Sunday, August 14, 2011

Please say it ain't so

Facebook and its friends are wonderful, they really are. They help us to know who is dating (or breaking up) with whom, who secretly always wanted to be a farmer or mafia warlord, and who likes cats. However, they also bred the mindless urge to "like" and comment on anything and everything. While "liking" stuff can lead from hilarious moments ("My girlfriend broke up with me"; you liked it? I always knew you liked her) to irritating situations ("Flight delayed for 6 hours, feel like punching someone"; "what is there to like about my flight being delayed?) to potentially offensive ones ("sad day: my dog drowned and died"; like? you insensitive bastard!), my beef is more with the comments, which are sometimes so awesomely stupid, that I really feel those should be considered a crime against humanity and banned.

Consider the ubiquitous situation of seeing a friend's wedding pictures. It is another matter that I got to know that (s)he is getting married only via facebook, and when I asked how long (s)he knows his/her to be soul-mate, I realized they have barely met. Well, nothing wrong in that, people are busy, and have no time to look for partners, and parents obligingly did the needful. So far so good. The wedding happens, with all pomp and pageantry, and in this ultra-connected world, it does not take long before unofficial and "official" wedding pictures start populating our newsfeed. Those who knew congratulate, those had no in-linking that a wedding is at the works, express surprise, and then congratulate the couple nevertheless.

Fair enough.

Then comes a comment, "nice couple". Well this is like saying "cute baby", when it is known that all babies have to be cute. Contains zero information, but I can see why people can get emotional seeing their dear friend finally getting married, after complaining for years about their single-hood. I'll let that pass. Next comes, "made for each other" or "perfect couple", or one of the variants, which makes me cringe. Well, first of all, these two individuals did not know each other a week back, and a series of (happy) coincides resulted in them being an official couple, so as an outsider, I can not see how another outsider can infer such message from that picture. May be they will live happily ever after, in that case that statement will make sense after twenty years, or may be they will call the cops next night, in that case the commenter should be lynched publicly.

At this point, someone can argue that it is not a big deal, and may be it is not intended to be a factual statement. Well, then why make it? You do not make such a hollow statement at your work, or anywhere else. Why leave your otherwise working mind at the kitchen when you login to facebook?

Then there are paranoia. A rabid African giraffe has kicked a guy in the butt because his tee-shirt that said "I have facebook, I dont need a life", so we need to share the post to all out thousand friend's wall, and tell them not to use facebook for 2 days, when all we should do is not wear such a tee-shirt. Even the kid who makes that tee shirt in a slum in Pakistan knows giraffes do not like that color. Get a clue, folks. No one is grabbing any information you have not provided, posting something on hundred others wall would not reveal the name of the secret crush (but if that person is one of those hundred, (s)he will know you are a retard).

There are ways to control how much information you share with whom. Not perfect probably, a tad inconvenient, but better than coming across as a "404", as they said in older days.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Good job, Bengal.

For some background, please see this post.
I am euphoric that my prediction came true, and in what fashion!

Finally the mighty has fallen, the citadel has not only been breached, but demolished. And this is unlike any other election I have ever experienced, this is not just a mere change of regime, this is intensely personal, and no, I cant be magnanimous in victory. The pent up anger of years would not allow me to. I always hated you if you are a CPIM sympathizer, and now I will say it on your face. That is, if you still want to show your face.

Make no mistakes, I am never a communist sympathizer. But curiously, that has got very little to do with my intense dislike for CPIM. It is impossible to explain to anyone else who have not been through that: how we grew up seeing the systematic politicization of all spheres of society, and consequent victimization of those who were not supporting them. I do not believe this happened anywhere else - everywhere a strong opposition ensured that the ruling party was voted out if they did not live upto the promise. In Calcutta this was probably not so prominent, but in districts, fear and favor eliminated any sort of opposition presence. So either you were with them, or you were literally victimized in every possible way without any avenue to protest. This was way before Singur and Nadigram happened, when being anti-CPIM started becoming fashionable. Growing up in north Bengal in eighties and nineties, it was hard not to see this blatant abuse of power, and persecution of the non-followers. Of course if this was a relationship with benefit for you, you would keep quiet, no matter what your conscience would say. Otherwise, you just grew up bitter, with the party, with those shameless backbone-less people all around you.

