Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Udit's Journey with Programming

 Udit has just won a silver medal in the International Olympiad in Informatics 2020, and I feel that his journey can inspire some youngsters out there to get into programming. He has written a blog which is primarily meant for his buddies who are already into programming. So I thought there should be one which is more for students who are in middle school and thinking of exploring the wonderful world of Computer Science.

Udit was late in starting to program (in my opinion). Till his 6th class, we were in IIT Kanpur, with all sorts of sports facilities and he made full use of them. He learnt every sport, but he will do it for a few months, become really good at it and then suddenly leave it and start with another sport. But he always wanted to be outside home.

When he entered 7th class, we shifted to Delhi. And alas, no sports facilities nearby. He was very sad for a few days. But then he started exploring indoor sports. And he chose chess. We gave him a separate PC, bought memberships in a couple of chess sites and he would play online for hours every day. Soon he started participating in real tournaments, and he became a rated player. The rating started improving and in less than a year, he was around 1400, which was quite remarkable for his age and the time he had spent in chess.

During his class 7th, I had tried to expose him to programming. I downloaded scratch from MIT and gave him the first lesson in programming. But he wasn't interested. He used to love watching videos in different subjects from Khan Academy. I encouraged him to learn programming from there too. He explored Javascript a little bit, but again got bored and left it. He was perhaps enjoying chess a lot.

But two things happened that had perhaps ignited a bit of curiosity about programming in him. We had met Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO of InMobi an year earlier. Since Udit was constantly playing some mobile games during the interaction, he told Udit that if he knew some programming, InMobi would hire him as a summer intern and allow him to play games for several hours a day. Second, at the beginning of his 8th class, we had met the family of Akshat Bubna, the only Gold Medalist from India in IOI so far. His story had also intrigued him. By that time, he was perhaps starting to get tired of traveling to all these chess tournaments. In any case, he had a history of suddenly changing his passion after a few intense months. He wanted something that he could mostly do online (like chess).

I recall it was the last week of June. He asked me if I had a book on Python. I gave him a copy of "Introduction to Computation and Programming using Python" by John Guttag. This has been my only contribution to his programming journey. He read the first few pages, and then found some online sites where he could write programs, submit them, check, and all that.

After four weeks, he told me that he would be participating in Procon Junior, the programming contest that IIIT Delhi students organized. We were living on IIITD campus. So it was very convenient. I wasn't expecting him to do well given that he had just started learning Python but he did get a good rank. He got very encouraged with that, and started participating on many sites like Codechef. IIIT Delhi students were very active in competitive programming and would organize seminars, camps, etc., and he benefited from those. That year, he was selected for INOI (Indian National Olympiad in Informatics) but did not perform well enough to be selected for IOI Training Camp. (Top 30 students or so from INOI are selected for a training camp where they select the 4-member Indian team. He also learnt other languages during the year, mainly C, Java, and C++.

At the end of 8th class, he had about 2 weeks before the school for 9th class were to begin. Around that time, he met Prof. Sudhir Jain, Director, IIT Gandhinagar, who suggested that he should do programming in real company environment and offered to ask a startup on their campus to let him work for 2 weeks. He immediately agreed and went to Gandhinagar. He worked in a company called 4Dea, and its founder Dhyey Shah told me that Udit was productive just within a couple of days, and he wasn't a burden on the company.

Then we shifted back to IIT Kanpur. During class 9th, he felt that he was not able to compete with those in class 11th and 12th because he did not know some advanced maths, concepts like complexity, and he needed to learn many more data structures and algorithms. So he got so much into the "theory" part that he would always say that he would study Theoretical Computer Science during college. But all this apparently helped him in competitive programming. He participated in "ICPC for Schools" in December. This is held in parallel with ACM ICPC regional contest, which is the most prestigious inter-collegiate programming contest. Despite the fact that this is a team event and no one else from his school was so excited about programming, and hence he had to compete alone with teams from other schools, he came first in the contest at Gwalior. Later, he did well in INOI and got selected for the IOI Training Camp. He did well there but came 5th and missed being on the Indian team by a whisker (top 4 form the Indian team). In retrospect, it was lack of confidence. He did not believe at that time that someone who has just finished 9th can compete with seniors. He got some of that confidence during the camp when he did extremely well in practice exercises. But it was perhaps a bit too late. But he was able to participate in Asia Pacific Informatics Olympiad (APIO) and also won a bronze in that. In later years, he would win Silver medals in APIO twice.

