An Encounter with Speed Reading

At any point, I have two or three library books in my room. They aren’t textbooks; some of them are not even remotely related to my classes. Right now, I have “Logicomix – An Epic Search for Truth”, Graham Priest’s “Beyond The Limits of Thought” and “My Life in My Words” – a composed autobiography of Rabindranath Tagore. The list of books to be read is even longer. Yesterday, I read an excerpt of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and felt compelled to borrow the book from the library. When I finished reading Logicomix, I decided I had to read the author’s other book – “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture”.

Although I keep borrowing these books, hardly do I find the time to read them. Two weeks ago, I found “Logicomix” , a graphic novel on Bertrand Russell’s life and work, in the Mathematics library. I spent the next four hours curled in bed, holding the book open next to me. When I finished reading, it was 8:30PM. I had a homework due for my algorithms class in 3 hours and I hadn’t completed it. I ended up taking a late day and devoting all of my Friday evening to completing that homework.

Making time for leisure reading during a semester is difficult, and mostly happens at the expense of academic or social pursuits. It’s hard to decide which to prioritize. I can’t neglect coursework because it’s my primary job here. I can’t shut myself in my room and read forever either, but probably never again in my life will I have access to a library like Cornell’s.

So when I saw a poster advertising a speed reading program at Cornell, I thought I had found a solution. If only I could read faster, I could read my books without sacrificing the time spent on academics or friends. I attended the first session for speed reading last week. A peer tutor introduced me to spreedr and some techniques for reading faster. I tried a couple passages with it. I didn’t understand all the details, but I got a good gist of what I was reading. The tutor said that it was normal; the idea was to absorb as much as possible in a shorter period of time.

Later that night, I tried spreedr with a passage I had to read for my philosophy class. I got a general sense of the author’s ideas but I didn’t catch the details of his arguments. I didn’t understand enough to form my own opinion on the topic. Still, it was enough to help me get through philosophy lecture the next morning. It seemed like a great tool if I needed to cram for an exam or skim through some reading for class. But I realized that it beats the purpose of leisure reading.

When reading for yourself, the concept of speed makes no sense because time doesn’t exist there. I can dwell on a particular paragraph I find beautiful or turn the pages back because I missed a minor detail there. It’s a break from the days of rushing from one commitment to another, of micro-planning my time to finish routine homework and other tasks. It’s liberating to simply be in one place and give my complete attention to the present experience, without worrying about a deadline for it.

Introducing the concepts of speed and productivity to this experience felt like a violation of a sacred space. I decided to allow the books to rest on my desk; there was no hurry to finish reading them. In the short time that my schedule allows me, the experience of reading with presence is more important to me than the quantity of information I absorb. I ended up cancelling the next session of speed reading.

Earlier tonight, I read two chapters from “My Life in My Words”. In it, Tagore’s poem “Where The Mind is Without Fear” was printed alongside its original title in Bengali “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo”. It struck me that I’d heard these words several times in the song “Jagao Mera Des”, without knowing its meaning. I spent the next hour carefully listening to that song by A.R.Rahman. It starts with the original poem, as written in Bengali and then a Hindi interpretation follows. I memorized some lines in Bengali just because they sounded beautiful.

Although I could have read two more chapters of the book in that time, I am certain that the joy of reading the book is not derived from the target of finishing it, but from the experiences along the way.

Reasons for All-Nighters

The past few weeks have been hectic for nearly everyone at Cornell, with midterms, prelims and papers and assignments due every other day. Last week was the height of my workload so far and it called for some all-nighters.

On Monday night, I had a project due for CS 3410 – Computer Systems and Organisation. The project was to implement a mini MIPS processor on a simulator called Logisim. Somehow, my partner and I didn’t fully start working on it until Sunday evening. We stayed in Upson Hall till 6:00AM, nearly completing our processor. Every few hours, I would go out and look at the Duffield Atrium. It is encouraging to see other students also working into the early hours of Monday morning.

The next day, we met again and worked on our testing module for the project and wrote a design document. We found a bug in our design 15 minutes before the submission deadline. It was a relatively easy fix, so we were able to submit an hour late. I still don’t know if that one hour will count as a late day. Anyway, I was in bed by 2AM that morning, which felt like a blessing.

On Thursday evening, I had a midterm for MATH 3840 – The Foundations of Mathematics. It is essentially a course in Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory. So far, we have been learning axiomatic set theory, the construction of natural numbers and operations on them, defining the principle of induction, proving the recursion theorem, constructing integers from natural numbers and rationals from integers. Currently, we’re learning about real numbers and the “Dedekind Cut” definition of real numbers. It’s a delight to see how set theory accounts for the arithmetic we take for granted.

On Friday morning, I had a midterm for PHIL 2220 – Introduction to Modern Philosophy. The class surveys epistemology and metaphysics of 17th and 18th century philsolophers like Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume and Kant. We had read upto Berkeley for this exam (fun fact: Berkeley is pronounced Barkeley!). The format of this midterm was quite a surprise to me. We received 6 lengthy, comprehensive study questions a week before the exam and were told that we would have to write an essay on one or two of those topics. Thankfully, my class notes and handouts were sufficient study materials. I stayed up most of the night reading for this exam, because I had to catch up with about a week of missed readings.

My reaction to the Modern Philosophy course has been mixed. At times, it frustrates me that the questions being asked can never be answered. What is the point of all this effort if it is bound to be fruitless? On the other hand, it’s an excellent exercise in thinking and making clear arguments (depends on your definition of clear, since no philosophical argument seems very clear).

