Friday, June 28, 2013

The colorful symphony (a short story)

The cold water caressed my skin. Eyes closed, I let it wash me blue, like a long slow song. I opened my eyes and saw her- a wallflower among the pretty roses. 

She was not particularly beautiful, 'passable' was almost a kind adjective for her. And no, she didn't have any peculiar charm. She was just another girl. I could see even from a distance she was a little headstrong compared to the other pretty, cute women. A headstrong wallflower- she was an oxymoron. A little like me. For some reason, I liked her.

I had met her only a few days ago, in an artists' convention. She talked with conviction, pride shivering in her voice. She didn't seem to care that nobody else cared as much about what she said. About new techniques for using new tools. About meaning in art. I confess I wasn't listening too well either. Her voice was sweeping me in an ocean of colors- hazel, peach, calm sky blue.

There definitely was something about her!

I went back to my spot on the shore and picked my paintbrush. I was going to compose a melody in color. A slow song, filled with love, calling out to that lady. The first few notes close to each other, just the same notes playing with each other. Then slowly rising, slowly with the chords still on the lower scales. And then the violinists taking over- higher, higher. And finally, back to the melody. The painting was of the sky and the waves, with just a hint of a woman in the distance..

I wanted so badly to run to her and tell her that she had changed my life. She had made the invisible thrushes sing and the spring flowers bloom in winter. Well, for all the poetic dreaming I could go on with- I was scared.She was too smart for me. Too bold. She would definitely slap me. Or say, "I am disappointed with you!". So, I stopped myself and focused on the colors with the song in my head.

Maybe all that love was meant to be converted into musical paintings... And besides, ......
I moved the umbrella to my side because I hate the sun shining in my eyes. The sea was beautiful. Vast. Silent. I love silence. Which is the only reason I come to the beach. I don't have a beach body. I hate getting into the water and feeling inadequate in front of everyone. But just watching the plain sea and no people- bliss!

I was at the beach that day because of a guy. He was an artist too, like me. And he seemed to understand what I was saying- at least some times! He wasn't great looking, though he looked good enough to me. But was he witty! Just thinking of him made me smile- me, who had forgotten to smile in years of struggle with my condition. My mind kept jumping to all the funny things he said, as if it was a separate entity out of my control. Well, well. I guess I am an idiot too- like everyone else.

Maybe I should go talk to him. He cannot possibly be rude to a woman. But then again, nobody likes women who pursue too much. Maybe I should let him be. I know too well no one likes women who argue, think, rebel and generally behave like men do. And he was just a normal guy. 

He walked out of the water and took his easel. I could see the colors clearly- he wasn't too far. As he painted, I could hear a song in my head. It was a romantic song, but sort of a symphony too. Somewhere it seemed to be calling out to a woman. Oh, well. He was probably calling out to one of those pretty blondes hanging there. One of them always hangs out with him. Maybe his girlfriend. Or maybe he just secretly likes her.

No, I wasn't jealous. So what if she had the perfect tan and body like a sculpture? So what if her blue eyes were the dream of every man around? To hell with men, anyway. I went back to listening to the song (in my head, of course. He wasn't singing- it was just the way his colors sounded in my mind!). 

I guess I got enough of him from his art anyway. Besides....

He and She
Besides, which normal person would love ME after they knew I had synesthesia?


(Note: Synesthesia is a rare mental condition where different senses are sort of cross-wired in the brain. Synesthetics can hear colors, smell sounds etc. I am not sure if there is a color->sound synesthesia though there is definitely a sound-> color one. So, this story might not be strictly scientific. Artistic license I guess. Hope you liked it! :) )

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chennai Express, stereotyping and cinema

About a week ago, I saw the Chennai Express trailer and posted it on fb with an equivalent of- 'The only reason why Chennai Express can be this bad is if Mumbaikars are taking revenge on us for the Tamil movie Mumbai Express'. The two-minute trailer had about two million mistakes. (My Intel Media days make me say: That should be ~694 mistakes per frame! Ya, I know I am using my hyperbole license here.) 

Anyway, almost every Tamilian I knew was aghast. Even some non-Tamil south Indians were shocked. THIS was not how we were. (The most glaring mistakes included using Kathakali to depict Tamilians and showing goons threatening with knives that are actually used for harvesting- which no self-respecting goon would even touch. And I am not even going to start on the accent :-/). 

But then, I thought for a few minutes- aren't "North" Indians misrepresented in Tamil movies? From the assortment of "Singh"s who speak unbearable Hindi to Mallu women in blouse and mundu (tied in a way that I have never seen any Mallu woman wearing in all my years in Kerala!), Muslim men always with beard and cap and talking Hindi-mixed Tamil- the list is endless. And you might have noticed the stereotyping in Hollywood as well- Chinese accents, French romantic men, rude Germans, Indian women with jingling jewelry, and it goes on.
If you know me, you might be tempted to ask at this point- didn't you miss TamBrahm stereotyping in Tamil? I was actually saving the best for the last :P From the earliest time I can remember of watching Tamil movies, I have always wondered why Brahmins were sooooooo misrepresented in our movies (Hindi and Tamil alike. Hindi- Hum hai rahi pyar ke, Shaktimaan (the series), Malini Iyer (don't remember the name) are a few off the top of my head!) What did we ever do to the world to be stereotyped so poorly? With all my interaction with Brahmins, I have met too many "normal" people to believe that everyone uses Brahmin accent at work and with non-Brahmin friends. It is almost like somebody picked a stylised accent from a century ago and decided that anybody who is a Brahmin in a movie should speak that archaic accent. (I know some Brahmin guys who look awesome, speak flawless English AND are very intelligent. Which is the exact opposite of the typical thayir-saadam Ambi types in movies!)

So, am I saying that just because we have so much stereotyping in Tamil cinema, it's ok for Bollywood to stereotype us? Well, it depends.
The idea behind having a stereotype is that it is easy for the audience to fill in some gaps and make inferences. Also, it often makes humor very easy- an effort-saver if you are unable to think up good jokes. Which is fine if the audience understands that this is a stereotype used for a joke and not carry the stereotype home.
But there are two caveats to this. The first is that- even some very good movies have stereotypes.  When an otherwise sensible movie has a stereotype, it clashes with how realistic the plot is. It ruins the movie for people who know the stereotype, it spreads the stereotype for those who don't. 
The second is that- unfortunately movie watching usually triggers the emotional circuitry of the brain, but not much of the cognitive circuitry. (There are some MRI studies which show brain activity in the medial temporal lobe, but almost none in the frontal cortex.) What this means is that the audience is emotionally involved with the movie, but not usually thinking. So when a stereotypical character is bad or stupid, the audience is angry or frustrated along with the protagonist, and might potentially carry that frustration back home. (This is just my inference, not part of the study!) So you see, the stereotypes are not harmless comedy at all! 

