Saturday, April 21, 2007

It is All About Interpretation

This famous piece of modern art is attributed to an amateur painter, Jakob Theigissi. Jakob Theigissi was supposed to be an obscure director of pornography. Despite his excellence in the "Lower" arts he really thirsted for recognition at a higher plane. This piece in his own words represents the "... storm and confusion of youth. The inability of the young to focus, you start on something but get derailed..."

My interpretation: It seems as if the painter couldn't control his movements. Therefore, this painting represents the uncontrollable madness, the struggle between inherent internal chaos and societal requirement for order and conformity.

What is yours?

City Improvement!

The new luxury buses that Pallavan has introduced are awesome! I can now travel from Adyar to Valluvar Kottam at Rs. 7 or Rs. 9 and most of the times I have got a seat! I personally hope AC bus services are introduced at least along select routes. I traveled in one such bus in Bangalore and the journey was extremely comfortable! (Of course, in Bangalore you may just take an auto instead :)) I wouldn't mind paying for it as it would definitely be cheaper than the 70 I used to bargain for an auto home.

These luxury and semi-luxury services are beneficial on another count as well. Clearly, Chennai was not designed to handle the quantum of traffic that it is handling and the situation is bound to get worse. However, the Indian mentality is such that we have to buy "an own vehicle" because it indicates financial stability! Therefore, if good quality, reasonably priced public transportation services are available, it may ease peak hour office traffic.

Interestingly, meters are slowly, albeit very slowly, coming into use in Singara Chennai. I think the onus lies on the consumer's side to insist on the meter. Of course, the danger is that for the rest of the journey the driver will patiently educate you on the economics of running an auto in Chennai. If thy nerves are made of steel, or alternatively, if you don't look like a Tamilian, you could make him put the meter and still survive the journey!

The new Hyundai Police cars with lights at the top are such a welcome development. They give you an impression that the city is in good hands. Definitely more re-assuring than those old jeeps. In fact, in most Tamil movies the Police will be shown arriving after the hero had done whatever needed to be done. Maybe the jeeps were the reason!

However one pet crib with Chennai has been the lack of majestic, awe-inspiring architecture. Another requirement would be top class, well maintained public libraries. But anyway evolution will take its time.

But whatever may or may not happen, it will always be "Madras Nalla Madras!" :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Extra-Curricular Scene - Need for Introspection

(This is a very IITM specific post. Please do not attempt to draw any conclusions unless you are realy well versed with the scene.)

When I heard that one of the Hostel Nites was scheduled for April 18th, I let out a whistle. I just couldn't believe it! The guys involved with organizing that Hostel Nite will have less than a week to go for the end semester examination. This is cutting it too fine!

But you could hardly blame them. They were waiting for the Lit. Soc. and Schroeter events to get over. You can't blame the Lit. Soc. Events Cores because they had to set dates which didn't clash with Schroeter or Tech. Soc. or one of the innumerable festivals. Surely, you can't blame Schroeter! That is the mother of all extra-curriculars at IITM. That is the definition of Hostel Spirit. Then why did Schroeter stretch? Well, even the mighty Schroeter needs to look at Lit. Soc., Saarang, Shaastra, Mechanica, Wavez, Amalgam etc etc. Why blame Mechanica, Amalgam et al? After all, aren't they small fests, mere two to three day affairs, nothing when compared to the bigger distractions of Institute and Hostel elections. And in all this mess, we have the coordinator selections as well! But one mustn't crib for that because the wheels of Shaastra and Saarang are too mighty and have to begin rolling in May or June!

You may counter that you are exclusively a Schroeter or a Lit. Soc. guy and therefore, this argument does not apply to you. Think again! Due to the plethora of events, schedules keep getting pushed. Therefore, you may find your event happening a couple of weeks before the exams even though you may want more time. That is why one has a Hostel Nite occurring this late!

