How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

Name:
Location: India

Friday, April 29, 2005

In defence of quizzing - II

Refutations:

I refute each of the above arguments on the following grounds:

1. This view stems from a very limited view of quizzing as an activity. It is seen to be consisting of cramming different question-banks and regurgitating that information in quizzes. But notice how similar this sounds to the way people study for examinations today! I argue that it is the current method of exam-centric studies that emphasizes memory much more than quizzing does.
The process of quizzing is not restricted to cramming & recalling. It is, in fact, a continuous process of learning consisting of the following stages:

i. Information acquisition - this may occur through any medium - print, audio-visual, other people, etc. It may be focused on one or more topics or may be completely random, depending on the individual's interests.
ii. Synthesis of acquired information - the acquired information may be combined with or related to the information already possessed by a person to place the new information in its proper place in the bigger scheme of things
iii. Knowledge creation - man can do things with his mind other than acquire and retain information, he can deduce or infer things from the information he possesses. This is the next stage where a person creates knowledge for himself from existing pieces of information
iv. Knowledge use - a person can use the knowledge that he possesses, either in a practical way, or just to amuse himself and indulge in a little competition in quizzes.

And of course, a person may lose or discard information or knowledge gained outside of his main interests at any time. A person may be in more than one stage of the above process at any given time. If you think I am talking about learning in general, you are right :). I consider quizzing to be an attitude of readiness to learn, rather than an activity. More on this later.

2. It is true that many quiz contests are based on trivia - information of little or no significance. You may sit through many quiz contests and come to know only disjointed pieces of unimportant information, and hence are doubtful about the utility of such an activity. But quizzing has several uses, which I list below:

i. As I have said in 1. above, since quizzing is an attitude of readiness to learn, it builds 'learnability' (the favourite word of many corporate recruiters today) in an individual. One becomes more open to new ideas, concepts, etc.
ii. It also teaches you to build on and utilise others' knowledge. You will realise this if you are participating with a team on a quiz and all of you know parts of the answer and have to work out an answer together
iii. It teaches you to think on your feet, collate what you know and come up with a best-effort solution. It may not be correct or good enough, but at least it instils a discipline of mental exercise.
iv. All quizzing is not trivia-based. Nobody stops one from focused quizzing on one's own topics of interest, or those of a group. In this case, you may get information that is practically useful to you from the activity.
v. Fun is a very valid reason to quiz. Most of the trivia quizzes may not have practical value, but they definitely have a fun value. A hobby should be good fun anyway.
vi. Last but not the least, these days it is also becoming increasingly lucrative to be good at quizzing :). The kinds of prizes that are given away at college, corporate and TV show quizzes can be good economic motivation to quiz, if you are not moved by the philosophy.

3. This is a subjective matter, and entirely dependent on individual interest. However, quizzers do not place a restriction on the sources by which they gain knowledge. So, a person may read about the North Pole, while another may visit it and experience it and hence gain the same knowledge experientially, and yet both may be quizzers. So, quizzing is a bit like the Sanaatan Dharma :).

4. I call this the 'breadth vs. depth tradeoff'. I do not doubt that such a tradeoff exists, since if one knew everything about everything, he would be omniscient, and such a quality does not seem reasonably possible in any human being. But the extent to which the tradeoff exists varies with the interests and abilities of individuals.
Consider a horizontal bar with one notch for each field of knowledge (categorized in some way). Let vertical bars extending from each notch represent the depth of knowledge of a person in that particular field.
Then some people may be 'sleeping-I's, having a lot of superficial nowledge about many fields, but no significant depth of knowledge in any one. Some people may be 'T's, with a good breadth of knowledge, with specialized deep knowledge in one area. I have seen many good quizzers who are 'many-levered key's, that is: horizontal bars with many vertical bars of varying lengths extending from it, having both good depth and breadth of knowledge. So, any generalization is impossible.

The big picture

As I have said twice already, quizzing should be viewed in a much broader sense than merely as a specific activity. It is a state of mind, an attitude of readiness to learn. Viewed from this larger perspective, it would be difficult to deny that quizzing is important, especially in these times, when knowledge plays a bigger part in one's life (whether as a careerperson, a consumer, or any other role) than ever before.

In defence of quizzing - I

This is a topic on which I have wanted to write for a long time...

Motivation

The motivation to write something like this comes from the attitude of many people not interested in quizzing towards it and towards quizzers. One of the incidents which still rankles in my mind may serve as an illustration of the kind of attitude I am referring to.

