Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Other Side of Humility

Humility: the quality or condition of being humble
  1. not proud or arrogant

  2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc

  3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc

Why is Humility Treated as a Virtue?

Hark back to the Moral Studies classes you were given in school, and there is sure to be a lesson or two about how humility is a very important virtue for a human to possess. Perhaps a story about a modest King who sought to understand the suffering of his subjects disguised as a commoner was in vogue, or perhaps the life-lesson of Mahatma Gandhi who led the freedom struggle inspiring millions without any pride whatsoever. Super-admiration for the ones that are modest in success is almost universal - so universal that it must stem from more than just an inspiring story from childhood.

But, what is it that makes us admire humble achievers more than the pompous ones? Is it because we believe that they appreciate the fact that those who failed also tried just as hard? Society at large does not accept failures, while successful people are immediately put on a pedestal. Yet we still yearn for those "heroes" to be modest.

Perhaps it is because humility shows a lack of pride - a pride that scythes away at the self-esteem of the ones who could not achieve what they aimed for. While that is clearly a noble stance, it would also be plain vanity if one has to try hard to suppress pride. When one hears "Oh, that was nothing really. I didn't have to work hard for it - just happened", one might be tempted to either respond with "Just happened? Why doesn't it just happen with me?" or perhaps "That was NOTHING? How smart does he think he really is?"

Perhaps then, it is because we innately feel a sense of connectedness in each other's achievements. That we are all in this together. That one person's success is really built on circumstances, events, hard work and perseverance of many others. Having a great idea is pointless until you find the right people to bring it to life, and more people to accept it, adapt to it and spread the good word. Maybe that is why most Academy Awards speeches are adorned with gratitude for everyone from family to filming staff to fans. And we lap them up despite them all sounding the same.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” - Isaac Newton.

Spiritual Humility

Humility as a virtue is defined as a basic necessity for achieving any spiritual realization uniformly by all religions across the world. Pride and Hubris are solemnly criticized as blinding factors that only feed one's ego and bloat it further. To take pride in one's actions and achievements is indeed marginalizing everything else except one's ego, to deny that there is something bigger than one can fathom at play when one succeeds or fails in what they will to do.

The life of the moral man is plain, and yet not unattractive; it is simple, and yet full of grace; it is easy, and yet methodical. He knows that accomplishment of great things consists in doing little things well.
He knows that great effects are produced by small causes. He knows the
evidence and reality of what cannot be perceived by the senses. Thus he
is enabled to enter into the world of ideas and morals.
- The Doctrine of the Mean.

A rabbit that a huntsman brings,
They pay for it the proper price;
But none will give a betel nut
For the corpse of a ruler of the land!
A man's body is less worth than a rabbit's.
- Basavanna's Vachanas.

The Other Side

Like a see-saw must swing to the other side without proper balance, the practice of humility can also swing into self-effacement. In fact, many philosophers prescribe self-effacement and subduing of self-esteem as an essential part of humility.

Confucius said, "A gentleman does not grieve that people do not recognize his merits; he grieves at his own incapacities."

"To know when one does not know is best.
To think one knows when one does not know is a dire disease."
- Tao Te Ching.

"The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;
the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed."
- Dhammapada

Yet there is a genuine risk that this self-effacement can sink into self-loathing, which was never the goal of humility. Just as one must deny oneself the pride of success, it is equally important to deny the complete censure of failure. If it is narcissistic to think one is great due to their achievements, it is equally narcissistic to think one is the sole cause of one's failures. Like the other kind of narcissism, this negative narcissism can be equally blinding and misleading.

Mahatma Gandhi captures this best -
“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”

Perhaps why humility is regarded as a great virtue is because one who is consumed by the pride of success must then also prepare to be consumed by the despair of failure. Perhaps the best reaction is that of a mother at the success or failure of her child - you get a hug for trying your best no matter what the result. In success and in failure, perhaps the only thing we are required to do is study what we have been through, take what we can learn from the experience, understand the patterns for the result without prejudice, and stow it away for it will come handy once again.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Gift of a Lifetime

This is not a gift to my father on Father's Day, for he never values any gifts. While that might sound like a small quirk to some, it reveals so much about the person he is. Adorably referred to as "Pappa" since we first learned to mumble syllables together, he became, along with "Mummy", the very bulwark our life was built upon. When the papers remind you "It's Father's Day!", your instinct is to indulge him like many Fathers around the world will be today. But, you know him better than that. You are even wary of writing a post about him, lest he disapproves of this unwarranted indulgence as well.

My Daddy Strongest
As tiny little kids, we invariably see our fathers as a symbol of strength in our worlds. He can move furniture around the house and open lids on jam bottles. He never cries when he is hurt. He stands tall so that we have to literally look up to him all the time. Every now and then, he will come down to meet us, reminding us he has a soft side to him. He can play the right kind of music on his Japanese stereo that will put us to sleep in no time. "No" is never an answer for anything we desire and ask for. Things always seem miraculously and meticulously well-planned.

