Thursday, February 13, 2014

MA History

After successfully completing an MA degree in Vaishnavism from Madras University, I have enrolled in a MA History program in Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

I chose IGNOU because they are the only ones who accept Engineering undergraduates for doing a masters in History. Looking at their curriculum and reading material, I am very happy to have made this choice. Their text books are extremely well written. Unfortunately, the printing and production standards are abysmal. For those interested, the subjects for the first year are:
  1. Ancient and Medieval Societies
  2. Modern World
  3. Political Structures in India
  4. History of Indian Economy
I have not checked out whether IGNOU is making these text books available as PDF or EPUB files. Will be useful to many people then.

I wish Madras University professors read these books and produce their reading material to this quality - or better yet, simply commission IGNOU to write their books. The rest of the Tamil Nadu universities are worse than Madras University anyway when it comes to the quality of books they produce for distance education.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

CII Conference on e-Learning and e-Publishing

I attended the above conference in Park Sheraton, Chennai yesterday. I spoke on the technology challenges one has to face in producing and delivering E-books for the Indian languages.

But more than my session, I enjoyed the last session on "Tablet Based Education".

Couple of years ago, I spoke at TEDxSSN about the need to introduce a complete Tablet based education at the school level. I was then disillusioned as I tested with many low cost Chinese Android devices. They were completely crap, the Android OS was not up to the mark, and I felt the entire Tablet revolution will be only for the rich and stopped thinking about it.

Subramanian Viswanathan of CEO of Edtech made some good points about why Tablet today may win where models such as OLPC failed in the past. I agree with him. I hope I paraphrase him correctly thus:-
  1. Tablets have a fantastic, natural interface through "touch", which even a child which has not learnt letters of a language can operate, while keyboards and mouse are a lot more difficult. Over time, we are going to get "gesture recognition" which will make it even better and easier.
  2. Tablets are getting thinner and faster and hence easy to hold and take around.
  3. Bandwidth is getting better and people are making provisions in schools for this.
  4. Unlike the Laptops software, apps have been unleashed for the tablets. The app store concept has made content and application creation and dissemination too easy. Social media has become stronger and the connectedness helps in innovative uses for the product.
  5. The users have become co-creators, and not just passive consumers.
He was suggesting that people invest in branded products rather than the cheap chinese tablets. (I should know better!)

But the really fascinating talk was the one that followed - by Shefali Jhaveri, a teacher at the Canadian International School at Bangalore. Her school has introduced iPads for all the students. No books, no notebooks. Everything is done in their iPads. To get the teachers familiar with this product, the teachers were given the iPads a good six months ahead.

The default apps that come with the iPad for the students include Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie, Comic Life and she also talked later about Doceri. Students write their reports using Pages, presentations using Keynote, and also compile their projects using Doceri (a screen animator app - I have not used this). Comic Life is used by the students to create some of their projects.

Teachers trawl through iTunes Univ and identify course material rleated to the syllabus they have to teach. Text books are provided through iPad directly (I didn't figure out who the publisher was and whether iBooks was the book reader).

Subramanian, in his presentation, said most teachers are against the tablet because it does not enable handwriting that well, but that soon good writing may be possible with a pen like device. (I have found handwriting cumbersome as well currently with the current stylus models.)

Shefali talked about and demonstrated a human body app which mimics digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system etc. which provides students with excellent understanding of these lessons far better than the boring printed book.

***

Of course, there are challenges in India for the neighbourhood low cost schools. There are even bigger challenges for the Indian language schools. It is up to us to take this exciting idea to the next level.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The incredible Arvind Kejriwal

I have been following Arvind Kejriwal, since Anna Hazare's movement against corruption gained prominence. I read through the various Jan Lokpal draft bills, and was not entirely impressed by them. I am not sure whether the institution of Lokpal will solve our corruption problem. However, I have felt strongly to support the activities of Hazare, and donate little bits of money wherever possible.

Popular support for Hazare's cause went up and then came down. That was inevitable. Many factors came together to defeat him. Hazare himself was one of the reasons.

