Decline of the Campus

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I met Deepak sir yesterday. He has recovered from chicken pox. He told me about his idea to start a Free Software Cell at NITC. For all the success of FOSSMeet, we really don’t have a free software community here. Deepak sir is very passionate about building a community. He feels that there is such a lot of potential in this campus that all it needs is a spark. He has given me the task of getting at least five to ten students for forming the body.

While I was with Deepak sir, Ramkumar sir came in and I got to know him better. Of course, he took Microprocessors and Microcontrollers for us last semester, but it’s difficult to get acquainted with a professor during a course, as the class strength is nearly ninty. Deepak sir asked him about the formalities involved in starting a new student club. Ramkumar sir did his BTech in the erstwhile REC during the eighties. He replied that in those days, all you needed was to get ten people together, find a staff advisor and submit a request letter to the Principal.

He talked about the active student groups and forums which had been flourishing then, and have since become extinct. Those where the days when politics was at its peak in our campus, and yet, he said, there were many active forums for discussing the issues of the day, entirely free from any political flavour. Debates are still held occasionally by the Literary and Debating Club, as competitions during culturals fests, but it is mostly debating for the sake of debating- and “soft skill” development.

I realize that the sort of campus Ramkumar sir talked of, no loger exists. When I look about me, I see mostly students glued to their laptops, engrossed in watching movies, unauthorized copies (the word “pirated” is unfair and inappropriate) of which are freely shared on our hostel networks and playing computer games which degrade your level of existence.

Another sad fact that is that there is practically no interaction between the faculty and the students except for the lectures and the labs. I personally feel that a free mingling of people of all ages is crucial to the health of a society. I know from my experience, that there is a lot to be learnt from elder people. I’ll write more about this later. This is a glaring deficiency in today’s campus.

“Small is Beautiful”

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Have we, human beings, come of age? Have we, as a civilization, matured? Have we finally become the masters of our environment? Can we possibly think that our civilization is here to stay?

The primary concern is technology. Since the dawn of civilization, man has made use of his knowledge of the laws of Nature, to make his living conditions better. For example, he discovered the use of fire, which kept him warm during winter, enabled him to eat cooked food and kept wild animals away. Similarly, he invented the wheel, the plough…

Civilization is closely associated with the development of technology. Does this mean that a progress in civilization is impossible without an advancement in technology? This seems to be the popular idea. That we can live “better lives” with better technology. For being efficient, it is generally felt that we have to use the latest technology.

But does it really work out that way? It depends on what you mean by “efficient”. If you are referring to maximum production with minimum labour involved, probably you are right. But we are already feeling the adverse effects of using the latest technology, on our life sustaining ecosystem. There many crucial factors that are ignored while estimating this “efficiency”. The exploitation of natural resources, pollution, degradation of human work to inhuman labour.

Technology is nothing more than technical “know-how”. It is man who decides “what” to do with it. And don’t you feel that there is something wrong in the preconception that the only way forward is using the latest technology? It’s becoming more evident by the day. It’s pretty obvious that we cannot infinitely advance in a materialistic way, as our planet is finite. But what do we do when the fantastically short-sighted economics which govern our world neglect all those qualitative factors and concentrate only on one thing- economy, or profitability.

E.F.Schumacher develops in his book, Small is Beautiful the interesting concept of an “Intermediate Technology”– technology that is superior to the primitive tools which early man used, but which is simple and sustainable and accessible for everyone- most importantly, a technology that is appropriate for the community concerned. Schumacher foresaw the danger of underdeveloped countries trying to develop along the same lines as the developed countries leading to a dependence of the poor countries on the rich for technology, and increasingly for the basic necessities of life. We are witnessing the vindication of his fears in today’s globalised world.

Small is Beautiful is a work full of wisdom that we badly need today. Let me leave you with a few quotes from the book.

“Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”

“[A modern economist] is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. . . . The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.”

“Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful”

Back at the Engineer Factory

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The fifth semester has started. As usual, registration was Chaos, with a capital C. Anyway, completed it successfully! The first hour was Electronic Circuits-2 by Raghu sir. He didn’t take class, but made us share our experiences during the vacation. I talked to the class for a few minutes, about my experience working on Phoenix in Delhi. Deepak sir is down with chicken pox, so I couldn’t meet him.

This year, MHRD has removed the state quotas, which means that while half of the students are from Kerala itself, the other half are admitted purely on All India merit. There are over a hundred first years from Andhra Pradesh!

