Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Week of Diwali

Last week, the UIUC campus was alight with Diwali, the Indian festival of lights that has become a global celebration for the diaspora and their adopted communities, with President Obama also sending his greetings on the occasion. On campus, from being a small festival celebrated by Indian students, it has grown into a large celebration, with various organizations jostling for space to host events. The Asian American Cultural Center got the prime spot on Diwali day itself, organizing a lighting of the Ikenberry Commons Quad and great Indian food in the dining hall. While my organization, IGSA, was fortunate to be a partner, we also managed to enjoy some of the great food. What impressed me most was the fact that the Indian food had the longest line - we've come very far from being a backward, forgotten country in Asia.

The undergraduate ISA followed that up with their Diwali Night, a closed-door event with performances and dinner. It has always impressed me how familiar the Indian-American kids are with what is basically their parents' culture, which they continue to hold as their own, together with their American identity. Indeed, for them, there is no contradiction with being Americans and celebrating Indian culture in America. That was an inspiration for IGSA, the graduate association, to organize our signature Diwali on the Quad. Despite the hiccups because of the new team in the RSO office that's changed all the rules, it went off perfectly and made for some truly memorable pictures. For me, the best part was explaining to a Chinese student that we were going to light the Quad with candles, only to be told, "Oh! You're celebrating Diwali!"

There are some private events by the Indian Cultural Society of Urbana-Champaign, the faculty and resident association that also keeps the light of their homeland alive. All-in-all, Diwali has come to symbolize a unity of Indian people, of all nationalities. Because being Indian is not about holding an Indian passport - it is a philosophy that transcends time and space. 

Conference Chronicles: The Poster Session

The poster session is an interesting component of research that every student must cross. It is a compromise between two opposing forces: the need for students to present their work in order to keep the peer-review system up and running; and the utter disdain for reading full papers at a conference. Thus, you have the poster session: whole papers turned into pictures and graphs to succinctly describe what was done - sans the nuances, of course.

Somehow, I liked the poster session, despite the fact that there was so little of it. It's quite different from a presentation, where the communication is largely one-way and the questions are more general (except in the highly unlikely case that someone is taking notes). In poster sessions, if someone finds the poster of interest, they discuss it; otherwise, they move along. Of course, if the area is very niche, you might not have any visitors at all, but that's highly unlikely because every niche area is part of some larger area and academics, by design, love to learn new things!

I designed my first poster on Publisher, a tool that I used to a limited extent before. Thus, this poster was my first big project with the tool and I'm pretty happy with it. In January, I'll be presenting another poster at the TRB Conference. This time, as a veteran! 

Simple yet effective

To Cut a Long Story Short
By Jeffrey Archer

It's been sometime since I could read another novel, what with the sudden wave of work that overcame me since the last one. For such a short novel then, it was quite surprising that I took so long. However, it was quite worth it as Archer once again showed his mastery over the short story. The strength and weakness of this genre is in the length: you have only so many pages to create characters, develop them and nurture them before they must serve their purpose and come to and end. It is this that makes it such a challenging genre and therefore, a pleasure to read when executed by such a master as Archer.

This collection of stories did not have a common theme. Some were short and rather shocking, while others were longer yet more subtle. Archer claims some of these are based on real stories and who knows, he might just be right. But even otherwise, there's something unique about fiction that makes it ever so believable! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Conference Chronicles: Oh that Hotel!

The Hyatt Place UC Davis was the primary hotel for the Pavement LCA 2014 conference last week in Davis, CA and it certainly lived up to the Hyatt name, what with the excellent service, food and the complimentary bicycles, the first time I've even heard of such a thing at a hotel. Given that the conference was small, just about everyone at it was at the hotel, which could thus double up as a socializing point over the scrumptious breakfast.

Oh, the breakfast, how I will miss it! From the fruits to the french toast to the oh-so-delicious house burger, I don't remember the last time I ate so much food in one meal! Surely, all the weight I gained over the conference was entirely because of the breakfast there.

The biggest problem with the hotel, as with all of Davis, was that the water was very hard and getting soap off you was quite a challenge with every shower. But then, the profuse apologies from the hotel quite made up for it, especially given that the state is going through a historic drought. And then, the complimentary bikes were the icing on top of the cake. Overall, a great place to stay! 