Thankfully I never stayed in those villages, where people daring to support the non existent opposition were physically abused, tortured or killed, or if they were really lucky, made social outcasts. Thankfully I was never the homeowner, whose home was forcibly taken and made into a party office. Thankfully none did any horrible things to me, and I could escape Bengal. But being in close proximity to the education sector, I could also see how they completely controlled and destroyed it.

From primary school headmasters to University vice-chancellors, all the prime positions went to party supporters, qualifications no bar. People with awful academic record got appointed or promoted ignoring people with much better record. It does not seem a huge deal taken in isolation, but when this becomes all pervasive, the overall quality of education suffers. Already the outdated school curriculum and abolition of English in primary schools crippled an entire generation, and then meritocracy was several discouraged by handing over the higher education to a bunch of handpicked party followers. Student unions were the breeding ground of party cadres, so opposition were ruthlessly dealt with with local hoodlums roaming free on campus - so ruthlessly that in places like North Bengal University, no election was needed. I can go on all night long, and still would not cover the full spectrum of atrocities.

No escape from this made it suffocating. Seeing people close to you affected made this personal. For years, all we could do was dream, that such a day will come. I do not endorse violence, but when I feel this much hatred toward anyone remotely saying a good word for CPIM, I can also see people who suffered disastrously will try to get revenge. Payback time, folks!

I hope Mamata goes on to become a successful chief minister, but even if she is not it would not and should not demean this feat. Single-handedly she bought the regime down, even after being written off and derided repeatedly. Her methods were not always the most sophisticated, nor was she most media friendly (before making fun of her for English, remember that she is a product of the government education system), but hell, she got the job done. She deserves all the accolades and more. If you have a problem with her, then just step back and think why you never had a problem with how things were going so far, and you will realize what the term brainwashed means.

Hah, how I loved when they hoisted Trinamul flag in Alimuddin street.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Pilot for a day!

Those who know me, also know how obsessed I am about anything related to flying. I fly often, read airline blogs, visit frequent flier forums, listen to channel 9 on United (where you can hear the wonderful conversation between the pilots and the ATC), love looking for cheap airfares in my spare time. But I have always been a passive passenger, never got best seat on a bird. Well, until now.

To all fairness, it was this cute little two-seater aircraft, and the gentleman beside my did everything so that I could live to tell the tale. However, the thrill of seating at the control, observing the little details in action as the little bird took to the skies was itself an experience.I was even allowed to make a 180 degree turn once we were up there, of course under strict supervision. The light plane shook a bit as we took off, but otherwise it was a smooth, fun ride.

So what was this all about? I signed up for an half an hour flight simulator training, and half an hour flying lesson in Cleveland's lakeside Burke airport. It rained all week, but the weather was perfect, and after a little wait, I was adjusting my headphone and the seatbelts. And surprisingly, it did not look so complicated - the interactions with the controller sounded just like I am used to hearing on United's channel 9, the controls look familiar after the brief time at the simulator, and the cramped cockpit was not too uncomfortable either.

I wish I could say I learned a lot, or it gave me a better understanding of pilot;s job. Not really - nothing came as a surprise. Not that I would want to do this toy flight again. But like many things you want to do once in your lifetme, this was that type of an experience. Hard to describe why it was special, but it was indeed.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Goodbye, faded red?

Failed governments get thrown out in the elections. Corrupt politicians go to prison. Dictators are forced to step down. Regimes change. Everywhere, except in West Bengal.

I am on the wrong side of thirty now. If I was a football player, I would probably consider retirement. And yet, I have not seen any other party in power in West Bengal except the party I prefer to term Communism redundancy advocacy party (henceforth will be referred to as crap). An entire generation of Bengali's grew up, went to school, went to college, found a job, started a family; while the same crap ruled. The remarkable part is, West Bengal is neither a heaven on earth as this kind of total allegiance to crap will indicate, nor it has a dictatorial system. Crap won democratic elections. So many of them, that I lost count.

