“No,” I said, shaking my head.
“Once…there was a sparrow who was very ill. He could not go south with the rest of his family and so he sent them along, saying that he would find shelter for the winter and meet them in the spring. The sparrow looked his son in the eye and said, ‘I will see you again.’ And the son believed him.”
“The sparrow went to an oak tree and asked if he could hide in his leaves and branches for the winter to keep warm, but the oak refused. My grandmother used to say that the oak trees were cold, hard trees with tiny hearts. My grandmother…”
“Sorry,” he said. “Well, after this the sparrow went to a maple tree and asked the same question. The maple tree was kinder than the oak tree but it also refused to shelter the bird. The sparrow asked every tree he came to if they might house him from the deadly weather: the beech, the aspen, the willow, the elm. The all said no. Can you believe this?”
“Well, the first snow came,” he said. “And the sparrow was deperate. Finally he flew over to the pine tree. ‘Will you house me for the winter?’ the sparrow asked. ‘But I can’t offer you much protection,’the pine said. ‘I only have needles that let in the wind and cold.’ It is all right,’ said the sparrow, shivering. And so the pine agreed. Finally! And do you know what?”
“With the tree’s protection, the sparrow survived the long winter. When the spring came and the wildflowers bloomed in the hills, he was rejoined by his family. The son was overjoyed. He never thought he would see his father again. When the Creator heard this story, he was angry with the trees. ‘You did not shelter a tiny sparrow in need,’ He said. ‘We are sorry,’ said the trees. ‘You will never forget this sparrow,’ the Creator said. And after that, He caused all of the trees to lose their leaves each fall…well, almost all of the trees. Because it was kind to the poor bird, the pine got to keep its short little needles all winter long.”
With autumn around, it is at a perfect time when I came across this little story. Perhaps it is also one of the native American legend stories, but I’m not sure. I wait the entire year for this season to come. My heart is filled with anticipation for it. Now when it is finally here, I am filled with mixed feelings. On one hand, there is joy and fascination to see nature’s art all around me. On the other hand, there is apprehension of this being a very short lived happiness and the onset of the winters, when trees will loose their leaves and nature it’s colors.
Applicants need to:
- have (or soon receive) a Masters degree in computer science/engineering, informatics, or related fields
- be really excited about our project
- be persistent (get back up and continue when things don’t work out as planned — true research rarely works out as planned)
- be fearless (e.g., be ok hacking a virtual machine, a compiler, a kernel, or implementing a complex algorithm)
- have a small child’s attitude (to want to understand and learn about everything they encounter)
- have an engineer’s attitude (not to take the first solution that comes to mind, but to look at the key alternatives)
- have a researcher’s attitude (to want to truly understand something, and to not be satisfied with the first best explanation)
- want to look at the simple and obvious before exploring the complicated
- be able to focus (to ignore the many other cool things one could also do)
- derive pleasure from coming up with a logical and clear argument or explanation
- like to read (books, papers, papers, papers)
- like to write (prospectus, proposal, dissertation, and papers)
- like to present (at conferences, or in class)
- like to convince others using sound arguments
- be ok working hard
- under-promise and over-deliver
- be happy staying in Lugano for quite some time
- be ok traveling long distance from time to time (e.g., for conferences, maybe internships)
- be ok with the USI informatics PhD regulations (e.g., TAing and taking some courses)
- be ok investing 3+ years as a “research apprentice” (aka PhD student)
I came across this list in an announcement for a PhD opening. It’s probably one of the most interesting announcements I have ever seen.
One would feel that the list is asking for too much. Well you wouldn’t feel so, if you understand this :)…
– A Grad Student!
It was breathtaking as I sat overlooking these mountains at Kleine Scheidegg in Switzerland. This was in summer of 2010. I spent a long time sitting there and simply gazing at these mountains. There was something captivating about them – I didn’t know what. I wanted the time to stop so that I could continue sitting there. They rose like a huge wall from the valley. On one hand, they were awesome to see and soothing to my heart. But on the other hand, their grandness made me feel intimidated. The feeling of insignificance of my presence in front of these mountains grew as I saw a para-glider reducing to a speck in the clouds as he got closer to the mountains.
