Sunday, August 28, 2011

Public Transport!

A pretty young girl stepped in and took her seat in the bus. One glance at her and you could say that she was the fashion conscious type! No sooner had that thought struck my mind, she opened her big brown bag and took out that purse mirror and stick that I have always wondered why women use. Yes! I am talking about lipstick! As she coloured her lips bright red, the young man seated next to her could not stop staring - I must admit that if someone was seated right next to me and staring at me as though I had committed some crime, I would have felt awkward. This young girl, however, didn't seem to care and I guess she was enjoying all the attention that she was getting. That probably answers my question on why women use lipstick ;-)

While the college girl was enjoying the attention, the lady seated next to me in the bus was keenly watching. Not to be left behind, she opened her bag too. She must have been disappointed not to find any lipstick in there and must have made a mental note of putting one in the bag that day. However, she did find a moisturizer and with a little smile on her face, she started applying it. I am not sure if she grabbed as many eye-balls as the young student though. One thing is for sure - She did provide some entertainment and I couldn't control my laughter. I was staring out of the bus and smiling like a mad man. I wonder what people on the road who saw me smile must have thought!

When it takes close to an hour to reach work every morning, incidents like these make the commute fun. Having used public transport for a couple of months now, I should say that I am really enjoying it. It has more advantages than one if you are the kind who likes to observe people and their mannerisms. I am the kind who truly loves this and don't get me wrong here, I don’t mean that I only like ‘checking out’ girls. I like to observe people - boys and girls, men and women, young and old as they all teach me something new. The ways people think and behave and respond to situations varies largely due to their surroundings, experiences, beliefs, etc. and trust me you learn a lot by just observing them.

I am glad that after having driven the car to work for about 2 years, I decided to take the bus. In my case, it cheers me up, brings my stress levels down, I get to meet new people every day and most importantly I also managed to take one car off the busy roads of Bangalore. One car won’t make a difference you say? I beg to differ!

Hoping that a lot more people begin to take public transport – it would reduce the traffic on the roads and I would also get to meet and observe lot more people :-)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

97/100. Competent enough?

Today, most parents want their children to top their class in academics and get cent percent marks or say at least a 97 percent. It’s good that parents encourage their children to perform well in academics (and it’s also good to get a 97 percent ;-)) but does a 97 percent prove that the student is good and is capable of thinking out of the box to apply what he/she has learnt in the classroom? Or for that matter is a student with 80 percent worse than the student who got 97 percent? Looking at our current education system, my answer to both these questions would be a big “NO”.

Even though marks and grades are important for a lot of things (like getting jobs), it really does not prove a student’s intellectual capability. I say this because most exams (be it in school, college or even most professional courses) check the students’ memorizing capability. Any student who has good memory can get a 97 percent but ask the same student some simple applications of what he/she studied and you may not get any response. You can’t blame the student for this because our education system works this way and even some teachers don’t seem to realize the fact that education doesn’t mean marks (earned by memorizing textbooks) alone.

To prove my point, I would like you to read the following story that was told by Sir Ernest Rutherford (President of the Royal Academy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics):

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed a perfect score. The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I read the examination question: "Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer."

The student had answered: "Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building."

The student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly! On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course and certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this.

I suggested that the student have another try. I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he hadn't written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said he had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one.

I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which read: "Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x=0.5*a*t^2, calculate the height of the building."

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit. While leaving my colleague's office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

"Well," said the student, "there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building."

"Fine," I said, "and others?"

"Yes," said the student, "there is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method."

"Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g [gravity] at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated." "On this same tack, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession".

"Finally," he concluded, "there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best," he said, "is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent's door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: 'Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer."

At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.

The name of the student was Niels Bohr." (1885-1962) Danish Physicist; Nobel Prize 1922; best known for proposing the first 'model' of the atom with protons & neutrons, and various energy state of the surrounding electrons - the familiar icon of the small nucleus circled by three elliptical orbits ... but more significantly, an innovator in Quantum Theory.

This story proves one thing for sure; that our education system has to change. Change - in order to make students think out of the box, to be able to discover the Neils Bohrs of our country and also to prevent students from saying what Beatrix Potter (the noted children’s novelist) once said - “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” 

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The 80:20 principle

Microsoft released its first version of Office (named Microsoft Office 3.0) for the Windows operating system in the year 1990. This was followed by Office 4.0 in the year 1994, and Office 4.3 soon after. Microsoft Office 95 followed Office 4.3 and then we had Microsoft launching Office 97, Office 2000, Office XP, Office 2003 and finally Office 2007 last year.

