Road to confidence: The ‘route’ of no return

Road to confidence: The ‘route’ of no return

Think of your worst nightmare. Okay, now read on.

I did not grow up in a ‘car culture’, and life on two wheels, i.e. my bike, seemed good. Last November though, my wife and me planned for a road trip to the colourful state of Rajasthan (India). It was daunting to begin with because it was going to be the first time I would be driving 3000+ km, but being always on the lookout for a vacation with a difference, this trip fit the bill perfectly.

Things went well until we reached the walled city of Udaipur during the first Sunday evening of the tour. The main road to our hotel was closed for traffic (something which Google Maps didn’t update us about), and we were asked to navigate ourselves through the extremely tight and twisty lanes of the market area, only one-car-width wide and carrying two-way traffic. To make matters worse the terrain had a series of slopes and steep inclines, not to mention the 90 degree turns with house walls on each side and people walking in the tiny spaces between the car and those walls. I’m talking about manual transmission here, not automatic. Just add a few impatiently honking bike and scooter riders to the mix, and you have the complete recipe for a nightmare.

About a kilometer inside this mess, I realised that my car driving skills were being really tested and the most coveted attribute at such times – ‘patience’ – was running thin. This is what I had always dreaded, and now I was engulfed in the situation. There was no way I could turn around and go back, because there was just no space to make a u-turn and the bikers behind me would never let me reverse a single inch.

A narrow lane in the heart of Udaipur (India)

A narrow lane in the heart of the city

And then suddenly things became peaceful. No, the chaos around me hadn’t died, but the very fact that there was no way back and the only way to navigate this proverbial ‘hell‘ was to go through it, made me feel calm. It was sort of liberating to know that there was indeed only one way for me to go – ‘forward’.

The entire ordeal lasted for about 4 km, or about 1.5 hours. There were some moments of anxiety and frustration, but the confidence gained through a clear mind helped me to not make any mistakes under pressure and reach the hotel without banging my car against an electricity pole or a parked vehicle on the side, constantly taking care that the car doesn’t roll on the people behind when I lift my foot off the brake.

Thinking back, I am still amazed at what I drove through that evening. It was no super-hero stuff, but actually was a testament to how much a mere mortal can achieve if that person puts his mind to it without having the demon of failure clogging the thinking process. That ‘route of no return’, as I call it since, taught me a lot about navigating through life.

Hiding doesn’t work. Overcoming your nightmares can only happen when you place yourself on the spot and learn to survive those moments.

“The lights go out, and its just the three of us. You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.”

Bruce Springsteen

Update Previous: Hardware, Software and Human Beings

Consider this. You’ve been gifted a new iPad 2 for Christmas last year. Just a couple of months later, Apple comes out with its new iPad model, with a better screen, a better camera and supposedly more oomph under the cover. Feel cheated?

You buy the first edition of a revolutionary car model from your favorite car manufacturer, only to realize in a few months time that the company has recalled all units for a faulty brake pedal wiring. None of the editions of that car model produced after that incident have this fault. What’s more, they even have more goodies packed in with a sleeker design. Feel left out?

That’s the thing with hardware. You buy something and you are stuck with it, for good or for worse. You can’t update hardware, you can just get a new one and forget about the old stuff.

Thankfully, that’s not the stuff with software, or else it would be a real shame if you’d have to throw away a beautifully working solution once there was a new version announced for the machine’s operating system, or the most used app on your Android or iOS phone, your bank’s web application, or your favorite online car racing game. There’s always the specter of compatibility with the existing system though, and its not always smooth sailing on that front.

How does this phenomenon affect us humans personally? It swings both ways, and therein lies the rub.

You break a bone in your hand, or have a heart surgery, and you ideally want the medical update to mend your body in such a way that it feels as if nothing was ever wrong. Just like in the case of hardware, that rarely happens. Scars remain, unless of course you go for some cosmetic surgery. Now consider that you have a splintered relationship with a friend or a family member. Life is strange, and after a few years you bump into this person at a shopping mall or at an airport lounge, get chatting and have a genuine chance to mend ways with him or her. Its up to you whether you want this update to work or not. Compatibility remains an issue, mental scars are tough to wipe off altogether, but you do have a chance to make them less relevant in the new scheme of things.

Some food for thought?

The best person for the job

Quite frankly, its not you. Neither its me.

The best tennis player in the world is somewhere in Somalia, scrounging for food and squandering away his true stamina and talent for want of opportunity. While my country, India, is lamenting about not being able to secure medals in the Olympics, the best archer in the world is living somewhere in its tribal hinterland. These people just haven’t been discovered yet.

The best young talent in the domain of car racing is somewhere in Afghanistan, dodging bombs and the remnants of a bloody civil war, whiling away his childhood playing with toys and excelling in mock car races with his friends.

You are not the best teacher in the world. Your college or your university just hasn’t come across that person yet.

You are not the best software developer or architect in the world. Your boss or your client just hasn’t stumbled upon the best person for your job yet, and the day he will he’ll happily swap you for him.

You’re not even the best spouse for your husband or wife. If he or she had waited longer each one would have found a better, and maybe a more ‘perfect’ partner.

In a world so varied in geography, economy and history, success and fame are a function of ability and being at the right place at the right time. Everything after that is just chance, and how you capitalize on it. This is the best tool I’ve ever encountered to help me keep my feet grounded at all times.

The Japan Odyssey

The Japan Odyssey

The last couple of days of the year are upon us, and what do we tend to do as we near the end of December? We evaluate how the year has treated us based on our own criteria. When I sit down for this task, among other memories I recall two big events that occurred this year: My wedding and the subsequent tour of Japan in October. This is not a blog post about “What is Japan”, but an account of some of the totally unique experiences me and my wife enjoyed among the people of the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

The Japanese geography test

Having researched and prepared for the tour for nearly 3 months, you would expect that you’ve left no stone unturned. Its the inherent nature of travel, though, that the unexpected can be definitely expected! We landed at the Narita International Airport near Tokyo late evening on a Thursday and took the train to Shinjuku where our hotel was located. The route to the hotel from the station had been chalked out on Google Maps and had been studied well during the tour preparation stage, so even though we failed to purchase a network data connection for my cellphone there wasn’t much reason for alarm. I’ve been good with geography all my life and people have lauded me sometimes for my sense of direction. Still, there comes a time in life when you’re rendered speechless even while holding a dictionary in your hand. My time had come!

