Technologies in the classroom


How to modernise education? How to make use of new technological developments that are around us to make learning in schools better? These are some of the questions that we will look at in the current post. In particular, we will be looking at the so-called satellite education as being implemented in some schools.

In many discussions regarding education, the teachers are usually blamed for not doing their assigned jobs correctly. There is some truth in these accusations. Having worked with teachers at different levels (primary to university) and in different settings (govt schools, private elite schools, teacher training institutes, colleges, and universities) I have come to the conclusion that teachers are part of the problem. This will be elaborated in another post and before you draw out your pitchforks the disclaimer: of course there are good teachers, who do their jobs well.

So one of the solutions is to take these good teachers to all the classrooms. Of course, it cannot be done in a physical way. This is where the technological advance pitches in. We take the good teachers to classrooms via satellites. The TV in the classroom becomes the blackboard, which allows the students to get the best of experiences that the system can offer. Now, this is not just limited to schools but also colleges, some of the best institutes in the country are offering “distance-education” courses like this. The government has invested a large sum in higher education in the form of Swayam channels. These channels are running lectures by various faculties of institutes across India 24×7. Mind you most of these are not specially produced lectures for the TV, they are recordings of usual lectures that these faculties give to their classes. Most are boring af, with them reading out the powerless-pointless slides one after other. They cram as much text as possible on these slides. Making them dense in terms of ink ratio, but unfathomable in terms of learning from them. Anyways this is a subject for another post.

Imagination and philosophies

Our sense of imagination is limited by what we know, and the
philosophies that we subscribe to. For some, it is clear about what their assumptions are for others it is not. They think that this is how it should be, completely ignorant of the notion that some of their concepts are based on assumptions. For some people, this is something that they are aware of, for most of us, we are not aware of this. Many
times we think of finding solace in things which are traditional. Since it has stood the test of time, it must have some inherent value they say. It is our ignorance and arrogance that we are not seeing any value in it. Hence people resist change. Why try something new which might or might work, or work equally well when we have something which is tried and tested? Of course, stability is important, but then stability does not lead to change. Yet when people change things, they try to replicate the models that they have found to work, and hence reducing the risk.

If we apply the same idea with regards to education, we also come across many such examples. The satellite television used in the classroom is one such case. The idea is not new. As soon as television technology became commonly feasible in the 50s and 60s, immediately some pedagogues of the era jumped to the idea of using them for education. This ideally suited the “transmission model” of education which was in vogue at that time with behaviorism ruling the roost of psychology in general and education in particular. In a way, learning via television is the ultimate epitome of the transmission model. In a regular classroom, there is at least a scope for the teacher and student to interact. But in this case, the entire flow of information is in one direction. The transmission is the transmission of learning. No wonder for many decades, and even now television was seen as a game-changer and harbinger of technological learning. Television was also seen as non-invasive technology, as it is passive which works for everyone involved, except perhaps for the most important stakeholders the learner. The television didn’t and doesn’t challenge the traditional “transmission model” of education, which most teachers and stakeholders (including parents) do believe in. The values which enlightened pedagogues worship, find a very low priority with most other stakeholders.

The central mindset in education

The term “centralised mindset” refers to the idea that in complex systems there has to be a controlling agent who overseas all executions.  The centralised mindset refers to a belief that any system which works well must have a system or authority (in the form of a person or a group) which must somehow control the mechanism. The belief in the centralised mindset is that the individuals in a complex system are too unintelligent to behave in a coordinated, complex manner. For example, for a long time, it was believed that the “V” formation that one sees in the flying birds is due to a “leader” in the group. This supposed leader will make the group fall in the “V” patterns by organising the other group members. This is a very intuitive model that appeals to common sense. Whenever we see some patterns, we assume there must be an inherent design or a designer. In the case of the birds in “V” shape the same logic applies. There must be a leader who makes sure such a pattern is created. But such a view, however intuitive and correct it may seem is incorrect. As it happens with most of the other principles in science, in this case too the correct explanation is counter-intuitive. There is no leader in the case of the birds. The “V” pattern that we see is an example of what is known as an emergent phenomenon. It arises from the interaction of the birds which are flying together. When all the individuals follow simple rules in interacting with their neighbours, the “V” pattern emerges. The people who believe in a central leader are wrong in this case. It is a fiction that makes things that we observe easy to accept. But it is not correct. For many such examples and deeper discussions, see Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick.

There are several natural and artificial phenomena where earlier we (including the experts who propose such explanations) though that there was a central control involved in creating patterns, but in most cases, we have discovered otherwise. The counter-intuitive explanation that there is no central control or mechanism just doesn’t appeal to people. How can it be that there is no central control and yet the thing works on its own? Do we always need a centralised control? People argue that without a centralised control there will be chaos or anarchy. Stable patterns of behaviour or observations cannot emerge, it is assumed if there is no central control. Examples are given of a central governing that we are used to so much.

Now you might be wondering what has this to do with education? The general bureaucracy in the educational field is seen as centralised. For example, the creation of a textbook or syllabus or curriculum and assessment is always a centralised process. Think of the board exams.

Why cannot a school or a teacher decide upon textbooks and curriculum?

Why this is so? Because that is how it was in the other government departments. This is what the tradition says. A bunch of experts (preferably with a prefix of a Dr. or Prof.) will decide for everyone what they should learn and more importantly how they should learn it and most importantly how will this learning be assessed. This triumvirate or what to learn, how to learn and how to assess is assumed to be too complex and too important to be left to the plebs. This is where centralised mindset in the form of centralised expert committees is brought in.

The power of the teacher in the classroom is reduced to
a mere executioner ( a meek dictator if you will, as per Krishna Kumar) of all the algorithms set for them to follow. Some good teachers would improvise on this little elbow room that the classroom did offer. But now in an effort to make it
more central in discourse and execution, a centralised teacher and
teaching is needed. Indeed this is the idea behind the satellite television in the
classrooms. To ensure that quality (standardised) education reaches all learners. This also reduces the load on the local teachers, who just have to shepherd the learners to the AV room, and their job is done. The parents are happy as their children are supposed to be learning from the best teacher. And this happens live in some cases, I witnessed this entire process in Rajasthan. Seeing it from the studio being recorded and transmitted live via the satellite, and also saw (at another time) how it is received and executed in the schools. In some cases for interactivity and feedback, a Whatsapp number is provided where the teachers or the learners can reach out to the teacher in the studio. This teacher at the studio genuinely believed that he was being helpful to the students and the system worked. The proof for this was not some study but the messages he received from the school teachers thanking him for taking their class. Real interactivity which might happen in an actual classroom was found to be missing.

