Monday, June 25, 2012

Copycatting the Personal Experience Pathway

After many years of spending time writing (rather, rewriting) papers, presentations and of late, proposals for everything from a 100$ travel award to a 1000$ raise to a 10000$ grant to buy time and some peace to present the next best thing after sliced bread, it is not often that one has the time or the liberty to look back at where and how it all started.

It started without definition or form or goal and in all vagueness that research can be and often is, without any fanfare, remarkableness or preciseness, without any agendas except learning (sadly, a thing of the past now), and definitely without any indication to the odds against than for. It led to knocking on the doors of many a "friend" to ship papers and books, even an email to a someone in California (who later turned out to be an extended relative via marriage) to ship me papers from his days of yore, to pestering the Xerox staff in the Himalayan mess of a clutterbox called the fourth floor of the Old Library building right past Gajendra Circle to get me copies of papers as soon as possible (translated as by the end of the day or two), to running to other Universities (and how they made me feel like IITM was a relative cornucopia in terms of library infrastructure and books) and exploiting the Inter-Library Loan system to the hilt, to exasperating at seeing papers from old journal collections torn by lazy neanderthals who could nt get a photocopy of the paper and had to resort to the meanest and vilest form of abuse in research, and more. Cute little matrix manipulations saw me cycle my way fast and furious to meet my B.Tech advisor one fine day at 8 P.M. after the mess of a mess food only to find his door locked. One thing led to another and the next few days will witness the 11th anniversary of my B.Tech thesis defense -- a borderline open defiance of a post-adolescent presentation to the Committee (some of who know me now by name, some by allusion and hearsay, and some who have not heard at all) with the a priori information and personal conviction that I had slogged and aced through the ordeal in the ocean of undergraduate research. Unlike many in my batch of 90 odd electrical engineering degree-holders, I took the final year project more as a thesis and less as a project even if I did not put in the effort to learn LaTeX to type out the report then. The results were remarkable at least in a personal capacity, even if not revolutionary or even remotely useful in a technological sense and definitely not timely in terms of contributions to that area (it has been cited a good four times since then -- a pass for a first paper I would reckon with the experience I have now).

And more than the running around in the goal of learning and the cute little matrix manipulations that I did when the word matrix did nt mean much more than just a stack of numbers, the process of converting the B.Tech thesis to a published paper in the IEEE Trans. on Sig. Proc. was indeed a bigger ordeal. It saw accusations of "plagiarism" with suggestions to look at similar research published by a star (and his student) in the field just a year before I even knew how a FFT algorithm was implemented on a DSP. While I can laugh it off now, being called out as a plagiarist on your first work when you did nt know that IEEE Xplore existed and did nt have access to it as a B.Tech student lowest on the totem-pole, and when you did nt get the latest editions of the journal without a good six month delay was indeed a catastrophe that "psyches" you out for a while. But if I did shrug off the accusation and write a rebuttal that led to the subsequent publication of the paper (minus what I thought was indeed my cute little trick even if someone else claims it today officially), much of it is owed to where I came from, how I grew up, and what I saw on the way.

I come from a remarkably unremarkable lower middle-class background with no special or extraordinary fondness for education that the Brahmins are expected/believed to have. My mother was a school teacher who later became a Headmistress but this had essentially no deep bearing on me. It did take an extraordinary amount of effort to pay the high-school fees which kept climbing just as my whiskers kept growing showing me in real terms what an exponential function really was. We were happy to have three square meals a day and a ~400 sq. feet roof to live under, and in hindsight I am happy for just that. I did nt know what the JEE was till a few days before the 11th standard began but jumped on it like a mad dog without any rhyme or reason when I learned about it from friends who had been preparing for it at least a year before that, if not more. It would be untrue to explain away the madness to some "merit vs reservations" issue, but perhaps the fact that one would nt need to mug things up may be swayed me a little. Note that I was definitely good at mugging things up if I wanted to: you just have to ask me to repeat the Periodic Table and even today I will not make a mistake in either the Lanthanide or the Actinide series (I did remember the names of elements 92 to 108 or whatever too, the IUPAC changed them way too often for my comfort and I have lost track), nor have a mistake in the gorgeous Kannagi's dialogue to the Sundara Panidyan in Silappadikaaram, nor make a mistake in what conditions a semi-group or a semi-norm need to satisfy.

