Monday, November 27, 2017

Playing God, or better than Him?

In an article in Scientific American, the author, Larry Greenemeier, presented a case about whether prosthetic legs gave an unfair advantage to athletes like the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius or the Paralympic long jump champ, Markus Rehm.

Even in today's technology age, a differently-abled person is not expected to perform as well as an able-bodied person, though we have seen enough inspirational stories of grit and determination that indicate to the contrary. These stories are exceptions than rule. Most people in this context will feel less equipped to handle the otherwise routine work carried out by able-bodied people. Well, this is going to change in the near future. In fact, I believe that completely able-bodied people will begin to opt for a prosthetic change instead of the one they were born in. Does this seem like science fiction? Read on...

When my mother-in-law went through a knee-replacement surgery, the difference in her walking stance was stark. Had she been a runner before the surgery, she could have continued doing so after a slight recovery gap. There are numerous examples of marathon runners in every marathon today who have had a knee replacement too. I would definitely want to replace my ageing knees or the entire teeth set to be able to run as well as eat more sweets! Taking these cues further, I could have done this two decades earlier if I was convinced that the new man-made knees would give me a definitive edge in shaving off 30 minutes off the Marathon time.

On the high technology front, a bionic lens could enhance normal 20/20 eyesight three-times! With the existing technology, you could have your natural lens replaced with the bionic lens at about $3,200 and get a super-sight. With this lens, you could see the molecular details on your palm or read a book 10 feet away. I am certain that much more fancy stuff is on its way that will allow you to choose the super-sight features you may want and at a much more affordable price.

The organically grown body parts will become such commonplace within 50 years that a parent might choose to enhance the yet-to-be-born baby's eyesight with hyper-vision and get it changed after child-birth. In a way, it will be a customized accessory that will replace the "factory-fitted" eyesight. And unlike what we might be dreading as a robotic fixture, the body parts will be grown out of the mother's tissues.

What does all of this imply for education?

How and what one could "teach" a child, who has a customized memory-retrieval chip that will not add on to the world's largest memory stick (your brain) but will be far more efficient in retrieving the things you need. Teachers today are already finding it hard to cope with the ever-pervasive Google and the good ones are changing their teaching styles by using Google/ internet as an enabler.

In future, a teacher may become a redundant figure in a child's development and get replaced by a much more involved creative guide to a learner. Technology (read, internet) hasn't really replaced schools or teachers. But that is only because the employers are still hesitant to hire someone without formal schooling/ higher-ed qualification. With this set to change to hiring requirements for thinkers and innovators, the kind of education one needs would need to change too.

We are slowly, but surely, moving to a future with far more complex relationships with machines and robots. To keep our human-ness intact, education will play a very big role. They may take a completely different form but schools and colleges are not really going away soon. The trick is to ensure that they keep current, even in future...

Monday, October 09, 2017

What's wrong with the Indian genes?

Image result for australian traffic
I have traveled a bit of the world, and my last trip was to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago. When I went to Melbourne, Australia, it struck me as a "civilized" society in the true sense and I admired the civic sense of being considerate about your fellow beings, following traffic rules and showing respect for other people's space. And I thought that this was a "white sensitivity" that I had witnessed.

Then I visited some parts of Asia- Nepal, Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. I had anticipated brotherhood and similarity with India. I was disappointed. The streets were clean, people humble, and traffic- well organized. Cars gave way to pedestrians and cyclists were given space on the same road as other vehicles. In most situations, I was quite amazed to see cars exactly in the middle of their lanes and exactly the same number of vehicles as the number of lanes on the road. When traffic was slow or jammed for any reason, people didn't just try to cross over to the middle of two lanes to congest the roads.

That brings me to the question in the title of this piece- What's wrong with the Indian genes? Some of my well-meaning Dilli-walla friends have argued that the impatience in jumping a red signal, when nobody is on the road, is a sign of creativity and zeal to move quickly. Another equally well-meaning Aussie friend remarked the other day that Indians seem to be always in a hurry to reach somewhere but were always late for meetings. This dichotomy in observations once again drives the point about something fundamentally wrong with our upbringing or even with our genes. Historians often attribute this unruly behaviour to the years of British oppression. I would rather imagine that the British rule would have brought more discipline in our forefathers unless, of course, the British of those times were the opposite of what they are today, strictly referring to this context.