After the philosophy midterm, I was still not done for the week. I had a homework due for my CS 4820 – Analysis of Algorithms. The material taught in this class starkly contrasts that of philosophy in the sense that we ask problems which have answers. There are problems and absolutely clear solutions to them. The cleverness of some of the algorithms , and the wide range of their applications completely blow my mind away! Last week, we studied network flow problems and we had a homework on it due on Thursday night. I took a late day and worked all Friday afternoon, Latex-ing my algorithms to solve the homework problems and attempting to give good proofs.

Finally, I could catch up on all the lost sleep. But I saw some friends for dinner and not having spent any time with them recently, I decided to hang out with them that night. We watched a Hindi film “Zindagi Na Milega Dobara” in a Keeton House suite lounge. Each of us had already watched it multiple times, but knowing the dialogues, making jokes on the characters and each other and doing absolutely nothing until 4am was enough reason to watch it again.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up being very productive on Saturday. Or even on Sunday. Unfortunately, if I ever think I’m done with my homework, I will be wrong because next week homework’s will have already been released. Since Friday morning, that “due next week” stack has been filling up, and the cycle starts again. So that was a typical prelims week in the life of one Cornell student.

Almost looks like a scene from a horror movie, with the dark clouds in the backgrounds and jack-o-lantern colors of the tower.

Almost looks like a scene from a horror movie, with the dark clouds in the backgrounds and jack-o-lantern colors of the tower.

Since no blogpost from Cornell is complete without a weather report, I am glad to announce that we have had consistently had temperatures above freezing. Instead of snow, we now have rain! There have been rumors like “Spring is in the air”. But it’s a great defense mechanism to always be skeptical about the weather. It won’t be spring until late April.

Heavy Snow and Workloads

The prelims and projects have begun and we’re entering the thick of the semester here at Cornell. The snow has become a permanent presence in our lives and I don’t recall when the temperature outside was above zero (celsius). Occasionally, someone takes a beautiful, snowy photo of the campus and I share it with my friends and family. I find consolation in their romanticization (is that not a word?) of wintry Cornell.

Photo by Michael Raspuzzi

Cornell at Dusk. Photo by Michael Raspuzzi


#FightTheFee With Some Respect

Last week, Cornell announced a new health of $350 fee for students who are not currently on Cornell’s student insurance (SHIP). As an international student, a health insurance plan is mandatory and given the high medical costs in the United States, it is necessary to have one. Enrolling in SHIP means all medical costs will be billed to my bursar account, which is convenient for me. Also, visits to the on-campus health center, Gannett, seem best covered by SHIP. So I have been enrolled in it for the past two years and have received proper and timely medical care so far.

However, domestic students tend to have external health insurance and do not buy SHIP. The new health fee could be a burden for them. There were many dissenting student voices online, especially on Cornell’s unofficial Facebook group. Explaining the additional fee, President Skorton said that funding healthcare services at Cornell has become a growing fiscal challenge and a personal concern for him.

Unsatisfied with the response, a group of student protesters “occupied” Day Hall, Cornell’s central administrative building this morning. Protests were also held at Willard Straight Hall in Ho Plaza. Some protesters interacted with President Skorton in a direct question and answer session and posted a video on Facebook. More than the imposition of the fee, the lack of transparency is what seems to be bothering the protesters. It was reported that the Student Assembly was not consulted about the new fee but only informed about it recently. In the video, students demanded greater inclusion of the student body in the university’s decision making process.

While the protesters’ concerns are justified, they appeared immature in the video of the session with President Skorton. Protesters asked irrelevant questions about the university’s finances, didn’t wait for Skorton’s response, yelled and interrupted, laughed at his responses, made inappropriate gestures and behaved in a manner utterly unfit for Cornell students. Skorton’s patience with them astonished me.

Given the cleanliness of our campus buildings, the beautifully maintained campus lawns, the brilliant professors who are grossly underpaid, the great libraries which house over 8 million physical volumes,the dorms which look like star hotels and the amount of financial aid Cornell offers, it is not hard to imagine that Cornell’s budget must be tight. In asking for detailed accounts of the university’s finances, the protesters insinuate that funds are being mismanaged at Cornell, which is the most absurd idea I’ve heard. The demand that the university function like a co-operative organisation and take student opinion into account for all financial decisions comes from a highly entitled place. What have we done for the university, that we demand this privilege? In our four years here, everything we do is in self-interest, although we often give it the facade of service to the university or the Ithaca community.

Some may argue that the tuition we pay gives us the right to question its use. But higher education is a service and our tuition is only a fee for this service. We are not benefactors donating the money to Cornell and the university probably need not be accountable to us. At a hospital, we don’t ask the doctor to give us an account of where exactly our medical fees went!

The myopic, self-centered view that the protesters exhibit in the video is silly when one considers the large picture of a great, timeless university. The administration has a prestigious, 150 year old university to run (Yes, we’re turning 150! :D). We are all here primarily because of the excellence of the university and if more funds are needed to maintain or improve that state of the university, then we have no right to question or undermine that need.

Even so, the university makes decent effort to be transparent in most relevant decisions. Student voices are given ample space in matters where it is fit. It’s important that we use this privilege sensibly instead of exploiting it and testing the patience of the administrators. In any case, regardless of circumstances, President Skorton and the administration deserve our respect and respectful conduct.