Saturday, January 27, 2007

A bombshell

Last week, a bombshell was dropped on all students of IIT. Please note the item 3 below.

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INDIAN INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, BOMBAY
OFFICE OF DEAN STUDENT AFFAIRS

19th January 2007

A meeting of the committee consisting of the following members were
held to discuss matters relating to computer and network usage by
students when the following members were present:

Prof. P. Gopalan, Dean, SA Convener
Prof. Anurag Mehra, Head, Computer Centre Member
Prof. Nand Kishore, Chairman, HWC Member
Prof. G.Sivakumar, Head, CSE Member
Prof. Raghav Varma, Warden, Hostel 10 Member
Prof. C. Amarnath, Ex-Dean, SA Member
Gen.Secretary, Hostel Affairs Member
Gen.Secretary, Academic Affairs Member
Mr. Swapnil S. Sachdev Invitee (MLC)
Mr. Parijat Garg Invitee

Item No 1:
Video streaming :
The committee decided that video streaming in inter and intra hostels
should be disallowed. For using this facility prior permission from
Head, Computer Centre should be obtained.

Item No.2:
Download limit:
The committee put a download limit of 3GB per month.

Item No.3:
Time based ban on internet access in hostels:
The committee had the requested to the students to give their inputs
in September 2006, but no inputs were received at that time, however
during the meeting the students proposed that internet access be
blocked between 2 am and 6 am. However, the committee decided that LAN
access only be available in hostels between 12.30p.m to 11 p.m.
Student dissent was noted. This policy would be effective from 26th
January 2007. It was agreed to review the policy after a period of two
months.

Item No.4:
Illegal Content :
The Head, Computer Centre brought to the notice of the students about
signing of an IT policy of the Institute by every student, which
says that they would use the IIT network to download any illegal
content on any computer connected to the Institute network for which
they are responsible. It was also discussed that the Institute
network is being used to disseminate “illegal materials” like films,
songs etc. by persons running ftp servers on their computers. It was
decided that it will be the task of the elected representatives
(councils) to report this to the Wardens for further action. It was
decided that a poster would be put up by 31st January 2007 after the
same has been vetted by Prof. Sivakumar and Head, CC. The poster
would explicitly spell out the consequences in case of violation
relating to the use of IIT network for the disseminating illegal
contents in any form.

(P.Gopalan)
Dean,SA

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There are a lot of highly legitimate complaints over the way the IIT has handled this issue, over the way a professor on the above committee acted silly and childish in the faculty-students meeting, over the way the student representatives in the committee handled this. At the end of the faculty-students meeting, the DoSA (Dean of Student Affairs) informed us that the LAN Ban implementation has been postponed by 1 month in order to give departments enough time to get the labs ready (as if _anything_ in IIT can happen in 1 month).

My reactions are somewhat confused. While it is very easy to cry "Dictatorship" over this (and we have) and I think 13 hours is a bit too much (and I have put this forth in faculty-student meeting that was held after a storm of protests) and I am concerned that quite a lot of legitimate academic activities will be hit, I also remind myself that with every right comes a responsibility and a requirement of self-discipline to use it rationally. I bet we students failed to do that, what with computer addiction, gaming addiction, etc.

Update: Latest info about the ban here.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

They say history is written by winners. Perhaps, survival of the fittest works backwards in time too. Bet Darwin didn't think of it. I bet a significant amount of things that we read are bogus - perhaps that was the only thing I liked (and learnt) from Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. There is a saying in kannada that says "if 9 out of 10 people call a donkey a horse, it is a horse".

It is in this regard that I view Saddam's hanging. Maybe Saddam deserved the hanging. May he didn't (very few people say that, btw). Maybe capital punishment is wrong, maybe it is right. Who knows. But as far as history is concerned, he'd just be a foot-note in 2100 AD. And the text-books would tell them exactly what US is telling the world now. That would be the official version forever.

But, why have people and Governments protested the execution (or was it "assassination" or "murder" or "killing" ) ? Mostly because of the perception that the trial was not completely fair, that there was an element of vindictiveness involved ("he tried to kill my Dad" - Bush) ... Sometimes, it is not important to simply do something. It is more important to do it in a way that it is fair and even more importantly, in a way that it is *perceived* as fair.

