The art of Re – Reading books

When I was in my teens , I discovered P.G.Wodehouse , Agatha Christie , Alistair MacLean and a horde of other writers including the Pseudonymous Franklin W.Dixon and Carolyn Keene . My parents were of a  middle class background  and could not afford to keep my desire for new books satiated but ironically when I asked for a library application , my father refused . His argument was that one’s attitude towards books should be similar to that of a boy chewing on a sugarcane , with the first bite , one merely gets a glimpse into the many rewards that await us so therefore one needs to chew and re chew until the promise of sweet reward no longer comes forth. A societal structure such as the library screamed against that sentiment and he eschewed it with a passion. I knew well enough not to start an argument especially one of the kind as to what do I do after I have consumed all the juice , it is easy to spit the molasses but start throwing away books and I might get into deep trouble and lectures on the virtue of hard work and having to provide for family and ungrateful wretches who threw away books bought with hard earned money . However I managed to become part of an elaborate social network, a social network of book loaners and readers , the network extended for miles . It stretched from Deccan to Salisbury Park and included all the intermediate Peths in Pune , for those of you who have never visited Pune that would probably stretch for 7-8 miles and cover an area well over 25 square miles. I never met those people but the books always had names and addresses, that is how I knew the origin of these books . Some blessed soul from Gita Society in Pune called Rajesh had the complete collection of Hardy boys circa 1986 and I managed to read every one of them . A thousand blessings on him . But I digress

As I got older , my books changed to reflect a deeper desire for knowledge but my strategy of attacking books , ignoring the foreword , the table of contents , the blurb on the jacket and starting at page 1 and plowing until I got to the end stayed the exact same as in the days of lore when I was reading pulp fiction( maybe classic pulp fiction) and I was glumly aware of the wisdom of my father’s words but could not bring myself to practice it. The effort was inordinate in some cases and the reward seemed meager , even in the case of some really dense books where I was dimly aware that I had understood less than 1% of the book, I did not go back. Brings to mind a quote from a familiar personage

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Albert Einstein

My sole differentiating factor in this case was volume , I was trying to read an enormous number of books  (enormous by my standards) , close to 100 books a year and I was hoping to distill information that I could use to change my life , to make for a better person , more useful to society , more adept at detecting trends and most of all be an erudite listener for the people around me. I wasted a lot of time plowing through volumes and volumes of books whose names I don’t recall and whose gist is completely lost to me ,but through a happy accident I managed to discover Mortimer J Adler .

Mortimer J Adler has many books to his credit and some of them have found their way to my book shelf over the years . One in particular has a way of disappearing with my friends so I have to keep re purchasing it , one of these days I will learn and purchase the Kindle version . The book is called “How to Read a book” ,a truly ironic title but it is one of those books that reminds me of the sugarcane analogy that my father had used and then to my great relief and joy , I discovered this quote

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested

Sir Francis Bacon

The joy of reconciling my dad’s words of wisdom with wise words of lore was indeed a delight and a relief.  It is funny how great platitudes tend to be twisted out of context as time passes . Brings to mind a funny anecdote about a co worker who always liked to quote Emerson as follows “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and he took that quote very seriously and was very consistent about being inconsistent . That quote always made me feel insecure because I need consistency in my daily life, in my thinking . I am a creature of habit and I thrive when I am in a zone where habits can take care of my basic needs . Many years later , I discovered while reading Emerson that what he had said was “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” . One tiny adjective makes for all the difference in the world. So was my dad’s all encompassing quote about all books . Francis Bacon makes more sense for me . There are indeed books that one can read at various stages in life to discover that these books have indeed grown with you and you can discern new meanings at each stage in life .

I was delighted to see that is indeed the premise for Mortimer J Adler’s writings . Incidentally he is also a vital collaborator in the creation of the Great Books of the Western World. It is probably one of those rare must do projects for every man, woman and child , regardless of what hemisphere you were born and raised in.

In “How to read a book” , Adler talks about the various stages of reading . In particular the style that I outlined earlier is what he calls “Elementary Reading” and is obviously the basic style of reading that everybody learns through sheer will power . It is as essential to us as learning the alphabets and by the same token quite literally as elementary to the art of reading .

He outlines three more styles of reading and incidentally these build upon each other just as Greek mathematics and philosophy seems to .

The second style is called “Inspectional Reading” and this is where we get the gist of the book in 20 minutes or less . As I get older , I find this to be an extremely valuable time saver in determining whether the author can meet my needs . Lot of times , we are seduced by the title and end up either buying the book or getting it from the library . The time that we invest in the book tends to be inordinate , inspectional reading allows us to predetermine if we truly need to invest all that time

The third style is called Analytical Reading and this is where we strive to get the gist of the book given an unlimited amount of time . Obviously this also means that only a limited number of books can be targeted using this approach . Some might even suggest that we pick the truly great books for this kind of reading because they are  the ones that are the most likely to grow along with us

The fourth style and probably the most difficult is the Syntopical Reading is where we essentially create our own book based on the Analytical reading of several different books which deal with the same idea . For eg if one was to talk about psychology and assembles the works of Freud , Jung , James and other notable luminaries in the field and creates a work which compares and contrasts the various ideas , that would be a true syntopical reading of the various works .

I recommend to you, my reader to go to the local bookstore and perform a inspectional read of a title that intrigues you and do one every day after that until it becomes second nature to you.

