Barefoot In the head

If you think so....

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Location: Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, United Kingdom

I am around if you are around.

Friday, October 05, 2007

From New Delhi to Newcastle – my travels through space and time

The year 2006 was an interesting one. The kind that one might share with people. It started with an insipid new year’s party in H21 Green Park Extension, New Delhi, an unlikely place for a party of this sort since we normally would be in Kolkata. But Shounak was not going to be here, as he always has in the past, and it seemed best to come back home to Delhi and stay there. We just drank, which is always pleasant.
On January 19th I left for Chennai, to a vast suite since there were no other rooms, and went to the 1000 year old temple of Parthasarathy. The deity is Krishna with a moustache, have never seen that one before.

The Parthasarathy Temple, Chennai

From Chennai I went to Vishakhapattanam (“Where Vishakha fell”) on the eastern coast of India. There is a 1200 year old temple there, the Simhachalam (“The walk of the lion”).

Simhachalam, Vizag

On the 7th of February, I went to Bangalore for a day and did not get a place in my favourite pub..alas.

Peco's, Bangalore

On February 10th, after returning from Bangalore, I went back in the same direction again to Cochin and Varkala, in Kerala.

One of the beaches at Varkala, Kerala

There was much drinking, I am afraid.

On the 13th of February, I left for Chennai again and on to the tip of the peninsula, Kannyakumari (“the virgin”).

Kannyakumari, Tamilnadu

After a visit to Agasthiswaram and Pallam, villages where children do wonderful things with computers, I went on to Goa, an overnight train ride away.

Goa – and many memories….

From Goa it was a long trip to the Himalayan town of Mussoorie, through Delhi, a trip of 1500 kilometres.
Mussoorie, The Himalayas

On the 7th of March I reached Agra from Mussoorie. The seat of the Mughal empire. Agra – What is there to say?

After returning to Delhi and recuperating for three weeks, I went back south to the city of Thanjavur. Here stands the 1200 year old temple, the Brihadishwara (“the enormous God”).

The Brihadishwara temple, Thanjavur, Tamilnadu

In Thanjavur and Trichi, we also saw the spendour of the Chola empire and their magnificent art in bronze. There is not much one can write or say. Only silence and wonder.

A Chola bronze in Thanjavur

From Thanjavur, our taxi took us to an amazing spot where Jain ascetics used to meditate, around 400 BC. It is beautiful and eerie, a time when India was preoccupied with only one problem – the human mind.

The Jain caves near Thanjavur

From those stark and austere caves, a short drive took us to a set of unknown temples that have, only recently, been excavated. They date from the years 700 to 1700 and empire after empire had added layers of temples to the original ones. The sculptures get more ornate as one moves from age to age and as techniques and money of the empires improve.

A wooden statue from 700 AD, still survives.

On one of the walls of the oldest part of the temple, a huge 20 by 20 feet of stone space is covered with writing. I thought this would be religious text, but the local officer from the archaeological survey explained that it is musical notation! That wall is a CD from the past. Once again, I was struck by the wealth and attitude of an empire that would rather preserve its music than the names of their gods and kings. It’s a pity we forgot how to fight and our philosophy prevented the taking of life. We thought the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean would keep us safe forever. Until the invaders from central Asia and Europe arrived with their killing machines. Small comfort though, it took them a thousand years to convert India from the richest to the poorest country in the world, there was that much to take.

On the 10th of April, I left Delhi and spent nearly a month in Kolkata, hoping to catch up on some work. It was in Delhi after my return from Thanjavur that James Tooley called me from Newcastle to tell me about a chair available in the school of education at the university. I sent an application from Kolkata and forgot about it.

I returned to Delhi on the 3rd of May and left for Trondheim, Norway on the 8th. Here, a bug I must have picked up in Kolkata made me severely ill. I had planned to take a boat cruise into the fjords, but had to cut my trip short and return to Delhi. The bug was eventually killed by Dr. Sama with the help of some Norfloxacin.

Trondheim, Norway, on a short walk with my illness

On the 12th of June, I left for Hyderabad. The world cup was going on and the pub at the Basera in Secunderabad was a raucus and highly enjoyable place. I had, however, come for a different purpose. To see the temple at Chayala Someshwara, where there is an inexplicable shadow on top of the deity, a lingam.

The shadow over the lingam at the Chayala Someshwara

Panagal is 80 kilometres from Hyderbad and two hours drive away. The temple is in ruins, having been sacked by Aurangzeb, about seven hundred years ago. But the sanctum sanctorum is intact and there, mysteriously on top of the lingam is the shadow of a pillar with no discernible source. I think I solved the problem of the shadow. The two rectangles of light in the picture are not from the same opening, but from two identical openings.