At this point, I am sure someone is thinking I am creating a mountain out of a molehill. I used to think so too, until I faced some typical racist comments from people around me- From "You are a South Indian so you don't understand Hindi" (which pisses me off because I have read more Surdas and classic Hindi literature than many people who comment), and "You are a TamBrahm so you love curd rice", to "I am surprised you are not mean. Are you sure you are a (*insert any group I belong to here- Indian, Tamilian, Brahmin, Iyengar, whatever*)?" When someone says that, I have an instinct to say "You racist *#*^$%*". But instead I swallow and say "You were wrong about (*the group*) then, weren't you?"

I know that stereotyping doesn't originate in cinema. But because cinema is such a powerful medium, it might be worthwhile to cut down the stereotyping.

As for Chennai Express- it is still an unforgivable stereotyping attempt because it seems to have only racism and almost no humor. But then again, when did I start expecting good cinema from Shah Rukh?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Miracle (a poem)

I was about to give up on my challenge today. Too sleepy. And not able to find time these days. Besides, sometimes it feels like throwing words into a vacuum. There aren't even echoes.. 

Anyway, for some strange reason, I logged back in and decided to write.. (Which is partly why I called this post a 'miracle' :P ) Leaving you with two poems... Both are under 140 characters (The second is actually 140 exact!)

Years of positive thinking sedimented on me,
And yet sometimes, I am shaken out of the illusion
But is it really an illusion?

I break free from the dark prison, hungry and choking- my hard work and perseverance saving me..
And she exclaims at the new leaf "Miracle!"

Monday, June 24, 2013

(This is the 14th post in the one-month challenge series)

I just wrote an entire post and deleted it before posting. It was about marks, privacy and parenting. I thought I had some points to say, but the more I wrote the more I realized this was leading nowhere. I was either roping in too many subjects or getting too vague about some. 

But that was not the real problem. I was myself not convinced with many of the things I had written. I believed in some of it, but my belief was vague. And once I realized that, I had to close my eyes and press delete. There is no point writing something about which you do not have much conviction. Which is what I call writing badly.

But, now you see, I don't have the energy to write one entire new post, so I will just say something real quick.. 

In my Psych class, we once talked about the "pigeon as a quality inspector". The idea was that pigeons are birds that can be trained VERY easily.  So you train a pigeon to compare a tablet (the one that has medicine, not the electronic one) with a prototype and reject all pieces that do not match. With some minimal reinforcements in between (a few grains and water every so many minutes), the pigeon can be used for this. The best part about this idea was that they showed that the pigeons were a lot more reliable (in terms of accuracy in discarding the bad products and letting in the good ones) than human beings.
Of course, they were not only efficient but cost-effective also. Just some food and water. No regular salary, no tea breaks, no 401k. You wouldn't find the pigeons chitchatting during work or engaging in politics and they can work even on national holidays. Apparently, the pigeons didn't get tired as quickly as humans either. Now, obviously no company would be ready to use pigeons as quality checking personnel. Even if there accuracy as higher than 99% and they needed less than a week to train. 

But wait. Isn't this kind of stuff automated now anyway? Of course it is. This paper is a veryold one. But the reason I mentioned it is because there are enough other manual jobs in the world which are no-brainers. And yet we could never automate them by training pigeons or mice.

Which is something for you to ponder. Aren't there some prejudices that prevail unequivocally against overwhelming evidence? If all the evidence in the world stll supported a mouse outperforming a human in a particular task, would you hire the mouse over the human?

Just something to think about..

Reference: (Article not available for free.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013


The words glistened and he thought, 'Needs more irony'.
A dash of words and the previously palpable poem began to mean.

I usually think I should not force my interpretations on my readers. So read on only if you have thought enough about what you think this means. This TTT is based on a poem we had in school- Ars Poetica. I hated the poem when I first read it, but later in life I began to adore it. Archibald Macleish says "A poem should be palpable and mute, like a globed fruit" and "A poem should not mean, but be".
I read my previous TTT and felt that I had made the same mistake the guy in today's poem does. The poem began to mean, and not be.
Oh, by the way, today's is under 140 characters :)

Saturday, June 22, 2013


(Trying to write short story-poems. So far, I wrote two with a 195-character limit. I hope I will be able to do them with the Twitter limit soon. Posting the second one here. Inspired by Terribly Tiny Tales.)

Orange, blue, yellow, red.  For the first time she noticed the beautiful colors flashing by. 
In the last minute of her life, the rape victim lay on the dusty road. Loving life- one last time...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What's with all the marrying?

Seriously. What's with everyone? Either getting married or having kids.. I'm tired of it, I tell u.. 
Ya, ya I know there are some people out there who are gonna be saying- "Don't talk as if you never will get married. That particular abyss awaits everyone!" So, at the outset let me tell you that it is not marriage or having children that I am against. It is the whole set of stupid things that people do along with it.. And anyway, I tried my best to avoid writing about this for quite sometime, partly because many other people have written very good posts on this topic and I thought I won't have much to add. But I guess the frustration got ahead of me today.

So here is my list of 5 things I hate to see people do after their wedding/baby-having- in the order of least annoying to most annoying. 

