Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It could have happened any where!

This is a follow-up from my last post where, triggered by the recent discussions on sexual assault on US campuses, I recounted an encounter with a vulnerable young woman during my graduate school days at Yale. Recently mathbabe also answered the query of a father worried about the safety of soon-to-be-college-going-daughter, in the wake of reports about disturbingly high prevalence of sexual assault on US campuses. I loved Aunt Pythia's advice and encourage you to go and read her response in full here. I reproduce part of her answer below, which really appealed to me and seems worth considering by all parents sharing such worries:

"Also, and this is actually the most important piece of advice: get your daughter to drink with you a few times, before she goes to college, so she’ll know what it feels like to have too much. The most educational night of my life was a night in the summer before college, when my dad got me and my friend Becky puking drunk. I never let that happen again, because I knew when I’d had too much. I think far too many kids get to college never having been allowed to go overboard with drinking, so they do it for the first time with strangers. Bad idea!"

I need to clarify, especially since the common theme in this and also my previous post was ensuring responsible drinking by young girls, that I do not at all think this is the root of the problem. In fact, the point here is that since we live in an unkind and highly twisted world, we need to watch out for ourselves as best as we can and responsible drinking just helps retain that much needed self-control in threatening situations. This is not to deny the heart-rending misfortune that even after such precautions girls may find themselves forced to live through unspeakable experiences. See this recent rolling stone article about a particularly horrifying example that unfolded at University of Virginia. It really is tantamount to an institutionalization of barbarism! Since the RS report came out, some heads have rolled but it is too little-too late and situation is very very far from acceptable. I guess since I myself work in a research university and have taught undergraduates as part of my academic commitment, I feel deeply appalled and outraged that university campuses seem to be turning into inadvertent havens for sexual predators, where they walk free among us with such impudence. :(
In any case, until compelling comprehensive changes are made to manage, report and prevent these crimes (yes that's what they are, STFU about 'suspensions' and 'disciplinary action' bull shit!), girls/boys keep safe, and keep each other safe. Let this not turn out to be a Utopian dream, please!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

One night in New Haven

I came across this strong rebuttal on a rather uncharitable take on the rape culture prevalent in US colleges. Also, recently, MIT released the results of an internal survey which recorded disturbingly high prevalence (one in six) of sexual assault amidst undergraduate women. I think it is very important to have such frank conversations for a reliable diagnosis of this problem, but any solution/mitigation necessarily requires addressing the causes/catalysts of such culture with equal openness and honesty.

Since I completed my undergraduate and master's education in India, I do not know enough to comment on the veracity of statistics quoted in various reports, but my general impression based on third-hand information is that it is indeed a serious threat to a free and safe environment any educational institute requires to thrive. It also reminded me of an incident in my graduate school which I want to share here.

It was during the semi-final year of my Ph.D. when the research was finally in a place that I could find time to indulge in minor time extravagances such as going for Saturday night Yale repertory theatre screening of classic plays. I was particularly looking forward to it this time -- "Winter's Tale" a famous play by Shakespeare with two of my girl-friends and fellow scientists. And it turned out to be a really pleasant evening when I sat enraptured by ace performances, with Lupita Nyong'o playing the beautiful Perdita to perfection (her precocious talent evident in her Yale Drama school days, is common knowledge after her Oscar for 12 years a slave.) .

It was only when the play ended, did I realize that it was past 9:30 p.m. and my flimsy jacket would be fighting a losing battle against the chill on the walk back home. It was a saturday night and the place had come alive with nearby Toad's place, a new haven bar with a cult following, featuring a local but apparently popular country music band. There were youngsters everywhere, laughing merry-making and pulling each other for another drink. Their infectious enthusiasm made me momentarily forget the sting of the cold wind that was blowing that night.

I had barely walked two blocks, during which the crowd on the road had considerably thinned, when I heard an "excuse me" in an abnormally high-pitched voice. As I looked back, I saw a really young girl walking towards me in an unusually acrobatic style. As she approached me, the reason became clear -- she strongly smelled of alcohol and looking at her I became acutely aware of my overdressed self. She spoke again in a slur, which after she repeated 3-4 times on my request, translated into -- she needed a cab and wasn't aware where to get it from. She had a petite stature which barely reached my shoulder even with her towering heels. I asked her to walk with me, and eventually had to hold her from falling, while she tic-tac-toed on the road. She continued to ramble on as we walked huddled together, and putting together bits and pieces from her incoherent speech, I came to know that she is studying in Quinnipiac University from a neighboring town, and had come down with her boyfriend and his friends for the 'concert' at Toad's place. She had a spat with her boyfriend which led him to apparently behave (equally if I may add!) silly and dump her by the road. Given her state, I wasn't sure if putting her in a cab was a good idea as she did not have a place to stay in the town. So I decided to walk her to the nearest Yale police beat and arrange Yale escort for her (It is a great service reserved for Yale students and affiliates where they can request Yale transportation practically any time of the day anywhere within the city limits).

