Tuesday, 25 November 2014

When Engineering Isn't Just Engineering

Perhaps this is purely an Indian problem, because it frequently crops up in Indian forums. It has to do with the high social premium placed on an engineering education, and the subsequent pressure on many young students to choose this specialisation regardless of what they really feel about it.

The argument against this cultural pressure takes many forms, but the core idea is the same:

  • One must only do an engineering degree if one is genuinely interested in engineering as a career
  • No one should be forced into doing an engineering degree if their passion is something else
  • It's sad that students are lured into engineering because of monetary considerations
  • It's sad that engineering graduates go on to work in unrelated professions later on

I confess I myself chose engineering at the university level by elimination, because I was not at all interested in medicine, commerce or law. I further confess I did not practise as an engineer even for a day. I went on to do an MBA, then turned my back on the management profession as well, to end up as an IT professional.

The movie "3 Idiots" explores some of the above ideas in detail. The main protagonist is genuinely interested in science and technology, and he then goes on to win over 400 patents - entirely as a by-product of his passion. A classmate of his who is really more interested in wildlife photography plucks up the courage to give up engineering for his passion. A brilliant student is so frustrated by the heartless "system" that he takes his own life. So does another sensitive person who would rather have been a writer. These messages should not be controversial, but I do have some bones to pick with the movie's characterisation of an engineering college, especially the IITs on which it is modelled.

For example, there is something very wrong with this scene.

"Provide a descriptive answer rather than the quantitative result of a mathematical calculation", said no IIT professor ever

But we digress. Let's return to the core issue of cultural pressure to study engineering, especially at one of the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology). I had a batchmate who dropped out of IIT to become a writer. Opinion was divided within his batch about the wisdom of his decision. Many of us thought he should at least have completed his degree before pursuing his passion. After all, one does not sneeze at an IIT degree, considering how hard it is to gain admission to one of the IITs. Fortunately for him, he did turn out to be an award-winning writer.

Now, another IIT student has written in harsh terms about his "mistake", and the article has prompted an outpouring of similar sentiment, judging by the comments following it. 

[...] there are many students like me and the system failed all of them

The system failed them!? From what I can gather, he is disappointed that he doesn't remember any of the subjects that he studies for his exams. Once the exams are over, he forgets whatever he learnt. He therefore believes he has learnt nothing and his entire education has been a waste. Along the way, he blames the poor teaching skills of most of the faculty, and the coaching classes that churn out "to-be engineers".

While no one should be coerced into a field of study they are not interested in, I think the author of this piece, and many others who criticise the "blind" pursuit of an engineering degree, are missing a critical aspect of the situation.

It is a fallacy to believe that the sole purpose of an engineering degree is to equip a person to work as an engineer in one particular discipline. Lamenting that one does not remember a subject after the exam betrays this fallacy. We need to understand that engineering as a generic set of skills has far wider application than in the engineering profession. Additionally, it's impossible to forget such skills after an exam, because they are really about learning better ways of thinking. One can't regress to less sophisticated ways of thinking.

The set of what can be called "engineering skills" include:

Mathematical ability of a high order. An engineering graduate is not afraid of maths. They can readily tackle problems requiring a knowledge of trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, Fourier transforms and the like. More importantly, they know they can pick up the concepts to tackle virtually any mathematical problem. This feeling of confidence is a wonderful one to have. Needless to say, advanced mathematics is useful in more fields than just engineering, and confident mathematicians are an asset in any such field. Finance is a case in point.

Systems thinking. An important part of problem-solving deals with isolating the relevant parts of a system from the irrelevant ones and considering only the relevant subset, which makes the problem much simpler and more tractable. The judgement required to draw an appropriate "system boundary" around some entities, such that interactions across the system boundary are reduced to a very simple set, goes a long way towards making a problem solvable. Systems thinking can be applied to anything from biology to geopolitics.

Mathematical modelling. This is related to both systems thinking and raw mathematical ability but is not quite the same thing. Systems thinking deals with isolation and with interfaces. Mathematical modelling deals with describing in precise quantitative terms how an entity behaves, and the entity in question could have been isolated in a previous step through an appropriate system boundary. By the "behaviour" of the entity, we refer to the quantifiable outputs that result from equally quantifiable inputs. Mathematical ability is then used to actually solve the relevant equations, but modelling describes the problem in the first place. Mathematical modelling is a general-purpose skill that can be applied to any field of study requiring quantitative answers, not just engineering.

