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“Goodbye JEE”

By on Feb 20, 2012 in On A Whim | 14 comments

And most of all, peo­ple might start ques­tion­ing more seri­ously which col­lege they want to be at. The IITs seem to be becom­ing more gen­eral too. I’ve heard of some intro­duc­tion of some biol­ogy degrees at some IITs. I think a col­lege ought to be gen­eral. And very loose about what they want the stu­dents to do. And there should exist no 300 stu­dent classes at any point of time, because they serve almost no pur­pose at all. This will be of interest to my Indian readers in high school / university. I really liked Vishesh’s blog post “Goodbye JEE“. For a long time, I have rationalised, argued, and ranted with spittle flecks leaping out of my mouth about what’s wrong with the Indian higher education system. I’m glad there are still people fighting in that corner. On that note, also read Espera’s “Stupid TAs Annoy Me“. Me, I am done with trying to convince people, partly because I realised that a large part of understanding what’s wrong comes only through self-realisation. Epiphanies that you have through self-realisation have a far more powerful effect. I’d rather just smoke and pass the joint saying “It’s cool, bro”; I don’t feel the urge to make people drink my Kool Aid any more. *** Even when I was in Singapore, I felt an overwhelming bad influence of all that I feel is bad about the education system is in India. Don’t get me wrong, Singapore is doing so many things right – yet it’s getting so many things wrong too. I had this really awesome Canadian expat lecturer in software engineering who’s one of the few fighting to make learning more worthwhile and meaningful. You know what happened to him? He got brutally hacked in the student feedback. A different professor (also in Singapore) also once confided to me that a lot of them don’t want to challenge their students too hard in classes because their pay bonuses are linked to student feedback. Theoretically that’s a nice idea but what happens is that any professor or lecturer who really wants to push boundaries and challenge the class to do more get poor feedback from students across Asia (India, China, Vietnam…) who have been really used to one way of thinking / learning. The few professors who care and the new president of the university though really need to be commended for trying to shake up the...

Farewell, Singapore.

By on Aug 30, 2011 in Personal | 56 comments

This post has taken me far too long to write and publish. Well, most of it was written on my last day in Singapore – on the rooftop of NTU’s Art Design Media building, as I cradled my netbook on my lap protecting it from a drizzling rain with my umbrella. Now, home alone in my new house in Portsmouth – my housemates don’t move in until next month – England welcomes me back with the same weather. On the way, this post has been edited in train stations, coffee shops, airports in four different countries and yet I still am not sure whether I’m satisfied with it. Yet Another One that runs into thousands of words. Anyway. Many people have asked me why I chose to go to Singapore, of all places, on an exchange programme. (Bear with me or skip the next couple of paragraphs in case you’ve already heard this bit from me.) When I was informed by my university that I was eligible for an exchange programme, I knew that I wanted to go on for a full year and not just a semester. A single semester sounded like a holiday, a full year would be a life experience. When you go for exchange for a semester, most universities transfer back credits for courses taken on a pass/fail basis. If, however, you want to go for a year – at least with my university – credits as well as grades are transferred back. This narrowed my choices considerably as it required my university to have bilateral agreements any place I wanted to go for exchange. My choices came down to three: Australia, where the partner universities were two specialising in business; USA, where Surrey has a couple of tie-ups (Cincinnati and NCSU); and  Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I wanted a place had a good faculty in digital media and computer engineering. NTU sounded like a good fit, particularly because it had an Information Engineering & Media department. (Let me take a step back here to talk about what degree I’m pursuing for those interested. Technically, my degree is in ‘Electronics and Computer Engineering’. What I was actually interested in though was Digital Media Engineering, offered as a specialisation by the same department. The only catch was the Digital Media Engineering batch was started in 2008 (?) and although it’s a recognised degree, it does not yet have professional bodies such as The IET accept it as a path towards becoming a chartered engineer. As the courses are offered by the same department, taking an ECE degree allows me to take the same courses as DME students while still giving me the flexibility to take up other specialisations if I so want to – and get an IET-accredited pathway for chartered engineer status. So there. While degree title doesn’t quite match up, what I’m studying resembles the Digital Media Engineering pathway the closest.) What really swung the deal for me was the reason that drove me to attend that first workshop organised by Surrey University on a December afternoon – I wanted a life experience. I wanted to live long enough in a place to get to know it. I had saved up too and wanted a base that made it cheap and easy for me to travel. (That’s right. I paid for all the travelling I have done over the past year from personal savings.) Europe was my first choice (Surrey had many options for exchange within EU) – I won’t lie – but it was out of contention already as most European universities don’t teach in English for my degree (until final year or masters level). The US didn’t present as many opportunities for travel, and the choice of courses I was eligible to take at NTU seemed to be a better fit for my degree. Done. Flights booked. Shenanigans at Changi Airport = done. Singapore is a small city, about half the size of two cities I know best: Delhi, the city I grew up in; and London, the (major) city closest to where I live(d) in the UK. People call it ‘Asia 101’, a place where Westerners can come to experience Asia without suffering culture shock. Singapore helps keep up appearances too; with clean streets, planned out roads, trees planted precisely measured distances apart, shiny malls everywhere with exactly the same stores selling everything at the same prices. This is the impression most people carry away of Singapore: a model city done right – perhaps done a bit too right – with funny signs all over the place and a bit of fetish for cleanliness. Where’s the culture, you ask? See, assimilating foreign cultures without barfing is one thing Singapore has been incredibly successful at. English is spoken so widely, down to the level of the ‘uncle’ who cleans plates at the hawker centre, that language is never a problem for aliens. Even though the largest ethnic group is of Chinese-origin people, you never are challenged into having to learn Chinese (or Malay or any other language spoken extensively in Singapore). If you landed at New Delhi airport, sooner or later you will run into someone who doesn’t understand you – perhaps the cleaner at the airport toilet. Or if you land at Heathrow, sooner or later you will run into a Scot or a Welsh and have no idea what...

