Thursday, June 26, 2008

Access to notebooks at govenment schools

I was in conversation with an active member of India Sudar, an NGO working on the education for students from the lower-economic section of the society.

I came to know from him that while the government provides textbooks and uniforms for free, they don't have the capability provide notebooks. This unsurprisingly turns out to be a severe limitation to learning. When inquired, the government officials respond,
"Even the government has limited resources. To offset our limitations we have empowered the school's headmasters and senior teachers to partner local NGOs and philanthropists to receive the relevant aid".
Makes sense doesn't it? But I think, and the India Sudar member agrees, that this is not a sustainable model. So, what do we have? Even when ills like hunger and child-labor are removed from poor kids' way to the school, the good work is undone by the absence of guaranteed access to something as trivial as notebooks. I think this is a good idea for social entrepreneurship. Notebooks are available everywhere. Can be made from recycled paper too! Making notebooks is a good small-scale business. All it needs is an entrepreneurial idea that takes care of the economics and connects the demand and supply. Are you aware of any already existing models? (not donation of notebooks of course). Do you have any idea yourself?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Download videos

Keepvid is a useful site. It provides for a way to download videos from YouTube, Google and a variety of other sites it lists. Just mention the URL in the text box, select the site from the list, and click Download. When the text in the text box disappears, look under the text box for a >> Download << and you know what to do from there on! If you don't know CLICK! .... and check you head to know if you are a total retard! (Sorry too much George Carlin!)

If you are from some kind of a cyber law enforcement agency, all I have to say "Don't shoot the messenger!"

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why private education is supply-driven? And why is none talking?

It is a known fact that access to education for the people in the lower economic strata is a big problem. But at least it has got considerable visibility is partially addressed by NGOs and social entrepreneurs. But how about education for the middle class? Indian middle class gives great importance for education. This demand for the so-called quality education makes running a private school a lucrative business. Currently, private education is heavily supply-driven (schools), and the demand (parents) has very less say.

For example,
- Fees are high and increasing. And the donation, the need for which the school explain.
- Parents have very limited say on curriculum or the method of teaching they would prefer.
- one-dimensional education system (academics and rote-learning..bad/no sports program or arts program like learning music etc).

A few schools like DPS are exceptions at least in terms of quality of infrastructure. But it is still not a participatory model which includes parents. For example, I came to know from one of the parents (my aunt) that DPS doesn't even allow parents to enter the school premises during regular hours. Parents can't contact teachers at any time other than the scheduled parent-teacher meetings. In schools like DAV, an important selection criterion for kindergarten kids is the educational qualification of parents. What is the reasoning behind such rules? Why discriminate against a child for the ostensible fault of his/her parents?

I have never heard of a school that advertises "We provide a complete package of education, not only academics, but also community & environmental awareness and sports program." Nor can parents ask a school principal "Can you please tell me why your school is better than the rest?". But come to think of it, isn't that how it is supposed to be? After all, education is our constitutional right. Besides we are paying the schools, not the other way round.

Part of the problem lies with the parents. They liken teachers to medical doctors and assume that teachers know the best about the needs of their kids and they themselves are ignorant about it. However, the change in their mentality would be of little use if the absolute power of the schools doesn't change.

Currently, this absolute power is a problem precisely because because no one, especially parents, is considering it as a problem, let alone do anything about it! No one seems to be talking about it. I think that is where the change should begin.

The Wonders of Physics

Remember those days at school? Understanding how things work was an option as against a necessity. To put it correctly, it was relegated to being an option because of another necessity. Scoring! I remember my teacher standing under the blackboard and actually telling us "If yo u don't understand, Memorize!". That clearly defined the priority for us. To make things worse, we had a live example in the rank-holder. Irrespective of his/her understanding of the subject, he/she universally memorizes. Besides, we are left at the mercy of diagrams in science books that leave much to our ability to imagine, and the lab experiments that don't relate to what we study in the classroom to understand. In many ways, understanding was not even an option. Further still, which other subject apart from, may be, mathematics had any content to be understood?

