Effective Altruism

I’m new to a city I have never visited, but I know of people who have been here, who have lived here, who work here, or in the nearby area. In two weeks, in self-isolation and then out of it, they have all met me – and each one of them has spent time to ask if I’m okay and if I’m settling in fine despite the strange circumstances. By nature, I’m grateful for the privilege that has seen me travel and adapt to different environments so learning the ropes has not been a challenge, but I can recognize how critical community-building and the assistance that others provide through most processes is. Through this essay, I’m hoping to explain my perspective as to why providing community is effective altruism. I’ll make this clear: I’m not arguing that one form of altruism is more effective than others, nor will I engage with how other forms are more effective. Through four stories though, I hope to communicate what community has the capacity to achieve, and how applying this principle of community on a more macro-level will allow for greater inclusivity and empathy.

Last year, as a prospective postgraduate applicant, I contacted somebody who had successfully completed an application to a top University in America as a fresher – a rarity particularly because of the University’s clearly indicated preference for work experience. My ambition was to learn from their application, and take the advice they could impart and apply it to my own. I wasn’t successful. A week ago, I discovered that the same individual was going to be at Cambridge, and reached out in the hope that I would be able to meet. Prompt replies and a we figured out a meet-up, where having only previously interacted with each other virtually – we actually began to speak about things we couldn’t learn about each other on the internet. My takeaway from the evening was that I had spoken to somebody I would be able to speak to for a range of things, or work next to anywhere and enjoy their company.

In my third year I reached out to a lecturer at Cambridge in the hope I would receive a reply allowing me to carry out some research under their guidance, and received just that. I got here and was able to establish contact once more. One coffee meet-up later, I left with the sense that there was a commonality of background and interest that meant I could seek out help if I required it.

My mother’s school classmates both live in this country, both one hour away from Cambridge. Both visited me in consecutive weekends, asking not only about my well-being but providing home comforts and food. With one, I spent an hour chatting about their experience in the UK, and left feeling inspired to work hard and make the most of my time here academically. With the other, I spent five hours exlporing the city – having been let out of self-isolation at long last, and came away with the knowledge that it was possible to discover, slowly, a balance of the things I was passionate about, despite any pressures that may arise. Both allowed me to look at others’ lived experiences and say, I could pick up on things from that – but more critically, reach out if I came across things unfamiliar to me.

In the past month, we’ve been trying to figure out how to most adequately construct an alumni association for our school – and how best to collaborate with our alma mater to make things happen. The entire process has seen people much senior to me, and much junior to me provide perspective that corrected my biases. A call for help yielded a plethora of responses, several unexpected, but a real desire to create a community has emerged.

In all of these interactions, I have observed my own selfish motivations that prompted them: seeking out learning, companionship, friendship, mentoring, and network. So this evening I asked myself if there was a more selfless way to look at each of them. What I recognized was that none of these were monetary transactions, but lived experience allowed for individuals to share some of their time to assist somebody else. No other resources, just time. Time that yielded individual interpersonal connections that allowed community to be forged – and a sense of belongingness and direction.

Effective altruism seeks to find the most effective way to improve others’ lives. The creation of community through shared, lived experience to me, is an example of this because it allows people to observe and learn from somebody else things that no book could teach.

Imagine the creation of communities that fostered a similar exchange of experiences among people who have similar backgrounds, particularly from people who face similar barriers. How inspired would that leave people? How much motivation would we be able to impart? How much motivation would we be able to gain?

Being inspired, how many more individuals would have the opportunity, or at the very least, the enthusiasm to attempt to break down a similar barrier?

Wouldn’t that make our lives better.

Pre-Term: Day #2

Today was a day of gratitude.

My morning went by in cleaning up my fountain pens to be able to inject new ink into them tomorrow, a nice Waterman Serene Blue for this term, and the foreseeable future. A few months ago, maybe sometime in June, I had discovered this lovely Pilot ink, the Iroshizuku, which had the perfect teal that matched the Cambridge Blue. If it was more affordable, I’d certainly opt-in to use that, but for now – and given that I have exams in blue, this seems best.