During class 10th, he got interested in open source and participated in Google Code In. He worked like crazy for three months. He is a hard working child but we have never seen him work as hard as those three months. He was working with a group of mentors at an open source organization. The mentors were working with several school students from around the world, and from that group the top 2 were going to be invited to Google Headquarter. He was number 3, and his mentors told him that they had ranked him third despite his doing better work than the others because he did not communicate as much. He learnt his lesson that programming is not enough in real world. You need to talk to your team members and tell them what you are doing.

Just before the 10th board exams, there was this event in Bangalore called Snackdown. We were a little hesitant in letting him go, but kind folks at Codechef convinced us that this would be a great experience for him and he would meet the best programmers from around the world. And we are glad that he went. It so happened that I also was traveling during that event, and in fact, changing flights at Bangalore Airport. The event was at Taj which is at the Bangalore Airport. Codechef invited me to spend some time with the contestants. I had never seen Udit happier.

At the end of 10th class, he went to the IOI Training Camp for the second year in a row. This time he was more confident of getting into the Indian team. On the last day of the camp, he called me around 2:00 PM to tell me that he is ranked 4th but before I could congratulate him, he said that there is a rule regarding rechecking submissions with additional inputs if the 4th and 5th are too close. And sadly, after a couple of hours, he called to say that once again he had come 5th and won't be part of Indian team. We were naturally very disappointed. Twice in a row, he had missed being in Indian Team by a tiny margin.

After this, we had a lot of discussion at home. He wasn't sure if he wanted to continue with programming. Should he try to put all his effort in JEE coaching and try to get into a place like IIT Bombay. Or should he continue to spend his time on programming and target IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi. We left the decision to him and he chose JEE coaching. He was really enjoying it, and he started doing extremely well. His teachers were telling him that his performance then was good enough for a top 1000 rank and that with little more effort he could get into top 500, and if gave up everything else (he was still spending an hour or two on programming, sometimes participating in online contests), he could be in top 100. But we were telling him that he needs to spend at least 1.5-2 hours a day on walking, playing, and other fitness related activities and if he liked programming so much, he could spend some time on that too. So he was progressing on the path to take JEE, may be get a 3-digit rank, and if worked very hard and had some luck on his side, may be even a 2-digit rank.

But then Covid happened. The coaching got disrupted. While they started online classes within a few days, he had spent those few days in doing only programming and his old passion had been ignited. He had changed his mind. He was to try to get into Indian team once again, and he started spending all the time on programming. But in between there were some doubts if IOI would happen this year. He was overjoyed when IOI decided that they will indeed organize this year's competition although it would be online. He was disappointed to not travel to Singapore, but he started preparing 24x7. He did not need any food, sleep, or anything else.

During the team selection tests (no training camp could be organized due to pandemic), he did not perform so well in day 1 and day 2, and he was ranked 8th at the end of day 2. But this is where his confidence, his experience, his perseverance, and past failures came to support him. For a change, the lady luck also decided to be on his side. On the last day, he did extremely well, and he was in Team India.

The IOI competition was on two days, 16th and 19th September. On 16th, he did very well and was ranked 52nd in the world. But that is when the disaster struck. He was severely ill and was completely bed ridden on 17th and 18th. On 19th morning he was somewhat better but we were not sure if he could even sit for 6 hours at a stretch. He rested most of the day. We dropped him at the center. We gave a bunch of medicines to him. If headache then this, if fever then that. If cough, then this, etc. We told him that if he felt very tired in between, he can just lie down on the floor for 10-20 minutes and then work again.

When we went back to pick him up after the contest, he told us that he had managed to work continuously, but his efficiency was lower, he had misunderstood some parts of the problem, and overall had done well but could have been better. He said that he was not sure if he would get a silver medal. If he had just a few points more, one subtask extra done in one of the problems, he would have been sure to get silver. We were sad that he was going to miss his Silver medal due to medical reason of all things. But when the result came, all of us were overjoyed to see that he had indeed won a Silver Medal.


