Why pursue grad school?

This thought has been plaguing me for the past few months. I need to question why I’m choosing to study and do research for 5 years when in reality, there’s several other things that one can do. One of which, definitely, is to get a job.

But I have heard so many complaints against being in a white collar job – it gets too monotonous, it can be repetitive, you aren’t creative, your boss sucks, the timings suck, there’s no freedom, it’s just not worth it, you aren’t doing anything worthwhile, there’s no accountability or attachment; all of which sounded rather sensible and turned me off from a job So I started looking for other opportunities, other things to do with my life (as yet I hadn’t questioned why there was a necessity to do something with my life) – start a company, do research, or juggle (?).

Starting a company felt terribly romantic, you have an idea that becomes reality and effectively you’ve left behind a legacy. After a slight brush with entrepreneurship, I felt that the grunt work far outweighs the true mental work that I wanted to be occupied by (or so I still believe since the grunt work just wasn’t that satisfying). You can do it, and good stuff can obviously happen but in a day-to-day setting you may not be involved in working on anything truly worthwhile and thought provoking, and I wanted my thoughts provoked.

One thing I did through all this was to check out what psychology was about and what ideas it comprised of. It had some interesting and (seemingly) good ideas. I liked what it showed me. Apparently, it was a way to understand human behaviour. I was interested in that in the way most people are interested in understanding one another, it makes for smoother social interactions, and can, on occasion, give you the upper hand in life.. If I could make that happen, I would feel happy with myself, but in the process of going down that rabbit hole (why not mole hill? or termite mound? or tailor bird’s nest? Lewis Carroll and his need to tell his daughter a story before she slept) I got rather lost. I forgot why I was interested in it and started learning about this for it’s own sake, the brain started to look beautiful, and magical and wondrous and I was hooked. It was like love, not at first sight, but something that was built slowly over time, as with so many experiences. Once that happened, I haven’t actually looked back and questioned my actions at all, I’ve always felt quite sure of where I was going; I wanted to study the brain, How? was the only question I needed to answer. Answering that was tough and irritating, and still is really. There’s these random bits of information that just make me gasp in wonder and then, there’s all these bits which are worth knowing but reading through them and understanding them is such tedium that I almost wish I wasn’t doing any of it. The people who manage to get through life without having to face any of this, I truly wonder what their experiential understanding of the world is like, are they joyous happy people because they have it all, or grumpy sadistic bums who just want more? Dealing with polar opposites is something I’m slowing learning to cope with and accept as being part of any business, regardless of its nature; the smart thing to do is to find a field where the highs let you feel good enough that you’re willing to tolerate the lows. Neuroscience research felt like, and still feels like, it fits that bill. One thing that bothers me terribly about the way I live, and something I will really need to justify over the next five years, is how every action I make seems to need to fulfill a purpose. It isn’t really smart because I am rather nihilistic in my world view, I don’t believe in purpose at all. Yet, I can’t help feeling like I should be doing something that is ‘worth’ doing. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but it doesn’t feel intractable. And five years is the perfect time to reason it out.

Something I read (Daniel Lemire – http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2014/03/17/should-you-get-a-phd/) is that doing a PhD keeps you out of the real world for 5 more years. That’s appropriate for Computer Science for sure, but I’m not sure how appropriate it is for neuroscience. If it does, it does, and I’ll get to use those 5 years reading up on and developing thoughts that are important to me. And really, I couldn’t ask for more than that.

Also, another blog post I found, on similar lines, and a little more practical: http://jxyzabc.blogspot.com/2011/12/reasons-to-pursue-phd.html

I feel like many grad students have had this conversation belched out onto a blog at one time or another,and I might make a compilation of them in the comments.

National Institute of Mental Health abandoning the DSM

blogblueblood:

This sounds like a great idea, though without some level of methodology of how to proceed from here-on in, it would be troublesome.

Originally posted on Mind Hacks:

In a potentially seismic move, the National Institute of Mental Health – the world’s biggest mental health research funder, has announced only two weeks before the launch of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual that it will be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories”.

