Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Evil World of Advertisements

If we were to believe the TV commercials, the biggest problem plaguing our Earth are dry and dull hair and oily/lifeless skin of women. The world will be all happy and satiated if you could solve these problems with all those shampoos, conditioners, fairness creams etc. which by the way are biggest scientific invention ever. Problems which come close to the above in their severity are:
  1. Your not having that one perfect party dress/jewellery which they are selling on their website.
  2. That child in your house who's waiting to turn into the next Einstein or Tendulkar by consuming that health product with a 100 nutrients.

In this day of rising feminism, it's surprising how they get away by saying that:
  1. inner glow of your skin is not a result of a healthy body and mind but can come by an external application of a cream
  2. 'taking care' of yourself doesn't mean empowering yourself with knowledge strength and confidence and spreading message of equality, but making your body hair your most nagging concern while going out with boys.
  3. being a good mother is not teaching your student fundamental life skills but making him drink a health supplement.

I really feel that these commercials are destroying what little good our feminist friends are doing to help women of this world stand up for themselves. One of my good friends, who was doing some life-changing work in advertisements, and since has taken to the debased profession of being a professional artist, had but one thing to say about her past profession: PURE EVIL!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thoughts on Father's Day

My father excelled as a father.

  • He allowed me to become what I had the potential to be.
  • He gave me all the advices he had, good or bad, but to his best capabilities.
  • He supported me materially while I needed his support.

I failed as a son.

  • I left them back there in Nagpur 'to make it big in life.'
  • 'I am not beside them' when they are ageing and getting afflicted with diseases.
  • I have turned into a doting husband, father and a good person 'without staying a doting son.'

I am indeed a doting father, and yesterday on the Father's Day, if I related to that day, it was as a father more than as a son. And here are a few things I can say about how I plan to be a good father:

  • I will allow you to become what you have the potential to be.
  • I will give you the material support.
  • I will always be with you morally.
  • The gist of my love for you is that I will always want you to be happy, wise and successful.
  • I will show my emotions to you.
  • I will not pretend to you to be stronger, wiser, richer, more liberal than I actually am.
  • I will not appeal to my authority to make you behave in a particular way.
  • I will lead a life of my own to the last day. I will be true to myself as much as to you.
  • I will not behave well just because I want you to behave well.
  • I will not make my fatherhood appear as a sacrifice for you.
  • I will not expect purchased gifts from you.
  • I will not expect you to be by my side in my old age.
  • I will feel happy when you become a good husband, father and person, because that's what you are here to be.
  • I will celebrate the fact that you are an individual who is not the same as me.

All I will every expect from you is to know that I love you from the bottom of my heart. My love for you is not because I have played a role in your being born, but because I have closely observed you grow into a person from a little bundle in my arms on January 24, 2009.

Please just give this much. Please never ever doubt that I love you and want nothing else from you!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Doing Research in India

It is an uphill journey for a researcher working in India in many ways. One of the cited reasons talks about lack of resources or of top researchers who can really do game-changing research. I find that to be the least of the reasons.
First of all, let me try and define what I consider to be a normal researcher's career goals. There are these dreams to be a top researcher whose work is cited in every conversation happening in a particular area of scholarship. This is a very lofty dream. It will not be fructified for most of us. Aiming for that just like that is a prescription for depression and disappointment. Instead, a more realistic goal is find a valid groove for oneself in the research ecosystem. That groove may be big or small -- that's secondary. It should provide a continual opportunity to think and work, to contribute, to communicate. Fame, recognition and riches may come, but as happy side-effects. The main product being a sustainable opportunity to work and produce, all while leading a reasonably happy life.

I know, there are subjectivity and loose ends in the above description. But that's Okay! As long as it shifts the focus from lofty and unrealistic dreams of greatness to realistic goals of day to day satisfaction and fulfilment. And one of the first hurdles to building fruitful research career in India is related with unrealistic goals. Please don't get me wrong in that I am trying to persuade you to give up your dreams. But dreams should arise out of your deep understanding about some problems, and an irresistible wish to solve it; it shouldn't arise out of images of heroic achievement flashed over the media. This only leads to vacuous ambitions, unrelated with the immediately surrounding reality. Work whose only meaning is associated with the fulfilment of an ambition, whether materialistic or otherwise, is by definition a chore, and can never give happiness.