There is a more subtle problem. In recent years, I have noticed that for a team assignment at least one more person is missing due to one of the above reasons. Worse, he/she may come late. That screws up the schedule even more and what is a one hour discussion becomes a two-three hour drag. So it becomes a ripple effect and in this madness some other nicer things are lost like the opportunity to attend the rare Extra-Mural Lectures that IITM organizes.

Ideally it would be nice if say Schroeter gets over by the last week of March. Then the Hostel Nites and then a clean two weeks for the end sems. I am assuming Lit. Soc. would have gotten over by February. Saarang, Schroeter, Lit. Soc. make for a packed calendar. Shaastra was pushing the limit but it is needed. But in our case things keep happening on and on.

Let me tell you one more thing that people never admit to but it happens nevertheless. After a good sleep you get up, all ready to attack the books, then something else springs up and that is very irritating and affects the momentum. Worse still people resort to night-outs. I hate night outs! I strongly believe it affects one's health. A night-out once in a while chatting or drinking with friends is not a problem at all. In fact, it is absolutely essential. But people actually put night-outs for exams, pass muster and feel happy about it!

When confronted with this people go into denial. I don't know what people think. The prevailing thought seems to be this: 'A few "studs" (A term which I now think is extremely misleading) can manage. Therefore, I must try to do so too'. Or 'Only if I have all this can I aspire for institute elections'. God knows what people think!

Often a crib is heard that students are not working hard enough. Bunkum! My crib is that students today are working too hard. There is a tendency in IITM to take our extra-curriculars too seriously. We push the limit and kickass. No two doubts! But my question is, is it necessary?
I wish people took more time off, just farting with friends trying to analyze and understand things. Do keep a lot of time to waste in addition to sleep time and academics time.

Do these credentials help? Yes and no. Yes because working for these events / competing for the hostel and winning gives enormous confidence, not to mention lots of Kodak moments. However, a lot of plans that are made require extreme professionalism. Other than for sports practise, no one here turns up on time for anything. If you can't assure me that basic discipline, then we can't go for grandiose plans.

Also, all these core groups are evolving into bureaucracies in themselves. You have one group to do the job and you have another group to monitor them! Interviews are held late at night for posts of coordinators. Recently, there has been discussion on increasing the minimum attendance requirement. Expectedly, this met with a lot of opposition from the student body. There the convenient villain was the Dean. However, no one seems to be reprimanding these cores for keeping interviews so late. Are we to believe that this practice has nothing to do with the bad attendance? But you mustnt blame the cores. They are stretched themselves.

This leaves the individual. The blame then is on the individual. Yes. It is tough for anyone to kill something. Cores will make grander and grander plans.(I hear the craze now is to do a MIT. Well, most of the pseud things in MIT are done by grads. Whoever has heard about MIT undergrads? My my, there must be a reason, mustn't there? And just because of the Narayanamurthy comment on 60 Minutes, when a guy passes the JEE he suddenly feels obliged to take inspiration from MIT. Well, Einsteins, we must realize the JEE of these days is nowhere near the class of the older JEEs. So stop comparing, cock up and just do whatever gives you intellectual fulfillment. That is why you are here for.)

In this kind of a scenario, the individual has to make up his/her mind. The implicit promise/expectation when you leave IIT is that you are academically competent. You could have a low CGPA and still be very good. Lots of people are uncomfortable with the quiz system, but it is still a good system. And IIT has to grade students in some way. So if you have a problem with that, live with it, but there is a lot of other things one can do. The excuse is not to put off doing any sort of intellectual activity to the night before the exams.

The biggest casualty of the one-night mug concept is the art of figuring things out for yourself. Sure, when people work for these fests they do figure out a lot of things for themselves. Agreed! But after a point the learning is incremental. That is why 2 coordships = 4 coordships = 6 coorships = Core = Insti. Sec. in this respect. Anyway, coming back to the initial issue of one-night mug: since only one day is left, people get fundaes from a group, use older question papers and pass muster. But then you lose out on studying from text books. To give an example, however good one may be in say, chemical engineering thermodynamics, if you have not read Lewis and Randall, you have definitely lost something in terms of intellectual experience.