It was about 8:00 PM when we alighted the train and walked up to the road, looked around and….. BLANK. We stood there under the Japanese Anime neon signs flashing all around us, with absolutely no idea which direction to take. We asked around, but when a couple of persons pointed to two opposite directions, it was time to get real serious. There was a Japanese police station, or ‘Koban’ as they are known locally, nearby. My wife’s knowledge of the Japanese language came in handy here. The cop inside got out his maps, fussed over the postal address we were spelling out to him, and later pointed to a street after giving some route instructions. We walked along the street, towing our baggages behind us, with elation in our hearts for being in Japan and trepidation in our minds for our present state of being ‘lost’. The maps along the road were terrific though, and the ‘You are here’ arrows brought down the levels of trepidation slowly.

Japanese Koban

After realizing that we might be walking around in circles, we again enquired with a young couple about the route. The lady brought out her iPhone and after confirming our fears about waking in circles, guided us towards what she thought would take us to the destination. Another round of “Arigatou Gozaimasu”  (“Thank you very much”) with the customary bow ensued and we set out along the new route, with the lady saying “Genki de ne” (“Take care of yourselves”) as we left. We eventually reached the hotel at 10:00 PM. The walk which should have taken us 20 mins, took 2 hours! It wasn’t as if the hotel brand was less popular, it has a worldwide chain of studio-apartment hotels after all, but probably in a big city and a tourist hub like Tokyo not everyone knows every place by heart. Japanese people help a lot though, a fact of life that manifested itself many times during our stay there.

The Shibuya road crossing

Its odd to include a simple road crossing in the list of must-see places in a city, but that’s just what Japan is about. Its astonishing. Nearly all the clips available in various TV documentaries about the Japanese people walking on the road (Tokyo being one of the most densely populated cities in the world) have been shot at this place in Shibuya. This video will tell you why (note the sheer amount of people crossing the streets at a time):

Tales of the people, by the people

Being an Indian I am fairly used to westerners often mentioning about the welcoming nature of the people of my motherland. When you go to Japan and interact with the local populace for any amount of time, you know you’re dealing with a level. The warmth of the Japanese will floor you. Almost all the people we met knew about India and many had visited parts of the country, Taj Mahal in Agra, Qutb Minar in Delhi and other major tourist places in Mumbai and Rajasthan being the most popular.

Everywhere we went the Japanese themselves came forward to strike a conversation. Of the incidences I remember fondly is one where a young lady went out of her way to help us with a public telephone at the Utsunomiya train station, another one where a lady at a bus stop in Kyoto checked on us if everything was fine (“Daijoubu desu ka?”) when she saw us fidgeting with some coins for the bus fare, an elderly lady we met on an elevator at the Kyoto train station who after enquiring which country we originated from wished us good luck during our stay in Japan, and another one in a Hiroshima tram who chatted with us for a long time and even knocked on the window after she got down at her stop to wish us goodbye. Then there was this elderly lady at the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, whom we just cannot forget. After conversing with my wife for a while and finding out that she was an Indian, she was so pleased that she gave my wife a tight hug!

Perhaps the best experience was that of an attendant at the main Tokyo train (JR) station. This was during our last final train journey there, from Tokyo to Narita International Airport. My wife purchased the tickets and we started making our way through the crowd towards the platform, when suddenly this attendant scampered towards us, again through some fairly heavy crowd, and caught us just in time. Panting heavily, she explained that she had made a mistake with the original tickets and exchanged them with the correct ones. The mistake, as it turned out, was a tiny one, and it would’ve in no way affected our journey to Narita Airport. However, to the Japanese it wasn’t the ‘right thing’ and this lady took all the trouble to run this 200m sprint to rectify her mistake. Both me and my wife were absolutely speechless and while she was apologizing by saying “Gomennasai” (“Sorry”) about a million times, we couldn’t thank her enough! It was the most sincere bow I had done while saying “Arigatou Gozaimasu” (“Thank You”) during the entire tour.

Practicing English

Japanese people are a proud and hardworking lot, that’s what I had heard from childhood and can now personally attest to it. Their urge to learn English and be proficient in it is something that stands out. During a visit to the Kyoto train station we came across a few groups of school kids who had taken up speaking English to visiting foreigners as an assignment. Starting with questions like “What is your name?” and “What game do you like?”, the interaction would quickly switch to a round of ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors‘. The little paper cranes they used to give us at the end of the interview would feel like prizes!

School children at Kyoto JR station, practicing their English language skills

We encountered similarly enthusiastic individuals at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where a volunteer explained us the entire history related to the place and the A-bomb dropped there during WWII with the passion to rival that of a fanatic and the knowledge to rival that of a National Geographic Channel documentary. On the sidelines, I must admit that the Japanese make wonderful museums.

With our volunteer-guide Akemi Kitagawa san at the A-Bomb Dome inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Train travel

Even though the people of Japan ensured that our tour remained unforgettable, the real highlight for me personally was their travel system, especially the network of trains, whether intra-city or inter-city. Home to the world-renowned Shinkansen (Bullet Train), their efficiency, punctuality, range, frequency and the sheer quantity of the trains will hold you in awe. They aren’t cheap, mind you, but the infrastructure is in place. It makes traveling to a city 200km away as easy as going to your local convenience store. The Japan Rail (JR) Pass proved to be one of the most important documents during the length of the tour.

Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at Tokyo station

Another little touch that I liked was the way the timers on the traffic signals for pedestrians were marked. There were two bars on the top of the ‘walking-man’ which got shorter and shorter as time progressed. In a country where computer and handheld gaming is a religion in itself, this might have symbolized the ‘life’ becoming lesser and lesser as the playtime goes on.

Pedestrian crossing timer bars on a traffic signal in Tokyo

Learning to cook

Even a tepid traveler would acknowledge the variety and the uniqueness of the Japanese cuisine. Though there are other factors involved, its not for nothing that the Michelin Guide has awarded Japanese cities more Michelin stars than the rest of the world combined. Our fascination with it led us to do a cooking class in Kyoto with Taro Saeki san at his home in Kyoto. It was also an opportunity for us to see a traditional Japanese home from inside and converse with the family. Preparing the dishes was fun, and even today a simple mention of the cooking class reminds us of their delicious taste. Not surprisingly, Taro san with his wife, Yoshiko san and his sweet little daughter Haruko san were charming hosts. At the end of the class it felt as if I had made a permanent friend in Japan.

Cooking class in Kyoto with Taro san

Dinner at Ginza

Pleasant encounters with locals didn’t end there. We also had a dinner at the Sony Building in Ginza (Tokyo) with Hiroko Miyata san, a former student of my wife during some of her French language classes. We were joined by another of my wife’s friends who is on a scholarship in Japan, and together we had a great time. The chocolate cookies that Hiroko had brought with her were toothsome to say the least.

