Note #16 US Diaries 2017 

‘The things that you run away from, will chase you’
Today afternoon it was pizza for lunch at the summer camp at Chinmaya Vrindavan. As I saw the option of curd rice as Prasad at the temple, I happily opted for curd rice over pizza as I was never fond of pizza (in fact I run away from it) . I relished the curd rice a lot and I thought that my purushartha (freewill) allowed me to go away from Pizza. 
I was invited for dinner by a friend and as I was entering the restaurant I asked him, ‘Which restaurant are we going to?’ He said, ‘It’s the pizza place I was talking about. I thought I should take you here at least today.’ 
I was reminded of an instance that Swami Mitrananda ji once shared in his talk where he shared a few anecdotes and said, ‘What you run away from, will chase you throughout your life.’ 


Note #15 US Diaries 2017 

The last walk in Princeton 
It’s hard to believe that 5 weeks passed after we have come here to Princeton. Today as I was going to the class, I was trying to recollect the thoughts I had on the first day as I was walking to the class from our apartment. We were figuring out how to cross the roads, getting used to the right side driving, gazing at beautiful cars and houses, getting excited when we would watch a deer or a rabbit, and a bit anxious and eager to attend a class in the Computer Science department. Soon we got used to it and Princeton became our home. We got used to the daylight till late evening. The heavy breakfast of idli, Poha and other stuff that we would have back in India was replaced by milk and bread. Walking for anything less than two miles looked trivial. The silence of the place sunk in to our hearts and nature at its best welcoming us. Along with all the beautiful things, we completed an excellent 5-week course which I am sure would change the course of the life of many a students who attended it. 
The walk on the last day from the classroom to the apartment was a different feeling. Will miss you Princeton. 

Note #12 US Diaries 2017 

Quarter Vs Quarter.

The other day, while Sherin Thomas and I met after almost two decades, we were at a parking lot to park his car. At the meter, Sherin suddenly exclaimed, ‘Let me go to the shop and get some quarters.’ For a moment I thought – Why does he want to go to shop to get a ‘quarter’?  I mean, who sells ‘quarters’ in shops? 
Silly me didn’t realise that he was talking of a quarter (of a dollar) for paying the parking fee, and not the ‘quarter’ that is commonly used in a different sense in Mumbai. 
English is a phunny language!

Note #13 US Diaries 2017 

The unAmerican American – one of the most inspiring persons I have ever met.
Today we had a short interactive session with David Jacobowitz, who had attended PACT (Program for Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking) at Princeton four times. He was one of the participants of the first batch of PACT. Our faculty, Dr. Rajiv Gandhi, said that he was the only one from his high school who attended PACT then. He also commented that David wasn’t the fastest in the class, but he was definitely one of the most hardworking ones.
David started his talk by sharing something about randomised algorithms and how he is currently using it in his PhD at Harvard. He explained the process as simple as he could. While he was doing so, I was observing his body language. He was very shy. His hands tremored a lot. He seemed to stammer at times. He took a lot of time to think and his speech was not very fluent. He struggled to put his thoughts in a flow. Sometimes he would step back and say that he was not quite correct in the way he put it, rather than just going over it like some speakers do to hide their mistakes. He seemed to find it difficult to write on the board. He confessed that he is not used to teaching but he aspires to do it some day. Clearly it was visible that he was not a very fluent speaker and teaching was not something that he did often. 
After explaining about the topic, he went ahead in sharing how PACT has helped him. He said, “For any research to happen or to solve any kinds of problems, one needs to be good in critical and analytical thinking. PACT is the one of the best things that happened to me. The kind of Math that is dealt in Discrete Math helps one understand how to think and analyse things. People think that Discrete Math is only for Math or Computer Science. No, it is not. It is for anyone who wish to pursue anything because it just teaches you a very solid way of thinking, proving and solving problems.” David is currently doing his PhD in some area related to Biology and Physics. He confessed that back in high school he would have never imagined that he would pursue something in Biology. But doing PACT and pursuing his undergraduation at Princeton opened a lot of doors to him.
David shared a lot of areas where they use Discrete Math and Algorithms in Biology and other Science. Most of the things were very new to me. I could see that they were directly using Math in their areas of research. To my astonishment, David even said that he learnt how to write essays in a better way in the application to all the universities because he was good at Math. He said, “In Math, we don’t write more, nor do we write less. It has to be up to the point. This is exactly what we need in a good essay. Proofs in Math, enabled me to write better essays.”
Rajiv interupted to share some more things that David missed to share in his experience at Princeton. Immediately after his freshman year (first year) at Princeton, he started talking to lot of senior students and faculties and got on to do research with them. He learnt a lot and did a lot of research. He wasn’t shy to ask people if he did not understand something. His faculties could see that he was very hardworking in research. Rajiv said that David was self-motivated. He knew how to prioritise things and do his work. And he could do all this because he was hardworking and he was open to talk to people. Talking to a lot of (knowledgeable) people was the key. Rajiv also shared another shocking thing about David. He failed in Economics during his undergraduation at Princeton. He had got an ‘F’ grade in Economics. Once a person fails, he cannot get a GPA score when he graduates. He had got just one A+ in his entire undergraduation. But that A+ was in his research. Despite not getting a GPA, and getting just one A+, he got a very strong recommendation letter from his guide saying that he was one of the best research students the guide had ever got. And the guide was a very known Prof in the community. That was it. He got into most top schools of which he chose Harvard to pursue his PhD. People spend a lot of time trying to get best of grades and high GPA. But what really counts is if we had done the best in what really matters or have we tried getting the best in unessentials. 
While David was doing PACT in high school, he didn’t like History in one year. His father told Rajiv that he had told David if he gets anything more than a B-grade in history, then his father would be very disappointed. That would be shocking for most people. But his rationale was that getting more than a B in something that David wouldn’t like would mean that he is not working that hard in PACT which is something that he really loved.
David was already good at Computer Science and he could have easily opted for Computer Science for his PhD and had a smooth sail. What makes him stand out is that he thought why to take a degree in what you already know (Computer Science, in his case). Instead, why not take a course where I can learn something new. That’s what prompted him to shift from Computer Science to Biology.
The interactions between the students and David went really well. He wasn’t shy about sharing about his weaknesses and how he overcame some of them. That was so unAmerican about him because people in US generally like to keep personal stuff within themselves and not share it with others. All of us could see that he was so different. Despite his weaknesses of not being among the brightest, not being even among the average speakers, with his physical challenges, I think what his faculties and interviewers might have seen and appreciated in him would be his ‘genuineness’. He was a genuine guy and that is what reflected off him. No show off, no lies…just the Truth. I think that is what any Prof, employer, parent, friend, partner would look for – a genuine guy. 