In the announcement, NIMH Director Thomas Insel says the DSM lacks validity and that “patients with mental disorders deserve better”.

This is something that will make very uncomfortable reading for the American Psychiatric Association as they trumpet what they claim is the ‘future of psychiatric diagnosis’ only two weeks before it hits the shelves.

As a result the NIMH will now be preferentially funding research that does not stick to DSM categories:

Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system. What does this mean for applicants? Clinical trials might…

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The closer you are the closer the truth is

The closer you are the closer the truth is.

 

Life seems sometimes to be a dreary set of coincidences stitched together in a way the you desperately hope  is meaningful. But in reality there are too many people in too many places who don’t really care, they just want to look like they’re doing something because that is enough for them apparently. In reality its so pointless. If all you seek to do is create an image, it will be totally illusory.

Henry David Thoreau said”….. , give me truth”. The rest of the sentence adds gravitas to that one phrase, but actually just that one phrase is more than enough. The one phrase tells you everything you need to know about everything you do. All of it is just a meagre effort at the truth. However many problem you solve, however many anythings that you manage to achieve, they are all triumphs towards the truth. What does this enigmatic truth have to be? Does it have a definition, a meaning, some direction perhaps? No it doesn’t and it doesn’t have to. Our life on earth is meagre  the change we induce here so insignificant that in reality every dictator, and every peasant in the timeline of the universe will occupy the same place. The only thing that makes any sense is to try and enjoy every little extra bit of knowledge you get,and to try to find a morsel, a grain of something with a semblance of meaning in it. Something that makes sense. We are all crazy, insane creatures, our ability to think makes us that. I mean sanity would be to just live and reproduce and survive till you did so, any sort of simple justice dictates that the confines offered by that route are sufficient for the continuation of the species. But we are so much more. The very fact that we are so much more means so much more is expected from every single one of us. Why? Because we can. Isn’t that in itself a good enough reason? That our brains can ACTUALLY try to see how the stuff around us works, how there is the truth in the things we see? And to comprehend that, its the literal equivalent of holding nuggets of gold in your hand. It’s worth it, it totally is.

I can see it in my head for once, and it’s a rare moment this. I just imagined myself asking this NASA scientist who was working on some problem -“Is it worth it?” and he said to me- ” I love every bit of knowledge I get, because the closer I am to the answer, the closer I am to the truth”. He didn’t finish that sentence but I understood. It meant that we should keep searching. Always search for more knowledge because that is where truth lies.

The cynics will say yes we’ve been doing that every moment till now, curiosity is our defining feature. But is happiness? DO you enjoy the fact that you have acquired something new – even if it isn’t shiny or glamorous, maybe its just a line of text in your head, a set of symbols or an image? DO you feel happy about it? Does it make you feel like it’s related to how the world goes around and the universe functions? Every single particle is linked to every other. They just are. It’s the way of nature. The more we discover, the closer we are to discovering why they are so inextricably linked. The future of man is definitely bleak, possibly extremely unhappy but that does not mean that our scientific glories will wane, they will only seem all the brighter for the darkness of the environment in which they are spawned. We should all nurse such discoveries, and help them grow. 

 Trust me. The closer you get, the closer you are to the truth. And the truth is the epitome of happiness. Search for it, and every single time you get it, cherish it and understand that moment. Life will become so much more. That timeline on which the dictator and peasant sit together just won’t matter anymore because you’ll realise that you too are among all those particles of nature. YOU are part of the timeline of the universe. 

An Outing to Dandeli

We went with a lot of hope and at least for a couple of days before it, a lot of bitching. By being elitist we thought we were doing the right thing, obviously, we weren’t, we were only leading ourselves further and further down a completely wrong path. However we somehow did make it back, there were still enough bread crumbs to give us the chance to make a recovery. And after that it was smooth sailing, and what a trip it was. We left early in the morning on the 29th of March from BITS.

