Monday, June 29, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Within the space of one generation, a product came and went - Kodachrome is gone. And the analog camera will, soon. It is amazing when you come to think of it. Yes, yes, it is still alive, you scream, but it is a short road to obscurity from here. When I was born (not too long ago), the camera was an elitist product - not too many people had it.
Not too long ago, photographs of people were hung on the wall of every drawing room of every self respecting house. We went to studios to get pictures taken or a photographer would come home with all his equipment and take pictures. Well, not too many could dream of owning a camera, like a car. This was in the 50s and 60s. The 70s saw a few cameras escape studios and find their way in the hands of some well off people. Slowly the strings began to loosen, but camera ownership was still hard to come by.
Indeed, the first pictures we ever shot were on a borrowed camera - with those 24 exposure cartridge reels shaped like binoculars. After we got the camera, we posed in front of almost every piece of furniture of our house before turning our attention to the other places - including the building courtyard, nearby temple, garden, somebody's cars and what not. From then on, we progressed - we bought our own camera, carried it along to the tourist places we went, faithfully taking pictures (sometimes, they did not turn up very well and you would know that only after you developed it), filing it in albums, noting memories on it, sending copies to relatives. Wherever we toured, we had designated photographers - those who could handle the camera well (and I was on that prestigious position for a few tours). Also, the best photographers got called out to take those group photos (until somebody invented the self timer). It was a neat ecosystem.
And then along came the digital camera. Expensive at first, it rapidly dropped prices and became affordable (now, with cameras on mobile phones, everybody has a camera). But more than anything else, it turned something that was "limited" into something that is "limitless". Also, the technology did not complicate things, it made it simple. Now, a monkey with a camera could get you decent pictures - and make you feel like a genius (but then they have taken their art further, so real genius is still not easy to reach). Earlier if you budgeted for two "36 exposure" rolls for a trip, now you can take a zillion pictures limited only by the memory card. (Imagine, we did a 15 day trip of Himachal and spent a princely 4 rolls of film. Today, we would have shot a thousand pictures between the 6 chaps who went.)
What is equally amazing is that all this happened across barely one generation - atleast in India. Cameras were becoming popular only 20 years ago. And 20 years later, it is digital all over. No, I am not lamenting the passing of an era - indeed, I am glad that all the developing and printing and sorting is now much simpler. And you can send pictures over email.
What is more important and interesting is that, we are going to witness a similar passing of many things we grew up over the next many years. One thing, I would like to see go soon is the IC engine.
And before we start on our lament that the digital picture is destroying photography, read this priceless piece written in 1999 by Douglas Adams. DNA/How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet. (via Gaurav)
Thursday, June 25, 2009
The pencil in space story is an oft repeated story on Innovation. (Mads commented on it yday). Coincidentally, as I went through the reader, I discovered that the story was somewhat of an urban legend. Yes, I am coming late into this...
There's a tale often told in design circles of how, in the heat of the space race, NASA paid over a million dollars to develop a pen that worked in zero gravity. The Russians, however, took a different approach. They used a pencil.
And that Space Pen story? It's simply not true. Pencils were problematic for both Russian and American astronauts. Pencil tips can break off and float away, potentially blinding an astronaut or causing a short in electrical equipment. The Space Pen itself, is very real. Paul C. Fisher of Fisher Pen saw the need and developed it on his own, investing a reported million dollars in the project. The result was the famous Fisher Space Pen which employs a pressurized ink cartridge. It's been used by both American and Russian astronauts since the late '60s. It also became a huge commercial success, still selling forty years after its development. [Fast Company]
Read the whole post here...
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
When me and junior play with our Lego blocks (or drawing), it is not hard to guess who is more "creative". When I make vehicles, they look like the ones we see on the roads. When he makes vehicles, they surely wont be seen on any road (correction: they are not seen on any road now). His vehicles are the outrageous ones - wheels on top, on the side, engine on the top or somewhere else...
Even in the way he uses the bricks there is a lesson. I, for instance, am "bound" by the convention that a "telescope" piece is a telescope (it can be a "gun"). Or that flags must only be on flagpoles (why not on hats?). Or axes are axes (they can be used as "hands").
The difference, of course, is the worldview. I, with my superior (purely time wise) experience am shackled by what I have already seen. He, with his lesser experience, has no such restrictions. And thats exactly how it happens progressively - we hem in childrens creativity with notions of "reality".
So, creativity, is all about not succumbing to a worldview - rather it is about challenging the worldview. Which is easy when none exists. And when the worldview in front of you is like the dam holding up your thoughts, how do you break through? Or how to continue to challenge the worldview, once you have created that in your mind or in your childs mind? I dont have answers yet, but hopefully I have asked the right question...
