Sunday, June 29, 2008

I survived Nine Hills

Just to lighten up my blog here. Last night I went to a Page 3 party (for basically the first time) and would like to report on it. However nasty this posting gets (and it will, I promise you) it will not rebound on the kind people who took me there, since I won't be mentioning their names. I'd also like to say that I drank a lot and enjoyed myself thoroughly, for which (since I didn't spend a cent) I am grateful. That won't stop me being nasty though.

The event was billed as a "wine-tasting" of the new Seagram's Nine Hills wines. There are, in this category, four wines: two red (Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz) and two white (Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc). To get straight to the results, Seagram's Nine Hills wines are very poor indeed. It takes a certain cheek to launch such worthless stuff at a party, moreover one that was hosted by foodie Karen Anand and featured a gentleman from Australia who supposedly works at the Jacob's Creek winery (producers of undistinguished but extremely reliable and drinkable stuff) as well as miscellaneous French people, some of whom openly discarded their wine glasses the moment they got a whiff of the vile stuff.

Here's a vignette: a waiter comes round with a tray of red and white wines. I say "I'll have the white please" and help myself to a glass. "Which wine is this?" I ask the waiter and without a pause he replies "white". He has a point! Later in the event I discover the sweet sherbet-like concoction I've been drinking is Chenin Blanc. I ask for a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc. It is exactly the same. I sip alternately from the two glasses and can't make out the difference. The waiter obviously knew something when he said "white".

The snacks were worthwhile. Lots of imported cheese (specially Parmigiano, which is unbeatable as a snack even if people know it better in its grated and sprinkled form). There were also pepper potatoes (OK), mascarpone on sliced figs (lovely), honey-dipped cheese with sundried tomatoes and basil (lovely) and - catering to the domestic taste, chilly chicken (also very good). In fact nothing on the snack trays was horrid, leaving that label free to be applied wholeheartedly to the wine. I forgot to describe the reds: the Shiraz tasted like Duke's synthetic raspberry syrup while the Cabernet was actually different and tasted more like vinegar than syrup. OK, that completes the wine review.

Now to the live jazz band. It featured saxophone, electric bass, a keyboard and drums, as well as a lady on vocals (can I be rude enough to say "chick") who couldn't sing. But what struck me was that the rest of the band was really rather good. For one thing they played real jazz, mostly standards of the Duke Ellington era. I find those standards eternal - dare I say "evergreen" - and much can be done with them. I particularly enjoyed their rendition of "Caravan". The saxophonist played with intense involvement and, considering he was facing a bunch of morons who couldn't tell a Shiraz from a raspberry sherbet, he didn't seem at all dispirited. The bass player too produced a few energetic solos and the drummer was extremely adequate. All in all there were many good moments in the performance. The bad moments were almost exclusively linked to the vocal efforts, which - as I've already indicated - were doomed by the "chick".

What of the crowd? It's easy enough to say "the usual page 3 types" but I don't believe there's only one type of page-3 type. This must have been the Colaba and Cuffe Parade page-3 type, I suppose. Can't say more for lack of my own expertise. Also I didn't manage to recognise anyone except Gerson da Cunha. Again, my lack of expertise. I was photographed several times but I assume (and hope) that when I'm passed through the page-3 software, it will identify me as junk and delete the photo!

The crowd paid basically no attention to the band, and never once applauded. They also mostly paid no attention to the speech by the Australian from Jacob's Creek who alleged (flying in the face of facts) that Seagram's Nine Hills wines were very good. They seemed altogether uninterested in any detail except "this is a party and there is free booze". And here is a point that interests me. Social elites exist everywhere (including, as we know, in Communist countries) but they differ in various ways including their degree of cultivation. A Tam-brahm needs to know Carnatic ragas and an Italian socialite needs to know opera. This crowd evidently didn't feel they needed to know anything or learn anything. Does this say something about Bombay?

