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The first interim tests have started. In fact, half of them are over. Didn’t do too badly! Don’t have anything much to write.


Open Book Exam

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Signals and Systems is very different from the five other theory courses we have this semester. First of all, our class of 90 was split into two batches, and have classes from 5.30 to 7 in the evening on two days every week. Besides, all the exams except for the final test, consist of questions for more marks than the maximum. For instance, if the test is out of 15, there may be questions for 20 marks, and one can score 20 out of 15 if he answers all the questions! And then we have these open book tests, which together account for 20% of the total marks, in which you are free to refer to your text books, note books, discuss with your friends and even the professor. Today was the first experience of that.

As soon as the students got the question paper, many of them began to flip through the pages of their text books! Abhilash sir laughed, and told us that wouldn’t help in any way. True enough, all the questions were highly indirect and intellectual. There was a question which goes like “Define convolution in plain English”. When I asked him whether he needed the answer in the context of systems, he replied in his trademark joyful and mystical way that he needed the “inner meaning” of convolution and that I’d have to meditate, to find it! I thouroughly enjoyed the exam, because he had cautioned us not to give undue concern for the evaluation, but advised us to take it as a delightful experience. It was certainly different from all other exams I’ve taken at NIT!

Signals and Systems is indeed a beautiful subject, and I like the intuitive approach of Abhilash sir. Though it’s very involved, I’ve occasionally been able to appreciate glimpses of beauty here and there during his classes. The problem is that we have rarely if ever, come across the need for such involvement, in our education hitherto, to appreciate and understand and participate intellectually. So only a small percent of the class actually follow, and even then, I doubt whether they appreciate the beauty. As for me, I often find it unable to follow all the equations, but somehow the purely intuitive approach affords a sense of beauty even then.

Lost in The Electromagnetic Jungle

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Today, I was doing the experiment on half-wave rectifiers with my batchmates, in the Device Characterization lab. At one point, I switched on the CRO for checking the output. I had fixed the probe onto the CRO, and was casually holding one of the the open terminals, trying to find where on the cluttered breadboard I was supposed to fix them, when I noticed a clean sine wave displayed on the CRO. I looked at the terminals of the probe, but I was holding one of them, and the other was dangling freely in midair. When I took my hands off, the wave disapeared! How did the sine wave appear out of thin air? Funny that that’s exactly how it appeared – out of thin air! Surrounding me was a number of hidden wires carrying a 230V, 50Hz sine wave. Electromagnetic waves produced by the large alternating voltage induced a corresponding wave in the terminals of the CRO probe which were acting like an antenna (because of the completion of some circuit on my touch).

We are surrounded by electromagnetic radiations of different kinds. Some we can feel and perceive, like the visible radiations, and the infrared(heat). But these waves are not very strong when they reach us. On the other hand, there is a spectrum of manmade electromagnetic radiations, like radio waves, satellite signals, mobile phone signals etc. which are quite strong as they have to travel only a small distance, and make wireless communication possible. These waves are always around us. We are literally lost in the “electromagnetic jungle”! These waves radiate a significant amount of electromagnetic energy, which interacts with our body whose nervous system works on electomagnetic signals as well, albeit of a different kind. In the long run, no one can really guess how prolonged exposure to these strong manmade signals can interfere with and deform our nervous system.

It is known that people living very near to the high power transmission lines are prone to diseases like cancer. Though in this case, the varying voltages are of the order of kilovolts (which is huge), it is only 50 Hz. Power radiated by an electromagnetic wave increases with frequency, for a fixed voltage. So the waves produced by our cell phone, which might be only a couple of volts or less, but which have frequencies of giga Hz or more, can be equally harmful in the long run. Especially our generation, which has been exposed to these waves right from birth.

BTech Stinks…

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Well, that’s what I have concluded from the 2 semesters and a quarter of “engineering”, and the remaining five and three quarters are not going to be any different.

The system is rotten from top to bottom. All the courses are so theoretical and abstract in nature, that all you can hope really is to somehow mug up some formulae to get some marks in the stupid exams. The course is designed to create theoreticians, if at all anyone is foolish enough to waste tons of mental energy sincerely trying to digest the theories. Whatever it does, it can’t make “engineers”. Why is “education” all about writing some stupid exams? I’ve been writing exams as long as I can remember, will it ever end?

Learning theoretical science doesn’t make any sense at all, if you can’t relate it to the world around you. The only time I enjoyed theoretical science, and even realized that it could be made interesting, was in Gopinathan sir’s class, the wonderful retired IIT professor who helped me (and my friends) prepare for IIT-JEE. Science in the higher secondary level was a lot more intuitive. But when it comes to engineering, it is a lot more mechanical and abstract and if not done practically, can(and has) become almost pure maths. Especially electronics. I’m honestly beginning to wonder whether I’m doing a higher degree in Mathematics! 