Chocolate bars in post liberalisation India, and nouveau cirque in Singapore

By on Jul 4, 2011 in Reviews | 7 comments

I remember the first time I went to a circus performance; I was 5-6 years old. ‘Remember’, perhaps, is a strong word as I don’t recollect anything about the circus show except that it was in a tent. I might have fallen asleep during the show. What I do remember is that before we entered the show tent, my parents bought me a bar of chocolate. This was still India in its early phases of liberalisation. You know what that means: there were only three brands of chocolate in the market – Cadbury, Nestle, and Amul. That’s right. Back in my day, Amul manufactured chocolate bars. (Are they still around?) They tasted like what I would describe now as ‘communist chocolate’ rations might have been in Soviet Russia. (“In Soviet Russia, the chocolate tastes you!”) Amul also sponsored an immensely popular / horrible show on DD Metro – the name of the show escapes me – where people sent in answers to stupid contests on ‘competition post-cards’ – which were exactly like normal post-cards but 5x more expensive and blue in colour. Young man, don’t insinuate that I didn’t have audience voting in my day. We did; it just took two weeks to find out the results. I was young and foolish, I preferred Nestle’s milky chocolate over Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Bitter chocolate was hard to come by unless you could emotionally blackmail a relative “going to foreign”. (I bury my suaku origins in a very deep pit indeed.) Can you imagine that at one time in India, Ferrero Rocher chocolates were acceptably exotic souvenirs, instead of being found in every road-side convenience store? Hearty laugh! All I remember about this circus show I attended as a kid is the chocolate bar, and that I chose not to eat it straight away. And that when I reached back home, the bar had been reduced to horrible melted goo. I never made the same mistake in my life ever again. When my parents came to Singapore in February and left a couple of Cadbury Bourneville bars, I (roped in my roommate too) finished all of them off on the same day. Fuck calorie counting. What was I supposed to do – just let them melt and become horrible goo? *** I mourn the loss of ‘old-school’ circuses in the name of animal rights activism. I may never get to see a real-life Dumbo! Do you know why I can say with confidence India is a fast-growing economy? Because you no longer find circuses in India* – or in Malaysia / Singapore, for that matter – while you do still find them in many other South/South-East Asian countries. Urban Indians have moved swiftly to sweep their suaku origins under a plush thick carpet, much like I have. *Unless you’re part of two-thirds of India’s population that still lives in rural areas, in which case you can attend fapfests where impoverished Ukrainian immigrants  (“Gorgeous Russian ladies!” on promotional posters) gyrate sadly to circus muzak. And when do I think India will ‘get there’, speaking of its economy? When it gets to level of Singapore and has a renaissance in theatre-going culture where the bourgeois can watch nouveau cirque performances at a posh venue, say, like the opulent Marina Bay Sands resort. Which is exactly what I was up to last weekend, thanks to a Groupon Singapore deal that gave half-off pricing for Canadian circus troupe Cirque Éloize‘s last show of iD in Singapore. This was such a uniquely different performance from any concept of ‘circus’ I have been used to, as a) it’s performed on a theatre stage (there are elements that break the fourth wall, though) b) it’s more like…a play. There are characters. There is a story. The circus acrobatics – if I may call them so – are so intricately a part of the plot. Unlike a play though, there are no spoken lines: it’s like a fusion of mime with hip-hop dancing with acrobatics with parkour. Interactive displays are used to create incredibly vivid and varying backdrops as the plot progresses too; so vivid that it’s hard to believe they are displays or projections at all. That moment when you see a girl contorting herself into unbelievable positions and scuttering like a spider on the stage floor (and you flinch thinking of how much it would hurt if you tried the same), that moment when a guy riding a bicycle prances around on one wheel around a terrified member of the audience quite possibly praying that his nuts don’t get squashed, that moment when the projections on the trampoline-wall give an illusion of falling apart, that bass-heavy hip-hop track the performance is set to…are all hard to describe in written words. All I can say is that the standing ovation the Cirque Éloize artists got was very well-deserved. Yes, they are artists, and not ‘circus performers’ – it was that good. Cirque Éloize iD promotional video Sixteen artists on stage, thirteen circus disciplines, and the discovery of a world which is new to us, that of urban dances such as breakdance and hip-hop. I imagined this show at the heart of a futuristic city, where the omnipresence of image causes us to lose our reference points. I sought to create an aesthetic at the crossroads of comic books, science-fiction movies and the rich universe of graffiti. The decidedly...