Besides, the number of seats has now crossed 700. In our year, it was a little over 450. I don’t know why they are increasing the intake without an improvement in infrastructure. Some of the first year students are now accommodated two in single rooms in the PG hostel. As a result, even the MTech first years are accommodated as pairs in those rooms which may be comfortable for a single person, but too congested for two.

It reminds me of the “mass production” which Deepak sir mentioned in his comment a few days ago. There is a huge demand for engineers in the industry, and my college is nothing but a supplier of “engineers”- commodities- to the “back offices of corporates”. It doesn’t matter that there are not enough hostel rooms… It doesn’t matter that most of the teachers now handle batches of over 100… It doesn’t matter whether anyone cares in the least what is being taught… There is a pay packet at the end of four years!

A factory churning out “engineers” by hundreds…

“Sustainable Energy- Without the Hot Air”

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We are all aware of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. Of course, there are skeptics who insist on ignoring the facts and clinging to their belief that man is too puny to affect the environment. I offer my heartfelt sympathy for them- because they will have to change their outlook drastically in the coming years. People who earnestly think that we can go on burning hydrocarbons and consuming energy at the rate we are now, are really in for a shock. At some point, man will live without fossil fuels.

The material available on this topic is often vague and confusing, as they rarely talk about the amount of fossil fuel remaining beneath the surface of the earth, the amount of carbon emitted when you drive a car for 50 km etc. That’s what David Mackay, Professor of Natural Philosophy, University of Cambridge says – when we talk about Energy and Climate Change, we need “numbers, not adjectives”.

His book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (released under many Creative Commons licenses) is an attempt to understand the present day situation, by using numbers in a sensible manner. The book talks about the trends in the UK, but it is not difficult to extend it to any part of the world. It estimates the average energy consumption of a person, in various forms- driving a car, flying, electricity used by gadgets, energy embodied in the stuff one buys etc., compares it to the possible renewable energy sources that can be tapped(very optimistically) and tries to figure out whether our present lifestyles are sustainable. It is a must read for anyone interested in Climate Change and Energy Crisis.

The podcast of a one hour lecture delivered by him, a condensed form of the book, is also available here. All the facts and figures referred to in the talk are there in the book.

The Phoenix Contest!

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Are you smart enough to think of new experiments which can be carried out with Phoenix?! Try your hand in the Phoenix Experiment Contest and win Rs.10,000 and Phoenix kits!

The experiment submitted should be usable as a 2 to 3 hour lab experiment at Degree / PG level , having some amount of data analysis involved. The cost of sensors etc. to be added to the basic Phoenix box should be reasonable.

Ideas may be submitted before 31-Aug-08

For more details visit http://www.iuac.res.in/~elab/phoenix/prize.html

Thadiyandemol

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At 1745 m, Thadiyandemol is the highest peak in Coorg, and the third highest in Karnataka. It is situated right on the Kerala-Karnataka border. We were told that on clear days, you can see the town of Kannur, and even a glimpse of the Arabian sea from the top.

Prasanthettan and I set off on our trek at eight in the morning, on Sunday the 6th. We took with us some bread and jam, biscuits, bananas and water, and a map which Mr. Prasad was kind enough to provide us with. The peak is roughly 6 km from Palace Estate.

The first phase of the journey was along a tar road winding up through the coffee plantations. We passed a few gurgling streams cutting across the road, on the way. After about one and a half kilometres, the tar road ended and gave way to a mud road which only four-wheel drive jeeps can negotiate. We stopped by a stream to have our breakfast, and refilled our bottle with its clear water.

We resumed our trek after the break and trudged along the mud road. That part of the journey was rather easy, as the road climbed, if at all, very gently. After another couple of kilometres, the mud road narrowed down to a trail, which seemed to be permanent, as the ground beneath it was hardened. We carried on, looking for a landmark indicated on our map, the “Big Rock”.

The path began to climb more steeply. We stopped regularly, to give our legs some rest. There was no question of becoming tired, as the weather was just perfect (as far as our bodies were concerned) for an arduous trek. Short spells of rain and a gentle breeze (at times stronger) kept our body fluids intact. At last we reached the Big Rock.

Half an hour later we reached another landmark on our map – the “Old Stone Wall”. As the name suggests, it is a neat little wall made of stones piled upon each other. It must have marked the boundary of some ancient kingdom. Next we had to pass through a little but dense forest. This was leech country! Hardly had we taken a dozen steps, when our feet were attacked by a swarm of those slimy bloodsucking creatures.

