Saturday, December 29, 2012

Even in India, a timer for Green light may be hazardous

A timer for green signal may be hazardous in India as well. Yesterday's headline in the Chandigarh news - One killed as truck driver steps on the gas to cross traffic light.

It appears that the driver stepped on gas as he noticed only five seconds were left for the timer. He did not beat the signal but managed to hit "three cars, 2 two-wheelers, and two people on a cycle".

There is an alternate version of the truth:   Truck driver goes on the rampage

In this case, the driver managed to "hit a cyclist, a motorcycle, five cars (two on the opposite side of the divider) and an Activa scooter."

I suppose it is close enough except that the crucial bit about speeding up to beat the signal was missing :
The driver of the truck told the police that the brakes of the truck failed. However, eyewitnesses said the driver was drunk and was driving recklessly.
I prefer the former version of the truth as it confirms what I expect to happen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Anger and Rage - Justice in all Courts and not just Fast Courts

There was a third incident of rage and rampage in China - in addition to the two which were highly visible in India last week. This one also attacked school children as in the US. I was struck by the quote:
“Chinese society is full of anger and rage,” said Murong Xuecun, a best-selling novelist and popular online commentator. “Everybody has anger. It must be noted that every society has its share of sociopaths. But for China to have so many is no doubt abnormal.”
This could apply equally well to India. I am troubled by repeated requests for fast-track courts for various crimes which catch the imagination of media and public. This distracts from the obvious need for justice for any and all crimes - no matter how small.

Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas (ebook on Gutenberg) is a classic example of the problems a society can face as a consequence of a relatively minor injustice of misuse of power.

I wish we would accept research on deterrence and re-work the legal system accordingly:
Research has shown that increasing the severity of a punishment does not have much effect on crime, while increasing the certainty of punishment does have a deterrent effect
I suspect that the likelihood of conviction would go up if the severity of punishment was less.
  • Risk of the consequences of a wrong decision will be much lower. 
  • The reward for subverting the judicial process would also be lower. 
  • The process of trial would probably shorten and all pending cases would benefit.
This would be quite analogous to tax compliance increasing as the income tax rates go down.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Protests in Delhi

I find myself frustrated by people craving for capital punishment when all evidence points to its uselessness as an effective deterrent. I hope some sociologists and psychologists will study and help us understand why so many men in India are exhibiting such repulsive behaviour. Obviously, there is a lot that is wrong with our society. What should we fix first and who will do it?

A friend was suggesting a couple of months ago that the increase in the rape incidents in Haryana may be a direct consequence of mothers and fathers aborting the girl children and leading to a shameful ratio of girls to boys.

However, the protests in Delhi may result in one minor irritant being reduced. Hopefully, we will see a reduction in the security for the VIP's. Ideally, all MP's or MLA's showing off their cars with a light on top trailed by gun wielding police should lose elections. But I suspect that most people are not as angered by such vulgar display power and ownership of the public infrastructure as I am.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Justice or Revenge?

Two events in the last week have been very disturbing. They were so sickening and painful that I have no desire to search and link to them.

The non-stop discussions over the horrid event in Delhi again brings up the issue that are we craving for justice or revenge. How do we as a society ensure that such deviants do not cause damage without creating a police state which results in severe constraints and arbitrary injustices?

In the incident in the US, the craving for revenge disappeared as the perpetrator appears to have killed his mother who had bought the guns and himself. So, the focus is on how to prevent dangerous weapons being easily accessible to anyone.

I am reminded of the masterful and deeply troubling film by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange. It remains unsurpassed and relevant even after 40 years in examining pointless violence and we are any closer to coming to terms with it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Public Transport - the way it should be

Northern Europe was a fantastic place for public transport - it may still be but I haven't been back for over 30 years.

One incident has remained in my memory as an example of all that was good about Europe.

It was in Amsterdam and I was in a tram. A ticket checker boarded the tram and started checking. There was a man who was caught. He had a muti-trip ticket but had not used it. The ticket collector was very pleasant. She took the card from him and punched it. She did not fine him or even talk rudely to him. As best as I could understand, she seemed to suggest that he should not forget to punch his card next time :)

Experiencing The Bus Service in Chandigarh - Wishing it were better

Yesterday, for the first time, I decided to use the public bus in Chandigarh. I had given my car for repair - a neighbour had probably thrown a cricket ball and cracked the windshield.

