Monday, February 22, 2016

The Age of Information

Over the last few weeks, I have seen the internet explode into bitter arguments between polarized camps. In the US, this is election year, where in an assuredly periodic pattern differences of opinion transform into vitriolic name-calling. In India, there have been the cases of Rohith Vemula and the more recent JNU agitation. It has taken great self-control on my part to not voice my arguments on the internet during this period. This, despite the fact that my eyeballs roll to the back of my head more times than I can count on my two hands on a daily basis. You see, even though I have more or less successfully attempted to not engage in internet arguments in the last few years (with a few, perhaps ill-advised exceptions), the bad habit that I haven't given up is reading what other people write. The latter has not always been good for my eye(ball)s, let alone my brain.

For the most part, the internet has been one of the most powerful and beneficial inventions mankind has ever come up with. There is no denying how easy it has made the lives of those who are privileged enough to have access to it and know their way around it. One of the things the internet has made extremely easy is the dissemination of information. Unfortunately, this has also been the internet's biggest failing, or rather, this is where we may be failing the internet. The ease with which information can now be shared unfortunately also appeals to our trigger-happy, mob-mentality instincts. Some of us (including myself) fall prey to that instinct often - that urge to press "like" and "share". Other times we are exhorted to do so - "Press share if ". Some of this is pretty harmless - no one is going to be hurt if you let others know you relate to things other kids who grew up in the 90s relate to, or share a video of a cat doing something a cat isn't expected to do. There is, however, a very dark side to this trigger happiness that has come to the fore in recent weeks, months and years that is extremely disturbing. 

You get a whatsapp text on your phone, a message on facebook, or a link to a blog such as this, with quotes (some famous, others not), mostly out of context. It makes up a few numbers without providing a source, and makes a compelling argument that completely convinces you, and then proceeds to exhort you to forward this piece of information. Sometimes you also get morally threatened with not being "X" if you don't share it. By now, you have been lured into an emotional trap and are extremely eager to pass this information on to others in order to enlighten them - it seems like the right thing to do. And it's Just. So. Easy. You don't have to move, you don't have to pick up that phone and call fifty other people. Just a simple click of the button and you've enlightened those fifty other people - good deed for the day done. A lot of us (including myself and a lot of my near and dear ones) have fallen prey to this trap at some point. The internet has often been used by private individuals or those belonging to the state machinery to spread half-truths and blatant lies. Outrage comes cheap these days. Time is money, and with the help of the information age, it takes very little of your time or effort to express outrage at things you think are true. However, the truth of the information age is also that there may be a much larger picture that you are simply not aware of.You could be needlessly endangering an entire community of people, ruining someone's reputation, taking away their livelihood, or in extreme cases, taking away someone's life. 

What strikes me as strange is that in an ideal world the internet should have been a place to engage people in an exchange of ideas thought previously impossible. Perhaps it does serve that purpose to a certain extent. However, it is also fast becoming that place where people go to aggressively express their opinion (accurate or otherwise) from the seemingly safe space behind a glowing computer monitor or a smartphone screen. This sort of behavior is shrinking the space where opposites can meet, converse and resolve their issues at an alarming rate. It is causing many to simply disengage from partaking in discussions online, because it never really leads anywhere but name-calling followed by angry silence. This is the opposite of dialogue. This is us being Dilbert's Dick from the Internet.

The next time you see things that look like compelling facts that you must be convinced by and must share with others, pause to think. Someone could be exploiting your good intentions to make you an accessory for their agenda. Someone could be involving you in their conspiracy to defame a person, a community, a country, an organization, or a cause. Don't be an accessory. Control your trigger-happy self. There is a difference between opinion and fact. Share those opinions as opinions, and verify those facts before you "like and share". If they are not true beyond reasonable doubt, don't "like and share". You may not be "X" if you do so, in the opinion of the person who sent you this piece of information, but you'll be making the world a less stupid place, and you're a better person for that. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Festive Season

Today, I chanced upon a blogpost from yesteryear which mentioned the onset of the festive season. My facebook feed has been full of people bringing in Diwali and everything that comes with it. Now is also probably the time I miss being home the most. Having missed Diwali in Delhi for the fifth time in a row, however, it has slowly started to be like any other day. The American way of life turns Holi, Diwali and every other Indian festival governed by the moon into a weekend event - and that's how Diwali will be spent - doing homework on the day of, and perhaps attending the odd party the following weekend. 

