Saturday, February 21, 2015

A renewed perspective of Education: A few good Professors

I am attempting to crystallize my non-technical learning after 3-ish semesters of a Master's program. My main motivation to do this is to contrast my opinions and ideas with an earlier post which was written while I was working after my Bachelor's. I hope to revisit this and learn my motivations a few years later. I hope my experiences as a Teaching Assistant have also led to a few "other side of the fence" views.

I am going to organize the post into what I feel are a few components of a good learning experience.

a) An education system that races to the bottom has a hard time producing excellence. The most important realization I had was that the very act of expecting the impossible and having it delivered is how things should work. I remember a Professor of mine saying that year after year they increase the difficulty on Labs hoping that some year students complain, every year the students beat expectations. The particular assignment here was writing a library that performs certain computations in as few operations as possible, one year a student broke the scoreboard (the highest possible score) by using Vector instructions, another year a student manipulated float instructions to do faster integer ops and so on. Essentially the course staff are constantly playing catch up to how good the students are, they do this by leaving room to learn themselves.

Another important feature of this process is that the course staff never says something is hard, once the expectations are set that a goal is feasible, human beings find a way. The context in which we view a problem becomes important. If everyone around you is racing to find a better solution and the challenge itself is by no means trivial, it automatically forces intense learning. If a student ever feels like they are exceeding expectations, they stop.

b) Creating a problem that requires creativity is much, much harder than the problem itself. Consider an Assignment, lets take a CS course to be more precise, the assignment needs to adhere to these goals:
  • It needs to be non-trivial, as hard as possible.
  • It needs to provide a vast design space.
  • It needs to have an evaluation scheme that recognizes and rewards that creativity.
  • Fostering competition among the students is a good property.
  • It needs to be interesting and fun!
  • Providing learning in other aspects apart from the problem itself (team skills, tools, dealing with tradeoffs and failure).
This stuff is hard, really HARD to come up with. An instructor needs to be steps ahead of all participants. If the problem is simply hard, but has no way of acknowledging a kickass solution, there will never be a race to find the solutions. All these things need to be perfectly balanced. If you see a well executed assignment, there are some insanely smart people behind that.

c) A level playing field is extremely important. If a student ever feels that pure hard work is insufficient or not correlated to his/her performance, the mirage immediately evaporates, there is no recovery from that. A course needs to be designed with rules, a well thought out deviation policy and it needs to constantly learn from its mistakes.  If a course ever tolerates cheating or unfair advantages, the damage is permanent. Every decision needs to be made keeping in mind all students.

d) The goals of education are always towards the betterment of, well, everything. The instructors wield control over what the students end up liking and doing. It is important that instructors are aware of this and working towards it.

My takeaway from the "meta" aspect of the college experience is a renewed confidence in traditional learning, an understanding of why education needs the smartest people to gravitate towards education to complete the loop and a much required lesson in thinking about thinking.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

UT2004 Linux - Internet Grayed out

At long last I got my hands on UT2004 (Steam Summer Sale!), and I wanted to play on ubuntu 12, it finally worked (no audio still, working on that, will update) (the guide I used as a base)

  1. Install the game on Wine
  2. Get the CDKEY from ("wine regedit" on the terminal) /HKEY_LOCAL_SYSTEM/Software/Unrea*/CDKEY
  3. mv ~/.wine/drive_c//steamapps/common/ ~/UT2004/
  4. Download and extract the patch, and exctract it to ~/UT2004, it will ask to replace a bunch of files
  5. Add ubuntu universe repository to /etc/apt/sources.list "deb hardy main universe"
  6. sudo apt-get install libsdc++5
  7. cd ~/UT2004/System
  8. ./ut2004-bin-amd64
  9. If there are any dependencies resolve them following this guide

 Now when I started the game under "Join Game", "Internet" was grayed out, so I did this

  1. sudo vi /etc/nsswitch.conf
  2. in the "hosts:" line move dns to arrange the line like this "hosts: file dns
After this it worked fine. Hope this helped.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Colossus

Burned and broken,
Twisted and trampled,
The blaze of a thousand suns around him,
the soil reeked of a madness untold

The colossi circled,
it was time,
Conform, they told him,
Pulling at cords only they knew

