Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ode to my Alma Mater

This is the problem of the Indian education system these days. Any Tom, Dick or Harry enters into an engineering college, gets an eight-point-something score, is selected in a company by campus interview, and thinks he is successful in life. And why only the eight pointers? Seven, six and even five pointers are living happily ever after. If this is allowed to continue, people will not want to score more. It seems the problem has no solution in the present market condition where jobs are freely available. So will the marks keep plunging lower?

Not any more. A university has come up with a unique solution. A solution that is so simple that it’s unbelievable. Along with motivating students to score higher grades, this solution will also cut down on the university’s costs. And this university is none other than the West Bengal University of Technology (WBUT), the best university in the world (ok, maybe not now, but it’ll be very soon). Gopal Krishna Gokhale once said “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” So it is quite natural that the solution has come from Bengal. But before proceeding any further, let me outline the achievements of this university so far.

Founded in 2001, WBUT was the first university in India to look towards inorganic growth. By acquiring IIIT Calcutta as its IT department it proved to the world that there was a quicker way to fame than by doing something great; it was by catching hold of somebody who was already famous. This business model was later successfully imitated by Lenovo when they acquired IBM’s PC division in 2005. A brand name that was hardly known outside China before, has today become synonymous with IBM ThinkPads. But behind this idea was WBUT’s quick rise to fame by becoming the parent university of IIIT Calcutta. However, as the IIIT brand had started overshadowing the WBUT brand, they cleverly renamed IIIT Calcutta as “School of Information Technology”. I’m telling you, mark my words: Lenovo will soon rename the IBM computers as Lenovo although they are still using the IBM logo for advertising, just like WBUT did with IIIT. These Chinese and Americans can be real copy-cats.

Anyway, coming back to taking tough decisions, WBUT has always been a pioneer in the country. For instance, they made a rule that IT students cannot enter the computer labs except during the lab periods. Now just think about the sheer brilliance of that decision. With one simple rule, they solved four problems.

  • Cost cutting on electricity bills
  • Students wasting their time in the lab
  • ‘Wear and tear’ of the computers
  • Students developing something innovative in their free time. By preventing this last one they significantly reduced the chance of brain drain.

Being a West Bengal Government owned university, the WBUT has always had to worry about funds. After all, it’s the only government which puts the welfare of the poor before the education of the rich. So obviously, the university cannot afford to have the kind of infrastructure and resident faculty that their ‘rich’ counterparts in corrupt states (like Andhra Pradesh) can. Then there’s also the conspiracy by the central government which has never allowed the West Bengal Government to do anything worthwhile. So how to solve this problem? Again, it’s the pure genius of the WBUT people that came up with a cheap yet high quality solution to the problem of the faculty. Now as everyone knows, West Bengal has a plethora of old colleges like Shibpur BE College, Jadabpur University, IIT Kharagpur and Calcutta University. A large number of professors retire from these colleges/ universities every year. WBUT hires them (and also some non-retired senior professors) as visiting faculty. The quality of teaching is of course the best money can buy (or at least the best money can buy from an old professor who teaches in 3 different colleges in a week), because these men are the very best. But where is the dash of genius then? It is this: WBUT pays them for the first month, delays payment in the second month, and from the 3rd month onwards, they don’t get anything. But wait, you say… won’t they leave then? Yes, they do. Some leave immediately, some after hanging around a few more months in hopes of that missing salary. In either case, they have already taught the students for one semester, and most of them love their profession too much to desert the students in the middle of the semester. Next semester, of course, there are more professors coming.

WBUT has come up with numerous such innovative plans and tested them on IIIT Calcutta (as that is the only college that is bound by its whims and fancies). Not setting up a LAN in the computer lab (actually the assistant registrar was not sure what ‘LAN’ meant and whether it was useful), strictly maintaining 10 to 5 timings for the labs and libraries (why do they need it open whole night anyway?), discouraging students from meeting or even writing letters to the VC (Do you think he has no work?)… the list is endless.