Just like the illustration on the top of the post shows, the core idea in the satellite television in the classroom is to centrally repeat the process of transmission of knowledge to all the learners with an added bonus of synchronicity. One act can be used at multiple locations. But this creates inhibitions for interactivity. Constructivism of the experts can go for a toss. Why do we need to create a custom curriculum for each child, when one expert in one manner can teach them all at the same time?


The Forbidden Library


What do you do when you find something offensive? Whether it be a book, a film or any other art form? You ask for a ban. You not only ban the book, perhaps want to ban the creator of the said object, including all their other work. We will explore Let us look at the dictionary meaning of ban:

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 4.25.26 PM

Over the centuries, the powers to be, have banned books and other materials or ideas which they found offensive. But the idea for bans is not always from the state. Grieved individuals often take upon themselves to argue for a ban on a given book or other material. But why would anyone want to ban anything? There seem to be two major reasons, both ideological for this. Both of them involve cultural and societal values.

Every society has some agreed upon norms about behaviour in public, interactions between individuals and things which are considered “normal”. Now, if you look at different cultures, it does take a genius to see those different cultures have different norms. If you look at the same culture historically, you will see that norms change with time. What was blasphemous in the last generation is acceptable now. For example, in the Indian context consider inter-caste marriages. It would be almost impossible to think of it (especially if the female is from the higher caste) in our grandfather’s generation. Manusmriti has

In an earlier post, I had discussed the absurdity of television censorship. The main reason seems to be that in the case of television the continuous flow of images with sound creates a sense of participation for the viewers, whereas they are just consuming. The attention span of the viewers on the television is the most treasured commodity. To keep the viewers glued to the screen, the content creators use a variety of means. The spectacle is out there. Feeding the viewers, satiating their bored lives showing them things that they will never ever get. Playboy and National Geographic are essentially same, they show you things that you are never going to see by yourselves. They create a reality away from reality in which the viewer is lured in and then stuck in a quagmire. In this state, the opinions can be changed, altered as per the desires of the creators.

This thematic idea is captured very well in this couplet by Piyush Mishra in a song from Gulaal.

जैसे हर एक बात पे डिमॉक्रेसी में लगने लग गयो बैन

Just like in democracy there is a ban for everything in democracy.

The banning of books or that of materials which the state or a group of people seem inappropriate is perhaps the easiest way to

On the same theme, some of the stand-up comedians in India have expressed their opinions in this video I am Offended.  It is a good watch, particularly the intolerant times in which we are. This video, I think points to many of the issues that we have considered here particularly in the current social Indian context.

Two works resonate the idea of censorship and banning of books very well. They are Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451. In both these works, the core idea is the control of ideas, information and knowledge. So much so that the language to be used by the people is restricted. Certain words are removed from public memory by force. Any use of these words is akin to treason. Nineteen Eighty-Four has Thought Police, who control and report what is said. Even saying  thinking about something taboo is a crime.  We can see a certain trend in the contemporary Indian context. This MO has been effectively used to discredit dissent. Using in the age of connected computers this becomes even easier. It is easy to target people sitting in the comfort of your bed, in a sustained and meticulously planned manner. The so-called Keyboard Warriors are now being employed for making life hell for dissenting people. Anything goes.

Seemingly normal works of literature can be banned by using various contexts at different times and places. Just have a look at the list of books banned by governments across the globe. You will see many familiar titles there, and some of the reasons for their ban are even more bizzare. In the Indian context, history is highly coloured. The general public seems to consider historical fiction works as the history. I am a bit acquainted with Maratha history and seeing it being portrayed in a highly problematic manner in many of the popular titles makes me cringe. Yet, these titles remain on the best seller list. People reading these take them to be the de facto history without any need for evidence to the events depicted in these. When challenged about historical facts they cite these works of fiction as if they are some well researched historical documents supported by evidence. One can imagine what kind of conceptual edifice one will create with such misconceived notions about the past.

Alan Moore has interesting views on being a writer:  Words are magic, they can change and transform things. If we think about this, this indeed is the case. Ideas in the form of words do dictate our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Ideologies in the form of literature does control our life. So, a writer can write against what is popularly accepted. There are writers who are conformists, and there are writers who will swim against the flow. And it is the later ones who will find their work on the banned list more often than nought. Ideas and words are far more dangerous than mere physical humans. Writing in this era of perpetual ephemeral nature of electronic media makes this case even stronger. Entire works of a particular theme can be removed in a blink of an eye. Electronic media though makes it easy for the authors to publish and disseminate their work, it can also be controlled and removed as easily as with a simple click. Force and intimidation are used when direct banning is not possible. Don’t feed the trolls. When such a thing becomes the norm, we start to self-censor, the worst form of censoring. Because the moment you start to nip the thoughts in the bud, your entity changes.

It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:

George Orwell categorises the intentions for writing into these four

  • Sheer egoism: 
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm:

  • Historical impulse:

  • Political purpose:

The last of these he expands

Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

This is where authors who usually end up on the list of banned work find themselves. Perhaps the world-view that the author subscribes to is something against the incumbent and the inherent traditions of a given milieu. Whatever the reasons, mere words can make those in power feel threatened or humiliated. So it indeed the case that words do have magic, if it was not so we would not have works being banned at mere thought.


Why did not scientific revolution occur in India?

If one wonders why did not the scientific revolution happen in India some aspects of how knowledge was limited might have an implication. I present here a comparative study of conditions prevailing in the two societies, and how the presence of the printing press disrupted the traditional balance of knowledge and its sharing in the society. Unfortunately, in India, we have no counterpart to this event which could have lead to the spread of knowledge amongst the masses. Even if it were, the rigid caste system would have made it almost impossible for knowledge to be so freely transferred. In an era of a global village, we still feel strong repercussions of caste-based discrimination today.

Consider this about how knowledge was restricted to apprenticeship and was often lost in transition amongst the traditional Indian craftsmen.

The secret of perfection in art and crafts resided in individuals 
and was never widely publicized. Master-craftsmen trained their 
apprentices from a very tender age but they did not teach them the 
more subtle aspects of their craft. Neither did they write books 
revealing the secrets of their perfection. These points were revealed 
by the master-craftsman only towards the end of his life and only to 
a favoured apprentice. Their secrets often died with them. p. 211 
(Rizvi - Wonder that Was India Part 2)

This was compounded by the fact that the profession that one could practice was decided by the caste one was born in. In addition to this, the mostly oral nature of the Hindu theology in Sanskrit and exclusive rights to Brahmins as custodians of this knowledge played a huge role in stifling any societal or scientific progress. The extant books (both theological and scientific, mathematical) were mostly in Sanskrit, which again restricted their readership. And as they were reproduced by hand the copies and access to them was limited. The mobility between castes was strictly forbidden. Thus we have both theological as well as scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge bound by tradition which was not available to the general public by its design. Any leakage of such a knowledge to people who were not intended to know it was met with severe punishments.