  1. Talking about their kids all day long:
    A typical conversation goes- "My kid does (insert some disgusting thing) with food" "Oh so sweet! My kid did (insert an even more disgusting thing) when he was about that age."  "But you know he is very smart- he can tell when I am watching" .......
    You know what this talk reminds me of-

  1. Saying stupid things that are supposed to sound sweet:
    This is not as common as the previous one, but is still bad. Just last week someone put a status- "So sweet to be stuck in Bangalore traffic while carpooling with my hubby". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The best I can say is "You are probably not the one driving!"
    Even better is what new-age parents put up- "First time changing my son's diaper. It's a soul-stirring experience". Soul-stirring? Seriously? I am just speechless!
  2. Hitting on each other on fb: This one is mostly for newly engaged men who are having arranged marriages and hence are trying to create an "I-am-a-very-sweet-cool-fun-guy" impression on the girl by going "Happy Valentine's Day to the cutest, smartest, prettiest woman in the world." First off, just because Bombay Jayashree sings 'Win me over with lies' this anda-pulugu-aagaasa-pulugu level is too much. (or in Rajni style- too too much!).Second, if you are already engaged, this flirting is not gonna change much. See I am not saying don't flirt. But flirting on fb makes it look like you can't flirt but just want everyone to know you can. It is the most pretentious thing I ever saw. 
    I remember a couple I knew who were like the most boring people on Earth, and they converted each other's timelines into countdown timers ("Honeeeyyy.. 2 more days to go!"  "5 mins left" and so on.) In the end I had to block their feeds before they went into the microseconds range.
    So here I bring a new edition of the the third George Carlin commandment- "Thou shalt keep thy flirting to thyself!".
    Or in thalaivar style - "Adhigama sight adikara payyanum, adhigama 'Awww' solra ponnum nalla vaazhndhadha saritharame kedayadhu. Mind it!"
  3. Changing photos: This one comes in so many different forms I could dedicate a separate post to this alone. Anyway...
  • Changing cover photos on fb to 2 clasped hands or wedding rings or mehndi-applied palms. I admit I loved the first mehndi cover pic I saw. It looked pretty and made a good cover pic. But when 17 people on my profile changed all their cover pics to mehndi-applied palms, (I am not kidding- I actually counted 17 last summer!) it's not that cool anymore. Now I can draw mehndi designs from memory. And I'm not even that great an artist.
  • Changing profile pics to couple pics- This one is tops.  Once in a while having a couple pic on your profile is all fine. But what's with I-got-married-so-I-shall-never-have-any-more-individual-pics? Are you so lame that all your life is about just one individual? Get a life, seriously!
  • Writing "You are the cutest couple ever" on the couple pics above- I agree that sometimes couple pics look good. But I better let this cat out of the bag right now. 99% of couples in the world are not cute, even alone. Worse, together. This is the obvious corollary of the fact that 99% of the people in the world don't look particularly good.
    So, I don't know what makes such good liars of everyone once they get on fb. In real life, most people would just remain silent when shown the same photo, but on fb they are like "Sooooo pretttyyyy".
    See, I am not someone who goes by appearances usually- but when someone writes "Soooooo cuuuutttteeeee" for the pic of a couple that look like the TR and KB Sundarambal, I really want to burn all of fb. (The bride looked like TR btw. No, not exaggerating. In fact, on second thoughts KB Sundarambal looks ok.)
  • Changing their profile pic to that of their baby's: See, I understand you are very happy with having a baby and all that. I am sure it is an important phase in your life etc. But did u suddenly convert into your baby? Or did you mean that once you had a baby, you don't exist anymore?
    Also, what's with calling every new born baby the most beautiful in the world? "Sooooo cute, he looks just like u". Tell you what, all new born babies look the same. Very few of them have discernible features. Even with Aishwarya Rai's genes they look like this-

    Need I say more? 
  1. Asking other people to get married- Changing photos would have been the most annoying thing married people did, if only they didn't do this.
    I used to think only old aunties go around asking "When are you getting married?". But I realized that even people who got married like yesterday start asking- "Why are you not getting married? You shouldnot postpone these things you know.." See, life is a lot more than just marriage. There is so much more in this world- to do, to think. Anyway, when someone asks me this question- I usually wanna say "How could you go to the dark side in less than 24 hours!" but I don't. Instead I just say this-

P.S: Thanks to Ezhil because it was a conversation with him that made me come up with the two punch lines here :)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


(This is the 10th post in my one-month challenge series!)

Last night, I decided to change the blog's look. I find the color a little too bright, but maybe it's good not to have my usual sombre colors..

Anyway, today I was seeing this link- which is very interesting (do check it out!), but today's post is about a different article on the same site.
It is basically an incident where a student tells a prof he didn't understand the solution to a math problem though he knew how to solve. However, when the prof repeated the same explanation, he understood.

My first reaction was- ideally students should not be able to solve a math problem without understanding it.

But then again, what is understanding? I remember reading somewhere that understanding basically means integrating new information to your existing knowledge without contradictions. Going by that, there are some subjects where things make sense to me almost automatically. I can see what the book/author is leading to or what should be done next. But there are some subjects (like Mechanics, which I really suck at) where I know how to solve problems, I know exactly what the principles mean and yet I never feel like I 'got it'. My adviser calls it 'having an intuition for the subject'. What he means by that is you can understand what people say/explain but are unable to extend that knowledge to new situations. What I call- "It doesn't fit in my head".

But when you think about it- the same idea can be understood differently by different people. As a prof told me once- "Think of a transistor. Both of us know it, but the way we think of it is vastly different. Is it just a 3-terminal device, a controlled switch or something to amplify signals with? When someone says transistor, what is the first thought in your head? The physical device, a symbol, an R-C model or the output characteristics?*" 

Which is an interesting point. How do you say someone hasn't understood you when they might just have understood the same thing differently?

And if you look at it even more closely- when have u really understood?  One of my Psych class discussions was about descriptions vs explanations. To say that "The sun rises in the east everyday" is a description. It is a verifiable fact. But to say that "The sun is a star around which the Earth revolves, giving us the notion of the sun rising" is an explanation. It tells why the fact happens. But then again, one might say this is in itself a description. If you ask "Why does the Earth revolve around the sun?" you would get into gravitational theory, then quantum physics and ultimately philosophy (a science with no answers!). So, I had argued with the prof that there are no explanations in this world- only descriptions of different levels. Some people stop at a particular point of asking why. Others don't.

Anyway,the reason I decided to write about the incident mentioned in the post is because something similar happens to me often- not with learning but with everyday issues. There is a particular idea/concept I believe in- like not losing hopes when things seem bleak. I know I just have to hold on. I know that giving up is not going to help.  And yet, sometimes it is so easy to forget it. It seems pointless to hold on or try harder. I don't get why I should. And then, when someone else tells me the exact same reasons that I usually have, it somehow magically makes sense. It revives my hopes and makes me feel better about the world.

