rational egoism

the ideologue that informs your average academic: if someone is committed to the idea that their own self-interest is the highest goal of human action, they may be more inclined to seek out information that supports their values and goals, while ignoring or dismissing information that contradicts them. This can lead to a tendency to reinforce their own convictions — the phenomenon of confirmation bias.

Yes, contrary to the self-congratulatory beliefs of academics, they can be quite a bigoted group of people dying to judge everyone by putting them in boxes — even the ones who religiously point out stereotypes. Any personal experience is a data point that informs and underlines their judgement about a certain topic/ group of people (is this what racism looks like? yeah pretty much) and this includes bias introduced through social media consumption.

A classic example: The videos of crowded local trains in India — and if you complain about crowded trains as an Indian in West Singapore, you are a hypocrite. In reality those videos are of the local trains of Bombay which is a crowded metropolis — for reference, the population density of Tokyo metro is 3000/km sq. while that of Bombay metro (or Mumbai) is 4764/km sq. But there is something about India that really catches the fancy of this lot. I am from Delhi though. And metros in Delhi can be crowded but the women’s compartment can help with the stress of men staring at you (now please don’t apply yourself and say, in your head, yeah because brown men are rapists, courtesy of BBC news; these women only compartments exist in Tokyo metros too). I used Delhi metro between 2008-2014. Almost a decade ago. Anyway, they are mad that you are hiding. Like I hide my accent.

Another example: Conference experience being not that great for me. Now of course a small workshop organised by a group of young researchers can look very different which has no bearing on the overarching shit experience of each and every preceding event you’ve had. Like here is a counter example to your claim. These people should not do statistics.

Another example: The tele fraud from India. I was being once told by a European that it was such a problem when I overstepped a fairly racist sounding outpour. I was at a loss for what to say to them since I had actually never heard about it. You know you consume media that affects your demographic and is essentially an echo chamber, etc. But really, those are only small fishes in the sea my lord. Have you heard of the IMF???

Another example: That Indians use the salutation ‘madam’ and ‘sir’ in daily conversation. Like just after a few drinks, people began probing me. Why do Indian men refer to women in corporate as ‘sir’ even though they know I am a woman? I don’t know madam. I have never dealt with this. But if I am to guess it’s kind of lost in translation — using ‘Dear Sir’ as a format of writing in English since English isn’t native to Indians, specifically those who have a very mechanical understanding of it and use it merely for work. This article explains how the interpretation of language is heavily dipped in its cultural context. That ‘sir’ is perceived as a salutation for authority. There is also a curious ‘madam sir’ salutation you’d hear in Delhi. Was it introduced to teach men to take order from women? Maybe. But it is something a linguist from Delhi could expand upon. I am merely a physicist.

Another example: Once when talking to a European about socio-economic failings in India. They very balatantly and with great confidence told me that “you guys have a lot of problems”. I was baffled, as always. Yes, sir we do have problems but if only Europe got off the back of the global south. How do you think the global north maintains its economic prowess over the rest of the world? Surely, my sir, you don’t think it is just grit and will of your people and more importantly you?! I mean I hate to repeat myself but Jason Hickel’s book (The Divide) is now a standard text on this matter. Just read it. And please stop quoting Bill Gates, IMF, etc. Or better yet: stop telling us we have problems.

And a true classic: it’s in the interest of a postdoc to work with and advise students. Like it’s in the interest of the working classes that they don’t overthrow the system as no one’s going to give them work otherwise. Like it’s in my interest to shut up else I might get a bad recommendation. Like it’s in the interest of women to not shout too much else they won’t even have a platform.

Now, an ardent rationalist would say but aren’t you using individual examples? Yes, indeed, I am. But I hardly knew these individuals and they barely knew me. And I did not go about confronting them with the very obvious and established racist attitudes of their respective groups towards brown people in general as much as in my own experience, did I? I do use, what I think of as harmless stereotypes, but as subject matter for jokes. Like you know how all Indians eat spicy food? Like am I offended? No. It’s funny. Indians do like spicy stuff. Just like how all Indians in LA work at Google or some tech company. Or that we do yoga and drink chai. But that’s self-deprecation, a thing not known to Americans. Now, is that a stereotype? Yes. Is that true? Yes. Do I go around asking random Americans that? No.

to be or not to be

I grew up in Delhi. North India. The epicentre of north India. When people from the south [of India] refer to North India they are most likely talking about Delhi NCR (national capital region that includes Delhi and the satellite cities of Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida, and Ghaziabad). At least that’s my perception. I lived in Chennai for two years (south of India). Although it wasn’t much better than Delhi, in many ways, there was and there is a certain calm about it (maybe because it is essentially a sub-urban town and IIT Madras’ campus is part of the protected Guindy National Park).

