Friday, July 29, 2005

Communication: Physical and beyond

I'm sitting in front of my PC now - talking with my mother on the couch behind me. Chatting with my friend 300 kilometres away through the internet. Looking at my sister's face from halfway around the world. I feel a closeness as if we were all at the same place. How is this possible? Man's hunger for socializing and some people who chose to do something to sate the hunger.

What would life be like if all this didn't exist? What if it took two weeks to exchange pleasantries? Though this sounds like a situation from a typical doomsday movie, it isn't so outlandish. Matter of fact, my parents lived like that. Even I did, until a certain age (an age at which I didn't talk to anyone anyway, so didn't make a difference. My sister was within punching distance, though).

Amma (mother, in Tamil) speaks fondly of the letters she wrote. I have a whole collection of letters from my sis (another one). Reading those letters always feels like a dose of Nostalgin (that's a drug for producing instant nostalgia).

All fine for halcyon remembrances. But what about crunch situations? Kishore's met with an accident. Come as soon as you can. Yeah. Fat lot of good that would do three days later when it finally reaches the guy. The alternatives: Telegrams - Accident. Come immediately (what in the world does that mean? Are you inviting the guy to have an accident?); Trunk Calls: Call operator. Give him the number and city. Stare at the phone and bite until you have no nails left. Finally, your phone is connected and you have to scream at 50 dB to get through (telegram's much better. atleast the sender stays out of hospital).

Why would I say all this? Because this span of time always comes up - when Amma talks about my elder brother (amma's nephew, but only for details' sake). My mother has fed me bits of information about him - How she loved him dearly and vice versa. He had her all to himself until my sister was born. How he became jealous of all the attention the baby got (quite natural for a five-year old). How he always impressed everyone with his acuity. How he could identify unlabelled cassettes. How he loved his lily plant.

Why am I learning all this from Amma? Can't my brother tell me? No, he can't. Because Achalesh Srikanth is no longer here. I'll never learn how to identify unlabelled cassettes. I'm talking about something as banal as communication in my picture of my brother for a very important reason - no quite so banal.

We Indians are quite spiritual - we are always looking for "signs" to show us the existence of a higher power (atleast, I always look). We end up being more right than wrong. About six months before I was born, Amma was in Bombay, three states away from her nephew in Madras, sleeping soundly when she had the strangest dream: It was Achalesh saying "Naan Achal vandhirukken, Chitti" (It is me Achal. I have come). Why would he say that?

A day later, she got a trunk call from Madras that her nephew had been hospitalized. Soon after, he passed away. While the physical communication took such a long time, the metaphysical one reached her much in advance. She thought about her dream a lot after that. According to our shastras, a soul usually spends around 5 months in limbo before being reborn as someone else. And I was born 4 months after that. Was the dream a sign? Am I me? Or the brother I almost had?

I believe such signs are there to guide us in our lives. We shouldn't be so arrogant as to ignore them. Not all the stuff in this world need proving. Maybe, the proof is beyond us. We should start taking more notice of the metaphysical - which is the fastest means of communication; and always will be.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Baby talk. Or is it?

What is it with toddlers these days? The maturity and learning rate of today's babies is simply mind-boggling. A movie called Look Who's Talking (one of my favourites) which tries to look at this world from a baby's point of view. There may be more to that movie than just a good laugh. You maybe hearing voices from your womb before you know it. Parents today try to prepare their kids in advance to face the cutthroat competition everywhere.

But is their any limit to this advancement?
Three and Four year old children do math faster than me - apparently they go for 'abacus' classes on all weekends. So that's how they spend their schooldays.

So what about holidays?
Wake up, play, watch TV, eat, play, play, sleep, right? In your dreams. What would happen to the child's 'edge' he/she wasted so much time? No Sirree! Go for intensive coaching classes. A public speaking course, maybe? After all, the child needs confidence while saying "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep" in front of his/her classmates.

So this leads us to the chicken and egg question: Is this early development because of competition or is the competition because of the development? Whatever it is, one thing's sure. The wonderful, carefree childhood is under serious peril. You could return home one evening and find the house empty. Why? Extra classes after school for your kid. You could end up yearning for time with your kid instead of vice-versa. Is it really worth it? Consider a situation ten years on.

Mom: Hey Sanjeev, wait up.

Sanjeev: What Mom? I'm late for my IIT coaching classes.

Mom: Sanjeev, what do you remember about your childhood (expects a teary smile, maybe and a hug, and sweet reminiscences)?

Sanjeev: Huh, let me think.

