Friday, August 22, 2008

So what am I PhDing in?

Ahhh Academia! Here I am again.... Almost 15 months after leaving Robot Vision Laboratory, Purdue University and 2 months after leaving Read-Ink Technologies Pvt. Limited, Bangalore here I am at Advanced Computing and Informations Systems Laboratory, University of Florida!

And, btw my welcome-party here includes a surprise performance by Fay!

My friend Mridul once narrated a conversation that he had with his adviser regarding when is it too late for a person to think about doing a PhD. The conversation boiled down to this: "if you can name even three areas/topics/questions that intrigue you and which you want to grasp, you qualify!"

Hmmm... on the question of inquisitiveness, 'll, I ain't sure 'bout how hungry for knowledge I'm.... but 'sure 'm Mal-knowledge-ed!!

So to come to the question raised in the topic of this post and which so many people have asked me, the answer is "I don't know yet"...

Its a whole new universe out here and for me the journey has just begun!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Last Day at Read-Ink …

Exactly a year ago, on this very day I walked into a white, three-storied building in Indiranagar, Bangalore-the office to a start-up called Read-Ink Technologies Private Limited. That was the beginning of my first job…. And today, I am bidding farewell to this place and all the wonderful people I met here.

A lot changed over the last year; personally speaking, I got married, had a laptop blast in my house, realized a new local maximum of my ignorance, got banned, reached a new high in fitness, traveled, trekked, met some amazing people, made a few friends for life and lost a few dear ones to death…. To sum it up, it has been an eventful year!

But as I leave today I am not thinking about all the events that transpired over the last year or about the eventualities that I might have to face in the days to come… instead, my brain is working like a camera capturing humdrum moments of a ‘normal’ day here… things that will remain the same tomorrow as they were before I came…

Maybe at some time in the future I will chalk out the balance sheets for how ‘useful’ this last year has been. But as of today, such algebra is beyond me….

In my life’s book another chapter is closing.... tomorrow there will be no office, no bantering over coffee, no peeping over the cubicle, no meetings, no walks, no ‘goodh foodh’….and no second lunches…

Some how, the knowledge that we are going to leave soon does not stop us from making ourselves at home…. And that applies to life just the same.

Tomorrow will be a new chapter… beginning of new journeys…

But today, I feel like the narrator just gave the verdict… “Priya is dead! Priya is Mafia!!”

Damn! I have to sit out for the rest of the game… AGAIN!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

MATLAB vs. C++? And the winner is….

….C++, of course! And, for the simple reason that MATLAB IS EVIL!

To all you pseudo-programmers, Simulink-flaunting ‘engineers’ and the like who swear by the ‘inbuilt functionality’ and ‘user-friendliness’ of MATLAB, I would just like to say… people, get a life! Its not that you don’t KNOW how stupid this application is- after all, you are the ones who sit there wiggling your toes while MATLAB takes minutes to run something C++ would do in micro-seconds; and you are the ones who get stymied, trying to make MATLAB understand even most simple Data Structures - then why not accept it? Why not, for once and for all, agree to the fact that C++ is superior and stop going ya-ya-ya about the ‘cool’ things about MATLAB!

People often tell me that MATLAB works better for engineers because of its inbuilt libraries and as a proof (by demonstration) they may type ‘14382^11.32’ on their command windows and lo-and-behold MATLAB tells you the answer! And then their argument may go something to the effect that to do the same thing with C++, you would need to write a function, maybe include a couple of libraries, debug, compile and run … too much headache for something MATLAB does in ONE line! Well, that is a fair argument…. only if you think that that is engineering… namely calculating random numbers to the power of random numbers…!

Honestly, that is anything but engineering! Engineering is about conceptualizing and it takes power to design elegant structures to translate those concepts to code… A good data structure is the difference between an understandable, well-organized, effectual program and useless, exasperating gobbledygook. But that is something MATLAB just does not understand. The ‘arrays’, ‘cell arrays’ and ‘structure’ that it provides address the problem of stucturing data with the same success rate as Bush is addressing the issue of ending the Iraq War!

