamb preparation. This time, I was on my own.

When I showed up at 5:30 pm, the place was fairly empty barring a few tables that were occupied. Yet, my server looked around uncomfortably, wondering where to seat me. I looked around too, noticing tables for four and two. I asked if I could sit at a particular corner for a table for two. My server hesitated, asking if I could grab one of the tables outside the restaurant. It was a public corridor inside an indoor mall, and a fairly busy one too. I did not want to eat in the middle of a thoroughfare. Hence I politely declined, asking if I could sit inside the restaurant. So she found a corner and asked me if I could sit there. That corner did not have tables and chairs, only stools. One would have to stoop and eat unless one was sitting on the floor (which was not an option they provided). It did not look like a comfortable spot. I asked her what the matter was since so many tables were empty. She said that there was a major concert nearby starting at 7:30 pm and she was expecting a lot of people to show up for dinner before that. She did not want me to hold on to the tables for two and four.

I told her that I was on my own and I was going to eat quickly and leave since I was going back to work. I would not be lingering around. I had even looked up the menu online before I arrived and was ready to order right then. She did not look convinced and reluctantly gave me the spot of my choice before disappearing inside the kitchen.

I had barely settled in my chair for two minutes, placing my heavy backpack by me when the owner showed up. She told me the same thing, only more authoritatively. People would be crowding up for dinner soon, and I should choose that corner they were offering with stools instead of where I was sitting. I did not want to argue, I was hungry and was already beginning to feel humiliated. This place was bang opposite to the direction of my home and I had changed two buses to get there. All I wanted was a quick dinner before moving on with my life. Reluctantly, I dragged myself and my backpack out of our spots and took the seat she gave me. My hunch was right, the stools were uncomfortable, the food table was lower (not higher) than the stool and one needed to bend at a weird angle while eating.

I did finish my meal as quickly as I had promised but lingered for a while to see if the fictitious crowd showed up. However, I already knew the answer to that. Yes, there was some inflow and outflow of people. However, just like when I had entered, most of the tables remained empty. Instinctively, I always knew this is what would happen. When my server came with my bill, I told her the same. She smiled at me sheepishly and disappeared inside the kitchen.

This episode made me reflect on an aspect of human behavior I have seen many times- an attachment to the perceived idea of everyone showing up at the cost of failing to respect those who actually showed up. This is not the first time that I was witnessing it. How many times have we seen the host of a party constantly calling those who haven’t made it rather than spending time with those who actually did? Or someone planning a trip and then constantly sending reminders to those who do not want to join the trip rather than planning with those who said yes? Guess what? Those who did not RSVP or reply to that email or haven’t yet shown up at the party on time are not likely to. Yet, people remain attached to the idea of larger crowds, full attendance, filled up rooms, sold out shows, large numbers as an indication of success. When a meeting where only 10 people showed up is delayed by 5 minutes because the others did not, we actually waste 50 cumulative minutes. It doesn’t matter how many did not show up. The time you waste waiting belongs to those who showed up and not to those who did not.

The moment my server got nervous and told me that the restaurant would soon start to fill up, I instinctively knew that it would not fill up (not that I wanted it that way), not at least until I left. But she was attached to the idea of seeing a full restaurant, rather than taking care of that one person who actually showed up. I have been recently planning a trip and on asking four people, only one of them said yes. So I thanked the other three and started making plans with the one who said yes. Yes, a group of five would have been great. Actually, no. There is no evidence that a group of five would be great. It is my attachment to the idea that a group of five will make a great trip. In this case, only two of us traveling will make a great trip, because both of us are willing and invested in the trip. It does not mean that the five of us will not have an awesome trip in the future. Just not this time.

Businesses suffer. Relationships suffer. Families suffer. All because of the single-minded attachment to a larger crowd showing up (indicating greater perceived success) than being thankful to those who actually showed up. The inability to let go of what has slipped from the hand than holding on to what is still in hand. Think about how happy a customer I’d be had they let me sit properly to enjoy my meal, the one meal I was eating outside after months. Yet we continue to pine for those who did not show up rather than honor those who actually did.

When I paid for my meal before walking out of a still empty restaurant, this is what I wrote on the merchant’s copy of the receipt- “I wish you’d let me sit more comfortably and enjoy my meal.”


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Building your processor while in graduate school

I spent a lot of time during my PhD resisting whatever my adviser would say. He had a clear plan for me to graduate on time, but I was the one who did not believe that I could meet my graduation deadline. As a result, we argued a lot.

Once we were arguing about my scintillating academic life (or the lack of it) and how much coursework would be enough to make me a desirable PhD candidate when I start job hunting. We started our conversation about job hunting pretty early, at around 6 months into my PhD, when my peers were still comfortably settling in. “I never want you to feel comfortable or settled in. That way, you will never graduate,” he said bluntly.