Going back in my childhood memories, I can't recollect my parents ever telling me not to behave well or not to keep surroundings clean. Neither can I recollect any of my friends' parents teaching their children to be unruly. However, I can clearly remember that it was a routine matter to see people litter the railway compartment or the roads as if it was someone else's job to clean them later. Growing up, I also noticed that people coming back from foreign trips commented on how clean those places were and how they were reprimanded by the local people/ police whenever they behaved like they did in India. Nevertheless, they just resumed behaving in the same "Indian" way as soon as they landed back home.

I have two partial explanations to this strange phenomenon. As for seeming to rush in traffic, we are always in a state of perpetual competition. Since early childhood, on the pretext of a large population, we are trained to compete for the simplest and most innocuous of things like a chocolate or grades in school. We are always encouraged to fight it out and eventually compete in IITJEE and later CAT. This competitiveness gets hardwired into our circuits and passed on to the next generations and the roads offer the perfect arena to practice these "get ahead of the guy in front of you" skills.

The second situation about littering around (except inside of our homes) is a more complex symptom of the VIP culture that plagues our social fabric. We feel privileged to have someone else clean up after us. The bigger the car (or the house or the muscle), the more privileged we feel and even more high-handedness in dealing with others. When I see people throwing stuff out of a car, the need to have the car clean is combined with a sense of privilege and a tacit assumption that the walkers (and hence, less privileged) will clean up the mess. Ditto with dealing with our rivers, air and the like.

Our PM Modi's pet project, Swacch Bharat, is fighting against our genetic constitution and will be hard to execute. After I did a few foreign trips, my sense of civic responsibility and traffic improved. At the risk of sounding pompous, I maintain that I was anyway one of the anomalies in the genetic context. I am certain though that it would make a big difference to let our people experience the way foreigners behave in their home countries. Travelling abroad will be a big expense but we can be innovative in our approach to bring that experience back home. Bollywood and education can make a positive impact.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

National Open Grid for Student Performance

There is always an intense discussion about the support academic infrastructure to regular schooling. A few years back, I happened to meet the then CBSE Chairman for a brief moment. At Beyond Teaching, we had just begun offering preparatory courses for CTET. I wanted his views and ideas about this initiative so that we could make a better product offering. I didn't expect him to get involved with the effort, but what I didn't expect was his antagonism towards a coaching/ tutoring company. And the attitude is reflected in any governmental effort or setup. Right from the Ministry of Education to the school, nobody wants to even acknowledge the existence of the support function.

It is ironical that parents of school going children are of the exact opposite view. An Assocham report in 2015 estimated the coaching and tuition industry's annual turnover at Rs. 1 lakh crore (about $2 bn) with an annual growth rate of 35%! This is even bigger than the 2016 allocation on entire education sector at about Rs. 70,000 crore.

Are we not behaving like the proverbial ostrich by choosing to ignore the importance of this critical contribution of the support system of education? Even if we do at all levels of government bodies, this cannot be wished away. The reality is that almost every parent sends (or wants to send) the child to a tutor or coaching centre. This is in spite of having an understated respect for the school and the teacher in it. The parent, however, also knows that it is near impossible for a school teacher to cater to each child within the class. The tutor, on the other hand, is engaged for this sole reason. One can easily see the difference in a child's behaviour in a school classroom and a tutor's classroom or in a coaching class. I believe this difference is due to the objective of the setup. In a school, a student is not particularly bound with a single objective of excelling in academics, while in a tuition class, there is no diversion from the core objective.

This points to the essential need to acknowledge the contribution by the secondary source of knowledge dissemination. More importantly, we need a mechanism that will help bring the two teachers together- a school teacher and a tuition teacher. We need to redefine this relationship as a teacher and a support-teacher, who work in tandem to achieve the perfect result. The school teacher focuses on the class and yet is able to check an individual student's progress. The tuition teacher, on the other hand, is able to fill the gaps in learning by acting on the school teacher's precise observations.

