Wednesday, December 31, 2014

End of year post

For a long time now, I have been writing a post about the year that went by. It has become a  New Year tradition to take a deep breath, squint and try to recollect the hazy details of yet another year.

The only detail I remember about January is how terrifying and pleasurable it was to ski down the bunny hill at Seven Springs. Sitting in one of those ski lifts (after I progressed to the "green"), I was getting awestruck at the wide expanse of snow beneath me and when a friend of mine yelled "Get ready now and .... jump".  Two minutes later, I was jolted out of the lift, while a kid of about five years, gracefully slid off the ski lift behind me while amusedly looking at the tangled mess of arms and legs that I was.

This year, I happened to walk along Castro Street in Mountain View after two years. Castro Street is truly close to my heart in lots of ways. I have spent many evenings in the yester years, glumly walking the lengths of this bustling street thinking about the colossal problem of finding a purpose to make a statement out of, mainly to convince an admission committee to get me into grad school. Walking along in Castro Street somehow helped me think about what choices mean in the long run.

This was a year of clambering through brutal coursework. I took 10-701 - Introduction to Machine Learning. When I came to CMU, my friend chucked delightfully just thinking about me going through 10-701. Between Econometrics II and 10-701, I lived and died on a bleeding edge and was almost always exhausted. I remember waking up everyday after five hours of sleep with scorching eyes and feeling monumentally disgruntled with the universe. I shuffled between research, coursework, mid-terms, more coursework and grading strategy papers while looking wistfully at my bed for a day I can sink into to the sheets with nothing but a free day ahead. The day never really came in 2014.

One of the best things that happened this year was learning Pandas. I started analyzing data with the humble pivot tables in Excel a few years before. Somehow, I never felt the need to get beyond what I now call, the "click and drag" life. Though I dabbled in R and Python, I never really thought of either as a strong data analysis tool that will help me do wicked things to my data that seemed only possible in Excel. This year I figured out how deluded I had been and how much time I could have saved if I had just learned Pandas earlier.

The nice thing about Pandas is that it is extremely addictive - almost like binge watching House of Card. I would start doing something at 10:00 PM and realize by 11:00 that there should be a better way to do it. By 1:00 AM I would realize that there should be an even better way to do it and all I had to do was to frame my wishlist in a way that it can be Googled. For example, I cannot really search for "Hey, I need 1s in column A which should contain the max value corresponding to the index but it should not include anything that satisfies these conditions". Most of the learning came in figuring out what to search for. By 2:00 AM, I would find user1457 in stackoverflow who had the exact issue as I did.  I would get tickled beyond words to find a single line command in Pandas fulfilling all my needs that I could blearily think of at 3 AM, on a school night. I would then painstakingly write a script and send it to a friend for review.

This friend, while explaining the nuances of things I had missed out, would reflexively add spaces before and after the "=" as he talked, would convert my thirty lines of code filled with ifs and loops to a pithy little piece. He also always shuddered convulsively at the way I named the variables . I shrugged this off as a piece of programming snobbery.  I later learned, in a rather hard way, that naming variables like "junk_i", "junk_i_value" ,"test_k", or a plain "a" because I felt too tired to think of a name, leads to undoing days of work. It is astonishing how even a week can completely obliterate the memory of even having written some code let alone ponder the mystery of the recurring test_k which seemed to single-handedly reflect various thought processes that went in my head at various stages in the code.

As a reformed character, I now name my variables true to the spirit of someone with a 28 character name -  I kid you not, it goes like "data_positive_features_negative_adjusted_values_below_threshold_train", so as to make code "read like a story". My friend still scowls at an extra line that I could have done without but I leave that  for next year's character building.

Thus this year, I shuffled between Python, R, Matlab and Stata for the different courses, swearing every time I added brackets to a for loop in Python. In 2013, I wouldn't have imagined a scenario that required me to swear about adding brackets in Python. I count this as an improvement to life.

I made new friends, studied with a group for the first time in my life, drank gallons of tea and became a Pennsylvania licensed driver. This is how a day generally looked.

Life has never been tougher and my writing has never been this squigglier.  I also read this in Quora on what happens in a learning process. I can approximately mark my location on the graph. There are going to be tougher years.

But knowing that it is all upward slope after the tough bit takes my mind off the fathomless pit which is all the things that I don't know. What I do know is how the inflection point in the picture feels like - I glimpsed it briefly during my tryst with Pandas.

In retrospect, I am okay with the Miltonian notion of bearing the mild yoke to serve him the best.
I am going to like this gig as long there are moments like holding a paper written in LaTex that feels exactly like how I always thought good work should feel like - sturdy, warm off the printer and thanks to how Information Systems papers are written, very thick.