Fortune Favors the Brave

With Jammu & Kashmir remaining a question mark due to the devastating floods, the elections for 2014 are probably over and it can be safely said that it has been the most epoch-defining election season that India has had since Indira Gandhi won her first election. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, once relegated to political wilderness by the BJP itself and then spending decades heading Gujarat, have now emerged as truly national leaders, putting their stamp on a multitude of state elections around the country.

The defining feature of the new BJP that puts it in sharp contrast to its former self and the Congress party is its ability and willingness to take risks. Right from putting up Narendra Modi as its candidate for PM despite the objections of key allies like Nitish Kumar to fighting in Haryana without a CM candidate, the duo have shown a willingness to take risk in exchange for huge political profits. With the loss of Haryana and Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana before that, the Congress is cash-strapped like never before, with only Karnataka and Kerala left as its large states. The Himalayan states, which essentially exist out of a federal subsidy, are not going to contribute anything. It might be the truly Gujarati-way of achieving a Congress-mukt Bharat.

Elections aside, the BJP has also seen a distinct rightward shift in economics. Although off to a slow start because of Arun Jaitley's dithering, Modi's government has initiated important economic reforms, including the Make in India mission, the clean-up of the Railways and labor reforms. If successful even by a partial measure, these will be enough to secure Modi a second government in 2019. As for the Congress, its inability to cast off the decaying Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Rahul Gandhi's abject failure as a mass leader will only see it fall further in the political scales. Already, it is not much more than a regional party. A few more years and it may not be even that. 

Proving a Point

The 2014 Assembly Elections in Maharashtra was destined to be the most well-contested one in its history and it lived up to that. Not since the first election after the partition of Bombay state did we see so many actors trying to churn the political scene in the state and force a change in the status quo and the catalyst for that was undoubtedly the Narendra Modi-led BJP's spectacular performance in the May Lok Sabha elections, where Maharashtra sent a large contingent of MPs to the party's majority government in Delhi. No wonder than that the BJP was out to prove a point to its former ally, the Shiv Sena - it is not the big brother in the state. And that point was proved as the BJP ended up winning double the number of seats as the Sena, although it fell short of a majority.

In what is now a hung assembly, the BJP has emerged as the first party in three and a half decades to cross the 100-seat mark in Maharashtra, a feat that only the Congress had achieved previously. However, it will need allies. The NCP, always quick to please its masters, new or old, has extended unconditional support to the BJP. However, this can at best serve as a bargaining chip for the BJP to extract a deal from the Sena, with the two being natural allies that simply must form a government together - the mandate is clearly for that. If push comes to shove, the option of President's Rule is always with the BJP. If the Congress-NCP-Sena form a grand anti-BJP alliance, it will do damage to all of them, as their respective constituencies are fundamentally opposed to each other.

The CM remains an open question as Devendra Fadnavis, the former mayor of Nagpur, seems to be a favorite, with Pankaja Munda following close behind. Incidentally, so strong was the sympathy wave for her deceased father that she won by a record margin, beating the one set by PM Modi in May. A surprise name making the rounds is that of Nitin Gadkari, although Modi may not want to lose one of his few competent Union Ministers.

Two more points remain. The Congress did not do as badly as was expected, but it did halve its tally. Given the fifteen-year anti-incumbency, this was somewhat expected. Only four Chief Ministers (Pawan Chamling, Manik Sarkar, Sheila Dixit and Narendra Modi) have been able to beat that kind of anti-incumbency in the recent past and Prithviraj Chavan was hardly going to change that. Still, from a national perspective, the Congress is the only party that can challenge the BJP and with this defeat together with the one in Haryana, the party has been contained in Karnataka, Kerala and the Himalayas! If Modi is serious about Congress-mukt Bharat, even those may not be the safest of places for the Gandhi dynasty.

This election also marks the demise of the MNS, which finished with one seat despite much hype after ending with a duck in May. It simply makes no sense for the party to exist anymore. Unlike in 2009, when it managed to divide votes and give the Congress-NCP another term, the electorate has clearly dropped it and chosen the Shiv Sena as the custodian of Bal Thackeray's legacy. It would be wise for Raj Thackeray to merge his party with the BJP now if he wants to get anywhere. A merger with the Shiv Sena may also help, though it's unlikely.

As for the young Aditya Thackeray, he clearly has a long way to go before he can take risks on behalf of his party. But that clearly is a story unfinished. 

