Monday, July 9, 2012

Conditions Apply

This is something which has been on my mind since quite some time and ever since I watched the SJ episode on doctor malpractices [1], I decided on blogging about it.

Most of us today signify a positive picture of the globalised world as we know it. We have utilised the growth of the internet coupled with the encouragement to develop a progressive approach in every sphere of life. We have democratized and personalized anything and everything we could. For example, we have minimised the barriers in accessing information with the internet, the electronic media and personal devices.

However, I feel that while basking in the glory of this information age, we ignore one fundamental disadvantage of such a system: We have started taking ideas/words/actions at face value. We have stopped questioning the authenticity of information sources and the motives of informants just because they come from big certified brands that make information available to us behind a facade of high end technology. To quote Thomas Freidman, from ‘The World is Flat’, on the drawbacks of the internet,
“The Internet is an enormously useful tool for the dissemination of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and plain old untruths; because it combines a huge reach with a patina of technology that makes anything on the Internet somehow more believable. ... The internet is more likely to transmit irrationality than rationality, because irrationality is more emotionally loaded, it requires less knowledge. ...  Young people used to have to take LSD to escape. Now they just go online and download the precise point of view that speaks to all their own biases.”
While the internet opened the gate of access to information, it now has a humungous pile of data of which we don’t know what to trust. While we often fall back onto well-known names for ‘trusted’ information, we never know when we might be betrayed. One of my professors once said when someone quoted Wikipedia, “How can you trust Wikipedia? It is something that anyone can edit.” While this statement seemed nonsensical then, it doesn’t seem so outrageous now because I realised that the biggest strength of Wikipedia and the internet (that anyone can edit it) is also a very big disadvantage.

The drawback mentioned above is not just limited to the internet. Information, by its very nature, can be inaccurate and biased. We, being its recipients ought not to ignore this just because we get the information in a gold wrapping.

Brainless ‘Facebook-will-contribute-a-dollar-for-every-share’ posts apart, this shortcoming takes on importance where our trust means actual money for someone else. I am not just talking of conspiracy theory/scam websites. I am talking of mainstream instances, which come with the glimmer of big official brands and high end expertise to gain our trust:
  • Doctors recommend us to buy a certain brands of medicine or have a certain surgery or go to a certain place for medical tests or second opinion. They tell us where and how to treat our illness.
  • The electronic news media, media websites and blogs on the internet tell us, “This happened and the other thing did not happen. X guy, Y organisation and Z company is doing a very good job and the others are not. These insurance strategies are doing very well and these are not.” 
  • Most high end research is published through peer reviewed journal papers. The reviewing groups decide what good research is and what isn’t. They allow/disallow publishing of papers saying something is excellent (say a healthy food product or a life enhancing medical drug or even a certain stock market strategy) and something else is not.
  • Rating agencies rate and inform us which products (movies, gadgets, medicines, toothbrushes etc.) are good and which aren’t. They tell us which is a good option to spend our money on and which is not. 
  • Millions of advertisements on TV, internet, radio, billboards etc tell us what to buy. They show how ‘years of continual research’ has helped them bring products that are the best for us.
All the above mentioned individuals/organisations are ‘certified’ to give us information we are not qualified enough to understand or that we are unable to obtain personally. I see nothing wrong in that. The problem arises when our trust in their authenticity is misused.

We have a problem if we are made to undergo surgeries we don’t need [1]. We have a problem if the media tells us something happened when it didn’t. A major con is to leak ‘official’ rumours about companies to gain stock value [2]. We have a problem if rating bodies rate products as ‘awesome’ or ‘safe’ when they aren’t. One of the biggest scams in the 2008 financial crisis was on the part of credit rating agencies [3]. We have a problem if journal papers tell us that only XYZ drug is good when there actually are many alternates. We have a problem if advertisements misuse neuromarketing techniques to sell products that aren’t what they seem [4]. Making a huge profit is not a crime, but we have a problem when we end up getting the raw end of the deal.

It all boils down to this: Where there are colossal sums of money to be earned by gaining our confidence, we can never be sure that there are no conflicts of interests involved. Stricter laws asking disclosure of interests in some cases may help. However, while using information, we cannot be certain about the motives of the informant in supplying us with information. Only thing we can do is think twice before trusting anything we come across.

