Four years in Academics

I completed four years in academics few days back. When I look back, especially at these last four years, I could see that I have added value for myself, to the student community, to the institute and to the nation as a whole. That’s the beauty of being in academics – you can add value locally and globally! But still, I would say that there were bouncy and flat periods in it, which is in addition to the coming-nicely-on-to-the-bat periods (World Cup effect!). One needs all kind of scenarios to equip him(her)self right! So, no complaints here.

This is how I had summarised at the end of my first year in academics:

In the first year my first job was to get acclimatise as a good teacher which I have done to an extend, now my priority is to do good research with students and publish well! Smiles in your student faces bring miles of satisfaction and that is second to none!

See this blog entry done three years ago:

With more administrative work that came on my way (as DoFA) in my second year it took a lot out of me, since (1) administration is a different ball game, (2) I had no experience in administration (3) it is not my piece of cake and (4) academics administration is not a difficult job but it takes lot of your time. During this catch-the-neck like scenario, I was able to somehow withstand the teaching part – I could try lots of innovative ideas to improve my teaching and at the same time, my students learning experience also. I succeeded in some and failed in some but ultimately learnt a lot more from the mistakes. Hence on the teaching part, I would say that on the whole I have succeeded by God’s grace. But the part that took a little beating was my research part. There were few reasons for this but the prime reason was I could not devote considerable time for it. Change in my area of research also added to that misery. But one lucky thing I got during this second year period was, getting two PhD students to work with me. I could continue the research part through these two students who, in turn, worked with my UG and PG students. This helped me to create a nice group / ecosystem as like in IITs and other world class institutions – PhD students working on the conceptual part and the UG students looking after the implementation and experimentation part. But I should note here that there were highly passionate UG students who got involved in research and came out with good results!

My administrative responsibilities as DoFA came to a close few months back and since then I have been able to focus more on the research part – now I am able to devote more time with less intervention from the other side of the academic quarters. With one PhD student seeing the horizon and another one feeling the horizon I sense that the progress is really good. There is no doubt that this is only going to improve further and further.

There were many small but important lessons that I learnt during this last three years period. I would like to list it here and explain how I tried my best to address those issues:

  • The most important thing that I have learned here in academics is to say “No” to things which I think are not possible for me to take it. I am, in general, a very flexible person in nature. So I had a habit of accepting more and more work that came on my way and I was elastically stretching myself beyond my threshold. This led to various stress related issues and I learnt the lessons in a very hard way. Now I take my time before accepting anything that come my way, and if I feel that it is worthwhile to be taken, and I deserve to do it, then I will accept, if not I will say No. Main point we need to understand here is that when you say No, we need to give proper justification, which may not be needed when you say Yes! If you have an objective and focus in your career you have to be selfish too. There is no other go! This has actually helped me to even out things and concentrate only on things that genuinely require my attention.
  • Other main issue I faced in academics was the issue of frequent context-switching. Let me explain what I meant by it here. In corporate atmosphere, you have a project at hand and you will immerse deeply into it. When you are working in that project, you may not get any other assignment until you finish that one. But in the case of a job in academics, especially from Associate Professor category onwards whether you like it or not, you are going to get both academics related admin work, in addition to teaching and research work. Hence there are three categories of work you may get: academic administration, teaching and research. Most of these last three years, many a times I have to hip-hop between various responsibilities. When you do that you may have to do the context-switching from admin to research, from research to teaching and so on very often. Even within one field, that is, research, you may have to hip-hop. You may work in various different problems with different types of students. So quick context-switching is necessary – and that’s where my problem was. I have got used to this lately by planning my schedule of work beforehand. If I had not planned for a work and that work is not of higher priority, I usually defer it for another day. That gives me sometime to plan for it. At this time, I still remember my Postdoc advisor Prof. Helmut Jurgensen‘s advice to me – one work at a time!
  • On the research side, I was facing a different problem. After I came back to academic from corporate life, my main focus area in research has changed from Theoretical Computer Science to Web Science. In Theoretical Computer Science, during my tenure as a research student, validation of result is done through Theorems and Proofs. But in the area of Web Science, Theorems and Proofs are not possible in most of the cases. So, only way to validate the results is by doing empirical analysis. The switch from mathematical proofs to empirical analysis took a lot of time for me to understand. I am still getting used to it. This comes only through experience.
  • Every research topic is different and within each research topic, every research problem is different. So, for a new entrant in a research topic, it is difficult to judge the standard of the problem and the results that (s)he is working on. Hence, when I met my research students I said that we are going to aim at top-tier conferences first for our publications. Main reason being by comparing our papers with papers at top-tier conferences, we shall come to know our level and through critical comments from the reviewers, we shall be able to improve on our negative points. By sending to tier-two conferences we may get more publications, but there will not be much opportunities to improve our knowledge in that specific or related topic. By using this approach, we have had almost 75% rejection rate on our submissions, but it has immensely helped me and my students to go much deeper into our problems which we would not have even imagined. Now we are at a threshold of acceptance in a top-tier conference. Hope it goes through in the next few months.

