Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wealth and Open Source

Two people go to a tech show. One gets the door prize - a copy of MS Office Pro. The other gets a consolation prize of LibreOffice.

Is the first person richer and better off? I suppose as per our current measurements the answer would be that he is richer. But what if we take the taxes into account, is he better off?
Perhaps, we need to measure wealth differently when it comes to open source :) 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cost of service - Nil

Yesterday, I had to send a parcel abroad. The post office clerk told me to cover the box. I used a clear tape. She said that won't do. I must use brown tape. Any text or image on the cardboard box should not be visible. Like a good government employee, she just ignored me when I asked - Why?

Anyway, there is a service provider outside the postoffice. I readily agreed to the Rs. 40 he quoted. I made sure that he had covered every inch of the box other than the address and the customs declaration and paid him the Rs. 40.

He had used a new tape and handed me the remainder of the tape. The charges were for the tape. The cost of the service was nil!

When will we change?

Getting Richer but Feeling Poorer :(

Every time I see a new car in our neighborhood or notice an old building being pulled down to be replaced by a new one, I can see progress. I can notice that our economy is growing. The value of my assets is increasing and, yet, I feel worse!

I am reminded of articles I have seen in the last year about growth not being sustainable - one was a thought provoking talk "Tim Jackson's economic reality check".
" [We are] persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.” (Tim Jackson)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Linux - Microsoft Marketing

The first reasonable computer I bought was with Windows 95. I had insisted on buying Microsoft Works. The dealer had no idea about it. He was obviously ready to install MS Office but it was far too expensive for me.

I got Works and it was a shock! The damn thing couldn't do the only thing I needed - read MS Office documents! I did not care about it being authentic layout. I just wanted to read the stuff sent by others on floppies and couldn't.

That was a product I paid for and never used! I still feel cheated.

I could do my own work with nroff and me macros. There was little point in anything fancier with a dot matrix printer.

By the time, I was ready to use a word processor and had an inkjet printer, a usable version of Abiword or StarOffice was available.

I am sure the decision to have different formats must have been courtesy marketing because I can't imagine technical staff capable of such devious thoughts or incompetence. I must concede that there is a possibility that there may have been two teams which did not talk to each other.

Anyway, as a consequence, using Abiword, StarOffice, OpenOffice and, now, LibreOffice were never a issue. Thanks Microsoft.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Joys of Crime Fiction

Now that I have time, I am rediscovering joys of reading crime fiction. It started with Stieg Larsson. I read the trilogy virtually non-stop.

Now, as I am about to finish Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series of books in English, I wonder why is crime fiction fun. Why do I read them?

The first couple of crime fiction books I read were by Raymond Chandler early in my college days. It was more fun to watch the movies or TV serials.

Then in the mid-seventies, I found The Man who Went Up in Smoke and The Locked Room on the sidewalks of Mumbai. While searching for what next to read, I found that novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are available today even in Indian online book stores like Indiaplaza and Flipkart. They should keep me occupied for the next few months.

I suppose the reason I like these books is that one can fantasize and hope that there exists somewhere someone like Lisabeth Salander who will take revenge on those beyond the law!

But when it comes to the desire for justice, the finest book I have read is Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Kleist which is now available on Gutenberg. The  very first line had hooked me:
Toward the middle of the sixteenth century there lived on the banks of
the river Havel a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the
son of a school-master, one of the most upright and, at the same time,
one of the most terrible men of his day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Updated Dad's site

We had planned to upload our father's autobiography on the net over a year ago. Finally, I did it today.

I suppose a part of me was frustrated at his wanting a printed copy. I wanted him to put it on the web. It was much easier.

I would have loved to show him the hits - they do add up over time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Teaching another sem - why?

I know the education system is broken. I know my efforts are pointless. I was reminded of it again by Peter Norvig.

I rationalize that experimenting with teaching Software Engineering in the reverse order may help me learn. There is the slight hope that a couple of students will be interesting enough in the class to make the effort worthwhile.

The traditional classroom forces one to think about the whole class. I can't ignore the group which does not seem to be making the effort. I have to spend more time and effort on that group of students rather than the ones who are interested. It is painful to correct their papers or assignments. This is really an absurd situation.

I know most people feel that it is the teacher who can make a difference and a great teacher inspires. I recall even Richard Feynman saying about how to teach - "I don't know how to do it."  and that the best one can do is to somehow not bore anyone all the time.

To me, the wonderful thing about the future as seen by people like Sebastian Thrun - which is implicit and isn't explicitly highlighted - is that a teacher can focus only on those who are interested!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What a depressing atitude - you are encouraging corruption in the school system

The following comment both depressed me and made me angry:
“By giving 40 per cent weightage to school marks, you are encouraging corruption in the school system. Already there’s rampant cheating in state board exams. Once you agree weightage for school marks, you open the doors for the rich and the powerful to manipulate the system to their wards’ advantage. You open doors for corruption and bribery,” said Prof YN Singh of IIT Kanpur, who attended the meeting.

Is it not equivalent to saying that all the virtue is in IIT's and rest are corrupt or corruptible. "You are not special" applies even more to IIT's than to Wellesley High School.

As it is, most people in India are extremely uncomfortable with decentralization. The conviction is that if teachers set and correct papers, it is bound to create pressures of the type mentioned in the quote above. Yet, IIT's do follow that practice and the results demonstrate that its outcome is far better than the alternates.

In reality, IIT education is not particularly important for the elite and powerful. It is the rest to whom it matters. Children of rich kids have to work very-very hard to lose their advantage. Rich get richer. They have the option of studying anywhere in the world. Why would they resort to petty bribery of petty people?

What creates a great educational experience

While it has nothing to do with education, it was a first hand experience of advantages of a better team.

We were short of manpower. The folks in control allocated a person for a month while he was waiting for his assignment. The problem - he did not know how to code! We gave a small assignment to get him interested and the result was awful for all concerned. We were unhappy but he was even unhappier.

I got enough courage to ask him to do some work which everyone around me hated. I was trying to see how not to make him very unhappy. It came as a surprise - he jumped at it. He WANTED to write the user documentation. He spent an amazing amount of effort in this task. The result was excellent and surprisingly useful! He spent enough effort to make sure that the structure and style was in place such that the programmers could very easily add/modify the documentation as the project evolved. The user document remained current for the next three years the project was on.

A great team is not just a collection of great people. The mix is very important. A great place learn needs a similar mix. The most memorable example:
Jobs later said, "If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."
I wonder how many of our premier institutions offer a course on calligraphy? And I wonder if IIT-like environment will expose one to a person like Marshall Mcluhan or his ideas:

  • Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.
  • Computers can do better than ever what needn’t be done at all. Making sense is still a human monopoly. 
Another known - students learn from each other. 

So, the question which should be asked is that what mix of students will maximize the learning by the students. Can selecting the best students as per some metric, no matter what, ever be the answer?

What I find frustrating is the fuss over a common entrance test. The troubling aspect is the effort to turn it into a common metric. SAT has been used by most colleges in US for decades. Yet, it is only one input. Each institution has its own selection criteria. It seems ridiculous for each institution to create its own entrance test. How can anyone have such faith in the outcome of one exam? Blaming coaching for the less than satisfactory input is equivalent to burying one's head in sand.

I wish institutions should fight for an ideal mix of students, which may be based on desirable goals like
  • A healthy mix of male and female students
  • A diverse student population - class, caste, religion, region, 
  • A mix of long term goals and aptitude - academics, management, research, entrepreneurship, etc.
Certainly not quotas but multiple optimization formulas which take multiple goals into account along with results from an entrance test, academic performance - from KG if desired and other factors. Each institution can have its own set of rules but maintain transparency given the shortages. Why not follow the misquote of Chairman Mao:
Let a thousand flowers bloom
Institutions should keep improving the goals and the optimization metrics based on the learning outcomes rather than worrying about creating a test which will beat the coaching classes.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Enlightenment - why the envy

A niece was searching for her 'face wash' and something clicked. Why have I felt 'envy' of sales and marketing folks. One reason, of course, was as reflected by this incident. When our sales VP went out of the room, the client told me - you should ask for your pound of flesh. But more than 'they' getting the credit were the occasions on which the sales and marketing folks messed up.

It is possible to be in marketing and work on campaigns to get people to stop smoking. It is also possible to work on campaigns to get people to drink water and not bottled water or a cola. That would be truly wonderful.

However, it is more likely that the sales folks are going to be working on trying to get people to switch to a cola. It may be rationalized as a battle between pepsi and coke but I am sure they are smart enough to know that they are trying to increase the market by convincing people to stop drinking water. How much satisfaction can there be?

This is equally well applicable to Windows against Linux. Or even android versus iPhone.

If the sales folks get the monetary credit, so what. But as one of the heroines in the Mother and the Whore states - It still hurts.

Who knows, a day may come when sales and marketing disappears as a profession :)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Diverse admission criteria for IIT's should be welcomed

The following post resonated with me an-open-letter-to-indias-graduating-classes. It seems obvious to me that the existing selection criteria are not working too well. Hence, the opposition of IIT Faculy and Alumni to the new proposals surprises me. In particular:
“School marks should act as a cut-off and not given any weightage. Stress on school board, JEE (main) and JEE (advance) will only increase the pressure on students rather than taking that off and further propel the coaching industry by manifolds,” was unanimously said in the meeting.
I have long felt that the result of a single evaluation method is inherently weak. Using multiple factors is preferable. Pressure to do consistently well is good and desirable. Why else have elite educational institutions? The solution to unreasonable expectations lies in having alternate educational options which are extremely good. It seems silly to educate a small number of people very well and thrust incompetence and mediocrity on the rest.

I would even suggest that getting into elite institutions should not be enough. Each year at least some students should be helped to move to lesser known institutions. They should be able to transfer credits and not lose an academic year but high expectations must be maintained.

We shouldn't be removing stress but helping children manage it. An important cause is the unreasonable expectations of parents and society with regard to academic performance. Reporting results on percentile basis rather than percentages may help. Given the inflation of marks, it wouldn't surprise me is that a person getting 75% marks may have a rank of no more than 40th percentile and 90% may be 60th percentile. It would be hard for parents to brag or push their child with a 60th percentile!