Evenstar

Come close, but no closer said a wise man. One step at a time. One tiny step forward. Each with it’s own set of predicaments, it’s own challenges. A long trail of steps, in hindsight, stretches as far as the eye can see. None exist in foresight though, for that path cannot be foreseen. I can give you no advice, said the wise man, except to make you understand that there is no distinction between your steps and who you really are. You, like every mortal, cannot escape the vicissitudes of that journey, but know that the laws that govern the elements are universal and will never change. This then, is your wherewithal said the wise man, go now and find your own trail.

Each step seems to be a product of nerves, of perspiration and intrepidity, drawing from the raw wherewithal. Hope is sometimes the only companion, a lamp in a path filled with many shadows. Whether this is a test of faith, or a challenge or a preordained passage is unknown. The mind delves into the past and  yearns for the Evenstar in the north sky. Both challenges and opportunities galore, but wither shall you choose that which is fleeting, which is ephemeral and glitters on the surface. Courage and perseverance must continue unabated, for they are never unrewarded. Even the shadows will soon pass for there is no power like that of a resolute and a determined faith. Solder on, whispers the wise man, for great and sterling things lie on the anvil.

The past semester has been quite the spectrum. I’ve probably learned and performed more this semester than at any time in the past twenty four years. I’ve met CEO’s of companies, interacted with some of the most extraordinary minds of our times and even visited the home of the most powerful man on the planet. I’ve also faced personal challenges and tribulations. Many a time, it feels like traversing in circles, with the deep recesses of the mind fixated on those variables that I cannot alter. I am determined to march on in complete gusto, with resolve and single-mindedness, for there is no boundary that is beyond the reach of perseverance.

Autism theory and human behavior

Taught Rosalind Picard and Matthew Goodwin here at MIT, this is arguably the most magnificent and well-rounded introductory course to autism on the planet. It would be completely true to say that I have never taken a course that has had such a profound impact on my thinking. Studying the inner bearings of autism has offered me an unusually powerful frame of reference to view statistical learning and probabilistic modeling of language. I learned more about human behavior in this course than all of the previous twenty four years of my life put together.

Being born into a family of doctors, I have seen countless stories of sadness. Yet I have also seen stories of inspiration and hope that can vouch with every fiber of my being that the work done to help children is the best work there can ever be. When I was seven, my grandmother saw a couple with a son who was almost my age who had a congenital heart defect in his left atrial valves. I still remember my grandmother trying frantically to arrange a surgery for that young boy. When I asked her once about why her eyes would tear up every time she’d see her young patients, she told me that young children and pregnant women were direct manifestations of God.

All four of my grandparents are no more, but on those occasions when I’d finish writing an assignment for this class and go jogging around the Charles river, the sparkling beauty of the river next to me along with fresh ideas about autism and children made me so nostalgic about all those years that I spent with my grandparents.  No words in the English lexicon are enough to describe how I felt during those moments. If not for anything else, I am so grateful that taking this class reminded me that my grandparents’ visions of the world could still be alive because I carry their genes.

A penchant for pattern thinking

One of the most illuminating and inspiring stories I’ve heard about in the recent past is that of Temple Grandin. Not only are her insights into human thinking and behavior make more sense than any piece of cognitive psychology I’ve ever read, her personal journey is one that cuts through layers and layers of ignorance and bigotry. Her idea is essentially this – that there is a distribution of different types of minds, and that the world needs different kinds of minds to work together. While she identifies herself as a visual thinker, as evidenced by tensor images of her brain showing a gigantic visual cortex, she also identifies other kinds of minds such as the pattern thinker and the verbal.

Here at MIT, which has a disproportionately high distribution of people with high functioning ASD, I see a lot of pattern thinking minds. When I was in the tenth grade, I was shocked to see the shocked faces of my peers who winced when I  told them what kind questions could be expected in the next exam, and that I didn’t prepare for certain subjects like world history and biology. What gives some of us the ability to process huge amounts of information, deduce patterns and transform that into meaningful data? What gives some of us the uncanny ability to fit a statistical model to seemingly disconnected and meaningless big data? While those questions are best answered by neuro-anatomists I’ve met at HMS and MGH, the larger point to be noted is that those of us who have sought refuge under the large beacon of hope called MIT, there are millions of other similar visual, pattern and verbal thinkers who don’t get the same chance. Are we doing a good enough job of identifying these brilliant minds (while acknowledging the social difficulties that these minds typically have) and putting them where they belong?

Thanks to the work of this one remarkable human being, there is a movement towards recognizing this fact. If you’ve never watched the Temple Grandin movie, I’d be hard pressed to recommend to you one less than any book on human behavior when it comes to explaining how unique each and every mind is.

Modeling the next generation transportation ecosystem

This semester, I connected the extraordinary Robert Hampshire to the Smart Cities group here at the lab. As a leader in modeling bikes sharing systems he spoke about his stochastic models for bike re-balancing and capacity prediction. The transportation ecosystem of the future is one that will involve bike sharing systems, electric bikes and foldable cars for solving the first-mile, last-mile problem, as well as an optimal interaction with public transportation. The idea is to optimize the ecosystem for every user based on their preference.

Building on the modeling of existing programs across many cities around the world, there is a need to tap into behavioral economics and tap into sensor-based parameters for moving into a meta-continuous real-time modeling of transportation systems. There is a chance to build the first ever such model into practice right here in Boston, home to the first ever underground transit system in the US, stretching back to the 1890s. A successful model in Boston would be so powerful that it promises to change the dynamics of transportation systems as we know of them in the entire country.

I’ve had so many experiences this semester, a spectrum of all of sorts of things. Fortunately for me, I have some of the most beautiful friends that anyone can ever hope for. What I’d be without them, or just how much of a value I can assign to them, I’ll never know, but in the midst of a scattering array of the scintillating, the challenging and the inspiring, there is one constancy that is comforting, and that is the the simple love of my friends and of my family.

It is perhaps in this glue that hold so much together that emerges a quiet yearning of the Evenstar that lies on the horizon.

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