Note to Parents/Students: With our experience, my advice is that start learning programming early, may be at the beginning of 6th class (though it is never too late). Get onto multiple online platforms like Codechef. Start participating in not just contests but also various workshops. Learn not just programming but also think about problem solving, efficiency, and other aspects. You can do what you like till 10th class easily. You shouldn't be doing JEE coaching for more than 2 years.

By the end of 10th class, if you have not been successful in reaching the INOI stage (that is top 300+ students), then perhaps it is time to focus on JEE/BITSAT and other engineering admission tests.

On the other hand, if you have reached IOI Training camp stage (top 30 students), then you can have reduced focus on JEE. IIIT Delhi will give you a benefit of 2 percentile (about 20,000 ranks) in JEE Mains. So you need to only get a rank of 20-30K to get admission there in a CS related program. Also, if you are at IOITC level by 10th, you will be in IOITC in 11th with a very high probability, and if you do reach IOITC stage in 11th, you may get admission in IIIT Hyderabad. So keep trying for getting into Team India and if you succeed, then try to get a medal in International Olympiad. That medal will open lots of doors around the world.

The difficult decision will be if you have reached INOI stage but not the IOI Training Camp stage, that is you are in top 300 but not in top 30. Because in this stage the only institute that will give you credit is IIIT Delhi. They will give you a benefit of 1 percentile (about 10,000 ranks) in JEE Mains. But you still have to take JEE Mains and still have to get a rank no worse than 10-12,000 to get admission in Computer Science, or up to 20,000 or so to get admission in other programs. IIIT Delhi is also a great institution and comparable to several IITs. Would you be able to do some JEE coaching to get a 10-20,000 rank in JEE Mains and still work hard to get into IOI Training Camp in parallel, or should you switch focus to JEE completely and forget about trying to get into Team India. Difficult choice.

Warning: Various institutes may change their admission processes any year. So for exact benefits, check their website. I am however hopeful that we will see better access for programming geniuses in future.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

RIP Tridib Roy Chowdhury

 My friendship with Tridib goes back a long time, three and a half decades, almost. There were seven Indians who joined graduate program of Computer Science at UMCP that year. That was perhaps a record. We stayed in the same apartment complex, and I went to his apartment pretty much every day, post dinner (some times pre dinner as well, when we didn't feel like cooking at our apartment). Working in the night is part and parcel of a grad student's life, but the university shuttle stopped in the evening. One of his apartment mates had a car and went to department regularly in the night.

He was glad that everyone else was going to office in the night. He was the only one who had a steady "Significant Other" in our group, and he wouldn't mind having some privacy when he chatted with Anu for hours at length. But before we went to office, we would chat about everything under the sun, and we would find solution for every problem. He was extremely jovial, and had the ability to laugh at himself. Under any circumstances, he was a great company.

28 Oct. 1989: Diwali dinner at our apartment. Anu was an accomplished classical singer, and Tridib, let us just say, was learning.

After a year, he decided to join a startup on the campus. The startup idea was in its infancy, but Maryland campus actually had many startups at that time. He worked on scanning documents, and storing them with a good database at the backend and a front-end GUI for retrieval. GUI was a new concept then and he would work day in and day out. He was capable of putting in many hours of work than even graduate students like us. But that meant no time for exercise. So I recall we decided to participate in the Terrapin Trot Road Race, a 10 mile run organized by UMCP. Anu wanted to run and he couldn't say no. So, there were exactly four Indians in the race, and three of them finished. Basically, we had lots of fun.

4 Nov 1989: After Terrapin Trot Road Race

The graduate student days were essentially a long party time with the side effect of finishing a PhD thesis. And Tridib was always a part of those parties. Of course, some times, they will ditch us, like on new years' eve.

Dec 31, 1989: They dropped by for a few minutes to let us know that they had better plans.

After about three years of working in the startup, Tridib was getting bored. He was finding the work repetitive. For every new device that comes in the market, he would have to write a device driver. And he had a lot of ideas on how to take it beyond. He was always full of ideas. And he decided to move to India, do a startup of his own this time.

Apr 30, 1990: The last supper before they moved to India.

