Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Let that Imagination Fly!

Book Review: The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi
(Book 1 of the Shiva Trilogy)
#1 National Bestseller

Lord Shiva. Mahadev. The destroyer of evil. The God that we worship, recast into a man that was worshiped in the greatest land there was - Meluha. The Indus Valley Civilization.

In Book 1 of his trilogy, Amish, an IIM-C alumnus, takes us through a fairytale world of his own. While some believe mythology to be a fairytale in itself, Amish skillfully builds a fairytale from a fairytale! A Tibetan monk, a widowed princess Sati (who also goes by the name of Parvati), an ancient scientist named Brahma... oh, the list of innovations is delightfully endless!

Perhaps the only thing that I did not like about the book is the writing style. OK, I now that's probably what everybody else loved about it, but not me. I'm a purist - a tale of war must be written in a sombre mood, not like something out of Calvin and Hobbes. The language, the swearing ruin the plot at many places. It feels less like a story from India and more like American Pulp Fiction. Indeed, if not for the brilliant storyline, this would have been a huge flop.

Nonetheless, The Immortals of Meluha does leave you craving for more, to find out what eventually happens to our Tibetan tribal chief-turned-God. I, for one, cannot wait to dig into the second book in the trilogy - The Secret of the Nagas.

The third and final book - The Oath of the Vayuputras - will be released next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Peters Out too Soon

LADIES VS RICKY BAHL (2011)

Producer: Yash Raj Films
Director: Maneesh Sharma
Starring: Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Parineeta Chopra, Dippanita Sharma, Aditi Sharma and others
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)
Pros: Good premise, nice scenes of Goa
Cons: Drags off into familiarity, poor acting, stupid costumes, bad music

It could've been a sequel, really. After the hit movie Band, Baajaa, Baaraat saw a new duo emerging victorious at the box office, Maneesh Sharma once again brings Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma together for much of the same ol' stuff!

Rick Bahl, alias several names, is a conman who uses his charm to entice gullible women and then flies off with their money. Ah, what a classic tale! Indeed, before I sat down to watch the movie, I was quite optimistic about it, given the interesting story. Bahl, having duped several women over the years, has to face three of his former victims and their secret weapon (Anushka Sharma).

Well, it sounds good on paper, for sure. Sadly, the execution is a dud. The story becomes astoundingly predictable, even boring at times. It becomes a re-run of Band, Baajaa, Baaraat at times, with Anushka Sharma gluing the very same expressions on her face time and again. Not that she's alone - the three supporting actors (Parineeta Chopra, Dippanita Sharma and Aditi Sharma) hardly show any emotion at all, even after being cheated upon. All we get are wax-like expressions and some shoddy delivery.

Ranveer Singh, thankfully, managed to pull off a good performance, although the choice of costumes (or the lack of them, at times) made him an eyesore. Agreed, he has built up a good physique for the movie, but then, at least get some apt costumes!

This movie would've passed had the music been good. With some beautiful scenes of Goa, it could've still refreshed a tired soul. Sadly, it does no such thing. Aadat se Majboor just manages to get your feet tapping until it becomes repetitive and downright boring. Much like the storyline, the songs fail to make the movie worthwhile. Overall, a terrible movie. I'd skip it if I were you. (OTFS)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Smoke and Fireworks

The recently-concluded Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, convened on the tenth anniversary of the first Bonn Conference that paved the way for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, can be described as a terrible diplomatic charade that has fooled no one. The ISAF mission is in trouble, Karzai cannot take control on his own and the fundamental question of neutrality is yet to be settled.

The Conference saw delegates from over 100 countries, including Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and his American counterpart Hillary Clinton, discuss the future of the South Asian country. However, the absence of any Taliban representative and Pakistan proved to be the greatest hurdles, ones that eventually led to failure.

The truth is that the future of Afghanistan is still being decided by foreign powers who would like nothing more than to influence the country to their side. The history of the nation - often described as the graveyard of empires, after a book of the same name - proves conclusively that external interference has been its bane for centuries. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the Taliban takeover, which was akin to a Pakistani conquest of Afghanistan.

Despite this knowledge, the Bonn Conference still kept up a charade about Afghanistan's future. Has there been any agreement on regional cooperation? Has any country vowed not to use Afghanistan to further its own ambitions? Far from it, the Americans have begun to discuss a permanent military presence in the country!

Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan will have to be decided by the Afghan people themselves without any external interference in its affairs. Till this chimaera is reached, such worthless conferences such as the one in Bonn are best avoided.

The Great Fall: Part 2

Some historians argue that Gorbachev's reforms were meant to ease state control on the economy and therefore, reduce spending. Others feel that he had long ago concluded, privately, that the Soviet Union could not continue.Whatever it may be, history went to prove that his actions sparked off a wave of consequences.

The Republics
The Soviet Union was a Union of several Republics distributed around Eurasia, going from the Nordic to the Baltic to the East Asia and to the Islamic. Under the Soviet Union, the idea was always that these varied cultures were part of one Union. This was enforced through repression of cultural differences. Unlike India, whose ancient civilization allowed the mixing and co-existence of numerous cultures, the Soviet Union was a more top-down affair.
But the policy of glasnost changed all that. Increasingly, the newly-freed media focused on the excesses of the Soviet system and the negative aspects that had been ignored till then. Information led to political awakening and eventually, Moscow's ability to control dissent began to weaken. 