That is where it is important to have something called a process, a law. Given my start-up background, my rebel instincts and the bureaucracy that I have seen at places I have studied or worked, it is hard for me to accept something is the foundation of bureaucracy. And good thing is: it is also the foundation of creating systems that go over and above egos and persona.

If we notice the turmoil in Bangladesh (elections for PM) or in Pakistan (constant military rule and deification of the army), it is all because either there is no process or one (or more) party decides to deviate from it. No that we are far from it. But on the whole, we seem to have a consensus on democracy as what Shashi Tharoor defined it in his speech at PanIIT 2006 - "where you agree on how to disagree".

It is where our neighbours have failed. It is where India has more or less succeeded.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Launching Creative Commons India

Here's an invitation to the launch of CC-India. All are invited !

============================
Hello,

You are most welcome to join us for the Creative Commons launch at
IIT Bombay. Hope to see many of you there at the event.

Creative Commons, India Launch

Creative Commons, India [cc-india.org] will be launched on January
26th [4:00 pm to 6:00 pm] at F.C. Kohli auditorium, KReSIT at IIT
Bombay, Mumbai.

See IIT B Map for directions: [Building No. 37]

—<<
Confirmed speakers at the launch event:
Mr. Joichi Ito [Chairman, Creative Commons]
Dr. Catharina Maracke [Creative Commons, Global Coordinator]
Mr. Nandu Pradhan [President and Managing Director, Red Hat, India]
Prof. Deepak Phatak [KReSIT, IIT Bombay]
Lawrence Liang [Legal Lead, Creative Commons, India]
—<<

Brief on Mr. Joichi Ito [Main speaker on the theme event]

Mr. Joichi Ito is a Japanese-born and American-educated businessman
who has many areas of interest and expertise. He was recently been
appointed the Chairman of Creative Commons. He is also the Chairman
of iCommons [the international Creative Commons].

He runs the World of Warcraft guild, which is composed of several
venture capitalists, CEOs and other influential members of the
Internet economy. He also wears many other hats. He is, among other
things, general manager of international operations for Technorati,
chairman of Six Apart Japan, founder and chief executive of venture
capital firm Neoteny, and a board
member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
[ICANN], Mozilla Foundation and the Open Source Initiative. He is is
also the founder of Digital Garage, PSINet, Japan and Infoseek,
Japan.

Mr. Ito will speak about the importance of Creative Commons for a
growing global digital culture in light of the launch of the Indian
creative commons jurisdiction on January 26th. The intimate
interaction between technology, law and culture in digital products
is creating new challenges
for enterprises, individuals and other organizations. How is the
digital landscape getting altered with the emergence of licenses
such as creative commons? Can new models be envisaged which will
seriously accommodate the sharing ethos of the common individual?
These and many more issues will be addressed by Mr. Joi Ito.

—<<
Other Events:
Two parallel workshops on Creative Commons: January 26th - 27th
1. Do We Need Remix?
2. Sharing Is Creating
—<<

Please contact Shishir K. Jha, Project Lead, CC-India for further
details:

Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management
IIT Bombay Powai
Mumbai – 400 076
E-mail: skjha[at]iitb.ac.in
Tel: 022-25767845

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Friday, January 12, 2007

PanIIT Chronicles - Target the teachers

It is generally agreed that to grow India into a knowledge economy, it is important to spread high-quality education beyond the grasp of the few. During PanIIT, Nandan Nilekani wanted the Government to get out of the business of controlling the education. That is a good point - as has been shown by the Telecom Revolution.

The other prong of the approach is to have distance-education programmes, and this is where things are going wrong. There has been wide coverage (check the links here and here) of the drawbacks of the current education system.The classic DEP mechanism is to have a primary nodal center serving satellite centres via some new technological innovation - WiMAX, TV Broadband and OLPC are frequently mentioned in the same breath. However, these initiatives are going to be non-starters when you start thinking beyond pilot projects and move over to mass implementation. The reason being they don't take care of local conditions, social motivations ,etc.

