December 23, 2005

India : The Enemy Within

The Constitution of India has been mutilated once again. This is the 104th time it has been done in the past 50 odd years and the purported reason is social equality. Reservations have been extented to private, unaided educational institutions. And who has done this ? People who, just a week before, have been caught red-handed on camera accepting bribes to 'act honourably' in their chosen profession. With custodians like this who needs enemies ?

We have heard of the enemy in Pakistan, in China, in SriLanka, in Burma, in Bangladesh, in the USA, in the WTO ... we have also heard of commercial enemies that apparently trouble our commercial enterprises .. who outsell us in garments, in tea, in computer services ... we have heard of foreign trade unions demanding ban, or restrictions, on Indian programmers and we have heard of foreign trade bodies that seek to ban exports of Indian shrimps or put tariff barriers on Indian products.

These are enemies we recognise and know how to deal with. It must have bee Lao Tzu who said that 'if you know your enemy, you win half the battle'. So very correct. The battle that the global fights with these external enemies is fair battle, or at least as fair things can be in things like love and war !

But are they our real enemies ? They are not. The enemy is NOT at the gates, they are in our heart, at the core. Look at my post on CHAIPANI ... as I do not wish to repeat myself again. This is the real enemy .. the corruption, the hypocrisy, the incompetence ..

The Noble Amartya Sen ( may his tribe DECREASE ) believes that democracy is the solution of all problems. I beg to differ and differ very strongly. The ascent of man, and to the extent that it mirrors the evolution of sentient intelligence, is a product of darwinian selection possibly helped by dollops of good luck. At the risk of sounding cliched, I would like to (re)state that survival of the fittest : and that is true for individuals, organisations, commercial enterprises, societies, species, genes and the genome itself. There is no alternative to merit and elitism. Success cannot be mandated at least not for too long. Nor can it come across through parliamentary dialogue.

And that is where the 104th Constitution Mutilation Bill/Act falls flat on its face. By striking at the very roots of meritocracy it has shown once again that while Global India has its head in the clouds, its feet are very much rooted in the clay ... and this clay is teeming with parasites like roundworms, tapeworms and their like ... waiting to burrow into the soles of the feet and then into the soul of the nation itself.

December 07, 2005

Calling the Bombay Film Industry to create MMORPG

Why am I obsessed with MMORPGs ? Because I firmly believe that MMORPG genre is the next big killer application of the same order of significance of Spreadsheets ( Visicalc and Lotus123 ... that took computers to every office desk ) and the Web Browser ( Mosaic / Netscape .. that drove computers into every home).

An MMORPG is infinitely more fun ( despite sneers from the high-brow crowd) than the usual computer game because of the presence of real, 'intelligent' human beings on the other end. Actually it is less of a game and more of a community where you learn to find your way around a new world, much like what travellers have to do in a strange new country. The immediacy of virtual environment and the extreme richness that is possible is mind boggling.

However building such a game is no child's play. You need complex game engines that deliver AI capabilities and then you have to add (a) graphics and (b) a compelling storyline. It is so expensive to build a game that it was possible ONLY for big corporations to get going.

But all this is ( or should ) change soon.

Multiverse is a very interesting site that helps you to build such a game with a ( relatively speaking !) very low investment. Strangely enough it is a free site and gives you all the tools that you need, PLUS the hosting servers etc, with which one can build a full fledged MMORPG game !! They have a sound economic model that is both fair and should be sustainable as well.

This is a huge opportunity for game developers in India. Thanks to the burgeoning film industry at Mumbai, Calcutta & Chennai ( I hate the pejorative and imitative term ... Bollywood ) there is no dearth of creative talent in this country. Why can some TV production houses not tie with creative elements and some computer programmers to kick start the process.

Let us hope that very soon, we will have companies of the size and visibility of Infosys, Wipro and TCS in this area.

November 21, 2005

MMORPG + the Matrix : a brave new world

After years of reading about MMORPG Worlds, I finally managed to find a reasonably good one that allows you to play for free see ... Planeshift After a few initial hiccups with the software, I finally managed to create an account, create a character ( avatar ), upload it and finally join the game. It was good, though I understand that the popular commercial ones are better ... But as they say in Bengali, a blind uncle is better than no uncle at all. Jokes apart, joining this game gave me a fairly good understanding of what these games are all about.

So what are they all about ? It is about a simulated world peopled by different races of people with each having slightly different characteristics. Is it not the same in our 'real' world ?

In such a world, you have the ability to create one or more 'avatars' or characters and through them enter the world. Initially it is a very lonely place, as it would be if you were dropped into another planet and asked to find your way through.

What can you do ? I am expected to strike deals and earn money, actually funny money with game currency, and use this to further my goals in this world. I could also explore new territory and find out new and wonderful things about this world.

What makes this games different from a normal computer game where you play against the AI-capable program of the computer is that there are other 'avatars' created by other live players. This gives it an element of reality ( and randomness, or non-determinism) that may be difficult to achieve in a pre-programmed environment.

However there are more effective doses of reality.

First the computer graphics are superb. You really feel that you are walking through a subterranean world ( in this case the setting is subterranean but there are other games that have different settings). The degree of reality is of course a function of the money that you have paid for the game ... after all the graphics designers would expect a decent salary if they are expected to work on the detailed graphics. But money is not the only solution to improving reality ... technology is.

Graphics on the screen is good but one would need other stimuli as well if you would like to replicate reality. Sound is easy and 3D imagery is almost here, thanks to lasers and holograms ... but touch ? smell ? and taste ?

Theoretically speaking, it is not impossible to recreate all this ... but could we really extend the user-interface to a totally new level of experience ?

We have all seen the Matrix. The original is ofcourse the best and 'demonstrates' the technology through which sensory stimuli can be sent directly into the brain. This means that one can experience stimuli without the pair of signal converters : screen-eye for visual images, speaker-ear for sound, and the corresponding pair for the three other senses.

Is this possible ? Is this feasible ? Of course it is. Just look up the embedded technology that has been pioneered by Kevin Warwick where he uses implants to exchange machine readable electronic signals with the actual nervous system. Similar technology has been used to help quadriplegic patients to control wheel chairs ... by simply using their 'will' to take action.

My hypothesis is that while advances in AI technology will make MMORPG games even smarter, the real smartness will come from having more and more people join the game and contribute their own intelligence towards making the game more compelling. However the introduction of direct, Matrix-style, nerve implants that do away with traditional user-interface technology will give a qualitative jump to the sheer richness of the game playing experience.

When will this happen ? I would say that this is not more than ten years away.

November 16, 2005

Privatisation of Tax Collection ...

Every year the Finance Minister tinkers with the tax rates. But let him also focus on the collection strategy.

The income tax department is generally viewed with suspicion and there are many stories about corruption, extortion plus rude and irrational behaviour. Identical behaviour was the hallmark of DoT and the nationalised insurance companies. However there has been a sea change with the introduction of private operators in these fields. Both BSNL and LIC and it sisters are now far more user friendly AND efficient.

Let us adopt the same strategy for tax collection. Let there be Tax Collection Regulator ( like SEBI, TRAI, IRDA ) and let it license multiple private agencies for tax collection in each tax circle.

Each agency can be given a tax collection target and let them compete for 'business' from existing and potential tax payers. The finance ministry will set the tax rates and guidelines but the implementation will be done by these private agencies. Remuneration for the agencies can be on a licence fee + revenue sharing basis. Enforcement can be through civil and criminal suits filed with existing tribunals and courts.

The idea may sound initially ludicrous but with the passage of time would certainly prove to be immensely beneficial.

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idea originally posted in Thoughtshoppe on 10 Feb 2005, and reposted here ...

November 14, 2005

Who is a Manager ? Lead, Follow or Get out of the way

Managerial effectiveness is a subject on which millions of words have been spoken and written about but there is sufficient scope to write a million more .. Here is my contribution to the evergrowing corpus !!

A manager makes decisions ...

If the decision turns out to be correct, he credits the team that has implemented his decisions. If the decision turns out to be incorrect, he takes the blame on his chin. Victory has a thousand fathers and there is no harm if that is the case, but defeat should not be an orphan. This inherent asymmetry between decisiveness and the consequences thereof is true not only in the field of corporate management but has a wider impact. In the armed forces or in the government, this reflects in the relationship between 'officers' and 'other ranks'. An officer takes decisions in the field and credits the team for success but takes the blame for disasters.

However this analogy with government agencies is correct only up to a point .. because

A manager is NOT an administrator ...

When he takes a decision or orders a specific action he should be in agreement with the decision and fully supportive of it. He cannot take shelter in the fact that the decision is imposed upon him by a superior manager and he is only implementing the decision. If he does so, then he vacates his high ground as a manger and, irrespective of his designation, joins the ranks of 'other ranks'. If he wishes to retain his position as a manager he should challenge and argue with every decision that is imposed on him and only when he agrees to a decision should he implement it. Perhaps this is why our stalwarts in the IAS would never make good managers.


A manager is a thoughtleader ...

The team should look up to him not because he holds a higher designation but because he is in some way superior to them. This could be technical superiority in the chosen field or superiority in the way he handles clients or superior in the way he spots and identifies patterns of the way ahead. I am told that Mr Azimji Premji, when he took over from his deceased father as the head of the nascent Wipro empire, was advised my many that he should relinquish management to more senior people who knew the family vegetable oil business better than he did. Fortunately for India, he did not but it just goes to show that even though he did not know software, he was not handicapped in leading his team ... simply because he saw the pattern that was emerging.

