Saturday, December 31, 2016

Note: The Future of OTFS

I know that typically, the New Year's Resolutions are the last post of the year, but I had to address the drastic fall in posts on this blog this year. October had a measly 4 posts - just one a week, and about half the year has seen less than 10 a month. That is not acceptable. However, it is also a fact that it has been a busy year, and I now have very serious responsibilities of the kind I did not have 10 years ago when I started OTFS.

However, my experience has been that the blog helps me focus. I've recently learned a little about cognitive sciences and how spacing big tasks in between little ones can help. And of course, as always, writing is the ultimate stress-buster. And so I intend to continue writing, at whatever pace possible. This year had no series, and I am aware that I left the Doc on PVNR unfinished. I just don't have the time, and I doubt I'll have it next year. Changes will have to be made, the blog will have to be reinvented to meet the needs of the time.

And reinvented it shall be. The first 10 years have been great and memorable. Why should the next 10 be any less?

New Year's Resolutions, 2017

Yes, yes, it's that time of the year again, when pointless promises to nobody in particular will be made, and we can then move on. I went back to what I said on Dec. 31, 2015, and I had mixed feelings. I met maybe half my resolutions - which isn't all that bad. But then, I realized that I just push some resolutions forward. Should I stop doing that? Or is perseverance a virtue here?

Well, at this point of time, I don't really care anymore. It's been a good year - not only did I have my first journal paper, I also had my second (both first author). I passed my qualifying exam, and ran several CFD simulations, simplistic as they might be. I TAed my first class, and retrained my mint-condition 4.0 GPA (why am I still proud of that?). I won an award at a conference, I made new contacts and started to establish myself beyond my adviser's shadow. I designed two new websites, learned Linux, Python, and LaTeX, significantly increased my knowledge of computational mechanics. And as if all that was not enough, I lost 25 lbs, dropped 4 inches in waist size, reinvented my diet. and finally, finally got my drivers license. And the cherry on top of the icing: I won a bet and saw Donald Trump win the election!

Could it get better? No, really. If winter comes, can spring be far behind, as Frost once asked? However, if spring is here, can winter be far behind? After such a spectacular year, is 2017 going to be a horrible one? Murphy's Law? Well... maybe. That's true for every year, and every day in fact. I am happy that this past week, I have probably been more productive than ever before. There are still some big-ticket items to get through, but a lot of ground has been covered. I'm not sure if 2017 will be bad, but it will be challenging, that is certain.

So let's add to the challenge and get it over with. Next year, as CEE Transportation Instructional Fellow (the first and maybe only?), I will teach my first class, the culmination of years of patience and steadfastness to be what I imagined. Will it be as wonderful as I had hoped, or will I, like so many of my peers, become disillusioned by the idea of having to teach a bunch of ungrateful undergraduates? Again, I have no idea, but I do intend to give it my very best - if for nothing else, because the kids are spending money, and deserve it. A simple transaction.

But there's more I intend to do next year. Yes, I finally hope to buy that car, and move into a studio. I hope to take my prelim next year, which will be crucial to meet expected timelines. That means I will have to finally master ANSYS and AWS, and maybe even write my own CFD code, all of which will be challenging, as a PhD should be. Of course, I hope to publish at least one more journal paper (I'm already guaranteed two more conference papers). I may finally stop taking courses to that end, but I am always open to taking any good, useful courses (which means almost none of those left in CEE). I hope to continue losing weight and reach my goal of 150 lbs - although that will be very challenging indeed. I would like to finally move to real strength training and build muscle, and maybe move cardio back to the park.

Well, that's quite a lot to do, and it will keep me busy. If I do it, that is. But hey, in predicting the future, anything goes, so why not aim that high up?

Kafkaesque, as they say

Amerika
By Franz Kafka

In the high tables of the intellectual world, being Kafkaesque can be a double-edged sword: while certainly it is difficult to write in that peculiar style perfected (?) by Kafka himself, and to imagine such a bizarre world without blinking an eye, it would be an overstatement to say that it was somehow good (whatever that means) literature. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand suggested that a good writer of fiction is deliberate and meticulous. Kafka's Amerika betrays neither of those qualities - indeed, if the intention was to write a novel that would be 'good' today, it would fail badly. To be fair of course, he didn't really want to publish this work (as we are told in the preface), but I am told that this is a mere sampling of a trend.

