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Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

I was surfing the web aimlessly when I came across this sad news:

Swedish mountaineer and professional skier Fredrik Ericsson died Friday while trying to summit K2 in Pakistan, his friend David Schipper told CNN in a telephone interview.

The incident occurred between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. as Ericsson was attempting to become the first man to ski from the summit to base camp, said Schipper, who said he learned of the accident on the world’s second-tallest peak in a satellite call from fellow climber Fabrizio Zangrilli.

[…]

Ericsson, along with his climbing partners Trey Cook and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, had begun the summit push between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. in low-visibility weather.

After several hours of climbing, they approached the bottom of the bottleneck. At this point, Cook returned to Camp 4, leaving Kaltenbrunner and Ericsson to continue their ascent.

As Ericsson was attempting to fix ropes to the snow and ice along the route he “lost his purchase and was unable to arrest his fall,” Schipper said.

Ericsson’s body, resting at about 7,000 meters, will remain where it fell, Schipper said on Ericsson’s website.

“His parents have requested it remain in the mountains he loved,” he wrote. “Retrieval would be exceptionally dangerous.”

Such incidents are of course not uncommon — many climbers die similarly each year.  The comment thread to this news report was also fairly predictable. One user wrote: I never understood poeple that would do a suicidal activity then call it sport! Another was full of scathing sarcasm: At least he died for a cause. Oh thats right he didn’t!

But what really caught my eye was one particular comment that I post below. It was in response to the derisive “Oh that’s right he didn’t” comment, and it is the reason why I am writing this post. It expresses exactly what I feel about such activities and says all that’s needs to be said to those who don’t get it.

“He didn’t even die for a cause”…

Yes he did; he died doing what he loved. He died pushing himself to his personal limits. He was in better shape than all of you combined. He didn’t rant on web sites, he was living life to the fullest for… (God forbid), HIMSELF. How many of you will die for a “cause”?

Ericsson isn’t a martyr. He isn’t a hero. He is just a man who went ahead and pursued his particular passion. How would the world look like if everyone else did the same?

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The things I do for love

Faces appeared in the window above him.
The queen. And now Bran recognized the man beside her. They looked as much alike as reflections in a mirror.
“He saw us,” the woman said shrilly.
“So he did,” the man said.
Bran’s fingers started to slip. He grabbed the ledge with his other hand. Fingernails dug into unyielding stone. The man reached down. “Take my hand,” he said. “Before you fall.”
Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength. The man yanked him up to the ledge. “What are you doing?” the woman demanded.
The man ignored her. He was very strong. He stood Bran up on the sill. “How old are you, boy?”
“Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief. His fingers had dug deep gouges in the man’s forearm. He let go sheepishly.
The man looked over at the woman. “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove.
Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air. There was nothing to grab on to. The courtyard rushed up to meet him.

— A tale of ice and fire by George R. R. Martin.

I applied for a US tourist visa exactly 25 days ago. I still haven’t gotten it.

It’s a frustrating process. One would think that the US would need hardly any time to clear a short visit for someone who actually lived there for the most part of the last five years. How hard is it to check my records? And if they are worried I’d try to immigrate once I am there, hell, they should be happy at the prospect. (But seriously guys, I get paid far more at Zurich than I would for a postdoc position in the US. And there are still almost two years to my contract. Yes, I even enclosed my contract in the visa application.)

I hate visas. And I hate this level of stupidity.

Yet, while they can delay my visa, they can’t stop me from dreaming.

So I wake up each day and think this will be the day when the embassy calls me and tells me to come pick up my passport. When that does not happen, I try to contact them instead. I call them, I email them. And meanwhile I get some joy from the process of anticipation…

It will be a long flight for a trip as short as I have in mind, but what the heck. (Ok, let’s see. If I get the visa tomorrow afternoon, can I leave on Wednesday and sneak out a trip for ten days?) I have no teaching duties currently, and my research can be done anywhere. (Kayak…give me the plane schedule. Sneak out a quick trip for a week maybe. What are the ticket prices for Thursday?) If I can pick up the visa by Tuesday afternoon.. Uh, never mind, I have a seminar and it will take an hour to take the train to the embassy in Bern. Besides, they will never start my visa validity date immediately. (Thursday maybe.)

