a pseudo-photoblog

point of view

Fallen Yet Attached

Over time..

One lets go..

.. of some people

.. of some habits

.. of some things

.. of some obsessions

But..

In reflection..

One is still vaguely attached to the old branchlet

Currents take us to another branchlet

And yet another, further away

Endlessly..

Till decay

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Wet Zebra & Dotted Slippers

Morning drizzle = Inspiration

Inspiration + Mundane objects in hand (and on feet) = Eccentric Creativity

Eccentric Creativity + Camera = Abstract beauty

Abstract beauty + Urge to show off = Blog post

Wet Zebra

Dotted Slippers join the Wet Zebra

Relaxing in the Rain


8 Myths about PhD & Research in CS

Warning : This is one hell of an arrogant & obnoxious post. If you feel like feeling offended, stop reading right now! (Did you notice that I did not even say ‘Please’ or ‘Kindly’?)

Myth#1 : A PhD is extended school “studies” – extended beyond  tolerable limits!

Truth : I am NOT cramming books, writing suicide provoking answers in exams or submitting half-baked assignments every week here! And please, post-doc is NOT undergraduate courses extended to the limit! Anyone asking “For just how many more years do you intend to keep studying??” in spite of me politely explaining a dozen times that “I am not studying in the school sense, rather researching”,  is asking to be pushed under the wheels of an auto-rickshaw at the very next opportune moment!

Myth#2 : Research is boring!

Truth : If it was, none of the researchers from Galileo to ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan would have done what they did. Can you imagine life without electricity? Medicine? Aircrafts? Cars? Satellite TV? Computers? That beloved iPad? Or that inseparable mobile phone? If not, you better dare not call research boring!

Myth#3 : CS researchers sit at a dark corner of an attic/basement/garage 24×7 typing away to a computer that has a blinking screen with black background & green font.

Truth : We do sit typing away to a computer for long periods of time. But so do you. After all, YOU are the one at the other end of the chat session on google chat! 😛

Myth#4 : CS researchers write scary C++/Java code every waking minute. If you print the amount of code all CS researchers in this world churn out, you’d need to borrow cupboard space from Jupiter.

Truth : I don’t remember the last time I wrote 3000 lines of code. Actually, I do – it was an assignment that I did wrong. CS researchers – most of them, most often – think more, code less! And they do NOT remember every bit of syntax of every programming language and can NOT debug your code in less than 5 minutes!

Myth#5 : Feel the urge to hack into that frienemy’s GMail/Orkut account? Call that CS researcher (yes, the one swimming in caffeine in that dark corner of that attic)

Truth : Too late. You should have asked a teenage me – that was when I lost interest in hacking. Or please ask one of those “techies” around who blog only about how to get a piece of software to do what it was not designed to do! No offense to “techies”. . but please spare me these hacking requests. Hacking no longer arouses me!

Myth#6 : Need an antivirus software? Or need to purge your laptop of the zillion viruses that you have managed to attract? Call that jobless CS PhD student.

Truth : That jobless CS PhD student might just be so outdated with anything that concerns Microsoft Windows that she now fumbles to navigate the Office 2007 interface! Shocking, but true. Sad, but true. Come to terms with it. Or delete my contact details from your phone. Please. Right away.

Myth#7 : Researchers read loads of books. All these books have complicated scary formulae printed 5 per page.  Or it could be huge diagrams or graphs or rows and rows of numbers with 8 digits after the decimal point. Apart from hundreds of pages of text that sounds swahili, that is.

Truth : Neither Ashok Banker’s Ramayana nor “How To Rule The World: A Handbook For The Aspiring Dictator” has any of those. Sorry to disappoint you.

Myth#8 : That PhD student is busy at all times of the day because she is busy attending classes. After all, there would be more course work for higher ‘degree’s.

Truth : Actually, please continue believing that. Saves me a lot of pointless talk which generally involves countering the questions “When would you finish that PhD?”, “When would you come over to meet us?” and “When do you plan to get married?” with subtly sarcastic replies which you wouldn’t get most of the time!