 He started the company by the name, "STEX", and initially based it out of Kolkata. He had added the OCR technology to scanning, storing, database, etc., that he had worked on till now. The OCR was absolutely state of the art, and one day when I visited him in Kolkata, he told me that he is challenging banks that they can give him any old, torn check, he will scan it, and give out information about the amount, name, account number, etc. He was way ahead of his time. He was featured on the front of an IT magazine, I forget which one. Banks weren't interested in the beginning, but he didn't give up. Slowly banks started using more and more technology solutions and he was ready to help them. He managed the company for 16 years before it was acquired by 3i infotech. He also moved to Bangalore during this period.

They had Akhila, and when we were expecting, he called me one day to give me his Gyan, and I still remember that. He said that child birth is the only occasion when we don't ask God for anything special. We want just an average child, and in his own jovial sense added, we don't want a child with an extra eye or an extra arm. On all other occasions, he said, we pray to God to give us something more than what others have, but not at the time of child birth. How true.

We kept meeting each other. When I was at IIIT Delhi, he was at Adobe and while he preferred to take morning flight from Bangalore to Delhi and evening flight back home (which would mean being awake for 20+ hours), once he agreed to come the previous evening and drop by at our home. Last year, we organized a mini get-together of Maryland gang at Bangalore, and he was his usual jovial self.

13 July, 2019: Bangalore mini get together of UMCP group

When Covid made it impossible for all of us to travel and meet each other, he nudged all of us (UMCP gang, again) to have a video-conferencing session. His enthusiasm was infectious. And what fun it was. We had planned it for an hour, but it lasted more than two hours.

9 May 2020: So much fun on a Zoom Call

And he had a golden heart. In July, he noticed that I had posted on social media seeking philanthropic funds from PEC alums and friends to help students at PEC whose parents had either lost jobs or had reduced incomes due to Covid. He not only made a contribution himself, he forwarded the posts to others when he had had no connection with PEC whatsoever.

So when I heard day before yesterday that he is no more, I couldn't believe it. I guess, no one could believe it. No one wanted to believe it. Someone, so energetic, so full of life, with strong ethics, such a helpful person, who would want him go. There is hardly a positive characteristic that you can't apply to him. But God needs such people too, I guess.

Rest in Peace, dear friend. You will always rule our heart. We will always miss you.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

25 Years of Mobile Phones in India

July 31, 1995. The first mobile call was made in India. It was pretty expensive and not a whole lot of people could afford it. The numbers kept growing but not at the fast enough rate.

In February 2003, IIT Madras was hosting the National Conference on Communications (NCC 2003). At the end of the conference, they organized an event titled as "2010 lakh connections by 2010." The goal was to do brainstorming on what all should India do so that by the year 2010, we have 201 million mobile connections in the country. I don't remember the number of connections in Feb 2003, but perhaps they were only around 20 million, and we were talking about an order of magnitude increase in 7 years.

The event turned out to be not so much of a brainstorming event, but more of an echo chamber. There was a clear agenda. The initial speakers said that the only way to reach that number was to reduce the cost of telephony. The only way to reduce the cost of telephony was to reduce the price of network equipment. And the only way to reduce the price of network equipment was to have indigenous research, the way C-DoT had helped reduce the price of network equipment. It is not that the event only had communication engineers. There were economists who would give a lot of data on how GDP is changing, how per capita is changing, and what is the disposable income, and at what price point, we can have 201 million connections. The sociologists would argue how important (or less important) voice is compared with other expenses viz., education, health, etc. The bottomline was that every speaker was supporting this theory that the only way to get to 201 million connections within 7 years was to reduce cost of network equipment by doing indigenous research.

I wasn't a scheduled speaker in the event, but during the lunch, I requested the organizers to give me just 5 minutes in the afternoon. Given that all of them were professional colleagues, they agreed. And I had a very different take on this.

I said that China had 201 million connections around 1998 (or so, I may be slightly off now after so many years). Will we have same per capita income in India in 2010 as China had in 1998. Similar, if not exactly the same. Will we have similar population in 2010 as China had in 1998. 201 million means that we should be only looking at middle class, and not the poor. Do the middle class in India value voice in the same way as middle class in China. Most probably, yes. Would the cost of technology in 2010 in India be similar to cost of technology in China in 1998, even if we did ZERO research. Well, it ought to be a fraction, since in 2003 itself the cost of technology in India was lower than the cost of technology in China of 1998, and worldwide, it was going down.