Monday, June 22, 2009
Twitter recently caused a minor uprising in Moldova, it has been the primary tool of something along the same lines in Iran. Mumbais terror attacks were tweeted from inside the hotel by those unwittingly trapped inside. And, for those on the web, twitter is the latest thing.
The internet came - many people created their own websites, but clearly, every person cannot sustain his or her own website. Then, blogs had their day in the sun. Ditto there. Not everybody can sustain a blog - I mean, you have other things to do right. And along came twitter. And everybody is on twitter - I mean, mainstream names like Brahma Chellaney, Swapan Dasgupta, Praveen Swami. Hell, even N Ram is on twitter (search that yourself) - it is banned in China, btw.
But there is something about twitter that makes it different. The biggest thing, IMO - ease of use. 140 characters - bam. No create site, set up content. Just type and enter. With an open API and zillions of software that lets you use twitter wherever you are (yes) on phone or on the net - it is simplicity at its best. No wonder, the worlds out there, tweeting, pointing. To me, as I pointed out earlier, it is almost becoming the place for the latest on the web that interests me...
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Yes. You read that right. The Azim Premji foundation got approvals for the same from the Karnataka government.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The US tax return system is an amazing one. The e-filing convenience has to be seen to be believed. Much of it can be replicated in India. But not so fast.
I tried to register at Taxsmile which promises an e-filing and from first glance, it does not appear to make my job any simpler. For instance, the form 16 cannot be directly uploaded (why? It is a standard format right?). It does not help you calculate your capital gains/losses (why not offer an integration with any of the online brokers for instance and make it automatic). And for all this work, I have to pay 250 or 400 rupees.
The trouble is that most companies work with one Chartered Accountant (and his or her hundreds of interns) to get this job done manually. And they charge you anywhere between 150 to 300 for this. I am personally in favour of going electronic with the returns. So if Taxsmile needs more customers, it needs to either bring down the price or offer it free for one year or make it more convenient. If after filling out all the things, I have to depend on a courier to get my returns done correctly (See report linked below), well, it is a waste of my time and money (this seems to be basic scheme). The next level of membership has some complicated options but it does look like the courier is not involved...
And after this news report, I am no longer sure...
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I have my own experiences travelling back and forth from domestic airport.
Will I miss the Mumbai - premier padmini's? Well, lets put it this way that I wont mind seeing others in them. They were a part of the landscape, but they have served their time and should honorably retire now.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Hobby ideas is an shop and an idea whose time has come. Thankfully, should I say?
I spent a fair amount of time, fruitlessly, during my childhood trying to make things following instructions and none of the shops even knew what I was referring to. I badly wanted to create a simple glider aeromodel in those days and I had managed to get my hands on a second hand aero model magazine from the UK. Armed with the instructions, I set out to create my own plane. Needless to say, it crashed even before I reached step 1 of instructions. The list of things required were an obstacle that could not be crossed. For the record, it cannot be crossed even today by and large, but Hobby ideas is the kind of shop which has the potential to expand into such niche areas (as hobby shops have in other countries). They do have some basic gliders and rubber powered planes in their shop.
I was pleasantly surprised by the range of items available. There was a small tutorial going on while we were at the shop which was very interesting. And it is a far better place to go to than a toy shop. For Pidilite, there is a possibility that the hobby ideas idea can span into something as an entry into India DIY market. Does India have a DIY market? No. It is known only by its absence. This is a market that can be created IMO.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Friday, June 12, 2009
As I waited for my bus at Vashi, it was fascinating to see the "informal economy" for pickups to Pune. Theres a three way market there. First there are the ticketed passengers for buses - both private and MSRTCs own service. Then there are the "travel agents" who sell "spot" tickets for the buses to Pune. Then there are the touts who cater to the guys who "walk in", needing to reach Pune "fast" by cab and not bus.
Mumbai-Pune is a high density route and all the MSRTC plus private buses and taxis of all sorts can not satiate the demand. It is like the perfect free market (or thereabouts). In this economy is the unorganized cab; the driver who wants to make a quick buck while going to Pune anyway and indeed there are youngsters who seem to make some money while on their way to Pune. Now, if you decide to stop at the bus stop and try to pick up passengers, sure you will get them, but if you want your vehicle to go full, you have to use the services of "agents" there.
Disclaimer: I was a pure onlooker, so what follows is mostly surmise.