In contrast to this, consider the situation in Europe. The church did have an control over the knowledge that was taught in the universities. The Bible was in Latin, which can be seen as European counterpart of Sanskrit in terms of its functions and reach, and the Church held authority over its interpretation and usage. The impact of movable type on the spread of the Bible is well known. The translation of the Bible to publicly spoken languages and its subsequent spread to the general public is seen as a major event in the renaissance and subsequently that of the scientific revolution. This was only possible due to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, again this did not have any counterpart in the Indian context. But as with any subversive technology the printing press did not only print the Bible. Soon, it was put to use to create materials for all types of readership.

First appearing around 1450 in the German city of Mainz, printing 
rapidly spread from Johann Gutenberg's original press throughout 
the German territories and northern Italy, most notably Venice. 
This establishment, during the second half of the century, of 
scores of print shops corresponds to two related features of 
European, especially Western European, society at that time.
The first is the fairly high rate of literacy on which the market 
for books and pamphlets was based. The second is the quite sudden 
wide availability of a multitude oE philosophical and general 
intellectual options. Together, these two features created a 
situation in which knowledge for very many people was no longer 
so chained to the texts of the university curriculum. This was a 
new situation practically without parallel. p. 24
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences)

This spread led to the creation of books in areas of knowledge where it was guarded or passed through apprenticeship.

In 1531 and 1532 there first appeared a  group of small booklets, 
known as Kunstbüchlein ("Iittle craft-books"), on a variety of 
practical craft and technical subjects. These anonymous books were 
produced from the shops of printers in a number of German cities, 
and catered to what they revealed as an eager appetite for such 
things not just among German craftsmen, but among literate people of 
the middling sort in general. They broke the perceived monopoly of 
the craft guilds over possession of such practical knowledge as made 
up metallurgy, dyeing or other chemical recipes, pottery or any of 
a multitude of potential household requisites. p. 26
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences) 

Though, as Dear rightly points in the next paragraph just having access to information of paper about a craft does not necessarily lead to practice as experts, it nonetheless helped to overcome a belief about the fact that knowledge indeed can be transferred in the form of books via the printing press.

In the coming century, the presence of the printing press helped the spread of knowledge to all parts of Europe in all subjects of inquiry. There is no parallel to this in the Indian context. Neither the technology (in the form of a printing press) nor the drive to spread the knowledge to the general masses was present in India. In this post, I have glossed over many details but I believe there were two main reasons for a scientific revolution to not happen in India are, first the connection of caste with profession and non-availability of a technology to spread knowledge to the general public. As a result, though earlier we had a better technology and scientific knowledge we did not have a Scientific Revolution. In the current era, with the connected devices, and also with caste not being a barrier to one’s profession, who knows we might be on the doorsteps of a revolution.


Knowledge: Technical and Scientific

Utility had been deliberately excluded from Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotle had nothing against practical knowledge, which he called techne; he simply did not consider it to be the same kind of thing as scientific knowledge, which he called episteme. From techne we have the word technology, which means to us largely the application of scientific knowledge, while from episteme we have the word epistemology, a branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, scientific or any other. For Aristotle, however, the difference between techne and episteme was not a difference between application and theory, but was one of sources of knowledge and goals of knowledge. The source of technical knowledge was practical experience and its goal was, roughly speaking, knowing what to do next time. The source of scientific knowledge was reason, and its goal was the  understanding of things through their causes.

–  Stillman Drake, Galileo A Very Short Introduction (p. 4)

Equity Over Excellence

There is an interesting piece in The Atlantic by Sergey Ivanov on the education system in Finland. Though the article is written from a viewpoint of an American, there are a lot of take home points for everyone and particularly for India. In this post I am trying to make sense of this article from an Indian standpoint. Through out the post if you just insert India for America (which I have done at places), it at once catches. For the problems Indians are facing are also the problems of the Americans, as we have more or less tried to follow their model of education. The basic theme that underlies the article
is this:

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because 
 it values equality more than excellence.

To many in the Indian context who believe that excellence must be given priority over equity this might be surprising. Surprising because it undermines a basic premise in their logic: that to excel in science and technology the only way is to promote excellence. In India there have been two distinct approaches to education, there is a clear stratification of the students based on standardized tests, and it is these tests which filter out students. But as the Finnish experience shows us that this need not be the case.

The newly found fame for Finland’s educational system comes after excellence of their students in the PISA scores since 2000. This seems paradoxical when we learn more about the educational system. The tried and trusted formulae of instructionism and rote-learning, which many people swear by, have almost no place there. The Finnish educational system seems like an educational philosophers utopian materialized in the real world.

To understand why it is working, the way it is, Indians will have to give away their long cherished beliefs about educational system. This would make the government more accountable towards education of the people. This is not just cosmetic school reform, but a revamping of the complete educational philosophy with which we are running the show.

One of the most intriguing (at least for me) things to notice is:

“Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in

This notion may seem difficult for an American (Indian?) to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

(emphasis added)

Now, this is interesting. What can we say about India? In fact over the years there has been general trend that we are seeing, that the number of private schools is increasing. And then there are branded schools which are spreading their networks across the country. Not to tell that they charge really hefty fees, and are meant for the elite. And so is the case with the colleges, each professional degree has a price tag, only people who can afford it, get those degrees. The haves not, the non-elites, who are mostly from the deprived classes, remain with almost no education. The government keeps on talking about reaching out to people, and by allowing the private schools colleges to exist, it is actually preventing people from joining in. Another aspect about this is that since there are alternatives to the government schools, the government schools themselves have no pressure to perform. And as any intelligent parents will tell you, it is better to put your child in a private school than a government one. Most of the parents who are in a financial position to put their children in private schools, do so.

How many parents do you know who have enrolled their children in government schools, even when they can afford private schools?

There was yet another interesting piece If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person in which the author makes a case that it is parents who are driving the change of declining government schools. If the educated parents make a sustained effort of challenging and helping government schools to improve, they will surely improve. The parents adopt the path of least effort, and send their children to private schools, which are supposed to be better. This automatically creates a class divide without asking.

Even among the private schools there is an hierarchy. There are international schools, convent schools etc. So the social stratification that exists, is just reflected in the school system. Seen from this perspective, one can understand why are the government schools neglected. They are neglected because the people who are influential and who are amongst the rich and powerful are never affected by the dismal state of the government schools. They have an alternate avenue for their children where these schools never come into picture.