Therefore, you define your involvement. Extra-curriculars help for bullet points but not at the cost of academic and intellectual competence. You decide the trade-offs. if you think you can't meet expectations or the expectations are stupid, don't apply, don't participate, walk out. We may love our friends and seniors but a line has to be drawn. I think the tipping point has been reached. My God, April 18th it seems... and Saarang interviews are not even over! What the fuck!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Will Someone Please Teach the Old Dog New Tricks?

(Wrote this on March 30th. Publishing now without relevant editing as the basic argument still holds.)

A bandh has been called in Chennai to protest the Supreme Court's stay order on the implementation of the OBC quouta. The sponsors of the bandh, the ruling party coalition, (but soon we will have the opposition taking credit as well) has urged an immediate meeting of both the houses on ways to "overcome" the verdict. Yawn! So what’s new!

What is new this time is that the bandh is expected to be total, meaning buses and autos won’t ply and shops are also expected to be closed! Flights have also been canceled! It has been quite some time since we had such a bandh and that too over this issue at this time. Tamil Nadu has enough quotas for OBCs, MBCs and anything else in its admission scheme. Tamilians trying for elite institutions at the national level wouldn’t constitute a vote bank and people entering such institutions are quite unlikely to vote for the sponsors anyway! The craze is more for state colleges. The Papaan or the Tam Brahm, that Karunanidhi hated so effectively in his initial years, has anyway left the country in large numbers and is not a force to reckon with anymore, perhaps even in the IITs and IIMs. Then why all this sweat? Is it just a mere pre-emptive strategy so that the opposition does not cash on this issue?

Bandhs, today, are futile exercises in political gimmickry and nothing comes out of such impotent rabble rousing. If anguish is what you wanted to express you can do it in many ways, wasting half a business day does not help anyone. Also, what is really there to protest in this case? The Supreme Court Judges do not give a judgment based on their personal opinions and fancies. The fact that the Supreme Court has stayed the implementation of the Bill, implies there was something legally deficient or legally weak. And whosoever you may be you have no business to be on weak legal grounds. Therefore, if the pro-reservationists have to be angry with anyone it has to be the people who drafted a weak bill.So what really surprises me is: Don’t politicians realize that people are savvy enough to look through the charade? I am sure most people realize instinctively whatever I have said above. Paralysing daily life hurts the common man way more than he/she cares to “register” protest. Then why do they do it and think they can get away with it? I would blame it on the fact that most of the people running the show today are old foggies who cut their political teeth in the halcyon days of bandhs, morchas, fasts and bus burning.

I think it is time for fresh political thinking. Slowly the days of emotional, rhetoric driven politicians will come to an end. People want results and want them fast. Why? Simply because the tide of globalization is spreading quite fast.

To elaborate, an acquaintance of mine once snapped back in an argument that in a way Socialist India was better. Everyone was poor! He had a mediocre education and gets a mediocre salary and that was perhaps the ostensible motive for this remark. The lady, who has been selling vegetables regularly for the past ten years to my house, took a day off to protest foreign entrants in retail (They were actually protesting Reliance’s announced retailing initiative or something. That had been given a foreign angle!) The underlying fear was that as they were uneducated all these rapid changes would leave them unable to cope with the new order.

These cannot be dismissed as irrational behaviour. That would be doing a Marie Antoinette. The fact is these are people struggling to cope with rapid changes and uncertainties that globalization can unleash. It is a very valid concern and the vagaries of globalization are something from which even the highly educated may not be exempt. All the skilled labourers who lost their jobs in the US due to outsourcing would know this.

The writing is on the wall. When the NDA government fell with its “India Shining” slogan, the freshly formed UPA government smugly spoke of how they would address the growth imbalance and restore the glorious kisans back to their pristine glory. Now reeling under a record inflation and recent poll losses they are feeling the heat and must be thinking what Vajpayee and Advani may have thought.

