May 23, 2008

At Last : A Microsoft Free Environment

I achieved a major life-goal today when I managed to acquire a new machine which is completely free of Microsoft products ...

Thanks to Financial Express and the Big Idea contest, I am now the proud owner of an HCL Ultraportable Notebook MiLeap .. and it was delivered today ... loaded with Ubuntu, the Linux distribution and the ease with which it became operational is amazing.

I simply pushed the power button and the machine blinked to life. It offered me a choice of Ubuntu and DOS to boot up .. and when I pressed the Ubuntu option it asked me just three questions : my name (and password), my city / country and language. That was it ! Machine was up and operational !!

I connected my Airtel broadband cable into the lan port and the machine sensed the network and hooked on. I fired up the Firefox browser and breezed into my portal. No problems .. not even with the bangla unicode font. I had to only download the Shockwave plugin to see some of my fancy stuff.

Next stop OpenOffice .. which is also inbuilt into the Ubuntu distribution. I am an OpenOffice user on my previous non-Linux machine and tranfered quite a few files using my USB drive. All files worked perfectly.

Next stop, the printshop. I plugged in my HP PSC 1400 printer and for the first time Ubuntu kind of stopped and scratched its head. But not for long ... for very soon it detected the brand (HP) the model (PSC1400) and started searching for the driver .. and found it. I shot off a test print and it printed perfectly, both Roman fonts and my strange unicode bangla fonts ... which I am yet to install in the machine.

Last stop, image editing ... of the picture you see in this post. I had heard of GIMP and used it for the first time. As easy as my favourite Paintshop. So there ...

There are tons of other software for music, images, games and what not .. and it will take me some time to figure this out. But right now I am in business with Firefox, broadband, OpenOffice and the HP printer. Who could ask for anything more ?

And which idiot would want to pay money for MS Vista, IE and MS Office when you have Ubuntu available free of cost ?

I think that even MS knows the answer ... which is why they have started to support the ODF format of OpenOffice .. because that is where we will finally be.

P.S. The MiLeap Ultraportable seems to be an excellent piece of hardware but for its screen size ! but i suppose that is what an Ultraport is all about !! The software works fine but some of the Ubuntu configuration screens are partially masked and since they are not scrollable, this causes some difficulty

May 19, 2008

Education : From Darkness to Light

Today's copy of the Economic Times carries two articles that, taken together, highlight the disastrous corner that India has painted itself into in the area of education, and then offers some hope of finding a path through which it could extricate itself ! If this is too confusing, consider the following :

First, Rajrishi Singhal [ End License Raj in Education ] has very elegantly made the point, known to most of us in academia that it is the license-control mindset India's bureaucracy -- led by the last two, regressive and venal, education ministers -- that is at the heart of the darkness that has eclipsed the academic landscape. Jurassic institutions like the AICTE -- that insist that educational institutions cannot have a profit motive but must pretend, hypocritically, that they are charitable organisations -- have ensured that educational services cannot be delivered to the citizens unless it is through entities that are controlled by politicians. This includes both the Public Sector Institutes ( like IITs, IIMs) as well as private institutes owned by crony capitalists. Can this control mindset change ? Can it be made to change as has been the case in telecom or airlines ?

Which brings us to the second article by Niranjan Bharati & Rajeev Jayasway[ The Professor as a Businessman ] where we see a glimmer of hope. Apparently, the government is considering the option of allowing academic institutions to pick up an equity stake in companies formed by faculty. While this may certainly benefit the entrepreneural academician, what is at stake is something that is far more fundamental. An entity that delivers educational services could now be allowed to behave like commercial -- and god forbid, profit seeking -- entity ! Which is a revolutionary thought for our fossilised socialists. For to make this happen, the AICTE/UGC -- or hopefully the Higher Education Regulator -- must discard the requirements for a hypocritical, not-for-profit business model and replace it with the more pragmatic and efficient corporate structure ... and then who knows Dalal Street might start dreaming of and IIM or an IIT coming out with an IPO.

But that could be too much to hope for. Let us be happy to dream about publicly owned, board managed corporate institutes that give Public Sector Institutes a run for their money.

May 09, 2008

Upgrading Engineering Faculty : Barking up the wrong tree

PanIIT in association with Infosys has embarked on a well meaning programme to get professors from the US come and teach professors in India how to teach effectively. Unfortunately they are missing the wood for the trees, or even if they did find a tree, it would be the wrong one that they would be barking up against ! Because you do not need people from the US to come and teach us how to teach ! There are enough people in India who can teach, and teach well, but the problem lies in getting them to teach.