The closest I came to celebrating Diwali in the last five years was when I flew out of Delhi the evening before. It always breaks your heart to leave home (rather well documented on this blog), but it's whole new level when you see your home town, covered with the glittering lights of celebration slowly falling away into the darkness below. I guess it wasn't a surprise that there were only 80 people traveling on a plane meant for 350 that day. 

G and I were talking about how the joy of this season is more about the anticipation of it than the festive days themselves. The nip in the air is dripping with anticipation - the anticipation of upcoming celebrations, of relief from the months of searing heat, of warm food and cold nights. Enjoy that feeling and all the joys of this festive season, my friends. They don't make festive seasons like that everywhere. 

Happy Diwali!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Our MOMma

This was a momentous week in the history of the Indian space programme. I was waiting with my fingers crossed as MOM broke its slingshot around the Sun to settle into orbit around Mars. This prompted great celebrations everywhere, especially since ISRO got it right at the very first attempt - no mean feat, if you consider the sheer number of things that have to happen correctly and in the right sequence in order to get something from here to there.

The MOM mission also marked the first time that ISRO really tried to engage the public and capture the imagination of the common Indian. For the longest time in my life, I have been really frustrated about the absence of any sort of PR on part of the Indian space agency. I have always felt that it does great work, without letting any of its exploits be thoroughly appreciated by the public. It is a mentality that I have often seen in the Indian science and technology sector, where presentation is given far less importance than content. In an ideal world, that would be a fair balance. However, the fact of the matter is that science is as much a business as anything else, and the ability to project and sell one's work is an essential skill for any scientist to have. In the case of a programme as grand as this, projection and public involvement is necessary for its longevity. This change in ISRO's attitude towards the involvement of public outside the space sector is a welcome change. A quick look at ISRO's website would justify my happiness at their new-found internet savviness (on occasion, even taking to Twitter to talk to Curiosity). This time, they did not just ensure that they did something great. They ensured that you and I hung on to the edge of our seats on crucial days, waiting for updates and eventually rejoiced and celebrated their achievement - something that would probably have been restricted to about a hundred people in the past. More importantly, a very crucial audience was reached through this PR campaign - children in school. At a time when we are struggling to produce a mass interest in science and technology amongst children in school, an achievement like this can serve as a great catalyst to inspire many children to think of careers in this field. When I was growing up, I mostly harboured ambitions to work for NASA rather than ISRO, simply because there were no inspiring examples to look up to at the time. I hope last week's success gives children something to aspire to within their own country (it surely has given me a few things to think about).

Of course, the increase in public involvement is not without its side effects. All week long, I squirmed uncomfortably every time I saw that comparison between autorickshaw fares in Bangalore and cost per km for the MOM mission. A lot of factors contributed to the low cost of this mission (not the least of which are the exceedingly low labour costs in India compared to other space faring nations) that get conveniently masked by this "mileage deti kitna hai?" mentality. Of course, full credit to ISRO for avoiding monetary inefficiencies and leaks that often plague missions of this size. I also flinched every time someone used the word "jugaad" to describe what ISRO had achieved with this mission. In my opinion, this mission was about as far away from jugaad as possible, Indian resourcefulness notwithstanding. This was a feat of solid engineering, carried out in a very limited time frame on a shoestring budget. Good engineering and great attention to detail by a very dedicated staff is what ensured that almost no glitches were encountered despite all these constraints, not compromise and cutting corners - the orbiter wasn't put together with duct tape and rubber bands. In my opinion, these two comparisons seem to take something away from the tireless men and women who made this mission such a grand success. Moreover, there were comments on how we were the first Asian country to make it to Mars, and more specifically, how we beat China to it. Space has mostly been a competitive domain, but space is also a great opportunity to collaborate and focus on issues larger than territorial disputes. The focus needs to be less on how we paid less than the West for an autorickshaw trip to Mars and traveled faster than China, and more on the efficient work and flawless execution that made this trip happen in such a short time span (and where we can go with it). The MAVEN and MOM teams have already showed intent to work together as a team, which is an encouraging sign.

I'm wishing ISRO my heartfelt congratulations on this great success. I have really cherished following this mission since its launch last year in November and also the growth that I have seen in the agency's vision for the future. I am eagerly awaiting the unlocking of more of the red planet's mysteries. Who knows what the future holds. I for one am very excited about it. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Fin.