Just a few weeks ago, I was telling one of my very passionate student that life is not only about change. Change in life is not the correct word here. It gives only importance to what you are presently or what you will be in future – change is like ON/OFF switch – either you change to ON or OFF. But life is more about how one evolves – evolve, also includes change, but it also includes “how you changed and what made you to change” in addition to the lessons that you have learned. So, in a nutshell I am evolving in my academics life and thereby finding myself in my academics life. Hope I learn more and more – since, academics is to learn together!

EDIT: Corrected some typo errors…

Ahaa! Blockchain! – LNM Distinguished Lecture by Prof. Pandu Rangan

Prof. Pandu Rangan gave an engrossing lecture on Ahaa! Blockchain! on Oct 20, 2018 at LNMIIT as part of LNM Distinguished Lecture Series. The lecture was well attended even though it was scheduled during the long Navrathri days. The talk was supposed to be from 2 to 3 pm but it went until 3.30pm and actually the listeners at the end of the talk got the feeling that they needed more!

Professor started the lecture with a question – where should I begin? He answered with a popular quote let us begin from the beginning!  He mentioned that Aha moment is an intellectual moment. It occurs when an idea strikes like a lightening and Blockchain is such an Aha moment that has the potential to change the world into a completely new direction. In the talk he mentioned several Aha moments that I shall try to summarise it here. In no way this blog covers all the points mentioned in the talk but it gives an overall summarisation of the whole 1.30 hours talk. I am not an expert in this area so if there are any mistakes here I take responsibility – please mention the mistake I shall correct and edit it here.

He first touched upon the double spending issue in the financial world which had a big cascading effect especially in the Western World that brought the bank systems to almost a halting state. He added that this happens mainly because entities which receives payments are unaware of the fact if truly sufficient source money is available or not. This is similar to giving cheques for ₹50 each to two people when there is only ₹60 is available with you. Hence if the information about the availability of source money is there with all, in a decentralised manner, this double spending need not be a big problem – since such transitions could be rejected at the first instance itself. But if all the financial data is going to be with all, then we need to take care of the security, privacy, and anonymity of all the transactions.  Also, when the network is distributed it requires consensus.

Distributed consensus is a well studied problem and we have good results for the same. But here we are talking about decentralisation and not distributed computing, where we know various information about the systems involved like the name, the location, how many are there and so on. In a decentralised network it is on a completely nameless network with no information about how many systems are there (of course, we can give an estimate but cannot be exact), which are the systems are active at the moment and so on. Hence the complexity is more in the case of decentralisation with incomplete information about the network.

A man virtually known as Satoshi Nakamoto came up with this ingenious solution. Aha moment! He blended two concepts – bitcoin (a virtual currency) and a distributed ledger that stores the transaction information in chain of blocks. Each block created for a transaction has to be approved and that requires a consensus. Blockchain is the abstraction for several transaction pooled with time stamps. Here the sequence is strictly maintained. Moreover, here the only operation allowed is Append – that means we can only append to the existing sequence with a new block once it is accepted through a protocol.  Also, block rejection will be a loss of money for the transaction initiator. To avoid the inconsistencies the chain is built in a unique way. But, in reality, that may not be the case as there may be a chance that a fork might happen in the chain that may create two or more parallel chains from the forking junction that may lead to inconsistencies. Here again, Nakamoto’s work provides a way. Another aha moment! His theoretical work guarantees that by accepting the longest chain at any point of forking instances we will be able to achieve the uniqueness of the chain and thereby avoiding inconsistencies.