To help achieve this objective, we need to capture the data on student performance and make it available to all those who are interested and can positively contribute to the progress of the student. Of course, unlike a completely "open" repository, this access can be controlled by the student and/or the parent. Here, then, is the scenario:

A classroom teacher uses a simple web or mobile interface to record a student's performance in a test. Several tools can be designed to administer self-designed tests that can capture understanding and application. Once captured, the data adds to a structured timeline of competency-based assessment portal. This portal can be accessed by the student and parent free of cost, or with a minimal charge.

In the after-school tuition class, the tutor also has access to the same portal and can see where the student is lacking in the skills. The analytics engine crunching the portal data will give topics-to-cover list in an easy manner. The tutor can begin working on the skills and help the student in mastering the skill.

Next day, when the classroom teacher realizes that the child has learnt the skills, he/she can customize the learning plan better and together with the tutor, he/she has helped the child bring up to the class level.

This will help reduce the pattern of falling-behind in our school children. Falling behind in basic skills is a prime reason for students dropping out of school at the middle-school level. An Open Grid will provide the much-needed support to plug this hole.

From my interactions with the teaching community at Beyond Teaching, I can safely confirm that at least 15-20% of the teaching community is interested in providing free support to needy children to help them bridge their skill gaps. However, we need to provide them with a concrete and customized roadmap using analytics on top of the performance data so that their help can be precise and result-oriented. Another big factor in making their services available is to enable an easy and affordable online tutoring mechanism that can be accessed on mobile or PC.

Indian parents lay a lot of emphasis on education for their children and will be ready to pay for quality services and this Grid will help realize their dream of getting the exact help for their children.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

My father, my Superhero!

This is a personal tribute to my late father, who gave me this life and all the learning that I have had so far. He continues to live inside of me and motivates me to do better and good. Though this writing doesn't fall in the blog's genre, I have included this as a source of learning to me through my experiences with my father.

As I sit next to the hospital bed, with my ailing father's hands in mine, the soft wheezing sound of his breath seems to defy the roaring life he has lived. I look at his face that has suddenly grown old and pale in the last one year, when his cancer showed up.

Looking at his frail body, who would have believed that this same man was cycling 30 kms and more to collect small change from his clients just a month ago! It was quite unusual for us to see him lying down, from the time we woke up to the time we went off to bed. And he was here now, lying still, perhaps thinking about the unfinished micro financing business that he had started, even before it was made fashionable by the likes of SKS MIcrofinance.

I have heard from uncles and aunts, and more so, from my mother, about his resilient and laborious nature. At one point of time, he used to manage 3 jobs apart from his regular one at the Army Medical Corps where he grew from a junior clerk to the head clerk by the time he retired. I remember seeing him leave for office at 7 in the morning after the daily ritual of complaining to his wife about getting late due to her not getting the food ready in time. She, in turn, would be a picture of a superwoman trying to manage everything in about 40 mins- from waking herself up and the two of us siblings to pushing us hard to get ready for school, to making the always-the-best tiffins and finally being on time for her 8 am bus to reach the office just in time to avoid being late. My father returned the favour by making her a refreshing cup of tea whenever he could manage.

My father was never a hands-on person when it came to household work, preferring to wait, instead, to let the two sons grow up to help the superwoman at home. Right from changing the light-bulb to shifting pieces of furniture, he would just let the three of us take charge. I guess he always had larger things on his mind, like how would the country fight corruption or how he could have changed the course of Indo-Pak relationship. Those were the times, when men used to discuss issues of national importance over a cup of tea, though my father didn’t even care for the cuppa. Even while I started developing a taste for tea due to our nocturnal sojourns preparing for exams in the hostel, he remained a stoic milk-drinker, or mostly, a water lover. My brother and I gazed at him, in wonder, when he used to gulp down a one-litre water bottle, and then precariously ask the host aunty for more water. Since refrigerators were a rare occurrence then, he would take every opportunity to make the best use of a visit to one of the “cool water” homes. Much to my mother’s consternation about etiquettes and manners, he would simply ask for more and more water while we stood in anticipation of a minor share.