I am not saying that we all should turn paranoid. We cannot survive today without putting some amount of faith on many unknown people. It is human nature to trust. But just like religious faith, we should be aware that this ‘informant’ faith has its disadvantages and can be misused. We should be aware that this informant faith, comes with ‘Conditions  Apply’ written in fine text at the bottom. Just as mutual funds advertisements on the radio gloss over the end part which states, “Mutual fund investments are subject to market risks. Please read the offer document carefully before investing”, most informants gloss over the ‘Conditions Apply’ term while providing us with information. The responsibility lies with us to be cautious about the ‘Conditions Apply’ term.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Hotel IIT

Read the following story of a restaurant and the mentalities of some of its customers.

Take a classy Mexican themed restaurant in a 5-star hotel. The restaurant is a top-notch one and not all can afford to enter it. Not only are the ones who come out of the restaurant after finishing dinner held in awe by the outsiders, but since they are privileged customers and since the restaurant is in its heyday, it also almost always offers a (grand) car waiting to take them away on a very long ride. 

Consider the following groups of people who get into such a restaurant. 

Group 1 
They have come only for the good Mexican food and aren’t bothered too much by the grand car waiting outside. They are epicureans and hence engage in the waiter in a good conversation about Mexican food. They eat, pay the bill and leave satisfied. The waiter bids them a cheerful goodbye as they leave. They even drop in suggestions on improving the quality of the food/service. Some enjoy the car ride though most ditch the car and go to another place in search of more good food. 

Group 2
They have come mainly for the car/social status offered to people walking out after eating at this place. Hence they do not bother too much about what they order. The waiter hints at them to appreciate the subtleties in flavours of the day’s special fajitas. Some of them get interested in discussing good Mexican food and join the Group 1 table. Among the rest, some are also Mexican food aficionados, but they are more interested in the luxurious car waiting outside. Some are interested in Thai food more, but are willing to eat and pay for Mexican nonetheless. 
"Fair enough, I don't care what you do with the food as long as you pay the bill", says the waiter and brings food accordingly. They pay off the bill and bask in glory after walking outside. The waiter bids them a cheerful goodbye as the leave. Some of them, not liking Mexican food, go to Thai restaurants in the future. Some of them end up in a top-notch car like a Lamborghini or a Porsche and acquire high respect in society. Some of them get bored of the car and go to another restaurant to savour more Mexican food later. Some even build their own cars. 

Group 3
After ordering, this group realises that Mexican food does not suit their palate and hence do not eat most of the food. They have enough money, but do not want to pay the total cost and want to pay only about 10% of the bill. However, they still want to exit the restaurant in all elegance. So they try and make flimsy excuses: 
  • We ‘don’t like Mexican food’ or ‘don’t want to eat Mexican food’
  • We ‘like Thai food more’ because it is so much more fulfilling
  • The ambience is bad 
  • We came here just because our parents asked us to
  • We have come only for the car and now that there is already a grand car waiting outside to take us away, there is no motivation left to pay the bill
Now suppose the waiter gets pissed and says:
“I don’t care about what you like or don’t like. I don’t care if the ambience is bad. I don’t care why you are here or what you will do after leaving this place. If you felt Thai food is more awesome, you could have walked out without ordering any Mexican and gone to a Thai restaurant. Or you could have done like some Group 2 Thai food enthusiasts who paid for Mexican nonetheless. I know for sure that efforts have been taken in delivering you quality Mexican food and to must respect those efforts, you must pay for what you have ordered”. 
Then the waiter is considered a ‘painu’ waiter. He is hated by all these Group 3 members. 

And the group 3 guys apparently think that trying to use their ‘persuasion skills’ and striking a bargain with the waiter to pay about 30% of their bill is ethical. Little do they realize that it’s the hotel that is taking the hit if they do so. Little do they realize that if a ‘peace’ waiter agrees for the bargain, he is agreeing only because he is sick of similar attitudes of many before. Little do they realize that if everyone keeps doing what they do, the hotel will shut down someday. 