Being a thoughtleader is important because in the knowledge industry that is one of the very few personal attributes that command respect. Perhaps the only other attribute is ..

Personal Honesty ..

A manager must be personally honest in thought and deed. Being honest merely with Travel Expenses is not enough, the manager must be intellectually honest. He must not show favouritism towards any member of his team and when he showers praise ( or even rebukes ) he should not only be fair, but like the Caesar's wife, should be seen to be fair in thought and deed. Life, and a delivery project, is not a bed of roses. There will be lots of thorns and the way these thorns are distributed is what earns the loyalty of the team.

Taking decisions, owning decisions, being a thoughtleader and exhibiting personal honesty .. these are easy things to ask for but sometimes very difficult to deliver. There could be instances where the manager, because of his personal circumstances, cannot deliver on these fronts.

Well he can sink into helplessness, throw up his hands and give up. But in that case, he is not a manager ( or officer ) anymore. Irrespective of his designation he has moved 'down' to join the followers in the 'other ranks'.

The only advice for them is "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."
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Thoughts put together for an address to young mangers in Calcutta

November 09, 2005

Measuring & Monitoring Judicial Efficiency

The recent judgment of the H'ble Supreme Court of India that in principle nullified the action of the Bihar governor dissolving the Legislative assembly but in fact could not give action to its own order because of the delay in passing the same highlights a fundamental malaise in the Indian judicial system. It is a live example of the cliched term : Justice delayed is justice denied.

Millions of words have been said and written about the incredible latency in the system and the usual excuse trotted out is that there are too many cases to be tried and too few judges to try them. Why too few judges in a country of a billion people ? I will not try to answer that question here but shall propose a solution from a corporate management perspective.

First judges ( and that includes magistrates, tribunals etc ) must understand that in a democratic setup, they are government servants and so are liable to be answerable to the public who are paying their salaries. Obviously the accountability should be through the judicial heirarchy itself.

This means that a judge is personally liable to dispose of the case as soon as possible .. the onus is on him to expedite matters. He is paid to do a job and not only must he do it well, he must do it in time as well. He must understand that he is a service provider, on par with those who repair taps, paints houses, performs at a concert or performs any other service that is paid for. This may seem heretical to people who prefer to be addressed as mi'lords but the fact remains that he is paid to pass a judgment and it is only fair that he does it as soon as possible.

It may be argued that judges are not responsible for all delays. Litigants and their lawyers use devious methods to delay justice. This is true but it is also true that the judge has the best means at his disposal to take a call on the legitimacy of delay and enforce speed on the process. The system needs to make sure that each and every judge makes full use of these means to expedite the process.

In management jargon this means that the annual appraisal for a judge should be based on certain key performance indicators (KPI) that reflect his ability to expedite the process of law. From this perspective I suggest two KPIs
  • K1 : The number of judgments delivered per week, per month, per quarter and per year should be formally recorded
  • K2 : The total elapsed time for a case as measured by the number of days from the date of the first hearing to the date of the delivery of the judgment should be recorded and the average for all cases for which a judgment is delivered should be calculated. Again the average over a period of week, month, quarter and year should be calculated
With these two KPIs in place it would be very easy to determine which judge is doing a good job of pushing cases through the system and who is not. These KPIs should be used by the higher judiciary to evaluate the performance of those who are heirarchically junior and should play a role in their promotions and career promotions.

However speed should not be the only quality for a judge. His judgments should be 'good' and acceptable to the public who is paying for his services. Hence we need to have a second set of KPIs to measure this aspect. One way to determine this is to measure how many judgments are appealed against in a higher court and of these how many are upheld or overturned. Thus we have two more KPIs ..
  • K3 : Number of judgments that are appealed against. This is a measure of the public perception of fairness.
  • K4 : Out of the K3 that are appealed against, what fraction is overturned. If we have a high perception that are overturned, then the public perception is valid and can be considered as a fact.
Now that we have four KPIs it is tempting to come out with a mathematical formula that determines the efficacy of a judge but ofcourse that would be rather naive and simplistic. Appraisals are after all a matter of subjective debate but these four KPIs serve as good indicators to the extent that
  • K1 should be high
  • K2 should be low
  • K3 should be low
  • K4 should be low
People who understand the nuances of the judicial process can perhaps refine, refine and benchmark these measures but it may be good idea to start keeping records of this data for each and every judge in the country.

November 08, 2005

Trams on the Eastern Metropolitan ByPass

Trams in Calcutta have a chequered history. While they are picturesque part of the colonial heritage, trams are often viewed as an impediment to the entire process of traffic management in Calcutta. On the other hand, trams have a charm of their own since they are non-polluting and are more people friendly when compared to the monstrosity of smoke-belching, ramshakle buses and the pestering annoyance the ubiquitious auto-rickshaw.

However who ever has taken a tram ride through the Maidan area from Kidderpore to Esplanade would certainly wish that they could keep on going for ever and ever .. so delightful is the experience of breezing through the great open spaces. ... and that is the genesis of my suggestion.

The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass is a vast highway that connects the emerging Rajarhat area to southern suburbs of Garia and beyond. Why not have a tram service that runs along this route ?

Anybody who has travelled along this emerging corridor would see clumps of hapless people waiting for transport at each of the 'nodes' : the Saltlake stadium, the Chingrihata flyover, the Science City/Park Circus connector, the Ruby Hospital / Kasba connector .... and of course the terminal points at Ultadanga and Garia. So there is no dearth of commuters or customers for this service. Moreover the new high rise apartments that have come up, or are coming up, along the highway would supply a ready pool of willing commuters who would prefer the tram to a ramshackle bus anyway.

The bypass currently runs through relatively empty land. So there are no shanties to be demolished, no alternate housing to be provided. There is enough land along the bypass so that laying of tram tracks would not create any new traffic bottleneck. Ten years later, these advantages would have disappeared completely ... so the time is now. The government needs to act fast.

We have heard of an elevated rail system that will connect the airport to the southern fringes of the city but that is still a pipe dream at the moment. Given the politics and bureaucracy in the system, it will be years before anything will come out ... and by that time it will be too late.

Instead, we have a today an existing, if not dysfunctional, tram company. Why not privatise it, at least partially, and use the proceeds to lay new tram tracks from the Airport, through Rajarhat, through the Saltlake Electronics City, upto Chingrihata and then along the ByPasss all the way past Science City, past Ruby Hospital, through Ashoknagar, upto Garia ... and with a bit of luck upto the new township of Baruipur itself.

In parallel, tram services should be withdrawn from the downtown, so that the narrow congested streets of North and Central Calcutta are freed up. Valuable land locked up as tram depots in the heart of the city can be sold for a profit and the proceeds utilised to fund the new tram route. No one needs to be retrenched so there is no labour issue ...

And Calcutta will have a wonderful new tram service that connects the two emerging hubs -- Rajarhat in the North and Baruipur in the South -- in an elegant manner.

It would be wonderful if the government can think along these lines.

November 06, 2005

MMORPG Virtual Worlds

Shape of things to come

I was first alerted to the world of MMORPG by an article on Everquest ( one of the more prominent MMORPGs) that appeared in, of all places, the Statesman ... that was nearly five years ago and since then, the more I have read about this idea, the more it seems to me that this concept will play a very significant role in societies of the future.

But before that, what is an MMORPG ?

The acronym stands for Massively Multuser Online Role Playing Game .. but let us see what it means. In a standard computer game, a player assumes a role, say a combatant, or a race car driver and fights or competes against characters that are created by the computer program. Exquisite three dimensional graphics and intelligent computer programs have come together to create a very realistic environment ... and this is a cause of addiction to many dedicated gamers.

In an massively multiuser online game, the player competes, not against a computer program, but against other other users on the internet all of whom are connected to a central server. Conceptually, this is like a chat room, where multiple users connect to a chat server and 'interact'. In a chat room, the interaction is confined to exchaning messages through a fairly basic user interface. In an MMORPG game, two things happen .. first the interaction is complex, ranging from competitive to collaborative behaviour and the user interface is the usual vivid 3D game interface. In effect this means that instead of exchanging a hello or a curse with a fellow chatter in the chat room, one can get a character to smile-at or punch-the-nose-of another character controlled by another player who may be physically sitting far away ... and the two characters will 'interact' in a user-interface ( "screen") that could resemble a street, a room, a field or any other real or fantasy environment.

Why are MMORPGs important ?

MMORPGs represent an important milestone in the evolution a networked society, comparable in impact to eMail and the WorldWideWeb. As player interactions grow beyond combat and conflict to encompass complexities like trade, commerce and persistent personal relationships that reflect the "real" world equivalences like friendship, partnerships and even marriage we would see the emergence of parallel virtual worlds that would become increasingly indistinguishable from reality.

In fact this is already happening. Trade and commerce has become so important in these worlds that many virtual worlds have started with their own currency and this virtual currency can very often be converted into real world dollars .. much as Foreign Exchange traders today convert national currencies. This is functionally equivalent to a closed economy, like that of China and India of the past, opening its doors and allowing currency convertibility with the open market economy of the US dollar.

However for this to happen, the "virtual" economy should be big and vibrant enough ... there must be enough useful things, or services, to buy and sell and the total turnover of these goods must be adequate to justify a serious exchange, not a toy like Monopoly.

But there are two major differences ...