There is another thing that is striking in the Indian system, that is of the coaching classes. I do not know if they are present in Finland or even anywhere in the world. But in India, the coaching classes have a complete parallel system of cracking the educational system. The amount money that the coaching classes do attract must be comparable to the amount Government of India spends on education. This is another avenue where the class divide comes in. Only people with enough finances can afford to send their children to the best coaching classes. But the more fundamental question to ask is:

Why do coaching classes exist in the first place?

The answer to this question is not easy and it related closely to the way in which Indians look at education and its practices. The coaching classes exist because there is a demand for them. And what do coaching classes achieve. Most of the coaching classes are aimed at helping students crack some standardized test or the other. But why do you need standardized tests? Some of the rhetorical questions that one might ask against this question are:

From his (Sasi’s) point of view, Americans (Indians) are consistently obsessed
with certain questions:

+ How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test
them constantly?
+ How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad
teachers or merit pay for good teachers?
+ How do you foster competition and engage the private sector?
+ How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s (India’s) school reformers are trying to do. For example the introduction of CCE or Continuous and Comprehensive Examination introduced as part of NCF 2005 is one such reform. Similarly we have incentives in forms of awards for best teachers, and of course the best students get rewards like getting admission to the best colleges. Their parents are proud, schools are proud, and their coaching classes are also proud. This can be seen by the number of advertisements the coaching classes put up. But all the exams like IIT-JEE, AIEEE, Medical Exams, Olympiads, etc. are standardized tests. These are the parameters of excellence in the country. Similar tests are also found in the US, like GRE, TOEFL, SAT etc. One would assume the standardized tests in Finland would be of very great quality, but in reality they don’t exist there.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

The very idea of standardized tests emerged in the shadow of the Second World War. The mass recruitment of troops required a mass approach, which resulted in production of tests. In his book The Tyranny of Testing physicist Banesh Hoffman, criticises the standardized tests that were prevalent in the US, and takes to task the leading makers of these tests on the fundamental premise of their objectivity. Similarly one can, question the fundamentals of the standardized tests in the country.

Can any standardized test be really objective?

Personally, I do not think so. None of the standardized tests, take into account multiple factors that a student has skills in. These tests make the process of filtering students easier for the administrators. But do they help students at all (except for getting admission to a desired institute)? Do they really test the understanding of the subject matter? Do they take into account various social factors that is part of the mileu of the students? As Banesh Hoffman says the only thing objective about these tests is that once, the students fills in the answer sheet, the grading is objective. But why is that the teachers who are actually teaching the students cannot test them? Why do we need standardized tests to test the students?

And here comes in the idea of academic flexibility in the schools. In India even most university department do not have academic flexibility. There is a central committee which decides, what is to be taught and a committee sets a test with which we grade the students. This creates a definite goal in form of “completing the syllabus” for the teachers. This is a malice which pervades the educational system of India from primary schools to university departments. The teachers are in a race to reach the finish line of the syllabus, because if they do not, the students might face questions which they were not taught.

Though the teacher is the representative of the entire educational system in the classroom, they are nothing more than, to use a term by Krishna Kumar, “meek dictators” in the classroom. The real dictators are adminitrators and decision makers sitting at the top of the educational system. This perhaps is a colonial mentality which has been deeply embodied in the Indian psyche. But in Finland what happens:

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

People say that then the teachers cannot be trusted that they will grade their students correctly. So how will they be held accountable?

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told
an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

This is where the responsibility of the Government comes in. Goverment slowly is trying to distance itself from its role in providing education to all its citizens. But if teachers are themselves left unsatisfied both monetarily and ideologically??, what results one can
expect. In this way the Government is indirectly encouraging the private schools and coaching classes, and thus making the class divide even more striking.

And while Americans (Indians) love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American (Indian) idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Compare this with the Indian attitude. Competition seems to be the key to everything and especially education. Where does collaboration of
cooperation enter in Indian educational scenario?

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America (India), parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

And in India there are coaching classes which prepare students to get into better coaching classes. With both private schools and the coaching class industry around the education and related services have been commercialised to furthest extent possible. This just works in the favour of the already existing class divide. Parents do choose best for their children, and thus do perpetuate the divide as they have no other choices.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

This is the state of the educational system in India now. And with the over emphasis on the excellence part which addresses a small set of mostly elite students, the goal should be creating equal opportunities for equity. The idea of equity in the academic circles is unfortunately equated with that of sub-standard or below average. There are people who will tell you, that “Look, there are bright students, and they need special coaching.” The government has to spend the money of bright students, so as to make the country excel in education. This is done at the expense of the average students. One may ask the question, how in the first place do you know a student is bright? The answer comes from scores of the standardized tests, which are the root cause of many problems that the educational system in India is facing now. If one is serious about changing the educational scenario in the country this has to be addressed. Though there are champions of the standardized tests, in India as in the US of Amerika, they are the ones whose existence is based on such tests. Without these tests their existence becomes meaningless. It will certainly increase the workload of lot many people a lot many times. But the problems of magnitude of changing educational system in India is no mean problem and will require solutions of these magnitudes.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to
learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.

In the Indian scenario this seems to have been forgotten. And one of the main reasons for this is the presence of private schools and coaching classes where parents can shop for education.

Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

This particular quote is exactly opposite of what the Indian
educational system does by promoting academic excellence over equity.
And this also relates to the qualities that Indians cherish. If good
education is equated with chances of making good money, then we know
where we are wrong. With private schools and coaching classes the
education of a student becomes a balance sheet, which will be brought
to green from red by the money that student will make after
completing education.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with
the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student

In case of India we have seen implementation of the mid-day meal scheme. But does it extend to the other domains?

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the
first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike,
say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

And with so much emphasis on coming on top of the class in India, we are getting what we are sowing. Surveys will tell you that students,
including even those from the best private schools in the country do fail in simple evaluation. But is this unexpected? If the entire
focus of the educational system is to pass standardized tests, why should we expect our students to be better in something else?

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. (India) seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

Though India is yet to undergo Occupy BSE protests, it is not long before this happens.

Some people may point out that Finland is a developed nation. It is much more homogeneous as compared to India. Here it might become more complicated than in the US, but the central argument should hold through.

Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans (Indians) reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

The social conditions in India do not match those in Finland. We have many factors like, caste and religion, which do strongly affect our educational policies in practice, if not in theory. So is this comparison valid? But comparing Finland with an country whose demographics are similar, namely Norway, we find different results. Which shows it is the educational policy which determines the outcome, and not the demographics.

Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

And time and again it is said that India does not have enough money to spend on its enormous population. Looking at the amount of GDP that is spent on education India ranks spends 3.1% of GDP on education (2006), while the US spends 5.5% (2007) and Finland 5.9% (2007). A more updated list shows this hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. A look at the graph below from the World Bank Data on these matters makes the picture clear. Though Norway spends more than Finland on education, the results are poor. So if we assume that this is the control then it clearly shows it is not the amount of money you spend or your socio-economic status of the people that matter. What matters most is the way in which you have planned for education and its spending.

gdp-educationPeople tell you that most problems in Indian education system will go away if we have enough teachers! But why are not there enough teachers one may ask? Isn’t it funny that in a country which has second largest population in the world, we do not have enough government teachers? It is surely not a problem of human resources, but of will, both political and social. We do not want to spend more on education, and yet we expect the things to be better. And somehow government is willing to spend on private partners for education, a sort of outsourcing if you want. And with more and more Public Private Partnerships for education, government is just abdicating its responsibility, in the field of education as in other fields.

Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Problem in India is manifold.

“Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American (Indian) way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

(emphasis added)

The problem facing education in America (India) isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America (India) needs to be more competitive abroad.

Most of us think that utopian ideas are not practicable. The talk about equity in education is essentially seen with that attitude. But the Finland example has just shown us that this is possible. Though it is definitely not to say that we blindly follow that model. But it seems that utopian things are possible, just that we will have to give up on long cherished notions of what we consider excellence as.

Kindle, Lego and E-Books

What do you do when Digital Restrictions Management prevents you from doing a lot of things on your own device. I do not know if we can even say it is a device we own, as the company offering books to us can revoke the books at will, without asking you. This was infamously and ironically seen in the removal of Nineteen Eighty Four from Kindle devices without their owners permission.

This is what RMS has to say about Kindle and its practices by Amazon:

“This malicious device designed to attack the traditional freedoms of readers: There’s the freedom to acquire a book anonymously, paying cash — impossible with the Kindle for all well-known recent books. There’s the freedom to give, lend, or sell a book to anyone you wish — blocked by DRM and unjust licenses. Then there’s the freedom to keep a book — denied by a back door for remote deletion of books.”Richard Stallman

So what do you do against such mal-practices and devices operations which are defective by design?

Since these companies do all in their power to prevent users from taking any stuff out, using all hi-fi programming, what can one do about them?

Here is one low tech solution! And one fine use of Lego Mindstorms!

via DIY kindle scanner

Also if you are rather old-fashioned, and even lower tech solution would be to simply one can just make a carbon-copy of the Kindle e-book from a copier or scanner, thanks to their E ink technology, it is as good as a printed book.


So, it seems that ebook users need to add a new word to their vocabulary: “undownloading” — what happens when you leave the authorized zone in which you may read the ebooks you paid for, and cross into the digital badlands where they are taken away like illicit items at customs. If you are lucky, you will get them back when you return to your home patch — by un-undownloading them.

via Techdirt


Consider this was a physical book, you would be fined for smuggling books that you have legitimately brought or your books taken under protective custody by someone, after all they contain the most dangerous things known to humans – ideas!


Important Lesson

“This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without Congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States,”

via NYTimes

Read the article. What would you do when faced with such situation?

Open Access Manifesto

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it
for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published
over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked
up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the
most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to
publishers like Reed Elsevier. 

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought
valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but
instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow
anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only
apply to things published in the future.  Everything up until now will have been

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work
of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at
Google to read them?  Providing scientific articles to those at elite
universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's
outrageous and unacceptable. 

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights,
they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly
legal - there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can,
something that's already being done: we can fight back. 

Those with access to these resources - students, librarians, scientists - you
have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while
the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not - indeed, morally, you
cannot - keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with
the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download
requests for friends. 

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have
been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information
locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends. 

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called
stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral
equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't
immoral - it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to
let a friend make a copy. 

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they
operate require it - their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the
politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the
exclusive power to decide who can make copies. 

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light
and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to
this private theft of public culture. 

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share
them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to
the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to
download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need
to fight for Guerilla Open Access. 

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message
opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past.
Will you join us? 

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy

via | Open Access Manifesto

NYT Newspeak

Asylum is for people who are afraid to return to their own country because they fear persecution, unlawful imprisonment or even death because of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their membership in particular social or political groups, or their political beliefs.

Mr. Snowden undoubtedly fears returning home because he would be arrested and prosecuted. But those fears do not qualify him for asylum. And does he really feel safer in a country where Mr. Putin, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has jailed and persecuted his critics?

via NYTimes

This is complete newspeak on part of NYT. Mark the last words in the first quote “their political beliefs”. The case of Snowden is not about military secrets, but about his political beliefs. The belief that those in power should not abuse it, the belief that those who have abused the power should be brought to light. It is in fact for these very beliefs they are targeting him.

And why should not he fear arrest and prosecution? As they have done with Manning, they will do with him and Assange. This would be just to set an example, so that no one else does it. Actually Putin and Obama are no different. If at all someone from any other country, lets say Cuba, would come to the US, having leaked Cuban secrets, won’t the US consider giving them asylum. And does giving that person the asylum, has to do anything with how Obama himself is running the show. If spying on your own people, breaching their privacy to the fullest is okay then jailing and persecuting the critics is no different.


On Privacy…

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

via The Eternal Value of Privacy.

I will not allow them to chill me

“We want to show the world that we are innovators. We want to show the world that cloud storage has a right to exist. And, of course, when you launch something like this, you can expect some controversy. The content industry is going to react really emotionally about this. The US government will probably try and destroy the new business … you’ve got to stand up against that, and fight that, and I’m doing that … I will not allow them to chill me.”

via Kim Dotcom | guardian

Aaron Was a Criminal and So Are You

Make no mistake, Aaron was a criminal and, despite popular belief, there was no prosecutorial overreach. The US Attorney who oversaw his prosecution described her office’s actions as “appropriate” and, according to the law, she was telling the truth. The job of prosecutors is to bully and intimidate suspects, using the threat of some of the world’s harshest sentencing laws into plea bargaining for a shorter sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. This is American “justice;” our current system of severe sentencing and mandatory minimums gives prosecutors overwhelming power – power that was once in the hands of judges and juries – to the point that today less than 5% of criminal cases are resolved by a jury (3% in federal cases).

via Common Dreams.

RIP Aaron Swartz.


Sharing knowledge and learning collaboratively at schools

(This article was written for a college magazine.)

We have a vision for a better society in which the values of sharing and collaborating knowledge and technical know-how form an integral part. There are two aspects to this issue. One is why it should be done, and given the current social structure how it can be done. Though the why question is as important as the how one in this article we will try to focus more on how it can be done with aid of proper technology and what are the possible implications of this intervention to the citizens of the future.

