Thursday, 3 October 2013

Lessons from Life

There is a saying in Telugu, my mother tongue, "Jivatham patalu nerputhundi". Which translates to "Life teaches lessons". I learnt this from my first teacher, my mother. She taught me the most valuable thing than any thing else, how to grasp the lessons taught by Life and incorporate them to become a better human. Since my schooling, when I criticize someone for something, her reaction would be like, treat it as a learning experience. Our life tries to teach us lessons in every possible way through every single incident. Its up to us to see them. 

FamilyWhen I look at Ambatis, people generally speak highly of three persons, my grand father, father and younger grand father. Unfortunately, when I became old enough to make sense of what is good and what is bad only my younger grand father was available in person to inspire. But I learnt a lot from the stories I heard from others. They tried to do social service with every little expertise available to them. They showed me that if you have true dedication for one thing, you can always find innovative ways to excel. 

University: One learns the best lessons (good or bad) during uni and so did I. When I joined IIIT-Hyderabad, I don't know anything about research. With such a vibrant research culture, I learned how is do research especially from my supervisor Prof. Rajeev Sangal. He always made me think of doing research which can help the nation in general and rural population in particular. In addition to research, he always emphasized on presentation skills. If my presentations are any good, he is the main reason for it. 

   I can never forget the farewell speech of our senior Prashanth Gopal. He was special not for some high paying job. For computer science, IIIT-H has been one of the best universities in India and its common to see a handful of placements at tech giants like Google, Facebook etc. every year. He was best known for his PhD admit at MIT. In his farewell speech he said "If you are good at something, be it gaming or sports or studies, transfer that knowledge to others and make sure someone carries that forward". During my study at IIIT-H, apart from my friends, and faculty, two things I am proud of are work for Ashakiran and my Masters research. 

   Ashakiran, is a non-profit organization aimed at teaching under-privileged kids in slums near IIIT-H. I worked as volunteer and then as co-ordinator. I loved spending time for it and had a lot of nice memories.  Once, on my way to class with the kids, we saw a small water body formed out of heavy rain. Some of the kids looked at it and started comparing it to India map which they learnt few days back. When I go for a walk to nearby grocery stores, the kids in the road-side slums come over to greet me. I can't describe the happiness of those moments in words. Thats the feeling which can't be brought by high salary paychecks. I was lucky to find someone who is as much passionate about this work as I do and handed over the responsibilities. 

   After my masters, when I was doing my job, two of my juniors extended my thesis. I used to chat with them regularly, meet them once in a month, helped them in writing research papers etc. One of my relatives asked me why am I doing this extra work as I am not getting paid for it. In life, there are some things which we do for money and some other things just because they make us feel happy. I wanted to make sure that someone is continuing my research and did my bit for it. Their pure thanks when they are done with their course was more valuable to me than any money that I could have earned from such thing.

Friends: I don't speak much with new people and take a lot of time to make friends. But, once we become good friends, I talk so much that sometimes I might even make them feel 'when is this guy going to stop?'. To me, a friend is one who is there for you for anything at any cost. They show unconditional love and affection. Thats my belief and thats how I try to be. When I turn back and recollect my school/college/uni days, I hardly remember the night outs related to work. But most of the moments I spent with my friends, I cherish my entire life. I am fortune to have a handful of such friends in my life. I had many experiences but one thing which I should mention is the one during my undergrad final year. One of my uncles was sick and I had to go to my hometown very urgently. I got the call around 3 am in the morning. Everyone was in party mood after celebrating a friend's birthday. Even then, two of my friends dropped me and my cousin on bikes at that odd time travelling miles in cold weather. I feel proud to have such friends. 

   During my schooling I met a girl named Raga Sudha. I treat her more as my sister than a friend. In a school with few hundreds (yes, we had around 900 students in 10th grade) of students in each class, she was consistently class topper in every single exam in each grade I can remember ! Her only goal was to fulfill her mother's dream of becoming a doctor. I am so glad that she completed her MBBS and on the way to do specialization. She taught me that if you truly love someone and miss them in your life, best tribute you can give them is by fulfilling their dreams.