But I digress. The issue at hand is how they came up with a novel method to motivate the five-to-eight pointers to get more marks, and cut costs at the same time. As I said, it is absurdly simple. They just announced that:

  • Students from the 2005 and 2006 batches will have their convocation ceremony together, and
  • Only the top ten students from each college are eligible to attend the convocations.

(Note the design of the web page. Being an amateur web designer myself, I simply love the way it is titled “Untitled Document”. Creative to say the least. Or did Brainware Consultancy run away due to lack of funds before they could come up with a title?)

Now isn’t this amazing? Having the convocation for two batches together will cut down the cost by half, spare everyone the trouble of finding out chief guests for two occasions, and promote fellow feeling between juniors and seniors. And calling only the top ten? That will teach a lesson to people like me, who score eight point somethings and are too pleased with themselves. And this motivation won’t stop when they start getting nine-point-somethings, because even then only the top ten will be wearing the gown. So the rat race will pull their scores higher and higher towards ten. Here’s what a friend had to say about this (Pardon the language; even I didn’t understand half of it, so I decided to paste it as it was):

“We are minuscule entities in the eyes of the dictatorial rulers of this so called coveted university. We can protest, cry or write voluminous articles against their partitionist behaviour. But their skin is thicker than the stiffest matter in world and they have deviated from their moral values. This is the first time in the whole history of academia that such kind of a convocation (where the college heads in the presence of respected dignitaries wish their departing students success in life and to carry the reputation of the university everywhere) will be held. This kind of gory act diminishes the confidence of the passing out students and hurts their pride, and puts a question in their mind, "Was I a part of that institute?" Shame on these administrators, they have no soul left, only the superficial blood and flesh, which is mortal.”
A typical case of the grapes are sour. Needless to say, he’s another eight-point-someone like me.

But I’m happy. I’m happy because although I wasted my four years of engineering in worrying about things like studying and understanding rather than scoring marks, the future students will not repeat my mistake. And I’m also happy because even after getting such dismal marks and being ineligible to attend the convocation, I can proudly say, “I’m a student of WBUT, the only university that cares about its students”

Saturday, July 22, 2006

To Bangalore and back

As I had written earlier, 18th July was the first anniversary of my joining this company. I had thought I’d probably celebrate with a couple of friends in a small way. I never expected it to turn out the way it did, a day as memorable as the day of joining itself, if not more.

I got the news on the 13th. A whitepaper that I had submitted as part of the company’s tech fest had been selected for presenting in the final round, and I would have to fly to Bangalore to present it on the 18th. So I prepared my presentation, brushed up my knowledge, got my things together and boarded the flight to Bangalore on 18th morning. At the end of the one hour long flight, I reached Bangalore. The weather was cool and windy. I took a taxi and reached my office.

I called my friend Bhavana from the gate. She came to “welcome” me as she had promised earlier (I had never met her before then, though we chat every day). After meeting her, I called Amit, who was my college friend, as well as my training batch batchmate in Chennai. I also called Sonali, another batchmate who was completing one year with me. She suggested that we have lunch together. Soon, with the amazing enthusiasm that girls have for organizing such things, she was sending mails to all our batchmates in Bangalore, trying to fix up a time and place. In the meanwhile Amit took me to his cubicle and let me check mails (that’s the ultimate luxury an IT guy can have I guess!). After we had decided on a cafeteria and the time, I roamed around the huge campus for some time, met a college friend Gaurav by accident, and then joined the others for lunch.

Lunch was fun. There was Nisha, Om, Amit, Sonali, Ashish and myself. Even another batchmate, Gaurav Jee dropped in for a moment. It was just like the old times. And what a befitting day for a reunion, I thought. But there was a lot more to come.

After lunch, I went to the paper presentation, where soon my friends joined me. I don’t believe in thanking friends for what they do. But I must say, I was deeply moved by the way Abhishake traveled from another office 12 km away to attend my presentation, or the way Rajan came from another office to meet me. My other friends also took time out from their busy schedules to attend my presentation. Bhavana could not attend the presentation, but she and Rajan attended the prize distribution ceremony. They were cheering me when I got the second prize. It was an MP3 player, along with a certificate and a memento. The only mistake I made was that I forgot to take a single photo of Bhavana or Rajan. I realised this when Bhavana reminded me after I returned to Hyderabad.

