An Open Letter to Graduating IIT Students

Dear student,

After getting your first corporate job, your subconscious thinks, “Okay. I’m half-settled now. I shall live in Bengaluru, have a car, party hard every weekend, work hard on weekdays, hit on female (male) co-workers… who knows I may get along with a beautiful (handsome), intellectually capable one and get fully settled.

Well… my hearty congratulations! I agree with you on every single bit if the change excites you. Been there, done that — barring the fully settled part.

Newsflash 1! What your subconscious does not know is that half of that is never going to happen! I seriously hope it does not happen to any of you, but let us not get my high hopes of you get you delusional. When the truth strikes, you’ll find yourself frustrated or worse, and would want to go back to books/computers/college. At that time, some of you may realize how important it was to attend those last few months of classes that you safely ignored for that joker standing on the dais (as you may think) could not afford a life near TGIF, Airport Road, Bengaluru and most of what (s)he says is never going to work out in real life, especially if (s)he talks mathematics, philosophy or computer science theory.

When your wings are shot down by the drudgery –yes, that what you’d call “life”– and you hit the ground of reality, you’d ask yourself if this was what you wanted to do — write web-apps and test and debug software written by much more decisive people (read ‘academics’). Most of you would not have the courage to quit those fat salaries for some college’s meagre scholarship–irrespective of how deep red your heart bleeds–as your “loved ones” have gotten used to that life-style. Sorry. You’re finished! Live it. Become a VP of Sales in next 10 years, and may be the MD or CEO in next 20 years. Even then, you’d think why I didn’t jump off the sixth floor of the Administrative block in college days.

Some of you, mostly the “non settled” ones, would have the courage to go back and fulfil what they dreamt in those last few days in corporate life.

Well. Been there, done that as well. If, at this point, you’d think you’d be that “lucky one”, hold on to that thought for a moment.

In the graduate school, you’d keep high hopes of yourself. Well, why not? You were an IIT graduate after all, so it is your duty to settle ‘P vs. NP’ once and for all.

Newsflash 2! You’re too old by now. In the college, you’d curse yourself for not getting a long-time girl (boy) friend or a wife (husband). You’ll see beautiful new faces and bodies in hot pants and tank tops. Your hormones will rage, but no use. The “kids” won’t even look at your “mature” outlook. You’d start dressing yourself with the “current times”, but that’d only make your self-esteem dig a hole and bury itself in that. You’d invite “faggot” (if you’re too tacky) or “lassa” (if you’re too macho) remarks from your age group.

You’d try hard to excel in sports like your golden old days, again, just to attract a few lovey-dovey or lustful eyes on you, but then, you’d find that you’re no match to the young legs and fresh lungs, as you had already burnt yours with the cigarette smoke during the days of corporate frustration.

Failing all your attempts to be the college stud, you’d resort to your strengths — your academics. Again, to create a visibility for yourself, this time not to attract the Lolitas, but to create “an image” among your peers. That special one of opposite gender being the part of that peer group of course! You’d set your eyes on a fancy and hot topic like ‘Complex Networks’. You’d find that you can’t pick up on the concepts being taught in the graduate class, since you chose not to attend the undergraduate classes on that topic in those days when your subconscious was really happy on the prospect of a change.

Don’t despair! Start coming to the class now. The instructor is too cool to notice individuals missing the class, though he notices a large chunk missing.

Reinventing the Wheel

They think investing a few 10s of crores in developing open source EDA tools or making the existent open source tools highly capable is ‘reinventing the wheel’, despite the fact that numerous small startups would be benefited by doing so as they won’t have to pay exorbitant sums to EDA tool companies every year as license fees.

Same time, they think spending a few thousand crores in another microprocessor IP is not reinventing the wheel, when there are at least 1000 processor cores, and few of them in open domain, free of cost!

The fact is we only talk about supporting the startups. We don’t have any real intent behind it. All what this entire semicon nexus wants is to eat up all the public money in government accounts!

