VHBelvadi.com RSS feed http://vhbelvadi.com/journal Kirby Thu, 25 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Get the seven latest essays from VHBelvadi.com via RSS: subscribe via vhbelvadi.com/rss The joys of cycling http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/cycling journal/cycling Thu, 25 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 One of my favourite pas­times is cycling. I make it a point to cycle every single evening, cov­er­ing my usual 20km lap which grows on week­ends by about five to ten kilo­me­tres. It is not much, but it is some­thing I enjoy con­sid­er­ably and it is a simple plea­sure that not enough of us appre­ci­ate.

I remem­ber even back when get­ting your first vehi­cle was all the rage, I was rebel­liously cycling around. In fact, I never got my first vehi­cle until after I was eigh­teen and, at six­teen, I had pro­claimed that I would not buy a motor vehi­cle for another two years and struck with it. (I changed three cycles over those years.)

As it turns out cycles are not the most eco­nom­i­cal way to get around, so, like it did for so many others, cycling was soon no longer my pre­ferred means of travel. How­ever, unlike many others, it did not dis­ap­pear from my life, rather, it became a hobby.

My cycle, an inte­gral part of my dare­devil evening road trips

That is not to say nobody else cycles. Many do, but I wonder how many do it because they have no choice and how many do it with­out really appre­ci­at­ing the little things it affords us. Cycling is not as mechan­i­cal as it seems.

Per­haps the first thing you notice while cycling is the road. Quite lit­er­ally, the minor rises and falls a foot apart from each other, the small inden­ta­tions, the con­structs of the road we never can hope to notice from inside a car are all things you become unusu­ally famil­iar with while on a cycle.

The second thing you notice is the wind. I ride by the high­way on a side track that is almost always empty (see pic­ture above), which makes it excel­lent to build up and main­tain pace. There is no fear of cross­ing the 60 km/​h speed limit since I have only ever hit 45 km/​h on level ground (unfor­tu­nately, I am not a Tour de France reg­u­lar). Down­hill rides can be much faster, but they are hardly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the major­ity of the lap.

Until last year I was using a fixie (single gear/​no gear) cycle, which is what I love to ride. Gears undoubt­edly make the ride less stren­u­ous, but they also make it much less fun. It turns out, though, that get­ting your hands on a fixie is harder than you would imag­ine. Once I sold off my old cycle, there­fore, my solu­tion was to buy a geared ride with the most com­fort­able stance and then man­u­ally fix’ the gear to the top-most one and leave it there. Over a year later I do not even know if my cycle is still capa­ble of shift­ing gears at all.

In all this, what I found most sur­pris­ing was how wel­com­ing people are when you are cycling. In a soci­ety that some­times feels like it is wired to look down upon cyclists, many people con­sciously leave the track free when they notice a cycle approach­ing. This goes a long way in ensur­ing a smooth ride. In a month I might find myself stop­ping for the dis­re­spect­ful civil­ian less than a hand­ful of times, which is some­thing I can def­i­nitely live with.

Gear: I planned to buy a Can­non­dale Synapse, but, since I like to change my bicy­cles reg­u­larly, I opted for a low-cost but gen­er­ally good one instead and Fire­fox fit the bill here. (I would rec­om­mend you look up Pash­ley if more clas­sic cycles are of inter­est.) Besides a GelPro saddle cover, though, my gear is pretty light: I carry a black Puma water bottle, and wear Nike Havoc train­ing gloves and an old Schwinn Thrasher helmet. 

En route I notice a few other cyclists like myself, only about ten of whom (from my unsci­en­tific but daily obser­va­tions) are reg­u­lars. This is a poor sta­tis­tic. Cycling in India has to pick up pace (no pun intended). When I was in Europe, I always found it a delight to see so many cyclists going about. There is an envi­able cycling cul­ture there that most other coun­tries will do well to emu­late. At least, thank­fully, all the cyclists I see (and myself too) follow safety norms: hel­mets and gloves if noth­ing else[^ This prac­tice was unheard of even among motorists until recently in the city where I live. It still is not uncom­mon in most of India to ride with­out hel­mets or drive with­out seat belts.].

Since a couple of years now I have also been using a black GelPro saddle pad for com­fort (see pic­ture above) but I stopped using my old speedome­ter that used to hook on to my wheel, choos­ing to leave the latter job to my Fitbit Charge 2 instead. The cycling market in most of India is unin­spir­ing as well: upscale ven­dors like Can­non­dale, Canyon, Trek, Bianchi etc. have made half­hearted attempts to sell their prod­ucts, some­times not even offer­ing their entire cat­a­logue. Indian brands on the other hand seem unin­ter­ested in gen­eral, and this includes former-British brands like Birm­ing­ham Small Arms and Her­cules, that have been sold under the BSA banner for decades: they are loved and they are good but are often not stel­lar.

So far, things are great and I wish more people learn to cycle or at least learn to appre­ci­ate it, but, ulti­mately, I wish this whole city is filled with cycle-only tracks. To me, cycling is the clas­sic anal­ogy to life itself: keep ped­alling no matter what, high or low, easy or tough, and you will go far; stop ped­alling and you will get left behind and end up watch­ing others fly past you. For now, to (mis)quote Lennon, I’m just sit­ting here making the wheels go round and round…

In praise of coursebooks http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/on-coursebooks journal/on-coursebooks Sat, 20 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Two months ago (or so) I was con­tacted by the physics depart­ment of the Regional Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion, India, who asked me if I would be inter­ested in writ­ing a course­book for sec­ondary schools. It seemed like an excit­ing thing to do so, after going over the specifics and dis­cussing the entire project, I accepted.

How it all started

The Insti­tute had the pur­pose of the book set up right from the start (it was sup­posed to be a teacher’s resource) but, as I began to plan the con­tents of the book and draw up an out­line, I felt myself grav­i­tat­ing towards making it slightly dif­fer­ent from a reg­u­lar teacher’s resource.

Part of the project involved updat­ing exist­ing resources that had been pub­lished in-house exclu­sively for the Insti­tute but we quickly moved past that and expanded the scope of the project: rather than simply updat­ing mate­r­ial (some of which I was not com­fort­able with anyway), it was finally decided that I would start from scratch, define my own scope, and get a com­pletely free rein. I only had to ensure that I cov­ered as much physics as (and, per­haps a little more than) we expect stu­dents to be famil­iar by the time they apply to under­grad­u­ate col­leges.

Of course there is a com­mit­tee of physi­cists going over every word I write, as there should be. Part of acad­e­mia, for better or worse, is peer review and it helps keep things grounded, pro­motes argu­ments, pre­vents errors (at least better than what one man alone can do) and, as a whole, is expected to improve the qual­ity of such works. 

I also decided, at this point, that I would not write a teacher’s resource to accom­pany exist­ing texts alone but, rather, re-write the course­book itself, pro­duc­ing a single, com­bined text that would serve as both the course­book for sixth form stu­dents and a teacher’s resource. I wanted it to be some­thing both stu­dents and teach­ers could use in a class­room as well as some­thing that was designed to enable self-teach­ing.

Bring­ing in a new per­spec­tive

Among the many things I was hoping to do, per­haps the most dif­fi­cult was to think like poten­tial stu­dent or teacher read­ers might. Stand­ing about halfway through the first of two vol­umes now, it has been dif­fi­cult to think about what ques­tions they might have and what they might not think about that they should. I think it helps that I am young enough to still remem­ber modern, early edu­ca­tion com­pared to a fifty-year-old pro­fes­sor who has, in all like­li­hood, lost touch with being a stu­dent[^ All sci­en­tists are stu­dents, but not in the class­room sense, which is an entirely dif­fer­ent thing from the con­stant self-teach­ing that most of us in acad­e­mia are wont to do.] in the tra­di­tional sense of the word.

Writ­ing a course­book is infi­nitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more sat­is­fy­ing’, says Anne Hout­man of the Rochester Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy; this is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with. 

I do have read­ers (who will go unnamed) who are help­ing out by read­ing the book as it is being writ­ten and ques­tion­ing sec­tions of the con­tent, offer­ing advice, point­ing out errors et cetera, all of which have been incred­i­bly help­ful for me so far. I think it has bet­tered the text­book in a way I could hardly have done by myself.

