Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Modern Indian Miracle?

So, here is a little quiz for all of you:

What Indian Entity (village, city, district) has the highest GDP in the country?

Nope, it is not a city.

These honors are claimed by a small village in the state of Maharashtra. Its name is Hivre Bazar. It has won a number of awards for bringing about the little changes needed to transform itself into some kind of ideal village. Back in the day, such honors were claimed by another place named Ralegan Shiddi.

The village has a very good website [] (hosted in India) which has a wealth of information, if you are interested.

This goes to show that non-participation of governments and spontaneous participation of us, the people, can create miracles in public lives, both rural or urban. Any researcher and worker who has worked in these areas that concern masses should visit this place. I hope to make a trip to Hivre Bazar soon ...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A school system of my dreams ...

While wandering (not aimlessly) in the wonderland of WWW, I ran into Joseph Weizenbaum's (The ELIZA creator) thoughts (from 1985) about problems with educational establishment. Read them here first. My modest observation has been that they are applicable today just as well.

Paraphrasing him (bold casing mine):
Q: What are the problems of the educational establishment?

A: The first priority has to be, it seems to me, to lend to those to be educated a mastery of their own language so that they can express themselves clearly and with precision, in speech and in writing.That's the very first priority. The second priority is to give students an entree to and an identity within the culture of their society, which implies a study of history, literature, and all that.

And the third, very close to the second, is to prepare people for living in a society in which science is important, which means to teach them mathematics, or at least arithmetic, and the fundamental skills important to observing the world.

A school system which meets these main objectives might think about introducing something new. Meanwhile, researchers should certainly work on innovative education -- including computer-aided education. But we ought not to use entire generations of schoolchildren as experimental subjects.

In part, this response is based on my belief that what primary and secondary schools teach about computers now is either wrong or can be learned by a reasonably educated person in a few weeks.

Now, I do believe that somewhere, there is truth that unifies all these subjects. But this is pretty close to what I'd like to build, some day.

Monday, November 01, 2010

On problem solving ...

Professor Bob Palais has written an interesting article on problem solving. His arguments are not only motivating, but also enlightening. They make you believe that it is belief that you will be able to solve the problem that plays a major role in actually solving it.

You may wonder if you have the capability to solve it. But here is a simple trick that should help. It has helped me. Let us say you tried (for some time) to solve the problem and got nowhere. Then you read the solution or someone tells it to you. Now, ask yourself if you are able to understand the solution and how it solves the problem. If you really understood the solution, my argument is that you are (and were always) in a position to solve it all by yourself. It is not a silver bullet, but something that has worked for me. Of course, the concentration (that problem solving itself requires) is a must.

My argument can be supported (not proved) thus. If one is not able to understand the solution to a problem, we know that it can be concluded that he or she would not have been able to solve the problem. For example, I don't understand the Theory of Relativity yet and that is evident only because I don't understand the solutions to most of the problems in it.

I understand that converse is not true, but I am not proving anything anyway.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Serendipity may find you ...

Quite brilliantly, Paul Buchheit wrote Serendipity finds you. I think it may. The definition of the word (the claimed origin of which is itself fascinating) makes the word a matter of chance. One cannot count on making rich discoveries by chance. Being able to plan to make to such a discovery appears more scientific.

Making such discoveries depends on one's nature. A very good friend of mine for instance, hates surprises, by nature. The progress she makes in life is an outcome of careful planning. She enjoys life better that way. I have tried to show her several times that it is OK to do an unplanned activity. Once, she was wondering about how she can get back in shape in her busy life (which involved raising two kids). She spent quite some time thinking about it. And then one day, all of a sudden, I almost dragged her into a bike shop and we bought a bicycle for her. I said she could bike to work, do her farmers' market trips on the bike etc. And she did. It has been three years since that and she has only thanked me about this spontaneous act. It has helped her significantly (although biking on the streets of the Bay Area is not safe for someone like her, or anyone for that matter).

