Monday, October 1, 2012

फिर से नमस्कार

I was back in the States from late May to mid-July, visiting family and as many friends as I could fit into business trips.  Then on July 15th I took a plane back to Mumbai.  I was supposed to take a plane from Philadelphia to Newark, and then to Mumbai, but the connecting flight was inexplicably canceled.  So, the trip had a hectic start as United Airlines gave me an Amtrak voucher instead to get to Newark.  But I made it.  The flight was 15 hours, but it passed pretty quickly as I worked on last season's DAI finale, watched a movie, and read some comics.  There were very few obvious westerners on the plane.

I called Anupam, a colleague at IISER Pune, as I waited for my luggage in Mumbai, around 11pm.  He gave the taxi driver my phone number, and so we made contact very quickly.  I brought my luggage to his car, and we made the long drive to Pune.   The highway from Mumbai to Pune becomes very crowded with trucks at night, and I was encouraged to sleep during the long stalls.  But eventually I arrived at the Guest House, where I had been before.

My room is very nice; here is a video I made later on.

I live in a room in a suite on the 3rd floor of the building, and meals are served in a suite on the 6th floor.  Aside from the two suites, the rest of the building is not affiliated with IISER.  The IISER part is staffed by a Nepalese gentleman named Ramji, his two sons Mohan and Krishna, and a nephew.  They serve vegetarian meals for breakfast and dinner, scheduled at 8am and 8pm.   Lunch and tea are also available if I want.

The path to the IISER Guest House
Monday morning July 16th, I met Kevin over breakfast.  Kevin is an undergraduate math/physics major in British Columbia.  He was in India to write up some notes on the Rubik's Cube under Sujatha.  She had taught him Abstract Algebra, and was visiting India for the summer.  More about Kevin's story later.  All you need to know for now was that he was very enthusiastic and very much in over his head.  I had timed my arrival so that I could attend an international math conference, the theme being ``Riemann's Zeta Function", and somewhat related to the famous proof of ``Fermat's Last Theorem" which was in the news a while back.  Sujatha was helping to organize it.

The first talk was a welcome address by Shashi, the biologist who used to run the math department, and moreover handles a lot of business here.  In this speech he introduced IISER Pune, and at one point mentioned me by name to the crowd as IISER's first international faculty.  I'm getting used to that sort of thing.

As is usual with conferences outside my subject area, I didn't get much out it.  But it was good to have a schedule and hang out with other travelers and eat catered food, so I was there for most of it.
I felt sorry for Kevin so I gave him some math problems to keep him busy.  That week I was also handed a stack of paperwork to get me going.  Some of it was amusing, so I copied it down for you.

Aside from forms to register my visa, and bank account forms and such, there was:

Oath of Secrecy:

 I, ....................., having been appointed as ............. at IISER Pune, do swear in the name of God/ solemnly affirm that I will bear true faith and allegiance and that I will discharge and perform the duties of my office to the best of my ability, knowledge and judgment, without fear or favor, affection or ill will, and that I will not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal to any person any matter which shall be brought under my consideration.

So...I guess this means I can't give away...secrets.  Is "matter brought under my consideration" legalese for "secret"?  Is "any person" legalese for "any person not in on the secret"?  Is DAI illegal now?  Would you have signed this?  Anyway as far as I know, no matters have been brought under my consideration...

Another one:

Subject: Declaration regarding bigamous marriage:

I hereby declare that I have not entered into or contracted a marriage with a person having a spouse living, or who, having a spouse living, have not entered into or contracted a marriage with me.

Okay let me hurry up and post this; I have a lot of catching up to do!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Season One Finale

Well Diary,

After visiting Chennai my tenure at TIFR rapidly came to an end.  My research visa was to expire May 25th, and so I needed to go back to the states and work on my next visa.  I had been starting to go to cafes with Arnab in Mumbai, such as Kala Ghore and one at Naraman Point.  The two of us have a little math project going.