Things were always quite adventurous with him around, and he never made us feel the pinch when it came to travel. I can blame it entirely on him for mylove for travel of any kind. We had two bicycles for the family. And I can still hear him telling us that walking never hurt anyone, not even the ten and eight-year old kids. Of course, the harsher reality was that we couldn’t have afforded a rickshaw every now and then! I have an uncomfortable thought that the cycle journeys to the far-away parks in Lucknow were far more enjoyable than the countrywide tours we have gone on recently. There was always a sense of togetherness on those bicycles than what you feel in the car or the flight. Now, I stoked his hand in anticipation of a response, but he seemed to be deep in sleep after the intense struggle with a particularly heavy breathing session.

My thoughts went back to my first day in the hostel where he left me standing in the reception. I recall not showing any emotions as a twelve year old, and just turned my back to him even before he was out of sight. I always thought I was like him, unemotional, non-committal and above the worldly relations. Fathers and men are meant to be that way, I guessed. I was taken aback when my mother told me that he had cried inconsolably and shamelessly that day in the train journey back to home. “Why did he leave me all alone in the hostel then?”, I had asked. And she had replied truthfully, “because we cared for your future more than our own feelings then.”  Parents have such a queer habit of turning everything in your favour without any feeling of remorse.

Display of emotions was never his turf, with an exception. I am certain he must have been a romantic person during the short period of his marriage before I was born as the elder offspring. His occasional maneuvers to woo my mother to accompany him on the journeys gave a glimpse into the past. Strangely though, his offer for company would always be veiled under the guise of “everyone should accompany him”, even when we were a four-member family! As children, we pestered him with promising our company, without mother, and he would expectantly look in her direction. My mother was never a “walking” enthusiast, and the disinterest continued on even when the family afforded a bicycle, moped, scooter and a Maruti 800 in that order. I suspect she always wanted to be wooed into the act instead of giving in so easily. Her husband, on his part, never gave up, even up to the day before he had to be admitted to the hospital this time. I hadn’t missed the moment when he was looking at her longingly before she decided to leave for home this night.

Such moments were rare when he was in his full elements now a days. Things had started turning a bit hostile, if I may use that word in context, gradually but surely. I tend to believe that the sequence of events, right from my moving to a hostel from the age of twelve, to moving out again after marriage to leave the pair alone, had a large role to play in the deteriorating relationship between the two. At least in the later part of the life, I could have managed to stem the rot with my closeness to both. My brother, though far more caring than I was, tended to take mother’s side leaving my father to guard for himself. My brother had been at home for most of his initial life before college. His mannerisms and steadfastness reflected what he had inherited from my father. In these hard times for the family, he stood quietly, yet somewhat defiant, mostly out of sight of his ailing father. For my father, his younger son always remained someone to be protected and loved, albeit, from a distance. There were ideological conflicts between the two strongmen in the house, and each one of them stood his ground as true warriors.

My father never missed any opportunity to show his deep hatred for all things “wrong”. In his heyday, I remember him showing intense aggression towards anyone showing a hint of disrespect to a woman, particularly his woman, in a train compartment. There was always a palpable nervousness in our minds when we were about to confront an unsuspecting public servant looking for some “tip” for doing his duty. Out of the numerous instances that I can recall, one stands out for its elaborate manner of execution. One fine day of anticipating the official visit of the inspector, the poor man showed up at our door to conduct his regular inspection for our passport application. This didn’t, however, turn out the way he had quite anticipated. My father welcomed him in the house, fully aware of his intentions as soon as he showed up our passport form. He was made to sit and, in true “Lucknowi andaaz”, offered tea and a choice of homemade snacks. We sat at the edge of our seats anticipating the moment of truth for the poor man, who took his time with the snacks before belching out his innocuous demand for money. My father was unusually slow in his reprimand, perhaps honoring the Indian tradition of letting a guest have his full. By the time he was half-way through his sermons on how public servants should behave, the poor servant would have wished not having to come to our place at all. Such was the finesse in the method, that the powerless passport inspector not only had to leave without any reward, but had to promise that he wouldn’t repeat his demand elsewhere! I am sure the promise would have vanished into the hungry bowels of his conscience, yet I got an important lesson of my life. In a recent encounter with a traffic policeman, I insisted on him giving me a receipt for the official fees for a red-light jump offence. While the hapless fellow tried in vain to produce the receipt book, I quietly thanked my father to help me do my bit. I wouldn’t be honest if I said I haven’t paid bribes at all. I maintain that honesty has its own limits, and those limits are often defined by the bulge of your wallet.