That aside, I attended coaching classes in 11th standard from people who were labeled as remarkable stars at coaching aspiring minds to success in the JEE. Sadly, I was not up to the mark for their high standards nor belonged to the peer class of elite-men nor was deeply enchanted by the religious worship of these stars nor could afford the Rs. 1000 x 3 (a princely Rs. 200 per course hike from the 11th standard fees) that had to be paid for continuing their classes in the 12th standard. Nor could I afford the newly minted books for JEE coaching and had to live on hand-me-downs of B.Sc. first year books in Chemistry, a 1990 edition of the O.P. Agarwal, and even older versions of the S.L. Loney's for which I am extremely thankful. I did beg and borrow books, tutorial sheets and class notes from many friends who were extremely generous even if irritated by my obnoxious nature of borrowing stuff with no sense or sensibility or rationale. This was the number one lesson in doing good research: beg, borrow, bleat or steal, but get the infrastructure needed to get good results. Lesson two: and be grateful and thankful when it is all said and done and give back. Hoarding knowledge makes no sense when people have stood on the shoulder of giants to see the giant's feet. Tilak's words of "Repression is repression, if it is legal, it must be resisted peacefully. If it is illegal, it must be illegally met" is even more apt for the hoarding knowledge economy that hides behind the cloak and dagger of copyrights, private datasets, intellectual property, etc.

I come from the 1997-2001 IITM batch of electrical engineering, one that was notorious for the repeat JEE after exam papers leaked somewhere in the "North." While many people gave up upon this news and latched on to whatever good engineering programs they could get into, I had no choice but to stick to JEE. This was primarily because I had not paid any attention to TNPCEE and my disdain for it was witnessed by the fact that I started reading Math three hours before the exam with a borrowed book (of course!) that was handed to me at 6 A.M. for the 9:30 A.M. exam. I did my best given that I had no idea how to solve a second-order differential equation (something that the State board syllabus covered, but that was not a part of the JEE). I ended up somewhere in the mid-ranks that fetched me a "free seat" in some no-name college in the outskirts of Madras for which we blew Rs. 6000 (a rather princely sum even in the hope that the financial outlook may be more promising down the line). So back to JEE, it was indeed a blessing in disguise as I had messed up my first take at JEE. My assessment of the leaked JEE was that I would have ended up in Civil Engineering or so and would have climbed eventually to electrical engineering on the back of the first year performance that would have allowed a branch change. It is not often that people get to write two JEEs in a single year and I was not going to clutch at straws when the second opportunity came along. Pepping up by screaming at myself in the bathroom mirror and making myself believe that the world at large can go suck my thumb and what else, I was the essential embodiment of how to channelize all the anger and hatred at the world and "you people" into doing well at the JEE. The twenty minute walk to the Exam hall was done without noticing the face of a single woman (old or young, mediocre or beautiful) and all that overflowing testosterone and adrenaline were focussed on just one task: do well in the Exam(s). While I do not remember much of the Physics (I was chronically too bad in Physics to have done anything but cross the subject cut-off) or the Chemistry exams (just barely moderate given that I did nt get many of the mechanisms right which would have made the exam a spectacular success), I was in a zone of my own in the Math exam. Of the twenty questions, I remember getting 18 definitely right (you just know when you get them right) and at least one partially right. Never ever after have I come close to such a zone in my life and I have had my share of qualifying exams in ECE and Math. Essentially pumped by the Math performance, I did get the AIR of 0316, not too bad for where I started from. Lesson three: do not settle for a pigsty just because you have that available now and here. Never be contented.

I did learn much later that people in my ballpark of the AIR also had very similar overall performances, but nothing as extreme as me where one subject whopped the relative mediocrity of the other two. In some sense, my performance majorized most people's who belonged to approximately the same class. So it was indeed a one point success model that put me at IITM, but I guess I would have stuck back at home and prepared for JEE again given the hopelessness of the no-name college I got admitted into. So in some sense, I was lucky, but I would have manufactured luck anyway if it did nt hit me in 1997. Lesson four: know your strengths very well.

