Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Since morning today, two discussions have happened. I came to know a few things which I will remember for my life. More than that, I got to think of thoughts I wouldn't have bothered about otherwise.

I am not much into hyperboles when I am talking about something I feel passionate about. But I just want you to know how passionate I feel about discussions. Discussions about anything. As long as they are sincere, come from your heart, and are constituted of sentences and passages that have gone through some degree of refinement.

I am not going to write a long essay here. People who know me, and have met me for anytime, know well about my love for discussions. Sometimes, it's a matter of fun to my dear ones. But all in all, I am sure they all understand well that it's not my way of killing time, socialising, or pampering my laziness; it's one of my life's greatest passions.

Discussions turn into speaches, lectures, discourse, essays and books. But above all, a well conducted discussion shapes thoughts, cleans the mind of clutter. It often touches lives.

Probably, I will write a lot more about discussions in future, in disparate pieces maybe.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

House Shifting Blues

We shifted our house this weekend. And like any other experience, I have all the wisdom now that I would have needed then. Well, it may be useful the next time I make a shift. But for now, let me jot them down. I hope that someone planning a shift will have a look at it and will have something to gain.

Packers and Movers

For one, don't hire shady packers and movers. We hired someone called T.T. Transport in R. T. Nagar. They charged us a modest Rs. 2500/-, which was cheap I hear. But in return, we got an aweful service. Four starving drunkards who evoked no confidence in their strength or integrity arrived late on Saturday morning. They didn't understand our language. They didn't have the necessary patience to listen to our directions (which gradually turned into desperate pleadings). Everytime they would say, 'tension nakko. damage kya bhi nahi hota saab!' (means 'Don't worry, there won't be any damage, sir!' in a wierd sort of a way). They didn't have the necessary skill or tools to move things without damaging them. They broke an expensive cot, our washing machine. And created dents in our almirah. As far as now, we haven't discovered any thefts. So, I can't raise any warnings in that track.

Packing and moving is an integral part of the shifting. And one can't take it lightly. Spend money. Don't settle for shoddy service. Take feedback from your friends and hire only those of whom you hear words of appreciation from past customers. Even after all this, take precaution to prevent them from damaging your belongings. For instance, we now realise that we should have called the Godrej guys to get the cot dismantled properly. It would have costed us some money. But damages to expensive belongings leaves scars on your heart that ache each time you see those damages (because they are not always completely repairable).

Knowing the Destination

If possible, visit the destination house many times over. Learn about it intimately. Here's a checklist


This will be needed to determine which major furniture goes where. And it will be critical in many of innumerable decisions to be taken post-shifting.

Storage places

Just as you need to find out where the big things go, similarly, you must find out where the small ones go. Do it in chunks by knowing where and how much you have got space to stuff things. Create a map between the source and destination storage units. Pack things in accordance to those.

Condition of all the accessories

Check if all taps give out water; and check if all drains are functional.

plug-points, geysers, fans, lights, switches. All the doors. See if the bolts and locks and keys are in place.

Try figuring out where you are going to place your electrical appliances. Find out if there are plug-points within acceptable distance. Find out if the plug-points have current ratings necessary to drive the appliances you are planning to connect to it. Similarly for TV and phone which require connection lines to pulled to them, give a thought as to how you will do that. For instance, if the cable TV output is given on one wall, and you have decided to place your TV on the opposite wall, it will mean that a long wire has to be pulled across the room. Similarly, if you have decided to place your landline phone at a point, figure out where the telephone wires come from and how you are going make them reach that point.

Packing, Labelling, Tagging
Each unit of storage should be stuffed into one single unit of moving. This means that articles belonging to one cupboard should go into one carton.
Fragile items should be tagged appropriately.
Get plenty of cartons: We are a family of two adults and an infant. We have made a shift from a two bedroom house to another of similar measurements. We used close to 30 cartons to pack our stuff.


Friday, December 11, 2009

The Tangle of Network Marketing

A week ago, a lady named Ms. M who had met my wife at the Bangalore Book Festival recently, and had got her number there, visited us at our home. This was because she had been eversince calling my wife repeatedly asking for an appointment, and Shilpi had to give in.

Ms. M is a lady in her early 40s, of Sindhi origin, with an immaculate English and a pleasant getup as us. And she was there to tell us about a wonderful new thing called Educational Technology that had a potential of turning our 10 month old son into a 13 years...with a payment of about Rs. 135,000, made over a period of some years through EMIs. She had stories about there being 1000 trillion or so nerve connections in Vigyan's brain. Those would drop to 500 trillion by the time he is 8 year old. We were supposed to interpret it as the death of half his brain. Next, we were supposed to make haste to pound as much learning as possible before this calamity happened. That was possible only by buying Educational Technologies which is a result of 15 years of research. We were supposed to make special haste in deciding that we would make haste. In fact, we had just a few hours' time (till the next morning) to avail some out-of-the-world concessions on their products. In short, we were being asked to commit more than a lakh rupees within a few hours on a technology which claims to be a revolution in child development.