Engineers are not made out of working out text book problems. When we pass out, if you ask anyone in my class how a transistor works, they will tell you all about the input characteristics and the output characteristics and the hfe and the active and cut-off regions, but I’ll bet anything that half of them wouldn’t be able to say that basically what it does is enable a small current to control a larger current.

Engineering cannot be “taught”, much less by pen and paper, or by chalk and blackboard. The best a “teacher” can do is to nurture a sense of excitement in the student’s mind, and that’s where a “teacher” has to be a “mentor”. In fact, it’s the same in any subject you take. That’s why I think the word “teacher” is ill-suited. In our language, we have a much more appropriate word- “guru”, meaning the one who dispells darkness. Unfortunately, all “education” does is leave one in ever increasing darkness of equations and formulae and theories.

Sadly, I’m fated to endure at least another three years of  “education”. =SIGH!= Time for the next lecture. Since there are 90+ students in the class, you can safely sleep in the class, if you are sitting in the last bench, which I always am!

Six Decades of Freedom

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Tomorrow, India will turn sixty years old. To me, who has seen only the post-liberalisation era, the stories of fighting for and attaining freedom, and the struggle after that, to make India a stable economy, are fascinating. Sometimes I wish I lived during the time of the freedom struggle, the time when all people of India rose together for a common cause. Especially when I read a collection of speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru, which I got from the library. What great leaders and visionaries we had, then! I guess necessity made natural leaders out of them. Many people of my generation take everything that we have and enjoy, for granted.

There is still a lot to be done. An awful lot, and unfortunately, there aren’t any visionaries in our age, and the lack of a common cause (like in the times of the freedom struggle) means that people who do well are quite satisfied to get on with their own career and their own life, and it doesn’t strike us that there’s a lot every one of us can do, and must do, to help those who are not as fortunate as us, and realize the ideal of equality. An area that needs a lot of effort is primary eduacation. 41% of children in India do not reach fifth standard. Of the countries that rank lower than India in the human development index, only about four have higher percentage of children that do not reach the fifth standard, and those are sub-Saharan African countries with extreme poverty. Obviously, the amount that the government spends on primary education is insufficient, or it doesn’t reach the intended target because of the corruption at all levels of the beauraucracy. The huge subsidies that the government pays for the higher education institutions like IITs and NITs are a national waste. Read this article – Who Actually Paid for My Education?

All of us can, and must do our bit. There’ll always be some way to contribute, if only we keep our eyes and ears (and hearts) open. Wish you a Happy Independence Day (I’d prefer to call it Freedom day, though. That’s more appropriate. It’s not so much about independence as it is about freedom)! Jai Hind!

The Essence of the Free Software Movement

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“If you have an apple and I have an apple, and we excahnge them, we still have one apple each…
But If you have and idea and I have and idea, and we exchange them, each of us will have two ideas…”

-George Bernard Shaw

Fiction, Fantasy and Non-Fiction

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I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and the Harry Potter post and the related comments made me think a lot about this.

Man seems to be obsessed with fiction and fantasy from time immemorial, testified by the mythologies and epics. Why is this so? This adherance to stories which we know are not really true? There can be many reasons. Entertainment can be a possible objective. Conveying morals is another possible one. Perhaps people felt that their own world was dull and monotonous, and to escape it they created an imaginary world according to their fantasy.

The literature I read till I reached tenth standard, was almost completely fiction, and fantasy. Enid Blyton introduced me to the world of English literature. Within a couple of years I had had enough of Blyton, and went on to the fast-moving action of the Hardy Boys. Then I had enough of that too, and that’s when I started reading classics – when I was in eighth standard. Then in eleventh, I started reading some non-fiction. Harimama, that unbelievable book you bought me, “Papillon” was one of the first non-fiction books I read. As I read more non-fiction books, I realized that they opened an avenue of thought and mental enrichment that I would never have accessed, had I been a perpetual reader of  just fantasy. I don’t intend to say that only non-fiction is enriching. Not at all. Fiction and even fantasy(Lord of the Rings, for me), can be just as enriching. Fiction, which relates to the real world, can be enriching.

I put my own growth into perspective, so that I can illustrate the part played by the fiction and fantasy I’ve read. If reading them hadn’t enriched me, helped me to grow so that I can understand the world better, and become a better human being, it’d be pointless. I enjoyed Enid Blyton at that age, and it helped me learn English, but it would be pointless if I still kept reading it, saying that I am a great fan of Enid Blyton. That’s where I think there’s something wrong with the Harry Potter mania. People are just stuck up with that imaginary world, and adults are becoming childish to participate in the fanaticism.

I don’t think anything’s worth doing unless it enriches you. And as for entertainment, well, if you are doing something that enriches you, you really don’t need any other form of entertainment, because you are never bored.

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