I guess it is just hearing those thoughts aloud. Or hearing them from another intelligent human being in a logical manner..

*The actual example has been simplified a lot!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Free will and all that

(This is the 9th post in the one-month challenge series)

Ya, I know I am back on the boring philosophy track. I don't know why I am a big fan of philosophical questions. Maybe because of this (-that comic was just awesome!)
But anyway. Getting to the topic.

Think about what makes you do what you do. If you never thought about it, it might be a hard question. For eg., I know I love coffee. But why do I love it? I might say it's because all the adults in my family drink start every single day of their life with coffee. So much that, in my mind, waking up is inextricably linked with smelling coffee and hearing the tap-tap on the filter. Followed by a family ritual of drinking coffee and discussing different things. If I think back, some of my earliest memories involve morning coffee. I remember it used to be quite a tantalizing thing in my childhood because my mom wouldn't let me have it and yet all grown-ups could. But I digress. My point is that I can trace my liking for coffee to something in my childhood- Positive reinforcement* from people I implicitly trust as a kid and a lot of Pavlovian conditioning.

Au contraire, I could ask my myself why I am an atheist. This might be the millionth time I am mentioning this but I grew up in an orthodox household. Religion is everywhere in our home. God is mentioned about a million times daily. And I was never sufficiently disappointed with my life to give up on God (like many atheists I know did.) Considering I think of life on very promising, cheerful terms, it is a wonder I ever changed my mind. In fact, I distinctly remember arguing with my atheist friend on why believing made sense. Also, almost all of my friends are theists. Not particularly religious. But theists. Almost all the people who have inspired me- my parents, teachers, relatives, famous people- are again theists.So, you see- almost nothing in my environment could have led me to stop believing. And yet, with some help from the 'God Delusion' (and myself) , I changed my mind at some point.
But if you look closely, you might say it's because I used to read a lot (not so much these days) and am influenced by good books. I am also quite interested in science and biology and debate. For each of these I could again go down a track of why I am interested in that particular thing, but you get the idea. You can pretty much nail down my supposedly contrary behavior to something in my environment.

"Wait", you tell me. "Not everything I like can be traced back to the past. It is too naive to do that. Taking your own example, there are many households with a morning coffee ritual but not all their kids become coffee addicts. Surely there is something innate in me that makes me like some things and be good at some things". Obviously. There is your genetic makeup which plays the other big role in making you who you are. Kids who grow up in the same family often turn out to be complete opposites. (Though there might be SOME influence on environment also there!)

Fine so far. Most people would agree until this point that most of their behavior comes from the genetic makeup or their environment. And as you might have guessed, the real question is- is there something beyond all that? (I am not even going into the argument of religion here- even when I was a theist, I never thought God would bother with the everyday minuscule details of trivial human lives.) If there were another individual who had the same genetic and environmental conditions as you, might he/she act differently? Or, as individuals, do we act completely based on these two factors, or is there something we can choose to do randomly beyond all of our past? In short, is our fate predetermined or do we have free will?

I hate to end abruptly, but because this is a long topic for discussion, I leave you today with just the question and a small note- I used to be a big fan of free will before. However, a course with one of my Top 5 teachers ever, a book by Baum and this amazing man made me change my opinion...

Hope to continue on that later..

*I use the term loosely here.


Can a book be simultaneously brilliant and nauseating? Can you ever reach a point in a book where reading the next word takes an excruciating amount of effort and yet, you cannot put it down? The last Thursday, I started reading a book like that and that's why I did not blog on Thursday and Friday. I know that's the kind of thing I was supposed to avoid when I took the one month challenge. But then, I simply couldn't put the book down. Not even to blog about it. The weekend I happened to go out and so couldn't find the time to blog either. I hope that doesn't happen in the future.

The book in question was '1984' by George Orwell. It's supposed to be a classic book (I was prompted to read it by a 'list of 10 books to read before you die'!). I remember reading 3-4 pages of a pdf copy sometime during my college days and like all other pdf books I have begun, I didn't get any further. So, the last time I visited India, I got a hardcopy.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead!) The book is about a dystopian communist society set in the future (the book was written in 1950) and a sort-of individualist who is unable to bear the communist regime and tries to break out. He also falls in love with a woman (in a world where marriage for love is banned) and eventually gets caught by the system. Whether he fights or loses forms the rest of the story.

If you have read 'The Anthem', you would realize it has the same outline as above. In fact, as I read on, I found so many elements to be the same- a society with no technological progress, one that glorifies obedience, one where all individuals follow the same routines and are forced by the government not to express their opinions, and so on. Even the fact that the party controls marriages. I tried to look up if 1984 had been influenced by The Anthem, but couldn't find anything. However, the more I read the book, the more I thought that both are simply extensions of reality in communist societies.

That being said, I definitely think 1984 is a lot more realistic. The Anthem is an inspiring novel but it assumes an almost stupid ruling class.1984, on the other hand, brings up the scary possibilities of smart people being evil and in power. It builds a world that is complete and makes sense within itself. A society where everyone is being spied on all the time, and any small breach from the expected conduct can lead you to 'vanish'. 

And the best part is this- a society where any piece of evidence about the past that contradicts with the government views about the present is destroyed and falsified. (Eg: If the government wants to prove  production has increased by 5% but had predicted it to increase by 10%- they just change all existing records of the previous announcement and replace it with ones that predict 5%). This brought up some very interesting questions about the past- does the past exist only in records? In fact, an even harder question- if a set of people refuse to acknowledge reality by consensus, is there any reality at all? (Eg: if everyone in the world see something falling down but refuse to admit that the thing has moved- has the thing moved at all?) While we are tempted to say 'obviously it has', in a  world where that reality is not accepted, for all practical purposes the thing might not have moved at all. (I find that idea mind-blowing!)

The last part of the book was haunting. The protagonist is tortured so much that he converts from the reality-acknowledging, sane-thinking, individualist to the typical party-supporting, communist with too much double standards. He doesn't just say what the society wants him to say- he actually believes in their ideas. It made me think- 'Until what point of adversity would I hold on to my ideals and values?' And if you do give up your values in the face of the worst torture imaginable to you, would you be considered moral? (Something about which I hope to write later)

As I said earlier- this was one book which was simultaneously brilliant and nauseating. There was a point I reached in the book where I did not want to read another word. And yet, I could not keep the book down. 

