Friday, August 31, 2007

Welcome to Civilization

Two rites of passage to be considered a real O.G. Indian is obsessively watching cricket and eating from a lari. Recently I have done both and passed with flying colors.

During India's tour of England I've really gotten into watching cricket. My favorite player is Dhoni, this bad-ass Bihari with amazing hair. And of course you can't support the Indian team without having one player that you love to hate because he drives you crazy with his misplays at inopportune moments. For me, hands down, it's Agarkar, this 12-year-old looking bowler who when I first saw him I immediately knew was the worst player on the team. There's no way a batsman can look at that guy and not be convinced that he's going to take
him for 6. He's just a pansy and the face he makes after someone smacks him for a boundary makes me want to slap him. And of course you've got to love Sachin. Although he absolutely ripped my heart out recently by getting called out on 99 runs. I was eagerly anticipating witnessing my first century from the great "master blaster", but he completely choked and got out a run short. He seemed nervous after he hit 90, which surprised me because I'm used to seeing the legendary ones raise their games in the pressure situations. I even made a sign like Wilt Chamberlain's so I could take a picture next to the TV when he got to 100. After he got out I was too depressed to watch the rest of the match.

The second rite is of course eating at laris, the Indian version of fast food, little stands where you can get all kinds of greasy unhealthy delights. It's not recommended for the weak stomach, and typically foreigners are advised to steer clear. But after living here a couple months I felt I was ready to take the plunge. I went with my homey for Pau Bhaji and Bhel Puri and it was absolutely delicious. I was shocked at how much you could get for so cheap. Our entire meal cost Rs.70 between the two of us, and we were completely full. That's just under 2 bucks! I think that's cheap even for Indians... I later learned its because lari food is intended for India's "common man". We finished our fast food experience with a "cold cocoa", a chocolate milkshake with chunks of chocolate inside. It's really popular here and really tasty.

When I talked to Kaushal (a good college friend who's from Bombay) about these two experiences, he said "I'm proud of you ma' boy!" which I took as a huge compliment because Kaushal doesn't patronize about this stuff. I had finally crossed over and gained acceptance. "Welcome to civilization", he said. And you know what? He's right. Cricket and Laris are really all that separate us from cavemen.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Road of a Difference

You can tell a lot about a country by its roads and traffic patterns...

Actually, I just made that up and I have no idea what it means. But I will say that I have grown quite interested in Indian traffic, particularly in contrast to America's own roads and traffic and driving etiquette. If you're an ABCD, you may be familiar with the argument made by your elders that goes something like "sure India's roads are disorganized, and it looks totally chaotic with all the cars and rickshaws and cows and bikes and pedestrians mixed in with no lanes and impossibly narrow passing lanes and no traffic signals and horns blaring from all directions and oncoming traffic coming head-on, but if you look closely, there's a method to the madness." Then you might hear stories about how Indian drivers work on subtle cues that ABCDs are too dense to notice, like a twitch of the head to signal the direction the driver coming head on is going to go, or the hand signals and horn beats that truckers give to let you know it's safe to pass (by the way, it always kills me how in India you don't use turn signals to turn, but to indicate that its clear for cars behind to pass on a two-lane highway). All this to convince you that despite the fact that you wet your pants every time you go for a drive, it's all totally safe.

Then this proud old uncle might drop the bomb: "Just look at the number of traffic accidents that happen in India... it's far less than in America." Hmmmmmmm. I've been thinking about that a bit, because up until recently I've been pretty convinced by this argument. I always found it romantic how in India traffic is "organic" in the sense of order out of disorder. Everything works precisely because there's no rules. It appeals to the commie in me, as my brother may remark. But in any case it's pretty easy to be taken up with that belief.

But honestly, is it true? And also, how can you really know? I can't think of a very clean way of comparing the safety of American roads and Indian. Do you do some sort of ratio of number of accidents to number of miles driven? Is it even possible to get that latter number? And then how do you account for the discrepancy in the frequency of documented accidents? And is it even an apples to apples comparison if you don't control for car types and average speeds, road conditions, urban/rural road breakdown, etc.? It seems like a mighty interesting research topic if you ask me.

But to address the first question, I am lately not convinced of the safety of roads here. In the last 3 months, I have seen at least 6 serious car wrecks, and I don't drive a whole lot. Also, I've seen two dead bodies on the road, something I've never seen on a road at home. The first one was a biker. He was just spilled out in the middle of the road face down, not moving, in a contorted position, his bike mangled by his side. The second was a gruesome one where a big rig ran off the road on a rural highway... the driver lay with his body hanging out of the cab in a bloody mess. And this is not even counting the number of times I felt this close to hitting another vehicle, or the time I got clipped in the leg by an oncoming biker when I was on a scooter. Just through my eyes, I feel that roads here are more dangerous, hands down.

On the flip side, I think roads in India have a much better sense of humor than American roads. Though big lumbering billboards try to be funny in the U.S., usually they try too hard and are just plain annoying. In India, on the other hand, you see all kinds of humorous stuff on the roads, including lounging cows, goats, camels, etc. that have no problem stopping traffic and there's not a damn thing us superior species members can do but wait. And then theres the always comical 15 people in a 5-person vehicle phenomenon which is an Indian institution. Whenever you come to India, you think a previous vehicle configuration you've seen couldn't be topped, but people here always manage to outdo themselves by packing in an extra body. Also another funny thing is watching road construction work. It's always great to see the obligatory "10 workers squatting around and watching a single worker breaking pavement with a blunt pick" scene. I really need to take a picture of this one day, it's so classic. I like it for the same reason I enjoy toll booths on the new Indian interstate highways, where there is at least 50% of the people working there being completely useless. Guards/Attendants just walk around, congregating around this booth or that, or just sitting in the shade not doing a damn thing. And unlike in America, there isn't just one person in a booth that takes your money; theres another guy that stands next to the booth who takes your money, hands it to the guy in the booth, takes the receipt from the guy, and hands it to you. Nice work sahib! But in fairness, by some completely ridiculous design decision, that middle man is actually necessary because the booth windows are unreachable for a person sitting in their car. These latter two examples demonstrate a more general fact about India: manpower is a-plenty. The same thing at gas stations... they are full service with attendants. Imagine if there were ATM pay machines at the gas stations and the toll booths were built efficiently and they got a jackhammer to do road construction... half the country would be out of a job. Method to the madness.