At the same time, winds of change were blowing across the Warsaw Pact states, which had been Soviet satellites till then. The most dramatic example of this was the unification of Germany in 1989 following the destruction of the Berlin Wall. One by one, democratic forces rose to power in all of the Soviet Union's former allies. 

While Gorbachev's political reforms gathered steam, his economic reforms began to fizzle out, largely because he left most things untouched. State controls over production and prices along with emboldened regional Republics refusing to share tax monies with the Central Government saw the Union fall into bankruptcy. 

The Last Days
By now, another significant event had taken place: Boris Yeltsin had become President of the Russian Soviet Republic and was fiercely opposed to Gorbachev. Yeltsin had no illusions of a mighty Soviet Union - he championed the cause of Independence for its Republics, Russia in particular. 

August 15, 1991. Having been reassured by Gorbachev that all was under control, the Soviet Cabinet had gone on holiday. But then, Prime Minister Pavlov saw the text of a new treaty that would change the federal structure of the Union and pave the way for decentralization, meaning death for the Communist Party. Stunned, the hurriedly-reconvened Cabinet decided to sent a delegation to the President, who was relaxing in the Crimea. That delegation ended in failure, although it managed to prevent Gorbachev from returning to Moscow to sign the treaty. Desperate measures were needed as the treaty leaked to the media.

On Aug. 19, the Cabinet, without the President, declared a state of emergency. Tanks rolled into major cities and the Stalin-era repression was back with a vengeance. The Emergency Committee tried to win over Yeltsin, but for reasons unknown, failed. Instead, he organized his nationalists to oppose the Committee's strong-arm tactics, calling the emergency unconstitutional, as it was not approved by the President. The Russian regional Parliament became the centre of anti-Communist activity, something that even the KGB was unable to stop, mainly because of they feared killing so many of their countrymen in the process.

On Aug. 21, the Emergency was called off. Gorbachev returned and met Yeltsin, hoping to ally with him. The Emergency Committee had composed largely of his own appointees and was backed by the Communist Party, both of which stood discredited, its leadership arrested. Thus, On Aug. 22, Gorbachev walked with Yeltsin to the Russian Republic Parliament, hoping to make new friends. Unknown to him, he had walked into a trap. 

The Final Coup
Instead of listening to what the President had to say, Yeltsin read out a series of 'crimes' committed by the Communist Party and ordered a ban on its activities in the Russian Republic. Effectively, he had announced a coup and had overthrown the Party in Russia. Remember, Gorbachev was still the General Secretary of the Party and did not want its control to end, not yet at least. Therefore, the Party's abolition in the Union's single-most important Republic came as a rude shock to him.

Gorbachev had a choice. He, as President, still controlled the Army and could use that to retake control. His absence to the Crimea meant that he did not know that the Army had previously refused to take so many Soviet lives, something that would be necessary in any attempt to foil Yeltsin. 

Or, he could resign from the Party, effectively winding it up and ensure the disintegration of the Soviet Union. His mind must have gone through these two choices - his final choice would end up changing history. In the end, he chose the latter. On Aug. 24, he resigned as General Secretary, but held on to the Presidency. Yeltsin was allowed to wind up the Party's assets in Russia, the Party itself being in disarray.

One by one, Soviet Republics began to declare their Independence, beginning with Ukraine. Moldova followed. Soon, a wave turned into a flood. By Nov., 1991, only Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were left. On Dec. 8, heads of these Republics created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a new Union and annulled the treaty that had created the Soviet Union 74 years ago. The CIS was enlarged later. 

On Dec. 24, the Russian Federation informed the United Nations that it would succeed the Soviet Union's membership, including its permanent membership of the Security Council. No country objected to this. The next day, Christmas of 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned from the Presidency and the Soviet flag was lowered from atop the Kremlin, to be replaced by the new Russian tricolour.

Finally, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, perhaps the greatest geopolitical event of our times. 

(Concluded)

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Great Fall: Part 1

In the lands that we now know as Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe once stood a colossus of a nation, the largest country to have ever existed in modern times and one that, historians would argue, imploded.

In this documentary, we try to relive the last days of the Soviet Union - days that were full of uncertainty, days that saw Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika fundamentally altering how people looked upon the Soviet system, and the final, failed coup that led to the collapse. These are visions from the final days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

A Faltering Economy
Through the eighties, the Soviet Union faced disaster on the economic front. On one side, there was the unending military build-up, including of nuclear weapons, aimed at the Americans and their bloc. The 1979 occupation of Afghanistan began to cost the Soviets dearly, with the Pakistani-ISI assisted mujahideen bleeding the occupying force.

But one event that hit the state coffers badly was the sudden fall in the price of oil. Several regions of the USSR, particularly Siberia in the Russian SSR, were rich in oil and gas and these were a major source of wealth. A fall in the price of oil saw a massive fall in the economic might of the Soviet state. Moreover, decelerating food production eventually forced it to purchase foodgrains from abroad.

Politically, a power struggle was on in the Kremlin, with Yuri Andropov becoming General Secretary and then assuming the Presidium of the Soviet Union, but unable to make all the changes he would have liked to because of his influential rival, Konstantin Chernenko, who succeeded him as General Secretary.

The Gorbachev Era
However, in 1985, Chernenko died and in his place, the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) Politburo appointed much-younger Mikhail Gorbachev, a move that would prove to be a game-changer. Gorbachev came from the Nikita Khrushchev-line of leaders, whose central theme was de-Stalinization of the Union, which mean a more technocratic government that gave more freedom to the masses, something that was antithetical to Stalin-style Communism.