Staying connected in Singapore: A guide to phone companies, mobile data usage, and international calling

By on Jun 19, 2011 in Reviews, Tech Takes, Travel | 17 comments

My last couple of blog posts have been angsty, because when you are twenty you Need To Rebel and Stick It To The Man for It Is The Cool Thing To Do and Eff Them… (See what I meant by being cynical of my own cynicism? I’m not making this up! I am genuinely that conflicted internally of what I feel about my own beliefs.) Deep breaths, Banerjee, deep breaths. Calm down. Reach your Zen state. And tidy up your fucking desk. So, for a break from Sticking It To The Man, I decided to help out The Man instead by writing a guide on cellphone companies and Whatever Else The Title Promised You. This is first in a series of informational posts that I intend to write, which I hope will be useful for transitory residents of the island nation of Singapore – tourists, exchange students, foreign students, expats, illegal immigrants, and pirates. I don’t promise anything interesting for my regular readers – except for a shocking statistic in the section on mobile data prices and a lone joke about a web telephony service that leverages on a racist Spanish stereotype. *** The Basics Singapore’s telecom sector is an oligopoly with three operators: SingTel (government-backed, 46% market share), StarHub, and M1. All three operate a GSM-based network with support for 3G handsets. The only serious implication on this for most visitors to Singapore is that if the current cellphone you own operates on a CDMA-network – as is the case with a few (albeit large) American networks – you will be unable to use it in Singapore. Most modern GSM-handsets come with dual-band / tri-band / quad-band support so they should work in Singapore. Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa generally use the same frequency bands; the odd-one-out is America again, so if you’re visiting from the US then you need to double-check whether your handset will work. Protip: In Singapore, the term ‘handphone’ is most commonly used. People will understand though if you use equivalent terms like cellphone or mobile phones; it’s usually visitors who get confused when ‘handphone’ is used. The easiest way to get connected is to get a prepaid (or ‘pay-as-you-go’, if you prefer) SIM card. You can buy one from any operator-run outlets, convenience stores (7-Eleven, Cheers, Fairprice…) as long as you have your passport with you. The details page of your passport will be photocopied / scanned for registration purposes. The only advantage of buying at an operator’s own outlet is that you can choose the phone number that you get – and if you have a fetish for specific numbers then you might just turn out to be a lucky bastard. There is no waiting period for SIM card activation. (India, as always, has insanely strict rules for issuing prepaid SIM cards – forms need to be filled, passport photo and proof of residence is required, there’s a waiting period of 2-3 days. Think about how hard it must be for tourists! I’d be extremely annoyed if I came across equally strict laws in any of the countries I’ve travelled to. ) A new SIM usually costs S$15-20, with S$5-10 calling balance included. In such a competitive market, there’s isn’t much price differentiation among the three operators for basic services such as voice and text, so it doesn’t make much different which operator you choose if all you want are the basics. Typical local call rates range from 8-22 cents / minute for voice calls (depending on time of day) and 5 cents / text (local) or 15 cents / text (international), so calling / texting is fairly cheap for light usage. Take note, however, that in Singapore you are charged for incoming voice calls too at the outgoing local voice call rate; this comes as a shock to visitors from countries where it’s not standard practice to do so. If you expect to receive a lot of incoming calls, you can get the incoming call charge waived by paying a daily charge of 60 cents instead; the procedure for this differs from operator-to-operator but should be included in the start guide included with your SIM. Another thing you should be prepared for is that customer care hotlines are not operated 24/7 and often there are call charges applied to speak to customer care (albeit a reduced price). Recharge vouchers can be bought at any convenience store or operator outlet. You also have the option of paying for a recharge online via credit card. Although in theory you can buy low-value ‘top-ups’ of S$5 too, I have rarely found these on sale. Top-up vouchers of denominations S$10 and above are available widely. If you are a heavy user, watch out for promotional top-ups: all three operators have specific recharge denominations, say, S$30 for which they give ‘S$130 value’. The way this works is that the top-up denomination – S$30 in this example – is added to your ‘main’ calling balance, and deducted when you make international calls or access data; an additional S$100 is added as ‘special’ calling balance, and deducted for all incoming voice calls and all local outgoing calls. The catch is that the ‘special’ calling balance is time-limited – usually 30 days – and then expires, but your ‘main’ calling balance never affected by time restrictions. Yes, it is as terribly complicated as it sounds. You need to...