So what exactly are the improvements that Microsoft made while bringing out each of these versions of one the most popular office suites available in the market today ( is quickly catching up and it’s a good sign for those who believe in free and open source software)? Well, each version had a lot of new features built into it like sophisticated grammar checking (Office 97), digital signatures for security (Office 2000), handwriting recognition (Office XP), etc.

However, in my opinion, the average user will not notice too many major improvements in Office over the years except for the user interface. The reason for this is that most users don’t use the advanced features that are available in the Office suite (Do you really think you needed to upgrade to Office 2007 or do you agree with me when I say that you could’ve managed with Office XP or even earlier versions such as Office 2000 and Office 97? Give it a thought.).

So why does Microsoft release new versions of Office and, more importantly, why do people upgrade to the newer versions of Office? Common sense would tell you that it is a technique that Microsoft employs to keep their business running and make more money. In the case of Office, people are actually forced to upgrade to newer versions since documents created in later versions cannot be edited in the older versions (for example, a word document saved in Word 2007 using the default .docx extension cannot be viewed or edited in earlier versions of Word).

Microsoft Office, my dear friends, is a typical example of the 80:20 principle. I was told about the 80:20 principle when I happened to visit a software company in Bangalore to test an application that they had created. I was pursuing my Bachelor of Engineering degree in computer science then and while interacting with the CTO of the company, he made a point that for engineers to be successful businessmen they need to understand the 80:20 principle. According to this 80:20 principle, 80% of the features (mainly the essential ones) should be implemented in the initial version of the product and the remaining 20% of the features can be incorporated in its future versions.

This 80:20 principle can be applied to any industry. Take for example the automobile industry where companies come out with new variants of bikes and cars quite often or even the electronics industry where rapid advancements are made in technology (How often does one find their digicam, cell phone or MP3 player outdated?). It is true that you can manage with your old car (My 9 year old Maruti 800 is still good enough for me ;-) ), your old MP3 player or even your old digicam but the fact is that people have this tendency to go in for the latest things that are available in the market. This is why the 80:20 principle has been largely successful.

The good thing about the 80:20 principle is that companies using them tend to do a lot of research in improving their products. Companies also take feedback about their products in order to make their products more user-friendly (and hope for a better market-share with their next version of the product).

While most industries can capitalize on this 80:20 principle and make money, I personally don’t think that software companies will be able to do this for long since the open source software industry looks all set to spoil their fun and companies like Microsoft would have to search for alternatives in order to retain their market-share.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Don't be irreplaceable

In the professional world, signatures in an e-mail are often used to provide one's details such as designation, contact number and office location but how often does one find a quote by a famous writer or leader appended to these details? Quite often right? Even though some people consider such quotes unprofessional, there are a large number of people who use such quotes in their e-mail signatures. Personally, I like to read these quotes.

When I actually thought about it, I felt that quotes in the signatures of e-mails accomplish two things. One, it tells the receiver of the mail more about the character of the sender since more often than not, a quote that one chooses to put in his/her signature would be one that has a message that he/she believes in. Secondly, quotes also get the receiver of the mail to think about the message that is contained in it and this is a good thing since quotes rarely have a bad or negative message in them (at least I have never seen a signature quote that read something like 'Destroy everything around you since the devil commands you' and let’s hope that I don’t find one like that ;-) ).

One signature quote that really got me thinking recently was one that my friend at office had. It said "Don't be irreplaceable, because if you can't be replaced then you can't be promoted.”. The reason why this quote got me thinking is the impression that most people have about the IT industry and people belonging to the IT industry.

Employees of the IT industry are seen as young people who have a lot of money (and don’t know what to do with it) and cannot mingle with the common man. Most people think that the 'techies' spend all their time in their "code" or hanging out with their 'techie' friends at some pub or multiplex. Being a part of this industry for almost a year now, I partially agree with this notion that people have. I say this because quite often when people in the industry talk about socializing, they mean getting drunk at some pub. Even team outings are incomplete without people getting drunk and dancing around a bonfire :-). All this is fine and I have nothing against it but somewhere I get this feeling that these people just don’t realize how much money they waste and how hard some people have to work to earn their daily bread. I am not trying to say that you shouldn't go out with friends and have fun. All I am trying to say is that there are other people in the world around you who are less fortunate and that one has to try and understand the way in which they live as well.

Also, the IT industry has this notorious image of creating people who are very self-centered and selfish. Like in any industry, the IT industry also recognizes people with knowledge. Hence, people who have more knowledge than others are reluctant to pass on this knowledge. The perfect answer to people who think this way is - "Don't be irreplaceable, because if you can't be replaced then you can't be promoted.". Why? Because if you keep all the knowledge that you have to yourself, then you can't be replaced. Superiors would not want to replace a person who has all the knowledge with someone who does not have it. This essentially means that by not sharing your knowledge you are not reducing your chances of getting promoted to a higher level. Ideally, people should pass on their knowledge to others and learn new things since the various paths of knowledge have no dead-ends.

