Monday, October 31, 2005

Math Miseries

The most agonizing moments of my life have been spent pondering over frivolous mathematical nuances. I have this tendency of complexifying the simplest of mathematical axioms - and this leads to extremely long hours on a table trying to comprehend math.

What my friends at IIT could solve in a five minute sitting, it takes me days to do. This always scares me a lot. Why am I so incompetent when it comes to algebra? It's not just algebra. If I am bad at Algebra, then I am a disaster at number crunching. If an exam contains a problem that requires the use of a calculator, then my heart literally sinks. I might as well forget about the points. In my long history of exams, I would not have got more than 5% of the answers right. Uncannily, my method is almost always correct. I am thankful that almost all the exams that I have written have had partial grading. If they had no partial grading, I would probably be repeating almost all the courses at IIT.

I would surely have lost a few grades due to this rather irksome habit of mine. This has impacted my life more than anything. Courses in which I was performing real well have ended up as Bs and Cs because of this pathetic tendency of mine.

But this is not my only anti-academic tendency. There's this extremely steep learning curve. I am one of those students who likes to "guess" what the teacher is about to teach in class by intuition. As long as I am able to do that, I do really well in the class. But if that fails, then I might as well as forget about it. If I don't understand something in class, then that information is never going to enter my head.

This used to be a bother early at IIT, where half the information used to dissipate. I remember miserable hours staring at Elecrtromagnetics in my first year at IIT. Just because the teacher was no good, I still am very mediocre in the subject. And that certainly is not due to lack of trying. I failed to get a fundamental philosophical understanding of the subject. And when I don't get a feel of the subject, I just don't do well.

I am far from the perfect student. As a matter of fact, I am perfectly foul. Actually, that's exactly how I feel when I am not getting something right. When I make mistakes in these things, my blood starts to boil by default. I usually try to avoid people when I am in this mood. But that does not always work out.

Radha called up today when I was in one of my worst ever personal crises. I was unable to do something absolutely trivial. Suffice it to say that the conversation did not go too well. Looks like I will have to pay for my incompetence in more ways than one tomorrow morning. But what am I to do? I would like to paraphrase one of my fellow idiots: "Stupid is as stupid does".

[The author is a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M.]

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Idiots Run the Net

I'm no programming expert, but common sense tells me that spammers are not a particularly intellegent lot. The reasoning being, that if they were, then they would be working on String theory or something. So, it defies all logic to do what Yahoo mail has been doing of late.

After you labour over a message and click send, you cannot rest easy. You don't get that oh-so-pleasing "your message is sent" page anymore. You get something which looks a lot like a nag-screen. It shows you a distorted jpeg (or gif?) of a word and then asks you to enter it. Quite a good idea to keep spammers out, it reckons.

I'm not disputing that this will keep spammers out. It surely will. But I am not so sure about the distortion. When the words are in an image format (jpg), the spammer will have to employ OCR or other edge detection techniques in order to enter the word automatically. If he has the time, resources and in the intellegence to conjure up a code to do that online, then his abilities could be better used in helping realize Einsiten's dream of unifying relativity and quantum mechanics.

So, for yahoo to use distorted alpabets in the jpeg, according to me is inexplicably stupid. Or we wonder, is Yahoo! in cahoots with eye doctors? I had to strain my eyes to no end in reading the "distorted" alphabets. Next time onwards, Yahoo will probably ask us to evaluate an integral analytically and enter the solution before it lets us send mail. Talk about pains in the rear.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Negative Absolute Pressure

Fantastically improbable as the name does sound, this is not the realm of science fiction. It does exist. I have it from a usually unimpeachable source. It must be true. And true in a world where negative absolute temperatures don't need to be true.

Let me elaborate. Just a few blogs ago I was discussing the mind-boggling simple mindedness of some of the classes here. So, after deriving the Navier Stokes, we decide to work on hydrostatics. If learning the Navier Stokes were like learning the alphabet, then hydrostatics is like the parents having sex to have the baby. I just cannot emphasize how preliminary this is.

I won't take any names now. I don't want to single out anyone here - that would be politically incorrect. But I will have to quote this incident in order to rid myself at the frustration that the instructor usually develops within me. (especially when he says "I am giving a very high level talk here!". High level for kindergardeners, I suppose.)

So, we're doing hydrostatics today. I was going through the motions, with the help of a Starbucks. A certain inscription on the board caught my attention in the duration of the class. P = Patm - rho g z. When informed of this disaster on the board, the instructor quickly pooh - poohed it by saying "Energy is a scalar. Its sign does not matter". So, temperature is a scalar too. We're at 295K right now. Or -295K, after all sign does not matter. No wonder, it's been getting cold of late.

