ASMR

I’ve noticed that certain sounds somehow seem to produce an oddly soothing or calming effect. This effect is more pronounced through a medium, e.g. in a video or a recording rather than in real life. For example, the typing sounds of keyboards sound much more satisfying on screen than in real life. I recently discovered that there is a term for this – ASMR or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. The term itself sounds hokey (and probably is), but serves as a useful search term. E.g. searching for “Keyboard ASMR” on YouTube brings up ,well, hour long videos of typing. There is “Food ASMR” i.e. eating sounds and all kinds of other stuff. (This article does a good job of covering ASMR on YouTube). Interestingly, I think, “ASMR” can also be experienced through books. I’ve found Haruki Murakami’s writing to be a great example of this. There is something about the descriptions of cooking in the kitchen while listening to jazz that is so weirdly calming. On a similar note, Umami is a taste sensation which I’ve experienced but only recently found the term for. Perhaps ASMR is the Umami of feelings ?

Vapidity

I’ve noticed a bizarre phenomenon recently when I’m on flights. Usually folks fiddle with their phones like anywhere else and being in close confines one can sometimes inadvertently get a look at what’s on their screens. Now of course, many flights don’t have WiFi and for the most part you are essentially offline. What do people then do on their phones ? Watch or listen to downloaded movies or podcasts ? No ! It’s mind boggling to see many constantly flipping through their (cached!) content – mostly pics from their social media or going through tired old messages.

There are countless ridiculously easy ways in which to consume offline content on phones – movies, music, reading materials, games etc. Or you could pack a fucking paper book or read the damn in-flight magazine right in front of you! Are you not entertained ? What is this a symptom of ? A total capitulation of the senses that one continues to mindlessly mimic online behavior when offline ? Note this behavior is not restricted to someone who’s “grown up” with smartphones, but is across generations. I guess this is indicative of a general lack of curiosity beyond their closed worlds. This is somewhat depressing, but hey when flights soon get that cheap Wifi…

The Dolphins

This old world may never change
The way it’s been
And all the ways of war
Can’t change it back again


I’ve been searchin’
For the dolphins in the sea
And sometimes I wonder
Do you ever think of me ?

— Fred Neil, ‘The Dolphins’

Not skimping on the everyday

A valuable piece of advice I remember reading from an AskReddit thread was about buying items “When it comes to things that you use everyday – always try and get a high quality item”.  Its incredible how often we try and save a few bucks on everyday items. I think the tendency is natural because the items are usually replaceable. But the sub-par experience from a poor quality product really gets amplified. On the other hand, the joy of regularly using something well-made is subtly satisfying.  So for example, get a premium pillow that doesn’t get lumpy or lose its firmness after a month.  Same goes for a kitchen knife – nothing is more annoying than trying to saw through tomatoes with a blunt knife. Get a good quality chair – you get the drift !

ICSE 2019 – Reflections

I attended the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) 2019 edition hosted in Montreal, Canada. For someone who attended the conference for the first time, here are my thoughts. In software engineering academic circles, ICSE is considered a top-tier/premier conference and is generally regarded as a sort of holy grail publication venue. My expectations were therefore suitably high. My overall feeling can be summed up in one word: underwhelming.

ICSE 2019 had about 100 papers accepted in the main technical track. I tried to attend a variety of talks that I was interested in. (The talks happen in parallel sessions). This was somewhat disappointing. Most of the talks were quite mechanical boiling down to a rereading of the paper. I dont blame the presenters – most of them were students and the primary intention is not to dazzle, but to invite the audience to read the actual paper later. This is where I feel the purpose of a conference can be questioned. There was zero value in one being physically present to hear a talk. I found it much more convenient – to glance at the proceedings, pick papers of interest by looking at the abstract and then doing a deep dive if interested. If any questions arise – the authors are but an email away. This can be done entirely offline ! What about live interaction you ask ? At the conference, the 20 minutes timeslot is quite small to sink ones teeth into any topic anyway, so most of the post-talk questions can only be superficial.  I also had a paper of my own which I presented in a workshop.  Given the smaller nature of a workshop, I thought that this could result in some engaging discussion, but time constraints seemed to have gained the better hand.

Well anyway, coming back to the actual content in ICSE – there were few “interesting” topics. But nothing really that got me excited. For a few papers – I want to channel Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park – “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should ! However, I will be charitable and attribute this to the general nature of research.  One always hopes that some of these ideas will somehow germinate into something meaningful later.

The other much touted aspect of any conference is the chance to “network”. This I must frankly say is bullshit. Most of the ice-breaker/mixer events devolve into two minute conversations about ones work and perhaps some polite small talk. I highly doubt if any sort of meaningful connection can be made in a crowd of 1000’s where most of the folks were worried about trying to find food. The amount of time and money I spent – applying for visas, organizing travel and accommodation and actually traveling was absolutely not worth it. Not to mention the staggering carbon costs incurred by a ton of people flying in and out. Watching slickly produced videos online would have made life much easier for everyone. I think it’s time for the research community to seriously rethink conferences.

