Why I love MOOCs

Back in high school and college, I would wonder why choosing one subject meant not choosing others. If I pick Physics, it meant I couldn’t study History or Psychology. I would think of the students abroad who, when you ask what they study, say something like Astrophysics and Greek, or Music and Political Science.
Yes, I hear you. “If you are motivated enough, you will learn it yourself.” True, but where does one start? Yes, Google is our best friend and we have evolved to find our way through a labyrinth of links – reading and learning, picking and dropping things along the way. There is a rush to these unique journeys. My “link journey” in learning something could be different from yours. I might have started with “how tall was Napolean” and ended up in quotes by Louis XVI.
But if you are looking for focus and structure, a Massively Open Online Course is a good bet. Thousands of other students doing the course, completely free, and great resources from some of the top universities in the world. It is almost too good to be true.
When I first found out about this, I went crazy signing up for courses from Songwriting to Psychology to E-learning. After the initial insanity had passed, I took a deep breath and looked at the time needed to do all these courses. They lasted from 5 weeks to 2 months or more. To get the most of each course, I needed to pick wisely and drop some courses. And so it started.
When I couldn’t catch up on all the lectures, I took my time to finish each one by paying attention. This meant giving up on the certification from the university as the course was long gone while I was still listening to some lectures. When I did complete the course, I was quite proud of myself.
 I am not always able to complete all the assignments, or get very involved in the discussion forums, but I did find the resources priceless in opening my mind. And that is what learning should do, right?

A blinking cursor

A blinking cursor.

A blank canvas.
A buzzing microphone.
The silence before one creates is heavy with possibility, fear, insecurity and excitement.
One stands paralysed in this moment. Sometimes the moment lasts a few months or years. One blinks away from this emptiness, to some busyness that takes its place.
Here is where habit meets creativity.
A routine helps this paralyzed mind. Open up, it says. Do something. Type a word, scratch the canvas, whisper a note.
Yes, it has been a while since you began. But begin, you must. And begin again tomorrow, and the next day.
(Inspired by The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp )

Totto Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

Back in February of last year, I picked up this book called Totto-Chan : The Little Girl at the Window. Maybe it was the unusual drawing of a little girl on the cover, maybe it was my curiosity to learn about children from Japan, but something told me this would be an interesting read. So I picked it up, and like a lot of other books, there it sat in my bookshelf, ignored for a while. It was a month ago, that I looked at it again to find that the cover had the same effect on me as last year. And it found its way into my hands.

Over the years, I have had some favourite characters who were little girls. There is Alice, who said “curiouser and curiouser” the way only Alice can. Then there was Lucy Pevensie of the Narnia series whose brave heart captivated me. The strong-willed and eternally optimistic Anne of Green Gables with her fiery red hair and freckles still has me wanting to read more about her.

What about Totto-chan? Well, what’s different about this delightful girl is that she is very real. This book is the story of a Japanese actress, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who wrote down her experiences in Tomoe Gakuen, a unique school in the 1940s.

The book is a translation from Japanese, and laid out as a series of small incidents. Totto-chan never could concentrate in her earlier school, and she seemed to get into trouble much too easily. Every teacher found her to be more than a handful. Being easily bored with seemingly dull classes at school, she would sit by the window of her school and get fascinated by the street musicians walking by. The main turning point for Totto-chan was when her mother took her to another school, hoping that she can be less of a pain to her classmates and teachers.

It is here that Totto-chan’s appetite for wonder and curiosity, are fed…the classrooms are railroad cars, and the ‘gate’ to the school is an arched tree. She is at Tomoe – a school with an alternate philosophy for education. Here, each child is encouraged early to pursue what they enjoy…while there are subjects to learn and bells that ring, the main agenda seems to be to bring out each child’s best. The driving force of this setup is their headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi whose heart is forever set on these children who are more than just fee – payers to his institution. The whole school has about 50 students in all, including physically challenged children.

Some of my favourite parts of the book:

– “Something from the hills, something from the ocean” – Each day at lunch-time, the headmaster asks the children if they have, in their lunchboxes, something from the ocean and something from the hills. This fascinates the children, for they wonder each day where their food comes from and how it is made, and also starts off discussions on nutrition.

– Can we see the railroad coming in? – When the school is expecting to add a new railroad car to be its library, the children wonder how a railroad car could possibly be transported into their school. They ask the headmaster if they can watch it coming in, and encouraging their curiosity, he asks them to get permission from their parents to watch this event at midnight.

The book is full of such little incidents in Totto’s life, including her delightful games with her dog Rocky, and her Tomoe friends, who have been meeting every year since to remember their days in their beloved school.

The book ends with Tomoe being destroyed in the war. But we read to find out that it is at this very moment that the headmaster asks “What kind of school shall we build next?” as he sees the school burning.

What really stayed with me are the lines that describe best the headmaster’s thoughts toward education –

Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear.