The obvious question is why, and unfortunately there is not a clear non-partisan answer. Part of it is like how the reservation system is implemented in India - so called backward castes were treated terribly by your great great grandfather, so the dumb guy living a palatial house next door with a backward-caste-lastname will be picked ahead of you for admission to a college or for a job. The previous government did some unmentionable bad stuff, which our generation only heard about, but that meant they can never ever be voted back. To all fairness, crap did some good stuff for rural folks yeas back, but simultaneously they systematically politicized the whole society. People in high posts all over the state became political appointees. People needed to be crap-sympathizers to get jobs or promotions. Effectively west Bengal became crap monopoly. Fear and favor ruled. Opposition parties had no effective existence - their candidates could not enter their constituencies. In polling booth after booth in rural areas, crap got close to 100% of the votes, sometimes more.

One has to give credit where credit is due. I am sure it was no mean feat for them to control every aspect of the society so efficiently. But as they say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They grew arrogant, and the pressure to keep their loyal followers happy was growing all the time. They needed low skill jobs, and crap also had to keep rural folks happy. Mediocrity ruled, teaching of English in schools were abolished, computers were shunned. That crippled an entire generation, who could not compete in national level. Exodus of students to engineering colleges down south became commonplace. Those who could afford, learned English anyway. The class difference was ironically used as a tool by crap to paint a picture of elites against us. The state which lead in education and innovation lost its aura, and those who succeeded did not because of the state policies, but in spite of them.

Imaginary enemies were invented and blamed for all ills. Amazingly people fell for it too, or pretended they did to keep crap happy. All the non-developments were blamed on the central government, all the dissidence on CIA and USA. Periodic strikes were organized against them, even when the central government was supported by crap, the ridiculousness of which was somehow drowned in mass hysteria. Unions and unionized workers became powerful, so powerful that they started dictating the terms to the factory managements. Those who tried to comply with the outrageous demands could not afford it long. Those who did not were termed as "America-r dalal" and violence ensued. Net result was the same though - closed factories. That militant unionism spread to all sectors. In universities, non teaching stuff proudly claimed "Aamrai to sob chalai", in government offices, there was no impetus to get work done, or even come on time. The whole mentality was turned into an "us versus them" scenario, where "them" were conveniently defined according to the situation. Anyone could block the road, burn buses, beat up the station-master, occupy or encroach on a land, and still claim to be a victim.

I do not know if the alternative will be any better. Honestly, I do not care, and that is not because I am living away. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I see a real chance of crap being cleaned in this election. A change is desperately needed to get rid of this well entrenched arrogance propagated and used in all these years. I hope that happens.

P.S - these are all intended to be factual statements.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My day with a Mustang

I arrived at Eugene, Oregon late in the evening. Tired after traveling for almost 24 hours from Geneva, I just wanted to pick up the rental car quickly, find the hotel and crash. So when she offered me a free upgrade to a SUV, I politely declined, I had no intention of driving a gas-guzzling beast for no good reason. But I could not say no when she offered me a Mustang next. I just made sure it was not red, and luckily it was shiny silver.

I have never driven a Mustang before. In fact, coming to think of it, the fanciest car I have driven before was Toyota Prius. No matter how ugly it is, I loved how it did almost 50 miles a gallon. But Mustang was different animal altogether. It has this sexy look, and the pickup was super smooth. That actually got me worried, since I knew I will end up speeding without even realizing it.

A quick day trip to Corvallis was all that was planned. That would not have done justice to this creature, so we decided to drive upto Mary's peak, a nearby vista-point. The drive started off quiet innocuously, and soon we were going up the hill on narrow winding road. Some patches of snow materialized n the sides, nothing to perturb us. We kept going. And then, before we could start looking for a corner to turn around, we got stuck in snow. The wheels would keep rotating, without us moving an inch. Thankfully it was not dark yet, but the situation seemed hopeless.

