Monday, February 29, 2016

Adventures with AutoCAD C3D

This semester, I have been teaching a lab on AutoCAD Civil 3D to a class of 60-odd students, almost none of whom have ever used the program, and a good chunk of whom never even used plain vanilla AutoCAD either. It brings back memories of my final year in Roorkee, when we were saddled with an impossibly difficult BTP that had to use ArcGIS and AutoCAD Civil 3D. Back then, a bunch of us sat together and decided to join hands to figure out how to make it happen - from obtaining profiles for a geotechnical stability analysis to designing the alignment of a hill road, we found our way about it, even if the final product wasn't the best out there.

Little did I know that about three years later, I would be teaching those very skills to a class, to apply to a challenging but much smaller problem. It is a strange feeling indeed to explain alignments and profiles, assemblies and corridors, and then to hope that it makes sense to the students! It started off pretty badly, as I tried to make people follow step-by-step. Fortunately, a previous workshop on LabVIEW that I had attended gave me a way out. I've realized that, despite the funny answers in homework and exams, these students are smart and don't need their hands to be held. And thus I created a radically new format for this class, one that was never tried before, and it has been a great success! It is a pleasure to see students not waiting for you but going on to the next page of the manual - they've come far.

I wonder if I would've picked it up so easily if I had been formally taught the program, instead of having to learn it myself. Then again, if I hadn't been forced to learn it myself, I may not have remembered so much at this stage. Life moves in strange ways. Of course I knew that professors were students at some time too, and grad students were undergrads. But I did not expect the transformation to be so swift! Quite a learning experience. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

How long will the impasse last?

Last week, Chicago State University sent out letters to all 900 staff, including about 300 tenured faculty, of a notice of termination in case the Illinois legislature was not able to pass a budget that would be approved by Gov. Bruce Rauner. CSU seems to be the first casualty of the unprecedented standoff in Springfield that has sent Illinois into an even deeper economic hole than before. Combined with the veto to a bill to maintain MAP funding, Gov. Rauner has made it clear that he is willing to fight the long fight to meet the plans based on which he defeated Pat Quinn over a year back.

There are several things wrong. For one, it makes absolutely no sense for state universities to run like a corporation unless they can meet almost all of their requirement like a corporation i.e., by itself. CSU has a full-time spokesperson, a large bureaucracy, and several systems that should simply not be necessary to run a university, particularly given that it is not really a large research or technical institution. And despite its stellar contribution to Illinois society, the Governor is right when he says that the state simply cannot afford it any more.

Furthermore, there is a dire need to overhaul the way money is spent in Illinois (spent legally, at least). There must be cuts and compromises to make up for the fiscal sins of the past - while the idea of a big government that cares for everyone is great, in reality it will sink everybody. Democratic legislators need to understand that borrowings and accounting tricks will not save Illinois. Gov. Rauner's plans to get the economy moving again will, and they should back him by passing an honest spending bill. The people of Illinois deserve to know the truth about the state of their economy, so that they can start reconstructing. Make no mistake about it - Illinois has everything it needs to come back, provided it can make hard choices.

And the same goes for CSU. 

When Jaggi was mistaken

Swarajya consulting editor R Jagannathan, popularly called Jaggi, has made an excellent transition from Firstpost to the new home of the Indian right. In a short span of time, he has written excellent articles, from questioning judicial overreach to articulating his thoughts on Arun Jaitley and even the Gandhi dynasty, his works have been a pleasure to read and have largely been spot on. Except this time. On the issue of JNU, he has made a great mistake however, a mistake that Vajpayee and Advani had made and paid dearly for. The belief that the Left should be left untouched, that they are more trouble than they are worth, or that they can be won over by acting like them, is false. The Left is committed to its ideology, pampered and shielded by the Deep Congress, and will never go down without a great fight.

Therefore, a fight is what must come to them, for go down they must! The JNU incident was a godsend for the BJP, not a crushing defeat as Jaggi had opined. In one fell swoop, the BJP energized its base, put the Opposition on the defensive, exposed an extremely compromised media, and stared down the ideological bastion of the radical Left. Indeed, if handled correctly, this incident could change the axis of India politics from a secular-communal narrative to a national-anti-national one, a narrative that will ensure future electoral victories for the party. This may be described as Modi's potential Reagan moment, provided he is willing to fight for it, when the BJP's ideology could finally come out of the shadows without any fear - nation first, then the party, and individual last.

Jaggi is wrong when he says that nationalism is a dead horse to beat. It is a very potent and emotive tool. It is wrong to believe that the poor don't care about nationalism - most soldiers come from poor families, and they do care. It does matter. By siding with the JNU 'students', Rahul Gandhi has made his priorities clear - he is willing to partition India again for the sake of ruling whatever is left of it. If the BJP can play its cards right, JNU might prove to be his Waterloo. 