But this all takes me way away from my original point about roads being funny. If you've ever driven on the interstates here, you'll now that the signs are totally hilarious with these funny little maxims and pieces of advice and fun facts about the shiny new highways. In Baroda, on one of the busiest streets, Old Padra Road, there are similar funny little signs. One day I decided to walk to Masi's house so I could snap pictures of them on the way. Here are my favorites... Anjoy!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Facebook Apps

Ever since Facebook launched their developer's platform, I've been really excited to create an application. Even though I don't use Facebook (it's against my religion), it's every software developer's dream to write stuff that a lot of people use and appreciate. Facebook apps give a great opportunity to do just that, and I want a piece of the action.

My first idea was to write an app to allow users to show what NGOs they support or serve with, so that the NGOs get exposure, support and possibly new recruits in a viral manner. Unfortunately, this idea was taken by one of the earliest Facebook apps (causes), and seems to have been spearheaded by an exec at Facebook itself.

So since that's out, I'm looking for other ideas. Since I don't use Facebook myself (but on occasion I log onto Maneka's to check things out... haven't gotten up the guts to start wall conversations with my friends on her account though), it's hard to get a gauge for what's useful. But then Maneka came up with a really cool and simple app she wanted me to make for her: a profile picture shuffler, where you can put any number of pics into a pot and specify a rotation including time periods to switch out your profile pics automatically.

I'm planning on doing this since it seems relatively simple and could be really useful. But I'm opening it up for suggestions from the two of you reading out there ... what kind of Facebook App would make you happy? Put suggestions in the comments to this post.

Confessions of a Software Developer

Posting has been light recently because I haven't been doing much else other than sitting in my room in the ashram in front of my computer working on the software and supporting literature and training materials for Jatan's Sajiv Kheti Certification System (cleverly coined "JCS" by me) and a paper for ICTD with some colleagues. So besides eating, sleeping, exercising, and meditating, I'm pretty much on the computer all the time. There is a lot to do between now and when I leave, and I'm starting to feel the crunch. It's also made me realize a few things as a person who writes software for people:

The Gulf of Understanding
In the few years that I've been working with computers, I've come to discover that there are critical differences between how a user and developer perceive software. To a user, software should just work. There is no excuse for bugs, for things being incorrect, for functionality being off the mark. To them, software is static; Microsoft Word is a black box, self-contained, sitting on my hard drive. And as such the box should work, no strings attached. There should be no do-overs like patches or updates... that's all bullshit and it's because engineers did a bad job or are lazy. Versions are seen as just a ploy by software companies to continue to make money.

To a software developer, however, a piece of software is a living, breathing thing. More specifically, it is an evolving thing. From the developer's perspective, there is no notion of "finished" software, because they are keenly aware of a certain important property of software: it is never finished because bugs never die. As users' needs change and new ones emerge, software goes through spurts of transition and maturity. Most people who don't write software think that there should be no bugs because it should be the job of the developer to track down all the bugs and fix them, so over time, if software companies actually did their jobs, there would be no bugs. But what these people don't understand is that bugs never go away; finding bugs is simply a function of how much time you spend looking for them. Like any living, breathing, ecosystem, bugs are part and parcel of software and they will always be. If someone tells you their software is bug free they either haven't tested it thoroughly or the program is too trivial to be useful (Also the theory of decidability and the halting problem and Rice's Theorem, etc. prove that you can theoretically never actually know that no bugs exist in a program).

So software developers tend to take a less drastic perspective to software problems. When they are users themselves, a software developer is less likely to say "this software sucks!" when it crashes; they are more likely to say, "oops, I found a bug." Most normal users tend to react towards the former end of the spectrum.

This difference may be subtle, but I've been reminded of it while working on the software for JCS. The trouble is not only that the Gulf of Understanding is at play, but I'm working with people who have limited experience with software in general, so they do not have the context or conditioning to know what's an acceptable and unacceptable problem. To them, any problem with the program is unacceptable. This has been frustrating. Also frustrating is that since all problems are equally unacceptable, they must all be fixed... now! But a software developer, who understands software evolution, wants to fix things on priority, not randomly. Because bugs will never stop coming, it's better and more practical to put time and energy towards high-impact changes.

Besides the Gulf being an annoying problem, I also wonder whether it could be or already is a topic of research in HCI. I would be interested.

"Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day"
The immortal line from Office Space also hit home for me today while I was doing situps. I realized that I was expending energy towards a relatively useless task; doing situps. And the reason I'm doing it is because during most of the day my body is inactive, sitting in front of the computer, so I have to spend separate time exercising as a proxy for the activity a normal human being should do in a day through his work. In a way, I've turned into a robot, doing a single task (create software) and taking in other inputs (food, sleep, exercise) all to continue to do that single task. Everything's compartmentalized, and it's in the name of specialization of labor (i.e. I know how to use a computer so my time should be used working with them). I think a more sane lifestyle would be working in a capacity that directly leads to my own well-being, like farming. As it is presently, there's a long and indirect link between the work I do and how I stay healthy. My work produces software which turns to money which then turns to food which I eat, and a side-effect of a job is a I get holidays in which to exercise. Whereas if I were a farmer, food, work, and exercise are all wrapped up into the same activity. Hmmmmmmmm.

Also related to the meaningless expenditure of energy through exercise, I recently had an idea that I told Jo about to hook up all the US's fitness centers to the power grid. If you could somehow turn a turbine with all the dips and bench presses and situps that are done at all the 24 hour fitness centers, you would effectively close the loop on energy intake (food) and expenditure (exercise) and still allow the insane type of life we all lead. I think Jo was saying they may already be doing something like this with the treadmills, but imagine if you could capture even 50% of all the energy generated through exercise machines across America. I think it could be big.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Human Kirpi

Here is a profile I recently wrote about Kapilbhai for a friend of his who lives in Scotland. The friend will be posting the profile on a website that sells kirpis, of which some amount of the proceeds go toward supporting Jatan and Kapilbhai's activities. The article is meant to just describe Kapilbhai and what he does, so that people buying the kirpi can learn about who/what they are supporting. I think it turned out OK/not great, but it does give a decent idea of what he's like so I thought I'd share it with you all.