It has so transpired that my time in Germany has finally run out. I am sitting at the gate, waiting to board my flight back, somewhat overwhelmed by the sudden increase in conversations that are completely understandable. I guess it's good preparation for the sensory overload I will encounter tomorrow morning, happily so. It felt pretty weird leaving Bremen this morning. One might think it had started to become a sort of "home" - associated with that feeling of comfort that you feel when you come back from a trip. Then again, it is nice to have multiple homes to come back to, spread out around the world (without even being a billionaire).

I would like to think that my first experience of leading a real life in Europe has been quite a success, the upcoming winter for which I will escape back to California notwithstanding. This has been a fast set of eleven weeks of having a work life and home life - a real life, essentially. For now, I must leave this short pretense and return to being a PhD student.

Part of what made this experience so special were my new found friends in Bremen. This marks the end of email conversations from work, walks after lunch, tea in the afternoon (outside when the weather permitted) and the periodic hangouts in the evening. Contrary what it sounds like, I actually managed to get a fair bit of work done in the midst of all that (at least enough to keep my managers happy). True work-life balance, some might say. It hasn't been easy with all the goodbyes this last week. It's always a little strange when you say bye and don't know when you will see someone next, if at all. I do hope that I will see these friendly faces soon! So long Bremen, and so long A, E, R, M and all the other wonderful people who made these trysts so joyful! 

Until the next time I return for a piece of this life...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Half Full/Half Empty Half Done/Half Left

And lo we have arrived at the halfway mark.

Much has unfolded over the last few weeks, not the least of which is that wrong number phone call in German when the voice at the other end demanded to fix my unbroken WC. Thankfully that ended with laughter and not a plunger. 

What a time it has been to be in Germany. Last Sunday, the new Weltmeister were crowned. I stood in attendance at a local biergarten, watching the celebrations unfold and then perish in about two hours, with not much of a mention of it barely two days later. I contrasted that with what happened when India won the cricket world cup in 2011. 

My friend M visited that same weekend. M and I paid Hamburg a short visit, which was infested with bachelorette parties. There seems to be this strange tradition here of wearing a uniform when visiting a city as part of a to-be bride's entourage. Hamburg ended up being a rather charming city, with a lovely river and my favourite attraction - the Miniature Wonderland. To put it mildly, if Sheldon Cooper commits himself to good deeds for the rest of his life, that's where he's going after he dies. Miniature Wonderland amongst other marvels, has the world's largest toy train set. I think I'd refuse to ever leave that place if I was a few years younger. It's hard to explain the place in words, so I'm going to let a couple of pictures do the explaining.   


M promptly returned home to England right before the game began, leaving me to quietly support Argentina in a singularly German-supporting crowd. I was careful to wear white - both neutral and also the colour of peace. My bluff was called though because I didn't look as excited as the rest of the jumping crowd when Germany scored that lone goal. I had a lot of explaining to do, part of which was "I'm Indian, we don't really get to play in the world cup, so I'm neutral". I strongly believe that the better team won, though. So I wasn't terribly unhappy and the joy and celebration afterward was rather contagious. So was work the next morning.

In the midst of all this joy and celebration came the news at half time, which served as a stark reminder of all the violence and bloodshed unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq and the Holy Land without the slightest care for whether Messi would end the night on a happy note. Unfortunately, I don't think many around me were in the mood to care. I hope they cared after their hangovers subsided the next morning. 

Seriously though, world, what is wrong with your people? What is with this mindless bloodshed? You'd better get your act together before I leave this town. You only have half my stay left.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Familiarity Fetish

Done. Finished. Funtoosh. Lo and behold, the second week is over. I think I'm starting to get more accustomed to and familiar with this place, the weather included (which has been the exact opposite of what I am used to in California).

That was a terrible segue into this whole familiarity business. Growing up, my life was very steady and practically unchanging. I lived in the same locality for seventeen years (there's that running joke amongst my friends about me being upset about a new Mother Dairy outlet when I moved, but let's not go into that), went to the same school for about thirteen, lived in the same city for about twenty three. While I enjoyed that sort of stability, I think it also bred some sort of an affinity for constants. Sometimes that fish out of water feeling when I just move to a new place becomes somewhat challenging. It's also something I've tried to fight repeatedly by putting myself into situations where I feel like a fish out of water. It happened to me when I moved to California after all those years in Delhi (faithfully documented on the blog), and still happens to me every time I leave the familiar spaces and faces in India and head to the US (also faithfully complained about on the blog). Little things I carry from home, like my packet of Bru coffee (way better than the crap they export) help shore up the familiarity walls till I settle back in. For weeks before coming to Bremen, I was nervous and I agonized about moving to a new city (even for a short while) where I knew no one and didn't really speak the language. Fortunately, I discovered old friends here and made a couple of new ones even before I got here. Things have been great these last two weeks.