And 3 days later, the book still haunts me.

For anyone who reached this far without having read the book- I might have spoilt the best of the book's ideas for u, but I have not half-conveyed the details. So, highly highly recommend you to read it...

I hope to read 'Animal Farm'- the other popular title by Orwell- some other day..

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


(This is the 7th post in the one-month challenge series.) 

I wrote this post last summer...

This semester I have a neuroscience course taught by a lecturer who is pretty good. Not awesome, but you can see she tries her best to make it interesting (In the last 3 weeks, we have had one creative drawing session for anatomy, a few videos/animations, one news article discussion, one historical background discussion and one... wait for it... neuro movie :) ) So, this isn't a boring course by any standards. And though the instructor isn't the best expert, she is pretty good. (Edit 1: Later on in the course, I realized she was not handling the course THAT well, and started to rush through topics or became vague. But she was still better than most of my teachers anywhere.)

3 classes ago, she made all of us give written feedback about the syllabus. Note that the feedback was about the syllabus, not the course itself. Apparently many students ended up giving her unsolicited teaching advice! 

Now pause for a minute and imagine this happening in India. A lecturer asks you to write about the syllabus and you dare to give advice about his (or her) teaching (very foolishly, I might add). What would you expect? If they knew who wrote the feedback -public insults in the class. And potentially lower grades. If they did not know who wrote it- one lecture wasted on how this whole class is arrogant, does not have any discipline, will never do anything useful in life and so on. (For NITTians of my batch: I can add in Chellappa style -> "Waat.. you have so much head weight ah.. how much kg you have?")

Now to the present. Was she angry? NOT AT ALL. She was specially THANKFUL to those who wrote the advice. And what's more? Some people had written that she was 'not very organized'. (Remember she hadn't even asked their opinion!) Yet she actually APOLOGIZED to us that though it isn't an excuse, it's her first time with this course and she would try to improve.

Would any Indian teacher EVER apologize to the class? Or let alone, accept that there was a problem with himself/herself? Let me rephrase that. Would any Indian adult EVER accept they were wrong- in public- to their subordinates? Do Indian adults ever admit they are not perfect or they do not know something or that they might be wrong?

Ya, ya. I am generalizing too much here. Of course, there are some nice Indians who are humble. But they are mostly the exception, not the norm. Whereas in the US, it is the NORM to admit you don't know. Or to apologize when you are wrong. And to the many Indians who criticize Americans as being too liberal ("having no culture"), I say- it is the norm here (at least in academia) to be humble. Which commands respect from me like nothing else.

I rest my case.

Tomorrow: Internet Rage
Also: I tried writing today's post in less than 500 words (except the "Tomorrow" and "Also" sections.) It took me longer than usual but I guess was worth it. Will try that when I can.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mahabharata.. and women..

(This post is the 6th post in the one-month challenge I gave myself.)

Mahabhaaaarat... (or Mahabhaaaaratham)- I can still hear the title of that epic series which I used to rush to watch every Sunday morning. I don't think I ever saw the series fully, but I definitely heard the songs. But unlike most people whose introduction to Indian epics is Doordarshan or Amar Chitra Katha, my first introduction to the Hindu epics were a different set of books given by my grandfather. (Of course, not counting the versions that different people in the family had told me) They were a very interesting read and I guess they got me hooked to reading mythology.

The thing I love about mythology (not just Indian) is that these are stories that have survived generations of people- millions and millions of people- who lived their very different lives, who heard some version of the stories just like I did and then added their little mark to it. Just a small change there, just a simple line here that makes you look at one character differently. It is astonishing to think that these stories touched the lives of a villager in Ashoka's kingdom, a flower seller girl in Akbar's reign, and then us- born out of the Internet age. Unlike hardcore philosophy and religion which are often sheathed away from the eyes of the common man (because of how abstruse they are), mythology is supposed to bring the ideas to the masses- through every day events that people can relate to. Through songs. Through stories.

Of course, like most people I know, I loved the Mahabharata much more than the Ramayana. As a story alone, the Ramayana is too ideal. Too serious and too straightforward. And has a hero like itself. Ravana is probably the only guy with any gray within him.And the narrative is almost simplistic. But for a few points where people debate on whether Rama was right- nothing much there.

The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is in a whole different league. For a story written centuries ago (as claimed by historians), think of the layers, the millions of metaphors, characters and scenarios. It is almost like Vyasa wove the different colors of the human fabric in intricate design and made a beautiful garment out of it. The number of ways in which each story intertwines with the others, the situations come back in unexpected ways, characters face dilemmas and still each line, each small move is significant to the story is- in one word- brilliant. (This last line, i once mentioned to a friend and she thought I was talking about Harry Potter. My answer is- yes, Harry Potter is pretty complex. But imagine what you would get if the HP series was given to a country that has 27 official languages and hundreds of tribes who went on adding to it and taking from it over hundreds of years- that's the complexity Mahabharata has!)

Well, I could go on like this in semi-poetic prose, but let me get to my point. The reason I wanted to write about the Mahabharata is because every other day I see it from a different view. Every new tale I hear about it makes me rethink the story. (A month or so ago, I had a long discussion about how Dhritarashtra's character is very interesting- he is the one guy who can't see anything and yet has power. Also how his insecurity plays so much of a role. I almost wanted to rewrite a version of this epic from his viewpoint.) What I read yesterday was an answer on Quora about Draupadi and Karna. I will let you see the link for yourself, but this led me to another link called the Bheel Bharata (Bheels are a tribe in India) where the author mentioned one interesting point- Mahabharata has very strong women characters.

That's something that had never occurred to me before. That this old epic has many incidents that are governed by what the women do. (From Ganga and Sathyavathi to Kunthi to Draupadi. Arguably, it is Sathyavathi's father who gets a promise from Bheeshma, but Sathyavathi is the reason the story begins.) One could almost say that it is the women of Bharata that run the story- the men are merely there as side characters. Pawns. Of course, that's not completely true, but one could view it that way.

Interestingly, the article mentioned that Ramayana's women are not that strong. I agree that Sita and Draupadi are poles apart. What they represent as women are very different. But I still think Ramayana is also a plot where women hold the strings- Kaikeyi, Manthra, Shurpanaka. Why, every important turn in the story is started by a woman!

