Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Dream Sleep

Diary entry: Sunday, Jan 27th 2013

Have you ever been so tired that you were dreaming that you were sleeping? I am still a little disoriented. You'd be too if you were jolted up from 2 sleeps. I am still not sure if I am up or in another dream.

We were returning home from a family trip. Dad was driving my Galant. I was tired, half asleep in the back seat.I vaguely remember my dad pulling into a driveway and parking on a grass field. My dad took his luggage from the trunk, walked up a flight of stairs, unlocked the door and walked in. A few lights turned on and my attention was back around me inside the car. Mom had now got hold of the wheel and my brother had jumped into the passenger seat before I could even respond; not sure where we were going. I didn't care. I just wanted to sleep. I sprawled on my back in the backseat and closed my eyes.

I am on a bed on a grass field. How I got there, I don't know. It doesn't matter either. The stars are bright; a cool breeze is in the air. I feel peaceful, almost refreshed.

"Wake up, we are home", I heard a call.

I still feel tired. I turn over and check the clock in my phone; 7:06. I am late. I have to pick my friend up in 20 minutes and go skiing. I'll drive to his place and then let him take the wheels. In the meantime, I should write about this; I haven't blogged in months, I think as I jump off the bed and rush to the washroom.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

“Don’t waste my time”

I found the trailer to the movie ‘In Time’ quite interesting. It offered a new and original premise based on a literal interpretation of ‘Time is Money’ and a slightly left-leaning view of what’s wrong with a scarcity based economic model. This latter point piqued my interest even more.

Of late I have been reading about the Resource Based Economy (RBE); an idea proposed by Jacque Fresco, one which does not involve money for the distribution of resources. More on that later. I am now working on a series of posts on RBE. It sure does sounds utopian but it would be immature to come to that judgement without doing further research and asking more questions. That’s what I am aiming for from that series. However, all about that later.

Here, I’ll just post my review of the flick. As I was walking out of the movie hall I wasn’t disappointed. It was an hour and a half of well paced fun with my mind being taken to RBE on quite a few occasions. Some may pick on this distraction and say that it means the movie is not engrossing enough. True; but I like keeping my mind occupied and in this case since some of the dialogues were taking me to my blog series on RBE, I was enjoying the ride.

Soon after I got home I thought I would list out the movie’s good and bad. If I don’t like a movie I would rather not write about it than dissing about it publicly. Since I enjoyed the ride in the movie hall I thought I could write a positive review of this one. Oh well, was I disappointed? Here’s my list. First, I’ll start with the basic plot.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mid-PhD Crisis

Like a madman groping in a dark room
Seek the light to burn away the gloom
I’ve lost my mind but my feelings are true
Everything I do, I offer to you.
-- No Turn Un-Stoned (Shpongle)

I am now a mid-career PhD student. That was how my advisor described me during the first departmental meeting of this academic year while introducing his research group to the incoming batch of grad students. Then, I didn’t give much thought to the term he used; mid-career. However, listening to the above lyrics and considering my PhD progress - probably anyone’s for that matter - it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that truer words have never been spoken.

But then, Jorge Cham knew it all along. Nearing 40 in my ‘lab years’, this is probably the perfect time for a mid-‘lab’ life crisis. It seems to have struck me hard. Look at what I am doing right now. I should be working on my thesis. Instead I am procrastinating, penning down my thoughts. I can’t help it. Each time I stare at the word document of my would-be thesis, I can’t help myself getting distracted. On a positive note, though, this time has been a productive blogging period for me, what, with plenty of updates over the last month or so, both here and at Interstate 42.

Newton’s third law of graduation - "For every action towards graduation there is an equal and opposite distraction".

It wasn’t always like this. I got through the inevitable post-qualifiers slump that hit me last summer, obtained some good results and published a paper before this summer began. But now, summer is gone and I have nothing to show for it. I have been coding, compiling and debugging; but I am nowhere near simulating the thermal behavior around laser heated nanoparticles. Guess it happens; it is after all a mid-PhD slump.

Things should pick up soon, if not I should force it. It is time I took Cecilia’s resolve and started working full time on my candidacy report that would later become my thesis. Before my advisor loses his patience, I have to finish the report and take my candidacy examination. But, where are the freaking results? ~Long breath~

In the meantime, I came across a friend’s facebook status - “I TA for a professor whose Erdos Number is 1. Yes No.1 and no lesser. Despite that fact the amount of respect that he gives to other minions like me is amazing! The more I see these people, the smaller I feel in this world. Who said grad school was burden, it is an enlightening experience at every step”. He is a new grad student at RPI and all I can say is ‘enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts. It won’t be long before you end up like this'.

As for the rest, take care and have a blast.

PS: Take note of Jorge Cham’s disclaimer. If you are new to PhD Comics, then remember, ‘reading this entire archive can be hazardous to your research. Proceed with caution and use only in moderation.’