Note #11 US Diaries 2017 

Note #11: How to write an exam? Can students set a question paper for students?
Today, I took a test after a long time. Last time I took one was on Sanskrit three years ago when I had put in a lot of time to study. Same was the case this time. I learned a few new things while writing the exam, which I thought I will share.
Back in college, I had a different ‘skill set’ of writing the exam which I don’t intend to share in detail right now. If you are thinking that it was ‘copying’, then you are wrong. It was mainly understanding the question pattern, going through frequently asked questions and all those boring stuff which most students do today too. But today’s experience was different. Let me start with the question paper. 
The paper for us was set by the students in the advanced group of PACT (Program for Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking, three of them were my own students. Today, I had the privilege of taking an exam that was set by my own students along with other students. I don’t know how many teachers would be this fortunate 😉
The course faculty had told them to set the question paper in such a way that there should be challenging questions so that scoring 100% would be very very difficult. At the same time, there needs to be questions which will motivate the students and feel them confident that they could solve atleast a few questions. The paper was one of the best ones I have seen till date. It covered almost all the topics that was taught in two weeks in the PACT course. Three very good things about this exam were:

1. There were no grades. Just right/wrong with comments from the moderators (moderators are senior batch students).

2. The exam was optional. We were free to take or skip the exam. But all 78 students took the exam even though it was completely fine with our faculty that anyone might wish to skip the exam (He created a willingness to take the exam and no one felt that it was enforced upon them).