   I was always interested in dance in general and classical dance in particular. I always used to be inspired by watching some dance videos, learn for a couple of months and then used to completely forget that. I learned classical dance for couple of weeks during childhood and then couple of months during my university. I would have ended up in similar fashion with Bhangra (Punjabi Folk) as well, if I hadn't met one person, Tanvi. She is a professional Bharatanatyam (Indian Classical) dancer trained for several years and gave many performances.  She is the only good classical dancer among my friends. She is good at Bhangra and Bollywood-style dance as well. I am not a great dancer but constantly improving my skills. I learned to bring grace to my dance from her. 

So, it all depends on how you perceive things. Its not that you can only get inspired from lives of very famous persons or inspirational speeches. Every small incident can inspire you, make you think and learn something new. It can be a normal chat with a friend, or a story of someone whom you don't even know. Age, gender, religion etc. can never ever be a barrier.

PS: This is in noway an exhaustive list. Just tried to mention few instances. 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Time Flies !

Preface: Yes. Time flies ! I can't believe that its an year since I came to Edinburgh, UK, to start my PhD at The University of Edinburgh. I still remember those days of filling the applications forms. After applying to some of the top Natural Language Processing (NLP) schools in the world, and after a long wait, I got admits at CMU, Cambridge and Edinburgh. As my preference was UK, it was easy to remove the US option. I went by my supervisors' suggestion "Cambridge is great, but in our field Edinburgh is even better". My family was happy not because I was going to one of the best NLP schools in the world. But because I am going to UK so that I can complete my PhD and return to India in 3 years compared to 5 years in US (Though these are the numbers on paper, reality could be quite different). I was the first one in Ambatis to go abroad for higher studies. So, my family, several of my relatives and friends came to airport to give a grand send off.

First Month: After coming to Edinburgh, I spent first two days at Teju's (friend of mine and post-doc under my supervisor) house. I then rented another post-doc's house for a month as he was on vacation. Having friends at a new place is really handy. My friend Siva and I decided to rent a house once he reaches Edinburgh to start his PhD in October. This one month I had to get adjusted with the new place. Fortunately, I didn't have to struggle much. My supervisor is great, and office mates are very very friendly and helpful. Freshers' Week made things even simpler. I did most of the things one needs to experience in Edinburgh during that week. A few of them are walk to Aurther's Seat hill, Museums, Portobello Beach, Socials, dances (especially Ceilidh and Bhangra) etc. Siva reached Edinburgh towards the end of September, when I was almost settled. We started house hunt and realized how painful it is during Sep/Oct when the university starts. After few stints of staying in hostels for a couple of days, we finally found a house to rent. I wouldn't say its my dream house, but it is decent. 

ResearchI came to Edinburgh with tons of expectations as it is one of the best in NLP. Be it supervisor-student relation and/or guidance, quality of work, friendly and highly knowledgeable peers etc. etc., it is better than what I expected. We have weekly group meetings with my supervisor where everyone updates their status. I can reach out to anyone to clarify my doubts, and get feedback. My research is going good and I have a short paper at ACL-2013 conference which is the topmost NLP conference. One thing I really liked here is the importance that faculty and students give for publishing research papers at top conferences, in addition to doing good work. One takes every possible step for it, like abstract reviews with peers, feedback from supervisor and friends on different versions of the paper. Its a nice and vibrant research atmosphere.

Life-Style: Being in Edinburgh, I didn't have to change my life style much. I am the same vegetarian, non-alcoholic, simple person as I was a year ago. I can think of three major changes. First one is going to swimming on almost every weekday. Second one is learning Bhangra, Punjabi folk dance. I started it as a way to meet Indians, but now reached a stage of giving performances. The third major change is that I started cooking some nice (I think so :D) food. We had few house parties, where we cooked food for our friends. Major one is dinner with Bhangra friends, where I cooked for 20 people single-handedly! For a person who never cooked, that was quite an achievement. I also went to several food and drink parties at friend's houses and had very nice food. Best among them is Tanvi's mother's food, when she invited Bhangra team to her house. In addition to nice hospitality from their family, for 2 days we had awesome food. Paneer curry, puri and pav bhaji I had there was the best so far I had in Edinburgh.