In case you also want to read more about Kapilbhai and his legendary family of social workers, Nipun and Guri did a profile of Jagdishdada, his father, when they stopped at the ashram during their walking pilgrimage a couple years ago.


The Kirpi is a simple yet efficient traditional Indian hand tool. It has a serrated edge and its shape allows for a firm grip. It can be used for weeding or hoeing, and is equally effective in a hobby garden in Europe or on a small subsistence farm in rural India. The Kirpi is adaptable, reliable, simple, and effective. Kapil Shah, the Managing Director of Jatan Trust in Gujarat, India, fits this description perfectly. He is a human Kirpi. In fact, rearrange and substitute a couple letters, and you get the same word. For over twenty years, Kapilbhai has been working for the causes of sustainable agriculture and farmer’s empowerment in India, juggling work and relationships in the academic, policy, non-profit, and grassroots village arenas. And also like the Kirpi, Kapilbhai’s achievements are a tribute to the traditions of his Indian ancestors and the Gandhian principles with which he was raised since birth.

Jatan means “care”, and it is caring for the millions of marginal farmers on marginal land throughout rural India that is the primary focus of Kapilbhai’s activities. This focus has taken him to many places, to meet with many people, to work in many ways. He organizes workshops, seminars, writes articles, and contributes to journals and periodicals on organic farming. Besides thinking and writing about organic farming, he is an active participant in organic agriculture both through an acre plot at the Vinoba Bhave Ashram where he resides and also in rural areas with farmers. You might see him on one day, as I have, giving a speech about the current state and future directions of organic farming in India to a crowded hall of professors and researchers at a top agricultural university; and the next day he is squatting over a row of groundnut plants in a remote farm field in rural Gujarat with a smallholding farmer, giving him advice on his recent pest problems. He has managed to hear the perspectives from both worlds, and he is equally fluent in both languages. This is the unique characteristic of Kapilbhai, and makes what he does have such a high degree of difficulty. He is a promoter of organic farming, but for him this means extending his reach all the way from the most advanced academic researchers to the smallest and most isolated farmers. Despite working within this broad spectrum, one can get a sense of where his heart lies when he says that his favorite classroom is not in any of the distinguished buildings of Anand Agricultural University where he earned a Gold Medal with an M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetic; it is Dhedhuki, a remote agrarian farming community which he has been visiting regularly for the past three years.

Kapilbhai defines Sajiv Kheti, which literally translated means "living agriculture", as more than just farming free of chemicals and GMOs. He sees organic farming as a means for social justice for small farmers, a way to bring back the notion of the farmer as a steward of the land, responsible for its well-being by supporting all the organisms on it and not exploiting its natural resources. In exchange for and appreciation of the farmer’s efforts in looking after their land in this way, the community is then compelled to provide the farmer with market demand. In this way, Sajiv Kheti is a philosophy of life which considers not only environment and health as in organic farming, but society and a community’s relationships with the land, and between producers and consumers. My understanding of this difference was brought home when Kapilbhai told me that it wasn’t enough for consumers to choose organic produce because it is healthier for them. "It should be enough that they are willing to pay a premium for their health, this is a good and strong motivation," I replied with surprise. He responded, "If this is the only reason, then the consumer will be happy to see the small farmer substituted for agribusiness, which with its superior resources can deliver the same organic produce at a reduced price."

Kaplibhai does not hide his bias toward the small farmer. In fact, he is not afraid to introduce the bias in any situation, even when some objectivity may be more expedient. His dedication is admirable, and it is reflected in the people with whom he interacts and in the esteem the community holds the organization he manages, Jatan. At Amidhara, the organic produce retail outlet that Jatan runs, customers will tell you that they aren’t interested in any sort of organic certification or special fair trade labels on the products to have trust that what they are buying is chemical-free. “Jatan is my label”, one customer said, who visits Amidhara daily to see what fresh vegetables or grains have come in. This loyalty and enthusiasm is typical of customers who frequent Amidhara, and it reflects the spirit that Jatan has instilled.

Through Kapilbhai’s leadership, Jatan is a leading co-ordinating body between consumers, farmers, government agencies and universities, and, plays an advocacy role in establishing a platform for coordinating the organic movement at the national level. Locally, it has been facilitating closer interaction between these groups through the organization of workshops and conferences. During June 2000, Jatan organized a training course on bio-control of insect pests with the help of Anand Agricultural University (AAU) and in August of the same year it organized an exposure program for undergraduate students of AAU with the help of ‘Sarwangin Gram Vikas Mandal’ at Mangrol. A training course on organic farming was organized in Anand Taluka with the help of Gujarat Agricultural University in September 2000. Jatan also organized a massive state-level convention attended by more than 800 people, of which 400 were organic farmers in May 2001, jointly with a local NGO called Human Technology Forum, Sandarbha and AAU. About 30 small and poor farmers registered for the meeting by donating five kilograms of any grain they had produced. In the same year, Jatan led a statewide Abhiyaan (campaign) against the distribution of illegal BT Cotton in Gujarat and organized awareness programs about the consequences of chemical farming.

Under Kapilbhai’s leadership as chief editor, Jatan also releases a quarterly magazine on organic farming, named “Graam Jatan”. It is the first on organic farming printed in the Gujarati language, and features information on soil care and nutrition, composting, green manuring, vermiculture and mulching. The newsletter also contains articles promoting opposition to genetic engineering, the use of seed developed by genetic modification, the philosophy of organic farming, network news, and health hazards of chemical food. Kapilbhai is the Gujarat state representative for Agricultural Renewal in India for Sustainable Environment (ARISE), a network of organic farmers, environmentalists, voluntary workers and scientists at national level, of which Vandana Shiva is one of the co-founders.