The layout and approach is also some­thing I have given con­sid­er­able thought to. I finally decided on arrang­ing the book as a main text and sev­eral side notes, the former being exclu­sively for stu­dents and the latter for teach­ers and read­ers teach­ing them­selves. Keep­ing in tone with the older vol­umes (which my new vol­umes are intended to suc­ceed) I have included sev­eral class­room activ­i­ties that, besides reg­u­lar lab­o­ra­tory ses­sions, will make physics more hands-on’.

The phi­los­o­phy behind the book

Although I would prefer to steer clear of big words like defin­ing a phi­los­o­phy’ behind my book I do think it is impor­tant to be clear on the whys and on what prob­lems I hope my book addresses.

Right from the start my biggest ques­tion was how I would handle math­e­mat­ics in the book. Intro­duc­ing math­e­mat­ics as a stand­alone chap­ter and then moving onto physics, while appeal­ing, is hardly the most effec­tive method of learn­ing in my opin­ion. Math­e­mat­ics has to be taught in con­text to physi­cists rather than in the glo­ri­ously abstract regime so many math­e­mati­cians seem to prefer.

My solu­tion was to have a sort of ref­er­en­tial chap­ter at the start of the book that would out­line all the math­e­mat­i­cal tools a reader of the book would need. The intro­duc­tions were all done in the con­text of physics, with exam­ples they would have come across by then or would come across soon. More impor­tantly, though, rather than being a dic­tio­nary of math­e­mat­ics for physi­cists (which was what I was against) the chap­ter is intended to be some­thing read­ers would turn back to con­stantly through­out their read­ing of the rest of the text.

This means most of the chap­ter invokes phys­i­cal ideas from else­where in the book and, mutu­ally, the two chap­ters would strengthen the notions intro­duced by each other. This has called for a con­stant revi­sion of that par­tic­u­lar chap­ter as the rest of the book is writ­ten, which is some­thing I am fine with.

Also, on a deeper level, I want the book to address some prob­lems I have, myself, seen many stu­dents expe­ri­ence. It could be some­thing as spe­cific as a cal­cu­lus shock, where stu­dents are shoved into the manner of think­ing and the ideas of cal­cu­lus rather than eased into it[^ This is funny to some extent: schools rarely intro­duce arith­metic to young kids by call­ing it arith­metic, like­wise with alge­bra. They are both is intro­duced as part of math­e­mat­ics rather than as some com­plex tech­nique sup­pos­edly impor­tant in the grand scheme of things. Cal­cu­lus, on the other hand, walks onto the stage with an aura of tough­ness and com­plex­ity most people cannot under­stand. This is silly. It has, all through his­tory, worked against cal­cu­lus and left us with stu­dents who never could wrap their head around it because they were told it was dif­fi­cult. And this is also why most non-sci­en­tists end up crit­i­cis­ing higher level maths and physics as some­thing they do not need in their daily lives: when one never learns to appre­ci­ate the nuances of cal­cu­lus or trigonom­e­try, they will never realise how often they can poten­tially make use of it to gain a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on sit­u­a­tions.], or a com­plete lack of grip on the struc­ture of a physics course, or worst of all, an exam­i­na­tion-focussed, type-of-prob­lem based learn­ing rather than learn­ing directed towards appre­ci­at­ing the ideas and think­ing that under­lies most of physics[^ That last point felt non­sen­si­cal even to describe.] I will not bore you with the details of how I am address­ing these, but if there is any­thing I have left out, I always appre­ci­ate a help­ful e-mail.

The other major chal­lenge has been prob­lems. Prob­lem solv­ing is at the heart of physics and think­ing up new prob­lems cre­atively is noto­ri­ously dif­fi­cult. In fact, all of this has given me a new­found respect for all the course­books we read and tossed aside during our formal edu­ca­tion. Crit­i­cise a book all you want, but you cannot deny the effort that went into writ­ing one[^ There are excep­tions to this: some books are clearly devoid of effort and orig­i­nal­ity while others were writ­ten by ghost writ­ers. These are both little more than dis­graces and we should all prob­a­bly agree to never speak of them again.].

In praise of course­books

Says Anne Hout­man, a behav­ioral ecol­o­gist and head of the School of Life Sci­ences at the Rochester Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, that writ­ing a course­book is infi­nitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more sat­is­fy­ing’. This is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with.

The manner in which an idea is intro­duced, the har­mony between ideas across pages and chap­ters and vol­umes, and the thought that the words you put to paper will define how some­one views the field for a long time are not so much daunt­ing as con­stant reminders of the huge respon­si­bil­ity that comes with writ­ing a good qual­ity book. More localised con­cerns include ensur­ing the same nota­tion across chap­ters and the same approach to making state­ments, offer­ing proof and putting the math­e­mat­ics in a phys­i­cal per­spec­tive.

As Dr Hout­man points out, course­books will effec­tively be reviewed by more peers and for longer in its life­time than more than most research papers. Also, unlike papers again, course­books will likely be cri­tiqued and reviewed by stu­dents and the public too (but in a manner dif­fer­ent from most sci­en­tists’ reviews).

Although my intended audi­ence are sixth form stu­dents, I have ensured that they are intro­duced to ideas they will encounter in higher stud­ies too, and not merely ver­bally. This means, unlike older vol­umes of books from the Insti­tute tar­get­ing stu­dents, my two vol­umes do not treat cal­cu­lus as optional. There is some hand-hold­ing but no spoon-feed­ing, although, by the end of every chap­ter the learn­ing becomes more inde­pen­dent. I also man­aged to add in some exter­nal ref­er­ences for stu­dents and teach­ers inter­ested in fur­ther read­ing because, just as there will be stu­dents who find the book hard to cover, there will be those who cover it with ease and may look for more read­ing mate­ri­als.

All-in-all, per­haps this has been the only thing I have con­stantly looked for­ward to work­ing on every­day besides my research; and I was right in my think­ing the day I was first con­tacted by the Insti­tute: this is excit­ing work. But it calls for more thought than I had ever expected and I like that too because it makes my work that much more mean­ing­ful for me and that is some­thing I value greatly. Also, taking a moment like this to put my thoughts into words has been some­what encour­ag­ing (not that I have ever had any short­age of that). And if you will excuse me now, I have a course­book to write.

He always has a Reuben—Bloodprint #2 http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/fiction-002 journal/fiction-002 Sun, 14 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Milner watched as the wait­ress picked up his order and brought it over to his table. He always admired how easily they car­ried their tray around. He had a ter­ri­ble sense of bal­ance and was more than sure he could not go a day with­out spilling things all over the floor if he started wait­ing tables.

Would you mind if I asked you a couple of ques­tions?’ He said.

The girl raised her eye­brows.

Milner took out his card and slid it across the table. I’m sorry. I should’ve intro­duced myself first. I’m a pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor and I’m trying to estab­lish a time­line for my client. He was here yes­ter­day, around half-past-twelve or so. This photo may jog your memory.’

That’s Mr Camp­bell.’ She said.

You know him?’

He’s a reg­u­lar. Comes in for lunch every­day, usu­ally between twelve and one, and sits over there in the corner.’ She paused. Is some­thing the matter?’

Would you be able to answer a couple of ques­tions about him?’

I don’t really know him well. Brian waits that table. You should talk to him.’

Could I speak to Brian?’

Sure.’ She smiled, spun around and walked away.

Milner picked up his card and put it into his pocket. He slid Arnold Campbell’s photo towards him­self and looked at it for a long time. Camp­bell was a bald­ing man, prob­a­bly in his early thir­ties. The aver­age age of the serial killer in Amer­ica was the early thir­ties. He was wear­ing a blue shirt in the pic­ture and had a smile on his face. The pho­to­graph looked new, the colours were rich, prob­a­bly made no more than a month ago.

Milner won­dered if the man knew where he would be a month from that day when he stood before a camera and smiled. Maybe he did because he was a cold-hearted mur­derer. Or maybe he did not have the faintest idea because he was inno­cent. It was hard to tell any­thing defin­i­tively at this point.

Good after­noon, sir.’

Milner looked up at a waiter he took to be Brian. The man was young, blonde, mar­ried, accord­ing to the ring on his finger, and seemed to be over­en­thu­si­as­tic.


That’s right. Casey said you wanted to talk to me about Mr Camp­bell?’

Milner nodded. Sit down.’

We’re not allowed to.’

Alright then,’ Milner said, I’ll make it quick.’