Intent is the key here, really. I suppose if the intent was to present this very style, then yes, there was both deliberation and a meticulous dedication to meeting the end goals, even if a few details were left out in between (Oklahama?). Perhaps that's why Kafka has generated so much chatter. If only we could travel back in time and see how he wrote his work in Prague - or maybe we can check if he had a supply of weed?

Marvelously Brilliant

A Review of The Man in the High Castle

Historical fiction (together with science fiction) forms the majority of my literary interests. I have often said however, that most historical fiction is quite crude, based on just a handful of facts and a large dollop of anachronistic fiction - some authors prefer to mix American slang with ancient Rome! On top of that, when a book is adapted into a movie or TV show, it often undergoes enhanced degradation, having to reimagine the setting to suit modern audiences with little patience for nuance. Indeed, when it comes to predicting how good a work of historical fiction - whether a book or the adaptation - is, it is usually safe to err on the side of pessimism.

The Man in the High Castle, the award-winning series from Amazon, beat the odds. I don't even remember another instance of the adaptation being better researched and presented than the original material itself! Having seen Season 2 and the expansive usage of accurate Nazi history to reconstruct an entirely different scenario was wonderful to say the least. It was well-researched, no doubt, and it in fact went against the grain of the original novel by focusing on the Nazis as opposed to he Japanese, no doubt a challenge for he team building it. In the end, it came out marvelously, and I look forward to Season 3!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Deep Insights

The Art of Teaching
By Jay Parini

Next semester, I will be teaching my first-ever class of Civil Engineering undergraduates and graduate students, marking (finally) my entry into college teaching, a professions I have coveted for years. However, the closer the first day of the new semester comes, the more anxious I feel: what exactly is going on the students' minds? Are students listening to me? Am I trying too hard?

And so I picked up this little book, the thoughts of a now-senior professor of English literature, containing his views based on his many years of teaching. Some of it I could well-relate to: how having classes can help you to organize your day, making such days far more productive than those without. His views on teaching as an art rather surprised me, for I always thought that teachers are just good by themselves, but Parini says that they become good through deliberate practice. Thus, a professor must not only prepare for a class in terms of content, but also in terms of how that content is delivered.

Some parts of the book, particularly on discussing politics in class, I could not relate to because it is irrelevant to engineering education. Moreover, I strongly disagree with it, although it was insightful nonetheless. In the end however, you can only read so much - the time to teach is less than a month away, and practice makes perfect!

Monday, December 19, 2016

The days of hell?

A photo posted by Sushobhan Sen (@icecoolsushobhan) on

The past weekend here in Central Illinois was perhaps one of the worst since I came here. On Friday, when the temperatures had already been below freezing for days, a pocket of warm air aloft swept by, melting the snow that was forecast to come in from a system from the Pacific coast. and leading to what is called freezing rain i.e., rain that instantly freezes upon contact with a surface. And so on Friday night, roads were closed and the police were in full action as chaos reigned, similar to previous years.

Except that in recent years, such icy episodes have hardly lasted a few hours. In this case, it has been going on for three days now, with Sunday even bringing on a blast of arctic air that led to the coldest air temperatures this year (including the last winter season), combined with strong northwesterly winds that saw wind chills dip dangerously low. For the first time in my 3.5 years here, I had to take a day off and avoid going out. This morning, that trend continued with icy sidewalks forcing me to walk on the (frozen) grass in order to get to work. Many schools in the area are closed as well, and the University of Illinois has fortunately finished the Fall semester.

A big warm up (by Illinois standards, anyway) is expected in the next few days, bringing this horrendous episode to an end, for now. Not a day too soon.

On to Stage II

 This month, I passed my PhD qualifying exam, the first of three exams needed to obtain a PhD from Illinois. The exam, having already been delayed by about nine-months, was in the new format for the Transportation Engineering Group, and I was the first (and only) person to take it this year. Now, given  that my research is in computational mechanics (solving PDEs numerically), the exam really tested my creativity because the problem was in computational statistics (using big data to gain insights). My months of independent study and MOOCs actually came to my rescue here!

The worst part of the exam was the 10 min wait between the end of the exam and the result - the sort of thoughts that crossed my mind then were the stuff of nightmares, and am I glad it ended well. Now, as a PhD Candidate, it's time to get ready for the second exam - the Prelim. 