When I took this picture, there are two shadows, not one

In short, the “shadow” is not of anything, it is a dark patch in between two rectangles of light. If you remember Young’s double slit experiment from high school Physics, you might get the hang of it. Nevertheless, this Shiva temple is an intricate play with optics – wish Aurangzeb could have understood that. Only an extraordinarily knowledgeable, rich and idle empire could afford to fool around with architecture the way the Cholas did.

I returned on the 16th of June and left for Sicily, Italy on the 26th. I was to speak at a conference called Cheese Art, a congregation of cheese makers. Ragusa, Sicily was hotter than Delhi and the air-conditioning was not working. But the countryside was wonderful and the women beautiful. There was cheese everywhere and wonderful wine and salami. I returned on the 3rd of July and left for the UK on the 6th.

I was to be interviewed by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Newcastle was beautiful, sunny and warm! The interview went very well and I returned with an offer for a professor’s chair.

Newcastle upon Tyne – The Millennium Bridge

I decided to take up the offer. The reason is a bet with a friend of mine thirty years ago. I was leaving the Indian Institute of technology, where I was a lowly paid scientist, for a more lucrative job with the private sector. Amitabh, my friend, and I sat at the cafeteria for one last time. “You will never be able to come back to academics”, said Amitabh. I said I’ll bet I will, I can never leave research. Well, I won the bet, didn’t I?

On the 14th of August, we left for Denver, Colorado in the USA where my son, Shounak is a master’s student in computer engineering. The journey was enormous, 33 hours from door to door. But in the end I had a very relaxing two weeks at my son’s apartment. The US has space and even a grad student can afford a standard of living that many in the world would find difficult to reach in a lifetime.
Denver, Colorado, the USA

From Denver, I left on the 1st of September for Argentina for a set of meetings. These took me from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, to the tiny resort town on Puerto Madryn, where whales play in the waters and penguins waddle across streets in Punta Tombo a few hours away.

The Patagonia countryside and ocean

I returned to Delhi via Denver on the 15th of September, after a harrowing entry into the USA on 9/11 (“Why did you go to Saudi Arabia?”, “I did not”, “Did you go there for a lecture?”, “I did not”, “Was the lecture on biochemistry?”, “No, it was not, because I never went there”)

On September 28th, I went to Dasghara, West Bengal, about which I have written before. Then, on the 11th October to Pune for a day and to Kolkata for a day to sort out hundreds of boxes that were going out of H21 Green Park Extension, New Delhi into Salt Lake City, Kolkata.

CL211 Salt Lake City, Kolkata

On the 22nd of October, I left for Turin, Italy to an amazing conference called “Terra Madre”, a collection of 2000 farmers, 1000 cooks and 200 professors. I spent my time taking long walks down the colonnades and into ancient churches.

The colonnades of Turin

My final visit was to the Church of the Shroud. In this eerie, vaulted interior is the shroud of Turin, a 2000 year old piece of cloth with a man’s body clearly imprinted on it. They say it is the shroud that covered the body of Christ. You can buy a small reproduction of the face on the shroud. I have one and I keep it in my purse.

The face on the shroud of Turin

From Turin, I returned to London on the 29th of October and left for Jamaica on the 30th. Here I was to give a keynote lecture at the 4th Pan Commonwealth Forum in the little town of Ocho Rios.

The Hotel was pure luxury, the food was divine and the rum, I understand, is fine any time of the year.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

After a quick, one-day holiday in Montego Bay, I returned to London on the 9th of November and joined the University.

My friends at the University had found a wonderful flat in a quiet area called Jesmond, just a 20 minute walk away from my department, the School of Education, Communication and Language Studies. I spent a quiet week arranging my things and then it was back to the air again.

On the 17th of November, I went back to Delhi, stayed for two days and flew back to London on the 19th. I was to deliver the First Cisco I4D lecture at the Royal Holloway, University College of London. 21st was a free day and I rushed back to Jesmond with a bag full of electronics and things that I needed to set up my office at home. Back in London the next day, I went on, rather nervously, for my lecture in the imposing and somewhat severe Royal Holloway. The lecture went “famously” as they say and was followed by a dinner with roast duck, my favourite British food. The guests were quite moved with the story of rural children and their computers and many toasts were offered. When it was my turn, I was rather tipsy and proceeded with a bit of Byron:

“….To see the bright eyes of the dear one discover,
She thought I was not unworthy to love her,
There chiefly I sought thee,
There only I found thee,
Her glance was the best of the rays that surround thee,
When it sparkled o’er ought that was bright in my story,
I knew it was love and I felt it was glory.”