Here is to 2014 - a tizzy trip with insanity that helped me understand how a banana feels like inside a blender.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Second first snow in Pittsburgh

I remember in being Microeconomics class last time when it was snowing and remember getting an email that made me grin so much that the person sitting next to me thought I was crazy. I also remember running outside barefoot and making a ball out of the first snow.

 I will commemorate this year's first snow by cramming for my Machine Learning midterm. If at all I do end up using a lot of ML in my life, it would be nice to think about ML in the context of first snow. It is also to do with the fact that I am going repress the impending traumatic memories of the midterm tomorrow that I'd rather remember ML by the beautiful snow outside!



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Expected value

 I wanted to write this post partly because I haven't written in a long long time which is bad for health and partly because I've been thinking quite a lot about the state of my well being in the past few tumultuous months.

This summer was my introduction to a world of pain and despair, namely doing Bayesian Models. In the past, I've often congratulated myself on not having chosen fields of study that required patience, grit and the ability to keep growing cultures day after day, waiting for a better tomorrow.  The readers of this blog are probably familiar with my views on instant gratification. However, in the realm of Rev.Thomas Bayes, there isn't such a thing as gratification, let alone instant. This is the first time in my life I have run code over 32 core processors with 1 TB RAM only to find that Bayesian models take just about 7 days to tell me that I am absolutely wrong. The next seven days would go into figuring out a subsection of the problem which would then cause something else to break in the next seven days. Basically after three months, I had nothing to show except the fact that I had crashed the CMU server a few times (which felt oddly satisfying) and that I had written code like I have never done before.

In my undergrad, when people talked about memory efficient programming, I've often wondered why on earth would anyone need to do that considering all that memory in the computers. During this summer, the happiest days were when I managed to reduce the time for one iteration by three seconds. This is 3x80000 seconds that we are talking about - a time that would otherwise be spent with nerve wracking anticipation and bags of candy consumption. Heck, forget the processors, this is the kind of waiting that my genes are not programmed to handle. 

Basically, my respect for people who do Bayesian Statistics as their main area of research just soared up. The amount of Math and programming these guys did, in what seems to be the days of yore (which is essentially pre-Google), just makes me gape in awe and wonder. These people would probably click their tongues at me and shake their heads collectively on how spoiled kids these days are with their fancy Stackoverflow and parallel processing. 

Anyway, after this three months of masochism, I went back to school as a changed woman. Between homework and midterms,  I moped so much that there was a sufficient cloud of gloom wherever I went. When the situation calls for my special brand of relentless narcissistic pessimism, I always step up and gleefully spread the depression all around, even in a place filled with despondent grad students. My adviser, however, cheerily reassured me that this existential crisis was nothing but expected out of a newly minted second year PhD student.

This brings me to the next phase. Yesterday, I was sitting in a seminar and when I took a quick look at the room from my vantage point, it suddenly dawned on me that I was sitting in a seminar at Carnegie Mellon listening to a professor talking about a complex Econometrics model. The room was filled with so many accomplished Statisticians, Economists, Criminologists and Mathematicians. It suddenly hit me that this is the bunch of people who trusted me enough to let me in and give me an opportunity to do things that I would have otherwise never ever done in my life - not even in my wildest dreams. Here I am, sitting in the same room with them and hey, some of the stuff on the slides even looked familiar that I didn't have to pretend like I understood!

This gave me a chance to think about just how far I along I have come in life and how I never really acknowledge that. As a screwed up kid, whenever I thought about future, life beyond a decent engineering college always tapered off into uncertainty. It struck me that given the kind of circumstances I grew up in and given the kind of background I am from, I really have exceeded every expectation I had for myself. Everything beyond this point is just a bonus in so many aspects. 

It is actually tremendously liberating to think about my PhD this way and it helps me calm down to focus on the nitty gritty of research that I usually wave my hand about.  All I need to do now is cut myself a lot of slack, dig into the tubs of ice cream and then get back to doing the next assignment.

Each day at grad school brings on a new set of challenges and in this pleasant randomness lies my hope, which in turn, springs the eternal. After all, man never is, but always to be blessed.

P.S: I owe the pun in the title to the three hours of Advance Econometrics problem sets, but felt appropriate to the context.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Should I give up on Math? A Quora question

I read this question in Quora.

My family and my teachers keep discouraging me. They say I have no math talent, I just get good grades because I work hard, I should focus on humanities instead of math, I'm forcing it too much, etc. My teachers want me to study philology and my aunt told me that math is my ultimate weakness.
But I love math. It's the thing I love the most, I'm fascinated by it's abstraction and beauty. I can understand new concepts quickly, school problems are easy to me (I'm an 8th grader) I'm just struggling with harder problems. Sometimes I think for days about a problem.
People around me keep saying I should understand that math is not for me. Should I give up on it?