As we were leaving, even the decent jazz music was torpedoed by the organisers who announced that we would now hear "jazz tadka" (!!). This consisted of the "chick" trying desperately to sing "I will survive". Unfortunately, she will.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Research Institutes and the "graceful exit" problem

Here comes a thought that's been on my mind a long time. I may expand this into an article later on, but thought I would try it out on my two (or three) long-suffering readers. I warn you however that, following the lead of notable political parties in Bombay, my colleagues may attack me and break my office windows for writing these heretical words!

In India we have science research institutes like TIFR, IMSc etc where a scientist has to be (in principle) outstanding to secure a job, and gets lots of benefits on securing the said job. Speaking from the experience of my own 24 years at TIFR, it is wonderful to be in a place like this where (i) the general facilities - offices, cafeteria, housing, bus service etc - are excellent, (ii) the research facilities - offices, labs, internet etc - are excellent, (iii) the funding - for experiments in particular - is generous, (iv) the teaching requirements are minimal, (v) the bureaucracy is largely benign. Each one of these factors individually would seem utopian at many Indian universities where - to give just one example - even a clean toilet is a distant dream.

What I find puzzling is that these privileges are piled on us with no clear statement of our responsibility or duty to perform, and no consequences for failing to do so. As a TIFR faculty member, the worst that could have happened to me if I had failed to carry out high-quality research is that my promotions could have been delayed. But I would still occupy prime air-conditioned space in a prime institute, receive a decent salary, and not have to teach, while my peers in universities would continue to deal with their heavy teaching load, making visits to smelly toilets in between classes.

In brief - once I'm here I cannot be sacked, pretty much whatever I do short of setting the place on fire. Now here is a contrast. I don't have precise facts with me and speak only from what I've heard, but the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada has a different model. Scientists are hired there for their exceptional research promise (admittedly it's a theoretical-only institute). They are given wonderful facilities which (besides clean toilets, apparently considered normal in Canada) include a gym, squash court, fireplaces, free wine and cheese on Fridays, a free Blackberry (P.I. is owned by the Blackberry people) etc. They are also paid lavishly. The catch is that these persons are hired on 5-year contracts and as soon as a renewal comes up, their research is judged again. If there aren't great papers, then they are out.

Where do they go once they're out? That has a neat answer too. Every Perimeter researcher has a University affiliation somewhere in Canada. The Universities are happy to have a prestigious name on their rolls, who however doesn't teach (or teaches minimally) and presumably doesn't get paid either. However as soon as Dr Prestigious is "released" by Perimeter, he/she goes back to the University and just reverts to being a normal person with normal privileges, and a normal teaching load.

This makes sure that Universities are not starved of good people by the Research Institutes, for the latter keep only those people who are truly productive in research, and only while they are productive. By accepting a job in a Research Institute, a scientist is taking on a challenge and receiving the appropriate support and incentives to meet the challenge. But some will fail to meet the challenge despite this, and all will find their productive years coming to an end some day. That's when the graceful exit comes in and we go "back" to a University.

One argument against trying out this model in a non-theoretical context could be: how can experimentalists function on a 5-year contract? Can they be expected to set up a lab and start functioning and be judged in such a short period ? My answer is: OK, make the first review period 10 years for experimentalists. After all, the parameters of this model can be tweaked keeping the underlying idea unchanged.

I can't think of any other arguments against creating an Indian version of the Graceful Exit model. But there must be many, and I'd like my readers to point them out. If I can argue successfully against all the objections the idea would gain in strength. If I can't, I'm happy to give up on it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Levels of disagreement

A wonderful essay "How to Disagree" came my way from Kapil Paranjape via Rahul Basu. It's here. In the spirit of my two previous blogs, I would like this to be compulsory (or at least recommended) reading for everyone who participates in committee meetings, and certainly for all faculty members.

Monday, June 23, 2008

More on growing up

I thought some more about the issue of immature behaviour in academia, which featured in my previous posting. Rahul S posted a comment wherein I agree fully with the first part (which is not related to academia however) but disagree with the second part namely: "As for academic people -- nerdiness is often associated with social ineptness, all over the world..."

