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.