So, if a person opts to do research in India with his or her expectations placed correctly, is it a cakewalk? No! So, what other problems? A list of some of the important problems in my view are presented in my cartoon that appeared today in Club SciWri, reproduced here:

The Strong Links

  1. Talent. High talent density is made highly probable among Indian researchers by the sheer amount of competition they surmount before ending up in any prestigious graduate school. I am fully aware of the caveats in this assumption, though.
  2. Motivation. The dampening influences which will be discussed below start playing out much before a student steps into a graduate school. If, in spite of them all, a student makes it to the doorsteps of a higher research degree, he/she has proved at least one point, that he/she is highly motivated.

The Weak Links

  1. Unrealistic Goals. The first weak link that saps much of a young starry eyed researcher's energies are his ignorance about what research involves. He starts off at a high note thinking he can pull it off only on the basis of his intelligence, knowledge, hard work and what not. Disillusionment sets in when he finds that these qualities barely enable him to make any dent. 
  2. Communication. Most of us hardly ever start at working on our communication skills. Those of us who do start hardly ever graduate beyond thinking of it as good English and confidence and all that. Communication is a much deeper skill. It has its roots in a practice of thinking with clarity, ability to sense lack in clarity, and seeking clarity by acquiring information through the means of listening, reading, guessing and imagining.
  3. Selling Skills. My PhD got over before I got over the feeling that no one cares about my research. This lack of confidence sits so deep in our soul that we are never able to utter a single word about our work to others with an honest fervour. Yes, many of us pick up styles from here and there by noticing 'what sells'. But, to a trained eye, they look artificial and disgusting. The marketability that arises out of a calm and peaceful confidence in the meaningfulness of our work is widely lacking in us. This again has a lot to do with the fact that we start our journey by setting unrealistic goals.
  4. Collaboration Ecosystem. A sense of deep mistrust pervades the Indian research scenario. Industries think researchers just want to talk crap. Researchers and academicians think that industries only care about money and short term goals. Both cling to their IPs like ... I don't know ... which is that animal which clings?! Yes. They cling to their IPs. And they sign such watertight MoUs that it chokes the life out of any effort. Funding agencies wait endlessly before releasing the first cheque. And they play safe by funding well known candidates. Institutes over commit, thinking that the money will take its own sweet time to flow in, if ever it flows in; so we might as well write ten other proposals. Institutes hesitate to share students, equipments, information ... unless shown businesslike incentives. What are they afraid of? Hard earned status? Disappointment on working with a bogus partner? I don't know. But, there's something in the air that prevents us from collaborating with each other. And collaborate we must, if we want to exist at all.
  5. Financial Stability. Finally, the whole process of doing a PhD simply stops making sense when it fails to get us a commensurately paying job. 5-6 years appear like a sunk investment of precious youth and avenues of securing financial stability when it doesn't even give us a foothold in the market. If a PhD student in India decides to live off Government stipend, in a bachelor hostel, eating subsidised mess food, he can easily be fooled into thinking of himself as a king. If he thinks of letting the other aspects of his life move on in a normal way -- getting married, investing, owning a house -- he will wake up to his real penury. This financially unstable condition is the cause of many a casualty.

The Stumbling Blocks

  1. Lab Politics. The stresses generated primarily by the above sources hits the individuals so hard so as to cause the internal environment of most labs to become completely toxic. Lab-mates, who should be working closely with each other (without it being forced by the supervisor), should take interest in each others work, evade each others' eyes, hide their data, lie to and about each other. Essentially, the broken collaboration ecosystem invades the very home of research -- the lab. What these labs end up being are pressure cookers with stressed out and lonely souls afraid of their inmates. It creates a terrible prospect for the work that can be expected to come out of such places. No wonder, much of the research that comes out of Indian labs is toothless. 
  2. Social Pressures. All the above topped up with social pressures deals a deadly blow to the Indian researcher's will to put in that extra amount of effort which will tip the balance favourably for him.
    • Get married.
    • Support your family.
    • Finish fast.
    • IISc? What's that? Tell me one great invention that came out that place! Why didn't you do it abroad? 
    • Dress like a human being, you geek! Smile. Attend the party... Be, or at least look, more like us all.
 An Indian research student functions in presence of continuous squabble created by his relatives, friends and immediate society. Many wickets fall under these Yorkers; any vessels are sunk by this torrent.