During our discussion Ms. M showed perfect confidence that we all have studied only by cramming and not understanding, that my being in IT was an accident which should have been avoided at all costs. Blunders upon blunder she made during those 2 hours of our interaction. She had some interesting things to say. But unfortunately, the zest and faith she exuded appeared rather fake. Her knowledge of the great things about Educational Technology was ridden with those same holes she claimed Educational Technology wouldn't let come in my child's development.

Towards the latter part of the discussion, Ms. M offered Shilpi if she would be interested in joining her in expanding the network of Educational Technology. That revealed the fact that all this was network marketing happening.

I have nothing to say about the authenticity of the claims made by Educational Technology, or about the products sold by companies using network marketing. All I have to say is about the fake confidence of the marketeers selling miraculous products like educational kits, toiletries, coin collections and what not, on the effectiveness of the economic model of network marketing.

A short tutorial ridiculing the inefficiency of the current economic model of the world, and how network marketing has the power to completely change that is the first step in the induction of a large number of people into the tangle of network marketing. What lacks in their induction is the sincere rigour that ought be there in anything that claims to be radical enough to change the world.

The economic world is like this not for no reason. Its inefficiencies are a cost for the credibility that people must earn before they sell a product. If it had been practical for every person on the street with a good idea to sell -- whether original or borrowed -- it would have been useless to pay people like Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bacchan amounts like Rs. 25 crores for featuring in stupid advertisements of toilet products. It wouldn't have been necessary to build institutes like MIT and Stanford when all knowledge is available at dirt cheap rates. It wouldn't have been required to look at the publisher's and author's name before we read a book, when there's so much text available on the web that we could spend our lives in reading that. The act of doing something is not always just about having the wherewithalls to do it; it's also about earning the credibility to sell something.

I feel that's the greatest flaw in the model of network marketing. It undermines the inherent cost associated with brand-building. The idea of listening to pep-talks from half-wits who parrot memorised speeches about the wonders that network marketing can do to a person's wealth just doesn't scale. When everyone's willing to give a pep-talk, we have to have a way of telling who should be heard. The process of filtration of that noise is the process of brand-building. That's where all the inefficiency of the traditional economy comes from.

I have close relatives and friends falling into the trap of network marketing. Before they did fall, they used to be good happy people with something better to do with their lives than running behind the lure of easy money. Network marketing has an amazing ability to convince people that money is the central goal of all serious activities, and hence it makes sense to get into an unending cycle of selling-buying-earning. Some of those dear ones got disillusioned rather early; some late; and some continue to struggle. Only a very small minority of network marketers have earned themselves that credibility that made them rich. That small ration is surprisingly close to the ratio of success in the traditional economy ridiculing which usually is the opening statement of a network marketing speech!

Please be careful!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More Advices to a Youngster

Tapas Mukherjee, one of my nephews, is doing his BSc in Microbiology. He was recently at our place for some training at IISc. Among many things, he wished to hear me out on my thoughts about individual development. I shared some thoughts with him during one of our chats, and later scribed it down in the form of an email. I now feel it's apt to find a place in my blog. Here we go (the reason why some of my statements appear in past-tense is because the mail was written as a recap of the a discussion which had happened recently):

Algorithm, Computer Science
I suggested that it's a good idea for you to be acquainted with basic computing. One thing is that in your work you may have to use computers more and more. But the prime reason is that if you happen to work on structural biology, or on genomics etc., you may even have to do rudimentary programming. It would help to be conversant with programming methods, a couple of programming languages like C, Perl and Java. Then your dependence on computer specialists would be minimised. Finally, algorithmic way of thinking augments logical thinking which is in general a researcher's best friend.

Basic Methods of Problem Solving
In order to be able to make quick switch between subjects -- which everyone will have to do more and more in his career in the coming times -- one must be able to promptly get to the core issues of things. My assertion was that there are a few basic tenets or characteristics of problems that are shared by pretty much all problems that we solve. And the fundamental tools to solve such problems are also few in number. We should be able to grasp these basic characteristics and methods. What are those basic characteristics? It's not easy for me to tell you. I am just on my way to prepare a list of my own. For example, one problem that recurrently appears in the world of computing is 'inconsistency'. It appears in so many various avatars. But there's a way to model them all as instances of inconsistency. In programming the solution to this problem comes as modularity and re-use. Right now, I have been able to work out a handful of such fundamentals for my field. I have reasons to believe that there are fundamentals which apply across fields. All this mayn't make immediate sense to you since they are specific to my field. Your field may have its own list of fundamental problems and their solutions. Be on a look out for them.

A very simple interpretation of the above paragraph is: keep your fundamentals clear.

