Archive for June, 2013

Development is dead

June 25, 2013

A well written and well argued article by Ravi Chopra. It is time we retired the word development. All sentient beings have a basic need to flourish. That means we can’t club all impediments to wealth creation, that too for a few, into a blanket term like ‘externality’ and screw the rest of the world. Let me repeat: development is dead.

 

Think locally, act globally

June 22, 2013

I just heard that Ratan Tata gave MIT a whole lot of money to create a new Tata Center for Technology and Design. The mandate of the Tata center is to design and build technology that addresses Indian needs. I believe that at one point he was considering giving the same money to IISc.

One might ask why such a center doesn’t exist at an IIT or at the Indian Institute of Science. The reason is simple: we don’t know how to design and build technology for India. Certainly not the robust, scalable systems that India needs anyway. It’s both sad and true that we need to go half way across the world to solve problems that afflict us. No amount of nationalist sentiment can hide this fact.

Science for school: The Gyanome Project

June 21, 2013

I have been busy creating several knowledge communities over the past year or so. You might ask what a knowledge community is  but that will remain undefined for now. Fortunately, you know a knowledge community when you see it.

Gyanome, also here, is a community that brings science and math (for now) via scientists and mathematicians to school teachers and students.  In other words, take the standard curriculum – in India that would be the NCERT syllabus – and get well known scientists to teach the essential concepts. Gyanome is a hybrid project; scientists are busy and spread across the earth, so we are creating online resources paired with classroom interaction. 

Apart from our content creation, we have also started having conversations with young Indian scientists about hot scientific topics, in order to give children and teachers good role models. Here is the first conversation I had with Abhiram, a young physicist. We will be doing more in the future. 

How MIT Meets the Monastery

June 20, 2013

http://app.emaze.com/19754/MITmeetsMonastery

When I first wrote this, I had intended to share this experiment with a few friends in the US, but there seems to be interest in other quarters as well. Please read on for details about the program as well as pricing. 

Drivers of change

The 21st century is the most complex century yet in the history of the human species. To quote just one statistic, we have generated more data in the last decade than in all of human history before 2000 C.E. Machines are getting better and better at being human. Even white collar professions such as doctors and lawyers aren’t immune to automation. Scientific and technological progress is the biggest driver of change now, so any understanding of the future will have to start with the scientific and technological nature of the human condition.   

Wisdom and Science. 

Buddha meets Socrates

To really understand, adapt and perhaps thrive under the changes that are afoot, we need to go back twenty five hundred years to the axial age when the previous “total disruption” of the human condition was underway . Twenty five hundred years ago, human beings came together in cities, invented logic and reason, meditated on the nature of impermanence and invented the precursors of science and technology. When conditions are similar, the solutions are similar as well. It is no surprise that both the Buddha and Socrates arose at that time, for the new human condition needed its archetypes.

Interestingly, in ancient times these two archetypes didn’t interact much – communication was hard and cultural barriers prevented easy absorption of insights. We can change that now.  Our twenty first century human condition also demands a new archetype. We face an unprecedented new challenge as well as opportunity:

Can the Buddha and Socrates come together in a new archetype that also integrates science into its being?

 Equally importantly, we live in a democratic era. Our archetypes should be collective and peer driven; collective wisdom combined with collective science. This is what I call MIT meets the Monastery, a year long exploration of the 21st century human condition. The presentation below gives you a short overview of the project. 

A Short Presentation

http://www.movenote.com/v/OPSmycHz6aY?integration=embed&scale=50

MIT meets the Monastery 

What is it about? 

The year of transformation starts with a deceptively simple question:

How do we respond to the challenges of our times?