But, when Hazare went on fast and the parliament had to be convened in a special session to debate corruption and Lokpal - that was the highest point of the anti-corruption movement. If you are cynical, you will laugh at this. The debaters in the parliament were all past masters of corruption and wheeling-dealing. It was clear that no good will come out of this special session other than to get Hazare to end his fast. You knew that the movement was going to fizzle out. Then why all this euphoria?

But the simmering discontent was there. Hazare didn't know how to make the best use of it. Kejriwal knew, and started his party - AAP. With just one year in hand, he seems to have done an outstanding job of galvanising the Delhi voters. This is simply incredible. Two days have passed since the Sunday results and I am yet to come to grips with this result. Defeating CM Sheila Dikshit in her own constituency, winning 28 seats, winning such a large percentage of votes, all with probably a small fraction of the funds at their disposal compared to that of BJP and Congress, are nothing short of amazing. From various accounts, it appears that even the AAP top folks are surprised by the results.

It is quite possible that AAP will wither away like Asom Gana Parishad. It is equally possible that AAP will go on to consolidate its position in a few states if not the entire country. Small states and Union Territories across India are ripe for such a new force. Pondicherry and Goa could be ideal pickings in future. States where there is no worthwhile opposition are other possibilities. For example, Maharashtra is drifting away with four large parties forming two fronts and none growing beyond their size. This state is ideal for AAP to firmly plant themselves in. Haryana which is ruled by a blatantly corrupt Congress, but where BJP has hardly played a serious role of opposition is another great opportunity. In fact, even Gujarat is a possibility where Congress is weakening steadily and those opposed to Modi want a strong rallying point.

This also opens up possibilities for other forces. Tamil Nadu is stuck between AIADMK and DMK, Both are incredibly corrupt, utterly inefficient, totally casteist and they hardly even talk about good governance. The challengers to these parties are breakaways from the same stock or are similar in content and form. AIADMK leader has not developed a second line of leadership. DMK leadership struggle may result in internecine family quarrels. AAP, or a similar group can establish itself in Tamil Nadu, if they do enough groundwork.

I am a little nervous about AAP's views on economics and other matters. But then, most parties in India have no views at all and they blithely go around destroying the country. Some of AAP's candidates seem to be dodgy characters, but by and large AAP seems to have given tickets to common folks who will never get a chance in any other party. That gladdens me a lot. If they maintain this character, I will support them wholeheartedly.

[Disclaimer: I have published the Tamil translation of Arvind Kejriwal's book 'Swaraj', தன்னாட்சி: வளமான இந்தியாவை உருவாக்க and my company is likely to gain if this book in Tamil sells more copies.]

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Quality of our graduates

For the last couple of days Satya and I have been interviewing rookie programmers - people with less than one year experience for a certain activity we are going to get into. We are not particular that they should be Engineering graduates, or MCA etc. But you find them everywhere and we have received resumes of people with either an Engineering degree or an MCA. They have completed their last degree just an year back.

After talking to them on other things, we ask them to solve a few simple Math problems. This is really revealing. I give below the questions.


One candidate with a B.Sc (Comp) and MCA couldn't solve a single problem above. His answer to the first question was "1". In fact three candidates all gave "1" as the answer to the first question. Then on further prompting and helpful hints, one came up with 1.4, another 1.414. One person came up with an amazing method, which resulted in sqrt(35) reaching close to 12.xxx. No one could touch the quadratic equation. One candidate solved all but the last problem.

The degree we are giving out is worth shit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

iPad vs Nexus Android Tablet

I went from this article (Unapologetically cheap) to this article (What happens when it's all glass?) via Shankar Ganesh in Facebook.

Ignoring other OS or device manufacturers, my basic problem with Android earlier was this. It was simply no good compared to iOS. The gap was just too wide. The devices running Android were pathetic too. Even as the hardware started getting better, the Android OS simply did not keep up. That is until now.

Even now, a Nexus 7 (2012) 16 GB is no match for an iPad mini. However, as pointed out by Jason Fried, the gap is coming down and the common man on the road is not going to care much about the brand.