Dinner at Ginza

Shinto, Buddhism, Technology

If you say that Japan has only two main religions viz. Shinto and Buddhism, you would be doing a great injustice to the country, for it has another religion: Technology. Perhaps this third religion is one that transgresses the boundaries of the earlier two main traditional religions and unites everyone.

Buddhism: Gate at the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)

In one sweeping view you can capture a beautifully adorned Shinto shrine or a Buddhist pagoda made of wood as well as a spectacularly lit modern tower or a state-of-the-art railway station made from iron and steel.

Technology: Kyoto JR Station

Japan’s accomplishments in the realm of electronics are already phenomenal, and the effect can be seen in the hi-tech cellular phones in the hands almost every person walking on the street. The quality of the services offered on them has been miles ahead of the rest of the world for some time now. Places like ‘The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation’ (Miraikan) at Odaiba in Tokyo, housing Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO, and areas like Akihabara and Ginza are a ‘must-visit’ for science and technology buffs.

Kobe’s surprises

Being a port city, and a huge one at that, you would expect Kobe to have a good maritime infrastructure. It also has a huge open space in Meriken Park which looks spectacular at night. However, it was visiting the Earthquake Memorial Museum that was a one of a kind experience. The recreations of the Great Hanshin Earthquake on that horrific morning in January 1995, made using a light and sound show, were amazingly lifelike and quite scary. Practical explanations of why and how earthquakes occur were very informative. To top it all, they even had a 3-D theatre in there. It was easily the best 3-D movie viewing experience we’ve had till date.

Earthquake Museum in Kobe

Now, would normal fire hydrant covers ever grab your attention? Probably not. But when they are adorned by designs depicting the city’s history and culture, they certainly would, won’t they?

Man-hole covers in Kobe

It must be said here that in the past Japan has been on the receiving end of many devastating earthquakes and resulting tidal waves along its long coastline. No wonder they are called ‘Tsunamis’, a Japanese name. Our trip was just seven months after the massive earthquake in March off the Tōhoku region and the deadly Tsunami which wiped out much of the city of Sendai and almost caused a nuclear fallout at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Still there was absolutely no amount of anxiety or fear amongst the Japanese people, probably because over the years they’ve perfected the art of starting from scratch and rebounding to the no. 1 spot among contemporaries in almost all sectors.

Breathtaking beauty

Visiting at the start of the fall season meant that we were able to witness the changing color of the leaves, and the sights that greeted us at places like Hakone and Nikko were magnificent.

Tree leaves changing their color at Nikko

The sight of Mount Fuji (‘Fuji san’) was the icing on the cake as far as the Hakone trip went.

Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background (Hakone, Japan)

I think the best way to round of this article is a four minute video of some of the pictures captured during the tour. So here goes:

Rhythm over Routine

Rhythm over Routine

I have been wanting to write on this topic for a long time. How often have we heard people use terms like “back to the routine..” or “back to the grind..” only to realize that they are talking about rejoining their jobs or regular work after, say, a long vacation or a set of holidays. Not that its the best of feelings, but I have serious dislike for this usage of the word ‘routine’. Its a word that has had its meaning pushed into the domain of negativity due to its blatant overuse!

I’m of the strong opinion that there is no such a thing as an ‘ordinary day’. Its more of a mental attitude, I suppose, than a realistic one. Each day is different in its existence. It makes you go through different experiences, teaches you new stuff about yourself and throws some unique challenges at you. The intensity may vary according to your line of work (or social status), but its there alright. Its up to you whether you want to overcome these challenges or completely sidestep them, if at all you recognize them in the first place, and that’s where personality comes in. Some people, even some of the learned ones, don’t realize this fact of life, which I think is a real pity.

The word I’d like people to use instead is ‘rhythm’. It is a phenomenon that surrounds us, and the word seems inspiring and energetic from its very utterance.

The rhythm of our heart and our DNA

We live by the beats made by our heart following a certain rhythm and its ironic how, unlike the negativity many people seem to attribute to the repetitive nature of life, we actually want the heart to beat in a normal regular manner. We term that as a positive. In fact, any irregularity in this rhythm raises an alarm! Similar is the case of the strands of DNA and the human genome that describes our very structure. It has lots of repetition throughout the body, and people are fine with that.

Dance rhythm

Rhythm is easily identified with music and dance moves. The very mention of rhythm in this sense of the word exudes energy, though the idea of music and dance routines is to be repetitive, to an extent. This is where creativity comes in, a corollary to the unique challenge I talked about earlier in the article.

Running rhythm

Sportsmen talk a lot about rhythm, be it in their training regimens or their performances on the field. Almost any sport you pick has an element of rhythm associated with it. Rarely would you come across a sportsperson calling his/her exercises as ‘routine’, even though the tasks might be repetitively same every single day and procedural in nature. Rhythm carries even more significance in the field of athletics, track and field events, and cycling. In the swimming arena, the strokes look beautiful when everything falls into place, when everything happens in unison every single time.

The same logic can be applied to our lives. Most of the examples mentioned here point to the concept of passion. Musicians and dancers are passionate about what they do. So are sportsmen. If ‘passion’ is too strong a word for you, replace it with ‘attention’ and the result won’t be very different. It would be quite unfortunate if we do not pick up on these signs and surrender ourselves to lethargy and the ‘routine’ of our daily chores.

Again, routine is something that exists, rhythm is something that we perceive. Rhythm is the co-ordination of action. As we go about our activities, this is the definition we should be identifying with, don’t you think?

Government: A ‘Whisky Priest’

Government: A ‘Whisky Priest’

There has been a lot of air about the fight between the Indian government and the civil society on the battlegrounds of the anti-corruption ‘Jan Lokpal Bill‘ (citizen’s ombudsman bill). The swords too are nicely named: ‘stability’ and ‘morality’, and as with all swords, they are double-edged!

With neither side backing down, nor moving substantially forward, behind-the-scenes meetings and under-the-cloak deals being carried out every minute, its the classic stalemate that has plagued the world ever since the Greeks coined the word ‘democracy’, a brilliant concept spoilt by an ego-centric populace. Well, its no point blaming the Greeks anymore if recent history is anything to go by, they are more than suffering from the consequences of dealings under the economic part of that ideology.

