Monday, February 28, 2011

Drive in

I am fortunate to have very creative friends. A few of my friends decided to rent a projector over this weekend for a party. We made good use of it by watching two good movies in the back yard of their house, both of which have been nominated for the Academy Awards this year. Although it puts a serious question mark on my dedication to thesis writing, I must admit that for the first time, I have watched four movies that have been nominated for the Academy Awards before the ceremony took place. They are, in the order that I liked them, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Black Swan and Social Network.

There was a lot of discussion over why people liked The King's Speech. An analysis of "The Kings Speech Vs Social Network" happened before the Oscars. Here is an interesting article on why the former is likely to win (which it did!). For those of you who do not know what it is about, it is about King George VI and his long battle with a speech impediment. As a movie, it appealed to me more than Social Network because of the room it afforded for the actors. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush both present their characters with remarkable honesty. I am a fan of Rush since the time I saw his portrayal of Marquis De Sade in Quills.
As it is argued in the article given above, The King's Speech may have the psychological effect of the age old 'triumph of the good and the honest', that human beings are subconsciously attracted to. At the same time, it has the element of breaching of 'established social hierarchy', where a king goes to a commoner for help.

Although it did not do a stellar job at the Oscars, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is a gripping story. It is about an avid adrenaline junkie who has to go through an unexpected accident. I don't want to spoil the story so I won't say much about it. However, if someone had narrated the story to me before I watched the movie, I would not believe that it could be made into a ninety minute movie. So the USP of this movie is almost entirely in its making. I loved the background score by Rahman. It added the needed zing to the intense emotion of the storyline.

I loved The Black Swan because Natalie Portman tells the entire story using her face alone. She went through a physically demanding makeover for this movie. Both Natalie and Mila Kunis, who plays Natalie's rival, were on a 1200 calorie (and a 5 hour workout) schedule for their roles. But going beyond the physical transformation, Natalie makes the pain, the anguish, the surrender to discipline, the uncertainty of being in the most coveted position come to life through her facial expressions. It is a disturbing movie but it deals with psychological issues that are faced by human beings in varying degrees, in every profession, even though they are more severe in fields like fashion and professional ballet.

Social Network is about the journey of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. In reading the analysis of this movie online, I often came across a new stereotype that the media has coined - the rejected geek. He seems to be spiteful of the other two well established stereotypes, the hot girl at school and handsome 'dudes' who haunt the school gym and the basketball court. However, unlike the older stereotype of a powerless nerd, this new avatar is capable of doing some serious damage (and making some serious moolah). I enjoyed it for its pace that matches the pace of the age in which it was made.

Another noteworthy fact is that of the four, three movies were based on true stories.
Now, that I have played the movie reviewer, I should better get back to reviewing my papers. :)

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I am almost* at the end of my PhD. So it is time that I should formulate my own version of the hardships I went through during this time. In my mom's (expert) opinion, no one remembers their PhD as a glorious time of their lives. Every time I whinge about something to her, she tops that with an exceedingly horrible narration from her own PhD. Some of her stories, for example, the one where she goes, "we did not even have computers back then", need some correction factors for the technological advancement over the years and its effect on mental hardships.

As a PhD student, you are used to your (evasive) milestones. However, there are a number of philosophical milestones that you need to cross in order to truly deserve your PhD. I am going to list some of those here so that my compatriots in various parts of the world feel good about themselves.

1. The first rejection

For all the stellar PhD candidates out there, who get their papers accepted in the first attempt ever, they should know that they are missing out. The first rejection is as important to a PhD as a first heart break is to a teenager. It validates your position in this world (as close to non-existent) so firmly, that without this important milestone, you may form a totally deluded view of life itself. Whether you are coming down from an impact factor (which by the way is not a realistic measure of journal performance) of 30 to 5, or from 5 to 3, the first rejection is essential to normalize your measurement of what your work stands for. It takes a while (and a good amount of alcohol) to get over it, but boy! does it build character!