3. No time limit. One could take as much time as one needed to finish the exam. This is very much in contrast with most examinations that we take in India where someone who gives the answer fast is considered superior to others. Most challenging problems (both in life and in Math), demands a lot of time to think over it. It tests our patience, persistence and problem-solving skill. Since the questions were mostly new (created by the students), it is a paper that can also be given to be taken at home if required. I was the last one to get out of the class as I spent around 4 hours on 13 questions. Still I couldn’t complete 2 questions.
There were no Multiple Choice Questions (which was obviously the best part) and most answers were to be justified. Many problems involved counting so we had to do lot of calculations and arrive at the answer. The issue with such problems is that sometimes more than one solution seem to be true. In the interest of time, I just wrote down the final answer for those questions and moved on to the next ones leaving the explanation to be given at the end. I could go through all the problems comfortably mainly because of the above two reasons:- No grades. No time limit. And hence, no competition and stress-free exam.
After answering a reasonable number of questions, I went through those which I couldn’t solve at the first go. And bingo! I could do it instantly. Why did this happen? Many a times when we are trying to solve a problem, we think from one direction and our mind is so convinced that we are thinking in the right direction that it doesn’t want to think critically or think from a different standpoint. But when you give it a break and work on something else and then come back to the same problem, your mind might take a different route to solve the problem.
Another good thing that I did was to leave the explanation part to the end. This is very good for problems on Counting where every answer seem to be correct. When I looked at the problem later on (while I was about to explain), I found that I had made some error in thinking earlier and couple of my answers were missing out some cases which had to be considered. Had I not skipped the explanation part earlier, my mind (that was convinced that my answer is correct) would have tried to give a justification/reasoning for whatever answer I got. This, I feel, is a very good thing while we analyse things too. When we are already convinced by an idea/thought, we cannot actually see if the idea/thought is truly correct.
After some great learning from taking the exam, I was thinking about the exposure to the exam setters (the senior batch students). They got a chance to understand ‘how to set a question paper’, ‘how to empathise on junior students’ (a good point that Hariharan brought to my notice), ‘how to discuss and come up with different set of problems of different difficulty levels, how to supervise the exam, how to evaluate and finally, how to prepare a good test which will not demoralise the students, which will help us identify the best of students (unlike today when we have a big lot scoring centum in boards), which areas are important to focus for testing, and so on.
Just from an exam I could see so many benefits. Imagine, how much the students would be gaining from the course!


Note #10 US Diaries 2017 

Visit to Chinmaya Vrindavan, Cranbury 

Visited Chinmaya Vrindavan at Cranbury today. The drive itself was fulfilling. On either sides of the road were large fields  which never seemed to end. Reached the ashram in about 10 minutes from Princeton and what a beautiful place it was (Will write more about the place some time later)! Visited the temple which had four deities – Radha Krishna, Dakshinamoorthy, Abhaya Ganesha and Hanuman ji. The aarati and chanting was so elaborate that it was difficult for me to accept that I was not in India. Felt good to see people in Indian attire after three weeks! Enjoyed the aarati, followed by a sumptuous meal made by some of the devotees. When they got to know that three boys were staying with me, they packed some chapati, rice and chole for them. Needless to say, as soon as I reach the apartment, the first question they asked was…’Sir, did you bring any prasad?’ I said, “Yes my dear ones. Here are some chapati and chole for you guys…” Before I could complete, they got ready for their second round of dinner (at 10:30 pm) and finished everything in less than 5 minutes. It was a sight to watch they enjoy home food.
On the way back, we had passed by those fields. It had become dark and the fields were pitch black. But no, the fire flies were on their duty. They were taking turns to light up the place with whatever light they could produce. Ah, was that a sight to watch! Eagerly waiting for the week that I would be spending at Chinmaya Vrindavan in a few weeks time. 

Note #9 US Diaries 2017 

A ticket in US is fine in India. 
A ticket in US is not fine in US. 

A fine in India is a ticket in US. 

A fine in India is not fine in India. 
Got it? If not, read on… 
A ‘ticket’ in US is ‘fine’ in India. 

A ‘ticket’ in US is not fine in US. 

A ‘fine’ in India is a ‘ticket’ in US. 

A ‘fine’ in India is not fine in India.
English is indeed a very phunny language. 

Note #8 US Diaries 2017 

Note #8: Difference between kids in US and in India
There are about 80 high school students in the junior group (that I was attending) in PACT for the Discrete Math course. Except for two or three of them, rest of them were American born. The group majorly comprised of Americans (of course), Indians, Chinese and Korean students. It had been 4 days that our class started. Some of them made friends with some of them, some of them were alone. The loners would sit alone for 3-4 hours in the afternoon study time. I was a bit surprised that none of them wanted to know who I was because they were seeing me taking down notes and working on the assignments as they were. I tried to get into a conversation with a couple of students but it didn’t work out. They would just answer the questions that I ask them and that would be the end of the conversation. I wondered why they didn’t want to have a casual talk. They would definitely say a Hi or Hello, but for an Indian who is new to this country, it would seem very superficial. That reminds me of a funny incident. A week ago, when we just landed in US, as we would walk on the road, every other person who would walk past us would say, “Hey guys, how (are) you doing?” and my boys would look at each other and me giving an expression ‘Why is he talking to us? Do we know him?’ And we would burst into laughter. When people would just say a Hi and ask, “Hey, how’s it going?”, I would think – Does he really want to know? I even felt like replying once to a person to explain how I am doing. I felt that everyone is upto their own business and not interested for talks which are out of their affairs. Had it been India, there would be a bunch of students who would come and talk or atleast get into a conversation when we talk to them.
It is too early to understand the subtleties of difference in culture. But from whatever I have seen till now, the kids over here don’t seem to talk much except with their friends. So is the case with adults, very less casual talks. Somehow I felt that the emotional touch is not the same as we get in India. In India, everybody is in everyone else’s life. Everyone knows what’s happening in everyone’s else’s house. My colleagues and I know how the state of affairs is in most students home, we know how supportive (or otherwise) their parents are, the occupation of students’ parents. We know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We can say freely to our friends/colleagues/students ‘Hey, can you get a chair from the other class or can you courier this letter for me’ or any other work without any hesitation. And most people back in India (that I know) love to be that way. 
Am I getting hit by the cultural shock?