In the past one year, I visited several places in UK. Some of them are Firbush, highlands, (for water sports), Stirling (conference + holiday), Glasgow (for Telugu Association of Scotland's events) London (for Bhangra dance performance). 

Last MonthsI went to India in July for 3 weeks. It was such a nice feeling to be back home. I had a great holiday. Within a week of my return from India, I had to go to Bulgaria to present my paper at ACL conference. Bulgaria was good but the conference was great ! I got nice feedback on my work, and met several NLP celebrities I wanted to meet. When I came back from Bulgaria, it was the time of Fringe, the world's largest arts festival. I went to couple of stand up comedy and other shows, and had loads of food. August ended with Mela, where we saw nice dance shows and had nice Indian food.

So far, its been great in Edinburgh. Research is good, people are friendly and there are lot of nice places to visit still. In addition to research and Bhangra, now I have to learn violin with the violin gifted by both the Sivas for my birthday !

Monday, 3 June 2013

Religion: What it has taught me

To me religion is not just praying to God. Its the means which taught me things like being organized, disciplined, etc. to make me a better human. We can learn a lot of things from our religion/traditions/culture etc. I follow Hinduism. So, most of the things I mention here are related to Hinduism. However, with very limited knowledge I have, I will mention examples from other religions as well.

Organizing: When I came to Edinburgh to start my PhD, the first religious conversation I had with my friends here was related to number of Gods in Hinduism. If you keep the religious details aside, I learnt how to be organized from it. We have Gods/Goddesses for every major event in the life, starting from birth till death, in fact even for after death ! Brahma is responsible for creation, Shiva is responsible for destruction, and Vishnu is responsible for maintenance. We have Saraswati Devi for education, Lakshmi devi for money, Vinayaka for starting any work, Anjaneya to overcome fear etc. More than anything I see how to organize things, how to divide things into small modules and distribute it so that a task can be accomplished in most effective manner. I try to keep my things, like computer programs I write, songs, movies, videos etc., in an organized manner. If I am in a bad mood, I pick the playlist which soothes me. If I am chilling out with my friends I pick something like the playlist of comedy videos. If you are organizing an event, how convenient it will be to divide it into small tasks and distribute among appropriate individuals rather than one person trying to handle everything or more than one doing same thing. If I have to make an analogy with computer science, how effective is it to write small functions/modules which do particular task rather than writing a single function which does all the work.

Love others: One of the concepts of Hinduism, which really impressed me is "Adwaitham (non-duality)". In simple terms, it says there is God in everyone. This implies that I am God and person next to me is also God. If you take this in an extreme negative sense, one can argue that I am God and I can do anything. If you look at the positive/actual sense, there is no difference between me and the person next to me. I love the person next to me as I love myself. This is similar to Christianity's 'Love thy neighbor as thyself'.

Gratitude: There are several deeds through which religion helps to show your gratitude towards elders. When my father passed away, I was 7 years kid. As part for the rituals, I tonsured my head. I didn't know the inner meaning at that point of time. In Indian culture hair is symbol of dignity, beauty etc. Also, I personally feel one looks smart with hair than without. By tonsuring head, one shows that looks of mine are less important compared to the respect I have for the person I lost. As part of death anniversary rituals, every year, in addition to father, one pays tributes to grand father and great grand father as well if they passed away. This time I did the rituals in Glasgow Hindu Mandir in North Indian style. In addition to paternal grand parents, the priest asked the names of maternal grand parents as well. I felt very bad that I don't know the names of my maternal grand and great grand fathers and the fact that they passed away long ago before I was even born didn't convince me. I know a lot of my friends who don't know the names of their grand or great-grand parents. If it wan't for this rituals, forget about gratitude, I wouldn't have even remembered the name of my paternal great grand father. 