(By this time you must have realized what I mean by the title. If not, then see the list of comparisons which I have put in the comments)

Moral of the story: 
Whether you take a job or go for an MBA or a PhD, do what you choose to do. I see no problems with doing a career in research, engineering, consulting, finance, IT, football, bollywood or contemporary art after getting an IIT degree. But while you are in IIT, be worthy of your degree.
How does one expect to be worthy of a ‘Master of Technology’ by putting in about 2 month’s work when one is expected a full year’s effort into one's final year project? The way most people excel in courses (cracking the endsem after a niteout) is not the way to excel in research (which I feel requires consistent and directed efforts). Come final year and placements and everyone is highly 'professional' in everything. Then why not be 'professional' about one's degree?
Respect the quality of your degree. If that can’t be done, don’t take what you don’t effing deserve.

I don’t get why the quality of research in final year projects isn’t enforced by the higher command. Quality in courses is enforced by failing people not upto the mark. Why not do the same for final year projects? Agreed, projects are on a one-to-one-basis and cannot be graded relatively as courses. Not that all projects are unworthy (some are pretty good quality), but there is a lot of scope for improvement. Then why not officially set objectives, evaluation criteria, deadlines and have regular appraisals to ensure progress? Or are efficiency and professionalism too much to ask for? 

Update: Many departments have scrapped the Dual Degrees or at least made them optional. I feel making the Dual Degree optional is a very good idea. While the extra degree offers a definite advantage in terms of core jobs, people who are interested can go for a Masters' degree and those who do not want to continue further can get out with a vanilla B. Tech. and a chocolaty job.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Crackus, Maggus and Lukkhas

Recently I attended an interview preparation workshop. The guy there was joking about typical interview questions and how, on being asked "What are your weaknesses?" one shouldn't answer (with a long sorry face) "I am very, very hard-working". Many people laughed at his antics. While I don't care to surmise why others found it funny, this blog-post explains why I found that particular answer bitterly funny. 

From when I was a kid, I remember lessons in school textbooks and from elders glorifying hard-work, efforts and patience. One of my teachers had also coined a nice term for it. She called it "The 3Ds" (standing for dedication, devotion and determination). And saying that someone possessed the 3Ds was a great compliment. 

As I went through college life, somehow I began to see the perceived value of the 3Ds decreasing. Especially here in IIT, I find that cultivation of these 3Ds is often frowned upon and is many times not seen as a virtue. More so if these 3Ds are inclined towards academics.  
We have not yet come to censuring excellence itself. There are some minor cases where the pursuit of academic excellence itself is frowned upon, like the relative grading outlook where toppers are derogated for "increasing the average", but I feel such are just excuses to shirk work. Excellence in any form is still respected here in IIT and we are not yet the dystopian Atlas Shrugged-y society which decried merit and its achievers. People who excel in any field, be it academics or anything else are commended appropriately, whether dedicated or not. Thank goodness for that! 

The problem, thus, is not with excellence. The problem is with dedication. We respect achievements, but not perseverance. This is very clearly indicated in our IIT-lingo terms for the same. We call people with academic commitment a Maggu (someone who mugs and does nothing else i.e. put in lots of monotonous effort). We call achievers Cracku (someone who cracks in everything, without much effort). Why is the term Maggu used as a derogatory term and Cracku used as a complimentary term?

Ordinarily I would have believed that one cannot achieve anything without putting in effort. However, to accomplish a required goal, the amount of time/effort required by different people is so vastly diverse that what would be a solid exertion for one would be just a light effort for someone else. And the ones putting in least effort to attain top goals become the measurement standards and anyone putting more than that amount is disparaged (or is labelled a Maggu in case the field of excellence is academics) 

So here’s why the 3Ds are frowned upon. The elite few set incredibly high standards with minimal effort. And they have lots of time to spare. If you are not among them, then you have two choices: be a Lukkha or a Maggu (or some shade in between)

Category A: (The Lukkha)

Assume that the targets set by the elite are insurmountable and that you are just a commoner. Then give in less than your true potential at your job since you are anyways not going to win the rat race. Keep no goals. Work only when it’s absolutely essential, like the night before the exams. Since you have already inherently accepted defeat, you won’t ever bother to strive for excellence. This way life is easy, no struggles, you have time for all random things on this globe. 