2017 Assembly Elections


Next year will see seven assembly elections in India, including the biggest of prize of them all - Uttar Pradesh. In addition, President Pranab Mukherjee's term will also end, setting the stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP to anoint a new President. 

In UP, it looks like a close fight between Mayawati's BSP and an energized BJP, with incumbent SP and CM Akhilesh Yadav busy with party and family infighting that is taking a serious toll on the government. In the event of a four-way contest, the BJP seems set to form its first government in the state in over two decades. However, there are rumors of a Congress-SP alliance that has the potential to up end equations and return a shaky coalition government - although going by the experience of Congress alliances in 2016, that might not quite translate to reality. All eyes remain on the most crucial factor - the CM candidates of each party, particularly the BJP. 

In Uttarakhand, the incumbent Congress government that has a wafer-thin majority seems set to be voted out, with voter disenchantment growing due to a sense of directionless and a government accused of nepotism. In Manipur, CM Okram Ibobi Singh faces a challenge from the Iron Lady Irom Shamila Chanu, whose electoral debut will be clearly watched, even as both the BJP and the TMC look to make significant inroads at the cost of the Congress. The story is similar in Himachal, with the incumbent CM facing a volley of corruption and nepotism charges, and voters looking to the BJP for change. 

In Goa, the ruling BJP looks dominant as the leading Opposition Congress continues its meltdown. While more and more leaders leave the Congress, the loss of Manohar Parrikar to the Narendra Modi Cabinet has spelled trouble for the incumbent CM, with resistance coming from within as well as from the highly-charged mother language issue. The black horse is the AAP, which has not made the same mistakes as in Punjab, and which may replace the Congress as the chief opposition party. 

In Punjab, the controversy-laden SAD-BJP alliance government of Prakash Singh Badal and his family seems ready to be booted out after it won an unprecedented second consecutive term five years ago. Congress VP Rahul Gandhi has virtually stayed out of Punjab and allowed the popular Capt. Amrinder Singh to lead the charge, and it seems set to reap the dividends of having a popular, local leader. A few months ago, Punjab looked set to be the first full state that the AAP would form a government in, but Arvind Kejriwal's theatrics and brazen corruption by the local party has tilted the scales back in the Congress' favor. 

And finally, in Gujarat, while the ruling BJP looks shaky going into its first election in the state after Chief Minister Narendra Modi's historic 2014 Lok Sabha victory, the Opposition continues to be hopelessly disarrayed, clinging on to the hope that the Patidar agitation would weaken the BJP enough for it to lose a majority and thus enable some sort of horse trading. Whether BJP President Amit Shah will give Gujarat enough personal attention is left to be seen, but the scars of Anandiben Patel's failed term as CM will haunt the BJP going into the election. 

As for the Presidency, in 2014, it was speculated that LK Advani may be elevated to that position as one of the founders of the BJP. However, his hobnobbing with the Lutyens elite and outbursts against the Modi government have made him far less likely to be considered for that post. And given Modi's style, his choice for the Head of State will surely surprise a lot of us. 

IOTY16: A Pillar of Stability

It's been 10 years! 

That's right - February 7, 2007, marked my first blog post on Opinions 24x7, a simple post announcing my entry into opinions writing on the blogosphere. Since then, while the Internet itself has changed drastically, I've continued to post, having crossed 2,900 posts this year. And, despite my busy schedule significantly slowing me down this year, I will continue to keep posting.

Indian of the Year has been the signature end-of-year event at OTFS. For IOTY16, I've decided to celebrate the 10th edition with a unique format (more on that later). And of course, a unique format called for a unique logo - breaking with the aerodynamic look of previous logos, this time's logo is more solid, with clear lines and forms. Representing a Pillar of Stability, the logo serves as a beacon of past achievements holding up the promise of the future. On top if a stylized 10 with the Ashok chakra, which has featured in every IOTY logo.

Look out for more announcements next year!

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2016
Coming in March 2017

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Some advice for Theresa May

The government of Theresa May, which was put in place following the historic #Brexit vote and is now tasked with charting the future of the UK outside of the EU, has already faced several challenges. The #Remain camp, although defeated at the hustings, has continued its opposition to leaving the EU, using both the media and the courts to try to block it. Meanwhile, May is under increasing pressure to spell out what the UK's actual plan is (and also to reign in her rather gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary). However, if actions are anything to go by, May's hopes seem to lie in trade - with the British Empire.