I wasn't referring to social ineptness, but to the fact that people who are hired specifically to research the mysteries of nature and therefore trained in rational thinking fall prey to the most elementary confusion to which the (immature/untrained) human mind is subject, namely that "a person whose perception differs from mine is evil or motivated or at the least dead wrong." In my experience, this mistaken view causes resentment, anger and/or panic in younger scientists, while in more senior (therefore more powerful) scientists the same view gives rise to secretive behaviour and undemocratic or non-consultative functioning.

I believe this phenomenon is not evidenced to the same degree in all countries (I'm confining myself mainly to science circles, though will sometimes venture more general observations). And it has much to do with emotional insecurity, which is the elephant in the living room of Indian science. If scientists the world over are known for their egos, in India we seem to be known for the fragility of our egos. Person A makes one skeptical comment, preferably in the presence of others, and suddenly person B has regressed from a venerable 15-years-post-Ph.D.-with-50-research-publications to a pathetic six-year-old whose candy has been taken away and is ready to lash out at anyone and anything. Or else person B breaks off diplomatic relations with person A, sometimes forever.

I've seen British scientists in groups, and sometimes suspected that certain of them had a problem with certain others, but it was always hard to be sure. Though there may be exceptions, Brits would not normally be crude enough to raise their voice in an academic context or wash dirty linen in public. On the other hand, as many of us learned with delight on reading (or viewing) the Yes Minister series, there are ways for scores to be settled via subtle digs and even subtler jockeying for leverage - this is as true in science, I'm sure, as in politics.

While some may claim the British just conceal their true feelings under a stiff upper lip while we Indians are more open and "honest", I feel there is something superior in reflective and sober (even if malicious) behaviour compared with planting our joota on someone's face, literally or metaphorically.

I bring this issue up not to criticise or demean anyone but to suggest that if we (specifically Indian scientists) acknowledge the presence of a maturity problem, we might slowly try to improve our own behaviour instead of pointing fingers. Another constructive suggestion I'd like to make (and may expand on later) is that such things as faculty meetings - at least in my Institute - should be subject to very specific guidelines, including that comments be constructive, parliamentary behaviour be observed (eviction from the room for defaulters), and Minutes should be worded fairly to reflect all points of view and cover only what actually transpired at the meeting.

Friday, June 20, 2008

When do we grow up?

I've begun to wonder why we Indians so often lack maturity and are emotionally at the stage of little babies. (Footnote: I wonder the same thing about Americans too, but the discourse is rather different there. Maybe another time). The latest thing to set me off is the tale of Sindhi writer Hiro Shevkani who has been arrested for writing "obscene passages" in a book. The elderly and highly respected teacher Mr Shevkani was forced to defend his story as being “slightly erotic...but not obscene”.

Why did he get arrested? Because a reader was outraged and filed a police complaint. An editorial in the Hindustan Times suggests that an offended reader could have simply shut the book. And that's one of the points. Considering how few people in India read Sindhi and even fewer write it (I'm half a Sindhi myself but was never taught the language by my father), you would hardly expect the book to be splashed in the display windows of bookstores or its passages excerpted in the press. Why then go so far as to file a police complaint? Well, consider how a little child behaves when something is not to its liking. It swings its fist at whoever is annoying it. Even its own parents. Quietly withdrawing from things that are not to your liking, or even writing insightful analyses of those very things, is not for little children.

One wonders if the complainant will do, or has done, anything to promulgate the use of the Sindhi language. Probably as much - or little - as the political parties allegedly working for the Marathi manoos have done anything to promote Marathi (besides teaching us the word "manoos").

But my point here is about something more general than these charming individuals. I look at some of my scientist colleagues and wonder whether they aren't textbook cases of what Freud and other psychoanalysts called "retarded emotional development". Whenever an issue arises that calls for nuanced, thoughtful and patient response, these individuals will - to put it in a nutshell - throw a tantrum. More often than not, the tantrum is self-destructive and the tantrum-thrower eventually ends up humiliated by his/her own action.