Category B: (The Maggu)

You want to achieve the same goals as set by the elite. So you bring out the 3Ds that you've got. Put in a lot more effort. But the cost of this is that you miss out on other things in life. Whether you achieve your goals or not, you are happy since you have given your 100%. You learn a lot along the way too. You gain the satisfaction and pleasure of getting what you actually deserve. 

It is these category B Maggu people for whom the supposed virtues of the 3Ds become cause of public scorn. If, as a Maggu, you don’t attain your goals, then you are made out to be an idiot who spent lots of time and got no results. This is because of the result oriented society we have. Damn the journey. The destination is what’s important. Like where a single night's worth of effort can get the same grade as an entire semester's worth effort. Knowledge wise the diligent fellow is better off than a single night-er with the same grade, but who cares about knowledge these days? It’s all about results, as the great consulting firms say.

Even if as a category B student, you achieve all the goals you set, you are still derided (mostly by the Lukkhas) as being a loser-Maggu just because you took longer to achieve the goals as per the elite standards. This disdain is because of the entire effort minimization lifestyle that we are a part of. What the finance guys call good leverage (multiply gains with minimal capital). We want something for putting in the least effort. Hence we consider as fools those who put in more efforts than the standard defined by the elite.

Like in business, when a certain goods producing company ABC possessing better abilities, innovation or efficiency is more lucrative than company XYZ who does it in double the time required by company ABC. Most would readily agree how the inefficient company XYZ would obviously be unprofitable. The same reasoning is extended to the category B students. Any sane company owner will hire a Cracku rather than a non-Cracku category B student simply because the Cracku guy gets work done faster.

Hence, coming back to the interview preparation workshop point, I found it pretty ironic that we glorify “working hard” as a virtue and yet we do not appreciate efforts since effort approval has very little place in the results-seeking, cost-minimizing corporate world. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

C for Canada

It has been almost a year since I finished my internship in Canada. I had a magnificent time learning new stuff, exploring new places and interacting with the Canadians. Now that I am feeling pretty nostalgic about my splendid summer in Vancouver, I feel like writing about something from that wondrous interlude which has been in my mind from long. Since I like making ‘in a nutshell’ things out of everything, I am putting forth something which will be the ‘take-home’ thing I learned from the Canadian culture.

Canada begins with a C. So does Courtesy.  And it is the Canadian Courtesy that I feel had the most significant impact on my personality when I interacted with people there. 
“Canadians are more friendly when they are being rude than most people are when they are being friendly.” – I-don’t-know-who
I found that Canadians go out of their way to be polite to strangers. It is not just being courteous to people you know or even foreigners in particular, but to totally arbitrary strangers, irrespective of their milieu. What I call public courtesy. Or what many in India would call plain foolishness.
Some examples of the Canadian public courtesy:
  • People thanking the bus driver when they depart from the bus. When a long queue of people gets down from the bus, one can hear just as long a series of Thank-You’s. Apparently people thank the driver for bringing them safely to their destination.
  • Random people smile at me in lifts and ask “How’s it going, mate?” In fact, at almost every occurrence of two people crossing each other in an isolated place, be it an elevator or a stairway or a hike in the woods, unknown people are bound to exchange smiles/greetings, or at least a polite “Excuse me”
  • People holding the entrance door of a building open for someone who is 20 feet away, and the other guy increasing his pace so that the door-holder is not inconvenienced by his politeness.  And obviously, he/she copiously thanks the door-holder when he reaches.
  • Shopkeepers apologizing profusely when merchandise in their store is out of stock. And more than that, they cheerfully guide you to another competitor store where you would get what you want.
  • People apologizing after asking you to do them the slightest favour, like in a crowded train: “I’m so sorry for disturbing you, but could you please move your bag on the other side so that I can cross the aisle.”
  • In a hotel or a shop, the waiter/salesman first enquiring “Hi, how are you” and then waiting for you to reply after which (s)he proceeds and asks you what you want. In fact, one can easily carry on a small conversation with them without actually coming to what one wants to buy.

