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.

The Terminal: Airport diaries 

If anyone has watched the Tom Hanks movie called The Terminal, you will catch the theme of this post. If not, go watch it, it’s a very intriguing movie!

In the movie, Tom Hanks plays a character who is stuck at an airport terminal (JFK, New York) for months, with a passport that was deemed invalid, due to a war that was going on in his home country of Krakozhia. Now I happen to be a pro at spending countless hours at airport terminals (pre-checkin).

My first instance of spending excruciatingly long time at the airport stemmed out of a fear of missed flight connections. I spent close to 15 hours at the Des Moines International airport, reaching 8 hours in advance, due to a winter weather advisory. I was hoping to catch a morning flight that was subsequently delayed over 7 hours, due to a snow storm. Which led to a chain of delayed and missed connections, with a long halt at the prestiged JFK airport. I spent an entire night there without a valid ticket out of the country, while I was travelling back to India.

There, I befriended an Angolian girl who was caught in the same situation, and I also finished AND submitted my final report for one of the courses that I had taken in that semester. The only charging ports that were available were at restaurants, which had been closed for the night, so we hunted down a spot and alternatingly charged our phones and laptops.

The second airport “all-nighter” that I pulled was in a recent travel. I was in Chicago for a symposium, so it made sense for me to book a direct flight from there back to India. Only, I had no accommodation for a night, so I decided to spend the night at the terminal again, possibly thinking of replicating my previous crazy overnight adventure at JFK. But this time, I was prepared. I stuffed my bag with snacks. Got my laptop out, watched videos on YouTube. Kept trying to find a cozy location to sleep. Thankfully Chicago O-Hare has a plethora of charging points at the terminals just before the checkin counters.

This time, I realized that I wasn’t the only weirdo playing this game. There were several airport transit all-nighter people like me. Now you might think, how big of a hole does it burn in a girl’s pocket, to go out and explore the city or check into a hotel for a night? It’s a purely mental thing. It makes me feel better about splurging money at other times. Also, I’m always up for new and interesting experiences!

It was interesting to see how well prepared some passengers are, for these all-nighters. There was one man who had a sleeping blanket and a bed-sheet that he spread on the floor behind the seats, and slept peacefully. Those who were thin and flexible, slid themselves below the armrests and slept on 3 consecutive seats. Ingenuous travelers! I adopted the same technique on my flight to India, when the girl occupying the next seat left it for another.

Now, I wouldn’t say that spending long hours at the airport is fun, but it is definitely a different experience. Plus, at the end of it all, nothing beats the excitement of “going home”!

The sexist washroom arrangement

… and other inconsequential matters.

So, I happen to be a PhD student at the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at university, and there is a very strange problem that I face every day. There is only one women’s washroom on my floor. Two men’s washrooms. The one women’s washroom is actually pretty far from my lab. I bumped into another girl student in the washroom today, and she commented on how sexist it seems. I agreed. I had thought the same thing when I had first found out.

The thing is, my department has a very skewed proportion of males and females. I’d pin the best case female-to-male ratio to about 1:6. One female for every six males. Bizarre!

It’s rather disappointing for a multiple reasons. Where are all of my brainiac women at? I’m surrounded by a bunch of guys who only talk math and understand little or no social or friendly convention. Heck, one of the reasons that I’m writing this post is because I’m supremely pissed at how little my male “friend” actually cares about being there for me, when times are not that great. He just point blank refused to listen to me. No explanations. No regards. I’m not only offended, but I’m also hurt. And there’s only one washroom to go cry in! Just kidding (okay, sorry if that was awkward… I’m not crying, you are)!

Such is the situation, that I’ve decided to fly back impromptu to India for three weeks. At least there are people there that care. I’m quite excited to see my boyfriend after a very long time; times have been tough for him to say the least, and I am really hoping to dump a heap of presents, loads of cheery joy and some mindful wisdom on him!

I’m also attending a machine learning symposium for the first time, prior to that. I’ve attended a workshop before this, but a symposium is a first, and I’m also supposed to present a poster of my work so far, there. I remember wanting to present my research work at Open Day, at IISc (my previous place of work), but didn’t get the chance to. So this opportunity is exciting!