So ya, I find it very interesting that- apparently, even in those times they knew that though the hero is the man of the house, the plot of life is always driven by the women :P

Tomorrow: Improving teaching in India

Living alone

(This post is the 5th post in the one-month challenge I gave myself.)

9.30 pm: Ok. Today I have reached the point I dreaded I will reach. The point where I am in no mood to write. It is not for lack of topics. I still have the drafts I would like to complete but they fall into 2 groups -1) topics where I don't have as much to say now as I did when I started them 2) topics where I have a lot to say and I know I won't be able to finish today. Apart from the drafts I can also think of some very obvious topics to write about- I would call these 'easy' topics because I have enough to say about them that I can write with my eyes closed, but then precisely for that reason they would turn out to be too obvious. I am trying to avoid that kind of writing for the time being though I might relent towards the end of the month.
So that puts me in a fix.
10 pm: Maybe I will browse for a little while. Some idea might strike or inspire me. or remind me of something I wanted to write about.
10.45 pm: After about 45 minutes of thinking/reading I am still in the same spot. Nothing comes to my mind. Blank. Zilch.
10:45:58pm (the seconds part is obviously made up. Just to indicate that the following happened while I was typing the previous sentence.) IDEA! Writing about living alone. Don't know why it didn't strike me earlier.

So, today marks 15 days of me living alone. A few months ago, when I knew I was going to move to Santa Clara, like most Indian students in 
the US, I was also thinking of having roommates. I put up the ad on our India Club site and also spread the word among people I knew etc. But one day, I had called up one of my college seniors who is currently in SC, and she mentioned to me that she was living alone. I guess that's when the idea took over my mind. But I didn't realize it then. I thought it was an interesting option. Why hadn't I thought of this before? However, I wasn't sure if living alone was for me. What if I get terribly bored or lonely? Will it be safe? Questions kept popping in my mind. So, I just told myself -"Not now". And also decided to stay with a girl who was looking for roommates.
As luck would have it, she backed out after a few weeks. After a few more such encounters with other girls (one where I backed out for some other reason), I was in Santa Clara hunting seriously for an apartment for myself.

People might have told you Bay area rents are high. That is only half the story. They charge you a ransom and an arm and a leg. And some more. For 500 sq ft of space with thin walls, rickety cupboards and not-worth-the-money features. So after seeing the sky-high rents, I went back to the idea of sharing a room and tried Sulekha this time. Again, as luck would have it, things didn't work out and I ended up taking my own place on a short lease.

So, yes, I came with a lot of apprehension. Especially because of the money involved. The first few days were a little weird. And I am still a little worried about whether I would forget to lock or leave the balcony open by mistake or things like that.

But I have been liking it so far. There is a simple pleasure in cooking for yourself. In trying to keep the place looking neat. In doing small chores with music in the background. In sitting and watching squirrels running outside the window. In lying in bed awake and looking at the sunlight between the leaves. In silence.

I think that the best thing I have liked about the US is this- the kind of precious silence you can get. Amidst clean surroundings and nature. (My vacation also gave me that, and words can't describe how much I loved looking out of the window onto a lawn and garden full of flowers when it was drizzling with a book in my hand- Ya, it was the stuff dreams are made of.)

The good part about living alone is that it's not as if you don't meet people. You can just choose when and whom to meet. And you can have a lot of time to pamper yourself. Anyway, the surprising thing is that I never thought I would appreciate doing all the household work it takes, with nobody to share with. But then again, it has only been 2 weeks so I don't know if the phase will last.

Or maybe it's because I got the Big Jambox (which is similar to the Bose Soundlink but better except for bass).  It is one investment I am proud of having made for the way it fills my room with sound. Beautiful, beautiful sound. Interestingly, it doesn't do just Rock and Coldplay very well. The best music I heard on it was MS. I had never realized how her voice can sound so much fuller with a louder speaker. But the way my room filled with Abheri defined the words 'divine' and 'ethereal' for me. It was almost as if I had never known how beautiful music could be.

Anyway, not to continue with the mini review of the Jambox, I would just sum up by saying I am happy that I am living alone for sometime. I know it might not last too long (financial reasons) and is a luxury (again, financially) but it has given me a long lost sense of myself. And time. It is beautiful because of the time I get to write and see nature, but more because of the music. And the silence.

Mostly the silence.

Tomorrow: Mahabharata

PS: (I know I posted this late. Had to do a few things in between.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013


(This post is the 4th post in the one-month challenge I gave myself.)

Ok. I know I won't finish this before 12 tonight, seeing I started it at 11.45 pm and might have to take couple of breaks in between. But we will see.

Rajnikanth is someone I can write a lot about. Rajnikanth is almost a phenomenon in Tamil Nadu. Maybe the almost is not required. I grew up watching Rajnikanth movies and I could go on talking about why people like him, whether he is worth being liked, and so on. But today I choose to talk about something that's less serious but more ubiquitous- Rajnikanth jokes. 

Most non-Tamilians I know have only one form of appreciation of Rajnikanth- mockery. They want to watch an entire Rajnikanth movie just to make fun of it. And then to send me forwards of Rajnikanth one-liners and jokes. 
For the record, I am not a diehard fan of Rajnikanth. I like his movies, but mostly because they remind me of my childhood and are otherwise very light. There are very few actors I am really a fan of and he is not one of them. However, he does what he does well and has his plusses. So I am not one of those people who cannot listen to a Rajnikanth joke and laugh at it.

Then why the previous paragraph? Because I have been the victim of some very very bad Rajnikanth jokes. Now, in an ideal world I would just tell the person it's a bad joke. But what usually happens is just because I am a Tamilian, people assume that if I don't laugh at their joke, I am being defensive of Rajnikanth. (The number of times I didn't smile at a Rajni joke and people told me I am not a sport would probably cause a memory overflow.) Or even worse, they think I am hurt. And interestingly, I find THIS part really funny. Me being hurt for someone mocking some complete stranger would be a ridiculous thing to happen. But anyway, because of this completely baseless assumption people make about me, I am forced to actually smile at their joke or say "Ha ha good one" even if it was the worst joke I ever heard in my life.And almost all of these jokes are Chuck Norris jokes where somebody did a string replace of Chuck Norris with Rajnikanth. Which really pisses me off. No self-respecting Chuck Norris joke would like to be reused with Rajnikanth and then with whichever next Super/Ultimate/Gethumax star Tamil Nadu chooses to have. It makes me want to start a Society for Prevention of Misuse of Chuck Norris jokes (SPMCJ - like Hermoine's SPEW).