Modi Wave Continues

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party continued the Modi wave that led to a once-in-a-generation Lok Sabha majority in May this year by winning the party's first ever majority in Haryana, a state where the BJP has never had much of a base and has always played second-fiddle. Amazingly, not only did the party win a majority in the state, it also pushed the traditional number one of the state, the Congress, to third place, reducing it to the position that it was once itself in.

Haryana was a great risk for the BJP because, aside from being a Congress bastion, it did not have a single BJP worker who could really stand up as the face of the party, thus forcing it to bank heavily on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ability to bring in votes. That high-risk strategy paid off and will possibly be the template for Amit Shah to launch the party into new territories where the party has also never been strong - West Bengal being a prime target. It has also shown that the Modi wave continues despite the hubris of the Congress after the last round of byelections - people want more of him and his agenda, not less.

For the Congress, this defeat should send the alarm bells ringing. From the Jat reservation to former CM Hooda's populism, nothing worked for the part, What's worse, the BJP used the issue of Robert Vadra's land deals to great advantage to turn the rural voters against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. One could say that it was coming - the Congress was short of a majority in 2009 and had to cobble up a deal with HJC MLAs - but the scale of the defeat is impressive. As for the INLD, while it will now be the principal opposition in the Assembly, Chautala Sr. has a long time to go before he can hope for some mercy from Delhi. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Biking Around Davis

So I did get some time during the conference to write a blogpost. Hear ye! Hear ye! This is my first and only post from Davis, California! Much more will follow about the conference experience after I return to Champaign, but for now, let me talk about an interesting incident in an hour's break that we got after the breakout sessions.

Davis is supposed to be the best college campus in the US for biking (on bicycles) and the hotel had complimentary bikes we could use. So, with an extra hour to spare, we decided to bike around the trails. Truly, it is a beautiful campus and the bike trails are very friendly (unlike in Champaign). We enjoyed it so much that we just kept going on... until we needed to head back. At which point, Google Maps told us that we were actually outside of Davis!

Well, this was not a big problem, because we could just head back. But we didn't remember our turns, so we went back to Google for help - and it gave us a nice route back, except for the minor detail that we had to bike on a highway! With no other way and a deadline to get back in time (we eventually missed it), we followed. What amazed us was that you could indeed bike on the highway - there was a bike path. However, a narrow path in the middle of fast-moving traffic is not the ideal condition to bike on. The last time I rode a bike was in Roorkee and that was a non-motorized campus. After that, biking on a Highway was another experience - for all of us!

Well, if that wasn't enough excitement, two more things made my day (and almost killed me). Davis is near the mountains, so there are a lot of steep slopes (like Roorkee), which lead to extremely high speeds downhill. That, on a busy road. And finally, there was this left turn that required me to ride for a short distance (with regular traffic) to enter a bike lane. That was probably the scariest part of it.

In the end, we did get back and enjoyed the food at the reception. But that deserves a separate post!

Davis, California

Monday, October 13, 2014

To California!

Next week, I'll be heading out to my first conference: the International Symposium on Pavement Life Cycle Assessment 2014 (Pavement LCA 2014). I'm somewhat in disbelief that I'm actually going in the end, given how long back I've worked on this data and how much I've progressed since. As my first conference, there are some anxieties, obviously. For one - what does one do at a conference? I've been told that he answering is networking, but aside from talking a little and listening a lot (who speaks then?), I've failed to get a satisfactory definition of that.

The run up to the conference has been quite hectic, as I will be losing 4 days over it. I had to take an exam early, which can be quite a painful experience. I also had to get a lot of work done, which was jeopardized by the lack of sunlight this weekend. But in the end, I'm all set for the rather long journey to the California-equivalent of Champaign: Davis. I hope to meet some researchers in my area and contribute to the breakout sessions. And of course, I hope people come to my poster and ask me some good questions!

With my case packed and poster in tow, here I go! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

With Candidates Like These

Illinois will vote for its next Governor this November in what pundits are describing as this season's most hotly contested gubernatorial election in the country. For someone who does not have a vote, the election provides an interesting view into the Chicago-rest divide in Illinois. Democratic incumbent Patt Quinn is seeking a second term and is flush with funds and support from his party, with even First Lady Michelle Obama lending her support to him (she's from Illinois, after all). He is challenged by billionaire Republican Bruce Rauner, who promises fiscal reform in the fiscally worst-managed state.