I took my sketching skills to a new level by drawing face portraits. I wanted to capture a mysterious girl with a pleasant melancholy and I couldn’t think of anyone better than Hannah from Thirteen Reasons Why. I think the actress portrayed the role to perfection, and is very pretty.

WhatsApp Image 2017-06-09 at 1.29.37 AM

I’m a bit rusty when it comes to my sketching skills, but I personally think it’s a good start. At least it looks like a human! I find artwork quite involving, and a good distraction from the sense of despondency that creeps in every now and then.

And then finally, when I find my spirits dampened, I usually resort to finding yummy things to munch on. I went to McDonald’s yesterday and tried their Pico Guacamole Signature sandwich with grilled chicken on a sesame bun. I was pleasantly surprised! McDonald’s and quality food? I’m definitely going to try the other two options (they have bacon in them) soon (or depending on how often I feel friendless, in this sucky place).

Not that everyone’s bad here. I’m the one at fault. I don’t socialize as much myself. So I decided to make newer friends, after the person I thought I could rely on ditched me. I thought to myself, why not go speak to the one person from my research group, that annoys me the most. It was a Eureka moment at peak-time anxiety. He actually gave me some good elder brotherly advice and I really appreciated it. Speaking to people really helps. He also mentioned some insight about Freud and that just reminded me of another senior-friend that used to mention Freud to me when I would go to him in a distressed state. This is a rather weird pattern that I do not want to fully understand!

Oh and in other news, Bollywood has sunk to insane lows in naming upcoming films like Jab Harry Met Sejal, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Tubelight. And these are just off the top of my head. The new Katy Perry music is bizarre to say the least, and haters can say what they want, but Linkin Park is not a sellout, I do enjoy the sound of their new music.

That’s all for the pensieve today. Till the next contemplation overflow, good day y’all!

Dude where’s my card?

**Context: I had posted a valentine’s day card to my boyfriend, a couple days past VDay and it never reached him. With the card, I had enclosed a letter, a letter that contained some confidential information. This post is a continuation of that letter, but I’m just choosing not to post it, because I don’t trust the US Postal services/India post any more.

Disclaimer: This is a spoof blog post and is not an accurate representation of my thoughts on any political or postal system. Also contains some Harry Potter references (yeah, I need to grow up).**

Dear Drake,

Firstly, let me re-apologize. I had apologized in my first letter about how it would reach you late. How it would be intercepted by the Inquisitive Squad under an Umbridge-like surveillance, which has been tracking and snooping on everyone’s mail. I didn’t hear back from you for over three months now, so I will assume that the new regime has been successful in taking away people’s right to free expression. Or that international postal services are careless with “first class mail”. But my suspicions were right: my letter never reached you.

I am therefore resorting to electronic broadcasting means, and I hope that you stumble upon this “letter”, as long as you remember to check my blog at regular intervals. (Since this is a public medium, I urge other watchers to follow the same strategy. Keep following my updates on my blog, in case you have been meaning to hear from me, but haven’t in a while.)

I hear that you are in crisis. I had sent you a “portkey” to teleport you here, but I have obviously failed. Or maybe the postman accidentally touched it and got teleported instead; I clearly didn’t think this through. I will come up with a better solution, and find a way to meet you, by fight or by flight!

In other news, yet another Indian origin kid became a spelling bee champion; people prefer watching girls at the bay over girls in Baywatch; the top Google trends in technology news today are literally an advertisement for different Apple products, with the topics Apple, iOS, Siri, App Store, iPad Pro, iMac, MacBook Pro, iPad and Macintosh forming 9 of the 10 trends (I think Apple managed to hijack Google’s clustering algorithm somehow, but Google’s No-got any time to look into that (geddit? Nougat?)). This is the news as I see it here on the 5th of June, so this is the digital equivalent of holding up a newspaper to showcase what date it is, for fact checking evidences.