Broadly speaking, Kapilbhai is currently working towards developing a Sajiv Kheti "package of technology and markets" to offer marginal farmers that is compelling enough for them to consider converting from chemical-based agriculture. Acknowledging that farmers today have increased earnings expectations and will only make changes if financial incentives are available, Kapilbhai is working to put into place a system of programs including organic farming training and education on techniques and best practices, market and price premium access, a localized certification system, and support from the agricultural academic community to create the conditions for improved knowledge of and increased earnings through organic farming. The road, however, is difficult and begins with educating farmers on the risks of chemical farming both financially and environmentally. It also involves communicating the potential of Sajiv Kheti through success stories of past and current organic farmers, in-person visits to other farms, and the latest academic research.

Kapilbhai prefers for Jatan not to be called an NGO, which may have associated connotations of bureaucracy, dependence, ineffectiveness, and exclusiveness. Instead, he likes for it simply to be considered a "volunteer organization" which requires the continued efforts of many people besides himself to continue its progress forward. Humble words from the man who gives speeches, writes books and articles, organizes conferences, educates farmers and consumers, all with no salary drawn from Jatan Trust. And on many mornings, he can still be seen sweeping the organic garden at the Vinoba Ashram. All in a day’s work for the Kirpi of India’s organic farming movement.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Signs of the Times

I few stories about how homesick I am:

I haven't watched TV in two months, with the exception of Sachin's at-bats in the India-England test match. As a withdrawl sign I've really started to lean hard on other entertainment. I have "Rounders" on my computer, and by now I must have watched it at least five times. I think I'm comforted by the English-speaking and scenes of America. I also must say that this is one of my all-time favorite movies, but it's a sneaky one because it doesn't really blow you away. But it's so well done, and honestly I don't think the cast will ever be topped: Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Malkovich, John Tutoro, the chick who played Jean Gray in X-Men, some others whom I don't know (OK maybe Departed topped this cast but it's close). Ed Norton is so brilliant in this movie... trust me if you haven't seen it, especially if you have any ties at all to poker, you should watch it asap.

Also, I rediscovered my college music collection which I put onto my laptop right before I came to India. If you're like me, listening to music that you listened to in college completely takes you back to those times. God I miss college. Also it's interesting that every song I listen to sounds totally amazing and I really get into it. I think this is an artifact of homesickness, so it makes me wonder if I'll like The Beatles as much when I get back home, after really loving hearing them for the first time while being out here. But if you want to know some music that sounds freakin awesome if you play it while in India, this is what I'm listening to:
* Usher - Bedtime (concert version)
* Destiny's Child - Emotions
* Timberlake - Senorita
* Blackstreet - Before I let you go
* Boyz 2 Men - I wish I had some of their songs because I have a feeling they would sound amazing right now

Tiger wins the PGA
This made me especially homesick because one of mine and Jo's favorite things to do together is watch the golf majors, especially when Tiger is contending. We love ogling over him like two chicks at an Usher concert. Recently I haven't been able to get over how ripped the guy is; when he wears muscle shirts I love using the "you could break a 2x4 over his back" line. Jo has a theory that Tiger only wins if he approves of his wardrobe for the week. Needless to say, Jo approved this week. I know if I were home yesterday we would have had a blast watching Tiger dust a bunch of pretenders off his shoulder on the way to number 13. I read that Tiger now has won as many major championships (13) as the rest of the top 10 players in the world combined (12). If you don't watch golf, shame on you. Consider yourself fortunate that in your lifetime such a force of nature exists in sports. Me and Jo will be telling stories to our grandbabies about watching Tiger in his prime.

The other day I had a craving for donuts. When I get back home one of the first things I'm going to do is pound a baker's dozen. It's a pretty random craving, but I think it came out of my subconscious after a conversation I had with Maneka about my idea to bring Mrs. Fields' cookies to India. My basic argument is that Indian sweets are inferior desserts, and so people here will get their minds blown if they ate fresh baked cookies. Also I'd position the cookie as a hifi and trendy American food, exaggerating its coolness the way Levi's jeans and McDonald's are over here. Maneka was telling me the idea is already taken because in Delhi she saw a "Mrs. Kaur's Cookies". hahahahahaha. I love that name. Can you imagine any Mrs. Kaur you know serving up a tray of chocolate chip cookies she just took out of the oven? Me neither. What a genius name. But the dream is not dead because now I'm moving on to bringing donuts to India. Not as much of a slam dunk because Indians don't eat heavy breads. But still I want to do it because of the name I came up with for the shop: "Krispy Malai".

Washing Machine
This doesn't have to do with homesickness but just another thing I was thinking about the other day: I claim that one of the critical drivers in the excessive demand/obsession for fashion/clothing in the world's rich countries is the invention of the washing machine. If people went back to hand-washing their clothes (as I am now doing daily and have become quite efficient at), they would no longer see buying new clothes as fun, but as more work! The cost of wearing a lot of different clothes when you have a washing machine is incrementally insignificant because you just toss everything in and press a button and it all becomes clean. But with hand-washing, you're perfectly cool with a two-shirt, two-pant rotation because any more than that and you are spending an hour doing back-breaking work.

I don't think this argument completely works, but I kinda like making these "Roe v. Wade was the reason violent crime dropped in the US in the 90s"-style connections. Actually this might be more of a "cotton gin lead to an explosion in the slave trade" kind of connection. Not quite at the freakonomics level of groundbreaking insight and controversy, but I'm getting there.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Jailhouse Workout

If you read this blog enough, you will probably get the idea that I enjoy going to the gym. In fact if there was one thing I had to say I miss most about home, it may just be my lovely 24-Hour Fitness located a mere minutes from my house by bike. Here at the Ashram I've had to make due with a shell of my normal workout. I brought Jo's set of exercise ropes out here with me which are pretty good - if you know the right exercises - which I don't. But I've figured out a couple good ones. Then I use an overhang above my room's door for a pullup bar, and rely on good ol' pushups for a chest burner. My brother doesn't have a gym membership at the moment where he's living in Boston so he does a makeshift workout in his apartment too. He calls exercising in this way the "Jailhouse workout" because it's a ghetto version of what you would do at a gym since you have inferior equipment, so you're forced to do old school stuff like pushups on cold floors and pullups with wooden planks and dips on two chairs arranged next to each other and the like. Anyway, I thought I'd take the time to document what I've been doing here so far.