Aakash — The Low Cost Tablet

In an academic institute in the faraway corner of Western India live the minds who are striving for a social change. Very few know it. Fewer recognize their efforts.

“Aakash — the low cost tablet”, dubbed as the world’s cheapest tablet computer, was conceived by MHRD’s NMEICT team and planned at this place. You have not heard or read of the contribution and sacrifices its students and employees have made. No wonder! Despite all the hype the vendors, the businessmen, the people in the power have tried to create for their businesses to prosper, the institute has chosen to remain silent on its contribution towards realizing Aakash. Let us take a little journey down the memory lane to hear this little story.

The MHRD had a vision to enable all students of India with the enormous amount of Information available on the WWW and the high-quality education content created by several IITs with IIT Madras (Chennai) as the coordination agency through Information Technology. The cheapest computers available in the market at that time costed around Rs. 20,000/- (US$450). This country boasts of a student population of about 200 million. Simple arithmetic tells that the students to take advantage of the Information superhighway would spend around US$90 billion. Pragmatically speaking, this country cannot afford such an amount only on the access/computing devices! (Theoretically, it may do so. I mean the country where the scams cost at the magnitude of US$ 50 billion, anything is possible.) For us who have a large majority to which food and good education is a dream, an extremely cheap device had the potential to write an entirely new script.

The script had already started taking shape. Sometime in 2009, a student of VIT thought of a social change. He realized a low cost computing device with his B. Tech. project guides. He sought the advice of an IIT Kanpur professor (at that time) for engineering at the PCB level. The cost of the product he came up with at that time was estimated at approximately US$50. It was argued that if a computing platform better than that initial prototype was to produced in large numbers, the costs could be brought down to around US$35 (sub-40 US$). When such estimates were shared with the public by the honourable minister of HRD, everybody ridiculed the idea! Yes, everybody, except two. One of those two was a senior IAS officer and the other the same IIT Kanpur professor.

The events thereafter turned out such that the professor became the director of that unknown (newly founded) academic institute in Western India. In August 2010, he handed over the task to two misfits. The team of these three along with that IAS officer set out to realize the dream. The team studied several technologies, platforms, processors, software stacks in order to match the price figure maintaining the satisfactory usability. They worked relentlessly to try several permutations and combinations. The rest of the academic staff, administrative staff and the students of the institute joined them in their efforts. All the efforts put in engineering brought the good news. The team ensured that such a thing was possible, and worked reference designs, as proof of concept. Thanks to corporations like Google (for Android) and organizations like FSF, OSDL and Linux Foundation (for GNU/Linux), there were no software costs.

Once the price point and satisfactory performance were arrived at, there was a dilemma on how to go about it. A government funded academic organization cannot take up the task of bringing out a product in huge numbers. It was agreed that a tendering process would be put in place. The first tender to this effect came out in November 2010. But there was still a problem: even though the proof of concept was there, the institute could not force the bidders of the tender to use the components used in the proof of concept. So the tender turned out be an ‘Invitation to Innovate’, and the participants were allowed to come up with their own designs. The participation in the first tendering process was surprising to the misfits! Some of the largest corporations of the world and India participated, but it was won by a small start up of Bangalore.

All was not sweet now onward. The winning bidder could not meet the strict rules of purchase set by Government of India. If that were not the case, we’d have seen ‘Aakash’ in January 2011 instead of October 2011. After the cancellation of the tendering process, everything had to be started afresh. A new tender was brought out and once again, the response to it was amazing. A firm started in UK by an NRI won it this time. A California based chip manufacturer was to supply the platform to meet the specs.