I think that the real problem I have with Rajnikanth jokes is this- most of them are sad excuses of jokes and follow a specific formula: 

Template 1: Rajnikanth did A, then A backfired in some way. (When Rajnikanth logs into facebook, fb updates its status msg. When Rajnikanth writes a cheque, the bank bounces. And so on.)

Template 2: Rajnikanth did something exaggerated. (Rajnikanth's rough note is now Wikipedia. Rajnikanth purchased a road roller to iron his clothes. Rajnikanth struck a match and it is the sun.* etc.)

Template 3: Rajnikanth did something that is impossible. (Rajnikanth saw the Dead Sea when it was alive. Rajnikanth has counted to infinity, twice. Rajnikanth knows Victoria's secret and can strangle you with a  cordless phone. Rajnikanth has seen the face of the lady in Tom & Jerry.** And so on.)

Template 4: (Variation of template 1) Rajnikanth doesn't do X. X does (something else). (Rajnikanth doesn't wear a watch. He tells the watch what time it is. Rajnikanth doesn't pay income taxes, the government pays him. And so on.)

Template 5: Rajnikanth is so strong/invincible that... (This is mostly stuff like- when Rajnikanth shows you his fingers, he is telling you how long you can live. Rajnikanth's calender goes from March 31st to April 2nd because noone fools Rajnikanth.)

I guess you get the idea by now. And then people say his movies are not original. Oh, the irony! (Especiallly when you think about how dumb/unoriginal/exaggerated any average Indian commercial movie is. I don't see any difference between any of their plots anyway. And I really like Rajni's dialogue delivery.)

Which brings me to another point. While I don't think Rajni films are good cinema or anything, I do think that he has excellent voice modulation. Excellent is an understatement for what he can do with his dialogues. And this is something most non-Tamilians don't get. The reason people repeat "Oru dhadave sonna nooru dhadave sonna maadhiri" is not because it is the best line ever written. It is because of the way he said it. The same thing in Hindi (or any other language) makes me want to puke. I actually tried watching "Shivaji" in Hindi and it's a "medical miracle" that I am still alive. And if this is what people saw from his movies, I can almost understand why they make such lousy jokes out of him. 

Anyway, I digress. The reason I wrote this post was to ask people to tell me only the jokes which don't fall into any of these templates. Geeky ones that fall into this template are still pardonable (Like the ones in this link- an article that I completely relate with and which made me finally pen down this post..) But if you expect me to actually appreciate a Rajnikanth joke, please make good original ones. And until then, I will continue to work for SPMCJ.

*I made this one up as I typed the sentence. Though it probably exists in some website somewhere.
**This is the only Rajnikanth template joke I ever liked.

Tomorrow:Wild Card. That is, no ideas yet on what I should write, We will see.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Mark Tampering

(This post is the 3rd post in the one-month challenge I gave myself.)

That title almost sounds like someone's name. Anyway, I had quite a tiring day and am very sleepy, but for some strange reason I suddenly remembered I was supposed to blog, so here I am- writing..

So starting where I left yesterday.. The article does some data analysis and goes on to conclude that there is evidence for mark tampering. As I mentioned yesterday, this is the part of the article I find commendable. Getting the data was easy but doing this basic data analysis was smart.

Now, all of us (who studied in Indian schools) have been told that examiners are only human and they "might" give you grace marks. We never knew if it was real. And I like the fact that this article has provided indirect evidence for mark tampering. Seeing the fact that 33 different scores have not been scored by ANYONE in the entire country clearly indicates something is going on. And I admit that though I had expected some teachers to give "grace marks" I did not literally everyone did. Either the examiners are asked to round off certain marks or they are using some sort of algorithm to do the rounding (because nothing but an organized effort can lead to such uniform results across the country).
Fine. I think the real question here is about the ethics of mark tampering. Is adding (or subtracting) 1 or 2 marks bad? Is it bad in some cases or all cases?

First, I believe that marks in general are subjective. And I say that because I have tried to grade some papers before (obviously not for the board exam, but anyway..). Even when the question is a math problem and there are specific steps to solve it, how much partial credit you give is ALWAYS subjective. For eg., if there are 5 steps in a 5 mark problem and someone got 2 steps right- do you give them only 2 marks? What if the first step is not obvious but the rest follow directly? What if the person has tried an alternate method not mentioned in your grade guidelines? Do you give points for neat work? (I used to think "No" for this question, but after correcting about 50 papers I really think neatness should be awarded 5 points extra. Seriously.) Do you cut points because you can't make head or tail out of what the student has written? The questions go on.
So, given that the correction process is anyway subjective, is it really wrong to give 1 or 2 points less or more? I think not. It really doesn't matter.

But this lead me to an Ayn Rand-ish question - If a guy who 'deserved' only 32 ends up getting 35, why should the guy who got 92 not get 95 out of grace? Why are examiners kinder to the guy who didn't study but almost cruel (by being extra careful) with the guys who really work hard? At the outset, this aspect does sound unethical. One would think the guy who got 92 definitely deserves the "grace" as much as (if not more than) the guy who got 32. After all, he worked a lot more. So, should we have either no tampering or universal tampering?
I think neither. The reason will be apparent when you look at what each guy gets out of the tampering.* The guy who scored 32, in the absence of "grace" marks would have waited a few months (or a year, I don't know which!) and given the exam again. And would probably have passed this time. By denying him the grace marks, the board would be making him waste a year and gaining nothing out of it. But more importantly, if they do make him pass, it is not like he would get a decent college seat and deprive a more deserving candidate or something. People with "just pass" on their grade cards don't get into fancy colleges or do engineering/medicine. Most probably he would join some job somewhere (in a shop or something) or go on and do some lousy programming course and hunt for a job. The best he could do with the 35 is get into a really low ranked arts college. Which means giving him 35 did not harm anyone or anything and made no difference to the system at all. However, it did make his life just a little easier.
Now, of course, you can't do the same thing to the guy who scored 92. Giving him 3 marks extra (which he didn't "deserve") would push him ahead of hundreds of other students who performed better than him and possibly deprive them of a college seat in some reputed institution. Here, mark tampering is definitely harmful.

