My last blog at the turn of this year was invaluable as I gained an insightful self-realisation. I have since taken Amit’s Renaissance path seriously and am loving this Winter Quarter with a primary course concentration in Art, History and Language. Appreciation of art is helping me capture the sense of the moment. I studied quintessentially Impressionist paintings and have since travelled further to Seurat & Pointillism, Van Gogh, then on to Matisse & Fauvism and further on to Picasso, Braque & Cubism. All this is greatly helping me gain perspectives and myriad points of view. I had a delightful Saturday Museum class trip, my first such visit where I actually lamented at how short the day was!
While this post seems to be shaping out to be one, it will be a relief to the readers that it is not an exposition on my newly gained high-brow knowledge. That may be for another day.
I am also enjoying learning techniques for Memoir Writing from an erudite scholar. This activity is both skill-enriching as well as hugely cathartic as I retrieve memories locked deep within the recesses of the mind, or pen more recent ones! We write in class in addition to regular homework assignments. Given my limited writing prowess, these weekly submissions have been threatening to cannibalise this blog. Instead, this morning, a brainwave hit me. I share below one such class submission. It is penned at Stanford and therefore contemporary enough to qualify as a musing, I trust.
PORTRAIT : My Little Star
The week before she arrived on this earth, the heavens had opened up and we had witnessed the most frightening thunderstorms of the season. It was the end of June and the monsoon had set in with unquiet determination. Fierce waves from the Arabian Sea lashed the seashore by the side of Breach Candy hospital. Hours before she was born, suddenly the storm subsided. Looking back, I am convinced it was Sharmishtha’s birth that played a role in abating the tempest. In the ancient Sanskrit language, ‘Sharmishtha’ means ‘serene tranquility’ and its also the name of a constellation.
A few decades later, the young lady still exudes tranquility and brings a calming presence to people in her life. In fact, she has found her calling in helping people fight and resolve storms in their minds.
As a baby, she was cherubic and mostly full of toothless smiles. She was a mischievous toddler, always full of life. I remember her regularly breaking into peals of giggles which were music to my ears. Now, her face lights up with her smile which extends to her eyes that twinkle behind Potteresque glasses. I am proud of her fashionable hairstyles and marvel at how she manages to so regularly match its color with her outfits.
She has very good judgement about most things although sometimes I am left scratching my head at her movie recommendations. Normally level headed, she has her dramatic moments. She has stormed out of family conversations in a huff leaving everyone nonplussed and a little taken aback. A scene not dissimilar to the headstrong days of her childhood when she would threaten to hold her breath when her demands were not met.
Sharmishtha has been a protective elder sister always ready to jump in and face any fires. The baby twins came near her fifth birthday and she has always treated them as her most cherished gift. She matured well beyond her years to be like a parent who became a confidante in their teenage years. She has always been a responsible friend, philosopher and guide to them.
She has been fiercely independent making her own decisions in life. She selected her path for higher education and self financed her Masters at Columbia University. Since she had left home several years ago, we thought she had flown the nest for good. When our stable and secure world was rocked by me getting diagnosed with a life threatening ailment, Sharmishtha spontaneously announced that she would come back to look after me for however long the treatment took. She quit her new job, packed up her New York life and flew across 6000 miles to be a support to her parents. The cherubic smile and twinkling eyes were back and helped see me though the storms in my life!
It is 4PM on the last day of 2019. I sit down to pen this much-procrastinated blog with a determination, but get swiftly distracted by an incoming email. I am soon immersed in doing something which is certainly not, and never has been, a tradition of mine. I eagerly browse through the newly arrived syllabi for next quarter’s enrolled courses and am tempted to download textbooks and reading material. As my IIT college friends will willingly testify, this was not something I did till almost the end of an academic term – it was usually as a last ditch attempt to scrape through a course. My approach to education then was like a second order differential equation such that ‘time spent in academic activity’ was minimised (to near zero). This study-model was finely optimised to cross the threshold of a passing grade…. But I digress. I do need to get down to my musings and finish the blog post before the earth finishes its revolution in its solar system. So here goes…
As a family we have our traditions. Once a year, we have a dinner of fried pooris with aaloo rasadaar and kaddu (pumpkin) sabzi. This is after our Diwali Puja. It is a bit of a challenge to maintain traditions in a new place. The unavailability of appropriate utensils made poori frying unviable. The California fires rendered illegal any notions we harboured of lighting Diwali firecrackers. But we did enjoy a hearty weekend of extended festive celebrations. An old IIT batchmate hosted their annual Diwali party, where I ended up having a reunion with a host of college and hostel friends, meeting many after several decades. Half of our class seems to be settled in the Bay Area! It was indeed very therapeutic as it tested my brain cells to recall faces, names – actual and pet – and fun times from the days of yore. On another evening, at our own home, we had some current college classmates – all American – join us for a semi-traditional Diwali meal which gave us the opportunity to share our traditions. Yet another evening, the Office of Religious Studies at Stanford hosted a beautiful cultural ceremony – replete with lights and classical Hindustani dance and music at the gorgeous University Memorial Church. This was followed by a fun student-led Bollywood style evening of dance, music and delicious snacks – samosas et al. Each event of the Diwali weekend, although different, was rich and truly memorable.
This year we also enjoyed a few American traditions: friendsgiving and the turkey, tailgating, watching college football (sitting in the Stadium’s Red Zone – the students’ section), as well as Black Friday in the land of consumerism! I feel it’s best to use a photo montage to depict these traditional activities that have been highlights of the past few months.
There are also a couple of notable, inspiring and memorable academic experiences which are worth narrating.
One of my favorite courses in the Fall Quarter was Artificial Intelligence, Entrepreneurship and Society in the 21st Century and Beyond. The course provided insights on the current state of the art capabilities of existing artificial intelligence systems, as well as economic challenges and opportunities in early stage startups and large companies that could leverage AI. There were regular guest lectures from leading technologists and entrepreneurs who employ AI in a variety of fields, raising issues at the intersection of AI and healthcare, education, computer security, AI bias, natural language processing, government and regulation, and finance. The class format was typically a 20 minute presentation by the guest followed by a lively and engaging hour long discussion with the class. Each of these was a superb learning experience and uniquely thought-provoking .
One such guest was Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. While I was very familiar with his product, I had never used or even visited his site, so I knew very little about him. From his initial remarks, I found his self-deprecating humor very endearing, and the story of Khan Academy very appealing and impressive. He had funny anecdotes of his previous life as a hedge fund analyst, a job he said he loved and found intellectually stimulating. He also had a hilarious and modest narrative of how Bill Gates acknowledged his early work.
When Sal opened up the session to Q&A, I saw the youngster sitting in front of me put his hand up and begin hesitatingly “I apologise if I do not speak clearly….”. I was a bit surprised since the student (let’s call him ‘J’) had always seemed both articulate and confident. As J went on, I realised the import of his message. He shared that he had been in prison for a drug related misdemeanour, where his mother had brought him transcripts of Khan Academy’s tutorials. These had enabled J to stay on the right path and in fact help pave his way into Stanford! “I owe my life to you, Sal” As he said this, there was hardly a dry eye in the class. I appreciated the way Salman took this gratitude with grace, asking J if he would be willing to visit his office in Mountain View at his own convenience ‘to repeat the message to 200 colleagues to whom it would mean a lot’. The rest of the discussion was also uplifting, around the venture being a not-for-profit with an impactful ability to reach those who needed it. I found it stunning that Sal still manages to remain fully connected as he tutors and influences over 85 million active users globally. In fact, he is one of only 5 video lecturers for the Academy.
There was also a discussion about the rich data his website gathers relating to the caliber and subject competencies of individuals as they rigorously use the site over months. I would think this data is more revealing than a 3 hour Aptitude Test. I was very impressed by his reaction when asked about the privacy issues of this data. He was quite clear that immense value could be harnessed by sharing this data with universities or employers seeking potential talent. He categorically stated he would be very keen to share this, with the consent of the individual. Overall, I have so many exhilarating takeaways from that one session.
Another Fall Quarter course that I did not enrol in (due to conflict with a Venture Capital class) was Art History. A lot of our DCI cohort had taken it and regularly waxed eloquent about the class. Prof Nemerov is widely considered as a marquee scholar of Art History and through the quarter I had misgivings that I was missing out on something significant. I did fully recognise that, being a complete philistine, I would not really appreciate either Art or History! This information is contextually important to the reader to understand my state of mind as I made the decision to skip my Finance lectures in the last two weeks of term to instead attend Art History.
This decision to switch has been a transformational one. I am a neophyte – a new convert! I have decided to evade all Business/Finance/Management/ Strategy/ Policy courses in my remaining three quarters at Stanford. Been there, done that! This time is to be substituted by the study of Art, History, Literature, Linguistics, Philosophy. It is to be my Renaissance!
Let me elaborate on the reasons for this profound self-realization. The aforementioned course explores the relation of art to life, how and why works of art, even from hundreds of years ago, matter in a person’s life. It trains students to find the words to share their thoughts about art with their peers, friends, and family. Some fundamental questions the course considers: How do we go beyond the idea that the study and making of art are elite, privileged activities apart from the real world? How do we develop a sense of discernment, of deciding for ourselves which artists matter, and which don’t, without being a snob?
I got rich insights and revelations on all this and more as I sat in Prof Nemerov’s class in a reverie listening to him beautifully articulate about Van Gogh and Cezanne, Art and Realism, phenomenology, poetry….
I enjoyed picking up fun facts and connecting trivia : The Starry Night is a view from Van Gogh’s asylum room at Saint-Remy-de-Provenance and reflects his state of mind post self-mutilation of his ear. That act itself may have been inspired by Jack the Ripper (someone I have always known was most likely a left hander like myself!). Also, I had never thought about the art of that period and Charles Dickens’ literature reflecting zeitgeist or spirit of the times.
I have been trained in life thus far as an engineer, an economist and a finance professional and have thus relished and indeed thrived on an analytical and quantitative vocation. There is evidently a latent side to me which needs to reveal itself and is clamouring to be fed, nurtured and developed. I do feel I am capable, maybe not of fully appreciating Impressionist paintings (or Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘The Comedian’), but of at least understanding nuances of the words ‘unconcealed’ versus ‘revealed’; ‘falsehood’ versus ‘fiction’!
Also, I do need to better educate myself on the other side of the brain as there is a continuum of science and art, madness and genius, the schizo…..so my added courses to the list above would be in Neuroscience and Psychology. It does look like I am slowly but surely moving away from my favorite subjects. Not always a bad thing to renounce tradition, is it?!
It is quite incredible how time flies by so quickly here at Stanford. Maybe it’s the Quarter Academic system or simply the fact that we are having a lot of fun. It certainly is a very packed time and we are learning new things every single day. Beyond the classes that we are enrolled in, we have the opportunity to attend everything that is happening on campus. In fact, this deep immersion into the Stanford Community is expected of us and our own keenness to do exactly that may well have been a factor in our securing admission to the DCI Fellowship. Let me share two recent highlights of the events calendar that I have relished, even while there remains so much more I have not yet had the bandwidth to attend.
One such amazing event was a Colloquium curated by our Dean about recent innovations and discoveries in medicine. The lineup of speakers was from multidisciplinary specialisations ranging from Neurology, Biochemistry & Bioengineering, Genomics, Regenerative Medicine and Law. Each of these giant minds was incredibly passionate, articulate and hugely inspiring. Listening to the speakers and the discussion was a surreal experience for me, kind of like being in a parallel universe. Once again, I felt that I was discovering another frontier.
The session on aging started poetically with a quote from Shakespeare’s “As you Like it”:
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
As this morbid description seeped in and the presentations progressed, I introspected on the important distinction between life-span and health-span: Do we really want to live a 100-year life without physical capability and mental alertness? A related profound question posed was: Can the aging clock be reset? Several speakers presented and explained different ways to extend the health span (reverse aging). Beyond diet and exercise, these include single gene mutation, anti-aging drugs (that facilitate DNA repair), medical procedures such as heterochronic parabiosis, and stem cell transplant. As my brain soaked in these wondrous medical developments to renew life, I ruminated on how mankind is attempting to mimic nature. Computer architecture and neural networks are being inspired by the human brain. Medical innovations are copying the simple but miraculous process of human birth, when an adult sperm fertilises an ovum to form an embryo!
This colloquium was particularly fascinating to me due to my personal experience with some of these medical wonders just a couple of years ago. In fact, during my autologous stem cell transplant, I was actually used as a teaching example! This was when the doctors harvested my WBCs (to be frozen outside for a week, while I underwent intense chemotherapy, before being transplanted back into me). While I lay in a special hospital room in Singapore in a semi-comatose, highly drugged state, I could sense high energy chattering and excitement around me. Earlier in the week, I had willingly given permission to be used as a specimen not realising exactly what it entailed. My eldest daughter was with me, having taken a half-year sabbatical from her life in New York to look after me during my treatment.
Later that day, she enlightened me that the usually quite spacious room was rather cramped with half a dozen enthusiastic medical interns watching the apheresis procedure (akin to a dialysis machine with a centrifugal process to spin out the WBCs from my blood). I missed witnessing a good ‘event’ even though Sharmishtha regaled me for several days with stories about the wonderment in the students’ reactions and other medical critique as they observed me. Given the rich content of the entertainment over the next several weeks of my daughter’s nursing care, I am rather suspicious that there was considerable fiction in her confabulation. But I needed the rejuvenation and she needed content – guess all’s well that ends well!
It is certainly a privilege to be surrounded by brilliance. The university is home to 17 living Nobel laureates, all in the field of Science and Economics. So when there was an opportunity to listen to a Nobel Literature winner, even a philistine like me grabbed it with both hands. Bob Dylan was to perform at Stanford. On a nippy October evening, escorted by the youngest daughter, I was sprawled on the sloping tree-lined lawn of Frost Amphitheater eagerly awaiting my youth idol. The excitement was palpable and I recognized a certain skunky smell blowin’ in the wind (not out of place at a rock concert in California, I’m sure…). I looked knowingly at Madhulika, and imagined her reply: “It ain’t me, Babe.”
The music started off with a gruff voice, one I struggled to recognise. Was this wizened ol’ Zimmerman really the soul I had spent countless waking hours adulating, imitating, getting stoned to in my IIT hostel room? Listening to Dylan’s croaks, I couldn’t help but ruminate on the sad and inverse relationship between the deteriorating quality of his voice (I was an expert in aging!) and the vastly improved technology with which it can now be captured. We have come a long way since the rudimentary TDK cassette.
Soon enough, the familiar baritone set in with unmistakable timbre and remarkable voice control. The band, too, was excellent and had the audience enthralled. As the evening progressed, I felt there was a lot of harmonica, perhaps to give his vocal chords a rest. Disappointingly, he brought out too few songs recognisable to me.
Anyhow, his poetry and music remain timeless. I bow to the genius and imagine his response to my rather harsh observations:
“Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won’t come again And don’t speak too soon For the wheel’s still in spin…. The Times They Are a-Changin’!”
I implored him, “Hey Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me……
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind Down the foggy ruins of time…. ….Circled by the circus sands With all memory and fate Driven deep beneath the waves Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
Overall, it was an amazing performance and a memorable evening, transporting me back several decades. Was it the college environment or the power of his music & lyrics that made me do the heady time-travel?
As I reflect on the first two weeks of classes, there is an intense feeling of joy, satisfaction and positive anticipation. All my classes are fascinating with most centred around the study of the mind and brain. I am taking a CS course on “Mind and Machines”, another on AI, and a third on Cognitive Science. Even in my Angel Finance & VC class, my favourite investment case uses data analytics “to build a scientific brain of companies.” I am impressed with the extent of research ongoing on the brain – with the Engineering, Neuroscience, Linguistics, Philosophy and Psychology departments all deeply involved – to offer a multidisciplinary perspective. Even my weekly Mindfulness Workshop is conducted by the Medical School! My excitement is palpable with a wondrous realization – have I stumbled upon a new frontier – everything is about the brain?!
My सर्वज्ञ all-knowing daughters (weren’t they just learning to walk and speak yesterday?!) bring me quickly down to earth: “Papa, this has been ongoing for over a decade and the ‘frontier’ is light years ahead.” What is unsaid and not-so-subtly implied: “It’s just you who has just realised it.” I pick myself up – meditate deeply, acknowledge the sagacious advice – and continue on my quest.
A recurring thought, in my certified-cynical medulla, is that much of this study around mindfulness is based on what our ancestors practiced in previous millenia. The key principle of Yoga, to me, is unity of mind and body. Yogic Meditation is based on the practice of deep breathing directing energy to various body parts to heal. Isn’t it such a classic Western move to adopt age old practices and dub them new? After all, my mother has been tirelessly imploring me for five decades to spend a few minutes every morning to do Pranayama. Now that Stanfordsays it, I am intent on making it a habit.
I take a few more deep breaths and it helps. My irritation slowly turns to appreciation that medical and scientific rigor are only going to expand the field of learning. Hats off to what I think is the American way – the openness and perspicacity to pick winners, professionally pursuing the dharma to excellence, immaculate packaging and then the open-source confidence to share it with the world. Next quarter, I will probably find a Sanskrit course to learn and if I am fleet footed, may even get to grab a place in an Ayurveda class, perhaps offered by a Herbology Department.
Indeed I am not giving credit where it’s due. My course readings tell me the following: “In the last 20 years, the field of the study of the brain has exploded, with roughly 50,000 neuroscientists applying increasingly advanced methods. This outburst amounts to 1 million person-years of research…” ; and that neuroscience is really an exercise in “reverse engineering” – disassembling a device in order to understand it.
I have become familiar with telomeres, or as I like to call them – the ‘aglet of our chromosomes’ – which are strands of our DNA. Telomeres shorten as we age, but also due to obesity, stress, smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. Without their protection, our cells age and die. Stanford Medicine is at the cutting edge of the biomedical revolution and has a long tradition of leadership in pioneering research, creative teaching protocols and effective clinical therapies. The Stanford Center on Longevity integrates these technological advances with behavioral practices and social norms so that century long lives are healthy and rewarding. It is a truly holistic approach.
Coming back to Minds and Machines, I find it fascinating to be studying Turing Machines. I am blown away by the realization that the machine Alan Turing made during World War II, popularised by the movie “The Imitation Game”, has yet to be bettered in capability by any computer today. Obviously, computing speed and memory are at a different level as per Moore’s Law and continue to gallop exponentially. We do assignments, where in a triad with teenagers, I get to ‘design’ a Turing machine. It is satisfying. It’s also fun to discuss and debate, in psychology class, that intuition and inspiration may just be unconscious heuristics. When my daughter explains to me that, in psychology, a heuristic is a mental shortcut, my provincial brain immediately thinks of jugaad!
The class on the functional differentiation of the brain takes me on a personal reflective odyssey of the last three years. The Professor shows us videos of stroke-impaired brain functions affecting cognitive tasks illustrating maladies such as Broca’s Aphasia and bananomia, a condition where an afflicted person is completely normal except he has forgotten names of fruits! I love picking up such tidbits of knowledge to build up my arsenal for trivia quizzes… It is thrilling to be back in a world where everyone around is much much smarter!
Being on campus is like being in a candy store, there are goodies to be imbued and relished everywhere. Between classes, the dining halls and Coupa Cafe have a nice variety of delicious and healthy options. The climate is salubrious and the seasons – to a Singaporean – are real and plenty. Life is good.
As the first week of classes loom, there is nervousness and excitement in the air. Farewell gifts from Singapore are unwrapped – one, from a beloved nephew and niece-in-law is a set of sleek cardinal-coloured writing books with our names embossed on the cover. Student life, here we come! Another thoughtful gift has a little card with a “Break a leg” wish… and silly me decides to take these good wishes a little too literally. Let me tell you what I refer to.
Our home is a couple of miles from the centre of the University campus. The San Francisquito Creek, a narrow and pretty little stream, serves as the boundary. Folklore abounds that a few hundred years ago, slaves used to try escape bondage by swimming across this creek, many unsuccessfully. Here I will desist from digressing into the role of Junipero Serra in North California’s sordid slave history, and the current renaming of several roads and buildings on the Stanford campus underway!
Our sabbatical abode for the next year, a charming cottage, has a shed with several bicycles lying crestfallen. Every time I leave the house, I hear them moan, yearning to be ridden. Realising that I can find a riding path to cut short the distance to our classes, I decide to go on an adventure. I select and wheel out one bicycle to head off in quest of a wooden bridge over the creek. Let me at the outset, declare and assert that, as a responsible adult, I tightened my shoelaces and adorned a helmet. I take a deep breath since it has been a while (30 years!) since my last foray on a bicycle. To keep the next bit brief and forgettable, the seat was too high, the road infrastructure pre-historic, and soon, I am crestfallen (and more), my dream shattered, as is my radius and ulna.
As is my wont, I try to look at the positives and there are plenty. It’s my right wrist incapacitated and I am a south paw. It could have been plates and screws, but it’s just a cracked bone, no displacement. A friend congratulates me for not having a concussion! Another for having an accident on a weekday – apparently, Stanford ER has a long line of bike fall casualties on weekends. So I resolve to think of it as a mere inconvenience, and a lesson learnt. No more falls this fall quarter.
Of course, this means a temporary goodbye to tennis and swimming. Also, very tragically, the bicycle escapade had to occur the day after our much anticipated new car arrived. I grumble against government regulators for not permitting me to harness its full capability as a ‘self-driving’ automaton when it’s most needed! The biggest casualty is the sharp decline in trust levels with family, and I am in the doghouse receiving limited sympathy…
I use it as an ice breaker with my new classmates. It is tempting to spin a different yarn with each new person, but integrity trumps creativity. So I stick to the real story: “I was dumb.”
Tune in next week to hear my musings about the first week of classes – I promise it will be more upbeat!
Hi 👋🏽 from Menlo Park. My wife Gauri and I arrived in the Valley a week ago, several weeks before the start of classes for our one year DCI Fellowship. Some early musings penned below.
It’s been a fabulous beginning, our younger twin daughters have been here for a month. They finished a Liberal Arts undergrad in May, are interning in the Bay Area in Digital Marketing and alongside, will be dropping their parents to school. Role reversals have already started with me being ‘asked’ to do home chores, put off lights, not be politically incorrect and drive carefully. 😄
“The 100-Year Life” is one of the pre-readings we have – it is insightful and thought-provoking. It actually relates to what we are doing – going back to school to prepare for our second half of life. I see it as a Western adaptation/discovery of our ancient Hindu philosophy of the 4 stages of life.
Our new-improved-modern Vanaprastha stage, of going away together in our early 50s, is to an ashram in the Silicon Valley! Devotion to God is virtual (AI), with our self-driving car akin to the celestial chariots of the Gods (I do need to read more of our ancient scriptures, for guidance into what the future holds!).
Financially, the longevity concept reaffirms my investment decision to hold equity and makes me feel lucky (and good) about the long-held personal portfolio of Perpetual Bonds and Equity (leveraged at near zero % interest rates).
I had my Faculty Advisor lunch introduction yesterday, he is a renowned Prof Charles Holloway who finished his PhD before many of us in this group were even born! He narrated several stories, one I loved was in a discussion relating to Innovation: Steve Jobs signed up every year (for many years) for Prof Holloway’s course on Manufacturing Processes. This was probably in the early 70s after Jobs came back from a year or so in Japan. Apparently at that stage, a near 20 year young Steve Jobs was very excited about revolutionizing Operations… that was his big thing then! Much is written about his Calligraphy course at Reed College (and the famous Mac fonts) but no one mentions his persistence and diligence in attending Operations courses and his idea that innovation and success are to be derived from Operational excellence. I find it interesting that Apple is widely considered a Marketing whiz more than an Operational winner!
A part of our discussion was also about leadership skills taught at Business School versus learnt in life. The likes of Jobs and Gates, though famous for being school drop-outs, did spend time acquiring ‘college knowledge’ – it’s just that they didn’t take the whole package (grades et al.). My own experience (and some of my other ‘DCI batchmates’ agreed) was that an MBA enabled an industry career shift. While even case-based courses gave valuable bookish/technical knowledge, the real lessons on organisational dynamics/behaviour and leadership were learned at the workplace. Our limited work experience at that young stage did not make us appreciate the soft skills of management education.
A final unsurprising but striking observation is the preponderance of Asian faces on the Stanford Campus. Three full Basketball courts and a swimming pool with barely any Caucasian faces! Will look for the Library and report from there next. 😀