There was applause.

The inspiration came from this picture of a little girl in the Himalayas:

“When it sparkled o’er ought that was bright in my story..”

I left London for Delhi on 24th November, to spend one last night at H21. The house was bare, everything had gone. I left Delhi on the 25th, after 42 years of living there.

Salt Lake, Kolkata was finally my permanent home. We spent 5 days opening and sorting out boxes as best we could. Then back to Newcastle after a short break in New Delhi at the NIIT guest house. I was given the title of “Chief Scientist Emeritus” at NIIT, and a rather heavy medal.

Jesmond, my new home was warm and ready (I had forgotten to switch the heating off). I lived in it for precisely 3 days and left for Nassau, the Bahamas on the 6th of December. I was to lead a discussion at the annual meeting of the Templeton Foundation. The accommodation was at the Lyford Cay Club in Nassau, a rather nice place as you might imagine. The rooms are $500 a night and breakfast is $50, but one can, and should, rent a bicycle and ride to the gate of the gated community where there is a shop selling grits, mince and scrambled eggs for $1. Carry this to the bank of a lake, there are many, and, as the Aussies say, “Bob’s your uncle”.

From the Bahamas, I came back to Newcastle on the 11th of December and left for Kolkata on the 22nd for the Christmas break.

And that was the end of a year full of change and movement.

The total: 209,100 Kilometres, just about to the Moon and back. Mostly without frequent flyer miles, being an idiot and not having joined the program on British Airways.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The “Hole in the wall” experiments – current status

My original experiments (1999-2005) had showed that groups of children can learn to use a playground computer connected to the Internet on their own – irrespective of who or where they are. The fact that children in remote areas, who do not understand English and have little schooling can learn to do this was considered a discovery of sorts. The results were published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology in 2005 in a paper that was later awarded as the “best open access paper of 2005”.
It was later noticed that the children who use these computers seem to be scoring higher in English and mathematics. It was also established that they could pass a government examination in computer science on their own. The results were published.
In an experiment conducted in 2006, we observed that the quality of education in remote areas decreases with remoteness. Remoteness, in this context, can be geographical or also social, economic, religious etc. as in ghettos or slums in cities.
We remark that there will always be areas in the world where, due to whatever reason, good schools and good teachers will not exist. Hence, in such areas, alternative forms of education will be needed. No such alternative exists for primary education today. The hole in the wall could be a possible indicator of such an alternative.
In a recent experiment conducted in village Kalikuppam in Southern India, we were able to show that Tamil speaking children could learn the basics on biotechnology, in English, on their own.
6. We notice that new educational technology is always piloted in the affluent
schools of cities where good students and good teachers are present. As a result the educational gains from such technology are marginal and educational technology is considered over-hyped and under-performing. We propose that the highest technology should be developed for and piloted in the remotest areas first.
We also notice that educational technology is seldom developed for that purpose. It is usually technology developed for industry or defence and borrowed by educators. For example, PowerPoint and LCD projectors were developed for corporate boardrooms and not for teachers.
We propose to create a lab that will create and test educational technology for use in remote areas.
We propose to create educational facilities in remote areas of India where groups of children can self organise their learning to pass the government high school examinations (eg GCSE) on their own.
The results of these experiments are likely to be important for all countries, since a shortage of and lack of quality in primary education is a worldwide phenomenon.
In the UK, in addition to the usual problem of quality education in remote areas, there is also a problem of aspiration – children are reluctant to study science, engineering, mathematics etc. for two reasons. One, that subjects such as banking can make them rich more easily. Two, that they can get a good standard of living anyway, even without any skills.
These aspirational problems need to be addressed immediately and technology can be a powerful way to do so.

A badly distributed world

There are 6 billion people on Earth. That is 6,000,000,000.

Imagine a plot of land 20m x 20m, that is 400 square metres. I think one person can have a very decent sized room, say 10m x 10m plus a garden with a pond in the remaining 300 square metres. Enough to keep a few animals, grow some rice and vegetables and a few trees and plants.

If each human on Earth were to have 400 square metres, it would need 2400,000,000,000 square metres of land. That is 2.4 trillion square metres.

One square Kilometre is 1 million square metres (1000 x 1000 metres). So, 2.4 trillion square metres is 2.4 million square Kilometres. 2,400,000.

That is a stretch of land that could be, for instance, 2400 Km x 1000 Km.

Smaller than Mexico.

Who says its a crowded world?