I waited about 20 minutes and took the bus home. It was comfortable and not very crowded. However, I felt that the bus stops should be better located.

I saw the net and the bus frequency for the bus near my home was half hour. I decided to use the bus back to the car repair shop. The route is quite convenient for some of the markets we go to. I even planned using the bus during periods when traffic and parking is maddening.

I gave sufficient time and was not in any hurry. I waited and waited. The bus stop said that the frequency was every 20 minutes. However, I trusted the net time table more - every 30 minutes. After 40 minutes, I gave up and took an auto-rickshaw.

Will I use the public bus or recommend it to someone? Chances are - not likely - which is a pity. While I was waiting, I saw a number of potential passengers give up.

If we consider the internet, we have seen that the very successful companies have provided excellent performance and reliability and not made any profits until much later. Public transport has to have a similar approach if it needs to succeed and become an integral part of the city life.

It doesn't matter if the frequency is low but, in that case, it is even more important that the service timings are honoured. If the people who take decisions, ever travelled by bus, I am sure the reliability of the bus service would be far better.

However, I would wish that the city charged a tax on petrol and diesel and used it to ensure a reliable with a reasonably high frequency of bus service of bus service so that people who have an option, don't turn away from public transport.

It won't happen but hope is eternal.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Stuck for a one rupee revenue stamp!

My public provident fund had completed fifteen years and I decided to withdraw the amount. SBI branch was fairly quick except for one little thing.

Government requires a one rupee revenue stamp on the receipt. I would have gladly put 10 times the amount using an ordinary stamp or even paid 100 times the amount in cash to the bank instead of having to search for a damn one rupee revenue stamp.

The need for the revenue stamp makes no sense but persists, possibly, as per Newton's third law.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Fair Way to Set Taxi Fares

There are hardly any taxis visible in North Delhi. None of the autos I used were ready to go with a meter. There is a perception and discomfort of feeling cheated.

As I sat in the train, having made it just in time in spite of starting fairly early, I wonder if the problem lies with the way the fares are set.

The standard way of setting taxi fare is via the distance travelled and a small component for waiting charges. Perhaps in congested environments, this just is not fair to the driver. It may be useful for regulators to consider the taxi fares as two distinct components - the operating cost and the earnings for the driver. The former can be based primarily on the distance travelled. The latter, however, should be on the hourly wage a driver should earn to have a comfortable life.

If that happens, may be drivers will go by the meter and not grumble or refuse trips passing through congested areas. And the passengers man not mind the driver taking a longer detour which saves time.

A Unique Way to See Off Relations/Friends/Guests

In the high speed lane of the highway, a car was stalled. The warning lights were on. As I approached nearer, I could see a couple with folded hands(Namaste). An older couple, at least middle age if not more,  was climbing over the divider of the highway!

What a way to drop guests at a convenient location!

At 80KM/hr, I could not see more. I wonder if the old couple sprinted across the remaining half of the highway :)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tasteless - Donation by Punjab to an Exclusive School

Among the most tasteless news I came across recently was the donation by Punjab Government to an exclusive school. It is a reflection of state of mind of the leaders. They are impervious to the difference between the interest  of the state and their personal interest. Like the kings of old days, they seem to regard themselves as synonymous with the state.

Hopefully, internet technologies will enable a change in the way people organize societies and, hopefully, evolve towards anarchy. (For an introduction to anarchy - In Praise of Anarchy, Parts I, II and III )

Living for ever? Boredom will kill me

After learning about the possibility of living much longer by studying the bats, I am relieved to have found an antidote. The thought of living for ever or much longer makes me shudder. I used to get bored in 3 years. This time I was bored in just a year and half of teaching.

I loved science fiction novels until I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. After that, every science fiction novel I tried to read was boring. Obviously, I do not regard Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go as a science fiction novel.

Aside from Ishiguro, I have not found a modern author who appealed to me after reading Ian McEwan. So, there is little chance of finding happiness by having more time to read. The problem would be to find what would not bore me!


Friday, September 14, 2012

User Pays - Pay Toll or Pay a Decongestion Charge

The drama about the toll road in Delhi-Gurgaon is very amusing (Fortunately, I do not have to travel on it). However, I do spend Rs. 74 for each trip on toll to Ropar at two toll booths, which is about 15% of the cost of petrol.

