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The New Frontier

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 Stanford says 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!

A fascinating slide from my class showing how different parts of the brain are responsible for different body functions.

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.

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To New Beginnings… “Break A Leg”

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. 

Thank you Abhimanyu & Priyanka!

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. 

”Break a Leg” indeed! Introducing the new cast! 

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!  

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Hello Stanford

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. 😀

Truly a Golden Gateway to a Second Chance