By this time however, unmatched American military spending saw the Soviets cutting back on civil spending. Presumably, the costs of maintaining the assets of a superpower were just too high. It was at this stage in 1988 that Gorbachev enacted the Law on Cooperatives that gave, for the first time since the collapse of the Czar, the right to privately own business. It almost seemed at though Soviet Communism was going the way of Deng Xiaoping's China, but that was not to be.

New Freedoms
Gorbachev chose to largely ignore economic reforms, despite the Law on Cooperatives, and chose the path of political reforms instead. He introduced perestroika (economic freedom) and glasnost (openness), both of which saw ideas being discussed on a scale hitherto unimaginable in the Soviet Union.

But that's not all - he called for democratization of the system, with a multi-candidate elections, although he stopped short of asking for an end to Communism. He forced the CPSU to amend the Constitution and create a new Soviet Congress of People's Deputies as the legislature. To fight increasing intra-party dissent, he created a new office of Executive President, independent of the CPSU and assumed the role of the first, and only, Soviet President.

(Continued)

A Surprising Outcome

At the start of this semester, everything seemed to be working against me. The Cultural Council was demanding more time than ever - from much more work in Kshitij (particularly the recruitment) than I had ever imagined to the Freshers' Debate to the Mock PD. A new set of challengers had emerged in CE-III, all with the sudden realization that a high CGPA does matter. As if that were not enough, the subjects and the people who taught them were well below the standards expected.

With all this in mind, I was confident that my CGPA would take a hit this time. Ah, but destiny had something else in mind! Thanks to a few words of advice from my mentor and friend, I put my extra-curricular work and rather average performance behind me and worked on the ETE, complete with a study schedule (poorly followed, as always) and a number of textbooks (three for CE-311!). And here are the results.

The two biggest surprises were CE-311 and CE-351, in which I had badly messed up the MTEs. Thanks to some very kind tutors and exceptionally good ETEs, I cracked these two, with an A+ apiece. IEQ-04 was bang on target, with a total of 91/100 guaranteeing me an A+ even if it went to absolute grading (which it didn't thanks to a kind professor). CE-321 was always a turntable sort of subject and whether the Camp was counted or not, the A+ came as a pleasant surprise, since I had factored in an A initially.

CE-331 was a relief, despite the A. This subject saw totals reaching 96/100 and with a clear bias in favour of girls. Therefore, the gradient was pretty steep, with grades changing very quickly. Just getting into the A-band was an achievement in itself. Nonetheless, I did manage to learn something from this, an I look forward to its follow-on course, CE-332. CE-341 was a pretty similar story, although this time, I had the highest score, but got just an A because the HOD intervened to see that nobody got an A+. It was arbitrary interference and thoroughly unfair, if not illegal by the Institute's rules. But what can one do when even the faculty can't take him on? The good news is that 2012 is his last year in that position and his heir-apparent is a reasonable man indeed.

So, with such a high SG, I managed to break my own record which was 9.673 (end of 1-2, the Golden Semester). Because of the pathetic subjects, I won't call this another golden semester. Maybe next time?

Another Coldwave

Waking up is probably the hardest part of all. The warm blanket, the socks, the sweater... all discarded. It's the time of year again when the earth freezes over, when an overpowering cold takes control of the northern parts of the nation.

Last year, we just had one, long, powerful cold wave, in which even sub-Himalayan regions like Roorkee saw the mercury fall to zero on the Celsius scale. But this year, it seems as though we would see a repeat of the winter of 09-10, with a number of small coldwaves spread unevenly.

Still, small is a relative term. Already, the cold is near unbearable, and it's just December. Fact is that the coldest month of the year is inevitable January and that's when the real coldwave is expected. Sadly, over a hundred people have died in North India due to the cold.

As yet another winter chugs on ahead, the shivers and mist are starting to get to you. It seemed fun back in first year - not anymore.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Not an Apt Format

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the 11th Vivekananda Memorial Debate at IILM, New Delhi - the self-styled "India's most sought-after debating platform." Well, I'm not so sure. Having devoted over a year in Parliamentary Debating, going back to a regular-style debate was a good opportunity to hone my core skills.

Motion: "Is Generation Y savvy enough to lead the nation ten years from now?" (not drafted like a motion, but read ahead)

If only it had been a debate. In my opinion, a debate has to give you an opportunity to rebut your opponent - to say that you said so and so but you're wrong because of so and so. However, IILM's format only allows a small refutation from participating teams and judges and that too without any cross-questioning. You can actually get away with a vague answer!

But it doesn't end there. The biggest handicap of all is fact that you get a measly three minutes to make your point - in three minutes, all you can do is send off a flurry of assertions. So you had one speech in which we had to bear the agony of listening to how facebook and twitter were going to change the world and how we bore the brunt of 9/11 and Katrina - at the end, I wished they had defined "nation" in the motion. You ask a question in the refutation and all you get is a repetition of points!

What was really infuriating was the fact that early speakers were handicapped, as the ones later easily referenced previous speeches and commented on those. This gave them a huge advantage because they could turn a 6 min speech into a 3 min one. In fact, the whole event was really a competition in oration rather than a debate. One team tried their best to make it a Parliamentary Debate, but by the time they finished their definitions and enumerations, time was up! Of course, they just kept talking, which was the other shock for us - the judges were ignoring the time limit!