Curiously, 15% of the travel time is about the minimum time I spend at the toll booths. The travel time is 15 minutes from the first toll gate to the IIT Campus. The usual 2 minutes at the toll booths does occasionally stretch to 10 minutes.

Wouldn't it be better if 10% or even 15% was added to the fuel price and used as 'road usage charges'? I would definitely welcome it and I am sure that people will get used to it fairly quickly.

Money collected does not have to be used only for highways and roads. A fair proportion of it could and should be used to subsidize public transport. It can make sure that public transport is available on routes and at frequencies which may seem uneconomical but which would encourage people to have the option of using public transport instead of own transport.

If the use of public transport usage increases, we can rename the 'road usage charge' to a very welcome 'road de-congestion charge'!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cooking Gas Connection Transfer and Rs 5 Stamp Paper

An interesting coincidence - I was reading about Charles Babbage and was fascinated by his creation of the foundations of Operations Research:

Undaunted, he applied his new method to the analysis of the postal system of his day, and proved that the cost of accepting and assigning a value to every piece of mail according to the distance it had to travel was far more expensive than the cost of transporting it. The British Post Office boosted its capabilities instantly and economically by charging a flat rate, independent of the distance each piece had to travel--the "penny post" that persists around the world to this day.
While the British government saw sense a hundred years ago in transforming the postal rates, Indian government continues to thrust stamp papers on us mindlessly, whose absence of value is visible even without operations research.

I need a stamp paper to state that my father has expired and that the gas connection may be transferred into my mother's name.

I need another stamp paper to state  that the original documents for allotment of a gas connection, from over 30 years ago, cannot be located.

In each case, I need to get them notarised  by a Notary Public.

Each stamp paper is worth Rs. 5. It has to be bought from specified locations.

I am certain the cost of producing and selling that paper - as each paper sale has to be documented - has got to be more than the sale price.

The cost of procuring it is certainly much more than Rs. 5 for me and I am not even including the cost of the time spent.

I can see some notional value in notarisation in case my mother disowns signing the documents.

I have not been able to think of any meaningful benefit from the stamp paper even by a Telgi. The value is just not high enough to even counterfeit!

Ah, the hope of a paperless bureaucracy! Who knows - as in Pete Seeger's wonderful song - Adam's children might surprise us all :)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Switch a healh insurance policy? My brain hurts.

For some years, we have contemplated changing the health insurance company as the healthcare TPA for our policy did not seem to have too many hospitals in its network.

Thanks to portability, switching a service provider should be easy. Well, may be not. Anyway, I did not reach that stage. I was paralyzed by just trying to find basic information about the policies and costs. After a fair amount of search and avoiding all sites which insisted I supply them with an email id and my mobile number, I did find some comparison charts. However, implications or comparison of terms and conditions for various policies were not easy to find.

Anyway, I decided it hurt my brain far too much. So, I will stick to what I have had for a decade, which I have never had to use, and hope that I never have to find out what my policy will or will not cover.

I can, of course, wish that all policies were also like open source software where all needed information is freely available and each product is encouraged to use the best capabilities of every other product. That should evolve to a product which is truly useful.

Instead, I get the feeling that the companies offer but discourage a base product and add perceived benefits of questionable value to the base at highly inflated rates to make idiots of us. And that resulted in my brain hurting badly :(

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to feel very poor - not planning for legal expenses

The news of B. R. Raju's (Satyam fame)  legal bills made me feel really very very poor. That was an expense I had never even considered :( Neither had the idea of an insurance cover had never even occurred to me. This really affected my yard stick of the money one should have and my personal worth:
Tata AIG ... is footing his legal bill of Rs 60 crore so far, and will continue to do so till the court gives its verdict.
The following really rubbed it in :( the insider trading case of Rajat Gupta in the US, Goldman Sachs paid almost $ 30 million (around Rs 150 crore) for Gupta’s legal defence...

But in a world where we have "Betting on Death: Creepy or Not?", what else can be expected?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Is quality to be measured by how few get first class?