So, there you go. If you are contemplating taking up a research career here, please consider taking help of the above points in doing a bit of soul searching. For God's sake, start with realistic goals. There's a lot of ways in which a PhD can contribute to nation building in India. These ways mayn't quite look like those idolised by science books, magazines and journals. Preparing a society that has forgotten the faith in deductive reasoning and knowledge to start using systematic thinking for finding its way up, is challenging enough. This may need us to drop our ivory tower images of a scientist and get down on the field and get our hands a bit dirty.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Essence of Learning

(Look below for my summarisation)

"Now, you see, you don't do this thing a bit better than you did a fortnight ago, and I'll tell you what's the reason. You want to learn accounts--that's well and good. But you think all you need do to learn accounts is to come to me and do sums for an hour or so, two or three times a-week; and no sooner do you get your caps on and turn out of doors again than you sweep the whole thing clean out of your mind. You go whistling about, and take no more care what you're thinking of than if your heads were gutters for any rubbish to swill through that happened to be in the way; and if you get a good notion in 'em,it's pretty soon washed out again. You think knowledge is to be got cheap--you'll come and pay Bartle Massey sixpence a-week, and he'll make you clever at figures without your taking any trouble. But knowledge isn't to be got with paying sixpence, let me tell you. If you're to know figures, you must turn 'em over in your heads and keep your thoughts fixed on 'em. There's nothing you can't turn into a sum, for there's nothing but what's got number in it--even a fool. You may say to  yourselves, 'I'm one fool, and Jack's another; if my fool's head weighed four pound, and Jack's three pound three ounces and three quarters, how many pennyweights heavier would my head be than Jack's?' A man that had got his heart in learning figures would make sums for himself and work 'em in his head. When he sat at his shoe making, he'd count his stitches by fives, and then put a price on his stitches, say half a farthing, and then see how much money he could get in an hour; and then ask himself how much money he'd get in a day at that rate; and then how much ten workmen would get working three, or twenty, or a hundred years at that rate--and all the while his needle would be going just as fast as if he left his head empty for the devil to dance in. But the long and the short of it is--I'll have nobody in my night-school that doesn't strive to learn what he comes to learn, as hard as if he was striving to get out of a dark hole into broad daylight. I'll send no man away because he's stupid: if Billy Taft, the idiot, wanted to learn anything, I'd not refuse to teach him. But I'll not throw away good knowledge on people who think they can get it by the six penn'orth, and carry it away with 'em as they would an ounce of snuff. So never come to me again, if youcan't show that you've been working with your own heads, instead of thinking that you can pay for mine to work for you. That's the last word I've got to say to you."

- Bartle Massey, School teacher, Adam Bede by George Elliot
In short:
  1. You can't learn by just paying money.
  2. Learning happens when you think of it outside the class.
  3. You must look actively for situations where you can apply your learning.
  4. No teacher can do the learning part on behalf of the student.

Can't make a more relevant statement than this one written nearly one and a half century ago. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

About Meditation

I have been doing a little bit of meditation everyday for a few months. In fact, on and off, I have done this for a very long time. But this time, for the first time, I see tangible benefits. The first immediate benefit has been completely physical. I used to have a chronic neck-shoulder-back pain all the time for several years. It had started perceptibly worsening in the last few years. It was never very sharp, but was bad enough to affect the quality of my sleep sometimes. I hadn't tried any medical help, but had tried all sorts of exercises. Nothing had helped. But meditation has allowed me to feel largely free of that pain for the first time. I can't believe that making that pain almost disappear was in my hands and was so easy! I really feel very happy about it. I don't know if this state will persist for long or not. But for sure, at present, it seems to be working like a miracle.

The second benefit is more mental, and is about the overall feeling of well-being. I am able to stay calm in larger number of situations. I am not wasting precious energy by being unnecessarily tensed, physically and mentally. I sleep very deeply these days!