An idiot abroad examines his tiny tendrils of guilt

By on Jan 7, 2011 in Personal | 18 comments

On most days, I’d reserve these thoughts for my private blog. I have been vacillating since New Year’s Eve whether to publish this publicly or not. Maybe you’ll understand why as you read on. This is a disjointed, admittedly incoherent account of my state of emotions at the close of 2010. Maybe it’ll mean something, to at least a few who read this. **** My stay outside India came to define 2010 for me. Sifting through my blog archives, I would say it is a continuation of what I mentioned towards the end of last year – but saying that would be undermining, in a way, what I have learned in 2010. My decision to go to Singapore for a study exchange had a greater impact than I ever signed up for. The first half of 2010 – the second half of my first year at University of Surrey – had moments I am going to cherish throughout my life. I’m not saying this for the sake of saying it. This is not like those misused cases of using the word ‘literally’. I made friends at Surrey who are the sort who stick around for life – and with whom you’d want to stick around for life. And then, I gave it all up to go Singapore. Mind you, I don’t regret that decision. It showed me the value of what I had. What I walked away from. Singapore is that milestone I will look back to, as the place that made me fundamentally rethink friendships and relationships in my life. While I have enjoyed my cultural experience and made good friends in Singapore too, it made me realize how it isn’t the same. I was sad in 2009 that I wasn’t as frequently in touch with my Indian friends as I would have liked to. In 2010, I found myself out of touch with my Indian friends as well as the friends I made in my first year at Surrey. I have looked on with a certain despondency as friendships that mattered a lot to me get reduced to Facebook’s loose definition of a ‘friend’. I have had relationships strained as meaningful communication lost its hold, stretched by space and time displacement. Sometimes, I wonder how different things would have been had I not made the choices that I did. Sometimes, I wonder how things will turn out to be once I am back in the UK – or even India. When I meet my friends there again, maybe in 2011 or in 2012 when we’re back in university after placement year, I wonder whether things will be same. **** …every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.” – Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy **** I realize for the past half-decade, I have behaved as a social nomad. Changing school, taking a gap year, going to university and then deciding to do a year abroad – at each stage I had memorable experiences, but I know realize every time I did so, I wanted more. Many a kid who had parents with transferable jobs might have faced the same, but then, you sort of grow up knowing your primary school friends will drift apart, you are with family, and even then the displacements are a few years apart. I, on the other hand, have become part of vastly differing social circles in a span of less than five years. (Someone suggested I do this because I am an only child; that an only child of a parent fishes for independence and uniqueness. I thought…it’d be the other way round? I don’t know. Freud probably has written about this.) I fear that this urge to immerse myself in a new environment has come to define my way of living now. I assume this is what happens once you’ve learned BASE jumping or freehand rock climbing. After a while, it becomes the only way you get excited about life. After a while, it becomes the only way you can dream. **** Most of my friends in Singapore were exchange students; exchange students who usually stay for semester. I am not, I am one of the handful who chose to stay for the whole year. In addition to the obvious bonding among exchange students, I also made great Singaporean friends through my work at the TV station. All people who are excellent company to hang around with. Yet, the fleeting nature of our acquaintance came as a rude jolt to remind me at the end of the year that this really isn’t the same. Singapore itself is diversely multi-ethnic; this is especially true of Nanyang Technological University. You’ll find native Singaporeans, Malays, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, citizens of other neighbouring countries; then you have exchange students from every country imaginable – the UK, USA, practically every country of the European Union, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, Africa. And yet, despite all this diversity, there is no unity. I don’t know why, but everyone just defaults to staying in their comfort zone of hanging around with folks of the...