(thinking) 'play' school - check
abacus - check
kindergarten - check
weekend abacus - check
middle school - check
(hmm, all smooth until now)
high school - (under the top 10 a few times, but nothing serious) check
pre-IIT coaching - (scraped through) check(hesitant)
higher secondary - (Shd get centum, or else...) still trying
IIT coaching - (lots of single digit scores) (a doubful case)

I'm sorry Mom, I tried to remember, but apart from the 75% in Maths in my seventh standard, I was more or less near the top ten...

Mom:(struck speechless, mouth open)

Sanjeev: Oops, I'm late for my class Mom. Don't wait up. I'll be late.

This could be you in ten years time. Don't deny the child his/her childhood. You'll be the loser later.

Now, moving away from that rather grim situation, some possible newspaper headlines in the future.

Jan 10, 2070

Retirement age for Microsoft fixed at 35

In a recent development, Microsoft CEO Ramanathan Venkataraman (age 15, MCSD, MCSE, MCSA) said that due to extensive protests by labour unions, Microsoft would enforce retirement at age 35 with immediate effect. This is being done in accordance with the demands of the union for fresh minds and greater efficiency.

April 20, 2071

Joseph "Yo Man" Mason is youngest Grammy winner

This year's Grammies was a ceremony with a difference. It marked the first time where an artist won the award while still in his mother's womb. Rapper "Yo Man" Mason (age - second trimester) said that the fights between his father and mother were the major inspirations for his lyrics. This also represented the first time a Belly Fone(TM) was used. This microphone, which is actually a microwave beam directed at the belly is a prototype designed by Sony for the benefit of pre-natal babies. "Yo Man" Mason urged Sony to develop a similar hearing device for his kind since the sounds from the outside world sounded muffled from inside. All his records carry an "Under 18" label.

February 10, 2080

Historical "Self-Delivery" at Charaka Hospital

After teenage CEOs and Grammy winning pre-natals, we have a doctor who delivered himself. Shabesh Mishra (age 2 days) is the son of Dr. Dilip Mishra and Dr. Ananya Mishra, who is a paediatrician. Shabesh's parents used to discuss regularly about topics related to childbirth. Ananya, nearing her full term went to the hospital for her daily rounds when she started experiencing contractions. She was in her pre-dawn shift. Shabesh, who was in the middle of his morning workout, realized that he didn't have enough time to finish his somersault before he started coming out. So realizing that a C-section had to be done since he was caught upside down, he asked his mother to swallow a surgical grade precision lucas light saber.

He said that he had used the pioneering "inside-out" technique which is still being researched. After coming out, he finished the "inside-out" safely. Shabesh said that his workouts enabled him to wriggle out quickly and safely. Mother and son are hale and healthy.


Think I'm nuts? We'll see...

Friday, May 13, 2005

The phoenix from the dust - a tale of two dots (Grad School - Part 4)

This blog is in sequence, so please start reading from the bottom of the page. Thank you.

As I recover from the flashback with no item songs :(, I find that I have done no cleaning at all, with my sis sifting through the pile. She has reached the bottom and hands me two sheets of paper.

I find that its an article by another dot in the Gaussian curve, only two years older. One dot instantly empathizes with the other wanting to share the dot account with you.

-Italics spoken by the older dot-

Kindly call me God

In all our lives, of what humble little we've lived of it, there comes a time when we must be honest with ourselves, listen to our conscience, as some wise men might say, and to be objective of our achievements (or the lack of them). Like most stories of consequence, it all started in the rainy season when the cloud seemed to dull all hope over the horizon and when most of us sat down to write an SOP, the facts of life are all painfully clear - you're still only as good as you were yesterday, and maybe you were great until the day you were born...

Let's call them the Honest Few, more for what they aspired to be than what they were. Well, I'll be the last to say honesty gets you an edge when you're apping. You can call me 2080, for that would truly represent my score in an exam that mattered then
(note-then). Amongst my comrades in the Honest Few were Barrel and Sage, more for appearance than any relevance to character.

Fall 2002

Come October, all of us were busy 'proffing'. Now, proffing in its extreme sense involved getting a few professors in the university to know your name, and wondering if a student of your academic credentials might be the next star of his research group. An honest appeal on our part ranged from potentially pathbreaking ideas in applied physics, to having wondered about gravity at a very young age, to aspiring for a Nobel/Fields Medal a few years down the line. Note the word 'potential' (There is such a thing as modesty, folks!!).

And then the profs replied with a variety of reasons all of which did not do our chances of an admit with an RA and tuition waiver any good...

The Barrel stormed into my room one hot afternoon. After the objects in my room settled down to his entry, he spoke: "What the heck? He is going on a fishing trip indefinitely!! Hope his rod never hooks bait again...". Apparently, the prof had given the barrel an invitation not to bother him again.

That night, just as I was about to turn off the lights and smoke a much-favored Gold Flake in solitude, the Sage entered. "Life seems to revolve around the irrelevant. This guy claims he's retiring next week", he said.