The current education system does little to promote and impart the ideas of sharing knowledge with peers to the students who will be the future citizens. In our educational system it is more like each-one-for-oneself; if you help your peers you will be at a loss in the future. Another aspect is that the educational system by its nature is consumerist. By consumerist we mean that the schools system treat the students more like consumers, who are then passively fed in what has already been produced by others. There is no or little scope left for students to produce or construct anything meaningful. So the platform/technology which will address these issues should have the following qualities:

  • It should be based on principles of Free Software (see
  • It should allow for collaboration / sharing of knowledge.
  • It should allow for active, meaningful and collaborative production / construction contexts, through which students will learn.
  • It should give immediate feedback to the student, not the delayed one (year end) which the current school system has. This is essential as it makes children reflective about the work that they are doing.

Learning in the context of constructing some tangible thing is a philosophy of education proposed by Seymour Papert, called constructionism. Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. A closely related term that you might have heard is that of constructivism, but there are differences though.

The potential for transforming classrooms in a revolutionary way is present in the constructionist way of learning, which the existing CBTs (computer based tutorials) do not challenge but reinforce. The advances in technology have made it possible now to implement constructionist ways of learning to masses. So where are the examples of this?

The Sugar learning platform  is just one such example which is specifically developed keeping in mind the above considerations. But the idea of constructionist learning is not limited only to using computers. displayed. The very idea of the platform is centered around the idea of constructionism. Though initially developed for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project, now it can run on almost all computers. Learning in an environment where sharing knowledge is an inherent principle rather than an added externality provides the students with a whole new way of learning. Each activity on Sugar is designed keeping in mind the collaborative, construction context and immediate feedback principles.

The Sugar platform provides construction contexts from different areas to learn collaboratively like language, mathematics, science, drawing, music, games, programming, photography, audio and video recording among other things. For each of this activity can be done collaboratively by the students and can be shared with others. This also provides students to make meaningful connections between different concepts. In this context we have seen a strong urge in the children to share the knowledge and activities that they have with others, but in the current school system there is no or little provision for this. Sharing of activities provides context for feedback from peers, which in turn is fruitful in improving learning. Thus we see that the tools and time is ripe for changing our perspective towards education for a more inclusive and better society, whose core values are sharing of knowledge and collaboration.

There are pilot projects of Sugar running at many places across India, one is the Khairat Project which is running successfully for past 4 years at a primary tribal school of first generation learners near Mumbai, another one is at Merces School near Panaji in state of Goa.

RMS on Success

“Success” is not our goal; we’re not here to win a race, we are here to win freedom. I didn’t write GCC with the idea of making a “better” C compiler. I wrote it so there would be a freedom-respecting C compiler, and while I was at it, I did the best job I knew how. We didn’t develop GNU to have a “better” operating system than Unix; we developed it so we could have a freedom-respecting operating system. It’s the same today.

via RMS Answers Your Questions – Slashdot

Explosives or Not

We have earlier seen some quotes from the book The Golem: What You Should Know About Science. There are two companion volumes to this book The Golem Unleashed: What You Should Know about Technology and Dr. Golem: How to think about Medicine. These series of books by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch provide us with examples from these fields which most of the times are ‘uncontested’. For example in the first volume they discuss about the famous 1920 experimental confirmation of Einstein’s predictions in general relativity by Eddington. This experiment is told as a matter-of-fact anecdote in physics, where petty borders of nationalism could not stop physics and physicists. But in the book, as they show inspite of scanty or almost no positive evidence, Eddington “Concluded” that the predictions were true. This they term “experimenters’ regress”.

The experimenter’s regress occurs when scientists cannot decide what the outcome of an experiment should be and therefore cannot use the outcome as a criterion of whether the experiment worked or not.

The Golem Unleashed pp. 106

In The Golem Unleashed they present us with many examples of this from field of technology. One of the examples is from the Challenger accident which Feynman made famous by courtroom drama. In this case they call the “experimenter’s regress” as “technologist’s regress”.

Recently I read (all further quotes from the same link)an episode in India which would fit in very with these episodes. This is regarding baggage  scanning machines installed at Indian airports. They were brought at 2 crore rupees per unit in 2010. But in August 2011 they failed the tests on tasks they were supposed to do.

The scanners are called in-line baggage inspection systems as they scan bags that go into the cargo hold of the aircraft after passengers check in and hand over their luggage to the airline. They use x-ray imaging and “automatic intelligence” to verify the contents of bags and determine whether they include explosives.

Now one would think that this would be as easy as it gets. Either the scanner detects whether the explosives are present in the baggage or they do not. But it is not as simple as it seems so. Now when the tests were done, the testers found the machines failed.

During the tests, security sources said that a technological specification committee of officials from the IB, RAW, SPG, NSG, BCAS and the civil aviation ministry passed bags containing 500 gm of six kinds of explosives, including PETN and ammonium nitrate, as well as IEDs through these systems. The scanners did not flag any of these bags as suspicious, the sources said.

So after this “failure” the companies which supplied these machines were asked to improve upon the machines or to share the software to recalibrate them. But the companies and interestingly Airport Authortiy of India AAI said that the testing methods were at fault. Now the explosives were passed and the machines did not detect them, then how can companies say that the testing methods were not working?

The machines work on the so called 70:30 principle.

“Though it works on a 70:30 principle, if there is an explosive in the 70 per cent, it will throw up the image of each and every bag that has dangerous substances. We would like to emphasise that the systems supplied and installed by our company at Indian airports are of state-of-the-art technology and are fully compliant with current standards.”

The 70:30 principle refers to the “automatic intelligence” used by Smiths Detection machines to clear 70 per cent of the baggage and reject the rest, according to the Airports Authority of India (AAI). “The machines reject 30 per cent of the baggage, the images of which are then sent to the screener. These systems have automatic intelligence capability and have been tested against a wide range of substances considered dangerous for aircraft. The details and specifications are never disclosed, or else terrorists would understand the software,”

But if anyway machines are doing the job, why not do it 100%? And the funny thing is that they are not sharing the software, which is the main agenda of the proprietary software companies. This is a case where people realize that they are just Users of the software under question. This argument that  “or else terrorists would understand the software” does not hold. They don’t need to if the machine is going to reject a whole lot of bags And in anyway if there are bus/holes in the software, a thousand eyes repair them much faster than a few. And this is The companies further say that

“The technology or physics is that x-ray based system can’t detect explosives, it is only approximate detection of dangerous substances,”

Why is the AAI siding (they are rather defending the companies) with the companies is something worth pondering.

AAI people say “The problem could be due to the sheer ignorance of officers who lacked the skills to test for explosives,”

Still with no unanimity in the testing results, the case truly presents us with a “technologist’s regress.”