The rates appear fixed. There are some rules. Airconditioned vehicle 250 bucks ( must be negotiable, I think), non aircon vehicles 150 (ditto). Two seats in the front in the Sumo and I actually heard them tell someone to pay for 2 if he wanted a solo seat up front. There are schedules. The next vehicle is slotted in a place and until it is full nobody breaks the queue - all the other vehicles are neatly parked behind. All in all, the touts sort of serve to organize a market which otherwise would perhaps be a nice riotous scene with each cab waiting for the last seat to get full or missing out on a couple of seats. It looks like each cab has to pay about 100 bucks for their "services" and it does look like most chaps find it worth paying these guys for their services. They do all the running around, catching potential passengers and getting them into the vehicle. In fact, I did not see anyone attempt to pick up passengers without their services (they would probably do it at other smaller stops on the way - and that has its own "cost").
But that's the rules. The way they go about it is a perfect lesson for anyone operating in an imperfect market. Here, clearly, though the supplier and buyer are in equal hurry, the advantage is with the touts. They announce the latest cabs, even 'fill' cabs with their own folk - who gracefully make way when the 'real' customer arrives. They coax, cajole and even occasionally make a "last vehicle" (at 5 pm) announcement even as other cabs come in. Passengers obviously don't want to get into a cab and wait till all the seats are full (this, IMO, the most painful part for a passenger) - thus everybody plays a waiting game. But then, the first guys get the best (middle) seats and the rest are bundled into the back. The touts handle all of this. They can size potential passengers at a wink - including their urgency levels. Comes with experience I guess.
All in all, it was interesting to watch them go about their business...
Thursday, June 11, 2009
'Padmanabha Saar' in Koovappady needed no introduction. Those words were our passport in the village during our summer vacations while we jumped over fences, climbed up trees and chomped on mangoes and cashews in delight.
Yet, it never dawned on us to ask why our grandfather was worthy of such respect and adulation. For us, he was our grandfather - a bit strict at times, otherwise jovial and genial. He went out in the morning for his job - sometimes on a bicycle, sometimes walking - and returned in the evening, his life seemed to be an ordinary life, like everybody else. He walked at a higher speed than most of us and when we walked with him - ran with him actually, every alternate person on the street greeted him. Some of them greeted us too and we felt that much more important.
It took us a while for us to realize that he, our grandfather, and his father - our greatgrandfather were part of a legacy of the village Koovappady.
Meet Padmanabha Iyer. At 82, you can see a twinkle in his eyes when he talks about Ganapati Vilasam High School, GVHS Koovappady - the school his father founded and he helped administer for the greater part of his life. His eyes light up, his memory goes back in a flash and he can vividly recall each detail of those years. After all he spent his entire career in that school, breathing teaching, shaping lives and moulding many a mind.
As for A S Narayana Iyer, I have no living memory of having met him. He died a few years before I was born. But his presence was hard to miss. He was there in a portrait that adorned the centre of the wall opposite the main door. As you entered, it appeared as if he was keeping a watchful eye on you. In those days it was "in" to have photographs of the entire family on the wall opposite the main door. Out of all those photographs, his was the hardest to miss. With the Mysore Turban and a regal bearing and stern countenance, he was the patriarch of the family in absentia. Even in the photograph (now digitally retouched) he sits ramrod straight looking the camera straight in the eye, even as Bhagavathyammal, his wife, sits in a subdued pose. I have heard from my mother - whose name in true Tamil tradition - is the name of her grandmother - about him. "We would go to great lengths to avoid him" she would say. "If he caught us, he would ask us maths questions. Much of our entry and exit was from the kitchen door - he was formidable on the front porch".
AS Narayana Iyer was born in Ambalapuzha, on this day 122 years ago, a temple town then as much as now, steeped in tradition. Most life there revolved around the temple. His father died at a young age which left young Nanu in the care of a foster uncle Vakil Ganapathy Iyer who took care of his education. He resolved that he would support his family and that it would be his first priority to repay the Vakil. And that meant taking up a regular career as soon as possible. The teachers job which was a job, also became his passion over time. He was transferred to Perumbavoor towards the latter end of his career and there he saw the difficulty of students in a rural area first hand. The thought of his younger days echoed when he saw students attend school with great difficulty. Given that he had discharged his other responsibilities, he took it upon himself to start a school as his dream for the students in this area. At a time when he could have retired in peace, he sought to start working on his dream.
"The first time I came to know something was afoot was when I was asked to accompany my father to wood auctions" recalls Padmanabha Saar. "Between us, Mani was seeped in books and Vishwam was too young, so the timber depot work fell on me. And that was how I became part of this legacy. Little did I know then that it would become such an important part of my life."
The school was founded in 1938 as a primary school. The school was staffed with locals and found instant acceptance in both the student and the teachers community. Very soon, it established a name for itself as a quality school in the area and soon provided higher education as well (upto SSLC). With the school providing basic education, a few years later a government higher secondary school as well as a government polytechnic were opened in nearby areas.
Later on, his sons were encouraged to start their careers as teachers in GVHS itself. His three sons started off at GVHS. The eldest (Late Dr. NS Mani - a reputed agricultural professor) and the youngest (Late Vishwanathan - a formidable Maths teacher in Parur) went on to have distinguished careers in teaching in various part of Kerala. The middle son, Padmanabhan, stayed on in GVHS till he retired in 1980.
In the meantime, since it was the fulfillment of a dream for Narayana Iyer than a money generating activity, the school was passed on to a local trust for ownership and administration in 1957. Padmanabha Iyer, thanks to his able administration skills continued to serve the school as headmaster till retirement.
Narayana Iyer and his sons touched the lives of lakhs of people who dot the world. Their life story is a simple one. A story of how an ordinary teacher was moved by the plight of his students who had to walk to school for upto 15 kilometres daily. He decided to get the school closer to students and filled one more cog in what is today a 100% literate state.
This school celebrated its golden jubilee in 1988 and exists even today. When you enter you can see the stern AS Narayana Iyer in a full length portrait. Padmanabha Iyer was honoured as part of a 'Guru Pooja' at the school in 2007 on his 80th birthday.
Two generations down, their children and grandchildren work in the corridors of corporate India - indeed all over the world. They work in prestigious institutions and private companies, yet it would be a long long time before their achievements would come anywhere close to what these two men achieved in their lifetimes.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I pretty much read more than the intended reading list for the first half of 2009. Managed to finish Collapse, Cuckold, Kargil, Hot, Flat and Crowded and Outliers...
Out of all these, as the title suggests, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwellheld me in thrall. I read many reviews of the book, but it was not a book that was universally appreciated, but as someone (Tyler Cowen?) pointed out, if this book had been written by anyone other than Malcolm Gladwell, it would have won rave reviews.
But coming back to what I loved about the book. I loved the 10,000 hour rule - which is the time that it takes for anyone to master anything. Now, that's important - assuming you get the opportunity. If you practice your craft without improvement, you are a dead duck, but assuming you toil at your craft (or art or science), at the end of 10,000 hours, you are an expert.
I loved some (most? All?) of the examples. Each one of them make you think.
And for parents, it has some amazing fundaes.
I loved its definition of work - For work to be meaningful, it has to have a clear link between effort and rewards, sufficiently complex and autonomous.
Downsides, well, you may delude yourself and believe that the world is against you if you read it. But that's not true, it is? There IS opportunity everywhere. Even in these days and the only question you have to ask yourself is, what are you doing to be part of it.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Well, Hot, Flat, and Crowded is a good breezy read on what Tom Friedman, NYT columnist thinks the US must do. In any case, the US seems to be moving in the right direction with investments in rail, Silicon valley start-ups investing in all sorts of non-petroleum mobility solutions much faster than the world.
For us urbanites, the message is clear. Every litre of oil you use has the potential to come back to you as a bullet (or a bomb). Get onto those buses, for now, until alternatives are available. Friedmans draws this connection loudly and clearly. Now, it is not that this connection is a new one, but the ticket to clean energy will also potentially rid us of the other most plaguing issue these days - terrorism. As urbanites in India, the sooner we get to rainwater harvesting, borewell (groundwater) recharging, the better it will be for us.
And he touches upon "lazy environmentalism", but there are really no easy options here. And it is going to be one long haul - a generation, atleast, before we get to "utopia" if at all. And in the meantime, it is a race - who will win. I am optimistic.
India, thanks to efforts like the Reva and the Nano is there somewhere. But like the telecom revolution which made our villages mobile without having to wait for the landline revolution, the clean energy revolution might well get our villages which still languish with partial or no electricity another chance to leapfrog. Think biogas, think microhydel plants and of course, solar and wind energy and India can very soon make villages self sufficient.
Collapse by Jared Diamond, on how societies collapse due their rampant destruction of the environment makes for a gripping read for a while, but offers no solution. Most societies which collapsed had no clue this was going to hit them and unfortunately, many parts of our world are going the same way. But some of the arguments it puts forward are quite compelling...
This blog is not a place where I do movie reviews, but this one was simply superb. I am a sucker for part fiction, part fact genre, especially when the fact part of this genre is something of a half known fact. Cuckold, by Kiran Nagarkar was a book which recently captured my imagination. And now, this movie 99.
Rollicking one-liners, superb performances by Kunal Khemu, Mahesh Manjrekar, Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani and Amit Mistry (this chap is rip roaring) and a nearly edge of seat suspense throughout makes 99 a superb 'multiplex' movie.
The movie ends with the match fixing scandal of 2000, which managed to drag cricket into an abyss for a while and even today, cricket has not entirely recovered from it. I have no idea about how authentic it is to the actual events, but whatever it is, I loved this version.
Don't miss it. You wont regret seeing this one...
Saturday, June 06, 2009
Visited a (the?) Firefox bike shop recently in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. And it was the ultimate in customer experience. Now, I had no clue bike technology had advanced so much. For me, getting in touch with bicycles, after some 20 years was a revelation...
The guys who manned the shop patiently walked us through the various aspects of the bicycle - frame size, suspension, gears, various suspension types, braking mechanisms. For someone like me who has been considering a bike for a long time now ( and chickened out only because our roads dont treat bicycles very well), the whole experience pushed me towards biking once again. I was blown away by their knowledge as well as their enthusiasm to share. You might argue thats their job and if it was, they were doing it exceptionally well.
No idea if biking was their passion or if they were well trained, but any which way, they were doing their job with a lot of passion and it showed...
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Waterproofing the terrace has not worked for many years, so what to do?
Prevent the water from reaching the roof as this building has decided to do? Not sure if this is out of the box solution or what...
Next, you can catch the water at the clouds and send it to the lakes eh?
Or perhaps use a big plastic bag to cover the building from all sides?
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
In what has become a recurrent theme, especially in the backdrop of the recent attacks in Australia, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha calls on the government to free education. Read the whole piece...
For a moment, pause and think why do students from India go to study abroad? Yes, clearly there are institutions of higher learning in the US, in the shape of MITs and many others which have far better facilities. They also open up avenues as a career academician that pays well which is not necessarily the case in India. Is that all? The biggest reason Indian students go abroad is, that, it is perhaps easier to get a seat there than it is here. We need more universities on the lines of ISB to come up in engineering, science, maths and then some...is anybody listening?
In the meantime, our idiotic ministries in India, have focussed on constriction of capacity in education by preventing foreign universities from setting up campuses in India and by creating capacity constraints in the form of quotas for any community that is willing to create a big ruckus (and/or a vote bank). In any case, the world at large is inviting our students. And they are going in droves. To US - earlier it was the UK which was a preferred destination. And then, those who miss the US bus, go to Australia and it is not very wrong to say that it is our students that prop up the education system in these countries. And why not?
The attacks in Australia have ruffled a few feathers, but it is unlikely to prevent students from leaving in droves. If Australia loses out, China may gain or Singapore or Phillipines, but the only country that will lose out is India itself...
A few days ago, I came across this piece on the Tirupati Laddoo being registered as part of GI. For the hundreds and thousands and crores who throng to Tirupati, the GI tag is not something that adds or diminishes their devotion. So, the GI Tag is some bureaucract taking advantage of the fact that there is only one Tirupati in the world, in AP and only one Tirupati Laddoo. And what part of Tirupati can one tag - the laddoo - hence this GI tagging thing. The rest is really in the hearts and minds of people.
GI is not a Greatness indicator, but Geographic Indicator. With GI, without GI, inspite of the GI, Tirupati will continue to be a spiritual center for a long long time. And, some sweet shops make the clone of the Tirupati Laddoo without too much diffculty, but that does not mean people throng to these sweet shops....
As for the GIs itself, I think GIs should be restricted to a geographical speciality - something caused naturally thanks to the geographical aspects of an area, but then thats me...
Recently, I received a note from my sons school. The pictures of their Annual day were available, for 50 rupees a copy. Yes, you read that right. 50 rupees for a photograph copy - in this digital world. Well, the logic being that surely most parents would cough up a 50 rupee note (or notes) for a slice of their childs performance at annual day? Perhaps most parents would do so but many smart ones got their hi-res, super zoom cameras and took pictures at the event itself - perhaps they anticipated that the school would charge a liter of petrol for a picture - perhaps their friends told them. Next time I will do so too.
Any random idiot on the street knows digital prints can be got at a maximum of 10-20 rupees per copy depending on the type and nature of photographs. Now, of course the whole idea is to "recover" the cost of the function through photographs and "costume fees". Great business model schools.
Now, can we get down to create a business model for the teaching part of it too, where teachers are paid well and fees are reduced?