I cannot tire of saying this. The greatest problem India is facing, which will become more serious is this:

“The Economic Pie is expanding like never before. However, a large section of society is out of its reach. The key to getting a part of this pie is education. However, education services are skewed, very badly in the country. Unless mechanisms are developed to split these economic spoils in a more equitable manner, and that too quickly, we are going to see more and more seemingly irrational moves”

This is the essence of the problem. How do we address educational imbalances? The key would be faculty quality. If there is such a gulf between the IIXs and the others why so, besides faculty? Lack of quality at the higher educational level cannot be addressed without looking at secondary school education. How to attract and keep good teachers at the rural level? Should there be a greater private initiative? (I personally think it is time private entrepreneurs in India started setting up Universities at the scale of Stanford and Harvard. It is unfair to expect the government any more. But the key it has to be done as fast as possible.)

Is education the only means of redressing this imbalance? What quick solutions can be formulated? What is this hype about microfinance? Will that do something here?

The OBC quota demand’s rationale too can be traced to this. If you note, the bill specifically seems to target the IITs and IIMs. The “other institutions” just seem like a politically correct tag. The common, unarticulated middle class sentiment is this: these moves are result of heartburn arising from the fact that the very forward castes that Mandal set out to screw, are cornering fat salaries and escaping abroad. I don’t really think so. The common man has little time or energy to hate. The fact is quality education in the country is extremely skewed and a small advantaged section seems to be repeatedly cornering it.

The notion of merit is a tricky one. True, the entrance exams to the IITs and the IIMs may ensure merit but the argument is whether the definition of merit itself equitable. This is just what the anti-reservationists never seem to get. By giving the "merit argument" you fall into te very same trap that the pro-reservationist lay for you. Now the latter would go back and say, "Look, I told you! As long as we leave it to the forward classes they will ask questions that is favourable for their way of thinking, define that as merit and continue repressing us!"

I have always believed that the key argument in the OBC quota bill is not the "merit argument", but rather the appalling lack of statistics, monitoring and feedback in the "Reservation" approach. Does the government know how many students falling under the OBC category are there in the IITs presently? There is no way they would have known that, simply because the IITs have not been asking that question till now. Then shouldn’t that have been found out first? This is an elementary question which I am sure would have struck a fifteen year old kid had it been assigned to solve this problem. Perhaps, there are 20% OBCs in the IITs and IIMs already and left alone the number may reach 27% in due time.

This is where the judgment by the Supreme Court is welcome. The Bench has pointed out the undue haste by not coming out with determinable data. “It could not be explained as to why a firm data base could not be evolved first, so that the exercise could be undertaken thereafter,” the judges said. (Source: They have also asked the Government to look at the experiences of the US and South Africa in dealing with their racial problems. All this was known, but it is welcome that an authority has put it in such clear terms!

The Bench has also articulated something that lots of people suspected all along. The OBC list has been drawn up on the basis of a 1931 census. 1931! Can you believe it 1931? Castes have been added but nothing has been deleted. Clearly this is bunkum! The government should have done its homework. The fact that the Bill was passed by both the houses, without this information, reflects very poorly on the lawmakers.

Another elementary question that should have been asked: Does any state have an experience of quotas for OBCs and what has been the experience? For that look no further than Tamil Nadu itself. A look at entrance examination cutoffs for seats to engineering colleges through TNPCEE show that the difference between the OBC cutoff and the General category cutoffs have been decreasing. (This is what I observed for 2002 and 2003. Couldn’t find the statistics online) Then the next question is: Has there been any trade-off vis-a-vis quality in achieving this as the anti-reservationists claim? Sadly, all this is missing. Instead one finds a stubborn/dictatorial “assertion” that OBC quotas are required.

While short sighted attempts may be made to “overcome” the verdict, until the essential issues of upliftment, empowerment and education are addressed, governments will continue to fall. And the day shall not be far off when the term ‘son-of-a-politician’ becomes the preferred expletive!