As we tried to assess our options, a pickup truck appeared from behind. With snow tires and four wheel drive, that ugly car was could go where our sleep beauty could not. They drove repeatedly over the ice, making a track for us to go back down, but in reverse. Going backwards, with almost an out of control car, on a curved road is not fun, and soon enough, I over-steered, getting stuck in the snow again. Out only hope was to somehow get back to the tire tracks again, and roll back another twenty yards or so, where we could tun around. The friends with the truck had left by then, but another good samaritan stepped up. It was his idea to pile up deadwood under the tires to let them have some traction, as I stepped on the gas to move to ever so slightly, and managed to be back on track after three attempts. Physics in action, but a Ph.D in physics does not prepare you for this!

That was enough adventure for the Mustang, before it went back to the airport parking lot.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Swiss Bank Initiation

So I am a proud owner of a Swiss bank account now. After being refused by UBS because of my American passport, I went to the postoffice next door at CERN, and voila they opened an account for me. Now I have been pointed out, rather unkindly, as I may add, that only the poor people in India open bank account in postoffices. However, in Geneva, a lowly postdoc is among the poorest of the society, so I cant really complain.

After signing a simple form saying I am allowing IRS full access to my account, they bright yellow card arrived by mail. Then a password for online banking. Armed with both, I tried login in online, but failed miserably in the first step, and it appeared one of the subsequent one involved using a machine. I went to the ATM, as I thought that would be the closet approximation of what one would mean by a machine, but turned out I need a PIN (which is no the online banking password, fair enough) to do anything at the ATM. Soon enough though, I received the 6 digit PIN. The fun was just beginning though.

Next I received this strange creature in my mail, with a long set of instructions on how to login to my account.

I was given an 7 digit ID number (which is of course neither my account number, nor printed anywhere on the card, and the browser can not be set to remember it) which I have to use to login, using the previously received password. Then the next screen will will spit out a number as , which I have to enter in my device to generate the one time access code. Using the device is not trivial, after inserting the card, I need my PIN (I have not figured a way to change it so far), then only I can enter the first number to generate the second one. Now I am in. I thought may be this was the first time setup, but no, every single login will involve this multistep fun.

They really take their security seriously.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sound of Silence

ATLAS control room is awfully quiet at night, all of us at shift are intently staring at room full of monitors, spitting out plots, and color coded status of detector components. There are about a dozen of us, but I barely know who the guy at the next desk is. When I think about the shifts at CDF control room years back, it was very different. There were only 4 of us, but we chitchatted, cracked jokes, shared food. And then there were alarms, very audible ones. For anything unusual, animals barked, trains whistled, elephants roared, and water flowed loudly, accompanied by a mechanical hard-to-ignore female voice. Those alarms were as much a part of the CDF control room experience as anything. I miss them in ATLAS.

That brings up an interesting question, the importance of sound in situations where it is not strictly necessary. I was watching the superbowl on a French TV channel here - the same plays, the same pictures, but with the commentary in French. Worse, the commentators seemed to be sitting in Paris, so the crowd noise was real muffled. Somehow I could never get the feel of excitement associated with such a high profile game - a closely contested one too, and I am convinced it was the lack of usual "football sound". How often have we realized were speeding driving a super-smooth car with no sound? Sea beaches do not feel like sea beaches without the roar of the sea, specially so at dark.

A while back, I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the effect of dialogues in performing arts in general, especially in movies. Her argument was, the story can still be followed without understanding the conversations, and a movie in a foreign language without subtitles should be equally enjoyable. I disagreed, saying the cultural references are often integral to the storyline, and without understanding the dialogues at all will be a serious impediment to enjoying the movie. A movie like " Big Lebowski" is dependent fully on dialogues, while "The Last Tango in Paris" is not." What is your take on this?

Monday, February 21, 2011

A travelogue without pictures

My camera and laptop are my constant travel companions. This time I ditched both for my short dash to Dresden, since this was just a trip to bring my belongings to Geneva. Nothing remotely exciting can happen, as I told myself, and no point in carrying more stuff than absolutely necessary. While my cute little Nookcolor did not allow me to miss my thinkpad much, the camera was sorely missed.