I've established a decent circuit of exercises that by the end leaves me pretty spent. It takes about 15-20 min per circuit, with the first one closer to 15 and the last one 20. The circuit is:

1. 15 reps lateral chest press with ropes
2. 15 reps tricep press with ropes
3. 40-50 pushups (all)
4. 12 pullups (back/biceps)
5. 15 situps (abs)
6. 15 leg lifts (abs)

On a full day I do 3 circuits, in which i pyramid down the pushups so that by the end I do 100 in total, and pullup sets go to 10 and 8 in respective circuits. Here's the workout, in pictures:

The studio:

The machines (rope for chest on right, triceps on left):

The pullup bar:

The prisoner:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Bit RATtled

A day or so ago I was sitting to take a bath in my stall when a rat comes running out from the drain and into the stall. It scurried behind a bucket and I jumped up and let out a really weird yelp, not really out of fear but out of stunned surprise, almost like I was yelling out of obligation because that's what people do when they see a rat. It was like "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhaaaaaahhhhhh". I quickly put on my underwear and open the door, hoping to coax that little bastard outside. It was a dirty little rat. Dark matted hair and a thick tail and slender little body. Eventually it ran back into the drain and that was that.

Needless to say I was horrified by the experience on many levels. First I was sitting there, naked, cleaning myself in one of my last bastions of sanitation. I had such faith that my shower area was clean and hygienic. And now that rat has come in and ruined my whole environment. Really that stall will never be the same for me. I have never felt so dirty after taking a bath as I did that day.

And later on, I realized that there was rat droppings in the corners that I had mistaken for some other debris that just had flown in from outside. And I washed my clothes on that floor!! alksfdjkals;jfadfjalfjasjfalksjfa. God I'm getting grossed out just thinking about it. My soap, my shampoo, anything that has touched the floor all are now compromised. I'm not sure if I can recover from this, really. I don't feel safe in this place anymore.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Here Comes the Sun

I just got back from a two-day trip to Kadod, a town 1.5 hours away from Surat. Kadod is formally known as a village, but based on other places I’ve seen it is more like a town since there are 12K people living there and it has some decent development.

I went there to visit Kadod High School, the largest and most prominent school in Kadod and the surrounding area (almost 100 years old; currently about 2,000 students enrolled). I was there as a guest of an organization called Nanubhai, managed by a former McKinsey consultant named Raj Shah. Nanubhai funds initiatives within the school with the general goal of delivering the best quality education and sending the most possible kids to the top universities in Gujarat. I met Raj over email when he was recruiting Stanford undergraduate students to join an internship program for Nanubhai which was starting this summer. I told him I was interested in learning about the org’s work and that I would be in Gujarat over the summer, and he asked me to go and visit the school if I had a chance. Specifically the school has just started (through Nanubhai’s support) a new computer education program and has set up two computer labs at the school. He wanted me to check out the program and facilities and report back on the current state of things, as well as to make recommendations on how to take the program forward in the most effective way. I thought it would be good exposure and learning opportunity so I accepted the invite and visited the school this week.

There is just a ton to say about the two days, which was totally action-packed, educational, fun, and exhausting. Rather than a strictly chronological retelling of events, I’m going to stick to the Dheduki post-style and write a bunch of mini-stories which are fun, informative, or both. By the end I probably will have covered all the important stuff.

The Interns

During my visit I stayed with the two Stanford undergrads that Nanubhai hired as interns, Charishma and Lakshmi. They have been at Kadod High for the last month and have been teaching Spoken English classes in addition to evaluating the school on behalf of Nanubhai. We had a blast hanging out and living together in their special guest house which was on the schoolgrounds itself. I got the sense early on that they were a little tired of the faces/personalities around them and were happy to have someone new to talk to. Charishma I knew from before because we both took Beginner’s Hindi last year at school, but I was meeting Lakshmi for the first time. We spent a lot of time talking about Kadod High and I got a good sense of what they saw as the problems with the school’s education programs, particularly the English instruction, as well as their day-to-day challenges as two girl NRIs working in a rural school. Lakshmi was also anxious to gossip about Indians at Stanford, and since I’m hip to the undergrad crowd by way of Chardi Jawani, we spent a good amount of time ripping on people from school. That was fun.

English Class

Charishma and Lakshmi co-teach a spoken English class before and after school hours for 8-12 standard students. In India there is this peculiar system in which a student effectively has two sources of education: regular school, and “extra” classes which are like tutoring classes where they review what they learned in normal school. Extra classes (a.k.a. “tuition” classes) happen before and after normal school (which runs from 11-5) and gives more personal instruction, practice, and reinforces important concepts in preparation for the all-important board exams that every Indian student takes in the 10th and 12th standards. Tuition classes come in paid and free forms, and they are a big determinant of how well a student does on the boards. Obviously paid classes are of higher quality, so you see how socioeconomic status creeps into achievement in the school system. You may ask why normal school isn’t either more hours or of better quality or both. Well the answer to the former is that some kids can only attend school during those hours because they help their parents at the home/farm during the morning and evening, or they have to travel long distances to/from the school (remember Kadod is exceptionally large and well-resourced for a village school, so students come there from all over. It’s this Indian phenomenon of stretching the quality resource as far as possible because they're so rare). Regarding why quality is not better, you may guess there are a million reasons why, but the one that stands out like a thorn in the chapal is that government schools like Kadod High have a responsibility to a government curriculum. This means that the teachers are prescribed exactly the material they have to cram into their students, and there is big time pressure to get through all the material. This is where the familiar criticism of rote memorization as a learning method in Indian education comes from. Basically teachers have a short leash to be creative with their lessons because getting through the government curriculum is their primary responsibility. And this also explains where extra classes come from. Teachers spend the class period zooming through the material with little or no time to stop and make sure that the students are even understanding anything. And the students usually don’t, so they just copy the board for an hour and then rehash it in tuition before and/or after school.

