Waiting For Superman

Did you like going to school ? Ok, you don’t have to answer that. When I was young, school was the daily routine that happened whether I liked it or not and, for all intentions, I hated it. There were exceptionally few days when I would wake up in the morning and felt good about going to school. I liked that school put me and my friends in one place allowing us to have fun during short recesses but the fact that those few moments of enjoyment were interrupted by almost hour-long, mind numbing classes meant that the fun vs mind numbing-ness ratio was a negative million.The point of learning was lost and it was more like memorizing enough context-free statements to pass the exam with minimum marks so that one only gets mild to medium scolding from one’s parents. Sometime between standing on the bench for talking during the class and kneeling on the floor for not completing homework (again!) the basic goal of going to school became moot. I did not see that the time spent in the classroom were the hours to learn how to learn for the rest of my life.

As it is always the case, the adults were totally responsible for this. Studying was not fun and as a kid there was no reason to spend time on anything that is not fun. Very quickly, me and my friends along with many of my classmates worked out this simple equation: School equals Not Fun, and Not Fun equals Hate It and therefore, School equals Hate It. (You probably noticed already that the equation is flawed since I am equating items of different units, School being a place and Fun/Hate being emotion, but like I said earlier, I was a terrible student.)

I was a terrible student, but I did not drop out because –  this is actually the main reason – my parents would have killed me. Not metaphorically, but quite literally. For me, like many students in India, parents were the reason we went to school, stayed in school and finished school. But the story is different for lots of under privileged kids who came from poor and uneducated parents who work for meager wages everyday, those who did not see the value of a complete school education, those who didn’t have the impetus to keep their children in school. As much as the parents are to be blamed for taking their children out of the schools, the schools themselves must also bear responsibility for not motivating the students enough, for not using proper teaching techniques to reach the students and make sure they understand what they are taught instead of just focusing ont he exams. This is not the case of children failing the schools, but it is the school, its teachers and its administrators who fail the students by not paying attention to the kids’ needs.

The documentary ‘Waiting For Superman‘, which follows the lives of three kids at different rungs in the education ladder – early education and middle school shows the exact plight prevailing in the American public school system. The kids along with their parents are stuck with the limited choice of public schools that are available to them and these schools are what the administrators call “Dropout Factories” meaning a big percentage of students who go to these schools do not go to a four-year college and in many cases do not graduate school at all. This causes a huge drag in the local neighborhood, since without a college level education upward mobility is almost impossible. Not surprisingly these dropout factories are at the center of some of the poorest neighborhoods, but alarmingly enough, such schools are prevalent in almost every county in the US of A. The parents can’t afford to send their children to private schools, and are aware that the available public schools do nothing but destroy their kids chances of having a good education. Filling the gap are the relatively new establishments called Public Charter Schools which like public schools offer free education but is not bound by same rules as public schools, which allows the administrators to try different things to teach the students better, reward good teachers and mor importantly punish bad teachers. As you might expect in such schools, the demand is way more than the supply, resulting in a lottery which determines if a student can get into these much sought after schools. The title refers to the kids’ and the parents’ predicament as they wait for the bolt of lightning to decide their future.

The documentary makes an excellent case for strong administrators who can challenge and bring down the status quo. We have arrived at this stage not by chance, but through years of deliberate choices where the decisions did not take into account the lives and future of the school children which has a dramatic effect on the future of the country itself. Although the charter schools are not a cure-all, they point a direction that leads to a better education system that focuses on real learning for the children and expanding their minds for the challenging future they will eventually face.

Here is the full documentary Waiting For Superman in YouTube

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How To Design a Fantastic Infographic

When we hear the word ‘infographic’ we often remember the commercials that show statistics in a fancy graph or an animated bar chart. But the science of infographics goes beyond just advertisements that show us how micronutrients in the new health drink is 4 times more than the leading brand. If it is true that a picture is worth thousand words, then an elegantly crafted infogrpahic is worth a leather bound volume of Brittanica(estimation). We are visual creatures, who enjoy seeing things to understand them. We are hardwired to picture things in our head – even things that are not real – which helps us to identify patterns and make rapid decisions. Even when we read books, we imagine the scene portrayed by the chapters, visualize the characters and their surroundings adding as much detail as we can. Many layers of everyday evcomplexity can be stripped off with images and so that is left is the beauty for us to recognize and appreciate.

Take this beautiful infographic posted in the sports section of The New York Times website. Here they show the difference between the olympic gold medal winners in the men’s 100 meters sprint starting from 1896 to 2012 – that’s 116 years of the fastest men on the planet. The graphic is supposed to show how much our runners have improved over the years since the 1900. At the top of the ladder is Usain Bolt who completed his recent race in 9.63 seconds. Compare that to Tomas Burke who took the gold after reaching the finish line in 12 seconds. That is close to 20 meters behind Usain Bolt. Only three seconds separate all the men who have ever won the 100 meter dash since 1896 and an astonishing number of the runners come from the US of A. These numbers may seem impressive, but the graphic is way better in conveying the same idea in much shorter time. Check out the runners infographic here.

The animated graphic also superimposes the US runners from schools and colleges which clearly show that these kids are now on par with many of those olympic gold winners just a few years ago. It is clear that the extensive research in nutrition and exercise routines coupled with the supreme discipline and professionalism exhibited by today’s athletes is literally pushing the boundaries of what we once thought physically possible by the human body.

The best part of the infographic is that we instantly get the idea as soon we get a full glimpse of the animation. Before even the first word is spoken, it is abundantly clear that the lead Usain Bolt has over the previous winners is pretty big. Then, as the narrator gives more information about the runners and how their speed has improved over the years we get a better understanding of their performance. This is the essence of visual design. To convey things even before anything is said, and then fill only the empty spaces with words that matter – that’s a great design.

Check out the runners infographic here. They also have similar interactive graphics for long jump and 100 meter freestyle swimming.


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Success vs Character

“Wow, you are not a manager yet? How come ?”

There was no way for me to miss the tone of indignation, and even a tinge of  mockery, in my colleague’s voice when he asked me this. I was lost for words for a few moments, primarily because it was unexpected. I had just stopped by his desk to say ‘hi’, since he and I have been working on different projects at different locations for more than two years and on that day he had come to my office building for a cross-project meeting. I made a mild-recovery of sorts and uttered something like ‘enjoying coding’ and ‘not a manager kind of person’ and then quickly changed the subject to the ongoing Olympics event since it is a sure way to not talk about personal stuff. It is remarkable how easy it is to divert people’s attention by mentioning useless trivia about sports, of any kind.

His question lingered in my mind long after I came  back to my desk and moved on to other work things. I hadn’t really thought about that subject too much – of course I have thought about getting a leadership position, but not from the perspective of “why haven’t I become a (some leadership title) yet ?” – and I realized that, in my mind, it was rapidly morphing from a ‘mildly annoying question’ into a ‘deeply troubling question’ category. I sensed crisis looming in the horizon and, as always, it was time to seek guidance from the all-knowing oracle of our modern time: Google.

I google searched “How to become a leader“, “How to become a successful leader“, “Top leadership habits” and a few more phrases that closely matched each other in meaning until I found a satisfactory answer at the top of the first search results page. I read that and then read about 15 more articles similar to that, all laying out, always in bulleted/numbered fashion, the sure ways to become a leader at work. Here are the top three points, ranked by their frequency of appearance, in numbered format.

1. Listen more than you speak
2. Praise good work in public/review bad work in private
3. Think independently and be selfless (time, resources, guidance, etc)

They all seem good and admirable traits for everyone to develop – after all these are not only great attributes for just business people but really all people. But when I recall the familiar annual ‘360 Performance Review’ questionnaire, it never asked people to rate their peers on these criteria. It always had things like :

Rate the employee’s performance in following work instructions well and executing them:

  • Does not meet expectations
  • Consistently does not meet expectations
  • Meets expectations
  • Consistently meets expectations
  • Exceeds expectations

As you can see questions similar to this do not point to good character traits, but more towards measuring how obedient an ‘employee‘ is or how well they can be controlled. Since the feedback from these performance reviews correlate directly towards people’s promotions, salary changes and, to a large extent, quality of future work, it does not seem like having great character traits are enough to get promoted to the next level. One might be well liked and respected by their colleagues but to become a leader and get ahead, it seems, one needs a different set of skills that are geared towards success.

This got me all confused. The answers from a diverse sources on the Internets do not match the reality on the ground, at least in one instance. Does this mean I can become a leader without great character ? Instead of enduring the long, often emotional process of character building which involves embracing failures and doubt, by following the business script for climbing the corporate ladder, it seems, one could attain success. Compared to ‘embracing failure and doubt‘, sticking to a script seems much more comfortable. If this is the case, is there really a need for a great character ?

This was going to need some independent analysis and thinking (By which I mean sitting in my chair, thinking/talking to myself and arriving at a conclusion which, almost always, was obvious to begin with). I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down and started thinking. Here is what I concluded:

Success and Character are not apples and apples.

Let me clarify.
Success is relative to the activity/domain and in life it is measured differently: at school(grades, distinction), work (title, salary), family (age, security, resources), social circle (looks, culture, status, money, interests). To achieve success, depending on the kind, there seems to be a commonly agreed set of contracts that can be followed.

Things like respect and love are more elementary, because people, at their core, are elementary. People in all walks of life use the same basic character traits to measure others and use that measure to decide who to trust, respect and ultimately love. These are abstract character traits, which dictate our true behavior, and can be developed and honed over the course of our lifetimes. They would make us more charismatic, honest, kind and compassionate. This is character building and is usually a fuzzy process.

Success is not always the result of great character, but a great character will always lead to a happier, more meaningful life which, at a philosophical level, is a significant measure of success. Success alone might get you the main chair at an all important business meeting, but an impeccable character will result in people fighting to give you their kidney when you need a transplant.

A shorter, easy-to-remember way to put it would be:
Success is subjective. Character is universal.

Am I wildly wrong here ?

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A Revolution in Education

Learning comes naturally to all of us, but, when we hear the word ‘School’, many of us don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling. Schools tend to emphasize blind memorizing as opposed to learning the subject and gaining insightful knowledge that can be used to further fuel our learning and understanding of the world around us. Recently I took a course offered by Stanford University through the online education site Course Era which offers courses from many prestigious universities like Stanford and Georgia Tech. The course I took was Human Computer Interaction (HCI) taught by Associate Professor Scott Kemler. After completing the course, I have to say that it was easily one of the best learning experiences I have ever had. The schedule is very rigid and the course work tends to be fairly heavy, but nothing is beyond doable with little effort. And I realized how much I liked school.

The best thing about the learning experience at Course Era is the collaborative nature of the platform. We are all used to sharing our pictures and status updates on social media, but when it comes to learning stuff, having a vibrant community really helps. For instance, many of the assignments for the HCI course involved developing abstract ideas and creating prototypes to test the solution. I will be honest and tell you that in a normal traditional school I would have simply copied it from a more talented friend, but in the online classroom, the forums are filled with people exploring and creating incredible amount of work so much that they are guaranteed to inspire you to create your own, which is what it did for me. The assignments are peer graded so they kept me in my toes and the constant feedback served as a great motivator when I slacked off or produced mediocre work.

There are things beyond the course material that you are likely to learn here too. For instance, Scott, the professor, casually mentioned in one of his short videos that the CEO of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, was a TA for similar design course. How awesome is that ? I could not believe that I was learning from same the guy who taught the CEO of a ground breaking massively successful startup. The forum threads has people from all over the world supporting each other, providing valuable feedback and best of all, participating in true learning. And, all this awesomeness is free.

Here is Course Era’s founder Daphne Koller, laying out her vision for the site and how she expects it to change our world for the better.

Isn’t it incredible that we get to attend classes and learn from schools like Stanford and John Hopkins, in the comfort of our homes, along with people from around the world, at any time we prefer and for free ? I work for a company that specializes in for-profit online universities and I understand the complexities of bringing quality education to diverse and geographically dispersed group of students. Companies like Course Era and EdX (similar venture by MIT and Harvard), with their free and world-class education, can completely change the dynamics of our educational system, whether the classes are online or at a brick and motor school. Hopefully, this will lead us to a future where quality learning, is a not privilege for the few, but a basic right and a delightful journey for every one.

Currently Course Era offers more than a hundred courses. Check them out here.

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Top Ten Bertrand Russel Quotes

Bertrand Russel, a British mathematician and philosopher, is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy and is widely held to be one of the 20th century’s premier logicians. Like all great philosophers he had a few words of wisdom for the rest of us, the commoners. Here are ten best quotes from him.

1. The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

2. All movements go too far.

3. Anything you’re good at contributes to happiness.

4. To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.

5. The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

6. Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

7. One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.

8. In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.

9. Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.

10. The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Bonus Quote:
Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, Thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought is great and swift and free.

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Magic Mushrooms – A Story About India’s Largest Slum

Slums are strange places for those of us who live in the relatively affluent areas of a city. A disproportionately large number of people live within the limited land space of a slum and these shanty towns are always bustling with activity. What would be unimaginable living conditions for the urbanites, are normalcy for people living inside these slums and out of sheer necessity, these individuals improvise creative solutions to the challenges of survival using whatever tools and materials they could find in their poorly resourced areas.

Film maker Tobias Revell’s new short movie, New Mumbai takes a fictional route to arrive at that point. Revell travels to Dharavi –  India’s largest slum – to create a mock documentary of sorts about the creative way the slum’s residents generate power – Magic Mushrooms. Through genetic mutation, industrial espionage and a relentless need to improvise, the story goes, the people of Dharavi have managed to produce electricity from an unlikely organism in nature – a Fungi. Mr. Revell has a sensible back story to it and the movie has a raw, on-the-ground feel. All the featured residents and narrators speak the local language (with English subtitles) and the makers of the film have reached for a high level of realism. The whole movie has a District-9 style to it, except with very low-budget. Check it out below.

via Open Culture

[Post: 312 of 365] [Days Missed: 98]
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Strange Encounters

The dark grey letters read ‘EASU’ vertically, top-down, across the pale white skin. It was clearly a partial of a longer word tattooed in the older Times New Roman font (I had to look it up). I was standing at the counter inside Wal-Mart waiting for my turn to checkout my items- two cartons of eggs and a carton of Vitamin D Organic Milk, but I found it hard to avert my eyes off those words and the lateral midsection the tattoo was laid on. The brunette looked like she was in her early thirties, big circular earrings, sunglasses propped and balanced on her forehead, and her hair was done in that asymmetrical way where a crop of front hair is piled at the top of the head and the rest is pulled back to a pony tail. On a normal looking person, I would say it would look funny, but she made it appealing with some carefully chosen set of accessories.

The visible section of the tattoo was to the left side of her body. The starting point of the tattoo hid behind the upper portion of her attire, hidden, and the visible string of letters ran down the side of her ribs, down the exposed side of her petite abdomen, before disappearing under her jeans shorts. The clothes Vs exposed skin ratio was lopsided towards her upper third of her body – her full sleeves dark top started right at the middle of her neck, covering entirely, and came down until it stopped abruptly at the place where her breasts would have ended and the only thing covering her body from there on down was her heavily beaded jean shorts, that lived up to its title as a ‘short’ and a thin pink flip-flop. She was one of those people whose midsection was disproportionately shorter compared to their lower body, so it looked as if she ran out of money for clothes after covering the top section of her upper body. Under the soft white lights of this Walmart Superstore, the tattooed portion of her skin along with the rest of her midsection was glistening in red, blue, purple and pink, with glitter. I can honestly say that, outside of Las Vegas, I have never seen glitter on someone’s stomach and lower back, and for someone who goes off on tangents pretty easily, I found them unexpected and alluring.

Although I wasn’t paying attention, there was also a white guy who looked a little younger than her, with carefully sculpted messy hair, and low hanging jeans – low enough for trying to be hip but not low enough to show confidence. The tattooed words ‘EASU’ and the viscerally impressive brunette where standing right in front of me while I only recall this dude in a grey blurry haze standing to her right side. They already had their items on the checkout carrousel – bread, cereals, cilantro, toilet paper, gallon of milk, a couple sticks of Burt’s bees wax for lips and some other items that I failed to notice, as my attention kept popping back to those words needled across the side of her hips. I tried to guess what the word was. I kept running through the possible list of words that have ‘EASU’ in them, that are long enough to run down an average sized woman’s body but not long enough to go past upper thighs. Of course, my vocabulary is not the most comprehensive, by any measure, and even if we only considered the limited set of words that an average person would choose to have as a tattoo, I was coming up pretty short.

One quick look around, I could see that every man within visible range of this woman was either blatantly or discretely looking at her, the difference arising from the practical constraint of whether they had a woman accompanying them at the instance. Some men were glazing vertically across her figure with their eyes lights up, like the new advanced scanners you find in the offices these days, while the others fixated their sight at a narrow set of anatomical zones. It is programmed into us and we are literally powerless against this sort of response, at least temporarily. And these types of women, and I use the phrase ‘types of women’ in a descriptive sense, take full advantage of it. They understand, or at least are clearly aware or, the fact that men are sub-consciously attracted to the typical female physique and they up the ante with attention grabbing accessories – lipstick and the glitter and an extreme shortage of clothes.

I was twisting my brain to guess what that word on her tattoo was, and all I got so far was the word ‘Easu’ from an unknown language that presumably used english letters. I was getting restless at this point, swaying back and forth, not too dissimilar to those religious man at the wailing wall. I started rationalizing that it was her sexually arousing figure that was impeding my capacity to think straight. Had the letters EASU was written on a piece of paper or some metal billboard partially out of view, I would have guessed the whole word with ease, I thought. The beeping sound of the checkout machine was hindering my focus and I became aware of the impending reality that the cashier was almost done with the couple’s items. I was running out of time.

Just as I was beginning to give up, the hairy hand of the guy who was standing in the blurry haze next to her travelled across her body, caressing her back slightly, wrapping around her curved hips and hanging itself by her side by hooking on to her shorts with its thumb dragging the shorts down by about three inches. As much as my attention leaped to see the edge of the bright pink clothing beneath the shorts, I was, strangely, pleased to see the letter ‘R’ revealed. A bread crumb; another clue; ‘EASUR’ – I can work with that.

As often is the case, when under rapt attention, I focus my sight, with extreme intent, at the object which is grabbing my attention, which in this case was, unfortunately, an area of the human body that is not supposed to be intently gazed upon, at any public space, not the least at the checkout counter inside a Walmart. But, in my defense, from a functional stand point, it helps me to think well, and in this particular instance, it quickly triggered two possible answers to my seemingly existential question: plEASURe and mEASURe. If TV, movies and Internet have taught us anything about stereotyping personalities, it is that tattoes worn by women, with 70 percent of their body exposed and have glitter on them, are about sex or at least a reference to sex. With that quick logic, I concluded with sufficient confidence that the word tatooed across this woman’s body must be ‘Pleasure’.

There was a long pause in the beeping of the checkout machine, indicating that they were almost done and as she turned, facing me sideways to use her credit card, I noticed that there were letters tattoed to the right side of her body as well. I could see the ink along the visible edges of those letters but could not make out the actual letters themselves. Oh dear God, there is more to this painful puzzle and she is almost done signing the digital panel. Quick, back to the intent gazing.

Ok, the answer has two words, she is dressed like a hooker, has glitter on her body, eyelashes are bright peacock blue and has tatoos running down to her private parts..
Pleasure Baby
Pleasure , Ecstasy
Pleasure , Fantasy
Pleasure Available (I realize now that this one actually stupid)

“Excuse me! Are you looking at my Ass?”

“Oh, uh, sorry….I mean…no… I wasn’t..uh, sorry…”

She had this grossed out look on her face, and suddenly her boyfriend, with his red face and six foot body came into full focus. I was wrapped with tunnel vision at this point, but I could sense that everyone else in that Walmart was looking at me the same way they would look at an offender in Law & Order SVU. Time had stopped so nothing moved in the Universe. I thought was I was going to explode with pressure. Thankfully, she spoke, making time move again.

“Yes, you were. You were looking at my ass.” – she had a slight, feeling-sorry-for-you smile.

“Uh, no..I mean…I wasn’t looking at your, umm….” – I am pretty sure my face was a bloodless, pale white.

“You don’t have to lie!”

“No really, I was just looking at your tattoo” – I was relieved that I unfroze enough to produce real words.


“Yeah, really. I was just wondering what your tattoo said”

She quickly did this elegant ballad-like twirl of her body showing both sides of her hourglass figure, saying

“Oh, it’s TREASURE ISLAND; it’s my favorite book”.

No shit.

[Post: 311 of 365] [Days Missed: do we really need these anymore]
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