Sayamindu’s Ramblings

Thoughts and reflections

B.R. Ambedkar and his prophecies

Today, 14th April, is the birth-day of Dr. B.R. Ambed­kar, the prin­ci­pal archi­tect of the Indian Con­sti­tu­tion. I hadn’t read much of Ambed­kar before, and I almost acci­den­tally stum­bled upon his work while read­ing John Dewey as a part of grad-school work. Ambed­kar, it turns out, stud­ied under Dewey at Colum­bia, and con­sid­ered Dewey as one of his favorite teach­ers — a paper out­lin­ing the influ­ence of Dewey on Ambed­kar can be found here.

A cou­ple of weeks back, I was read­ing the speech that Ambed­kar gave towards the end of the con­sti­tu­tion draft­ing process. Even after nearly 65 years, the speech rings largely true, in an almost prophetic man­ner. The text of the entire speech is avail­able online as a part of the pub­lic par­lia­men­tary pro­ceed­ings (vol­ume XI, part 11, pages 55 – 63), and here are some excepts that I thought are extremely rel­e­vant even today:

If we wish to main­tain democ­racy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judg­ment we must do is to hold fast to con­sti­tu­tional meth­ods of achiev­ing our social and eco­nomic objec­tives. It means we must aban­don the bloody meth­ods of rev­o­lu­tion. It means that we must aban­don the method of civil dis­obe­di­ence, non coöper­a­tion and satya­graha. When there was no way left for con­sti­tu­tional meth­ods for achiev­ing eco­nomic and social objec­tives, there was a great deal of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for uncon­sti­tu­tional meth­ods. But where con­sti­tu­tional meth­ods are open, there can be no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for these uncon­sti­tu­tional meth­ods. These meth­ods are noth­ing but the Gram­mar of Anar­chy and the sooner they are aban­doned, the bet­ter for us.’

This cau­tion is far more nec­es­sary in the case of India than in the case of any other coun­try. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devo­tion or hero-worship, plays a part in its pol­i­tics unequalled in mag­ni­tude by the part it plays in the pol­i­tics of any other coun­try in the world. Bhakti in reli­gion may be a road to the sal­va­tion of the soul. But in pol­i­tics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degra­da­tion and to even­tual dictatorship.’

On the 26th of Jan­u­ary 1950, we are going to enter into a life of con­tra­dic­tions. In pol­i­tics we will have equal­ity and in social and eco­nomic life we will have inequal­ity. In pol­i­tics we will be rec­og­niz­ing the prin­ci­ple of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and eco­nomic life, we shall, by rea­son of our social and eco­nomic struc­ture, con­tinue to deny the prin­ci­ple of one man one value. How long shall we con­tinue to live this life of con­tra­dic­tions? How long shall we con­tinue to deny equal­ity in our social and eco­nomic life? If we con­tinue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our polit­i­cal democ­racy in peril. We must remove this con­tra­dic­tion at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble moment or else those who suf­fer from inequal­ity will blow up the struc­ture of polit­i­cal democ­racy which this Assem­bly has so labo­ri­ously built up.’

Programming with Maps

One of my core guid­ing prin­ci­ples while design­ing data-centered toolk­its based on Scratch has been to con­nect to inter­ests and pas­sions of the learn­ers (this comes from the design prin­ci­ples of Scratch, and can be traced back to the prin­ci­ple of “per­sonal res­o­nance”, out­lined by Papert in Mind­storms). One of the most promis­ing and rich­est areas to con­nect to per­sonal inter­ests through data seems to be maps and geo-data. Maps make it pos­si­ble to engage in a vast range of cre­ative expres­sion, start­ing from story-telling to sci­ence exper­i­ments, from map/geo-data based games (Geoguessr!) to inter­ac­tive vir­tual tours of one’s neigh­bor­hood.