I couldn't stop myself from writing an answer to this.

It is like reading the story of my life. You should read this and take heart.

Let me start from the beginning. In India, doing Math is about doing calculations fast. For example, a guy in my family knew multiplication tables till 19x19. This amazing power earned him the much sought after title of being the smartest kid in the family. When people around him told him he was "great" at Math, he became super confident about his prowess and went on to become a success in his life. Conversely, my mother was always told that she sucked at Math which made her firmly believe that she was dumb and meant to do lesser things  which in her definition, is everything else that is not Math. 

That's the story of how my life became a living hell when I was little . My mother became paranoid that I would inherit her "dumb Math genes" and made sure I knew multiplication (till 20x20, of course) before I went into first grade. Every time I visited a relative's house, I would be asked to solve Math problems until I got something wrong. It was a pity because I secretly liked Math and thought it was neat, but it felt unnatural to like something that everyone told me I was bad at. I vehemently hated being judged based on some arbitrary time limit within which I "had" to solve a problem. 

When given a problem I would immediately jump to figure out which is the fastest way of solving it, realize that I was losing time, become distinctly aware that there were at least four people looking at me with smug grins, then panic that I hadn't figured out the shortest way yet  and panic more. By then, everything would go down the crapper and I would have been pronounced dumb. My mother would glare/yell at me while some woman in the crowd used to think it was appropriate to say "Oh, don't worry. We will get you married to a guy who is good at Math/is from IIT". It set off a lifelong aversion of my family, family gatherings and as a bonus, panic attacks well into my college years.

Everybody in my family, in literally every family gathering, told me I sucked at Math and that I got good grades just because I worked hard. In Engineering, I was trying to prepare for "CAT" which is an exam that people in India take to get into prestigious B-schools. A lot about that exam prep reminded me of the oh-so-horrible mental Math tricks that I had to learn growing up and which I hated with every fibre in my body. I would not even look at the "data interpretation" section and proceed to the verbal section, because for about 18 years people had told me that I was great at "humanities stuff" and not Math. 

Then, I started working at this really great place. At my work, I ended up doing a lot of data analysis in a real world context. Moreover, there was no time limit, no competition and nothing that made me think that the world would end if I didn't solve a problem under a minute. This was the first time I figured out how much I loved data and how elegant it was. It made me realize that all the aspects of Math that had been beaten into my head as important things were so arbitrary and unnecessary. It was liberating just to use Excel for the dreaded and revered 19x19 and still be excited about the bigger picture that I got to solve. It was fun and a matter of honor just to be in a zone where I could operate with so much comfort.

Two years into doing this kind of data analysis, I decided that I should do a PhD in using data to solve real world problems. My field of study is at the cusp of Marketing, Applied Economics, a lot of Econometrics/Statistics and some Machine Learning thrown in for fun.

Every time I write up a white board full of equations, I step back and feel good to see how far I have come along, from my relatives' gloomy predictions. I wish that I can go back in time and tell this to the 8th grader who cried herself to sleep because some moron in her family told her she can't do Math. As a famous T-shirt caption says, great things begin at the end of the comfort zone. It is all about exploring the bleeding edge in your own time or with someone who will not judge you for it being beyond your comfort zone.

Also, you should read this: A mathematician's lament-

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why it was a mistake to write on Quora ...

I loved Quora. It felt very liberating to write answers for questions in the small chunks of free time during school hours . Writing helps me think better and when I am angry, it helps me figure out who I am angry at and if I am being reasonable.

Quora had enough audience to stoke my ego. Enough people who didn't quite know me all that well. It was perfect, considering it was a way to give back the Quora community and all that.

This went for a bit, until this really long day when I was thinking about Google food in a bout of nostalgia. I had just come back from home to a fridge filled with soggy rotten vegetables and gooey stuff that I hadn't bothered to clear out in a long time. It is then I answered a question, in elaborate detail, on what it feels like to work at Google on Quora, focussing only on the food. The answer became super popular.

I should have been really pleased about it. However, I knew that it wasn't really for the quality of the answer that people liked the post. It was about the tales from the magic world of amazing food that kind of triggered this reaction.

Then came the stalking. Suddenly, my Linkedin profile had a thousand views a day. People started deluging me with messages in Quora on how to get into Google. Some of the memorable and amusing messages asked me questions like "You are from ECE, how do you know to code" and the assorted variations of how Indians generally view the differences between the branches of engineering.

This was followed by the hundred friend requests on Facebook. I was starting to feel a little creeped out because I didn't quite understand how people would like to connect with a stranger on Facebook just because they liked the said person's answer in Quora.

