Another year ends…

Optimism is something that supposedly comes naturally to mankind. Although the glass paradigm is ever present, humans are thought of to be generally the “happy kind”. In a way that’s good. Another year ends in 2 days time and in the linear nature of time – a new one will begin. Optimism ensures that I look forward to the new year with a much more positive outlook and hope for some of the things to be better. 🙂

This year has not been bad either – personally and professionally. Finally settled down to what can be called a family life, shifted residences, purchased stuff that fills up a home and have had warm home cooked dinners that can make up for the days when takeaways seems to have become a regular feature. This year had one incident that was unexpected and runab talks about it on her blog. And I have not been down to Kolkata for a long time – but I guess that might change soon enough. Got a good cache of books to read (16 at the last count) and around half a dozen movies that I need to catch up with. That said, it has been the one year where I have been un-subscribing from the huge number of mailing lists that I ended up being on. Someone said that I chew mails like a beast – well I plan to change that to more human levels.

Professionally it has been an interesting ride but what caught me by surprise around a week back was how far down the road I have come from being an enthusiast to someone who is more concerned about the economics and philosophy of FLOSS. When I began as a “code illiterate” “technology flake” I did not have too much to do with the surrounding noise, and I guess I never did figure that it will catch my fancy. But looking back I hazard a guess that it was inevitable. Being exposed to a real nice mix of academic systems, it is not hard to figure out that poking and probing is a habit that is not alien to me.

What I wish could have been ? Some balance in between my life and work perhaps … and of course a better health. 2006 has been a year when the back has played up to a level that sometimes sitting and working is an exercise in patience and tolerance of bearing pain. There has to be some means of getting a back into shape through exercise not involving too much rigidity

Is there anything wrong with the FOSS movement in India ?

lawgon asks what’s wrong with the FOSS movement in India. Honestly, I don’t think anything is wrong. We are in far better shape than before, there’s a larger number of companies doing work on FOSS and attempting to follow a FOSS business model, there’s greater interest from the institutions and more importantly the government on issues related to FOSS (and sometimes related to patents) – so I would say it is fair progress from where we were around 5 years back.

Now since I did not attend foss.in I have no clue about the Decade of Indian FOSS panel discussion, but here’s what’s my take on the scene: the only thing that is very wrong with the FOSS movement or efforts in India is the lack of a community. And I would venture so far as to say that this glaring lack is going to be a huge pull-down factor when we begin to plan for things that are forward looking.

I never expected or even hoped that the flourishing LUGs and their mailing lists (filled as a norm with mails from FN about various FOSS happenings) would lead to a wave of coders churning out FOSS code by the console-full and thus ensuring that there are large number of contributors. That’s a bit of me-too. Having caught up with the FOSS wave long after the US and Europe, we have had the distinct disadvantage of trying to put up with the development models (of code, community and economics) that are not ours. What I expected to happen was an increasing base number of folks would come up through the ranks (making it sound rightly meritocratic) and figure out how to do projects that address the future.

The future is going to be an interesting time. There’s content and it is precisely this concept of content that we are missing along with the context of presence. Before anyone thinks that I have gone batty, consider the following: Nokia is putting an 8GB HDD in its phones, LG is enabling content storage capacity for 33 hours of programming in its TVs, the set top boxes that are all to familiar because of DishTV and TataSky enable custom selection and access of content. What applications like Mugshot and Skype enable is presence and sharing of content. So sooner than later the desktop metaphor which we are familiar with since we nearly grew up with it would be replaced by the metaphor of activities. And it is precisely this area which bothers me. I don’t see too many folks coming up with ideas and contributions upstream or even in individual projects that will address this change or what is so cutely termed a paradigm shift. If the content and presence are added together, what we are beginning to look at is devices. Devices and not gadgets. Client devices which facilitate presence and allow access to content are going to be pervasive more in the coming year. With the looming presence of such nice stuff like DRM and Trusted Computing, ensuring Open Standards on Client Device based computing would be the need of the day.

LUGs not providing yeoman service is something one can live with. For a large number of reasons, the annoyances with hardware and the operating system seems to be dying out. What the LUGs need to do is go from v2.0 to v3.0 where they perform more of consultative SIGs and thus ensure that a larger base of mentees can come up. This can happen with active community building and not merely paying lip-service to the word community. It comes through providing infrastructure and more importantly challenges that can motivate new joinees to innovate. It is not really worthwhile lamenting that the private sector will suck up talent. Until and unless there is an infrastructure that provides comparable if not equal opportunities, this is a case that is going to happen. What however needs to be done is that figure out a way to work around this problem/issue. Should not be too hard to do. Driving work through the LUGs has the drawback of creating silos. LUGs have this record of well intentioned in-house project creation which does not go back upstream.

I think lawgon is being a bit unfair 🙂

I don’t see the I in ICICI

Well, this is one of those rants. Did you know that if you have more than one banking relationship with ICICI, you cannot use the same phone number to receive alerts ? Now, you know. Whichever m0r0n thought of making the phone number as an unique field ought to be allowed to open multiple accounts and then try and enable alerts.