Google now seems to have gotten the right idea. Build a solid device - a good, cheap phone that is robust, fast and functional and a similar tablet. Hope it is also profitable for them. Such products can make a big difference to people in countries such as India.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Nexus 7 (2012 model)

I bought a Nexus 7, 16 GB Android Tablet by Google & ASUS last week. It cost only Rs 8,999/- on Flipkart and was quite enticing. It is not going to be my primary tablet. I have an iPad. The main reason I bought this one was to test and continuously give feedback on an Android app (NHM Reader) we are developing.

Over the last few of years I have bought many cheap Android tablets, mainly to test them. I was quite disillusioned with them all. It started with a cheap (then - Rs. 7,000) 7 inch unbranded Chinese tablet, resistive touch, Android 1.x which was soon cast away. Then I bought another resistive touch 10 inch, yet another cheap Chinese make (which cost Rs 10,000) from the US and had it delivered to India. It was some Android 2.x version. Again threw it away after a while. Then, again bought a capacitive touch 9 inch version from the US, which performed a little better, but had some fault and I couldn't fix it. [When I say I have thrown it away, I have them all lying in the house somewhere.] I then got a gift of Penta, a capacitive touch 7 inch tablet marketed by BSNL. I gave it to my daughter who quickly grew tired of it and instead kept taking my iPad away.

These were basically for experiments, trying to figure out whether a cheap Android tablet can be a good consumer device, for consuming music, video clips, reading books etc.

In the meantime, I also experimented with couple of cheap Android phones - a Micromax one and a Samsung one, both at the entry level. They also left a lot to be desired. The Samsung Galaxy Y is still in use at home. My daughter uses it, primarily as a web device to watch Youtube clips, check weather, chat with her friends and quickly check her emails.

I was looking for a very robust device at a good price point. Satya then pointed Nexus 7 tab to me an year back. He had procured one from the US. Then it went on sale in India on Flipkart and was costing around Rs. 10,000/- Then when they dropped the price further, I bought it.

There is apparently a new Nexus 7 tab coming up (or has already come up?) I believe. I am not a gadget freak. I don't much care about the latest version of anything. I have an iPhone 3GS and do not feel the need to change it at all. Nexus 7 has only one camera, a front facing, low pixel one. I am yet to take a photo with it. I probably may never use this camera. I do however use my iPad to take a lot of pictures and many video clips as well. So if that is what you want, Nexus 7 is not your device.

However, my experience with Nexus 7 so far is very good. It is nicely packed, compact and light enough. Its storage of 16 GB is more than enough for me. Screen response is really good. Just as good as my iPad. What I liked the most was the neat OS upgrade. The OS that came shipped with the system was 4.2. The same day as I started up the system, it downloaded 4.3 and upgraded itself (of course, with my permission). Then a day later, it prompted for upgrading to 4.4 which I did. (They could have upgraded from 4.2 to 4.4 in one jump, but probably this is easier for them.)

I couldn't get a good cover for it. Satya had procured one from the US. But here in India I have now bought two covers and both are bad. A cheap one from Ritchie Street (Rs 250) which looks good from outside but quite pathetic leather inside. I had to use my cutter to carve out portions to see the full screen. The second one, I bought from Flipkart for around Rs. 550 (marketed by Ambrane India), which contains a cover and a keyboard built in. The keyboard works very nicely. So it can be used with Quickoffice (a free App) and you can create documents and presentations really fast. But the device can slip out of this cover, so it is not very safe.

Kindle app works fine of course. Playing video and music are very competent. Browser (Chrome) experience is of the same standard as in an iPad.

Tamil fonts and complex Unicode rendering are built in and work well. Google doesn't provide a default Tamil input as of now, but Tamil typing can be done with Sellinam well. I am sure there are many other input apps as well.

I paired it with my iPhone through Bluetooth and got the Internet working on the road. At home or office, wi-fi works comfortably.