Long tangent but this brings us back to Lakshmi and Charishma’s Spoken English class. The class was an “extra class” so it wasn’t part of the 11-5 actual school time, though it wasn’t a typical tuition class because it was offered free of charge and at the school itself (private tuitions are often held in the tutor’s home/office). They taught several age groups, the youngest being 8th standard (13-14 year olds), oldest being 11th. The level of proficiency with English varied with these kids from being able to understand slow English and speaking simple sentences to just barely being able to understand slow English. For the majority they knew how to read and write but their comprehension and articulation was very weak. A fundamental problem was that although English is part of their government curriculum, it is effectively these kids’ 4th language behind Gujarati, Hindi, and Sanskrit. You can’t know a language without practicing it, and also there’s a difference between learning a language and knowing it. The girls saw this very quickly when they observed the current English classes at Kadod High. The students are taught complex grammar rules about gerunds and past participles, but you cannot hold a 2 minute simple English conversation with them. They say things like "I am go!" to mean "I’m going". Most sad (and also hilarious) was the results of an assessment test the girls gave to the students two weeks ago. They were dismayed to see that most of the kids were completely lost when being tested in a way where they couldn’t rely on memorization. The test results were funny because they wrote sentences like "I have a George" and "The principal is a come".

So Charishma and Lakshmi decided that they were going to focus their classes on getting the students to actually communicate in English, which they felt was more important than being able to spell correctly. When I was there they did a couple fun activities like having them write a story with pictures and creating a Kadod High newspaper complete with main story, sports (report on the recent inter-school Kabadhi tourney hosted at the school), comic strip, and gossip column. But by far the coolest activity we did was "Fill in the Song Lyric". What we did was write the lyrics to an English song on the board and leave blanks that the students had to listen for and fill in while they played the song. The girls both had their IPods so they had a lot of choice, but in a genius move they used “Here Come the Sun” by The Beatles. What an amazing song. I don’t listen to the Beatles much, but hearing this song 10 times in 4 different classes made me fall in love. And the kids loved it too. Even in the most rowdy class, the room became silent as they strained to hear Lennon’s voice. It was actually quite something to see a bunch of village kids in India happily singing along to The Beatles, and it was totally hilarious hearing them with their accents saying stuff like “Little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter”. But it totally worked and it was a hit in every class they tried it in.

Life in Kadod

Spending a couple days in a isolated place like Kadod made me pretty grateful that I was staying in a dynamic city like Baroda. The girls don’t have a whole lot of options as far as unwinding and/or having fun. The first day I got to Kadod though, there was a village celebration of the end of a 5-day fast for the village's women. It was celebrated at a bridge/causeway of a nearby river. It was pretty much like a village block party. People dressed up in colorful outfits and strolled around and socialized. We went there and took in the scene, played around with some of the kids who had come out, sat near the water, etc.

For the girls, they are pretty much on the school premises all day since their guest house is there. The house itself is pretty nice. They have their own bedroom, bathroom, living area, computer with dial-up Internet, and are served lunch and dinner every day. Food was OK, didn’t compare in taste or quality with what I get at the ashram. We found a hair in our food at each meal we sat down to while I was there. Tasty.

The Students

If you’ve ever visited a village, you know how nuts kids get when they hear that an outsider has come. They were just enthralled at my presence, and the news about my arrival spread like wildfire. Everywhere I walked I drew crowds, you can even call them swarms, of over-eager teenage boys who wanted to know my name and where I was from and what I was doing. They cornered me in the halls wherever they could. They started causing a ruckus when I began shaking their hands as I passed by; soon I had 25 little hands thrust at me from all directions. When I walked into a class, no matter how quietly and despite entering and sitting in the very back corner, I would cause a minimum 2 minute disturbance to the teacher as the students lost attention and focused on my presence. Seriously, it was the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling like a celebrity.

I also had to be careful about bringing out my camera. Whenever I did, kids would become completely fascinated. If I started snapping in a hallway, kids would run up and ask if I could take their picture. They just like standing there and getting snapped and then seeing how it turned out in the preview window.

One amusing story is about a particular student at the school, named Mitulraj. The kid couldn’t have been more than 16-17, and let me say he looks like your typical Indian fobby looking kid. Skinny, goofy, looks slightly undernourished, peach fuzz mustache, voice that makes him seem like he’s 13. But for some twisted and bizarre reason, Lakshmi and to some extent Charishma were convinced that he was hot. "He is a beautiful man" were Lakshmi’s exact words. It took a herculean effort, but I managed to snap a picture of him without him wondering why the hell I wanted a picture of just him (he’s the one standing). I told Lakshmi that she has spent way too much time in this village and that she better be careful when she got back to school because she could be jumping on the any dude that crosses her path at this rate. I conceded that he was, relatively speaking, a badass at the school, walking around usually followed by a few cronies, chewing gum, thumbs sticking out of pockets, but let’s be real… there’s no way on earth you can call the kid hot. Adding to the intrigue is that Mitulraj walked by me and Lakshmi in the hall at some point and he gave her a long look with a dirty little smirk on his face. We both busted up immediately. He definitely has a crush on her. I’m very interested to see how this plays out.

A really fun thing for you to also do is to go to the Nanubhai website and find Charishma and Lakshmi’s photoblog. At some point they had some students write about themselves and they posted the profiles up on the blog. One kid said his favorite color was white. White!?!?!?!?!!!!!!!! Have you ever heard anyone say white was their favorite color?!?! Is white even a color at all? I still can’t stop laughing about that. The girls told me that the number one most popular color amongst their boy students is pink. Only in India.

The Computer Program

Most of my visit was spent learning and observing the IT education program. Through Nanubhai, the school had two extremely impressive computer labs, both with about 30 desktops on brand new desks. This is an obscene luxury for a rural school, so Kadod High and Nanubhai clearly want to make the best use of it. For the most part, I thought that they are doing fine, but much can be improved.