To me, all this was a huge surprise. I had seen nothing of the sort in Mumbai, or for that matter, anywhere else I had been to in my life.  I noticed a harsh disparity as compared to the “for me and myself only” attitude of the public I had witnessed before. (Many times I have seen people fighting like kids for just a window seat in a train/bus). 
Contrast this with India: Most people I have seen in public don’t talk/smile much unless required. People are not too bothered with public politeness. It is not as though people are inherently discourteous or impolite.  However, our affection is limited to family/friends/acquaintances and it is not given to chance strangers. A person might be the most convivial person that his acquaintances have known and yet be totally boorish in public. Ironically, our public affection comes forth bursting like a volcano, in times of crisis (like people giving home-made food to arbitrary stranded commuters travelling afoot when the entire city was marooned on 26 July 2005).

While talking about courtesy, it is important to distinguish it from civil sense, which too, sadly, most public in India lack. Civil sense is found in most western countries and it is not specific to Canada.  Not following civil sense amounts to breaking the law in most cases, like jumping traffic signals. Whether one likes it or not, one has to do it, fearing the law. Au contraire, the absence public courtesy doesn’t break any law and it’s a matter of personal choice.

Maybe the impoliteness in India is a by-product of our more-than-busy lives (Obviously one can’t expect the guy at the crowded local train ticket counter to ask commuters “How’s it going, mate?”). Maybe it is a by-product of our living in a society having so many anti-social elements that cause one to breed distrust in strangers. Or maybe it is a by-product of the false ego that surrounds the elite and the genteel which causes people to think it below their status to help not-so-elite-looking strangers.

Whatever be the cause of the lack of public courtesy, I found that it makes one’s life more desolate. This is what I learned from the Canadian culture which has made my life a little bit easier. (Or as we geeks say, I had a delta increase in my happiness). Many of my friends took it to be just a quirk of the culture there, calling it ‘the Canadian way’ of living life. However, as I mentioned before, this public courtesy had a large impact on me. 

People were doing things to make others feel better, with some sort of a causeless, altruistic love, which I couldn’t completely fathom. It made me realize that the very fact that people around you smile at you and keep doing casual favours boosts one’s morale. And the smile is highly contagious. In Canada, I found myself observing how doing small acts of kindness/courtesy created a pleasant mentality. Travelling through any public place showed me how the adage “A smile is a curve that sets a lot of things straight” was so beautifully true. There is indeed some amount of joy to be found in the smaller things in life. And this is the thing I feel we all ought to pick up from the Canadian culture, to which I will be very grateful for making me into a slightly more public-courteous person than I was before.

Disclaimer: Whatever I have written above is from my personal experiences and judgement. I am not implying that all Canadians (or to be more specific, people in Vancouver) are polite in all situations and all Indians are rude everywhere. There are bound to be exceptions.  I am just pointing out the observed effect of a generalised trend on my daily life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Resource Allocation

In this post, I want to mention one of the most fundamental social dilemmas that always bug me. It is such an impasse that even a large amount of thought has not given me much insight (or maybe, I am just a fool when it comes to sociology). So, I present it here, anticipating that someone will help me out. The central predicament is this: In large settings, especially when a large number of people with conflicting interests are involved, how exactly are resources allocated? 

For the purposes of this post, let us assume that I have a split personality. Also let us assume that OP1 and OP2 are my two personalities who have graciously agreed to repeat in conversation form, a typical train of thoughts that rambles in my mind when I come to think of this dilemma.What I present forth is an argument between the two characters, each trying to outdo the other:

OP1: In a democracy, resources are allocated to bring about the welfare of the maximum. For example, the Maharashtra government, in 2005, on being faced with a paucity of electric power, came up with a “load shedding scheme”, which allotted more power to the urban areas, saying that these are the places that have most industries and have the most consumption. This evinces the basic function of a democratic government: to bring about the progress of the majority.

OP2: Is it right to allot more electricity to the urban areas just saying that they consume more? Does this mean that the students in villages don’t need electricity to study, or that the people in villages should have an uncomfortable life just because they live in villages? It is simply not fair in a democracy; we cannot take away the basic necessities of one group of people and give them to another group of people, just on the basis of their location. No-one should be divested of the bare essentials

OP1: But we simply cannot proceed like a “depth first search” wherein we completely satisfy the primary requirements of every needy individual in the country and only then turn towards industrial/urban development. We need to allocate resources to everyone. Once a certain amount of resources have been allocated, then it’s a question of which set of resources gets exhausted first. Resources are always less than the demand, and hence people are bound to stay hungry even after a large amount of resources have been allocated to them. Hence, a mix of both, rural and urban development is what is required. 