What's this meditation that I am doing? I think, I haven't followed any prescribed method. Firstly, it's based on a belief that the default state of being is that of meditation. Meditating therefore is about going back to the ground state. This means, that ideally, one should always be in a meditative state. Which also means, it's not to be effortful, but should rather be about letting go of unnecessary efforts.

How do I do it? I just do a periodic (say, every few minutes) mental scan of my body to detect if there's a muscle which is tensed or exerted without need. The next stage is to maintain this while doing something. By being self aware, I am able to analyse which are precisely the set of muscles which need to be exerted to do what I am doing. Then I try to make sure that no other muscle is exerted during that time. For example, if I am concentrating on typing this mail, why should my face muscle be clenched? If I am cycling why should be chest and back be tightened. Often, tightening of extra muscles seems to have something to do with avoiding pains and aches. If the particular muscle being used in a task is aching due to exertion, we involuntarily try to distribute the effort to other neighbouring muscles. Probably that's why, it's a good idea to do some exercises and asanas. To make sure that all muscles and bones of the body can do what they are supposed to.

I also try to do the same thing with my mental state. Think about one thing at a time. Don't exert the brain on unnecessary processing. Identify the negative emotions (fear, anger, ego ...) which send the brain on a flurry of unnecessary activities. This mental part is much harder, and at best, I am just a beginner in this.
(This is an excerpt from a mail I wrote sometime back to my friend Prachee.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Persecution and Confidence

In my childhood, I felt constantly bullied and persecuted by many of my peers. They would call me 'studious', 'scholar', 'fundu' etc. all in a derogatory sense. I used to feel left out and socially rejected. My unhappiness with myself left me very lacking in confidence. But I still liked sitting by myself, peering into books, drawing, doing mathematical puzzles, ... instead of playing cricket, or gossiping about girls and movies sitting on the street culverts. I -- thankfully -- didn't try to fake myself.

As we all grew older, two interesting things happened. Firstly, those who used to call me names for being studious and academic, suddenly became serious about their studies. That was in the senior years in the high school. They scored an ace in the board exams and got into very good colleges. They proved that if they wished, they could actually study harder than I could. My scores remained the same throughout. These people are now doing very well in their lives. It was in the end all about the capability and competition for them. For them, studies were a vehicle to doing well in life, to prove their capability. What really got proved is that it was necessity which drove their actions, while it was mere individual taste which made me do what I did. They would do exactly what I had been doing, but only when forced by circumstances.

Secondly, I gradually grew out of my own nerdy self-image and turned into a reasonably social person. Thanks to my finding almost everything interesting, I found it rather easy to connect with anyone who had something about his personality that was driven by genuine passion, even in subjects which I wasn't good at, e.g. sports.

In my grown up years, I still keep encountering a similar, though a lot milder (or should I say, repressed) form of persecution. It affects me less and less by the day. And here's why ...

Firstly, people who initially come across as arrogant and rude on the first encounter later often turn out to be shy and introvert. People who avert eye contact in public places, always wait for you to start the conversation, appear extremely thankful when you are the one breaking the ice. So, in most cases, I find it a good idea to approach a person with a guilt-free smile.

Secondly, those who find it necessary to persecute someone, particularly when that person has done nothing wrong, are those who feel uncomfortable from the fact that there's someone who is not exactly like them. Most people draw confidence and reassurance by placing themselves in the middle of a group which has a bunch of individuals, indistinguishable from him and each other. The code of conduct followed in such a group is behave exactly like others. Each individual strives hard to understand the collective characteristics of the group: the activities, the body language, the lingo, the topics of discussion. And like classical sycophants, they pay lip-service to the collective unuttered beliefs of the groups. The DNA of such a large group (look out for a bunch of giggling, roaring youngsters at the streets, malls, and other public places who seem to look like a very happy lot from a distance) is that of insecurity. The social security felt by its members is through conformity to tacit rules. And those rules associate with the lowest common denominator of intellect and character, so even the lowest of the lowly don't feel uncomfortable in that group. The other typical behaviour of such a group is that of rejecting and persecuting all non-compliance. Their extreme discomfort at coming across people who aren't insecure enough to comply to the lowest common denominator rule is expressed through ridicule and rejection. Often, they will charge you of the same crimes they are themselves guilty of. They will call you studious (meaning to say that you work hard to get accepted by some order that you feel subservient to). They will call you scholarly or bookish (meaning that your field of vision is limited by what you pay lip service to). These are really the characteristics of the group the membership to which gives them the guts to call names at you.