Then where is the problem. And I said, the problem is in different regulatory environment. China had free incoming while we did not at that time. And there was a problem in the sector since Reliance Infocomm was offering a mobile like service through a limited mobility license based on Wireless in Local Loop technology. This was being contested in TDSAT, and till this case was resolved, our major mobile players were not willing to invest a large amount of money in expanding their network. I said that if government can somehow have an out-of-court settlement with Reliance, and TRAI were to make incoming free, we will have 201 million connections by 2009. I further added that I wasn't against research which ought to be supported, and may be if we can have some quick breakthroughs, we can achieve this target by 2008 itself.

(Incoming free was already there on the same network, in-state calls, but voluntarily by cellular operators, not through a TRAI directive. Just a week before this event, private cellular operators had announced that they will soon offer incoming free across their networks by having a small additional charge. But this set did not include Reliance, MTNL and BSNL, and landline to mobile was not free even in these packages. But these developments were a hint that free incoming was a possibility and would not impact cellular operators in a big way. They were waiting for some rationalization of interconnection charges before making a fully incoming free regime.)

The rest of the afternoon was spent in bashing me up. Speaker after speaker will point out that I am neither a communication engineer, nor an economist, nor a sociologist, and I was speaking as an ill informed lay man. It was as personal as you would ever see in a scientific event. (Admittedly, I was none of those, but I was interested in telecom regulation in those days, and as a hobby, I would read every paper brought out by TRAI in India, and FCC in US, and a few other countries. So I had some idea of regulatory issues.)

When I came back to IIT Kanpur, I told the story to Prof. Dhande, the then Director of IIT Kanpur. A few days later, Mr. Arun Shourie was visiting IIT Kanpur, and Prof. Dhande requested him to listen to me for 5 minutes. He had assumed the role of Minister of Telecom only in January, 2003 from Mr. Pramod Mahajan and the issue of low network growth was one of the major challenges he was asked to resolve. He gave me an appointment and we ended up talking for almost half an hour in the Visitors' Hostel of IITK. He mentioned to me that he was getting similar advice from a lot of different sources, but I was the first IIT Professor who was suggesting this. Everyone else he had talked to would only talk about R&D. IITians didn't talk about policy and regulation back then. He wanted me to come to his office in Delhi where I should speak for 5 minutes to members of Telecom Commission, which I did.

Over the next several months, TRAI did make the incoming free, and the Reliance Infocomm did agree to pay for the so-called Unified License. And the rest as they say is history. The telecom growth became very quick, and indeed we touched 201 million connections by 2009.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

My first board meeting

It was in 2008. I had assumed the role of Director, LNMIIT Jaipur at a rather young age with no experience of even attending a board meeting. I was nervous. I had heard stories. How one had to prepare really well for the board meeting. Every agenda item, I should understand every issue. It had to be drafted well. All aspects thought of. All data in the file. And yet, be ready for someone to ask frivolous and mischievous questions, just to score a point. You had to satisfy egos of some people.

Like for many other things, I went to the office of my predecessor. We hardly ever agreed on anything, but still I would always go to him to seek his views on everything. He told me that I will feel much worse after the board meeting. This was strange. Wouldn't I feel relieved after the meeting, with the stress gone. "No," he replied. You will enjoy the board meeting so much that you will feel that the meeting should have lasted forever, and you will look forward to the next board meeting.

I remembered then. A few months earlier, when I was considering whether to take up the job or not, I had called a friend to seek his advice. I had told him that if I were to become Director at an age of 43, and that too only for 2 years, and when I come back to IIT Kanpur, my research would suffer and to reduce the level of research at an age of 45 was too big a risk in academia. And he had told me that the chance to work with the likes of Mr. Vaghul, Mr. Jhawar and Mr. Mittal, does not come to everyone in one lifetime. And I had not understood it then. I thought I will have four board meetings in a year, of 2 hours each. Mr. Mittal would probably come for one of them from London. So 2 hours of meeting time with Mr. Mittal and 8 hours of meeting time with Mr. Vaghul and Mr. Jhawar in a year. What difference would it make. That is like 0.1 percent of time in a year.

