Towards liberalism

I was raised in a fairly conservative family; my father’s atheism not preventing him from being socially conservative. Until I went to college, I never blew candles for my birthday, for they were deemed to be “against Indian culture” at home. I went to RSS Shakhas, my seniors at RSS stuck BJP posters on my door, and except for the 1989 Assembly elections when BJP didn’t put up a candidate in Kanakapura, my parents always voted for that party.

My wife comes from a different kind of family. They are religious but can be described as being more “secular” (her name (Priyanka) might suggest to you their political leanings). So she grew up doing poojas and keeping vratas on all sorts of random Hindu festivals, but also blowing candles on her birthday and calling up “Santa” and getting Christmas presents also. Yeah, you look for compatibility on several axes when you’re searching for a long-term gene-propagating partner, but political leanings are usually low down on that compatibility list.

Last year, I totally and completely failed to appreciate her celebration of Christmas, instead treating it as yet another random holiday, before and after which nobody did anything at work. I failed to give her any gifts, or organize any “christmas events” for her. Yeah, the in-laws came over, we had set up this little crib based on dolls we’d purchased in Sri Lanka on our honeymoon and all that (unfortunately we misplaced that set, else we’d’ve displayed it as part of Dasara too, this year), but I must admit I’d failed to “celebrate” the festival. And in my defence, it was never a festival that I had celebrated, so “forgot” was actually a valid excuse.

So this year we decided to have a Christmas party at home. Basically called a few friends over, most of whom responded with astonishment (thanks to my RSS legacy), but were kind enough to land up. And once again we searched hard and found that “crib set” and set it up. And started playing Christmas carols, until I got bored and switched the music to Black Sabbath, which nobody really minded. Much alcohol was consumed (especially wine, given the Christmas spirit), plum cake was had and Chinese food ordered in.

In the intervening years I’ve found myself becoming more and more socially liberal. It probably started when I moved to IIMB; I think that was the time I stopped being judgmental of people based on their backgrounds, and stuff. That was the time when I started respecting individual rights, and those leanings got stronger as I slowly opened up, joined a libertarian-leaning mailing list, and realized that this was actually what I (as a person, irrespective of my background) was about.

On a foreign vacation earlier this year, thanks in part both to the lack of interesting vegetarian options and the availability of fairly succulent-looking meat, I stopped being vegetarian. A few months after that I participated in a “Ramzan meat walk” (though I didn’t consume much meat during the walk, since a lot of it was ‘hardcore’). I find it silly now that I’d actually joined a group of hostel-mates that campaigned for a “vegetarian table” at the hostel mess because the non-veg food “looked too gross”. But when someone starts singing “Silent Night”, I only remember that variation that a chaddi dost and I had come up which changes the song’s lyrics in a way that it ends with “and two souls become three”.

Given a chance, if I were to register as a voter and there were elections tomorrow, I might still vote for the BJP, following family tradition, but that would be more in line with economic thought and lack of options rather than my conservative background. I oppose the forced 11pm shutdown of Bangalore pubs, but don’t care about it enough to join protests on that front. If the government subsidizes Haj and Kailas Mansarovar Yatras, I demand that I get funding to attend the Pastafarian conference in Texas. And I still intend to open my autobiography (whenever I write it) with the lines “As Babri Masjid came crashing down, I celebrated. It was my tenth birthday and we had a party at home … “.

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.

On becoming a right-winger

No I’m not talking about people like David Beckham or Theo Walcott here. I’m talking about political stance. There is supposed to be this saying somewhere that goes “if you are 50 and liberal, you don’t have a head. If you are 20 and conservative you don’t have a heart” or some such. I probably first heard it some three years back, and ever since I’ve wondered why I’ve always been a right-winger in terms of my political stance. And I perhaps now have the answer.

The “social” component of rightwingery is not difficult to explain – from the ages of eight to ten, I was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They used to have shakhas close to my house in Jayanagar, and I would go there primarily to play Kabaddi. And I don’t think it was anything to do with what they taught us there, but maybe because the seniors there campaigned for the BJP in the 1991 elections (and my parents also then supported the BJP) I became a “social right-winger”. I’ve mostly been a supporter of the BJP since then, and if I were to vote (my name mysteriously disappeared off the voter list between 2004 and 2008, and I haven’t got myself re-registered) today I’d still vote for the BJP.