I was waiting for the wave to die down when I discovered this "other" inbox on Facebook. Apparently, all the messages from people who I have never interacted with gets filed under "other". I discovered about 300 messages from random frandship messages to earnest questions, all about getting into Google. At least, FB did a pretty good job of hiding this from my view up until a few days before.

This is when I realized that I had inadvertently hawked a dimension of Google's awesomeness on the Quora trade floor.

All of this was easy to ignore, until today when I discovered a question under my undergrad alumni page where some anonymous answer seeker had felt compelled to ask "How did Uttara get a job in Google after CIT".

I found this disrespectful on so many many grounds. There is really no need for my job skills to be a topic of conversation. More than that, I knew I wasn't really the model of what people expected out of a mere girl at CIT. I've bruised a lot of macho egos and all these blokes were collectively pissed at me in various points in their time at CIT. I am very well aware how the forum could be used to spew their pent up hatred.

The other reason why I found this insulting was that the person asked this question anonymously. There were so many ways that they could have approached me if they thought I could help, but no - etiquette has never been a part of the stringent moral code that my undergrad institution tried to impart on people. I have known people who had no qualms about copying my Statement of Purpose word for word and sending it out to universities and somehow thought it was okay. Somehow all these things are okay. What is a day in life of a Tamilnadu Engineering student without Plagiarism, right? One can win thousands of money in the ridiculous paper presentation contests by ripping off every word from a famous paper in their field. It is disgusting that all this is deemed completely acceptable.

Funnily enough, what is not acceptable at all, is girls wearing sleeveless tops or guys wearing jeans. I once was asked to write by hand, a request for permitting some students to go off for a competition, because the same letter, when printed instead of being handwritten, was disrespectful

I am sick of this. I am sick of how the likes of my undergrad institution trains people to think what is okay and what is not.

And Oh, I decided to pull off my Google answer. There is really no reason for people not to be happy with whatever they are happy doing, without thinking about all the great food they are missing out on. In retrospect, it was rather childish of me to have written the damn thing in the first place. I should drool at the pictures of the mango festival in the privacy of my apartment if I become hungry.

 I have often wondered about the abuse operations in Quora and how they manage to scale it having worked in G+ abuse myself. Let me see if they do pull down the question I requested to be pulled out.

So, Congratulations Anonymous poster! -you have successfully managed to anger me after years of not letting social media get to me. I thought my experience with the Internet denizens should have taught me better.

P.S: I really don't have time to do the mandatory grammatical error check. All errors are to be attributed to the extreme ire I writing this post in.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Telling a tale or two or a thousand

I have always been a veritable source of stories.  People often amaze at my ability to talk continuously for hours whipping up stories after stories. I switch track from one story to another while bleary eyed first timers, who are too polite to interrupt, watch with wonder as I trace my way back to the main story just about three hours later after the first story. People who know me are the people who dread the timeless void of my story barrel and firmly put their foot down while I dolefully let go of a fantastic anecdote.

Until I was about five years old, no one would understand what I talked. I spoke at the speed of a rambling express train. People knew I was definitely on to a great story as I would animatedly gesticulate, my eyes wide with expression. It would be like watching a movie at 4x speed. They took me to a doctor who said I tried to cram in a lifetime of stories, which was about five years then, in the two minutes people allotted for listening to five year olds. I had an anxiety even when I was that small, that my stories would go unheard. Then, I slowed down to my current speed as people were forced to listen to at least five minutes, out of politeness. Even now, I catch people with their eyes glazed partly in incomprehension and partly in horror.

 I also aspired to become a psychiatrist at some point in life. My father pointed out that my story telling ability would hinder my listening ability which is what psychiatrists generally get paid for.

I tell a lot of stories because I pretty much have an almost photographic memory of incidents. For example, I can perfectly recall the day in first grade, when Manopriya was given the "Class Leader" badge and how, in a gross abuse of power, she jumped up from  desk to desk wielding the wooden scale on the terrorized villagers.

 This is how it would start and I would talk about Manopriya's family and her Malayalam roots and how she would pray in the Race Course Mariyamman temple to get cent percent in first grade Math.

See what I did there?

Anyway, I read the following in Heavy Weather (Of the Blandings Castle series) by P.G.Wodehouse and I couldn't help smiling.

The Hon. Galahad had brightened. Like all confirmed raconteurs, he took on new life when the anecdotes started to come.
Once more the Hon.Galahad smote the green cloth. ' You'll smash that table,' said Ronnie.
There flashed into the Hon. Galahad's mind the story of how old Beefy Muspratt, with some
assistance, actually had smashed a billiard-table in the year ninety-eight; and such is the urge to the
raconteur's ruling passion that he almost stopped to tell it. Then he recovered himself.