The point is, it's all new - including the part where I have to look presentable for work every day, which is a far cry from my PhD student life (where I probably look public-viewing-worthy once every three days or so). I reclaim that part of my fetish for familiarity by not shaving and taking afternoon naps on weekends. 

So, everything is new. It's exciting and intimidating, frustrating and educational, all at the same time. 

Getting to meet new people is sometimes challenging. The part that I've found most challenging is the hesitation I feel in striking a random conversation with people, and language is playing a huge role. The fact that I have to translate whatever little German I understand into English or Hindi for my brain to comprehend it means that I have to plan entire conversations in my head prior to having them. Just a few days ago, I walked past a guy on bicycle going the other way and he kept saying "Wie Spät" as he rode past, looking more and more disappointed with each time. It wasn't until he well past me that my brain finally completed the translation process to figure out he was asking for the time. There are also these funny things I've noticed about having a "native" language, and how English (or Hinglish, perhaps) is somewhat "native" to the people around me in India. The French, who are usually notorious for their opposition to English also find themselves in a "non-native" situation like English speakers and there a bond seems to grow out of nowhere. Last week I found an Indian grocery store, which I was pretty pleasantly surprised to find. Named the "Punjabi Store", it is owned and run by a couple from North India. I was most amused by how happy I left that store, just because I was able to have a very Delhi-like conversation with the owners about their time in Bremen without having to first play out the conversation in my own head.  My desk neighbour also happens to be Indian, and conversations steeped in familiarity and nativity have given me great joy over the last week. All this surprises me sometimes because I've never really been the sort of person who congregates only with his kind. However, in the absence of any real communication skills in the local language, I think my "kind" is currently the group of people who speak a language I think in.

Perhaps I need to use that "Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut aber ich versuche, mehr Deutsch zu lernen" (My German is not so good, but I am trying to learn more German) a little more.  

Here's to more fruitful interactions in the coming weeks...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Nature Says Fuck You

It's the end of my first full week in Bremen, and that's definitely the first thing I learned on my job. Nature is complex, and turbulence is nature's way of saying "fuck you" to anyone who ever tried to understand it. Try hard as you might, and have fun while doing it, it's a near-hopeless task. After about 40 hours of reading multiple papers I arrived at this line in one of the very last ones I read (written by a humbled smart man called Stetson) -

"The reality of the current prediction situation is that it is not possible to make a confident prediction..."

That was a fun ride though, and I guess that's the nature of science of the science of nature - you're never quite there but that still doesn't stop you from appreciating it. 

That included, Bremen's been fun so far. I went grocery shopping in foreign language. The case of "which oil to buy" in particular was amusing. I actually had to look and identify the kind of flower printed on the oil bottle to make sure I bought sunflower instead of mustard - that could have ended badly. 

The sky has threatened to pour water all week, to see if I flinch. I flinched every day and then the one day I stuck my chest out and walked to explore the city out without an umbrella, and that was the day the threat was acted upon. Still, rain here never seems to last more than fifteen minutes. After those fifteen minutes were done, the sun managed to come back out and I got a chance to explore the city, which took all of two hours cover completely. I also visited some of the green spaces I spoke about which was nice. It's nice to have these places to relax in a town, where you can be left alone with your thoughts, or a book. The city, like other European cities, has also entertained my love for rivers. There was also that lonely midnight stroll through the city's empty centre one night. Little towns acquire a quiet life of their own after the sun has set (at 11pm) , the hordes of tourists and cameras have left and buildings are now only visible by the twinkling of lights outline them. Very good for the soul. 

The German language has been fun to deal with as well. I know just enough to pretend like I know it, and that has consistently gotten me into trouble. I refuse to give up though. The other day I was in a bar, watching the game by myself and I ordered a beer in German - except after that, my answer to any question was "half litre". Normally, German is also not associated with cute sounds or things. However, the German word for "exactly", as they say it - "Ja, genau" has a very lovely child-like ring to it. 

Here's to understanding people and nature and everything that goes with it a little better in week two.