Note #7 US Diaries 2017 

US Diaries 2017 

Note #7:

 28th and 29th June 2017 – Morning walks
The earlier day, Dr. Gandhi encouraged (rather pushed) us to explore the campus as we hadn’t done much except for the usual routes. So we thought of taking a walk in the campus in the morning. 
Unlike in India, we wake up automatically pretty early in the mornings here. Sundar wakes up around 3:30 in the morning, followed by me around 4, followed by others. We were ready by 5 for a walk. We set out all excited on the road to the Carnegie Rowing Club. It was a beautiful walk by the woods on the lonely roads where we had squirrels and birds as our companions. We walked for about 15 minutes and reached a bridge over a lake. It was a pretty sight to watch thick groove of trees on either side of the river and the sun rising in the background. There was a group of people who were getting into the rowing boats. We went inside the club to find nobody (staff) over there and there were lot of big rowing boats which would require about 8 people to lift each one of them. We figured out from one of the persons who were about to go rowing that all the details about the club and rowing was put up on their website. We checked out the place for a few minutes, took a couple of snaps with a Harley Davidson bike that was parked inside, and came out. Ojas observed that the door arch was of the shape of a paddle. How artistic! 
We walked back to our apartment after a nice walk of about 45 minutes in 14°C. What was interesting (for me) to see was that so many college students (needless to say, both boys and girls. More of girls in fact) were up for jogging. I loved how much they gave importance for fitness. 
On the next day we were a bit more late to leave for the morning walk. We decided to take a different route. Ojas suggested one down the Harrison Street and we followed the road. After a few meters, we saw a natural road leading into the woods. I knew that it would take us to some beautiful places. We took that and we were greeted by a flock of ducks who were trying to figure out where these people who were staring at them and speaking in strange accents, a danger to them or not. They were a bit shy, but didn’t run away while we walked past them. 
Soon we saw a small trail to our right written – ‘Nature Trail’. We took it and we found ourselves amidst thick trees that would prevent most of the sunlight hit the ground and river flowing from our right side. The trail went winding and got more interesting. There were some cobwebs that indicated that the trail was not frequented by people. People preferred another route to jog. And both these routes were meant for jogging. People used the other road for jogging as it was wider. In fact, our path had a river on one side and another stream passing through our left. So technically, we were walking in between two small water bodies. It was very cold in the morning but we hardly realized it as we got lost amidst the beauty of nature. We walked for about an hour and came back to our apartment.
The morning walks filled us up with a lot of energy, excitement and enthusiasm for the day ahead. 

Note #6 US Diaries 2017 

US Diaries 2017

Note #6: Meeting with a Nobel Prize contender 

It was a memorable day for all of us today for, we got a chance to spend one hour with a Nobel Prize Contender and Padmavibhushan (2016) over a cup of coffee. Prof. Avinash Dixit is a Prof of Economics and an expert in Game Theory. An author of various books and research articles, his CV runs into 24 pages. A very kind person at heart, he agreed to meet all of us and spent time answering all our questions. He is an Emiritus (retd Prof.) at Princeton. I came to know about him through Hariharan who suggested a couple of articles written by him on Game Theory which was very lucid even for a beginner. Thanks to Hariharan’s suggestion, he agreed to meet all of us. 
He genuinely asked what we all were doing and about the course that we are currently pursuing. Sitting with him for an hour opened up a lot of ideas to explore in teaching Economics and Math, not under different buckets, but under one single bucket. During the interactions, I asked him how he manages to write in such lucid language unlike other research articles which make us feel intimidated. He replied, “I have taken a lot of efforts to make it simple.” And truly he has. (Read ‘Restoring Fun to Game Theory’ by Prof. Avinash Dixit. Highly recommended for teachers in economics/math. Also recommended ‘A very short introduction of Micro Economics, Oxford University Press, by Prof. Dixit’). 
Because it was just four students and I for the meeting we could interact with him very closely. The doubts that students asked was answered elaborately by him. He said, ‘If I were in your place today and if I had to do something in applied Math, I would look for something in biology or data structures or something like that which is coming up today.’ Had it not been for my friend Hariharan Iyer, we would not have got this golden opportunity to meet such a knowledgeable person.