To this, a relevant footnote would be that this behaviour is by no means unnatural. Humans are social creatures, which means that it is in their nature to feel happy and secure in herds. The eagerness to belong to some social order, and the knee-jerk repulsion towards any show of non-compliance, are a very biological trait. Though innocent and involuntary by itself, it has often been a defining element in the history of human race: extremism and intolerance of any form is essentially a manifestation of this very characteristic, and lies at the root of most bloodshed that has happened on this planet.

To cut a long story short, through long years, I have realised that I have led a life driven by more honest and sane forces than those who used to persecute me in my childhood. When I meet many of them now, surprisingly there's an immediate feeling of kinship, with no bitterness remaining from the childhood days. Not so much because I have changed my ways and have become more 'social', but because -- I honestly believe -- these individuals have grown less insecure of themselves and are able to feel comfortable in the company of a person who doesn't try too hard to proclaim his indistinguishableness from them. Some of childhood peers who I come across after years of separation, haven't conquered their childhood insecurity. And with them, even after so many years, I get the same sense of rejection. This rejection no more can take the shape of ridicule, persecution, name-calling. Because the herd which was the prime source of the courage that allowed them to ridicule me, has dispersed. Now, therefore, this rejection appears very much in its true form -- insecurity!

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Path to Professionalism

While chatting with one of my friends this morning, I made a casual remark: "Disillusionment is the first step towards professionalism." Hm. I feel like patting myself for saying that. :)

We all have dreamt of attaining greatness in so many ways! How many of us really get anywhere close to becoming great? Let me talk about myself. At some or the other point in my life, I have wanted to do all of the following:

  • Become a great writer.
  • Become a great scientist.
  • Become a great singer.
  • Become a great artist.
  • Become a great teacher.
  • Become a great engineer/programmer.

I am usually called quite versatile by most people I know, just because I have become all of the above. Just remove the 'great' part of it. In other words, I can't claim greatness in anything as such. But, I have done most of the above list for a very long time, year after year. And I have continued to enjoy doing them. And for that, I claim some credit.

On the way to do anything non-trivial, disillusionment is the first and biggest milestone. Disillusionment comes in various forms. Let me try and list some of them:

  • It's difficult, physically/mentally/financially expensive.
  • It's 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.
  • If I don't finish it, it slides back to zero in no time. There's no way to build on my earlier work. It requires one heroic effort.
  • I am not that good in it.
  • Nobody cares.
  • The people I used to admire have turned out to be fakes.
  • I have to work with scoundrels who have no work ethics.

Some Examples

Let me give a couple of examples from my experience. 

Being a Scientist

My childhood image of a scientist was that of a chemist mixing colourful fluids with each other and creating funny fumes and explosions. That image was kind of cool. That image didn't have the various other components of chemistry in it: the eternal pungency of a chemistry lab, the taste of chemicals, the Ketone burns, the ever imbalanced chemical equations, the low grades ... While I gradually came to terms with the idea that I didn't have much of a future in Chemistry, I was fortunate to get exposed to other forms of science where my disillusionments weren't severe enough to kill my wish to continue with them. I continued in the path of science, but came across bigger and bigger disillusionments. You have to get good grades every time. You have to publish and keep publishing. You have to be visible. You have to continuously keep working hard to prevent yourself from getting caught in the vortex of anonymity. Sometimes, just in order to avoid being completely ignored, you have to fake interest and knowledge in some subjects. In conferences, you have to flock around the big names of your field. You have to flash smiles, laugh at bad jokes ... sometimes, even try to look good. Anything but what you would associate with a scientist. You have to tell lies about your work to get your papers through in journals: fabricate data, force-fit cool sounding themes, spew mathematical symbols where you could as well have done without them, cite papers of authors who you know are there in the programme committee.