But before you do that , you might want to get your own copy of How to read a book.

Happy Reading!!!

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The lame and the hurt

I was all of 10 years old when I first saw Rajesh More . He was much shorter than me , swarthy in complexion , had a pock marked face,  sat on the first bench and trying hard to fit in though I did not comprehend the effort at that point in life . I was too engrossed in my own life and the myriad complexities in the life of a 10 year old .

At lunch time, as was customary in those days  we started playing games of a physical nature which was so prevalent in the days of yore when video games and cell phones had not made their intrusive persistent appearance into children’s lives . The popular games were Thief-Police where one of the kids would be elected Police and he would have to chase and catch every one of the other kids , another popular game was langdi , this was a game very similar to the previous one except the domain was limited and the person in charge of catching was to limp with one leg . It was at this time that I got a closer look at Rajesh More , he had one leg that look shriveled . I had no idea what it meant and I assumed that it was a birth defect at the time. My parents had been very persistent in their endeavors to teach me to be sensitive to all persons of lesser fortune. And so I ignored my class mates nickname for him , “Langdya” (a term for somebody who is lame, almost always used in a pejorative sense) . For reasons that become obvious to anybody who has read Lord of the Flies , Rajesh became the perenial favorite at Langdi, he was always elected to catch the rest of the guys .I overheard a conversation between two boys who were instrumental in getting him that vied after post. “He has a natural advantage over all of us , the bum leg is not as  heavy as our regular legs” He was happy to fit in and was accommodating, never complained about being picked on for the same role every single time. Ironically I also noticed that as time passed , he reacted sooner to Langdya than he did to Rajesh .

In sixth grade ,we learnt about Infectious and contagious diseases and that was our first introduction to Polio . The teacher Mrs Raman asked Rajesh to step in front of the class so that we could get a closer look at his withered leg “This is what Polio does to your legs when it is not treated in time . Rajesh , how old were you ? ”

Rajesh mutely shook his head , we took it to mean that he did not know . Some smart alecks gossiped among themselves and debated how dumb could one be, if one could not remember a life altering disease . I found myself nodding in agreement , I had been a victim of chicken pox and that had left a deep impression on me . In case , I forgot the memory, I had the scars some of which were painful when touched that would certainly jog my memory. The same smart alecks started asking if we could possibly get infected with Polio . This started a fresh wave of ostracism and overnight our pattern of games had changed and Rajesh was no longer a needed part of the lunch time entertainment . Did he feel that loss acutely ? He had belonged to a clique and now that sense of belonging had been wrenched away from him . Was it perhaps due to the teacher’s well meaning gesture that had sought to educate us that had served to sever the social ties that are so essential to a young boy .

It finally dawned on Mrs Raman after seeing a lonely crying boy alone during the lunch hour that her gesture of goodwill had turned out to be a complete disaster . She had tried to alleviate the effects by first educating us that Polio after being cured was no longer a threat to society but fear had taken root and the same education which had caused the fear in the first place was powerless to dislodge it . Next she tried to force the kids to play together with him , this had the opposite effect on the children who became abusive at him and when the threat of authority was no longer around, then his ostracism was increased ten fold .He became abusive and even people who had tolerated him , no longer wished to associate with him thereby isolating him further. The term Langdya transcended from being a mere adjective to being an pejorative insult.

I had a few fracas with him over the years but I was never close to him so staying away was an easy option .

When 8th grade rolled around , the familiar spot that he liked to sit in was empty . Some said that he had failed seventh grade and his parents had decided to end his education . I was not sorry to hear that given his vituperic fits .

Several years passed and I moved to college and one day as I was walking by the railway station , I saw a familiar limp in front of me . Memory being what it is, I was happy to see him and maybe even reminisce about our younger days . I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and I could see the joy of recognition light up on his face . At that moment , all was forgotten . I asked him what he was up to . He informed me that he worked at the Raja Bahadur mills as an operator , he asked me what I was doing , I remarked that I was in college and I could see a twinge in his eyes that I put down to contempt. It seemed cruel to me that I was going to college while he was already putting food on the table . Mind you , in case you did not grasp what I am getting at , I was jealous of him that he was actually earning money while I had to go through the monotonous meaningless motions of memorization of meaningless facts and structures and relationships. After bidding adieu , I went on with my college and my life .

Several years later , one of my friends contacted me for a get together at school . Having passed out of school barely 5 years earlier , I was luke warm but decided to go in anyway. It was an interesting evening of meeting old school acquaintances and the boys and the girls seemed to maintain the same safe distance as was customary while growing up . I was getting bored and looking around , I started chatting up with one of my friends Mukund and told him about running into various acquaintances over the years and when I happened to mention Rajesh More , he excitedly interrupted me “Do you know he is dead?”

To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. I started agog , not quite comprehending, “Dead??”

“Yes , his family moved from Somwar Peth to Vadgaon Sheri . He was trying to catch a bus and his bum leg finally betrayed him as he slipped and was crushed underneath . ” Mukund excitably told me.

That bum leg had been the demon in his life , first reprehensibly wrenching away the joys of a normal childhood then it proved to be the instrument of his oppression as he became a child and finally as he was taking his first responsible steps towards adulthood , it had betrayed him to his death.