An artifact of the government curriculum imposition is that there are two types of computer classes for every standard: "Theory" and "Practical" classes. Theory class isn’t about Turing Machines, The Knapsack or Traveling Salesman Problems, or NP-Completeness like what any sane person would think a computer theory class would be about. Theory just means a computer class without the computer. So for example in an 8th standard class, they were learning HTML, so the teacher had a student read from the textbook descriptions of ol, ul, b, etc., interrupting him periodically to elaborate on how each of the tags worked (all in Gujarati). At the end of the class the teacher asked the students if there were any tags that they went over that they didn’t understand, and one nervous student said all of them. Then he had one student go to the board and write the HTML for a simple unordered list, and when he couldn’t do it he slapped him upside the head. It was my first time ever witnessing physical punishment in a classroom. It was actually pretty funny… the teacher did it half-jokingly and the student walked away with a smile on his face for inviting the reaction.

In 12th standard theory class the teacher had drawn out the cells of an excel spreadsheet elaborately on the chalkboard and was explaining the formulas that would be behind the values. The problem was it took him half the period just to draw the spreadsheet; at one point he realized he messed up an entire column of numbers and had to start over. He wasn't happy and the class disengaged.

I thought the best theory class was for the little 5th standard kids. In there the kids are learning about the different types of computers: supercomputer, mainframe computer, PC, palmtop, etc. The descriptions of the differences of these devices from the Gujarati textbook were amusing. They compared them by explaining that a supercomputer does the work of 100 men, while a mainframe of 10 men, etc. I volunteered my laptop to the teacher so he could show them in class a live example of miniaturization. They were dazzled.

In practical computer class, the students went into the labs and actually worked with the computers. For the youngest students, all they would do is open up notepad and type names of animals and fruits in English on each line. For the entire class period . Day after day. In the classes for older students, they would practice writing HTML and in one class they even wrote a "Hello, World!" C program.

Among many problems with this, the main one I saw in practical class was that even the oldest students were missing the fundamentals of computer usage. First, I didn’t see one kid who knew how to type properly. Some of the older kids couldn’t even double-click an icon proficiently. So wait, you are teaching them to compile and run a C program but they don’t know how to type or double-click an icon? Something’s missing here. It’s the same kind of thing we observed in the English program. The notion of learning is hollow. They are being taught the past participles and gerunds of computers, but they can’t hold the equivalent of a 2 minute conversation with one.


So what did we recommend? At the end of my second day the girls and I sat down with the principal to discuss what we had seen. He’s been at the school for 30 years, an old-fashioned kind of guy who knows English decently but speaks Gujarati because it’s easier, to the chagrin of Lakshmi who only knows Marathi. I also noticed in general from his body language and demeanor that he didn’t seem to be giving the girls much respect, talking over them and ignoring them, turning his body to only face me while one of them was talking, etc. It confirmed the frustrations that the girls had expressed to me earlier about their trouble dealing with the principal and getting him to listen to their suggestions. For example when the girls first approached him with the horrendous results from their English assessment test, he was in total denial about the tests’ results and came up with a million excuses for the students like they didn’t understand the test and they just don’t have confidence or they don’t understand your American accents. But he changed his mind when they showed him how most of the kids couldn’t spell his name correctly in English. At that point he straightened up in his chair and told them that we have a problem.

So anyway, here were our recommendations, which for the most part he accepted:

1. Get a LAN installed in the computer labs

Currently when there’s a coding exercise what happens is that the teacher writes out the code on one computer and all the students crowd around and copy it onto their notebooks, then go back to their computers and type it up. The problem is that between misspellings and slow typing the entire process of getting the file on every computer takes half the class time or more, leaving little time to actually do something useful.

2. Get a copy machine

Teachers shouldn’t be wasting half the class writing out 100 cells of an Excel spreadsheet on the chalk board every class; it’s time consuming and inefficient. They need a Xerox machine for teachers to create handouts.

3. Get rid of computer “theory” class!

Anyone who has an interest in Computer Science education (Greg) probably cringed when they read my description of what they do in theory class. You can’t teach HTML on a chalk board! They need to see the code, and then the result of the code in a browser. And while we’re here, HTML is the wrong thing to be teaching programming with. Most of the students don’t understand fundamental concepts of programming very well. For example I asked one student to change his HTML so that a word was bolded in the document. Rather than adding the tag, he went into the Notepad menu for his HTML sourcecode and tried to make the file itself bold through the font properties!

Theory class and practical class should be the same class, all held in the computer lab. The point I nailed in time and again with the principal is that learning computers for kids is all about the number of touches they get with it. Classes should allow the kids’ innate curiosity to drive their learning and only supplement that with some structure. I told him that though I thought that all the teachers I observed at the school are quite capable, they need to adopt a “learning by doing” educational philosophy with the students, especially the computer teachers.

4. A computer (and projector) in every classroom

Unfortunately the principal’s hands are tied with the Computer Theory classes; he must keep them as mandated by the government curriculum. So the next best option to bringing the kids to the lab is to bring a computer to the classrooms. This is not only mandatory for the computer theory classes, but will be very useful for any other class that can supplement textbook material with downloaded web content, tutorials, educational CD-Roms, DVDs, etc.

5. Teach the kids how to type

This is a basic requirement. There should be investments in Mavis Beacon or whatever else to get the kids touch-typing. Any sort of computer training is useless if you can’t type at sufficient speed. In fact they should invest in all kinds of educational software, especially English. Which brings us to the last, most important insight:

6. Computer and English learning go hand-in-hand

Teaching these students programming or MS Windows or Office or anything else is severely undercut by the inadequate knowledge of English. The two are highly correlated, based on what I saw. To improve achievement in one necessarily will require investment in achievement in the other.

This has become a monster post, so I’m going to stop here. Did this bore you? I could go on, but suffice it to say I learned a ton and was thankful for the experience and the chance to make two new friends (I’m loving the possibility that I could be a “popular Indian college kid” again). If you really want me to go on about anything in particular, post a question/comment and I’ll reply.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Reconsidering Dheduki

I know I said that I don't do this, but I realized there were a couple important and interesting points about my trip to Dheduki that I didn't include in the original "The Rural Life" post. So here they are (you can also read the full updated post).