Importance of Literature Review
You had asked how a researcher ever finds out whether what he has come up with is novel or not. My answer to that was that you must spend a majority of your efforts in reading the literature in your area so that you have a feel of the cutting edge. It also depends a lot on your experience to find out roughly if a given problem has likely been solved or not. However, at the end of the day, it boils down to finding it out from the community. You share your work within circles of progressively increasing radii. Eventually, you share it with the open community in the form of a paper. If no one comes out with a feedback that the exact idea has already been published somewhere else, the paper gets published. It's then that it's novelty is an accepted fact, not through a formal proof, but by the consensus amongst the experts of the area.

Therefore, you must know that as you grow as an expert, you also become partly a keeper of the forefront of the knowledge in that area. When a paper comes to you for review, it's a great responsibility because a wrong decision on your part may lead to a good idea not coming out into the open, or the credit of an idea being misappropriated by a wrong person. Both these things are unacceptable.

Hence, both as a producer and as a reviewer of scholarly work, the importance of literature review can't be over-stated.

Knowing the Important Players in the Research Field
Unlike traditionally believed in our country, research is no more a lonely act to be performed in solitude. Now, the process of proving your credibility gradually makes you an accepted member of a community. Unless you belong to a community, you run little chance to be believed for your ideas easily. Hence, socialising is very important. Knowing the right people, starting from those who are the most important people, not only makes you aware of the hierarchy of the work, but the power structure that is inherent in a scholarly community. It also helps you determine where you belong in this community.

Therefore, find out the greatest guys in your area. Your search for information may end you anywhere, but it'll pretty much always start on the webpages of these big guys.

Role of Guide
The guide's role is central in defining the quality of the PhD thesis, sometimes even your career as a researcher. When you start your PhD, he will guide you out of your immaturity. He will criticise you when you are being too naive, and will reassure you when your confidence takes a nose-dive. He will give your the action points to work on as you gradually learn to walk around in the intellectual space you are out to master. The guide's importance is infinite in the beginning. By the end of the PhD, it should be your joint goal to reduce his role to a name in your acknowledgement, which means, that at the end of your PhD you should have learned to define and formulate your problem and work out a solution to it without anyone's guidance. Till then, guide teaches you to do that.

Be careful in choosing your PhD supervisor.

How to find out if your work is new
Please see 'Importance of Literature Review.'

Interacting with Others
This is where I have plenty to tell you, worth a separate mail. But anyway...

First thing to learn is to respect others. Always remember, people you interact with everyday are pretty much as intelligent as you are, if not more. Your body language and speech should express that respect in plenty. Show eagerness to listen. Don't be too eager to present your point of view in everything and anything, particularly when it doesn't bring value to the discussion. Giving uninformed opinions on things often doesn't give an impression of your being an all-knower. Among intelligent people, such people end up being shunned as incessant blabberers, bores. It's a good habit to weigh one's words when saying it. Always, before saying anything, give a moment of thought on 'Is it going to make this discussion a more fruitful one; or is it just aimed to increase my share in the discussion, even though with garbage.' Don't spew garbage. Maintain your dignity.

On the other hand, those who carefully listen to others end up imbibing enormous amount of information and knowledge. So, listen. Listen carefully. Even passively. Which means that while you internalise the information being given by a speaker, do it without colouring it with your own interpretation, with daydreamings, with ulterior thoughts. It's easier said than done. It requires a lot of discipline to become a good listener. Frankly, I myself continue to struggle.

While discussing, if you have a choice, always try to keep the focus on the other person and his work. Ask more questions. Exude interest and curiosity. Make the other person amply aware how fascinating you find their field and their ideas. It will encourage them to reveal more and share more. It's not with a cunning intention that you do so. It's to make the discussion valuable to all parties involved. If required, speak about your thought frankly, with a balance of pride and modesty. But always be factual. Always try to make it valuable to your listener. It hardly helps to brag. It hardly helps to speak more than you know. It hardly helps to keep blabbing endlessly about things your listener doesn't want to hear.

Given that, you should always try to find out the commonalities between your field and the other person's. Remember the thing about fundamentals? There are fundamentals common to any two areas, however disconnected on the surface. A discussion which at least indirectly reveals a set of commonalities between you and his interests is more than just fruitful. It's fabulous.

One Page Presentation of Your Idea
In various scenarios, this one page could be called an abstract, an introduction, a synopsis, a summary etc.

A general sequence of coverage is the following:
- Introduction to the problem
- Existing work to solve the problems
- Gaps
- Your work and explanation as to how it fills the gap
- Your reason to believe that your work indeed fulfils the promise, presented via proofs or experimental results.

You will learn with time that the above is just a guideline. You have to make a structure of your own. Remember, through your introduction, you must evoke interest in your audience to look deeper into your work. Always imagine that the audience is asking you: 'Why should I listen to you? Why should I believe you?' Your introduction should answer those questions somehow.

At this stage, I can't speak more on this topic. But with time, we will get plenty of opportunities to revisit it.

Related Post:
Advice to a Youngster