Next I checked into the guest house, changed into more comfortable clothes, and went to Amit’s cubicle again. I spent the evening with Amit, and then had dinner with him where Bhavana also accompanied us. After they were gone I wandered alone all over the campus and took photos, before returning to the guest house to sleep.

Next day early morning I reached the airport in a cab. The flight was a little late, and it was a bit bumpy too as it was a small plane. After reaching Hyderabad I went to the office straight from the airport and settled down at work. It all seemed like a dream. The celebrations and mails of appreciation have continued throughout the last week as I had been representing my department and I had "made them proud". However, for me the occasion was extra special, as if all my friends, colleagues, managers and my company had been celebrating my completing one year here.

Really, life is full of pleasant surprises.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Saturday, July 15, 2006

One year gone

One year is over. Almost. Officially there are two more days to go. It was on this very day last year that I ‘reported’ for my first job. My actual joining was on the 18th of July 2005.

A lot has happened during this one year. I have learnt a lot, and also forgotten a lot. I have gained a lot of experience. Most of it was invaluable, but some of it I would rather do without. I have made some new friends, and some new enemies… no, that’s too strong a word. Let me say I’ve lost a few friends. Today, I feel it won’t be a bad idea to look back on this past year in the software industry, and make a balance sheet of what I lost and gained.

I have learnt a little bit of three languages: Tamil, Telugu, and… a language which Chetan Bhagat calls “Managese”. While Tamil and Telugu are unintelligible to people who don’t know them, Managese (the language of managers) is unintelligible even to the person who is speaking it. Actually the purpose of Managese is to confuse and impress people, at the same time making sure they don’t understand anything. Naturally, the listeners will never confess they didn’t understand, like the spectators of the emperor’s new clothes. I am not master at this language yet. Once I become one, most of my blog posts may look like this.

I have learnt that bosses are always right. Automated response systems are always right. Data entry operators never make mistakes. HR managers are the best/ most accurate people on earth. If my gender is shown as “Female” in the office database, it is obviously my mistake. I must have stated the wrong gender. If my mails are reaching a wrong person it is I who must have given his ID as my own. Similarly, if my location of posting is a thousand miles away from the place I wanted, that is not due to any error but due to the business requirement, a business requirement that requires me to sit in the free pool for months.

I have made a few new friends. Oh yes, in spite of what I may have said earlier, I do have a few friends in office. Shreevallabh, Abhijit, Samiraj, Nishamathi and Naveen are the ones who have always been there for me, putting up with my idiosyncrasies. Then there are wonderful people like Archana, Sweta, Sonali, Sushil, Arpit, Tandav, Uma, Kanik, Debanjana (and many others all of whom I can’t name) who kept in touch whenever possible. I rediscovered my friendship with some old school and college friends… Chirantan, Amit, Rohit, Smita, Ashutosh, Swati, Shweta, Akash, Zeb. And I found some lost friends, most notably Fahad, Mohit and Aditya, thanks to e-mail and Orkut. And yes, I made some wonderful online friends, like Smita, Shashi and Bhavana. It’s nice to know that there are people who are weird like me (or in some other way), and they are ready to accept me as I am. Of course there were people like S… no, let’s not take names… So there were people who clung to me as long as they needed me and walked away with better friends (as they said) when I needed them most, but well, one can’t have everything!

I have traveled a lot this year. I had never seen the sea before, and in this one year I have seen both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. I have seen Chennai, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad. I’ve also seen Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. I intend to travel more in the days to come. On the 18th I’m supposed to go to Bangalore for a day for official work. Personally too, I have been planning trips, but am not finding the time to travel. Hopefully I’ll be able to travel to more places in South India soon. I also had my first flying experience this year, albeit in a totally unplanned way.