After replying to some e-mails I set off from my house hoping to return by 6:30, when the the forecast said the sun would be out.

This was the first damp day I ventured out in. To be frank, Cambridge hasn’t gotten terribly cold yet (it will soon, I reckon) – but the forecast was bang-on. It was damp and raining till about 1pm, when the gloom lifted and the sun came out. I was lucky that coincided with my plans – having brunch with a friend and coffee inside a church cafe with some others, prior to walking around the Backs to get to Eddie’s (that’s St Edmund’s College – where I’m based). A fun afternoon of exploring College, I left 3 books, 5 friends, piano-laden, and happier than when I arrived.

The evening, however, has been a highlight. I was able to meet somebody I had worked with and only interacted with via e-mail for three years and speak to them about my life, and theirs, and our mutual affection for common spaces. I’m brimming with joy about this – because I was a little star-struck, and I truly hope that didn’t show too much. In the night I met somebody whom I had only ever spoken to once, but somebody who helped me with my applications that I was able to say thank you to, and now begin to forge a friendship with.

There’s much I’m grateful for, but it’s this opportunity to interact with people I never thought I’d get to see in person that I’m most grateful for today. COVID has it’s challenges, and it’s important we all stay safe, but being able to set up in-person meetings, and some face-to-face coffees is probably how I’ll make the most of things.

Pre-Term: Day #1

I’ve been out of self-isolation since Thursday, and since Thursday I’ve been meaning to write about all of the things I’ve experienced, but I haven’t found the energy to sit down and write anything at all. My body really is not used to the amount of walking around I’ve been doing, so I find myself quite drained as the day comes to a close, which is testament to a few things: my fitness levels, and what happens to the legs when they spend 14 days doing nothing but laying straight. Therefore, with it being Monday, there’s no better time to begin chronicling things. I’m going to chronicle everything on the blog, that’s a commitment – from pre-term through each of the terms and the holidays. Where I write subject-matter essays though, I think I’ll name them different – if nothing, for ease-of-access and retrieval.

Since Thursday, I’ve had the good fortune of seeing different parts of Cambridge. Thursday went in walking to College and collecting my ID card among other things, and on Friday, I relocated to my accommodation, completing a recce of my new surroundings. On Saturday I met one of my local guardians, who came from London to spend time with me and show me around, while yesterday, Sunday, I spent organizing and unpacking a little bit more, and doing a quick run to Wilko’s to see if there was anything else I needed.

Today’s the start of International Fresher’s Week. I can’t really comment on what the activities are like in-person; Jake Wright and the other Camvloggers provide better insight, but this year, any group activities are limited by the rule of 6 (so we can gather in small groups of 6 at most in one area). They’re all opt-in, so you only attend the stuff you can sign-up for, and getting a slot at events is rather tricky.

My day began rather early, figuring out cycles and recording the podcast with Amma. My hostel neighbour from GNLU is studying at Cambridge with me, so we spent the morning doing some grocery-shopping, since he was out of self-isolation and I needed some dal. Along the way, we met up with other Indian LLMs, and a few of us ended up at King’s College, which is right at the heart of the city and sat on the lawns. I heard from someone that once term begins, you’re no longer allowed on the lawns so it definitely felt like a privilege. More than anything else though, I think meeting a few others whom I had met virtually gave me more joy.

The afternoon was wonderful. I had signed-up for a Really Useful Cambridge Tour, which promised history & utility – and did just that. Our group was rather diverse, in courses and continents represented, and our guide was a former international student (now professor), who showed us where to get good student deals on everything – some information I hope to put to good use. A lot of walking and a coffee later, we wound up at Jesus Green, where we had a picnic. Snacks were provided, which were wonderful (Yes, British Kitkat tastes different). What I loved apart from all the information was how enthusiastic a group of people were to make international students feel as at home as possible here. This was led by the Graduate Christian Society, and apparently under regular circumstances, they pick people up from the stations in and around Cambridge and drop them to their accommodation, providing hand-outs and some vouchers along the way.