Engineering also needs checks and while I admit that C/C++ has its own shortcomings when it comes to security issues (memory leaks, garbage collection problems, etc.), MATLAB is just outright scary. For example, there are no type-checks as a variable can be redefined from an integer to a character, to an array, to a structure within the span of a single function! Further, MATLAB passes parameters only by value… which is totally sinful if you want to pass large arrays and structures… just think of how much time and space you are consuming!

With C++ and a little more patience you can write code that is not only more efficient, it also better structured, more-understandable at any later date and therefore more reusable… I guess that’s why the latest (2008a) version of MATLAB had introduced object-oriented concepts and parameter passing by reference… But that’s something I am yet to get my hands dirty with….

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Would you work hard…just for the heck of it?

The question is very simple… but the idea behind the question is anything but that. Imagine you were asked to do a job, however easy or difficult that does not matter, with the prescience that neither prize nor punishment will be awarded for the work you do. That does not mean that the quality of your output will not matter or that, your doing the thing well is not going to make a difference to anyone. It most probably will, just that you won’t be held accountable for it. Would you still care to spend yourself to do justice to the job?

As impractical as the above question may seem, it is not completely hypothetical. Of course, most of the time we work hard because we expect some reward/gain for doing a job well or loss/punishment/rebuke as a consequence of failing to deliver. But sometimes we can face situations where no such strings are attached. For example, think of the time in school when you knew that no matter how poorly you did in co-curricular subjects (like art, music, dance, physical education, sports, etc.) you will still pass, because those subject for some reason never count. (At least they did not count in my school.) Or, the time when you had secured the requisite grade in a course even before taking the finals and had the option of learning and doing well in the finals or not caring and flunking. Or, the time when you are about to leave a job and have the option of working hard for the last few days and diligently handing off your responsibilities or dumping the work because it won’t come on your record or affect your future prospects in any way.

In all these situations the thing to remember is that you may be spending the same amount of time trying to do the work as you would trying to malinger it. In other words, whether you do well or not on your co-curricular activities at school, you may still have to take the test just as you may have to take the final exam of the course you have already passed. Or while serving the notice period at the company you are going to leave, you may be required to be on your desk and look like you are working as usual. The only thing that would have changed is your answerability to your peers and superiors.

The answer to this question will certainly give you some insight into what kind of worker you are, and what it is that motivates you. Are you the kind of person who in the absence of any external impetus can inspire enough self-motivation to deliver the goods or, are you the kind who will drift till you are saddled up and put on course by the conditions around you…?

It may also give you some insight into whether you like doing what you do. Most people would do things if you give them an extremely good reason or an awful lot of money for doing it. The question is how many of them would be doing the same things if you take away the money or the status or the strings?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Web Archives to the rescue….

It does not happen often that you get stuck in something you really HAVE to get done and the first person you ask comes knows the perfect solution to your problem. But that’s exactly what happened the other day…

I needed some information that I knew had been posted on the internet in 2005 and had since been taken down. All I had with me was a now dysfunctional URL.

So, I sat there wiggling my thumbs thinking what to do when my friend comes along and I tell him my problem. He asked me for the URL and within seconds I had on my computer screen the web-page (with all the links, photographs etc) which had been removed from the internet 3 years ago!

And that’s how I came to know about web-archiving and I think it is totally cool. The basic idea is that computer programmers called web-crawlers traverse through the pages on WWW from time to time and archive them. People like me who want to refer to back dated information can access these old web-pages…

Issues like copy rights are taken care of by giving the publisher the right to remove his or her web-page from the archives. I think that it is essential that people who don’t intend to use the archives should still be aware that such things exist. It is essential that you make sure that you remove the content that you don’t want to be public in the future not only from your own web-page but also from public web archives.

Though I got my project done, that was of secondary importance now. After all, I had the last 10 or so years of Web-archives to check out!!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

BMC banned??