But soon I had to figure out how to move my stuff.  The idea was to store most of it in boxes in IISER.  So, I would need to pack up my stuff and move it.  It's an interesting question, what is that best way to do that.  There were some online "packing and moving" services, which I understood were by the same companies, but I could order them separately.  My idea was to have them come and pack things, and then I would put the boxes in a taxi and move them myself to Pune.

Evidently an efficient way to arrange for such services is to fill out a form on the internet, including your phone number. Well I did that and ten minutes later I was flooded with a deluge of calls.  Most of the calls went as follows:  they would ask for both addresses, and give me an estimate.  I tried to communicate that I only wanted the packing part, and they didn't understand what I meant and thought I was trying to bargain.  Another service asked me to text them my address, multiple times as I hadn't done it quite right.  As previously noted, texting was a pain on my phone.  So, I eventually just started telling them that I had "made other arrangements".

And, in fact, I scrounged around TIFR and got some boxes (I'll spare you the tedious details), and packed things up myself.  I took the taxi to Pune and dropped off my stuff.  While I was there I talked to the Registrar about my visa.  Now prudence dictates that I refrain from dictating official conversations regarding my employment, but I left the conversation quite concerned about one of the particulars for getting a visa.  We'll talk about this shortly.

After that I said my goodbyes, dropped off my keys and such.   I had to pay 15000 rupees for my 10 months of (subsidized) accommodations.  That's really cheap, and in the spring included housecleaning and breakfasts.

I sat next to a woman and her young daughter on the plane ride back to the states.  Neither of them spoke English or Hindi, but by listing names of states I gleaned that she was from Kerala.  I flew United, and the American staff was plainly flustered by having so many customers they couldn't talk to.  When we finally arrived in Philly, the captain said, "Welcome back to paradise."  Which is odd.

Okay let's talk about visas.  When I was at TIFR I had a Research Visa.  While the application for this last took a couple days to prepare, in the end the application went through with no problems and I had it in about ten days.
To work (and teach) at IISER Pune, I need an Employment Visa.  The exact qualifications for this are not well known.  The best way to find out what they are, it turns out, is to apply for the Employment Visa.  There are a couple scary-sounding qualifications involved.  One is that a company cannot hire more than 1% foreigners.  Another is that to get the employment visa, you need to make $30,000 USD a year.  Yes, the rule is in terms of US Dollars.  There are exceptions which don't apply to me, like for chefs, Bollywood extras, foreign language teachers (not English), and people working for NGOs.  This rule was particularly scary, because the rupee was going down compared to the USD as my visa application was being processed.

I was pretty worried about this my last day in India, but Gerald told me that I shouldn't be intimidated by harshly-worded rules on the internet.  Alright, so because of prudence on a public blog, let me simply report that I followed Gerald's advice, sent in my application, and in about ten days had my employment visa with no problems.

So that's my year.  For old time's sake, let me finish the season with one final look at my original intentions.

1.) I will never get sick of Indian food.

So, I need to get around to cooking for myself at some point.  Yes, I'm sick of too much spice.  But otherwise it's great.

2.) I will never get (seriously) sick, period.

Success!  None of my ailments were particularly serious.

3.) I will learn the Hindi alphabet, and some Hindi.  In this regard, I will limit the time that I hang out with expatriates.

Yep, can more or less read the alphabet.  At least if an English word is written in Devanagari, I can usually figure it out.  Pronunciation is something that is never quite perfect.  Yep, I know some basic phrases.  Oh, and I did indeed make non-Western friends.

4.) I will find a local juggling group, if there is one, and try to get something going if there isn't.

Yep, the latter.  I'll have to start over in Pune (sigh...)

5.) I will see about being an extra in a Bollywood movie.

Nope!  I guess it's hit or miss.

6.) I will be delighted if a monkey steals my groceries.

Well, this hasn't happened, but I suspect I wouldn't be so delighted.  I'm told monkeys will steal your groceries by slapping you in the face first, and I'd rather not get scratched by a wild animal out here.

7.) I will take some yoga classes.

Yes, but not consistently.  I'll try again in Pune.