If I may,’ Brian inter­rupted, I’m not really com­fort­able talk­ing about our cus­tomers this way. You may have to give me a good reason to share any­thing with you. I under­stand you’re a detec­tive.’

Mr Camp­bell is in police cus­tody. He’s being charged for murder and there’s going to be an arraign­ment in two days. I work for the defence and I’m trying to estab­lish a time­line.’

Brian was speech­less.

This,’ Milner reached into his bag, is a letter from his lawyer saying as much.’

That’s alright. I’ll take your word for it.’ Brian was still some­what dis­turbed. He’s been coming here since more than a year or so. He’s a won­der­ful man. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.’

I’m sure he wouldn’t, Brian. But that’s not how it works in court. Now if you can tell me every­thing you remem­ber about him over the past week or so, any­thing dif­fer­ent, any­thing that caught your eye that wasn’t a reg­u­lar occur­rence, any­thing at all. Tell me that and I might just be able to help him prove his inno­cence.’

He’s… well… he comes in by him­self. He’s here before one every­day. Well, maybe not every­day, just every week­day. He always has a Reuben. And — ’

What about yes­ter­day?’

Brian’s eyes lit up. That’s it. Yes­ter­day, he sat in his usual place, right there in the corner,’ he pointed, but he was joined by a man about ten min­utes in. He was having his sand­wich as usual when a man walked over and sat down oppo­site him.’

Describe the man. Do you know his name?’

No, I’ve never seen him. They seemed to have some kind of a dis­agree­ment. Mr Camp­bell wasn’t pleased. The man didn’t order any­thing until almost one, he seemed to want to talk to Mr Camp­bell, but Mr Camp­bell didn’t want to talk to him. They stayed here till twelve-forty-five when Mr Camp­bell left. He payed his tab, he tipped me like he always did, and then he gave me another thirty dol­lars and said I should take care of the other man’s order too and that he’d pay any­thing extra the next day. Of course he didn’t come in today. He’s usu­ally leav­ing by this time.’

Can you describe this man?’ Milner asked again.

He was in his for­ties, I’d say. Kind of salt-and-pepper hair, about six-two. I remem­ber he was wear­ing a grey coat.’

For how long did he stay back after Mr Camp­bell left?’

About thirty-min­utes, maybe.’ Brian said. I didn’t really pay atten­tion to that, you know.’

Of course.’ Milner said. This sand­wich is really good. I’m sur­prised I haven’t eaten here before.’

I can get you another one.’

Why not?’ Milner smiled and picked up a glass. Here, let’s toast to Mr Camp­bell. The man is most likely inno­cent and let’s hope we can prove it. It’s just water, but it should do.’

Brian smiled and picked up his glass. To Mr Camp­bell.

No sooner than the waiter downed his glass and placed it on the table did Milner reach for it to fill it up again. But his shirt caught the tip of the glass and it rolled onto its side. He rushed in vain to grab it with his other hand and could only get his grip on the rim of the glass before it struck the side of the table and shat­tered.

Brian quickly bent down to pick up the pieces and Milner put aside the upper quar­ter of the glass he still held in his hand and gave the waiter a hand.

How clumsy of me.’ He said. If I was work­ing your job I’d spend my salary paying for the dishes I’d break.’

Brian laughed. That’s alright. Don’t worry about it.’ He picked up the largest pieces first as a couple of other wait­ers came by with a hand­held vacuum and a duster to help clean it up.

I’ll pay for it.’ Milner said.

Don’t worry about it, sir.’ One of the other wait­ers said.

I’ll get you your second sand­wich.’ Brian said.

Take­away, please.’ Milner said as he leaned back on his chair and grabbed his coat.

Patrick Scott-Fisher was sit­ting in the vis­i­tors’ chair before Milner in the detective’s cozy office. He looked at the sheet of paper Milner had placed before him for a long moment as he creased his brows into a frown.

What the hell is this?’ The lawyer finally looked up. Forca labs?’

Milner nodded. I’ve given them some sam­ples for test­ing, but I’m going to need more and only you can get it for me. And that’ he pointed to the paper, is going to be billed to you so you might as well take that and go pick up the reports in a couple of days when they’re ready.’

What the hell is it for?’ Patrick asked again.

Milner held up his hand. A few ques­tions first. Say I took a swab from the crime scene. Is that ille­gal?’


Milner smiled. Then you be glad I didn’t.’

Quick joking, will you?’

Alright, alright’, Milner failed to hide his grin, here’s the plan. I need you to get your hands on the four window panes behind Campbell’s desk.’


I have a theory. Just get it done.’

Alright. Go on.’

There may be prints on the win­dows that are cru­cial evi­dence, you need to keep an eye on things.’

Alright, I can do that.’ Patrick said.

Then,’ Milner con­tin­ued, I need you to talk to your client and find out about the cabin he designed and built recently. There were pho­tographs on his desk show­ing a wed­ding or some­thing of that sort taking place inside the cabin. Where was that work done, who was involved, and can he remem­ber any­thing about it that was out of the ordi­nary. Ask him all that and get back to me.’

I still have no clue what you’re get­ting at.’

I have a theory, but I need more proof before I can explain. If I’m right, your client likely delayed a murder by about three hours and it all started because he met some­one who realised Camp­bell knew some­thing he was never sup­posed to know.’

Patrick shook his head. I don’t get it.’

Any word on the victim?’

Camp­bell couldn’t iden­tify him, nei­ther could the police. At least that’s what the sit­u­a­tion was until you called me over.’

Good, that gives us a head start.’ Milner said. By the time you have the results from the lab, I need you to get me details about what­ever the cops found on the carpet. They’re going to be look­ing for DNA and they’ll find plenty from all the blood.’

Are you telling me you iden­ti­fied the victim?’

No, but I’m closer than the police are.’ Milner smiled.

I talked to Camp­bell today.’ Patrick said.

Asked about the pack­age he received?’

Patrick nodded. Said he was sched­uled to receive a pack­age from Brun­ner and Gross­man, an inte­rior design firm who were work­ing with him on an ongo­ing project.’

Did he say what it was about?’

Papers, plans, he said, that sort of thing.’

Milner sat in thought for sev­eral min­utes. It was six when he finally said, Alright, Pat, I’m off home now. Get every­thing done like I asked, and talk to Camp­bell again tomor­row and ask him if the groom wanted to have a word with him yes­ter­day after­noon at the restau­rant.’


Just ask him’. Milner smiled.

The two men took the lift down. Patrick got off at the ground floor and walked out to the street and got into his car while the detec­tive con­tin­ued down another floor. Five min­utes later Milner drove onto the street in his blue sedan and took the short­est route he could think of to head down­town. He would be home late again today.

He soon arrived at the Murray – Camp­bell tower, found a park­ing spot two blocks down and walked casu­ally to the lobby. He was told that the door­man was in charge of receiv­ing pack­ages.

Aldous Milner,’ he handed his card, I work for Mr Campbell’s defence team. I’m here to pick up a pack­age he received this after­noon from the Brun­ner and Gross­man firm.’

It came in this morn­ing, sir.’ The door­man said. I hope Mr Camp­bell is alright. This is all just a big mis­un­der­stand­ing.’

Milner smiled as he tucked the pack­age under his arm and walked out of the build­ing.

His office was locked—Bloodprint #1 http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/fiction-001 journal/fiction-001 Tue, 09 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 It was almost half-past-six when the lawyer walked into Milner’s office. The detec­tive hated stay­ing back after his clos­ing hour, but he had stretched it by nearly thirty min­utes for one of two rea­sons, although he could not quite agree on which: one, Patrick Scott-Fisher was a good friend of his and said his client des­per­ately needed help, and, two, the lawyer had promised him this would be a case that would inter­est him greatly.

Milner leaned back in his chair and watched as Patrick eased his wiry frame into one of the vis­i­tors’ chairs and sighed.

I’m usu­ally home by this time, Pat’. Milner said. This better be good’.

Some­times the damnedest people come knock­ing on my door.’

I’d assumed that was part of your job’. Milner smiled. Now get to the point’.

Alright, but I need a minute. I had to climb up five flights of stairs to get here.’

There’s a lift in the build­ing’.

Out of order’.

Alright, you’ve had your minute’.

About fif­teen min­utes before I called you this evening’, Patric began, this man walks into my office. Arnold Camp­bell, an archi­tect. He’s pant­ing, he’s afraid, the usual deal. Oh, and I need to men­tion that I’m speak­ing as his attor­ney and I’d hope you can keep our con­ver­sa­tions between us.’