A sudden grasp on my hand brought me back to look at the frail man in the bed. Ever since his reports confirmed that cancer had infiltrated his spinal cord, he had internally lost hope of a revival. His exterior, though, only broke off during bouts of intense pain. His doctor described the pain being equal to dozens of bones cracking and dissolving in the body. We could only help him make the least movements possible and the mere feeling of being dependent on others for his daily rituals made him want a quick end for himself. God has his own ways of dealing with such feelings of mortals, and he was made to bow to his wishes in these last days.

My father was never a devoutly religious person, though as is the norm with an Indian hindu, he was given to perform puja every morning. Much against mymother’s constant reprimands to follow some respectful routines, he would follow his own instincts when it came to the nitty-gritty of the ritual. Mondays were a totally different matter. On Shastriji’s call for a one-day fast by every Indian, he began the fasting with a vengeance. Mondays used to be no food and no water days till he broke the fast with his late evening meal after a generous two-hour long puja. I believe it was his way to put his body to test regularly to know whether he was in command. The Monday routine, followed for more than four decades, was rudely interrupted by the demands of modern medicine for the last few weeks. He quietly resigned to our requests for letting the doctors inject the vital energy juices into his body. I wonder if his body revolted to this intrusion by giving his mind sleepless nights.

His eccentric ways of testing his physical endurance seemed to be growing with his age. On one of the several occasions of my mother coming to visit us, when he found himself alone at home, he resorted to a liquid diet of water and juice for 21 days! My mother was distraught and vowed never to let him alone again, only to give him another opportunity a few months later. We used to insist on both of them staying with us for a month while my father always had his business to attend to back home. After retirement, he had made himself even more occupied with his social venture. Though he impressed upon us that this gave him good returns, he was much too emotional to earn money out of it. He wanted the small-time chaiwallas and rickshaw-pullers to cultivate a savings habit by depositing small change with him. To facilitate the process, he went on his cycle covering more than 20 kms everyday to collect tens and twenties from his loyal clientele. A margin of ten percent between the lending and borrowing rates, he maintained, would take care of bad debts as well as give him some returns. The  more we tried to talk him out of it, the more stubborn he would behave. Eventually, we gave up.

Well, we didn’t give up completely. We tried to bring the other hobbies of his yesteryears back into his life. He was a good artist with his pencil. His slender fingers were magical in drawing sketches of Ganesha, the God most given to artistic liberties. And of beautiful maidens who seemed to come into life of their own from his creations. He had also developed a liking for making paper models of buildings and houses. In a stall we put up at a local Durga Puja festival, he had even made a grand replica of the Parliament House. The most striking feature was that he didn’t use any adhesives or pins to bind it all together completely relying on folding and cutting the sheets. Over the years, his hands gave in to more manual labour than pursuing his softer passion. His art showed up in some of the mundane work like the much-disliked wall-plastering work he took up of late. Inspired by a fantastic work of a neighbor, he began collecting broken ceramic tiles and plastered them on the walls of our house trying to get them into designs. Even while I have always had a bias to whatever he does, I was taken aback by the rawness of the creations. While I have inherited his earlier quality of perfection, this was completely out of sync with my imagination. My mother, always a discerning critic that she is, was in her elements when she finally had it all removed in an act of defiance. After much huffing and puffing, she gave in to his demand of plastering the inside wall at the terrace. Till today, a portion of the wall stands testimony to his misadventure.

After our attempts on bring back his artistic form failed, we tried to revive his interest in Chess and Carrom, his other expertise. I feel proud to have learnt the latter from him and put it to good use while winning a few trophies in the game. He always pushed both his children to take up some sport and adventure, and I did take up a bit of his advice while pursuing Table Tennis, Basketball and Cycling to good measure. Post retirement, carom seemed more like a resignation than a pursuit. He didn’t take the bait and continued his social adventure instead, much against our collective wishes. Secretly, he seemed to enjoy doing whatever my mother disliked. My mother, wise enough after years of togetherness, made good of this habit by coaxing him into doing something by asking him do the exact opposite! Like an awed soldier, I often marveled at the strategic skills of these warring commanders.