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A matter of choice

One harmless decision. One more a few minutes later. Then a series of small, seemingly inconsequential choices. Nothing more. Yet, in the end the damage was done. Ah, hindsight! Things look so simple in it. Turning back, connecting the dots, a pattern emerges.

I was tired. Working away in my tiny cubicle, I had kept sleep at bay for forty hours.  No more. I had to get out, get back home. Never before had I longed so much to snuggle under my blankets. Never before had the thought of a warm bed comforted me more.

Before that, though, I had to satisfy the growing discomfort inside my stomach. I needed food. Cooking was not an option, not with my eyelids threatening to snap shut, the threat growing stronger every waking second. Thank god for the new diner just outside campus.

A collective ‘Welcome to Moe’s!’ greeting and a short queue later I was able to give my order - rice bowl with chicken and soybeans with a free pack of tortilla chips. To go; one harmless decision. After all, why take the risk of embarrassment, drooling over the table at the diner?

I got the chips in a paper bag. The cashier asked, “Do you want a bag for the rice bowl?” I shook my head in the negative. The second one, after all why waste paper? I put the bowl in the bag with the chips and headed out.

The pedestrian signal was red. “Home in ten minutes”, I thought as I waited. A minute later the signal changed and I was on my way. A little across I met a friend. He had just returned after hiking the Presidential TraverseI could have just greeted him and walked past but I wanted to ask about the hike. A simple choice.

A few minutes later we said our goodbyes and I continued my journey home. As I reached the end of the block, the intersection between 15th and Sage, the pedestrian signal was red. I looked around. Across 15th I saw another friend of mine. He hadn’t seen me. I could have waited for a few more seconds, rushed across Sage and been on my way. A seemingly harmless choice later, I was on the opposite side of 15th. We exchanged pleasantries and started discussing about possible next hikes and camping trips. Fall was approaching and the views would be simply out of the world.

As we parted our ways, after a while, I could hear my stomach grumbling. I had to rush back home. I increased my speed, my hands swinging more violently. I was just a block away from home when I heard a tear. I looked down only to see the bag give away. Unbeknownst to me leaked gravy from the bowl was gradually weakening the bag’s integrity; and, now there I was staring in distress at my dinner on the sidewalk.

I cleaned up, deposited my dinner in the nearest garbage bin and walked home. Now I had to cook something. I am too lazy to do that on a regular day. Now I was too tired to even think about standing over the oven, stirring and waiting. As I reached home I made my last decision of the day. As soon as I saw the bed weariness overcame me. I would have to sleep in an empty stomach. “How would this decision come back to bite me?", I thought as I lay in bed quickly losing consciousness.

I learnt a simple lesson from all this, one of the simple truths of life. Your choice matters, every decision counts. Everything in life may not happen for a reason, but they definitely do because of one. There are no simple choices. As chaos theory goes, even the flutter of a butterfly can wreak havoc on the opposite side of the world. Every decision, thus, has to be weighted with care.

This is true more so for an entity like a nation. The choices of each of its individuals, however small and inconsequential they may seem, matter. Collectively they form the nation’s psyche.

Next time I’ll think twice before jumping a signal, bribing the police officer to escape the fine, buying movie tickets in black, traveling in a train or a bus without buying the ticket, and misrepresenting land costs to escape property tax. Any one of these acts by a single person may be small with respect to the working machinery of a nation, but it is not inconsequential. Things add up. Collectively they contribute to India’s corrupted psyche.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The many levels of corruption

With the government having agreed to introduce the Jan Lokpal bill in the Parliament for discussion, along with other civil society versions; and Anna Hazare holding his fort lest the government stages another flip-flop, it would be reasonable to assume that sooner or later India will be having an ombudsman, rather a committee of them. It is still early to tell, however, to what extent their powers may pan out. Of course, the bill should have the tooth to monitor and fight corruption. Yet, it should maintain the sanctity of the Constitution’s basic structure lest the teeth evolve into fangs.

For the sake of this post let us assume that the basic principles of the Jan Lokpal bill (the version put forward by Team Anna) have been adhered to and the ambiguous bits have been amended as the bill is passed by both Houses.

Moving beyond, it wouldn’t be unwise to ponder about the effectiveness of a Lokpal in eliminating corruption and thus ushering India to a new level of social development. For the same purpose it is necessary to distinguish the different levels of corruption. This would have been done to death during the various meetings and debates of the different drafters of the bill(s); and may be considered again in the Parliament. However, it is always worth revisiting.

1) Corruption in state sponsored welfare schemes

Rajiv Gandhi famously estimated that only 15 cents of every dollar spent on the poor actually reached them [Source]. This figure was later revised down to 5% by commentators. The welfare schemes include poverty alleviation, employment generation schemes as well as development of urban and rural infrastructure.