I try to contact the damn embassy. Sometimes they actually respond! The last email from them said “There has been movement in your case and we are awaiting final ok from the consul”. That was five days ago. I sent them another email today.

And so on. Reading fantasy on bed — pretty. Dealing with petty consular officials — beyond frustrating.

Update (The morning after) : Got my visa!

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I stumbled upon an old email today. It was written by me in December 2001. That’s very long ago, isn’t it?

***

Suppose you ask me today … (no, this is not part of the email)

So, what’s worth pursuing?

Well, scientific knowledge is worth pursuing.

What about happiness, money, comfort, security?

Sure, all those too.

But what’s most worth pursuing?

Dude, it’s a matter of choice. Ever heard of freedom?

***

Well, on the other hand you could ask me…

In what way is your worldview substantially different from the person you were seven years ago?

Hmm, that’s hard.  How about greater relativism in my assignment of worth to other people’s goals?

But that’s coming back to choice again.

That’s right.

***

But I am getting ahead of myself.

There’s an institution in India called the Indian Institute of Technology. It’s usually shortened to IIT. When I was in school, it was commonly regarded as something of a holy grail by my peers. As the entrance exam for this place is absurdly competitive, only the best students have a decent chance of getting through. And most of them indeed make this exam their sole focus during their last two years of high school. This whole IIT thing bugged me to no end. To me, the only reasonable target for someone gifted was the pursuit of knowledge. In other words, research.

Now, these smart kids who were single-mindedly preparing for the IIT entrance test had no great love for engineering. Most of them were pursuing the IIT dream either because their parents forced them to or because they believed (correctly) that it would assure them a plush job. An IIT degree was proof to the employer that you were highly intelligent and hard-working — ergo, suitable for any job. It is not uncommon for an IIT graduate in chemical engineering to be wooed by the advertising industry, or a mechanical engineer to take up a job in the financial sector. IIT was your passport to a good life. And in my eyes, it was an abomination.

You see, I was a research fanatic. I simply could not fathom why a gifted young mathematician or someone deeply interested in the physical sciences would choose to go to this place. Everytime I visioned a smart person taking up a managerial position in some firm, something died in me. To me, it was the equivalent of selling your soul.

(True, a minority of students go to IIT and still pursue a research career. This is especially true in fields like CS. However, as far as I was concerned then, it didn’t happen at all.)

***

So, when I discovered that a very good friend — who was also very talented in mathematics — was preparing for the IIT entrance examination, I wrote her a long email attempting to dissuade her. The magic of technology meant that a copy was preserved and I stumbled upon it earlier today. It is an interesting document, not because it has any new ideas or is particularly well-written but because it showcases the passion and reverence I had for the idea that everyone with enough talent should do scientific research.

With age I have mellowed. Some of the prejudices that the email displays have little in common with the person I am today. Yet in some ways, that email is also very me, and it mildly saddens me that I would never write such a thing today.

For the purpose of anonymity, let’s call my friend M. It’s the first letter of the name (not her real one) I used to call her by. I also loved her, but that is a different story.

***

Dec 27, 2001

Well, about IIT, its a very good engineering institute. An excellent place for meeting intelligent people and studying really hard and learning methods to solve horrendous differential equations. And after you pass out, unless you are very unlucky you will get a much-coveted white-collar job in a slick office where you will spend ten hrs a day signing documents and contracts and tenders, attending meetings and handling lots of business files. And at the end of each month, you will get a nice fat paycheck…

M, I am advising you to study maths not because IIT is bad. But because you are good.

I believe that if a person is really good at a particular subject and has a deep interest in it, then he or she should pursue higher studies in that subject.The best should do research. Engineering (or perhaps, in view of the kind of job people actually do after passing out of an engineering institute, I should say ‘pseudo engineering’) can be left for the others.

After all if a student loves a particular subject and has a real talent in it, it is only logical that he should aim to contribute to it!

