Orange

[Read part 1 of the Roy G Biv series.]

“I think I have a spark… an idea… for the next piece in my story. Speaking of which, did you read the first part?”

“Yeah, I did. It was pompous as f*ck”, said Vikrant.

“Thanks. Constructive criticism, always a welcome.”

“Hey, I’m a big fan of your writing. You usually sound extremely self aware, but this time, you seem to be pushing for some higher level of abstraction, which just does not cut it for me.”

“Well, life isn’t always so straightforward.”

“I think it is, we just end up over-complicating it for our own good. You just need to chill and grab a smoke”.

“It’s fall, look at your surroundings. Such a scenic visual. Beautiful sun-kissed orange leaves. Interspersed between reds and yellows. Covering up otherwise dust laden roads. I don’t need no cigarette to chill, this picture does it for me.”

“What’s so fancy about dead leaves? Also what happens when it’s winter, and there’s no scenic beauty? Apart from physically chilling, how do you chill mentally?”

“I don’t know. Ask me this question again later. I’ll come up with something obnoxious by then”.

“Done! So, how’s work these days?”

“You know how it is, being in academia. I feel burnt out. I think I’ve been working too much.”


When Vikrant isn’t being a pain in the ass, he is a good friend of mine. I can talk to him about anything under the sun. Mostly figuratively, but sometimes even literally. I usually turn to him for some sane advice to keep me from soaring too high in the sky. So, if he thinks I need a realistic touch to this story, here it is. Incorporated!

But, let’s come back to the workings in the mind of a intellectual nomad, named Vedika. Have you ever felt so engrossed in your own life, that you’ve just started failing to appreciate the sundry beautiful things around you? Yes?

Then you know what I feel like. As a kid, I was surrounded by the best scientists and academicians of the world. Twenty four years and a series of mishaps and fortunes later, I got sucked into the reality of my very surroundings.

I think we academicians derive an intense sense of satisfaction from the feeling of being intellectually superior to everyone around us. We have been trained, for years, to exercise our mental faculties for the most arduous processes, that it seems impossible to not overthink things. Not to me at least.

Which means, if I work hard, I work so hard that I forget to eat or even sleep right. And so that brings us to my current state of a burn out. I’ve lost my motivation to work. The fire within me seems to be annihilating slowly.

I think, for some time, for the sake of my own sanity, I need to switch off. Sit in a dark corner. Re-evaluate the purpose of my life.


“All lights are out. There’s no power any where. Where are you?”

“I’m at home. I was sleeping. What’s happening?”

“Don’t you see it? Just look outside your window. Look at the skies.”

Engulfing the entirety of the outskirts of campus town was smoke. And then there was fire.

And for the first time in my life, I saw the light. Shining bright and yellow, right in front of me.

[This was part 2 of the Roy G Biv series.]

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Recalculating Route

Something incredible happened last week. The paper I had been working on, got accepted for a really huge conference in my area – Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS). And it has come at a time when I’m a little over a year into my PhD, so apparently it’s a big deal. The fact that it’s my first paper publication makes it an even bigger deal.

People are impressed with me and I didn’t think that was a possibility. But let me not elaborate on that. The last thing that I want to do in this post is to gloat.

“My first publication ever” had been a driving force. I was the underdog till now, and I didn’t expect anyone to expect anything out of me. I just had a set of unrealistic expectations from myself and it only mattered to me, and no one else, if I fulfilled them. But now that I have accomplished some of them, things seem different. Other people seem to have expectations from me. I feel disoriented. “What next?”. I need to find myself a new ambition now. Possibly bigger and better than my previous one. The one I had built after a series of setbacks, some personal, some professional.

So while I need to build a new ambition, I feel anxious about what changes my previous success can lead to. What a classic introverted response… I hate having to deal with changes, even if they are positive.

Now, I’m sure a lot of people will just want to shake me up and ask me to shut up and stop whining about having achieved something significant. I should be happy, I should celebrate it. I know the drill.

I think I’m happy just fighting for my dream. There always needs to be a dream. So I think I’d like to form a new one. And with that, I need to recalculate my route.

Red

Hi, I’m Vedika. And I’m going to be the narrator of this story. If you’re wondering what this story is about or who I am, I already like you. I like people who are curious. I’m a curious soul myself. Which means that I have a lot of questions. Questions about the world around me.

