What is Balance?

We can learn cycling, hence we can learn anything!?
S V Ramu (2007-11-17)


Recently I floated in a 12ft deep swimming pool for an hour! This was my first time ever and I'm 34 years of age. No huffing and puffing, no extra inborn lung/body capacity, and yet there I was, and even the hand leg movements is just to relax and not to float. Don't believe me? Or maybe you believe this, and also assume that I'm kind of a mystic who can walk on water!? Of course probably not the second, but that is the kind of extreme stance we take when we encounter an balance act. If something is fantastic, either it has to be impossible practically, or it is some awesome mystery. Maybe there is another uninteresting option, that of meticulous practice: Kind of go daily to the field, slog it out, practice all day, and slowly you become a master. So anything fantastic is either one of these 3 options: Impossible, Mysterious, or Boring. Right? So not worth trying for? Now all ye non-swimmers, and even swimmers who cannot do the above, how do you see it? I can assure you I really did this (call me, I can show you), I'm no born swimmer, and finally this does not take years of boring practice (in fact I feel I can teach this to anybody interested, in under 10 minutes).

Ah! There you see it, it is kind of a trick. Right? The 4th reason for anything fantastic is a secret trick? Maybe there is a 5th reason then.

On Cycling...

Recently in an interview, I asked the candidates a question.

Can you cycle (ride a bicycle)?
How long did you take to cycle?
I took maybe a month.
Oh when?
Some 10 years back.
Can you teach somebody to cycle?
Sure I can.
How long will you take to teach somebody cycling?
Maybe 2 days to a week.
How come you took a month to learn, but you'll take only a week to teach?
Oh I was young then, and also I had no good teacher.
Oh great, what will you teach then?
mmm... I'll teach about peddling, keeping eyes straight, focus etc.
Oh with that people can learn (?), and if so can I ask you to not touch cycle, but teach only these concepts, and ensure the they ride the first time they touch a bicycle?
mmm... that is not possible, because you need to practice.
What should they practice?
Balance, keeping erect, and also traffic.
Oh forget traffic for now, I'm interested in teaching balance alone, say in a park, so how can you teach balance?
OK, I'll put the question in a different way, should somebody teach cycling at all?
If you don't know what to teach, why do I need a teacher at all?
We have to hold the cycle while they practice and tell some encouraging words.
Great, so all you need to learn cycle is somebody to hold it while you practice, right?
mmm... also to tell what is right and wrong in what we do.
Oh can you say what is right and wrong while we practice, in general?
mmm... like keeping your eyes straight and balance.
So if you say that they have to keep their eyes straight, they'll learn?
mmm... not exactly, but you get confidence.
Ah, OK then what you need to learn cycling without a teacher is just somebody to hold it and run along (but not speaking), and lot of self confidence, right?
mmm... yes maybe.
That means we cannot really teach bicycle, and that means, we do not need a teacher to learn bicycle, right?
mmm... ok.
OK (?) or, not sure?

How I learned to float on water.

My first experience with water was a big deep well near a farm, with lot of village friends. I'm a city boy, and they know the place and chore. So they showed me how to jump and swim. I was terrified. I even don't know how deep the well was, and no elders were there nearby to help if I drown. My younger brother was with me and he was terrified too. They assured that the fear was normal.

One hour latter...

My brother was splashing and struggling, but he swam that 10 feet well! I held on to a rock, and just was practicing to hold my breath. In fact I held the record time to hold breath. 1 min and 20 seconds. They praised my lung and they swam, but I could not dare to leave my hold of the rock.

Few days latter...

So now I can cross the well! Yes and in fact very smoothly and calmly. And all in one breath. I understood that if I take a deep breath, I don't really drown, as long as I move. So I held on to my breath, and moved my arms, and crossed. But they all can dive, play and swim across for a long time. I soon get tired and I cannot dive, and wanted to play, but cannot.

Couple of years latter...

So now I can still swim with one breath. But still cannot dive or play. And mainly, I can be in water only as long as I hold my breath! So max 1 min. But my brother reported that he swam for 2-3 mins in a big reservoir (some 600ft deep)! Alas, that is swimming and I surely wanted to do that.

Roughly 10 years latter...

Still my brother could do the above, and I also did only the above. Swim in one breath for 1 min max. So I had understood, that i have to leave my breath and take fresh. But once or twice when I tried to do that in well, I had a scare of my life, drinking water, struggling frantically, and somehow made it to the other side. I'm daring I guess, but each time I struggled, if I tried to take a fresh breath. And this was the time I heard about a new swimming pool in our area (remote from city, though it was). This was amazing news for me, but I dared not go, as it could be expensive, and I don't know if that will help me at all, or how long I have to pay for it. Then a friend of mine came along, and said that he is going to the pool regularly for some 3-4 months now, that the water is pretty clean, and that the month fees were just Rs.50. Ah this is wonderful, I'll try for a month and see. I asked him if he can swim, but he said, almost and not yet, but very close. This gave me some confidence, so it is possible to be near water for months and yet not learn. Thank goodness not everybody is 'lucky' like my brother to learn it in the first day. So there is hope for me.