8.) I will get a lot of math done.

Yep, that's the main reason I'm here actually.

9.) Things to do: camel ride on Chowpathy beach; eat Indian ice cream (the good stuff not Haagen Daz); check out Elephanta and Ellora (massive caves with beautiful hand carved rock); visit Bombay University the main building, an architectural dazzle etc etc.

 Oops.  Well, I saw Elephanta, at least, and maybe some etc's.  Always more to do!

 See you next season!



I wanted to report on my experience getting cellphone service in Mumbai.  If you don't like rants, this may not be the post for you...

Before I left for India, several people had assured me that it would be very easy to get cellphone service in India, that it would be a simple matter that would take only a couple minutes.
This turned out not to be the case.  When I asked around at TIFR, I learned that the rules had changed, and that foreigners would need to bring a passport, and a photocopy of their passport.  Evidently some terrorists had used multiple cellphones for one of their plots, and so all foreigners had to supply extra documentation to get service.

Now if I wanted to get a cellphone in the States, I would use the Internet to find out where a suitable store was, and what documentation I would need.  That doesn't work here; instead you have to "ask around".  Back in monsoon season I was told that I should use AirTel service, and that I could find an AirTel-wallah somewhere along Colaba Causeway, the main street in the tourist area.  I took this literally, and walked from the Regal at the northern end, all the way through the gauntlet of pushy vendors until quite far to the south where things were getting sketchy.  Finally I found a small stand run by a small boy and presumably his mother.  The mother didn't speak any English, and the boy was maybe ten and spoke just a little.  It was a struggle for us to communicate.  Unfortunately, it being monsoon season, my passport photocopy had gotten wet and unusable.  So, I wound up giving my passport to the boy (!), for him to run over to a xerox place and make a suitable copy.  He came back in a few minutes.  Then it turned out I needed a passport photo.  Everything formal in India seems to require giving someone a passport-style photo.  So he took nimbly across the street to get a quick set of photos.  Then I bought my phone and my AirTel plan.  He went through some motions of trying to explain some formalities, a lecture which it would have been useful to understand.  I returned to TIFR with my cellphone.

As you can imagine, cellphones are almost essential to have in India.  People often make impromptu plans, or impromptu changes of plans and use cellphones to tell you about it.  The first week when I was filling out forms at the Establishment, they were baffled that I did not already have a cellphone, and asked that I give them my phone number as soon as I obtained one.  If you want to buy a train ticket for an intercity trip, you need to get an account with them, which involves having a code texted to your cellphone.  If you want to book a taxi, they need a cellphone number.

The cellphone was confusing to use.  I constantly got spam texts, or automated calls in Hindi.  When I got a call I would usually push the wrong button and hang up, and so wound up calling everyone back until I figured it out.  If I wanted to call someone I had to guess what the proper prefix numbers were, which gets confusing with office phones.  Of course if I typed something in wrong, the automated operator would speak Hindi.  Text messaging was tedious, using the ten numbers instead of 26 letters, and the phone was set to guess which word I was trying to type, given the numerical input.  (Later I found I could disable that.)

After a week or so of phone use, I started getting regular text messages saying that I needed to go back to the phone-wallah and give my proof of address.  A friend suggested that this was not quite right, or obsolete information.  I made two attempts anyway to revisit the small boy, but the store was closed on both counts, probably for holidays or weekends.  This was a nuisance because it took me a long time to find it again, and I'm a busy guy.  So yes, after a month of phone use, AirTel turned off the service.
I found the boy again, and he impressed on me that I had to give him a proof of address.  He also had me fill out some forms, with confusing language (am I the "referrant"?).  I wound up paying for registration again.  For some reason I got AirCel service instead of AirTel service.  I had assumed he had a good reason for this, but discovered later that AirCel doesn't cover the TIFR campus.  Actually I tried using the AirCel phone during a trip to Pune, but couldn't make it work then either.

This was frustrating.