We were arguing because my adviser wanted me to take as many methods/statistics courses as I can. Being able to analyze and make sense of large-scale data is vital in my field. I think I eventually took 5 levels of statistics courses and 3 levels of qualitative methodology courses alone other than the core courses and a mixed-methods class. I made a face and told him that I do not want to drown in methods courses, that I would learn on my own or take online classes later. To that, he gave me a great analogy that I will paraphrase because I found some wisdom in what he said.

This is what he said. In graduate school, we are like a computer processor in the making. With new courses, we get to learn new skills and thereby build our processors. Our configuration is constantly improving. We get to take classes, write exams, get feedback (from the instructors) and interact with peers that are great ways to learn new skills. By the time we are out of graduate school, the features in our processor are set. It is not malleable anymore. Sure, we can go for an external upgrade, adding a feature every now and then by auditing a class or attending a conference. But these are external features. The core has already been built by then.

Graduate school learning builds the core, the inherent qualities of a researcher. Therefore it is important to take every remotely relevant methodological course, write exams (and not just audit courses), and learn every new skill we hesitate to learn (because we are too afraid to fail) fooling ourselves into believing that we will learn them once we get a job. Graduate training is the only chance to build the processor from the scratch. The rest gets added along the way. One can afford to skip a "Writing literature review" class because that is a skill one can pick along the way. However, one cannot afford to skip a class on methodology. So go take that class because it is already paid for, and because once you graduate, you will never get to take a class again, not this way.

I don’t understand much of computers or technology (other than what I need for work), but I loved his analogy. Years after finishing graduate school, I see the value in what he said. No more arguments after that, I buried myself building my processor, and I have not regretted it. Although I do not apply the methodological know-how in everyday work life, I know enough about it to be able to navigate my way around. For example, I do not dabble with differential item functioning or item response theory every day. However, when I read a paper that did those, I do not have the “deer in the headlights” look. I exactly know what they are talking about. 

Listen to your adviser (not blindly though). For they may be as clueless about your future as you are, but given their vast experience, chances are less that they will give bad advice. 


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Initial impressions of Mexico City

[Written last Christmas; I am reminded of Mexico City today after the earthquakes]

I think latitude determines cultural similarities more than longitude. Mexico City reminds me of a combination of Kolkata and Mumbai (and of India in general) in so many ways. There is a distinct smell of the city, a wintry smell of sunshine and fog and a little bit of smoke. I get the same smell every time I visit Kolkata. Although cities in the US are much colder, the interiors are warm. Here, it is just like the winters of Kolkata. You will be freezing inside the house but outside, the sunshine would be comforting. There are hundreds of cops, but no one pays heed to them. People jaywalk all the time. This is what gives me hope. There is something dysfunctional about a sanitized culture where there is no chaos, where people do not cross the streets on a red light or follow the rule book all the time. I have been told that I will need to bargain even at the currency exchange shops. Armed with my limited Spanish vocabulary spanning maybe 30-40 words, I am all set to explore this city. Although my German vocabulary is only marginally better, I never felt at ease culturally. But this seems like a place where I could use my skills from India. 

I landed at 7 am and by 10 am, I was already accosted by a guy barely out of college who speaks no English (I can only suspect that he wanted to sleep with me because when his insistence did not work and I feigned ignorance about both Spanish and English, he folded his hands gesturing me to sleep) and mistaken as a hooker by a cop whom I tried asking about money (currency exchange store) in English. None of them harmful encounters of course. But the most cruel thing happened to me when they chucked my goat biryani in the airport's trash can. I mean, I must have been out of my mind, trying to sneak in a goat inside Mexico. A lot of the dinner last night had gone uneaten, and I wanted to devour the goat from Seattle in Mexico City. They took out that box and another box of five besan laddoos and eyed both suspiciously while I kept praying that if they have to throw one of them, let them throw the sweet. But after gathering interesting biryani eating experiences from all over the world, this one was a failure. I felt that sharp stab of pain in my chest as I parted with my biryani. And since it is Sunday as well as Christmas, all currency exchange stores are closed, leaving me with no money and hence no food except those five besan laddoos. One of the ATMs asked a flat fee of $31.82 for using my credit card. I have a feeling that things will work out and I will not have to go hungry in this city. I later realized that it was a double-dollar sign, referring to 31.82 Mexican dollars.

Things got interesting last night when I was waiting for the flight at a California airport and they made all announcements in Spanish (we were still on the US soil) when I had to go ask them to kindly repeat things in English. It brought back many a memories from the German chapter. When asked to make a line to board the flight, the line looked exactly like it would do in India- a scatter plot. In between, an old man even winked at me and let me cut through the line. I already love this place.

Nothing perhaps stings more than being pesoless and then your goat biryani being thrown away. Merry Christmas, everyone.