Archive for the ‘Public’ Category

Science for school: The Gyanome Project

June 21, 2013

I have been busy creating several knowledge communities over the past year or so. You might ask what a knowledge community is  but that will remain undefined for now. Fortunately, you know a knowledge community when you see it.

Gyanome, also here, is a community that brings science and math (for now) via scientists and mathematicians to school teachers and students.  In other words, take the standard curriculum – in India that would be the NCERT syllabus – and get well known scientists to teach the essential concepts. Gyanome is a hybrid project; scientists are busy and spread across the earth, so we are creating online resources paired with classroom interaction. 

Apart from our content creation, we have also started having conversations with young Indian scientists about hot scientific topics, in order to give children and teachers good role models. Here is the first conversation I had with Abhiram, a young physicist. We will be doing more in the future. 

Advertisements

Praja Factory

May 1, 2013

While we teach children physics and poetry, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the goal of education is to create citizens who will create a just and flourishing society. For that, not only do we need to teach subjects such as mathematics, we need to teach the art of citizenship itself. I have been working for a few months on a citizenship learning platform called Praja Factory, whose goal is to teach us how to be citizens in the full sense of that term. The site is still in its infancy, but I would love it if:

  1. You give me feedback and/or suggest new topics for the site. 
  2. Register.
  3. Ask and answer questions.
  4. Better if you have an hour or so a week to volunteer and contribute.
  5. Even Better if you are working in a school or a community and want to get children in the school or community involved in this project.

http://www.prajafactory.org/

Learnhow versus Learnthat

March 5, 2013

I was at Mapunity earlier today with Ashwin Mahesh and E. S Ramamurthy of the Sikshana FoundationI wish I have Ramamurthy’s energy when I am 75. 

Ramamurthy mentioned something to us which I find interesting: in *one* month, he is able to teach a kid who’s reading at 4th standard level to read at the 7th standard level. One hour a day every day for 30 days. Which makes me think three things:

  1. Should we separate skill acquisition from concept acquisition in schools? After all, when we learn driving, we don’t learn whether we should take the car for vacations or the route to work. It might be useful to separate out the *what* and the *how* of education. 
  2. Do we really need 12 years of schooling that mixes factual, skill-based and conceptual knowledge and does a bad job of all three? It seems that we can impart the basic, universal skills (broadly the 3R’s) in a very short period of time if the person is ready. Why not create an education system that identifies when a person is ready – we will need good data and integration of developmental psychology into the assessment of children- and imparts the skills at that time. Let’s say that takes a total of 3 years. The rest of schooling can be continuous and lifelong rather than an enforced confinement for 12 years. 
  3. Can we imagine skilling schools that are more like driving schools and less like our current teaching schools? These schools will be optimized to “learning how” rather than “learning what” and can be used for lifelong skill learning, from the 3R’s to coding and 3D printing and all kinds of 21st century skills?

The Un-Book Shelf

September 26, 2012

Five of the worst books ever written that are displayed prominently in Indian bookstores:

5. Arindam Chaudhuri‘s “Count your chickens before they hatch.” In a crowded field of snake oil salesmen, AC has a prominent position. Really prominent, as in full page ads in major newspapers.

4. Dale Carnegie‘s “How to win friends and influence people.”

3. Any number of “X for Y” books where X is a prominent religious text, Y is a way of being a snake oil salesman. For example: “Bhagavad Gita for Marketing.” Or, “Business according to the Bible.”

2. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Fortunately, we are one of the few countries in the world where his ideas haven’t gained political power ever, but people are still trying.

1. Kahlil Gibran‘s “The Prophet.” The worst book ever written. What makes me sad is that Tagore’s own translation of Geetanjali reads like the prophet on occasion. My Bengali friends assure me that the great man doesn’t read like KG in the original Bangla.

See the pattern?

The Un-Book Shelf

September 26, 2012

Five of the worst books ever written that are displayed prominently in Indian bookstores:
5. Arindam Chaudhuri‘s “Count your chickens before they hatch.” In a crowded field of snake oil salesmen, AC has a prominent position. Really prominent, as in full page ads in major newspapers.

4. Dale Carnegie‘s “How to win friends and influence people.”

3. Any number of “X for Y” books where X is a prominent religious text, Y is a way of being a snake oil salesman. For example: “Bhagavad Gita for Marketing.” Or, “Business according to the Bible.”

2. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Fortunately, we are one of the few countries in the world where his ideas haven’t gained political power ever, but people are still trying.

1. Kahlil Gibran‘s “The Prophet.” The worst book ever written. What makes me sad is that Tagore’s own translation of Geetanjali reads like the prophet on occasion. My Bengali friends assure me that the great man doesn’t read like KG in the original Bangla.

See the pattern?

Where’s the public in public administration?

August 26, 2012

I was talking to a few lawyer friends of mine yesterday night. They told me how the government is beginning to tax “below market price” share transfers. There is a good intention behind this policy. As it so turns out, the bleeding edge of corruption is not suitcases full of cash. Instead politicians – Andhra ones are particularly ‘entrepreneurial’ here – are asking for stock options in companies. Why get a bribe when you can own the damn company?