I was crushed with a sense of grief and I ran over the few times that I had fracas with him and the one incident that I did have where I was silently in envy of his money making abilities and felt a sense of desolation surge through me . My complete and abject failure to provide compassion to a poor lonely boy suddenly cut through me like a scythe and I wondered at the meaningless of it all.

I could not help wonder about the prisons that we all build for ourselves , prisons of belief , prisons of self imposition and whilst we are powerless in face of intolerable cruelty that these prisons make us endure , people like Rajesh are trapped in a real prison, one that they try to escape but rarely succeeding . Perhaps it is time for us to help somebody overcome these physical prisons and they might show us the way to overcome our own.

Integrative Thinking:Leveraging the Opposable Mind

That which opposes produces a benefit  – Heraclitus
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and  still retain the ability to function. – F Scott Fitzgerald

According to one of the greatest minds ever , Aristotle ; Excellence is attained by avoiding extremes

One should for example be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

The author starts off with the argument that human beings are unique due to the presence of the opposable thumb. This confers on its own various advantages such as writing, painting a picture , guiding a catheter through an artery to unblock it.All of these activities would be impossible without the tension that is created between the thumb and the fingers. Without this tension , we would not have been able to develop these physical traits and the accompanying cognition. Similarly we have the opposable mind that is capable of holding two (or more) conflicting ideas in constructive tension . The ability to use the opposable mind is an advantage in any era .However  in our information saturated world ,every new piece of information threatens to complicate a pattern that (seemingly) is already staggeringly complex. The traditional tendency is to pick the first model that comes to mind , this is fraught with danger. In business and in life we often look at decisions as a series of either-or propositions or trade offs.

Integrative thinking tries to show us a way beyond.

In the vein of Benjamin Franklin who believed that virtues and skills can be cultivated through diligence and hard work, the author proclaims that the opposable mind is within every body’s reach. It can be developed by anybody who wants to use it and with use , one will develop a capacity for creating solutions that would otherwise not be evident. When these techniques are faithfully pursued , the student develops a habit of parallel or complex thought . Instead of a simple succession of thought in a linear order , this procedure is complex and the mind appears possessed of the power of simultaneous vision from different standpoints .

According to the author, decision making has 4 parts , they are listed as follows

1) Salience  – Is list of features that seem most relevant to the subject.

2) Causality – This is how we consider things related to each other , a little map in our heads. A causal map is an array of causal relationships .

3) Architecture  – Is basically the sequence of basing your decisions off the causal map.

and 4) Resolution. – Develop a solution

The author defines the components of Integrative thinking as

1) Stance – The way one views the world or who you are and what you are after

2) Tools – Our theories , principles , rules of thumb would be our conceptual toolkit.

3) Experiences – This is where our stance and tools meet the real world. Experience enables us, to hone our sensitivities and skills. Sensitivity is defined as the ability to detect variations from the norm whereas skill is the ability to execute the norm . Skill would be carving the wooden elephant hundreds of times consistently and sensitivity would be detecting the minutiae that make each elephant unique.

He proceeds to introduce a framework for integrative thinking as follows

1)Integrative Thinker’s Stance

a) Whatever models exist , they are not complete and do not reflect reality completely

b) Conflicting models , styles and approaches are not to be feared but to be leveraged

c) Better models exist that are waiting to be discovered.

d) I am capable of finding a better model

e) I am comfortable wading into complexity to ferret out a new and better model

f) With time, I will find what I want .

patience is a virtue,seldom found in women,NEVER found in men.

a) Modal (Generative) Reasoning – Traditional education teaches us deductive and inductive logic

2) Integrative Thinker’s Toolkit –

skills . Deduction is where we infer a conclusion based on predefined frameworks , for example the last man out of the toilet probably had beans for lunch. Induction is where we have seen the same experience over and over again for example if you play with fire then you get hurt . While deductive and inductive skills show us exactly what is  the issue, modal reasoning shows us what could be the issue.An example of modal reasoning could be the discovery of penicillin . Prior to Alexander Fleming it was commonly thought (via deductive reasoning) that antiseptics would kill internal infections. Through a lucky accident and Fleming’s willingness to look beyond what was commonly accepted, the world ended up with penicillin.  Almost every great innovation stems from modal reasoning. for the author , though I firmly believe that there are many more models available. For those interested in learning about multiple models, I recommend the online lectures of Professor Sanjay Bakshi,Charlie Munger’s Poor Charlie’s Almanack , Herbert Simon’s Models of my life.

in our understanding by searching for the other point of view i.e we seek common ground. This has the effect of enabling generative reasoning and produce more robust causal modelling

3) Integrative Thinker’s Experiences –

The integrative thinker is aware that we tend to accumulate experiences that reinforce the stances and tools that we start with . Stances guide the acquisition of tools and tools guide the sort of experiences we have. People who believe that their existing models equate to reality and fear opposing models are not likely to believe that better models exist . They will construct the model using deductive and inductive logic , build highly simplified models and advocate their own point of view rather than dispassionately considering multiple points of view. The experiences that they gather will tend to reinforce their initial stance and suggest that they have all the tools that they need thus propagating a vicious circle. The corollary to this is that you are aware that the models are not adequate , so there exists a better model that can be found by wading into complexity . They will use generative reasoning , causal modelling and assertive inquiry. The experiences that they gain building new models will reinforce their initial stance and they will increase the tools in their toolkit.