Mr. N Vaghul chaired meetings in the absence of Mr. Lakshmi Mittal. He came the previous evening and we had a 2-hour meeting about board agenda and about the institute in general. I understood what support a board member can provide. Next day, the meeting happened. The room had so many sharp minds. Many questions, but followed by solutions. We could achieve so much in those two hours. It was absolutely thrilling. And indeed, the afternoon was rather depressing. Missed all of them. Indeed wished that the meeting had lasted forever.

We had 6 more meetings in my tenure. Every meeting, there would be some new agenda, agenda to help us march towards excellence. And when I was going back to IIT Kanpur after 2 years, they made me an offer. I could become a consultant to LNMIIT and charge a good fee, or I could become a board member. The choice was obvious. The 2 hours every quarter were very addictive. Indeed I considered access to board room and board members as part of the compensation package during my tenure as Director.

I wish all board meetings were like those. But unfortunately, one feels like one should seek to double the compensation if one is forced to go through those board meetings.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

First Experiments with WiFi in India

Today is World WiFi Day. So I thought I will write down my experience with WiFi, not about my research but how I learnt about the condition of rural India.

Pravin Bhagwat had joined the faculty of CSE Department at IIT Kanpur in 2001. He was a world renowned expert in WiFi, having worked on Wireless LAN communication technologies for some years even before WiFi was standardized. Government of India had set up an organization called Media Lab Asia in collaboration with Media Lab, MIT, USA. And they were very excited about this wireless technology (which at that time was banned in India, but there were talks of opening it up). Pravin suggested that we set up the World's longest multi-hop WiFi network from IIT Kanpur to Lucknow, primarily as a technology demonstration initially, and later, we may tweak the protocol to improve the efficiency of multi-hop access (which was later taken up by Prof. Bhaskaran Raman). I resisted. I had read a paper which essentially said that WiFi performance in multi-hop network would be extremely poor. But he too had read that paper, he knew the authors, and he was convinced that the simulation software they had used didn't implement the protocol correctly. Still, having grown up in a resource-starved environment, this was too much of a risk. I suggested that we go for making IITK as the first WiFi enabled campus in the country (whenever WiFi is legalized), and use multi-hop links as part of campus network. But he was insistent, and I am glad that he was. Pravin has always been a big vision guy.

We finally did set up that network. But this blog is not about the technical challenges, but experiences gained. One of our towers was in Village Sarauhan in District Unnao. The village was about 15 KM from Kanpur-Lucknow highway, and once you went there, the time stood still. So near a major national highway, but still there was no connectivity. While mobile communication was in its infancy all over the country, there was no PCO (the ubiquitous Public Call Office in those days, from where you could make phone calls to anywhere in the world at price fixed by BSNL) either. If a poor man had to make a phone call to his son working in Mumbai, he had to walk about an hour to get to the nearest PCO, stand in a long queue, make a phone call to Mumbai to just tell the other guy that he will call again in half an hour and let his son be available on the phone in Mumbai. After that, he will stand in the queue again, and in about half an hour, make that second phone call. Due to a lot of crowd, the operator would restrict all calls to 3 minutes, and also charge much more than the BSNL price. And one hour walk back. So a 3-minute phone call had costed him not just inflated charges of two phone calls, but also his half day's wages. This was the situation in a village which was well connected by road, and not too far from a national highway in a somewhat urbanized district. Farming land was aplenty and productive and the village wasn't among the poorest for sure. And yet, the phone technology hadn't reached there. After we set up our system and provided WiFi access to the village, we also setup a VoIP call from there to IITK, and enabled its connection to the telephone network through IITK's exchange. So whenever anyone from our team would be in the village, we will let them make a few phone calls. Our project ended up paying a few rupees for each phone call, but they saved more than hundred rupees on each call. We were heroes in that village. Of course, after some time, the phone technology did reach there. This really opened our eyes to the possibilities, and not just our group but other groups in Media Lab Asia. Our assumption that some basic technology is available everywhere and our products and services have to be built on top of that was so completely wrong.