First .. in the real world, each individual has a single identity as declared in his passport, voter-card, bank account or whatever. He or she has a name, parentage, address, qualifications and more importantly, certain characteristics. In the virtual world, an individual can create one OR MORE identities for himself. He can change his gender, his physical appearance, competency, his background, his likes and dislikes and his behaviour in general.

Secondly ... The degree of realism, the amount of feasibility is an objective fact in the real world but is very subjective and variable in the virtual world. In reality I cannot fly across the sky and propose my love to girl in the street but that is not so in the virtual world.

However as the games mature and evolve the second difference can be narrowed to a large extent. For example, the extremely realistic 3D imagery that is evident in some of these games has to a large extent obliterated the gap in physical realism. When you are interacting with a character it is very difficult to distinguish between an image of a "real" individual beamed, say, through a video-conferancing channel and a "virtual" individual that is controlled by a player. What this means is that when talking to a young girl who appears in your screen you can never be sure that "behind" the young girl whose image you see, there is a bearded man who is operating the software. And once you have become accustomed to accept a bearded man masquerading as a young girl, it is just one more step to accept a bearded man masquerading as a horned extra-terrestrial from a Star Trek movie ! Nothing is impossible any more.

So is the case with social rules and regulations. Crime or inappropriate behaviour in the real world is punished with certain actions ... say denial of freedom ( you are thrown out of a house or put in jail ) and the same could, and does apply to the virtual world. You may not be allowed to play anymore .. unless you log-in as someone different.

Net-net many, if not most, of the behavioural patterns that exist in the real world can be replicated in the virtual world ... and as we move forward, the difference between the real world and the virtual world will become narrower and narrower.

Will they disappear totally ? That is what we will need to explore further ... from technical as well as philosophical perspectives.

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the most popular games at the moment include World of Warcraft and Asheron's Call but you can get more information from this and similar websites ... http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=6582

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If you want to try out an MMORPG for FREE you can try PlaneShift. Perhaps not the best, but it is free and actually works, unlike many others, and will give you an idea of ..

visit http://www.planeshift.it/main_01.html to download the software ..

remember it is a270 MB download, so you need access to a corporte LAN, BUT the game does not run through a firewall, so you have to play from home.

I have installed and run the software and can certify that it works

November 05, 2005

Transcending Memorylessness !

Peeping into the future to spot patterns is something that I have been doing for quite some time and before I forget, let me first jot down trends that I had seen and which subsequently revealed themselves to others. This is more to reinforce my own personal feel good factor.

First the Internet itself. In 1996 I had quit my career in Database Administration to stake my fortune in the web, internet and what subsequently become known as eBusiness. Despite intense scepticism, I was the sole evangelist for the eBusiness practice of PwC .. a practice that subsequently became synonymous with all technology itself. Today, there is no information technology that is NOT eBusiness enabled.

Within eBusiness, I had predicted the emergence of platform independent, browser based applications : based on the Universal Client. This is something that has become a reality today. I had predicted that corporate ERP applications would be web enabled to move forward into the eCRM space ( to reach out and touch the client) and backward into the eSCM space ( to integrate vendors ). Once again this is a reality today.

Beyond business, I had predicted that web enabled teaching, as pioneered in www.intellitutor.com would become an important channel for selling educational services. This is happening today through sites like growingstars.com

I had predicted the convergence of the cellphone and payment systems through a technology as basic as SMS. This has gone live today as well.

Massively multiplayer online role playing games would emerge as a defining feature of human civilisation and we see the contours of this as well, though not so much in India because of connectivity costs.

Finally I had predicted that bio-technology services would be offshored, much like programming services are today and India will become the hub of "in-silico" back office processing. This is just about to start .. so watch this space.

Where did I go wrong ? I had thought that cable TV would be dominant mode of internet access but thanks to the primitive state of the cable TV business this did not happen. And what killed it ofcourse was the immense success of wireless telephony, both GSM as well as CDMA. Perhaps I was a bit off the mark here. But then I suppose I cannot be right all the time

October 31, 2005

Antarmahal : Crude and Grotesque Tragedy

Antarmahal (The Inner Chamber ) , a movie featuring Roopa Ganguly, Jackie Shroff, Soha Ali Khan, Abhishek Bachan and directed by Rituparno Ghosh was released in Calcutta over the weekend.
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With Raincoat, Rituparno was merely boring but with Antarmahal he is positively insufferable.

I have not read Tarashankar Banerjee's original tale but I do see the outline of an engaging story about a rustic, libidinous idol maker who fashions the goddess in the likeness of his patron's wife ... with catastrophic, if not humourous, results. Unfortunately, Rituparno has overlaid this tale with a nauseating story of a vicious and degenerate zamindar and his perverted craze of having a son at any cost. The result is crude, grotesque and painful.

I have no problems with explicit eroticism or sensuality but the crudity with which sweaty, claustrophobia of the amorous sequences are depicted did leave an extremely bitter taste of what I had thought would be pleasant, if not exciting, weekend at the movies.

Rituparno is lionised by large sections of the 'intellectual' community as the torch bearer of avant-garde cinema, but sorry, I beg to differ.. this is trash. As a paying customer of his cinematic wares, I would like state that he has sold us a rotten lemon. The time has come to acknowledge that the Emperor really has NO clothes, irrespective of how many motions he or his supporters go through.

I do not wish to delve into the contradictory gender identities that the director seems to be grappling with in his personal life but I would suggest that unless he is making movies for a very select audience that suffers from a similar gender confusion he would be better off depicting stories in a manner that appeals to the vast majority of us.

As a free citizen of a free country, Rituparno is free to create and exhibit whatever movies he wants to but as an equally free citizen I have the right to withhold my patronage to his creative endeavours. What this means is that I will not invest any more money on tickets for his movies until I have evidence that he has regained the ability to entertain me and my ilk.

Going beyond Rituparno and his current efforts, it is even more unfortunate that Bengali cinema seems to have trapped itself in a labyrinth of puerile, personal relationships. It cannot find its way out of the narrow bylanes of domestic complicatoins and get on to the high-speed freeways that lead to the frontiers of new thoughts and ideas ... with the speed and style of Jurassic Park, Matrix or even good old James Bond 007 ( may his tribe increase !)

Perhaps audiences in Calcutta are not ready for such spectacular journeys and that is the real tragedy, not this current fiasco showing at Priya Cinema.
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Afterthoughts on Sunday, 13 November 2005

Quite a few of Ritu-P's ardent, if not moronic fans, have suggested that the acute negative reactions to their idols' work current work is because of the middle class morality of the hypocritical bengali. It is as if we like to see such things but are squeamish about admitting it.

Sorry, while that may be true in general, in this case it is far from truth. If Ritu-P wishes to be bold with his experiments with truth, let him get our stars from Tollygunge to shed their inhibitions like Monica Bellucci or Sophie Marceau and show some really significant amount of bare skin together with the thudding, throbbing action that is the hallmark of "R" rated films in the US. Let him do a full frontal, full Monty and I would be delighted to recommend the same as instances of pure 'paisa vasool'. Instead, what we get in India is a few square millimetres of shoulder and ankles .... and a few choked groans ! Tchah !

October 15, 2005

Durga Puja at Sonar Taree

Images of our Durga Puja at Sonar Taree, Prantik, Birbhum have been posted at the Ananda Utsav website managed by Ananda Bazar Patrika of Calcutta. Follow the link given above.

October 14, 2005

22 Nov 3067 BCE : the Mahabharata War

AstroArchaeology & The Historicity of the Mahabharat

School and college text books on Indian History begin with the Indus Valley Civilisation ( also known as the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilisation ) because anything earlier to that is considered non-proven or possibly un-provable myth. Hence the Mahabharata war, that shook the foundations of North Indian politics,has been consigned to the mysterious twilight zone between myth and history as has been the personality of Krishna, the foremost political figure of the time.

The Mahabharata era has been notoriously difficult to describe in terms of traditional traditional historical'hardware' like pottery, ruins, coins or even physical manuscripts. However a 'software' approach can and does lead to very positive results. Software, as we all know, is independent of the physical media that carries it. Hence information encoded in software can be extracted, decoded and processed to yield interesting results.

While extant physical manuscripts of the Mahabharata may not be older than a thousand years, the story, the information, that is contained in them has been passed down from the dawn of history, first orally and then in written form.

The information that we would be looking for in the Mahabharata are references to the positions of astronomical bodies, namely planets - including the pseudo-planets Rahu & Ketu, the sun, the moon,certain comets as they appear with reference to the 27 Nakshatras or constellations. The familiar zodiac with its 12 signs had not yet appeared in the human psyche.

On what dates would the planets be in these positions ? This would have been a very difficult question to answer before the advent of planetarium software. Traditional astrology based on various Ephemeris texts fails to be precise enough. This is because when you go back 5000 years, even the so called 'fixed-stars' of the constellation are not 'fixed' any more. The pole star begins to revolve around the axis and the equinoxes and solstices move away from the current dates. It is to their credit that given these immense difficulties in computation, both Aryabhatta as well as Varahamihira, managed to locate these astronomical events in or around 3100 BC. However, today we need not struggle so hard. Planetarium software can generate star and planet position on any date very easily. However there is a caveat here. Most software packages give positions upto the sixth place of decimal but different packages differ on the sixth digit. This causes siginificant differences in objects that move very fast, namely the sun and the moon, but these differences become less significant in the slower objects as in the case of the true planets. Nevertheless, and despite all these hurdles, modern scientists have reached some very remarkable conclusions. In this article we shall look at three significant results.