The battery life is really good. This I did not expect. Almost as good as (but a little lesser to) an iPad.

*

Why am I bothered about a cheap Android device?

Print books have reached a stage where they are not going to grow much. It is a tough business. Raw material (paper) cost is steadily increasing. Every time paper cost goes up, we are forced to increase the cost of the books considerably - because everything else works on a percentage basis. The author gets 10%, while the trade discount is around 35% for Tamil and can be as much as 50% for English. So if the cost of paper consumed by a copy of a book goes up by Rs 1, you have to increase the MRP by Rs 2, just to stay where you are. If you want cover the inflation elsewhere, you will have to up the MRP by Rs 3. There are plenty of other difficulties a book publishing business face, too numerous to mention here.

In this scenario, Book business can grow only with E-books. It is possible to create e-only books, and retail them for as low as Rs 10 and Rs 20. Most Tamil readers still expect books in this price range. They do not understand that paper price has grown three-fold in the last 10 years. When we started our publishing business roughly a decade back, one kg of paper was around Rs 23-24. Now it is almost Rs 70.

E-books can work only when enough people have a reading device in their hands. Dedicated Kindle Reader like devices with e-ink displays are not going to work in India and particularly in the regional language market. Even Amazon has sort of given up on them, I think. So it will have to be tabs. iOS devices will always be exclusive and expensive.

Given the price conscious Indian markets, it will have to be a cheap and yet robust Android tablet that will trigger in this revolution. Having played enough with resistive touch or unknown brand products, the hassle is so much, I don't think most common folks would even want to touch them. That is where Nexus 7 tab comes in. It is cheap enough at 9k, but in terms of performance it is good enough. In fact it is fantastic.

So go for it!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Campa Cola illegal constructions in Mumbai

Read an article on Campa Cola illegal constructions today [The Hindu]. Municipality had given permission for construction of only 5 floors but over time, 35 extra floors had been created! The residents had gone to court demanding water supply, but the municipality had protested this claiming the construction was illegal. Now, armed with a court order, the municipality wants to demolish the additional floors but the residents are blocking this move. The chief minister of Maharashtra has refused to issue an ordinance regularising the structure. Opposition MLAs have jumped in to support the residents.

I do not understand the housing problem in Mumbai much. There are too many high-rise buildings in Mumbai. You don't see that many in Chennai, though a few have emerged recently, in particular along the Old Mahabalipuram Road. Even then, they are probably around 10 floors. In the middle of the city, it is usually ground+3 or ground+4.

I have read a fair bit about construction in Chennai in violation of the permit given. Usually a shady builder will add a floor more (if four floors are granted, build a fifth one) and then hope that (a) nobody finds out and (b) if found out, pay some fine and regularise the same. But what is shocking to me is, how could someone build 35 extra floors when the original permission was for a mere 5 floors? This is some audacity.

A few famous shops in T.Nagar business district were penalised over the last few years for illegally adding 2-3 floors, or for not having enough parking space. Some demolition happened in case of Saravana Stores, but then the whole thing fizzled out.

The normal middle class response to this is that the officials and the politicians take bribe and let these shops run unchecked. But now, decent upper middle class folks of Campa Cola compound have willingly violated the law and are refusing to vacate their premises. Chances are that most residents of Mumbai will side with the law-breakers. If that is the case, how can we demand that the politicians and the government officials clean up their act? I can clearly see a whole bunch of politicians sympathising with poor Lalu Yadav spending time in prison for stealing a few paltry crores!