Creativity & CS Research

Happened to watch this TED talk on “Nurturing Creativity” by Elizabeth Gilbert last night. And felt moved.

When she talks of the self-doubt a creative person is almost always filled with, it strikes a chord.

When she talks of the ancient Roman way of thinking of “genius” as a magical divine entity who invisibly helps the artist and shapes the out come of the work – a brilliant psychological construct to protect an artist from both the plaguing self-doubt that comes with not-so-good results and the dangerous narcissism that comes with very-good results – it strikes a chord.

When she talks of the poem coming thud thud thud to the poet and her missing it if she doesn’t reach a paper & pen in time to catch the poem & transcribe it, it strikes a chord.

And when she finally concludes that it is best for a creative person to dissociate himself/herself from the results and just concentrate on giving his/her 100% to the creative process, it strikes a chord.

Now, me saying that would be laughed/frowned upon, given that I am this “geek” or “nerd” (or both) who calls herself a “researcher”, a “computer scientist” and spends insane number of hours in front of a computer in a depressing lab. “Where is creativity or art in that?” you ask?

Donald Knuth says “Computer programming is an art form, like the creation of poetry or music.”. By extension, CS research – with the necessity and opportunity to be able to “shift levels of abstraction, from low level to high level. To see something in the small and to see something in the large” (again in Knuth’s words) – is a higher art form. And when Knuth, one of the Gods of CS, says such things implying that CS is one of the greatest creative art forms, who the hell are you to refute, huh?

So that’s settled – I am involved in creative stuff, and hence all that Liz said in the talk applies to me. Matter settled.

But do ideas really “come” to me? Well, I’d like to think so. . How else can I explain the idea/solution occurring to me first and the “basis for that idea/solution” becoming clear to me only after a couple of weeks of analysis? As Leslie Lamport puts it, “When I look back on my work, most of it seems like dumb luck – I happened to be looking at the right problem, at the right time, having the right background.”

Am I filled with self-doubt?  Well, only sometimes, luckily. At times when the “looking at the right problem, at right time, having the right background” combination acts all elusive. At times when faced with the skeptical “You are working on that? Just how practical or real-life affecting a problem is that?”. At times when thrown that sarcastic “Oh, so you are working for the benefit of the generation to come two decades hence. Good”.

But that said, the beauty of the whole thing is in those “Eureka moments” – when you have given your 100% to groping (almost) blindly in the dark for the right problem or its solution and happen to see nice results.

So, as per Liz’s suggestion, I am thinking of having this notion of a “genius” fairy that “gives” me ideas.. A magical creature whose thought would keep me grounded when I do see good results from my efforts. . A divine creature who would take the blame when “my” ideas fail, at whom I can shout at for not “passing along” good ideas.

Sounds fun. I just need a name for my “genius” fairy. Any suggestions? 😉


PhD & Completion

WARNING : Long post ahead! May not make much sense to laymen (yep, we super smug researchers like to call the rest of the world that).

A question that I am asked (too) often :

“When the hell are you going to complete that PhD of yours?”

That’s a question which has been eliciting different non-chalant replies – “God Knos”, “Come on.. I’ve just started & talk about completion?!”, “Is that of any concern to the general good of the universe?”, “When my supervisor can tolerate me no more & kicks me out”.

But when a sweet Prof casually asked “So, when do you intend to start writing your thesis?” in the lift, I blinked!

I blinked, blinked again & finally blurted out “End of the year” & quickly add “that’s what supervisor wants”.

He smiled & asked, “When do you want to?”

I blinked, blurted out something, continued to blink & was left blinking while he left the lift on his floor.

Tadaa. . one of those “eye-opener” moments. . The only problem being that the opened eyes refused to close for a while, even to blink!

 

So, one question that I have been asking myself since :

“When am I ready to ‘complete’ my PhD?”

Answer?