We shape our tools and afterwards those tools shape us – Marshall McLuhan

He discusses several cases where integrative thinking saved or created an industry . One of the examples he provided was A.G. Lafley of P&G . In 2000 when he took over , P&G was hemorrhaging money and there were two opposing camps, one that defined innovation as the lifeblood of P&G and the other wanted to cut costs . Rather than choose one or the other , Lafley went with both options in a way that defied the imagination through ‘open’ innovation and turned P&G around.

According to the author , Mastery enables originality and originality is a generative condition for Mastery. In my view that is the single most important advice in the book , regardless of whether we are convinced by his argument of the need for integrative thinking .

Mastery is not gained by accident but by planned and structure repetition of a consistent type of experience.

One needs to make a plan for developing the skills and have strategic milestones to measure progress , a structure for observing and reflecting on the results . If you do not have a plan, then you could develop bad habits which hamper your progress . An extremely influential book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi reinforces the above concepts very elegantly .

Practice is not something that you do after you have become a master, it is something you have to do to become a master.

b) Causal Modelling – System Dynamics and Radial Metaphors seem to be the models of choice

c) Assertive Inquiry – This is used to explore models that oppose our own. Basically we fill in gaps

Originality requires a willingness to experiment, spontaneously in response to novel situations and openness to try something different from the original plan.

The author finally gives us tips for exploring our own thinking

1) Document your thinking, questions and answers . Create an audit trail and see what other tools need to be improved to get the right answers.

2) Audit and record the logic of the decisions and compare the results to the outcome they predicted. If the results are valid then the stance and the tools are validated else the tools need to be improved.

Mark Twain admonished us almost a century ago “To a Man with a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail”.

However lethargy and complexity have conspired to cause us to ignore that wisdom. This wanton disregard leads to an impoverishment of critical thinking facilities that the author is trying to address . The structure of innovative thought is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to document, so all we can do is introduce behaviors in ourselves and others that will create the right conditions for inspiration to strike so while I am not convinced that his approach is perfect ,it is a definitely a step in the right direction.

This essay is inspired by the book

The opposable Mind – How successful leaders win through Integrative thinking by Roger Martin

Love and let love

I recently read an essay on Love written by my friend Tejaswini of the Baba Yaga Project that touched on the complexity of love while praising Brokeback Mountain. That touched a chord in me as I reflected about love and its myriad problems.

I started wondering about all the times that I had gone wrong trying to find love and then the realization dawned on me that compared to a lot of people , I was extremely fortunate.

The first  (and only) time that I was convinced that I had found my 16 cow wife (to use her parlance), I failed to communicate to her what she meant to me and lost her when I was busying myself trying to acquire the 16 cows that I needed to impress upon her what she meant to me  . You ask me , why did I wait instead of telling her ?well  my communication skills being what they are , I might have benefited from schooling in communication theory instead of computer communication theory .

The next time was more complicated , I was fully immersed in hedonistic pleasures while she kept telling me how much she loved me. After a prolonged period of reading classics together in intimate privacy , it slowly dawned on me that perhaps I did love her and proceeded to tell her that how much I loved her , however wedding bells did not follow . Instead she proceeded to tell me that she had found her paramour from her teen years and she was in love with him and had always been . I was baffled beyond comprehension . But I tried to salvage by writing poems and letters and eventually hit the proverbial bottle and I realized too late that begging was the worst possible thing to do for any self respecting human being. Circumstances did provide me with an opportunity to reconcile but fear of repeating history would not let me forgive and forget .

The next time was colossal stupidity on my part , she was perfect for me in every sense and yet I clammed up. To this day , I keep wondering what on earth possessed me . I watched Silver Linings Playbook recently and there is a quote by Robert De Niro when he is telling his son to go after the woman he loves “Sometimes life reaches out to you and you have to grab it back ” .  And as if that was not enough , the friendship that I cherished so much and  that I had so desperately hoped to preserve was lost as well.

The fourth time is strange in the sense that I was not in love with her at all but I have never experienced such intensity of affection and love from another human being. It was so intense that I was forced to get a restraining order on the advice of a friend who worked as a police captain. He was convinced that she was so attached to me that she might decide to have me around as a permanent fixture , preferably in an jar of embalming fluid.

So having advertised at least four failed attempts at love , who am I to talk about love ? Well the case that I am making is that love is complicated . I like to believe that I am of above average intellect (contrary to existing evidence), fairly sound in terms of emotional stability (my fragile ego makes me rock solid) and every one of these girls is extremely intelligent ,extraordinarily beautiful and a happy well adjusted marriage was certainly possible in each case (well in the last one, I might have had to get well adjusted to the bell jar)  and yet it seems like an insurmountable task  . So now that we know love is complicated , what am I driving at?  My question is when we are well aware of the myriad intricacies and problems that is involved with love , why do we as a society insist on throwing monkey wrenches for  well meaning people looking for love ? I am referring to those people who don’t fit our definition of “Normal” love ? Our narrow comfort zones of love usually means man-woman relationships provided they belong to the same religion , same race and in some extreme cases we even look for the same background, financially and culturally.