In praise of Smriti Irani

Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani's speech in Parliament on the JNU-HCU issues will go down as one of the most important interventions for the current NDA government. Her fiery speech tilted the scales in favor of the government after months of being bogged down by an energized opposition. This speech had instantly riddled the Deep Congress, with every liberal newspaper and TV channel trying its best to discredit it using all the tools of propaganda available - deception, half-lies, peddling opinion as fact, and much more.

Of course, even before this session of Parliament had started, she made the masterstroke of ordering central universities to fly the Indian tricolor high, a move that forced the Deep Congress to expose itself. If ever there was a good illustration of how Modi haters had become India haters, it was that of a professor from Jadavpur University opposing the move on national TV and being hounded down by everybody for it. It was sheer brilliance that allowed the BJP to take back the narrative after the sordid events at JNU.

Irani has come very far from her 2004 electoral debut, where she was defeated by Kapil Sibal in Chandni Chowk. She has yet to win an election, but her conviction of staying in Rae Bareli has hurt the Gandhi dynasty like never before. In standing up to Rahul Gandhi, she has shown more courage than the entire so-called old guard of the BJP, who allowed the Deep Congress to sink their government in 2004. The political future of many politicians - from Vajpayee to Sushma Swaraj - has been made through extremely good speeches in Parliament. Irani has not joined that elite set, and it sure to have a bright future in the party. 

We need to #ShutDownJNU

Recent events in JNU have left most patriotic Indians enraged. As it is, the incident in which Kashmiri separatists-cum-students vowed to fight (with violence) till the destruction of India was an outrage in itself. On top of that, the response of the Deep Congress, pulling out virtually every trick in the book to protect their assets in JNU, has made it abundantly clear that the university now stands much less for Nehru and much more for Jinnah, who had declared that there would either be a divided India or a destroyed India. Furthermore, Nehru's progeny and self-declared torchbearers are at the forefront of this transformation that promises to partition India once again.

It is absolutely necessary that JNU be shut down. Not only is it a cesspool of the radical Left, it does so on an extremely subsidized lifestyle, paid for by the very taxpayers that the students and faculty there use the choicest of derogatory language towards. Of course, there is some good scientific work being done there, and the rot is mainly in the humanities departments. Nonetheless, the good can be taken and shifted elsewhere (a one-time cost). Indeed, one may argue that it should be so, before the rot spreads there too. As Swarajya has meticulously shown, the hold of the radical Left is very strong already, and is bound to hurt the better departments sooner or later.

Shutting down JNU would certainly not end the radical Left. The unholy alliance of separatists, Maoists, anarchists, caste extremist, NGO-mafia et al has converged at several universities. But JNU is the fountainhead, and destroying it would deal a severe blow to the Deep Congress. It would truly represent India's rightward shift, for the better of everyone. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Good Day to Live

It's a good day to be alive, especially if you like science. A couple of months back, the Higgs Boson was finally detected, thus filling in a crucial piece of the quantum mechanical puzzle that has eluded experimental physicists for decades. And today, a collaborative efforts between over a thousand researchers confirmed the existence of gravity waves - about a century after Einstein first theorized them (although he wasn't really very sure about it). To those who only see the regular rigmarole of life, these seem inconsequential, even a waste of time and money. Scientists have given their lives to gravity waves without ever being sure that they were even real - till now.

Why does this matter? Because this is more than an observational discovery - it is a diagnostic discovery, a whole new realm of Physics that seems to be born straight from science fiction. Everything we know about our universe is based on electromagnetic energy. Black holes are black because we can't see through them (OK, that's not really true). Dark matter is dark because we can't see it (again, not exactly true). Our scientific knowledge and intuition of the universe is based almost wholly on what we can see or sense in the electromagnetic spectrum. Until now, when we know that space-time can also propagate gravity waves, which are in a sense, mechanical waves traveling at the speed of light and distorting space-time.

As of now though, these waves are so small that it took a spectacular cosmic event to make even the smallest detection. But as far as science goes, I am hugely optimistic that we will eventually be able to harness this to peer further out into the universe. Just as acoustic emissions redefined the way we use micro-fracture mechanics in engineering, gravity waves have the potential to really change the way we perceive our universe. And who knows, maybe we will find out that we really are in an endless cycle of creation and destruction? 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Myth of Cultural Appropriation

The latest music video from Coldplay ft Beyonce, the ever popular alternative rock band, Hymn for the Weekend, seems to have unsettled the outrage brigade in India, those liberal xenophobes who find cultural appropriation a crime of grave magnitude. According to these high priests, the video focuses only on so-called stereotypes of the country, and is therefore a problem (although there were no snake charmers, but let's set that aside for now).