I asked around and heard other horror stories from the other expatriates.  I thought that the best thing to do would be to go to the company store with one of the grad students, with a specially ordered proof of address from the Establishment.  So Shiv and I made a lengthy trip to try to find it.  By the time we found it (it had moved), business hours were over.  Unfortunately the business hours coincided with many math conferences that were going on, in our area, at TIFR.  So, I waited until they were over.  Well, then came my vacation with my Okie friends, so I waited until after that.

Finally towards the end of my stay, Arnab, who had been going to cafes with me, took me to a store right off of Colaba Causeway.  I let him do the talking, although the vendor's English was fine.  Finally I got a working plan.  (Although I did get an obsolete text message saying I needed to submit proof of address again.)

So:  the short of it is, if you're a foreigner and want a phone in India, you need to:

  •  bring your passport, a photocopy of your passport, extra passport photos, and an official proof of residence.
  •  bring an Indian friend to help find a professional place, and do the talking. 


Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Better Look at चेन्नई

Dear Diary,

Avid DAI readers recall that I had a little project going with Amri, one of the faculty at the IMSc Chennai, a mathematical research institute there.  From another point of view, I was horning in on a research project that Amri's former student Pooja had begun.  (Similarity of matrices mod p^2.)  Amri invited us both to Chennai in late April to put our heads together and try to squeeze out a joint paper.  So I flew back the 22nd for the third time.  This time I brought my camera, and was determined to take lots of videos for this very post.  Here is the first video:  a tour of the campus, taken on my final day.

You can see that the campus is remarkably integrated into its surroundings.  Visiting IMSc is like taking a mathematical safari, where lizards and monkeys and other wildlife abound.  Every so often the power goes off, and one waits a minute or two for the institute's generator to kick in.  One morning, as I was enjoying my breakfast, I looked down to find a lizard on my lap.  One might contrast the relaxed rusticity of IMSc with the sterile but sophisticated atmosphere of TIFR.  (Remember, TIFR is in a navy area that I'm forbidden from videotaping and posting on a public site.)

We did our math and it was fun.  Later we did some touring, the three of us and Amri's son Kailash (affectionately called Keshu) went to the Chennai Snake Park and later to the Chennai Children's Park.  Here is a video of us doting on Keshu at the Park; I hope you like that sort of thing.

Afterwards we met up with Amri's wife Anita and went to Dakshina Chitra.  This was something like a medieval fair, in the sense that it was a historical preservation of ancient houses and ways of life.  (But without so much suspension of disbelief, as in med fairs...)  Pooja kindly let me film her explaining some of the exhibits, and later we watched a Ramayana shadow puppet show.  Enjoy!

By the way, "Pooja" means "worship".  We also met Orissan artisan painting bamboo scrolls.  I bought a scroll depicting Ganesha's origin story (and later presented it to DAI's biggest fan).

In the end we figured out the 4 dimensional case of our math problem, and soon we will submit it for publication.

What fun!

Next: End of DAI season one.

होली with Adrian

Adrian is a friend of mine from Purdue.  We were postdocs together there years ago, and shared an office.  Adrian and I are in quite different ends of pure mathematics: his area being dynamics, the study of function composition, and mine is more number theory/representation theory.  Nonetheless, we've found some fun projects which mix up the two ends, and even have a couple of papers!
Having ongoing projects means that math departments will often fund our visits, and so Adrian was able to visit me for two weeks.

As I waited for him at the airport, I enjoyed watching westerners arrive into India, bracing themselves for the culture shock, wide-eyed and very present.  TIFR had sent a car for him, and I tagged along for the ride home.

The next morning was Holi, the "festival of colors".  We had a vague idea that folks celebrated Holi by tossing brightly colored powder at each other.   Adrian's wife had teased him that he was too craven to venture out and see much of India.  He therefore insisted that we leave the protected naval area, and walk straight into the nearby slum carrying two packages of Holi powder.  The nearby slum being the biggest slum in Asia.

We walked down the long roads of the naval area.  We could see groups of people who had obviously been playing with the powder.  Several people cheered, "Happy Holi!" at us as they went by.  But noone threw any at us, at first.