The path runs into a steep climb inside the forest and it was impossible to progress without resting. We tried to get rid of the leeches during one such stop. It was a mistake. By the time you removed one of them, a couple would have attached themselves to your feet. Standing still inside the forest was a bad idea. But still it was difficult to go on without stopping. Thankfully the path soon came out of the forest, and entered the final stage of the journey to the peak.

We stopped a few metres from the forest for de-leeching. We had brought some salt along with us, but found that it was not a practical solution, as salt takes some time to take effect. The best way to remove them was to just pull them out. It’s a bit tricky, but I almost mastered it by the time we reached back.

The last leg of the climb was upon us. Mr.Prasad had told us the night before that once you got out of the forest, it was a steep climb, but we shouldn’t get discouraged as it was only a few metres to the top. We set off again. This would prove to be the most physically and mentally challenging part of the climb for me. The steep climb and the leeches inside the forest had shaken my nerves, and I was starting to feel the tiredness and pain in my legs.

We stopped every few steps. It became tougher with each step. And we didn’t seem to get any closer to the peak. That we couldn’t exactly see the peak, due to the thick mountain mist, made it all the more depressing. When we stopped for yet another rest, Prasanthettan asked me whether I wanted to go back. He said that it was alright, of course it was my first time. He warned me not to strain my legs too much lest I get cramps.

I was in a dilemma. My heart told me to go on, at the same time I was aware of the danger of cramps. I took one last glimpse in the direction of the peak, and made up my mind. I got up, and told Prasanthettan that I would carry on – I wanted to reach the peak. That last stretch turned out to be not so strenuous after all! We had actually completed the most difficult part of the climb. In a few minutes we were cheering each other on the peak! What a feeling that was! It’s something beyond words…

It was eleven o’clock. The climb had taken us exactly three hours. We sat for about ten minutes on the flat square rock on the peak, looking at the clouds below us on all sides, imagining the view we would have had, had it been a clear day. I wonder how that rock reached there. It’s as if it was put there for the trekkers to rest. We ate a few biscuits and started our return journey.

I understood the significance of my decision to carry on to the top, when we started our descent. Mentally recharged and reinvigorated by the accomplishment of reaching the peak, the ache in my legs seemed to have disappeared. I experienced that mysterious and magical link between the mind and the body.

In a few minutes we reached the edge of the forest. This time, we decided we wouldn’t stop till we reached outside. We told each other not to look at our feet, so as to avoid any temptation to stop and remove the leeches. We quickly walked down the slope through the forest, and in about five minutes we were on the other side. It was amazing how quickly we had covered the same distance which had felt like hours on the way up.

We took a few more steps and stopped to remove the leeches. Prasanthettan had got about 30. Me, probably 20-25. And we didn’t stop even for a moment! The rest of the journey was a pleasant walk through the lovely meadows. The mist had more or less cleared, and we were able to see some of the breathtaking beauty of the landscape which had been shrouded in mist on our way up.

The descent took about two hours, and we were back at Palace Estate by 1 pm. Took a shower and devoured the fabulous meal which was waiting for us, with the great appetites we had worked up!

Visit Prasanthettan’s album to see the photos…

Kodagu

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I reached home last Thursday. It’s good to be back! I couldn’t write till now, since my computer’s RAM had been damaged and I had to get it replaced. One more week before the next semester. Had a great time in Bangalore and Coorg.

I reached Bangalore on Friday the 4th, around 8 pm. Praveenettan came to pick me up, braving the frustrating Bangalore traffic. We set off early for Kodagu the next day. It’s a long drive from Bangalore and we reached the place we were staying, a home stay called Palace Estate near Kakkabe, around 4 pm. We were given a warm welcome by our host Mr.Prasad.

After relaxing for a while, we went to see a waterfall inside their estate. I received my first leech bite during the walk! We had a sumptuous dinner, and afterwards Mr.Prasad gave us a map and precise directions for climbing Thadiyandemol, the third highest peak in Karnataka. The next morning, Prasanthettan and I set off at 8 o’ clock for Thadiyandemol. We reached the peak around 11, and reached back at one in the afternoon. I’ll describe the trek in detail later, because it deserves a separate post.

In the afternoon, all of us except Prasanthettan, went to visit Thalakaveri, the origin of the river Kaveri. They have put up a marble temple there. When we reached there the whole place was covered in mist, and you could hardly see a couple of metres ahead.

On Monday we set off on our return journey around 10.30 in the morning. On our way back, we stopped at Nisarga Dhama, an island on Kaveri, and also at the Namdroling monastery, in the Tibetan settlement of Byla Kuppe. We reached Bangalore by 10 at night.

(Photos will be uploaded soon … )

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