Of course, so long as I don’t find any­thing ille­gal, in which case I’d have to report it’.

Of course.’ Patrick sat back, some­what calmer. He says he got into his office around eight this morn­ing, worked all through, went out around twelve to grab some lunch at a restau­rant a couple of blocks down from his build­ing, then returned an hour later, worked till three when he got a call to go down to the lobby to receive a pack­age’.

Call from his build­ing or call from the deliv­ery guys?’

From the build­ing. The deliv­ery had been made at the lobby.’

Go on’.

So he goes down to pick it up. He swears he took no more than ten min­utes to go down, sign for the pack­age and bring it back up to his office. And when he gets back he finds a body lying on the centre of his carpet, blood all over the floor.’

Whose body?’

Nobody he knows. But the man panics, drops every­thing from his hand and bolts out. And he comes straight to me.’

After call­ing the cops.’ Milner prompted.

Patrick shook his head. Straight to me. It’s going to make him look guilty as hell in court.’

That was either incred­i­bly fool­ish of him or he’s a crim­i­nal’. Milner said.

As his lawyer I work on the assump­tion that he’s inno­cent. And so will you, detec­tive. I’m going to need your help on this’.

What have you done so far?’

There’s no way out of this, you know’, Patrick sighed again. As soon as I heard from him I asked him to keep his mouth shut at all costs and then I called the cops and I came straight here. There’s no way out. We’re going to have to give the cops another man to cru­cify or every­thing in this case points squarely to Camp­bell.’

If there’s another man’.

Like I said.’

Alright.’ Milner thought for a moment. I’m to spare no expenses I sup­poses.’

Patrick shrugged. He’s an archi­tect’.

The men smiled. They sat in silence for the next ten min­utes and Milner finally got up from his chair and held out his hand.

I’ll get on it right away, Pat. I’ll need all the details you can give me. Let’s start with the address of Campbell’s office, the man’s pho­to­graph, and the restau­rant he vis­ited, and any pic­tures of the crime scene you can get me. I’ll also talk to any con­tacts I may have at the precinct there. And I’ll need a letter from you autho­ris­ing me to ask ques­tions regard­ing this. Make it an offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion for the defence and we can hope to get quite a lot out that way.’

Will do.’ Patrick arose and shook Milner’s hand. I’ll send in every­thing by tonight. And there was one other thing Camp­bell empha­sised sev­eral times. He nor­mally only pulls his door close if he’s only going to the lobby and isn’t plan­ning on leav­ing the build­ing. But there’d been a break-in on one of the other floors a few weeks back so he says he has made it a habit of lock­ing his office even if he steps out for only a minute. He was extremely pos­i­tive that when he went down to the lobby today, his office was locked’.

The Murray – Camp­bell tower was not merely where Arnold Camp­bell worked; he owned it and he had designed it him­self. A board in the lobby announced that the offices of MCG Archi­tects (which stood for Murray, Camp­bell and Gray) was on the four­teenth floor.

Milner looked at his watch when he got on the lift and then again when he got off at the four­teenth floor. The lift had stopped six times in-between, for an aver­age of eight sec­onds each time, which was about forty-eight sec­onds in all. Milner’s watch had moved to about fif­teen – twenty sec­onds shy of two min­utes, which meant Camp­bell would have taken a min­i­mum of two all the way up to four min­utes just trav­el­ing in the lift.

At the lobby, assum­ing he got his pack­age as soon as he asked for it and he signed for it right away, it should not have taken him more than a minute or two together. An upper limit of four min­utes was a safe esti­mate assum­ing Camp­bell was not attended to imme­di­ately, although Milner doubted the lobby would make the owner of the build­ing wait too long to receive his pack­age.

Excuse me’. Milner looked up from his note­book as he heard a voice. He stopped scrib­bling in num­bers, returned the note­book into his pocket and watched as a cop walked up to him.

I’m with the defence team.’

You’re not sup­posed to be here’. The cop said.

I’m the defence inves­ti­ga­tor’, Milner said.

Have any papers to show it?’

Right here’. As the detec­tive handed Patrick’s legal notice to the cop, he noticed a friendly face step out from one of the doors fur­ther down the cor­ri­dor. Hey, Hank’, he waved.

The cop folded up the paper, handed it back to Milner and turned around to face Hank. This is a pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor, Aldous Milner, says he’s with the defence’.

Alright,’ Hank said, let him through’.

It’s been a while’. Milner said.

How do you do, Milner?’ Hank stood squarely between Milner and the door. Behind the cop, Milner could read a name­plate on the door that said Arnold Camp­bell, Archi­tect’.

Let me through, Hank.’

You’re work­ing for a law firm now?’

You know me, Hank, I work on cases as I like them. I don’t work for anyone. Let’s not pre­tend like we’ve never met.’

I wish we’d never met’.

That’s the spirit’. Milner grinned. Now step aside, you’re legally oblig­ated to let me through’.

Hank moved just enough to let Milner squeeze him­self in. The detec­tive did not mind. He kept walk­ing straight to the carpet where the blood­stains were even as Hank shouted that there was noth­ing he could do or see here that the cops had not done or seen already.

There was little Milner could learn from the car­pets. Any DNA evi­dence would have been sent to the lab already and would arrive at the defence lawyer’s office. Campbell’s desk was clean and Milner noticed a couple of blue­prints thrown around, one for a field of some kind, prob­a­bly a school, one for a makeshift cabin. Next to that were some photos and it was not hard to figure out that it was the cabin in the plans. It looked like there was a wed­ding going on. Milner, care­ful not to touch or dis­turb any­thing, moved to the win­dows at the west, all the way at the back of the office and looked four­teen floors down at the entrance to the build­ing. There was grease on one of the win­dows but noth­ing more.

Every­thing in the office looked untouched. A pair of thick, black cur­tains had been draped on either side of the win­dows and pho­tographs of build­ings, no doubt designed by MCG Archi­tects, adorned the other three walls. There were plaques and awards and cer­tifi­cates too.

Milner stood by the window a long minute, soak­ing in the beauty of the city, watch­ing all the way to the hori­zon. He felt he knew what the prosecution’s case would be: Arnold Camp­bell killed this man and made up the story of going down to the lobby; he did go to the lobby to receive the pack­age, but only after com­mit­ting the murder. It was an open and shut case for them, but Milner had to prove Campbell’s story and the only thing keep­ing him going was that if his client wanted to make up a story, why make up one that was so uncon­vinc­ing?

Weekend mailbag http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/weekend-mailbag journal/weekend-mailbag Sat, 29 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 I had vowed to never again write an arti­cle that is really sev­eral side notes col­lected together; alas, some­times the side notes are the inter­est­ing ones and it is not always that one has an article’s worth of story to tell. There­fore today’s mail­bag: a col­lec­tion of thoughts my mind mailed to the paper before me at var­i­ous times during the past week. If my memory serves me right, this is my sev­enth such weekly col­lec­tion of thoughts.

Around Monday, four days after I botched up an inter­view with one of India’s lead­ing sci­en­tific insti­tutes, and about just as long after was in bed having been attacked by gout (appar­ently they call it the rich man’s dis­ease’, which I think is funny) I stum­bled upon a timely arti­cle by Mark Manson titled Smart­phones are the new cig­a­rettes’. In it, Mr Manson talks about how people these days are obsessed with their gad­gets and with con­stantly check­ing their smart­phones for no reason and with no prompts. Our atten­tion, he com­plained, is dwin­dling because it is being pulled in more direc­tions than ever before’. He called it atten­tion pol­lu­tion.

It reminded me of my own arti­cle on infor­ma­tion over­load and the social web where I had dubbed the phe­nom­e­non inter­net pol­lu­tion’. The idea is that, like little kids, we want to know and take part in every­thing hap­pen­ing around us; and with the inter­net promptly giving us teases of nearly every­thing on earth, we end up being com­pletely lost but never realise it. Nei­ther are we able to do the things we are sup­posed to be doing, nor are we able to do what we wish we were doing because our focus is unsta­bly thump­ing into every­thing like a bat out of con­trol, never stay­ing put long enough to matter.