Over the last year, I have been devel­op­ing a research pro­to­type for what I call Map­Scratch — a visual pro­gram­ming toolkit on top of Scratch that makes it pos­si­ble to pro­gram with maps and geo­graph­i­cal data. As with my other projects, this toolkit also tries to be closely cou­pled with the larger Scratch ecosys­tem, with the end goal of hav­ing entry-points for as many inter­ests as pos­si­ble. If this goal is met, a map enthu­si­ast (who is a novice pro­gram­mer) will be able dive into pro­gram­ming with maps with equal ease as an expe­ri­enced Scratch game maker, who wants to add maps to her lat­est game. Here’s a video from an early pro­to­type (you may need to watch it in fullscreen HD to read the text on the pro­gram­ming blocks):

Map Scratch is still in devel­op­ment, and there are still a cou­ple of thorny design and tech­ni­cal prob­lems to sort out, but I hope to have it out for every­one by the end of this year. From the early feed­back that I’ve got­ten from users, this promises to be a lot of fun.

পিট সীগার

খুব ছোটবেলার কথা, তখনও ক্লাস ওয়ানে উঠিনি। একদিন দুপুরবেলায় নার্সারি স্কুল থেকে ফিরছি, হঠাৎ বাড়ির কাছে দাদা-দিদিদের স্কুলের মাঠে দেখি সবাই মিলে একসঙ্গে গান গাইছে:

একদিন সূর্যের ভোর
একদিন স্বপ্নের ভোর
একদিন সত্যের ভোর
আসবেই
এই মনে আছে বিশ্বাস
আমরা করি বিশ্বাস
সত্যের ভোর আসবে
একদিন।।
We shall over­come
We shall over­come some­day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe that
We shall over­come someday

শব্দগুলির মর্ম তখন খুব একটা বুঝিনি, কিন্তু গানটা কিরকম মাথায় বিঁধে গিয়েছিল — আগে কখনো বাংলা-ইংরেজী মেশানো গান শুনিনি, হয়তো সেই জন্যই।

এরপরে বেশ কিছু বছর কেটে গেছে — পাড়ার স্কুল ছেড়ে সাউথ পয়েন্টে পড়া শুরু করেছি, হয়তো ক্লাস ফাইভ কি সিক্স-এ পড়ি। একদিন শুনি মা খুব উত্তেজিত হয়ে কাউকে একটা বলছে, “জানো, নজরুল মঞ্চে পিট সীগার গান গাইবেন”। নজরুল মঞ্চের অনুষ্ঠানে যাওয়া শেষ পর্যন্ত হয়ে ওঠেনি, কিন্তু সেই সুবাদে পিট সীগারের একটা ক্যাসেট বাড়িতে হাজির হল। বইয়ের আলমারির উপর ক্যাসেট প্লেয়ার থাকত — তখনও বেশ ছোটখাটো ছিলাম, তাই চেয়ার টেনে, তার উপর চড়ে, ক্যাসেট প্লেয়ারে ক্যাসেট চালিয়ে দেখি, ওমা, এতো সেই পুরোনো চেনা গান — We shall over­come। বার বার শুনলাম — আরো শুনলাম, গুয়ান্তানামেরা, Where have all the flow­ers gone, If I had a ham­mer, ইত্যাদি।

অনেক বছর পরে আবার — তখন আমি আমেরিকায়, MIT-তে পড়াশুনো শুরু করেছি। সারা দেশে Occupy আন্দোলন ছড়িয়ে পড়েছে — বস্টনের ক্যাম্পে দুই একবার আমিও গিয়েছি, কথাবার্তা হচ্ছে কিভাবে ক্যাম্পে বিদ্যুৎ সরবরাহের ব্যবস্থা করা যেতে পারে। একদিন সন্ধ্যেবেলায় দেখি, টিভিতে দেখাচ্ছে নিউ ইয়রর্য়কের রাস্তায় হাজার হাজার আন্দোলনকারীদের সঙ্গে বৃদ্ধ পিট সীগার হাঁটছেন, সেই একই গান মুখে, We shall overcome।