There’s a lot to soak in around me I think. A lot to really appreciate. Today, I’m glad the weather cooperated. The next week looks like a lot of rain, and I’m not going to complain, it’s a fact of life now, but adapting plans to account for the weather is likely to be a challenge.

Onto day #2 of pre-term.

Moodle

Moodle is an open-source learning management system. Several Universities appear to have their own variants of Moodle, versions build off of the codebase that Moodle offers. Cambridge is no different. We’ve got our own Moodle, a virtual learning environment that allows us to enrol in courses and see all the material for our courses on a single database, in conjunction with Panopto.

I first heard of Moodle when I secured a place at UCL after Grade 12. UCL had us log-in to Moodle to communicate with the University, to inform them about impending arrival dates and everything. At the time, the technology didn’t particularly strike me. I only had access to the inbox side of things, and I was amused at how much the word sounded like Noodle, which for the most part just left me feeling hungry.

Late last evening, we received an e-mail indicating to us that Moodle was now open for us to log-in to, to enrol for our courses as students who wish to participate in the evaluation of the course, or auditors. I was too committed to a Pictionary night when I got the notification, so like most others who joined in for the game, I put off navigating Moodle for today. So I arose this morning knowing I’d discover something new.

Being in self-isolation naturally means that the feeling of being in Cambridge hits you slower. Moodle sped that up about two weeks. You log-in and see a smattering of repetitions and reiterations that you’re at Cambridge, and you can see details about all the courses on offer and the ones you’re studying, which for me – really grounded my brain in about the amount of academic work this degree is going to be. I’m certain all postgraduate degrees are the same way: a lot of rigorous, critical thinking, but boy did it hit me earlier than I anticipated it would. For a moment I was worried that perhaps I rode my luck a little too much during my undergraduate course but seeing reading lists and listening to Professors offer reassurances that prior knowledge is not assumed was rather helpful. In the least it will mean I can tackle the readings to gain foundational knowledge on which my term can build.

It made things very real, and for most of the rest of my day, I navigated Moodle to look at all of the material it stores and the range of ways it enables faculty to interact with us.

In the evening though, I had a puzzling thought. I wondered whether an attempt to create a Moodle would be ridiculed back in India. I look back at less-visually appealing attempts my own University administration made and all the various intranets we had, and I cannot recall being as awed by it. I’m fairly certain that unless forced to, we would not have used it at all. So why am I so thrilled when a University abroad creates an intranet portal that stores information?

My conclusion is this. I never properly utilized the intranet during my undergrad. If I had actually explored it’s full potential, I would perhaps have been equally taken aback. I know the library system at University shocked me when I realized everything was catalogued on our intranet and I could figure out if a book was available without walking till the library.

I missed that opportunity earlier, so tomorrow I shall wake up and navigate through more of Moodle and understand how it continues to survive open-source.

Living out YouTube

It’s now been five days since I moved to the United Kingdom. I’m still in self-isolation. In accordance with the NHS guidance, every day, I take a walk downstairs in my garden to get some fresh air. There’s a massive garden in the apartment complex I’m currently residing in, which gives me a wonderful view of the rest of the city while respecting my self-isolation restrictions.

This evening, on my walk, the prevailing thoughts that came to my head were largely centered around the fact that the life I will live and experience for the next nine months is a life that I’ve only previously seen on YouTube.

YouTube is a wonderful medium. I’ve expressed this sentiment before, but the true joy of short film for me is the perspective we receive. Watching vlogs gives you the opportunity to look at life through somebody else’s eyes, and documentaries and film always give you the chance to examine a character’s take on circumstances around them. I have loved YouTube for democratizing the content creation space for a long time now, and I’m grateful to have lived in a post-YouTube world for most of my childhood. I remember watching Ryan Higa and Dancing Turtle videos back in 2007, and the platform’s influence on my life grew massively when I was in Grades 9 and 10, largely owing to how much music I discovered there.

