ExtremeLearners


Learning is awesome.

The general attitude among students towards learning is an attitude of dread. Lectures are usually boring and so are many of the textbooks. Very few students actively want to learn. Given the choice, most of them will prefer spending all their time playing games or watching TV instead of doing their homeworks.

It’s not completely their fault though. Most lectures, textbooks and homeworks are, in fact, just too boring!

On the other hand, Hogwarts—the magic school from the Harry Potter novels—seems to excite the kids a lot. If asked to redesign their school so that it becomes more enjoyable, they might just make it more like Hogwarts.

This is also quite understandable. Hogwarts is a magic school, for god’s sake! They teach you to do magic in there! If you learn a course properly, you can show off your skills by turning your friend into a rat! The skills you learn at a magic school are immediately applicable to your daily life—the things you really care about. Stuck in traffic? Just take out your broom and fly over it. Want to know what someone is thinking? Just use the spell you learned in Mind Reading 101 and read their mind. Want to listen to some private conversation? Just wear your invisibility cloak and stand right next to where the conversation is happening.

On the other hand, the things you learned in your school seem to be applicable only in getting a good score in the finals. When was the last time that you asked someone their age and all they told you was, “Five years from now, my age will be double your age.”?

But here’s the thing. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has famously said, “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Over the last few decades, technology has been advancing in the power boost mode. Things are invented every day that were unimaginable a few decades ago. Thus learning new things in the school is a lot like learning to do magic. Let me give you some examples.

Invisibility

What we see around us depends completely on the way light from our surroundings enters our eyes. Thus if I had complete control over light, I could make you see anything I wanted. Indeed, very simple objects such as mirrors and lenses can already make you see things that are not there.

Now imagine an object that neither absorbs nor reflects light, but simply bends it around it. When a light ray hits the object, it travels along the surface until it reaches the diametrically opposite point and then continues in the same straight line it was in before the impact. If the object does this with all the light rays, it will be invisible to any observer! When you look in the direction of the object, you will only see the things behind it and thus it will appear invisible to you.

Scientists have been trying to use this idea to design invisible objects. Recently, a group succeeded in making a small cylindrical shaped object disappear. All they needed was a very good understanding of optics and the way electromagnetic waves behave, both of which are perhaps chapters in your textbook.

Flight

Thanks to the Wright brothers and the human understanding of fluid dynamics, we can now fly. It’s old news now.

Flying on a broomstick though, is still not possible. Thus, if stuck in traffic, you can’t just decide to fly over it. You will have to reach the airport first, which you can’t, because of the traffic. Even if you do reach the airport, you will still have to buy the tickets and stand in long lines.

However, scientists are working on jet packs and several reasonably good models have already been built. A jet pack is a device that you wear on your back and it enables you to fly. For example, a company called Jetpack International has built a model that can, in one stretch, fly for around 9 minutes, which is the time it takes for the fuel to run out.

Turning into a rat

Current technology is lagging behind in this area. Turning a living being into a different species is probably going to be difficult for a very long time, but as far as changing physical features of various living organisms is concerned, a lot has been done. For example, if you have a rabbit, you can make its skin glow green using some genetic engineering. You can also do similar things with fish. In fact, if you have some money to spare, you can buy commercially available fish that has been genetically modified to glow in the dark.

This is done by exploiting a protein called the Green Fluorescent Protein, which has the property of glowing in the dark. Some species that live very deep under the ocean have naturally evolved genes for this protein, in order to be able to see in the dark.

Such manipulation of living organisms would not have been possible without a thorough understanding of chemistry. Proteins are essentially large organic molecules found in living bodies. A lot of their properties can be understood using the same principles of organic chemistry that are used for understanding compounds such as methane (the fuel), chloroform (the anaesthetic) and naphthalene (the primary ingredient in mothballs).

Growing an extra arm

In 2008, a person lost a portion of his finger in the propeller of a model airplane. Later, doctors used modern medical technology to regrow it.

This used to happen only in fantasy novels. Now it’s a reality. The way to do it is to spray the severed region of the body with something called ‘pixie dust’. This magic material helps the cells grow back. The resemblance to magic potions is fascinating.

Predicting future

Nate Silver is a 35 year old statistician who lives in the United States of America. Statistics is a field of math that uses probabilities—which you might have seen as a chapter in your Math textbook—to draw meaningful conclusions from large tables of data. Nate Silver likes using statistical techniques to predict the future.

In the 2012 presidential elections in the USA, he predicted the winner correctly. Now, that’s not a big deal. There were only two potential candidates for the position of the president and thus even a wild guess would have a 50% chance of being correct. Thus if everyone in your class made a wild guess about the winner, around half of them would be correct.

But here is the amazing part. There are fifty states in the United States. Each state elects an individual winner. The candidate who wins most of the (important) states is made the president of the country. Nate Silver not only predicted the overall winner, but correctly predicted the winner of each of the fifty states! To put it in perspective, if everyone in your class made wild guesses, none of them would get all fifty states correct. In fact, if everyone on earth made wild guesses, even then no one would get all fifty states correct. We won’t have much luck even if we multiply the earth’s population a hundred or a thousand times. We will have to multiply it a billion times to have a decent chance of one person getting it all correct!

Humanity has reached a state where it can do things that look a lot like magic. And who are the people responsible for it? These are the people who learned their subjects really well. May be not all the subjects. But they picked a few subjects that they enjoyed a lot and became extremely good at them.

Therefore your normal school is already a lot like Hogwarts. If you pick some subjects that you enjoy and become extremely good at them, a few years from now, you may be the one who invents a life-size invisibility cloak. Your algebra homeworks may not immediately enable you to turn your friend into a rat, but if you ever want to invent a technology to do that, you will need to be good at algebra.