My solution to this, and this is possibly where IITs can play a major role: this is to target the teachers instead of the students. By teaching 1000 teachers, I can potentially teach 50000 students each year (assuming each teacher teaches 50 students in a year). The trickle-down effect can work wonders in such cases - it is the fastest way of reaching masses and masses of people in this big country. Teaching teachers is also a long-term option, something that can't be said for students. Anyone knowing the knowledge of the teachers in an engineering college can attest to the fact that these teachers really *do* require further coaching in their own subjects.

I can give a personal example - at PESIT, where I did my engineering, I was part of a programme called PPR, now it has been re-christened as GSDP (Gifted Student Development Programme), where a corporate trainer called Vijayan teaches C/C++ basics like nobody ever imagined. It was a part-bootcamp style teaching that made us focus on one thing and one thing only - survive the next quiz ! In my batch of PPR 2001, some 700 people throughout Bangalore wrote the entrance exam, 86 were selected, and finally, only 13 survived to pass the course. Commando-coders of highest order. The programme was sponsored by the who's who of the IT industry - Wipro, Infy, Honeywell, Thoughtworks, Yahoo, Netscaler, etc - we could get back-door placements in these companies. The tragedy of the concept was that had it been for the teachers, these 13 teachers could have done wonders to some 100 students they teach each year. We 13 who passed out are lost to the system entirely - we are not giving back what we got, we are just black-holes of knowledge.

Interestingly, I don't think Vijayan ever said "No" to any teachers attending the programme, but none of them ever did. Why ? Looking at the psychology of teachers, some people get into teaching because they love to teach; some, because they don't want to serve corporate "masters" (huh, won't they be disappointed !); some, because they want a stress-free life; some, because they couldn't get any other job. Teaching the last category of teachers can be a little tricky because once their competency is enhanced, they usually jump the job. The second and third would be indifferent. Only the first categoy would be receptive to such an exercise. We must concentrate on these.

I've spoken out against OLPC before, and I still maintain my opposition. However, instead of giving laptops to the children, perhaps, it would be more useful to give them to teachers ... It might be beneficial to the consumers, but somewhere, someone would oppose it because of lack of economies of scale.

At a different level, it is imperative that the corporate people train the teachers, and teachers train the other teachers. Of course, there will be ego issues - in my experience, politics in academica are more vicious that in corporate life.

On the whole, I think any mass-education efforts must focus on the local teachers than on the students. That is the only way it can be feasible.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

PanIIT Chronicles - ambush marketing

I really have to pity SBI, which along with Videocon, was the principal sponsor of PanIIT 2006, after they gave Rs. 2.5 crores (25 million) towards the organizing of the event. I don't know how much business they got, because in addition to the name being displayed in all the halls, they got a huge space allocated in the exhibitors' area, that looked mostly empty, whenever I passed by.

I don't know how much mind-share SBI got, but ICICI definitely did. They were the darkhorse, nowhere in the picture, but yet managed to deftly ambush poor old SBI. They took advantage of the proximity of their HQ to the venue (hardly a hundred metres) and hosted a free cocktail party on the 24th evening, with personal invitation from KV Kamath, the CEO. Announcements were being made throughout the day on the PAS about the party in the evening. SMS'es were being sent to all the people who had registered. I met an ICICI guy who wanted announcements to be made in the halls where the actual sessions were being held. Indeed, regarding marketing and publicity, ICICI definitely pulled a fast-one over SBI.

I don't know how many went into the SBI stall, but most people did go to the fabulous-looking ICICI headquarters and stayed there for atleast an hour. Not many could resist the free booze (don't they realize how much they stink after consuming booze ?). I don't know what else they did, but the ambush marketing was the talk of the town at the PanIIT venue during dinner. Quite a few were of the opinion that SBI could never have thought of such a thing nor could it have been implemented - imagine the circuitous proposals, approvals to be made and getting necessary permissions from the Govenment babus ...