Growing up, and having gone to a CBSE english medium school meant that your first language, Hindi, was essentially a second language. Everything was supposed to be learned in English, all our books were in English. But culture — the day to day — happened in Hindi. My parents spoke Hindi. In fact, for me, English was always about formal structure and grammar rules — like learning a new game. I am also autistic. That means I can’t just be content with an approximation of a pronounciation. It means I am always looking for the right way of pronouncing an English word. I would never pronounce words that seemed like they were Hindi pronounciations of english alphabets: you must know the rules inorder to break them. But the intersectionality of class politics around language make these seemingly rigid walls pervious: all accents are unintelligible until you have spent enough time hearing them. Ultimately, we speak what we hear.

And some version of this story would hold for many Indians who grew up in urban, sub-urban cities in India (if I may speak for such a large volume of people). Some of us simply liked the challenge of a new language, even though many have been crushed by it since this access to English is heavily dipped in class privilege in post-colonial India. Anyway, I can only represent and qualify my own experiences. And see if they are also shared by others and if that implies some underlying pattern or phenomena related to the various interpersonal hegemonies we encounter in the West. So, where was I? The influx of music and pop-culture meant we found ourselves in the voices of many so-called ‘native’ english artists, musicians, and writers. Of course, we have an Indian dialect of English. Why did I never try to make English my own. Why? May be I should have. At least then I could have replied to an implicit remark that was made by a European in relation to my spoken English during PhD years: that I ‘hide’ my accent. Indeed, many Indians seem to be putting on an accent or hiding their own. Here are two questions: a. why do they hide their accents? and b. do I hide my accent or is it that you have only seen about 5 Indian people in your life and want all of us to speak in that exact way? A very reductive, dehumanised outlook, which insists that some of us must have a static identity. Either that or simply an ignorant viewpoint. But here’s the thing: how does someone, who cares about the most mundane details in a specific field of study, become so opaque in their analysis when it comes to socio-cultural things? Is it simply a cognitive bias, one that allows you to exert soft power and dominance (in that you could pointedly make such a remark towards a single person very comfortably and with much authority)? Putting people from the global south in dialectical hierarchies is a racial typification since such hierarchies don’t exist within the global North. As in, they don’t exist in the same way (some people are more equal than others etc.). Western Europeans proudly talk of themselves as being able to speak and write ‘good’ english. Many of them speak American and many of them speak English English. It’s a different matter all together when an Indian puts on an accent or hides their own. This clip exemplifies my point rather nicely.

Right. Cutting to the chase: why do I hide my accent? I don’t hide my accent — I just have, over time, found myself pronouncing certain specific alphabets: d’s, t’s, and very awkwardly and unwillingly, r’s in softer enunciations, aligning with how these sounded to me around myself while making daily conversations in Sydney. Back home, most people you’d interact with outside of work would speak broken english if at all (for example in Chennai where english was all I could use since I don’t know Tamil). In Delhi you speak Hindi or Hinglish. English enjoyed a very restricted, and seemingly contradictory usage in my life back then: for expression of ideas, anger, and often as a masking tool to distance myself from others. In my defence: I was little and foolish.

So why was it insinuated that I hide my accent? Because I am too outspoken about everything, and I can actually be very articulate (for an Indian woman they have seen so far), because misogyny: men will never be questioned for how they choose to present themselves, and because, often these are meant to be a “smart comeback” to a perceived idea of what you are actually saying. Just be the compliant genius with enough stars on your shoulders and an ability to do what is being instructed, maintaining the status quo at any cost.

