My first ever published piece of writing

So the first time ever I published something was in 2003, in The Fourth Estate, IIT Madras’s campus magazine. It was a rather scandalous piece. So scandalous that I declined to put my real name as the byline instead preferring to be called “The Wimp”.

I was rummaging through my computer and actually managed to find a soft copy of that issue of The Fourth Estate. I have no clue where I had downloaded it. In any case if any of you is interested, do let me know and I’ll send over the PDF to you. Anyway, here goes the piece. Copypasting from PDF, so might be some formatting issues. I’ve quoted the whole thing verbatim

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2 Jan

This post has nothing to do with the Indian Railways. Why would you think this has something with that? Because in its infinite wisdom the Railways has created a class of bogeys called “2 Jan Chair Car”! How did that materialize? Because a few years back they started this service called “Jan Shatabdi” which are all-seater trains with comfortable seating but no air conditioning. Essentially, a low-cost version of the Shatabdi. And they realized none of their existing bogeys fit this description, so they created a new class and called it “2 Jan Chair Car”.

So if not about the railways, what is it about? it is about the date 2nd January. The authorities at IIT Madras, I believe, have long known that students (most of them at least) don’t really have a social life, and not many of them are likely to celebrate new year in a big way (unless they are already on campus). Hence, every year the “even semester” would begin on 2nd January. The odd semester began at different times – sometimes in mid-July, sometimes in end-August. But the starting date of the even semester was fixed – 2nd January!

For people like me from nearby places such as Bangalore, it meant spending four consecutive New Years Days catching an overnight train. For people from farther away, especially closer to the north, it meant ushering in the new year on a train, for they had to start on the 31st (or earlier) to make it in time for classes on the 2nd.

Our “odd semester” results would have come out in the vacations and typically someone who had stayed back on campus would have had the responsibility of checking and informing everyone’s grades. On 2 Jan, we would go up to the notice boards and check our grades for ourselves. And occasionally we would go to professors who had taught us in the previous term seeking revaluation and a better grade. However, considering that final exam transcripts were “closed” (i.e. not available to the students) not much would come out of it.

Then we had this strange ritual called “registration” which we had to do every term. Administrative officials would be sitting in classrooms and we had to go fill up a form and sign on what courses we were going to take that semester. It was normally a pretty meaningless ritual, for we would have selected and been granted the courses the previous semester itself. But I suppose it served some administrative purpose.

The good thing about the start of the even semester was that this was the time of the year when Madras was at its coolest (relatively speaking, of course!). And then there would be Saarang (formerly Mardi Gras), the IIT Madras cultural festival to look forward to, and those that would be involved in organizing it (which I was in my latter two years at IIT) would spend pretty much all of January doing that.

Us people from Bangalore had another ritual – we would try and travel together to Chennai in the same train at the start of every semester. Sometime in the preceding holidays we would appoint a date when we would all meet at the Indian Railway booking counter in Jayanagar (most of us were from the south) and book tickets. Once, since we were booking in bulk, we were asked to fill a separate form. We had been asked what the purpose of our travel to Chennai was. We filled it as “pilgrimage”!

PS: some of you might have seen this blog post via Twitter. However, I’m taking a break from twitter (I’d gotten addicted, this is my version of a “quit smoking” new year resolution). So if you want to respond, please leave a comment here rather than replying on twitter.

Sponsorship Cannibalism

Back in 2004 Shamanth, Bofi, Anshumani and I started the IIT Madras Open Quiz. In some ways it was a response to critics of IITM quizzing, who blamed our quizzes for being too long, too esoteric, too disorganized and the likes. It was also an effort to take IITM quizzing to a wider audience, for till then most quizzes that IITM hosted were limited to college participants only. An open quiz hosted by the institute, and organized professionally would go a long way in boosting the institute’s reputation in quizzing, we reasoned.

Shamanth had a way with the institute authorities and it wasn’t very difficult to convince them regarding the concept. We hit a roadblock, however, when we realized that organizing a “professionally organized” quiz was a big deal, and would cost a lot of money, which means we had to raise sponsorship. And this is where our troubles started.

The first bunch of people we approached to help with sponsorship were the Saarang (IITM Fest) sponsorship coordinators, who had so successfully raised tens of lakhs for the just-concluded Saarang. Raising the one lakh or so that we needed would be child’s play for them, we reasoned. However, it was not to be. While the coordinators themselves were quite polite and promised to help, we noticed that there was no effort in that direction. Later it transpired that the cultural secretaries and the core group (let’s call them the Cultural Committee for the purpose of this post) ┬áhad forbidden them from helping us out. Raising sponsorship for an additional event would cannibalize Saarang sponsorship, we were told.

When we needed volunteers to run the show, again we found that the Saarang “GA Coordinators” (GA = General Arrangements; these guys were brilliant at procuring and arranging for just about anything) had been forbidden from working with us. The Cultural Committee wanted to send out a strong signal that they did not encourage the institute holding any external “cultural” events that were outside of its domain. It was after much hostel-level bullying that we got one “GA guy” to do the arrangements for the quiz. As for the sponsorship, we tapped some institute budget, and the dean helped us out by tapping his contacts at TCS (for the next few years it was called the TCS IITM Open Quiz).