I'm actually glad I can't vote in this election because both candidates seem so bad to me. Quinn has essentially sunk the state fiscally and his pension reforms have done more harm than good. Moreover, he is dogged by corruption allegations that he has not fully answered. On the other hand, Rauner presents a very disturbing personal story, having used a variety of tax loopholes to get out of paying into social security (as the opposition alleges). Yet, he does talk about fixing the state's broken economy and getting the government out of people's backs, something that Illinois has become infamous for. The only fear is that he is going to simply cut taxes for the rich and raise it for the middle class, which President Bush showed simply does not work.

One simply cannot vote for Quinn, given all the allegations and his less than inspiring performance in his first term. Yet, for 'small people' to vote for Rauner would be quite difficult. Ultimately, this could come down to political factors such as the minority vote which, if national trends are to be extrapolated, are with the Democrats.

13th Congressional District
There is also a far more interesting election coming, that for the now redistricted 13th Congressional District of Illinois. Republican incumbent Rodney Davis is seeking another term but he won in 2012 by a margin of just 0.3% of votes, a margin so slender that this race has the full attention of the national Democratic Party and could put the breaks on Boehner's hopes of a Republican majority in the House. What makes a Democratic victory even more imminent here is the fact that redistricting has added Champaign-Urbana to the district along with Springfield, bringing in a strong support base of minority voters that could just tip the largely level scale.

103rd State Congressional District
There is also an election to the state General Assembly in November, and the 103rd district comprising Champaign-Urbana will vote a new representative with the incumbent bowing out of the primaries.

There is also a referendum to amend the state Constitution to provide for victims' rights. This seems to have strong support and should pass easily.

As my first view of American elections, this November will be very exciting! 

Hard-Hitting, Powerful Movie

SHAHID (2012)

Produced By: Bohra Bros, Anurag Kashyap and others
Director: Hansal Mehta
Starring: Rajkummar Rao, Prabhleen Sandhu, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Baljinder Kaur and others
Pros: Excellent acting, powerful story and narrative, no misplaced song-and-dance sequences
Cons: Poor start
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

In the glitzy world of Bollywood, it is difficult to find a movie with a real story and even more difficult to find one that is also told well. It is for this reason that Shahid came as a whiff of fresh air in the filthy stench of formulaic films. Based on the true story of a would be jihadi turned celebrated human rights lawyer, it is a hard-hitting story that bring together two themes: the abject failure of India's colonial-style police system to protect the innocent and the dangers of a mob mentality entering the judiciary.

A lot of good things come together to make this movie so good, not least of which is the excellent story. But that's never enough - it takes good acting to make a good movie as well and here, Rajkummar Rao, the actor from the south who has become quite popular in Bollywood, makes his mark. There is something peculiar in the way he changes his facial expressions - it's not too subtle but it's not glaring at you either. Minor changes indicate a change in mood - whether that's natural or practiced, it makes for some excellent acting.

The only problem I could find with the movie is its slow and rather shocking start (I'm not a big fan of shocking your audience right in the start and then leaving them with that same though for 30 min before the story moves on). However, that is rather subjective. And on the topic of subjectivity, this movie does not have any silly song-and-dance sequences to bore you, which gets a huge thumbs up from me. Overall, one of the best movies yet from Bollywood, strongly recommended for viewing. (OTFS)

Long-Awaited Reply

The recent tensions over the Line of Control in Kashmir and the International Border in Jammu have given the world its second and most open glimpse of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's defense policy. And in one word - strong.

Consider both the incidents - the open Chinese aggression in Chumar in Ladakh and the continuing violence on the LoC and IB from Pakistan. Quite unlike the previous government, the Modi government has given a free hand to the army in both situations to dig in and retaliate asymmetrically. He has even backed it up with a diplomatic push, questioning the Chinese President himself, possibly something that led to the unusual censuring of the PLA when he returned to Beijing. That standoff was eventually resolved but, quite unlike the previous situation in Daulat beg Oldi, where UPA2 essentially caved in to the PLA's demands, neither side got anything out of this, except the rebuke to the PLA.