ICICI pulled off a great marketing coup, but knowing the experience of some people I know (the IBM ExtremeBlue/SpeedTeam 2006 interns in Pune), unless they can support their marketing push with high quality backend work and start really caring about customers (and not resort to strong-arm actions for loan recovery ... see here, here and here), there is no point in any sponsorship. Mind-share, yes, but heart-share no. SBI may not appear to be glamourous, it is atleast decent.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

PanIIT Chronicles - IIT system is rotting

On the opening day of PanIIT 2006, I listened with rapt attention to Shashi Tharoor's speech on "Idea of India", and quite frankly, it was fantastic (transcript available here). I was struck by how much it echoed with Amartya Sen's "Argumentative Indian". Though Tharoor did not mention Amartya Sen, it seems obvious how much the two think alike.

If you haven't read "Argumentative Indian", you should read it - it is a must-read for every non-Indian, and more importantly, every Indian too. It is a historical account of his (and predominantly Bengali) perspective of India, and it starts where our history text-books end. It is extremely awe-inspiring to read about Nalanda, Ujjain, Indo-Chinese cultural exchanges, Shantiniketan...

The over-whelming theme of the book is the value of public reasoning, open mindedness, tolerance of diverse views, consensus on how to disagree and public communication that have made India what it is today. And if I look at the IIT system (specifically wrt IIT-Bombay), I am surprised to notice how rotten the system has become. Usually, it is not ethical for a person to criticise the organization one belongs to, but since IITs are public institutions, created by Act of Parliament, and hence answerable to the people, I'm making some of my experiences public.

The IITs have a closed, intellectually depressing system. Much is made of the fact that Profs are autonomous and hence they can change the style of teaching without taking approvals from anybody. While this is defintely true, in practice, it may be that the Profs become arbitrary and this contributes to the *closing* of channels of communication. If I think there is a chance that my grades are affected by something that I say or do, then I don't talk about it. Critical thinking is discouraged and a$$-kissing becomes a top priority for students. Tolerance of diverse views is absent (in most cases) in class discussions moderated by the prof. Thus, a distrust of the objectivity of the faculty results in a total schism in the environment. Therefore, there has been no proper debate on issues that IIT or the country faces. There are a few forums like the newsgroups such as IITB-Discuss and possibly some mailing lists such as discuss-faculty (for which students like me have no access - so I'm speculating), but essentially, forums for wide-ranging debates and discussions are missing. The faculty-administrators (Deans, HODs and Directors) are lethargic in their work (there may be exceptions) and show no interest in taking up responsibilities. Ego issues among the faculty spill-over to class-rooms, where we are treated to the spectacle of professors taking pot-shots at their colleagues. How are we supposed to respect them ? There is frequent (probably deliberate) mis-communication among the faculty and students tend to become the footballs in such cases. The faculty-student relationship is very formal and minimal and both go to extensive lengths to avoid each other. Part of the problem is that the faculty don't usually treat the students at par - sometimes the superiority complex leaks out in every communication that are unfortunately destined to happen. I have not seen any instance (except one)where a professor attends a class taken by the other. To add to the problem, some profs (though knowledgeable) have a pretty bad oral communications problem ... wonder how indeed they are selected.

Faculty are interested in (and even encouraged by the top to do) research and publish papers etc. Some have their own projects (usually Government or industry sponsored) that they are usually busy with. All this serves as a big distraction to teaching. What should universities invest in research ? Can't such things be done by someone else ? This is becoming such a big concern that I'm writing a separate post on it. Some profs have their own companies, and are not at all interested in academics.

The faculty feedback system is the most brain-damaged of all: at the end of a course, the students fill up a feedback form, but get this: the rating is used only for determining the winner of the best faculty award ! There is no systemic way of giving anonymous feedback on specific aspects. It is not that there is no such demand - apparently, the students take the pains of creating anonymous google/msn/yahoo accounts just to send anonymous mails to the profs. One of the SOM's profs has been asking me to develop a system that takes the pain out of this process - profs too need feedback, but the system itself is defective.

What do we expect out of IIT ? I don't expect to learn what is in the book - after all, we've got a fantastic library (and Xerox shops) and I can read the material much faster myself. So, anytime a teacher parrots what is in the book, fire the teacher and buy the book - you may even get a bulk discount ;-) So, what is the value-add that a prof can bring that I can't get myself ?

There is nothing special about the IIT. They take the bright people, who can survive and learn ...... *despite* the system. If the question is how to reform the system, the typical IITian answer would be a rather cynical "Why bother, indeed ?".

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