A] There are a set of 12 astronomical references in the chapter that precedes the great war. Here Krishna goes to Hastinapur to seek peace on behalf of the Pandavas, fails to do so and returns. On the way back he has a long discussion with Karna where they talk about the position of the various planets. There are references to the moon being in certain nakshatras, on the day Krishna sets out (Revati), when he arrives at Hastinapur ( Bharani) and on the day that he returns ( Uttar Phalguni). Further there are references to Saturn being in Rohini and Mars was retrograde and finally there are references to the new moon and some eclipses just prior to the war.

Based on these events K S Raghavan ( The Date of the Mahabharata War, Srirangam Printers, Srinivasanagar 1969) has identified the following dates ..

26 September 3067 BCE : Krishna departs for Hastinapur
28 September 3067 BCE : Krishna arrives at Hastinapur
8 October 3067 BCE : Krishna departs from Hastinapur and speaks to Karna about the war
22 November 3067 BCE : start of the Mahabharata War
13 January 3066 BCE : the winter solstice ( not the customary 22 December date !)
17 January 3066 BCE : Bhisma's death on the eighth day of the bright fortnight of Magha month

B N Narahari Achar of the University of Memphis, Tennessee USA, has used SkyMapPro planetarium software to generate images of the night sky on these dates and confirms that in each and every case the planetary and stellar positions match with the corresponding descriptions in the Mahabharata.

B] The birth of Krishna is another significant event in the history of India and his natal horoscope is known. Based on this chart, K S Raghavan has determined that Krishna was born on Friday, 27 July 3112 BCE at 11:40 PM. This data point ties in very neatly with and corroborates the date of the war given in the earlier section.

C] The third significant datapoint is the reference to multiple eclipses including a pair of eclipses within 13 days of each other. A 13 day 'fortnight' or a fortnight shorter than the traditional 14 days is rare but not unheard of. Dr S Balakrishnan has done a rigorous computer analysis of all possible 13 day eclipse pairs and has arrived at a date of either (1) 3129 BCE or (2) 2559 BCE. He prefers the second date of 2559 BCE.

Narahari Achar disputes this for two reasons. First errors in the positions of sun and the moon are larger because of the speed at which they move and hence different planetarium software differ on the moment of the eclipse by upto 12 hours thus casting doubts on their visibility.

Secondly he points out that the idea of an eclipse pair is erroneous. Vyasa refers to a lunar eclipse at Kartika, a solar eclipse at Jyestha and a pair of eclipses within 13 days. Prior researchers have assumed that the 13 day interval was between these two eclipses. However Achar asserts that there were three not two eclipses, the first two as described and a third lunar eclipse that happened 13 days after the second. Once again he uses SkyMapPro software to generate images of the sky and shows

29 September 3067 BCE : Lunar Eclipse, with full moon at Kartika
14 October 3067 BCE : Annular Solar Eclipse at Jyestha
28 Ocober 3067 BCE : Penumbral Lunar Eclipse ... and the gap between the second and third was less than 14 full days.

A similar triad of eclipses occured 36 years later ( 20 October, 5 November, 19 November 3031 BCE ) when another civil war broke out, this time in Dwaraka, and led to the fall of the Yadav empire.

Thus we have three data points that establish the occurance of the Mahabharata War right down to the exact calender date, a feat that is unparalled in the annals of ancient human history. Corresponding events in the civilisation on the Nile, the Tigris or the Euphrates have at best identified the century in which the events had occurred.

For the sake of brevity, this article identifies only three data points but Narahari Achar has identified many more references to astronomical information and has used planetarium software to correlate these to a set of consistent dates in the vicinity of 3067 BCE.

These astronomical references and the corresponding images of the actual sky above Hastinapur & Kurukshetra as shown by modern planetarium software like SkyMapPro serve as anchor points that attach the stories of the Mahabharata to real events and thus allow historical figures like Lord Krishna to emerge from the mists of ancient mythology.

Interested readers may please look up the complete articles and the SkyMapPro diagrams on the web/internet. Go to Google and search for the date of the Mahabharata war.
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You may also like to read this post on an alternate version of the Mahabharata.

September 26, 2005

CHAIPANI : making sense of India

What is it that represents the essence of India ? Is it possible for us to locate a core set of knowledge values and beliefs that define the experience of being Indian ? Is there a set of definitive landmarks that help us understand the contours of the Indian mindscape ? A few months ago an unknown filmmaker had released a hindi movie in India called Chaipani ... based on the theme of the eternal 'chaipani', 'baksheesh', 'ghoose', 'commission', 'cut' -- call it what what you want -- that is essential if you need to get anything done in India ... especially from the government. That is what set me thinking ... does Chaipani really represent the India that we know ? Perhaps not ... but then from another perspective ... perhaps it does .... let us see how

C : C is for CORRUPTION that is nearly synonymous with India. Whether it is the Prime Minister or whether it is the not-so-humble peon, we all know that they come for a price and for not too high a price. But why blame the government ... as is the people, so are the princes ! Given half a chance, there is a great probability that the average India will have no qualms about breaking the law and making some money in the process. After all we have seen it all our lives ... fudged LTA receipts, income not reported to the Income Tax, receipt overlooked to save on sales tax ... it has all become natural and normal. Just as it is normal for a doctor to take a cut from the diagnostic centre or for a gynaecologist to frighten an expecting couple to opt for a Caesarian section when a normal delivery could have been done for fraction of the cost. Corruption is endemic to if not synonymous with authority in India.

H : H is for HYPOCRISY that is very evident at all levels of Indian society. We revere the mother goddess as Shakti, Durga, Kali and what not and yet we have no compunction about killing of the female foetus and compounding the hypocrisy is the fact that violence and torture against women is very often led by the lady of the house ... the story of the saas-bahu conflict has been immortalized in perhaps a million TV serials by now. But again why just blame the women ? We criticize apartheid in South Africa and yet we are intensely racist. Not only in our caste system but also in the fact that even when we go to the US on scholarships we have a great distaste for 'kallu's -- the African-Americans. Our labour unions cry hoarse about workers rights but the leadership has no qualms about being bought off by the management and sell the workers down the river. Our student unions are as removed from genuine students as chalk is from cheese.

A : A is for ANARCHY that descends whenever a group of Indians get together. Bandhs, strikes, rail-rokos, agitations, we have it all. It is impossible for us to settle any dispute in a civil manner. Orders are meant to be disobeyed if they do not conform to our own idea of what is right. This credo was immortalized by, no less than, our good friend Mohandas himself .. Mohandas of the Civil Disobedience fame ! And his followers, first moronic and subsequently cynical, have exploited his halo to the hilt ... to the point that anarchic behaviour -- that hardly ever results in anything positive -- is the hall mark of the potential politician in India.

I : I is for sheer INCOMPETENCE that is evident in all levels of Indian society. Corruption, hypocrisy and anarchy combine in equal measure to ensure that the worst possible people end up with the responsibility for the most crucial tasks .... ranging from traffic management to managing the national economy. And it shows !! Infrastructure in India is crumbling not because we do not have the means ( money, materials and knowledge ) to make it work but because we mess it up in a manner that only we could. And why just infrastructure ? Look at the BCCI, the Olympic Associations, Automobile Associations … you name it, we have messed it up.

P : P is for PATIENCE to put up with this cup of C H A I !! Any other nation would have committed hara-kiri out of sheer frustration and yet we soldier on hoping for a better day !! What is the source of this optimism ? The philosophy of karma and reincarnation. We believe that we are miserable today because of past misdeeds and we also believe that some day, even if that is in the next life, we shall overcome. We keep on hoping for the best, we hope that if we keep to the straight and narrow path of virtue there is someone, somewhere keeping the score and we shall be rewarded. But rewarded with what ? For that we need to turn to …

A : A for ADVAITA ! No, I am not joking or trying to facetious. The sheet anchor of the Hindu way of life is philosophy of Advaita Vedanta that states that the end result of the seemingly endless cycle of karma is when we have the convergence of the Knower, the to-be-Known and the process of Knowing itself. The trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva is as irrelevant as the thirty three million gods and goddesses that we profess to worship. This is because all these 'gods' along with the physical world that we claim to see around us is an illusory Maya .. like the virtual reality shown in movies like Matrix. Once that is out of the way, what we are left with at the end of this convergence is the concept of the potential divinity of man. And what is the nature of this Divinity ? it is ..

N : N is for NOTHINGNESS. Because this final divinity is without form, without shape, without colour, without qualities, without attributes. It cannot be described except as an endless chain of NOT-THIS, NOT THIS, NOT THIS till the end of this sentence. So it is no wonder that the concept of zero was thought of in this country. The Hindu word for zero is shunya translates into the semantic or philosophical concept of emptiness, in addition to the mathematical concept of zero. Perhaps that is no coincidence. Nothingness is perhaps the closest representation of that which lies beyond the pale or rational logic. And to cross over this hurdle, this barrier of rationality, we need to have …

I : I for INTUITION. The last, final and most potent arrow in the Hindu quiver. The Hindu nation is one where there is a slight majority of right-brained people. Western civilization and its clones in China and Japan are by contrast dominated by left-brained people. Left brain people are rational, logical and more likely to succeed in science, technology, and management. Right brain people are more emotional and intuitive. Societies dominated by leftists are more ordered and find it easier to organize themselves for higher efficiency in managing their own affairs and in converting resources into forms that meet basic animal, or human, needs. They know HOW to do things. India, on the other hand has an intuitive insight into the WHY of things. And that is why India, the real India, is and shall remain different, or perhaps indifferent, despite all our attempts at globalization.