গত মঙ্গলবার সকালবেলায় নিউ ইয়রর্য়ক টাইম্স খুলে জানতে পারলাম, পিট সীগার মারা গেছেন। মাথায় অনেক কিছু ভাবনা ঘুরছিল। সরাসরি কখনো দেখার সুযোগ হলো না, পিট-এর মাধ্যমেই আমার মার্কিন গানের সঙ্গে প্রথম আলাপ, ইত্যাদি। কিন্তু সবকিছুর মধ্যে যেটা বারবার ফিরে আসছিল, সেটা এই যে, পিট-এর মধে্য দিয়ে আমি এক অন্য আমেরিকাকে দেখেছি। যে আমেরিকাকে আমরা বাইরে থেকে রোজ টিভিতে, খবরের কাগজে দেখি, যে আমেরিকার সাম্রাজ্যবাদের বিরুদ্ধে ধর্মতলায় মিছিল হয়, সেই আমেরিকার থেকে আলাদা এক আমেরিকাকে পিট তুলে ধরতে পেরেছিলেন। পিট বলতেন, “The key to the future of the world, is find­ing the opti­mistic sto­ries and let­ting them be known”। এই চিন্তাটাকে সবসময় মাথায় রাখাটা বোধহয় খুব জরুরী।

Blanket censorship of websites in India

In May this year, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Inter­net users in India were blocked from access­ing a num­ber of web­sites, includ­ing The Pirate Bay, Vimeo, etc. While it’s amaz­ing (and sad­den­ing) to see the incred­i­ble amount of influ­ence the Indian movie indus­try has on the Indian law-enforcement — I’m wait­ing to see what hap­pens when this gets extended to Youtube. Over the last few months, I’ve started to see an increas­ing num­ber of full-length Indian movies being uploaded to Youtube, and I would not be really sur­prised to see a sud­den blan­ket ban on Youtube as well. And that would be inter­est­ing — Vimeo, The Pirate Bay, etc, are ulti­mately niche sites, com­pared to Youtube, and there’s a good chance that the reac­tion to Youtube being blocked would be much more vocal. Addi­tion­ally, Youtube hosts con­tent for sev­eral gov­ern­ment funded and sup­ported ini­tia­tives (eg. NPTEL), and with a blan­ket ban, the gov­ern­ment would be effec­tively cen­sor­ing its own con­tent. It would be inter­est­ing to see how the media com­pa­nies in India deal with this — will they adopt the prac­tices of com­pa­nies in the US to work with Youtube and try and (com­pu­ta­tion­ally) iden­tify infring­ing con­tent, or will they fig­ure out some alter­na­tive route? The area of “anti-piracy” cen­sor­ship in India is going to get quite inter­est­ing very soon.

The curious case of the Aakash tablet

Last month, the New York Times pub­lished a blog post titled “The Aakash Project’s Bit­ter Fin­ish”, out­lin­ing a num­ber of prob­lems that led to a very prob­lem­atic state of affair with the ambi­tious project. While some of them seem to be clas­sic exam­ples of bureau­cratic botch-ups (test­ing cri­te­ria lifted directly from specs of ruggedi­zed HP lap­tops, etc), there also seems to be deeper issues at hand. Unless I’m miss­ing some­thing, it was never clear at any point what the ped­a­gog­i­cal goal or method­ol­ogy of the project was — the only thing I could glean from infor­ma­tion from var­i­ous news out­lets is the fact that Aakash was pri­mar­ily des­tined to be a con­tent con­sump­tion device, enabling lit­tle beyond the rote-learning model we are so accus­tomed to. A com­put­ing device has incred­i­ble poten­tial to be an object to think with, rather than an object to con­sume with, and it is ter­ri­bly frus­trat­ing to see sig­nif­i­cant of effort and money going into a half-baked idea that merely scratches the sur­face of the pos­si­bile oppurtunities.

The National Cur­ricu­lum Frame­work (2005), released by the Indian National Coun­cil of Edu­ca­tion Research and Train­ing (NCERT) states:

If ET (edu­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy) is to become a means of enhanc­ing cur­ric­u­lar reform, it must treat the major­ity of teach­ers and chil­dren not merely as con­sumers but also as active producers.