It is on the current violence however, that Modi's difference in tactics and strategy come to the fore. If reports are to be believed, the Indian Army has begun to retaliate for persistent firing from Pakistan, a trait that UPA2 almost got used to. It is well known that Pakistani firing in violation of the ceasefire agreement has been to push in militants under cover. This is a well-scripted part of the Pakistani Army's strategy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts. And amazingly, the Manmohan Singh-AK Antony duo has been quite happy to let them do this for the last decade - paying mere lip service while giving vague orders to ground officers. With the collapse of the UPA regime, Modi has clearly taken a different line - a line that should have been taken long ago.

There are some who worry that the spate of violence get out of hand. These are the people who keep forgetting that for the Indian side, it has gotten out of hand long ago. Intermittent terrorism in Kashmir hurts common Kashmiris and the fallout of militants who infiltrate from there hurts the rest of India as well. There is absolutely no sense in just keeping quiet on the border and further militarizing the streets of Srinagar, effectively punishing Kashmiris for Delhi's week-kneed policy on Pakistani terrorism. A strong reaction on the border alone will bring some fear into the Rawalpindi Generals' minds.

Will there be an International fallout of the vigor of India's reaction? Certainly, but that is secondary to India's security interests. The world right now will laud India for any aggressive stance against China, so there is nothing to fear on that front. While war with China is not an option, an open attack from China will galvanize Asia against it and forever work to its disadvantage. As for Pakistan, it is important to first keep in mind that the UN is a toothless tiger and a large and powerful country like India need not take it seriously. Secondly, while many European countries will call for peace, they are essentially asking for status quo ante i.e., India sitting back and cowering as Pakistan pushes more militants into Kashmir. This is not an option for India.

There is a large but quiet majority that can look beyond double-games in the West and will support a move to contain Pakistan's Army - notably many policymakers in Washington who are worried that the Pakistani Army's ability to rekindle the flame that led to 9/11 once ISAF leaves Afghanistan. For them, the real strategy is to contain Pakistan. It is this set of policymakers, who seem set to retake the US Senate in November, that India should be banking on. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

High-Stakes Gamble

Lok Sabha elections in Haryana are all set to be held next week in a high-stakes gamble for new BJP President Amit Shah, whose amazing organizational skills that won the BJP an overwhelming majority of seats in UP, will be put to test in a state where the BJP has been but a junior player. Of course, that was till the Lok Sabha elections in May, where the party won 7 of 8 seats on the back of the Modi wave that gripped the nation and made Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India.

The problem is, the BJP still has no real base in the state, which is considered a Congress stronghold. Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda seems set to form his third government, although the same hubris was seen in 2009 when he called for early elections and narrowly missed a majority. If he fails this time, it will be a huge blow for the Congress, which is still recovering from the massive defeat in May. However, if there's one thing that works for it, it's that it's not very clear who the Opposition is: the BJP or the INLD. And there lies a tale about the changing story of this agro-industrial state.

For its part, the INLD seems to be content with the fact that it is not going to win a majority. Typical of Haryanvi politics, the conviction of the Chautalas has not done anything to their popularity at all, except in the small urban areas such as Rohtak and Gurgaon. If anything, they've managed to spin it against the now defunct UPA-2 government to hurt the Congress even more. However, its strategy is not to win to form a government, but rather to win enough seats to decide who will - and demand their pound of flesh (read, money) in return.

Clearly, the stakes are high in this state. Had AAP contested here, it would've been another force to reckon with. But that's another tale altogether. 

With Much Hope, ISL

The Indian Super League, an IPL-style football league (which itself is a derivative of the globally popular EPL) is soon to roll out, with the guarantee of great entertainment and the hope of making a difference to Indian football, which has been in the doldrums almost since Independence. With ISL, the biggest change will be the induction of almost limitless money and star power to a sport that is otherwise underfunded by hugely popular in India, particularly in Kerala, Bengal and the Northeast.

There are a variety of teams playing in this inaugural edition, with Hero Motorcorp. and Reliance footing the big bills. Several Indian and foreign players have been picked up by the franchises, many of which are owned by Bollywood stars. Of course, this will bring more eyeballs to the event, but it remains to be seen whether they will overshadow the sport itself, as they have done in IPL.

Nonetheless, the state of Indian football is such that there is a crying need for better facilities and a platform for fresh talent. The Government, unsurprisingly, has failed to provide this. Perhaps ISL will.

PS: I'm not a fan of predictions, but I think Northeast United will win this edition. They literally are the Indian national football team! 