Nice cinematography

runab and myself merrily went to watch Kabul Express which had the cliched tagline Two Indians, an American, one Afghan and a Pakistani on a journey together. The story develops more or less long expected lines along with most of the usual jokes and banter. What makes the movie special are two shots that really slide in unexpectedly and keep on lingering for quite a while:

  • John Abraham doing pushups near Hotel Kabul absent mindedly offers to teach a boy how to do it, the boy slowly turns and .. the memories of an insane war fill the screen in the single framed shot
  • Salman Shahid – the Talib Imran Khan Afridi standing among a mass of Pepsi cans and saying that he will allow pictures to be taken for 300USD

Poignant pictures make a movie – someone in one of my movie appreciation classes said this – true. By the way, the acting in the movie does not seem forced although Linda Arsenio could do with some facial expressions to match those expressive eyes.

The movie is worth the watch by the way.

Changing the system

I wrote about my views on the wiki article. Here’s what I think needs to be addressed when talking about education at the collegiate level. Do note, I hold the belief that we don’t have bad students – the sheer numbers of Indian students doing exciting work in the US, UK, ANZ regions are proof enough. What I think is that we have a system that is flawed since it was created to meet a different demand set. And what I additionally think is that instead of fixing the system from within we are trying to put in patches that might just take the car across the culvert but never over the highway that our country is trying to rush through.

So, where’s the list of that needs to be done ? Here goes:

  • Catch them young: Start off a culture of code sharing and more importantly coding in small module bits that can be integrated to projects
  • Encourage industry to talk: Encourage and in fact aggressively court the industry to be part of both the curriculum designing process as well as the curriculum content delivery methods
  • Teach the methods: Teach the methodology for collaboration of content ie be it documentation, source code or patches. Teach students how to do it, wherefrom to learn, whom to turn to and why it is important to have peers review the work
  • Teach FOSS: Put in a module for FOSS that talks about programming techniques rather than programming languages. Think about integrating and incorporating pieces from SICP and HTDP along with the GNU Coding Standards in order to ensure the output of quality of code
  • Setup Linux Labs: Deceptively simple to setup if one has servers and reasonable bandwidth. Includes setting up of a Version Control System for code commits, a staging server and a development server, a couple of OS mirrors or at least their update mirrors (local) and a few workstations. Set them up on the network, get the network services up and running, put in place a nice printer (one that will take in duplex heavy duty print jobs) and you are reasonably done
  • Encourage content sharing between institutions: Take a look at OCW from MIT and figure out if the same can be easily applied in the current context

I had written on this list the following mail:


Hi,

Starting afresh after a period of lull (at least on this list). The last
time we met we discussed the need to begin talking with a larger and
more inclusive range of people and most importantly teachers *and*
students. So, how do we go about doing this ? The idea is not really to
walk up to or invite a random student to become part of this group and
talk about FOSS {in|for} education but more importantly to understand
what is wrong (either with the pedagogy or with the tools) and how FOSS
can fit in.

Would it be a good idea to start looking at the syllabus for:

[1] Std V to X
[2] Std XI and XII
[3] Undergraduate Courses in Computer Science/Information Technology
[4] Postgraduate Courses in Computer Science/Information Technology

Is it possible to obtain soft copies of the same and pass around for
comments and discussion ? If Praveen permits we can utilise the existing
FCI wiki for that.

I have deliberately suggested keeping the following streams away from
the purview:

[1] Humanities and Social Studies
[2] Mathematics
[3] Pure Sciences
[4] Life Sciences

The reason is that I was going through the Debian Project Wiki and I
found that a whole bundle of packages/application software is already
present that can be reused and/or introduced as part of the tools for
the courses. Additionally, the above streams are soft targets in the
sense that one can introduce small things like using LaTeX for report
writing, JabRef for bibliographic databases, SVN/CVS for departmental
project repository, Moodle for LMS, Drupal for CMS, Koha for Digital
Library without disrupting too much of the in-place workflow. One small
note, the software names mentioned in the previous line are just sample
placeholders so please don’t start a holy war on Joomla better than Drupal.

The notion is that as we approach Software Freedom Day, we would be in a
position to present/write/talk about the following:

[1] How to introduce FOSS in Std V to X
[2] How to introduce FOSS in Std XI and XII
[3] What does it take to deploy a Computer Lab based on FOSS for the UG
streams
[4] What does it take to deploy a Computer Lab based on FOSS for the PG
streams

and more importantly,

[5] What are the changes in the curricula that would enable the above
[6] What are the tools that will be part of the changed curricula

The last and most important point is – how to get working on creating
instructional/learning videos and we need coordination and involvement
of specialised folks here.

:Sankarshan

Airtel is a paradox.

The story: I had cancelled my BLR GSM and asked to adjust the outstanding against the deposit and refund the balance on 19th Oct 2006. On 20th Nov I had asked as to what had happened – since I received offers on that GSM number. On 9th Dec Airtel responds as below:


Dear Mr. Sankarshan,

Thank you for contacting Airtel contact center.