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of Vikram Seth’s ‘The Frog and the Nightingale’:

Once upon a time a frog
Croaked away in Bingle Bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn
Other creatures loathed his voice,
But, alas, they had no choice,
And the crass cacophony
Blared out from the sumac tree
At whose foot the frog each night
Minstrelled on till morning night

Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks.
Insults or complaints or bricks
Stilled the frogs determination
To display his heart’s elation.
But one night a nightingale
In the moonlight cold and pale
Perched upon the sumac tree
Casting forth her melody
Dumbstruck sat the gaping frog
And the whole admiring bog
Stared towards the sumac, rapt,

And, when she had ended, clapped,
Ducks had swum and herons waded
To her as she serenaded
And a solitary loon
Wept, beneath the summer moon.
Toads and teals and tiddlers, captured
By her voice, cheered on, enraptured:
“Bravo! ” “Too divine! ” “Encore! “
So the nightingale once more,
Quite unused to such applause,
Sang till dawn without a pause.

Next night when the Nightingale
Shook her head and twitched her tail,
Closed an eye and fluffed a wing
And had cleared her throat to sing
She was startled by a croak.
“Sorry – was that you who spoke? “
She enquired when the frog
Hopped towards her from the bog.
“Yes,” the frog replied. “You see,
I’m the frog who owns this tree
In this bog I’ve long been known
For my splendid baritone
And, of course, I wield my pen
For Bog Trumpet now and then”

“Did you… did you like my song? “
“Not too bad – but far too long.
The technique was fine of course,
But it lacked a certain force”.
“Oh! ” the nightingale confessed.
Greatly flattered and impressed
That a critic of such note
Had discussed her art and throat:
“I don’t think the song’s divine.
But – oh, well – at least it’s mine”.

“That’s not much to boast about”.
Said the heartless frog. “Without
Proper training such as I
– And few others can supply.
You’ll remain a mere beginner.
But with me you’ll be a winner”
“Dearest frog”, the nightingale
Breathed: “This is a fairy tale –
And you are Mozart in disguise
Come to earth before my eyes”.

“Well I charge a modest fee.”
“Oh! ” “But it won’t hurt, you’ll see”
Now the nightingale inspired,
Flushed with confidence, and fired
With both art and adoration,
Sang – and was a huge sensation.
Animals for miles around
Flocked towards the magic sound,
And the frog with great precision
Counted heads and charged admission.

Though next morning it was raining,
He began her vocal training.
“But I can’t sing in this weather”
“Come my dear – we’ll sing together.
Just put on your scarf and sash,
Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! “
So the frog and nightingale
Journeyed up and down the scale
For six hours, till she was shivering
and her voice was hoarse and quivering.

Though subdued and sleep deprived,
In the night her throat revived,
And the sumac tree was bowed,
With a breathless, titled crowd:
Owl of Sandwich, Duck of Kent,
Mallard and Milady Trent,
Martin Cardinal Mephisto,
And the Coot of Monte Cristo,
Ladies with tiaras glittering
In the interval sat twittering –
And the frog observed them glitter
With a joy both sweet and bitter.

Every day the frog who’d sold her
Songs for silver tried to scold her:
“You must practice even longer
Till your voice, like mine grows stronger.
In the second song last night
You got nervous in mid-flight.
And, my dear, lay on more trills:
Audiences enjoy such frills.
You must make your public happier:
Give them something sharper snappier.
We must aim for better billings.
You still owe me sixty shillings.”

Day by day the nightingale
Grew more sorrowful and pale.
Night on night her tired song
Zipped and trilled and bounced along,
Till the birds and beasts grew tired
At a voice so uninspired
And the ticket office gross
Crashed, and she grew more morose –
For her ears were now addicted
To applause quite unrestricted,
And to sing into the night
All alone gave no delight.

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.

Said the frog: “I tried to teach her,
But she was a stupid creature –
Far too nervous, far too tense.
Far too prone to influence.
Well, poor bird – she should have known
That your song must be your own.
That’s why I sing with panache:
“Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! “
And the foghorn of the frog
Blared unrivalled through the bog.

Vikram Seth.

Koo-oh-ah, ko-ash, ko-ash. That’s how academic culture feels, by and large. Hierarchichal, cliquey, stiffling, drab, even though you will find the most kinds of connoisseurs here, centrist, and often reactionary. Of course, there are a sincere few but whose presence, I have found, feels like a band-aid at best.

Getting back to the english kerfuffle, I am not alone. There are purists who critique the Indian English literary authors for writing in English when their cultural life happens in the specific regional languages. Whatever. Thanks to the literal multi-culturalism I grew up with I don’t have a specific cultural identity within India itself. And it only becomes important when you go abroad where a stereotypical notion of Indianess gets plastered onto you.