My friend's signature quote accomplished both things that I said most signature quotes do. It told me more about the kind of person she was (being her friend I already knew a lot about her ;-) ) and it felt really good to know that people who think about others existed in the IT industry too. Also, the quote got me thinking about the message that it contained. A message (or knowledge) that I wanted to share with others.

So, I would like to sign off by saying "Don't be irreplaceable, because if you can't be replaced then you can't be promoted."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Paradise Lost....

In 1667, John Milton described in his epic poem "Paradise Lost" how paradise was lost when Satan successfully tempted Eve into eating the "fruit" from the 'Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil'. Hundreds of years down the line as I sat in front of my workstation in office last week, I received a call from my cousin brother. He had dialled in to tell me something that I wished would have never happened. My paradise was lost, probably forever.

Even though the word paradise can be defined as "a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness", the feeling of being in paradise cannot be expressed in words. "Vani Niketan" in Thiruvilwamala (Thrissur District, Kerala) was paradise to me. It was our ancestral house that was built a few decades ago and it was the place where I spent most of my holidays in the last couple of decades.

"Vani Niketan" was a beautiful palace of sorts to me. It was away from the roads and surrounded by nature itself and the monsoons at "Vani" were truly majestic and unforgettable.

Even though the news (that we had handed over the keys of our ancestral home to the man who had bought it) hadn't sunk in completely, I knew that I had lost something that I would miss throughout my life. As I sat speechless at my workstation, I began to think of the good old days that I spent there while I was a small kid....

My grandfather was ill and bed-ridden from when I can remember and passed away while I was really young so I do not have too many memories of him but I still do remember going and talking to him by his bed everytime I went to "Vani". To be frank, I was afraid of him and I still dont know why. Maybe, it was because I had heard that he was very strict and expected everyone to be highly disciplined (something that my father still says I am not and I guess he is right ;-) ).

My grandmother was the typical loving and caring grandmother. She would have got our favourite dishes made by the time we reached "Vani" for our holidays. The "Chakka Varatiyathu" (a Jackfruit delight) that she always kept for me was simply superb. She would call me, make me sit next to her and then enquire about everything - from my health (I had problems with my eyes and teeth ;-)) to my school stories. She was like a binding force that got everyone so close to each other and that may be the reason why even after she passed away, we (aunts, uncles and cousins) are still close to each other.

My grandmother's brother (Kuttimama as we fondly called him) also stayed at "Vani". He was a role model and inspiration to me. He always stood for what was right and he taught me a lot of lessons in life that I still remember and try to practice. He was a Math professor and one who understood his students well. I say this because I remember playing a couple of games of chess with him. The first time that I played I made my moves thoughtfully. A year down the line I played chess with him again and this time I used the typical solutions given in chess books without actually looking at the situation. I didnt have the patience that I had earlier. He was quick to recognise this and he told my father that I was losing concentration and that I had to focus more on it. That really hit me hard as it was very true and ever since, I have made efforts to improve my concentration. He passed away exactly a year before the keys of "Vani Niketan" were handed over.

I really wonder what these 3 people would have felt like if they were there when our paradise was lost. I bet they could not have imagined staying elsewhere.

When I spent my childhood holidays at "Vani" there would be roughly 20-25 people in the house since all my aunts, uncles and cousins would have come to spend their holidays as well. The day would begin early even though we had holidays. At the breakfast table, my cousins and I would make plans for the day. The plans included a range of activities from playing indoor games like Killer, UNO (ONO / ANO/ OHNO or whatver you may want to call it) to having shadow plays, magic shows, quizzes, feeding the cows that we had and having picnics at "palliyaal" where crops were cultivated earlier. I dont think there is anything that we haven't done at "Vani". I even remember converting a room into a mortuary with dead bodies made of pillows, where, at the end of the day, we were scared to enter ourselves ;-). Cricket , Badminton, Cycling or playing Frisbee would usually make our evenings. A quick bath was followed by prayers and then we would be back playing our indoor games.

The best part about all this was that even our aunts and uncles would join in. It was more like living in a joint-family (Yes, i still like the concept of joint-families even though they are very rare today).

As I grew up, the childish activities were gone and the number of people staying at "Vani Niketan" reduced but we all still met up there and had the fun that we always did. Today, as I wonder what "fruit" we ate to lose our paradise, my uncle has constructed a new "Vani Niketan" in a small portion of land that was not given away. I hope that this becomes a new paradise and a few years down the line I can write about the "Paradise Regained" like how Milton did about the return of possibility of paradise.