I think the two ideas go hand-in-hand: when we pol­lute the inter­net, it pol­lutes our atten­tion in turn. Mr Manson draws a par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing com­par­i­son between smart­phones and cig­a­rettes—

Their inabil­ity to focus inter­feres with our (already-frag­ile) abil­ity to focus. The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smart­phones harm the atten­tion and focus of people around the smart­phone user. It hijacks our senses. It forces us to pause our con­ver­sa­tions and redou­ble our thoughts unnec­es­sar­ily.

But the smok­ing com­par­i­son doesn’t end there. There’s evi­dence that sug­gests that we are doing long-term harm to our mem­o­ries and atten­tion spans.

This is some­thing I had not thought of, but is cor­rect: others using their smart­phones in a set­ting where, say, they would not have used a chain­saw even if they had one on their person, can get irri­tat­ing pretty quickly. Also, like sec­ondary smok­ing, this habit of peek­ing into our phones can spread from person to person and before you know it, every­one around the table has their head buried in a screen. The rest of the arti­cle is quite inter­est­ing too (and car­ries exple­tives, some of which have been stripped from the above excerpt — be warned).

As it hap­pens, there is a second arti­cle that has been on my mind this week. This is an older one, though, titled, Four­teen things that are obso­lete in the twenty-first cen­tury’, from an Ice­landic ele­men­tary teacher, Ingvi Hran­nar Ómars­son.

On the whole I rather liked the arti­cle, but there were a couple of points I dis­agreed with. The premise should be clear from the title; some inter­est­ing and valid points Mr Ómars­son puts forth include buying pam­phlet designs for the school and one-size-fits-all type of pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment work­shops. These need to, and can quite well, change thanks to the inter­net; except the arti­cle was writ­ten three years ago and, look­ing around, it is dis­ap­point­ing that they have not changed all that much.

There are others that have changed. Schools now have WiFi, most offer healthy cafe­te­ria food, smart­phones are not entirely banned, and lap­tops and iPads are part of the class­room. In the school where I taught, smart­phones were allowed for stu­dents above grade eight or so, either in des­ig­nated areas, or under spe­cial cir­cum­stances, or, unre­strict­edly, on cer­tain days. We even used lap­tops and iPads actively in the class­room. Most gad­gets whose accept­able use in an aca­d­e­mic envi­ron­ment could be rea­son­ably mon­i­tored were encour­aged. In the 21st cen­tury, stu­dents must grow up look­ing at gad­gets as the useful tools they are rather than as dis­trac­tions.

That said, there are some points in the arti­cle I have small prob­lems with. For instance, call­ing com­puter rooms obso­lete is not entirely real­is­tic. Even to this day, com­puter rooms are the only chance for most kids in poorer coun­tries to even look at com­put­ers, let alone work on one. (It is char­ac­ter­is­tic of such schools to mon­i­tor com­put­ers so closely — and with reason — that stu­dents are rarely given the leeway they need to have to learn to use gad­gets effec­tively.)

Stu­dents’ grades must be aver­aged out based on con­tin­ual, year-long assess­ments by the people who have known them at their best and their worst: their teach­ers.

That Teach­ers who work silently, don’t tweet, blog and dis­cuss ideas with people around the world are obso­lete’ is a pow­er­ful state­ment and, even if not entirely true, it is slowly becom­ing that way. Stu­dents these days have access to knowl­edge from around the world and are not restricted to the knowl­edge their own teacher dis­sem­i­nated, like ear­lier gen­er­a­tions did. It is, by def­i­n­i­tion, the job of a teacher to add to, and refine, that knowl­edge both within the class­room and to the public out­side it, through the inter­net. Addi­tion­ally, teach­ers will have to look to strengthen the one expe­ri­ence the inter­net cannot match: true one-on-one dis­cus­sion amidst a peer group in a charm­ing envi­ron­ment over a cup of tea.

As far as tra­di­tional libraries go, I cer­tainly do not think they are obso­lete. In fact, for tar­geted ini­tial read­ing on a sub­ject I would pick a good book above the inter­net any day, and a library is as much a place of seek­ing solace through books as it is a col­lec­tion of books. (Speak­ing of col­lec­tions of books, I am reminded of Kramer from Sein­feld: The Dewey Dec­i­mal System, what a scam that was. Boy that Dewey guy really cleaned up on that deal’.)

Start­ing school at eight in the morn­ing is some­thing worth debat­ing. Nine or half-past nine is undoubt­edly much more con­ve­nient, but there are quite a lot of fac­tors to con­sider if schools must start any later. For starters, par­ents need to head to work and cannot drop their kids off to their bus stops. This is a sort of uni­ver­sal prob­lem since school busses prefer to make fewer stops and take more eco­nom­i­cal routes and like it when many kids can get on at the same spot near their homes, but I digress. There is also the con­sid­er­a­tion that, come after­noon, kids are not as men­tally active as they were in the morn­ing. The whole system does need some fine-tuning to say the least.

The one other thing I whole­heart­edly agree with in the arti­cle are stan­dard­ised tests: they should be tossed out the window since they do no good. Stu­dents’ grades must be aver­aged out based on con­tin­ual, year-long assess­ments by the people who have know them at their best and their worst: their teach­ers. This means a student’s abil­ity can be assessed dynam­i­cally, and based on a lot more than answer scripts, rather that having a single, static instance rep­re­sent (and, in all prob­a­bil­ity, demean) the work they did all through the past year; who but the teacher knows if, per­haps, the final exam was the student’s lowest point and they have been stel­lar at every other minute?

This is not a rebut­tal of Mr Ómarsson’s arti­cle; it is more of a friendly dis­cus­sion that I think is worth spark­ing at this junc­ture because a good chunk of the arti­cle talks about making better use of the inter­net and we live in a time when First World coun­tries are surg­ing ahead with great con­nec­tiv­ity and Third World coun­tries are fol­low­ing them at a much slower pace than they ought to. One of the rea­sons I hold the Web in high regard is because it is, to me, the great equaliser; it is an oppor­tu­nity for all coun­tries to develop hand-in-hand, at the same pace, help­ing each other out. The last time we chose to race against each other it ended in two-and-a-half wars. But, above all, these points are worth con­sid­er­ing if only, as Mr Ómars­son puts it, to keep away from fac­tory school­ing’.

The Outline World Dispatch

Try a Pod’ was an ini­tia­tive launched by a group of pod­cast­ers back in March with the aim of trying to get more people to listen to pod­casts. Pod­casts are best thought of as on-demand radio shows. They have the old-school aura of radio meshed with the moder­nity of the inter­net. It would have been Guglielmo Marconi’s thing if he were alive today.

Being a fre­quent lis­tener of pod­casts (mostly while dri­ving, but quite fre­quently when relax­ing in the after­noons or walk­ing around in the evenings) taking part in Try a pod’ was some­thing I had to do, but I was busy with moving my servers and chang­ing the archi­tec­ture under­ly­ing this web­site on its tenth anniver­sary so I could not write about it. How­ever, I did talk about some of my favourite pod­casts last year and if you are new to pod­casts, that is def­i­nitely a list worth look­ing at.

How­ever, start­ing afresh, and belat­edly for Try a pod’, my rec­om­men­da­tion would be a newer pod­cast from The Out­line that I recently dis­cov­ered, called World Dis­patch’. With a couple of excep­tions, I like pod­casts that are brief and inter­est­ing. Longer ones can quickly seem like a waste of time — again, there are excep­tions — and pod­casts, like songs and radio, are fillers and it is hard for me to jus­tify spend­ing an hour idly lis­ten­ing to one (I would rather read a book). Besides, it is easy to lose one’s train of thought if you keep get­ting up and leav­ing in the middle of a pod­cast, in which case, unlike a song, the pod­cast simply becomes a waste of time because you could not sit through one.

World Dis­patch’ is per­fectly sized and tightly edited, yet full of char­ac­ter. To me, this is the ideal pod­cast. Each show is divided into three seg­ments: power, cul­ture, and future. The show starts off like its key sell­ing point does, with a retro static sound. In fact, this retro feel is what The Out­line uses to describe their pod­cast—

You’re walk­ing on a side­walk, alone. You see some­thing on the ground ahead of you. You get closer, pick it up. It’s a beige cas­sette tape, faded and chipped. On the paper label, writ­ten in mechan­i­cal pencil, are the words World Dis­patch.” You take the Walk­man from your knap­sack and insert the tape. You press play. You’re greeted by a warm, strangely famil­iar tone.