I should make note that there are some Indians who feel very attached to their Indian or, should I say, Tamil identities (apologies for my cheekiness but this phenomenon is far too common not to mention) and it’s mostly upper-class Brahmin pride. These people like to stick with their accents and identities like nationalists. (Nevermind the fact that the highest number of unfinished flyovers belong to the state of Tamil Nadu in India.) You will never be able to make any conversation with them about actual politics or anything that shines light on their very caste ridden culture. Marriage ceremonies among different castes feel like a tantrum show but bring it up with a neo-lib Tamil working an elite job and you’ll be dismissed in a matter-of-factly way: yeah but that’s because they belong to different castes while being completely and openly racist about Punjabi folks in particular and North Indians in general.

And to the question of Indians putting on an accent? Social mobility. But you already knew that.

To anyone feeling iffy, and on behalf of my fellow Indian misfits, I say: Ph – oo – ck – u – ff, ph – oo – ash, ph – oo – ash.

outsider

in your own home?

an outgrowth?

As you return home, from a place that now seems familiar but was once foreign, where you were nothing more than an outsider, there is an idea awaiting (of you, of what you might have become) and spectators tip-toeing around it. But, for the sake of fairness, they keep up the act of fair judgment. The utterance ‘I have changed’ makes you only complicit in that judgment. It’s too late. You watch as that fake identity slowly gets plastered on to you.

You were an outgrowth from the onset but now you have outgrown that too (yes I am a 30 year old who wants to sleep on time and have my coffee first thing in the morning). No one really cares about ‘who’ you are or were — it’s about who they want you to be for them to uphold their egos. Only very few can walk with you who become your friends and partners. The rest? Spectators in passing. You might meet them and share time with them in ways that might seem authentic but, in reality, it would only be provisional. Circumstantial.

It’s curious how we can unite over a common cause with an intensity that encompasses everything. You could talk endlessly; sharing, listening, and laughing — in a hopelessly urgent fashion. And, in the moment you’d think what could be more real than this. But it’s merely an attempt to recreate a past experience: of feeling liberated, enthused and energised. With no actual connection and curiosity for each other, relationships are superfluous at best.

…are the nature of our relationships completely determined by the circumstances over which they are formed? Can we reshape them in ways that makes them sustainable? Tolerable? Or will some of them always meet a sudden if not an inevitable end?

detachment

a feeling of not being emotionally involved:

a lack of orientation? a withdrawl?

Certain events can prompt you to withdraw as the lack of self-awareness among people can be to the point that any unknown thing could be viewed as a threat or a challenge which might ensue a strange kind of competition; while you are passively aware of it, you are not sure why you have been placed at the centre of it. It becomes frustrating to watch: the facade and an insistence on maintaining it. Why do humans do this? First insist that there is value in doing something meaningful such as a *insert some keywords — nuanced analysis?* and then slowly move towards a superflous but self-satisfying and re-affirming drawing room conversation. Yeah like its all fun and games you know. Don’t worry too much. Have you tried yoga? You should choose your battles. The West has gotten atleast something right?

I recently discovered a concept called virtue signalling on twitter: an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them. ‘Tis what the liberals (neo-liberals?) do — but of course for them it’s an “intellectual” activity. This is not to mock such acts per se but to question the need to exhibit such behaviour. Is it just a simple and pure desire to be relevant even though you don’t actually care about that particular issue so much? Why yes, what’s left in this country? I want a nice comfy-fancy-looking life abroad lazily passing comments and opinions about whether what she said and he did was right or wrong. Yes, that’s the real dream. A comfortable life. But that’s not a bad thing to want for oneself. So why the fucking lie? And what is terrible is the lying is unto oneself.

And you think you should try. You might be surprised as people grow and change. Yes, change is a good thing, generally.

Can detachment be a good thing? Maybe I do need to choose my battles?!

Kashmiri chai, but why?

Today I made kahwa, i.e. kashmiri chai. It’s a decoction made by simmering fresh green tea leaves along with a pinch of baking soda, some spices such as star anise, cardamoms, and cinnamon along with chopped almonds and pistachios if you are feeling too precious 😉

Now, the fun thing about it is that a chemical reaction between chlorophyll and baking soda gives it a distinct pink color which is observed when the decoction is mixed with milk as seen in the picture on the left below. Picture courtesy: Flour & Spice food blog (where I found the recipe).