We had our breakfast in a small restaurant(can’t even call it that actually, maybe a tiny dhaba?). And while the food wasn’t exceptional, this was a great beginning. As we passed through the Ghats section of our trip we couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty spread out all around us. Nature was at her glorious best with the sunlight making sure we got an exquisite view. We saw valleys of green and foggy mountains, we passed by a dam, and we smelt the wonderful freshness of the forest. It was truly rejuvenating.

We were in Dandeli after around 4 hours. There our trip managers(I’m not entirely sure who all this consisted of actually) figured out exactly how we’d manage rafting and our stay. After a brief discussion, it was decided that we would go rafting and then in the evening we would go camping and have a barbeque! That sounded like a terrific idea and all of us went with it.

Rafting required us to submit forms that said we were responsible for anything that happened to us. Signing off liability is always a scary feeling, it’s like choosing to let go of your lifeline saying “It’s ok, I’ll swim back to the boat on my own”. Nonetheless, it was done and we headed out.

Rafting required me to take off my spectacles and wear a life jacket. Not a promising start. However things soon got better. Immediately after we paddled out from shore we were asked by our guide to jump into the water, after a few moments of hesitation, I let myself fall backwards into the water. I love that feeling, those few moments when you’re in the air and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Then the water rushes into and past you and come up for air. We all loved it. We stayed in the water for as long as we could, but as we were getting close to the rapids we had to get back in.

The first set of rapids actually turned out to be the most exciting because of all the anticipation of experiencing a rapid for the first time. And I screamed my lungs out. And loved every single moment of it. There was a photographer out on the rocks near the rapids, he’s caught me opening my mouth as wide as it can go and shouting as hard as I possibly can. Every single one of us was in that state of exhilaration. As with all good things, the rapids ended far too soon. We paddled on as a team to the next set of rapids, screamed like crazy, then paddled to the next one and then did it again. After the third set, the guide was slightly embittered towards me for drowning out any commands he might give us while we’re in the rapids. The way the paddling worked was, if he said forward, we forward paddled, if he said back ,we back paddled, and similarly for right and left(one side forward, the other side back). So if he couldn’t get himself heard during the rapids we could rapidly fall into trouble, so I concurred and toned down my decibels. To be fair, I was just enjoying myself.

While the last set of rapids were the best – I loved all of the rapids, especially a moment in between when half the raft was on a rock. After passing through them what we had to do was steer the boat right back into the rapids and thanks to some expert steering by the guide we would go headfirst into the rapids. That was a crazy adrenaline rush, nothing else had made me feel so alive, and more than a little crazy. We would plow into the water and the raft would dip upwards because of the concentration of weight in front and the people sitting in front would be drenched by the torrents of water trying to forcibly move past us. That was truly exhilarating. When we watched the guides steer the water from the sidelines, we couldn’t help but be amazed at the strength, coordination and deft touches they used to make sure everyone in the boat got completely drenched. We did this several times following all possible permutations of who sat in the front and got the full blast of the water. In one of these sessions, Sid got hit so hard he fell over, luckily however he was holding the rope that is there at the side of the raft so he didn’t just float away. We pulled him back once we were out of the rapids and luckily, he was fine.

We had been told earlier that there were crocodiles in the river, by an unknown source. The guide had realised that Monal was especially paranoid about sighting one. So as we went through a rivulet that was shaded by trees on either side he made us concentrate on one shoreline and broke the silence by smacking the water really hard with his paddle. Monal was thoroughly frightened and shrieked so loudly that the people behind us probably heard her. We all had a good laugh at it later, but at that moment I’m guessing she felt pure, unadulterated fear. Well, nothing is more cleansing that that.