That sound you hear is The Out­line World Dis­patch, a short daily pod­cast. The Dis­patch brings you sto­ries about Power, Cul­ture, and The Future, every Monday through Thurs­day. Your morn­ing walk will be better for it.

While we are on the sub­ject of pod­casts, there are sev­eral free appli­ca­tions on the App Store (and, I imag­ine, on the Play Store too) but my app of choice is Pocket Casts. It is a flaw­less app, under active devel­op­ment, and sports a great inter­face. There are no adver­tise­ments, no sub­scrip­tions, no short-lived freemium offers. The app comes at a price of $4 on iOS (uni­ver­sal) and Android, and $9 on the web, and, in my opin­ion, is worth every penny. (I only use the iOS apps.)

My foot­notes plugin for Word­press and the Still­ness theme were both miss­ing their home pages since I moved to my new setup. This has been updated: Foot­no­ta­tion and Still­ness. Addi­tion­ally, Foot­no­ta­tion has also been updated to v1.2 with minor code revi­sions and updates (thanks to Flo­rian for his con­tri­bu­tions). I pushed the latest ver­sion to the Word­press repos­i­tory just min­utes before this arti­cle was pub­lished. Having trou­ble with 1.2? Have ideas for future ver­sions? Drop me a word. And if you have not tried the plugin on your Word­press web­site or blog, down­load it for free today.

To wrap up this week’s mail­bag, here is an inter­est­ing quote:

We do not learn from expe­ri­ence. We learn from reflect­ing on expe­ri­ence.

 — John Dewey 

I like the sub­tlety here. To learn from expe­ri­ence’ is some­thing we chant mean­ing­lessly all day long and I have come to believe that is wrong. If every­body learnt things from mere expe­ri­ence, we would have enlight­ened people walk­ing around every­where, all day long. Every­one expe­ri­ences things, but they gain from it who, after their expe­ri­ence, sit back and ponder over it. Old men, by this rea­son­ing, are not enlight­ened; old men who have rem­i­nisced about their past and spent thought­ful moments look­ing back over their years and won­der­ing, are.

At long last I seem to have put to rest my debate against the idea that learned­ness comes with age and expe­ri­ence. It does not; it comes, instead, from reflect­ing on the expe­ri­ences we have had over our age.

Until next time.

What does it mean to be educated? http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/education-meaning journal/education-meaning Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Around June this year, a couple of weeks before my 23rd birth­day, I expect to be handed my master’s degree in physics. Besides exten­sive spe­cial­i­sa­tion and research for a doc­toral degree, this is the high­est honour a person can obtain to sig­nify his mas­tery in a par­tic­u­lar field. In essence, there is no doubt that I, and the many others in my grad­u­at­ing class, would be looked at as edu­cated’ people.

Things and behav­iours will be expected of us now that a formal clo­sure has been made to a two-decade-long jour­ney of learn­ing. But, two decades later, what does it all mean? As hold­ers of such a degree, and, more broadly, as edu­cated people, what should edu­ca­tion really mean to us? I think there are a series of char­ac­ter­is­tics which describe what a truly edu­cated mind is and it takes more than a simple list to under­stand these. Then again, per­haps it takes one edu­cated mind to appre­ci­ate another, but I digress.

This is a repub­lish­ing of an old arti­cle from the archives in part due to its pop­u­lar­ity and in part because I think it is a worth­while and timely read, espe­cially for some­one hoping to grad­u­ate soon. 

A look at the ety­mol­ogy of said aca­d­e­mic degree takes us to Latin: the word mag­is­ter’ meant a master, a scholar who was pro­fi­cient enough in a field to teach at a uni­ver­sity. There are, strictly speak­ing, only two master’s degrees in the world: Master of Arts (MA, or AM in some coun­tries), and Master of Sci­ence (MS or SM in the US, MSc in the UK, India etc.). Every­thing else (MBA, MFA, MPhil etc.) are tagged’ degrees spe­cific to var­i­ous fields and any dis­cus­sion beyond this quickly gets messy. But, that said, I think this is a wrong approach to the ques­tion at hand because it deals not with the fun­da­men­tal aspect of learn­ing, but instead works towards defin­ing an accept­able level of pro­fi­ciency in a par­tic­u­lar field. To really under­stand edu­ca­tion one will have to go deeper, to its roots, and back in time over 2,300 years.

It is the mark of an edu­cated mind to be able to enter­tain a thought with­out accept­ing it. 

 — Aris­to­tle

Aris­to­tle was a man with remark­able insight into a lot of things. He would have had the equiv­a­lent of a master’s degree in an array of dis­ci­plines if the con­cept existed back then; and, although all his the­o­ries about the uni­verse were wrong, it was his manner of think­ing sci­en­tif­i­cally that really pushed the bound­aries of schools back in his time. As wrong as his sci­ence was, his philoso­phies were spot on: It is the mark of an edu­cated mind to be able to enter­tain a thought with­out accept­ing it’, he once said, and it really takes a couple of read­ings to grasp the full mean­ing of his words.

To me, this state­ment by Aris­to­tle has often been the cor­ner­stone of a sci­en­tific and edu­cated mind. Life is full of deci­sions wait­ing to be taken, full of debates to be argued, as well as agree­ments and dis­agree­ments to be had. In life one is pre­sented with a plethora of choices, an array of approaches to a task, sev­eral man­ners and ways in which a thing can be done and it is easy to be influ­enced by others, which brings me to my first char­ac­ter­is­tic: the edu­cated mind can think inde­pen­dently. It should be able to take in every­thing around it, facts, rumours, obser­va­tions, and biases, then it should be able to make sense of every­thing, weigh every­thing, and finally arrive at an objec­tive con­clu­sion, unadul­ter­ated by the noise all around.

Does it mean, then, that edu­cated people know facts? A seem­ingly valid argu­ment can be made that facts help in deci­sion making. I do not believe this is true. A dis­tinc­tion needs to be made between facts’ and infor­ma­tion’: know­ing the remark­able fact that Jupiter is hun­dreds of thou­sands of times more mas­sive than the Earth does not help me decide if I should or should not buy gro­ceries today. What helps is know­ing rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion as to, for exam­ple, whether my refrig­er­a­tor is stocked or not, or whether I have a dinner reser­va­tion else­where today or need to cook at home. In other words, facts by them­selves are often use­less until they are put in con­text; and when they are, they become infor­ma­tion.

Is it then pos­si­ble to argue that anyone with suf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion can take good deci­sions? This logic falls flat for the same reason why anyone given a chess­board and a rule book cannot mag­i­cally start win­ning at chess: infor­ma­tion is the start­ing point, but know­ing infor­ma­tion is dif­fer­ent from han­dling infor­ma­tion, which brings us to the second char­ac­ter­is­tic: the meth­ods and skills of using infor­ma­tion to our best advan­tage is some­thing an edu­cated mind has acquired.

You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pen­ny­worth of dif­fer­ence to me or to my work. 

 — Sher­lock Holmes 

It is impor­tant to note the use of the word acquired’ here. Not learnt’, but acquired. A lot of the skills an edu­cated mind pos­sess cannot simply be taught; they are slowly devel­oped and improved over a long period of time with con­stant ded­i­ca­tion (even half­hearted ded­i­ca­tion can yield better results than some­one who sits mum at home) — which is why the entire process of edu­ca­tion lasts at least ten – twelve years.

That is where Jupiter comes in. To 97% of the people[^ The other three per­cent of us become astro­physi­cists.] grad­u­at­ing with a degree that sig­ni­fies their edu­ca­tion’ is com­plete, know­ing absolutely any­thing about Jupiter is of no use in their daily life, but, for the last ten years, the use of such facts, sit­u­a­tions, cir­cum­stances, and exam­ples are what helped them develop their mental abil­i­ties. Every single fact that one learnt need not be of direct use to us every­where, every­day, but you can rest assured that they each played an impor­tant role at one point in devel­op­ing your mind.

Con­sider, for exam­ple, what the writer and speaker, Alfie Kohn, says of his wife—

She (is) a suc­cess­ful prac­tic­ing physi­cian. How­ever, she will freeze up if you ask her what 8 times 7 is, because she never learned the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion table. And forget about gram­mar or lit­er­a­ture… So what do you make of this para­dox? Is she a walk­ing indict­ment of the system that let her get so far — 29 years of school­ing, not count­ing med­ical res­i­dency — with­out acquir­ing the basics of Eng­lish and math? Or does she offer an invi­ta­tion to rethink what it means to be well-edu­cated since what she lacks didn’t pre­vent her from becom­ing a high-func­tion­ing, mul­ti­ply cre­den­tialed, pro­fes­sion­ally suc­cess­ful indi­vid­ual?