Surely, we can learn from the previous era of total disruption. Then, as now, things arose, subsisted and passed away. Deep insights into our 21st century human condition can only come from first absorbing the lessons taught by the Buddha and Socrates. However, too much adherence to the past isn’t the answer, for our 21st century condition is different. While the essentials are arguably the same as 5th Century B.C.E India or Greece, the main drivers of impermanence and change are different in scale, if not in quality: scientific and technological progress, the complete human domination of the earth and unbridled consumption. An exploration of the human condition will be incomplete if it doesn’t take these new developments into consideration. Our challenge is to adapt the Buddha’s vision of anatta, no-self,  and Socrates’ examination of human life to our times. We need to take the middle path between rejecting these ancient insights as relics of the past and a fundamentalist insistence upon their literal and complete truth.

A Mental Toolkit.

The 21st century human condition also demands the addition of a third element to these two classical strains: an understanding of scientific ways of knowing. I say scientific ways of knowing, not science. We don’t need the technical details that excite the expert, but the core methods that everyone can adopt fruitfully. Just as sitting meditation can help the novices  negotiate stress in their lives while opening up entirely new vistas to the advanced practitioner, the essence of scientific inquiry can help people at all stages as well. Exposure to contemplative, rational and the scientific practices can and should become part of a universal mental toolkit. I call this toolkit “MIT meets the Monastery,” a triangle connecting the ancient east, the ancient west and modern scientific and technical knowledge.  

Why this and Why now?

I have been grappling with these issues for more than a decade. In 2001 and 2002, I participated in two Kira summer schools on science and other ways of knowing. These summer schools led to a year long investigation of life as a laboratory, the Yamaneko project. It also began my engagement with contemplative practice across traditions and my increasing confidence in philosophical inquiry – both East and West-  as a genuine contemplative practice. Simultaneously, I became a scientific researcher investigating the mind using tools from mathematics and cognitive science.  Over the last three years, I began synthesizing these two streams, starting with the laboratory of life in 2010 and more recently with my involvement with the mind and life institute, culminating in a presentation to the Dalai Lama earlier this year. It is now time to take the next step, by expanding the synthesis into a collective inquiry.

The Fine Print

See pricing information below as well.

This is the triangle I want to explore systematically with fellow travelers from September 1st, 2013 to April 30th 2014. It has three phases. Each phase lasts about eight weeks; an online course that lasts four weeks and then four weeks of collective practice. A brief outline of each phase is given below:

  1. Dialog and inquiry:  A combination of Dharma dialog, Socratic inquiry and scientific hypothesizing. Goal: Get a macro picture of the 21st century human condition. Tools and techniques: dialog, reading, collective discussion. We will also split up into smaller groups – dyads and triads – for intensive dialog. 
  2. Experimentation: Traditional meditative practices combined with simple “life experiments.” Goal: Getting used to meditation as data collection and data collection as meditation. Tools and techniques: sitting and walking meditation combined with lab reports. First person experiments such as subject-object reversal. I will also create an online space for first person “lab reports” for sharing subjective experience. 
  3. Collaboration: Once we get used to the idea of using first person lab reports for sharing experiences, we will move to the next stage, of collaborating with each other on integrating and analyzing the data. Goals: facility with collective analyses of subjective experience. Integration of analyses into personal and collective well being. Tools and techniques: dharma infused hypothesis testing, discussion. Online spaces for sharing and modifying reports will also be created. 

Throughout this process, we will be breaking up into smaller groups – two or three at a time with the intent of bringing the small group learning back into the larger pool. I will also be circulating extensive notes – a book in the making – every week as a template for collective inquiry. Of course, templates are not iron-clad rules, and they often fail to stand the test of empirical testing, so the notes are only to be used as pointers.

How can you participate?

 I hope many of you will join me on this journey. Some of you might want to participate for the whole year, some of you might want to join for part of it. It is absolutely OK to sign up for only one or two of the three phases. The three are reasonably modular.

How much does it cost? 

All three phases have a variable fee structure, between $100 to $300 per phase depending on your situation.

Note: The dollar prices assume that you live in the US or another western country. If you are somewhere else use the following rule of thumb: the price of each module should cost you the price of a daily meal times 30, so if you are in India and you pay Rs. 40 for a meal, then you pay 1200 rupees for each phase.  

These are suggested figures to pay for the cost of organizing the MMM experience. If you can’t meet any of the above criteria, and you are keen to join the group, you can join at no cost.

That pretty much summarizes MIT’s encounter with the Monastery. If you interested, please fill out the form below:

Fill out this Form

 
Name *

Name

First Name

Last Name

Phase Selector *
The year will be divided into three phases. Which of the three (or more than one) are you interested in participating?
Dialog
Experiment
Collaboration

Why are you interested? *

Do say a few words about why you are interested in the MIT meets Monastery project and what you would like to get out of participating in it.

Comments/Questions

If you have any comments or questions, mention them here

Moocmart

June 18, 2013

If there was any doubt that MOOC’s and other forms of technology weren’t part of a larger evisceration of academia, here’s some more news: summer homes for star faculty while adjuncts starve on the sidelines. Not very different from Walmart’s practices is it? Doesn’t Walmart promise “the lowest prices guaranteed”? How much cheaper can you get than free? 

If I were you, I would be very leery of handing over higher education to Stanford and Harvard in the name of democratization and free courseware. What’s clear is that the real crisis in higher education isn’t an economic one, but a moral one. Just as the crisis in healthcare is a moral crisis, not an economic one. Yes, the cost of higher education and healthcare is out of control, but that’s only because public funding has been cut systematically. 

Universities should be careful though – once they lose their moral legitimacy, there isn’t much that you are left with. It’s not as if there are any cool widgets they are turning out. It might be time to think beyond the degree.

 

From MOOCs to MOATs

June 18, 2013

If you have read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” you will remember the scene where Sherlock Holmes smokes up the joint to find out where Irene Adler has hidden her most precious possession: a photograph of Irene with the king of Bohemia. Irene Adler outwits Holmes at the end, earning the epithet “the woman.” 

The moral of the story: in times of crisis, you will rush to save that which is dearest to you.

Higher education is in crisis: what possession of theirs are universities trying to save? The fact that they are giving MOOC’s away for free points to one and only one thing: undergraduate education isn’t their most precious jewel. Research universities are not built for their undergraduates; they are built around the process of knowledge creation and the faculty that make that happen.

If knowledge creation is the purpose of a research university then postgraduate education is the means through which knowledge is created and replicated across generations. Unlike undergraduate education, PG education is hands on, project based and (human) labor intensive. I haven’t seen a single university make noises about handing out the keys to that store.

The moral of the story: if you really want to change the face of higher education, start with the precious jewel: post graduate learning. The future of higher education isn’t the MOOC, but the MOAT: Massive Online Apprenticeship and Training.

 

Managing the Matrix

June 17, 2013

The Matrix 

The 21st century does seem like the matrix sometimes. Especially in the west. Even more so in the summer. Picture perfect homes along wide boulevards. Children playing football in open fields. But the undercurrent of anxiety never goes away. Entire industries have vanished, some for ever. Strange people from across the oceans have taken our jobs. Yet others are seeking revenge for crimes that no one remembers committing. The worst is yet to come – a planet as a whole bent upon ruin, an almost biblical future of plague and destruction raining down from the sky.

Meanwhile, machines are getting better and better at being human, at least as far as economic life goes. Soon, there will be no need for doctors and lawyers or any other white collar profession. The middle class, as we know it, is about to end, and with that will come the end of all the political and economic systems that depend on middle class support. Liberal democracy, market economics, civil society: these are time-bound aspects of the human condition that we take for granted, almost as if they were part of the furniture of the universe. If current trends hold, these institutions might reveal themselves to be flimsy.  

Waking up from the dream 

The matrix is a misleading term. The dream metaphor leads us toward a sharp dichotomy between this world and another one, between heaven and hell (interestingly, the matrix reverses the usual relationship between the two – heaven is the dream you are in right now, while hell is what you experience when you wake up), but there is no other world, no there there. To really understand, adapt and perhaps thrive under the changes that are afoot, we need to go back twenty five hundred years to the axial age when the previous “total disruption” of the human condition was underway. It is no surprise that both the Buddha and Socrates arose at that time, for the new human condition needed its archetypes. 

MIT meets the Monastery 

How do we respond to the challenges of our times? Surely, we can learn from the previous era of total disruption. Then, as now, things arose, subsisted and passed away. Meditation into our 21st century human condition is absolutely essential and these ancient beacons will help light the way to our future.

Too much adherence to the past isn’t the answer, for our condition now is different. While the essentials are arguably the same as 5th Century B.C.E India, the main drivers of impermanence and change are different in scale, if not in quality: scientific and technological progress, the complete human domination of the earth and unbridled consumption. An exploration of the human condition will be incomplete if it doesn’t take these new developments into consideration. Our challenge is to adapt the Buddha’s meditative inquiry and Socrates’ examination of human life to our times. We need to take the middle path between rejecting these ancient insights as relics of the past and a fundamentalist insistence upon their literal and complete truth.

The 21st century human condition also demands the addition of a third element to these two classical strains: an understanding of scientific ways of knowing. I say scientific ways of knowing, not science. We don’t need the technical details that excite the expert, but the core methods that everyone can adopt fruitfully. Just as sitting meditation can help the novice negotiate stress in their lives while opening up entirely new vistas to the advanced practitioner, the essence of scientific inquiry can help people at all stages as well. Exposure to contemplative, rational and the scientific practices can and should become part of a universal mental toolkit. This is what I call “MIT meets the Monastery,” a triangle connecting the ancient east, the ancient west and modern scientific and technical knowledge. 

This is the triangle I want to explore over the next year with fellow travelers.  I do not know what this triangle looks like in full technicolor; the year long exploration would have no purpose if I did. However, I can say with confidence that the merger of meditation, reasoning and science requires us to embark upon a collective journey. A journey of not knowing as much as knowing. A journey we must embark upon for our well being and that of future generations. 

 

Quality isn’t quantity

June 17, 2013

One of the great myths about mechanization and globalization is that it will replace low end unskilled jobs fit only for machines with higher end, high skill work. That we will all be free to be autonomous, creative individuals while the machines do all the grunt work. 

The truth has always been more complex, if not the very opposite of official propaganda. Let’s go back to an earlier era of globalization, what we now call colonization. The British didn’t chop off the thumbs of muslin weavers in Dhaka because they were less skilled, but because they were abler. The weavers were a threat because they made a much better product at a competitive price. Why do we think it will be any better this time around?

In my own corner of the woods, i.e., higher education, there’s been a lot of hype about MOOC’s, massive online courses that will bring high quality education to the masses. I am quite susceptible to the charm of the MOOC myself. There’s a part of me that believes that higher education in India and elsewhere needs radical change. However,    I also see the same muslin weaver logic at work here; cut off the thumbs of the competition, who in this case are the vast majority of faculty that work outside Ivy League academia, and then corner a highly profitable industry to yourself. College faculty are the craftsmen and craftswomen of higher education, for whom learning is both art and science. MOOC’s will inevitably bring downward pressure on those jobs and many institutions will close their doors. Are we ready to let these jobs go, just as we have outsourced manufacturing to China and Tech support to India? 

Once these semi-tribal education fraternities end, we will be left with a less human world, even if it is of higher quality on several measures. A question that’s not asked in the relentless march toward progress is this: who are we doing it for, and what value do we gain by doing so? Can we trust MIT and Harvard to uphold those values? 

You can guess my answer to these questions, but we will not know for sure until the dust settles. I just read a wonderful and tragic piece in the New York Times about the maddening but ultimately redeeming value of the Italian artisan-industrial complex. We have much to learn from it, as we reflect upon the future of education. 

 

Craftsourcing 001

June 14, 2013

Everyone is an artist. We are all unique, creative individuals.  

Do you really believe that? Or if you do, do you think that all it takes to become an artist is positive reinforcement and self esteem. Plus your own You Tube channel. 

Art cannot be divorced from craft, which is the larger bucket of the two. There can only be a few artists, chosen ones in their respective profession, but there are many more craftspeople. That teacher who put her heart into teaching you calculus? She was a craftswoman. So was the family doctor whose soothing manner made injections feel a lot less painful. 

The great temples of human achievement were made by craftsmen and craftswomen, even if only some of them adorn the hallways of Harvard and MOMA. I believe we are moving towards a new age of craftsourcing, of collective inquiry and creation, but before we can enter that age, we need to adopt three principles:

Photo credit: Karen Blaha 

Photo credit: Karen Blaha 

  1. Collaboration: Craft is inherently collective, and while we have to honor the contributions of one and all, there is no place in it for the Prima Donna.  We are no shorter for standing on the shoulders of giants. 
  2. Creation: We have to be creative, not in the “strokes of genius” sense, but in the everyday sense of bringing one’s own perspective to each task and project. It takes everyday creativity to navigate everyday problems and ultimately, craft is about the everyday.
  3. Character: Craftmaking is about making things and in the process making oneself.  Character is what we make of ourselves. The quiet satisfaction that comes from collaborating and creating is reflected in the understanding that craftmaking is a way of living.   

 

A zero short of a billion

June 13, 2013

Sometimes, finishing second is worse than finishing last. I was introduced to this sad truth when I was an undergraduate at IIT-Kanpur and I was reminded once again of that truth when I read the NY Times piece on Rajat Gupta. 

The fourth year in an IIT is particularly hard on second besters, for it is clear by then that you can no longer come first and the people at the very top are permanently out of reach. The students at the very top are different. They are more gifted, harder working, more strategic with their time or simply luckier.  When a certain kind of second bester, realizes that he cannot be Hillary or Gagarin, he unravels. He starts smoking and drinking – though usually not so much that the secure scholarship or job is threatened- and ever so often falls in with a much more dangerous crowd; the losers who never had anything to prove, or worse, townies who are not part of the IIT treadmill at all. 

Fortunately, graduation is only a few months away and the second bester can forget his (and I say ‘his’ because most of us IIT-ans are men) recent ignominy and try to run the good race once again. Let us not forget that an IIT education is optimized for one and only one thing: the ability to run races. We don’t build great machines or discover new worlds. Our engineering skills are quickly diverted after graduation when we are drafted to serve white collar and governmental masters.

Run, run, run. Every race has a finish line, right? As IITians who believe in merit, a race is an unambiguous marker of merit: when it is over, you are under no illusion as to who came first. If you are the racing kind, life itself is the greatest race of all. Except that you don’t get a second chance. So what does a second-bester do, when he has retired at the top of his chosen profession and finds himself a rather poor second best to Bill Clinton and Bill Gates? 

Rajat Gupta, perhaps the most successful managerial product in IIT history, must have asked himself that question several times. Or even if he didn’t speak it aloud, his subconscious must have whispered that truth to his ear while he lay awake at night.

In this Times article and elsewhere,  much has been made of the South Asian clique around Rajaratnam and how the aristocratic Gupta fell for the trap laid by the dark Sri Lankan. Yes, I know it shouldn’t be said out loud, but everyone from our part of the world and quite a few elsewhere are thinking it – how did that fair, aquiline statesman get into bed with a pug nosed Dravidian? That’s a story for another occasion though; here we are peering under a different carpet, one that is woven out of the purest silk. IIT’s are the greatest meritocracy that India has generated after all. 

I believe we need to look deeper into the IIT origins of Rajat Gupta’s downfall; after all, we alumni are all aware of what our classmates were willing to do to get that A or that prized recommendation letter. Does it surprise any insider that Rajat ended the way he did?

A few years ago, when he was one of the brightest stars in our firmament, we feted him. Now we revile him. I find the former more troubling than the latter. It is a sad situation when institutes entrusted with the task of building a nation can only excel in adding several zeros to their Wall Street masters. That we still fall a zero short is the least of our troubles.