August 28, 2005

Reservations : Scrap &Rollback

Reservations of opportunities -- whether government jobs or college seats -- has become a national malaise. The idea was conceived in good spirit and as usually the case for any politically motivated activated, it has now generated into a thorn in the flesh of Indian civil society.

Let us get the facts straight. (a) Years of reservation has had a very marginal effect on the overall rise on the standards of living of the scheduled castes. A few, clever and well connected members of these castes have derived benefits. (b) The national hue and cry that the political class has raised for preservation and extension of reservations is a cynical, opportunistic and immoral attempt to get into vote-banks. There is no second thought or ambivalence about it. When people like Mayavati & Lallu Yadav champion a cause, there cannot be anything faintly decent about it. (c) Members of the rational, civil society are unusually coy about calling this bluff, calling a spade a spade, because they have this sneaking element of doubt and guilt .... of past discrimination and worse.

Going forward, we need to be very clear that the world is an unforgiving and competitive place. If the backward castes, were .. well .. 'backward' in the past, it is their problem not that of society at large. All men are NOT equal and any attempt to make them so will fail.

In the fiercely competitive society that we live today, the Indian nation cannot be fettered by the inefficiency caused by the incompetence of incumbents of reserved posts.

The political class is guided by the motive of self preservation. They want votes, scheduled castes provide vote banks and so politicians will never do what is right for the nation. They will do only what is needed to win the next election. ( Here, why blame India's politicians ... it is the same all over the world ... Look at George Bush !)

Members of the rational, civil society must not be hesitant in criticising reservation. We must take the bull by the horns and go on the offensive ... ask for rollback of reservation. Ask for a timeframe. It is not enough to stall attempts to increase reservation, we must actively seek to reduce and eliminate reservation from all aspects of life.

The first attempt to create a nationwide movement against reservation failed during the VP Singh era. North India was in flames ( which caused the death of quite a few agitators, who died of self immolation ) but the flames were quenched by the hard hearted politicians who hankered for votes.

We are in the midst of the second attempt, when a whole bunch of South Indian educational institutes have filed lawsuits that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, politicians are gathering together to strike back.

Every member of India's civil society must now firm against the political vandals who are about to storm the gates.

August 22, 2005

Business Equity, reflections on ...

The corporate landscape, which the Economic Times has been mapping faithfully for the past quarter of a century, has been changing over time. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the tectonics of globalisation but if we look closely, certain underlying patterns become evident. We will classify these patterns in terms of “equity” and see how ET, over the years, has related to these.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary [the only one that I could quickly access from my internet connected laptop!] defines equity as the money value of a property or of an interest in a property in excess of claims or liens against it. Used loosely, it measures certain qualities that impart value to an entity. So what is that intangible that adds value to a business ?
1960s - Financial Equity : This was the trader’s world. Access to capital was the primary ingredient for the success of a business enterprise. This was the age of the “general order supplier” or whatever equivalent name you would choose to use. This was the pre-ET (antediluvian ?) era.
1970s – Political Equity : With socialism or rather babudom sweeping through India, know-who was more important than know-how. Since the government dictated nearly everything that a business could or should do, connections in high places was the only route to success. In this era of gloom, the Economic Times was born and predictably enough its main focus was on tracking government policies and decisions together with the macro economic factors that these had an impact on.
1980s – Process Equity : With the first winds of change starting to blow through the desolate landscape, India woke up to the need for efficiency in business practices. The primary focus was of course on manufacturing processes. Advanced manufacturing techniques – purchased from the “developed” world, were seen as the keys to success. So much so that we even imported the technology for making potato chips from Norway (or somewhere equally exotic!!). This process equity was further bolstered by investments in quality systems leading to the hype and hoopla of ISO-9000. The Economic Times dutifully changed its focus to keep a close tab on interesting corporate houses.
1990s – Brand Equity: CNN (or rather its compelling coverage of Saddam Hussein’s adventures) opened India’s eyes to the immense potential satellite television. Suddenly we realised that there was a world beyond Dookhdarshan. Organisations could now reach out and touch the customer and the medium became more important than the message, the package became more important than the product. Success now depended on advertising and corporate communications. Brand equity became an integral part of the Economic Times.
2000s – Knowledge Equity : The closing years of the twentieth century has seen a surge of what is known as the knowledge economy. There is some confusion about the usage of the term knowledge – were the artisans and engineers lacking in knowledge ? Certainly not. But this is knowledge of a different sort. Businesses today can thrive and grow only if they can have a clear idea of nationwide (global ?) inventory topology [Supply Chain Management], precise customer demographics [Client Relationship Management] or price-performance characteristics of suppliers [eProcurement]. All this data was always available and waiting. It needed the magic of digital connectivity – the internet though not necessarily the world wide web – to turn transform this data, first into information that could be processed, next into knowledge that could be leveraged and then perhaps into wisdom that would become a part of the corporate culture. The focus today is on how to manage this knowledge, efficiently and effectively, irrespective of the organisation or the business area.
Quo Vadis ? Where are we headed ? When we peep into the womb of futurity, the corporate landscape looks fluid and chaotic. Faster, sooner and smarter may not be the best mantra in life but then nobody claims that the good is always is always successful (consider Laloo and Jayalalitha). To be successful, organisations must anticipate and adapt to this changing scenario. Is this an echo of Darwin’s theory of natural selection ? The sense of déjà vu is complete if we remember that since the birth of the Economic Times, the wheel has turned a quarter, but the hub remains the same.
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article written for the silver jubilee of the Economic Times and never published.

August 13, 2005

Mangal Pandey : The Metaphor

A little slice of a very important part of India's history heavily garnished with the sights and sounds of an era, two cameo love affairs and A R Raman's haunting music all add up to a wonderful and romantic adventure : but oh how I wish it was three songs shorter ! That would have given this otherwise fabulous movie that cutting edge ... an edge that has been blunted by the director's desperate attempts to cut into psyche of the semi-moronic Bollywood fan for whom anything without "item numbers" will apparently not pass muster.

I will not sure how long this movie will run in the theatres and if Bose : The Forgotten Hero ( and film) is any indication, then I will be surprised if it crosses two weeks, but I would recommend this movie for anyone who has a love for India's past and is keen to sit through the passionate recreation of tumultous era.

In addition to the obvious charms of the delectable Rani Mukherjee and the sincerity with which Capt Gordon ( Toby Stephens) tries to portray the sepoy's point of view to the military authorities what is interesting to note is that, as Mangal explains, the initial revolt against the greased cartridges, fanned by feelings of caste and creed, metamorphoses into a not-quite-national-as-yet-but disenchantment with orders that fly in the face of a sense of justice and fair play against one's one people. I am not sure how much of this is real history but I noticed a couple of interesing facts :

a] The mutiny was fanned by a couple of British officers engaged in the illicit opium trade as a way to divert attention from the investigation of charges of corruption. The Parsi opium trader who was in collusion with the British officer deliberately showed the vats of lard to the excited sepoys and this was the final spark that lit the fire.

b] Mangal Pandey was a member of the proletariat. When requested by the emissaries of Nana Saheb to join forces he makes it very clear that he is not interested in replacing one set of oppresors by another. He wants a model of the English Queen who rules with the will of the people.

c] Messages were sent from camp to camp disguised as roti-s. This is a fact. We see Mangal making roti-s and we see scribes making multiple copies of their revolutionary manifesto. But we are never shown when the messages are sent. Perhaps Rani Mukherjee's song and dance elbowed out this piece of fact from the film.

d] Mangal is shown being hanged under a banyan tree. If I remember correctly this particular tree still exists in the Barrackpore Cantonment.

Perhaps the movie is not perfect. Neither was Mangal Pandey, nor the mutiny that he sparked off. Nevertheless, the Brahmim of Balia was an important metaphor of the age that represented the nadir of the historical evolution of Hindustan. It was the worst of the times, with the imperial age in terminal decline and the first flush of the enlightened renaissance still some way off. Confused and ill-directed this mutiny was the first documented evidence of the spirit of a nation groping for a way to find and chart its own destiny.

Some people are born great, others attain greatness and still others have greatness thrust on them. Mangal Pandey was at the right place at the right time, at the tip of the FIRST arrow that was shot into the heart of the East India Company and thus had greatness thrust on him.

However that does not make him any less great.

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Net-net : an enjoyable movie, thanks to Harsh Hada and Rahul Sharma of WDC who had given me the tickets for the premier show at Inox City Centre.

August 07, 2005

Martin Luther & The Overthrow of the Incompetents

Have you ever wondered why administration in India never works ? Why is it that our electricity delivery network crashes every now and then ? Why is that our roads are never repaired in time ? Or for that matter they are dug up within months of being repaired ? Why is it that our disaster management is so amateurish ? Why is it that tax collection system is so leaky and extortionary ?

The colonial 'exploiters' have left us to our fate more than 50 years ago and it is true that the colonial exploitation has been replaced by the exploitation of the criminal-corrupt but why is it that we cannot fight this cancer within ?

Perhaps the cancer of corruption has gnawed us hollow but the most visible manifestation of this malady is the fact that we are ruled by incompetents.