Your present curriculum is a stepping stone for doing the kinds of things that you expect to learn at Hogwarts. It might be easy to lose sight and forget about the big picture once in a while. But you should remember that the skills you are learning right now are a part of the skill-sets that real world magicians like the ones mentioned in this article use to do their magic.

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013. Written by Vinayak Pathak. No comments.


What gets measured, gets managed.

The sentence in the title is a famous quote by Peter Drucker from his 1954 book titled, “The Practice of Management.” The quote has been repeated so many times since then that it has almost become a cliche.

I have personally experienced the power of measurement on several occasions. For example, simply measuring the number of hours I spend working is often enlightening. The measured number almost always turns out to be less than what I had expected. And once I see a number in front of my eyes, I get an urge to improve it. Thus eventually I start working more.

I have seen similar effects of measurement on other people too. A friend of mine was once unhappy with his performance at work. He felt he didn’t have the required skills to succeed in the profession. After a long discussion trying to diagnose his problem, we came to the conclusion that he should monitor the time he spent working. It turned out, he was working for less than 2 hours per week. It was then clear what the culprit was.

I have seen people who are trying to write books get into a race with themselves over how many words they write per day. I have discussed a similar example of racing with yourself in a previous article.

Bestselling author Tim Ferris, in his book “Four Hour Body”, recounts the story of a man who lost weight merely by being aware of it every day. He started by drawing a huge graph with time on the x-axis and his weight on the y-axis. Then he marked his current weight and the weight he wanted to be at after two years. Next, he joined these two points with a straight line, and drew two parallel lines, one above and one below this straight line. These two parallel lines marked the region he wanted to be in. Every day, he would weigh himself and mark the corresponding point on the graph. Whenever he got a mark close to the line on the top, he would feel motivated to eat less and exercise. That’s how he lost 10 pounds in 2 years.

Measurement serves two purposes:

  1. It makes you motivated. It is in human nature that whenever he is given a score based on something he did, it motivates him to improve his score.
  2. It gives you a clear idea about the reality and helps you make effective future strategies.

Try to exploit this power during your preparation.

Monday, March 11th, 2013. Written by Vinayak Pathak. No comments.


Gamifying your preparation

Back in 2005, when I was preparing for IIT-JEE, I hated Inorganic Chemistry. It just looked like a huge collection of uninteresting facts to me, which I was unable to memorise. I attempted it several times, but just couldn’t get through it. I tried several books, but none of them managed to make it interesting. Around 1-2 months before the exam, I decided to give it one final attempt. This time I ended up inventing a technique that was very effective at making Inorganic Chemistry enjoyable! I had accidentally done what is now popularly known as “gamification,” i.e., making things enjoyable by converting them into a kind of game.

Here’s what I did.

Even though I hated memorising facts, I still liked problems that we used to call “roadmap” problems. A typical roadmap problem would provide you with some information about a few unknown compounds and ask you to identify them. For example, one piece of information could be that when mixed in Sulfuric Acid, the compound gave a red colored precipitate. Or perhaps the compound made the flame turn green. Or may be it burned violently when put into water. These kinds of problems had a very detective-like feel to them. You could imagine yourself at a crime scene having just found traces of a yellow colored powdery substance. What could the substance be?

The only problem was, since I was too impatient to read through those giant Inorganic Chemistry textbooks, I never knew how to interpret these facts. What does it mean when something turns the flame green or burns violently when put into water?

So I got a book that had a large collection (around 300 problems) of solved roadmap style problems and directly started attempting to solve the problems; with no background whatsoever. The first problem I read made no sense to me. So I just read the solution. But when I read it, I learned a few new facts. This time, those facts were interesting to me, since those were exactly the facts that were required in order to solve the problem. So I had a greater retention capacity for them in my brain. In fact, the first 10-15 problems made no sense to me and I just kept on reading the solutions and trying to remember as many of the facts as possible. But on the 16th problem, I read something I had read a few problems ago. The unknown compound in question had the same behavior when put into some kind of acid as the unknown compound from 5 questions ago! Thus I knew that we were dealing with a copper ion or whatever. With some extra guessing and extrapolations, I started getting the answer right with a reasonable accuracy.

I realized that this was just a more advanced version of the popular “memory game”! Memory game is the one where you place several cards face down on the table and you can see what’s on the cards one by one, starting from the top left. and keep each card back face down on the table after seeing it. If you see a card and feel that you’ve seen its copy before, you go back and flip the card you think is the copy. If it does turn out to be a copy, you can leave both the cards face up. Your final aim is to have all cards face up on the table. So the challenge is in remembering which card was what. Similary, in the Inorganic Chemistry game, each question presents you with some information about a compound and you need to remember from the previous questions what the particular piece of information meant.

Gradually, I started spicing up the game. I started counting the number of correct answers I got in one continuous streak. If I got 7 correct answers in a row and then 1 wrong answer, that would give me a score of 7. So I started trying to beat my own previous record. Slowly, things became very exciting. Eventually, I managed to know a significant part of the “roadmap problems” portion of Inorganic Chemistry.

The moral of the story is not just that you can make Inorganic Chemistry interesting. But that, you can make anything interesting by building an interesting game around it. Setting up a scoring system and then trying to beat your own previous record already makes things interesting. You can also set up a system of rewards and compete with other friends.

I learned the trick of counting the number of correct answers in one continuos streak from my father when I was perhaps around 10 years old. He told me he used to do it when he was small. In fact, his method has an extra step too. You can assign these scores to the batsmen of the Indian cricket team in the sense that a wrong answer means a wicket and a correct answer means a run. This way you can have a full India vs. Pakistan match! I have “played” this game in the past and it gets seriously addictive.

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013. Written by Vinayak Pathak. 2 comments.



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