Standing on the sidelines, though, I have tried to understand its gravity. While watching an episode (‘The Whisky Priest‘) of the extremely popular 1980’s British comedy TV series ‘Yes Minister’, I came across a dialogue sequence which made things clearer. The scene is question is after the minister, Jim Hacker, receives information about underhand dealings between British arms suppliers and middlemen and Italian red terrorists. He wishes to raise the issue with the Prime Minister and in that vein mentions his desires to his permanent under-secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, a hard-core civil servant. Appleby advises him against opening ‘a can of worms’. This is what transpires after that advice, and it will give the reader a very good idea about the perpetual state of any government and civil service establishment on the Earth.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Government isn’t about morality.

Minister Jim Hacker: Oh I see, what is it about then?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stability. Keeping things going. Preventing anarchy. Stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow.

Minister Jim Hacker: What for? What is the ultimate purpose of government, if it isn’t for doing good?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Minister, government isn’t about good and evil, it is only about order or chaos.

Minister Jim Hacker: And it is order for Italian terrorists to get British bombs, and you don’t care?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: [disdainfully] It is not my job to care, that’s what politicians are for. My job is to carry out government policy.

Minister Jim Hacker: Even if you think it is wrong?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, almost all government policy is wrong….. frightfully well carried out!

Minister Jim Hacker: Humphrey, have you ever known a civil servant to resign on a matter of principle?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: [surprised] I should think not! What an appalling suggestion!

Minister Jim Hacker: For the first time I fully understand that you are only committed to means, and not to ends.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, as far as I am concerned, minister, and all my colleagues, there is no difference between means and ends.

Minister Jim Hacker: If you believe that Humphrey, you will go to hell.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: [smiling] Minister, I had no idea that you had a theological bent.

Minister Jim Hacker: You are a moral vacuum, Humphrey.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: If you say so, minister!

As Stan Lee of the Marvel Comics fame would say, “nuff said!”

(P.S. Follow the link to understand what the term whisky priest means.)

Stresses, strains and human behavior

Stresses, strains and human behavior

I had to undergo some training sessions last week in relation to a software application I am trying to develop. The sessions were more about Mechanical Engineering concepts which were to help me in my development task, I mean, they were more or less technical. There was one topic, though, which grabbed my attention because I thought it could be linked to life in general.

Stress vs Strain….. in Mechanics and Human Behavior

I’ll try and give a brief explanation of the graph above, using as less technical jargon as possible. Consider any mechanical component, for e.g. a long iron plate. When load is applied to it, i.e. it is subjected to ‘stress’ in some form or the other, it will experience some amount of ‘strain’ and certain amount of displacement or curvature or elongation. Until the stress applied is in the ‘elastic range’, everything is fine. When the load is removed, the plate comes back to it’s normal position and shape. Things get a little serious when the stress keeps on increasing beyond the elastic limit and we cross into the ‘plastic range’ of the component. This is when the iron plate starts experiencing some permanent change in it’s appearance. At this stage if the load is gradually removed and brought back to zero, the shape of the plate will not be exactly the way it was before we started the experiment. In other words, it will be ‘deformed’, as is clearly illustrated in the graph. If we continue increasing the stress on the plate in the plastic range there will come a point where the plate will have reached its upper limit of cohesive structural existence i.e. ‘yield point’, beyond which any change in the stress level will have catastrophic results. Here we enter the ‘fracture zone’ and as you can observe in the graph, even reducing the stress now will lead to ‘failure’, which will mean cracking or breaking of the iron plate.

So how can this phenomenon be linked to our lives?

If you look at it closely, you will observe that we too exist in a similar scenario. Man is a social animal and so we all have different roles to play and new responsibilities to handle every single day. There are also expectations and commitments to go with those responsibilities. As a result we are laden with varying amounts of stress. I’m not saying that this stress only has a negative connotation; some stress is good and keeps us going.

It is our reaction to this stress in the form of human behavior which I feel is similar to the phenomenon illustrated in the graph above. As long as the load applied on us by our peers and friends is in the elastic range, everything is fine. Every evening we can come back home and look forward to the next day and in doing so we succeed in forgetting our pressures and stresses. Our family and social lives do not get impacted much here. Now, as soon as the stress applied crosses into the ‘plastic range’, we start experiencing some problems in forgetting it. The stress lingers constantly on our minds, even when we are miles away from the place of its origin (e.g. office, college, exams halls, share markets etc.) and eventually starts affecting our personal lives, social interaction and psyche. It is here that people remark that the person is “not the same person anymore.. he’s changed a little.”

Certainly this is not the end of the world. Different people handle such situations differently, which means that even though the course of life has changed forever (plastic deformation) we still are capable of handling even more stress. Till the ‘yield point’. Just like the iron plate in the above example, it is here that we humans tend to crack, or loose our nerve, or simply go nuts! However you put it, this situation is not desirable. A situation where even a counselor is of no use. This is where permanent damage is done. This is where people think of taking the ultimate step – a cowardly term called ‘suicide’. Its unfortunate though that the same people don’t realize that they are hurtling towards the point-of-no-return through the ‘plastic range’ at the speed of knots.

What’s more eerie with the above comparison is that any structural engineer will tell you that estimating / calculating the ‘yield point’ is simpler than doing the same for the transition between the elastic zone and the plastic zone. Similarly in our lives it is easy to point fingers at a person when he has lost it completely, but extremely difficult to identify the transition between doing just right amount of work or keeping just the right level of expectations from our abilities and over-working or over-bleeding ourselves. In other words, it is tough identifying the point where ‘fun’ exits and ‘greed’ takes over.

Maybe the answer is to stick to the ‘elastic range’. Perhaps that’s what everyone is striving for – the perfect ‘work-leisure balance’, and yet it is so elusive. Even mechanical components are designed to be in this range as far as possible so that their longevity is ensured. Its time you and me start thinking on those lines too!

Avoiding being hysterical about Sachin Tendulkar

Before I start writing this article in all seriousness, let me say that I am (and always will be) an ardent fan of Sachin Tendulkar. I have put up a huge poster of the Master Blaster in my room and probably it’s the first thing that comes in my line of vision every morning as I wake up. There should be no doubt whatsoever in anybody’s mind that he is a ‘phenomenon’ and a cricketing ‘legend’. But to the notion of glorifying him as ‘GOD‘, I have some huge doubts!

Sachin savours reaching his ODI double-century at Gwalior on Feb 24, 2010 (Image courtesy: Associated Press, Cricinfo.com)

Much has been said and written about Sachin in the days since his unbeaten 200 in and One-Day International (ODI) against South Africa. A lot more has been conferred on him in terms of awards, mementos, plaques and trophies by almost every Cricket club he has visited. With due respect to the man himself and the organizations rewarding him for his achievements, was all this exhibition really necessary? Instead of increasing the number of contents of his trophy cabinet, could these very organizations have donated money to charity in the name of Sachin? Wouldn’t that have made the ‘real’ difference? Sachin himself has always been involved in many goodwill tasks and charities. Wouldn’t this have recognized ‘Sachin, the person’ better?