OP2: Sure, I am not debating the need for the urban necessities like building roads in cities, but the fact that most urban resource allocations go into luxuries. When villages have more than 12 hour power cuts, is it right to have energy guzzling luxuries like shopping malls or parks? When about 20 million people in our country sleep hungry, is it right to spend billions on the Commonwealth games? With the resources being less than the demand, unfairness is bound to get in, but at least it should be equally unfair for all. People should be ready to give up luxuries for the “greater common good”. I personally would rather live life without a shopping mall and a playground if that money is used for feeding the hungry or generating electricity in the rural areas.  

OP1: The use of luxuries is a delicate issue, and cannot easily be restrained by the government. Shopping malls might guzzle electricity, but urban dwellers are able to pay the engendered humungous electricity bills. People have the right to spend their money the way they want. It is very difficult to convince the urban population to give up on luxuries, to suffer for the “greater common good”. It would be akin to the overriding personal freedom of the people if the government stops supplying electricity to malls when the people desire and are able to pay for shopping malls. Additionally, most necessities, like electricity become such an important part of our lives that we are unable to live without them. Laptops are academic necessities for IITians, but they become luxuries when the same person uses the laptop for leisure. It is very easy for you to just say that you will "live life" without a playground or a shopping mall, but will you really be able to let cut down on your leisure time (like watching sitcoms and social networking) on your computer, if say the electricity saved, would be used in rural locations? Or for that matter, will you really be fine if the local McDonalds or Dominos closed down? 

At this point, the train of thoughts just crashes into a boulder in a dark tunnel and I stop thinking about the topic. The debate will be unending. I keep arguing and counter-arguing in an endless circle. 

The only light at the end of the tunnel I see is this: A frugal, austere Gandhian economy not splurging on luxuries will alleviate the problem. However, this idea will be too idealistic unless the urge to do good to society lies within our minds and is not externally imposed. Thus the social problem becomes a personal problem. It depends on how much one wants to give up for the benefit of others. The luxuries which can be given up should be given up. This will be possible if we have a sense of unity and consideration for the have-nots in our country. This sense could stop one from over overindulging when millions of one's brothers and sisters sleep hungry.

Nevertheless, I have still not got a satisfactory solution to the social problem of allocating resources fairly, one that could be implemented by the management/government. What I have suggested above is just what I feel a personal mindset should be for the greater good. Any possible rejoinders are welcome.

P.S. The “inception” of this debate in my mind can be traced back to my intern days, when some of my friends got into a spirited argument, almost to the point of it becoming an altercation, as to whether IIT should fund non-academic activities (like cultural and sports activities) when the funds could be used for research or for improving the living conditions in hostels etc. That debate also ended in a deadlock, just as this one, as the basic dilemma was the same. That was the discussion that really got me thinking on this entire topic.

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Alma Mater-2

This post is, in a way, a continuation of my previous blog post, wherein I had answered a simple question I had raised to myself : "When you get your degree, what will be the most important precept you have taken back from IIT?”.

I have previously noted my foremost response to that query. However, on retrospection, I have found out that there is one more precept that I ascribe to my Alma Mater teaching me and that I would value all my life. The last lesson was a very bitter one. This one is a pretty sweet one: Its the humility that IIT has imbibed into me, that I will act as a major moulder of my behaviour.

When I was in JEE coaching (std XI), a chemistry professor, Prof. Ravi, an ex-IITian (isn't it funny how this particular credential would make us absolutely venerate the fellow) once said in class:

" When you enter IIT as a freshman, you are on top of the world, having cleared the formidable JEE. However, when you graduate from there, you are a humbled man."

Little did I know then that this minuscule assertion would turn into a colossal lesson later on. I attribute this lesson to my batchmates and my professors.

Let me start with my batch-mates. Whatever I think I do well, I can always find 10 guys doing the same thing 10 times better than I can only dream of doing, be it in academics or extracurrics.

I have seen people with such superior grasping powers that, for them, only an hour's worth of "what's what" is enough for cracking a quiz. (I require at least a full evening for attaining the same clarity in the topic). I have worked with guys possessing such systematized grey cells that an intricate code is written off in 10 mins where my own assiduous efforts would definitely have taken me more than an hour.