Our "modernisation" of examination system is clearly an example of 'a camel is a horse designed by a committee'. It upsets me to read such news because there is an implicit bias against internal examinations. Some extracts:
  • a professor who did not wish to be named even alleged that marks were being sold in some colleges
  • there is a 99 per cent chance of manipulation in evaluation of internals
  • many teachers hate the new system as it involves considerable extra work such as preparing question papers for internal tests, assignments, projects and the like. Many of them claim that such elaborate work leaves them with little time to conduct classes.

    (Emphasis mine - I find it hard to believe that anyone who has taught for even short period can believe that classroom teaching is an effective tool for learning by students. An example of what we could be doing: Eric Mazur's view on how to make students learn.)
At issue is not the internal evaluation. However, you cannot have part central and part local with no regard for any normalisation. It is cleaner to let the exam be entirely internal and each degree should specify the college from which a student graduated and his/her percentile rank within the college.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Misery of Aging and Education

I used to tell my wife that I am happiest when I had something to be miserable about. She never did appreciate this concept.

Recently, a couple of reasons have given me cause for misery but they have not made me happy :( So, I suppose I need to be miserable about only some type of things.

I have been trying to get some output from a person and it makes me wonder. Is it possible for the education system to have damaged a person to such an extent that he can no longer think? I have lost my patience which makes me literally miserable.

The other factor is that home visit by a doctor seems unthinkable. Getting a nurse for home care is equally difficult.

But we do not necessarily need or want a doctor but a health care worker. It amazes me that there is no effort to train people who will provide home care services. The person does not need to be able to prescribe medicines but needs to be able to adjust dosage based on observations. It is not hard. I think that we have learnt a fair amount about some medicines using internet, some advice by the doctor and based on observing the patient.

What makes me miserable is that we can see some type of jobs are bound to disappear - like truck and taxi drivers. But the society is unprepared for the new jobs which will require skills and training and the need for some of them is blatantly obvious.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Varied student intake - Introduce reservations for the Elite?

It seems that the high cutoff of Delhi university is creating an exodus of students studying abroad.

I remember a joke from my childhood -
If you want your son to be a communist, send him to study in the US. If you want him to be a capitalist, send him to the USSR instead.

Warts are not visible from afar.

Today, the Soviet Union option has disappeared and if I ever believed that the world provided an equal opportunity to all, it was cured by a great short novel - Nathanial West's A Cool Million.

However, I now feel that it is better to accept reality rather than create policies on wishful thinking. For example, in education, there is one advantage of the elite universities which online education may never be able to match - face to face networking.

A very successful university would offer the possibility of smart people networking with the children of the power elite.  Let's accept it. The likelihood of the children of the elite becoming the elites of the next generation is very-very high. The scenario is likely to be much worse for India compared to the US and Europe.

So, it seems desirable to introduce reservations for a group that is not bothered about competitive exams as this group has the option of Harvard, Stanford, etc. Interacting with them is likely to increase the chances of upward mobility for the rest of us.

Likely Best Universities

Since that is not likely to happen, I expect that the great universities in India will be private. Government will have to give flexibility to private institutions for admissions and fees as that may be the only option for increasing capacity.

The smarter among them will be elite, with high fees and endowments. They  will also be the ones with generous scholarships for the exceptional students.

If you were a smart student bursting with ideas, wouldn't you prefer to rub shoulders with the progeny of ....?

Update:  Interesting news!

Oxford University announced Wednesday a £75 million donation from Michael Moritz, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and his wife, Harriet Heyman.
The gift, worth about $115 million, will provide financial assistance to undergraduates from low-income backgrounds. The donation, the biggest grant for student support in the university’s modern history...

Friday, July 6, 2012

Safer roads by people who just want them to be safe

There were two news items recently which triggered some thoughts - nothing unusual in the news items.

  1. The drive to issue traffic violation challans was effective and police collected x amount of money in traffic fines.
  2. The second item was that there was a shortage of policemen to monitor traffic.
Until the internet made it easy to share software, we were at the mercy of the intermediaries. In fact, it took quite some time for many of us to accept that the intermediaries were not needed, at least as far as distribution of software was concerned.

Many people are probably still not convinced. "You get what you pay for" is an ideology marketed in our brain and it is hard to unlearn it or even question it.