Overall, this format, while extremely simple, is not really meant for debaters with some experience, least of all those with experience in PDs. This self-styled "India's most sought after debating platform" (which all engineering schools except IITR decided to skip) was not really worth the hype. Still, I did get to see the neat IILM Campus and their exquisite canteen (free food coupons!), from where you get a view of JLN Stadium. Not entirely a waste of time, really.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One Day as a Delhiite

This past weekend, I had the pleasure/misfortune of spending two days in the National Capital, New Delhi, for the 11th Vivekananda Memorial Debate. Delhi, as always, is a massive city bustling with life. But it is also an unequal city, where child labour is rampant.

The most distinctive part about Delhi is the Metro - a shiny wonder that can very well be described as the Gold Standard of urban transportation in India.  Never have I seen something so superbly punctual and automated in India. I made repeated journeys along the Blue and Green lines and also had the misfortune of having to disembark at Rajiv Chowk once, which is as busy as a regular railway platform, if not more!

But the Metro is really so easy to use that, armed with a map of the network, you need not care to ask anybody for directions. You purchase the token based on your final destination - and you can then use any route you may like to. Obviously, when time is at a premium, you will go for the shortest route possible. That's the case 9/10 times. But in some cases, you can take a longer route just to enjoy the view - unless you're on the Yellow Line, which is mostly underground!

Yet, for this wonder and that of others (such as JLN Stadium - the pride of India), Delhi still remains a very difficult city for newcomers to adjust to. The police, trained in politeness for the CWG, have gotten back to their old conniving ways. And at the junction of Delhi and UP, all rules of decency break down as we return to the old world - hawkers, beggars, child labourers, unscrupulous middlemen... that's the Delhi that the media does not talk about.

Yet, for all the impersonality, Delhiites are quite helpful. I managed to find my way from JLN Stadium Metro Station to Lodhi Institutional Area by asking a few directions - a common feat in other cities but one that often leads you nowhere in Delhi. Of course, the numerous signposts, the extra-wide roads and walkways and the super-smooth traffic did help. A glimpse of one of the most wasted buildings in India - India Habitat Centre - served to remind me that we do indeed, live in two countries.

My day as a Delhiite was full of wonder, as travel of 50 km and more seemed like a breeze, as my kind hosts treated me to most delicious food and as the sight of young kids studying for exams in the Metro took me back to the past. A good place to visit - but I would not like to live there.

Monday, December 19, 2011

When Goa was Liberated

Fifty years ago, in a decisive move that would have ramifications in Africa and East Timor, the newly-independent Republic of India pushed her soldiers into the Portuguese enclaves in India - Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli - and liberated historically Indian territories that were under foreign occupation for 450 years.

The Liberation of Goa was as much a decisive victory for the Indian Armed Forces, which invaded the territory from land, air and sea, as a ringing defeat to the imperial ideology that sought to take control of other territories under the garb of 'civilizing' them. Prime Minister Salazar's attempts at portraying Goa as some province of Portugal - a lame excuse, if ever - fell flat in the face when countries upon countries congratulated the Indian Republic for doing what was right.

African colonies looked upon the Liberation of Goa as a source of inspiration, their independent neighbours hoping to make it a model for Angola and Mozambique. Even as the invasion proceeded, Salazar's Government called for a resolution against India at the UNSC, but failed due to a timely veto from the Soviet Union. Indeed, Nikita Kruschev congratulated Prime Minister Nehru and asked him to ignore the hypocritical voices of condemnation from the same people that enriched themselves by enslaving their colonies.

The Liberation served to inform the world at large that Independent India - a land of a united people - would never again allow foreigners to control their destiny again. The final collapse of foreign rule in the subcontinent also showed that non-violence is never to be taken as a mark of weakness rather, it is to be taken as a warning of much greater consequences.

Opinions 24x7, on this historic day, remembers those brave soldiers, sailors and officers who lost their lives in the Liberation of the enclaves. We stand united today, with Goa an important part of the Union, a proud and free people.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Not Entirely a Waste of Time

With the end of this year's Survey Camp, another milestone in our endeavour to be mahaan Civil Engineers has been crossed. And the result: a beautiful yet thoroughly inaccurate topographic map and a new facebook page called 'kaissa kataa yaaaar!!'

Well, it wasn't all that bad really.After all, I learned how to use a Total Station, which means that I actually can perform a real survey with some better (much better) planning. I also revised my concepts of GPS, although I can't do anything beyond a FastStatic survey!

The camp was as much a physical test as a mental one. While climbing the hills and getting down into that dry riverbed from the slippery slope was an ordeal in itself, it was nothing compared to the mental stress that we had to take on. At any point of time, an argument could have turned into a fist fight. There was crying and screaming and a hell lot of swear words flying through the airwaves. Perhaps our united opposition to the working style of the professor, whose only aim in life seems to be to prove that he knows more than you (although he doesn't), was the only reason we didn't pounce on each other.

Once the seriousness of the camp began to dissipate, there were picnics galore. Most went to Chandi Mandir, which is a long climb up the very hill on which we were performing a part of the survey. Then there were the visits to Rajaji National Park and the nearby Dam. Facebook's servers filled up with pictures from these visits, backed by our amazing LAN. We went from having to submit a group file, individual files, an analog map and a digital map to having to submit some (copied) readings and a well-decorated but thoroughly inaccurate PT!