On-line Education | RMS

Educators, and all those who wish to contribute to on-line educational works: please do not to let your work be made non-free. Offer your assistance and text to educational works that carry free/libre licenses, preferably copyleft licenses so that all versions of the work must respect teachers’ and students’ freedom. Then invite educational activities to use and redistribute these works on that freedom-respecting basis, if they will. Together we can make education a domain of freedom.

via On-line Education|RMS

Mostly people don’t bother about what they get for gratis on the Internet, but institutions cannot adopt the same approach. Licensing is as much important as much as the actual content. But an archaic system will not go down till it is compelled to, and it will fight till the very end.

Wikipedia | New Politics Of Knowledge

Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion. The hegemony of the professional in determining our background knowledge is disappearing—a deeply profound truth that not everyone has fully absorbed.

In their view, Wikipedia represents the democratization of knowledge itself, on a global scale, something possible for the first time in human history.

As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers.  With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff.

For instance, journalists, interviewers, and conference organizers—people trying to gather an audience, in other words—use “expert” to mean “a person we can pass off as someone who can speak with some authority on a subject.”  Also, we say the “local expert” on a subject is the person who knows most, among those in a group, about the subject.  Neither of these are the very interesting senses of “expert.”

To exclude the public is to put readers at the mercy of wrongheaded intellectual fads; and to exclude experts, or to fail to give them a special role in an encyclopedia project, is to risk getting expert opinion wrong.

If we reject the use of credentials, we reject all evidence of expertise; ergo, lacking any means of establishing who is an expert, we reject expertise itself.  Meritocrats are necessarily expert-lovers.

Experts know particular topics particularly well.  By paying closer attention to experts, we improve our chances of getting the truth; by ignoring them, we throw our chances to the wind.  Thus, if we reduce experts to the level of the rest of us, even when they speak about their areas of knowledge, we reduce society’s collective grasp of the truth.

via On The New Politics Of Knowledge | Conversation | Edge

On the brighter side of it, we are for the first time able to participate in many things. Just being trained in a discipline (PhD?) does not automatically create opportunities for one in the old system. But in Wikipedia it does. How many people who have PhD do get an opportunity to write a text-book or a popular article? I would like to ask how many of contributors on Wikipedia are really subject experts? There might be many, and they would be able to point at the right evidence, when needed to “show off” their authority in the field, which the normal user won’t be. So what’s the fuss about?



What Wikipedia is not… then what it is?

Although anyone can be an editor, there are community processes and standards that make Wikipedia neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy.

via What Wikipedia is Not

Disclaimer: Let me make some things clear, I am not against Wikipedia, or its policies. I am (great) admirer and (very heavy) user, and (very little) contributor to the wonderful platform, which aims to provide free knowledge to everyone. In this post I am just trying to collect thoughts that I have about the Wikipedia’s social system and its relation to the society at large.

Then what is wikipedia? Is it a feudal system, which they do not mention in the list above? Although there are people who are called bureaucrats, they say it is not a bureaucracy, I think they mean it in the traditional sense of the wor(l)d (pun intended).

But for a new person, who is trying to edit the first article, there is too much of bureaucracy (read rules), involved, and it may not be a pleasant experience at all, especially for the so called technologically-challenged people. To describe in one word it is intimidating. The trouble is only there till, actually you become used to it, and become part of the system. This is more like the adaptation to smell, after a while in a stinking place, you don’t feel the stink anymore (just an analogy, I do not mean that Wikipedia stinks!). The rules become a part of your editing skills, which you do want to see in other editors. But how many people are able to get over this first major hurdle is not known to me, but I guess (which can be completely wrong) this number can be significant. This will in general reduce the number of producers and just tend to increase the number of consumers in the commercial sense of the word.

Another thing that the above quote says it is not a democracy. Again here I think, Wikipedia is not a democracy in the sense of common usage of the term. In a democracy, by definition the popular aspirations get through, and they may not be even the best for a society, as we many times see in the Indian context. But then it mostly the people who are editing the Wikipedia who decide by consensus that certain thing should be done. Is it not like majority win? So there is in fact a strong democratic element in Wikipedia.

Do we also want a society that is same as above “neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy”? What kind of society would you like to live in?


In Denial of Fukushima

The arrogance and jingoism exhibited by the Nuclear lobby in India is well known. Even in face of disaster
Fukushima, the people in DAE remain adamant that there is no option to Nuclear Energy and also that it is safe from accidents, and even if an accidents happens at all they will be ready to control. The optimism that they have regarding issues of safety in case of radioactive materials and nuclear reactors is something a person with a good understanding of science would not share. Too much reliance on the idea that “nothing can go wrong” is what will lead to the horrible consequences of not understanding the Golem. And the statements by the DAE junta does exactly this. The very idea that the reactors are completely safe; are different than what was present in Japan, we can contain the damage, are what are needed to be questioned.

A nice article in Tehelka makes the point more clearer. Here are some lines from the same:

Fukushima also demonstrated unambiguously that communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident, a lesson that hasn’t been lost on the local populations in Koodankulam and Jaitapur. At the other end of the spectrum was the reaction of the people associated with nuclear establishments, who vociferously argued that it was essential to persist with nuclear power — not surprising, since it conforms to their self-interest.

Whatever the experts at DAE maybe saying, the images that the people at large are seeing are that of desolate landscapes, ruined buildings, poisoned farmlands, and inaccessible homes. The very idea that Nuclear Power can solve all the issue of power in India is questionable. Lets say even if we construct 10 such more plants, where will be the power used? Who will get the priority over the power? The villages near which the power plants are present, or the metro cities whose demands for power and its abuse are ever increasing. Just think about how many electrical appliances  you have, and how many you could do without?

On 15 March 2011, NPCIL Chairman SK Jain trivialised what was going on in Japan saying, “There is no nuclear accident or incident in Fukushima… It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme… (that) the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.” Such denial would be laughable but when the person thus opining is in charge of India’s power reactor fleet, it ceases to be amusing.

In September 2011, for example, the DAE Secretary claimed: “We are prepared to handle an event like Fukushima.” This assertion is belied by the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who testified to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2010 that it was “nowhere (near) meeting an eventuality that may arise out of nuclear and radiological emergencies”.

On more than one occasion, the DAE Secretary has made assertions that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero. In November 2011, for example, he stated that the probability was “one in infinity”. The public image sought to be created is one of great confidence in safety. Is such confidence justified?

The first point to note is that the very statement that the likelihood of an accident is zero is scientifically untenable; every nuclear reactor has a finite, albeit small, probability of undergoing a catastrophic failure.