Professor quoted here we are humans who build solutions for the problems but at the same time we are humans who find problems in the solutions! Consequently this problem is not yet fully solved. It is evolving and new ideas emerging almost every week. The biggest open problem to solve here is can we prevent the 51% attack – a hypothetical, but still a possible scenario where more than 50% of the bit coin miners can combine together and pool their resources in and prevent new transactions from gaining confirmations. This will result in halting payments between specific, any, or all users (denial-of-service attack). This scenario might also lead to reversing the transactions that were completed before and make double spending possible. To a query from a student Professor mentioned that blockchain transaction would not be ideal for transactions involving smaller money. It is mainly meant for only transactions involving huge money. He also briefly mentioned about Ethereum project and its fully open source framework to do bitcoin transaction using blockchain technology.

Lot to be done, lot to be learned and lot to be experienced – hence this is an exciting area to do research and Professor, at last, invited all of us – welcome to the world of blockchain!

Two years in Academic Administration

I am completing two years as DoFA at my Institute today! These two years have been a great learning experience for me. Within 1 year and 3 months of coming to an academic job, it was a big surprise for me when the management asked me to take over the DoFA office. It was a big task for me but since I like to get challenges I accepted it but after a little hesitation. In this post I want to scribble out my thoughts about my learning experiences in these 2 years. I am not coining some of the points below as complaints or as a warning but as hard facts that I learnt the hard way. I am writing this in the hope that it will be helpful to young faculty members who want to venture into academic administrative responsibilities in their future.

First of all within my few months of assuming office I understood that DoFA is a unique responsibility in the sense that the office has to have communication with both internal members of the institute and members who are outside the institute. The responsibilities include taking care of internal faculty member’s issues, search, find and communicate with candidates who are aspiring to become faculty members and also with well-established researchers and teachers from top institutes of India and abroad for inviting them to the institute for various engagements. Compare this with other Dean offices – their span is either only internal or external or both but only to a very limited extent! This means as a DoFA you should have a good network inside and outside the organisation.

Faculty recruitment process is one of the most important responsibilities of DoFA. Here comes DoFA office’s efforts to arrive at a consensus among the departments about which one to go first, whom to be called for the interviews, whom to be called as experts, on which date to conduct the interviews (most people prefer to have it during / closer to the weekend!). This work becomes heavier if your office is not supported by enough people or it is not supported by people who are not experienced enough in this field – since communication with faculty or prospective faculty members require a level of maturity for “obvious” reasons! In my experience on one occasion, I had to stop the office from communicating few things to someone as I found a huge error at the very last moment when it was about to be sent with a click of a button. Luckily, at the last moment I found it and stopped or else my head would have been smashed! These days we use communication through electronic means. It has its own benefits – communicating with people is faster but at the same time in the e-mode making mistake or overlooking something is also easier! Since DoFA is overall accountable for any issues that might arise these communication has to be handled in a very careful manner. Remember here we may be communicating with external people who are not with the institute. So if we do a mistake this is going to propagate to the outside world and it will set a very bad name for the institute. Hence if the office is not mature enough to handle these, it’s better that DoFA does it just to avoid confusions later. Then more complications may arise – you may not have anyone to remind you of the pending communication or much needed followups. Many times I have put reminders to reminders to remind me on a specific communication that I need to do. Sometimes these communication might be critical if this is not done there will be a cascading effect. Sometime when you as a DoFA communicate with the candidates you may expect some lame questions from them. It all depends on you if you should entertain such questions or not.

DoFA is one of the thankless job – if there are any issues people will come to talk to you for several minutes together or write an essay kind of an email. If the issues are sorted then there is no one going to come to you to say that the issue is now sorted out, leave alone saying thank you! In fact that’s the nature of the job too! No complaints about it, but that’s what the fact is and one has to be prepared to face it. Few times I have got petty issues like – Sir, those labourers working nearby are making noise I am not able to work – as a DoFA can you please tell them not to do make noise? Well as DoFA you may have to hear all those things!

If you want to be friendly with all faculty members do not become a DoFA! In fact, after you become DoFA some of the faculty members may treat you as an enemy too! Main reason is some of them may take things personally and think that DoFA is against him/her – it’s natural since their point of view is “self” and DoFA’s point of view is “institute” – perspectives differ here. In fact, people who were previously very friendly with me have turned into people who only talk about the faculty issues whenever they meet me informally. So you may get more of negative news from all quarters and with all these negativism around, you have to swim through and survive – patience is the key. My character and my intention in life is to be positive, hear positivity, be constructive and move forward but the nature of the job was totally opposite to that and I had to do some conscious and deliberate changes within myself to get accustom to the new situation. It was extremely hard to do these changes and I am still learning!