A check-list :

1. Have I learnt to really appreciate research?

Around 3yrs back, when I was asked in the PhD admission interview “Why do you want to do a PhD in CS?”, my answer was “Because I am passionate about Computer Science research”.

Today, my answer would be “Because I am passionate about research, and CS seems to be my pet research area”.

Thanks to an advisor who was & still is more interested in pushing me to think more about the exploit-the-physics part of my current research topic, I today find myself enamoured by research problems in any field. There is that zoom out effect – from focusing on just CS problems to finding problems everywhere and finding beauty in them.

So, yes, I have learnt to really appreciate research in a wholesome sense.

Point 1 – Check.

2. Have I learnt how to keep alive that passion for research & rise above disillusionment?

Enter PhD with this utopian expectation of “next few years dedicated to research, problem solving, excitement”

One year into it : You feel “Oh, it’s not all green grass here”.

Finish course work & plunge into “pure research” : You know “It’s NOT green grass here”

And it comes with the freebies – crazy deadlines, TA work, work that seems to pile up in burst mode, frustrating duties as a TA , seeing the dynamics of the proferssors’ lives – not really free of monotony, boredom or absurdities, suicide-prompting ‘duties’ as a TA (I know, that’s an intentional repetition), etc etc etc.

Worst of all : Days, and sometimes weeks pass without an iota of research happening. Either for the lack of time or for the lack of mood/peace of mind. Or both. That hits at the very foundation of the “Oh, research in academia is intellectual bliss” notion.

But. .

The next time you get that stretch of few hours sans disturbance when you can really find/attack a problem at peace, all the disillusionment gets undone.

The trick seems to be keeping this cycle’s period as short as possible. By hook or crook.

For instance, going AWOL & being nocturnal for a week, staying away from lab and allowing yourself to get obsessed with a problem – not necessarily urgent/useful towards your thesis seems to work. Wonderfully.

So, yes, I can negate disillusionment & re-spark that passion for research whenever necessary.

Point 2 – Check.

3. Have I learn to come out of utopia when necessary & be practical in research?

Being a person who is prone to getting obsessed with one problem, however unimportant it may seem, I sometimes need to be shaken awake to be able to see the bigger picture.

Has that been done? Yes, quite often.

Would it need to be done by an external force in future? Perhaps, but not much.

I have learnt to “let go” of a problem when it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere for a while.

Point 3 – Check.

4. Have I learnt the importance of going back to fight with I had “let go” long back?

Whenever I find myself saying “Yes, that is an interesting idea, but I explored it 2 yrs back and it did not work out”, I almost always find myself getting more insights of the issue/solving the issue when I go back to the problem again. Don’t know if I get wiser with age or the problem gets easier with time! Guess the problem just gets marinated long enough at the back of my mind & becomes soft enough to bite through.

A lesson learnt long back, and reinforced recently.

I should start a “failed ideas” diary & note down all the ideas I “let go” of & flip through it once a year or so.

Point 4 – Check.

5. <More such “have I learnt”s about attitude towards research, which are too many to list>

Point 5 – Check.

6. Have I had time to think, introspect, and “take it slow” that I now believe that I would not feel that my life as a PhD student was ‘incomplete’?

Absolutely. Had the luxury of a supervisor making the mistake of saying, once, “Take time, learn. There’s no hurry to produce results for a while.” and exploited that statement to the fullest.

The “a while” got extended to “quite a while” to “a long time”, but in the process, learnt to enjoy life inclusive of “work”. Learnt to explore & be adventurous – both in research and otherwise. Learnt not to be a workaholic. I know, that’s debatable according to ppl who know me, but please believe me, I am not a workaholic. 😉

Point 6 – Check.

7. Have I learnt to face the necessary but boring evils in research without sulking (much) – namely writing papers, preparing presentations (conforming to certain ‘rules’) etc?

I think so. Yet to be confirmed.

Point 7 – Half check.

8. Do I have the ‘results’ to flaunt & demand that tag of “Doctor of Philosophy”?

Not yet. But I have a feeling that’s the easier part, once the rest is covered.