I’m much less of a social conservative now than I was maybe five years ago. I can probably describe myself as centrist – a position that is inadequately represented by any Indian political party. And it is possible that my current support for the BJP is reinforced by their economic policies during their regime earlier this decade. Which brings me to the more interesting question – about why I’ve always been an economic “conservative”.

I didn’t have an answer to this till recently, but I wonder how much it had to do with the fact that 1. I don’t have any siblings,  2. I was a topper in school.

I tend to believe that the lack of siblings helped define clear property rights for me at an early age – it is easier to divide up toys and other stuff among cousins than among siblings. And when you are convinced of property rights, you are much less likely to believe in stuff like “common good” and stuff.

As for being the topper, I’m reminded of how the class would plead with the teacher to make the exams easy, or to postpone assignment deadlines. Me being the topper, however, would have none of it. I would look at situations like those to RG (IITM lingo derived from “relative grading”) the rest of my class, and would always end up campaigning in the opposite direction (this continued till I was in IIM – when I was no longer the topper – I would encourage professors to set tough papers while the then toppers would ask for easy papers – the irony!).

While others were struggling to add two digit numbers, I would be showing off my skills at adding six-digit numbers, and encouraging the teacher to move faster. I considered myself to be “elite” and thought it was beneath myself to do what the “proletariat” did – postponing assignment deadlines or going slow in class. I would not be a part of the “class struggle”. I was a “have” (and I knew about property rights) and I would fight to retain my advantage.

So one objection to this theory could be that a lot of commies are topper-types. But here, we need to make a distinction. What if they were toppers like the ones that we had in IIMs – those that would clamour for easy papers, those that would do things the done way, and do better only because they mugged more? (I never listened to anyone. for example, I considered it beneath myself to add 5 to 4 as “five in the mind and six in the hand” and counting off fingers – while my competitor for topper used to happily do that, in public). My proposition is that those that became “radicals”, and were topper-types, weren’t that radical after all when they were young. If they were, they would’ve never turned left.

Gyaan From a Former All India Topper

CAT is less than a month away. Or more, depending on when you’re writing it. If any aspirants are reading this, I have just one piece of advice for you – which no one in any CAT Factory will give you. It’s about going for it. About batting like Sehwag. About reaching out far outside the off stump and playing every ball. I just want to assure you that percentages are in favour of this kind of a game.

In my zamaana, every correct answer in CAT gave you one mark, and every incorrect answer took away a third of a mark. Every question had four possible answers of which exactly one was correct. This negative marking had a completely psyching out effect on most takers, and people are afraid to go for it. And six years back, I liked it. For it made my own risk-taking strategy much easier – since I could now afford a larger number of errors.

The arithmetic is simple. Even if you have no clue about the question, and just put inky-pinky-ponky (or even better mark ‘C’, since years of research has proven that it’s the statistically most probable answer in CAT) you have one-fourth chance of getting it right – which gives a three-fourth probability of getting it wrong. And given the payoffs for correct and incorrect answers (1; -1/3) you can clearly see that the expected payoff of taking a completely random guess is ZERO!

So while this obviously rules out insane inky-pinky-ponkying, what it does tell you is that if you can eliminate at least one of the four choices, you are in the money! If you have to pick one of three possible answers, the expected payoff is 1/9 which is greater than zero. Yeah it doesn’t look very high but then the expected payoff is positive! So you need to go for it.

Back when I was in my 3rd year, there was some free mock CAT at IITM. And some of us 3rd years went just for the heck of it. I attemped 130 out of 150 questions, getting 90 right and 40 wrong. It still gave me a significantly higher score than any of my seniors (who were writing CAT that year) – most of whom attemped not more than seventy. Later that day a senior called me aside and told me that the art of CAT was about leaving questions. And that it was all about the questions that you left.

Leaving the ball makes sense in cricket where one mistake ends your innings. What if instead of ending your innings you were just deducted 2 runs everytime you got out? Would you still leave the balls outside off and play the waiting game? How on earth would you score runs if you were to leave every ball? It’s all about scoring, and you can score only if you attempt a shot.

I understand that CAT format has changed now and you have 5 possible correct answers for every question while the negatives are still at 1/3. Even then, if you can eliminate two out of the five answers (shouldn’t be too gouth), you have a positive payoff. And you must go for it. Keep in mind that you can’t score if you don’t play the ball.

I leave you with a video. The message is in the name of the song. Idu One Day Matchu Kano. This is a one day match dude. So you must go for every ball. And look to score.