The role of that unknown institute was not over. It turned out that the inhabitants of this institute would spend many more nights sleepless. The originators of the idea were assigned another task. They were to verify the platform (both hardware and software), correct if there were any shortcomings. There were shortcomings! That team worked relentlessly, day and night, to ensure that the platform was satisfactory on functional requirements, to write any software, if it was not available, to meet the functionality, and to coordinate with hundreds of students of the academic institutes nationwide. They were (are) to collect feedback and incorporate modifications to the design based on the feedback. Something that is to be produced at the scale of hundreds of millions, even the smallest glitch has far-reaching consequences. That team is involved in those tasks right now.

At the time of this writing, the same team consisting of 170 students (inhabitants), several hundred students spread across the entire nation, a few faculty members, residents or from other academic organization and 20 odd technical staff have engineered the version that can be produced at large scale and may get wide acceptance all across the country and the world. The feedback is still pouring in, some encouraging, some critical. The team welcomes critical feedback more than the appreciating one, so that the next versions are far better and glitch-free.

They have not stopped there! They are constantly evolving the device with futuristic technologies, all researched in house, ranging from the design of the very first commercial grade ‘India Processor’ for consumer electronics and computing and ‘India SoC’ to reducing costs of display technologies like touch walls and surfaces to 3D projection displays and projected virtual input devices that can be controlled just by hand gestures. They are also working to reduce the cost of this very device further to go down to US$20 with the capacities that of a US$300 tablets and solar charging within two years, however outlandish that may sound. Their claim is that given three years, the ideas like ‘printable electronics’ on fabrics and glass panels would be realizable extremely efficiently and reliably and computing at the consumer end would be cheap and efficiently recyclable. One of the students in the team exclaims enthusiastically that the day when governments will realize ICT to be a necessity as food, water and electricity and not a luxury is not far.

In all of its endeavours, the small institute avoids publicity at all costs. Some of the media coverage has talked of the institute, despite its best efforts to curb publicity. It believes that any kind of publicity will be a distraction to its efforts.

How does the industry respond to all this? Highly encouraging and appreciative! The team members are highly appreciative of the enormous support they have got from all walks of life. They think that it would not have been possible without the ARMs, the Intels, the Googles, the FreeScales, the ST Microelectronics, the TIs, the Microsofts, the Conexants of this world. If there is any bit of success of the efforts made so far, it must be attributed to every single, large or small, contribution made by the industry and the government. Failures?! Well, the team thinks that it might fail, but it has this strange “who cares?” attitude. It’ll keep on with its efforts to, as M. S. Dhoni would say, “change the game!

Social Balance

“The shifting of alliances and rivalries in a social group can be viewed as arising from an energy minimization process. For example, suppose you have two friends who happen to detest each other. The resulting awkwardness often resolves itself in one of two ways: either you drop one of your friends, or they find a way to reconcile. In such scenarios, the overall social stress corresponds to a kind of energy that relaxes over time as relationships switch from hostility to friendship or vice versa.” — from Energy Landscape of Social Balance, Seth A. Marvel, Steven H. Strogatz, and Jon M. Kleinberg, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.103.198701

Very interesting! More interesting is what they conclude for the future research, viz, the “challenge for the future is to understand its large-scale structure, perhaps even including a characterization of the pathways leading out of the deepest minima–those corresponding to the most entrenched conflict–and toward states of reconciliation.”

ISA Vision Summit 2011

The sixth India Semiconductor Association (ISA) Vision Summit, the flagship annual conference of ISA, was organized this year on 21 and 22 February, with the focus on “Electronic Systems Innovation: India’s opportunity to drive global markets“.

“If you throw peanuts, only monkeys will come!”
— Prof. Prem K. Kalra, Director, IIT Rajasthan.

New Year 2011

2011 is a prime number. It is 305th prime. That’s the only good part of this year.

Happy new year.

There! I said it. Now get back to your work.

If I communicated verbally in this whole new year wishes situation, the communication would have gone something like what follows.

You [all jolly and hopeful]: Happy new year, AG!

AG [disgruntled and frowned]: Happy new year. There! I said it. Now go fuck yourself!