Unfortunately, this govt policy is hurting genuine investment. Why would Sequoia invest in a startup if it cannot get stock for worries that the options will be taxed? In other words, the govt is trying to solve an enforcement problem through policy. What we need is for the CBI or other investigating agencies to scrutinize stock transfers, to prove that so and so politician wasn’t bringing any value to a company in return for stock options – no IP, no investment, no value addition except for the political connection itself. Transactions in such situations should be tracked and pursued as criminal cases.

Unfortunately, our investigating agencies are simply not capable of conducting such investigations. Forget the political interference that prevents the CBI or even worse, the local police from prosecuting a case; they don’t have the understanding of evidence gathering, technical analyses and legal representation that go into a prosecution. Look at what Preet Bharara has done in the Raj Rajratnam case. That’s what we need in India.

Starting with the IAS and IPS, we need a much more professional governance cadre. To my IAS and IPS friends: it is not enough to have BTech degrees from the IIT’s. There is a genuine expertise to public administration. Data driven policy making, analytic techniques, evidence gathering along with fairness, equity and justice; these are skills and values that will both make the services more professional and bring more legitimacy to your work and make the work itself more challenging and enjoyable. I hope we can do something to make the country better governed.

Traffic sense

August 7, 2012

Traffic is a good metaphor for the rest of India. Here is a short primer:

  1. Everyone runs red lights, but buses do it more often than others.
  2. Policemen fix the red light by making it turn green as their van approaches one.
  3. Chief ministers ignore red lights since traffic has been cleared for their motorcade.
  4. The Prime Minister doesn’t even know there are red lights since the entire city is shut down for his arrival.

How to run a successful scam

June 22, 2012

I received an email yesterday from an organization called the India International Friendship Society, based in Delhi. They claim to be a

a voluntary organization established to forge greater unity and integrity among the people of Indian origin living anywhere in the world.

and one of their contributions to world unity is a conference “on “Economic Growth & National Integration” at New Delhi” where they award “the most prestigious “Bharat Jyoti Award.”” In case you were wondering about the prestige in this most prestigious award, they are anxious to assure you that

Certain cabinet ministers from the Centre and various States, members of Parliament, industrialists, social workers and intelligentsia have been invited to address the event.

and that past awardees include

beatified Mother Teresa, former vice-president B. D. Jatti, Governors like Iqbal Singh Governor Of Pondicherry,  Shekhar Dutt (Governor Of Chhattisgarh) Dr DY Patil (Governor Of Tamil Nadu) Gen J J Singh (Governor Of Arunachal Pradesh) Justice M. Fathima Beevi, Gen. G. V. Krishna Rao, Lt Gen Ajai Singh and Dr. Bhisham Narain Singh; former  Air-Chief-Marshal N. C. Suri, former chief justices of the Apex Court like Justice P. N. Bhagwati, Justice R. S. Sarkaria, and Justice H. R. Khanna; Election Commissioner G. V. G. Krishnamurthy

Their website has pictures of a prominent Indian cricketer receiving the award from the usual clutch of superannuated political types. Other greybeards are prominently displayed on the website as well. Having exhausted their source of saints and statesmen, they are digging into their B-list including yours truly.  Except that I am not the only one being chosen for this honor. A quick google search reveals that the award has been given at least three times this year – Feb 14th, March 27th and May 5th.

I am delighted to be a Bharat Jyoti. I even believe that I am a Bharat Jyoti. Except that India International Friendship Society doesn’t know why I am a Bharat Jyoti; they would rather I told them about my brilliance:

Will you please mail us your Bio Data highlighting about your achievements only with latest photograph to reach us at the earliest, by courier.

Since India is full of brilliant scholars, IIFS is contacting academics en masse. Plenty of us are falling for the scam, enough to justify a conference on Economic Growth and National Integration every month this year. The awardees include an IIM Director, a scientist at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, a prominent industrial chemist, a professor at Amrita University, the list goes on. It goes without saying that Bharat Jyoti recipients (I wonder if they paid for it) display the award prominently in their homes and their websites. The scam has managed to get its share of media attention as well: the award has been written about in major national newspapers. The organizers are brazen enough to upload the proceedings on to youtube.

I am confused about the significance of the award: should I be honoured now that I am a light of India, delighted that so many of my compatriots are shining or sad that with so many lights, I will need to burn some extra gas to shine brighter than others? However, I am certain about the basic psychology of the scam, which I have condensed into Rajesh Kasturirangan’s three laws of scamming:

  • Appear sincere
  • Play on the vanity of the victim
  • Hand out large but worthless prizes

Fortunately for IIFS, Indian academia is full of dupes. I am tempted to start a prize of my own. I am looking for good names for the medal; any suggestions?

 

The Future of Higher Education

May 23, 2012

First in a series of curated posts

The Future of the Book

May 4, 2012

 

The Kindle made ebooks popular, but the ipad and other mobile devices are making us question both the form and the function of books. Authors, publishers and academics are all interested in the future the book. I am at an MIT event about the future of the book. This is an academic event but I have already learned one interesting fact: when printing first became popular-in Europe, the fonts in the newly printed books resembled the cursive writing in the (handwritten)manuscripts.