Only when you grow up, do you really start seeing there is more to the strength that a child can perceive. You see a man who has lost his father at a young age and faced abject poverty after his father's demise, and dedicated his working life to ensuring a financial security so that his family never experienced that. You see a man who yearned for schooling, but never had the means or access to one, and yet miraculously who goes on to get a PhD. And then you see this same man strive to save money for the sole aim of ensuring his sons can get the best education at whichever price. All this while, you still don't recollect a single instance of a "No" for something you wanted - a bicycle, a cricket bat, a computer.

From Father to Friend
Apparently, somewhere in the Vedas, there is an advice to fathers that as their children grow up, they value friends more than parents, and so a father must start playing the role of a friend as opposed to what will be perceived as an authoritative father. Pappa firmly believes in these wise words, and now that we look back, we can see the transition very clearly.

As we grow up, we start spending a lot more time with friends than at home. Fathers become peripheral figures, and only involve themselves in matters of extreme importance like arranging for the payment of fees, driving to our favorite restaurant, and signing report cards. When we fell sick, Mummy would be at our side caring and visibly worried, but Pappa would carefully inspect us like a doctor, and either take us to a real one or administer well-known Homeopathic or Ayurvedic medication himself and ask us to rest. When we started learning Mridangam, he joined us so that we would be motivated by his passion and diligence. Instead of always urging us to study harder, he would ask us whether we went out to play this evening.

At times, we would wake up in the mornings and discover him to be missing. "It isn't 9 yet. Then where is Pappa?". "Oh, he left for a week on an inspection trip to Lucknow early this morning. He didn't want you to wake up early and disturb your sleep." "But, I didn't say goodbye". Mummy would feel worse than we did and would break Pappa's "Do not bother the kids" rule when he returned back from his trip by waking us up to greet him. The memories of the joys of reuniting with a father are still vivid. Silently, in its own way, this would remind us of his importance in our lives lest we forgot as distracted teenagers.

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years." - Mark Twain.

As I grew up and life started becoming more entangled with friends, relationships, careers, competition and morals, there was one source of answers always readily available. When I would worry about petty things like being under-paid despite working hard, I found solace in Pappa's wisdom. When I would be hurt by friends or the actions of those who I spent a lot of time with, there was a soothing balm in his words. He possesses an uncanny knack of visualizing a person's problem from a few words spoken in pain. His response is extremely practical when it is a problem of the real world - career, relations, finance. When practicality is insufficient, like problems of morality or grandiose worries about life, he can readily shift one's perspective by saying something profound.

I now realize he is well-read in ancient Indian writings like the Vedas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and the philosophical musings of many renowned thinkers including Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi and Adi Shankaracharya. He has always shown a great appreciation for Science, and sees modern Science as an affirmation, and not an apposite to what we broadly term as Spirituality. Questions about the reality and relativity of Time are met with shlokas and references from the books he has read in the past. Mentions of the basic derivations of Quantum Theory are immediately tied to the conceptualization of the Universe in the Vedas. This from a man who has barely had the chance to study modern Science in school or when growing up, yet who immediately perceives intuitively on mere mention how these theories play out in our world.

It is said that humility can only stem from the experience of something much bigger than oneself. Whether it is a spiritual realization or the experience and understanding of life itself, Pappa is a model of humility and simplicity for all of us. Any attachments and possessions that drive us for more of the same, is only a downward spiral. Any ambitions and desires that wreck our peace of mind, are not worthy of our time. What flows freely through us, without disturbance, is the only thing life intends for us to do. If today you don't seem to get what you deserve, think of the times where you got more than you deserved; those times will come back again. Be proud of the books you author, the positions you hold, as they come with hard work and hard work desires satisfaction; but do not define yourself with this pride. Simple yet profound.

I can now clearly see how he tries to live his life according to what he has gleaned from his readings and his experience. Why would he want a gift to add to his list of possessions, when he is striving to keep the existing list small? Why worry about the expression of love when true love should never need to be expressly expressed? Why give today a special importance when indeed no day should be more special than others? Don't worry Pappa, there will be no Father's Day gift today. You are the gift of a lifetime to us instead.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Searching for Research

The debate has cooled. The media's glare has turned away. Everyone returns to more pressing issues. But, the verdict has long been announced - The IITs and IIMs are not living up to the global standards we expect of them. Why? Because the number of research publications coming out of these places are paltry compared to the MITs and the Ox-Bridges of this world. Heck, even Tianjin produces more publications from China. While we are at it, the teaching faculty sucks as well.

My only association with any of these universities was during a 2-year M.Tech program at IIT, Bombay. I have never set foot in an IIM or for that matter any other IIT. Nor have I checked out the other institutes that are deemed "world-class". I shall therefore focus my point of view only through my brief interaction with IIT Bombay.

Mission IIT

The process of conception of the IITs had started prior to Independence, and as noted on Wikipedia the intention of foresighted leaders was indeed to pursue technological and research prowess for a newly independent nation. The model however was one where a Council of Scientific Research would be at the forefront of the scientific pursuits, while institutes like the IITs would produce a trained workforce to man these laboratories. The Indian Parliament also declared these institutes as "Institutes of National Importance" that would train engineers for the massive infrastructure development and related projects a new-born nation would naturally need to undertake.