Back to the talk in class. In essence the deeper you go under water, the lower the pressure if the class were to be believed. Nobel price material?

This is a hitherto unknown fact. Surely, there are applications. Instead of spending millions on vaccuum pumps, all researchers need to do is go for a swim and perform experiments. And what about getting one of those air - turbines in a pipe communicating with the bottom of the sea? We'll get elecricity forever.


But let's be honest. The instuctor is a very good teacher and he is indeed doing a very thorough job in the class. The class is quite high level: he is talking in terms of tensors - and cetainly not undergraduate level. And though I don't see eye to eye with him teaching hydrostatics after deriving the N-S, he surely has a very coherent idea of what to teach. I have a lot of respect for his classes. I only wish his assignments were more challenging.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

One city at a time

For a change, humans are not their own biggest pains in the neck. God has become the number one pain in the neck for humans of all races and nationalities all over the world. God has become the ultimate equal opportunity offender.

Not content with killing people through means such as diseases and accidents, he (or she or it) has decided to take out cities as a whole, one by one. I can remember how be destroyed Acheh in Indonesia recently by means of an Earthquake. And then the conscequent Tsunami killed millions in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.

Then came Mumbai, with 100 cm of rain in one day. Yer another city that GOD destroyed. And then he decided that he had enough of Jazz and obliterated New Orleans. As if that was not enough, he took out Muzaffarabad in Pakistan. And now he is destroying Bangalore and Chennai.

And of course, he kept on destroying Florida before it had time to rebuild.

If got were a nation, he would be one filled with craters created by Nuclear bombs. Thank god, god does not exist. Or else humanity would have destoryed him (or her or it?)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Death of Imagination

When I was in India, I thought that the American University system would be fabulous. I thought that an American university would celebrate intuition. Would celebrate creativity. Would celebrate imagination.

Of course, I was in for a rude shock. I was raised in an atmosphere at IIT where asking challenging questions was considered good. Professors (bar a few unqualified ones) were in general enthusiastic about answering these questions.

I'm taking three graduate courses here at A&M. The classes here, in comparison to those at IIT are, well, pathetic. Students are spoon-fed by professors; challenging questions are answered in such a way that I get the feeling that they are frowned upon. Everything is worked out in class. Assignments are so mind numbingly simple minded that the ennui of solving them forces mistakes out of you.

I am really surprised that this mediocrity culminates in 'cutting edge' science. I have now become extremely cynical. I am sure that if cutting edge comes out of this place, then it must be a joke.

I worked on a term paper back in IIT on buoyant turbulent flows. And here, I am doing a course on how to derive the Navier-Stokes. To the non-initiated, it's like learning to write like James Joyce and then re-learning the alphabet. So far the only creativity that I have been upto in the USA is blogging. And if you've read my recent plots, you'll realize that I must have lost my creativity somewhere. Lost and buried it.

There is no challenge anywhere here. Everything is spelt out in class. The only challenge is organizing oneself!

I saw a Simpsons episode long ago when Lisa Simpson thinks that a sudden dumbening [sic] process has beset her. It would not be too far from the truth to say that something similar is happening to me. Only, Lisa discovered, to her delight, that she was okay towards the end of the episode. Is there a happy ending for me?

Thank God for the fact that I will probably opt for research hours next semester. Hope that will be better. Life is unliveable without challenges. And of course, there's always the Catch 22 silver lining: living this challenge-less existence will be quite a challenge.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Light and Dark

If ignorance were darkness, there is none of that here in the USA. The land is bright, even at night. Lights are on even when no one is in the room. Not just lights. Even air conditioners. Pretty ironic that darkness symbolizes ignorance.

Is the American not aware that his cheap electricity is not actually due to his own hard work, but due to him living on a large and rich land? If the American believes that everyone is born equal in the eyes of God, then he should either allow the poor to enter his country and shear its resources - or allow himself to be taxed in order to provide the third world with some of his resources.

But who said the world is fair? The rich are more powerful even in this modern era of democracy. The rich control the money; they fund canditates. All the poor can do is vote. The rich control the media. They help the poor man in making up his mind.

The rich man thus formulates policy such that the poor man pays him his hard earned money as some sort of implict tax. He achieves this by a mechanism called monopoly. The rich corparations team up and capture the market either by cartelization or by blatant monopoly.