If you look closely enough you will realise that in most of India's institutions the people at the top -- or around the top, that is those who are in a position to take decisive action, are the ones who have reached this point not through excellence of knowledge or proven delivery capability .. but simply because they have (a) connections in the right places or (b) have bought their way to the top. This is true whether it is a lowly position like the OC of Barabazar thana or the high and mighty head of the Planning Commission.

Merit has no role whatsoever in the selection of the incumbent of any worthwhile or decisive position in India and this is even more true where the choice or selection is made by people who have nothing to lose if the person selected is incompetent for the job. In fact the selection is made on the basis of the candidate's competency in areas that are directly antithetical to the demands of the job -- for example in his or her ability to reward unjustly the person or persons responsible for the selection by 'returning' the favour in cash or kind!

Net-net any major decision that is taken in India, whether it is as simple as which way should a one-way traffic system run to complex stuff like the contents of the educational syllabi or the location of a major dam, is taken either by a person who is incompentent or one who has goal in mind that is not aligned to the one that is expected from his office.

That is why India remains bound up in the chains of its own folly.

Is there a way out ? Is there a way that we could rid ourselves of this rule of incompetents ? The way that we used to rid ourselves -- for good or for worse -- the rule of the colonial power ? Perhaps there is a way but we have not found it as yet. The political movement that pushed out the British had drawn inspiration and models from many sources ... the French Revolution ? Cromwells England ? the American War of Independence ?

But do we have a model where merit and meritocracy prevailed over the corrupt-incompetent ? The closest analogy that I can think of is Martin Luther and his Protestant movement that toppled the hedgemony of the decadent Catholic Church and paved the way for the Reformation, Counter-reformation and the subsequent Renaissance. This was 16th century Europe.

In the India of the 21st century, who is Martin Luther ? When and where will he reveal himself ? And will he be called Kalki ?

July 17, 2005

The Hungry Tide - Amitava Ghosh

A book that falls short of my expectations. Perhaps my expectations were too high or that of the reviewers who had fanned my interest were too low or perhaps this is the benchmark of current Indian English literature .... you could look at it in any which way you choose.

This is a book crafted in a workshop, not created in the crucible of imagination or ecstasy. It is meticulous no doubt, with the stamp of scholarship of someone who has had the luxury of spending a lot of time to do research on (a) the geographics and demographics of the Tide Country ( aka the Sundarbans ) and (b) the behavioural characteristics of the river dolphin. Good topics of research no doubt but hey I am interested in a reading novel, not a thesis.

Coming down to the novel itself ....it is nice no doubt. Not much of a plot but more of a framework that the author needed to hang his twin theses on ! I like Fokir for his rustic simplicity but would have been happier if he could have raised himself out his mundane lifestyle to deliver some kind of a message ( or did he try and fail ?) to the paper tigers that haunt the tide country .... the incredibly inane Nirmal and his virtuous do-gooder wife Nilima, the patently fraudulent Kanai and the impossibility of Piya. Actually Fokir, his mother Kusum and their shrine at Garjontola could have been the axis of a wonderful story that was unfortunately hijacked by the city slickers and finally blown up in an act of desperation by an author who ran out of ideas.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on this novel. It is a good time pass and there is a structure but what really got my goat was that the loose ends got tied up all too elegantly in the end. That is not what happens in real life.

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book purchased at Delhi Airport before flight boarding flight 9W 911 to Calcutta on 13th July 2005

July 03, 2005

CellPhones : The Next Generation

But for the world-wide-web, the biggest innovation that the world has seen in the field of communications has been the ubiquitous cell-phone. From being a humble device to talk from the field, it has enlarged itself -- functionally -- to accomodate a diverse range of facilities : PDA, organiser, camera, music, web access .... and no one knows what next.

However there is one aspect of the cellphone that is very troublesome : its need to balance size with functionality. As functionality increased, size increased and then technology advanced to bring the size back .... but there is a limit that is imposed not by technology but by human ability. The real pain is the size of the screen. How I wish I could not only browse the web but also open and READ files ... but to do so I would have to squint and strain and in the end it is simply not worth the trouble.

So here are my suggestions for tackling this problem.

1] Delink the display ( that needs to be large ) from the 'machine' that needs to be small. Have a tiny intelligent 'CPU' and an equally small display, for normal use, BUT have a small projector that will project the image on the wall. The same lens that is used by the camera to bring the large image of the world into a small image inside the machine can be used to project that small image that is formed inside. The first problem would be adequate power to project an image bright enough. I am sure that this would be solved through better batteries. The second problem is to find a wall good enough to project on .. something that is difficult inside a car or an airplane. [ you can also think of putting something of a serial port to connect to an ancient CRT / LCD device ... but that is to mundane a thing to do with something as glitzy and glamorous as a cellphone !!]

So here is my second big idea

2] Create a pair of spectacles where the stick that goes behind the ear carries a miniature (a) speaker ... for listening and (b) a contact microphone .. to pick up voice. This can connect to the 'intelligent' CPU in your pocket through BlueTooth. A primitive and clumsy version of this is available from Nokia today ... only that it is not integrated with your spectacles .. and so stands out like a sore-thumb. But that takes care of the voice communication .. so what about the display ? For that we need a small 'heads-up-display' style device that is being talked about in military technology and in wearable computers.

This technology is almost there .. and consists of a tiny projection device that projects an image directly on the retina and as a result the person sees what seems to be a big image.

Net-net : the combination of a smart 'pocket' device that packs in the full functionality in a miniature together with a separate user-interface device ( for video and audio data ) is the way to solve the problem ( reminds me of normalisation of RDBMS data !!)

Initially the display can be a projection on the wall ( imagine what it can to you PowerPoint presentation ) but in the long run it has be integrated with something that people are used to wearing near the eye and the ear : and the only artefact that meets that specification is a pair of spectacles.

Is is time to invest in RayBan shares ?

June 15, 2005

On the Origins of Outsourcing ....

There was an Engineer (Uncle SAM) working for Enron and taking a cool pay packet of US$ 10,000 per month. The work was hectic, even if it was for 8 hours per day for 5 days a week. He thought for a while and found out an Indian Engineer of similar profile in Bangalore, and recruited him to do his work for Rs 10,000 per month, and got all his work done by this person whom he paid from his salary (US$ 250). Thus, he made a cool take home of US$ 9750 per month and had all his time to play golf. He then got greedy, and took up yet another job with EDS (moonlighting?) for US$ 10,000 per month and subcontracted another Indian from Bangalore (using employee referral of the first Indian he employed in Bangalore), at the same salary of Rs 10,000 per month. This enabled him to play golf and earn US$ 19,500 per month. He continued this until one day, he realized that he had deployed hundreds of Indians from Bangalore on hundreds of his jobs and he made millions of dollars.......the rest is history.

Looks like this concept is catching and everyone is out to outsource his/her job to others so they can play golf and take up alternate assignments on side and grow.......

June 13, 2005

FivePointSomeone(or Something) - Chetan Bhagat

I struggled through this novel because it was referred to me as an introduction to what life in an IIT is all about and ofcourse the subject of IIT is always interesting to me. Unfortunately I came away with a dim, dark view of what I have always considered to have been the best part of my life.

The book is a crashing bore, there is neither action, nor fun let alone anything profound and sometimes I wonder why publishers print such books and why readers buy them. I suppose publishers have to publish that is their raison d'etre.

Coming round to the book itself, the protagonists of the novel Hari, Alok and Ryan somehow managed to spend four years in IIT without finding ANYTHING of any value. The teachers are bad, the courses are bad, the food is bad .. their friends ( other than the trio that is) are bad. Everything is bad. What utter nonsense.

Unless things have changed dramatically since I left KGP (in 1985) or unless IIT-D is significantly different from the other IITs ... I am left with the impression that this book is an extremely wrong portrayal of what life is all about at IIT.

What about SpringFest ? What about Hall Days ? What about the Interhall rivalry ? Perhaps these are KGP specific stuff but I am sure that the other IITs would have something equivalent.

Perhaps the professors could have been better but they are not the demons that they have been portrayed to be ( with the exeption of Veera). There were bad profs but then there were so many good and venerable teachers as well.

Finally, the 'episode' that they have described is ludicrous. The tendency to do a bit of cheating at exams is always there .. but the monumental scheme that they mounted ( and then crashed ) to steal a question paper is insuferrable. So is the ease that our hero picks up a girlfriend (with whom he gets into bed as well ) ... I know for sure that the one thing that most IITians lack ( and miss ) is the girlfriend. At least in our days .. when we used to say that KGP is a desert and the residents of SN hall ( girls hostel) where like cactuses in the desert.

Net-Net : a desolate and inaccurate novel about IIT that sees only the thorns in a rosebush. Why did I struggle through it (even though I thought as much after the first 100 pages ) ? Well .. IIT (at least KGP ) has a special place in my heart and if someone from IIT can patiently use MS-WORD to churn out so many words, the least that I can do is to read it .. before I criticise it.

June 05, 2005

13 to 39 in 9


You may be puzzled at the title of this blog so let me explain. Yesterday we were in Lolegaon where the temperature was a cool 13 Celsius when we started on the journey home. 9 hours later we were in Calcutta, via Siliguri & Bagdogra and the temperature was a sizzling 39 Celsius. That was indeed a very steep gradient indeed.

