learningnlife

Ramblings about learning, life and other stuff


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My learning after school and college- Part 1

Calvin- discussion on cannibalism

I was supposed to be a good student at school- in the sense that I paid attention in most classes, asked questions and scored good marks in exams. I am sure I learned a lot at school, that has stood me in good stead in life, and has helped me earn a good income- perhaps a decent command of the English language, perhaps a love of learning itself by virtue to being exposed to so many different topics and subjects, perhaps an interest in my fellow human beings…

But there is a hell of a lot, I absolutely did not learn at school, which seems to me terribly important- it took me many years of working and living, to learn some of these things and some of this learning is still quite shaky.

#1- I discovered only a few years back, perhaps after 15 years of working after graduating from a top engineering college, that learning involves doing. I know it sounds incredibly stupid now, but for a long time I thought that one first learns about something (e.g. how to run a successful business) and then, well one does it (e.g.runs the business)…and if you fail, it means that you were a bad student when you were attending classes on ‘running a business’ or that you are plain stupid. It took me a long while to figure out that we don’t know what to do about most things, and we are fumbling and stumbling, and have to learn as we go along… I think it would have been useful if someone had given me a heads up on this in school (or at home) when I was 15 years old. I suspect some of my generation were as stupid as me on this point. For some reason, I suspect that the current generation of students aren’t quarter as naive…what do you think? Perhaps the age of innocence is past us, and our kids know quite early, that there isn’t much more we know than them, with any certainty.

#2- “The printed word is always true”. Does anybody believe this any more? But back in 1993- before email and internet, as a student and an employee, I diligently collected information from magazines, books and press clippings, believing these to comprise a repository of knowledge, their veracity sanctioned by their existence on a printed page. Even today, when I look at an average report I have written, printed and bound in well formatted pages with some sophisticated looking graphics, I convince myself for a few minutes that this in indeed a great report. I wonder if this naivete can be attributed to my scientific and technical education, where often ‘one thing is right’ (at least as far as how to drill a hole in a steel plate is concerned), or to my parents and teachers who did not question things much…or to the dimness of my own imagination. Somehow I feel that the current generation of students is not so stupid to believe the printed word…but I hope there are other stupidities they believe in, so that I can keep an even score with them.

#3- Now this one is a toughie, and I do not feel so bad about taking so long to realize this one. Perhaps this one requires people to grow older…but I also have a sneaky feeling that young kids too could learn this, with the help of a good mentor and some deep discussions. For a long, long time I thought that if one thing were true, it’s opposite would have to be false. It was a shock at first to realize that this need not be the case at all, and later this proved very liberating- to keep both an idea and its opposite in the mind at the same time. I am not sure I can explain this very well- so I hope you will understand this without my having to explain this further. I think this is what Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (Notice my subtle claim of possessing a first-rate intelligence- this is probably innate deviousness I was born with, and was learnt before school or life :-))

I think I may be back to write a 2nd part and maybe more- there are many more things like this, the school of life has taught me.

I also think the above kid of stuff is terribly important, with highly practical implications. Today I think, I am much more likely to start doing something, knowing that learning is possible only if I start doing- I would not have acted like this 20 years back, and was therefore a less effective person. Wonderfully, I realize today that the “seeming opposite” of this is also true- that it is better to start doing some things only after having a very detailed visualization of what one is aiming to do, possible future scenarios etc. So now, I can attempt a fine balance between doing and preparing to do, between doing and waiting. (We have not talked about the learning of ‘there is a time when waiting is better than doing’ yet- perhaps I will cover this in a later post).

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The Nirbhaya Documentary- An Opportunity Lost?