With reference to your email dated 20/11/06 regarding the disconnection of your mobile number, we thank you for using our services and confirm that the connection has been disconnected with effect from 15/11/06.

At the outset, we sincerely apologize for the delay in replying to your email. We realize that this situation must have greatly inconvenienced you. We are a customer centric organization and as such would want every interaction you have with us to be a pleasant one.

Further with regard to security deposit refund, we would like to inform you that your request has been forwarded to the concerned department. Your Service Request number for the same is 10742353. We kindly request you to make note of this service request number for future communication and correspondence.

We would revert to you by 22/12/06.

It has always been our endeavor to provide you with the best customer service and we assure you of our sincere commitment to meeting all your future requirements too.

Should you require any further clarifications or assistance, please reply to us via email at 121@airtelindia.com or fax us on 9845500121 or 9845600121.

We value your association with Airtel.

Warm regards,

Ulaganathan
Customer Support Service

We are a customer centric organization and as such would want every interaction you have with us to be a pleasant one : yeah sure. Make my day

Why oh why … ?

Now here’s an wiki post on the oft-discussed issue of Why there is so little (or is it nothing at all) contribution to FOSS from India ? One has discussed this at so many forums or read so many mailing list threads that by this time there’s not much one can find new. So here’s my response to some of the points raised in the wiki.

Contributions will come only if people are aware of what is happening in this field. Now a days it is very easy to get a job in IT field for engineering graduates. After getting job, I am seeing a big problem among our IT professionals. They are only interested(?) in doing their projects in their office. And not at all bothered about what is happening in the tech world. They are only interested in salary.

Too many prejudices in the catch all statement. The very fact that the awareness is lacking is something that I kind of feel strongly. The country has the second largest number (second only to USA) of RHCEs/RHCTs and Linux awareness (or lack of it) is not really the case in point. There are far more number of magazines (including business ones) which talk about/on Linux/FOSS than there were even 2 years back. Come to think of it, it is on TV : both CNN-IBN and CNBC cover FOSS with regular frequency as does CNN (mainly Portland,Oregon/Intel) and BBC. If still it is felt that awareness is lacking – what stops folks from putting up weekly spots on FM Radio to talk about FOSS. I am game for it – one can start off a conversation which will appeal to the end users. If engineers are not bothered about what is going around them and they choose to be unaware then obviously they are in the wrong company and being groomed wrongly. If you know only the well in which you survive – then you will never be able to appreciate how others live. For better or for worse the movement has seen interpretations and explanations using various hues of economic theory – what is needed right now is defining the ground rules so that contributions happen more often and in a much more streamlined manner.

Big IT boom in India gives people jobs easily; and when you do a cosy job, you lose half of the motivation. It is a case of innovation being killed due to complacency.

If being complacent means that you lose your coding skills then the skills were not honestly obtained.

The whole atmosphere around is counterproductive to innovation and risk taking

I would say that the infrastructure and the social environment that encourages the high wire act of risk taking is not really in place. Folks invest in stocks nonchalantly, yet figuring out how to strike out a business venture is still that arcane art of black magic.

We also are not trained to think in a creative manner and Our education system does not encourage free thinking

What happens is that the education blithely ignores the basics and teaches what the market perceives to be the current hotness. I might have written someplace else about the lacunae of the system and sometimes I talk about it. What is required is actually a revisit of the syllabus and teaching basic facts which would equip the students to learn on the job. The training courses which the big companies (Infosys, Wipro, TCS etc) put their new recruits through can be taken as either they don’t expect the system to output required knowledge or they don’t expect the system to be up to the mark when it comes to educating the students.

Secondly getting exposure in the various international forums is not cheap. What I mean by this is, there is only some extent to which you can learn from books. To learn more, you need to first do something, understand what happens, why it happens, interact with experts. This happens by writing research papers, participating in various conferences. Most of them are very expensive by Indian standards.

This is somewhat stilted. The one good thing FOSS does is democratize the process of inclusion. Sure enough there are barriers to entry in some aspect but nowhere is the entry barred.

We should encourage people develop a producer culture.

Develop a “Good User” culture.

(a) A good user reacts to all glitches by filing a “Good Bug Report” — (need a link here on how to write good bug reports).

(b) A good user reacts to inactivity on her bug by the maintainer by providing a fix 🙂

(c) A good user does not hesitate. If you fear that you will make a mistake and do not speak that will be a mistake.

Good points all of them. One can go through the various GNOME mailing lists to understand and appreciate the lament for good feedback.

The lack of contributions is not because we have bad students – it because we have a bad system that needs fixing. And needs to be fixed in an evolutionary way. One of the things that happens when you wish to change a monolithic system that was created to serve a different need (read: create an army of clerks and later on administrative service boxwallahs) one would like to understand the ramifications of the manifestations of change. The short and sweet story might be to look at the following points:

  • Revision of the curricula at the high school level
  • Encouraging more “relevant” industry interaction (and not “lip service”)
  • Establishing local mirrors for various FOSS operating systems