It’s not surprising, though, for a country which is obsessed with making demigods out of living people. Cricket, like Football and Hockey, is a team sport. The contribution of one player can make a difference, but often it is not enough to secure a positive result. I wonder if Sachin would have made all those runs if he hadn’t had support from the other end of the 22-yard Cricket pitch. Shouldn’t they be credited too for his numerous batting records, and in turn the contribution to the team’s success? For an answer to this question, one should read the scoresheet at the end of the epic Test in Chennai in 1999 against Pakistan, where Sachin single handedly took India within reach of victory, and still the team lost by 12 runs after he got out. The same story repeated 10 years later, this time in an ODI against Australia at Hyderabad.

What if nobody was willing to stand his ground so that Sachin could reach his century in a particular match? What if the political situation in our country wasn’t as free for the growth of the sport as it is? A brief look at the career of another incredible batting genius, Andy Flower from Zimbabwe, and you’ll know the answer to that question as well.

The comparison of Sachin with some greats of the yesteryears is another thing which irks me. The environment, be it social or political or financial, in which former champions like Sir Don Bradman and Sir Garry Sobers played was very different than the current one. Even comparisons with the original Mumbai wonder Sunil Gavaskar aren’t warranted. The laws, interest in the game, notions of player safety, coaching methods, and fitness regimes have undergone a sea of change. Each one was, and is, a legend of his time. This is why distinguished sports personalities are inducted in a ‘Hall of Fame’, and not given the title of the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of a particular sport.

Sachin has always been a very good ambassador not just for the game of Cricket but for India too, but to call him as the country’s ‘greatest sports personality’ would undoubtedly be too harsh on other sports which traditionally have not had the massive fan following which Cricket has enjoyed, especially when the number of countries having a national Cricket team are so few. The name of Indian legend Major Dhyan ‘Chand’ Singh is spoken on Hockey fields worldwide with the same fervor, even 50 years after he stopped playing the game.

A few days ago I came across this quote, and it struck a chord with me instantly:

“By idolizing those whom we honor we do disservice both to them and to ourselves, we fail to recognize the fact that we could go and do likewise.”Charles V. Willie (Professor of Education, Emeritus at Harward University)

For me, Sachin’s real legacy will never be scoring all those runs in the Test and ODI arenas or breaking almost every batting record you could think of. His most enduring legacy will be the fact that his style of play popularized the game of Cricket in the small towns and cities of India, and maybe in other countries too. Over the years youngsters have looked up to him as a role-model, not just for his on-field magic but also for his off-field composure in the midst of a Cricket-crazy populace. Present Indian superstars like Yuvraj Singh and current team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni were inspired to be what they are right now because they saw him playing on TV. They wanted to bat like him ever since they were kids. These people come from relatively lesser known cities, places which were not short on talent but on good role-models and infrastructure, and therefore were often overlooked while selecting candidates for the national team.

In his early days as a budding cricketer in Mumbai, Sachin was asked in an interview, whom he would liked to be known when he grows up. He replied, tersely, “I would be liked to be known as Sachin Tendulkar”. That says a lot not just about the man’s confidence but also about his maturity, vision and practicality. Here’s another one of his early interviews –

As he went about making a mockery of the bowling attacks of other teams worldwide, he had his feet firmly rooted on the ground. He might have gained magnanimous amounts of money through awards and product sponsorship deals, but his approach to the game never changed, even when he was going though a rough patch a few years ago. Whenever he’s queried on how he feels to be called as one the game’s greats, he replies by saying that he doesn’t get overawed by the praise and is just thankful that he’s got the talent to see the ball a little bit better and earlier than other contemporaries which makes him able to hit all those stunning shots. In fact, this feeling is shared by one of Sachin’s favorite sports personalities, Michael Schumacher, who says that he just happens to be a person who can drive the Formula One race car faster than anyone else, and is similarly thankful for the talent but not overawed by the success he’s received over the years.

Sachin still ‘enjoys‘ being on the cricketing field. He still ‘enjoys‘ batting. He still ‘enjoys‘ being a part of a team which had just won a Cricket match. He prefers being out on the field under the hot sun with the temperature reading 50 degrees Celsius, instead of sitting at home in the comfort of his air-conditioner. The fact that personal accolades never interest him over a team cause can be gauged by his body-language while accepting the Player-of-the-Series award after the 2003 Cricket World Cup final match in South Africa, in which India lost to Australia. This is what we should learn from him – the passion and the enjoyment in doing what interests us.

Obviously, Sachin is as human as you and me, and is liable to making errors in judgement from time to time. I think he should be revered and remembered not as a ‘GOD‘, but as a sportsman who did his best with the talent he had; and that in itself is something most of us rarely achieve in our lives!

Racial prejudice – a perfect analogy

Racial prejudice – a perfect analogy

Racial hatred, in it’s meanest form has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. I first read about it in school history textbooks and it was quite difficult to grasp the seriousness of such events then.

A few glaring examples I’ve read about over the years are – the slavery of African black persons and the subsequent American Civil War in the 1860’s, the animosity towards ethnic Jews in Nazi Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s and the eventual Holocaust resulting in the gruesome mass-murders of approximately 6,000,000 innocent people in Europe, the military crimes purported against certain Vietnamese towns during the Vietnam War, the racial genocide during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990’s, the long-drawn civil war in Sri Lanka between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. Back home too racial and caste discrimination has been entrenched in the heart of Indian culture and religion for centuries, though it has been abolished under the Indian Constitution. Branding people as ‘untouchables‘, restricting their entry into temples and other places of divine worship are just a couple of examples of how deep rooted this notion is.

For many years now I have thought hard on what creates this prejudice and how our mind segregates people into the good and the ugly. I’ve often wondered whether it does this intuitively or methodically. Though one cannot downplay the role good and bad experiences play in the formation of this racial bias, the ‘intuition’ factor cannot be neglected. I’ve tried in vain for some time now to come up with an explanation for this intuition, until I came across a few dialogue lines from a movie I saw recently, which really hit the nail on the head!

The following lines are from Quentin Tarantino‘s 2009 directorial venture ‘Inglorious Basterds‘ (which along with winning many awards till date, has also been nominated for 8 ‘Oscars’ categories including Best Motion Picture).