Of course, the first minute or so gave enough reason to set the alarm bells ringing in that camp.
The myth of cultural appropriation is very much real. It has been used to condemn people in America and Canada for harmlessly playing Holi, practicing Yoga, eating sushi, flying kite-lanterns, and what not. According to this 'theory,' by failing to reproduce these in exactly the same way as they would be in their native setting (despite the fact that there are thousands of variations of each of these), it somehow degrades them, and this must be stopped. What crap!

The nature of culture is that it constantly changes and evolves. India has been a hotbed of so-called cultural appropriation, as the world came here and left their mark. This blogpost, written in a foreign language, is cultural appropriation. There is nothing wrong in it. Culture, like knowledge, expands when it is shared. Its variations are its inherent beauty. The music video shows some wonderful scenes that do very much happen in India, scenes that most Indians would be able to relate to. No, we don't play Holi 24x7, but when we do, we have every bit as much fun as is shown. And what's wrong with showing that?

The liberal xenophobes would say that such appropriation lets people 'indulge' in a culture without learning about it. So what? Indian culture, an ancient culture, is strong, and does not need to constantly preach to the world about itself. If it's these stereotypes that bring tourists here, so be it - they'll learn the 'truth' (if there be any) themselves, and help our economy in the process. Indeed, I was quite flattered by the video, particularly the ending, when Beyonce makes a grand namaste and 'Coldplay' comes up in Hindi. That is very much how one would say goodbye from one's neighbor's home in the country.

I thought this was a great video, and would love to see more of it. To those who have a problem because it doesn't show that India also has pubs and skyscrapers and casinos ('we are just like you!') - suck it up. This is the real India, not your gated communities.

A bad idea

Infosys co-founder Narayan Murthy floated an idea recently, copied basically from China and Turkey, that India should spend $25 bn over the next five years to pay for PhD scholars to be trained abroad, and force them to return and build a research environment here. This idea is not new, but it is certainly bad, and not merely because it costs a lot. The fact is, if it were good, it would be worth spending money on. But it's not, and it will not meet its stated goals.

India has a huge diaspora in the West, who are largely engineers and doctors. A large number of those, hundreds if not thousands, have a PhD or are going to get one very soon. Funding and faculty positions in the West are difficult to get - certainly much, much harder than in India. Why don't they just come back to India, where funding so much easier to get, and where faculty jobs are aplenty, especially for those with foreign degrees? It's because these two benefits are not really there - jobs depends on caste and connections, and funding depends on working through a quagmire of bureaucracy within the university itself (and much more if you deal with the government, although that can actually be a much better experience).

It's not simply about bureaucracy though - the general Indian 'crab' mindset also ticks a lot of young people off. Institutions are so hierarchical that senior faculty can make life impossible for the younger ones who are ambitious and don't want to suck up to them, and there is virtually no form of redress. This is not a question of government interference - the Central government, at least, takes a hands-off approach to its universities in any case - but of individual autonomy, a concept which seems to be alien to Indian policy altogether. In this situation, why would our people come back, particularly when the more 'liberal' West is ready to welcome them with open arms?

Fortunately, diagnosing the problem is half the war won. Some institutions such as IISc and IITM have even found solutions to these. The need is to scale these to the entire country, an exercise that will require a small group of good administrators, political will, and some money (certainly much less than $25 b). It is doable, and must be done. Simply throwing money at the problem and hoping that the West will reform our system won't do - the returns will, in any case, be peanuts compared to the investment. We must strengthen ourselves to be strong, not stand on the shoulders of others.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

Let the races begin!

As we speak, the 2016 US Presidential race has begun, with primaries and caucuses occupying the next six months running up to the party conventions. Right now, Iowa is voting in its caucus, and with about three quarters of precincts reporting, the results are very surprising. Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders is virtually tying with frontrunner Hillary Clinton in votes, but he still has fewer delegates as it has been virtually reduced to a two-person race. This is surprising, but not unexpected, as Bernie had emerged very strong in recent polls, especially among young voters.

The Republicans have turned up an ever more shocking result right now: Ted Cruz is leading favorite Donald Trump by a substantial figure of votes, although the delegate allocation has not been made yet. If Cruz manages to trump Trump, it would be the biggest upset yet for the businessman who seemed invincible, and indeed, boasted as much. His invincibility lost, he would be forced to give real answers instead of rhetoric, and that would probably be the end of him. Iowa may just turn out to be his Waterloo. And yet, Cruz is quite a difficult candidate for the party, and his election can be troublesome.

The GOP also seems to have another giant killer in Rand Paul, who is beating establishment favorite Jeb Bush 2 to 1 (though both are still at the lower end of the spectrum). Marco Rubio is also pulling way ahead. An exciting night indeed!

Update: O'Malley has dropped out of the race, and Ted Cruz has won Iowa. Trump has faced an earthquake.