Of course, a counter-argument to the above is: 'You be so good that you needn't do any of the above.' I agree. And I know people who haven't possibly gone down the above path and have still done well. And I know at least one individual who, having not done that well, has still managed to keep himself clean of blemishes -- myself. But that doesn't change the overall DNA of the system: which is ruthlessly competitive, and even corrupt in certain ways. And that makes it a day to day struggle to survive in the world of science. In short, being a scientist today (or may be any time in history) is far from the cool image projected to us of an absent-minded genius free of worldly worries discovering new scientific marvels everyday. A great disillusionment!

Being a Writer

I have been writing for as long as I remember. The wish to write a book that would take the reader into a different world, would show them things they wouldn't otherwise be able to see, occurred quite early in life, as early as the first time any book did the same to me. However, writing has turned out to be a much harder thing to do than my childish fantasies allowed me to perceive. It's not merely about having a great idea to share, and some grasp over a language to express it with. It's a continuous balancing act between brevity, simplicity, relevance, glamour, cohesiveness, and a host of other concerns. Writing a page in a diary and writing a piece for someone else are two completely different things. The first draft is ready in probably the first 10% of the time you spend in writing. The remaining 90% goes in the incredibly tedious process of reading, re-reading, revising, re-arranging etc., an unending struggle to give it that ever-elusive ideal form.

If it's a book, before you even get to write it up, you have to actively involve in networking and canvassing to grab the attention of a publisher. Then, you have to fight him to prevent him from modifying your ideas beyond recognition to make your work 'more acceptable'. Afterwards, you have to go around marketing the book to get it sold. I have personally come across people -- authors -- who employ fairly disgraceful methods of getting called as authors, getting invited as guest speakers, and getting on-air time in well-publicised events just to up the probability of getting the copies of their books being picked up by prospective readers from the book-store racks.

Similarly, in this Internet age, Most readers have a infinitesimal attention span. Clicking a link to a blog post (which is a reaction to a distraction in the midst of work or other competing distractions) is not at all equivalent to picking a book from a shelf (which is an act of volition in more than one ways). So, the time available before the prospective reader gets bored, closes the browser tab and moves on to the next distraction is in the order of a few seconds. You may have to do something really drastic to turn the visitor to your blog into a reader. For example, finishing up in one screen-full, using graphics, bullet points, politically charged statements, even sleaze. An Internet reader has no patience or time for slow build-up, and elaborate analysis. He wants quick pills of instant gratification which a sedately paced work will never give him.

In short, the imaginary world in which you wish to be an author was where a good idea just needed to expressed in order for a reader to read it and appreciate it. In the real world, an author, just like a real world scientist, is competing with many others, for the attention of a reader who is already deluged with distractions. The competition for the readers' mental real-estate is so cut-throat amongst writers that you shouldn't be surprised to find resistance and rivalry instead of intellectual camaraderie between two writers. Another huge disillusionment!

The Reality

The reality is, I am still a scientist. I think about new stuff, I read, I create ... every day of my life, I go through the rigours of a scientist's life like all other scientists of the world. The visions of greatness have faded before my eyes. One may think, I mean to say that now doing science is probably nothing but a drudgery for me. I do it because I am left no other choice at this stage of my life.

The reality also is that I keep writing copious amounts. Blogs, notes, diary, letters. I have stopped likening myself to Tolstoy, Premchand and Tagore. I don't even clearly visualise my words in print form any more. Yet, I keep writing.

One may think all this quite grim. I don't. I happily feel that I have made it across the most difficult part. I have made it across the ocean of disillusionments. This journey has left me humbled, but also clear about why I do the things I do. I am clearer about what I am prepared to do and what not in order to make advances towards possible acceptance, if not greatness, in these worlds of activity: scientific or literary. I now have solid evidence that I don't do my stuff because of a fantasy of glamour and greatness. Nor merely as a means for subsistence. Rather, there's something right there in the act of doing which pulls me irresistibly to these acts, and to do them everyday, apparently thanklessly.

A professional is a person who has survived the tempests of disappointment, depression and despair, voyaging in the ocean of disillusionments. He is a person who is driven by the very love of the act he earns his bread from. In fact, I would go to the extent of asserting that unless you go through the process of seeing layers of glamour and hopes of greatness being peeled off your profession, you don't even get called a professional in it.