The Kids

Rural children are bashful but playful. Not sure if I described a dwarf or a human being with that but that's the best I can do in a sentence. They are shy but at the same time mischievous. They are noticeably well-behaved and disciplined but at the same time know how to play, sing, run around, and generally have all the fun any other kid has. The kids in Dheduki, as I mentioned, are also creative and quite talented with their arts and crafts. The computer that they were able to partially fund is mostly used for Microsoft Paint. It's worth noting that rural Indian kids (I've now seen them in two different villages and this is true in both) like drawing things like trees and hills and sunsets and flowers, whereas last I checked American kids like to draw people shooting guns and mansions with their family in front of it.

One of the kids got really obsessed with my laptop. I couldn't make him understand that even though the keyboard and monitor are connected and it's small and thin, my computer did everything his desktop computer did so there was nothing special to see. Mostly I think he was fascinated with my typing. Not many people in Dheduki (maybe one) knew how to touch type, and not even that one person, Chetanyabhai, was what you would consider a proficient typist. The youngster was blown away by how fast I did stuff, and stood peeking over my shoulder for a solid hour watching me prepare powerpoint slides, explaining that he was learning how to use the computer by watching me. Every so often he would ask me when I was going to paint something, almost like he understood the main use of a computer to be to draw rainbows and apple trees. He also got a kick out of me saving a file with his name onto my desktop. When I did that he ran and got all of his friends and pointed it out proudly to them. These kids are just so sweet. Though it was a little frustrating trying to work with him watching and asking a lot of questions, it's really very hard to put a lid on the pure-hearted curiosity of an innocent kid getting a rare glimpse of technology. In retrospect it was my privilege to show him.

The Warmth of Rural People
As we were driving away from Dheduki to catch our bus home, just having said our goodbyes to our hosts and other friends, this was the first comment I made to Kapilbhai. There is a special warmth in these people. They are all heart. When we went on our farm visit walk, we would be greeted by a gentle hand up and a "Ram, Ram". When you shake hands with a farmer, he cups your hand with both of his, clasping it loosely in a way that was like they didn't want to offend or hurt you with a firm grip. When it came time for a meal, they would practically drag you into their homes and offer you all kinds of food that they probably were keeping for themselves. Even when we brought out or tiffins out in the farms, they would bring more food like chillis and shaak and milk to supplement your already plentiful supply. In fact Kapilbhai calculated for this and was hoping we'd eat at a farm where he didn't know the farmer. He knew they would go all-out with food and other things which he didn't want them to take the trouble to do.

But it didn't work out that way. We ended up taking our lunch at this farmer's plot (pictured), who seemed to have an old relationship with Kapilbhai. He was hilarious. He would rip on Kapilbhai for not eating enough and not drinking chai, then on me for being from America. He had a loud, raspy voice and would just crack jokes and put everyone in good spirits. He even took my camera and delightedly snapped a few. He was very proud of one of his cows and had me take pictures of it from like 10 different angles. He mentioned that some Indicorps volunteers had come to stay at his farm recently and how they tried to do farmwork but it didn't quite work out. His whole vibe seemed to say "you westerners think you're all modern and smart, but this is the real life". I couldn't really argue with that.

One last memorable episode was dinner the night of the walk at Samatbhai's home. After eating, we laid out in his yard looking at the night sky which was absolutely lit up. It was a Yosemite-level beautiful starry sky. So Samatbhai, one of Gujarat's most advanced organic farmers but who has zero formal education, started asking Kapilbhai and I about the stars, how far away they are from Earth, how the planets revolve around them, the concept of a light year, the debate of extraterrestrials, and other things a grade-schooler may ask his parents on a camping trip. I just loved it. His reactions to our descriptions of a universe of unfathomable size, diversity and mystery were so child-like and he was just in awe of everything we said. It was just a great moment being in that company... I could have sat there talking to him about the stars forever.

And actually that night when we took the dirt nap he and I stayed up talking about America, what people do for money there, whether they are happy, whether Indians have a community, what the farms are like, and other things. His curiosity was insatiable. It was such a great experience getting to know him and the other farmers in Dheduki and Dharai. I only hope that I can hold on to that warm feeling that they left in me and pay it forward tomorrow and maybe even forever. If I'm lucky.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Thorn in the...

About two weeks ago I was walking around Kiritbhai Patel’s organic farm near Jambusar (shout out to Mitul’s ancestral ‘hood!) and I must have stepped on a prickly pear or something because I got a thorn stuck into my right chapal. The problem is that it’s too short for me to remove from either the top or bottom of the sandal, but it’s just long enough that I feel a it pricking me sharply when I step over a rock at just the right angle (and as we’ve gone over there’s no such thing as a smooth road in India), or if my weight shifts to my toe enough. Just when I forget that it's there, I step in a way that reminds me of the little terror.

So what should I do? Is this grounds for dismissal of my chapals? What’s the standard protocol here? I love these chapals… LOWWWWEEE them. I’ve had them since freshman year of college when Pav famously noted that I would show up to midterms in Dwinelle for Stat 21 wearing sweats, socks, and my brown Bata chapals which was the only footwear which I felt comfortable to sit in for an hour. And I haven’t looked back since. Thorn in the chapal. It’s like the Indian equivalent of a thorn in the ass.

A "Little" Garib

In India there is this ridiculous phenomenon of sellers of goods and services not carrying any change. It happens most commonly with rickshaw drivers. And when I mean no change, I mean literally you can’t pay if you don’t have a “little” note. Unlike in other countries, over here it’s a distinct question the buyer has to ask the seller – “Chuttha hai?” - anywhere else in the world you hand over payment and just expect that you will get back your change.

But not so with rickshaw drivers. Several times I’ve had the peculiar experience of having over Rs.1000 in my wallet but still not having enough money for the Rs.5 rickshaw ride. It’s ludicrous, preposterous. There’s absolutely no reason for this, yet it happens all the time. So I’m sitting in a rickshaw, nervously waiting for the end of the ride where I know I can’t pay the man unless he has change, which is 50/50 at best. It’s like a 5 note is worth more than a 100 for that moment because the note is in shorter supply. I’m no economist, but this has got to be some sort of market disequilibrium at a fundamental level.

And in case you’re wondering, I’ve never had the situation where I’ve had to just pay more than what is owed, though I have gotten away with being a rupee short at least once.