Accents

Language is a huge component of self identity. How about accents though ? I’ve seen a lot of Indians having acquired somewhat of an American accent while speaking English in the US. This is somewhat interesting to observe. The accent mainly crops up during communication with non-Indians (although to be fair I have seen some who don’t distinguish). The accent itself is somewhat bizarre – neither here nor there. Some rolling of the r’s and e.g. saying “tack” instead of “talk” ?!  Well anyway it’s fucking annoying. Adopting an accent makes one sound stilted and unnatural – if one is able to communicate clearly, then why the need to change pronunciation style ?  I can speculate – the need to be better understood or perhaps the feeling of not standing out. For the record – I’ve never seen non-Indians adopting an Indian English accent while in India.  I would argue that an  accent is also a strong component of identity – try not to lose it !

Eating at US Restaurants

I do a fair bit of eating out. Here are some weirdly annoying things and nice things about eating out at US restaurants. Here I refer to the sit-down restaurants with service.

First the annoying bits:

  • One has to wait to be seated. I understand if there is a crowd, then somebody manages the seating, but even in empty restaurants one has to wait for someone to come and escort you to a table. The weird thing is that some random table is usually picked out and asking for a specific table usually gets a reaction as if one is asking for VIP treatment.
  • The US is a large and spacious country and restaurants in turn tend to be large and spacious, but many of them cram tables right next to each other. You can usually overhear conversations from around you. It can get super loud and on your nerves. (The Diner style of restaurants usually have comfortably spaced out seating and don’t have this problem.)
  • There seems to be no established convention to get the attention of your waiter. In India, “Boss” usually works, but here you have to awkwardly wait for the waiter to meet your eye. In busy restaurants, this is quite difficult and one usually end up playing a bizarre waiting game

There are some nice things too of course !

  • Water and soft drinks are usually served with ice. They usually serve a straw as well for easy drinking !
  • Portion sizes tend to be large. Plan to share 🙂
  • It is completely normal to get the leftovers packed. Restaurants usually do a great job of nicely packing stuff
  • Probably linked to the whole tipping culture, but in general waiters take the time to explain the menu and do a decent job of recommending items when you are lost

The year that was – 2017

2017 was a year of big changes for me. I had decided that it would be a good move to get back into academia from industry. There is an acknowledged gap between Software Engineering research and industry that I was personally beginning to feel. I decided to apply to some PhD programs in the US and try my luck. I wasn’t too sure about my chances about being accepted since I had reasonably good amount of work experience and it was a while since I had been in school. Consequently, in my statement of purpose I reflected on interesting research problems that stemmed from my work experience. Given, that Software Engineering is an applied field, I think this resonated well with the universities. (If you are a mid career professional looking to apply to a PhD program – do reach out to me, I can perhaps help you in your journey !) I was fortunate to be offered an admission at USC. Fast forward and I am now part of the Software Architecture research group and completed my first semester.

It has been a change of location for me too – I moved from one huge metropolis to another. Bangalore to Los Angeles. 2018 is going to a busy year for me and will hopefully be a productive one.

Happy new year !

What is life ?

Fireflies at Ochanomizu LACMA M.71.100.82

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
— Chief Crowfoot, 1890

Beauty and the Beast

We recognize the idea of beauty easily. A good looking person, a nice house or even something as simple as a well manicured lawn. However, I am concerned that this notion of beauty and aesthetics is rapidly disappearing from the Indian mindset. There is a very narrow minded approach to brute force functionality – if it works, what else do you need ? For instance, take TV cables – cable operators run wiring between houses in a haphazard manner. Bunches of ugly cable dangling from junction boxes placed between trees. Telephone wires running from the pole to the house.
Ugly cell phone towers marring the city skyline – why don’t we see them abroad ? This is because pains are taken to ensure that they are well concealed and inconspicuous. Civil work is another case in point. If an old building needs to be retrofitted, it is done in the most ghastly manner. External plumbing with pipes sticking out of the exterior. If you want to drill outlets for AC’s – usually someone just hammers out a hole in the wall and pushes a pipe through it. What the fuck. Public gardens have wild grass growing everywhere. Mow the lawn damn it !
None of our public spaces have simple things such as flower beds or just a patch of grass. These are just small things that go a long way.

Shitennoj honbo garden06s3200.jpg
More Zen Gardens Please ! (Image courtesy : Wikipedia)

What is the problem ? Is it laziness or is it a deeper cultural thing ? I would really argue that it is more of a mindset problem. The Japanese for example have a famously strong sense of aesthetics. It is ingrained in their culture and is very much a part of their daily life. I remember reading somewhere that at the beginning of the century, potential Japanese civil servants had to write an essay on beauty as part of their selection critiera. No doubt, India has a rich tradition of the arts – we have some of the greatest monuments, glorious sculptures, handicrafts and art forms, but this I think has remained largely silo-ed. The general public today has no time for them and does not care for them.

I think this is a worrying trend. The lack of understanding or appreciation of aesthetics will reflect poorly elsewhere. In our buildings, in the things we produce and yes even in the software we write. How can this be remedied ? Education as always is the answer. More focus on the arts and exposure to good design in professional courses should at least plant the right ideas. Point in case, nobody demands more NID‘s, but there is a strong demand for IIT‘s. It’s time we combine the two.