The whole rafting experience was unbelievable to say the least. We had all come together and enjoyed it as a group. We just couldn’t stop talking about it – how Natesh had put in the bare minimum of effort, how Sid had fallen off our raft when we were on the last set of rapids, how Monal got freaked out. We had LOVED it. Bobbing about on the water and paddling our hands off had given us a crazy appetite, so the moment we came back to the hotel we had dumped our luggage in, we went to the downstairs restaurant and cleaned up his stock of mirchi bajji and gobi manchurian. After a few quick baths we were taken to our campsite. We had been informed that if we chose to we could barbeque on the bonfire so we had brought an assortment of vegetables and seasoning and immediately proceeded to cut and place it on a grill. After many many rounds of trial and error, we finally got a few passably cooked vegetables. By this point we were all engaged in different activities, some of us were dancing, some just sitting , some cooking and some exploring the place. This campsite was not very camp-like, except for the fact that we had to sleep in tents – everything was very well organised and we even got dinner. We thought we were going to barbeque our dinner – if we had we might’ve gone hungry.

In the night we all started hearing something odd. A bird with a very peculiar call went on incessantly. That coupled with the camp head telling us not to head out searching for it made us very anxious, and some of us rather paranoid. Theories started floating around that it was a recorded tone, set to make us feel we were in nature, maybe someone was imitating it, maybe there was no bird. Regardless we went on with our business and slowly forgot about the bird. We never ended up sighting it actually.

After dinner we sat together and tried to narrate horror stories around the fire. Thanks to the paucity of horror story knowledge, that died out very quickly and we degraded into small groups managing their own discussions. I ended up in a particularly interesting one where we discussed how most of science turned out to be empirical  and through trial and error we ended up at a state of six sigma where the discoveries that were made were 99.99% correct. Another thought was that maybe in between these discoveries and the actual truth of nature we could see God, maybe that was our bridge. The others discussed poems and a menagerie of other topics. The rafting took it’s toll on me and I waddled off to sleep.

The morning turned out to be really beautiful and clear. We had been promised a morning trek and as soon as we woke we headed out on what turned out to be more of a walk. But it was serene and peaceful so walking around itself was a wonderful thing to do. We walked till the riverside where we stood and took pictures for a while before returning to camp where we ate breakfast.

Right after, Shreyas, Monal and I went out in search of a peacock that Shreyas had sighted. We walked through the woods randomly hoping to see something – maybe even that weird bird with the excessively well timed calls. I was desperately hoping to catch a sight of it. While our walk turned out to be fruitless in finding interesting birds, we somehow walked into a family of langurs who proceeded to take offence at our unwelcome visit and advertised their unhappiness. They threw stuff at us and we walked away very quickly.  After returning to camp we made the final preparations, paid our bill and walked out a happy bunch, excited about our next adventure. There was a small caveat to our happiness – Akshay R K had gotten hurt when he’d climbed a tree on our morning walk so we had to figure out where he could be checked up to make sure it wasn’t anything serious. We decided to drive to Kaiga and work it out there.

On our way there we stopped at Syntheri rocks. Syntheri rocks is this beautiful monolith built by years of the rock being worn down by the river. This towering structure is covered in beehives and at the bottom there was a cavernous area where bats lived, possibly in the millions. These bats perennially chose to defecate on the rocks on which we had to walk or so we believed. We walked around and marveled at how beautiful the place was. Apparently the area was rather fatal because of whirlpools so we tried to find a shallow area upstream where we could enter the water. We found a path around the rocks and rested peacefully in that place until we were told we could wait no longer. Akshay couldn’t walk down the steps so he’d remained in the car this whole time, so we needed to hurry up and get back. After what felt like far too short a time we headed back to our cabs and on to Kaiga.

The way there was slightly nauseating and tiring but we got there eventually. However by now it was 4 and most of us were starving so after a cursory lookover of our rooms we got out and went hunting for a restaurant that was still open. Shreyas, Pravinya and I decided to go out searching first and if we found something we would come back and tell the others. I had gotten pretty cranky by now thanks to the lack of food however some bananas put a temporary rest to it. While we were walking ahead, the rest of our motley crew, inspired by hunger I imagine had walked ahead nearly till where we were and then caught autos to a hotel Ankita nearby that was said to be open. Once we saw that, we thought we would walk till the hotel. However our cab came by(this was actually the root of all evil here, since it was the lack of the cab drivers that was forcing us to walk) and we first took Akshay R K to the nearby hospital where a nurse applied a cold pad and sent us back saying he should get it x-ray’d soon. We came back and ate lunch at Hotel Ankita before heading back to the hostel we were staying at in Kaiga.