I have developed a few new hobbies: cooking, digital photography, and of course blogging, over the last year. Cooking was more of a necessity, but photography and blogging? Actually they were necessary too. It is not by mere coincidence that so many IT professionals have these two hobbies. The work here is brain numbing; like a coolie’s job. Creative people need some way to vent their creativity, or they’ll die of frustration. Blogging and digital photography are easy hobbies to maintain. I have almost lost touch with drawing and painting, except probably occasionally pencil sketching a colleague at a meeting. I have lost touch with stamp collection, flash animation, and my biggest love: computer programming. Yes, it may sound odd, but not everyone in the software industry knows or does programming. The standard industry practice is, naturally, to teach programming to novices who don’t want to do it, and assign the non-programming work to the programming nerds. A line from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne comes to mind, “Projara ja chay ta jodi na bole, tahole seta pawar path bandho kora jaay ki?” (the minister says, “If the people can’t say what they want, how can we prevent them from getting it?”). A few years down the line, you have two people who are experts in their domains, both of whom hate their jobs.

Did I say my biggest love was programming? I’m sorry, that was wrong. My biggest love was reading, and it remains so. I find less time for reading these days though. Ah yes, I have learnt a little bit of table-tennis as well. And I continue to do Origami.

But most importantly, I have learnt business. I have learnt politics. I have learnt that in the industry you can’t open your heart even to your closest friend. You don’t care whether the thing you are doing is right or not, it should seem right. You don’t warn somebody whom you find heading in the wrong direction. If they lose their way, you stand to gain. Here nobody is bothered about how much you know or how much you work. Only thing that is important is how much you seem to know and how much you seem to work. You only talk to people whom you need, help only those who are useful or powerful. And I have learnt enough to stop right here, because writing a politically incorrect blog post may not go down too well with people who matter. Not that they read my blog, but still, just in case…

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Life is Beautiful

Seems every blogger worth their webspace is doing movie reviews these days. With the release of Da Vinci Code some time ago, then Krrish, and finally Superman Returns, I’m sure they have a lot to write about. I hardly ever watch movies, and thanks to the state government of Andhra Pradesh, the first of those is banned here. Superman is running houseful up to one week from now, and I don’t dare watch Krrish after reading Greatbong’s review. (It’s true that even Superman was proscribed by Greatbong and Careless Chronicles, but I think I won’t be able to resist watching it 3D at the IMAX). So I sat at home and watched Life Is Beautiful. I’ve never done movie reviews before (except one for my ISC English exam), and I do not want to start with a world famous classic which is a decade old. However, I couldn’t help writing about this movie as that’s the only topic that is present in my head right now.

I have been terribly tied down with all sorts of work, both in office and at home to write up a post for a week. Nothing seemed to go my way for quite some time, right from Argentina losing to our landlord telling us to leave. I hear the real workload at office will start tomorrow. I really can’t imagine what it’ll be like, since I was already up to my neck in work. I have a test to take on Wednesday and had to prepare for that. To add to my frustration, the FIFA World Cup final match is being played right now, and I don’t have a TV. So while my flatmate enjoys the match and spends the night out at his friend’s house, I must read off minute-by-minute commentary from

So when I decided to see this movie, it was done more with an intention of getting some entertainment as substitute for the football match, and less for appreciating a masterpiece. Many people had been telling me this movie was good, so I chose this as a “time-pass”, as they call it. I even thought that I’ll watch half of it tonight, and the other half later. I thought I’d rather write a usual grumbling blog post about the problems of life. Only problem is, it turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t stop that movie half way, and life suddenly started looking rather beautiful after watching it.

This 1997 Italian movie by Roberto Benigni is based in an Italian town of the late 1930s. Benigni himself plays the protagonist who is a carefree Jewish bookkeeper called Guido. In the first half of the movie, he woos and marries a beautiful schoolteacher Dora (played by Benigni’s real life wife Nicoletta Braschi) using his comical pranks, and they soon have a son. The story moves ahead to the last days of World War II when the German forces occupy Italy and send Guido and his son to a Nazi concentration camp. Dora decides to accompany them there voluntarily.