People in academic administrative responsibilities always face this issue when looking for furthering their career (for example, promotion) – should the institute consider the admin work done by a faculty more or the research and teaching work they did more. It’s always a tradeoff between these two since admin work takes a lot of your time and energy. But it is a good challenge if you like the nature of this job. There are many faculty members I have seen who do these admin jobs very passionately. But considering an academic institution we must note down that teaching is an essential part of it so you should never neglect it. This tradeoff between admin and research / teaching is a big debate and there is no answer to it to see which one to weigh more. There is no single generalised answer to this. Lot’s of grey out there and it is very subjective in nature. But main point is we should understand this issue beforehand so that we may prepare accordingly when you are thinking of furthering your career. If the management is good and reasonable then I am sure they will consider these cases in a case-by-case basis. In my case, I never shoved away from teaching responsibilities that I got from the department. In fact after becoming DoFA I started teaching core courses for very big classes and started building my research team called Web Science team at my institute. For me, that’s the tonic for me that keeps me going and growing. In fact, that’s why I came to academics leaving out lucrative offers that I got in the industry.  To be frank, I would say I am working more harder than when I was in industry! Now I work because I want to work rather than being asked to work! Moreover, I was basically an unorganised person and I work in an intuitive manner but the nature of this office responsibilities forced me to become organised and be more rational. Now to become more organised I have started using Google calendars for myself to track down various meetings and discussion and Trello to note and track down the status of various research teams working under me. Technology is helping me to a greater extend.

DoFA is an institute-wide position so the decision that the office arrive at should take in view of the future and betterment of the institute. Generally my character is to make everyone related to me and around me happy. But the nature of this job is completely opposite to this fact! So sometimes when we make a collective decision for the betterment of the institute there will be some heartburns for some of the faculty members who otherwise might be very close to you personally. Hence the hardest lesson that I learnt after becoming DoFA – if you want everyone to be happy don’t be a DoFA sell ice cream! Basically if your intentions are good for the institute you simply should go ahead with a broad consensus.

A Journey through the World of Space and Beyond

Today was an afternoon to cherish. There are some events that happen and you forget when time goes on but there are some events that happen and sticks to your mind, inspires you and makes you wonder and motivated to ask yourself what I want, what have I done and what I want to do for the country! I am sure when Padma Vibhushan Dr. K. Kasturirangan’s inspiring talk for Plinth  2016 @ LNMIIT came to an end, students and even some faculties like me present there would have felt the same and will live with that kind of motivation and inspiration to do something good for the country.

Basically his talk was on the ISRO’s mission from 1970’s to 2015, his Chairman’s period from 1994 to 2003, his MP of Rajya Sabha from 2003 to 2009 and his present stay at INAE.

His talk started from his years where he started applying for research fellowships. He was very candid to admit that he did not have a vision or aim like to go for space organisation and think of sending satellites. His main aim was to do research work on Cosmic X-Rays sources in the space. But the events from then on and due to advice and guidance from the great Vikram Sarabhai and Prof. Satish Dhawan’s guidance took him to this stage. This shows that you may not have a specific goal in your life to achieve but if you take the events happening in your life to your advantage and excel in what you are doing you can achieve greater things in the longer run. This is a great lesson to the students.

Then he talked about his first project of putting a balloon in the atmosphere to measure some radiations in the atmosphere. First time when they tried on an early morning at 4am it did not succeed since the electronics behaved bad. But when V. Sarabhai met them and came to know about the failure he encouraged them and motivated them. Then within a week they addressed the issue and succeeded in their mission. When V. Sarabhai met them again and came to know about the success he appreciated the team and advised them that since you failed for the first time you would have now learnt ten times more than what you would have learnt when you would have succeeded in the first time itself. What you got from here – if you are with the right person and work hard then the success is guaranteed. Failures makes you sad at that moment but when you think in the long term it will be a stepping stone for your success.