Sometimes it is difficult to let go. In the recent days, I have mastered the art of summarizing the anecdote and somehow fitting it in the conversation under the ruse of letting it go. Again, I read this and just burst out laughing.

 'Well, I'm dashed! Hurts like sin, that sort of thing. I haven't heard of anybody having a girl's name
tattooed on him since the year ninety-nine, when Jack  Bellamy-Johnstone ...'

Ronnie held up a restraining hand.

'Not now, uncle, if you don't mind.' 

' Most amusing story,' said the Hon. Galahad, wistfully.

'Later on, what?' 

'Well, yes, perhaps you're right,' admitted the Hon.Galahad. 'I suppose you're
not in the mood for stories. It was simply that poor old Jack fell in love with a girl named Esmeralda
Parkinson-Willoughby and had the whole thing tattooed on his wishbone, and the wounds had scarcely healed when they quarrelled and he got engaged to another girl called May Todd. So if he had only waited ...

 I am what they call a "raconteur". In the grand scheme of everything else that I could be, I guess it isn't all that bad.

All I can say is that I have a best-seller in my hands.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Think Different

I just read about this teenager who figured out a simple and an ingenious idea to save a lot of money for the Federal government. Read about it here. Isn't this beautiful? We would have never thought about a typeface making a lot of difference and apparently it does, which is not entirely an inconceivable notion.

I keep reading about these kids doing big things in high school. They develop complicated biomedical instruments, power saving contraptions and so on which always makes me think that their parents would have helped them with it (though I might be completely wrong, in which case it is remarkable). I suppose I am deeply suspicious of kids doing mind-blowingly awesome things in high school, by themselves, having been witness to many, many Tiger Moms. That is still not that big a deal in the bigger spectrum of things, but I know how it is for reporters to blow things out of proportion, call the kid the next Steve Jobs only to put inordinate pressure on the kid to perform later in life. I remember something similar happened with an Indian kid a few months before where he created a new operating system of sorts that made the Indian media go bonkers. There was this huge thread in Reddit where they myth busted the awesomeness of this operating system.

When I was in high school, one of the Tamil Magazines opened up an application to come up with the next big public policy idea to revolutionize India. The prize was a Compaq PC which was incredibly hot at that time. I remember spending days holed up with my mother trying to brainstorm and come up with the greatest idea ever. We never did. My mother was prone to sending out essay, stories and jokes to Tamil magazines in my name. Thankfully, most of them did not get published. Some of them did, but they were mostly restricted to the realm of kitchen tips in women's magazines. At one point I had middle aged women spotting me out in weddings and telling me how good my idea for scrubbing kitchen counters with pumice stone was, which is when I put my foot down on the state of affairs. My mother sullenly took up my grandmother's name for her future publishing endeavors. Now you can understand my natural skepticism for the limitless projected potential of high school students. When I was in eighth grade, this shady article appeared in a shadier magazine that was literally titled " Flower Bouquet " on how I plan to become an IAS officer. The readership of Flower Bouquet magazine was probably a sum total of fifty people which includes the publisher, the parents of the kids who write in the magazine and the relatives who get forced by these parents to read the "featured" articles. Despite the small damage the limited viewership can wreak on kids, I think it a very presumptuous thing for parents ghost for their children and then make the child take credit. Somehow it feels that they are setting dangerous precedent about taking credit for someone else's work without a twinge of remorse.

However, what makes me happy about this typeface idea is that it is so simple and fantastic without the usual frills of transistors or gene modification or cancer curing drug. It is definitely something that a high school student could have conceived and executed by himself without parental help, which to even to me, feels very convincing and weirdly, reassuring.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What if I am tricked?

One of my friends posted this video up on Facebook. It is about Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo surprising Professor Andrei Linde at Stanford with evidence that supports cosmic inflation theory.

Now, I don't know anything about cosmic inflation theory. But this video made me smile so much at the professor's look of disbelief and wonder when his colleague says at the door "five sigma, as clear as a day, with a R of 0.2".

After a rather crappy day of trying to break the will of this obdurate block of data, I was deep down in the dumps. Seriously, there is nothing that sucks the morale out of someone like staring at Excel all day long without food.

This video added a little more perspective to why I signed up for this deal.

The professor goes on to say (after looking at the results, of course) "What if I am tricked", then looking lost, probably in the poignancy of the moment, slowly and deliberately adds "What if I want to believe in this just because it is beautiful?"