English, Tamil: A bunch of poems to be memorized. For prose, the answers to the questions were always a couple of paragraphs..and some grammar to be remembered. Done!
Social studies: Memorize! Its a collection of stories, dates and names anyway.
Science was cat-on-the-wall. Some you understand, some you don't. But never mind. Go the social studies way!

Such an attitude bothered me even as a kid though I didn't know what to do to understand other than read the book again. Honestly, I really didn't think about how "understanding" is really going to help me in the future! I never had a future beyond the upcoming exam then! :) Looking back, the worst feeling I have is, I didn't even realize that science can actually be understood deeply.

Now, after reaching a stage when all those years of "darkness" won't matter anymore, (not to mention the lamenting so far...) it is still gratifying to know that someone is working to bring science in its natural form right to the people who needed it the most. Kids!

"The Wonders of Physics" is a series of demonstrations on various concepts of classical physics like light, sound, pressure, heat. The credit for this initiative goes to Professor Clint Sprott of The University of Wisconsin-Madisson. The videos taped during his demonstrations buffers for free online! You don't really need to have a kid who is struggling with understanding science to watch these videos! You can wash your sins that you were forced to commit in your school days even now. Its never too late! :)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Happy Buuuthuday tooooo youuuuu"

"Badhreeee....hey....Badhreeee", I could hear my dad whispering. I grimaced in slight discomfort. But I knew it was time to get up for I could see the faint blue sky through the window and hear the birds vigourously chirping from the guava tree and the mango trees in our garden. I made a vain attempt to drift back to sleep and continue with my dream that I couldn't remember anymore. Suddenly, my dad sang in my ears "Happy Buuuuthuday toooooooooo youuuuuuuu"! The song was a comical parody of the well known "Happy Birthday" tune. He gave me a tight, yet relieving embrace and kissed my cheek. My sleep disappeared in an instant and my spirits soared. "Heyyyyyy! Its my Birthday! I am 10!". Memories of the previous night filtered in quickly. I could remember the excitement with which I went to sleep the previous night, smiling in darkness to myself! Excited that when I wake up the next morning, I will be one year older! Lots of wishes, a day wearing "colour dress" at the school. A public announcement at the school assembly, chocolates to distribute, and no admonishments for not completing home-works! But the best part is, I was almost always the first person to celebrate birthday for the academic year. First to wear "colour dress" to school! Pity those who are born in April or May.

My mom said, "Happy Birthdayyyyyyy. Innikki enna sweet venum" (What sweet do you want me to make for you today?) and kissed me. "Get up, get up", my dad nudged, as I realized that there is going to be so much fun ahead. I quickly grabbed my Colgate toothpaste (to which we recently switched from Colgate tooth powder) and brushed. I didn't care too much to rinse my mouth. I was dying to get ready for school. Besides, I liked Colgate's taste. When I got done with it, my dad placed my tumbler of Bournvita on the floor of our living room right by the TV.

My sister, realizing the specialty of the day, woke up, walked to the hall and waited to wish me after I got done with brushing. But unable to cope up with the delay, she slipped back to sleep sitting on the sofa. When I finally came out, she shook her sleep off and briskly extended her hand with a big smile, but sleepy eyes "Happy Birthday!". "Thanks di"!

Paati (grandma) was already up and brisk. She got done with her morning ablutions already. She always gets up early along with my dad Dad offered her coffee said, "Ammaa. Innikki Badhri porantha naal" (Today is Badhri's birthday!).

"Apdiya! Romba sandosham Nalla padiya iru". (Is it? Very glad. Keep well!) she earnestly replied in a composed tone and gulped some coffee.

My brother was still sleeping in the bedroom, but got up as soon as I got done with brushing. His hair still messy, he came over to me and painlessly tapped with his knuckles on my head. "Enna da Koravaa! Happy birthday!". (Koravaa was nick name of-sorts at home. Has enough content for a separate post).