A second question: is the confidence on the part of officials about the zero probability of accidents good for safety? This is not a question about technology but about organisations. … Safety scholar James Reason once noted: “If an organisation is convinced that it has achieved a safe culture, it almost certainly has not.” The DAE and its attendant institutions appear to be convinced not just that they have a safe culture, but that the hazardous technologies they operate are incapable of undergoing accidents. This is not conducive to safety.

What the Koodankulam protest tells us is that these populations are not consenting to be subject to this risk. They deserve to be listened to, not dismissed as stooges of foreign funding. That is an insult to the intellects and minds of millions of people and to democracy itself.

The Golem at Large

Recently I completed reading of the second book in the Golem series, the complete being The Golem at Large: What you should know about technology by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. The book discusses cases from technology field in which there is a ‘regress’, in even expert people are not able to decide objectively what to make out of results of experiment, which at first sight seem to be so objective.

Some of the examples that they choose are well known, some are not. For example the much famed demonstration by Richard Feynman on O-Rings is brought out from its almost cult status. The demonstration by Feynman when looked at with all the background seems to be very naive. Similarly many other examples de-mythify different examples from different technologies.

Some of the quotes that I have liked are as under.
+ 4 It would, of course, be foolish to suggest that technology and
science are identical. Typically, technologies are more directly
linked to the worlds of political and military power and business
influence than are sciences.

+ 6 But disputes are representative and illustrative of the roots of
knowledge; they show us knowledge in the making.

+ 10 It would be wrong to draw any conclusions for science and
technology in general from wartime statements; wartime claims
about the success of the missile reflect the demands of war rather
than the demands of truth.

+ 28 As always, if only we could fight the last war again we would
do it so much better.

+ 28 Just as military men dream of fighting a war in which there is
never any shortage of information or supplies, while the enemy
always does the expected, so experts have their dreams of
scientific measurement in which signal is signal and noise follows
the model given in the statistical textbooks. As the generals
dream of man- oeuvres, so the experts dream of the mythical model
of science.

+ 28 Even when we have unlimited access to laboratory conditions, the
process of measurement does not fit the dream; that was the point
of our earlier book ¡V the first volume of the Golem series.

+ 32 Skimp, save and cut corners, give too much decision-making
power to reckless managers and uncaring bureaucrats, ignore the
pleas of your best scientists and engineers, and you will be

+ 38 Whether two things are similar or different, Wittgenstein
noted, always involves a human judgement.

+ 40 The `correct’ outcome can only be achieved if the experiments or
tests in question have been performed competently, but a competent
experiment can only be judged by its outcome.

+ 62 The treatment of the controversial aspects must be different to
the uncontroversial aspects. The same is true of what we loosely
refer to as experiments: one does not do experiments on the
uncontroversial, one engages in demonstrations.

+ 64 In an experiment, that would be cheating, but in a display, no
one would complain. A demonstration lies somewhere in the middle
of this scale. Classroom demonstrations, the first bits of science
we see, are a good case. Teachers often know that this or that
`experiment’ will only work if the conditions are `just so’, but
this information is not vouchsafed to the students.

+ 64 A demonstration or display is something that is properly set
before the lay public precisely because its appearance is meant
to convey an unambiguous message to the senses, the message that
we are told to take from it. But the significance of an experiment
can be assessed only be experts.

+ 71 Anything seen on television is controlled by the lens, the
director, the editor and the commentators. It is they who control
the conclusions that seem to follow from the `direct evidence of
the senses’.

+ 74 The public were not served well, not because they necessarily
drew false conclusions, but because they did not have access to
evidence needed to draw conclusions with the proper degree of
provisionality. There is no short cut through the contested
terrain which the golem must negotiate.

+ 77 A vast industry supported by national governments makes sure it
understands how oil is found, where it is found and who has the
rights to find it.

+ 82 In some ways it is easier to delve into the first few
nanoseconds of the universe than to reconstruct something buried
deep in the core of the earth.

+ 86 This is the `experimenter’s regress’. If you believe that
microbiological activity exists at great depths then this is
evidence that a competently performed experiment has been carried
out. If you believe that microbiological activity is impossible or
extremely unlikely then the evidence of biological activity is
evidence for doubting the experiment. Experiment alone cannot
settle the matter.

+ 91 In short, Gold’s non-biological theory and its assessment are
intertwined with the politics and commerce of oil
exploration. There is no neutral place where a `pure’ assessment
of the validity of his claims can be made.

+ 96 With several hundred equations to play with, this is an area
where `theory’ and `guesswork’ are not as far apart as
conventional ideas about science would encourage us to think.

+ 102 I think there are really two different approaches. One is to
say that this is a branch of science and that everything must be
based on objective criteria which people can understand. The other
is to say that is just too inflexible, and that there’s something
called judgement – intuition if you like – which has its place in
the sciences and that it’s the people who are intuitive who are

+ 104 It is also possible to argue that modellers who did not suffer from big
mistakes were lucky while some others were unlucky to have been wrong.

+ 106 Even if you believe that large errors are bound to prove you
wrong, you may still argue about the meaning of `large’ and you
may still think that the difference between accuracy and
inaccuracy was not clever economics but luck. Finally, you may
always say that the economy changed radically.

+ 106 … it was not the model but the economy that was wrong.

+ 107 The experimenter’s regress occurs when scientists cannot
decide what the outcome of an experiment should be and therefore
cannot use the outcome as a criterion of whether the experiment
worked or not.

+ 107 Oh absolutely, that’s why it’s absolutely pointless to publish
these forecast error bands because they are extremely
large. . . . I’m all for publishing full and frank statements but
you see the difficulty [with] these standards errors is that
they’re huge.

+ … In fact, we could have done this at the National Institute in
the mid 70s, but we suppressed it on the grounds that the standard
errors were so large, that it would have been difficult for
non-specialists, you know people using the models, using the
forecasts, to appreciate. It would have discredited them.

+ 108 Science is often used as a way of avoiding responsibility;
some kinds of fascism can be seen as the substitution of
calculation for moral responsibility.

+ 110 That is, it selected those who were `. . . willing to
subordinate their education to their careers’.

+ 111 The economists who build the models deserve credibility, but
their models do not; one should not use the same criteria to judge
expert advice as one uses to judge the coherence of a model.

+ 124 Flipping to and fro between science being all about certainty
and science being a political conspiracy is an undesirable state
of affairs.

+ 149 In effect, a group of lay people had managed to reframe the
scientific conduct of clinical research: they changed the way it
was conceived and practised.

+ 151 Feynman gives the impression that doubts can always be simply
resolved by a scientist who is smart enough.

+ 151 The danger is always that enchantment is the precursor of

+ 153 Golem science and technology is a body of expertise, and
expertise must be respected. But we should not give unconditional
respect before we understand just what the expertise comprises and
whether it is relevant. To give unconditional respect is to make
science and technology a fetish.