Saturday, 21 January 2017


[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here:]

While our apartment worked out really well from the point of view of playing music together in particular and living in a nice quiet neighbourhood in general, one thing we were mindful of right from the time we decided to stay there was the commute to the university. If we chose to walk it took us a good half an hour or so when it was not snowing. With snow coming down, it could take us a little longer and there were certainly times when we found ourselves huffing and puffing a bit or preferring to cover part of the distance by bus. But this was a cost we were quite happy to bear for the overall quality of life we were getting in return. A side benefit was that all that walking kept us fairly fit. And walking isn’t really a tiresome activity if the surroundings are “walk worthy”.

One of the first things that hit me when I first arrived in the US in 1995 was how clean it was. This impression persisted for the eleven years I was there and was deepened every time I visited India for a holiday and observed the contrast. When the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Campaign) was launched by our prime minister a couple of years ago I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that quite possibly no president of the United State of America ever had to launch a Clean America Campaign. Some things are simply understood there. It’s not that Americans don’t have their share of problems, they do, but not when it comes to basics such as keeping their surroundings clean. No one spits on the road, no one throws their garbage by the roadside – they use garbage cans and dumpsters that are placed for this purpose, they do not have the problem of drainages getting clogged by plastic bags and animals eating them. That one has to keep one’s surroundings clean is simply built into the fibre of their personalities. It is the obvious way to be and no one even talks about it. Someone who doesn’t get this is likely to face a few rather disapproving looks till the message sinks in. The cleaning, janitorial and municipality staff does their end of the job, gets treated with respect and is paid what is due to them in return. All this just happens as a natural course of things to happen. Till we develop such a mindset and make keeping ourselves and our surroundings clean a natural and obvious part of our personalities, no mission is ever going to really work. What is needed is a personality shift, everything else will follow.

It was a pleasant morning that Thursday as the three of us walked to the university. The bridge we used to cross the Wabash was built aesthetically and specifically for pedestrians and we always enjoyed our little walk across it. The river was lined with a fair number of trees that were nice and green now that it had been a few months since winter faded. There was a freshness in the air, the atmosphere was silent and we could hear the water flow below us. We were all with our own thoughts, possibly preparing and planning mentally for the day that lay ahead of us. There were lectures to be attended, research issues to be sorted out, seminar talks to go to, ideas to be discussed with our labmates and advisors. It was a full life academically and we enjoyed every bit of it. Once we were at the university Lan said bye and walked off towards the electrical engineering department while Prosh and me ambled into Grissom Hall, home of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the time. All post graduate students were given desks and a small rack to keep their books, files and folders, etc and we went off to our respective workspaces to settle in for the day.

I was going through the process of debugging a computer program at the time and here’s sharing a practice that has helped me keep things organized and minimize the number of bugs creeping into code I have written over the years. I think this approach set roots in me out of sheer necessity when I went through my Introduction to Programming course at IIT Bombay. The year was 1991 and the era of easy access to personal computers had not yet set in. There were about 300 or so students in class and we had to key in and execute our assignment and project programs through terminals connected to the Cyber Mainframe computer at IIT Bombay’s computer centre. The number of terminals available were of course limited and the arrangement was that each student in class would get access to a terminal for one hour a week. This too worked on a 24x7 rotation, my slot was 3-4 AM on Wednesday nights!

(What coolness! This is one example of an appropriate use of the concept of residential campuses that provide accommodation to all the faculty, staff and students of the institute.)

So one had to basically write out his or her computer program using pen and paper and go through it a few times to catch as many logical / syntactic bugs as one could before reaching the computer centre. The one hour given to us was just enough to key in the program, compile it, catch any remaining bugs (which were hopefully few in number if one had pushed pen and paper effectively), execute the program, take a printout of the results (on a large dot matrix computer that went rat-a-tat-a-tat to announce your success) and be gone.

While I certainly no longer write out entire computer programs using pen and paper now that we have easy access to computers and laptops (and the computer programs I work with now are of course significantly longer than those we wrote for the Introduction to Programming course), I still believe in the merit of doing a bit planning, either mentally or on paper, at the “structure and flow of the code” level to get logical issues sorted out before starting to key them in. I’m convinced that this has helped me over the years in ensuring that the number of times my compiler has to raise objections to my programs has stayed minimal.

I was in the middle of trying to make a computer program work and it must have been about one in the afternoon or so when Dan dropped in to ask if I was up for a quick lunch. We occasionally went to what was called the Purdue Memorial Union (PMU) where I would get myself something to eat from a small restaurant while Dan would open his lunchbox that he would bring from home. I had kept myself busy since morning and could definitely use a small break. Plus I was a bit hungry too. So I said yes and we strolled towards the PMU which was just next to Grissom Hall.

Dan, as in Daniel Bodony, is presently a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). He was doing his MS at the time and went on to do his PhD from Stanford University in the area of Aeroacoustics.

I made many a friend from all parts of the world during my years in the US. But there are a few of them who persist in my memory as simply superlative human beings. Dan is on that list nice and proper. The chap had a character that was absolutely free of any blemish at least as far as I could see. Honest and sincere to his very bones, his integrity simply could not be questioned or challenged at any time in any situation and his work ethic was absolutely stupendous. Plus he had a heart of gold and was always ready to help people around him. I’m someone who constantly and fervently keeps wishing that good fortune befalls those who make an effort to live a good life. Things have gone well for Dan both in his professional and personal life, touch wood, and that has made me very happy.

The essential lesson I picked up from him was that of the value of thoroughness.

Pretty much any research endeavour has an aspect that involves becoming and staying aware of the work carried out by other researchers in the area. One has to often go back a fair bit in time to get a grasp of how the subject evolved, what questions were raised, hypotheses and conjectures made, experiments conducted, solutions attempted, insights obtained, etc. And then one has to stay aware of the present progress being made by different researchers across the world. Dan’s thoroughness in this aspect was simply remarkable. I still remember the detailed and organized manner in which he worked on his Master’s thesis and wouldn’t be surprised if it is one of the better theses to come from Purdue, which is saying a fair bit.

The Union was a place where many students went for their lunch and one often ran into friends and acquaintances from across the campus. This gave an opportunity to catch up and make small banter about sports, movies, general developments across the world, etc. A few of our friends from the department were already there and we joined them. A frequent topic in such gatherings would be college football and basketball. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about college level sports in American universities and people follow the progress of their university teams through championship leagues that take place every year. Purdue’s teams were called the Boilermakers and everyone got to chitchatting about their prospects in the coming season.

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