The emphasis therefore was on producing engineering graduates primarily through the now famous B.Tech program. The other programs basically mushroomed from this system that was for so long completely funded by the government. To say that the Masters and Doctoral programs were simply step-children to begin with would not be an overstatement.

Train, Drain

Under-graduate students are typically not motivated to pursue painstaking research, and pursue problems that require patience and endeavour. The IITs sought only the smartest young students to join their B.Tech program, and these were funneled through the rigorous and well-renowned Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). One can bump into some of the brightest minds, a few of whom are indeed even over-achieving for their age, on a casual stroll through the campus. Yet, mysteriously for some, these bright minds do not result in an over-arching number of research publications and innovation coming out of these famed institutes.

The reasons are varied, but sometimes plain to see. So many of these brilliant kids hail from the remotest parts of the country and come from families that are barely middle-class. These kids are highly ambitious, but their priorities are naturally more inclined toward stepping out into a financially secure way of life. They are well aware that the "IIT stamp" is a game-changer, and one of the single biggest influences in their careers. This career pursuit might involve a job right out of B.Tech or moving on to an MBA from an IIM. A few will undoubtedly yearn to move into advanced research, but they quickly conclude that this is not what the IITs were primed to help them do, and fly westward. I personally know some bright prospects, who even landed medals at Physics and Math Olympiads, that settled for plum jobs right after B.Tech. I do not blame them, but the fact of the matter is that in our country a career of research is not yet perceived as a financially stable choice.

In a way, the B.Tech program is indeed delivering what it was designed for - brilliant engineers. Whether we truly reaped all the benefits is debatable.

Shouldering the burden

The burden of research in the IITs then falls to Post-Graduates and more importantly to those who decide to further carry their work into a PhD. Most Post-Graduates can primarily be defined by the attitude - "I wished I could crack the JEE, but I will get into an IIT through the GATE anyway". The IIT stamp is simply irresistible. You cannot test for an inclination toward research in a candidate. You can only hope to entice or motivate them to pursue greater goals.

While some M.Techs will publish a paper or two on the way to a cushy technical job, a handful will actually be motivated to take their research forward and ensure it bears fruit through a PhD program. The professors are not incompetent, and many have previously taught in prestigious universities in the US. They work through pressures of having to meet stringent research goals set by the administration while simultaneously dealing with the problems of landing dedicated, research-minded students to work with.

Remember, that all this while, these researchers are working with barely any investment from the industry. In my 2 years, I only saw one keen investor in the research pursued by our Computer Vision and Graphics lab - Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The Indian industry has only just moved on to innovation, and we should see more technology tie-ups with the IITs in the future that pump money behind research. Until then, the research carried out at the IITs is mostly driven by the faculty and students' individual interests and can very often be fruitless.

Research is an attitude

While it helps to have brilliant minds to solve difficult problems and innovate, innovation, especially one that requires a lot of research, is often more about discipline and perseverance. You will require flashes of brilliance to leap over what seems improbable, but you will also need the will and rigor to help you through the rough patches where you seem to have run into a wall. Most B.Techs, and many of the M.Techs, do not possess this rigor. Their minds are already set on the IIT-degree-fueled career path (which is not wrong in itself). Why do we expect them to contribute to academic innovation?

Yet, there are shining examples that I had the pleasure of working with myself, who have contributed handsomely to that meager research and journal publication count that Jairam Ramesh is using to conk the IITs. Biswarup Choudhury has published in the world's leading computer graphic and animation journals - something that has never been achieved before in this lab. Where are the opportunities to fund further innovation? Not here. He has had to continue his work at ETRI, Korea. Aniruddha Joshi took up the problem of reviving the ancient Indian diagnostic system of "Naadi Nidaan" - studying the pulse to diagnose ailments - when he was still doing his Bachelors in Engineering. He converted this passion to develop a digital system based on the ancient methods into a full doctoral research problem, and went on to present his work in a number of internationally acclaimed conferences. His research is supported by CSIR, Pune, in the true spirit of how scientific innovation was first envisaged by the founding leaders of our nation.

Give it time

The IITs are barely 50 years old (except for the first of them - Kharagpur). It is not fair to compare them to the MITs, Harvards, Stanfords, Ox-Bridges of the world that have watched centuries switch on the calendar. Not yet. These institutes also have the unique co-location of innovative industries ready to fund all interesting research. India is only warming up to innovation after a nationalistic surge of freedom after independence, followed by the lull of the socialist policy era. It may not even be wise to compare this to the Chinese universities, where an autocratic iron will can force nationalist agendas through without opposition. Yet, it is inevitable that the Chinese output will indeed be the first benchmark we will aim to achieve, in due course of time.

More India-centric innovation, more IITs, more industries sprouting around the IITs, and a larger aspiring middle-class to contribute innovative researchers to these institutes - the stage is quickly getting set. How far can the future be?