Logical reasoning. Problems cannot be solved with sloppy reasoning. There may be more than one way to arrive at a solution to a given problem, but all of them need to obey a system of logic and to be justifiable. Logical thinking should be a universal skill, but unfortunately isn't.

I can't speak for all engineering colleges, but an IIT education provides exactly this set of skills. No question paper at IIT would ask a student to describe in words how an induction motor starts or how it functions. It would more likely contain a simplified diagram of such a motor with the relevant dimensions marked. Some values of parameters would be supplied, and the student would be asked to calculate the torque developed by the motor, or some such thing. Unless the student understands the concepts behind how the motor works, they will be unable to construct the mathematical model that represents the motor. Unless they have the math skills to solve the equations that comprise that model, they will be unable to arrive at the required answer. And of course, without systems thinking and logical reasoning, they will be unable to even tell if they are on the right track. If they can't do all of the above, they score a zero. The system is therefore ruthless, but effective in teaching engineers how to think.

A student of engineering who has been through four years of rigorous training in this kind of thinking can be a very valuable knowledge worker indeed. I would go so far as to say that it would be a waste of human capital for such a person to seek employment as an entry-level engineer. I think that for every engineering job available, the world needs to produce at least seven engineering graduates. One of them will fill the engineering job. The rest will take their skills to other professions that are equally hungry for them.

I graduated as a Civil Engineer but have never laid a brick in my life. Yet the years I spent studying engineering at IIT have profoundly influenced my thinking. Indeed, I owe what I am to this education. I hope the understanding that engineering (as a generic set of skills) is more than just engineering (as a profession) will help to convert some of the angst I see into a sense of acceptance and even satisfaction.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Enemy Mine - The Ugliness Of Cultural Arrogance

Australia and India signed a defence agreement today during Indian PM Narendra Modi's visit to Canberra.

Narendra Modi and Tony Abbott in Canberra

A couple of thoughts went through my head as I read the news, the foremost being how Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations had taken yet another interesting turn. The other was that this seemed to be a replay of that underrated science fiction movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., Enemy Mine.

Enemy Mine is a story of how two individuals belonging to different species (humans and Dracs) that are at war, are forced to cooperate when they both crash-land on a planet with a hostile environment and vicious native fauna. Suddenly, their own differences seem inconsequential, and they finally become good friends.

An ant-lion of enormous proportions is only one of the dangers facing our mutually antagonistic heroes

A pragmatic basis for cooperation: "You are ugly, Davidge. But there are things out there that are uglier than you."

Australia has not traditionally viewed India as a natural ally. Indeed, Australia considered the expansion of Indian naval power in the 80s to be a threat! (I was a student in India at the time, highly politically aware, I might add, and I remember being quite offended at the inexplicably hostile attitude of what I viewed as a fellow democracy.)

In retrospect, that was not surprising given the understanding now afforded by Huntington's thesis. As a naive student, I might have seen the world in terms of democracies and non-democracies, but I was not to know that civilisational identities run far deeper. Australia belongs to and identifies strongly with Western civilisation, and an even narrower sub-group within it called the Anglosphere. India is not only not a Western country but the proud flagship of the distinct and much older Indic civilisation. It does not belong in the club, and so any increase in its power would naturally be viewed as a threat by the members of the club.

However, in recent times, a shift in Western attitudes seems to have taken place. The threatening rise of yet another non-member of the Anglosphere club has resulted in the club relaxing its rules for membership, it would appear.

Something out there that is uglier to Western eyes than an Indian elephant

Witness Tony Abbott's address at Queen's College, Oxford in 2012:

As with all the countries that think and argue among themselves in English (that these days include Singapore and Hong Kong, Malaysia and even India), what we have in common is usually more important than anything that divides us.

It sounds to me like the grounds are being laid for an invitation to join the club.

Huntington had referred to Russia and India as "swing civilisations", meaning that they could either side with Western civilisation or with other non-Western civilisations such as the Sinic or Islamic ones. It appears that the threat from China (and perhaps from Islamism as well) is now high enough for the Anglosphere club to open its doors to India. Speaking English has given India a second-class passport into the Anglosphere club.

As evidence of this, note that even this welcome is being afforded on terms that are purely Western.

Tony Abbott said in his speech welcoming Modi in parliament,
Australians admired the way India won independence – not by rejecting the values learned from Britain, but by appealing to them; not by fighting the colonisers, but by working on their conscience.