A still from the scene in the movie –

Movie - Inglorious Basterds - Chapter One - Scene

The scene is when SS (German) Colonel Hans Landa, a character brilliantly portrayed by Austria-born actor Christoph Waltz, arrives at the countryside house of farmer Perrier LaPadite in Nazi-occupied France to search for Jews hiding in his sanctuary. Here he explains why Hitler and most of his contemporaries hate the Jewish race. He starts by comparing the Germanic race with ‘hawks’ and the Jewish race with ‘rats’, claiming that he doesn’t consider the comparison as an insult. Then he says…..

COL. Hans Landa: Consider for a moment the world a rat lives in. lt’s a hostile world, indeed. lf a rat were to scamper through your front door, right now, would you greet it with hostility?

Perrier LaPadite: l suppose l would.

COL. Hans Landa: Has a rat ever done anything to you to create this animosity you feel toward them?

Perrier LaPadite: Rats spread disease. They bite people.

COL. Hans Landa: Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague, but that’s some time ago. l propose to you any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Would you agree?

Perrier LaPadite: Oui (Agrees in French)

COL. Hans Landa: Yet, l assume you don’t share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you?

Perrier LaPadite: No.

COL. Hans Landa: Yet, they’re both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail, they even rather look alike, don’t they?

Perrier LaPadite: It’s an interesting thought, Herr Colonel.

COL. Hans Landa: However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel. If a rat were to walk in here, right now, as l’m talking would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?

Perrier LaPadite: Probably not.

COL. Hans Landa: l didn’t think so. You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.

Credit must be given to Tarantino (screenplay) for stating this analogy so plainly! Quite frankly, this is the best analogy I’ve ever come across describing the basic notion of racial hatred and it’s intrinsic nature; it is something which comes naturally to everyone of us. Once we accept and understand this fundamental idea, overcoming it becomes a fair bit easier. Obviously, gaining proper knowledge is the only way to stop this racial discrimination and co-exist with each other without brewing hatred in our hearts; only then can we call ourselves a civilized society.

Many recent studies (e.g. the early human migration theory) have proven that we all are descendants of a small group of people who originated in the northern part of the African continent over 70,000 years ago and eventually migrated all over the world. The various races and different physical appearances (e.g. skin color, height, physique, eating habits) we experience in the world population today are due to the varying local environmental conditions these tribes faced during the acclimatization process during these 70,000 years. A recent BBC documentary illustrated this study in more detail. This theory in itself should end the racial debate forever.

As for the movie, I hope it fares well at the ‘Oscars’!

Information and images courtesy of IMDb.com and Wikipedia.org.

My first teaching experience

Over the years there have been some professions which have been termed as ‘noble’. The medical field or nursing is one. Teaching is another, and the following is an account of the experience I’ve had with it.

I’ve always believed that though you are the best person to judge yourself, you never know the full extent of your abilities and it takes some person or an event to bring them out. The same was the case with me. After looking at how I used to interact with people around me, and the technical background I had, a friend of mine thought that I should forward my name for a position of guest lecturer which was open in his college. To be frank, at that point I thought that he was either playing a ‘very-belated’ April Fool’s joke on me, or had totally freaked out! I mean.. during my schooling and college life I had been a fairly good student, but I had seen both – very good days (like standing in the top 2-3 in class for some modules, especially during my C-DAC days) and very bad days (like flunking many subjects at a time!). Plus I had almost taken all the liberties you can think of in the ‘free’ college life, and was far from an ideal person to coach a bunch of guys. After all I regard it to be a noble profession and only noble men-women should do it (though that is rarely the case in schools and colleges across the country).

Then I was reminded of a fact – a very clever person, though eligible, may not be good teacher but an average person, who doesn’t have a great history of achievements, may turn out to be good orator and can explain the subject to someone in a lucid manner. “That’s what teaching is all about, isn’t it..”, I thought.

So after turning down one opportunity, I took up the challenge the following year. It was the position of a guest lecturer for the Mobile Computing subject at the Ferguson College in Pune for the MCS course third semester. Not only was this subject an all-time favorite of mine, but after having a day job as a software developer and working on unrelated technologies at times, I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to keep in touch with some topics I love and a get a chance to know the new developments in an ever updating technological field during the preparation for the lectures. It would also give me something constructive to do on weekends, apart from setting up a second line of work to go with my primary job, which is the need of the hour in an effervescent IT industry.

So there I was.. already committed to taking the lectures and with absolutely no idea of what topics to start with of how to manage all of them in the given time frame. Plus there was a certain nervousness which you feel before going on the stage and facing an audience for example. Naturally there was also a fear of failure, but in the end I did not want to regret not trying to something like this ever in life.

I eventually prepared myself for my first ‘encounter’ with the students. Unfortunately I have a ‘bad’ habit of never reaching a given place on time.. and the first day was no different (well I admit that even after my concerted efforts over the next 4 months, this track record did not improve). So there they were.. about 60 students waiting for me in the classroom. Obviously I was jittery at the start but tried hard not to show it. As the first few minutes went by, I started becoming more and more comfortable in my new role. I tried to take everything in a light vein and enjoy the time there. The first lecture, apart from some funny incidences, went very well – much to my amazement.

The lecture on the following day was the crucial one. I thought that even if roughly 40% of the guys present on the first day turn up, then I have won the first battle. When I saw the class strength on that day (a Sunday) – little more then 60% of the first day – I knew the challenge I had accepted had paid off!

The next few lectures were fun. I used to stay up at nights during the week to prepare for the lectures on the weekends, but I used to like it. Well I must admit that like every batsmen who goes out to open a new innings in Cricket, I used to have that strange feeling in my stomach every time I went up to face the students. But it was fun!

Each day was like a new challenge.. a new test for me. I had to explain the topics in as simple but effective way as possible. That meant a lot of research on the internet too. I did not want to repeat the same errors that my teachers in college made – of not ‘involving’ the students in the learning process and overlooking them. I tried to throw in some innovative diagrams, some self-explanatory videos and some presentation slides to augment my teaching. I tried to focus on the fundamentals of the topics. The main thing I tried to do was to be honest with myself and not merely assume that I am doing a good job – and I realized that this was no easy task.

There were many memorable incidences during the course of the sessions. Including the day when the recital of the national anthem took me by surprise (refer to my earlier article related to this). I realized that instead of taking a formal lecturer-to-student approach, keeping a perennial smile on the face and taking a friend-to-friend approach was a good option. This way the students tend to take more interest in the subject.