The fact that I sucked really badly at Physics made me feel shameful and I borrowed class notes of JEE from friends at IITM to get to the point of "deserving" to be in an IIT. As one grows old, one realizes that it is easier to pile your plate with things that need to be done, but it is even harder to actually do them and do them all on time. Thus, I am indeed shameful to admit that I still suck at Physics today and I cannot see anything past a free-body diagram of simple mechanical systems even though I am supposed to see and know more, and in fact, feel more. My intuition for Physics is at its infantile best, yet life goes on. I stay away from Physics-related arenas like device physics as much as I can even though the big-picture is more or less clear. Further, I could visualize nothing, so all those Engineering drawing related subjects were bowling me out like what Zak did to Steve Waugh. That essentially decided that I was not getting to be a Circuits man or a Devices fellow, but a Comm nutjob with a growing curiosity for antennas and the like. Lesson five: know your weaknesses even better.

My experiences in IITM are as mundane as anyone else's peppered with fascinating interludes into many esoteric subjects not all of which are describable in words. I have seen my fair share of the smart ones and sadly, I have not been overawed into submission but by two people who were neither AIR 001x's nor doing "research" now. One is an equally lower middle-class rags-to-normalcy story of a non-Madras Tamil Brahmin with no aptitude for slogging in the sciences, but with a remarkable sub-conscious understanding of programming, visualization and basic common sense that will put an AIR 0001 to some shame. Another is a Muslim who comes from the outskirts of Madras with the same socio-economic background and with no formal coaching class training, but with a deep sub-conscious understanding of Physics on an intuitive basis without the need for formulas and high-dimensional logic. Needless to say, I am still in touch with them even though I have lost track of so many of the smart ones. Lesson six: make friends of people you admire and try to learn what makes them tick, even if you are constrained by your own inadequacy.

When folks in my batch were sweating it out to loosen the straitjacket of M.S./Ph.D. that could take five years to a M.S. that could take less than two years and were avoiding a certain Rice U. upon hearsay that a Ph.D. there could take seven years or more, I was one of the first to apply to Rice. And certainly I was disappointed enough to write back to the Graduate Committee Chair (who I know much better now) about how crazy their selection criteria must have been to pick people with lesser CGPA than me and to ignore someone with a stronger enthusiasm level to do research than needed to get in. That pitch did not reverse the decision they made and I am thankful to them for I would nt have seen the wonders of the cheesehead land otherwise. Some say, "come herein and you bleed cardinal and white forever," and that is sadly true for me -- cardinal and white, "Go Red, go!", "Eat shit, F*&! you", green and gold, cant wait to hate the Bears even if I stayed on the wrong side of the Rockford line for three good years, Big Ten madness, waiting for the Pasadena unfolding even if I can see the RB almost everyday, and the closest I have been to a hockey field in live-action in a looong time even if it was with a puck on a rink than with a ball on a field. Lesson seven: screw the free world if it goes one way, pick your way and make the best of what you get and you wont regret it forever even if you can go back to the future. All those years spent butt-freezing in the Lab cranking up the temperature bar would nt have been useful had it not been to just do what I am good at. Lesson eight: know how and when to say "No" to requests that would curtail your freedom to do what had to be done. Lesson nine: and when to say "F!@$# off" when those requests bordered on being illogical.

At the end of the day, if one looks back, if I look back, it was destined that I would nt regret my past. Not because I was some super-human who could do no wrong, but because I learned at IITM from my allies, compatriots, peers and collaborators that a wrong could be corrected by learning from one's mistakes and often from others' mistakes. That hard decisions had to be taken at times and life is essentially a game of chance where the most rational and prepared wins even if the competition is between equally smart people. The key to all this was that most, if not all, of my batchmates were remarkable in being unremarkable, just like me. Most of them came from the same background, some slightly better off than the others, and some poorer than the others. Some more street-smart than others, but with others picking up the essential lessons that makes us who we are today. We learned the techniques, the tool-kits and the tricks from the slightly better off. We made each of us better and equipped to face the vile wide world by just being who we were, we hated each other and in the process we got each other to give it our best shot -- our only shot, we learned to love the things we did and do what we loved even if the process was incomplete, impure and often imbecilish, and we all had a small bridge to cross.

Sadly, the bridge is wide today, and it can only get wider with time.

The IIT Experience is dead, Long Live the IIT Experience...

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