The second half of the story shows how Guido uses those silly pranks and comical imagination to keep his child happy inside the concentration camp, by convincing him that all this was an elaborate game, and the winner would win a real tank. He also manages to communicate with his wife who was in a different part of the camp. The movie ends with the Allied forces coming to the rescue.

The first half of the movie is bright and cheerful; it leaves no doubt in the viewers’ mind that it’s a comedy. The second half, on the other hand, is dark and grim. However, there are light, almost comical moments interwoven with the death and misery all around. And this is precisely what makes the movie beautiful. It shows death, but it is about life. It shows hatred, but it is about love. It is based in grim reality, but it celebrates the victory of imagination. It is a fairy tale set in the backdrop of the war.

Roberto Benigni says the title comes from a quote by Leon Trotsky. While in exile in Mexico, he saw his wife in the garden and wrote that, in spite of everything, "life is beautiful", although he knew that he was about to be killed by Stalin's assassins. I felt there couldn’t be a better title for this movie, which handles a subject such as the holocaust in such a beautiful way. True, sometimes the movie is a bit unrealistic, but that’s excusable. Also, some people say that Benigni trivialized the horrors of the Holocaust too much. I disagree. After all, one of the greatest satires on Hitler ever made, The Great Dictator, was disguised as a bigger comedy with which Life is Beautiful has a lot of similarities.

This movie made me think a lot. It made me feel that life is not what happens to us, but how we react to it. We must learn to enjoy every moment of life. It is up to us to make it beautiful. Suddenly the problems of life don’t look so menacing anymore… people have faced worse situations and survived. All of us can be happy if we want, and that’s what I want right now.

PS: Italy defeated France a little while ago. I wanted France to win, although I didn't really care once Argentina was out. In any case, I can't be too unhappy about Italy winning the World Cup while I'm praising an Italian movie...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

That's Technology!

The lady in this picture is not a woman! No, She's not a man either.

She, or rather it, is an android: a human-like robot covered by a skin of silicone. I came across this photo while browsing through the National Geographic website. You may read more on this here and here. (By the way, I feel the term "Android" is a misnomer as it literally means "man-like" while these robots are "woman-like". Probably "humanoid would be a better word)

Interesting? Sure, it's a great achievement. Yet to me it seems kind of scary. I have read too many Asimov stories about androids, not to mention a few by Satyajit Roy and other writers. I am a big fan of the old TV series "Small Wonder". All this seems fine when it's in movies or books.

Somehow reality is different. Or rather, it should be different. I cannot help recalling a story where Russian androids had gone to blow up the US posing as kidnapped US scientists. I also remember a story where an android had taken the place of the US president. Can that day be far when we will not be able to distinguish between people and robots? As this robot's co-creator Hiroshi Ishiguru said, "When a robot looks too much like the real thing, it's creepy."

I also read one Asimov story where two robots were talking to each other and discussing the future of mankind. Is it possible? Only time will tell us that, but machines talking to each other is quite normal these days. Here’s what happened during my trip to
Hooghly. One morning when my sister was busy playing with my cell phone, it received an SMS message saying “You have been logged out of Yahoo Messenger as you have logged into another machine…” etc. I was a bit surprised to see that message and did not understand its implications at that moment. It was only much later that I realized that was a message sent from my office PC. Someone had started my PC (I gave my password to my team before I left), and Yahoo Messenger logged in automatically, logging out my phone. Theoretically there’s nothing odd about it… only practically it felt as if my PC had sent a message to me on my phone 1600 kilometres away. We are living in a world where even the machines find you out, no matter where you are.

This reminds me: last week I checked out Google Earth after a long long time and got the shock of my life. They have added details for a lot of places and now our house in my hometown
Hooghly was visible from the satellite! Now you must remember, my house is not in Kolkata. It is a small suburban town 40 km from Kolkata. It was a pleasant surprise exploring the roads of my hometown, but I was just out of words to see the mango tree in our garden. Although a cynical part of me was trying to convince the rest that it meant someone was watching over us all the time, I really loved it. Now that's what I call technology. We are finally entering the age of Sci-Fi.