Until recently, I didn’t realise that what I saw then was one of the most revered mountain faces in the world of mountaineering. The north face of the Eiger. It is considered to be one of the most difficult mountain faces to climb and has earned a reputation of “Death Wall”. More than 50 climbers have succumbed to the north face of Eiger till date. The first attempt to climb the north face was made in 1935. However, it was not before 1938 and death of 8 climbers that it was successfully climbed by a group of four Austrians & Germans.
My connection to Eiger was revealed a few weeks back when I saw the video titled “The Beckoning Silence”. It is a documentary about the British climber, Joe Simpson. His opening lines made me watch the entire series of videos which is a little more than 90 mins in duration –
“I still haven’t understood… you were playing a game with very high stakes and you might not actually have a choice of your fate. You like to think… you control the odds by your judgement, by your skills and it’s not exactly true.”
In these videos, Joe mostly speaks about the fateful second attempt on the north face in 1936 by Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer. All four died. The most painful death was of Toni who died in the sights of the rescuers. The rescuers were helpless even though he was only a few hundred meters away from them.
In the concluding part of the video series, Joe’s attempt to rationalize climbing fills my heart with admiration for the passion which people such as him have –
If you were going to risk all that, not just risk the hardship and the pain but risk your life. Put everything on line for a dream, for something that’s worth nothing, that can’t be proved to anybody. You just have the transient moment on a summit and when you come back down to the valley it goes. It is actually a completely illogical thing to do. It is not justifiable by any rational terms. That’s probably why you do it.
I was so impressed by the videos that I immediately ordered the books – “The Beckoning Silence” and “Touching the Void”, both written by Joe. I finished reading the first book today. I couldn’t stay untouched by the indomitable human spirit. Joe writes about his heroes and other climbers who have inspired him to climb. It is full of stories about how these men with simple grit and passion went on to defy the nature and the mountains. Most of these men died young deaths. Every climber walks a thin line between life and death, and has to live with the fateful reality of loosing his friends to the mountains. Yet, they climb!
The only person whom I know who comes closest to exhibiting such a passion for what he loves to do is my friend and colleague, Tomas Webers. He is a passionate hiker and a photographer. He especially likes aviation photography for which he at times undertakes difficult hikes. One of my favorite stories about him, which I often tell people, is about his trips to the air show in Axalp (Switzerland). The airshow takes place in a valley which is at a height of about 1500-2000m. To be able to get good pictures he and his friends climb on one side of the valley which is about 3000m high. They start early in the morning at around 2/3am and hike for about 5 to 6 hrs to reach the spot on time for the airshow.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
I heard this poem of William Butler Yeats in a TED talk of Sir Ken Robinson. In this talk, he expresses his concerns about the current education system. He calls it a manufacturing-based model which is not only killing the creativity of kids but also making them uninterested in education. He suggests for a more personalized form of education where kids have freedom to choose what they wish to learn. He concludes his talk by reading out the above poem and with the following lines –
And everyday, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet.
And we should tread softly.
“Tell me whom you love,” Houssaye wrote, “And I will tell you who you are…”
John Blanchard stood up from the bench, straightened his Army uniform, and studied the crowd of people making their way through Grand Central Station. He looked for the girl whose heart he knew, but whose face he didn’t, the girl with the rose. His interest in her had begun thirteen months before in a Florida library. Taking a book off the shelf he found himself intrigued, not with the words of the book, but with the notes penciled in the margin. The soft handwriting reflected a thoughtful soul and insightful mind. In the front of the book, he discovered the previous owner’s name, Miss Hollis Maynell. With time and effort he located her address.
She lived in New York City. He wrote her a letter introducing himself and inviting her to correspond. The next day he was shipped overseas for service in World War II. During the next year and one month the two grew to know each other through the mail. Each letter was a seed falling on a fertile heart. A romance was budding. Blanchard requested a photograph, but she refused.
She felt that if he really cared, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like. When the day finally came for him to return from Europe, they scheduled their first meeting – 7:00 PM at the Grand Central Station in New York. “You’ll recognize me,” she wrote, “by the red rose I’ll be wearing on my lapel.” So at 7:00 he was in the station looking for a girl whose heart he loved, but whose face he’d never seen. I’ll let Mr. Blanchard tell you what happened:
A young woman was coming toward me, her figure long and slim. Her blonde hair lay back in curls from her delicate ears; her eyes were blue as flowers. Her lips and chin had a gentle firmness, and in her pale green suit she was like springtime come alive. I started toward her, entirely forgetting to notice that she was not wearing a rose. As I moved, a small, provocative smile curved her lips.