Some people are not worth communicating with. I’m one of them.

Why am I so worked up? Well, I had to change a lot, due to situations that were not in my hand most of the time. I could have walked out of those situations, but I did not change in that aspect: I could not walk out of a bad situation before making an effort to try rectifying it.

  • I had to use Microsoft Windows for a couple of days. That was when I bought my new laptop and the Lenovo assholes denied shipping it without an OS pre-installed. Their OS of choice: Microsoft Windows 7 “Professional”. Take my word, there’s nothing “professional” about Windows 7 Professional.
  • There were no tutors/TAs in the courses I instructed. I had to correct all the Algorithms II and Data Structures and Algorithms (Algorithms – I) answer sheets on my own. For all their exams! 480 answer sheets in total. I hate working! I abhore it. Seriously. I had to change and actually had to work. The lessons learnt:
    • Make computers do that in future by designing MCQ type of exams.
    • Moreover, never give them projects. Students are never serious about submitting the projects within deadlines. I know that part, because I never was. So the last minute work is out of proportions if compared to the human capacity of working.
    • If you ask for projects/term papers/homeworks, ditch the usual inside the room kind of exams.
  • Following does not count for a change, so let me just strike it out. Due to the “difficulty level” of the exam papers or any other reason, the students think that their instructor is evil, which even I think of me at times.
  • People bother me! I hate interactions. I had to interact with at least 50,000 people this year. Okay, that count is exaggerated. Still, it was close to 47,000.
  • I hate telephonic conversations. I hate long telephonic conversations or conversations that start with: “aur kyaa haal hai?” (Hey, what’s up?). Why are people so worried about what I’m doing with my life? I may just go and screw myself for all they care. By the way, that’s what I’m doing right now. Screwing my life. Big time!

I changed when 2006 ended. I thought that that change would be pleasant. It was. That time, I started liking interacting with my friends on a more regular basis. Probably the time was when I needed their support. So there! I’m selfish too. I hate changing back to old me, “the disgruntled, despicable me”. But I have to for I’m again going insane, and I better not bother my friends with my whims and insanities.

The Problem of ‘Large Core’

Following is just the other perspective that lurks somewhere inside you too; I just intend to bring it in open.

Following is the argument that I wanted to convey during a meeting at my workplace. Like all the other schools of thought, this one too has its own merits and demerits, for philosophers have proven rigorously over the years that a complex enough system (“enough” here is a mathematical terminology, which can only be explained qualitatively, not quantitatively, and depends on the context) can not be consistent and complete at the same time.

The argument is what follows: A large core–which sadly most of the science and engineering institutes (even IITs) in India suffer from–tries to make a student learn everything that is taught in that core, irrespective of whether the student has an interest in all of the subjects or not. Yes, it is partially a pedagogy problem and depends on the instructor/teacher, but it is also the problem of restricting a student’s freedom and interests. The moment she has to, say, attend a course in machining despite a heavy bent of mind in theory or mathematics, her innovatory senses–even in mathematics, go out of the window.

The innovation need not be in “manufacturing” something only, it could well be in developing a new (simple) theorem or coming up with an idea that requires only lateral thinking, and no scientific thought whatsoever. Why restrict the wild and naive (at that moment) thoughts that could go on and become great ideas one day. History has proven that some of the best ideas, ideas that changed the entire thought process of humanity, have come in society that lets the individual free.

This of course does not mean that we should not have anything “in the core” of the curriculum: of course there should be, but, make it as small as possible by having (may be) multiple cores and let the student choose what core (s)he wants to do. Obviously, it could be that the student gets bored even with her chosen core, so we should have an option for her migrating to other areas by having the provision of electives in the core.

I understand that this way we’d have too many parameters to tackle with, and at one stage this problem could become (in CS Theory terminology) intractable. But that should not deter us unless we hit a dead end or we prove that the problem is really intractable.

Just my two cents.