A com­put­ing device can be an ideal medium for learn­ers to con­struct and explore knowl­edge, through the active manip­u­la­tion and pro­duc­tion of dig­i­tal arti­facts, and I sin­cerely hope that the next set of ideas that come up around Aakash (or a sim­i­lar pro­gram) take this into account.

Rel­e­vant dis­clo­sure: I have been in the past, involved with the One Lap­top Per Child project. My cur­rent research involves explor­ing com­pu­ta­tion as a medium for expres­sion and creativity.

A long overdue thanks

Some­time back, I was read­ing an arti­cle about the some­what uglier side of coder cul­ture. I per­son­ally feel that the arti­cle gen­er­al­izes a bit too much, though I have def­i­nitely, on occa­sion, have had to deal with very aggres­sive and annoy­ing behav­ior from fel­low coders. How­ever, this post it not about those inci­dents — this is about some­thing of the oppo­site nature.

Way back in 2002, I was just get­ting started con­tribut­ing to FOSS, and one of the things I was excited about was local lan­guage com­put­ing, espe­cially sup­port­ing Bangla in Free and Open Source Soft­ware. I had very lit­tle clue about what had to be done, but it was an excit­ing and mean­ing­ful project to work on, and I had found peo­ple from other parts of the world who were inter­ested in col­lab­o­rat­ing with me over email and IRC, so we were slowly mak­ing some progress. I was still in high-school. In August 2002, I sud­denly got con­tacted by a group of peo­ple (among whom was Venky Har­i­ha­ran), invit­ing me to join a Indic Com­put­ing Work­shop in Ban­ga­lore. After a bit of back and forth which looked like “oh, but I’m just a high-school stu­dent”, “that’s fine, we want you to be here”, etc. I finally found myself in a plane to Ban­ga­lore (tick­ets cour­tesy the orga­niz­ers). Once in the work­shop though, I started to have a major attack of what I would now prob­a­bly describe as impos­tor com­plex. I was def­i­nitely the youngest attendee in the work­shop — most of the other par­tic­i­pants were either pro­fes­sional devel­op­ers, or estab­lished mem­bers of the open source com­mu­nity. There were a sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence from acad­e­mia as well. The anx­i­ety eased a bit over the next cou­ple of days — it was an incred­i­bly fun and friendly com­mu­nity, and I was glad to find peo­ple who shared the same pas­sion around Indic Com­put­ing that I did at that time. How­ever, the nicest moment came when I was leav­ing. I had an early flight, so I was leav­ing in the mid­dle of a ses­sion and I sud­denly noticed Karunakar, who was already quite a “rock­star” in the local-language com­put­ing space, run­ning towards me. He stopped me as I was leav­ing, shook my hands, and in his usual quiet style, men­tioned that he was really glad to have met me face-to-face, and that he hoped to con­tinue our inter­ac­tions online. It was a small ges­ture, but a very sig­nif­i­cant one for me per­son­ally. It made me feel much more wel­come and com­fort­able in the com­mu­nity, and ulti­mately, made me much more enthu­si­as­tic about being a participant.

So, after nearly 10 years, to Karunakar, a long over­due thanks! :-)

Recent events in West Bengal and the role of the Internet

The sit­u­a­tion in West Ben­gal (the state in India I come from) is get­ting scary. A Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor was arrested (and beaten up, though not by the police) for for­ward­ing emails con­tain­ing car­toons that were crit­i­cal of the chief min­is­ter. While it’s wor­ry­ing and sad­den­ing to see this kind of bla­tant repres­sion of dis­sent and intol­er­ance towards crit­i­cism, to me, it is even more wor­ry­ing (and scary) to see the pre­text of the arrest. Accord­ing to news reports, a clause involv­ing “deroga­tory images” of the Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy act was invoked for the arrest. It is debat­able whether the images in the car­toon in ques­tion were deroga­tory or not, and also, it raises fur­ther ques­tion about the use of the some­what vague term to sur­press dis­sent and crit­i­cism of any kind. News­pa­per car­toons has been around for cen­turies, and it is wor­ry­ing to see a very dif­fer­ent bar being set for what hap­pens online. More­over, it also looks like the crime inves­ti­ga­tion bureau of the state (the CID) has asked for IP addresses from Facebookto fig­ure out the orig­i­nal uploader of the images. Again, very scary, since IP addresses rarely tell the com­plete story, and given the his­tory of the knee-jerk reac­tion of Indian law-enforcement, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if some­one gets harassed with­out valid rea­sons (assum­ing the some­what remote pos­si­bil­ity of Face­book actu­ally divulging the IP addresses).