In the evening we headed out to Kadra dam where we all just walked around, the water turned out to be too dirty for us to get into and we weren’t allowed access to the dam so we were stuck to taking pictures and talking. After exploring all we could we headed back to the hostel. We spent the night talking about anything and everything and had a great time at it, finally sleeping just as Monal woke up at 4. Monal had, in the afternoon gotten a headache and wasn’t feeling well, though by 4 in the mornign she said she was fine, but sadly, that was just when all of us chose to go and get some rest. I wonder how long she stayed up after that.

The next morning we got up early, ate at Ankita and headed out to Palolem, the plan being that those of us who wanted to go to Palolem stayed in one cab and the other one headed back to campus. We split up a few kilometers out from Palolem. Those of us who went to Palolem went on to do some kayaking. Kayaking felt wonderful. However thanks to my rather pathetic eyesight, going alone was not an option, so I went doubles with Sachin. Monal gave going solo a shot but somehow her kayak just refused to move so she decided to join Akshay. The most interesting point of the kayaking was when the kayak Akshay and Monal were on capsized. After laughing at them a bit, we helped them out and all of us headed back to shore. Palolem beach has great waters and sand but the only deterrent is how excessively salty the water is. That gets tiring really quickly.

We had a lavish lunch at Cafe Del Mar and just talked. But right after eating Francis realised that he hadn’t found his wallet. After a great deal of searching, talking to lifeguards and walking up and down the beach we were forced to conclude that it was lost. We’d all put our wallets and phones into a camera bag, but thanks to an overflow of them, Francis’ had somehow, somewhere on transit, fallen out. There was a slightly happy end to that story in that he ended up getting it back later thanks to someone having found it. While the money was gone, he was saved the trouble of reapplying for the essential “cards”.

Around 4 we headed back to campus. We were back at BITS Pilani, K.K. Birla Goa Campus by 6 and proceeded to have our final photography session, doing some crazy things that everyone stared at us for. It was worth it. Totally. Image

Well that was SUPPOSED to be DANDELI. But it didn’t really work out. Who cares ;)

Image

That was us, from left to right – Sam, Natesh, Anand, Sachin, Nishant, Anirudh(Me!),Francis, Sid, Mihir, Akshay S, (right to left)Shreyas, Monal, Shashank, Preetam, Akshay R K,(left to right again) Aditi, Madhu and Pravinya.

Tragedy, Love, Hate, Fear and Commentators

Sitting inside a closed room all day talking about cricket doesn’t sound too bad.

Many of their pithy statements are too forced, they’re hesitant to say something truly antagonistic towards any team since team secularity seems enforced through peer pressure and there’s very little camaraderie. In the middle of all that, when you think about the players many of these men used to be, you see that the excitement doesn’t exist for them anymore except in their imagination. You can really understand why they might create tremendous drama in their heads.
So then we as the audience have to experience all the ‘oh this is going to be a nail biting finish’ after 10 overs when England are at 42-0.Though, moving along a tangent of thought, I don’t imagine we would enjoy it as much otherwise. I mean, the bigger picture doesn’t exist yet so we need someone to light the way. If you’d truly believe the commentators however there’s always a great battle afoot – one with mighty soldiers and fire-breathing dragons and glorious wins and just as magnificent defeats, with an amazing eventful journey in between. Fantasy is just my comparison point, pick your own.
Life itself feels so pointless without that – some level of imagination. Some would say its pointless with it.
Try to think of your favorite novel /movie of all time and imagine yourself as the protagonist – now twist your whole life around that peg. Make it all fit like a big jigsaw puzzle – maybe the tests are your dragons, or that interview around the corner is. When you REALLY think about it, how real is real anyway? Its just the figment of your imagination that’s been given a thumbs up. On another tangent, it actually is according to some neuroscience research that has understood the top-down approach that the brain sometimes follows when analyzing information. For the layman that means when you look at a dragon, all the preconceived notions you had about dragons is what first comes to your head – before getting individual details in, like whether he/she’s eating olives.
For example I’m quite sure that I put in two pairs of socks to wash last night and ended up with three individual socks when I took it all out! I’m quite sure that the last sock has gone to another dimension where there’s a world filled with two-legged people who wear only one sock each. That is definitely from some nightmare cooked up by Dr.Seuss.
Or I didn’t put in all my socks. Which story do you like?
We all want some excitement I’m our lives – something that makes life feel like it’s worth living, feel like its worth fighting for. So make it feel like that. It’s entirely up to you – you are the author of your life story so make it dramatic.