Here's another example of my mediocrity: In my first year, I used to think I could swim well, but that was until the NSO trials, wherein I realised that me saying that I am good at swimming is akin to Cacofonix (of Asterix fame) saying "Hey, I am good at singing".

Oh, and there are people who are versatile with all of the above-mentioned "stunts" and who excel in all of them too! All this just goes on to keep me aware of the fact that I am nowhere near perfection. It  performs the Herculean task of keeping an ego subdued.

Take our professors next. Though I am a nine-point-someone, I have no qualms in saying that all I have learned till now is not even the tip of the iceberg, be it for research problems or for industry oriented problems. What we vomit onto our quiz, midsem and endsem papers are just the "basic" basics. And our professors are kind enough to make us aware of this fact in every single viva that they take.

A typical lab viva conversation:

(Night before the viva: I was awake till 2:30 am mugging and wiki-ing on vapour refrigeration systems)

Prof:"So, you have studied vapour refrigeration systems in your theory course last semester?"
Me: "Yes sir"
Prof: " Then lets start with a basic question: what is the typical pressure in your home refrigerator?"
Me (To myself):  "DAMN. With all my theory mugging, how come I didn't even think of this?"
Me (To prof.): "Is it about 100 bar?"
Prof: "HAHAHAHAHA. And you tell me you are a fourth year mechanical engineering student!!"

Jokes apart, let me make it clear that I am not blaspheming our academic system for what it is. The point I am trying to make is that these sort of incidents do not let me get complacent. Whenever I feel that I am excelling, there is always someone around to point out, "You dumb fellow, you haven't done this; you don't know this; how can you even think of reaching excellence?"

This thought is very demotivating in the short run, but is actually very opportunistic in the larger scheme of things.It keeps me maintain my alacrity in gaining more and more knowledge all along. As Steve Jobs would have put it, it keeps me hungry, it keeps me foolish. And, more importantly, it keeps me humbled.

All in all, the ocean of academic/extracurricular knowledge (forgive the use of the bromide) is so vast that even calling myself a single "drop" would amount to a serious exaggeration. And this thought is what has managed to keep me on the ground all throughout these years at IIT. And this is why the sweet lesson of  humility tops the list of the things I love about IIT!

P.S.: Referring to the lab-viva example, it would be a good start-up idea to create a website where typical values of typical parameters  (like the speed of a diesel engine) are mentioned. It is seriously a big pain searching them up since they are mentioned in the most obscure places on the net. I, for one, will be indebted to the guy who makes this sort of website.

P.P.S: For the really interested fellow, the vapour pressure in the home refrigerator is around 1.4 bar :P

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Alma Mater

The day was some Sunday in August, 2010. It was the IITB-Undergraduate convocation.

Even though the charm of my home had prevented me from being in the institute for the convocation, it definitely gave my grey cells something to work on. The fact that many of my senior-friends would now be rarely seen around brought into contemplation the following cliché: “In about less than 2 years, like all good (or bad) things, my life in IIT would end.” I don’t know why it struck me so hard at that moment but strike it did. Somehow, in the pre-intern euphoria in the sixth semester, the fact that half my stay in IIT was over found no place in my “yippee I am going on a handsomely paid holiday (sorry, I meant intern) abroad with a host of my friends” excited mindset.

The thought did not make me sentimental about losing our extraordinary LAN and the awesome hostel and campus life and my friends. It instead raised a simple question. “When you get your degree, what will be the most important precept you have taken back from here?” The lessons I am talking about, are of course, apart from the usual engineering knowledge (which I regret to say, most of us take back in very small amounts). The question though simple, like most simple questions, had a complicated answer. All my thoughts could come up with the following lesson learnt that I value the most.
And mind you, it’s a bitter one: An excellent education need not bring forth an excellent character. This is one lesson that I will bear in mind all my life.
The etymology of education is from the Latin word ‘educere’ or related to the English word ‘educe’, meaning “to bring out or develop something latent or potential”. But how much is our so-called IIT’s crème de la crème education actually bringing out?
  • Engineering/ Problem solving skills: Good enough
  • Extracurricular development: Good enough 
  • Character Development: Almost nil. 