The aforementioned BMC stands for Bangalore Mountaineering Club which is basically a bunch of adventure enthusiasts who organize treks and camps in and around Bangalore at very affordable prices. They work on zero profit, for the sheer joy of bringing to others the opportunity of coming close to nature and its infinite beauty.

And yet, with all those noble intensions, today I ban it from my list of worthy, coveted, joinable and likable organizations.

Why?? Good question!

Well, the story started a couple of weeks ago when I received an email from BMC saying that they had banned me because “based on the attitude and behavior” I had shown on the two treks I had been to with them, they felt I treated them like “hospitality industry” and expected them to provide “services”.

Now, that did NOT seem right. On both the treks that I had been to, I had been more than happy with the facilities and at no point had I expected or asked anything of the organizers at all. So I contacted BMC and asked for a clarification.

So this is what it boils down to: I was banned because on one of the treks 7 of us had moved ahead of the rest of the group with the government certified guide accompanying us. Since the visibility at that time was low, getting separated from the guide had caused anxiety in the people left behind for some ten minutes or so before the group leader could come down and stop the bunch of us that were moving ahead of the rest.

Booo! Hooo!! Hoooooooo!!!!!! I am banned because I moved ahead!!! Get out of here! Please ANYONE with any trekking experience at all, point out one expedition in which on not even one occasion some people moved ahead or behind and got separated from the rest?

The weirdness does not end there as there is a twist in this story… I am (to the best of my knowledge) the ONLY person of the 7 (who had moved ahead) who was banned, and (again) that did not seem right!

So the explanation offered by BMC is that “it all adds up”! Apparently, the concerned BMC organizer had been informed that on an earlier trek I had gobbled down a couple of sleeping bags at night! No really….! And, he didn’t care to find out the truth from me while on that trek or at any time after that.

Now BMC accepts that the informer may have misrepresented facts, but is also indifferent enough to not want to set things straight with her. In their own words “This was not the main issue and it was really the second incident (moving ahead of the rest) that brought the first one back to mind”. Yeah right!

The initial bewilderment over the incident has now given way to mirth! After all isn’t it ridiculous that BMC did not bother to face up to me BEFORE sending me a ‘You have been banned from BMC’-email and instead told me later that they “expected me to respond to it”. That to my mind is concomitant to hanging someone and then asking if he has anything to say in his defense! .... What the hell!!!!

I cannot cure the insecurities people have and if that means that random people will ban me from random organizations for random reasons, I couldn’t care less.

Human nature often puzzles me… and this is just one of the many times I am left chuckling with the thought “You have GOT to be kidding me!”

Why blog?

As I have mentioned in the blog description, this is an attempt to record insights and conundrums that come and (since they are not recorded) go. We all ask questions when we get stuck, while beating our heads against merciless demons like the society and the system, when we feel wronged or cheated or when something all of a sudden fascinates us. Sometimes our questions are answered, and at other times we learn to live with the mysteries of the world around us.

But nonetheless, I feel asking questions is important. After all who knows how deep the rabbit hole runs? You will never know unless you make an attempt to uncover the truth, open your mind to new possibilities, and stop shielding yourself from shocks and surprises... asking is the first step towards finding out what lies beneath.

Not every search leads to a treasure. Similarly inquiries into why things are the way they are can lead to nowhere. Or worst, we might end up finding out something we did not want to know; something that makes us uncomfortable or unhappy. But then, like the classical thought experiment called Schrödinger's cat attempts to illustrate, you will never know till you open the box!

This blog is my attempt to open the box, to ask questions. My goal is to simply understand what I can and keep a list of the things that need further investigation or thought. I hope the questions that I talk about here will whet the appetite for inquiry in my readers as well. I solicit answers/thoughts/insights pertinent to the issues at hand and suggestions for things my readers would like to see discussed.

And before signing off, one disclaimer: I reserve the right to ask DUMB questions! J After all, why not??