And it was with that hope that May came to India last month - the crown jewel of the Empire - to negotiate a lucrative trade deal that would make Britain rich again, just as India had done two centuries ago. Unfortunately for her, she rudely realized that the British Empire was gone, and Britain was a little island again. And Indian industry and the government rejected her idea of enhanced trade without freedom of movement of people - "they want our trade, but not our children" as one industrialist put it. That simply will not work. And yet, having supported Brexit and opposed the monstrosity of the EU, I hope that May, and the UK, survives this. For, despite all the hard feelings of a 200 year long occupation, in fact because of it, India and Britain have a lot in common today, and can truly help each other out.

But for that, the UK is going to have to pay its end of the bargain. To go anywhere for a trade deal while still part of the EU and without even explaining to anyone what the relationship between the UK and the EU would be post-Article 50, is quite silly. And to do so with the domineering attitude of a colonial empress is much worse. From India's perspective, Britain has always been the gateway to the EU, despite a lot of German mollycoddling, and the Indian diaspora there represents an integral and valued part of our civilization. However, economic dynamics are changing, and India is set to be the first former British colony after the US to have surpassed its economy. Therefore, a little respect and understanding can go a long way - this has to be a negotiation between equals.

For India, whose most prized resource are its people, freedom of movement of people is essential. If #Brexit was about keeping all immigrants out, then Britain has little future in this world. However, if it was about creating a rules-based system for immigration, that is quite acceptable. However, the rules have to be the same for everyone - that is costs more for an Indian to get a UK visa than a Chinese citizen is a source of great resentment, and May could've had a more successful visit had she dropped that rule before she came. A racist system that values one race over another regardless of the worth of the individual is simply not acceptable.

May can certainly fall back on India - the country is large, and has learned (the hard way) to welcome trade and globalization. The #Brexit camp was not wrong in that India could be a source of strength for the UK for, despite not being in the Commonwealth Realm, it is a leading member of the Commonwealth, and, as Nigel Farage rightly says, has more in common with the UK than many EU nations, including the Common Law. However, to make any of that word, Britain needs to accept that it is going to be hard, and it needs help from a friend - there are no debts to call here. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Tribute to Amma

Last week, a giant in politics died. J Jayalalitha, five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, proud Hindu and a nationalist, fought for three months in Chennai, until she finally lost after a cardiac arrest. Her death, understandably, brought much grief to the state - indeed, to the entire country. Perhaps the most striking picture from the funeral was Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoling Chief Minister O. Paneerselvam and Jayalalitha's longtime friend, Sasikala.

Of course, Modiji's friendship with Jayalalitha was always well-known, but her death came as a shock to the entire country. Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu's Amma, was always a difficult figure to place. Her relentless, even reckless, socialism and self-aggrandizement are the stuff of legend. Indeed, no state government in India has gone to the level of subsidizing private goods as much as she has, both during and after elections. And at the same time, she kept the state's finances strong, protecting manufacturing jobs in the state. Her opposition to GST was in the same light.

In Tamil Nadu, being a Hindu in public can be a very bad thing. And yet, she had no hesitation. She famously donated an elephant to a Hindu temple in 2001, and her opposition to the destruction of the Ramsetu in the Palk Strait was far more vociferous than what has now become the old guard of the BJP. And of course, her strident anti-conversion law, for which she was willing to take on even Pope John Paul II, made her the stuff of legend. And yet, Tamil Nadu's control over temples and plundering of its wealth to fund crony socialism went on unabated. In a state where publicly being a Hindu was a risk for any politician, she clearly had to measure her deeds.

Unlike the DMK, whose anti-India stand is well-known, Jayalalitha never faltered from standing up for the unity and integrity of the nation. She often spoke of national issues, even as she was mostly fixed on her own state's affairs. In the heydays of the Third Front in 2009, she surprised everyone by addressing a rally in Hindi, which she may have picked up during her film career, or perhaps even earlier. And yet, she tried to free the killers of former Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi for cold, political gains, until she was stopped by the Supreme Court. Certainly, she was not bound by ideology.

In the campaign of 2014, it was often speculated that the AIADMK would join the NDA to support Narendra Modi's ascension to the PM's chair. But when the BJP shocked the world by winning a majority of its own, her party maintained stoic silence, choosing to support the Central Government on some issues, and attacking it on others. She always made it clear though, that her focus was on Tamil Nadu, presumably having forgotten her short-lived national ambitions.