I guess being with people like this who "want" to believe in things just because the said things are beautiful, is what makes my own little world filled with vindictive and egregiously large p values, worth it - however academically unacceptable they may be.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Going forward

I really have to get going and hence will keep it short. Today also marks the first year of getting my admit in CMU. That is sort of all the birthday gifts (wrapped in one brief email) that I could have hoped for as a kid. It is a fitting tribute to this occasion that I have a test tomorrow and I ended up studying.

In the immortal words of Ron Swanson, birthdays were invented by Hallmark to sell cards. I concur. For most people, birthday is a time to stop, introspect and make an assessment. For someone who wanders about introspecting all the time and procrastinating everything worth assessing, birthday is one more day I expect the world to go out of its way and pamper me. Up until now, it has happened only once.

Yes, my days are along the lines of looking under rocks in the creek. And of course, I am happy doing that.

The title is a bad pun on my birthday - March Fourth. It sounds like an order - March forth. Right Ho!

Monday, February 24, 2014

On getting a job.

I suddenly remembered the "placement season" at my undergrad for no reason. To the uninitiated, the placement season in Southern Indian engineering colleges are when software companies recruit engineering students en masse. This generally happens just before the start of the final year of engineering. This is the coming-of-age ritual that every engineering student undergoes.

After a nasty childish spat with a neighboring college (which I am sure readers of this blog will remember) I received more than one ugly note saying that how I would be dealt with during the pooled placement season that happens on their campus. I bring this up because, it is funny to think that they wanted to punish me with a job that I would miss out on for my (admittedly) bad behavior. One could sell anything to anyone if they attach a "placement" tag to it. Oh so much for campus placements, the petty issues, the mad race and the hacks. I am surprised that they don't sell powdered dragon claws as a performance boosters (or do they?) during the season. I remember ludicrous stories of how "cotton salwars" were the only accepted dress code and how guys would get rejected if the interviewers sniff out the fact that they had used a particularly misogynistic brand of deodorant. There were special classes to crack these mock tests for which people paid good deal of money.

In this fiasco, the placement coordinators (PCs) are the ones who truly deserve a lot of credit. The amount of bullshit they take during placement season, for the greater good of their peers (who are not particularly nice to them) is mind boggling. They have the nerve wrecking job of having to deal with some of the most narcissistic and egregious blokes who saunter into campus in the guise of interviewers and dangle placements, money and hope over these poor PCs. The PCs with their limitless patience are completely answerable to their peers and to their professors and are often the casualties of nasty college politics and get majorly footballed around during the season. The PCs would wait on the interviewers hand and foot and treat them like royalty. I remember hearing horror stories how some of these interviewers would send the PCs off at midnight on a mission to procure a particular brand of chicken or liquor and how the PCs would wordlessly comply.

I understand that people spend a lot of money on engineering colleges (excluding the state schools, of course) just because they can get a job. But the whole deal becomes futile if the sole focus is on getting a job than becoming employable which are two different things altogether. One cannot simply become good at something by dreaming about tantalizing notion of landing a lucrative job or by cheap hacks or doing things just to have a good resume. It shows up as glaring inadequacies in the first ten minutes of of an interview.

I recently overheard a CMU undergrad giving his phone interview to some company as I was lounging in the sunny corridors of Gates building. As he talked on, I was starting to feel awestruck at the things this guy knew. I was beginning to feel bad about the futility of my undergrad when this guy mentioned that he was in his first year (looks like he was pitching for an internship) and my jaw dropped. In my first year, I had given up on Electronics as a chosen career path after my first bungled tryst with Norton's and Thevenin's theorm and was moping around about how I had made a big, irreversible mistake. In contrast, here was a first year student who had built things that were clearly beyond my comprehension and apparently he had been building such things since eighth grade. Seriously, if we dream of competing in a global arena and think beyond the standard software placements, cramming up Agarwal's Quantitative aptitude or buttressing our engineering ability by reading "selections" of frequently asked questions, is NOT going to help. The "Group Discussion" rounds are such a farce. It makes me smile just think about how people believed that they can become proficient in topics worth having a group discussion about, by reading the newspaper for two days before the dreaded GD. Also, how on earth a person's analytical ability or his propensity to communicate and work in a team can come out in such a carefully constructed tableau?

I don't know if the status quo will change. I hope it does.

On a side note, in retrospect, it amuses me that I somehow always managed to wangle my way out of doing things that I didn't want to do - like never having to cram up the nuances of C such as linked lists & pointers or even think about attending pooled placements for dream companies (that I was cutely threatened with). My parents just let me take twenty days off and be at home during the placement season because I couldn't stand being on the campus what with the peer pressure driving me insane. Not everyone gets to watch reruns of House MD while grappling with an identity crisis, oblivious to the world outside. Somehow, my parents were more confident about my employability than I was and were just waiting around for me to sort out my issues (which anyway took me the next four years).