Morals: Festivals have a deeper meaning. I feel that their main purpose is to inculcate morals values. For example, Christmas teaches sacrifice, Ramzan teaches discipline, Diwali teaches triumph of good over bad. There are several Hindu festivals around the year. On an average there is at least a festival per month. In India, I see, festivals are the major events where different members of the family meet and spend quality time with each other, different members in an area (be it village or city or town) come together to show oneness. 

Discipline: Coming to discipline, I have to mention my Muslim friends. During my schooling, we stayed next to a Muslim family, who are very close family friends even today, for about 6 years. Namaz and Ramzan are two things which inspired me a lot. Whatever might happen, they do Namaz 5 times a day, entire year, on specific timings. During Ramzan they do fasting by not eating or drinking any thing from dawn till sunset. More than anything I see things like discipline, self-control, self-restraint in it. One can see such discipline in military generally. But Islam brought it to every day life. Closest match in Hinduism are like Ayyappa swamy mala, fasting during festivals etc.

Order in Society: No religion encourages violence. Just like judicial laws, religion defines good and bad deeds and the tells advantages of doing good and disadvantages of doing bad. In Hindu mythology, there is entire purana, called Garuda purana which describes the punishments for different bad things one does. Religion always tried to bring harmony in the society. There can be some instances which portray it in a negative way. I say they occur just because some selfish people for their personal gains misinterpret (intentionally or unintentionally) the actual sense and take a wrong direction. Speaking of India, people talk a lot about hatred and riots between Muslims and Hindus. We stayed next to Muslim family for 6 years. I can't think of a weekend without playing with their kids. Aunty treated my mother as her elder sister and shared both her happy and sad moments. They are not so educated but their respective religions taught them to love their neighbours but not love the neighbours of same religion !

Science to common man: In this age of 21st century, how many so called educated people are applying science in their real life activities? Hardly any. But, I see lot of scientific value in the every day deeds of our ancestors. Most of them don't know the scientific value behind their deeds. They follow it because of their religion or culture or tradition. To name a few of them are eating tulasi leaves daily (which have high medical values), using mango leaves to decorate house during festivals (provide better oxygen supply as there will be more people), using turmeric (kills germs) etc. One of my friends asked me if those deeds have so much scientific value to them, why didn't ancestors told the scientific value along with the deed? For that, I say, its not how much knowledge you have that matters, how you communicated it and how much impact you created in making others follow matters. For an illiterate, understanding the science behind a deed and following it is easy or following it as a belief? There are several such things, which the modern day education couldn't incorporate into so called literates but religion incorporated into so called illiterates centuries back. Lets take a simple example of five elements of life. We treat and pray to them as Gods and especially, Sun is also called as "Pratyaksha Daivam", which means "visible God". With the busy life most IT professionals in the crave for money are doing jobs which doesn't allow them access to sunlight. They go to office before sunrise and come back to home after sunset. This is leading to several diseases due to deficiency of Vitamin D. Every spiritual person in my native village in the name of praying to Sun God stay in sunlight getting D vitamin daily. Illiterates without knowing are following the healthy practices. So called educated youth, in the name of old traditions neglect them, suffer the consequences, find the reason and start doing it because of medical problems.

So, in short, there are lot of things one can learn from their religion/culture/traditions. In the name of modern education instead of ignoring them, start seeing their actual purpose !

P.S: My knowledge of different religions is from different sources like family, friends, stories, movies, speeches etc. If there are any technical mistakes, I will be more than happy to correct them. 

Friday, 19 April 2013

Homepage using Google sites

I realized that its been a while since I spent some time on my webpage. My friend Siva suggested Google sites and I started developing my webpageIn my webpage, I wanted to have a blog. I tried Announcements page style, but not satisfied with the options available. This made me land on and hence comes my first post.

Google sites provide nice platform to create webpages. But, several basic facilities like use of javascript are not straight forward. For javascript, creating a gadget and using the gadget in the webpage gives desired results. Despite these, its a nice start and am working on improving the site. Some links which helped while making my site are