The second interesting experience was in setting up an Internet access shop in a village close to IITK, named Mandhana. We had a PC and a printer there, with WiFi providing connectivity to IITK network and onward to Internet. We would provide Internet access to villagers at very cheap rates, and yet no one would want to access it. They would want to do some activities and wanted to know the cost for them. For example, the day any exam result was being declared, they would not mind paying 3 rupees for downloading their result and taking a print out, which would be a 1-2 minute activity, but if we were to charge 10 rupees per hour in which they could check the result of the whole village, that was unacceptable. So we couldn't sell Internet access as a service even at a very low price, but we could sell "get your score" service, or "book a train ticket" service, or "get a government form" service even at a significantly higher per minute price, if it came with the guarantee that if the service didn't get completed, they won't have to pay. And in our market surveys, it turned out that the price we could charge was roughly equal to the transportation cost they would have to incur to get that service in person. So we could have charged much more and they would have still preferred to come to our shop than take a tempo to the city. This was another great learning. The service that you sell has to be the service that your customer understands and not what you can sell easily. And the price that you can charge has to be linked with the value that he gets out of that service, and not necessarily linked to the cost of providing that service.

While I am at it, may be I should also add the story of the tiny part I played in making WiFi legal in India. There was a conference in Delhi, and on the sidelines, Media Lab Asia organized a demo of its projects being done by various IITs. The Minister of Communication and Information Technology, (Late) Mr. Pramod Mahajan, was supposed to see all the demos. We had all reached a day earlier and put up everything and waiting for him the next day. He did enter the room, only to apologize that he was very busy, had some other pressing engagement and won't be able to see the demos. I was among the first one in the room. I went to him, told him that all of us have been away from our office for 2-3 days to show this demo, and he should find at least 30 minutes to quickly go over the demos. Everyone was shocked that even after a minister has been so kind to be apologetic, here is a professor who is insisting that he sees the demo. Apparently that meant I had no respect for Minister's time. But he was a perfect gent (otherwise, he would not have even come to the room to apologize), and agreed to spend 30 minutes.

My demo was simple (and in today's technology, laughable). There were two imported laptops with WiFi (laptops sold in India were not allowed to have WiFi) and I could transfer a file from one to the other. If he had time, I had planned to show our plans for this large WiFi network. But this file transfer was enough in the situation. He seemed impressed and mentioned that a wireless technology would be very useful in many applications. I told him that for this demo, the police could put me behind bars, as the use of WiFi was illegal. I also told him that only India and Pakistan have not made this band freely available for public use. (I am sure North Korea also didn't allow that, but hey Pakistan works better in any such argument.) IIT Kanpur received temporary permission to use WiFi for our Media Lab Asia projects within days, and the use of ISM band (in which WiFi operates) without license for anyone in India happened a few months later. This was anyway under consideration, but this incident added to the pressure to do it.

Happy WiFi Day to all.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Surabhi Graduates from Ashoka University

On 31st May, at 01:36 AM, Surabhi received an email from Ashoka University. In the attachment was her degree proclaiming her completion of Bachelors of Arts (Honors) in History, signed by the Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Vice Chancellor, Malabika Sarkar.

She woke me up and I was lost down the memory lane.

Long time ago, when she was in primary school, I had made a deal with Surabhi. Whenever we will visit Delhi together, I will take her to one of the historical monuments for a visit. That was her condition to visit her grand-parents, and I had gladly accepted it. While at home, she would barely go out to play or do any physical activity, but I remember the day she went to Red Fort for the first time. She walked for hours, wanted to see every little stuff, asking many questions. No complaints about tiring, not even worrying about food.

When she came to class 6th, I thought I will introduce her to online learning, to encourage her to learn new things on her own. Initially, I would sit with her to watch the videos on Khan Academy. What she enjoyed the most were videos on French Revolution.

She must have been in the 8th class when one day I received a phone call from my friend, Sudhir Jain, Director of IIT Gandhinagar that the next day a team from the IIT was going to visit Dholavira, one of the largest Harappan site. What was interesting was that the team included Dr. R S Bisht, the famous archaeologist, and the Director of excavations at Dholavira starting 1989. He himself would be explaining the site to the people. The team also included Prof. Michel Danino, the famous indologist, whom we had heard about a lot. It was certainly exciting for even someone like me, with no formal training in history or archaeology. But we only had a few hours to reach Gandhinagar from Kanpur. So, I declined to join citing the impracticality of this. When Surabhi returned from school, I casually told her about the trip, and she was like, we just need to go at any cost. Within half an hour, she had changed, had food, and packed for a 3-day trip, and I had booked a taxi to Lucknow Airport, some very expensive last minute tickets from Lucknow to Delhi and Delhi to Ahemdabad. We managed to reach there late night, and left for Dholavira in the early morning. We had a great time listening to Dr. Bisht and Prof. Danino about Harappan civilization, and importance of Dholavira and so on.