Actually we had a very nice vacation in the hills. We took off last Saturday on the Uttar Banga Express, arrived at New Jalpaiguri next morning and took a Maruti van to Lava. Next we changed into a 4WD Jeep and climbed all the way up to Rishap. This is a rather primitive place but the service that we received at Pal-babu's Tourist Centre was fabulous. So was the room with the view (a rather cloudy view, though) and the overall ambience of the place. Best of course was the huge variety of exotic flowers that grow naturally there.

After two nights in the quiet tranquility of Rishap we travelled to Gumbadara, a tiny village between Lava and Lolegaon with a good hotel ( Salakha Guest house ) but atrocious service. Weather was cool and fine and the walk through the pine woods heavenly. We saw a massive golden Buddha statue at the local gumpha. Next day we travelled to Kalimpong (rather crowded, to be sure) and bought a wonderful Bhutanese carpet.

After Gumbadara we moved on to Lolegaon. Extremely beautiful place but terrible hotels and even worse service. What to do ? Kuch Paya Kuch Khoya. The lovely thing about Lolegaon ( in addition to the standard and heavenly pine woods ) is the heritage forest and the hanging bridge. Some anonymous PWD engineer has created a wonderful experience out of a simple forest. Creativity at its best. Lolegaon was also the place where we shot some beautiful 'chitrahaar' style videos.

And then of course all good things come to an end ... 13 to 39 in 9 hours. How miserable.

.......................................................

Couple of facts for the future :

New Jalpaiguri to Lava : 3 hours / Rs 1200
Lava to Rishap : 1 hour / Rs 400
Lava to Gumbadara : 20 mins / Rs 200
Gumbadara to Kalimpong and Back : half a day Rs 1200
Gumbadara to Lolegaon : 1 hour / Rs 500
Lolegaon to Bagdogra : 4.5 hours / Rs 1900

May 20, 2005

Difficult Questions Intelligent Answers

Its Presence of mind and the right answer at right time that matters!!

Q.How can you drop a raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it?
A. Concrete floors are very hard to crack! (UPSC Topper)

Q.If it took eight men ten hours to build a wall, how long would it take four men to build it?
A. No time at all it is already built. (UPSC 23 Rank Opted for IFS)

Q.If you had three apples and four oranges in one hand and four apples and three oranges in the other hand, what would you have?
A. Very large hands.(Good one) (UPSC 11 Rank Opted for IPS)

Q. How can you lift an elephant with one hand?
A. It is not a problem, since you will never find an elephant with one hand. (UPSC Rank 14)

Q. How can a man go eight days without sleep?
A. No Probs , He sleeps at night. (UPSC IAS Rank 98)

Q. If you throw a red stone into the blue sea what it will become?
A. It will Wet or Sink as simple as that. (UPSC IAS Rank 2)

Q. What looks like half apple ?
A : The other half. (UPSC - IAS Topper

Q. What can you never eat for breakfast ?
A : Dinner.

Q. What happened when wheel was invented ?
A : It caused a revolution.

Q. Bay of Bengal is in which state?
A : Liquid (UPSC 33Rank )

Q. Interviewer said "I shall either ask you ten easy questions or one really difficult question. Think well before you make up your mind!"

The boy thought for a while and said, "my choice is one really difficult question."

"Well, good luck to you, you have made your own choice! Now tell me this. What comes first, Day or Night?"

The boy was jolted in to reality as his admission depends on the correctness of his answer, but he thought for a while and said, "It's the DAY sir!"

"How" the interviewer asked,

"Sorry sir, you promised me that you will not ask me a SECOND difficult question!"

He was selected for IIM!

"Technical Skill is the mastery of complexity, while Creativity is the master of presence of mind"

May 06, 2005

Godel : A left wing defence of right wing ideas

Many of you would be aware that the two halves of the human brain have two widely different functions. The left half of the brain is used to handle the rational, analytical stuff : mathematics, planning, organization, while the right brain is engaged with emotional and instinctive tasks like arts, music, love and other passionate matters.

Human beings also fall into these broad categories. Some are methodical, rational and people like these end up as scientists and administrators. The other category end up as artists, musicians and finally as mystics.

What characterizes the second group from the first is that the latter are more often interested in the result and not the process of arriving at the result. They know ‘what’ but not quite sure of ‘why’ or ‘how’. Instinctively, they know whether something is good or bad but would not be able to explain why. On the other hand, the former are extremely insistent on reason and proofs. They refuse to accept anything that cannot be proved .. and in particular this group of rationals are extremely uncomfortable with concepts and ideas in the area of religion : mystic insights, realization of God.

In fact starting from Galileo, it is this ‘leftist’ group that has led mankind through the rational path of scientific enquiry and subsequent progress that has resulted in the marvels of modern technology-based society.

In contrast, the ‘right’ wing group does not have too many tangibles to support their case. This philosophy is based on belief and intuition and in most cases there is neither any evidence nor anything repeatable and demonstrable. A most unhappy state of affairs when confronted by the rational brigade of skeptics.

But then like Bibhishan who walked out Ravana’s camp and crossed over to Rama’s army we suddenly have Kurt Godel.

Who is Godel ?

Godel was a Hungarian mathematician whose specialized in one the most interesting parts of mathematics : Symbolic Logic. This is interesting because it is here that we get to see the foundation of the entire edifice of mathematics, science & technology that is built up using rational logical methods.

And what did he do ? He took a stick of dynamite and blew up the edifice. How ? By publishing his famous Theorem of Incompleteness.

The actual theorem is quite complex and I do not have the ability to prove it for you in this space but the result is stupendous. The theorem states that “In any logically consistent set of statements, there will be at least one statement that is true but not provable.” And if you try to fox the system by defining this un-provable statement as an axiom it will immediately generate another statement that has the same property : true but not provable.

But dealing with things that were true but not provable was always the domain of the ‘right’ wing mystics and religious people. And here we have a true blue ‘leftist’ mathematician who uses ‘leftist’ mathematical logic to demolish one of the fundamental pillars of the ‘leftist’ faith.

Godel published his theorem in 1930 and since then we have had an army of ‘leftist’ mathematicians trying to pick holes in this heretical theorem. They have failed and for the first time there could be limits to what is possible through the rational route.

Galileo had challenged the orthodoxy of the Christian church through the rational route but now it seems that the wheel has come a full circle. The orthodoxy of the rational school of thought is now under challenge from Godel and his famous theorem. Perhaps we should finally converge on the fundamental principle of Ramakrishna .. that there could be many ways of reaching the same goal.

If you wish to know more about Godel, go to Google and search. There are hundreds of pages about him and his theorem.

May 04, 2005

An Eastern Sunrise : Today and Tomorrow

Lenovo has acquired IBM's PC division.

This is a very big demonstration of the relentless economic pressure that the emerging economies of eastern asia have brought to bear on the productivity and profitability of western manufacturing industries. What was earlier evident in toys and clothes and then in components like harddrives and memory chips ... has now engulfed total systems and the companies that make them. And this has taken twenty years.

What next ? The next frontier is services. Software services and business processing services. We are still in the era of the toys and clothes (body shopping ) and are rapidly moving into the equivalent of hard drives and memory chips (project delivery ).

When shall we move in to acquire Accenture ? EDS ? Cap Gemini ? IBM Global Services ? Another twenty years ? or will the world move faster ?

And who will do the acquisition ? Infosys ? Wipro ? TCS ?

Let us wait and see ... These are interesting times indeed.

April 24, 2005

Market Survey : Primary and Secondary Schools

As India breaks free from the indignity of underdevelopment and shoots for the commanding heights of the global economy, the single most important engine that it needs is a competent workforce -- or to be more specific the quality of education that they have access to. Education is of course the responsibility of the government but like most other government responsibilities, it is never taken with the right degree of seriousness.

So private participation in this sector is becoming increasingly important and we see a large number of institutions -- from engineering and medical colleges down to secondary and primary English medium schools -- that have emerged. This is fine in principle but very often the management committees of these institutions, much like traders of scarce commodities, charge high prices, compromise on quality and behave with a degree of arrogance that is extremely distressing for the end consumer.

The obvious solution is to invite government regulation but that would be courting bureaucratic disaster. Instead, it would be better if there is a survey conducted by the media in association with market survey organisations and the results are placed in the public domain. Market forces will then ensure competition which will translate into quality and value for money.

The first focus should be primary and secondary schools to determine among other things (a) quality of teachers (b) infrastructure (c) results in board and competitive examinations. These scores, both on specific dimensions as well as the final composite, if available for each city, will be very useful. First parents, as the consumers would know where to put their money in and schools will have to be sensitive to their concerns. Secondly, these results can be used to channelise private charitable funds to upgrade infrastructure and reward deserving teachers. Given the amount of advertising interest that FMCG companies have on the school-going population it may not be too difficult to generate interest and garner funds for this purpose.

April 04, 2005

Pervasive Learning Environment

Convocation Address delivered on Sunday, April 3rd 2005 at the College of Engineering & Management at Kolaghat to graduates who have passed out in 2003 / 2004

Friends …

I am sure that you all realize that this is perhaps one of the most important days in your life. You and your parents have worked very hard and have made numerous sacrifices of in terms of time, money and the cost of lost opportunities – to reach this point where you will receive a diploma. By the Grace of the Divine Mother and through your own diligent efforts you are now an Engineer.. with a capital ‘E’.