The won­der­ful Mrs Kohn is not the only one. The accom­plished detec­tive, Sher­lock Holmes[^ For­give me for resort­ing to a fig­ment of our imag­i­na­tion, but most of us prob­a­bly know Holmes better than any living person I can name in his place.], for all his powers of deduc­tion was rather igno­rant in most mat­ters that did not directly con­cern his work. His friend and col­league, Dr Watson, once said of him—

His igno­rance was as remark­able as his knowl­edge. Of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics he appeared to know next to noth­ing… My sur­prise reached a climax, how­ever, when I found inci­den­tally that he was igno­rant of the Coper­ni­can Theory and of the com­po­si­tion of the Solar System… That any civ­i­lized human being in this nine­teenth cen­tury should not be aware that the earth trav­eled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extra­or­di­nary fact that I could hardly real­ize it.

The com­mon­al­ity between Sher­lock Holmes and Mrs Kohn is that they both knew what­ever they needed for their job per­fectly. This is how a lot of one’s edu­ca­tion ulti­mately goes down: we end up for­get­ting, to var­i­ous extents, the things we learnt that are no longer useful to our jobs, and we slowly become experts at what­ever we learnt that is play­ing an impor­tant role in our day jobs[^ Holmes goes so far as to pur­posely forget any­thing he learnt that does not make a dif­fer­ence to him.].

How­ever, to get where they did, they likely needed a lot of the for­got­ten knowl­edge, and, in any case, having all that knowl­edge broad­ened their hori­zons enough long before they set­tled on their cur­rent, highly focussed jobs. This is what I like to call periph­eral knowl­edge — hazy stuff you once knew but have no need for at the moment — and you could have gained it from any­where: school, books, news­pa­pers, intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion with peers et cetera. It is the use­ful­ness of this periph­eral knowl­edge that leads us to the third char­ac­ter­is­tic of the edu­cated mind: while such knowl­edge most cer­tainly does not impart exper­tise, it cannot be denied that because of it the edu­cated mind can think mul­ti­di­men­sion­ally and hold dis­cus­sions across a wide net­work of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary ideas and enrich any con­ver­sa­tion.

Alot of our world has been shaped by a steady flow of ideas, most bril­liant, few world-chang­ing, and almost all of these have been brought out by edu­cated minds. I fore­see sev­eral people want­ing to point out that some great inven­tors and sci­en­tists never had formal edu­ca­tion, but that has never been the point: nowhere have I directly linked edu­ca­tion and formal school­ing as exclu­sive.

For a mind to be edu­cated, from every­thing I have said, the key require­ment is expo­sure to ideas, which is some­thing that can be had with no formal school­ing what­so­ever. Per­haps one must have to be extra­or­di­nar­ily tal­ented to both read about ideas and sprout them with little expo­sure to an inspir­ing peer group or an envi­ron­ment of rig­or­ous learn­ing, but, for the vast major­ity, formal school­ing often simply proves to be more effec­tive. That said, it is worth noting that although said inven­tors and sci­en­tists never had formal edu­ca­tion’, they were all still self-taught, which would make it a manner of school­ing nonethe­less, just not one by formal def­i­n­i­tion. What John Dewey said about edu­ca­tion, in my opin­ion, sums it up beau­ti­fully—

(Edu­ca­tion cul­ti­vates) deep-seated and effec­tive habits of dis­crim­i­nat­ing tested beliefs from mere asser­tions, guesses, and opin­ions; to develop a lively, sin­cere, and open-minded pref­er­ence for con­clu­sions that are prop­erly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s work­ing habits meth­ods of inquiry and rea­son­ing appro­pri­ate to the var­i­ous prob­lems that present them­selves.

But what causes the ini­tial spark? One could attribute it to a lot of things, but it would be short­sighted not to give a huge chunk of the credit to one’s curios­ity. To accept the status-quo is not always a bad thing, but if all we do is accept the status-quo, then we have put an end to our social and sci­en­tific evo­lu­tion, and will soon cease to exist. If we stopped at wheels and never built the horse cart, if we stopped at spark­ing fire and never cooked on it, if we stopped at caves and never built vil­lages, we would have died a long while back.

We have come far enough that we can sur­vive con­sid­er­ably long even if inno­va­tion simply ceased alto­gether, but the end, while delayed, is nonethe­less the same. Mr Dewey, in his book, How we think[^ Dewey’s How we think is free to down­load as a pdf, so you have no reason not to read it.] speaks of how curios­ity, save in some people, can easily be dulled and how edu­ca­tion helps keep it kin­dled. Curios­ity and the habit of ques­tion­ing leads to inno­va­tion and change; embrac­ing change and exploit­ing it to better our world is not some­thing only the edu­cated mind can do, but it takes an edu­cated mind to make the change rapid and volu­mi­nous enough to make a dif­fer­ence. Our fourth char­ac­ter­is­tic is then simple, but supremely effec­tive in life: an edu­cated mind is a curi­ous and prob­ing mind.

We dis­cussed how an edu­cated mind improves the chances of spark­ing ideas in soci­ety and helps drive an idea from its incep­tion to its real­i­sa­tion. Every­thing said so far cas­cades in a manner so as to allow better think­ing, better deci­sion-making, and better exe­cu­tion to bring an idea to life. Can, then, a robot or AI of any sort — pro­grammed with all the infor­ma­tion it may need and all the logic it may wish to derive from — take these deci­sions just as well?

As much as I want a robot maid like the Jet­sons, I would not be hasty in giving them duties along this line. This is where the so-called human ele­ment’ comes in. Prob­lem solv­ing is mul­ti­di­men­sional and cannot be pro­grammed absolutely[^ At least not at the moment. I would cer­tainly be weary of living in a world where it can.] with­out think­ing of every pos­si­ble out­come, which, the larger a prob­lem becomes, the harder it gets, tend­ing towards impos­si­bil­ity.

One of the require­ments in such a sce­nario is being able to change per­spec­tives; the abil­ity to look at a prob­lem from some­one else’s shoes and to under­stand and appre­ci­ate the views of another person by look­ing at the sit­u­a­tion from their stand is nei­ther simple nor easy. This form of empa­thy is some­thing edu­ca­tion cul­ti­vates. Added to it are the usual traits of under­stand­ing, sym­pa­this­ing, help­ing, and encour­ag­ing. All of these add up to good habits that help lead people in any manner towards any common goal. This is pre­cisely what our next char­ac­ter­is­tic is: an edu­cated mind cam empathise with, encour­age, lead and bring out the best in others.

With ideals and prac­ti­cal­ity merged, edu­ca­tion should, undoubt­edly, pre­pare stu­dents for a better life, and for an inde­pen­dent life in gen­eral. I have come to believe, sin­cerely, that the effect of edu­ca­tion is not always imme­di­ately obvi­ous, but will show itself when the need arises — and par­tic­u­larly while in the com­pany of the une­d­u­cated. An arti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post last year puts in judi­ciously: Edu­ca­tion should pre­pare young people for life, work and cit­i­zen­ship.’ These are the mate­r­ial aspects which hide the deeper char­ac­ter­is­tics we have described so far; they merge uncom­fort­ably with the perks of lit­er­acy, but they cannot — and should not — be over­looked.

There are other, sim­pler sides to what makes some­one edu­cated. As my friend, Manu, puts it, the work edu­cated people do will help the world’ and edu­cated people find simple ways’ of fin­ish­ing com­plex tasks. While these are not exclu­sive to edu­cated minds — anyone with suf­fi­cient exper­tise can sim­plify com­plex ideas, for exam­ple — they are nonethe­less smaller pre­req­ui­sites.

Edu­ca­tion leads to enlight­en­ment. Enlight­en­ment opens the way to empa­thy. Empa­thy fore­shad­ows reform. 

