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Announcing : Closing Ceremony

To all existent and imaginary readers – new and old,

This is to announce the end of this blog’s lifetime.

Primary ailment : I don’t feel like writing or showing off photographs any more.

Good Bye Soldiers!


Fe(e)tish

You visit the Red Fort at Delhi. . What would you photograph?

If you are an average indian tourist.. (pardon the missing “I was there” snap)

If you are a DSLR toting foreign tourist or an “amateur photographer”..

If you are both of those, and additionally a “genius” 😉 ..

Watching colorful Indians,  their antics and of course, their feet is far more interesting than looking around an over-crowded Mughal building on a scorching May day, ain’t it?


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? 😉


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 😉


The Student-Teacher divide

Read all mushy posts for Teachers day a couple of weeks back..

Get outraged by the kind of innovatively wrong answers students come up with while checking exam papers a week back..

Witness both clever thinking and pointless-ly done assignments a few days back..

‘Enjoy’ an all time high interaction with students as a TA (in teaching concepts, clarifying doubts, arguing abt the correctness of their answers etc.) during the past few days..

You tend to think about the way teaching & learning is perceived by students & teachers.

You realize that there is a clear divide. Feel it more since you yourself are positioned ON the dividing line.

You find the divide depressing & put up a status message saying..

Looks like an entire generation has been ‘educated’ to believe that Good Teaching=”preparing short notes of a text book & presenting them in class as slides” and Learning=”memorize slides vaguely.. you can let your imagination run wild to interpret them when confronted with questions in the exam“.. Sadly, Thinking & Appreciating concepts do not find a place.

Well. . that sounded more like I am lamenting on behalf of the teacher (which I was doing), and it was quick to provoke heated arguments with friends. . All who have been only on the student side of the divide..

I say : Students do not utilize a teacher’s earnest effort to put across concepts in interesting ways.

They say : I haven’t seen too many teachers put any kind of effort! May be they do in YOUR dept, in YOUR institute. . But how many teachers do you remember from your previous institute who made learning interesting?

I say :

I say : Students refuse to learn & appreciate basics or contemplate about any concept in detail. . They refuse to go beyond what the slide says.

They say : They would do that when someone provokes thought in them.. When someone makes them see that learning & thinking is fun. Who does that?

I say : It is a 2-way process. . Learning can be fun only if both parties put in effort.. For instance, students should be thinking why an assignment is framed the way it is. . What it is trying to make them learn/experience/appreciate. . and THEN attack the problem . . there is no point in mechanically doing an assignment and presenting a solution which most of your peer group agrees upon. How many do that?

They say : Do we have the time for that? You give us assignment after assignment, deadline after deadline in course after course. . If we sit & meditate on each assignment, when are we going to finish? And when are we going to find time to enjoy life?

I say : Well. . You can enjoy learning too. . If only you stop treating life as a rat race where courses are laps finished. Students seem to be more interested in scoring more than their peers than in learning. Why worry about “Am I getting a half a mark less than that fellow? Should I fight/beg the TA for that half a mark?” instead of thinking “I made this mistake & lost marks. . I have learnt what not to do now” ?

They say : Life IS a rat race, honey!

I say : Why do students (esply the post graduates who have graduated from non-IITs) seem to think that ‘covering’ a textbook is better teaching? Why do they prefer a prof who runs through every detail in the textbook in marathon-mode to a prof who takes it slow & steady & tries to get the class to think & appreciate the stuff? If I had to ‘cover’ a textbook, I would sit under a tree & read it. . not come to class at 8am in a cold November!

They say :

They say : For all that talk, how many profs approach teaching with a passion? How many approach each classroom session with an infectious enthusiasm? They do a mechanical job, we too go through it mechanically.

I say : As long as students do not take the course seriously & show enthusiasm & commitment, how do you expect profs to retain their enthusiasm and do a great job? They are bound to get frustrated from seeing no fruit for their efforts. That means, you get a poor course experience cos you did not respond positively to the Prof’s efforts.

They say : !!! Profs get frustrated? I thought they’d be cool with their jobs. . Though it may be thankless & boring.

I say : !!!

Clearly, the arguments lead nowhere. . They are never-ending. . But they do throw up some interesting points..

  • When would teachers retain passion for teaching & approach each class with an aim to put across basic concepts & provoke thought?
  • When will students realize that going through the works of a course mechanically is mere waste of time & effort?
  • When will teachers recognize the need to pause the grilling for a while & help students realize that their active role is important in making the course worthwhile?
  • When will students realize that not all teachers fall in the category of “know nothing. . repeat something from textbook. . gives a damn about whether I learn something or not”? That in most cases, a lot of thought goes behind the way a course is conducted?
  • When would this student-teacher divide be bridged?

Questions sound too idealistic & utopian eh?


The Million Dollar. .nah. . Rs.4760 Question..

The question 10 days back : Does that* mean I should not pay up the mess bill???
that* – refer note from Hostel administration below!

The question now : Why is my room not “Double locked” yet?

The question always : Why “Double lock”?? Is this a result of IIT’s administration junta competing with the techies in innovating?

Pssst. . Did not get the point? Read the second line in the notice again.