Anyone who is even remotely involved with the IT field knows how monotonous it can get. Sometimes I used to look forward to the weekend lectures at Ferguson as a place to rejuvenate myself. It really feels different to be on the other side of the dais and you tend to understand the thought process of other teachers.

I was really surprised by the attitude shown by the students at times during the 4 months. It used to rain cats & dogs sometimes during the rainy season but they would brave it all & be present for the lecture – in spite of it being a Saturday or Sunday. They were even open to share their class trip photographs with me, which I think was a special gesture because they had known me only for a few days really. I would always remember these things.

I myself gained a lot of experience during the sessions and also unknowingly learned a lot from the students in turn. It would seem like a cliche but it really feels great to give something back to the society in this way, and I would like to thank the college for giving me this opportunity. Who knows, this may be the first of many such opportunities. Of course I realize that there are many areas I need to improve myself to deliver a more enjoyable learning experience, but at least this was a start, and when you do something for the first time it is always close to your heart.

To the students of the MCS batch whom I taught: (I’m being very formal here for a change!)

It was a wonderful experience for me taking the Mobile Computing sessions. Thank you for all your support and feedback during this time. I will definitely miss taking the lectures. Keep in touch and I hope to work with you as a colleague someday.

I am also sharing the group photos we clicked in class –

The MCS class I taught at the Ferguson College

The MCS class I taught at the Ferguson College

Me sitting amongst the MCS group

Me sitting amongst the MCS group

Seeking the significance of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’

image

When I was a kid, independence day used to be an occasion to (forcefully) wake up early and get ready to attend a ‘compulsory’ ceremony at school. Little did we children, born in a post-colonial era, understand the significance of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, two similar yet distinct ideas. The more I read and became aware of the different shades of Indian history, the further I ventured from the safety of my home and ‘the crowd’ to have conviction-driven thoughts of my own, the more I traveled and experienced different cultures, the more I worked and realised that my actions can and will have influences, that notion of ‘freedom’ seemed to become more and more clear. Rather than accept the version of ‘independence’ often preached to us at various levels, it would help immensely if we all ourselves were to seek its true meaning and significance.

This picture was taken at Ladakh, one of the highest battlegrounds that India’s defense forces have fought at time and again, to defend the sovereignty of this country.

Learning from Sport: Football Goalkeepers

Do you think that you’ve been given a task or a piece of homework which is way beyond your abilities? Have you got too much on your plate? Do you think that you’ve been handed a nut that’s just too tough to crack?

A goal in the game of Football is about 2.5 x 7.5 square meters. That’s more than 3 times the reach of a normal human being. Yet, there’s just one person guarding the post.

Football goalkeepers truly are your knights in shining armor, at least on the football pitch. Tall people have an edge as against those with a shorter height, but that’s just half of the story, and most likely the least important half. The many hours spent at grueling practice regimens help when the stakes are high, but something needs to come before that. What you believe after standing there is probably the most significant part. A goalkeeper has to stand tall, figuratively, against the best attackers in the business. He needs concentration and anticipation to follow the ball from the attacker’s magical feet, and then needs the will power to stop the toughest of shots coming at him with the speed of a bullet, doubly so in the case of a penalty shot when presence of mind is worth its weight in gold.

He needs to rise above the ordinary. He needs to be ‘larger than life’.

The best goalkeepers in the game have this attribute, which is why they are the best. Its this legacy of the goalkeeper that we all can be inspired from, whatever domain we do our trade in, be it a student on the night before an examination or a salesman just about to enter a boardroom full of people from the company’s management.

What you believe in, almost always separates you from the rest.

In you we trust

A couple of years ago me and my wife were visiting the picturesque city of Nikko in Japan and came across the Rinnoji temple that was under renovation at the time. Here’s a picture of how they had covered the entire temple in a huge wooden box so that it would stay safe from the elements and the restoration team could do their job well, a pretty impressive feat if you ask me.

Rinnoji Temple under renovation in Nikko, Japan (Oct 2011)

There was a noticeboard near the entrance which mentioned that it was forbidden to click pictures inside the temple. Such signboards aren’t uncommon outside monuments, and we all know how routinely such rules are flouted. The space inside the temple was truly majestic, not to mention the Sanbutsudō or the Three Buddha Hall, containing three magnanimous gold lacquered, wooden statues. Some of the artifacts on display were quite intricate and beautiful. One couldn’t help but feel like clicking a few photographs and carry them along as souvenirs. I had my camera strapped around my neck and could’ve easily removed the lens cap and taken a few shots. Without the flash, no one would have noticed, and to be frank, there weren’t an awful lot of people inside anyway. But I did not. And many of the people I observed later, irrespective of nationality, did not too.

Clicking pictures inside the temple was never going to be a capital offense, but by putting their faith in the visitors, the management staff at the temple had passed the responsibility of upholding that trust over to those same visitors and thus, for the conscious mind at least, it had become a law worth upholding.

This act of humankind to put the control of your own fate in the hands of another person is something that has always amazed me. The stakes can be pretty high sometimes. It could be your life on the line. For example, every time you climb into an elevator, you are trusting the maintenance guys to have done their job well, people whom you rarely lay your eyes upon and a team that you definitely do not control. Neither do you control the person piloting your airplane, though you might spot him on your way into the aircraft. But then its all about the responsibility that you pass on to the pilot or the elevator maintenance guys. Its easy to follow the path of least resistance, and some people do lax in that regard. Real trust is often unspoken and I believe that the people who are remembered after an event are the ones who try to uphold that trust.

In the connected economy and the geographically-dispersed teams culture that we find ourselves today, the person on the other continent isn’t watching you closely. He does his work trusting that you will do yours well, and this will eventually lead both towards the common goal. A slip up from anyone in this chain can lead the entire team astray and it might be too late to recover from that stage. An overseas client may not be able to read your software code, but he trusts your development and testing skills to avoid any troubles for him in the future. The onus is upon you to deliver.

Even with all the available surveillance, its in you we trust. Now, more than ever.

Fixing the blame: Anatomy of a building collapse

Lets play a game. Its called ‘Fix the blame’. Its a multi-player game with the following participants: Greedy building contractors, corrupt municipal officials, the colluding police force and, lastly, the poor and needy people.

The first move is done by the greedy building contractors. They wish to earn profit from thin air and are willing to go to any lengths (i.e. stoop down to an abysmal level) to achieve that goal. They realize that they can earn enormous amounts of money by constructing cheap high-rise buildings in a matter of months on illegal land, bypassing all kinds of rules and regulations, and then selling them to desperate individuals in search of a roof over their heads. But obviously, they have to shell out some money to their ‘supervisors’ who are in the know of their greed. You can’t pick a fight with the crocodile if you want to swim in the lake, can you? You have to keep them happy.