Comforts and instincts of a lifetime simmered below the surface,
The warm lap of acceptance lay right there,
The hearth, the bed, the porridge seemed enchanting, soporific almost,
A lifetime of lasting rest lay before him

But something inextinguishable had sparked,
Colossus, what are you, if not just rocks and rust,
You are merely the result of slow decay,
If being human meant being thus, then damn god and his creations

The sword shone, and cut through rock,
In one swift motion the cord was cut,
He lay there unable to accept what he had done,
All that remained was a cold barren land

After what seemed like centuries,
A thought germinated,
The fear of the unknown evaporated,
Giving way to an unquenchable thirst

And he picked up the sabre, and set off

Remodelling Education in India

I have written and thought a lot about the greatest problem plaguing India today, the great educational divide, the fact that we expose our children, our greatest resource, to inadequate, or worse no education. This list covers the crux of the issue:

  1. Our education system is designed to give students information, and that's it, we don't tell them what to do with it, or how it helps make the world a better place, this approach should change to giving them base information, a foundation, and then teaching them how to source more information and most importantly how to apply it. For example when the student is faced with Calculus, the first question he should ask is "Why should I learn it, and where does it apply?", rather than "What weight age does it carry, and how to solve this exercise?"
  2. The above point applies to those students who are already in school and whose parents consider it important enough to send their kids to school, however there we ignore a vast majority of the population, of parents who look at their kids as extra labor during harvest season. Here we can use the power of incentives to tweak the situation.
  3. The third major issue is teachers, the teachers who are currently in our system are born out of the same system, and will continue to institute what they think the system should be, which is sub-optimal.

 A new and exciting development in India is the UIDAI scheme, which aims to electronically link every citizen with a bank account and his/her biometric data, at the core of things, what we have is an inalienable and incorruptible way of linking every human with a bank account. The scheme has its limitations, which might be the result of bad implementations on the field, but in the end they have 110 million numbers issued (1 in 10 people in India, the number still shocks me). This is Ingredient 1.

Now we have huge invest-able fund in India, in the form of NSCs (National Saving Certificates) and the Public Provident Fund. If we look at humans as investments (I know that is a very heartless way of looking at things), an amazing investment opportunity is our children. Imagine a child's parents are given Rs. 300 per month the child attends school, and this amount is to be paid back by automatic contributions to the NSC fund and the PPF once the child earns. The education is of course free. Now, the gaping hole will be cheaters, parents who enroll fictitious children and send their real children just for attendance (as happens in the mid-day meal scheme). And of course the middle men, now this is where Ingredient 1 comes into play, we have an incorruptible way of dispensing funds to parents (straight to their bank accounts, which are accessed bio-metrically). To prevent the parents cheating, the child has to take weekly standard tests (else the funds will be cut off), and his\her performance will determine the increment\decrement in funds, as well as the teachers salary. So here the teacher has a strong motive to ensure his\her class performs well, and the parents have an incentive to keep their children learning.

The first problem is closely linked to the third, because the teachers teach the subjects a particular way, the way they were taught, we solve the third problem partially in the above paragraph, the standard tests, the tests will be designed along practical lines. For Example, when teaching the area of circles, we can have a word problem which involves tree rings, we can cover percentage growth as well as geometry in this case. These tests will be designed by psychologists (they can closely mirror the PISA tests). Another area they can be tested is their ability to source information, they can be asked a question on Organic Chemistry and given an internet enabled device and asked to search for the answers and formulate them from blocks of information. And since we linked the teacher's incentives with performance, automatically the teacher teaches to equip them with this information.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Wander through the mists I must,
Not knowing that which all know,
Her icy breath upon my neck,
Chased and hunted through the fog

Pure rage engulfs, as the icy shards close,
A catharsis is nigh, says the banshee,
For you are stripped of all the superfluous,
You now lie naked before me and yourself

The revelation strikes,
All the know is meaningless without self examination,
For we are not merely vessels or vassals,
we are ephemeral clouds of consciousness

A consciousness born of senses,
To rise above the ashes,
And smell the burning past,
The amalgam seeps, breaking form

The sphere shatters,
All logic breaks, the spinning top falls,
Her cruel laugh pierces the icy winds,
Winds so cold, all that remains is me

A sweeping calm spreads across the fire and ice,
An eerie calm, while the echoes fade
You are reborn, anew

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Education Divide: A call to arms

I have followed PISA scores in the past, India has never participated in PISA before, when I heard Barack Obama stating that Chinese students are beating Americans at math, science and reading, I always assumed Indians would too, after all don't we have millions of students appearing for competitive exams each year, don't we all study nights to become good "engineers", as mummy and daddy want?