That was not because of the day long bus ride from Dresden to Geneva. To all fairness, this was my first long roadtrip in this continent, and while the scenery as we entered Switzerland was pretty, nothing was spectacularly new. The highways looked as boring as US freeways, with Mcdonalds' sprouting up in the middle of nowhere. The rest areas had the same look and feel, except one big difference. US is not just the "land of the free", but also the land of free restrooms, while here every usage involved paying.

But I digress. The day before, I flew to Dresden, and nothing seemed unusual till we landed there. The airport was full with police helicopters, and I suddenly remembered that was some kind of demonstration day for neo-Nazis. That thought slipped away somewhat as I boarded the train to the city center, and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw after arriving at the main train station. It was full with police, all in full gear. All the exits were heavily barricaded and guarded. I still thought it is just a preventative measure, but then I was told no public transit is running. No tram, and no taxis. Undaunted, I stepped out, and it looked like a battlefield. Shouting mobs contained by police barricades, armored cars, circling helicopters overhead. All the main roads were hopelessly blocked, hoping to contain the neo-Nazi marchers, with friendly policemen and women warning me of Nazis. Soon it became clear there are not only Nazis, but a battalion of anti-Nazi protesters too, and it was not obvious which group was which. They also sat on the main roads and tried to block the right wing folks, and the police had a tough time to keeping them apart. Later reports put number of neo-Nazis at about 4000, while the protesters were about 5 times larger, but its hard to get the global picture standing in the middle of it. Ironically, the more damage was done by the the protesters, setting trash cans on fire, and provoking confrontation (an aside: they should really learn from Calcuttans how to burn things. This looks pathetic, we burn buses and trams with much less ado). I had to walk all the way to my destination, taking many detours, before a good samaritan offered me a ride at the very end. The city was tense till late evening, with most shops closed, and random groups of people walking around.

Too bad I could not get any pictures. You do not get to see such a mayhem often.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Horrors of house hunting in Geneva

No, I have not found one yet. I have serious doubts if I will ever find one.

So I landed up in Geneva a couple of weeks back, eager to start working at CERN, where all the action in our field is. All was great, except the small problem of finding a place to live. To all fairness, I heard it is a non trivial task, but I could not have found anything until I was here. After sorting visa issues, I started looking around.

Geneva is a beautiful city, and very international. While that feels nice, the presence of all the international organizations and the associated workforce is the main source of housing problem. In last ten years, for example, CERN has gone from an European lab to a truly international one, with a huge American presence. Unfortunately the housing market has not kept up with this population explosion.

That makes house owners and renting agencies the king in this skewed market. For each available dwelling, people apply. From my limited experience so far, I realized that putting together this application is no less harrowing than grad school application. They ask for copies of the work contract and pay slips, to be sure than that I will be here and can afford to pay the rent. Of course proof of identity and valid residence permit is required, as a document called "attestation de non poursuite" (obtained after waiting for an hour in a government office), which effectively proves that none is pursuing me for non-payment of rent or any bills (Is not the US credit history system wonderful?). One also wanted a letter of recommendation. I gather many people here also have a template for it, saying the applicant is among the top 5% of the renters, whatever may that mean. And then there is the application form itself. Usually in French, it has such probing questions like why I want this place. Next time I will answer because I have not found any other places - not sure that bare truth will exactly help me.

So after collecting all these materials from a bunch of people, they select one. Positive discrimination is blatantly in effect, so families and women get preference, and single guys like me are rarely picked. So many of the people from CERN end up sharing houses. Now after living alone for all these years as graduate student and postdoc, I am not very thrilled by the idea, and I do not exactly think my living habits will endear myself to prospective housemates. The other option remains getting a room in a house. I seen one, a window-less room in a basement of a house, sharing a common entrance with the family living there, who did not seem to get the concept of flexible working hours and omni-present deadlines. That was not cheap either.

I lived in a spacious house, minutes away from the my institute and the train station in Dresden. Here, a place one third of its size, will probably cost thrice. If I find one, that is.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Krakow Experience

Working in Dresden for past couple of years had presented me with the unique opportunity of exploring the somewhat under appreciated eastern Europe. After a while, all the cities do look annoyingly similar, but it it does not take much effort to observe how historical background has shaped each city's character uniquely. It is never possible to get a complete picture in weekend trips, but as they say, something is better than nothing.