A Very Political Peace Prize

The last few years, possibly even more, have made it very obvious that of all the prizes, the Nobel Peace Prize is the most political of all, given less for a lifetime of achievement and more, far more, to push the political interests of Europe, mainly, and the West in general. While previously this was done subtly, the 2014 Peace Prize takes it to an entirely new level.

But then, what else can we expect from this Prize? Mahatma Gandhi never received the prize. Barack Obama, who has waged more wars across the world than any US President after World War 2, has. The logic of the Nobel Peace Prize seems to be what the panel expects from rhetoric, rather than actual achievement. And those expectations are entirely derived from political biases.

The worst thing about the 2014 award is that it does not even make an attempt to hide the political bias in it. In the announcement, the chairman of the committee candidly said that the award was given to a Hindu and a Muslim, from India and Pakistan, respectively. For one, this silly juxtaposition is a legacy of European high handedness over a mess that they create. Pakistan may be an Islamic Republic, India is not a Hindu Republic. Pakistan may choose to define its identity by religion, India does not. India has more Muslims than Pakistan's population. The silly idea that this is a typical Hindu-Muslims affair is a lazy analysis of people who have never even been to the region.

Two, it smacks of the white man's burden. The Indo-Pak conflict was created by the British, a colonial tool to keep the natives fighting with each other. Without even once accepting its collective responsibility for spreading racial and communal hatred across the world through systematic slavery in the form of colonialism, this European country now wants to show us just how easy it is to overcome that hatred, as if its hands are clean.

Three, Europe obviously has no recollection of exactly why people like Malala have had to fight for education. These looters who turned the world's most prosperous civilization into a begging bowl, used military force to impoverish and force mass illiteracy onto its people, now see it fit to point fingers and honors at those who are trying to bring back that lost legacy. Before any European country tells the world how to make a better life for its people, they should ask themselves just how they made such a great life for themselves. Who paid for the cobbled streets of Edinburgh? A colonized people did.

It has long been established that the Nobel Peace Prize has lost credibility. The 2014 Prize simply puts a stamp of confirmation on that. The Swedish can keep their lectures-cum-honors to themselves. European hands are stained with the blood of generations anyway. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My First Poster

I printed out my first poster today for next week's Pavement LCA 2014 conference today and it was quite an experience making it. Unlike most people here at Illinois who use PowerPoint, I used Publisher because it allows me to better configure elements (and create elements too, although I figured that out a lot later). But software can only get you so far - a lot of creativity goes into making a poster. Unfortunately, as one website pointed out, the people who mostly use posters (engineers and scientists) are also those whose work does not really consider the human element of a presentation. So my first reaction, as an engineer, was to stuff the poster with text and information so that anyone who saw it could instantly understand (and maybe appreciate) what I did.

Alas, that's not how it's done! As some fellow grad students were kind enough to point out, if your poster is self-explanatory, then why would anybody need to talk to you about it? Good point! So, it was back to the drawing board to eliminate text and this create version 2 (yes, this happens with posters too). This one looked good, but my adviser wanted an ever more radical reduction in text. It turns out there are two types of poster: those for live presentation at a conference, and those for passive reading on a corridor somewhere (in ATREL, in this case). Since this was for a conference, I had to design a new poster with a big picture, which I would use to explain everything that I did.

And all this with the clock ticking away - the conference is less than a week away now! It's hard to believe that I'm actually going to it; I started working on the paper in January and it went through 6 iterations, endless discussion and updates after review. And with this poster, I'm finally done.

Except - what does one do at a conference? That's a question I fear I'll have only one way to answer... 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Son-Rise or Smoke?

This Assembly election in Maharashtra will be the first after the death of Bal Thackeray and hence the first in which the Shiv Sena is fighting under Uddhav Thackeray's leadership. But, it seems, his son, Aditya Thackeray, is quickly becoming the real talk of the town. He led the party;s negotiations with the BJP, which ultimately collapsed, but now he has become the hope for the party.

So, is Maharashtra seeing the dawn of a new era? To be fair, this is not the first time this third generation Thackeray has made electoral decisions - rumor has it that he played a crucial role in the Shiv Sena backing Narendra Modi for Prime Minister earlier in the year (not unlike a similar role played by Chirag Paswas in Bihar). But that was quite another story - everyone wanted to latch on to the Modi wave that saw the NDA return to power, with the BJP winning a majority of its own and the Congress being wiped out in Maharashtra.