PISA is an international forum for assessment in math, reading and science (I checked out the sample questions, they are quite simple with no cultural bias, so those claiming cultural biases can keep their mum), PISA is given a large sample space by the government of a country, after which they randomly select schools in that region to administer the standard test. Traditionally US has finished somewhere in the middle, beaten by most other first world countries and China and few other Asian  countries (notably Japan).

 "An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will." 
-Thomas Jefferson

Education is paramount to keeping the progress in India on track, I already had a bad opinion of our generation (based on the observation of a larger non-university set), after looking at the PISA scores I feel like a curtain was cruelly lifted and the world view I saw was very far removed from the reality. I feel enraged that our students are deliberately kept in the dark through means like vernacular learning, bad teachers and inadequate funding. I have subtly pointed out in past posts that languages spoken by smaller groups of people across the world need to be eradicated, and a universal standard language needs to be adopted, this will standardize all channels of communication. These results are a huge reason to do so.

These results were taken from Tamil Nadu and Himachal pradesh, 5000 students from english medium schools sat for the tests, now the problem is that most states switch to english as a medium of instruction only after primary school or middle schools, and the state governments encourage this as they get a voter base fiercly divided on linguistic lines, basically brainwashing them from primary school. As a result of this when these students facesay science and history in english, they are baffled, and this leads to de-motivation and poor performance and will result in stunted academics, as the tests show.

A simple solution to this problem is to universalize the medium of instruction.

This issue should be of paramount importance, pushing aside middle-class non-issues such as the Lokpal Bill, the country needs to get enraged and fast, because as we speak our next generation of half-baked engineers and politicians is being eduated to be as bad as we are. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Power of Mortality

Steve Jobs in his Stanford address mentions that one of the most powerful tools he uses to get things done is, ponder over death, the realization that we are all here temporarily has the amazing power to clear away the mundane. I believe in everyone's life there comes a time when they realize that they are nothing but frail pieces of matter that will dissolve. This can be brought upon by a near death experience or by the death of a loved one, or the realization simply strikes. At this point you can take two paths, ignore the event and push the thought out of your life, and resume with the routine, or you can pause and meditate over this fact. Most people choose the former, I decide to experiment with the latter.

My observations were, first there is a feeling of extreme hopelessness, and perhaps anger at that hopelessness and a strong desire to forget about it. This phase can severely disrupt activities as it will inevitably lead to the question "What's the point?". This is followed an urgent need to get as much done as possible (in pursuit of an imaginary bucket list perhaps), this can last weeks and will lead to decisions which will be completely out of character. The third phase is reflection, which is that you will reflect upon and regret many of your actions (especially in the distant past), at this point popular wisdom will instruct us not to regret, move on and live in the present (and so forth), however I am of the opinion that this is a great fallacy, as the ability to regret is one of the fundamental things that make us human, not feeling regret is a sure sign of psychopathy, when we feel regret, we are feeding the positive loop of not repeating actions that have bad consequences for the people they affect (including oneself), and may also provide a form of closure.

The reflection moves on to analyzing important people in one's life, one's parents, one's relatives,one's friends and so forth, followed by a desire to reach out and right past wrongs, help people, and reassure oneself that one is not alone in this cold dark universe. This has a positive on both parties, as it is a back-stroke for the ponderer and a reminder to those being analyzed that they too are not alone. After this is the most important phase, acceptance, acceptance of one's finiteness, of one's goals, aspirations, relationships, and mortality. This will result in inner peace and harmony. And then the ponderer can begin using this acceptance to get things moving.

Whenever we are faced with a decision, or a task, we can always pause and reflect, this will automatically clear the choices which are not ideal, and lead to optimum solutions. Basically enable us to lead fuller lives and grant meaning to our actions.