What about the cases in between? Why not give someone scores like 70, 71, 73, 75 or 77? Why did they not give any 85s or 87s? Honestly, I have no idea why. It doesn't even look like they are trying to give round numbers (I would think 85 was round enough!). I can see no pattern to the kind of scores that they have given, but clearly there is something fishy going on here because it is unbelievable that nobody in the nation got an 85.

That being said, I still feel the mark tampering is not good. That's because if an entire system rounds off 32s to 35s, then why not keep 32 as the cutoff? Then, would people start rounding 31s and 30s to 32? Where does this stop? This is just a vicious circle because for every official cut-off you keep, the unofficial cut-off is slightly lesser I think that maybe if a student fails in only 1 subject, you could round off his marks. But uniformly rounding off marks for an entire country will not be good in the long run.

One of my friends who also wrote about this article mentioned that many students who score poorly do so because of poor backgrounds/bad school infrastructure etc. He sees the "grace marks" as a leveling the field thing. In a way, I think that may be valid. But then again, we go back to the vicious circle argument. So, I think one way we could 'level the field' is keep a lower cutoff for rural/economically backward students. (Note that I said "economically" backward. Someday I will write about why I think social strata based reservation doesn't make sense anymore.) And while doing this, try to allocate more resources to improving schools in rural areas and providing more incentives for these students. I don't see mark tampering as a good solution for this issue in any case.

In sum, I feel that 
  • Mark tampering is definitely going on.
  • It may not be a completely bad thing for an individual teacher to round off scores like 32 or 33 to 35. But doing this across the system is equivalent to decreasing the pass cut-off and doesn't make sense. (also making students study for 32 instead of 35!). 
  • If it really needs to be done, the bonus points could be given on a case-by-case basis, after taking into account the student's overall performance, economic background etc. (I know this is not very straight forward to implement..)

Tomorrow: After the long and serious discussion, going to something light and appreciated by most Indians- A post about (but not compiling) ... ....Rajnikanth jokes! :)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hacking, education and India

(This post is the 2nd post in the one-month challenge.)

After yesterday's post, strangely I am itching to write. In the last 3 hours (I started this post just after lunch, so from 9-12) I have thought of at least 12 topics, of styles of writing, of short story plots. Yes, short story plots. I think the last short story I actually finished writing was for some contest in college 3rd year (which, I hate to admit, was 6 years ago!). So much for just the second day. (Recursive idea: Is there some scientific reason why this should have happened- cognitive/behavioral/whatever? Maybe I will write about it one of these days.)

So, on to today's topic.

I read this article 2 days ago when it was posted by my brother on facebook. Most people who read the article had one of the following reactions: a) Shock  b) "How could they?" c) "This is what I expect of them. I always knew this would happen" d) Other such reactions as shown in:

(Ya, I included the last one because unsurprisingly, a/b/c were the same reactions people had for the GoT Red Wedding.)

But jokes apart, I was shocked at their shock. This article was neither particularly well written nor intellectually stimulating nor was it worth being republished in 5-6 Indian newspapers as a glorified "hack". For those who didn't read the article- this guy basically looked up all of the ICSE results using some small script (which he calls a "hack", thus causing the word "hack" to go jump off the cliff and kill itself in shame.) Then he did some basic data analysis (which is the only thing commendable about the whole episode) and found that some values of marks have actually not been scored by anyone in the country. These values align across subjects. Since this is statistically impossible, he claims there is mark tampering.

Most of the shock people displayed was at how easy it is to get the marks of all the students in the country. This is the part where I am shocked about their shock. Seriously? Nobody knew you could look up anybody and everybody's roll numbers on the site? I remember it was common practice among us innocent 10th/12th graders to look up everybody's marks in the school. And I never had any idea of javascript or anything (neither at that time nor now). So the "hack" is just an automated version of something ridiculously simple to do even for a school grader.

Of course, part of the indignation was at the fact that our marks are not kept private. It is "sensitive information". First of all, I don't know why it is "sensitive information". Nobody uses your board exam marks except entrance exam committees (AIEEE/JEE/CAT and so on). Once that's done, you will forget your board marks forever. It is not like your bank account password or something (which, in India , is written in some small phone book in the drawing room by the woman of the house, left open for any hacker's 'perusal')

So then, the real reason people think this is sensitive should be because it is personal and people might not want to have everyone know it. That brings up an interesting question- "Do people really keep students' marks secret in India?" I remember how teachers used to announce the marks while distributing answer papers. So, for 12 years of your life, it is ok for the teacher to have everyone know your marks, but when its the board exam, you are embarrassed? In fact, when the board results come, they are usually followed by a series of phone calls- "How much did your son/daughter get?" "Oh, mine got centum in Maths. Yours didn't?" and so on. So, it's not like people don't blare out your marks to the world anyway.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the CBSE/ICSE have done a very good thing by not building any kind of privacy feature -a simple rollnumber and password combination and slightly advanced Captcha would do. (Note- I said privacy feature. I don't call this "security" as much as "privacy"). I am just saying that this is NOT a surprising thing. Marks in India are next only to caste in determining your status as a student- status mostly among adults you don't usually care about. They are public, almost written on your forehead for everyone to see. So after growing up in India if someone is shocked or indignant at the lack of "privacy" (a word that is yet to be defined in the Indian nation, except among girls who refuse to share their notes), I can only think- "You are showing off". Or "you are trying to act like DCBAs* who, one fine day, become all shocked about how 'horrible' India is and how 'one can't live in that kind of an environment'". In a country where people ask you "Any good news?" after 2 months of marriage, do you really expect people to keep the marks of school children private?

Of course, I agree that as a system, the CBSE/ICSE MUST try to enforce some level of privacy in mark checking. But, the question about whether, as a society, we need to respect students' privacy is a completely different one.
And in the interest of not making this post any longer, I am leaving that question for another day..

Summarizing, my point here is- a) Knowing India, this whole article shouldn't come as a shock. b) Marks being kept private in the system is necessary, but the same may not be true as a society.

*DCBA= Desis Confused By Americans - I first heard this term here. I thank this great mind for coining such an apt term! XD

Tomorrow: About the mark tampering part of the article.