One week after joining the pool...

So there I was in the pool and practicing out my old skill of holding breath. Nothing new, but I realize that my one breath was good enough for the whole 25ft length of that pool. But it was taxing. After one length I cannot do that breath-holding stint for next 10-15 mins. If I tried, I invariably leave my breath and had to stand. BTW, the pool's max depth was only 5 feet, and if I'm standing there, that means I'll drown in the well! So my fear was well founded. Now, how do I break my jinx with this breathing while swimming?

21 days after joining the pool... (skipping what I did till then)...

You know what?! I can float motionless for 5 mins, breathing and even talking while doing that (you cannot hold your breath that long anyway, as even world record is some 7 mins I guess, as I saw in National Geographic TV)!! And I was already aiming to float for 1 hr within a year. When that year, I went on a tour with my office, I showed it off in a similar pool there, but they were unimpressed as they all can swim.

Roughly 3 months after joining the pool... (skipping what I did till then)...

There I was floating for the whole time till I leave home (not swimming/exercising per se, as my weight remained same at 65kg over the 3 months)! More than 1 and half hour maybe, and it was becoming effortless. I knew I can float the whole day, but for nature's call and hunger. In fact I found it so boring, that I stopped paying for the pool and never practiced. But still I was not sure about deep pools. Here it is only 5ft. and I can anytime put my foot down. I know for sure I swam many days atleast for 1 hr without putting my foot down. But sometimes when I try some exotic twists, I struggle and put foot down for a second. What if in a deep pool I struggle for some reason, and no foothold? I intended to find some deeper pool to practice. And was sure I can somehow learn it. But I never found one.

1 year after learning to float for 1 hr in a 5ft pool...

No swimming in the meanwhile, and in our office we went for another tour. This time the resort had a deeper pool. First time I'm seeing a sign board saying 12ft! Did my legs shiver or was that cold climate? Of the 10-15 people who came with me, only two who dared to jump (yes jump!) in the 12 feet directly. Like all pool this too tapered from 3 feet, then 4ft, 5, 7, and 12 ft. Except the daring know-it-all duo, all the rest safely played in 4 feet water. I too got in at 4 feet. Seeing no physical separation from the deeper waters from these shallow depths, I was cautious not to stray involuntarily only to find that I don't have a foot hold. Maybe due to fear, even one width of the pool (not length) was tiresome, as I was trying to get my floating attitude. OK, I stopped trying, just held my breath, stood on spot and floated for few mins. They few more mins, talked and got back my confidence.

OK, let me try now slowly, do or die! In fact safely. I swam the width at 5 ft twice. Put my leg down once, and stunned by the tapering depth. Then just calmed myself down, and swam the width at 5ft two more times, with no foot hold. Then I dared and tried once at 6ft and came back to 5ft. Oh that was scary. All the time I saw the duo splashing and having fun at 12ft. I have to go there.... Now I tried 7ft and came back to five. Tried 7ft few more times but instead of coming back to 5ft, I held on to the sides. Surprisingly holding on to the sides was pretty comfortable and sure hold. So I can always try 7ft or deeper, and if any problem, hold my breath, swim the width and take the refuge of the sides.

15 mins after getting into the pool...

I was there in 12 feet for once and slowly came to other side! Great it works. And all my practice in 5ft deep paid off in 12ft, no surprises, no new buoyancy factor to tackle. Just fear. Then and then I was floating in th 12 feet deep for 10 mins or more (in fact much less than an hour, anyway...). There I was floating, not on water but on cloud nine! Already aiming for 1 hour in a sea...

Mathematics, Swimming and Rediscoveries

For swimming, after the 12ft float it was bit of an anti-climax when I found that this is all already known, while goggling (In fact I was happy to know that this is not new, for if new, I should either be a genius, or it should be flawed). In fact it was a popular way to learn sea swimming! Thankfully I need not explain the details here, as it is there in open and nothing new.

Rediscovery is not new to me, and I have seen it while working with number partitions recurrence relation (the asymptotic version I never understood). Even the Why Calculus article was a simulated rediscovery, and hence the joy of narrating it. Just to say that the rediscoveries is not a thing to be disappointed about, but to be happy that we are thinking in the line of an old master. And that is some assurance. But maybe I will never be an inventor then if I always find rediscovery as un-disappointing? Maybe that is why people spend time studying for years, before doing Phd.? Anyway, even if you invent, you have to learn too right? You cannot invent everything, and maybe every learning is an invention/discovery too!