The Horror!  The Horror!
We reached the outskirts of the poorer neighborhood, and found a wild group of young men roughhousing in a play area.  We stopped, and several of them beckoned for us to come over.  Adrian and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, and let them grab us.  They surrounded us and rubbed their purpled hands all over our faces and hair.  One little guy tried to get my Holi package, but I didn't let him.  I later came to realize that you're supposed to let folks color you with your own bag of powder.  I think.  Anyway we did retaliate as well as we could and with our neon green version. "Happy Holi!" we all shouted.

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become one.
After that we walked downtown to the tourist area, hoping for more of the same.  We saw plenty of non-Hindus, including women, walking around in white clothing completely unscathed.  So I think that if you don't want to participate in Holi, they leave you alone.  Since we were splattered with purple, more people engaged with us.  I was in "snowball fighting" mode and a little mischievous, and surprised various pedestrians with powder.  I'm not sure if that was okay, but I got away with it.  One kid whom I had ambushed immediately went to a powder-wallah and purchased a bit of powder to reciprocate.

Later we returned to the TIFR housing complex.  Here men and women approached us slowly, took out a bit of powder from our bags and applied it softly like makeup to our faces, again wishing us Happy Holi.  Others were wrestling in the mud.   There was a little program with women invited to dance in a circle.  It was fun!

Otherwise during his visit, Adrian and I mostly did math and hung out.  DAI regulars will be unsurprised to know that I made a third trip to Elephanta, because like most Americans, he wanted to see the monkeys.  Well I delivered.

The simple life.
Devil Horns at the holy site.
Alright, that's my Holi post.  Next, I want to show you some videos of Chennai.

Friday, July 13, 2012

After the Storm

[Hey Diary, as I'm writing this I'm in the U.S. visiting DAI fans, but I really need to catch up on last year before the new year begins.]

I was suddenly alone in Mumbai after my month of touring India.  The trip was fantastic but had worn me out; breathing all the city air was taking its toll.  But there was no time to rest, because in the coming weeks I was involved in three important functions!

The ladies left February 20th, and my interview in Pune was February 22nd.  DAI readers will recall that I had previously visited Pune for the purpose of giving a "job talk", and speaking with the director.  I later learned that this wasn't quite enough formality, and that I would need to visit IISER Pune once more for a formal interview.  Actually, it's a bit like the British system in that everyone is to be interviewed on the same day.  A day when several prominent Indian mathematics professors arrive for the proceedings.  For example the previously mentioned Dipendra and Sujatha.  Unfortunately, the extra trip to Pune pushed me a bit over the edge and I was quite hoarse the morning of the interview.
I serendipitously discovered a natural, if unpleasant, temporary cure for a hoarse throat.  I won't say exactly what it is, but it's a miniature version of the cure for my digestive troubles in a previous post.

Anyways let me briefly say the interview went well, and so DAI has been renewed for a second season!  I'll be an Associate Mathematics Professor at IISER Pune, the only foreign employee of any of the IISERs, and (I believe) the only mathematics faculty in the country without Indian family.

March 1st I went to Sagar's wedding.  Sagar is a canteen friend of mine, one of the TIFR grad students.  (Actually an alumnus now: congrats!)  He had kindly invited me, and I excitedly bought myself a kurta for the event.  A kurta is a traditional Indian men's dress.  Now DAI readers may recall how jealous I was of my female friends getting more attention than me during my trip.  The solution to this problem for Western men is simply to wear a kurta, because then everyone, women and men and children, will stop and check you out.

For the wedding, folks took their seats in a large room, and watched the ceremony.  Traditional music played, Sagar wore some cool headwear, the couple walked several times around the fire, smoke filled the room.  There was a reception afterwards with traditional Marathi food.  See this video:  The first half is Sagar's math cohort in attendance, and the second half is Gerald's indulgently long coverage of my kurta modeling.