Despite my incessant bitching about life, I think I should really be thankful for these small pleasures.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Out of chaos, comes order (and also a perfect cup of tea)

(This might be a repeated theme in this blog, but somehow I feel that today's deeds hit the high levels in the craziness meter)

It is not everyday I wholeheartedly set out to study. Today was the day to atone for watching an entire season of House of Cards in a record thirteen hours. As I watched House of Cards with my jaws slackened and devoid of any animation, I was already making elaborate plans on how to finish half semester worth of Math in eight hours of undivided attention. I was even prepared to use the art of meditation that people tried to force me into before my 12th board exams to zoom through two hundred pages of disquieting Matrix algebra. 

If nothing, I am all about super-human goal setting. 

Just ten pages through my book, I decided that I should be washing the dishes. As I was doing the dishes, I realized there were so many in the sink because I did not have space anywhere else in the kitchen and had been dumping things into the sink; and into the fridge. (It reminds me of this answer I read in Quora for the greatest software misuses on how people use recycle bin to store files) 

Suddenly the prospect of cleaning the fridge became quite appealing given the task I was currently up to, was rather slimy. I didn't quite calculate the odds of the next task being equally, if not more slimy. Whistling a merry tune, I abandoned the dishes and set off to clean the fridge, which is where I discovered the stuff I had been looking for months. I found empty plastic containers, which to my surprise were stacked neatly in the corner of the third row. I also found an entire loaf of bread in the vegetable tray. This was the elusive loaf that I had been looking for, every morning, in desperate need for breakfast, before scrambling to school in hunger. 

I kept a stiff upper lip and decided that I needed an organization strategy to deal with the situation. And so, I decided to clear out the pantry to make space for the things that had absolutely no need to be refrigerated but somehow had found their way into the fridge - like the empty glasses, the bag of potatoes, salt shaker and a couple of kitchen knifes stuck to apples in a rather threatening way. The fridge, meanwhile, lost all hope and went back to its melancholic whirring.

While cleaning the stuff off the pantry (or a "larder" like how Enid Blyton would call it), I disinterred a bag of cardamom and cloves that I had gotten from home. I was sniffing the bags for a good couple of minutes, taking in the heady aroma of these spices. This must have tripped some internal circuit in the old noodle as I suddenly started having an intense craving for a cup of Masala Chai. Now, there is this quaint little shop called "Arasan Sweets" in Madurai. Up until now, I have never had a cup of Masala chai that tasted better than the one they serve at Arasan Sweets. I have made it a point to visit Arasan Sweets every time I go back home and slurp the tea standing amidst the gang of Indian government bureaucrats who haunt this place for their notoriously long pre-lunch, post breakfast tea break. 

This gave me a new mission. I went online and fifteen odd clicks and ten websites later, I had a general idea of how go about making the Masala Chai. A dash of cloves and cardamom, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a smack of ginger and a generous dab of attention deficiency turned out to be the secret ingredients required to make the best cuppa Masala Chai. 

I hope to iterate through this crazy loop over and over until my homework, dishwashing, clearing-out-the fridge, cleaning the pantry, drinking more tea and incoherent-post-tea-rhapsodizing - all get done.

What is life without some optimized parallel processing, eh?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

One more quora question

How do people feel when their names are mispronounced?

Ok, we from Tamil Nadu don't really have a surname. We just take our father's first names as surnames because the western world demands one. So, the first name is pretty important and I think my parents spent a whole lot of time in coming up with mine . It is quite unique even today and the only advantage is that I get the choicest of email ids. However, coming up with this name was a bad strategy in so many ways.

I don't know why, "Uttara" just freaks the heck out of Tamils. They simply can't handle the two ts. They say ta, instead of tha and perhaps while reeling from the initial shock, add a couple of 'a's for good measure and approximate it to nothing like how it is supposed to sound.

Somehow, everyone outside Tamil Nadu pronounces it perfectly. It is just my kith and kin who stumble so much and have mangled it beyond recognition that I don't care anymore. Pretty much everyone, whom I used to correct in my younger days, which was pretty much everyone, stuck to the unthreatening version with their comforting "h" in the sight i.e, Uthra. I swear I have a certificate that says "Avtara" (from A.Uttara). I remember one of my teachers in middle school scrunching up her face in effort and say "Udderaa".

Nowadays, I am happy if I hear a "ta" & a "ra". Even a ballpark estimate would do. But definitely not "Andhera".

By the way, my "surname" that is not, is "Madurai Ananthakrishnan". Your turn, western world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

This is the story of Snownibal

My exposure to the western world began with Enid Blyton novels. Every Enid Blyton novel set in the winter, had children building snowmen. Sometimes these snowmen even had clues to solving mysteries involving stolen goods and fireworks meant for Guy Fawkes Day. When the children in these novels were not eating scones or stealing pies from the larders for their secret adventures, they were accessorizing the snowmen that they built with hats and scarfs. 