Another wonderful part about this camp was the fact that I managed to keep a good conversation going with a number of people with whom I never spoke to normally. I also believe that I am actually very difficult to work with, perhaps because I think too much of myself. Must work on that. While many people rejected Civil Engineering entirely following this camp, I actually felt that, had it been planned like a project and not a practical, it would have been superb. The planning was faulty, not the premise itself.

Well, with beautiful PTs submitted with false TS and GPS data, the hostel is beginning to empty. I, however, have miles to go before I sleep. Fortunately, I can sleep beyond 5::45 AM now!


(Series Concluded)

Day 10: This needed ten days?

The final day of the Survey Camp was meant to colour our PTs and add the title, scale, legend etc. The fancy work for this is 'mapping,' but it's really just that. It started with us adding gorgeous curves to our PTs - we call them contours. And then we got our first and only set of instructions for the day -

"You know the quality of your surveying. Now just make it beautiful."

Off the mark was my team, with my partner erasing everything and re-drawing the map most beautifully. Of course, it was no longer a map in the truest sense of the term, but then, who cares? Ah, the beautiful colours that appeared as the rivers and canals turned blue, the mountains turned green (and brown, in some cases)... there came a table of legends, there a linear scale. And last, but not the least - the control point coordinates, obtained by whichever means (mostly GPS)!

Of course, there was the slight problem that our GPS data hadn't been processed. But once we realised that you-know-who wasn't even planning on visiting us today, it didn't matter at all. We were free birds waiting to finish our grains and fly away. A few photocopies and some reproduced matter and viola! GPS coordinates at your service!

However, we faced a problem in that the ink took quite a bit of time to dry. So, I had to skip lunch in order to continue with my work. The best part was contouring. I quote: "Contours are not approximate. Contours are arbitrary!" We were even given two sample maps to look at and both of them were so arbitrary that we were truly inspired. After all, when a wasteland can look like a plush lawn, what's the harm in putting a road over a hill (without a tunnel)?

By 4:30 PM, I was finally done. Ah, the joy of seeing a work of art worth its weight in gold (how much does paper weigh, I wonder?)! The joy of seeing a file full of botched-up readings! Oh God, why did we need a ten-day survey camp when we could have done this in ten minutes using Google Earth? Our final map was so beautiful and so worthless that it is truly deserving of an IITian!

Map ripped off the table. File submitted. Signed next to my name. And there ends our Survey Camp. And then came the facebook pictures!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 9: A Holiday? YES!

Although this crappy camp deserves not just one individual bunk but several mass bunks, I decided to skip just one day, and that too for a good reason. Fortunately, it was the same day that I was supposed to use an Autolevel, which is actually a regular Dumpy Level with a very good lens... not worth my time (plus, I never want to do an analog survey again).

However, it seems there was divine will involved here for, when I made my first journey to CED today (Kshitij-related work), there stood an Autolevel in the middle of nowhere! Oh, the fear is sent through me - it seems this horrendous camp will not leave me! As curious onlookers peered through that accursed lens, I dashed away. Once at CED, I finally found my chalice - an A+ in CE-311. After three years and three courses, I finally broke the glass ceiling for Environmental Engineering! Good riddance now!

OK, now back to the reason why I skipped the camp. I had my interview for Honda YES, which was pure gossip. We discussed FDI in retail, movies, literature, future plans, responsibilities... everything but ecotechnology! The Japanese guy was particularly interested by my name, perhaps because he guessed its shorter version - Sushi!

At 6:00 PM, it was time to head back to CED for seeing my final paper - CE-321. Well, I never actually managed to see it, because I got 50/50 in it and he refused to let me see it, asking me to "Get out and go home!" Ah, the delight at seeing another potential A+! Sources tell me that despite being a despicable creature, the Camp prof actually does not have a problem with me and therefore, should give me OK marks, if not good marks. Which means that this camp is toast as far I am concerned!

Of course, it's not over yet. There's still Day 10 (the poor matkas have till Day 14, the snails they are!), which involves colouring and adding a legend - no big deal at all. We just need to sneak in a few contours here and there and we can call it quits. Finally!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 8: Finally, a Real Survey

After an entire week of learning absolutely nothing except how to avoid an angry professor, I can finally say that I did learn something new. And what an experience it was!

The Total Station is an integrated theodolite, with tacheometric cross-hairs, and a microprocessor: that sounds pretty fine in theory. But when you do it in the field, you realise just why a TS along with an electronic compass is called 'The Complete Surveyor.' Yesterday, I thought GPS was God. I was wrong: GPS is the Prophet. TS is God!

The principle of a total station is simple ranging by means of laser-guided electromagnetic radiation. At each station, you need to set and orient the point that you're on, starting with zero bearing at the beginning and back sighting your way along the traverse. Once you get the hand of it (and its nomenclature, in particular), it is so fast and so simple that a station hardly takes five minutes.

Unless you happen to be working right behind the group that takes an hour on each. A pathetic sight it was, to see people fumbling around with the buttons (the input system is rather primitive, I must admit). Another group issued an extra reflector and disappeared with both. A TS survey is not really about ranging (the computer does that for you) but more about managing your reflectors: which is why so many teams made it a real headache.

The ending was simply classic. We decided to drop Stations 8 and 11 (9 and 10 were already deleted from the survey) i.e, we drop the slums. The final Stations was No. 1 (the picnic spot) and we ran there with all our life, despite the fact that our time was up. I was determined, we all were, to complete this one practical. It is the only real thing we learned and we just had to complete it.