When Prof. Satish Dhawan was the Chairman of ISRO there was an instance where there was a problem in the camera hosted in a satellite. He said in an internal meeting that the camera seems to be dead but an engineer told him that based on his simulation tests it will be fine after one week. This became a challenge between them to which Prof. Satish Dhawan promised the engineer that if he loses he will give his one month salary to him. To which the engineer, in turn, also challenged saying if he looses he will give his one month salary to him. After one week when the camera was switched on, it started working as expected and Prof. Satish Dhawan took a ₹5 note and signed and gave it to the engineer. Engineer got surprised and asked him only ₹5, you promised one month salary?! Prof. Satish Dhawan said yes in fact this money is five times my salary of ₹1 which I get from ISRO. He added that his actual salary is from IISc, Bangalore! These fun happening brought cheers to people and brought ISRO people together and helped them to succeed.

When Dr. K. Kasturirangan was at helm in ISRO he made the environment such that anybody can question anybody in the technical aspects and he added that this made the projects success percentage to grow. His main achievement which he himself admitted as the first success of GSLV launch was not done without problems. First day of the launch the rocket did not start. But he said that was the first time they had designed an aborting program that will stop the vehicle to stop if some thing goes wrong in the four boosters that surrounds the rocket. When they researched why the rocket did not start they found out one of the booster was working only 85% of its capacity so the abort program rightly stopped the vehicle from launching or else it would have created a mayhem. So even in the failure they learnt that the aborting program is working correctly! This is what is all about in real life – you may fail but take good things from it and move on do not get disgruntled with the failures.

His idea of lunar missions and planetary missions when put forth to the then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee, he named it Chandrayaan 1. When asked why “1” there, Vajpayee told him that why to restrict to one mission you can have many more missions!

He also talked about his Rajya Sabha days where he played an important role in the Nuclear deal with USA.

Reflection on my class

It has been years since this blog got updated. Its time to get started again!

The series of blog on “Reflection on my class”  as the title signifies will be a self-reflection on my classes in Unconventional Models of Computing (UMC) that I am presently taking for 6th semester bachelor students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, LNMIIT, Jaipur.

First class on the first day of the year 2016! UMC as the name itself signifies the approach to do computing is unconventional. But first before going to describe about what is so unconventional about it I wanted to broaden their view about what is computer, computing, informatics and computer science. My emphasis was about this statement – computer science is not about computer but about computing! I gave some examples to pass on the message that nature also computes. For example, bio-organisms always want to survive and in order to achieve that it has various layers of protection very similar to our human immune systems. So, if nature computes can we use that naturally occurring computation somehow to do computation for solving our own computational problems using in vivo experiments? That was my question to the students. I told them this is what is our classes on UMC about – we are going to see how to use DNA strands, peptides, cells and its natural interactions to build a computational model that give rise to DNA computing, peptide computing and cellular computing, respectively.

My next idea was to make them understand with a bit more insight into how computing takes place and at the same time the problem biocomputing models faces. This I wanted to clarify even before explaining the advantages for using those models. Perhaps this can be taken as a disclaimer! For this two objectives, I took the example of our human computing evolution from using pebbles, abacus, calculators and computers. I told them using pebbles is computing. All the more when we use pebbles we represent it for some other physical object. We are finding a relation, in fact an 1-1 function. In an abacus, the same representation happens but there is a manual intervention (to move the beads) needed to do the computing – computing here basically is arithmetical operations. We have an algorithm but that is executed by a human. Now comes the calculator it also does (mainly) the same arithmetical operations (little more heavy) but once the input is given no need for any human intervention. Operations are performed automatically by the circuits inside. Now comes the basic silicon model computers where there is a stored program concept where we are offered some basic operations and we can write a program based on those basic operations and store it in the memory and can be executed anytime, anywhere and many times too. Here too, no manual intervention is needed. But in biocomputing models I showed this picture (taken from DNA Computing book)

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 2.53.45 PM

This picture presents us with many questions. Some essential questions to ask are

  1. Processing happens in test tubes. So, if two test tube solution is going to be poured into one who is going to do that?
  2. Who is going to find which test tube has to be selected and which test tube has to be left out?
  3. We may use a robot to do both the above steps but in that case who is going to instruct the robot?

So, in general biocomputing models needs manual intervention. As of now there is no stored program or automatic execution of program concepts. But it has its own advantages if not why are we going to study these models, isn’t it?  We will see this in the next series of posts.