However, in that period of my life, I discovered several vloggers, and began to watch these videos of students in University towns in different cities. I claimed this assisted my research, enabling better decision-making when the time came for me to apply to University. In all honesty though, the vlogs were just ways of looking at different cities from a 20-something year-old’s view. I found the Oxvlog project, and Simon Clark, and all the Camvlogs and Jake Wright, which provided fuel to my UCAS application when I was younger. A few years later I discovered PaigeY, IbzMo and Ali Abdaal, who provided these wonderful views of Cambridge.

This afternoon, from my garden, I saw Spoon’s. The Regal Wetherspoon was a place Jake frequented in his vlogs, largely for dinner, and seeing it was surreal because although I was outside and rather far away from the place, I knew exactly what the interiors looked like, and what kind of discounts to anticipate once I showed them my student ID card. I saw a Nando’s and instantly Example & Ed Sheeran’s rap, The Nando Skank, began to play in my head.

This is just the beginning, but it really does feel strange to be in the locations I’ve only seen on YouTube. I remember in 2018, when one of my seniors moved to Oxford, my YouTube knowledge meant I knew about the closest pharmacy to her College. I used YouTube to learn about all this. My dad uses Google Maps. He’s given me some restaurant references already, and I’m sure he’ll know the geography of this place really soon, which I appreciate, because it means I have to explain less about my locality to him. It’s weird though. I’m living a YouTube life.

I’m not one for making films, but maybe this marks a opportune time to begin.

Dear Cambridge

Dear Cambridge,

At the time of writing, I have described your weather to everybody as British Test Match weather. When I was younger, I used to spend days watching India’s tours of England. I’d watch the day’s play and then watch the highlights. I’d pretty much be glued to the television till my grandmother came home and insisted I do something else. That passion continued through as I grew older. Since I started following the sport, there is not one season of English test cricket I have missed till date. Every match, I hear commentators say the same thing late in the day. Lots of cloud cover, the sun shining through in the batsman’s eyes. Ball swinging, difficult session. That’s precisely how you look today, and how you have looked for each of the five days I have now spent here.

Cambridge, you will be the fourth place I call home. Thus far I have resided in Dubai, Bengaluru, and Gandhinagar, falling in love with each for different reasons. I’m curious to fall in love with you, to find out why I fall in love with you. I’m curious to understand your character – what you enjoy, and what frustrates you. I’m eager to find out your story, your stories, each and every one of them. The folklore that birthed you, the myths that continue to help you survive, and the reality that draws people like me to you from far and wide.

You represent a closed loop in my life, Cambridge. It feels surreal being here despite the fact that I am sitting in self-isolation, because for years, I have seen your logo on my certificates as I completed my IGCSE’s and A Levels. I have seen your logo across International schools in the cities I’ve visited. I have repeatedly watched CamVlogs, and Jake Wright’s Vlogs on YouTube, and have heard stories from seniors about breathing your air and experiencing your grandeur.

I cannot wait to earn your trust and be your companion.

I hope you feel the same way.

Love,

Tejas

Dear Bengaluru

Dear Bengaluru,

This evening, your skies turned a dull grey, and ever since, you’ve been crying. It’s almost as if you’re preparing for me for where I will be next, as you’ve done ever since I’ve been done. I know the real reason for your tears is that you’re sad that I’m leaving. Believe me, I am too.

I’ve been struggling to come up with the right words to say Goodbye. For the past week, knowing that I’d be departing today, I’ve been thinking about how to tell you about every feeling you’ve given me that I’ll miss – and how to tell you that this isn’t really Goodbye, and that there are no Goodbyes. I’ve been wondering how to communicate that this isn’t a full stop, but a comma on a sentence that’s still writing itself. Each night I’ve come up short. I don’t have another night, and so I shall tell you how I feel, and I hope you feel the same way.