For the last couple of days, I have been watching NDTV debates on this, reading and commenting on various articles shared through facebook, watched the documentary itself….various objections have been raised against this documentary (I am not going to list these), and various responses have been given to these objections. In all of this, what is now beginning to sink into me is the enormous amount of energy and time we have spent in criticizing or defending the documentary. Here is an opportunity- a film that has got this subject back into our national consciousness, gives us an opportunity to discuss, reflect and understand the nature of sexual violence. We should not lose this opportunity- let us discuss this now- let this film be just one of many inputs. Given how short our memories are, this debate will stop in a week or two, and it would be a shame if we just released our feelings in a cathartic fashion, and learnt nothing about why sexual violence happens in this process. Time and energy are valuable, so why spend even a moment on whether this is a well intentioned or well made documentary etc.- why not focus all our energies on trying to understand what is happening and learn through discussion?

The lawyer Sharma who said ‘women are flowers’ on the NDTV show and was shouted down by all the people in the studio, looked genuinely confused as to how his view that ‘women should be protected’ was problematic. I am sure there are hundreds and thousands of ‘good, nice’ people who don’t see the connection- I myself don’t claim to see all the connections- nor do I claim that there is no part of me that does not look at a woman as an object. These people need empathic understanding and education- here is an opportunity to both understand and educate. Chetan Bhagat said that he would show this film to ‘slum dwellers’ on a TV show, and Shabana Azmi very rightly castigated him immediately for this classist statement- do not rich people in high-rises commit rape? But Chetan did not seem to understand Shabana’s point and went on- he needs to be educated on this (his deep-rooted bias surfaced in this conversation- I do not judge or condemn him for it, he too needs to be educated). And these are just a couple of points- there are probably different types of rape, and different reasons for this.

I am starting to read the wikipedia page which seems like a good place to start-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_sexual_violence#Societal_factors

This article also seems to have some good pointers-

http://www.thenation.com/article/172643/ten-things-end-rape-culture#

If you would like to discuss this topic, I am happy to do this through comments on this blog, and learn.


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Getting my head around capitalism, democracy, communism, socialism, economics etc.- 1

I have little understanding of these topics, but have been keen over the last few months to gain an understanding of political and economic models, and what kind of models and what kind of development, countries should pursue in the future. It seems rather obvious that whatever has been tried so far has failed- though possibly some of these models are good, but have failed due to poor implementation or human foibles. With this objective, I have started reading various articles on the net, social media, and have also purchased 3 ebooks- Capital in the 21st Century (Thomas Piketty), America beyond Capitalism (Gar Alperovitz) and No Local (Greg Sharzer). As I try to get my head around these things, I will share my thoughts on this blog.

A McKinsey Quarterly article was shared by a friend on facebook recently- it’s called “Redefining capitalism’. The authors argue that-

  1. Capitalism has been the major source of historical growth and prosperity
  2. However, we do not generally understand how and why it worked well, which comes in the way of our ability to improve the capitalist system
  3. The dominant economic paradigm over the last century has been that supply and demand will balance each other (based on firms who are trying to maximize profits and rational consumers who are trying to maximize ‘utility’) to ensure that resources are allocated in a socially optimal way (this is called ‘neoclassical economics’)
  4. This paradigm has come under question given mounting evidence to the contrary (that humans do not behave in this expected ‘rational’ way), and the failure of macroeconomic models built on this paradigm during the financial crisis
  5. Economics functions more as a complex, continuously evolving ecosystem of players and forces, and cannot be reduced to the ‘mechanistic’ neoclassical model.
  6. “Markets are evolutionary systems that each day carry out millions of simultaneous experiments on ways to make our lives better. In other words, the essential role of capitalism is not allocation—it is creation. Life isn’t drastically better for billions of people today than it was in 1800 because we are allocating the resources of the 19th-century economy more efficiently. Rather, it is better because we have life-saving antibiotics, indoor plumbing, motorized transport, access to vast amounts of information, and an enormous number of technical and social innovations that have become available to much (if not yet all) of the world’s population. The genius of capitalism is that it both creates incentives for solving human problems and makes those solutions widely available. And it is solutions to human problems that define prosperity, not money.”
  7. Prosperity in a society is the accumulation of solutions to human problems, and cannot be measured by money. An example of an American with more money living along with an Amazonian tribe is shared- where he does not have access to air-conditioning and antibiotics and is therefore less prosperous.
  8. GDP is not the right measure of growth and instead growth should be measured by the rate at which new solutions to human problems become available.
  9. Capitalism is the evolutionary system for finding these solutions to human problems- it provides incentives for problem-solving experiments to occur, competition to select the best solutions, mechanisms for scaling up and making the best solutions available etc.
  10. Businesses should not have the ‘creation of shareholder value’ as the primary aim, but should be seen as society’s problem solvers. An example of Google refusing to provide quarterly financial forecasts is given.
  11. It is not always clear whether an activity is solving problems or creating problems- in fact, it may solve problems for some and create problems for others. Democracy is a way of enabling people to be both creators of solutions and customers for other people’s solutions. Governments are required to regulate things- encouraging economic activity that solves problems and discouraging economic activity that creates them. Most prosperous economies in the world mix regulation with free markets.
  12. The metrics of businesses should therefore move away from profits, growth rate and shareholder value to ‘what problems’ a business has solved.

I found the article interesting and insightful, but have some questions-

  • Isn’t it rather simplistic to argue that capitalism is the best ‘evolutionary system’ that will surface solutions to problems? The incentive for the innovation after all seems to be personal greed- so why would the innovator be committed to the best solution? Even assuming that competition will ensure this, and that businesses are not motivated by greed, it seems to me that understanding problems- connecting the dots, is not easy and it is not obvious to me that such an evolutionary mechanism will lead to answers to problems. In fact, I think many of the bigger problems are not even understood- leave alone talking of solving these problems.
  • Aren’t the suggestions rather romantic, ignoring the nature of forces involved in the concentration of capital in the hands of a few?

Complex issues..I shall continue to think about these, and see what experts have to say on these things.


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Free at last- The Sudbury Valley School- 2

One of the chapters which fascinated me most in this book is chapter 18 called “Time Enough”.

Greenberg says- The image of the creative genius is always accompanied in our stories and legends by an image of total concentration and utter disregard for time. “That’s for geniuses,” we say, with admiration. We are all in our own ways creative geniuses. We all have within us that same potential for passionate involvement, the same need to disregard the outer world’s clocks and turn our eye to our inner clocks.

Greenberg gives many examples of children taking time to do their thing. He speaks of Jacob, a 13-year-old, who spends four hours one day at the potter’s wheel not satisfied with a single pot; next day Jacob tries again and rises in 2.5 hours, finishing three specimens he likes. In the same vein, he speaks of a girl who reads a book all the way through in three days, wto children who go out for a walk in the woods and are out for four hours and one child who goes on fishing for three years! Older teenagers at the school often say, “More than anything, the school gave me the time to find myself.”

Greenberg differentiates between public time and private time, and says that public time at Sudbury is as punctual, as private time is loose. Classes, meetings and trips start exactly at the appointed time and if someone is late, they just carry on, even leaving the person behind.

Reading this chapter was a revelation to me-schooled as I have been in the “importance of time”. I could not help feeling that this was excessive indulgence, though I could feel my deep craving for such slow time, secretly feeling guilty that I even desired such a thing. Could it be that we are all a little lost, maybe more than a little lost, never having taken time out to try and find ourselves?

Interestingly, a few weeks after reading this chapter I came across a quote by Emerson- “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

So perhaps it is not irresponsible to take a long pause and breathe, and allow time enough for things, neither less nor more. Is our incessant industriousness perhaps just an excuse to keep ourselves distracted? Think about it…


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Free at Last- The Sudbury Valley School- 1

I heard about the Sudbury Valley School for the first time through Peter Gray’s excellent blog Freedom to Learn couple of years back. That led me to the school’s webpage and I came to know about their books- which were unfortunately too expensive to purchase on amazon. Recently, when I attended the Economics of Happiness Conference, was thrilled to find this person from Indore- Banyan Tree Book Store who has contacted Daniel Greenberg (the Sudbury Valley School person) and negotiated a deal to publish these books in India at very reasonable prices. Do check out the Banyan tree book store- they have many other interesting titles which are not available normally.

I have read 20 out of the 36 chapters of this book (each chapter is just 2-4 pages long), and find it very good. It is written in a very accessible manner, but explicates some deep principles about learning that the author has imbibed through his experiments in the Sudbury Valley School. I wanted to share some of these in this blog.

In the very first chapter, a group of 9-12 year olds approach the author and ask him to teach them arithmetic- he discourages them, but they insist they want to learn and are willing to do the hard work. 20 weeks later- after 2 half hour classes each week, and homework exercises- a total of 20 contact hours later, they were done. Every one of the students was completely thorough at the end of this period- in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, percentages, square roots. the author says this typically takes 6 years in a regular school! Surprised at this, the author talked to Alan White, an elementary math specialist, who felt this was fine!! Alan says-

Because everyone knows that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff- well, twenty hours or so makes sense.

The author shares that after his first batch of arithmetic students, it’s taken just about 20 hours for all students after that- because they started to learn this stuff, only when they wanted to…

What do you make of that?


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Treewatching- an April Sunday Morning in Bangalore

I went tree-watching 2 sundays ago on April 1. Drove around on my scooter armed with my trusted HS10 camera (which I still barely know how to use), though the streets of Cox Town and Frazer Town. Driving to work during the week, I had made mental notes of trees I wanted to observe more carefully- some like the silver oak and the banyan, I knew the tree names; others I had no clue. (The banyan though I was not 100% sure- just knew it was something from the same family).

I went around for barely an hour, trying my best to get clear shots of these trees. Once I was back, I selected the best photos I had, did some post processing and the ones I didn’t know the names of- uploaded on the efloraindia googlegroup- and over the next few days, friendly experts helped me with identifying the trees and shrubs.

Here are the trees and shrubs I ‘met’- I also met a bird I suspect to be a ‘red vented bulbul’ but he was too flitty for me me to capture. Flitty is not a word I think, but I guess you get my drift…

Tall tree- fairmont towers-1-web

Tall tree- ficus or sapium

Ficus Religiosa? Photographed April 1 Ficus Religiosa? Photographed April 14

This tree was completely bare mid March. I think I had seen small white flowers on the bare tree (now I am quite sure I was mistaken after the comments from all the experts). On April 1, it was full of tender new leaves; I have also shared a close up of how it looked on April 14. I now need to see if I can convince the watchman to get into the apartment area to get a closer look…. have to also watch for fruits and flowers as they happen.. One of the experts on efloraindia shared pictures of a peepal tree bare in March and completely full of leaves in April- this was an education for my blind eyes- I had never realized that peepal trees shed their leaves completely in some part of the year. I understand from experts that this happens if they are not near a water body.

Next- the Silver Oak

silver oak flowers-web

It never struck me that these fuzzy yellow patches high up in this tree are actually flowers- I thought these might be leaves with a different coloration or something. Doing some google image searches, I realized that these were indeed beautiful flowers, and many birds loved their nectar etc. I struggled to take some photographs- given the distance, the low contrast setting, and my limited photography skills… still was thrilled to see these beautiful flowers through the zoom lens; also saw some birds partaking of the nectar they offered.

silver oak flowers- good one- web

My only exposure to ‘oak’ trees over much of my life has been to read about these in books and novels- I never imagined that there were oak trees in India. I had clubbed ‘oak’ along with other exotic unavailable goodies from the west like ‘ginger ale’ and ‘lemonade’- which I had read about in books, and never really knew what these were (back in the 70s- no middle class person in India knew that lemonade was nimboo pani :-)). In any case, this led me to google, and I found this website- http://arboretum.arizona.edu/taxa/Grevillea_robusta.html saying that the silver oak is not a true oak.. What does that mean?

My next stop was at this delightful fig tree (banyan). As expected there was a small temple at the base of the tree. As I stood under the shade of this tree, full of fruits at this time of the year, it seemed as though I was transported into a magical world- a cool shaded food court for what sounded like 100s of mynahs and 10s of squirrels. I struggled to get decent photographs- the shade and the bright sunlight and the restless mynahs were too much for me…

Banyan fig with fruits-web Bird eating fig
Banyan fig full of fruits Mynah eating fig on banyan

Curious about these fruits, I tried to learn more about them through some google searches- The website http://www.auroville.org/journals%26media/books%26cds/banyan.htm gave some fascinating information. What my ancestors must have known through growing up and talking to each other, I must now learn through the internet 🙂 And is it really learning, if I have not tasted the fruit, or seen the wasp inside the fruit (by the way, I believe this is not a good fruit for humans, so please don’t try eating it..)-

Extract from http://www.auroville.org/journals%26media/books%26cds/banyan.htm

<We know that all fruit must have a blossom – or do they?

Sometimes the Banyan fig is called a fruit without a flower. This is nonsense of course. But- where are the blossoms?You will need better eyes than even our Shikra hawk to find a Banyan flower. That’s because they are hidden inside the fig. The blossoms are very small and hundreds of them spend their entire lives inside the fig. The flowers have a unique friend called a fig wasp. Each kind of Ficus (fig tree) has its own special species of wasp attached to it. The wasp’s job is to pollinate the fig flowers. The wasp enters the fig through a natural hole in the top and lays its eggs. When the insects hatch and leave their home they become covered with pollen. Then they make their way into another fig and fertilize its blossoms, making sure it will produce seeds.>

My next stop was at this tree which is quite common and I have been seeing since childhood, but had never seen flowering…You will never believe how beautiful the flowers of pongamia pinnata are when you get up close!

unidentified tree-2-web unidentified tree- pods-web
Pongamia Pinnata Pongamia Pinnata- pods

 

unidentified flower close up-web
Pongamia Pinnata- closeup of flower

I clicked the tree below and sent it to efloraindia for identification- as I spotted some dried fruits which looked very similar to a tree I had spotted at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in February- that tree had dried leaves and looked nothing like this one to my amateur eye… Experts identified this quickly as lagerstroemia speciosa (jarul is its common name in India). Just a week later as I drove past the tree, it was full of the beautiful purple blossoms I am familiar with! How blind one is! Observing only certain ‘gross’ features, and never carefully looking at other features- leave alone the essence..

jarul- NGMA- dried fruits- feb Jarul- NGMA- Feb-web
NGMA tree- Feb 12- dried fruits NGMA tree- Feb 12
Pride of India-2-web Pride of India-1-web
Cox Town tree- April 1 Cox Town tree- April 1
DSCF6759 DSCF6761
Cox Town tree- April 16- dark frond in the centre are the dried fruits Cox Town tree- April 16

I would love to go and see how the tree at NGMA looks now!

Finally, there were 3 more-

1. Ashoka tree flowering- one rarely gets to see these flowers which get hidden behind the heavy foliage of leaves
2. the Umbrella tree (origin- Australia)
3. A shrub identified as the cape honeysuckle

floppy leaf tree-web Ashok flowers-web
Umbrella Tree Ashoka flowers

 

orange flower plant orange flower closeup
Cape Honeysuckle shrub Cape Honeysuckle flower- closeup

Read more about the cape honeysuckle (tecoma capensis) at the wonderful flowersofindia websiste-

http://www.flowersofindia.net/catalog/slides/Cape%20Honeysuckle.html


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Looking at trees- through the eyes of an amateur tree spotter

I think I have always been interested in plants and trees, and felt very comfortable in nature. I remember playing alone in the ‘garden’ around our house in Chennai when I was 8-10 years old- it wasn’t much of a garden as far as I can remember, but even the vasaka plants with their milky sap were good enough for me. I never knew the names of any plants or trees though (except for very common ones like neem and gulmohur :-)).

When we moved to Delhi, I was lucky to live in one of the old government colonies which had large old trees which provided a lot of shade. I never knew the names of these trees though. One day, I shall go back and find out which trees they were… Then 4 years in IIT Madras, a veritable forest- with so many trees- but somehow I think I didn’t take interest- or was it the lack of information about trees? More likely the obsession with liquor and sport and all the other things probably didn’t leave my eyes free for trees. Though I remember the comfort the tree just outside my 2nd floor hostel room provided me…

On my various trips to Bangalore, I would be completely taken in by the breathtaking flowering trees- blooms of purple, yellow, pink and red…only years later did I learn that these were jacarandas, cassias etc.

Kadamba- Kalyan Nagar, Bangalore

Pink tabebuia- Kamaraj Road stretch between Dispensary Road and Cubbon Road

It is only in the last couple of years that I have been fortunate enough to learn more about the names of these trees which I have always loved so much, and only in the last few months have I started looking at finer details like the shapes of leaves. Till then, I was primarily interested only in flowering trees…a shallow and superficial interest I accept- akin to the time I could not listen to instrumental music- I impatiently waited for the words! Really a crude and insensitive mind and attention span! That is still the case..but I think I am beginning to appreciate subtleties.

badminton ball tree, Frazer town, Bangalore

One could argue that reducing a tree to an identified name is not seeing the tree at all (and I completely agree with that), but somehow knowing some of the names, and their histories has made me feel more intimate with trees…Having spotted one badminton ball tree, suddenly I find myself spotting several of them on the streets of Bangalore- even at a glance as I am driving. And knowing the names of trees as I move around these streets makes me feel that I am always surrounded by friends I know (and who know me).

I want to thank, and list, all things that have helped me to start identifying trees, and learn more about them.

1) Books on trees– Started with purchasing ‘Celebration of Indian Trees’ a large coffee table book by Ashok Kothari of BNHS. Given its size and bulk and its selection of photographs, it wasn’t much help though as a field guide. My good old friend Rocky told me about the ‘Trees of Delhi’ by Pradeep Krishen a couple of years back- I had the sense to but it only a few months back- and what a find this book has been- an absolute gem! A must for anyone interested in nature and living anywhere in India.

2) Websites- http://www.flowersofindia.in is an excellent website- my challenge though has been to use it as a field guide as it is hard to carry a laptop with a net connection along to identify trees 🙂 Karthikeyan’s ebook ‘flowering trees of bangalore’ from his fantastic blog http://www.wildwanderer.com has been a great find.

3) efloraindia googlegroup– Botany experts, professors, and amateurs are highly active on this googlegroup- people on this group have been very helpful in identifying different trees I have photographed.

4) My Fuji Finepix HS10– This camera with a 30x zoom has been a big boon in photographing trees and birds in a way where their distinguishing features become visible. My mobile phone camera is just not good enough to photograph leaves and flowers on trees in a satisfying way. Still even this camera is too large to carry around always..so I am hoping to find an even more compact camera with a decent zoom- I think I need 20-24 X zoom at least.

5) My ipad– Thanks to the ipad, I can actually carry around the ‘flowering trees of bangalore’ ebook along with me as I look at trees, and try to identify them. Unfortunately I cannot use the flowersofindia website when on the move as my ipad does have 3G; am hoping I can figure out a way to save flowersofindia locally on my ipad…

Flower I never tried to identify- Horton's Plains- Sri Lanka

Hoping to do much more treewatching and documenting my treewatching over the months and years to come!

Under the Java fig tree- Kandy, Sri Lanka