2. The first peer review

Well, to put it in perspective, if the first rejection is to be compared to the pain of unrequited love, then the first peer review is like marriage. When someone rejects you, all you have to do is go to the nearest pub with your other rejected mates and try and forget it with some EtOH. However, when someone accepts you, you have to go through an agonizing, never ending self-improvement session to prove that you are worthy of them. It might sound crazy, but peer review is actually more painful than an outright rejection. There were many bright Sunday mornings, when just as I was putting some sunscreen on with a butter knife, I saw the dreaded email from the editor of the journal saying, "you now have two weeks to fix this. Otherwise your paper is going to be considered as a fresh submission". There are times when these reviews overlap with all your papers, together with the rather insulting Australian reviews you are getting from your own supervisor. In the end, it leaves you with only enough self-confidence that can exist in equilibrium with complete hopelessness.

3. Running out of scholarship

I don't this this is essential, but when it happens, it feels like a scene straight out of a sitcom. Just as you are letting out a satisfied sigh about exiting the lab for good and planting your bum in a chair for the final write up, you get an email from the student center telling you that your scholarship has been cut off. You go to the people responsible to renew it, armed with an entreating monologue and a pack of tissues and get only kind sympathy in return. One of the solutions offered to you is, "maybe you can request your parents to help", which is enough to make you cup your ears with your palms and run out of their office screaming at the top of your voice. Then you come back home and apply for jobs (and make dartboards out of the pictures of people who did not renew your scholarship). You are appointed (thankfully) as a research assistant in a project that requires an intensity of concentration that would put a 200mW laser to shame. You come home exhausted from the job and have to get back to writing. Your boss at work treats your job as a full time job and keeps sending you emails with attachments for your to read after work. As if that is not enough, you keep meeting other PhD students from work who have had their scholarship renewed for up to 4 years while yours was cut off in 3 years and 3 months.

4. The technology betrayal

I am hoping this is the last one of them. As soon as you sort out your employment, your visa and that ugly fight you had with your supervisor and sit in front of your computer, you realize that it is dead. It has to be out of warranty and you have to be broke in order for this milestone to work on your character. Sometimes I think all these inanimate things we depend on, actually have a life of their own. How else would you have your computer die in the most final stages of your thesis? I have to assume that it is to make the plot more riveting. Something similar to one of those guys who lose their job on the same day as their girlfriend of eight years dumps them. Fortunately, by this time you have learned that the whole Universe is against your PhD so you have backed up your data online. Somehow this philosophical F#$% you is unbearable for your computer and it declares that it will work only on the power outlet. Fair enough. :)

It reminds me of a quote by Saint Calvin,

"That's one of the remarkable things about life. It is never so bad that it cannot get worse."

There are silver linings too. Getting a job before graduation, having supportive friends who are always willing to help you out and cheer you up. Having people bring you your favorite drink when you are bawling away in your room. Being so tired every day that your mind is completely stripped of unreasonable fears and demands.
Most importantly, realizing the meaning of 'being grateful' all over again!

*contingent on numerous factors that are totally beyond my control.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Obituary: Pulp and ink.

One of my most prominent childhood memories is the image of my dad on a Sunday, with his favorite newspapers around him. Baba would have Sakal delivered to him every day but on Sundays, he would walk to the nearest newspaper stall and bring home about half a dozen other newspapers too. His collection usually included Maharashtra Times, The Economic Times, The Times of India, Indian Express and The Hindu (on the rare occasions that it was available in Pune). His fascination with newspapers was a weekly cause of my mom's eye-rolling. Growing up in a city that did not hesitate to judge people by the newspapers they read, coupled with my dad's lack of loyalty to any one newspaper left me entirely undecided about what I liked - something I still struggle with when I read everything that is available to me.
The 'newspaper experience' in a middle class Marathi household was not just about what it conveyed in terms of information and knowledge, but also about the not-so-obvious feeling of pride that a young, hardworking man had for being able to have an opinion on the world.
Newspapers were the much needed cellulosic fodder for my dad and his friends' Saturday ruminations over endless cups of coffee and cigarettes. This metaphorical information grazing has since then stuck in my head, and I find myself turning into a cow in the virtual world every Sunday, visiting my favorite newspaper website pastures. So when I read this New Yorker article,
a little sigh escaped my lips.

It got me thinking about my own transition from the little girl fascinated by how 'her dad knows everything' to a young woman who knows a lot of unnecessary things. I have always been decidedly undecided about my take on mind clutter. I definitely tend towards hating a cluttered mind but sometimes, when a form or a face starts emerging out of chaos, I question my hatred. The death of the printed newspaper, I believe is going to be the metaphorical beginning of the new generation's chaotic storage and assimilation of information.