Improved transparency through RTI, ability to file charges and initiate prosecution, through the Lokpal, against those who reroute part of the fund and whistleblower protection together may serve potent in ensuring maximum benefit for the target population. It would be extremely heartening if news like this became more commonplace. Even if 20% of the welfare fund is reassigned to run the Lokpal machine and other ‘feedback and monitoring’ mechanisms, 80% reaching the poor is still a better state of affairs than the fate that awaits majority of the fund currently.

2) Lobbying by private interests for public resources

Illegal mining contracts, the 2G spectrum scam and the like would fall in this category. The Lokpal, empowered to initiate prosecution in a special court, can be seen to play a role in keeping a check on vested business interests and favoritism. High-level corruption may be dealt with but society will still be held back.

Liberalization post 1991 has done wonders for many sections of the Indian population. With rapid growth and a burgeoning middle class, ideally it shouldn’t be long before its benefits percolate to every section of society. However, the marginalized are still stuck at the lower rungs of economic development and in some cases their positions have even regressed. Wouldn’t it be daft to believe that this is due to corruption alone and eliminating it would magically raise the under-privileged from the clutches of poverty? When governments along with private parties use dubious land acquisition laws [1] to violently [2] affect the lives of some sections of the population, in the name of development, it is not always illegal though questions can be raised of the ethics. This is just one example of how outdated laws still strangle society. Looking beyond the Lokpal, social and economic reforms are a must to have further and sustained socio-economic development in India.

3) Graft to escape red tape inconvenience

During the special session of the Parliament on 27th August, the leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj rightly pointed out that though corruption higher up the administrative chain angers the common man, it is the one that prevails in the lower bureaucracy that puts him under great distress. Delays in obtaining a passport, a ration card, a driving license or a voter ID is what affects him more than the 2G spectrum scam or the CWG scam. Thus, strong monitoring of the lower bureaucracy along with the implementation of a citizen’s charter in all government offices is of extreme importance. As mentioned in the Hindu editorial a grievance redressal system (along with a citizen’s charter) is “a progressive idea whose time has come.”

However, it is worth remembering that including the lower bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal (along with the higher judiciary, elected representatives, the PM Office and other high-level bureaucrats) may result in a tremendous volume of work on the shoulders of one body. There is, thus, merit in the NCPRI argument that the CVC should be strengthened to deal with the lower bureaucracy [Source]. After all, decentralization may increase administrative efficiency.

4) Corruption for mutual benefit with no perceived third party loss

Not all corruption at the lower level is at the fault of the government servants. The common man in India today is more than willing to part with some of his hard-earned money to escape fines for parking, speeding and other traffic violations, to travel ticketless in buses and trains, to escape land and property tax, and to obtain an admission for his child in a reputed  school/college in order to go one up on his neighbor’s son/daughter. At this level corruption is of mutual benefit and, in public perception, does not directly affect a third party. It is worth remembering that it is this mentality that legitimizes corruption at all levels. After all, government servants don’t fall from the sky. No anti-corruption agency can tackle this type of corruption; after all, who is going to complain? What is required is a change in public perception and a widespread mentality of civic sense. The movement led by Anna Hazare, for all its flaws, has managed to shake some out of their stupor. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Yet, there are many who do not consider this ‘harmless’ corruption to be a danger to society and it won’t take long for those awake to go back to sleep. With a sleeping public, corruption will eventually find a way to percolate into anti-graft machineries.

One of the problems of a successful movement is that the people may end up believing that they have done enough (not unlike what Slavoj Zizek says herethough in a different context) and settle back into their old ways. This mentality should not set in. Sustained public vigilance and further structural and economic reforms are, thus, important if India has to rise considerably in the Transparency International ranking.

[1] “People who argue that the act is draconian claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, usurped land from property owners, with the help of the Land Acquisition Act, at what is claimed as, well below the market value of these properties. It is argued that, even in the case of projects that are genuinely for public purposes, there is a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. It is also argued that the relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the act, is not followed up adequately, and that this is not covered comprehensively in the framework of the act. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition, through the land acquisition act, is the  Nandigram violence incident.” - Wikipedia (Land Acquisition Act, 1894)

Land lost, Singur farmer said no to compensation, commits suicide -

“Over 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population works in the primary sector, with 45 per cent being cultivators and 37 per cent agricultural labourers. Land represents the most important source of livelihood, emotional attachment and social stability in tribal communities. The alienation of tribal land is the single most important cause of pauperisation of tribals, rendering their vulnerable economic situation more precarious.” - The weapon of empowerment, M. Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India (2010).

[2] “The Adivasis of Chhatisgarh - Victims of the Naxalite movement and Salwa Judum campaign”, Asian Center for Human Rights (2006).