Soon after the morning coffee session, my mom took bath and made delicious Kesari along with her regular cooking. Dad took bath next, removed my newly stitched birthday dress, (a pair of trousers and a shirt) from our wardrobe, set it in the pooja area and started with his routine pooja. My brother and sister were still brushing watching the early morning DD programs like "Dus kadam" and "Hindi news". I couldn't wait to try my new dress. So, I hurried through the bath, wore the "namam"(the straight red line across my forehead) and a quick recitation of slokams I knew. I found my mom's Kesari along with my dress in the pooja area, but I knew that I can't have it yet since my dad hasn't offered it to God!

Shortly thereafter I wore my dress and took the time to savour every moment of it! My mom got done with cooking and my dad with the pooja. Both walked out of the kitchen with my mom holding a box of "Akshadai" (rice coated with turmeric). My dad called my paatti and the three of them stood together in a straight line. I fell on their feet seeking their blessings as they showered the "akshadai" on me.

"Study well, get good marks in exam and stay healthy! Grow up quickly and be prosperous". , said my mom.

"At least from now on be a smart boy!", joked my dad.

"Sowkyama iru". (Be prosporous). That was my grandma.

I had food, kept pack of chocolates in my bag and briskly started for school looking forward to the day's excitement!

Missing those days when all my family was in a single address, and when paatti was still alive and well..

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Narcissism for once!

How often have we found medical advices like "Do a general health check-up once a year", "Do a dental check-up regularly" and chuckled "Yea, right!"? Now that I am in Japan and usually get done with work on time, I could use the evening time for a work-out at the gym. On sign-up, the first thing I got was a full evaluation report of my body status that would act as a guide when I work-out. The report was a comprehensive and intuitive, part graphical and part tabular colour printout. When I saw the report, surprise surprise! Everything about my body condition was spot-on! I have never felt so narcissistic, but I guess that is one reason to get narcissistic for once! Besides it is a good opportunity to know

The report focuses different aspects of body's fitness parameters like metabolism, Style composition and Body composition. Lets take it one at a post!

Waist-girth: (Actual/Recommended) 75/85 is a measurement in cm of the waist half-way between the hip bone and lower chest bone.

Visceral Fat: As against subcutaneous fat, which is fat accumulation under the skin, visceral fat is that found in organs which affects the metabolism, especially in males. Measured as the cross-sectional area occupied by the fat in the waist. 65 Graphical representation provides better understanding of the status, since it includes the relationship of visceral fat to waist girth. Status: Appropriate!

How about fat in other parts? Well, the man showing off his arms summarizes it. No comparisons, no frame of reference to compare.

Rest later!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I owe the world a living..

Rest in peace

I was vigorously browsing through the internet on June 8th when BBC Radio reported the stabbing of 14 people in Akihabara. "Is it the same Akihabara that I visited a few days ago?" I was still registering the question when a reported from the place confirmed it saying " a buzzing street known for the electronic goods...".

Quite honestly, for reasons unknown, I didn't feel too sentimental about it then. Yesterday, my friend and I went out to the nearby mall and on the way he mentioned about going to Akihabara for purchasing a few toys for his kids. Only when he started walking toward the railway station did I realize that he meant to go to Akihabara right then. Having nothing better to do, I just followed. "I wonder where the stabbing happened?". As I stepped out of the Akihabara railway station, I noticed the usual buzzing activity of people walking in and out of the numerous electronic stores, a nearby cafe playing music aloud, traffic policemen regulating movement and sales men from unknown companies yelling at the crowed urging them to buy their product. I thought I would never know where the stabbing occurred and somehow that thought relieved me.

