Conference Call

by Ramesh Mahadevan

(Thus spake Dora-zusthra in his posts ! Ramses is trying to rise from the ashes one more time, to be seen in the Abbey ! The following article is based on some 'true' incidents narrated to me by my friend 'Sooth')

Ajay Palvayanteeswaran could not believe himself. His adviser's words were still ringing in his ears, like some unpicked-up-phone. Just a short while ago, he was summarily beckoned to his adviser's office, made to stand between two piles of research mess. Ajay was wondering what he had done wrong now. To his pleasant surprise, there was even a little bit of a smile sticking to his boss's upper lip.

"Good news, Ajay, our paper titled 'An Algorithmic Approach to Massively Perpendicular Systems Using Discrete Elements' has been approved for the Pittsburgh conference."

Ajay sensed electricity. He almost felt like jumping over his adviser's desk and giving him a big bear-hug or at least a high five. But fearing that that might jeopardize the rest of his Ph.D, Ajay pretended as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

His adviser, Prof. Ringo Rangopadhyay, continued. "Ajay, lets not rest on our laurels. We still have to write the code and generate data and write the paper and make slides. There is plenty of work. Don't just stand there. From now on, for the next month, thou shalt survive on mere five hours of sleep. Now get your beer belly off my desk."

Ajay was still in a stupor. The Pittsburgh conference, wow ! Isn't it unofficially known as the 'Computer Science Mela' where everybody who is anybody in computer science and his aunt, showed up ? Somebody told him that they even sold baloons and 'bhuda ka baal' (cotton candy) there. He quickly rang up his buddies in Pittsburgh to make plans for all the after-conference hours. In fact, it will be just wonderful boozing out the nights with Bala, Srini and their roommates in Pittsburgh and bunking the morning sessions.


Ajay suddenly relapsed into nostalgia. It seemed like just yesterday when he arrived from India to this country. He remembered how he faced his very first traumatic experience within months after arriving, namely, 'Buying that winter jacket'. In fact, after much agonizing, about twenty of the first yearites were lead by a shoppaholic senior desi guy, like Pied Piper, into a dime and nickel store and they all ended up buying the same sh**-colored jacket. Ajay remembered the words of that senior "Kids, most of you will probably spend more time, perhaps experience more anguish over a winter jacket than choosing a Ph. D topic or adviser. But its worth it."

How true !?! He bumped into Ringo and joined his research group purely by accident. Now he is sure he could not have found a better boss. True, there are plusses and minusses when a desi student works for a desi adviser. Its always like who blinks first. Ajay remembered the time he was almost seduced by Professor Archibald Smithers into being his student. ('Call me Archie') Prof. Smithers specializes in the fourth order effects of a highly theoretical problem and besides someone in China and Hungary, he was the only one working on such things. He promised Ajay a great future, full funding and even a Professor's post after graduation with an office right adjacent to his own. Thank god, Ajay had the sense to go for a more practical topic in a 'hot area', with a big shot like Prof. Rangopadhyay. Ajay even felt guilty for giving his boss a lot of 'gaalis' in absentia, especially when he was drunk and having always derisively referred to him as 'Chutki' ('Shorty') when among his friends.


The next month was truly hectic. His code did not generate the results he and his adviser promised in their 'digest' which got accepted in the conference. In fact, the results they got had nothing to do with their initial cure-all results. He was trying to use polar coordinates to see if the graphs looked more politically correct. In the middle of everything, someone suggested that he write up his resume and take two hundred copies of it and distribute it to all and sundry in the conference like a cinema notice. He could barely fill one page of his resume with 'skills' and could not impose any pleasant lookiing format on it. 'Secretary of Indian Students Association, one of the largest organizations in the USA' he wrote proudly under Accomplishment and under memberships and societies he put down 'Member of BMG and Columbia CD and cassette club'.

His adviser wanted to stretch his research contract dollar. "Lets all drive to Pittsburgh" he suggested to Ajay. "I know it is over two thousand miles, but if we took turns and drive through the night, we can reach there soon enough" Even though the conference was taking place in a Hilton Hotel, Ajay was booked in the YMCA with a hundred Teamster Union delegates.


The conference hospitality suite. Beer and computer geeks were flooding the place. There were at least half a million professors in the hotel lobby, each looking more professorial than the other. Ajay was very confused and felt very out of place. There were tall professors, short professors, thin professors, bald professors, very, very bald professors - all having nothing in common apart from being generally professors. Ajay tried to mingle in. But the professors ignored his Polish joke as being rude and racist and he was left to nursing his beer.

"I used to work in the area of 'Theoretical Programming Languages' when I was younger and foolish" said one professor to the others huddling around. Ajay could not imagine if that professor ever could have been young. "Really" answered another professor, who could not believe it. "Even I used to work in 'Theoretical Programming Languages', heck, I have even published some of my work. This is really a small world". The two profs looked at each other and shouted 'Bhaiya' and then sang 'Yaadon ki baaraat'. Ajay could not handle it. He felt guilty and deprived.