The reader will discern that even when describing the seminal moment of India's rupture with Britain, Abbott is emphasising the influence of Britain on India, rather than acknowledging India's non-violent struggle to be based on its own inherent civilisational values. The land of Buddha and Mahavira, the culture whose homegrown philosophy of Yoga has Ahimsa (non-violence) as its first and foremost Yama (ethical rule), has no need for Britain's civilising influence! India was not just a civilisation in terms of physical infrastructure but civilised in a deeply human sense long before the badlands that became Britain could lay claim to any such description. After all, Gandhi did not owe his non-violent style of agitation to his training as a barrister in London. His legal training might have helped him craft specific strategies to take on the Empire, but his fundamental philosophy came out of his exposure to living examples of non-violence in his childhood, such as his mother who would not kill a scorpion. Viewed through this lens, the cultural blindness that the London-born Abbott displayed here was breathtaking. You can take the man out of Britain, but you cannot take Anglocentrism out of the man.

In Abbott's eyes, India acquires legitimacy only from its characterisation as an English-speaking country that has imbibed Western cultural values. There is no effort to accept India as an equal on its own unique civilisational terms. Any defence agreement signed is therefore to be viewed not as one between equals, but as an oath of allegiance administered by a Western nation to a non-Western one that agrees to submit to Western values.

It's a testament to the intellectual poverty of Australia's current crop of political leaders and commentators that no one has noticed this glaring statement of cultural arrogance, much less seen fit to point it out.

India and the West can do business with each other not because India is now Westernised, but because the human values independently evolved by each of them happen to be compatible. Enough is known about Western values, but not quite enough is known about Indic ones, it would seem. Indian civilisation has been based on philosophies that acknowledge unity in diversity (Rig Veda 1.164.46, "Truth is one but the sages speak of it by many names") and emphasise universal brotherhood (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or "the world is one family") even as they encourage the exchange and conflict of ideas (Purva Paksha, or a form of debate that mandates looking through an opponent's eyes). The civilisation could not have survived and evolved otherwise. It deserves to be given its due, not a condescending pat on the head for learning human values from the West.

Australians admire the way India won independence [...] by appealing to [the values learnt from Britain]

Can you see why that sort of praise can be viewed as insulting?

Much is made of the idea that Western civilisation owes its character to its "Judeo-Christian" roots That concept does have validity, even if Judaism and Christianity were long at each other's throats, and the vaunted "separation of church and state" was nothing but the Hebraic and the Hellenic aspects of Western civilisation being forcibly kept apart like squabbling children. Civilisations influence peoples and the conduct of nation-states. The Indic civilisation with its homegrown principles of unity in diversity, universal brotherhood and the acceptance of other viewpoints, intrinsically influences modern India, whether by the mundane non-event of a billion diverse people not erupting into civil war but staying together as a united nation, or India's uniquely non-violent freedom struggle, or India's leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. (The Judeo-Christian value of "Thou shalt have no other gods before me", in similar fashion, results in Bush-era policies like "You are either with us or against us".)

[None of the above is intended to imply that the Indic civilisation is perfect, or superior to Western civilisation. Three glaring Indian weaknesses are superstition, caste-based discrimination and the poor status of women in society. These require India to look at itself through Western eyes to effect a change. Thankfully, this purva paksha is already happening, albeit slowly.]

For India, today's defence agreement with Australia no doubt represents an important alliance from a national security perspective given its own apprehensions about China, but it is not to be taken as a sign of having "arrived" in any sense. India will only truly arrive when its allies demonstrate through word and deed that they acknowledge and respect it as a distinct non-Western civilisation with independently evolved human values.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

What's Really Wrong With Farah Khan's "Happy New Year" (And Almost Every Bollywood Movie)

The critics have panned Farah Khan's movie "Happy New Year" for all the usual (and wrong) reasons. It's too long, the plot is silly, outlandish and unconvincing, the characters are caricatures, the plot twists are predictable, there are too many self-referential in-jokes, actors are underutilised in their roles, etc., etc.

Those criticisms are superficially valid, but movies like this still become blockbusters for a reason. They're entertaining. These movies are not made to please the critics. They're made to please the masses, and the masses are pleased. I've learned to enjoy movies like this because I tell my inner critic to take the evening off when I go to the theatres.

Well, my inner critic may be away, but there's still something tiny that troubles me even as I'm enjoying these movies - my conscience. There's something big and glaring that I picked up on through an accident of fate. I have lived outside India for twenty years now, and I guess I have become sensitised to think about the world and other people in very different ways. I don't think I would have changed to this extent had I remained in India. [Disclaimer: The above only refers to my personal journey, by the way. I'm not implying that Indians in India are less sensitised than Indians who live abroad.]