Despite vanquishing the bunny hill at a ski resort, this winter, my tryst with snow didn't feel complete without building a snowman. There was a gaping void in the list of activities I had meant to do the moment I set foot in this country. Making a snowman was that gaping void, for the lack of willing accomplices.

This Saturday, just when I was about to sit down with my Econometrics book, one of my friends suggested that we should build a snowman given the polar vortex seemed to be doing its second round and all that snow was going waste. So intrepid we were, that we trudged through -13 degree celsius to campus just because the snow would be much more pristine on the campus.

Our initial plan was to make this ginormous snowman that would be visible from the entrance of the campus. We hadn’t quite contemplated on prior research before embarking on this endeavor. After all, it was a dumb snowman, and we were two doctoral students with one being a real life brain scientist. Ten minutes in the snow, our flawed methodology and the years of growing up six degrees above the equator started showing up. Our hands were too frozen to consult YouTube from our phones. After multiple strategy sessions and scuttling back into the safety of indoors every 20 minutes, we figured that we could approximate a snowman out of this the huge mound of snow that we had created. Our art started looking more and more like a three layered frosted cake.

After we made the final spherical mass that was the head, we decided he looked snowmanly enough. But the deed wasn’t quite done. The stump of carrot that I had so carefully carried had turned soggy. Our amateur effort in giving the snowman his well deserved nose job, which was along the lines of poking a series of holes wherever possible, caused his face face to disintegrate as if he had been a victim of an acid attack (Life is all about violent imagery, isn't it?) . But a snowman isn't a snowman without the carrot. We finally managed to cement the darned carrot in ( we called it "fixing the deviated septum") and substituted some twigs for eyes.

The fun part about any project is the naming stage. In fact, I believe that the only good part about having pets or even kids is that one gets to name them. I should say that I am terrific with names. I once thought of a series of names for twins that a colleague at work had, that started with Ping and Pong to downright arcane characters from Greek & Indian mythology. After a while, he started taking a different route every time he saw me as I was spewing out names at a rate higher than he could take in, without visibly grimacing. My stuffed elephant is called Ashwathama after his elephantine counterpart in Mahabharata and my pink flamingo, with her frilly wispy skirt, is called "Azhagiya Laila" after the legendary Marilyn Monroesque scene that Ramba pulled off in Ullathai Allitha. My bike in India was called Karuthamma (Black beauty?). My friend calls her stuffed lion, "Singaram, the lion" and therefore a team like ours had a self-inflicted responsibility to come up with a name befitting our art-work.

We came up with three. The snowman was called Santhanagopalan. He also goes by Sheshadri. Since Santhanagopalan implies that he will be spelling his name forever at Starbucks, we decided to call him Snownibal as a salute to the sleepless nights of reading Hannibal Lecter books, though the logical abbreviation would have been Santa. Snownibal was also chosen for Hannibal because of the whole Crossing of the Alps bit and we were sure there must have been lot of snow while doing so. 

Santhanagopalan Andrew Carnegie Sundaram Iyengar (as a hat-tip to all the schools we both attended/attend) would have been perfect but it was too cold to goof around more. In retrospect, it actually abbreviates to SACSI- Sexy indeed, the effect that we were going for.

I can now proudly say that I finally built a snowman. He is quirky and wears his hat at a jaunty angle.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

One of those days (aka Dear Diary post)

Today was one of those days when everything went according to the plan. It is amazing how rarely these days occur. I went to a lecture three minutes ahead of time;  hit the gym; did not binge eat; did the dishes down to the last spoon; walked into the frozen yogurt shop and then walked right outside without buying anything; drank only two cups of coffee - boy, I am so proud of myself.

I am so proud that I wanted to make a note about this once in a blue moon day. The problem with self-control is that, by default, mine is on a road to perdition. I calculate the probability of my going above and beyond to stick to a routine and then give up just by the thought.

Like everything that is not good for a person, doing things impromptu, feels good. Historically it has worked well too. I get so much work done when I capitalize on my prime productivity zones that probably occurs once a week at inconvenient, god-forsaken times, and then go about the rest of the week, in what Calvin would call, a complete forfeiture of experience. The problem with this approach to life is that it is extremely difficult to induce these happy zones, on demand, especially when there is homework to be done and reports to write.

Digressions apart, today was perfect- except the time I tried to study and fell asleep for a rather embarrassingly long period of time. Oh, so much for perfection.

I am just going to try holding on to this meek attempt to live a normal life and see how it goes.