Just listen to those commentators properly, and then watch the match with them muted for a while; maybe they’ll convince you that it’s worth it.

Rumpelstiltskin

Did I say Rumpelstiltskin? Gosh, I meant language.
 
Language as I see it is a very limited device. While through language we have learned to communicate a massive number of things and thanks to it again we are able to understand the teachings and learning-s of our ancestors, in reality, it’s terribly lacking. 
Why?
  1. It allows people to dissemble far too easily. To persuade another’s mind of something that is vague and shapeless while seeming to be terribly clear. This is not a personal attack on people but just a way humanity survives and compromises. We’re a little helpless to it.
  2. It’s lack of being able to show the complete picture – any description is incomplete without the authors entire mental state being described – his experiences with whatever it may be, his feelings for it, his thoughts, and ideas. Only a very very very clear headed person would manage to convey all that in words but:
  3. There are only a finite number of words, and there always will be thanks to the the limits of human memory. So considering the myriad experiences to be had there will never truly be sufficient ways of expressing everything in clear detail. To be able to paint a proper picture with words. The brush strokes will always be slightly smudged(and at times this may be what is desired so that individual interpretation is possible but not always).
So what should we do?
Well one way would be to tap into the visual area of the brain and try to map outwards what is being visualised in the higher cortical areas. This way at least we get to see what the other person sees, and communication becomes so much more effective. This way we can make sure that the truth is there for people when they want it. There are always situations where the truth might not be a good idea, so this mechanism should always support that conclusion too but in general, dissembling should be pushed out of contention.
Expand the ways we can use language. Make more forms of language possible, start exploiting our metaphorical understanding of the world better to make language more useful. Memory is a crucial aspect of communication so if memory can be supplemented or recall improved it would be of tremendous benefit to communication if it were used only in such cases. I’m sure there must be more ways to manage this but for now this is all I can think of doing.
Language is definitely beautiful for it’s capabilities but it’s time we considered it’s faults and made some concrete effort to improve it.

Retroactive Research

We study the world but what we understand may not be applied in the same place it was learned from and may not even be used in the same way. Which is actually rather fascinating since it makes a strong case for interoperability of scientific ideas.

We don’t really understand where exactly a lot of the research we do will lead us but we do it anyway in the hope and search for progress – the fundamental reason for being of science – an understanding (a complete understanding) of the world and all it’s inhabitants. Now how we use a lot of research results tends to be counterproductive – like eugenics (though I don’t exactly know how else they could’ve used the idea of genes at that time). Or so many other ideas that were believed to be revolutionary for their time but caused a great amount of harm in the future. A recently read thought spoke about how the Chinese enjoyed using gunpowder to make fireworks and then the Western man came took the gunpowder and found a way to murder people with it. You would think we would know better than to kill our species but you would be surprised at all the evolutionary tactics and protocol we fail to follow. We’re kind of dumb that way really(#that’s a reference to one of the first few Calvin and Hobbes strips where Hobbes has been trapped thanks to a tuna sandwich and says tigers are kind of stupid that way in terms of wanting tuna; if you got the reference I like you).

The question I really wanted to ask through this article was whether research should be more meticulous about how it could be used and whether the positive would trump the negative or vice versa and whether in response to that certain ideas aren’t made public. Is that a violation of something? I can’t think of anything.
Tell me what you think.