Brokeback mountain discusses one such case where the freedom to love is denied to our fellow human beings and trying to assert that right could cost one their life . While Brokeback Mountain is a wonderfully touching story with memorable scenes (  my friend mentioned that there were scenic backdrops of Montana though I cannot remember anything more scenic than Anne Hathaway in the backseat of the sedan) , one story that truly does bring tears to my eyes is the story of Alan Turing . Me and millions of programmers around the world owe their livelihood and everlasting gratitude to this sensitive genius who could rightly be called One of the (two )fathers of  computing . Another everlasting debt that western civilization owes Turing is the fact that without him, the Allies would not have cracked the German Enigma codes as quickly as they did and the war on the European front would have lasted several more years. In the movie “The Imitation Game” , we get to see the attempts of the administration to “cure” him of his “sickness” . He proceeded to commit suicide as his hormone therapy went awry, though in my mind it is not suicide but cold blooded murder sanctioned nay mandated by a society that could not accept that homosexuality could be natural.

I was married to a southern woman for a number of years during which time , I traveled in the south (the American South East)  and experienced racism first hand . There were a few times that it was impressed upon me that I should be glad for living in such enlightened times because barely 20-30 years prior , I would have been lynched for being with a white woman . In one case I was told bluntly by one of my sisters in law that I should not have children with my wife because that would be a sin in the eyes of god to bring forth a child of mixed race.  In all fairness , I do not wish to provide a negative view of the south , they are an extremely hospitable people , gracious and loyal to a fault but I did find a few interesting exceptions over the years and several reminders of my “unnatural” relationship.

A friend of mine whom I have known forever has married outside her religion to a Sikh man. He is a wonderfully charming and urbane man who is a delight to talk to. I have had a few opportunities to drink with him and he is fun to be around and he is a wonderful father to their two children . Recently we had an opportunity to meet a classmate who was visiting so I drove her over to Palo Alto where he was residing and after a wonderful lunch,  were driving back across the Dumbarton. I love driving over the bridges in the bay , love looking at the water and the mountains , probably the engineer in me marveling at how nature has been tamed by the ingenuity of man however that day I was busy trying to console my friend who was seething with raw fury . She had posted some family pictures with her husband and children on Facebook . Our classmate told us that he and his wife (another classmate) had seen those pictures . One of the comments that his wife had made  was querying who the man in the picture was . To me that question rankled of stupidity, to my friend it rankled of insensitivity , to her it seemed like the whole concept of her being married to a Sikh man was so incongruous to people that they could not even bring themselves interpret a normal family picture of her , her husband and their children . Marriage and love is tough enough without having to endure nonsense like this.

Religion , race ,sexual orientation are not chosen by people . We are all prisoners here , prisoners of genes , social norms and pernicious traditions like religion so why does  torturing our fellow human beings and denying them the basic human rights to seek happiness come so naturally? I don’t know ,which is why it is not enough to “Live and let live” , we have to transcend to “Love and let love”

Descartes, Malcolm Gladwell and the case for repetition

A close friend recently advised me to write everyday thereby reminding me of the hidden benefits of repetition . Associative memory triggered Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and “Outliers” and writings of the outstanding French Mathematician and Philosopher Rene Descartes .

Rene Descartes is a fascinating character , I have heard him described as the creator of the Clockwork universe, father of modern philosophy . Descartes paved the path for humanity to stop thinking of an omniscient god and instead think of the Celestial Watchmaker , things no longer just happened , they happened for a reason. While some of us may argue that we have traded one convenience for another , we all can agree that this was clearly a watershed moment for humanity . We stopped expecting random bolts of lightening from Zeus and instead learn that it is electric charge that is being accumulated by the clouds from the water particles and that charge eventually needs to make its way to electric ground aka earth . This has also set in motion a steady onslaught on ignorance and blind belief and something as dramatic today as viewing the surface of Pluto has become child’s play for us, the importance of this cannot be emphasized , the Borgias , Caligula or Henry VIII with all their murderous might could not summon up this knowledge at will . Even though today we are beneficiaries of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and we may not have sufficient reason to believe in a Celestial Watchmaker today , we certainly owe our progress in large to Descartes and the thinkers of the Enlightenment for getting us this far.

There was an amusing anecdote regarding Descartes that highlights his precociousness .The defining treatise for Geometry is Euclid’s elements , there are 13 books in all and besides the fact that it encompasses all there is to know about Euclidean geometry , it is a monumental achievement to the art of organization . Euclid’s elements starts with  5 postulates and proceeds to create the entire field of Geometry and trigonometry . Descartes was 15 when he chanced upon the copy of the Elements , he had devoured the entire text by the following morning to his teacher’s astonishment.

When he was 21 , he developed his Rules for direction of the mind.   Rules V through VII discuss the arrangement of ideas from simple to complex and Rules IX through XI discuss how the mind needs to run repeatedly over the arrangement so as to master  the nuances of the craft under consideration completely , I interpret that as repetition  .

Today there seems to be a general distaste for the mundane and boring task of forcing children to memorize and there is an incredible amount of research and body of knowledge that the memorization process hurts education rather than help it . Having been in the trenches as a student who was forced to memorize essays(yes , you read that right) and organic chemistry equations and historical facts and as a parent who failed to impose the multiplication table on kids who having seen the calculator were dumb founded at my foolish insistence that they should know what 7 x 8 is without resorting to the calculator , I will hurriedly plead that I am not a philistine in my outlook and would not want to force kids through rote learning given the appliances of modern convenience (though I am a closet calculator hater ).

So that in a nutshell is my conundrum , I admire Descartes and his rules which preach memorization through repetition and condemn forced memorization which seems to hurt the learning process. Having been a cat slave for the last 30 some years , I have learned to admire the act of sitting on the fence.

However let me move onto modern times and talk about Malcolm Gladwell and two of his classics “Blink” and “Outliers” . The interesting tidbit that is of relevance to us from “Outliers” is the claim that Gladwell makes there is a magical transition that seems to happen after 10000 hours of practice . He lists a long list of luminaries, including Bill Gates ,Mark Zuckerberg , Beatles et all who seem like childhood prodigies but have paid the requisite fee of 10000 hours to enter that rarefied realm of expert knowledge .   I am not denying that these are great minds but we rarely pay attention to the fact that elbow grease(or repetition) played an important role  here . In “Blink” , Gladwell likes to educate us about another variety of prodigies , people like Napoleon who seemed blessed with coup de oeil (the glance) , according to eye witnesses . Napoleon could walk into a strategy discussion and with just a glance know where he need to attack or defend . The same could be said of a variety of  prodigies in other fields such as Math , chess , engineering, arts etc .   There was an old anecdote about the Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan who informed the director  that the lights were not angled correctly  because the heat on his face did not “seem right” . Anyone who has followed Indian cinema for any length of time is familiar with the prolific number of Bachchan’s works. Napoleon consumed vast amount of military literature from Hannibal to Frederick the Great when he was a Lieutenant in the French army , a fact ignored by those who only saw him as a brilliant military commander in his later years.

The point again seems to come back to the fact that hard work is imperative for genius to truly flower.And the hard work in each case seems to be defined as study and repetition .To quote another prodigy

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.”

T.A.Edison

So how can we reconcile this  glaring contradiction ? The chief difference between forced memorization and the repetition that seems to be staple diet of prodigies the world over is the likability factor . The prodigies truly enjoyed what they did , Gates enjoyed working on the computers at Lakewood  , Zuckerberg enjoyed programming with a passion , Kasparov enjoyed his chess lessons , Napoleon loved military strategy . Forcing children to learn something that they do not enjoy is a recipe for disaster , you might get them to pass the next test but they will retain nothing . Worse the pleasure of learning could be tainted for life as drudgery.

According to the Dreyfus model of knowledge acquisition , there are 5 stages 1) Novice 2) Advanced Beginner 3) Competent 4) Proficient and 5) Expert . It probably does not need any convincing on my part that people who are in the stages of proficient and Expert truly enjoy what they do partly because it always feels good  to do what you are truly good at and in turn leads to a self perpetuating cycle. The Bible has an interesting quote on those lines

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.

I am not that vain as to assume that I am capable of providing solutions for the problem of educating children and that is not what I am trying to do here but I do believe that we as adults can bring about a seismic shift in their and our own perceptions . I believe we can focus on the passion in our lives and through repetition , shine as a beacon to our succeeding generations as so many have done unto us .

And last but certainly not least, a big thank you to my friend, The Baba Yaga project for inspiring this essay.

Twinkling Twelve and Charles Sobhraj – Part 1

Sachin and Satish loved to read detective fiction . They were devout followers of Enid Blyton and were truly inspired by the Secret Seven and Famous Five series .

“You know , what . We can do this ourselves ” , said Sachin one day after what seemed like a  long contemplative pause

Satish was busy admiring Gita’s ankles ,since the skirt seemed to cover everything else and had been dying to catch a glimpse of some knee at some point  . Sachin’s comment broke through his reverie and he glanced at his friend and rival concernedly.

“What can we do ourselves” , asked Satish unable to take his eyes off Gita

“Form our own club, of course. What else did you think  , numbskull?”

Satish’s curiosity was too piqued by now to take offence at the insult . “What kind of club?”

“Secret club!! like Secret Seven or Famous Five. That was we can solve some mysteries and help the police”

Their idea of the police was the school chowkidaar who unable to reconcile himself to his present circumstance like to regale them with colorful stories of his past where he was a havaldaar .

“What about the food? ” . Having reading the luscious descriptions of ham sandwiches and ginger ale which Satish had imagined to be some decadent delicacy that the English ate , he was in no small hurry to try those delicacies.

Sachin scornfully remarked “We need to be spending time solving mysteries , not eating ”

The scorn scorched a hole in Satish’s heart and hot blood rushed to his head but he was embarassed about what he perceived as his weakness .

“So what will our club be called ” , asked Satish , eager to switch the topic.

“How about twinkling Two?”

“Sounds great!! Should we invite Yogesh?” asked Satish . Yogesh was his cricket buddy . Sachin was not the outdoorsy type , unbeknownst to Satish , Sachin’s mother was very proud of her son’s fair complexion and was determined to keep it that way so Sachin was forbidden to play outside for any longer  than a hour and that too only after sunset.

“No , Did I say twinkling three ?? Twinkling Two , it is!!! ” , said Sachin in a peremptory tone which forbade any further discussion on the topic. Satish came from a poor family and society had already programmed into him a obsequiousness to authority (or in this case a pretence at authority).

“Saaacchin ” , came the lyrical scream that signified the end of Sachin’s sojourn into the world of boys and play for the day. His mother wanted him back in the house. So he left and Satish was left with his own thoughts .Unlike Sachin , Satish thrived on social proof and for him, the indisputable logic of the more the merrier was like the rock of Gibraltar . Not much could assail that belief. He loved the idea of a secret club but he wanted the secret club to be as large as possible , say about a 100 boys and maybe even a few girls . He had always admired Rita and would have happily made her part of the club so he could have an excuse to hang out with her and thereby try to get into Gita’s good graces. But the thought of Sachin’s dour face was  a bucket of ice water thrown at his beautiful plans. Annoyed he reminded himself that he needed to convince his partner to be as open minded . Pensively he decided to think about this wonderful opportunity and how to exploit it so as to get closer to Rita and Gita. The sun seemed just as pensive and going away as well so Satish headed home.

The next morning Satish encountered Sachin again and this time Sachin could hardly contain his excitement , “Our first assignment”  . Satish looked blank . But Sachin was too engrossed in his own excitement to notice it and kept going , “Did you hear that Charles Sobhraj escaped from Tihar Jail”

“Who is Charles Sobhraj?” inquired Satish .

Sachin glared at the dim witted moron in front of him and wondered if it was a mistake in the first place to include him in such a glorious undertaking . He decided that he needed to revisit that decision soon.

“Charles Sobhraj is a wanted killer, rapist . he is an international criminal” Sachin spat out in disgust . This was not lost on Satish so though he was dying to know where Tihar Jail was, he decided that he should not mention it right now . Survival instincts told him that if he mentioned it right now, he might find himself ousted from Twinkling two , the thought of somebody else capturing the unknown glory was too painful to contemplate. So Satish queried in trembling undertones “Don’t you think we need more than just the two of us to capture an international criminal?”  . That did give Sachin some pause , though he was extremely annoyed with Satish’s ignorance , he reflected that whatever limitations Satish might have, he certainly made up for it with sound practical sense.

“Perhaps we should see if any of the other boys are interested. ”

That was music to Satish’s ears . “How about Yogesh?”

“That moron!!! He barely passed 5th grade . All he can do is play cricket”

“yes but he has a cricket bat and we do need weapons ”

Again the soundness of the argument stilled Sachin and he wondered if he had any weapons that he could use. Perhaps his father’s flat blade screw driver or his mother’s steel ladle . On second thoughts , the flat blade screw driver

“Ok , but we do need to keep this a complete secret , make sure that Yogesh keeps his mouth shut. Twinkling three still sounds good”

Class started but Satish was lost in reveries of yet to be achieved glory that was soon to be his achieved glory. He saw himself being congratulated by his peers , maybe even the chief minister and perhaps even prime minister would come to see him, give him enough money so that his family would be on easy street . Twice he got questioned by his teachers because they could sense that he was distracted and twice , he hung his head shamefacedly swearing to himself that once he  had finished capturing Charles Sobhraj, he would never attend school again. His chemistry teacher decided that perhaps he needed to kneel down in front of the staff room and after that unbearable humiliation , he wondered, perhaps he could convince Sobhraj to kill her before he returned him to jail.

Sachin had another brainwave during the day . he had decided that they needed a code language and upon reflection hit upon the brilliant idea of adding “ed” to every word thereby rendering themselves unitelligible to common folk.

Alas for the plans of mice and men and Sachin , before the day was out ,Yogesh the blabbermouth unable to keep his excitement at winning the government reward  had managed to ingratiate himself with a dozen detective wanna bees who had all heard the news of the secret group being flouted by Sachin and the imminent capture of Charles Sobhraj .

Sachin being picked up by his father after school was not privy to this dastardly act of betrayal by Yogesh however Satish walking back with Yogesh suddenly found himself surrounded by Amit, Ajit , Saroj, Vineet and Thapar  clamoring for details . Satish was convinced that once Sachin found out about the leaking venture,  his one sole act of benevolence towards Yogesh was going to cost him his fame and fortune. He would have loved to punch Yogesh in the mouth , stupid stupid idiot!!! How could he do this to me ? After everything that I have done for him , risking my neck and what do I get? just toil and trouble . Stupid idiot!!!

The “Stupid idiot” oblivious of his “dastardly act of betrayal” was loving the limelight .

“Where should we meet ?” piped Ajit

“How about Anurag’s house?” – squeaked Amit

The thought of adding yet another member to the hitherto “Twinkling three” sounded like yet another death knell to Satish and morever he envied Anurag , if anything , he wanted to have this fame and riches so he could show Anurag down. Anurag lived across the house from Satish but unlike Satish who lived in a rented house , Anurag lived on ancestral property , he seemed to have a never ending supply of games , books , comics thanks to parents who encouraged their son to read. Satish was plagued by the green eyes monster of envy every time he went to Anurag’s house . As is typical in all these cases, Anurag was blissfully unaware  of his “friend”‘s machinations and probably could care less whether he was made a part of this group or that while Satish was working away on his hamster wheel trying to one up Anurag . Satish tried to quelch this idea , “No , Anurag talks too much, he cannot keep a secret. ”

“No way . Last week I went away from school for an entire period and though Anurag saw me leave, he never mentioned to anybody ” – squeaked Amit excitedly

“Besides , I really like that dark staircase that he has , it is dark and nobody can see once you are inside”

The dark staircase worked its magic onto the rest of the entourage . The irony was the staircase was only dark when the entrance was shut off and the lights switched off . The enveloping comfort of the dark embrace was a welcome relief to anybody  who had sought refuge in its enveloping embrace from the tyranny of parental authority who never seemed to tire of this cruel and unusual punishment called homework .