But the world around me doesn’t look so good right now. I don’t need rose tinted glasses, everything looks so red. I stare up at the sky, and I see darkness, in the form of clouds. The sun hasn’t even fully set, yet the clouds mask a great extent of the red wavelengths of light. As if beating atmospheric diffraction wasn’t enough! Blocks of grey floating in a crimson red sea is a sight hard to beat.

Beyond the horizon, is a land full of calamity. Chaos. Nature tormenting people with storms of the worst kind. There’s fear, there’s loss. We’re at war. But this very dark sky seems to protect me, it acts like a barrier. For what I see, is only diffused redness. Reality is much harsher.

Look at me, pondering over the perils that humanity has to brave. Don’t I sound pretentious? Trying so hard to describe the je ne sais quoi of the evening sky? That random dude on the street doesn’t seem to think anything of it. And quite frankly, there is no physical significance of the cloudy red sky, except that it might lead to a rainy tomorrow.

But that’s not how chaos theory works. There’s a butterfly effect. Small causes can have larger effects. Things can spiral out of proportion. So, no. I choose not to turn a blind eye to the small changes around me. I’m sensitive to my surroundings and rightly so. Reading signs from tea leaves, is well, not my cup of tea. But, I think I want to notice the small things around me and question their origin. Wonder about their existence. And probably try to peer through  the fog at the distant future.

But mere wonderment does no good, does it? That doesn’t right any wrongs. A body at rest stays at rest. And so does the unrest.

And so I need to transition. I need to take action. I need to fuel this spark of red.

A little physics background suggests that the color of a flame is a good indicator of its temperature. Apparently red corresponds to lower temperatures. The intensity increases as one transitions from red to orange. It’s the orange that burns the flame of desire.

[This was part 1 of the Roy G Biv series.]

Principles of friend making: Third wheeling

I consider myself to be a smart woman. But I suck at social skills, one of them involves: keeping good relations with people that I don’t need to interact with otherwise, but who happen to have been close friends of mine at some point.

In a quest to not be friendless, a few months back, I decided to make more friends. My only algorithm being 1) join people whenever they invite you, 2) sometimes plan things on your own and invite others. For a 24 year old fun-loving and sometimes uptight girl, how hard can that be?

So this experiment has led to varied responses that I’ll elaborate on:

1) My first attempt at going out of my way to make friends was when my friend and senior took pity on me (well, I was quite upset) and asked me to join him on a couples night. That would have been cool, except that I’m not part of a couple here, my boyfriend stays miles away. I went super late to the dinner, just in time to play the board game Dixit (which is quite cool, btw). Thankfully the couples (there were 3) were low on PDA and all of them were PhD nerds, and they made me quite comfortable. And food was great too. And barring the fact that I was actually the 7th wheel in the whole deal, I’d actually call this a #win.

2) My second attempt at making friends was when I initiated a plan to go to Reiman Gardens in town. I asked my roommate (that I had never hung out with before then) to join me and I told her she could invite anyone else. She invited a third person (a girl) that I didn’t know of and whom she was merely acquainted with. So what happens when three girls who don’t know each other too well “hang” out at a garden?

I’m not a selfie/beauty enthusiast, so I was thrown off by the apprehensions of these girls, of getting tanned and getting the right selfie in the right lighting. We were in a park full of butterflies and beautiful plants and flowers and sculptures, but I completely missed out on that. Also, we had to walk a lot in the hot summer to get to and from the place due to lack of transit options. Only other thing we could talk about was pop music. I’d call this a #fail.

3) I think I have a tendency to build escape options for every social plan. I get quite anxious when I meet new people or have to spend a long time with people I don’t know too well and can’t connect with. So at the back of my mind, I need to have an escape available. I need to have an event to get to. Or work to finish. This time, my roommate invited me to play badminton with her good female friend. Background: 1) I had only played badminton around 10 years back and I wasn’t particularly good at it, 2) I was actually really good at sports​ otherwise during school so I generally hate losing.

Needless to say, I lost badly in the matches. And my roommate’s friend had to leave early. So we finished up our game and then proceeded to do some stretching exercises. And after that I went back to work. I lost a few games and some weight but I gained social skills and maybe some fun too. I’d call it a #win.