And with one click on 'ALL,' it was done. Measured reading 12 was my last reading (although I now realise that I should have also taken 21, but that's OK for a learner), after which we got back for the post-processing. The data was good, although the traverse was incomplete due to the missing 21 reading.

And the cherry on top of the cake? That prof knows nothing about TS and is prepared to admit it (a rare combination, mainly the last clause) and kept his mouth shut as we discussed the best way to orient our first station. Oh, the wonderful silence!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 7: Don't touch that GPS Receiver!

God paid a visit to us today. No, I don't mean that spectral presence that supposedly defines our fate. I mean the US DoD's Global Positioning System (GPS) - the ultimate answer to your surveying requirements.

Having performed a bit of GPS surveying for CE-321, I was smart enough to bring along a newspaper. We had to wait for a good half an hour at each station and ensure a PDOP less than 4. Amazingly, some points were so good that we got 1.9 in one case!

Sadly, GPS surveying, for all its benefits, is not as good as it's made out to be. For one, the amount of time you have to spend at a station is huge. Secondly, you need to be precisely over a station, which is not easy when you have seven PTs around you. And thirdly, the station must not move by a micron or you have to start all over again. After three repetitions at the same point, I was forced to shout down at anybody who came within a meter's distance!

Until you-know-who came along with some stinging comments. I've heard criticism before, but this was downright unfair. A simple mistake does not warrant a general condemnation of our IITian status, and most definitely not from some loser who everybody from his colleagues to the labourers make fun of! Yes, so we make good managers, better managers than engineers. So? We are being trained as though we live in the 1800s, what else are we supposed to do? Teach?

That two-minute long one-sided slandering event ended with a very angry partner, who was ready to walk away from the camp that very minute. Of course, I managed to convince him that its not worth wasting your time over such a big loser. We performed our survey at seven stations and terminated it at about 4:00 PM. And when we returned, we found that we (the GPS groups) and the TS groups were the only ones left! Presumably, they all left early to see that old lady's paper. Rumour has it that the other prof encouraged them to leave even earlier.

A few golden words that I was told of today - "Accha, aadha camp ho bhi gaya? Mujhe laga tha ki yeh toh halfway abandon karna padega. Ise kuch aata nahi aur bacchon se kuch karwana bhi nahi sakta." Yes, half (more than that for the UG students) of this stupid camp has ended and I learned nothing at all! 

Most of us have already given up on this camp. Large contingent leaves for Chandi Devi Mandir and Rajaji National Park everyday and you-know-who doesn't even get a hint of what's going on. And he tell us about being alert! Presumably, he does realise that nobody is doing anything real (almost all the PTs are fake) and hence, he has agreed to let us to the colouring on Day 10 in the Department itself. Since I'm skipping Day 9 for Honda YES, I have just one more day to survive in this pathetic excuse of a camp site.

Phew!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 6: Civil's Day Out

After yesterday's rain, we were looking forward to a little more precipitation today. That did not happen, such is our destiny, but yes, there was a very thick fog. And that was good enough for us - after all, that spy of a professor couldn't see a thing with his binoculars standing in the middle of dense fog.

But since when has God been so kind to civil engineers? By the time we got to Base Camp, visibility was 100%. And so began yet another day with that stupid PT. This time, the prof asked us to come to him for a viva, which is very strange, since this is supposed to be a project, not a practical (his words). But forget that: he's crazy, after all, according to his own colleagues and subordinates.

Today was a special day, since a majority of students were involved in PT surveying, which means that nobody did anything. Some went to the Chandi Mandir, some to a local dhaba, while some enterprising others set up a picnic spot at Station 1. Oh, what a sight it was! Both UG and PG people, nestled in the lap of nature, sleeping, singing, reading and just chilling out. It seems that whatever seriousness we had before the camp is all but gone now. I myself took the time to relax, drawing a few lines here and there to complete my PT. In case I missed any features, I faked them. After all, PT surveying is all about faking it!

The day was pretty unexceptional, except for viva, which I conveniently skipped. I can;t do it forever though: he will have me soon. However, I can delay it a bit, as some people did by cleverly telling him that they had just reached Station 3 and refused to climb back up! In the end, I spent the entire afternoon at the tea stall, taking out just enough time to fake some elevation readings. And viola - a highly-detailed topographic map is ready!

Fortunately, we can return to modern civilization tomorrow with a GPS-based survey. Truly speaking, this entire camp could have been completed in 2-3 days of we just used GPS or Total Station - that's what real engineers do (and now they just use Google Earth!). Why we wasted out time on 200-year-old surveying techniques is beyond my comprehension, although the lab workers insist that it's because we have outdated people teaching us outdated things. I agree!

There has been a lot of discussion over the marks associated with this camp. Some say it's a part of CE-321 and carries 10 marks; others say it's 20. And the prof himself says that it's a separate two credit course that we never registered for! I say - when everybody has a different story, there is no story at all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 5: A Little Divine Intervention

Winter is the time of the year with minimum precipitation, unless you count snow of course. Well, in the lower parts of Uttarakhand, it does not snow. Therefore, this is the driest time of the year.

5:45 AM. Another cold morning, another headache. And the brisk preparation for yet another day of the Survey Camp. And then you notice the unthinkable: rain! Yes, it was pouring hard on R-land and, from our knowledge of Hydrology, it should be the same in Haridwar, with an exceptionally long base time for the Hydrograph (ignore that part).