Meanwhile, scientists, including the likes of yours truly have reached a step closer to unlocking the secret for true happiness: it consists of rotating a 3 armed UFO like object called the fidget spinner. People are still unsure about its calming effects, though I think we’ve just demonstrated the biggest placebo effect in action ever. Those things work, just like how that detox tea makes you slimmer and that Avengers tee makes you look like a Marvel fan. Let’s just admit that we just got those things at a cool discount and they didn’t disappoint. So I think you should watch out for a fidget spinner in your post. Or a Marvel tee. Or detox tea. Or neither, depending on space and time constraints.

If you think that this letter is progressing rather aimlessly, then you’ve actually successfully caught on to the unaltered version. It is usually difficult to decrypt utter gibberish and that’s the language that I’ve chosen to encyrpt this message in. 

If you receive this message, send me a distress signal; a rescue ship will be on its way. 

P.S. The ship is a metaphor for this blog post, don’t expect an actual ship. Though it might be cool to own one, one day. If and when I do own one, I’ll definitely send it if required. 

Point of infliction

A couple of weeks back, I finally managed to write a paper to completion and submitted it for a technical conference. But until then, for about three years, I struggled to get to this point. Not due to lack of talent. Not due to lack of ambition. Things just didn’t go right for me.

And I continued to assume that I was a failure. So what is failure?

I guess failure is to fall short of a universally set standard for happiness. The ideal of a perfect life. Having the right kind of money, a loving family, nurturing relationships, a good environment for living, basic necessities, good health, prosperity that grows proportionally with effort and respect in society. Failure, for many, is the inability to achieve all… or any of this.

For me, it was the inability to achieve a set of seemingly unrealistic ambitions for myself. I think as humans, we’re trained to be competitive, grab the best kind of resources for ourselves, because there is a clear lack of those. The idea of a perfect life etched out for us by our forefathers (and foremothers) mimics Darwinian principals of the survival of the fittest.

The fact is, there is an inequitable distribution of resources among people in the world, in general; in order to get to the Utopian state of unprejudiced equilibrium, one would require years in terms of time and effort. Steady state would come, after infinite time passes. But that’s the glitch in the whole grand theory of a perfect life, right?

While we, as humans, fight for finite resources, we ourselves have finite resources at our disposal and finite time to use them. So not only do we need to acquire the resources at deficit, we have few chances to attain them. And the crux of the problem is, given a bad initial point, even if it exists, one would probably take a very long time to reach the optimum. Quicker methods are high risk. In simple words, life is unfair. Unfairly depriving to some. Unfairly rewarding to others. So is mankind destined for failure?

The flaw in my analysis so far, is, a simple definition, or lack thereof. I have a clear metric for failure. What is the metric for success? Adhering to norms is not success. But deviating from them, is failure.

We often give such skewed importance to different facets of life that it throws us off balance, when those “important” things/resources go missing. For most of us, this could be either our career, or a close person, or an object of desire. Human beings are in general, goal oriented. Every life needs a purpose. That’s what everyone tells us, and to most, that purpose becomes attaining the attributes of a perfect life.

I think we should all work towards restoring equilibrium for everyone, not just ourselves; as a race, we are far better equipped to solve crisis in groups. Communication, is key. Crying or asking for help, should not be looked down on; it’s not a sign of weakness in character. It’s the sign that one has recognized the onset of danger and is trying to pull in resources from all around, to help combat the situation better.

Individualism is assumed to be a heroic trait, but quite honestly, it’s over-rated. The fact is, I felt helpless, agitated, annoyed, and disappointed, because I refused to take help from anyone. And while I’m quite proud that I overcame everything on my own, and don’t “need anyone else” to persevere, it might have served me far better if I had interacted with more people. Shared more. Observed and learned more, rather than isolating myself.

I think, my biggest mistake was that, it was I alone, that made myself feel like a failure. A lot of it was inside my head. I had internalized a lot of what I had thought was the society’s perception of me.

We need to stop taking ourselves so seriously. We’re part of an ecosystem that needs to thrive based on harmony. Just thinking about one’s own self would not lead to that. So on that note, I really want to take more time out to share my thoughts with more people. To touch as many lives as possible. If there’s one thing that no one ever educates us about, it is emotional well-being. And I think as a first step, we need to start educating ourselves on that. And maybe then, along the way somewhere, I’ll understand what success actually means.