But why do good people not take to teaching in India ? The answer has been given out ad nauseum but since PanIIT has still not understood it, let me explain once again.

A full professor at IIT, with 10 years of teaching experience, gets Rs 40,000 per month before taxes are deducted. Whereas a student passing out of the B.Tech program in almost any engineering college gets about Rs 20,000+ from day 1. So unless a person (a)has a separate and independent income that makes the IIT salary irrelevant OR (b) is of an ascetic bent of mind who enjoys a frugal lifestyle OR (c) is unfit to work in the corporate sector -- he will never want to be teacher at IIT. The number of people in category (a) and (b) is rather small and so it is the category (c) type -- those who have no option but to teach -- who swell the ranks of faculty in engineering colleges. And notwithstanding anything that PanIIT and Infosys does, it is impossible to improve the quality of teaching delivered by these category (c) people.

Which brings us to the next question .. why are faculty salaries not increased to corporate levels ? Given the acute shortage of good faculty, why is it that the free market does not push up faculty salaries -- just as in the case of, say IT, telecom, retail or insurance ? The answer to this has also been spelt out ad nauseum, but needs to be repeated again anyway ... because, unlike other areas, there is NO FREE MARKET in the education space.

The IITs and IIMs are relics of the PSU age and are steeped in PSU culture. Everyone must be paid at the lowest common denominator -- defined by archaic Pay Commissions in terms of the demands of the legions of Class III and Class IV staff. Even at the faculty level, a professor of Computer Science and a professor of English must be paid at the same level -- even though the market value of the two outside the educational sector is vastly different. We all know this but we cannot do anything about it. Such is hypocrisy in India.

OK, but what about the thousands of private engineering colleges that are sprouting by the dozen ? There could have been some hope of free market policies here but government policy has eradicated almost any hope even here as well. Whether it is under Murali Manohar Joshi or Arjun Singh -- the two persons who have had the intention, the capacity and the track record of having dealt a lethal body blow to education in India -- the government of the day continues to operate a perverse version of the Licence-Permit Raj -- that has been mercifully eliminated from the rest of the economy.

To operate a technical college in India you need a permit from the AICTE : a truly neanderthal entity that ever existed, and no educational institute with any measure of self respect can subject itself to its whimsical ( and occasionally diabolic ) supervision. Incidentally, ISB - the only management school that has been ranked on par with global institutions -- has had to engage in a running battle with this dinosaur to survive. To abide by AICTE regulation you have to begin with a blatant lie : you have to state upfront that you are not-for-profit organisation and you are running an educational institute as a charitable public service. All AICTE approved private colleges are of course for-profit organisations ( and there is nothing wrong in making money ) but they have to repeat this lie and THEN work out complex -- but very well known -- strategies to suck money out of the system to generate a return for the investors. So in principle you cannot run an honest, profitable institution in India.

In short the whole system reeks of corruption, well designed corruption.

So net-net what should PanIIT and Infosys do ? Instead of tilting at windmills it would be better if they could leverage whatever influence they have in India to remove the stranglehold that the Government has on education. The obvious thing is to dismantle the License Permit raj -- restructure the AICTE and UGC by repealing or amending the enabling legislation -- and replace it with a Education Regulatory Authority, similar to SEBI, TRAI or IRDA. If this and only this happens we will get better teachers -- and better teaching standards in engineering colleges in India.

Till then, grin and bear it brother -- you have no choice!!

May 03, 2008

Bangla Fonts in Blogger

Star Ananda -- the popular Bengali TV channel from Calcutta -- has started an interesting bengali community at their website but the tool that they offer to write in Bengali is rather diffucult to use. I have modified the excellent tool that Deepayan has created on his website and have made it available as a widget that you can embed in your blog.

Since Deepayan's tool is available on available under the terms of the GNU General Public License, version 2, i believe that i am free to use, modify and redistribute it with the provision that it is under the GPL again.

If you want to embed it in your website use this code :

This tool has been used to create the Sonartoree blog as well as to post in the Star Ananda website. It should work well with as long as your machine is unicode compliant.

P.S. For a good collection of free, Unicode compliant, printer friendly Bengali fonts I would like to thank the good folks at Omicronlab.