Well, we were a bit off the mark (so much for Hydrology). It did rain a bit at the Base Camp, but it wasn't much. And so began the tried and re-tested ritual of submissions and boring lectures. Until it started to rain. Oh, the wonderful feeling when you see the Professor's face and read 'WTF' all over it!We lodged ourselves in the Mess Hall, laughing our hearts out at our luck! Indeed, some were convinced that our extended presence in a temple was the cause for this divine intervention.

Yeah well, it didn't last long. The Prof decided to screw each group with an impromptu viva. One was left in tears. Fortunately, before he got to me (well before, actually), the glorious sun uprist (to borrow Coleridge's words). We were also informed that Stations 9 and 10, being the most stupidly placed, were deleted from the official traverse. We tried to convince him that Stations 7 and 8 had become seepage tanks and 1 and 2 hazardous zones due to the rain. The answer - 'Are you shameless?'

And then we landed up at Station 3, where two snakes were reportedly sighted. The best part about PT surveying is that you can fake it entirely. We took as many points as we could and once we realised that we had a lot of points, we faked the rest. And then we went to Station 5 where, by means of intersection, we were done in 20 min flat!

Sadly, in all this buzz, we forgot to take the requisite elevations for the topographic map. We're supposed to take it tomorrow but of course, that's not going to happen. We will mark elevations, but since it will be with respect to any base station, it will be entirely fake. Need I say more?

Are we wasting our time? Yes, of course. Have we learned anything new? Absolutely not. Why are we doing this? I have no idea. The entire batch feels so screwed right now (it's not just the camp, the grades are pretty poor too). Every other facebook post makes fun of CE. The grades are ruined, the professors are terrible, the placements are negligible. And this worthless camp to top it all off!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Day 4: North, East and the Rest

A hitherto indisputable truth we learned from our courses in Geomatics Engineering is that, come what may, GPS readings will always be far more accurate than analog readings. Well, we were finally proved wrong today.

The day started with the prof cursing us for not having taken the bearings of any points. We told him that we were not issued any compasses. He made his way to the equipment room, all ready to pounce on the lab workers. He came back in a minute, sullen-faced, and cursed the entire world because there was just one compass available!

The practical today was PT surveying, a simple affair. Sadly, without any coordinates, all we could do was draw the grids while teams went and took bearings. But soon, out of the blue, came GPS readings. Initially, he refused to divulge them, but when he realised that each party was taking an hour to obtain bearings, he gave up and handed over the data.

Ah, GPS! Such a sweet, merciful thing! We plotted the points and chose any traverse of our choice. And then we made our way to Station No. 5 to begin the most enjoyable part of the camp. We plotted such wonderful things, why, it almost felt like poetry. And then it came...

"The Northings and Eastings have been interchanged. You have to restart."

One phone call ruined the entire day. Presumably, some idiot who did not know how to report readings provided us the data, breaking away from the standard reporting convention. Well, that was the end of my PT surveying, because my team effectively ditched me, while I took my own anger out on the poor GPS guy (who, I admit, did apologize for his error). We spent the afternoon chatting with the lab workers, who told us just how pointless this whole camp is and also that we will emerge as thoroughly outdated surveyors through it. How enlightening!

But that wasn't the end of it, for, a phone call informed me that the GPS angles are off from the real ones by as much as 30 degrees - in simple words, the GPS readings are wrong. I'm not sure why - it could be because of an error with magnetic North, or maybe the base station kept losing lock. But I think it's because the people who took the readings were incompetent - after all, who taught them? And it wasn't just the ground coordinates - the elevations were off by a whopping 20m!

So now, as we enter the half-mark (and beyond it in my case), we are left with wrong readings, incomplete PTs and some fantastically voluminous Autolevel data. And then we wonder why nobody gets placed!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Day 3: In Search of Sacrifice

It's getting worse by the day. Yesterday, we were at loggerheads with each other. A good night's sleep brought some sanity back, but not for too long.

We've now come to realise that this camp is a total waste of time and hence, several students were absent today. Some came in between with some fake excuses, some abstained for the entire day. What's more - we have a mass bunk planned, the second one ever in CE-III.

However, the more enterprising (including myself) concluded that the death of an individual would ensure that this camp is not just cancelled for us but for the next one hundred generations at least. And so came in the nominations: the irritating brat in the class, the other irritating brat, both, some matka (or all of them) etc. But the winning entry was the professor himself! Oh, wouldn't that make our day?

Let me reproduce a conversation on that note:
"You know, you guys are planning cold-blooded murder over here."
"So are you with us?"
"Yeah, definitely!"

Now, fantasies apart, the day was actually very productive. As usual, the rules changed in the morning, and we were free to define our own traverse (a closed one, this time) using the given CPs. Only later did we realise that three points do not make a traverse! Surprisingly, our efficiency was double of yesterday, although it still took about two hours per station. Add the irritating GPS and TS guys and you actually had very crowded stations.

Which is when we realised we were being spied upon. Yes, unknown to us, the prof has a clear view of the entire site from the roof of the Base camp and he spies on us with a pair of binoculars! Which explains how he managed to call someone to ask why there were so many people there! As if that wasn't enough, he decided to go on a surprise check, where he interrupted everything from Vishnu-like sleep (sic) to a nice little tea party. Of course, he only found less than half the students - no professor can beat his students at hide-and-seek!

