Monday, November 29, 2004

Fear is big business

Love does not make the world go round. Fear does. Some people have woken up to that and have exploited this fact. Others have remained oblivious to this and have ended up victims.

Fear has been instrumental in retaining the stability of a society, since time immemorial. People are God Fearing, not God loving. This fact was observed by a section of the society - and they decided to use this 'fear' to their advantage. Irrationality was induced into the society in the name of the divine. Institutionalized cruelty was thus born. Religion, the greatest rip off in the world, was born thus. Honest and humble musings of saints and wise men were misinterpreted left right and center - to suit massive religious cartels. A fear, nay, a phobia was induced among the gullible.

But I digress. Fear. Fear is a good advertisement. News stories such as those of killer diseases act as viewer magnets. A lot of television programming is dependent on fear. So much so that ordinary (happy) channels just cannot sustain themselves- owing to competitive forces that draw people into watching worrisome current affairs. As a matter of fact, it becomes necessary from an economic point of view to pander to the eternal demand of fear.

Say for instance current warnings on Avian flu. They are making headlines in almost all online sites, from google to BBC. Why? They contain the magic words: "You might end up dead". Feed it to the people. They are eternally hungry for such information. Of course, when they do get to read the article, they do the following:
  • Panic
  • Go to a doctor
  • Get a Vaccination
  • Keep track of the news on TV and other modes of communication such as the internet
  • Tell a lot of people to get vaccinated
Money is involved in all the steps, right from going to a doctor to keeping track of the news. Large medicine companies cash in on this paranoia. Transportation companies transport the vaccine. News stories are created. High TRPs. Lots of targeted ads are placed in the space. Lots of money changes hands. Fear is big money.

I have a copy of Windows XP (besides Linux) on my computer that does not have a service patch. I do not use any antivirus software. I am connected to the internet all the time. The computer has not given any problems as of now, despite the fact that half the internet sites that I visit tell me a crash is imminent. I am not going to attach that obtrusive service pack!

People scare you about examinations, from the Public Boards (the correction is biased!!) to the J.E.E (If you don't study for 25 hours a day, you're going to fail) to the End Sems at IIT (This prof grades hard!). Fear intimidates you, prejudices you.

If I were to trust half the sites on the net I would be sure the have the following diseases:
  • Skin Cancer
  • Throat Cancer
  • AIDS
  • Testicular Cancer
If there's a small lump on your skin, go, see a doc. It could be cancer. The doc, of course will charge a fee......

But of course, it could be cancer. Just check for a lump on your skin -- something on your arm, say. It could be cancer.

Friday, November 26, 2004

An Ode to the Auto Rickshaw

If you thought that the autorickshaw was an inefficient, noisy and inconvenient mode of transportation, think again. If a recent report in The Hindu were to be believed, it has been recognized as a symbol of energy efficiency by a London based Museum. This fact will make you think a while. An auto rickshaw? Efficiency? No way!

But the numbers are in. The results are out. Auto Rickshaws (which can take upto four passengers besides the driver) can give you upto 33 kmpl, a figure that can put the vehicle that epitomizes energy efficiency in the 'developed world', the hybrid Toyota Prius (23kmpl) to utter shame. Perhaps it is time we started going around in these things - we could save a lot of oil imports that way!

What we see in most cars (not just the Prius) is gross over-design. The modest auto rickshaw stumbles along the street with a measly 8.17 BHP. The majestic Prius, on the other hand, zooms along the road with 65BHP, which is still pretty weak compared with SUVs and other inefficient monsters that rule the roads. The auto rickshaw can cruise along city roads at reasonably high speeds (~60kmph) stuffed to the brim, often with more than 6 passengers, and can still yield respectable efficiencies. Why do we need 65BHP when we can do with 8.17 BHP?

The Prius is a vehicle, undoubtedly designed by professionals in the laboratory using sophisticated streamlining techniques. The ubiquitous auto rickshaw, on the other hand, is just a working design, and aerodynamics is something that its designers have never heard of. It looks ugly, it makes an irritating noise and is often driven by a intoxicated cabbie with a fascination for the rapid. The auto rickshaw, being as crude as it is, lends itself to further refinement. Soon shall come a day (with the oil prices on the ascent as they perpetually seem to be), that shall see the arrival of designer auto rickshaws into the market. Maybe you and I could own one.

The auto rickshaw is the most reliable form of transport in the city. It is narrow enough to fit into gaps that cars such as the Prius could never fit into. It can do speeds which are comparable to the maximum permissible speeds on Indian roads. Middle class India survives on these. It becomes the ideal vehicle to take the family to a night in a restaurant. And it is the best choice to get to the station.

And what's wrong with it? Detractors will point out that it pollutes. Well, look at it this way, there are four stroke models available (with equal efficiency). And consider this - with efficiencies of 33 kmpl, a round trip on an auto shall release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than a round trip in a car - say a Prius.

Perhaps the only thing disagreeable with an autorickshaw is that customary haggle with the driver regarding the fare.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A Sop Story

With most deadlines drawing close, almost everyone here at IIT keen on apping can be seen in their room sitting with the computer busy at the keyboard hammering out a foul document called, rather innocuously, the Statement of Purpose.

In these Statements, people show their true colors. Phrases such as 'my intelligence was evident' and 'Ever since my childhood I loved research' are rife. Ostensibly mellow individuals are often the worst. Their faces might be humble and shy. But what they write on paper flirts with the outer limits of social acceptance.

When I was studying for the GRE (yet another pointless monopoly that fleeces money out of gullible third world students), I used to wonder whether I would use half the words that I was forcing down my throat. The SOP, I realized, was a document that was meant for GRE students. Prolixity is appreciated, verbosity encouraged. Equivocation (the hallmark of all GRE essays) is imperative, failing which your SOP might be considered unambitious and you might be rejected.

The story of the evolution of my SOP is quite interesting. I drafted a first copy (which fell prey to almost all the aforementioned defects). This was sent for review to friends, who were particularly critical. This resulted in millions of corrections. And not, the SOP is sleeker and smaller, albeit a mutant.

Since I have no real aesthetic sense (except a gut feeling which goes 'This looks bad' when I see something that looks bad), I decided the best way to get a good looking format is to use LATEX. And so I did. All that aside, I am of the conviction that writing a SOP is a task comparable to writing a minor technical paper. The number of reviews that it goes through is tremendous, and the number of sleepless nights spent on it are tremendous too.

Each SOP should also have some data about the university that you are applying to. When you are applying to MIT (say), then you have to tell the professors what their institute is good at. This way, the professors are always in touch with the latest developments in their institute.

Well, I shall end on that note. I hope my conclusions are getting better and less abrupt. You shall see a gradual shift to better conclusions. This gradual shift shall be called the 'conclusion learning curve'

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Oceans of Information

I take pride in saying this: I have become a Google Addict. So much so that if Google ever goes offline, then I shall start suffocating like a fish would, out of water. Google is an integral part of life of almost anyone.

If you hear a word you don't understand (or some lyrics you don't catch), don't die. Just go to a computer and type an appropriate query in Google. I guess ours is the only generation that can boast that it has all the information it needs. I mean, is there anything that you cannot find on Google? If you want to know the Name of Yoko Ono's grandmom, you can find it on Google. If you're searching for recipies, then google can give serve them to you on a platter. Anything. So much so that there are almost no unanswered questions in today's world. Whatever is known to the human race is known to you.

This is what economists would call perfect information, I guess. Maybe this has a role in raising the efficiency of today's life in general (especially in stock markets and in the scientific community).

The online revolution, not unlike most coins, however, has its other side. With almost infinite information in front of us, we choose just what we want to know, and turn a blind eye to everything else. Given a choice, I would follow links to stories that I find more relevant personally, such as those on my subject (say, Energy). But I would not have the time to read articles on other fields - such as Nano Technology and even Politics! This means that there is selectivity of information, which might narrow one's perspective. (This argument was mooted by My Project guide a few weeks ago.)

And also, I cannot but wonder whether this 'search engine mania' is killing our creativity. What happened to the good old Human habit of being creative and answering the questions the hard way - by observation and intuition? Before theorizing, most people key questions into search engines, and they have answers in not time.

All said and done, search engines (their tendency to nip creativity in the bud notwithstanding) are so important in today's world that anyone who does not have access to the same is risking a lot of competition.

Personally, almost all my knowledge in my field of study is culled in some form or the other from google (and other search engines). With the emergence of sites such as and, literature surveys have become all the less formidable. Professors watch their students in envy and look back nostalgically at those golden days when a literature survey meant long hours of sitting in the library with card perusing prolix abstracts. They get a superior feeling over us. They used to work more. They feel happy about that.

I really need to learn how to end blogs! This one is ending quite abruptly.

The term google is Generic. It represents the set of all search engines in the world, such as and It's just that Google is to search what Xerox is to photocopy. Come on, "I 'yahooed' a question" sounds very lame!

Monday, November 22, 2004

My First Entry

Good Morning, You Guys. This is indeed my first foray into the remarkable world of blogging. I shall (hopefully) be posting blogs daily. I make no promises, though.

IIT Madras is one hell of a place to be in right now. We have an amazingly fast internet right in our rooms, we have amazing climate right now (Chennai Becomes extremely tolerable in Winter, which is like summer in most temperate parts of the world).

I have not read any blog as yet I am assuming that a blog is something like a conversation with someone I do not know. So I started by talking about the weather. Now that I have talked about the weather already (rendering the same an unusable force henceforth in today's blog), I shall start talking about other things.

Let's talk about apping now. Well, I have decided to apply nine (9!) universities for a doctorate. Quite desperate to get somewhere. Though that does sound desperate, I assure you that I know lots of others who are applying to places in excess of 10. Looks like IITians are really keen on getting out of India. Why? Why are IITs (and Indian Universities in general) not as sought after as those American colleges?

I am reluctant to accept that the professors at IIT Madras are in any way inferior to those anywhere else in the world. The undergraduate and graduate research that I have helped do in my lab just tells me that there is a lot of untapped expertise and curiosity in the labs. I guess the main difference is Industrial funding. If these professors start doing more industrial projects, then they shall need more students.

Perhaps another way to get IITs out of this research rut is to increase the professors' pay to levels comparable with the Industry. Or at least give them some sort of incentive to work on Industrial problems. The problem, I feel, is that the country is still languishing in the anti-progress socialist era.

I conclude my first blog. I shall try to rake up issues in every blog.