4) I was invited by my roommate and her supposed boyfriend to watch Dunkirk at the movie theater late at night. I’m not exactly sure if they are dating but I don’t have enough evidence to support the premise that they are not. 

Now this had high potentials of getting awkward, but I said yes for two reasons: 1) I’ve watched every Nolan movie. So I had to watch the latest one, 2) my friendship algorithm. So I did go ahead. The thing about movie theaters are that they are optimal for dates. And one always assumes that the people beside don’t realize what’s happening, but they always do. Always. 

Plus, this wasn’t a conventional Nolan movie. It was more of a documentary. I kept checking Wikipedia to stay on track with the story, so I was getting distracted very easily. And the couple didn’t make it any better. I covered my face with my hair so I could block out any sight of intimacy. #fail #bigfail #horriblefail

5) I organized a meetup for students from my undergrad university. Only two guys turned up and they knew each other well but I didn’t know either. But the good thing for me was that this was my domain. We had a lot in common to talk about. All PhD nerds from the same previous and current university. I think I had a lot of fun on that one. Plus we had good Indian food to go along with it. I’d call it a #win.

I guess the algorithm seems to #win every other trial, which probably means I just need to keep giving this a shot. I might need to add more constraints to it to refine it, but I’m quite happy with the results so far. I’m certain that in expectation, I won’t be friendless.

She’s not that into you: Women in STEM

I attended a Machine Learning Symposium in Chicago recently, and I had a rather difficult experience with the roommate that I had been assigned there. Firstly, of the 40 odd posters that were presented, I think only two were presented by female “researchers”. Me and my roommate. And so the odds of me landing up with her, were actually quite high. Which is disheartening at multiple levels. The female turn out at such events always seem to be low. And it didn’t help that my roommate seemed cuckoo from the get go.

She was: a 30-something mom of two without an engineering background, who probably read some news article and thought it would be cool to be a part of the Deep Learning (a sub-field in Machine Learning) brigade. And a mid-westerner. Oh also, in hindsight, very likely to have been high the entire time.

Her addictions and erratic behavior aside, she also seemed quite insistent on convincing me to use my double-minority status in STEM to an advantage. She also seemed to have trouble recollecting any other minorities apart from “Latinos”, which means I’m actually a minority among minorities. So basically I’m a “woman”  “of color” pursuing a PhD and apparently that’s rare. Actually I won’t even question the validity of that claim; it is true. I don’t really see a lot of women researchers in engineering, forget the race part.

But to use that as a my trump card never really occurred to me, and here’s why. I do happen to be a minority, but I really don’t think I’ve faced any blatant discrimination myself! I personally don’t think I’ve faced any repression; people in positions of authority at least haven’t treated me any differently. And even though there have been several times that I have felt that I haven’t been taken that seriously by my male counterparts, that could have been due to multiple reasons. And I have still insisted on standing firm on my point anyway and got things done. Perhaps there’s still an inherent discrimination that I’ve just turned a blind eye to, or got to used to; I’m not so sure.

Which makes this situation rather difficult to understand. Are women being discouraged from pursuing certain fields? I know I haven’t been. So why is it that we see such few women in mathematically challenging fields? From a biological standpoint, there is no significant difference between men and women, intellectually. Then again, my upbringing has been highly biased. I grew up in a highly academic environment which largely dictated my inclinations towards academia.

In a more generic environment, I would perhaps have been more influenced by where a majority of my peers were heading toward, career-wise. And that would likely have not been in academia.

I suppose a number of obvious challenges exist. My dad actually stated to me that the current generation of young women try very hard to follow the footsteps of men. Instead, they should be paving their own identities.

But the flaw in this premise is, men just “got there” first. At a primary level, women need to catch up. I don’t quite understand why there needs to be a stark distinction between male and female careers, where differences in anatomy don’t play a part. Sure, if a job is physically laborious, it might be a better call to employ a man. Sure, if the job constitutes caretaking, employ a woman. But there are so many fields that employ skills which both genders are equally good at. And I don’t see the requirement for careers to take distinct paths.

It’s hard for me to have a non-biased opinion on this matter. The fact is that I have very few women that I can even discuss these issues with and tally view points. So, I’m not sure if most of what I’m saying makes sense or not, but it definitely is an issue and someone needs to address it.