After ten minutes of loitering around inside a shop and and a cup of cafe latte from a French cafe, the stabbing incident disappeared into oblivion once again. I was inquiring a wireless headset in a couple of small shops. All of them directed me to the biggest shop in the area for computer hardware called "Softmap". As we walked towards the shop, my colleague insisted that we first go past Softmap to another shop to purchase the toys he wanted get back to Softmap on our way back to the station. As we walked along gossiping all the way to the signal right outside the entrance of Softmap my colleague walked directly into the field of vision of a guy training his camera on to something. "Bhaskar you are walking..", I stopped suddenly when I noticed a small white shed with people standing around it. We went closer to take a look. The shed was full with an assortment of bouquets, chocolates, water bottles, cool drinks, juice cans, pictures and numerous other things. Just then a man walked to the shed, placed a sealed water bottle, moved away, brought together his hand and started sincerely praying with his eyes closed. After a minute, he started walking into his routine. I noticed then that all who gathered around there did the same.

That was the place where the stabbing occurred. Right in front of Softmap where I was standing days earlier, waiting for my friends to complete their shopping. This is the closest I got to a killing. The realization, instead of giving me a sense of horror, made me feel ashamed. Seven people died in a violent manner right at the place where I was standing a few days earlier! Until that moment, to me, those seven people were just a number mentioned on BBC Radio. I realized how insensitive I was to the stabbing when I heard the news in the BBC. Seeing the people pray with such sincerity was a very humbling experience. On my way back, I added a bottle of juice and prayed...May none die in vain again. May their soul to rest in peace.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Saving paper, saving trees? A few answers

I have posted the same post on NGO Post and got a few answers

First is a video that gives an idea about the tree-to-paper relationship

So, the number is 1 tonne of paper = 17 trees. One of the articles from says
"Unfortunately, the paper making process is not a clean one. According to the U.S. Toxic Release Inventory report published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pulp and paper mills are among the worst polluters to air, water and land of any industry in the country. The Worldwatch Institute offers similar statistics for the rest of the world. Each year millions of pounds of highly toxic chemicals such as toluene, methanol, chlorine dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde are released into the air and water from paper making plants around the world.

Paper making also uses up vast quantities of trees. But trees are a renewable resource, which means that once one is cut down another can be planted in its place. In fact, much of the wood used by paper companies in the U.S. comes from privately owned tree farms where forests are planted, groomed and thinned for harvest in 20 to 35 year cycles, depending on the tree species. Around the world, tree farms supply 16% of all wood used in the paper industry while the bulk comes from second growth forests. Only 9% of the wood used to make paper is harvested from old growth forests, which are impossible to replace because of their maturity.

Yet, while tree farms or plantations help feed the demand for wood, they can't provide the plant and animal diversity found in natural forests. Plus, according to a 1996 report from the U.S. Forest Service, the rate of harvest for softwood trees in the southern United States outpaced growth for the first time since 1953."

To summarize, manufacturing paper results in environmental degradation less because of cutting trees and more because of the method used. Though this offers a good idea about paper and its impact on environment, one must note that these are data mostly associated with US. In the Indian context, I found this in Myth and Reality about Plastic

Paper is not eco-friendly

We need to remind ourselves that making of paper and products consumes a lot of chemicals and requires a large amount of water and effluent problems are severe. Besides paper, unless coated with polymeric materials (or wax), cannot withstand wet conditions which are widely prevalent in India, particularly during monsoon periods. Paper making also consumes a lot of energy. In the Indian context the most serious problem is the availability of pulp. Environmental degradation has unquestionably occurred due to pulp manufacturing activities as commercial forestry, on large scale, is still a taboo. Padmabhushan Prof. M. M. Sharma (FRS) "

I have also stumbled upon information related to conservation in general, not necessarily related only to papers.

The story of stuff has a 20 min video about how consumption-minded lifestyle is killing the planet's life. Its a lot of talk (not necessarily cliche) with lots of statistics. But the core point is

- Recycling is important, but most of the products used are not recyclable and
- Lesser consumption pays off better in preserving environment.

Another link portrays people's consumption in the US in a unique pictorial representation rather than plain statistics. For a listing of companies all over India, involved in recycled paper products click here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is saving paper, saving trees?

I head an employee-driven CSR team in my company in India. I get numerous suggestions about saving paper by replacing paper cups with ceramic mugs and re-using papers printed on one-side for "personal" print-outs.