Is there any incentive to believe that modern trade is based on principles of actual justice that everyone seems to claim to follow? Does any of the negotiating sides have any incentive to actually argue for the poor? The poor are the weak, the impotent. Their political clout is minimal.

Why should the American stop consuming resources? This is not a moral question. Though he claims to believe that the world is equal - he knows at the back of his head that he is superior. He has more resources at his disposal. And there's nothing anyone can do about it. The American Way is entirely unsustainable for the entire planet ... you'd need more than 4 planet earths for its entire 6 billion people to live like America is doing now.

Common sense tells us that the American is lucky. (And if anyone tells me that America is where it is only because of Hard Work, then I would surely compare their IQ to that of a chimpanzee to the advantage of the latter). It is not his fault that he is so well off .... and, actually America is quite a geneorous nation - come to think of it! I am not criticizing America. I am not criticizing anything here. I'm just trying to answer these age-old questions to myself: why is America so rich. Why is India so poor?.

But the future holds hope. Some of the American resources are coming to India, incidentally. And they are doing so over the internet. I'm not talking of the credit card theft. I'm talking about BPO. American money is coming to hard working Indians all around the world.

And of course, this resource scarcity means that a little more resource independence can be perfected in India. If sunlight ever becomes an economic resource, then India could easily become a superpower. Solar energy. Suppose biomass is an answer to the energy crisis. India wins again.

India faces a bright future. Soon shall come a time when we in India shall not care about turning off the light - nay - the solar A/C!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Vending Machine Mafia

You can't throw a stone without hitting a vending machine in America. And in this connection, I would encourage you to throw stones. The more vending machines you hit and destroy, the better. Throwing stones at them is not an act of violence like the authorities would have you believe. Let's look at it this way. Suppose some robber came by and tried to abstract your hard earned cash from your pocket, would you or would you not give him one where it hurts? Extrapolate that logic to the vending machine.

For the vending machine is nothing but a lowly crook. What it might lack in the terms of a rough voice or a firearm it makes up in finesse. Not only does it charge astronomical rates, but it just usurps your cash. As plain as that. No one knows whether you got your grub or not. But it's got the cash. A thief is always in danger of getting caught. If you start bashing up a thief, the strong arm of the law would come by and give you a pat on the back. But if you start bashing up a vending machine, the strong arm of the law will consign you into one of those dingy rooms they call 'cells'. Talk of double standards.

People in search of the perfect crime need not look any further. The vending machine is pure evil. It is excellence in crime; something gangsters like Al Capone in the old days here in the USA and Dawood Ebrahim back in India used to strive for. For the only one in danger of arrest is the victim.

Just the other day, a tired self decided to get a Coke in the Rec-Center, after pretending to play badminton. A dollar was inserted into the machine only to see a robotic arm travel up (oh, so elegant), try to drop a bottle into a carrier - but there was only air, and come back. I was supposed to get a drink. But I was one dollar poorer. Daylight robbery.

And what of the vending machine that took $1, realized that it was sold out, returned only $0.95? And I thought coke made its money only through sales! And what about the time I tried to get a chewing gum, only to see yet another robotic arm carry air? Surely, I have every right to feel upset. Quarters do not come cheap in the USA.

I know what I'll be in life. I'll be a vending machine operator. I also pledge to donate generously to the tune of a few billion dollars in case a natural disaster hits any part of the world.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Turbulent Times

Fall is more or less here. I almost froze on the way back home from college. Quite a difference from those miseries at Chennai. Now I know what martensite feels like. These sudden changes in climate surely harden you.

Weak esoteric puns aside, life is chugging along rather rapidly. This post is being posted on my own brand new Dell Laptop with music out of my brand new Bose music system. And when I think of my 'job' here as a TA, I just get the feeling that I am ripping off the university and doing so in a grand way - all I do is 'grade' and here I am floating in material goodies that I could only fantasize about a few months ago.

I am mediocre when it comes to course work. My performances here are inexcusable. I have no right to make so many mistakes here. There is no reason why I should get only 75% in assignments here. I am sure I will screw up even if all I have to do is to reproduce the alphabet.

Now that I have my laptop, the public (which, I surely hope consists of others besides penis enlargement specialists and insurance salesmen) may expect posts more often. And thanks to the trusty wireless card, you can expect posts from airplanes and other modes of transport. There's always some unsecured wireless internet connection. And I might just be unscrupulous enough to exploit it.

A conclusion shall be effected now; for yonder lies a bed that needs to be lied upon. The sandman is awaited - to take red eyes where they belong.