Congratulations. It is a day of great joy and rejoicing and I join your parents, your teachers and other guests in congratulating you on passing the second important milestone in your career. You may be wondering what the first milestone was .. it was your admission to this institute and I am sure that you recollect how happy you and your parents felt when that happened. I am also sure thatthere will be many more happy milestones like this in the years ahead.

I am told that it is customary for the Chief Guest to deliver a convocation address. However when I look back on the two convocation events that I have attended as a student – one in nearby Kharagpur and the other in far away Dallas – and I try to recollect what the speaker had spoken about, I draw a blank. To be fair to them, the speakers must have spoken about weighty matters that I should have listened to and remembered but after years and years of listening to my teachers it was a time for extreme lecture-fatigue. I just could not focus on and listen to another knowledge-filled speech …. All I wanted to do was to get the diploma and run out into the wide wide.

So why do you think I am giving you a lecture today ? It is because of my arrogance .. and as you grow old and rise in life, through designations and organizations, this arrogance will grow on you as well. All of us have this unfortunate tendency to believe that we know a lot and it is our right and our duty to tell the worldabout it …

We seem to have a Point of View about virtually everything and we are not hesitant to talk about it with the full power of our vocal chords.

So here is my first, and perhaps ONLY piece of advice for you : Do not get a swollen head. You have achieved a lot but you have miles to go before you sleep. You have learnt a lot but you have many, many more things to learn. Learning is a process that does not end when you step out of college … a college is justa place where you learn how to learn, So let us explore the world of learning.

You must have done a lot of good deeds in your previous lives to be born in India in time to see it enter the 21st century. … For indeed this century belongs to India and her youth. After nearly a thousand years of alien rule India is rising today. Rising through the deep, dark depths of ignorance that had sought – but failed – to destroy its native genius. Rising towards the bright and shining lights that herald the beginning of new age – the InformationAge – and the emergence of a new society : The Knowledge Society.

What is this Information Age ? What is this Knowledge Society ? Since these two ideas are very closely linked let me try to explain them together. From primitive times, human society has moved through certain eras. First there was this era of hunter-gatherers … people who roamed the forests in search of food. With the passage of time, mankind learnt farming and that era is known as the Agricultural Age. Wealth, and to an extent happiness, accumulated with those
who had access to agricultural land and the means to cultivate them. However the total wealth (and happiness) that could be generated through this route was limited and so man had to find other means. This gave rise to a new era …. the age of machines This was the Industrial Age.

The Industrial Age was good in terms of improving the physical quality of life … houses, cars, televisions, GSM phones … have all become far more affordable. But yet the Industrial Age brought along with whole set of social and ethical problems that we are still grappling with. The industrial age created a set of entrepreneurs – some ethical, some not so ethical – and a set of industrial laborers. The former grew in wealth and influence and this in turn created a set of have-s and have-nots. I do not wish to go into the details of the class struggle that followed but net-net the situation became such that making money especially through the industrial route, came to associated with certain unsavory practices : nepotism – through political or family connections, unscrupulousness – forgery, cheating and exploitation, or sheer money and muscle power. It seemed as if the relative position of the have-s and have-nots had become fossilized into a corresponding matrix of ‘us’ and ‘them’. To many of ‘us’ it seemed as ‘we’ would be condemned to be a part of the have-not society whereas the society of have-s would be the private domain of ‘them’ … that is those who are born into the privileged world of inherited money and good ‘connections’.

And then, very fortuitously, came the Information Age and changed the rules of the game altogether.

The revolution began with Information Technology and then it spread quickly through the other parts of the economy.

Relatively speaking, the importance of ‘know-who’ seemed to decline and was replaced with the importance ‘know-how’ or ‘know-what’. Thanks to the rise of digital communication links and the Internet it has now become possible to sellour knowledge to world that lies beyond the borders of the traditional economy.

For the first time, knowledge could be transformed into money. Our knowledge of the COBOL language coupled with our knowledge of ENGLISH language was a heady cocktail that took the world – frightened by the Y2K problem – by storm. Thousands of people who would have rotted in either low paying jobs or in employment-exchange waiting lists suddenly found that they could exchange their knowledge for moneyand so was born the peripatetic Indian programmer.

And it was not a small amount of money !! We have the shining example of Mr. Narayanmurthy and others like him … essentially middle class people like you and me, educated, ethical and enterprising who have not only become extremely wealthy and have managed to break through into the high society of the erstwhile“have-s” – the so called “Tata-Birlas” of the old Indian economy.

This wealth is not confined to the Narayanmurthy-s of India. Many of the so-called ‘average’ Indians are buying a car and a house early in life. So money earned through selling knowledge is now percolating down quite rapidly to fill the purses of those run motor garages and the coolie-mazdoors who are building houses in the new townships that are sprouting up beside the highways that arebeing constructed along the Golden Quadrilateral.

Obviously knowledge of COBOL and English was good to start with but with more and more knowledge more and more money earning opportunities have opened up. Since I am from the field of IT, I know how knowledge of Java, of SAP, of Project Management, of Quality Management has made more and more of our people valuable“resources” whose knowledge can be sold for profit in the global market.

Of course, this selling of knowledge does not stop with knowledge of computer technologies. If you look around you will see that many other skills are now selling freely. The skill to answer a phone call is the backbone of the vast BPO industry that is employing a vast number of people. Climbing up the value chain we have additional pools of knowledge that we can tap. Knowledge of insurance claim processing and financial accounting, ability to draw picture and animate cartoons, engineering design, research on financial markets … the list can go and on and on.

Net-net the point I wish to make here is that for the first time knowledge can be converted into wealth. The relationship between Lakshmi and Saraswati need not be antagonistic and Saraswati can, does and will lead Lakshmi intoyour home. That is what we should be celebrating today.

I started off by saying that no one listens to convocation speeches and yet we old timers love to talk more and listen less but as you would have realized by now I have digressed significantly from that point and you may be feeling that I am living by the rule of “do what I say but don’t what I do”. I really wish I could do things differently and use this opportunity to learn something
from you all today but unfortunately the format of this event is such that there is a practical difficulty. Nevertheless before I leave this college and this institute I would have learnt something more about it and the people associated with it. That is what I will gain today ( in addition to the wonderful lunch that I am sure would be served soon ). And in its own small way that additional knowledge would be a good antidote to my egotist arrogance of believing that I, because of my age and position of life, I know all that there is to know.

That brings me to the next point that I want to share with you. You would have heard in Hirak Rajar Deshey that “janar kono sesh nei, janar chestha britha tai”. Satyajit Ray was of course being utterly sarcastic when he coined this dialogue and there is not an iota of truth in that particular vile phrase. However old you grow and however powerful a position you acquire in life, there is no end to the process of learning. Knowledge is power, knowledge is the key to wealth and happiness. But … and this a very big BUT … the world is a dynamic place and knowledge that is valuable today can become commonplace and utterlyuseless tomorrow.

The knowledge and ability to read and write is a source of power and money to a scribe or a letter writer in society where literacy is rare. But if everyone knows how to read and write the value of that particular piece of knowledge disappears. You have to move on. If you are COBOL programmer you would have made a lot of money before the year 2000 but today you would be even more valuable if you have knowledge of Java or even more esoteric things like Enterprise Application Architecture. Let me give you a very specific example from my personal life. Till about 1996 I was an ace Database Administrator and was doing pretty well in life but suddenly I realized that that there was something more significant that was looming on the horizon : the Internet. I was a master of Database technology but knew nothing about Internet but still I chucked away a career in Databaseand jumped into something new … … I have never regretted that decision.

Let me recapitulate what I have said so far ….

  • One should not have the arrogance of being a know-all but instead have the humility to learn from all situations at all points of time.
  • What you need to learn about and know will keep changing. Youwill have to keep learning new things to maintain your position or relevancein the social and economic ecosystem.

This leads me to my next and last point …. which for the lack of better phrase I shall refer to as MetaKnowlege or the Pervasive Learning Environment andI will use two examples to illustrate this point. First is the English language and second the Internet.

The English language is of course a good thing to study for its own sake but in our environment it has an added value because it is door to a whole new world of knowledge and opportunity. Suppose you wished to be a COBOL programmer you would need to read up books on COBOL and the best of them would be written in English. Tomorrow when you wish to move on to Java or SAP .. you would need, not so much COBOL, but English again. English is the framework that you will use to perpetuate your learning experience. COBOL is knowledge, English is MetaKnowledge. COBOL is something that you learn, but English provides you with a Pervasive Learning Environment. So if someone tells you that English is not important tell him, politely and firmly that he is wrong


An even more Pervasive Learning Environment is the Internet or the World-Wide-Web. If English opens the doors and lets you out of your home, the Web is your passport to the world that lies beyond the borders of your country. The reach of the web, both in breadth and in depth is tremendous and you – and even your teachers and your parents – must use it as much as you can to learn more and more – first about what to learn, and then about that particular subject that you believe will be useful to you. Go to Google. Search and you will find a world of knowledgethat will reveal itself in front of your eyes.

I have been speaking for a while now and if I continue to do so any longer … you will suffer from speech-fatigue. So let me circle back to what I had said earlier … Learning is a process that does not end when you step out of college … a college is just a place where you learn how to learn …. Your college is one of the very important components of the Pervasive Learning Environment and be thankful that you have used it well. But there are other components like the WorldWideWeb …. And still others that I may not be aware of. Look for them, locate them, use them and make them a central componentof your life.

Thank you for listening to me for so long, now go forth into the world and once again, may the Grace of the Divine Mother be with you. JAI HIND.

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