Though I don't oppose these ideas, I have my reservations about their efficacy. Following are the questions that have surfaced to my mind repeatedly.

- Trees cut for making papers have to be replanted because, we will run out of papers otherwise. We have no idea about the number of trees we are losing because of making papers. We also don't seem to be running out of papers. So, in the end we don't know if we are really causing a significant depletion of trees. May be we are, but is there data?

- The only way to cut lesser trees without compromising the supply of paper is to recycle paper. India seems to have a defunct system of recycling wastes. If we are indeed degrading environment by cutting a lot of trees, it is possible that this trend can be more significantly minimized by putting a system in place that recycles most of the paper wastes when compared to small initiatives in individual companies to save papers.

Of course we are better off taking these small initiatives irrespective of the status of recycling, but my concern is, we have no way to measure how many trees we end up saving. What if the contribution of 100 companies with an average of 100 employees actually comes to saving 5% of trees, while setting up a recycling plant that can recycle paper in the neighborhood (companies, homes, schools any and building where paper is used) can reduce the number of trees cut of paper by 50%?

Simply put, how can one make this initiative measurable? Is there a comprehensive and accepted research that can answer my questions?

How to delete folder in Google Reader

Google Reader is my platform for my daily dose of news, opinions, blogs, social research and almost all of my daily intake of information. But I had been facing problems with organizing my feeds in my Reader. When I create a folder for a few of my feeds and later want to delete it, I could find no options anywhere to do it. So, the empty folders just messily stay on like the elusive stone inside my shoes. After much searching around, finally I found the stick that could remove the stone and it turned out to be ridiculously simple, only folders are also called "tags" here. Basically "folder" is a duplicate naming..

Manage Subscriptions ->Tags -> (select tags to delete) -> Delete selected

For the un-initiatied
Google Reader: is an application that can be used to store a collection of "RSS" feeds from a your favourite websites. Using these feeds Google Reader regularly searches and shows you any updates made to the website . So, you always know what is new in the website.

RSS Feeds: are similar (but not the same) to a common website address. But these are more "active" since these help readers (like google readers) search the website for latest updates. If you want to know the latest updates on, say, BBC and wondering where to get the RSS feed link, just go to BBC and search the page for "RSS" (usually at the bottom or top of the page with smaller font, like "contact us"). Click on it and it will lead to a separate page that has the RSS feed links for all the sections of BBC like news, podcasts etc.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

8 facts

Liked the topic, muscled Ponnarasi to tag me

Tagged bloggers should
1) post these rules first.

2) present 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
3) write on their own blog
4) choose eight people to tag and list their names.
5) leave a comment telling them they’re tagged

  1. Used to be a very very silent kid, now I just can't shut up!
  2. Belong to the few who studied in the US, but returned work in India
  3. Avid coffee drinker - sometimes wonder if I consume coffee or coffee consumes me.
  4. Like visiting temples with historic, architectural and cultural richness. Just worshiping with no tendency to understand background is a sin in itself.
  5. Decent cook. But almost nobody knows about it. Best weapon to impress girls - Sambar. Getting good at Rasam (aim to get to mom's rasam). Other weapons in the arsenal, avial, fried rice, veg. pulao.
  6. Actively take initiatives for improving Indian society - Why do I do it? Well, why don't others?
  7. Almost never show a straight face when I get photographed! Orkut for evidence.
  8. Love good movies! Don't believe in first-day-first-shows. I choose. Anything that doesn't have a story or a good comedy is money down the drain. Shawshank Redemption, Nayagan and Dil Chahta Hai are insurmountable bests in respective languages.
Maaya, Anand, Aish, Doodler

Are slum-dwellers poor?

Off late I have been running into urban poverty and slum-dwelling a lot through articles on Urban Poverty alleviation and Slum displacement in India Together and a post in ThinkChange India.

At least articles in India Together suggest that slum-dwellers are subconsciously considered poor and marginalized group of people. However, one detail I came across in ThinkChange-India's (TC-I) post slum tourism got me thinking.