The death of Awesome

I was sitting in a share-auto in Chennai (a delightful concept to the Bangalorean who has had one argument too many with auto-drivers who can sometimes change their mind mid-journey – “Make it meter mele 20, madam”!!), when I noticed a billboard proudly yelling as it asked for all my attention. Now, being in India, it isn’t rare to see pictures of a batsman hitting away at a ball that seemed to have provoked his dark side. So, coming to the point, written on this larger-than-necessary-for-a-highway billboard were the words ‘IPL – It’s awesome’.

Now, no offence to all cricket-lovers (I know better than to offend 1 billion and more people), but this just made me think. Awesome? Is it, really? Well, probably yes, for some people, but let me tell you why that makes me cringe.

A few years ago, or maybe more than a few years ago….I remember my brief encounters with the word awesome. One of the earliest was when we sang the hymn – “How great Thou art” in church.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Written in 1886, this hymn goes on to describe beautifully the wonders of nature and creation.
And when I heard it, it was etched in my mind that this word awesome was to be used for things that take your breath away, that are worthy of awe. The Grand Canyon. The Taj Mahal. The mighty sea, or a waterfall that makes you feel really small. The arresting voice of a singer. The way our body works.

Now, I do understand we don’t live in 1886 anymore, but don’t we hear this word much too often these days? Is it that our wonder is now reserved for things immediate and temporary, or has the word lost its true meaning somewhere in its journey from written to spoken to easily uttered.

“I just forwarded that mail you wanted.”
“Awesome. Thanks!”

“My new pair of shoes are so awesome!”

“This joke I heard was just awesome!”

I’m pretty sure that poor ‘awesome’ is not the only word bearing the brunt of losing what she started out meaning, and I’m not so sure she will find her true identity again. But for knowing her as I did, in a hymn and in nature and in moments of pure wonder…I think she deserves a moment of recognition and consideration.

[ Please note that dictionary.com is honest to break it to me that this weakened colloquial version of ‘awesome’ has been in vogue from the 1980s, though it doesn’t exactly tell me who is to blame!]

Happy Absorption

I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like child stringing beads in kindergarten, – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. Brenda Ueland

Have you ever had that feeling of happy absorption? Quiet, content and deeply absorbed. Was it when you picked up a pen and wrote something, which you later found was poetry? Was it when you ran free in your school playground with no particular destination in mind? Was it something that woke you up at night, and you couldn’t rest till you had written it down/ sketched it out/ painted it/ created it or whatever else lifted up your spirit and wouldn’t let go till you let it come alive. What is it about that moment, this longing that nags you till you create and you willingly and most delightfully oblige.

There is something about that moment, when one, and only one thing is on your mind. Do these moments chance upon you, as and when they fancy, or could you learn to wait for this moment…teach yourself to receive them, like the same writer says again…

“I learned… that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”

How can something beautiful not come out from these moments of passion and focus. Yes, some results of that moment may never see the light of day. Yes, some of them might find themselves thwarted by opinions of others. Some may find their way into other hearts.

But it would always have changed you, just a little more, because you listened to that urge.

Why I like Amelie


I saw Amelie again recently, long after I had forgotten its beautiful little details that only the delighted eye will pick up. I smiled as I watched the fascinated Amelie and her enchanted imagination that refuses to succumb to reality, how each person  in her life is only but an amusing character in the grand world in her mind. Bold enough to play the odd prank on the neighbourhood vegetable vendor but too timid to say a word to the man she has practically been stalking.

A wonderfully told tale, the kind that cannot be retold or recalled for its story, but for its memory and what it did to you.

The Dilemma of Prior Knowledge

Everything we see, our mind makes an attempt to immediately associate it with something we have already seen, something familiar. That is why, even though you know that the following picture does not explicitly depict a triangle, we see it, we perceive it – because we know what a triangle looks like. And it becomes very difficult not to see it, once we know of it’s existence.

So this means, we have a repository of images in our minds, and even without us knowing, we are sifting through them to find assoications for the things around us.
Considering this fact, it is to my advantage that I keep adding to this repository, so that I recognise patterns. As an artist or a designer, it means I can add interest to my work by playing on this psychology by subtly adding that element that is not obvious, but dependent on the user’s own repository.

But here’s the flipside. If my mind is trained to make associations in the blink of an eye, how do I ever get a fresh perspective. How do I NOT see what has been seen before?

While this principle speaks of visual perception, isn’t it true for our thought life, in general?

Once we have become comfortable with set thought patterns, it is all the more difficult to look at, think and see something new altogether.

And this is the reason why a child’s perspective is honest and untamed. Her repository has not yet been fully formed, she looks at something without making those associations.

So, to know or not to know. In this age of information overload, we probably don’t have a choice. But maybe we can exercise our minds to be flexible.

Think about that!