Just seeing the blue uniform of Yale police officer inside the small booth bathed with the yellow light warmed my heart. I heaved an audible sigh of relief, catalyzed by my panting, as by now she had completely sagged in my arms, and I was almost dragging her while her incoherent blabberings continued. I quickly told the officer of the situation; he encouraged me to wait on the pavement outside his cubicle for the Yale escort while he would try to expedite its arrival, and went back in his booth making calls. I had already requested for Yale shuttle service and informed them of my location -- they had given me an unusually long wait time given it was Saturday night and many Yale vans were doing double duty dispatching inebriated Yalies to their safe and warm abodes. As we waited for the shuttle, I asked if her boyfriend's number is stored in her phone and tried calling him to no avail. Then she suddenly exclaimed, staring at my hands, "you are so dark, you are not from here, are you?". I replied that she was right and gave her a brief speech on India, by the end of which her eyelids had started drooping. I stopped talking wondering if it was the alcohol or our conversation (I was scared to let her sleep, for both her and my well being!). Suddenly a car turned around the corner, and after coming to a brief halt raced past us. The screech of the tires made her jerk and she slid out of my arms on the pavement, screaming "it was my boyfriend, and the jerk did not stop for me". (My personal guess is that seeing her next to Yale police booth with a stranger might have scared him away!). As I tried to haul her back to her feet, she continued to talk oblivious of my attempts to pick her up. In the mean time, the Yale officer had come outside and he helped me get her back on her feet while we both saw a Yale shuttle approaching us. I showed my Yale ID to the driver and explained him that though the intended traveler is not a Yale affiliate, she needs to be taken some where safe to spend the night. He nodded and a huge weight lifted off me -- literally and metaphorically! As she stumbled towards the escort car, she looked back and shouted " you have been such a good samaritan", produced some money from the folds of her dress and tossed it towards me before collapsing on the car seat. Yale officer and I collected the bills strewn on the pavement and handed them to the driver, who then drove out into dark depths of the night.

As I resumed my walk towards my home, I wondered where would she be (I had forgotten to ask her name!), what could have happened to her, how would her parents react if they ever come to know of this (will they?), what about that boyfriend who had dumped her in such a vulnerable state, and most importantly why do young women open themselves to situations where they are entirely at the mercy of some passerby and his/her intentions. Yes, it is an institution's responsibility to care for the well being of its students, but it cannot do this successfully without students being an active collaborator in this exercise. I am all for freedom to dress and do as we please, but where/how do we draw the line between harmless fun and risk? These questions come in sharper focus with the recent conversations about rape culture in US colleges, but to me their relevance resonates far outside US geographical borders.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Blog about my favorite blogs

On the science side, I have found iflscience quite entertaining -- whose editor is Elise Andrew, creator of the hugely popular I fucking love science facebook page. Its articles are pretty accessible too and you don't need any formal background, but just a healthy interest in science. Quantum Pontiff and Quantum Frontiers (run by Caltech's Institute of Quantum Information and Matter) are also interesting but rather technical and focused mostly on quantum information processing, so some may not like it as much as I do.

For Mathematics, I simply adore John Baez's blog Azimuth. The description of the blog actually clarifies that the focus is broader covering Physics, Earth science, Biology and technology too, but personally I find his maths posts most appealing. One of the absolute gems I have read from him is this beautiful exposition on relation between symplectic and unitary structures (okay I digress..). It is really amazing and has profound implications across fields. I was awed into stupefaction for full two weeks during my Ph.D. when I understood and used it in my research.

For a life in academia, I like the blog from Xykademiqz the most, where a full professor in Physical sciences at a major US research university shares her experiences (some might know her from blogger as Academic jungle). Scientopia which is a community blog on science is also worth checking -- personally I do not visit it super-often, as its dominant focus and contributors seem to come from biology. But people who worry about NIH grants, ethics in medical research etc may find it more engaging.

On the social and financial impacts of economics in our lives, mathbabe Cathy O'Neil and very much opinionated Noah Smith take the cake. Mathababe also runs an advice column Aunt Pythia on saturdays where she answers nerdy to kinky questions with equal panache.

One of my absolutely favorite blogs in recent time is the bad advisor --- who gives the advice people "want" to hear. This example shows why I love her blog so much. Also this. She sometimes even has interludes of giving good advice, which can be actually useful for some one. Keep rocking bad advisor!

Plus, there always is goodreads to go and wander amidst my loyal and comforting friends (a.k.a books).

And for my occasional indulgence in urdu poetry, I follow urduwallahs (it has a few gems such as full text with translation of Kaifi Azmi's composition "Aurat" but they need to be searched for!). A collection of poetry by Faiz Ahmad Faiz along with full texts and translation can also be found at this webpage hosted by Columbia University.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and also his/her coordinates

I recently came across this really interesting socio-cultural experiment undertaken by a women journalist. She sent a picture of hers to more than 40 photographers across 2 countires and asked them to touch up her pic using photoshop and "make her look beautiful" . The detailed news report can be found here with different versions of the pics she received from across the globe. Besides clear elucidation of the fact that perception of beauty is largely cultural in context, it also reflects some strong social and religious underpinnings in specific cases -- brought out most strikingly by Moroccon version which I enclose below (do I need to seek permission for this?)