"There were two figures that Girish [tourist guide] kept repeating during the tour: 10,000, which is the number of small-scale industries operating in Dharavi, and USD 665 million, which is the annual turnover Dharavi’sresidents are estimated to generate."
When I read the Slum displacement article about the "unfair manner" in which Delhi Development Authority has has displaced the "poor" slum-dwellers to a slightly improved, but small tenements far from the city, I instinctively set out for an arm-chair investigation to ascertain the validity of both of the quoted adjectives.

Google-god :) blessed me with (only) two academic papers related to this topic. (Both open as PDFs)

[1] SLUMS IN CHENNAI: A PROFILE, Dr. C.Chandramouli, I.A.S.Director of Census Operations, Tamilnadu

[2] Livelihoods and Collective Action among Slum Dwellers in a Mega-City (New Delhi), IASCP conference 2002 **unpublished draft version**

The India Together article talks about the finding of a research done on Delhi's slums. The article's main argument about the "unfairness"

"... the plots are given [to slum-dwellers] on a five-year lease and there is no guarantee that the plot holders can continue to live there after that.....Why would anyone, rich or poor, be willing to relocate without a guarantee that they had the right to stay in the new location? "
However, [1] says that about 40% of Chennai slums are rented and indicates the active presence of land mafia. Chances are Delhi's case falls in the same ballpark. [2] directly says that vested interests actively collude the government officials/politicians in keeping slum-dwelling insecure. Given that, a 5-year guarantee of own land seems be a windfall to the displaced slum dwellers.

Further, [2] states that
"Average income about Rs 3000 (NOK 500) per month – more than twice that of official poverty line"
"Majority posessed a one- or two-room brick house (pucca)"
If so, they should be thankful for a 5 year accommodation with better standards of living (as claimed by the India Together article) in spite of not being exactly poor. After 5-years? Well, how about they finding their own way instead of looking for government help?

One possible source discrepancy could be the research methods carried out by the researcher quoted in India Together and the researcher referenced above. I have left a comment for the author in the website, and an e-mail to the authors of [2]. Hopefully that will throw some light.

To add more to this, before watching it in the movie Mudhalvan (Nayak in Hindi) I heard about instances when slum-dwellers do illegally rent out the flats that slum clearance board alloted with an intention to move them out of the slum to a nearby area with better living condition. Consequently, in spite of getting richer from the rent, they continue to more subsidies for being slum-dwellers by choice. I don't have any accepted material for this, but if I were a slum dweller it would make sense for me to do this. Now who is at the receiving end of corruption? The slum dweller or the government?

Getting to the question,
- Are the slum-dwellers really poor? Or are they just institutionalized to living in poor conditions?
- Do they really live there for want of choice or simply to extract more subsidies from govt and NGOs by selling "poverty"?

I think a typical slum is a mix of both, but I get a feeling that the scale is gradually tilting towards the latter on both the questions.

Finally, I later noticed that the post in TC-I carefully addressed only the living condition of Dharavi and refrained from poverty. Well done!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Personalized Orkut theme

Free Orkut Themes for Orkut Lovers | BizzNtech
Has a way to change the theme of your orkut home. If you are a Firefox user it works great! Here is a capture of my page!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Trade Balances due to rise in food-prices

The following is an interesting map that shows the trade-balances due to the projected price rise in food. The condition of African countries seem to be very bad! An already poor continent is projected to lose more than 1% of its 2005 GDP in trade! Looks like the only "middle-class" countries that get to gain reside in South America.

While I know that the map's projections show an unfair trend, I don't understand what trend is fair! Would the situation be fair if the developed nations lose and poor nations gain? How much the loss in the developed nations will in turn affect the under-developed ones? This is still a projected data. So, the more important questions are...can anything be done at all to avoid this projection from sliding into reality? If so, are the stake-holders, the UN, the developed nations and NGOs willing to make the relevant sacrifices?