Point 8 – Pending.

==================================================================================

Wow. . More than 81% (tentative) coverage. Good going. [Pats her back]

Tentative – cos there might be (should be) more metrics to judge how “ready” one is to complete a PhD.

If I want to boost that coverage number (as a true blue engineer), I would have to add the following points to the check-list :

Bonus-points :

  • Do I want to eat real food, without having to go through the trouble of going to restaurants? YES. Check.
  • Do I badly, badly want a washing machine & instant geyser of my own? YES. Check.
  • Do I want a scooty? YES. Check.
  • Am I fed up with that part of TA work which needs me to answer questions like “If I change that file, and something goes wrong, then?? [scandalized look]”, but not with “The world will come to an end. Please don’t trigger an apocalypse”? – YES. Check

That pulls up the coverage to 87.5%. Awesome.

Any additions? Especially to the non-bonus point in the check-list?


CS conferences & fun, inspiration, point or the lack of it

Say “Conference”
I think…

  • Paper presentations – mostly boring
  • Coffee – with stupid non-dairy creamer if the conference is abroad
  • Looking for that precious seat which hides you when you nod off from the poor speaker on the stage
  • Someone beating you to that seat & you ending up in the first row, struggling to keep eyes open
  • Sometimes, very rarely, catching up with a dear friend, gossiping, giggling, having fun while folks around are busy talking power, performance and defects
  • Keynotes speeches – may or may not awaken you
  • Boring lunches if you have no one to talk to
  • A registration kit – a bag, some small souvenir, a notepad, a pen, and..  a CD of the proceedings of the conference that you are never even pop into a CD drive
  • Travel, exploration, experience of a new place – the best part of it
  • In case of out of country travel, applying for travel grants & getting reimbursement  -Arrrrgh, the most irritating part of it!
  • Sleepy, tired, bored people around who have the same thought as you – “When would this end? When can I get some fresh air or some sleep or both?”

Well, it should have been, and I’d have preferred it to have been..

  • Idea or Findings presentations – kicking off new ideas
  • Keynote speeches – the inspiring ones of the kind that leave you with a sincere, silly grin and  ideas to contemplate
  • Meeting interesting people who are infectiously enthusiastic about stuff being discussed
  • Lunch and Coffee breaks turning into impromptu brain-storming sessions
  • That proceedings CD which you’d want to look up for details of interesting ideas/findings that you’ve just heard of
  • Panel discussions, open debates, mass brainstorming sessions
  • Travel, exploration, experience of a new place – an added bonus
  • Inspiration, mental refreshment & enthusiasm to take back home
  • The want to attend the conference the next year and every year that follows

Now, why the hell doesn’t that happen?

When a V.S.Ramachandran can make neuroscience so engaging and connect with a non-scientific audience, why can’t a CS researcher connect with a CS research audience? Forget about other speakers, why can’t even the so called keynote speakers make an impact? Why are you subjected to keynotes where the speaker doesn’t even recognize what’s there on the next slide and asks his colleague to help him with it?

When as the researcher, I find the work in my paper exciting, when the Program Committee has found it valuable enough, why can’t I hold audience’s attention for a few minutes and share the excitement?

Is it that CS is too bland, boring a subject to inspire? Is it too intimate a field of research to be able to spread the joy in the community?

I guess it’s just that we have been taking conferences too lightly .. We have been taking them as an alternative to journals – fast turn-around time, fewer pages to write, less rigour needed and voila, you can take a few days off on the pretext of attending!

I guess it’s just that there has come about this unwritten rule that “It does not really matter if your talk is as insipid as mud, you’ve got a paper published. Chill out!”.

I guess it’s just that no one really cares any longer if they enjoy the technical part of the conference. It’s about networking – be seen at the right places, be seen among the right people, be seen often, people should recall you as that guy from that institute whom we met in that conference, that conference and the other conference.