But, what I obtained wasn’t really pink. It was beige instead, image on the right above. Now, this was really frustrating given how long I had to wait to devour it — have to say it was delicious. Rich and warm with mellow notes of spices; would make an excellent winter drink.

Why didn’t I get a pink tea? Because I used a Japanese roasted green tea which was quite old and the chlorophyll content wasn’t enough for the nice pink to develop. Here’s where I found this explanation.

Anyway, I have this batch of Kahwa to finish until next time. I hope to enjoy a pink Kashmiri chai some day.

for beginners in quantum physics

MIT OCW video lectures: I did the whole course including the problem sets and it changed my life!

Ghatak and Loknathan’s book: Wave function formalism but first few chapters have great problems.

Shankar’s book: Linear algebra formalism.

Gamow’s popular science book: Mr. Tompkins explores the atom (and more titles). Great fun when reading as a first year undergrad.

cover photo from goodreads.com

Bake. Cake. Grad student’s take.

I decided to bake a cake as a reunion gift for a close friend. It’s a French apple cake inspired by Jenn Segal’s recipe. I’m not entirely sure if it is necessary to prefix “French” here, but you know what they say: “It’s French!”. Anyway, obviously, I’ve simplified it to suit my rather hectic schedule (read heaps and heaps of pending work, courtesy: procrastination). But, it’s a tried and tested recipe (I’ve made it about three times before this one). Thereby, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a photo-assisted guide to baking a cake.

Ingredients; step 1

Picture above lists all the condiments thou shalt need.

Step 2
Step 3
Step 4
Step 5
Step 6

And that shall be all. I shall update with a photo of the cake once it’s out and about.

academic posters in mathematical sciences

Above is the first poster I made. Quite honestly, I can’t bear to look at it for more than 2 seconds. I have been on the listener’s end and I would not want to even attempt to read this poster. I did get some feedback but I did not have the slightest clue on how I could achieve the compactification that was suggested. After working fairly hard on the Tikz pictures I got annoyed and gave up.

However, it served as a medium for me to guage what went wrong. I felt that it would be useful to summarise the same in a short bullet-form summary.

The following are the two main questions one should ask oneself when starting to design a poster:

1. What is the role of a poster in an oral presentation?

  • It is a visual abstract of the research that is supposed to be presented.
  • It is not a textual summary.
  • Its purpose is to help the student/researcher to talk to other fellow students/researchers about their current research.

2. What are the elements of design that should go into making a poster as useful as possible?

  • Maximise white spaces as it helps the reader de-stress.
  • Select a fixed set of colours and form a colour coding scheme.
  • Colour coding should be done such that there is minimal eye strain while reading.
  • Use keywords and phrases instead of full sentences.
  • Minimise the number of elements on the poster: figures, plots, tables, equations, etc. One wants the reader to focus on what one is saying. By putting in many elements we actually distract the reader — far from making them understand what we want them to understand.
  • The poster should have a central panel which sums up the key idea in keywords and phrases. It is a bait.
  • Overall font size should be such that the poster is readable from a distance of about 2 metres (as specified by one of the conferences I went to). A quick google search showed 16 pt to be readable from about 2 metres but it is also a function of the font style.
  • Use QR codes for references instead of writing a bibliography.
  • If you have a tablet, use it to draw/illustrate stuff. It makes communication more humane and effective.

Thanks for your kind attention. The floor is open to questions now.

Update:

After much bullshitting, it seemed obligatory that I upload my creation (above). Question is if it helped. As far as I am concerned, I did not feel that I needed anymore information than present on the poster to explain my stuff. However, as far as impact on the audience is concerned, not really. (Although, people did stare at it smiling and giggling to themselves — perhaps, it was too much for the dry nerds’ mind.) None of the senior members of the community showed up. I suppose that is to do with the fact that conferences are really a sham. They say they want to encourage students but one must realise that they are only talking about those who are in the inner circles.

Bottomline: It is a massive waste of time to make posters of the first kind. Posters of the second kind suffice for conferences, but really the take away is that poster sessions are more-or-less useless unless you know a few people already.