That evening Sachin came out in quest of Satish to talk further about the group and he was surprised to see Satish in the midst of the clamor . They must have been 9 or 10 boys . That was a baffling development  , not many people liked Satish . That was one of the reasons why Sachin let him hang around , he was so grateful and it made Sachin feel magnanimous .

Sachin tried to be figure out the sudden reason for Satish’s popularity and tried as he might,  he was perplexed. The thought that his precious secret club was at the root of Satish’s popularity was the furthest thing from his mind

Continued in Part 2

Random Poems

Adventure

Wallowing on the beach of life
leery of waves on to adventures anew
grasping on to the sands of time
vainly as it slips through my fingers

stories of hidden treasures abound
but waiting for the tide to reveal
too late the tide betrays its cold stony heart
that only beats to the rhythm of the universe

look on , all ye sailors of life
a bright new day is yours to carve
some create , some pray
fortune and love favor the brave

one who dares to ride the waves
one who dares to dig in the sand
one who dares to be humble
one who dares to an open heart

you shall receive your just rewards
a pearl from the depths
a glimpse of heaven
seek and ye shall receive


Travels
traveling with hundreds
yet alone and friendless
together with strangers
in a flying caravan

the glorious sights below
the wilderness of the arctic wastelands
as imagination plumbs the depths of the marianna trench
I will sell my soul for a pair of wings and fins

drifting over the pacific
the bering straits stare at me invitingly
would the pacific be truly as pacifiyng

Cars passing by in the mountains
fellow travellers in the dark
Lighten each other’s load
The relief as crisp
As a breath of fresh mountain air

Strangers on a journey together
for an instant in time and space
will we ever connect again
some connect for life
some connected for an instant

with a song on our lips
hope in our hearts
seeking a deeper connection
providence seeks otherwise
dashing ships onto icebergs

but hopes are not ships
answer instead to a higher calling
rise like a phoenix from the ashes
offer gratitude to  providence
for the company of my fellow traveller


Curmudgeons
who am I , What am I
a human being with free will
or merely a vessel for social norms
can the two co exist?

Was I meant to live my life
or role play as deemed by society
why must the heart bow
to reasons that head does not understand

My friend gives me goosebumps
and yet my bonds tether me,
simple and innocent pleasures
are suddenly tainted by moral scruples

play is the way to my soul
and yet , play is frowned upon
why must the curmudgeons
destroy the happiness in all of us


New love
The sweet torture of fresh passion
like a beautiful lotus smashing
idyllic dreams ,the pond of  still life
a dreamy life of comfort and charm

the fragrance of happy accidents
questions my slumbering abstinence
fresh as a hawthorn berry
with promises of life very merry

a meal needs bread and meat
but how much delightful to eat
a dash of spice for the palate’s sake
but spices alone , cannot a meal make

a dreamy saturday passes by
on a couch,  arms around me lie
looking on a city, an air of romance
was that mischief , giving me a glance


Passengers wanted !!

I have set off on a quixotic ideal
Everyone needs a love tidal

Believe in love that is true at first sight
can never rue the passing of many a light

but here I stand on the portals of life
that have taught me to withstand many a strife

goodness of heart is what I seek
but beware some virtues as well as vices reek

who amongst us could be so crude as to not like a handsome mind
employed in a delightful trade , she loves the daily grind

Life is not about merely holding oneself in good stead
for toil and toll should not wreck a homestead

what is more dear to us than simple play
but our images whom we create and then for college they make us pay

I am seldom lonely for I am guarded by little cats
fear not , seldom a danger, they meow for attention and lazy and fat

measuring and weighing my words for a world run by pictures
to win a flesh and blood person who lives by a code of strictures

the daunting prospect fills me with a cold dread
but one cannot let hopes go dead

so here I am trolling through a bevy of beautiful damsels
riding alone is fun but two were meant to ride on life’s carousel

 


As you turn back and look

with eyes of a doe
you throws fleeting glances
my heart filled with woe
pierced by your ocular lances

To gaze upon your perfection
is to taste god’s own confection
for long did I sit and mope
but seeing you fills me with hope

to bury myself in thee
fill my senses with your essence
having you play my souls lyre
is my heart’s desire

Allure of  your dress

dazzling like shimmering moonlight
oh oh , a ray of happiness so bright
the glistening silk on the body so satin
but for a glimpse , I am waitin
hinting at the delicious mounds of decadence
oh my , oh my ,pumps my heart to its top cadence
my eyes mesmerized by curves of the goddess venus
or is my clinging love , the much desired bonus
Of your gorgeous body , Men are filled with dreams
if heavens warrant , one sees you coming down on moonbeams
Hope
Wasting days is a forbidding crime
yet my brow is sooty with electronic grime
Day after day , heart and soul weary of toil
What did my forefathers think as they till the soil
But I worry needlessly for there is hope
Whenever I think that I just cannot cope
My angel swoops in ,a lavender dove
my worries washed away in the ocean of love
My precious darling , as she fusses over my route and commute
I stand dazzled as her beautiful body leaves me mute