So, although India is renowned for pricey weddings that last many days, not everyone is into that, and this only took a couple hours.  Nice and simple.

Jugglology Lecture:
Okay so readers have probably figured out that I'm really into both math and juggling.  It turns out there is a little overlap between the two, which I like to call "jugglology".  Let me just briefly say that one can describe a typical juggling pattern with a sequence of numbers like 534534534... .  The numbers tell you how high the tosses are, or really how long the ball takes to reach the other hand.  To describe what sequences are possible is a pleasant exercise in mathematical modeling.  For more specifics see this site.  Over the years I've given several "recreational math" talks on the subject.  It's a fun talk to give because at any time I can fall back on my juggling experience or my math professor experience.  Yes, most of the time I'm juggling during the talk.

Word had gotten out about my juggling availability, and I gave one of these talks for "Science Day" March 4th at Mumbai's CBS school.  I think it went pretty well.  If I had been totally over my travel sickness, I would have made a video for you.  Maybe next time!  On that matter, I have a fantasy of being invited all over India to give Jugglology talks.  If you're at an Indian school, why don't you hire me to come?  I can give more serious talks for the grownups too!

After the talk I met up again with Acushla, who works in the same campus.  Acushla escorted me to the airport where I met an arriving Adrian (next post).  We discussed putting the Hindi (natural) numbers in alphabetical order (using Devanagari).  Do you know which odd number comes first?  If so, post in the comments.  This has been a matter of some debate.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

गोआ and Goodbye

After an easy day of hanging around the 'hood in Mumbai, we got on another plane and flew to Goa.  Here's a detail of the Goa airport; it fits with my general experience that "everything is interesting in India".

Anyone know what this mural depicts?  Post a comment!

We took a taxi to Arambol, which was recommended to us by international yoga friends, as a beach area separate from the main party scene.  Our last week in India was spent at a place called "ResidenSea", which was recommended to us from Lonely Planet.  ResidenSea was run by a local family; there were a few dozen huts where folks slept, a restaurant feature and several "hang out" areas.  Actually, here's a video of the whole thing, filmed as usual on my last day:

The other main patrons at ResidenSea were three Russian couples who hung around the restaurant area  in their bathing suits, drank, and smoked hashish all day.  At one point the manager went by fanning around a pan of baked hash.  (Don't ask me how that works...)  Anyway we never talked to them.

There were basically two kinds of people in Arambol:  europeans getting a low-expense "exotic" vacation, and native indians selling them stuff.   Which reminds me, we ran into Sebastian again.  On Wednesday we took a bus to go to a huge marketplace, but it turned out to be more of the same: you could tell from the skin color who was buying and who was selling.  There was an exception:  one day while swimming we met a group of engineering students who were skipping class to have some fun.  I did in fact reprimand them.  Later, when my cohort was making an acroyoga photoshoot, they mimicked the poses in the background.
Sharing Americanized yoga with India
So...we had a great relaxing time.  We did a lot of swimming, I burned through a novelization of the Ramayana, we did yoga with a cool guy named Vijay, we partially celebrated Courtney's half birthday, and we got really silly with British accents, chatting away at the local restaurants.
Why am I dressed up?... I don't have that many outfits.
Jennifer got exuberant handshakes from this dog.

Look at his expression.
Also, more cows.

If you declare that you handled cows, you may be detained and miss your next flight.
We saw some disoriented (Russian?) guy alongside a road with some weird injury.  He couldn't talk to us, but we informed some cops we saw much further down the road.  I tried some Hindi with the taxi drivers and they were amused.

But that's about it, kids.  We flew back to Mumbai, packed up, and reflected on the trip.  We were delighted to run into Kavitha again at a TIFR canteen, and told her our stories.

I bought that shirt in Goa.

A taxi came and they left.  I managed some hugs out of the situation.  Good times; I plan to visit them back in Norman this summer.

Spatillomans Forever!


Phew!  Well that adventure sure took a long time to write up.  I will try to catch you up quickly with the next few posts.  (Actually I'm going back to the States in a couple days.)