Of course I am all too aware that the vast majority of talented students join IIT. For two years thousands of bright students prepare crazily for the IIT-Jee, join coaching classes to get into coaching classes which coach them for the iit-jee, the holy-grail of all examinations. IIT for them is the ultimate destination. Indeed this unbelievable IIT-madness is an amazing sociological phenomenon-probably unprecedented in the history of any country.

Its also a vicious circle of the most heinous kind. Somehow, everyone seems to think that you have to aim for IIT– to even think of anything else is either a joke or an outrage. Its like the rats of Hamlin, all of them swarming into the ocean at the tune of the piper without knowing why.

Brain-drain is a term commonly used to refer to the migration of the best Indian brains to foreign countries. But here we witness the drain of virtually all the best brains of the country from mathematics,  physics (and other subjects) to air-conditioned offices where they do semi-clerical work. Like the rats of Hamlin, it is a phenomenon so absurd as to be almost laughable. Except that its not possible to laugh at something so serious.

And that’s a shame. Of all the shames plaguing the Indian education system, it is the worst.

M, I know that you love maths. And I know that you are good in it. Would you really like the kind of job that you will be probably be doing after passing out from IIT?

Of course an IIT-pass out is paid more than a mathematician. But trust me, as a mathematician you will be paid enough to lead a comfortable life. And above all, you will be doing something you love. You will be doing mathematics — making contributions of your own to the subject and teaching the subject to others. You will get plenty of leisure time. And if you make a truly significant contribution to mathematics, the kind of recognition you will get will be beyond anything you can expect to get from doing the kind of work an IIT pass-out does.

Immortality may be a silly idea, but a mathematician has the best chance of achieving it.

***

M ended up going to MIT for her undergrad. She is currently a pursuing a PhD in theoretical computer science.

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In a year when the fundamentals favor the Democrats so strongly — a slowing economy, eight years of Bush misrule, gas prices, housing crisis, Iraq, you name it — why is Obama still essentially tied with McCain according to all opinion polls?

Alex Castellanos offers a perceptive explanation. In a piece titled The Molten Core of Barack: Why Obama Can’t Win, he writes,

Despite the McCain campaign’s effectiveness, however, the best campaign against Barack Obama is not being run by his opponent, but by Barack Obama. It is Obama’s campaign that presents their candidate as an ever-changing work-in-progress. It is his own campaign that occludes our ability to know this man, depicting him as authentic as a pair of designer jeans.

To earn the Democratic nomination, as Fred Thompson points out, Obama ran as George McGovern without the experience, a left-of-center politician […] In his general election TV ad debut, however, Obama pirouetted like Baryshnikov. The shift in his political personae has been startling. Obama has moved right so far and so fast, he could end up McCain’s Vice-Presidential pick. […]

And as he abandons his old identity for the new, breeding disenchantment among his formerly passionate left-of-center supporters and, equally, doubts among the center he courts, he risks becoming nothing at all, a candidate who is everything and nothing in the same moment. […]

Dreams from My Father is a staggeringly beautiful book, lyrical, powerful and poetic. It is also the story of a man who has been many men, all named Barack Obama. […]

At each place and stage, as Barack Obama chronicles the chapters of his life, he tells us how he has re-invented himself, becoming the role he inhabits, though not falsely or in-authentically, like Bill Clinton. He actually seems to transform himself, becoming what must be next. He has been called distant, aloof and somewhat unapproachable, perhaps because we cannot approach what he does not have, a solid core. His soul seems to be molten and made up of dreams, which is at once breathtakingly inspiring and forbiddingly indeterminate. […]

This is the trap Barack Obama has made for himself, the one he cannot escape, the one Hillary Clinton foresaw, the one that may doom him.

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Randy Pausch died yesterday.

He was Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and achieved worldwide fame for his September 2007 ‘last lecture’ — a warm, funny, inspirational 76 minute talk about achieving your childhood dreams and enabling others to do the same. Though the talk was really aimed at his kids, it has, over the last ten months, been viewed by over 6 million people.

I won’t say watching the video will change your life — no lecture has ever done that — but I do think you’ll be passing on something wonderful and precious if you don’t.

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