***

I can see a bunch of violations by decent middle class people in Chennai.
  1. Unauthorised floors above the permit.
  2. Not leaving enough space between the compound wall and the construction inside, thereby blocking air and sunlight to the neighbouring building.
  3. Encroaching on public space by extending their construction into the kerb.
  4. Letting out space including the footpath for shops. [My earlier apartment complex had a problem like this. The idiot who owned the commercial space in the ground floor had rented it out to a food joint. This was not to be done - it was meant only for stationery or mobile or such shops. Anyway, the food joint simply gobbled up the entire footpath in front. The food shop fellow asked us to talk to the owner. We fought with the owner, who simply dodged us. The problem continues. I have moved out.]
  5. Constructing ramps across the footpath for vehicles, which makes walking on the footpath difficult for older people or pushing a child-cart impossible.
  6. Not making provision for transformers inside the apartment complex but placing them in the common public space [which is then quickly converted into men's toilet.]
It maybe worthwhile to start a campaign to educate the people on these and many other violations committed by them (mostly because they do not know that they are doing this) and fix them within a specific time, before we start demanding our politicians to clean up their act.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Teacher-Student ratio in Chennai Corporation schools and the medium of instruction

I visited couple of Chennai [corporation] schools this week and have been to quite a few of them in the last year. The enrollment has come down drastically. The High school in Royapettah [Lloyds Road] had only around 200 students or so and the HM said once they used to get upwards of 600-700 students. In the Thousand Lights Middle School, the total number of students in 3rd/4th/5th together came only to 25. Accounting for those students who were absent, it seems like the strength is around 10 per class. In the Triplicane Middle School, 6th/7th/8th total came to 70. That is around 25 per class.

Given that the teacher-student ratio is fantastic - does it result in better outcome in these schools? There seemed to be enough teachers - at least one per class in the schools I visited.

Alternately, where are the kids who should be enrolled in these schools? They have all been pushed to low quality, English medium schools which have by and large bad teachers who are paid probably 3,000 or 4,000 Rs a month. The students are forced to pay probably around Rs 500 a month as fee. With that sort of fee, these schools can't be all that rich. Their infrastructure has to be poor; they probably do not have a playground. On the other hand the Chennai [corporation] schools had reasonable space around, fairly decent flooring, decent furniture, purified water cans, working fans etc.

I have a radical suggestion:

* Suppose we make all the Corporation Schools English medium only [just a renaming - call them Chennai Corporation English Medium Only Schools].
* Charge every student at least Rs. 100 a month.
* Force the students to wear ties and shoes and spanking new uniforms that the parents are forced to buy.


My feeling is, the enrollment will go up significantly - to the level of at least 50 students per class. Use the funds to spruce up the buildings.

This will have two advantages. The parents will now start demanding better quality teaching from the teachers, since now they are paying customers. The low quality local schools will be forced to close down.

The only downside to this whole thing is "English Medium". This will be vehemently opposed to by the Tamil fringe. [I am myself in favour of teaching most/all the kids in Tamil and hence I belong to this fringe, before you jump up!] Ignore the fringe [including me].

Will the Chennai [corporation] school teachers be up to the mark in teaching in English? My contention is, they can't be worse than the roadside low quality English school teachers anyway. These are better paid, D.T.Ed/B.Ed trained teachers anyway.

At least you will save the public schooling system and save most parents from paying 500 Rs or more per month for lower quality education. We can think about how to revive Tamil, and how to improve the quality of education later.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Narendra Modi’s projection as PM candidate is inevitable

In a detailed interview where Prof. Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University criticises Food Security Ordinance, in response to one last question on Modi, he says it is inevitable that Modi will be made the PM candidate. As usual, ET only headlines this. But do please read the entire article to see the correct perspective on FSB.
Are you happy about projecting Modi for Prime minister? Are you impressed with his style of campaigning? What do you think of the controversial "puppy" remark?

That Modi, with his enormous success in bringing prosperity to the people of Gujarat, will be projected as the PM candidate is inevitable. Modi is also forcing a debate on the importance of growth to economic and social development, which I greatly welcome. [Full Article]

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pay Rs 5 to attend Narendra Modi's rally


Modinomics: Pay Rs 5 to attend Narendra Modi's rally in Hyderabad - Times of India

The BJP is charging Rs 5 per ticket for the public meeting and on day one of the online registration for the meeting on Monday, about 8,000 persons signed up. Organizers are expecting anywhere between 50,000 to one lakh attendance for the meet, which at the rate of Rs 5 per ticket would amount to about Rs 5 lakh in case the party manages a full house. [article]