Similarities between Floating and Cycling: Balancing

  1. Both is a kind of balance.
  2. Both comes in a snap.
  3. Yet both needs some years of acquaintance. But can (or should) it be called as practice?
  4. Both are effortless and a kind of reflex once mastered.
  5. Both cannot be really taught, but yet has to be learned!
  6. After learning, the theory is not as interesting as the learning itself. Except for the joy, no practical technique can be interestingly expressed.
  7. Definitely in floating I did lot of thinking. You know what, I Google-d a lot about body mass, buoyancy etc. to be sure that it is really possible that we can float. (The clincher fact was, I can float with my nose down if I held my breath, and so is it not possible just to keep my nose alone above water?!)
  8. Now we usually don't remember how we learned cycling, as it is usually in our early childhood. But if you float, you know there is similar kind of balance, and if you leave it maybe you can drown! Obviously unlike falling off cycling, I cannot try drowning.
  9. In both, you don't really forget it, if you learned it. Even after few years of no practices, after some initial wobble you can recollect the basic balance, and after some practice, come back to old confidence.
  10. In both, confidence and passion is a key factor. As to try out various things and fail, you still have to believe it is possible. In cycling we do see others doing it, so we may need no more assurance. But while floating, I have never seen anybody doing that before, and it took some research on Internet to see that my belief of possibility is right. So I kept trying with the confident hope. Maybe that is why you need that 'teacher' while cycling: To give you confidence that you are on course.
  11. In both a teacher can help, though cannot teach! But to give confidence to learn.

Memorizing vs. Balance

Generalizing this, can we say all knowledge is a kind of balance? Then can we say, memorizing a 100 line poem is a balance too? Maybe not!

  1. Memorizing a long poem, takes time, and it is not a snap. If you have memorized 50 lines in 10 days, you might need another equal number of days to learn 100 lines in total.
  2. So memorizing is linear, but balance is asymptotic. For long time, nothing happens, but suddenly the key facts gel, and snap, you know it.
  3. And mainly, after some years without practice, you forget to recollect!!
Surely, there are some learnings which are not a balance. So is memorizing is in some way 'shallow' when compared to learning to balance? That is, a balance is a kind of 'deeper' memorizing? BTW, what other kind of learnings can be got like balancing, in a snap?
  1. I would say, 3-ball juggling and above (I'm already planning to learn this next! Researched few things about Siteswap etc. Mathematical, Fun!)
  2. Of course tight rope walking
But these are obviously 'balancing' and physical. Can non-physical things be a balance?

Algorithms and Object Oriented Programming (OOP)

Programing is not natural. If you consider basic global variable based programming, all you need are only 4 concepts: Maybe statements (assignment and expression), Variables, Loops, Branch. This is the complete set for even full mastery, and you might take say 1-2 hours to explain all in detail with an example. And yet the newbie cannot program even simple "Add all numbers below N" like non-trivial 3-liners. So what is the problem? Teaching methods? Maybe a programing gene?! Nope. The confidence to be able to break any logical problem into a program is also a 'Balance'. Why a balance, why not just term it as a knowledge? As we saw, not all all knowledge is a balance. Memorizing is not a Balance. You don't forget programming if you have not learned to do it once. It does not come really incrementally but only in snaps.

Since there are many concepts involved for programming, maybe each comes in a snap and thus looks incremental. For example, the idea of an array is a distinct non-trivial revelation if you noticed. As it is the capability of a variable Variable, and you cannot simulate it by other concepts, if the the language does not provide it. Similarly the idea of Pointers or pass by value and reference are non-trivial concepts too. Loops, Functions are all distinct non-trivial concepts, and each require a Balance to be acquired, which takes more time than just learning the definitions.

OOP brings in a whole slew of balancing acts. Class, Objects, Encapsulation, Inheritance, Interfaces, etc. each requires an individual 'snap' or 'flash' to get the balance. That is why, many people think that OOP is hype, and yet when they see a clean API, they love it, and yet not realize it is due to OOP. I remember the individual tingle that each of these concepts gave me, when I first learned it, though I don't remember the exact situation for each (but for arrays with permutations problem, and for interfaces with VB 6). Design Patterns are one more such collection of gestalt, 'Aha' experience, a balance.

Learning to Learn

Sometime back, I realized my good fortune of being able to learn varied things. All distinct and all needing a Balance. I was terrified that it was all a fluke. Poems, Portrait drawing, Raga Identification, Flute, Calculus, and what was the common thread in all? A Genius? Practice? Fluke? No, the unconscious realization, that all these are balance and I persisted long enough to get the balance. Learning and seeing a balance is both beautiful. Balance is magical and non-trivial. It can look simple but yet not immediately imitate. Yes maybe it is possible to get it immediately as it is a snap, and that can happen anytime the right cues are in. But what are the right cues? That is where the mystery starts, and teaching ends. It is more easy to learn than to' teach'! Though to teach is a clear concept, conventionally it is used even for helping to memorize, where a book is enough. A teacher is to 'teach', not to be a walking dictionary or memory aid. With computers, this is becoming more obvious.