This incident happened at the Times Ascent Quiz (Manipal round) in 2000 or 2001. After the KREC team narrowly missed out on the first place, we were already a bit disappointed. But as the chief guest (I think he was the Vice-Chancellor or some such official of the MAHE) gave away the awards and was asked to speak a few words, what he said amounted to this: "It is good to have such contests, but memory is not everything. We should have contests testing the intelligence and abilities of a person more wholly than such a question-answer format. Students should learn things, not memorize", and so on. After an entire day's quizzing, this was quite embarrassing to the quizmaster and the participants. We had all been furious at the time. But now I feel it was just ignorance about quizzing on the part of the chief guest that prompted him to say what he did.

I do not believe that quizzing is a worthless activity, and the following is my defence of this statement.

Arguments against quizzing

Let us look at some of the most common arguments offered against pursuing quizzing, whether
as a hobby or as a profession.

1. Inordinate emphasis on memory
Most people advocate this argument. A hobby like quizzing will not lead to overall development of a person's personality. It lays too great an emphasis on memory. Quizzes are nothing but tests of memory, wherein it is seen how fast you can recall answers to particular questions. One can thus become a good quizzer if one is blessed with good memory, regardless of any other attributes. Quizzing cookbooks and question-banks would easily serve the purpose of preparation for quizzes.

2. Limited or no utility
The questions in quizzes are about trivial information which carries no importance in a person's daily life. It does not help one in any practical way to know the things that quizzers seem so happy to know. Some basic general knowledge is good, but quizzers take it too far.

3. Passive activity
Quizzers like to know about things, but it is really the experience that counts. "I would rather visit a place than just read about it and memorize the details", "I would rather play the sport than just know the rules and the all-time greats"...

4. Shallow expertise
This is a serious allegation. Quizzers are jacks of many trades, and masters of none. They may dazzle you with a lot of information from different fields, but go a little deeper in any field, and they would be shown up to be lacking.

(continued...)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

'Tehelka'

Courtesy a friend, I read a few issues of 'Tehelka', the weekly 'people's paper', for the first time recently, and I got immediately interested. There is a ring of honesty to the paper, and content is given importance over empty style, both in the choice of report topics as well as the language used.

The paper is in the tabloid format. It carries one first-hand investigative report every issue (or almost every issue), besides other articles. Most of the reports, however, have an investigative flavour. It is not mere news reporting, but news analysis. The advertising is also minimal. In fact, the only advertisement I've seen in all issues I have read is a full-page one on the last page. That may seem heartening, but also raises the question of how long the paper can sustain itself on donations and other such sources of money. The printer's paradox says that a newspaper actually makes a loss on each new copy, since the cost of printing it is more than the price that can be charged for it. Hence, increased circulation means more loss - a paradox. The way most newspapers make profit is through ad revenues. That makes Tehelka's business model fragile, though it highlights the principled nature of the people who run it. But then again, I'm not aware of their complete business model, so I could easily be wrong.

My friend told me that when it started, all of the articles were fact-based news reports and analysis. Now they have started a lot of columns, some of which may be opinionated. And of course the paper is not perfect. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors are not uncommon, the reporting is sometimes amateurish, and some of the reports (like one on Aishwarya Rai and one on Mumbai bar girls) are too shallow, biased and opinionated.

But again, as my friend said, if you collect Tehelka issues over a period of time and then go through your collection one day, you will get a great idea of some of the most important happenings in India. That reminded me of another great weekly that no longer appears, and that should have been collected - 'The Illustrated Weekly of India'.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

To Pondicherry - II

Taking our time to arrive at a reasonable price for two auto-rickshaws to go to Auroville, we finally got into the vehicles and were off to Auroville. As far as I could make out, we recrossed the whole city of Pondicherry and some distance beyond to reach the township of Auroville. The extensive greenery and the red soil reminded me of Surathkal. As luck would have it, the globe-shaped meditation hall (Matrimandir) was closed on the Sunday afternoon. The auto-wallahs had very slyly not told us this small detail before we started. Still, we went inside the premises and had coffee there. Visiting the Information Reception Centre there, we saw that the aim of Auroville is to create a self-sustaining township where people of any nationality, race, creed, or colour live together in peace. To symbolize this, there is a big urn there which has the soils of 120 nations. There were excellent photographs tracing the history of Auroville, including its various organic farming and alternative enery source harnessing projects. The entire project has been going on for the last 35 years.

As we headed to Aurobeach from here, we could see numerous foreigners sweating it out on rented bicycles or driving bikes and mopeds. The beach, at last, was one place which turned out to be very good. It was very clean and the Bay of Bengal seemed nice and friendly (at least for the time being). As I relaxed on the sands, a few of us had a bathing session in the sea, until it was time to get back.

Returning to the bus depot for catching a bus back to Chennai, we saw that there were either point-to-point buses or express buses, with 1 express bus for every 5 or 6 p-to-p buses. From this, it was obvious to us that we should book a ticket on a faster, i.e. express, bus. Alas, we were wrong. The express buses were actually the slower ones, according to the local logic, and we managed to reach the Chennai bus terminus in 3.5 hours at 12 in the night. The only saving grace was that we could view the sands on the shore and the sea from the East Coast Road, awash in the light of the full moon.

Finally, we did not haggle with the auto-wallah who took us from the CMBT back to YMCA. We quarreled with him :). At 12.30am, the driver left thinking we were a couple of lunatics. He didn't know that he wasn't very far wrong...

Monday, April 25, 2005

To Pondicherry - I

Yesterday, seven of us went on a day's trip to Pondicherry. We caught an East Coast Road bus from Chennai's Koyambedu CMBT (Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus) at 6.45am. This bus terminus is huge and resembles an airport more than a bus depot (it even has luggage trolleys similar to those at airports).

Having begun well, we were in for a rough ride almost throughout the day. We were going to be able to view the sea all along the East Coast Road, running parallel to it. But the bus was so crowded, with people standing, that such a view could not be obtained. Anyway, at least the road was excellent. After stopping at numerous points, we finally reached in 3-odd hours.
Tempos were waiting for passengers outside the Pondicherry bus depot, and we caught one (as usual, after haggling). The first place we went to was the Aurobindo Ashram, located in the French Quarter (my name). This is a large locality with very similar box-type buildings of a similar light blue or cream colour. The Ashram is housed in a white building with Sri Aurobindo's samadhi in the courtyard to the right. The silence inside was total as we walked, single file, around the samadhi. From the courtyard, we entered the building where the Ashram's publication house had displayed Sri Aurobindo's and his followers' works in many different Indian languages, besides English. I also found some Gujarati books there. Not knowing very much about Sri Aurobindo, I wanted to buy a book or two, especially his 'Essays on the Gita', but then finally didn't. Some other time, maybe. We came out of the Ashram from the front door and went round to the back in order to enter the meditation room. But the large crowd already waiting outside the door (albeit, very peacefully) dissuaded us from pursuing meditation any further. The crowd was waiting under a shamiana on Rue Saint Gilles, one of the several French-named streets in the area (others had names like Rue Saint Louis, Rue de la Marine, Goubert Avenue, etc.).

We came back to the front, had some coconut water, and went to the seafront right opposite the Government Secretariat building on Goubert Avenue. This is not a sandfront, but a rockfront, so we just walked along the wall, watching the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal.

Now we wanted to go to a boathouse on a lake created from backwaters. After haggling for quite long with two auto-wallahs, we stuffed ourselves in their vehicles and reached the Chunnambur Water Sports Complex (a big exaggeration, if ever there was one). There were only a few terrestrial equipment for little children, and some boats, besides a restaurant. We hired a couple of pedalled boats and enjoyed boating on the lake for a leisurely half-hour. Before that, we had completed lunch at the Sea Gulls restaurant in which about 2% of the items of the multi-page menu were available. The next place on our list was Auroville, the township located away from Pondicherry city.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bus behaviour

I have been shortchanged by the company bus. The Route 6 bus that is said to pass through
Royapettah (bang opposite where I stay) has not been sighted by me so far, in so many days. It seems to be as mythical as the river Saraswati at the Sangam in Allahabad :). People say it passes by here at 8.20am in the morning, but nobody's ever seen it.

So, I have to take recourse to the city bus to reach the office. Fortunately, there is one that takes me directly to (and from) the office. After travelling for a few days on the bus, I think I can safely comment on the bus behaviour of Chennai-ites. It is a strange mix of civility and uncouth. The entire left-hand row of seats in any bus is reserved for women, which I think is more than a little unfair. Also, men even have to stand on the right-hand side, not blocking the way of women prying for empty seats on the left. Women can also occupy any empty right-hand side seats, but the reverse is not generally true, except in a mostly empty bus.

Many people are somehow not comfortable with bus travel, it seems. I say this because of the general impatience shown by many people. Generally, when a bus stops, people from the bus alight first, and only then the people at the stop climb aboard. But I've seen impatient grandmas and others rushing inside and causing great trouble to people standing near the door and those trying to alight. If you are in the middle of a jampacked bus and want to alight, you will have to start early :). Many people are simply too stubborn and won't step aside for you to pass.

But by far the greatest impatience is shown in trying to grab an empty seat. As soon as a
seated person rises, the game starts. It is not always the person standing next to that seat who gets to sit. People standing three seats away from this seat on either side angle for the seat, as if fishing. They grab the seat rods, put one foot between the seat and any potential rival, or throw the bag that they were carrying right on to the seat. Thus the battle of the seat is won.

And so it goes, day in and day out. It's instructive to notice behaviour of people in public places. It tells you a lot about their character.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Two films

I watched a couple of movies in the Sathyam multiplex near my hostel last week. Both had
virtually unknown cast. The first one - "A Cinderella Story" - was just an attempt at
passing time with a group of 10 people. It served as just that, and nothing more. It was a rehash of the Cinderella fairy-tale in a modern American setting. The key point was: we got to be seated in plush leather couches in an air-conditioned environment, avoiding the
scorching Chennai afternoon :).

The second movie was "Flight of the Phoenix", which we opted to watch thinking it would be an action movie. It was really a drama-in-real-life kind of a movie. A transport aircraft carrying an oil rig and its crew out from Mongolia is caught in a huge sandstorm in the Gobi desert and is forced to have an emergency landing in the middle of the desert. How the people then manage to survive and get out of the desert forms the main story. Luckily for the people, the group had an aircraft designer on board, who managed to design an airplane out of the parts of the old one (I was reminded of a certain aerospace engineer in my class at that time :) ). Only, that person designed model aircraft for a living, putting an added twist in the tale. The drama created in the film was quite good, although some of the scenes (like that of the swirling sandstorm) looked clearly contrived through computerized special effects. But it is a very watchable film and the cast give good performances.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Not all bad...

As I mentioned in my last post, not everything about Chennai is bad. So let me list some
positives (these may not carry equal weight for everyone):

- The food is a plus point, particularly if you like typical south Indian fare. The idli-s, dosa-s (of various types, and each served with three different kinds of chutney), vada-s, sambar, coffee, etc. are quite good. North Indian food won't be great except in higher-end restaurants.

- Though this is a point particular to my situation, I like the location of my hostel in
Royapettah quite a lot. The Marina beach is just 10-15 minutes away by bus. There is a good multiplex theatre called Sathyam and the well-visited mall Spencer's Plaza on Mount Road - both at a walking distance from the hostel. I catch my company bus just across the road from the hostel, and if I happen to miss it, I can always catch a city bus from the same place. There are a lot of shops, ATMs and places to eat nearby.

- The traffic is not nearly as bad as, say, Bangalore, and it is relatively quite orderly too. A few roads on my route to the company are under repair, causing some pain, but in general, the roads are also in good condition.

- The public transport system is efficient. The city buses are jampacked during rush hours, but they are reliable. The bus numbers and the source and destination are indicated in English, contrary to my expectations. The suburban railway is not very extensive, but quite useful to some.

- Terribly hot as the days are, the evenings (so far, at least) are pleasant, as cool breeze blows through the evening and night.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

From Chennai

I began my summer internship at Cognizant Tech. Solutions here in Chennai on the 11th of April. People doing their summers in Chennai are laughed at, consoled, commiserated with, felt sorry for, etc. Hardly anyone is happy about another person landing a summer at Chennai.

But having been here a week, I can say that the city has its positives and negatives. It's not all that bad being here. The negatives are as follows (the positives in another post later):
  • I am staying at a YMCA hostel in Royapettah. At first sight, the rooms looked really bad. The toilet needed real cleaning and the bulb sockets in the toilet also didn't work. It seemed difficult to spend more than a couple of days here. But after a week and with the initial problems solved, I feel quite comfortable now.
  • The heat is the main villain here. The sun is blazing hot, and combined with the humidity, it saps out energy from your body. Perspiration makes you feel sticky all day and your clothes get dirty. And this is only April. However, evenings do become quite cool and a good breeze keeps blowing which enables sound sleep at night.
  • Water scarcity is another problem. Running water comes only from morning till noon. So you have to keep buckets filled and hope there will be no inordinate need for water in the rest of the day. Even drinking water is a problem, as it is salty and disease-causing at most places. So you have to rely on bottled mineral water.
  • The auto-rickshaws are a major pain. There is no metering system in place. The last time meters were updated was in 1989. So you have to haggle with the auto-wallahs every single time (provided you know what a realistic fare should be).
  • The language problem is there, but thankfully, it is not as severe as it is made out to be. Penetration of basic English is quite good and the most basic of conversations can take place without much misunderstanding.