Tuesday, October 28, 2003

That's A Segway, And That's All I Have To Say About It.

It's getting pretty cold. Late October in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it's as muggy as a basset hound outside. That and the 50 degree weather makes for a very moody way to start the day. You don't get weather like this in Malaysia. When it's muggy, it's always warm, and your clothes stick to your skin, and you can't wash off the feeling of gooeyness. Here, it's kinda been like that in the summer, for the past couple of years, as it's been raining a lot. But there was a time during my undergrad years when I thought it never rained in Knoxville. Crazy, just crazy.

In any case, it's muggy but not warm or gooey outside. It's muggy and cold and dry. And yet, it's misty, too. That's the oddity of it... you get mist which blots out the horizon, clouds which hide the sun, and your skin still feels like peeling. I honestly can tell you that that is the most depressing kind of weather I've ever known.

So, it's cold and dark outside, and it's 10 o'clock in the morning. Which makes it not such a bad thing that I'm in here in my brightly lit computer lab, where the view outside doesn't matter, because I don't have immediate access to a window from where I sit (aside from *Windows* haw-haw). It could be hailing Hungry Hungry Heifers outside and I wouldn't know .This place is probably soundproof too. It's just me and my computer, my thesis .doc file, my powerpoint presentations, and of course, the internet. What do I go to see on the internet on a daily basis, right after I saunter into the lab, bleary-eyed, coffee-deprived, and reluctant to start the day with something as banal as graduate student work? Let's see...

CNN - hey, if it's on CNN it's gotta be true

gamespy - it's, um, better than gamespot?

my inbox - duh

The Star - What has Mahathir said today?

... and from there it's just random surfing. I usually get a cup of coffee while I'm doing all this 'research', which hopefully I didn't have to get up to make (the coffee, not the research). And sometime around 10:30 I start wondering where all the time went, and shouldn't I be getting to work? I'll then open up whatever .doc, .ppt, or .cpp file I think I'm supposed to be working on, stare at it as I put approximately 1% of my brain power into figuring out what the plan for the day is supposed to be, while 90% of my brain does whatever it is scientists suppose it's doing when they tell us most people use only about 10% of their brains, and the final 9% (which supposedly I am able to use) hums the tune to Ken's pier stage (the one with the boat and cheering people in the background) from Streetfighter II. Approximately 5 minutes later, after I realize I'm in no mental to state to make any workable plan, I go back to CNN to see if there was anything I missed. Usually there is, because I wasn't actually paying attention the first time.

Hopefully, by lunch time, I have gathered myself enough to figure out what I intend to do the rest of the day, and laid out the groundwork for it, and (this is rare, but it happens) I have actually gotten some work done. Hopefully. Either way, it's time for lunch. Now, lunch is an eclectic affair. Sometimes I'll just go home, throw something in the pan, stir it around until it looks like it won't give me a case of food poisoning, and then put it in my mouth. Sometimes, I'll just walk across the street from the lab to Ray's place, where any number of cheap and easily accessible carbon-based consumables may be had (Ray calls it food. Ray's a nice guy, so I don't hold that against him). Sometimes, I'll join my labmates for lunch, and that usually means going to either a Mexican, Chinese, or Indian restaurant, whatever suits their fancy that day. Now let me tell you something about having lunch with these guys. I don't really call it lunch anymore, rather I choose to refer to it as a gathering of old fogies. Why?

Before I explain that, I need to talk about how this lab is set up. The lab is huge, with just over 500 students under its wing. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but at lab meetings that's how it feels like. We need frikkin' stadium seating to hold everyone in the same room. And with a group this big (more like 40 people methinks, counting staff and students), you've got factions. Not warlike factions, mind you, not by a long shot, but factions nonetheless. Cliques if you prefer, but that's such a stupid word, so I won't use it. We've got factions.

Now before the lab got got this huge, which was maybe a couple of semesters ago, there were only three distinct factions: the Faculty, the Old Fogies, and the Indians. I don't mean Native Americans here. I mean Indians from India. I don't mean to sound disparaging of Indians. In Malaysia there're lots of Indians, and a couple of them happen to be good friends of mine. When I lump them into a faction, what I mean is they tend to get together and talk a lot, in Tamil. They are actually a very friendly and cordial bunch. It's just that they tend to hang amongst themselves for social banter, which is very understandable. So, three factions. Actually there are a few more people who don't really fit into any of these factions and aren't really large or close-knit enough to be called a faction of their own. Stragglers, in other words. Nothing there to talk about. Nice lot, in general.

Now lets come back to the Old Fogies. Why do I call them Old Fogies? Well, for one thing, they are all comprised of Phd students. I myself happen to be a Masters student, and though I hang out a lot with them, for that reason I don't really consider myself on their level. I'm the Old Fogies' nurse, or something, wheeling them about as they yell about the poor service in this hole of an old folks home. Yup, academic seniority aside, the reason I call them the Old Fogies is because they complain a lot. And the favorite thing for them to complain about is how inept the Indian faction is with regards to matters of research.

Understand this: I'm not making a generalization about Indians as a whole. Like I said, I know a few Indians at home, and they are an intelligent, hardworking bunch when they want to be. Same with the entire human race. It's just that the select few who have been ordained by fate to constantly come to my Old Fogie friends for advice, pointers, tutelage, free computer code, and pats on the back do not strike the Old Fogies as the sort of people who ought to be doing graduate-level research. And so, lunchtime with the Old Fogies almost definitely becomes an opportunity to hear the Old Fogies deprecate some unsuspecting soul from Madras University who asked for their code for computing normals of vectors or whatnot as well as an explanation on how the code works, just so they don't have to spend the couple of hours it'll take to read on all this stuff for themselves, which is what they're supposed to be doing anyway, or how in the hell do they expect to graduate with a MS/Phd degree, and if they do graduate it'd be a frikkin joke because that reflects poorly on the work we do since we're coming out of the same lab. Interspersed between these monologues will be vivid descriptions of WCW-inspired physical violence that would make you think these guys should've been Hong Kong blood opera fight choreographers.

Now, as much as I would prefer to believe otherwise, the Old Fogies have a point, and a couple of my Indian colleagues do display a marked lack of intellectual curiosity/determination that is needed to drive a research-focused lab forward. In defense of my Indian colleagues, though, I'll say this much: two of the Old Fogies are French (who freelly informed me at some point that the French go on strike and join protest rallies at the drop of a hat), one is Tunisian (I don't know much about Tunisians, so I hope that means something to someone), and one is American (post-Iraq, I think that says it all! :p). So when you put together a bunch of intelligent, opinionated, and highly vocal people together, what do you get? The Old Fogies! And heads will roll.

So after lunch, either at home, or from Ray's, or with a heaping helping of earful from the Old Fogies, I'll come back into the lab, lethargic and sleepy from the lunch, burp a little, nap a little, work some just so I don't feel like I've done absolutely nothing at the end of the day, and then leave for home by 5:00pm. Yet another exciting day in the life of a research assistant.

Yay, Academia!

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