Next year, Prof. Michel was visiting IIT Kanpur for a semester, and he was giving a series of lectures on the history and heritage of India. The only person who attended each and every lecture was this little school going girl, and she would always sit in the front row and sometimes even ask questions.

It was no surprise then that in 10th class, she told us that she will be studying history and other social science subjects in 11th and 12th classes. The problem was to find good schools where she could follow her passion. We went to a few schools in Kanpur exploring options. Everywhere, the first question would be whether she is an academically poor child and expecting very poor marks in 10th class. That usually would be the last question, since we weren't interested in her studying in a school where those studying social science subjects were assumed to be academically deficient students. So, we moved to Delhi.

As soon as we settled in Delhi, we had to go for certain pilgrimages - National Museum, Old Fort and Red Fort, Qutab Minar, and some lesser known places. Her 12th class history project was about Harappa Civilization. She made us take her to Lothal in Gujarat during that time. And her school project was no less than a thesis.

In between, when she had completed 11th class, Ashoka University had a one week Young Scholar Program for school students, and we sent Surabhi for that. After that program, she was completely convinced that this is where she wanted to study. She had a brochure of Ashoka with her, and throughout 12th class, whenever she will lack motivation to study, she will take out that brochure and tell herself that she needed to study harder because she wanted to be in Ashoka.

She did unexpectedly well in 12th class, including getting a perfect 100 marks out of 100 in history. She applied for admission to all the top liberal arts programs of the country, and thankfully, received admission offers from all of them, except Ashoka, because we had applied there very late. Her marks would have enabled her to get admission in any Delhi University college she wanted. We went on a national tour visiting these institutions, and were very impressed with most of them. We were totally confused, but on 2nd June, 2017, she received an email from Ashoka University, offering her admission. That settled the issue. We had already heard from a few history experts that Ashoka had the best history department in the country, at least among the institutions offering under-graduate program.

I thought she was now on her own and I didn't have to take her to historical places any more. How wrong I was. Her canvas had just become larger. Now, she would no longer demand that I show her places in Delhi. It had to be a different city whenever there were vacations in Ashoka. Not only did I see historical places in Kanpur which I hadn't seen in my decades of staying there, but I had accompanied her to Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, Agra, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and a few more.

The Ashoka years have been great. I have not heard many college students saying that they enjoy academics in their college. But Ashoka was different. Besides academics, the number of clubs and other extra-curricular activities were amazing. She herself organized a couple of history trips and university organized a few more. The quality of teaching and learning was such that at the beginning of every semester, she would be crying about having to forego so many good courses. She could only do 4-5 courses in a semester while she wanted to be doing 10 or even more courses. I am not sure such enthusiasm for learning is there in many institutions.

As a parent, I thank all the faculty members of Ashoka University. Also, I thank all the founders of Ashoka who had the vision of creating such a fine liberal arts university in India. Because of Ashoka, she has grown into a sensitive and confident young lady who has a keen understanding and appreciation for our history and heritage. And blessed is she for she could study what she was passionate about and not having to follow the herd, and Ashoka was an enabler for that.

Coming back to June, 2020, she was sad about one thing. Her convocation had been postponed indefinitely. She didn't know if it would ever happen. So we decided to create a little convocation experience at home. Got a convocation gown for her and for myself, printed the Ashoka degree, had a backdrop printed which is similar to what they would have in the real convocation at Ashoka. I even gave a small speech to her. We even had a Chief Guest for this "convocation." Prof. Sudhir Jain, Director, IIT Gandhinagar, agreed to give a speech on video conferencing. We had lots of pictures in all parts of the house, and thankfully, the food delivery has been allowed. So we could order a few things to eat and enjoy. Of course, we are still hoping that there will be a real convocation some time in the future.

Handing over the degree to Surabhi
With the family

With parents
With Dad

With Dadi

With Nani
Prof. Sudhir Jain, Chief Guest, on Video Conferencing
In the lawns