We have talked at length about this and other similar incidences and I think I now understand her plight. Leaving something to chance knowingly is something she just cannot do. Of course, like we make little adjustments to our nature, she could make some provision for accidental discoveries. But I now appreciate that it is hard for someone like her. Just like it is hard for someone like me to "plan the work and then work the plan".

She says, to an extent, making rich discoveries by being serendipitous is like a successful startup. For every successful startup, there are a bunch of failed ones. Thus, there should be many gaffes, stressful situations because you hoped to make a rich discovery by accident. And when you do make a rich discovery you tend to forget the pain you endured.

I am not sure if I can successfully refute her.

Another subtle observation I have about being serendipitous is that it suggests somewhat philosophical concept of destiny. A wise man (a physicist by profession) once told me that it is amazing how things that happen to us give an illusion that we make them happen. If you think about it, this is not something that you can quickly brush aside. When there are multiple choices available, what decides the choice we make?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Writing Nonfiction is a craft ...

While reading William Zinsser's "On Writing Well", I decided to look for daily reading (which is of course nonfiction) where the writer misses the point.

Along came our son's school payment and tuition policy. It was intimidating to say the least. I imagined someone reminding me (the parent) of various things in the tone of "Thou shalt not ...".

Here are some bullet points from the tuition policy that are worth highlighting:

  • The font looked dry and frankly, it was hard to read. I thought Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst should be a must read. Once again, I realized that keeping something simple is hard.
  • Writing something in all caps IS CONSIDERED OFFENSIVE, isn't it? Well, this howler was full of such sentences. They were supposed to be the reminders to parents. I was intimidated rather than being reminded of.
  • Use of strong verbs and constructs like "require", "non-proratable" (is that even a word?), "absolutely no", "overdue notice", "termination", "must be" usually in all caps made the situation worse.
  • The prose was not only difficult to read, it made no sense at times with such sentences as:
    • It is a mandatory that each child must have an Earthquake Kit. (It is mandatory that each child has an Earthquake Kit.)
    • If we do not receive the total balance due by the due date, it will be considered as late (exactly what will be considered as late?)
Maybe I am being a grumpy parent for this is a payment policy. But wait a minute, I do like the school, it's just that this letter was not pleasant to read.

Where has all the warmth, affection been lost? Why must the school policies be written in such legalese?

It is all Zinsser's fault :-).

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Good luck, Vishy ...

Vishy Anand, the reigning World Chess Champion (combined) will defend his Fide title against Bulgarian Veselin Topalov in what promises to be a bitter fight. The dual is about to start in two weeks and I am sure the chess (and non-chess) world will take keen interest in not just the outcome, but the content of the championship games.

I of course want and expect Vishy to keep his title. It is going to be tough in Sofia, but it's Vishy, you know. I am not sure if it is going to be tougher than October 2008 when Vishy won the title in Germany. I am going to keep my fingers crossed because I am sure he's going to need luck :-).

You can catch up with all the excitement at:

Friday, January 15, 2010

About Quotes ...

Quotes have always amazed me. I think it is a succinct expression of creativity. Not all quotes are applicable to all circumstances and not all are timeless, but some of them are pure stroke of genius. I shiver when I read a great quote. For example, here is one:

Life is tragedy for those who feel and it's a comedy for those who think.

Now, we know that a human being is neither a feeler nor a thinker all the time, but a continuum over these two defining traits. Yet, this quote makes me admire the person to whom it's attributed. With quotes, comes the problem of attribution, but that can be solved. Another thing about quotes is that there are plenty of quality ones (and crappy ones). It's almost like "there's a quote for that".

Having taken inspiration from several thinkers of all times, I thought of my own quotes. Let me know if you liked them:

  • Biking (on the roads of California) has improved my driving.
  • You feel like you have achieved something when you become a parent. The key is in not letting that sense of achievement and excitement fizzle, over time.
  • People have wondered about my ability to (memorize, and) quote quotable quotes when applicable. I have wondered about ability of people who created them.