There were hundreds of desi students and desi professors. The luckier desi dudes found themselves in a mixed crowd. But the rest of the other desis just formed a big circle in a far corner and were entertaining themselves. Ajay tried not to look at them and tried to mentally forge a separate, more universal identity for himself. How come everyone else fitted in so well and he could not ? Must be the 'Old Boy network', he concluded. He went for his tenth beer. He was slowly getting drunk.

"Hello, young man, are you here for the conference ?" asked a very old gentleman in a wrinkled suit. "My name is Joe Feldenstein. I have been the professor emeritus of Springfield University for the past seventy five years. In those days, our conferences used to be simple. I still remember, some eighty odd years ago, my good friend, named them 'electrons'. Before that we just used to call them 'green thingummies' on the oscilloscope. By the way, here is my resume. Do you know if your adviser has any funding ?" Ajay felt even stranger. He turned around to look at the bunch of professors he had just handed out his resumes. They were using the backside of his resume as scrap to derive some equations.

Suddenly all the professors in the hotel lobby were transformed into a bunch of baboons. The baboons were doing their primitive mating rituals. It was vulgar. They were lusting after some very specific creatures, who were trying to dodge their menacing advances. The baboon-professors were almost driven by their hormonal instincts and were after something even more primitive and satisfying than sex - NSF Grants ! It was disgusting. Ajay turned around. The desi dudes were still in the far corner. Only their numbers had multiplied ten folds by now. Ajay made eye contact with five of them. He could not take it anymore. "Hi I'm Ajay" he said, as he walked to join them.


It was the morning of the conference. Ajay had already hit the panic button. He was scheduled to present his paper barely an hour from now. He was sure he had brought his tie, but now for the life of his, he could not find it. And just when he was looking around his suitcase, he realized he forgot to bring any banians. Finally, when he spotted his tie, sticking to the lid of his suitcase like a dead snake, he found out that it was actually a dead snake after all. Where did all his underwears go ?

He almost forgot ! He does not know how to wear a tie ! He remembered his dad tearfully handing over his 'sentimental' tie to him as he left India. Why didn't he make a knot in it too ? He was getting desperate. He called Srini and Bala for help. But they only had 'clip-on' ties, and have never knotted anything more complicated than shoelaces in their entire lives. It was unrealistic to rush to their place and borrow their ties. His last night's booze was numbing his thinking. He must quickly put on his tie in the next ten minutes.

In principle, Ajay could have rushed to his adviser's room. After all he too is a desi and the desi-desi bondage will always come through in emergency situations like this. But Prof. Rangopadhyay himself, despite being a professor, never learnt the art of putting on a tie and relied on his wife all these years. However, he tried to help Ajay. "Let me see, somebody told me there is a desi in Iowa City or something - he is supposed to be the only desi in the USA who knows how to tie a necktie. Maybe we can find him and call him...."


The conference organizers had tricked Ajay and scheduled his talk for the last day. Ajay thought that the hall would be jampacked with professors fighting with each other to get the best seat when it was his turn to present his paper. But to his chagrin, there were only three or four people. And if you discount Bala, Srini, his boss, there was only one other person. Where are the half a million professors ? Ajay could not find even his first transparency. He thought he just saw it a minute ago. The chairman of the session rose to introduce Ajay.

"Welcome to Session JB. The first paper in this session titled 'Blah... Blah... Blah". Ajay still could not find the first transparency, sweating profusely. "Will be presented by, ab aapke saamne pesh karegi, Kumari Ajay Palvayanteeswaran, laadies and jaantalman, let us give him a hand."

Miraculously, Ajay found what he was looking for. He clumsily walked up to the podium. Tried to verbalize something, but could not find his voice. After a minute of trying, some sounds came out. Just then, the only professor in the audience walked out. Ajay felt insulted. But, in walked - Sridevi ! dancing through the door, grabbing the mike, pointing out a typo in the slide, making an obscene gesture on the overview projector. Why is she here and why is she doing the rain dance in a CS conference ? Am I hallucinating ?

"The massively perpendicular systems are the 'high-throughput' tools which are controlled by the protocols. ... " Next, Ajay slipped in his carefully prepared joke, which he expected to lighten up the audience and make them relate to his dry talk. "By the way, folks, talking of perpendicular systems, let me give you an example of one. Do you know that my grandmother, bless that ninety year old woman. She is now prpendicular to herself....ha ha ... The protocol is implemented by ..."


It was a long drive back from Pittsburgh. Now Ajay had to make the two thousand corrections in his paper in the next twenty hours and Federal Express it. It was time to reflect. Was it all worth it ? The conference and the paper ? The whole thing is a dehumanizing ratrace. Life under Stalinist Russia could have been better. He is not cut out for it. His nerves are too fragile. The problem with the world today is that it is infested with far too many professors. Ajay took an exit, stopped by a convenience store - and bought himself some Lotto Jackpot tickets.


Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh