On Schooling

Usually I’m quick to defend the school where I studied between 1986 and 1998. I made lots of good friends there and generally had a good time. Of late, however, in discussions on schooling, I find myself mention teachers from that school who I considered particularly horrible, mostly for their method of teaching.

Yesterday I was chatting with a classmate from this school who now works in the education sector, and she happened to mention that she considered her schooling to be mostly “a waste” and that she didn’t learn too much there. And I quickly concurred with her, saying all that I had learnt was at home, and school didn’t teach me much. So what explains my love for the school even though they might not have done a great teaching job?

From 1998 to 2000, I went to another school, where again they didn’t teach much, and instead assumed all of us went to JEE factories which would teach us anyway. What made things bad there, though, was that they didn’t treat us well. That school had a strict disciplinary code which was enforced more in letter than in spirit. Teachers there had a habit of loading us with homework, calling us for Saturday classes and having surprise tests. The problem with School 2 was that not only did they not teach well, but they also made life miserable in several other ways. The only redeeming factor for that school was the truckload of interesting people I got to meet during my two years there.

So what explains my love for School 1 despite the fact that they didn’t do a great job of teaching? The fact that they treated us well, and left us alone. The uniform wasn’t very strictly enforced, as long as you wore blue and grey. The school had an explicit “no homework” policy. Exams happened only according to schedule and there were few assignments. Even in class 10, we had three “periods” a week dedicated to “games” where we played volleyball or basketball rather than wasting our time in “PT”. Teachers were mostly very friendly and the atmosphere on the whole was collaborative and not so competitive.

My friend might think she “wasted” her 10 years in the school because she didn’t learn much there, but I argue that it was better than her going to another school where she wouldn’t be treated as well and where her life wouldn’t have been as peaceful.

Missing BRacket

Last night then-classmate now-colleague Baada and I were having a long bitchy conversation, mostly carried over text messages (SMS). As the conversation developed and grew in intricacy, several threads developed. This is not unusual for a conversation with Baada – it usually takes on several dimensions, and it always helps having a mechanism to keep track of all the threads simultaneously.

That’s when we realized how much we miss BRacket, the local instant messaging system we had at IIMB (a version of DBabble). I might have written this before but the beauty of BRacket was that conversation was “offline”. There was no chat window, and you would reply to individual messages, like you would in email. While on one hand this allowed “offline conversation”,i..e. the conversation didn’t die if one person respond immediately like it can happen in Y!M/GTalk, the more important thing was that by having conversation history in each thread, this allowed for some serious multithreaded conversation.

While instant text messaging offers the former feature (you can reply to a message several hours later and still continue the conversation), the latter feature is lost. There’s no way to keep track of threads, and like a bad juggler you soon end up losing track of half the threads and the conversation peters out.

I don’t know if DBabble is still widely used elsewhere but it’s death knell in IIMB was sounded when Sigma (the student IT club) in its infinite wisdom allowed for a “chat mode”. Along with the conventional offline messaging system, it also gave the option of Y!M style chat windows. And having been used to Y!M, batches junior to mine started using this chat feature extensively. The immediate rewards of using it were huge – no need to hit “send” (I’ve even forgotten the keyboard shortcut for that), no need to open a new message each time it arrives, and so on.

While we held up the virtues of “old BRacket” (like i used to refuse to reply when juniors pinged me in chat mode. A notable exception being the famous “Pichai files”) there was no one to do that after we graduated. I’m told that the incoming batch of 2006 exclusively used chat mode. The two major advantages that BRacket offered over “window chat” were gone. GTalk came up sometime around then, and with its better and faster servers (the IIMB network was notoriously slow) it could easily offer as good if not better services than BRacket. It was clear then that BRacket would die.

I’m told that now no one uses BRacket. I don’t even have it installed on my last two computers. Unfortunately no other “offline-messaging” technology has quite caught on since then. And so I miss multithreaded conversation. It’s very sad, I tell you. I wonder if even DBabble is still used extensively.

It’s fascinating how some technology dies. You come up with a purported “improvement” which offers short-term gains, and catches people’s fancy. While people flock to the “improved version” in hordes, it turns out that the features that made ┬áthe original version so popular are now lost. And this new version has competition, and so the technology itself gets killed. All because of some purported “innovation”.

Simplicity and improvisation

While writing my previous post on the film game, I was thinking about simplicity and improvisation. About how if you seek to improvise, in order to improvise well, you would rather choose a simple base. Like how the simplicity of film aata allows you to improvise so much and create so much fun. I was thinking about this in several contexts.

This concept first entered my mind back in class 11, when a mridangist classmate told me that for all music competitions, he would choose to play the aadi taaLa. His funda was that the simple and intuitive 8-beat cycle in this taaLa let his mind free of conforming to the base and allowed him to use all his energy in improvisation.

Thinking about it, though I have little domain knowledge, I would consider it very unlikely that a Carnatic performer would choose a vakra raaga for the “main piece” of a concert. The main piece requires one to do extensive alaap and then taaLa and requires a lot of improvisation and creative thinking on the part of the performer. Now, a vakra raaga (one where there are strict rules governing the order to notes) would impose a lot of constraints on the performer and he would be spending a large part of his energy just keeping track of the raaga and making sure he isn’t straying from the strict scales.

Starting from a simple easy base allows you to do that much more. It gives you that many more degrees of freedom to experiment, that many more directions to take your product in. If you build a sundae with vanilla ice cream, you can do pretty much what you want with it. However, if you use butterscotch, you will need to make sure that every additive blends in well with the butterscotch flavour, thus constraining your choices.

When the base for your innovation is itself fairly complicated, it leaves you with little room to manouever, and I’m afraid this is what occasionally happens when you are into research. You specialize so much and start working on such a narrow field that you will be forced to build upon already existing work in the field, which is already at a high level of sophistication. This leaves you with little choice in terms of further work, and you end up publishing “delta papers”.

Similarly in the management context, if you start off by using something complicated as your “base framework”, there aren’t too many things you can put on top of it, and that constrains the possibilities. There is even the chance that you might miss out on the most optimal solution to the problem because your base framework didn’t allow you to pursue that direction.

It is all good to borrow. It is all good to not reinvent the wheel. It is all good to stand on the shoulders of giants. However, make sure you pick your bases carefully, and not start on complicated ground. You will produce your best work when you give yourself the maximum choice.