“Going my way, sailor?” she murmured. Almost uncontrollably I made one step closer to her, and then I saw Hollis Maynell. She was standing almost directly behind the girl. A woman well past 40, she had graying hair tucked under a worn hat. She was more than plump, her thick-ankled feet thrust into low-heeled shoes. The girl in the green suit was walking quickly away.
I felt as though I was split in two, so keen was my desire to follow her, and yet so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had truly companioned me and upheld my own. And there she stood. Her pale, plump face was gentle and sensible, her gray eyes had a warm and kindly twinkle. I did not hesitate. My fingers gripped the small worn blue leather copy of the book that was to identify me to her.
This would not be love, but it would be something precious, something perhaps even better than love, a friendship for which I had been and must ever be grateful. I squared my shoulders and saluted and held out the book to the woman, even though while I spoke I felt choked by the bitterness of my disappointment.
“I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard, and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad you could meet me; may I take you to dinner?” The woman’s face broadened into a tolerant smile. “I don’t know what this is about, son,” she answered, “but the young lady in the green suit who just went by, she begged me to wear this rose on my coat. And she said if you were to ask me out to dinner, I should go and tell you that she is waiting for you in the big restaurant across the street.
She said it was some kind of test!” It’s not difficult to understand and admire Miss Maynell’s wisdom. The true nature of a heart is seen in its response to the unattractive.
“Tell me whom you love,” Houssaye wrote, “And I will tell you who you are…”
“This story is about a family in Coleman, Texas. On a hot afternoon, the father-in-law, suggested that the family goes for a dinner at a place called Abilene. The proposal was mild and the family wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. Still they agreed to it and all of them went to Abilene. However, the entire idea proved to be a big disaster, right from the car ride to Abilene, which was 53 miles away, to the food and service in the restaurant. The family while returning back didn’t discuss it on the way. The arguments and accusations began after they reached home when each started blaming the other for the idea. Finally it came down to the father-in-law because originally it was his idea. At this point, he steered himself clean by saying that even he wasn’t too interested and had only made a suggestion to which everyone agreed.”
I came across this story in Subroto Bagchi’s book ‘The Professional‘. He used a term called ‘Abilene Paradox’ which refers to a situation where everyone in a group agrees to something which is counter to their own individual opinion. As a result of this, when things go wrong, no one is ready to take the responsibility and claims that he/she had simply followed the group’s opinion.
Subroto stresses on the importance of professionals assuming the responsibility of dissent when working in groups/teams. By responsibility of dissent, he means that a professional should be willing to voice his concerns and if required disapprovals also during the group’s decision making process. The goal of a group’s discussion should be to decide on the right things to do rather than achieve a consensus among the members. Otherwise, like in the story, when the group’s decision turns out to be not-so-correct, no one knows who is the responsible and a chaos reigns.
To illustrate this idea, Subroto uses the case of the financial fiasco of Satyam Computers. In December 2008, Satyam Computers had declared that it would purchase two companies for $1.6 billion. These companies were owned by the sons of Ramalinga Raju, the chairman of Satyam. The acquisition didn’t make much sense as the two companies were into real estate and Satyam was an IT company. Besides this, those companies were largely owned by the families of Ramalinga Raju and were valued at unreasonably high price for the purpose of acquisition. The surprising fact here was that the board of directors of Satyam agreed to such an acquisition and no one raised any concerns. The board consisted of eminent people like Dr. Mendu Rammohan Roa (dean and director of IIM Bangalore), Dr. Krishna Palepu (professor at Havard), Mangalam Srinivasan (adviser to JFK School of Governance at Havard), Vinod Dham (father of Pentium), V.S. Raju (ex-dean of IIT Delhi) and T.R. Prasad (an ex-cabinet secretary).
It is quite apparent that the members of the board, who were all accomplished individuals and who may not have not agreed to the deal if they decided individually, failed to exercise their responsibility of dissent when taking the decision as a group. The consequences of this was tremendous and widespread which not only left a black spot on the image of Indian software industry but also effected the thousands of shareholders, employees and families associated with Satyam.
“In approving the $1.6 billion deal, the Satyam board was on a trip to Albene”.
Disclaimer: The facts in this blog are based on the contents of the book ‘The Professional’.