Meanwhile, our SOPs were slowly but steadily heading nowhere. In the mess, where all talks of life's happenings occur, the Barrel asked us in confidence, "Comrades, why not SOPs from the internet?". "Most noble suggestion!", said the Sage. "2080, chalo cyber cafe!". "But same SOP, three chaps, same college, same department => bump, macchan!", I protested.

The Barrel, tired of terrorizing the mess workers, spoke, "Hey Ram! No wonder you are EEE! Let's app to different places! If I read motors/generators anymore I'll go crazy!!". As the light dawned on me, the Sage dropped his post-dinner pearl of wisdom: "Let's cross bridges when we come to them...".

But alas, most searches with noble aims are wasted journeys. By now, my SOP was two sides of a blank paper and my heart was heavier than a photocopier. There are occasions when time comes to a standstill, when every moment becomes an epoch. But for some obscure reason, beyond the reach of my limited faculties, this was not one of them! Day chased night, and week chased week with ungraceful vigour, as October flew by and November entered my already crowded life. The Sage and the Barrel had gone underground, just vanished, like a guerilla army that retreats into the jungle just to chill out and then comes back to shed blood with renewed zeal. My proffing had yielded, even by the most benevolent yardstick, marginal gains. I was genuinely sorry for all those learned men at the univs I was apping to, on whom I intended inflicting my company.

Then, one bright morning, as the world was moving on its own business, as a technical festival was grabbing me by the neck and strangling me slowly, the Sage came up to me and said, "Boss, SOP over!". Even as he walked away towards the bank we had on campus, I was seeing an entire arsenal of thermonuclear weapons exploding around me, a sudden flashing light that left everything else dark, and that light wasn't coming from me! In short, I was shaken, not stirred. Rumors were rife that the Barrel was onto something big. That night, I sought an appointment with the Sage.

In his abode, sitting with two sheets of paper containing the details of such a man I never knew could exist, I realized that the Sage was truly done with his SOP. After this sordid encounter, I knew that the time had come for me to lay aside all notions of modesty and truth. It was SOP time, people! They say life begins at 30. I say it is better at 60 and after 90 things are nicer than ever! After a quarter, you are not yourself of course! It was in this advanced state of awareness that I started on my SOP. The next morning, going through it, I realized that there was nothing like smirnoff to get cracking on an SOP...

December brought its own events. It saw us eager to finish the year and see the next one if it would be any different from the ones we've lived before. Yes, such is hope!! The Barrel had started making his bi-weekly trips to the post office. Each visit to that establishment meant apps for three univs were on their way to the USA. And a pious prayer at a temple after every such trip. And so did the Sage and so, following their footsteps, did I. But then, I put in a little extra that I didn't tell the rest about: a visit to the venugopal temple praying that some dope did not lose my app packet, or that my app wasn't mistaken for junk mail and fed to a shredder by some overworked admissions officer...

The New Year dawned, actually crept in over me, since the last I remembered of the previous year were the lights and sights of Downtown, the local watering hole. But I'm digressing! As I was saying, the New Year dawned and we were through with the apping and now, a bi-weekly temple visit was about all we could do.

March-April 2003

Come April, temperatures soared, as did our blood pressures. No news of admits, the odd bump friends received, but on our front, nothing. Yet, one hot afternoon, the Barrel stormed in, puffing like a steam engine on an incline. He rested his comfortable posterior on my chair and looked into the wall with an empty gaze. All he said was, "Bump from SUNY-B! And I thought it was a safe...". The Sage met with a similar fate a couple of days later from USF, which he shrugged off with his usual I-knew-about-this-all-along-but-chose-to-do-nothing expression. By now, I was, well, really scared to say the least. Like a hunter's gun-bearer who's in on the shoot for a lark and suddenly finds his master consumed and digested by a tiger, like a lion tamer seeing his lion salivate every time he entered the ring. Plainly put in college vocab, I was psyched shitless! And in a few days, I got bumped from a place that thanked me for having considered them blah blah blah...

But then to every night comes a dawn. Even to that seemingly endless night, there came a dawn. The Sage scored the first hit: "RPI admit, macchan!", he announced in the mess. The Barrel was observed performing a jig in the corridor and when I went to see the spectacle, he shouted, "VTech admit! Oooh yeaah!!". And so the decisions started coming in, gradually, but each as exciting as the previous one. Finally, when the lot had come through, the Sage had five admits, the Barrel and I had four each.

Over a quiet drink, when the Barrel was, for some strange reason, quiet, I popped the question: "People, if you were to write your SOP in one sentence, what would you say?"

The Sage considered my question and its implications. He seemed to take it in, savour the taste it left behind and then spoke these words: "KCMG". I was by now well past and didn't bother asking who or what KCMG was.

