Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stereotypes really?

The Girl in the Hat wrote:
Is it true, she asked,
That you
Wash your clothes in rivers
Sleep on nails
Climb up ropes...
Burn your widows
Hmm. Looks like we do.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Sometime back, on the urging of my friend PM (an ardent Matrix fan), I watched the first part of the trilogy. At the scene where Morpheus tells Neo, "Free your mind!" and jumps from the top of one building to another, I asked PM, "Have you read Richard Bach's Illusions?"

Monday, May 16, 2005

On becoming a Master

I received my master's degree from Carnegie Mellon today. The Commencement ceremony (as the Convocation is called in the US) was marked by tradition, colour, and meticulous planning. It was wonderful being a part of it!

Some notes on the occasion:
Academic Dress
The academic dress worn on the graduation day is derived from the clerical attire of the monks who taught at the medieval European universities. While all graduates wear the gown and the mortarboard (the flat square hat) with tassel (that hangs down from the hat), it is only the masters who wear the hood.

The hood (originally used to cover the head to protect it from cold) is usually left hanging down at the back, and thus resembles a pouch. Since the monks were sworn to poverty, they could not earn their living. So when they went on procession (explained my professor) the laity dropped offerings into the hanging hood.

* * *

Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate and founder of our university, was born in Scotland and was proud of his roots. Carnegie Mellon shares this pride. The checked pattern that make up a Scottish clan's insignia (called a Tartan) is ubiquitous in the campus, lends its name to the university newspaper and makes up the lining of the hood as well.

The other major Scottish symbol is the bagpipe. Like the nadaswaram, this wind instrument occupies the pride of place on all important occasions, including the Commencement. Just as the nadaswaram weaves an atmosphere of sanctity and auspiciousness for the deity that follows, the band of bagpipes (the "Kiltie Band") lends an air of majesty and dignity when leading the procession of university heads and professors.

[And the School of Computer Science diploma award function was inaugarated by a tune from the bagpipe playing robot, McBlare!]

* * *

The Americans are predominantly an outdoor people. On weekends, they love to go hiking, camping in the jungle, biking long distances. Hence their idea of a perfect weather is sun shining brightly, with no showers. However, Nature takes a particular relish in playing spoilsport to their plans: It has been statistically observed that most rain or snow occurs during the weekend. This phenomenon is called Weekend Weather. There is even a joke: "If there is a clear sky after two days of rain, it is probably a Monday."

Thankfully, it was a perfect day for my Commencement, despite it being a Sunday. Probably it is a knack I bring from Madras.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Thy neighbour is a good man

At Carnegie Mellon, there is what is known as the Reasonable Person Principle (RPP). Put simply, it says, "Expect people to act reasonably." Hence students are not burdened with zillions of rules, and in return are expected not to find technical loopholes that violate the clear intent of these guidelines.

So, instead of saying something like:
"The student together with the delegates, officers, agents, servants, and employees of the Department and the Administrative Bureau, shall be, and hereby are, enjoined, during the pendency of this complaint (including any appeals and/or remands) and until entry of final judgment..."
a lot of handbooks (such as the one for the computing facilities) call upon this principle, or often simply say,
"Follow common sense and RPP."
Mostly the RPP is not even explicitly invoked. A sign on a coffee-maker in the Computer Science lounge reads, "Making coffee is not free. Please drop 20 cents in the bowl for every cup you make."

Even outside CMU, a lot of things assume the law-abiding nature and reasonableness of people.
  • At the public library in Mountain View (in California, where I stayed before coming to Pittsburgh), people check out ("issue" in Indian terminology) books they want themselves. There is no librarian with a specific duty to issue books and no security guard at the exit to inspect them. Similarly books are not "returned" to a librarian, but simply put into a box. Furthermore, if fine accrues on a book out of late return, members are not barred from borrowing till they pay the dues -- fines are paid voluntarily.

  • In the case of wrongly parked cars, the police simply place a ticket on windshield beneath the wiper. The owner is expected to go to a court on a specified day and pay up the fine.

  • But this really takes the cake, merely because the involved parties were all Indians: I visited the Pittsburgh Venkateswara temple this week with friends and we bought tokens for 2 prasadam packets which we had to exchange at a counter. There was no one at the counter (on which all packets were neatly stacked). When we called out, a person from within a room answered, "Please put the tokens in the box and take the prasadam." We dutifully dropped in the tokens; and two packets were all we took!
Another true incident to conclude. A classmate lost her purse, containing college ID and debit cards. Someone had picked it up and tried using the cards (she learnt this later from the bank). On being unable to use it, he put the cards and ID in a cover and placed it on a post-box. It was returned to her by a postman a couple of days later.

Monday, May 02, 2005

I have written a new article

I was today at a Hindustani concert by Padma Talwalkar organised by Spicmacay at the University of Pittsburgh. Seeing the accompanying harmonium unable to keep up with the fluid voice of the singer made me wonder How the Harmonium Came on the Hindustani Stage.

Look forward to your comments!