This election will be different because Uddhav and his son will have to prove their strength on their own. For now, Aditya seems to be in control of the party strategy, but whether he will be able to deliver or not will decide whether this is his true coming of age or if he could just be the next Rahul Gandhi. And for that, he must face the greatest adversary any political party in India has ever faced: Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

To the Last Minute

The latest paper that I submitted for the ASCE T&DI Conference next year was quite nerve-wracking, throwing up a interesting set of new problems but certainly putting light on the direction ahead for my research. Perhaps it is the nature of research that every solution throws up a set of new problems and thus lights a path for future investigation, halted only by a thesis defense, only to return with a new set of actors. This is the cycle of research that I found myself in and which will probably take up the rest of this semester - hopefully not more!

There are a couple of issues we are dealing with year, some directly related to my thesis research and others more with general materials issues. This is actually significant because a change of materials should not have had such a large impact on results. While we did try to get enough data to explain this, eventually, there proved to be just too many variables. However, we will certainly get to the bottom of this - and expect a paper from that as well! 

Gandhi Peace Lecture: On being Clean

Mahatma Gandhi was a stern believer in cleanliness, often equating it to spiritual awakening. Indeed, a clean society is a healthy society and how is society to progress without clean air, water and spaces in which to live and grow? But the Gandhian perspective of cleanliness went far beyond the physical benefits, although they were given their due. It is not for small reason that he declared that he is more concerned about India's cleanliness than its independence!

Self and Society
Cleanliness in the Gandhian philosophy has a particular importance on the self. Gandhiji always stressed on self-reliance and self-discipline, his two tenets to make a great nation. A person who can clean their own mess is not reliant on servants or people of lower castes to clean it for them. Indeed, one of the central assumptions of the caste system was that cleaning your own dirt is below you and should therefore be left to the 'lower castes' to take care of - a practice that Gandhiji attacked with all his moral might.

Thus, cleanliness enriches society by making people equal - no matter how important or rich an individual, they will always clean their own dirt, just as the poor do. A society in which every individual takes pride not just in cleanliness but in the very act of cleaning after themselves is a society that has achieved a profound level of equality - and that is the dream of India that Gandhiji held. Indeed, it is an ideal for the world.

But it is not just society that gains from a respect for cleaning after itself. Individuals learn to respect themselves and their surroundings much more. The feeling of being self-sufficient, of having to depend on no one but yourself, is of great value to a human being, it imparts a sense of responsibility and self-discipline that permeate to other fields. Eventually, a person who can clean after themselves is also one who can change the world.

Socialist Decay
Since Independence, India has embarked on a socialist form of government. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly pointed out, the government had monopolized development and took it out of the hands of the very people it claimed to represent. Indeed, it did the same when it came to cleanliness. A great society that was once led by Gandhiji to clean up after itself, now leaves a trail of litter wherever it goes. Our cities are veritable garbage dumps, our people don't think twice before urinating in public, a majority of people don't have respectable toilets, manual scavenging is still rampant and an arm of the state (the Railways) is actually perpetuating it.

Socialism has made our society one that does not see any stake in itself - where people depend on the government to clean up after themselves. Our society is in clear decay, a natural process of socialism, in fact. But this challenge also bears an opportunity - to fundamentally shift the state back to the people and make them stakeholders in their own future. This Gandhi Jayanti, Opinions 24x7 hopes that you join the PM in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan - Clean India Campaign, to make a better nation and live up to the high ideals of the Father of the Nation.

Jai Hind! 

Meticulous Research, Almost too much

An Officer and a Spy
By Robert Harris

Yes, yes, it's Robert Harris again. This author has just equaled RL Stine, Jhumpa Lahiri and KA Applegate in terms of the proportion of their books that I've read (Enid Blyton still beats them all though). And An Officer and a Spy was particularly savory because it was so hard to get hold of! Once again, Harris presents his masterly control of historical facts, taking it to another level by using characters who actually did exist in the twilight of the nineteenth century.

The problem - and this has been a recurring issue in Harris' works - is that the novel was so thorough in its research that it was a little too academic. It was not boring - quite the opposite, for a courtroom battle is always riveting - but it is quite confusing. It would've greatly helped had the author used his poetic freedom and simply cut some characters out - a dramatis personae does not really help all that much.

And with that, I am left with just Imperium and this will be another series, completed.