Ask anyone of us ‘educated’ guys about the major cause of problems in India. And the foremost answer one gets in most cases is unhesitant and clear-cut: “The political system and its corrupt supremos”. Yet, we fail to realise that we, though being among the very few that receive ‘good’ education, ourselves are just as crooked. It is very easy to speak of the basic flaw in a political leader’s character that is (supposedly) the root cause of evil in India and yet ignore the same basic flaws in our character. Want proof that most of us erudite ones show major blemishes on moral fibre? What a better place to look than our ‘esteemed’ institute itself?

We blame our leaders of being dishonest. We accuse them of being professionally immoral. But how honest are we ourselves? Our academic integrity is laughable. My friends who aren’t in IIT find it difficult to believe that several IITians cheat in exams, copy assignments, even final year projects without a bother. It’s a matter of ignominy that people are caught cheating in even aptitude tests before placements. Most of us are incorrigible liars when it comes to interviews and resumes. Exaggeration is passé. Now is the age of crafting one-or-two incidents out of our fantasy and narrating them in interviews, showing one to possess ‘industriousness’ or ‘planning skills’ or ‘skills of <a noun form of any verb out of the list of action verbs given in the resume workshop>’ or maybe even ‘honesty’. It is indeed a remorseful condition that kindergarten level moral values like honesty and professional ethics need to be externally enforced in the future Indian citizens.

We indict our leaders of being too ‘political’. Come the Lok Sabha elections and the influence game starts. The educated class will then cringe about the absence of meritocracy and how the elections are a travesty of the Sanskrit word “Raajneeti”. And yet, in our institute/hostel/department elections, the same things are being done all around. Outrageous influence-use by people of common department/ hostel/ wing/ state/ caste/ race/ religion/ gotra via phone-calls or e-mail is rampant. Then are the solemn faced ‘Vote for Mr. A’ guys who hang around in wings/corridors. Sometimes even the election officers are guilty. And then are even worse unspeakably appalling tactics. I hope we have not yet come to contestants handing out money to to-be-voters, but I am sure we will reach that position nonetheless. If such things happen in a general election, what to speak of the tactics in cases where future positions-of-responsibility are allotted on mere decision of the previous position holders?

The Institute student newspaper once ran glaring articles on the modus operandi of the election tactics of some unnamed contestant. Imagine the furore that would have been created if <a prominent Indian newspaper> would have run a full front page on the tactics of <a prominent political party>. All the liberal elitist newspaper fellows would have come up with enough blaspheming editorials to last a whole month. However, when we, the learned future of India, do it, why does it seem like a matter of pride rather than that of shame?

We accuse our leaders of being greedy for money. We blame them of gobbling up resources meant for the nation. Aren’t many of us doing the same when entrusted with responsibility? Aren’t hostel funds and festival budgets many times conveniently tweaked to sponsor lavish treats for a few select ‘elites’? And some even justify these treats under the pretext of motivation/ encouragement. If that’s the case, then some sorry day will see professors giving such treats to students as incentive to study for the exams! Does one require such ‘encouragement’ to do one’s primary duty?
If such is the condition in one of the highest held technical institutes in India, then what right do we have to blame our political leaders for not possessing moral fiber?
We, with all our ‘education’, have the same pitfalls in character as those without it. Then what does that leave us with? The difference is the step between being just ‘educated’ and being ‘well educated’.

Just knowing how to solve a few equations or for that matter knowing how to organise large events doesn’t make one well educated. Going to the earlier definition of education again, our great ‘IITian’ education fails miserably in forming out a great character.
It is the duty of education to develop the character of man. Our ‘professional’ system of education has led us to separate our personal lives and our professional lives. Our system demands that teachers teach only what they are paid for and not anything else. I regret to say that since my school days, not a single teacher of mine has ever shown any orientation to inculcate moral values within me. The choice of ethics is left to oneself. And most don’t think too much before making this choice.
Solve problems and manage large events we might, but we must realise that it will only help in the development of our country when we possess a positively unsurpassed character alongside. Or else we end up being money-sucking corporate honchos with just as frayed moral fiber as those of political leaders, whose decadence we so heartily detest.