The Barrel did the honours though; "What the f*** is KCMG?!!"

The Sage replied, "Kindly Call Me God...". The Barrel, who'd managed to inverse bump a couple of univs., let out a sudden low frequency sound of indeterminate origin. We looked to him to have his SOP summary.

He said, "Aaah! Sage, tu to modesty nikla! No wonder you got bumped on the house. Mereko dekh, I've inverse bumped two and I've got an RA lined up at the place I'm headed to. If thats not studgiri..."

"So what does your SOP say?", I enquired.

"GCMG...", the Barrel said.

This abbreviation business was getting out of hand! "And what the hell is GCMG?!!", the Sage demanded.

The Barrel gave us his patient lop-sided smile, and a most forgiving expression before saying, "God Calls Me God...".

Thats when I passed out...



Admit: letter of admission
Apping: applying to a university
Bump: A regret letter from a univ giving you a reason for not being admitted
Inverse Bump: A rare phenomenon where the applicant rejects a univ because he's got a better offer on hand
SOP: Statement of Purpose
Univ: University
Machan: A term that used to mean brother-in-law but now used by pretty much every college student

that's where the older dot merges along with the newer dot into the curve...

Forwarding the Cause of Gauss... (Grad School - Part 3)

Come January, the moment (or rather, months) of truth. Wooly is the data miner feeding me regularly on admits given to people from every corner of India. We join the group on Yahoo which has a whole bunch of people like us, hoping to learn something.

But it only serves to prove what I was talking about - the random process. We have endless hours of rantings on the phone and on the net - hey, that guy had 1200 and got into that school which bumped me; how the hell did the guy with 65% make that school? and on and on...

A very sobering experience until we become third persons - we start to throw facts in our sleep, I become another statistic in my factfile. People who want to overcome short tempers can try this once - you'll become too tired to shout after a point.

My theory of the ideal random process picks up more and more followers. Wooly has a small correction to make - he says it is pseudo-random since he is always on the wrong side of the mean.

After a lot of effort, showing-off and a looot of money, I find that I have only served as a small dot in the Gaussian curve - hey this could be a pathbreaking project! (and the process goes on)...

The fall before the fall (Grad School - Part 2)

Now that my wordy worries were over, the next thing was school hunting and apping - around November. Enough to start off the next string of discussions - 'safe' apps, 'dream' apps, 'mid' apps. The million dollar question was when to apply - should I finish off my apps first and worry later; or should I muster up some 'pathbreaking' project so that my app doesn't become cow fodder (or shredder fodder, as is the latest fad)?

Wooly finished his apps about two months before me and was living his life while I was running from shop to shop searching for the cheapest print cursing all those schools who colored their forms in pschyedelic hues. The college chose to conduct its exams at this precise moment (of course, what's more important than my application?) which I managed to get through with some usual pinch preparation (similar to pinch hitting, if u follow cricket).

Now we were all waiting, debating on 'rolling' apps, 'deadline' apps etc., trying to 'get into' the minds of the graduate secretaries in the USA.

Some apping jargon:

Apping: Applying
Safe: Schools you think you are too good for
Dream: Schools where your apps are cow fodder, whatever you do
Mid: Schools which you think are good with a good chance of vice versa
Rolling: Schools which evaluate (supposedly) apps as they come in
Deadline: Schools which start evaluating only after the deadline is up (though the existence of such schools is seriously doubted)

Pride comes before the fall (fall 2005, i.e.) (Grad School - Part 1)

One of the perennial paradigms of mankind (read electrical engineer) has been the hunt for the ideal random process. I guess I hit pretty close to the mark with this one - ADMITS!

Now as I laze in the summer heat with a pile of rejects, I can hear my mom asking me for about the googolth time to clean my room. I get down to the task (way to go, mom), albeit with a lot of help from my sis. From the bottom of the pile comes a dust-laden Barron's followed by some arcane 'special' word-lists containing words no one in their right mind would use. My eyes get misty and my nose starts running (wait a minute - nostalgia doesn't cause running noses; must be my dust allergy).

Oh those days - caring about nothing else but words; when dropping new words was a fashion statement - reading (supposedly) through Robert Ludlum's terrifying forewords just to catch my friend (lets call him wooly) unawares with that one beast of a word - laughing at my CAT friends who had to figure out somethin like this: X always sits next to Y, T doesn't like Y's dress, Z sits 2 seats from Y, X goes to the same school as T. So who is the king of Puzzlona?

Scorning the GRE math, going around like I was the brother of a certain Willy Shakes... All this showing-off until me and wooly finished within 10 points of each other and 50 points off the magic 1600. We were crowned official wordsmiths of our college with everyone asking us which school we would pick from the top 10...