For want of a pencil a future was lost

May 29, 2008

Before I could think of starting my own blog, “The Guitar That Was Never Played” brought to mind those unfortunate souls who are unable to articulate their thoughts for one reason or another.

Modern life in a developed society has provided me with access to powerful tools of articulation that I often take for granted. While I debate whether or not blogging is a good use of my time, billions of people, many of them children, remain illiterate and struggle to understand our world.

When I visited India last summer, I tried to discover the causes of illiteracy, especially in rural areas. I was fortunate to be able to visit a village in the state of Karnataka. From my conversations with some of the locals, I gathered that one major obstacle to literacy is a lack of basic materials such as notebooks and pencils. Further inquiry revealed that the situation is by no means unique to that village; it is a nationwide pandemic.

The government offers free schooling to children throughout India, but abject poverty still makes it difficult for many of them to attend school. They cannot afford school supplies and must often rely on the kindness of donors to provide their schools with paper, pencils, erasers, and notebooks.

Investing in a notebook and a few pencils for every child in the developing world could potentially yield huge returns for future generations. The current situation is particularly disappointing in light of how much money is spent on frivolous doodads in our developed society. For example, sales of ring tones in the United States alone exceeded half a billion dollars in 2007. The average cost of a ring tone (roughly $1-3 or Rs.40-120 in Indian rupees) could provide a child with basic school supplies for a full semester.

My next goal in this area is to get back in touch with people from that village to try to find a scalable albeit low-tech solution to this grotesque shortfall. While the current state of affairs may be deplorable, it can certainly be changed through co-operative effort.

Imagine the stories and poems that will be written, essays articulated, pictures drawn, inventions invented, discoveries made, and friendships forged when millions of children are provided with simple tools to help them learn and grow everyday.

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Self-articulation – A Modest Beginning

May 28, 2008

Articulation has never taken a high priority in my life. I am notorious for starting a blog or journal and abandoning it after very few posts. I once wrote a four-page letter to my grandparents in my native tongue but never mailed it. Instead, they read the letter a full year later when they visited my family in Canada.

From an early age, I have enjoyed direct experience much more than its review and post-mortem analysis. I have enjoyed learning new things, not studying for exams; writing software, not going back to document code; playing a sport or game, not the post-game analysis; watching a movie, not the post-movie discussion; travelling, not writing a travel journal; living life, not blogging. If I were a Monday morning quarterback, my Monday morning football team would never win a single game.

During my trip to Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas last summer, I promised myself that I would keep at least a rough point-form log of events, activities, and experiences. As time passed, however, I realized that language was a tattered fishnet feebly and hopelessly trying to capture a whale of experience. The sight of colourful prayer flags fluttering on mountaintop shrines, the crisp smell of mountain air nearly devoid of oxygen, the sound of distant migratory birds, and the taste of spicy Ladakhi food would not yield to being summarized in a travel journal.

Being aware of this dilemma from earlier life experiences, and despite the presence of a digital camera in my arsenal, I abandoned my quest and focused on simply relishing each moment of my journey. In any case, subjective human experience is far too complex to completely and accurately describe in pictures or words.

Over the past several weeks, however, I have been rethinking my position and have changed my views somewhat. I now see some value in writing as a tool of introspection, putting thoughts to paper (or screen) for future reference and reflection.

Two powerful influences in engineering this change in attitude were an observation my father (who is an engineer) made last week and a blog post I stumbled upon by accident (whose author is also an engineer).

When my father visited me in New York last weekend, he commented that I have many innovative ideas that I have not taken the time to implement. Since I cannot find the time to implement all of my ideas, it is my hope that by articulating my thoughts via a blog, I might inspire somebody to create something of value to themselves or their community.

While searching for something online several days ago (unfortunately I no longer remember what it was) I came across a provocative blog post entitled “The Guitar That Was Never Played :: On Self-Articulation”. The author used a beautiful metaphor to compare a person with unarticulated thoughts to a guitar that is never played, and argued that “self-articulation should not only be our duty, but also our joy”. Reading the post inspired me to start writing about my experiences in an attempt to make a modest contribution to the symphony of ideas and opinions.

Learning mathematics and computer science in university for five years exposed me to the power of abstraction and metaphor in problem solving. Abstractions developed from specific problems often lead to more general paradigms for solving entire classes of problems. An analogous process could be applied in other domains by writing about experiences in order to better understand them.

It is fitting that the English word ‘essay’ is derived from the French verb ‘essayer’ which means ‘to try’. While some aspects of life will continue to be unfathomable, trying to explore others through writing could lead to insights that will make tomorrow better than today for writers and readers alike.