The problem with "Happy New Year" (and most Bollywood movies) is this - it's racist, it's sexist, it's homophobic (or whatever the word is that means "making fun of gays"), it's snobbish about people who can't speak English, it treats overweight and handicapped people as figures of fun, and in general, holds everyone outside an in-group in contempt. If you're an upper-class North Indian male who can speak English, are heterosexual, able-bodied and not grossly overweight, these movies will have you rolling in the aisles at all the funny things those other people say and do.

Take racism first. Happy New Year features an international dance competition, so obviously we need villains, and who better than the North Koreans, for whom nobody can possibly have a good word? Good choice there, Farah Khan. Introduce them as North Koreans for political reasons, and thereafter refer to them as just Koreans, since the distinction is unimportant thereafter. Obviously, the Koreans are cold, robotic, vicious and cruel people who treat competitors as enemies and show no mercy to their own children when they make mistakes. Contrast that with our warm, affectionate Indian selves who love children and help our enemies even when they want to kill us. Never mind that we can casually let loose with epithets like "haka noodle" whenever we see anyone with vaguely Asian features. It's all good fun. I don't know if art reflects life or life imitates art, but I'm not surprised to read that Indians from the northeastern states are routinely slurred with racist epithets in "mainland" Indian metros. Anyone who looks different from us is fair game.

("Kal Ho Na Ho" was cringe-inducing when it casually injected racist dialogues to characterise the competition between the Indian and Chinese restaurants. Even that otherwise excellent movie "Vicky Donor" ruined everything when the female lead (who should definitely have known better) referred to a child with Asian features as a "ching-chong" - at 1:57:20).

We've of course seen this trait in non-Indians as well - the practice of casting people other than ourselves as dangerous and cruel barbarians and ourselves as brave, wonderful, civilised people. Remember the "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch by brave US soldiers from that terrible fedayeen-infested Iraqi hospital where she was being treated for her injuries by demonic doctors and psychopathic nurses?

Seriously, the practice of demonising the "other" has to stop.

Sexism - where do we even begin? I'l just talk about one scene in Happy New Year. We have Deepika Padukone as the dancer who is engaged by this group of men to teach them dancing. She's their teacher, for goodness's sake, but in the very next scene, she's going around the table, serving tea to all the seated men. Seriously!? (Yes, I know, the point of that scene was to show that she carries a torch for captain Charlie because she gives him his tea in a special mug, but I would have chosen another way to make that point).

Homophobia or something like it - Indian movies probably can't be accused of gay-bashing, but that's because they engage in gay-shaming. Gays have been a major source of merriment in Bollywood. They're effeminate and ridiculous and do the most creepy things, and of course all the main (straight) characters share a good laugh at them with the audience. Oh, gays are so funny!

Classism - England and America may be two countries separated by the same language, as Bernard Shaw said, but India is one country divided in two by that same language. Those who don't know English either aspire to learn it or want to rid India of it (sometimes at the same time), and those who speak it look down on those who don't. Happy New Year takes all these traits and rubs it in our faces. The scene where our supposedly wonderful English-speaking hero insults the female lead in the vilest sexist terms within her hearing, then charms her back by speaking to her in English just made me feel ... bad. But there was a redeeming feature, however unintended. The female lead's consistent quest for respect, which then makes her one of the most respectable characters in the movie, is a subtly powerful message for those who will listen. That respect isn't gained by her being able to speak English. In fact, the most fluent English in this movie is spoken by utter jerks.

Fat-shaming? In one of those humorous, musical, fast-forward interludes that shows our gang of heroes searching in vain for a dance teacher, an obese one is of course a mandatory part of the parade of unsuitable characters. (I don't know if that was Farah Khan's subtle dig at Saroj Khan.) Again, seriously, Bollywood needs to stop the practice.

The disabled got off relatively lightly this time, with just a few gags on epileptics and the partially deaf, but Bollywood in general finds disability irresistibly funny.

In short, that's what's really wrong with Happy New Year, and with virtually every movie that comes out of Bollywood. Indian directors should hire humanism consultants to educate them on messages that are simply unacceptable in other parts of the world. They don't really need to fix the weak plots and the cliches. Those could even be considered endearing traits of the genre, but if Bollywood ever wants to cross over to a mainstream world audience, there's a lot more basic stuff that needs fixing.