 — Der­rick Bell 

Lastly, in addi­tion to having dis­cussed every­thing that edu­ca­tion is, an equally impor­tant topic that merits dis­cus­sion is what edu­ca­tion is not. Edu­ca­tion is not lit­er­acy. Learn­ing to read and write gives you cer­tain capa­bil­i­ties but this is too often con­fused with edu­ca­tion. A col­lege degree, there­fore, sig­ni­fies both edu­ca­tion and lit­er­acy, but a lot of grad­u­ates, sadly, are merely lit­er­ate and not edu­cated. Edu­ca­tion also varies by sub­ject. For instance you could hardly call your­self edu­cated’ in C pro­gram­ming if you know 28% of it, but the bril­liant math­e­mati­cian, John von Neu­mann, when asked how much math­e­mat­ics a person can hope to learn replied just this: twenty-eight per­cent.

Some dis­ci­plines are vaster than others, older, more devel­oped, larger, more com­plex and harder to under­stand and master. Of these physics is the oldest, largest, and the fastest devel­op­ing sub­ject on earth, which means it is that much harder for one to fully master it. This is pre­cisely why I shied away from attribut­ing to one’s knowl­edge of their dis­ci­pline a great deal of respon­si­bil­ity in describ­ing the level of their edu­ca­tion. It is impor­tant, but not impor­tant enough. For me, as a physi­cist, this marks a point in my jour­ney: an extremely impor­tant point, and one that I will trea­sure, in a jour­ney that will last no less than a life­time.

Book review: ‘Outliers’ http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/book-review-outliers journal/book-review-outliers Wed, 05 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 I can­celled my dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tion to The New Yorker recently because the mag­a­zine car­ries a vast sec­tion in every issue that is useful only to people who live in, or are obsessed with, New York. But one of the many rea­sons I sub­scribed to the mag­a­zine in the first place was Mal­colm Gladwell’s arti­cles. Mr Glad­well has been a staff writer for the mag­a­zine for about two decades now. I always found his arti­cles quite insight­ful, which is why, when I was about to catch a flight out of Berlin a few months back I decided to spend €9⁹⁹ and grab a copy of one of his more con­tro­ver­sial books, Out­liers.

It was grip­ping in a way few works of non-fic­tion can claim to be, but most of the book is meant to be ques­tioned and chewed open rather than blindly devoured. I found the start of the book some­what curi­ous: in a bid to explain what this book is about, Mr Glad­well starts with the story of Roseto, a med­ical out­lier, a town where cer­tain med­ical con­di­tions were 30 – 35% rarer than in the rest of Amer­ica. The reason, he says, as a physi­cian by name Stew­art Wolf would later find out, was not geog­ra­phy, lifestyle or exer­cise, but that the people of Roseto were living hap­pily, in their own small world, in their trusted little soci­ety, in utmost har­mony.

These were things sci­en­tists had never before asso­ci­ated with heart dis­ease and other such ail­ments, but the rarity of heart con­di­tions in Roseto forced the med­ical com­mu­nity to step aside and look at things dif­fer­ently, to reason out that the things they had never sus­pected were affect­ing patients and, in turn, could affect a person’s health and life. I want to do for our under­stand­ing of suc­cess what Stew­art Wolf did for our under­stand­ing of health’, begins Mr Glad­well.

In one line, Out­liers is about how hard work and clev­er­ness alone do not guar­an­tee suc­cess in life, and how luck, cir­cum­stance and being at the right place at the right time too can all have sub­stan­tial effects on this. At first glance, Out­liers may seem like an escape strat­egy for some­one look­ing to not work hard and blame it on the stars instead, and this is what gave rise to a con­stant debate I had with this book: while the many anec­dotes and the many con­nec­tions between work and cir­cum­stance are insight­ful, I find it hard to believe there were no others in the exact same cir­cum­stance who never made it in life.

Con­sider two of the ear­li­est exam­ples in the book where Mr Glad­well goes on to show, full with game ros­ters etc., that the time when play­ers (and Sil­i­con Valley com­pany founders in the other exam­ple) were born played a huge part in their suc­cess. He states that, had they not been born when they were, they likely would not even have entered the fields they did.

How­ever, while these birth­dates were undoubt­edly con­ve­nient, were mil­lions of others also not born around the same time and would at least tens of thou­sands of them have not also been exposed to sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, and did they not yet fail to rise to the occa­sion or make the most of it? While there is no argu­ing that being born in the 50s enabled Apple’s Jobs and Sun’s Joy to enter the fields they did, I remain uncon­vinced that a few exam­ples can rep­re­sent everyone’s sto­ries. By them­selves, these are undoubt­edly great reads, but I would hes­i­tate before treat­ing them as exam­ples.

The book takes it fur­ther with two full chap­ters that describe how, while IQ is useful to some extent, it really is not the whole pack­age. These chap­ters are inter­est­ingly titled The trou­ble with geniuses’. Mr Glad­well argues that IQ is con­ver­gent and does not depict one’s imag­i­na­tion (not least because imag­in­ing means using data to diverge, rather than con­verge, and arrive at propo­si­tions). IQ, he says, really stops mat­ter­ing beyond a par­tic­u­lar point and I tend to agree with this line of thought. What does help is prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence’, sit­u­a­tion-spe­cific knowhow that can help an indi­vid­ual turn cir­cum­stances around to their own best inter­ests; call it street smarts. Honing this abil­ity will almost always prove to be more help­ful in becom­ing suc­cess­ful than does know­ing how to solve the type of island ques­tions that fill IQ test book­lets. Again, these chap­ters, like the book itself, are filled with anec­dotes.

Speak­ing of anec­dotes, one of the most intrigu­ing things for me was where Mr Glad­well found these sto­ries and people in the first place. Some­one like Jobs is famous, but not all anec­dotes in this book are of famous people. The only one explained is Mort Jan­klow, because Mr Janklow’s firm is the author’s lit­er­ary agency.

Besides this, most people cited in this book were born in middle-class or better envi­ron­ments, going against the heroic (even if not always real­is­tic) tales of poor men over­com­ing odds to find suc­cess. Chris Langan is among the poor­est men­tioned in Out­liers but he does not have any­where near as much dis­cus­sion time in the book as his richer coun­ter­parts; in fact, Mr Langan is used as an exam­ple of how having great IQ alone is of little use.

Poor people becom­ing suc­cess­ful is such an oft-told tale that the suc­cess of people born into rich fam­i­lies is not as often heard because they are assumed to have some­how gotten a head start and their rise is seen as much less heroic, even if their achieve­ments are not. But the dif­fer­ence between suc­cess in fam­i­lies divided by wealth, accord­ing to this book, is clear: richer fam­i­lies prac­tise con­certed cul­ti­va­tion’ which gives their kids a sense of enti­tle­ment (not the bad kind) which enables them to take charge of sit­u­a­tions, i.e. be prac­ti­cally intel­li­gent, simply because they believe, to put it in a crude way, that they have every right to be in charge. That is not to say poorer kids never grow up with this, but the sta­tis­tics (and Mr Glad­well quotes them amply) lean towards the well-off.

All said and done, there is a faint back­ground music to this book summed up beau­ti­fully by this line: Suc­cess­ful people are prod­ucts of par­tic­u­lar places and envi­ron­ments.’ In fact Out­liers seems like an ode to seiz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. It is also, in some small way, about how some people have great­ness thrust upon them: The sense of pos­si­bil­ity so nec­es­sary for suc­cess comes … from the par­tic­u­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties that our par­tic­u­lar place in his­tory presents us with.’

How­ever, to only look at this face of the book is to miss it entirely, because one of the many claims Out­liers is famous for is its ten-thou­sand hour rule. This is hotly debated and is what led me to the book in the first place. (Talk about any pub­lic­ity being good pub­lic­ity.) I will intel­li­gently steer clear of this topic but the gist of it is that Mr Glad­well, using the Bee­tles and others as exam­ples, says that ten-thou­sand hours of delib­er­ate prac­tice are required to become world-class in any field. One won­ders.

In fact, to me, the whole point of this book was to make me stop and think. I will not go over every inch of the book in this review because that makes little sense. Con­tro­ver­sial ideas like the ten-thou­sand hour rule or that for your work to be sat­is­fy­ing it has to be autonomous, com­plex and have a con­nec­tion between effort and reward’ are at all not a case to dis­miss the book but to realise that, if any­thing, Out­liers puts you close to the lives of men who have achieved great things and asks you to pause and wonder what they did it. And whether it con­vinces you that they achieved things because of their effort or their cir­cum­stances or luck, in the end it does, like any good book, make you men­tally richer.