So why do they do it? And is the phenomenon really more frequent in India (more precisely: the great Indian middle-class) than elsewhere in the world? I don't know. I would give a lot to attend a faculty meeting outside India and see whether the pointless, time-wasting, accusatory shrieking that dominates the event at my institute is the global norm or merely a national phenomenon. (I did, actually, attend a faculty meeting in Japan at the invitation of my hosts, but sadly the meeting was in Japanese and I understood not a single word. Happily it was a lunch meeting and I managed to bury my face in sushi for the duration.)

A colleague at my institute (not one of the tantrum throwers) once described to me the behaviour of a Dean in a US university. On discovering at a faculty meeting that her ideas were not being received too well, this Dean stormed out of the meeting with -- as my colleague recalls -- "the air of a child saying: I'm leaving, and I'm taking my toys with me". So maybe my basic premise is wrong and this kind of childish behaviour is not a particularly Indian thing.

Still when I see colleague X refuse to do Y only because colleague Z, whose guts X hates, thinks Y is a good idea, I wonder if it's not a good idea to have us academics all play toy trains with each other and learn to get along. Give us faculty positions only if we prove that we can show self-restraint and play fair.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Shakespeare at bedtime

After a long absence I'm back at the blog. Somehow work and social pressures had just built up like crazy (not that you care!).

I have many things I want to bring up here for a productive discussion, and most of them are about science or India or both (and a few of them are about Marathi chauvinism but I'm tired of being tired of that!).

But in the meanwhile let me share with you an unusual experience I had last night. It's rare that I don't immediately fall asleep once I'm in bed, but sometimes (like most others) I need bedtime reading to de-stress. The problem is that unless I'm actively engrossed in reading a book cover to cover, e.g. a novel, it's hard to figure out what to pick out of the shelf for a short bedtime read.

A newspaper would be the obvious choice, but there isn't any Indian newspaper that doesn't make me want to instantly throw up. The Hindustan Times, my last hope, has turned into a pathetic little tabloid. Yesterday it presented as *headline news* the fact that some assistant at a sports clothing store in Bombay tried to photograph a woman in the changing room using his mobile camera... leading of course in typical Indian fashion to (i) strictures against sporting goods stores, (ii) confiscation of all mobile phones in India, (iii) armour-plating all changing rooms, (iv) renaming the store in Marathi. The last one will, I'm sure, work best.

OK, I digressed. What does one read at night if one is not seriously involved in a weighty novel? Well, last night I picked up a (weightier) volume of the collected works of Shakespeare that I had won as a prize in school, and semi-randomly chose King Lear. It was a revelation. I've never read King Lear and I know the plot only vaguely (though I've seen Kurosawa's "Ran", loosely based on it, several times). Lear wasn't one of the Shakespeare plays prescribed at my school. Those were Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, all of which I memorised to please my teachers and are thereby totally ruined for me.

End result: I was totally gripped by the play and couldn't put down the heavy volume till 1:30 AM. Thereafter, my mind stimulated and soothed at the same time by the foolish King, the scheming daughters and of course the storm (Shakespeare's storms are more ominous and scary than anything in widescreen and Dolby surround) I slept soundly.

I'm only half way through, and looking forward to completing it tonight. At the moment I'm puzzled by Cordelia - why did she have to be so rude for no good reason? I mean:

"I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less."

is hardly the stuff to please one's dad! Since she starts off like this in the very first scene, when we know nothing about her or her history, she comes across like one of those Bengali friends I had in college who were utterly proud of being blunt (blaaaant) and literal. Still, Cordelia will be back before the end of the play (much like the Bengali friends in question) and then I hope the mystery will be solved. In the meanwhile, I'm having a pleasant day of anticipation. And of course trying not to cheat by reading the play online!

P.S. I'm adding this note on the following day, having finished reading King Lear. Cordelia did of course reappear, but had little valuable to say. I'm impressed, though, about my comment above that "we know nothing about her or her history", for while browsing the net I just discovered Kurosawa's comment to the same effect:
"What has always troubled me about 'King Lear' is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past."