While I was going through these thoughts, I came across this incisive piece, in the New Yorker again, by Adam Gopnik. He characterizes people in three groups when it comes to the perspectives on the age of Internet - the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers and the Ever-wasers.

"The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment".

On one side he argues that all the big revolutions in the past, such as the revolution brought about by the age of printing, have been welcomed by both skepticism and euphoria. In the eighties, television was scrutinized, in the nineties computer faced a similar judgment. On the other hand, he genuinely questions our enslavement to our computers, going as far as calling Google the world's "Thurber wife". But somewhere hidden inside this mass paranoia over technology numbing the human mind, is a little hint of awareness that it is we who control the technology. I remember watching an interview of Rajiv Gandhi on the national television (Doordarshan) in India once. Actually, I remember it because of my dad's recollection of it on many accounts. In those days (early nineties), India was giving its information and T.V. broadcasting a new revamp. Someone asked Rajiv Gandhi what this exposure to television is going to do to India's kids. He simply replied, "there is a switch that turns the T.V. off". Today, almost twenty years later, you can see that television programs all over the world have standardized themselves to a common baseline - of empty melodramatic reality TV. Although TV has revolutionized human life in many happy ways, it has also left us with a lot to deal with.
As Gopnik rightly puts it later in the article,

"Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that."

Just then, as if it was all God sent, I came across this in NY Times, which talks about an iPhone application (app) to make confessions. It is not hilarious to me because it is Catholic. I have seen similar Internet versions of 'yantras' on Hindu astrology websites. It makes me wonder how the same medium that Julian Assange uses to deconstruct a society based on an unjust power (im)balance, is used to appeal to the traditional human mind by sending the ten commandments into an iPhone!

In a country like India, however, I think printed newspapers have a significant way to go before they become extinct. Newspapers and television are still the only dominant media of relaying information in the rural parts of India. It is also heartening to see the
riskshawalahs in Pune blissfully immersed in a copy of Sandhyanand, ignoring your pleas to go to a part of the city they are not interested in.
We still perhaps have a majority that is not glued to their computers or iPhone. But even then, in the online edition of TOI, tweets are taken seriously. 'What-people-think', is now only a click of a mouse away. Common man/woman using the internet to express his/her views has become an important element in reporting news and analysis. This means that no matter where you live, in the U.S., Australia or Mumbai, your take on what is happening in India could be taken seriously (if you are good enough or attract enough attention). If you come to think of it, this is a position of great responsibility. We should all be aware of that!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Freudian Kitten

Do you remember Catharsis?
Well it happened again. When I confronted my flatmate about letting the cat out so that he does not wee in my bed out of anger, she threw a gem of a line at me.

"Saee, the cat pees in your bed because he identifies you as the weakest member of this house."

To which I replied,

"Okay then. Let your strong cat pay my share of rent from next week", and left.

I found a place within 24 hours. And I moved out in 2 days.

However, the Freudian psychoanalysis stumped me. Maybe it was due to spending a lot of time with my flatmate, but I actually began to analyze how I could have portrayed myself as a weaker person in a cat's eyes. At that point, I realized that moving out would be the best decision both for sanitation and sanity.

As I was moving out, it occurred to me that I was giving myself so much trouble just to avoid conflict. In order to do that, I was perhaps being perceived as 'the weaker member' of the house. Not by the cat, but by my flatmate. My moving out was a shock. As much as it was a shock to her, it was also a shock to me too. But my moving out made so much of a positive difference to my own life. I could walk to work, pass by the fruit shop, buy fresh salad on my way back and live exactly the way I wanted to live.

Sharing a house, a workplace, an idea is a difficult balance. It needs genuine mental audits. I have shared houses with many people over the last three years. They were all from different cultures and backgrounds. If there is one thing you need to ask yourself constantly to be a good flatmate it is, "Would I be okay, if this happens to me?".

When I moved into a new place, I had resolved that I would never again, make friends with any of my flatmates. The first morning, I heard a knock on the door and saw this utterly lost French girl - Claire, asking for directions to go to uni. I resisted for a long time, saying only a casual hello here and there. But just the way love strikes after a bitter heartbreak, friendship kind of squeezed her way between the two of us. So here I am again, planning a trip to the South of France some time soon, and practicing my (non-existent) French. Not to mention believing the ever-so-cliched-line - everything happens for a reason!

Cheers to Friendship. :)