One reason the quiz flourished was that in the following couple of years, the organizers of the quiz had close links with the cultural committee – one of the quizmasters of the second and third editions of the quiz himself being a member of the said committee. This helped the quiz to get a “lucrative” date (October 2nd – national holidays are big days for quizzing in Chennai), and despite being organized by students, it became a much sought after event in South Indian quizzing circles. Trouble started again, however, after the link between the quizmasters and the cultural committee were broken.

The Cultural Committee once again started viewing this quiz as a threat to Saarang, and did their best to scuttle it. The quiz was moved around the calendar – thus losing its much-coveted October 2nd spot, and soon discontinued altogether. Despite significant protests from the external quizzing community and alumni, there was no sign of the quiz re-starting. Finally when the cultural committee accepted, it was under the condition that the quiz be a part of Saarang itself. After significant struggle, finally a bunch of enterprising volunteers organized the quiz this year after a long hiatus. It is not known how much support they received from the cultural people.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you have one lucrative product (in this case Saarang), it is in your interest to kill all products which could potentially be a competitor to this product, which explains the behaviour of the IITM Cultural Committee towards the Open Quiz. And it is the same point that explains why Test cricket in India is languishing, with bad scheduling (Tests against the West Indies started on Mondays), bad grounds, expensive tickets and the likes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now has one marquee “product”, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL is the biggest cash cow for the BCCI, and the board puts most of its efforts in generating sponsorship for that event. And as a side effect, it does its best to ensure that most of the premium sponsorship comes to the IPL, and thus the stepmotherly treatment of other “properties” including domestic cricket.

Last evening, I was wondering what it would take for the BCCI to make a big deal of the Ranji trophy, with national team members present, good television coverage and the kind of glamour we associate with the IPL. And then I realized this was wishful thinking, for the BCCI would never want to dilute the IPL brand. Have you heard of a tournament called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy? It is the domestic inter-state T20 competition. A potential moneyspinner, you would think, if all national team members are available. But do you know that last year the final stages of this competition coincided with the World Cup? I’m not joking here.

I’m sure you can think of several other similar examples (Bennett Coleman and Company’s purchase and subsequent discontinuation of “Vijay Times” also comes to mind). And the one thing it implies is that it’s bad news for niches. For they will begin to be seen as competition for the “popular” brand which is probably owned by the same owners, and they will be discouraged.


Why You Should Not Do An Undergrad in Computer Science at IIT Madras

I did my undergrad in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras. My parents wanted me to study Electrical Engineering, but I had liked programming back in school, and my JEE rank “normally” “implied” Computer Science and Engineering. So I just went with the flow and joined the course. In the short term, I liked some subjects, so I was happy with my decision. Moreover there was a certain aura associated with CS students back in IITM, and I was happy to be a part of it. In the medium term too, the computer science degree did open doors to a few jobs, and I’m happy for that. And I still didn’t regret my decision.

Now, a full seven years after I graduated with my Bachelors, I’m not so sure. I think I should’ve gone for a “lighter” course, but then no one told me. So the thing with a B.Tech. in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras is that it is extremely assignment incentive. Computer Science is that kind of a subject, there is very little you can learn in the classroom. The best way to learn stuff is by actually doing stuff, and “lab” is cheap (all you need is a bunch of computers) so most courses are filled with assignments. Probably from the fourth semester onwards, you spend most of your time doing assignments. Yes, you do end up getting good grades on an average, but you would’ve worked for it. And there’s no choice.

The thing with an Undergrad is that you are clueless. You have no clue what you’re interested in, what kind of a career you want to pursue, what excites you and the stuff. Yes, you have some information from school, from talking to seniors and stuff, but still it’s very difficult to KNOW when you are seventeen as to what you want to do in life. From this perspective, it is important for your to keep your options as open as they can be.

Unfortunately most universities in India don’t allow you to switch streams midway through your undergrad (most colleges are siloed into “arts” or “engineering” or “medicine” and the like). IIT Madras, in fact, is better in that respect since it allows you to choose a “minor” stream of study and courses in pure sciences and the humanities. But still, it is impossible for you to change your stream midway. So how do you signal to the market that you are actually interested in something else?

One way is by doing projects in areas that you think you are really interested in. Projects serve two purposes – first they allow you to do real work in the chosen field, and find out for yourself if it interests you. And if it does interest you, you have an automatic resume bullet point to pursue your career on that axis. Course-related projects are fine but since they’re forced, you have no way out, and they will be especially unpleasant if you happen to not like the course.

So why is CS@IITM a problem? Because it is so hectic, it doesn’t give you the time to pursue your other interests. It doesn’t offer you the kind of time that you need to study and take on projects in other subjects (yeah, it still offers you the 3 + 1 months of vacation per year, when you can do whatever you want, but then in the latter stages you’re so occupied with internships and course projects you’re better off having time during the term). So if you, like me, find out midway through the course that you would rather do something else, there is that much less time for you to explore around, study, and do projects in other subjects.

And there is no downside to joining a less hectic course. How hectic a course inherently is only sets a baseline. If you were to like the course, no one stops you from doing additional projects in the same subject. That way you get to do more of what you like, and get additional bullet points. All for the good, right?

After I graduated, IIT Madras reduced its credit requirement by one-twelfth. I don’t know how effective that has been in reducing the inherent workload of students but it’s a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, if you are going to get into college now, make sure you get into a less hectic course so that the cost of making a mistake in selection is not high.