Assuming that photoshopping skills are constant across the region (which is clearly not true), I am tempted to share my observations on some of the pics here. I (and my occasional jest) have absolutely no intent to hurt some one's feelings or pride about their culture.

1. Morocco - Ahem ahem.
2. India - (Ignoring the Croor-Singh eyebrows) We like our girls to be shy, modest and look demure.
(It may also explain the mysterious diultion of clavicle and female anatomy neck down.)


3. Venezuela - We like our girls to be in "pink" of health.


4. Argentina - Let us hit the club.. again (and raise a glass to Lionel Messi.)


5. Vietnam - Either they are super secure in their skins, or the just don't get photoshop!


6. Philippines - So what if I still believe that my girl friend is a femme fatale (and a scary one at that!)


7. Sri Lanka - Do people really use green eye shadow with orange lipsticks??
sri lanka

8. United States -  I knew Matrix was true and all of us are one giant simulation run by aliens with green eyes.

9. UK - I love my queens, princesses (essentially all royalty et al.) and everyone that looks like them.


10. Australia - I just find it pritty wee-erd that you don't have blue eyes! And whoever advised you to not blush your cheeks has got a kangaroo loose in his top paddock.


11. Bangladesh - One needs to eat lot of maacher-jhol to have hair like that.


12. Chile - I want to be fashionable and I am still figuring out what the hell it means.


13. Germany - I basically want you to look like that pic of my great grandma, hanging in the old library of my 4th mansion.

14. Greece - I believe in eternal beauty, even if it requires you to go to bed with your make up on (and please don't flutter those super long eyelashes in surprise!)

15. Indonesia - I wish I was fairer!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lok Sabha Elections in India 2014

I have been closely following the extensive election coverage in electronic media -- I must say I find Indian Express's style of "Track your Leader/Heavyweights" very convenient (even though limited) as that makes it way easier to sift through the news pertaining to a particular political figure. This has become especially important because I personally believe that Indian elections are, for the first time, evolving into a  US-like Presidential contest where people identify with and would possibly vote for personalities and not political parties. The counter point of this view being true only in the cities and disregarding the India far and beyond the confines of city's intellectual elite does not seem to hold much water given the opinion polls done by news agencies (the largest was done by NDTV recently) which show consolidated mandates largely driven by the charismatic heavyweights of different parties. Sure, the feudal structure of Indian polity necessarily factors and fosters the role of state governments; nonetheless, I believe (and hope!) that this election highlights the issues relevant at the  federal level such as defence, foreign policy and economic policy. Not only are local issues such as roads, electricity, water, better addressed in state-wide legislative assembly elections, I think digressing or diluting the federal issues by warping them with state politics can be detrimental.

The three major players, who have emerged in 2014 presidential-like parliamentary contest, are:
1. BJP's Narendra Modi 
2. Congress's Rahul Gandhi
3. AAP's Arvind Kejriwal

Narendra Modi has the maximum political experience out of all three, with 12 years as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, preceded by years as a junior BJP worker and RSS member. The infamous 2002 Gujarat riots, that happened within months of his assuming office, have been a stubborn dent in his ability to project an inclusive image. Plus his hard-hitting style has contributed to this image of his being an aloof authoritarian. He can harness this image to his advantage, if he is voted in power, by pushing for administrative and economic reforms which have been stalled under the outgoing weak government of Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Rahul Gandhi's inexperience and lack of political acumen are a butt of constant jokes. It seems, however, this would not have been much of an issue if it were not for the severe anti-incumbency against the Congress-led UPA government. I base this opinion on the thumping 2/3rd majority his father Rajiv Gandhi won in the 1980s while he was still a reluctant novice pushed into the political world at the behest of his mother Indira.

Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party have been quite some phenomena. He has covered the road from being a political activist to a political leader in no time and with no elan (unfortunately)! In addition to the debacle of AAP government in Delhi, formed with the support of the almost rooted Congress, he and his co-workers have served to make the electoral politics murkier (if that was possible) by their high-pitched little-substantiated shouting match with all and sundry. Kejriwal himself displays a constant disdain for politics and its practitioners without really offering a viable alternative --- not very surprising coming from a self-proclaimed anarchist. However, India has come a long way from being under colonial rule and Indians in 21st century should have little patience with being denied their due of a stable, able and honest government. A silver lining of the AAP phenomenon, however, is how it has catalyzed an unprecedented mobilization of usually disenchanted and cynical voters of India and nudged them into initiating a political dialogue outside the portals of power.

The hope is that the sanest voice prevails!

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Is gul ka koi gulistan bhi nahi.
Ghar ko jaane ka koi rasta bhi nahi.

Jinke bharaose aa baithe the is mehfil mein
Jaana ki unse to hum wabasta hi nahi

Lateefein to sunane aate hain ab bhi humein
Par ab saath koi hansta bhi nahi

Kabhi dil ne baatein keh daali thi sab tumhe
Ab to dil bhi itna behekta hi nahi

Poochhte ho humse ki kyun itne mayoos hain hum
Sach kehna kya tumhe bhi ye pata hi nahi?

                                                     -- Archana