But perhaps the greatest legacy of Amma was in that she was a self-made leader, having first defeated MGR's wife at the hustings, and then fighting the DMK for power over the state. Her surprise victory in 2016, making her the first incumbent to win an election in decades, marked the pinnacle of her popularity, even as her sins from the past through her association with Sasikala caught up with her. It is said that Subramanain Swamy's achievement of getting her locked up behind bars is what started the downfall in her health, and she never did recover. What an irony - the same Swamy who she once allied with to bring down the first NDA government.

Was Jayalalitha a nationalist or an anti-India force? Was she pro-business or a crony socialist? Was she a Hindu or one of the many opportunistic anti-Hindus? Was she a political friend or foe to Narendra Modi? Did she truly trust Sasikala, or was there more to it? These questions will be debated for eons by historians. But one thing is for certain - there never was someone quite like the Amma of Tamil Nadu. In her death is India's loss.

Why did Clinton lose?

That's the golden question. The media had long-declared her the winner of the race - indeed, their polls and focus groups said that she had won all three debates. Her challenger in the primaries was supposed to be well-meaning but out of touch, her competitor at the hustings was supposed to be the worst candidate in modern American history. The party was firmly by her side, the big donors and Super PACs were continuously shoring up her resources (despite her claims to tax them to oblivion), comedians and millennials were hailing her... it should have been the easiest election for the Democrats. Indeed, going by some self-declared experts, demographic changes over the last generation would ensure that not only would Clinton won, but her party was destined to rule in perpetuity.

And then she lost. In what was the biggest upset in living memory, Donald Trump defeated everybody railed up against him, purely on the back of the support of the American people and the Electoral College system. And now that the election is over and President-elect Donald Trump is busy cobbling together a team to translate his agenda into reality, the time is ripe for a serious dissection of the failed Clinton campaign. And while there will be many stories on this in the future, I'd like to focus on two bad actors: the media, and young people (the so-called millennials).

That the media is the most discredited institution of democracy today is a no-brainer. You trust the media at your own risk, and most likely, you will lose your bet. Having totally taken over college campuses, the Left has now cemented its control over the media. The reason the media gets its wrong so often is that it is no longer interested in hearing both sides - the owners and editors decide their point of view, and that is what will be told, vox populi be damned. And if you happen to disagree, you will be labeled with all manner of insults, shunned away into silence until you reach the ballot box, where you are still free to express your views (for now). This is why the media came up with the unusual phrase 'unfit to be president' without so much as revealing what they believe makes someone 'fit' to be president, and why their anointed winner (Clinton) was 'fit'. The fact is, the very idea that the media gets to decide what makes someone 'fit' to be president is arrogant and elitist, and wholly undemocratic, but who cares about objectivity now?

And that brings me to young people, or millennials as they're called. I suppose I fall into that group by age, but I would quickly be shunned and labeled, so why even try? Most young people are living on the proverbial 'Mt. Stupid' today - they hardly understand the world and how it works, but are pretty sure that they know everything there is to know. They are very idealistic, as young people have always been, but this particular generation is also immensely arrogant and believes that they are always right just because they feel so, and anybody who disagrees with them is evil, or some other such label. Millennials have closed themselves off and created a bubble, and their reaction when they realize they are wrong ranges from comical to alarming. A generation that has grown up falsely believing that everybody always wins, unsurprisingly, does not know how to manage defeat. And in the case of Clinton (and Sanders before her), they were just so sure that they were right that did not even try to check.

Clinton visited fewer places than her rival; she clocked fewer rallies; she gave no press conferences or interviews; her leaked emails revealed a crony relationship with the media, the DNC, and Super PACs; she was not a good speaker; she did not pay heed to inputs from those outside her inner circle. And yet, none of this registered with the two bad hombres I just discussed. For them, she would've won even if she sat at home the whole year! And of course - she lost. Go figure. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scientists & Criminals

The Hammer of Eden
By Ken Follett

After a long bout of history, it was a pleasure to read something simpler, though no less exciting, from my latest-favorite author, Ken Follett. Compared to his Century Trilogy and other works though, The Hammer of Eden was more like a quick pop - an interesting story based on some science, with the right dose of drama and suspense. It made for light reading, and could be read pretty easily in parts. While the story is written in two parallel tracks, it is really quite simple to follow. Light-reading for the weekend.