Krakow in central Poland was my destination last weekend. Like most of the east European cities recovering from communism, it also has a deep disdain for the Russians. The leftovers from socialist era, however are still there. The most prominent were the so called milk-bars, the highly subsidized canteen style eateries, where we had excellent and cheap perogies. Food is generally cheap, and most people spoke some English.

Sandwiched between mighty Russia and Germany, Poland always had a difficult existence, suffering aggression, conquest and persecution. Pretty it was, with the usual assortment of imposing churches, castles and palaces, but also with the somber reminders of terrors of not too distant past.That is where I spent most of my time. They are undoubtedly depressing, but also in a strange way makes you appreciate life more.

The German occupation during WW2 , and subsequent brutality were the dominant theme of the two places I visited in the city. Jagiellonian University, which is one of the oldest universities in the Europe, and the museum housed in the enamel factory of Oscar Schindler. Nicolas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II are probably the two most famous inhabitants of the city and they both studied at the university at different times. It was forcibly shut down during the German occupation and a group of professors were arrested. The next destination was Oscar Schindler's enamel factory, made popular by the Steven Spielberg movie, which was also filmed here. This has now been turned into a permanent exhibition depicting the condition of Krakow's inhabitants, both Jewish and Polish, during the Nazi occupation. This is a not a typical museum, rather gives one a feeling of walking down the streets while everything unfolds around him, thanks to original video and audio recordings, photographs, and the carefully designed exhibition space. We are forced to confront the horrors of life under Nazi occupation firsthand, and to put it mildly, it was not pleasant!

However, that barely prepared us for the mass murder fields we were to visit next day. The adjacent cities of Auschwitz and Birkenau were the location of the largest WW2 era concentration camps. Not much remains now at Birkenau, where most of the "evidence" were destroyed by the Nazis while fleeing. Still the occasional pits and chimneys, and the barbed wire fences serve as a jarring reminder of the cruelty. This was the place were trains packed with prisoners arrived, and many of them were led directly to gas chambers. The rest were crammed in stable-like shades, where not many survived the utterly pathetic living conditions. Walking across the snow covered eerily quiet landscape, it is hard to imagine that men can be so cruel. While top Nazi leaders were certainly driven by ambition and ideology, the foot soldiers were merely doing their job. And to most of them, this was probably just another job - what perhaps required an incredible amount of de-humanization of the jews.

The Auschwitz camp was much smaller, with closely spaced barracks. Nothing apart from the cruel fences, and the gloriously inappropriate sign "Arbeit macht frei", would make it stand out . Many of the buildings house exhibitions now, some showing how people from different countries from across the continent were brought it here, and some showing the condition of the camps. The sheer scale of the Nazi effort is mindbogglingly depressing. Torture almost lost its meaning, and death was cheap. It was an "industrial" revolution of a different kind.

Some pictures are here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Is going back the new way forward?

We all have been subjected to this all important question at some point or the other, whether we intend to go back to India after "finishing" our studies. Some answered honestly, some gave more of a politically correct answer. Some said they do not know. But as it was a purely speculative question at that point, and none had to give a "final" answer, so what we said did not really carry a whole lot of weight. We knew we will cross the bridge when it came to that, unless of course we were pushed out into the water.

Undoubtedly that has happened to people. Some lost funding, some did not clear their qualifying examinations, some had personal issues and had to go back. I am not talking about those forced departures. Suddenly I am seeing a lot of my contemporaries from India, doing well in US or Europe in academics, deciding to go back in their free will, often abandoning their current positions. I also have examples of my family members or other senior folks who went back, again mostly in their own accord. Is there a generation-independent common thread in these homecomings, or individuals just acted according to their own personal situations?

The one underlying thread is always taking care of family. None of our parents are getting younger, and being in the same timezone rather than a long flight or two away is certainly more comforting. It is also true that for some, industry jobs in India are as good as what they would have gotten over here, minus the hassles of visa, green card and immigration lawyers. But for people looking at academic positions, is India equally tempting? Or is it not about career, but more about security? Priorities changed, or it never was about loving the work?