I guess it’s just that hosting a conference has become an issue of pride and has got nothing to do with how much purpose the whole drama of organizing it over months – involving a couple 100 people, a hall full of people from the world over travelling to the your place, all the food, money & effort – serves!

And as long as speakers treat conference presentations as summarizing their papers – abstract, objective, literature survey, idea, result…. As long as the audience treats presentations as a replacement to reading the papers. .  As long as people attend conferences just because their  accepted paper would get published only if they do. . As long as CS folks stick to rigour, completeness and formal language even in presentations. . things are not going to change.

Sadly!

And why do I write this now?

Because I just realized that the only long lasting thing that I have gained from the last conference I attended (in China) is a taste for jasmine tea!!


Feelings of a TA

Disclaimer :

I in no way under-rate the collective quality of education or the average talent level of students at IITs. Views presented here are merely the result of observations about a not-too-small section of students.

I’m disappointed.

Most of them do not want to think beyond what is evident. “What does this result tell me?” is not an oft asked question.

I’m sad.

Some of these people aren’t ready to put in effort. They do not want to contemplate any concept beyond what is mentioned in class. They do not even want to put in the minimal effort to understand the basic point of some things mentioned in class – they come up with their own absurd reasons as to why their wrong understanding of it is “right”.

I feel helpless.

When people do things only for marks. When they do assignments blindly and mechanically, without pausing even a second to think about why they are being asked to do it. After not being able to answer the few simple questions thrown at them during lab assignment demos, when people complain “She is asking questions just to cut marks. The assignment never stated that I had to know those things”, I pretend to myself that people here really want to learn, not just get good grades.

I’m curious.

Where’s the curiosity in all these people? Why aren’t they asking themselves “why is this so?”, “how is this so?”, “what will happen if this is not so?”, “what other possibilities exist?”.

I feel disgusted.

Many of them want to be spoon-fed. Hand-holding seems to be a lesser evil now. When a student tells me “I did not do that in the assignment because you did not explicitly tell me to do it.”, I roll my eyes. When a student tells me “I did not know that bit to complete the assignment. I was not taught that in class.”, I suppress a sarcastic retort asking “In which classroom were you taught to download 100s of GBs of movies & watch them back to back?”.  When a student asks me “Would you have the solution manual to the exercise problems in this textbook? If I knew the answer, then I would find it easier to ‘work’ towards the answer?”, I am left speechless.

I’m angry.

At the education system. The coaching industry has managed to be very successful in producing “pattern recognizing machines” who can solve problems of the sort they’ve been bombarded with a zillion times. The JEE kings & queens can no longer attack a problem with originality. The GATE nobility can no longer argue a point, they can only choose the correct option. They want everything to be told to them explicitly, everything to be put on paper. They want to throw any reference material other than class powerpoint slides out of their lives. The JEE-coaching-culture has made IIT BTechs to expect spoonfeeding with respect to the ways of approaching a problem. The indifferent and bookish teaching culture of the 2nd rung engineering colleges has made IIT MTechs to demand spoonfeeding as a right!

I am filled with self-doubt.

Am I the only one who thinks concepts need to be appreciated and not merely acknowledged? Am I the only one who thinks assignments are a fun way of learning, thinking and applying? Am I the only one who thinks that the more challenging questions you face, the more you understand the concept? Am I expecting too much out of people? Am I harbouring utopian ideas?

BUT..

I haven’t given up hope yet..

Because..

I’m glad

When I argue for an out-of-the-box point, someone comments “Well, that’s an absurd line of thought. But it is an interesting way of seeing things.”, I find that grin creeping across my face. When that single soul tells me “I enjoyed doing this assignment. It was interesting to observe some things & think about some things.”, I can’t but feel happy & satisfied that small assignment that I put up with the aim of making people think & enjoy learning has served its purpose. When people trust me enough to ask me to clarify some doubts or teach them some stuff from a class they missed, the feeling of “Oh, I could endure this for a lifetime just to experience these occasional moments” brightens my day.

I have a hunch.

That even in today’s education scene, teaching is not too thankless a job after all 😉