If the speed limits are reasonable, most of the people do not want to speed or violate traffic rules. Can we create an infrastructure which makes it possible for us to volunteer to improve traffic flow? One long term solution is self driven cars, the likelihood of it making an impact in India is minimal in the next few decades.

My observation is that if the traffic is moving at a steady pace, the need for overtaking reduces. So, what if every minute, a car was moving at the speed limit? Would we be tempted to overtake the car or would we get used to the idea of driving within speed limit.

The intention has to be to change the mindset of people - not fine them and hope that they learn. (I have come across people who bragged about bribing and getting away with traffic violations but rarely anyone who acknowledged being caught and paid a fine.)

So as a start, on dangerous highways, police could encourage a car every minute to carry a gps device which will monitor his/her speed and encourage them to stay within speed limits. If an incentive seems to be needed, it could be reduced toll on a toll road. The fact that these cars are being monitored would, over time, ensure that the drivers behind them are less likely to get impatient. And if we are lucky, that becomes their default behavior.

I wish I could try it out as a NetLogo model :)

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!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Would I now like to retire in Goa?

As one retires and grows older, the question of where should one live is important. Do we should spend enough thought on it?

In a number of discussions, one of the most important considerations was the availability of excellent hospitals nearby, which almost automatically seems to restrict the options to metropolitan cities.

However, how do we weigh the advantages of excellent health care facilities against the additional risks, like:
  1. Likelihood of being hit by a vehicle.
    A neighbour was hit by a two wheeler about six months ago. It was very minor but our neighbour still limps.
    I recall the frustration my father used to feel for crossing the inner road to go from Shanti Kunj garden to Rose garden. He wrote to the MP and the police to have a traffic light so that old people could cross the road.
  2. Likelihood of additional ailments from pollution and noise.
    When I used to come to Delhi from Goa, I would get a sore throat going from the airport to office or relations' place.
  3. Likelihood of being robbed and injured.
    Life in larger places becomes so anonymous that I am reminded of a Ziggy cartoon - It is amazing how alone you can be in a party!
The nice thing about Goa were the villages, which were more like suburbs.

The issue with the smaller towns in Goa is traffic. The roads are narrow and walking unpleasant.

 I was unhappy at the efforts to make Panaji into a major city as that pushes more people to migrate, leaving the smaller places in decay.

Still, there are villages which are off the main areas and not impacted by traffic. So, finding an area which is comfortable and healthy is still possible.

I now have second thoughts about the need for excellent heath care facilities. I want adequate health care to be easily accessible. Easy access is not at all easy in cities. Beyond a point, the ability to save a life may even be a disincentive.

Chandigarh used to be a great place for retired people. The traffic has made it quite unpleasant. I find it ironic that the police are making a lot of effort for people to stop before the Zebra crossings - yet I see very few pedestrians. Where the pedestrians want to cross - within the sectors - there are no traffic lights or the signals are strange. The driving culture is such that it is hard to stop and let the pedestrians cross.

There are lots of open spaces in Chandigarh. We wanted to take my mother out and it finally struck us. Access to these places in a wheel chair is just not possible. The open space just behind our house has a protective railing and a rotating gate. It ensures that two wheelers cannot use the open space as a short cut, which people would given half a chance. Bicycles do not have a problem as they can be lifted and taken across. However, we can't lift the wheel chair with my mother sitting in it.

Solution - we need better people in the city so that such blockages are not needed. Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka had a memorable line - Mass trials in Russia were very successful. Now there are fewer but better Russians :)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Amazing - Complaints about "Out of Syllabus" taken so seriously

It is depressing to see such silly complaints being given prominence.
This is the second time such an error has been detected during the ongoing law exams. On May 1, the second semester students complained that a 15 marks question was out of syllabus in the unit-IV of examination of Family Law. The two questions that appeared in the Unit III of the same examination were from Unit-II following which majority of the students couldn't attempt the unit.

I kept wondering whether I should be getting upset at the students.

I keep recalling Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson. It had obviously made a deep impression on me when I read it over 30 years ago. Are students dumb or have the teachers killed whatever curiosity and creativity them may have had? I think in India, it is the latter :(

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Traffic lights - timer is useful but may be not for green light

Roy Sutherland gives an example of traffic lights in Perspective is Everything. In Korea, there is a timing indication on red light only and it works to reduce accidents. In China, there is timing indication on both red and green lights and it doesn't improve accident rate - it may even be worse.

Chandigarh uses the 'Chinese' model. I wonder if its effectiveness was ever tested.

It is pretty obvious that knowing how long one has to wait helps cope with waiting. Uncertainty is disturbing.

In the case of a green light, there are conflicting goals. If the traffic is light and a driver knows how long the green light will remain on, he may speed up to reach the junction before the signal changes. On the other hand, knowing that there is not enough time may help us to stop in time before the zebra crossing.

In the case of the green light, it would be enough and, probably, safer if we get information that the light is about to change and nothing more than that. This signal should be obvious.

So, it might be better to have the timer only for red signal. For green signal, it may be useful to have amber light on about 5 seconds or less before the green light goes off, letting the driver know that it is time to slow down and stop.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Recollections - An escape and procrastination

In retrospect, I should have made more time for reading. It was a good year if I managed to read more than half a dozen books during that period. With one major exception.

The year I spent in Helsinki was phenomenal. The two(?) television channels showed Finnish/Swedish programs. There were a couple of English shows - about an hour a week. I bought a newspaper once a week. I am pretty sure I missed nothing.

My colleagues went home on time. There was little point in my hanging around the institute after I had submitted my main job for the day. The computer output would probably be available by the next morning.

I had time. I finished a book a week. By the end of the year, I was finding it hard to find a book among Penguin modern classics, except some which either did not appeal to me or I could not finish. For some reason I could not finish "Berlin Alexanderplatz" or books by Thomas Mann. They are still lying unread on my bookshelf - waiting to be read.

It was probably in Helsinki that I first came across the terrific novels by Knut Hamsun, especially Hunger.

As I procrastinate, avoiding correcting final exam papers, I am also wondering - should I teach another class? Wouldn't it be much better to spend more time reading books and seeing old film videos?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Discovering that I liked 'Literature'

If I ignore Physical Education where my teachers were very generous and gave  me a C for just showing up, English was my worst subject. It ensured that I did not get all A's.

I was bored in most classes but English used to be particularly difficult. I was constantly day dreaming and bewildered at how teachers and fellow students could keep finding and discussing ideas related to stories and novels. I think I was convinced that I did not understand literature. It was just not for me. I had to stick to mathematics and physics. So, it does feel very very good to come across Ian McEwan helping his son with an essay on his novel.

I am indebted to a fellow student at Northwestern who thought that I would like Outsider by Albert Camus. I am grateful to him because were it not for him, I may never have collected my most precious assets - the experience of reading great novels.

Over time I found that most of the books I liked were by European authors. The one book by an American author which I still love is Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which obviously was not part of the school curriculum :)

We, the aged, are the Achilles heel!

I saw China's Achilles heel in the print edition of Indian Express today. It disturbed me and I have been trying to understand why.

The first factor was the demographic dividend has seemed like a  joke to me. I can easily rationalize that belief based on my efforts to find competent people to recruit in India.

But that wasn't it. What troubles me are statements like
But rapid ageing also means China faces what is called the “4-2-1 phenomenon”: each only child is responsible for two parents and four grandparents. Even with high savings rates, it seems unlikely that the younger generation will be able or willing to afford such a burden.
The number of those just setting out (those in their early 20s, who are usually the best educated and most productive members of society) will have halved.
These statements reflect the implicit assumption that we, the aging, are unproductive liabilities. What they may lead to in a period of crisis is frightening especially in societies where money is becoming the only way to decide.

Ian McEwan's protagonists are aging as time progresses. I look forward to a book written by him where the protagonist is now an aging unproductive member of the society.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Recalling McEwan's First Love, Last Rites

Some people we know were talking about a marriage headed for annulment. I was reminded of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and would have loved to bring it up. But I held back as they were unlikely to have read McEwan and would not have appreciated it.

The first time I had come across Ian McEwan's work was in a bookstore in Amsterdam in 1976. His collection of stories First Love, Last Rites had stood out with its very simple light cover. I had not heard of him and bought the book on an impulse. This was one book which shook my beliefs like no other book had done before or since. Butterflies still haunts me. Homemade and Last Day of Summer still trouble me.

After reading the Cocker at the Theatre, I realized that I had come across McEwan earlier. I had read Cocker at the Theatre in a magazine distributed at a Broadway play. It was very funny then and is probably even more relevant today.

After returning to India, I searched for McEwan's books but it was rare to find any until about a decade ago.

I had loaned First Love, Last Rites along with a few other of my favourite books - e.g. Kleist's The Marquise von O. He was the first person I had met in India who had shown an interest in these type of books. Unfortunately, he did not return those books and I do not think that he read them either.

I can't even buy a copy of Kleist's book anymore. I could buy First Love, Last Rites again but, somehow, the loss of that first book cannot be compensated.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

BSNL - Counting Miracles and not their Online Presence

This post was triggered by a desire to lodge a complaint about telemarketeers on our landline. I got a phone with caller id just so I could complain.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is possible to verify that our number is indeed in the dnd list. I had registered for DND a couple of years ago but the call center employee was clueless, so I was apprehensive about our number being in the list. It was.

Next step - file a complaint on BSNL's selfcare portal. The effort to do so reminded me of a story a friend had told me. He was flying in Europe - on a European airline and not Air India - and the service was lousy. He complained a couple of times and the stewardess just laughed and responded - "It's a miracle that we are flying".

It is indeed a miracle that my phone works. It has a broadband connection of 2MBPS which now streams videos without lengthy pauses, at least often enough that I do see some.

Even greater miracle was that the service engineer who came to fix a broadband issue knew how to configure a modem for Linux. Even linesman fixed a lose connection on the pole with no fuss. This is truly miraculous for anyone who had experienced BSNL service over a dozen years ago.

BSNL may have been technically one organisation, each circle or area had its own web services and with its own interface. Integration was inevitable. Even needing to create new accounts when the next level of integration occurred was tolerated, though the creation of new email id's led me to switch entirely to gmail. It is strange and sad that I found an ad supported service preferable to my ad-free email account.

Some time ago, I could  no longer find the data usage of my broadband account. There were 4 links to new self-service accounts based on regions. Unfortunately, our circle was not listed in any! We had to wait till our circle's billing was integrated with the region. Since I couldn't access it, I forgot about it. Anyway, my net usage had come down drastically for personal issues.

For reasons mentioned above, I was back at the self-service portal.

The self-care portal offered several ways to register my complaint:

  1. I could fill the general complaint form. I was using Firefox and submitting the form resulted in "The page isn't redirecting properly" error. I tried Chrome. The problem reported "Oops! Google Chrome could not connect to". The URL was obviously incorrect.
  2. May be I needed to login. I registered and tried to login. Result was the same as in 1. I tried fixing the URL. The result was better - "The requested resource does not exist." but there was an option to go to the main page, which was an alternate login page for the portal. With a minor difference. 
  3. It would not accept the credentials I had obtained via registration but offered its own registration page. This needed billing information. It was the same page as I had tried months ago but our circle's customers were now recognised. I successfully registered; but credentials will now be sent to me after verification. So, I will know after some time - days? - whether this method works.
In a few days, I may finally be able to lodge a complaint against the irritating insurance companies. Who knows, I may even be able to track my data usage on the broadband - at least until BSNL's new beta site goes live.

Friday, April 6, 2012

End Semester Blues

It is not yet the end of semester but nearly there. I am neither bored nor is there a feeling of hopelessness as before.

Still, is it worth the effort? This will be the end of the second semester and the end of a second course I would have taught. I have learnt but have the students? If at all, I may have made a difference to just a few.

I have been acutely conscious of ineffectiveness of classroom teaching and the need for alternatives. I am sure there are simpler solutions than Udacity which may be used in traditional teaching environment but haven't found them.

In the first semester, I had tried to get groups to work on sub-projects and integrate the projects. The integration did not happen. In retrospect, if I had given the identity module as a starting point which they had to use, the result might have been different. However, as is typical of students, the effort was concentrated just near the delivery dates.

In the second semester, I decided on no project but programming assignments due each week. I am again dissatisfied. Far too many looked far too similar. And the test demonstrated that many had not understood what I wanted to get across.

I am pondering over that even if I have the opportunity, should I persist in teaching? Is the risk of  driving 100 KM on Indian roads worth it? Does it compensate me for keeping my brain alert?

Can I think of another way to share information which will keep the classroom less passive? Google has failed me so far.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A heuristic algorithm for safer driving

The scariest moments in driving have been during overtaking. Normally, it is when someone is overtaking from the opposite direction but it also happens when someone is overtaking me and finds oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, at times, I am also guilty of it. After each such occasion, I make every effort to update my rule set of when not to overtake.

Anyway, my algorithm is that I must drive in a manner and speed by which the total number of overtakes is minimized - that is whether I am overtaking or someone else is overtaking me.

The next rule I found is that if I stick to official speed limit, almost every car and many trucks will be overtaking me. This is clearly dangerous.

Traffic seems to be clustered around certain speeds. The best option for me is to drive in the tail of the high speed cluster. This seems to minimize the number of additional vehicles I need to overtake and seems to minimize the number of vehicles trying to overtake me especially since the vehicles behind me do not lose patience, which they would do if they perceive that I am traveling far too slowly for their taste.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Motivation and Education

Is a teacher supposed to motivate students or should it be the reverse?

By the time one reaches college, I expect that the person should already be interested in the subject.

Motivation by a teacher can be for a student to go beyond what is expected.

Queries from students about the minimum to pass makes one wonder - why bother :)

Or perhaps it is time to accept that the existing system of education is broken.

The most common questions I had to deal with or raise in my professional work have been related to time. Why will it take so long? Why did it take so much time?

Time is the constraint. It would be good to move away from a common amount of work in a fixed time duration and differentiate on the basis of the quality of work in this duration period.

Hour long lectures are boring. It is even worse with video lectures.  A few of the videos I saw on were wonderfully correct length! Less than 2 minutes each.

What if we moved to a system where each student has to be 'certified' in a course, rather than just passing it. The courses need not even have lectures or may have just a few lectures compressed in a short time. The lectures need not be followed by exams.

At the end of 3 or 4 years, a student can be given a degree based on some minimum 'certification' requirements. Differentiation between students would be based on the number of courses in which a student is certified or the time period in which he or she achieved the goal.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Parking at Chandigarh Airport - Cont.

Well, I got a response to my complaint though it tells me nothing that I did not know!  I may be required to park in the parking lot but I found many people did not. Furthermore, given the 20 minutes it takes to exit from the parking lot, it makes no sense to park in the lot. Oh, well.

Dear Sir

Reference is invited to your complaint concerning the Parking irritation at Civil Air Terminal Chandigarh.
In this regard it is mentioned that 5 minutes free time is allowed for pick and drop of passengers as per the terms of Parking contract. If you wish to stay beyond the stipulated time you are required to park your vehicle in Car Parking area.

Public Grievance Officer
Civil Air Terminal

UPDATE: Hurray, I got another response on 21st March, 2012.

Considering in view the inconveniences while extricating from exit lane (from Car Parking area) as reported by few airport users, AAI Management have decided to explore possibilities for converting the exit lane (from Car Parking area) into lanes besides deployment of additional manpower so as to ensure fast movement of traffic and to curb such complaints, in future.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The misery of parking at Chandigarh Airport

It seemed silly to complain to myself on the blog; so I had been reluctant to write about the Chandigarh airport. Finally, today I got the idea of writing to the officer in charge of the Airport. If I get any response, I will acknowledge it. But meanwhile, it explains the predicament of parking at Chandigarh airport, which is a pretty small airport.

Dear Captain,

I got your email id from the Airports Authority web site. I wanted to
share my experiences of picking up people at the airport in the last
few months. For a small airport, it is an unforgettable experience.

On first occasion, it took 20 minutes to exit from the parking lot
after I had picked up my  sons.

On the second occasion, it took only 10 minutes to pay - but I was
late and had just entered the airport, picked up the passengers and
exited. It was hard to find a spot to stop without blocking traffic
and hard to extricated my car and get out. It took more than 5 minutes
and had to pay Rs. 25. The amount is peanuts but to pay for the
nuisance involved  I felt cheated.

On third occasion, it took 20 minutes to pay and exit.

My conclusion, it is better not to park - keep the car in the pick-up
area. I noticed people stopping their cars and just moving away. The
security officer was totally helpless.

Last year, I paid on entering the parking lot and exited reasonably
quickly. The current system is flawed as everyone wants to exit as
soon as the flight arrives. It seems to be helping only the contractor
of the parking lot.

Regards, ...