Career is always a very selfish pursuit, and uncertain too. In spite of working our backside off, while ignoring social obligations and family responsibilities, there is no assurance that we will ever get a permanent academic position in US (or in Europe, for that matter) which we will like. Specially for those of us in fields, where supply far outweighs the demand, we spend years as "postdocs" before even thinking about permanent positions. That is essentially like waiting in a queue, without knowing what it is at the end. So after unsuccessfully exploring all possibilities, if you still like what you did all these while (and realize that you not really good for anything else!), and going back gives you an opportunity to continue in academics, albeit in a slightly more frustrating setup, it does make perfect sense. The money is not so bad either nowadays.

However, many are going back much earlier. Yes, there is a glut of faculty positions in India now, after all these new institutes were created, but did we work hard all these while just for a safe job? We survived hard deadlines and meager graduate student salaries, not because we knew there is a job waiting, but because we enjoyed what we were doing. Few do research which changes the world or wins Nobel prize, but just being a small cog in a big wheel is no less motivating. And truth be told, the academic ambiance in a random American university is usually better than that in a random Indian university. Research is more streamlined, there is less political interference in everyday matters, and the professors are more respected in the society. Without exploring that option, and actually comparing if staying back can be better for a career in research, bolting for a safe job appears a bland cop out to me.

Now of course there is the other stream of thought that, it is obligatory for homegrown Indians to go back. A foreign country can never feel like home, and one should not spend one's life abroad, uprooted from the familiar surroundings, and not getting fully integrated there. This may have some merit, but in that case, it would rule out most of India for me. I would feel more of a stranger in Chennai without knowing any Tamil rather than how much I feel alienated in US, where I even though I cant speak like them, I can understand what they speak. Another school of thought goes that since our education in India was essentially subsidized by tax payers money, we owe it to take our skills back. Without going into a long argument on whether higher education should be free, I would say that knowledge transfer in today's connected world does not necessarily require continuous physical presence.

I do know if I will get an academic job here. I do not know if I would like one a few years down the line. I do not know if in that case I prefer going back and get an academic job there. What I do know is this, that whatever I do, it will be driven only by career aspirations at that point, making sure I enjoy doing that. That has always been the primary motivation, and abandoning that will make all these years meaningless.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A trip back down the memory lane

"As I passed through the gates, the blistered hands of nostalgia gave my heart a good squeeze and I realized you miss shit times as well as good times, because at the end of the day what you're really missing is just time itself."
— Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

About two years back, I left Gainesville after obtaining my Ph.D. That is how it was supposed to happen, and five and half years were indeed a long enough time spent in that little big college town. However, somewhere down the line, it just did not remain just another place where I spent a few years of my life, rather became my home, the place where I felt I belonged to. First time in my life, everything was mine. Not just that I started earning money for the first time (no matter how meager graduate student salary was), and spent as I wanted. I traveled all over the place, bought a car. All the successes were mine, and all the failures too. Then I moved to Germany. No matter how enriching a cultural experience this was, and how much work my career benefited, I could never bring myself to say I am from Dresden. I stuck with I work here.

I craved for a chance to go back. Finally everything worked out for a quick trip down there. As I drove in the town late night, I almost ended up heading to my old apartment. Apart from a few new parking lots, everything looked the same, just like how I last saw them. The physics building still felt like the second home it was, only my office did not have my name any more. It was not just me, others also had trouble realizing that they last said "hi" to me in the corridor two years back, not yesterday. The guy who bought my car was kind enough to let me drive it again, and except for the fact that the interior looked much less messy now, I felt just as familiar sitting there. Many people left, but those I did meet, helped me to feel at home. I dined at Satchel's Pizza, the unique Gainesville landmark. I stepped inside the "Swamp", knowing little that the Urban Meyer era, which in a lot of ways defined the identity of "our" Gator nation, is about to end. I drove down to Cedar Key, the nearest seafront, which holds so many memories from those days gone by.

And then I was gone again.