My years of distance from the family were interspersed with brief visits back home and the picture presented to me was often a temporary feel-good image of a perfect home. My brother was a witness to the true family drama and hence a more rational mediator at the occasional feuds. It will suffice to say that my father was never a submissive party that our matriarchal home could have easily made out of him. In matters of conflict, he would stand solid on his grounds while ensuring regular supplies of food and ammunition from his adversary. I admire my mother’s ability to cook and serve food to the family even when, from the inside, she would have surely wished otherwise. We all knew when to stop our gibberish if we wanted this to continue.

Even during the bed-ridden days, my father would never want to miss the delicacies made by his all-rounder chef partner. Even while my brother became an accomplished chef, and later, an almost revered teacher by his students, my father sang paeans in reverence to his wife’s culinary prowess. My mother on her part, looked forward to his words of praise, much more than the recognition she won easily at the local social dos. He was quiet a foodie and devoured huge quantities at his old age, much beyond I could muster even at the prime of my youth! I can’t fathom what must be more fulfilling a thought for my mother- feeding a man and his two sons with humongous quantities of food, or get the few words of appreciation from him. It must have been quite unnerving to get a request for a few hand-rolled chapaties after coming back home from a good meal at a hotel! Now, of course, it is a struggle to feed him with a few mouthfuls of the choicest of her food. What an irony for a person like my father!

I haven't been the most obedient or trusted son that a father or mother look for. I haven't followed in his footsteps to be a teetotaler and even a non-smoker. I have had my share of adventures in my college days to be a bit reckless with smoking and drinking. Though I never allowed this to become an addiction, money to sustain such indulgences was always a problem. My father used to send money on demand. I only realized it later when my mother showed a letter written by him. This letter was never posted that it summarized into just one thought that the humble family finances couldn't afford such luxuries. I can only imagine their struggle now that I have to refuse my daughters about some foreign excursions from their school. The scale might have changed but not the struggles. Some day the daughters would grow up to have a similar learning about life.

As if reading my thoughts, my father tightened his grip on my hand and motioned me to come closer to him. I bent forward to lend my ear to him but was taken by surprise at what he did next. With an immense energy that probably was all that was left in his body, he hugged me tight. I hadn't hugged him for years as the unwritten rule of the family was to touch his feet whenever we met. The memory of that embrace gives me shivers to this day. It was as if he wanted to take his son along with him. But this son wasn't going to oblige his father. I felt that embrace fill my body with such force that I was almost scared for my life! Wasn't this life his own? Does a son owe it to his father?

I believe I have become him. I am reminded of this Urdu composition by Nida Fazli about a father-son relationship. After the death of the father, the son is supposed to pray on his grave. But he doesn't do the ritual as he just doesn't believe that his father is no more... 

tumhārī qabr par 

maiñ fātiha paḌhne nahīñ aayā 

mujhe mālūm thā 

tum mar nahīñ sakte 

tumhārī maut kī sachchī ḳhabar jis ne uḌaa.ī thī 

vo jhūTā thā 

vo tum kab the 

koī sūkhā huā patta havā se mil ke TuuTā thā 

mirī āñkheñ 

tumhāre manzaroñ meñ qaid haiñ ab tak 

maiñ jo bhī dekhtā huuñ 

sochtā huuñ 

vo vahī hai 

jo tumhārī nek-nāmī aur bad-nāmī kī duniyā thī 

kahīñ kuchh bhī nahīñ badlā 

tumhāre haath merī uñgliyoñ meñ saañs lete haiñ 

maiñ likhne ke liye 

jab bhī qalam kāġhaz uThātā huuñ 

tumheñ baiThā huā maiñ apnī hī kursī meñ paatā huuñ 

badan meñ mere jitnā bhī lahū hai 

vo tumhārī 

laġhzishoñ nākāmiyoñ ke saath bahtā hai 

mirī āvāz meñ chhup kar 

tumhārā zehn rahtā hai 

mirī bīmāriyoñ meñ tum 

mirī lāchāriyoñ meñ tum 

tumhārī qabr par jis ne tumhārā naam likhā hai 

vo jhūTā hai 

tumhārī qabr meñ maiñ dafn huuñ 

tum mujh meñ zinda ho 

kabhī fursat mile to fātiha paḌhne chale aanā

(Composition: walid ki wafat par/ Source: