Motorbike science lab

My cousin’s working on an interesting project at the Agastya Foundation. A group of scientifically inclined volunteers go around on a bike to schools, taking with them a science lab kit, and show children in rural schools a variety of experiments.

Google will award this and 3 other projects (out of 10) Rs 3 crores based on public votes. You can vote for and read more at|vote

Donations for Sanskrit College

The following article appeared in The Times of India earlier this month.

The institute is struggling for funds. Please contribute, if you could, by calling +91 44 24985320 or via PayPal.

Sanskrit centre struggles to stay alive

The Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute attached to the Sanskrit College in Mylapore is in doldrums because of lack of government patronage.

The Institute, one of the three involved in Sanskrit research in the country, has been surviving on private donations. With not enough resources, the management is unable to pay the faculty the benefits of the sixth pay commission.

Institute director V Kameswari said the Union government stopped its financial support in 1995, after which it has been solely dependent on donations. “The institute has a trove of rare palm leaf manuscripts and books not just about Sanskrit literature but also on architecture, fine arts, geography, history and astronomy in Sanskrit,” says Kameswari.

The two other such institutes are the R G Bandarkar Sanskrit Institute in Pune and the Ganganath Jha Sanskrit Institute in Allahabad. “We have requested a onetime grant from the Union planning commission and also annual assistance from the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, but are yet to get any support,” says K S Balasubramanian, deputy director of the institute. The plan panel had given grants to the Mumbai Asiatic Society and Kolkata-based Asiatic Society.

The institute was getting about 10 lakh till 1995 but due to a misunderstanding between the government-appointed members of the governing committee and the management, the aid was stopped. Today, there are 24 scholars at the institute, most of them women doing their PhDs. “Scholars from across the country and world visit the institute. We send out publications to many foreign universities and they in turn send their publications which are preserved here,” says Kameswari.

The institute was started as a private non-profit organisation in 1944 in memory of Kuppuswami Sastri, a renowned Sanskrit scholar. It has a library with books on astronomy, architecture, fine arts, mathematics, Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads and various branches of science.

“A private entrepreneur made a donation with which we have air-conditioned the library. The palm-leaf manuscripts in the library are 600 to 1,000 years old. Many of them are in Grantha script. We also have books on Jainism that speak about solving mathematical equations and explain geographical concepts,” says Kameswari, who is worried about keeping the ancient language alive.

The three Rs

Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic are the 3 ‘R’s that are taught at school. I was thinking about their relevance today.

Reading continues to be relevant. The volume of information available today is more than before. So you need to read faster AND smarter. (If there was one good thing that came out of my IIM coaching classes, it was the ability to read fast, and making it subconscious.)

But I wouldn’t say the same of writing. In the last 10 years, I have typed several hundred more pages than I’ve written. So have all my friends.

Yesterday, I was at a bank with a relationship manager as he was taking notes in paper and pen. I do the same on occassion. I looked at his notes later. I could not understand a single word. “Don’t worry, sir, I can read it. I’ll type it out and mail you,” he said. And he did.

Writing seems to have become a device for personal memory, not communication. He’s faster at writing than typing, perhaps. Or note taking is more convenient on paper. But for communication, he still prefers a typed format. So do I, and most other people.

Perhaps writing will fade. Perhaps not. I don’t know. But what I do know is that typing has become more important than writing. Yet, writing is taught more at school than typing.

(A broader aspect of writing, though, is expressing oneself. That will remain important, of course.)

The third R is aRithmetic. When I was 12, I could multiply four-digit numbers in my head reasonably well. I could recite 50 digits of Pi. I could do long division. Today, I can’t. Nor can my friends. Nor have we needed to. A good feel for the numbers has helped, but not the actual mechanics of the calculations.

We had an undergraduate course in statistics that taught us how to solve a linear regression problem. That skill went completely unused. I’ve never since used regression without a computer. We had a graduate course in statistics that taught us how to INTERPRET the results of a linear regression. That was worth it’s weight in gold.

This is not a critique of the three Rs. Rather, an attempt to re-interpret them. It’s about comprehension, expression and computation. Two decades ago, it was reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, it’s reading, typing and computing.

Computers will grow more powerful. It may be worth planning for it. Teaching the ability to use them can go a long way. A tool like Excel for general purpose computing gives incredible power in the hands of people. It’s worth training children for that.

If I oversimplified, I’d say children must learn typing and Excel.

Over the next few years, this is something I plan to work on. Making sure schools and parents do this. Any suggestions or leads you may have are welcome!



That dip there in response time is thanks to WP-SuperCache. My average page load time has dropped from 1 second to 0.25 seconds.

A flaw in rationality

I found this piece from “The Happiness Hypothesis” pretty interesting:

In the 1990s, Damasio found that when certain parts of the orbitofrontal cortex are damaged, patients lose most of their emotional lives. They report that when they ought to feel emotion, they feel nothing, and studies of their autonomic reactions (such as those used in lie detector tests) confirm that they lack the normal flashes of bodily reaction that the rest of us experience when observing scenes of horror or beauty. Yet their reasoning and logical abilities are intact. They perform normally on tests of intelligence and knowledge of social rules and moral principles.

So what happens when these people go out into the world? Now that they are free of the distractions of emotion, do they become hyperlogical, able to see through the haze of feelings that blinds the rest of us to the path of perfect rationality? Just the opposite. They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or to set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, “What should I do now?” they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other. When the rest of us look out at the world, our emotional brains have instantly and automatically appraised the possibilities. One possibility usually jumps out at us as the obvious best one. We need only use reason to weigh the pros and cons when two or three possibilities seem equally good.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality.

Guess it shouldn’t be a surprise then that models based on rationality fail.

IE6 in Corporates

PPK’s State of the Browser – IE Edition mentions one reason why IE6 will probably stay on for a while.

Now why do I expect IE6 to stick around while IE7 goes down? The answer is simple: Intranets… many office workers will continue to be condemned to IE6.

At work, that is. It’s quite likely that on their private computer at home they run another browser — IE7 or 8, Firefox, or maybe one of the smaller ones.

Basically, most of the IE6 market share comes from office-hour surfing, while it drops significantly in the after-hours period.

I checked the numbers on my site. It’s bang on. Last month, the percentage of IE6 users around noon was a little over 40%. At midnight, the percentage was 20%.

Percentage of IE6 users over a 24-hour windowGraph: Twice as many IE6 users at noon compared to midnight

Given that the bulk of my audience is from India, I would assume that these statistics are probably representative of Indian corporates. But I guess it means that there’s a fair bit of music listening happening at work. Probably a good thing.

The Bing effect referral statistics

This graph is the number of referrals Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing, sent to my site over the last few days. Looks like the hype is dying out. Though Bing did leapfrog Yahoo briefly, that lasted just one day.

Short notes

I’m quite busy on a project right now, and don’t get time to write long articles. So for a while, I’m going to stick to short notes on interesting stuff.

  1. Peter Bregman has a very interesting piece on Why You Should Encourage Weakness. It boils down to a choice: do you focus on on improving strengths or minimising weaknesses? Conventional performance evaluations focus on the latter. I very strongly support Bregman’s view on this. The weakness isn’t why you hired the person! Unless it’s killing the organisation, just leave them to focus on their strengths.
  2. Google Analytics has a fairly interesting API that I hadn’t explored until recently. Picked up Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics and learnt that you can track outbound clicks, page load times, Javascript events and error logs, almost anything at all using Google Analytics. You can also mirror the logging on your local server using pageTracker._setLocalRemoteServerMode()
  3. The whole concept of a Sandbox environment seems to be picking up within Google. There’s a Checkout sandbox, an AJAX API playground, an AdWords sandbox, an AdSense API sandbox, the Mapstraction API sandbox, even an event called Developer Sandbox. (After saying Sandbox 6 times, I feel a bit like Hobbes.)


Canary Wharf time lapse video

I left my camera near the window of my office at Canary Wharf in time lapse mode on a cloudy day. The video is playing at 60 times normal speed.

Check out the related time lapse videos. They’re stunning. With this one, you can figure out which firms work till late in the night.

Firefox 3 Beta 5 crashes

I just upgraded from Firefox 3 Beta 4 to Beta 5. It’s amazing how unstable Beta 5 is compared to the earlier version. Gmail crashes. Google maps crashes. Almost every other site I visit crashes. And looks like I’m not alone: doing a Google search for “Firefox 3 beta x crash” shows a consistently increasing number of results.

Number of Google search results for Firefox 3 Beta crashes, by Beta version

Update (8/Apr/08): As the comments rightly point out, this could simply be because more people use Beta 5. Here’s the number of Google hits for “Firefox 3 Beta x” — and it shows a clear increasing trend.

Number of Google search results for Firefox 3 Beta, by Beta version

So, adjusting for this, here’s the relative crash frequency:

% of Firefox 3 Beta crash mentions on Google, by Beta version

Beta 5 still stands out.

Maybe Google search results are not a good proxy. Maybe the mention of “crash” doesn’t indicate the software itself crashing. But it sure crashes a lot more for me.