The sleep that I got in the journey back was by far the best ever. Sadly, with a mound of calculations to make, including a huge fault in the lack of bearings, I'm forced to sleep late tonight. Anyway, it's Plane Table Leveling tomorrow - not a very difficult proposition.

PS: There is a proposal going around to complain about this pathetic camp to the HOD. After all, he's just hungry to bite into complains.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 2: "I Bhaant Quality, not Quantity"

OK, so that wasn't a good start. But then, who says it will be any different today? The bus started late yesterday, it will do so today. And with that began the process that made an entire batch of students 'defaulters' and also gave us half an hour's break.

The lesson that we all took away from Day 1 was that taking this camp seriously is injurious to health (both mental and physical). So, we had already made up our mind to enjoy ourselves. Some, of course, took it more seriously than others and spent the entire day on the riverbank. Well, to each his own.

The practical is actually very difficult to do: taking bearings, distances and angles from all stations. And we discovered even more properties of our traverse, such as the invisible Station No. 8 or the truant Station No. 5, not to mention the shit-laid route to Station No. 3. Fortunately, the professor told us that he wanted good readings from a few stations, and we would merge readings later. Therefore, the work was shortened significantly, since working on more than three stations in a day was impossible. Quality, not quantity, was the mantra. Bad move, really.

Oh, we've made new friends among the hogs in the area: they're friendly, but thoroughly disgusting and rather sex-obsessed.

Surprisingly, the food was much better today and the beds in the hall (not meant for us) rather refreshing. After all, never before have boys and girls eaten together over a sleeping late-night gamer. And the professor seems to be coming around to the realization that we are not the ideal, disciplined officers that he was hoping for. Not that he isn't trying to make us such, but at least we've come to a common understanding.

Now, here comes the troublesome part: tempers are rising in general. I don't deny that it's my fault to some extent, but then, everybody is frustrated. In particular, when there is a clear bias in favour of those who took ICE-03, there are a lot of sly remarks going around. Nobody can really stand each other for too long anymore during the camp, and the only way to talk is to burst out random cuss words at the pigs. Add an ugly UG-PG confrontation today, and it was not a pretty picture.

The bus journey back was, again, very gloomy. Nobody has the energy to talk and after the initial chit chat, most of us went back to sleep. Waking up in the morning is the hardest part of all and the realization that we are using thoroughly outdated techniques with no practical significance only makes it worse. For now, everyone just hopes to get through the next eight days. No geodetic endeavours here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Day 1: Recce, Recce, All the Way

It was supposed to be easy: go about the place, prepare a little guide for yourself (and your group). Shouldn't take longer than two hours. Wrong!

First, a little about the site. It's in Haridwar, but it's not godly at all. Located at the base of the Mansha Devi shrine (and there are several other Devis at the base), the most distinctive landmark here is the Gowri Shankar Goshala. Let me not deliberate further, except by assuring PeTA that flies are having a lovely time here.

Anyway, the practical. We were informed that the stations were already established. My name, being so strategically placed, sent me to Station No. 10 with the reconnaissance (recce) table, which a few chosen losers were given (all with strategically-placed names; bless our parents), while the rest were handed over a little sheet of paper and a map from last year so that they could copy it and go frolicking about like Little Red Riding Hood.

Station 10. A slum. Oh, how sweet. What juicy flies, what voracious swine! Oh, the pithy swear words! Nonetheless, we are Civil Engineers and we must be ready to float in a septic tank to determine the volume of solids. As long as it doesn't move, we can handle it. Sadly, that was not the case here. We marked a few stations and, right on cue, we were told that they were poorly-placed and would be relocated. Frustrated, we ditched the slum and went to the hills, which we hopes would be an easier job, given the advantage of elevation.

Ah, but how can it be so simple? What is a camp without a treasure hunt, after all. The stations were placed cleverly, so that it took a good old trek to reach their base and a further bit of rock climbing to get to them proper. And once you're there, beware of sari-pulling monkeys who, one friend wonders why, has a very red butt and no sense of decency at all. And if you can avoid them, do try to avoid the gaping holes in the ground, or the loose rocks. Just a suggestion. If you fall and approach death, I'm sure there's an ambulance waiting for you some 200 km away. Perhaps they can use your GPS receiver to find you (if the monkeys haven't stolen it, that is)!

Well, despite the hassles, we finally finished and returned for lunch at a cool 2:30 PM. It wasn't great, but it could have been worse. We sat in the shade of the temple, the cows chewing away their regurgitated fodder in a corner. Ah, bliss!

"WHY ARE YOU SITTING HERE?"

Yes, my fundamental right to put my ass where I want to was violated. A new task: take a theodolite and verify that your sites are indeed inter-visible. No, don't check distances, just make sure that you are not a blind old bat. Oh, and get out of the base camp (while he catches his forty thousand winks).

It all fits so well. Yesterday: the bus may leave early but not later than 7:30 AM. Today: we left at 7:50 AM. Yesterday: you will not return before 7:00 PM. Today: we were back at 5:50 PM. Execution at its best! Now, what's left to be seen is whether the recce tables will be marked at all and, if so, how fair the marking will be (seeing as though Little Red Riding Hoods had Rembrandt-esque sketches ready).

Overall, a pathetic start, the only silver lining to which is that it ended. But there are still miles to go before I sleep (beyond 5:45 AM).