So the next roll of the dice is from the corrupt politicians and municipal officials, who choose to look the other way when in fact its their obligation to stop a wrong deed from happening. All in the name of a few bundles of cash that pass into their hands from the building contractors. Some relevant persons from the law enforcement agencies, i.e. the police force, too get their share of this money to keep quiet and pretend they are patrolling a paradise.

Enter the poor and migrant population, who get the last chance at throwing the dice. With everything back home up in the air and job security in a new city being a myth, they are living with an uncertain future. A pair of clothes at the max, very little food, no shelter to call ‘home’ and an ever burgeoning family with hungry, crying infants to look after (figuratively) with not even a remote hope of medical care. Add to that the hot sun or the incessant rains. A rational way of thinking isn’t a priority when you have an empty stomach. Then they come across someone who is selling a house to renting it out at throwaway prices. It seems like a glimmer of hope in a dark alley, and they grab the opportunity, knowing fully well at the back of their minds that they are treading thin ice here, not knowing the background or the history of the builder in question. It solves today’s problems. They live to fight another day, and who knows what tomorrow might hold.

Unfortunately, that ‘tomorrow’ doesn’t hold good for them. Its no surprise that substandard material and shoddy practices have been used to construct the multi-storey buildings. Moreover, the land the high-rises are built upon is a covered sewer and is as unstable as quicksand. Their luck runs out. One such building comes crashing down to bury the people, and their hopes and ambitions, in a pile of rubble several meters high, leading to numerous deaths. A danger that everyone involved knew fully but chose to ignore.

Game over. Go ahead, fix the blame.

Thane Building Collapse (April 2013)

Thane Building Collapse (April 2013)

Last Thursday, an 8-storey building came crashing down in a congested suburb of the over-crowded city of Mumbai, India. 72 lives were extinguished. Almost the same number were injured, some severely. Many more have been rendered homeless. There are stories of 10 month old kids still waiting to be united with their moms and dads, who are dead, unfortunately. So who was at fault? Upon whom do you fix the blame?

And this is not an isolated case. Its not the first time something as catastrophic as this has happened, and its certainly not going to be the last. Its just an example of what happens in most developing countries. And this vice is here to stay. For most of the victims, its a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

(Image credits: indianexpress.com, indiatoday.intoday.in, dawn.com)

The bad school grades conundrum

During school, we used to get new textbooks in early May for the new academic year beginning in June. Being the summer holidays and having loads of free time on my hands, add to that a love of reading, it was a chance I just couldn’t let go. I used to devour those new books, from English literature to History to Science, in about 40 days flat. To this day I vividly remember a few chapters and poems in the literature books and a few ‘why-this-works’ illustrations from the Science books.

Then came the academic year, and the tests followed. On the same topics that were in the books. On the same topics that I had read and understood so passionately. I did secure average (and in some cases, above-average) grades throughout my school life, but nothing to set the world on fire. Why didn’t the passion translate into the much-coveted grades?

I suppose many people reading this blog would have a similar conundrum.

social-media-social-networking-study-skills1-300x198

When I looked back at this question, I realized that I was missing an important perspective. Most of the grades which I lost were for questions which did not test my level of understanding, but tested how much I could remember facts and figures and techniques. I actually did score well on the questions which challenged my understanding of a subject or tested my reasoning. Consequently, I was ready for the tests life was going to throw at me in the years to come regardless of how good or bad my school grades were.

Assessments are important, sure, but there are other ways to carry them out. In an age where information can be readily searched online and analyzed at length, does testing students for their ability to remember the bare facts count for anything? Could the resources be better utilized in discussing and testing a student’s reasoning behind certain events in History or the logic behind certain laws in Science? Sure they can. Can questions on the dates of the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England be replaced by a discussion and debate about its effects? Yes, of course. Instead of factual questions on an Internal Combustion Engine, could students be encouraged to learn about it through mockups, models and in-class seminars? Yes they can. Assessment by experience, if possible in a ‘live’ setting, is probably one of the most effective ways of determining how good you are.

Perhaps I still remember the stories and concepts in my old school books because, experience-wise, I connected to them at that moment or found parallels and examples to the topics discussed in them later in my adult life, wherein those analogies came back to me. Its something that has helped me in things like writing blogs on this site or teaching in front of a class of students or approaching a difficult problem in an unconventional way.

I never read those books to study for a test, but for the pure enjoyment in acquiring and understanding a new piece of knowledge. As Seth Godin puts it succinctly,

“If you read a book to take a test, you’re missing the point.”

Lance Armstrong and the need for ‘visible success’

Lance Armstrong’s fall from the seemingly insurmountable heights of sporting fame has become a topic discussed about as much as the 2012 doomsday prediction. Alas, the former happened more suddenly and tragically than the latter.

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The embarrassing confession (Photo: EPA)

If, like me, you’ve grown up reading Armstrong’s autobiographical books, the revelation of his doping will hurt. Massively. He had already overcome the deadly challenge faced by cancer and conquered death before his very first Tour de France victory. In that, he was a hero already. But if human history is anything to go by, people high on success rarely know when and where to draw the line.

That said, can you realize all by yourself that you’ve got to draw that line? Does it always have to be that you’ve got to be different, stand out from the rest crowd to be noticed and almost worshiped? Armstrong wasn’t the first one to cheat death, and certainly not the last. Did he need a more visible form of success to be remembered in the annals of history? To have that true ‘fulfillment’ in life, do we always need someone else to tell us that we’re great?

Questions can get more curiouser, though. Would’ve Armstrong’s Cancer charity, ‘Livestrong‘, gathered the same publicity and importance without all his (now illegal) superhuman victories and feats on the race track? Would we all have still worn those wristbands? Would it have garnered the same amount of donations from the world over? And what now for the brand of the organization?

Erasing titles and the records of yellow jerseys is theoretically possible, but it is uncanny how the act of forgetting a bad memory is always harder than that of remembering a good one. Armstrong’s ‘make believe’, while it lasted, inspired a generation of athletes and regular people alike. He was sort of an advertisement for sport of cycling. It won’t take long, though, for people to shun the very thought of him when his actions should actually be a benchmark for immorality. In a way, he still is an advertisement for sport, of how not to be successful.

It would be best to end this post with Armstrong’s own words on the probe into the doping scandal:

“Its hard to define victory, but I thought I was out of the woods. And those were some serious wolves.”

He was right about one thing though. Its really not about the bike. It never was. And now it never will be.