We were acquaintances till I was 10 years old. We flirted, yes – for a month every single year, but nothing really materialized. I don’t know if you believe in the stars, but I do, and I know that they weren’t aligned at the time. Every time we met I’d burst in with excitement and energy, and you’d sap it all away with your rains, the insects, the dirt. You’d tire me out with the traffic, the smell, the sound. I’d leave each time knowing I was going back to someone who gave me all the comforts you couldn’t offer. I’d leave each time knowing that it was not meant to be. You had bowled everybody in the family over, my dad included. Not me.

I can’t quite put my finger on what changed in 2008, but I spent a month flirting with you and I knew you were the place I wanted to call home. I knew, from the moment my world spun upside down and brought me to you that we would be okay. That we would last. To my idealistic mind, you could do no wrong, so I told myself I would try to do no wrong either, to prolong our association. There are forces in this world that are beyond our comprehension, and my pulse, when I saw you on that June evening, slowed. It steadied in gratitude.

So for the last 12 years of my life, I have tried to live with that pulse. I look back this evening and I know I have faltered at times. I was not grateful when you decided to give me the long road I had to travel to school, nor when you belatedly gifted me a bridge to smoothen my ride. Nor was I grateful when the closest grocery shop was more than six kilometres away. I know I did not display gratitude in my first year with you, when you offered up tempermental transitions in weather. Nor when livestock stopped me from getting deeper into your heart – the center of the city.

I know I was not grateful when Namma Metro arrived in a purple ribbon as a consolation prize for missing several anniversaries.

I look back tonight and all of this seems so pointless.

Since I was 10 you have given me family. Falling in love with you meant learning your history and stories, learning the language better, learning about my identity, learning about community – and gaining a stronger sense of acceptance from my family. You have introduced to me people I would not have had the opportunity to meet anywhere else in the world, and people whom I would not have wanted to meet elsewhere. People who loved you more than I, people who loved you, and lost you, people who begrudged you, who disliked you thoroughly. You seemed not to care what they thought of you, turning a blind eye to their opinion because of your love for them. You did swalpa adjustment, I know – but you made me find my place when someone called you overrated and I lashed out at them without hesitation, caring not for the consequences. When I left for short periods, to study at University, you gave me family there too – a family I love deeply, with whom talking about you felt like a Bengaluru Anonymous meeting, with all of us relapsing in the middle of the semester by flying back to you.

You gave me food and provided me shelter when I needed it the most, when I felt like everything else around me was crumbling away in the abyss – you were my anchor, my rock. Visiting a gaadi, eating dosas, chaats, and Corner House. You have given me a lifetime of exercise I need to do to get in shape.

You gave me your weather, and with it your soul. I know that in my first year I called it temperamental, but my goodness, you beauty. You have spoilt me for all eternity and I do not know if I will be the same anywhere else in the world, with anybody else. I love how comfortable you made everybody feel, exhibiting the Goldilocks principle in practice – you were just right. Not too hot, not too cold.

I have loved you so intensely that I am unsure if I will love like this again. Yet for that, I thank you.

I thank you because you were only the second place I called home – and the only place I thought of when I thought of Home. I thank you because you have set the bar so high that I am unsure if anything can live up to the billing. I thank you because you know, like you always do – that now is the right time to let go, and that you didn’t wait for the last night possible to say it. You said it six months ago, when you clinged on to me in the middle of a global pandemic and held on so tight, knowing that we’d have to part ways. You said it all when you allowed me to live with you and spend time with you alone, something I have desired for years now.

As I said earlier though, Bengaluru, this is not a goodbye. This is an au revoir – till we see each other again. This is a hogbarthini, because I’m just now only going – but I’ll be back soon to see you. This is a solpahottu bit siganna, because our time might be over for now, but you will always be in my heart.

Please be kind to everybody you take in. Please be yourself. It’s what people like I have thrived on.

So I won’t stop writing you letters, and I’ll keep calling your name. This isn’t a break-up of any kind, it’s a pause, I’m just switching lanes.

I hope you feel the same way.

Till next time,

Love,

Tejas