The next four years…

Last Fri­day I accepted the admis­sion offer for the PhD pro­gram at the MIT Media Lab — which means I’ll be con­tin­u­ing in the Life­long Kinder­garten research group for four more years. The last two years of the Mas­ters pro­gram have been an amaz­ing ride. Ini­tially it took me a while to reg­is­ter that I was, in fact, in grad-school, but once I did, and after hav­ing had the chance to work with Mitch and the other won­der­ful mem­bers of the group (and beyond), it was an easy deci­sion to accept the admis­sion offer. I still do not know for sure what direc­tion I’ll take in terms of research after the Mas­ters the­sis process is over — I’ll def­i­nitely con­tinue to explore the space of pro­gram­ming with data, but there are some other things in the pipeline as well which I would like to try. The next four years look exciting!

Thinking beyond programming

App Inven­tor re-appeared last week, now hosted by MIT, and I have been fol­low­ing some of the dis­cus­sions in var­i­ous online forums fol­low­ing the (re)launch. I’m a bit sur­prised by the intense debate that seems to be going on among the com­ments about the value of block based pro­gram­ming. While fig­ur­ing out the inner work­ings of how your computer/mobile device works, and writ­ing low-level (assem­bly?) code is cer­tainly valu­able, that is not the goal of tools like App Inven­tor or Scratch. These tools uti­lize pro­gram­ming, but the larger, big pic­ture goal is to engage young peo­ple in acts of cre­ativ­ity that are also per­son­ally mean­ing­ful. Not every­one likes to cal­cu­late fac­to­ri­als after six months of learn­ing how to pro­gram. There’s a sig­nif­i­cant amount of value of hav­ing low bar­ri­ers to entry, and that, com­bined with the per­sonal mean­ing­ful­ness can cre­ate an extremely pow­er­ful medium for young learn­ers to engage in acts of cre­ativ­ity. Being able to cre­ate a mobile app, how­ever kludgy it might be, gives you immense sat­is­fac­tion, much more than being able to detect palin­dromes (at least for a major­ity). Pro­gram­ming has become more and more com­pli­cated over the years, slowly mov­ing any mean­ing­ful project out of reach of begin­ners — draw­ing a sin­gle line on a screen can require tens of lines of code. Tools like Scratch, App Inven­tor try to reverse the trend. That’s some­thing which most peo­ple seem to forget.

All this is noth­ing new for my usual cir­cle of friends and co-workers. How­ever, see­ing the com­ments and dis­cus­sions online reminded me that we need to do a bet­ter job of spread­ing these ideas.

Mini high-school reunions half way across the world

Ever since I came to Cam­bridge, I have been get­ting a steady stream of friends from my high-school vis­it­ing the greater Boston area. My friends and col­leagues at the Media Lab are often sur­prised by the fre­quency of instances where I intro­duce a vis­i­tor as a high-school friend. By the end of this year, I would even have two close high-school friends liv­ing within a cou­ple of hours of dri­ving distance.

These meet­ings, half-way around the world from where we grew up and became friends, makes me happy (it’s always fun to catch up, and have long adda ses­sions), but also makes me reflect about how peo­ple are migrat­ing away from West Ben­gal and India. Grow­ing up, I used to hear about the “brain-drain”, and over the last 3 – 4 years, I encoun­tered the term “reverse brain-drain” a num­ber of times. How­ever, my per­sonal expe­ri­ence still points towards an over­all brain drain, espe­cially for friends who have gone or are going for advanced (post-graduate) stud­ies. It’s entirely pos­si­ble that this is too early to make a com­ment, and per­haps many of us will return (and con­tribute to the “reverse brain-drain”), but I’m not that opti­mistic. I guess only time will tell…