On Schooling

Usually I’m quick to defend the school where I studied between 1986 and 1998. I made lots of good friends there and generally had a good time. Of late, however, in discussions on schooling, I find myself mention teachers from that school who I considered particularly horrible, mostly for their method of teaching.

Yesterday I was chatting with a classmate from this school who now works in the education sector, and she happened to mention that she considered her schooling to be mostly “a waste” and that she didn’t learn too much there. And I quickly concurred with her, saying all that I had learnt was at home, and school didn’t teach me much. So what explains my love for the school even though they might not have done a great teaching job?

From 1998 to 2000, I went to another school, where again they didn’t teach much, and instead assumed all of us went to JEE factories which would teach us anyway. What made things bad there, though, was that they didn’t treat us well. That school had a strict disciplinary code which was enforced more in letter than in spirit. Teachers there had a habit of loading us with homework, calling us for Saturday classes and having surprise tests. The problem with School 2 was that not only did they not teach well, but they also made life miserable in several other ways. The only redeeming factor for that school was the truckload of interesting people I got to meet during my two years there.

So what explains my love for School 1 despite the fact that they didn’t do a great job of teaching? The fact that they treated us well, and left us alone. The uniform wasn’t very strictly enforced, as long as you wore blue and grey. The school had an explicit “no homework” policy. Exams happened only according to schedule and there were few assignments. Even in class 10, we had three “periods” a week dedicated to “games” where we played volleyball or basketball rather than wasting our time in “PT”. Teachers were mostly very friendly and the atmosphere on the whole was collaborative and not so competitive.

My friend might think she “wasted” her 10 years in the school because she didn’t learn much there, but I argue that it was better than her going to another school where she wouldn’t be treated as well and where her life wouldn’t have been as peaceful.

Disconnected Life

The last forty eight hours were spent without internet connection, perhaps the first time I’ve spent an extended period of time at home without being connected. At first, it was incredibly peaceful, as without distractions it gave me enough time to finish off in 2 days all the 3 books (none of them very heavy, mind you, and all were “funda books”) that I’d brought home from the British Library. What was incredible was the amount of time I had in general, for everything. With the internet on, there are way too many distractions. Tweetdeck buzzes every minute. You are keen to “unbold” every mail as soon as it arrives in your inbox. Out of sheer habit, you periodically check out facebook and cricinfo. Lots of time gets wasted, no doubt.

I’d be lying, however, if I were to seay that I didn’t miss the net at all. Foremost was the need to check email, which I did though my phone periodically. I didn’t bother, however, unbolding all the stuff that was there. I only checked the mails that I thought were important, and the rest were “cleared” after I got back my connection this morning (the outage was because I’d applied for a new data plan, and the worthies at BSNL (bless them) decided I should go through some pain for having put them though the pain of changing the plan).

Then, there was some research I was trying to do yesterday, and I was looking for some data, which I wasn’t able to get since there was no internet. I went out of touch with my usual gtalk/twitter friends, but since it was only for a day I don’t really mind that. Most importantly, I missed regular updates of Ranji trophy scores, since those weren’t available anywhere else. It was too much of a hassle to be only via the phone (I don’t have 3G) for extended periods of time. There was also a lot of writing I did in the period, and all those blog posts are now sitting on my hard disk. I’ll upload them one by one with sufficient gaps so that I don’t flood you.

The worst part of no internet was the loss of the “option value” to stay connected. The best part was that it gave me a lot of time to do whatever I else really wanted to do without all the distractions the internet brings. I hope to go on an “internet break” for some time every day, switching off my modem for a few hours. Hopefully that’ll help me make better use of my time. For now, I’m glad to have the 4Mbps connection!

Teaching Music in Schools

How many of you actually enjoyed your “songs”/music lessons in school? Not too many, I suppose. Actually I don’t think more than a tenth of the students would have ever enjoyed these lessons. And I don’t think there is too much surprise in this given the kind of stuff that is taught in schools.

At some point of time during my schooling, we used to have three (!!) “songs” classes during a week, each handled by a different teacher who would teach songs in different languages. The greying guitar-wielding fag-smelling Samson was a fixture, while the other two classes were handled by different people each year, none of whom I remember. One thing that connected all of them, irrespective of the differences in the nature of songs, was that most of the songs they taught were easily classified by us as “uncool” (back then, and even now I’d consider them uncool).

So earlier today I was trying to remember the different songs that had been taught to me in the “songs periods” in school, and the common thread was religion – irrespective of language. A disproportionately large proportion (yeah I love that phrase) of songs that were taught to us were about God, or doing good, or some such thing which could be approximated to a prayer. I remember that Samson also taught us some Christmas carols, but I would argue that even those can be classified as religious music.

There was no wonder that most of us dreaded the music lessons, and the only way we could look forward to them was to replace every significant word in a song with its opposite, or to simply replace it with moTTe (egg). No offence to any of the Gods in whose praise we were supposed to sing those songs but this was the only way we could make the lessons even remotely interesting.

I’m sure most of you would have also gone through similar experiences. And now consider this, courtesy askingfortreble:

Yeah that’s a bunch of schoolkids singing O Fortuna by Carl Orff. If you are done listening to that, then look at this – again being performed by students of the same school.

You heard right! They were singing Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters! Don’t you wish they had taught that to you in school? And made you sing it during the annual day? And if not anything else the bragging rights that would’ve given you later when you went to college? Or the coolness?

Thinking about it, Samson did teach us a couple of songs that were, in hindsight, cool. Ok we did enjoy them when he taught them to us also but they got lost in the midst of so many uncool songs that we never realized we knew such cool stuff. Harry Belafonte’s Jamaican Farewell and Dylan’s Blowing in the wind. Yeah, we learnt them in school but nobody told us they were cool.

Looking back, I wish we were taught many more such songs back then rather than having to substitute words of other songs with “motte”. For all you know, I might have actually taken up singing (ok that might be a stretch; even though I’ve learnt to play the classical violin for 6 years I hardly play it nowadays – ok that also maybe because most of the songs i know are uncool). Yeah I’m such a wannabe.

Women’s Reservation and Roving Bandits

There are two kinds of bandits – stationary and roving. Roving bandits (eg. Mahmud of Ghazni) attack an area, plunder it to the fullest and then abandon it and move on to another area to rape and pillage. They seldom attack the same area twice, at least not in quick succession, because of which they don’t really care about the medium-term consequences of their actions. Similarly you have shifting agriculture.

Stationary bandits, on the other hand are interested in plundering an area over a longer time period (eg. British in India). They too pillage, but given that they know that they will stick on for a reasonable amount of time, they make sure that they don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. And it is a possibility that they will feed the goose well, take steps to increase production of eggs and so on. In other words, they do contribute to general development of the area (though they tend to take away a large portion of the benefits), build institutions, etc. This is more like settled agriculture.

Now, it is clear that given a choice, it is in the interest of the region for it to be attacked by stationary bandits rather than by roving bandits. Yeah, the stationary bandits do stick on for longer and pain you for longer periods of time, but the damage inflicted by roving bandits is usually so severe that it will take a longer time to recover from this.

In democracies like the UK or India, what keeps the legislators honest is the possibility of re-election. It is the possibility of re-election which incentivizes the incumbent to do good for his constituents, rather than just plundering away the region’s funds (in whatever ways possible). In other words, legislators do try to act like stationary bandits, because of which some good does happen for the region.

Now, with the new women’s reservation law in the process of coming into force, what will happen is that once in three elections, constituencies will get reserved for women by rotation. The implications of this are severe. In two out of every three parliaments, the incumbent knows that there is zero chance of him/her retaining the seat in the following election (yeah, women can still continue to get elected from their constituencies when it becomes general by rotation but I’m sure parties won’t allow that). With the possibility of re-election being taken away, this will play havoc with the incentives.

There will be more incentve now for legislators to maximize their benefits in the one term they get rather than to try and put gaaji on the constituency and take benefits off it for the rest of their lifetime. This, I think will lead to overall poorer performance by legislators, irrespective of gender of the legislator and whether the constituency is reserved or not.

This is unfortunate.

LinkedIn recos

LinkedIn in general is a useful site. It’s a good place to maintain an “online CV” and also track the careers of your peers and ex-peers and people you are interested in and people you are jealous of. If you are a headhunter, it is a good place to find heads to hunt, so that you can buzz them asking for their “current CTC; expected CTC; notice period” (that’s how most india-based headhunters work). It also helps you do “due diligence” (for a variety of reasons), and to even approximately figure out stuff like a person’s age, hometown, etc.

However, one thing that doesn’t make sense at all to me is the recommendations section. Point being that LinkedIn being a “formal” networking site, even a mildly negative sounding recommendation can cause much harm to a person’s career and so people don’t entertain them. Also, the formality of the site prevents one from writing cheesy recommendations – the thing that made orkut testimonials so much fun. And if you can’t be cheesy or be even mildly negative, you will be forced to write an extremely filtered recommendation.

Rhetorical question – have you ever seen a negative or even funny or even mildly unusual recommendation on LinkedIn? I haven’t, and I believe it’s for the reasons that I mentioned above. And if you think you are cool enough to write a nice recommendation for me, and that I’m cool enough to accept nice recommendations, I’m sure you and I have better places to bond than LinkedIn.

Anyway, so given that most recommendations on LinkedIn are filtered stuff, and are thus likely to be hiding much more than they reveal, isn’t it a wonder that people continue to write them, and ask for them? Isn’t it funny that “LinkedIn Experts” say that it’s an essential part of having a “good profile”? Isn’t it funny that some people will actually take these recommendations at face value?

I don’t really have an answer to this, and continue to be amazed that the market value for LinkedIn recommendations hasn’t plummetted. I must mention here that neither do I have any recommendations on LinkedIn nor have I written any. To those corporate whores who haven’t realized that LinkedIn Recommendations have no value, my sympathies.


Commenting on facebook, my junior from college Shrinivas recommends http://www.endorser.org/ . Check it out for yourself. It seems like this cribbing about linkedin recommendations isn’t new. I realize I may be late, but then I’m latest.

The Trouble with Orkut

Some of you might have noticed that I haven’t been replying to your messages on orkut any more. I still exist there, but am not “active” by any stretch of imagination. I check my account once in a long while, when I’m feeling really bored. And make a conscious decision not to reply to scraps there, since doing so will invite more scraps, which I don’t want. I haven’t deleted my account since I’m told that doing so will remove from my GTalk friends list those people who’ve been added because of Orkut.

Speaking to other people, I find similar stories. Most people have either deleted their orkut accounts, or just let them go dormant. Of course this doesn’t include people who occasionally scrap me over there. Oh, and btw, most people are still around on facebook. I  know one guy (POTA) who deleted his facebook account but apart from that, most people are still around. So what exactly went wrong with orkut?

1. Fransips: Orkut allowed you to send messages/scraps to whoever you wanted to, irrespective of whether they knew you or not. In the initial stage, when people were rediscovering themselves and their networks, this was a fantastic facility. But once that got completed, it was used by random fransip-seekers, which drove most women away from orkut. And once the women went away, the “good guys” followed them out.

2. Random names: Orkut allowed people to change their display names very easily, and this turned out to be a huge problem. Some day, you’d get a scrap from someone with first name “going to” and second name “california” (with lots of periods and exclamations punctuating the name) and it would take a huge effort to figure out who had messaged you. It is easy dealing with standard nicknames but when people start naming themselves after something that doesn’t make any sense, and hten proceed to change their names every few days, it does get disconcerting.

3. There was nothing to do: Once the initial network-rediscovering face was done, there was nothing one could “do” on orkut. Yeah, about a year back they introduced the concept of applications and stuff, but that was more in response to facebook after the latter had drawn away most of Orkut’s users. Orkut allowed you to write scraps on friends. It allowed you to write rediff-level comments on discussion boards. It allowed you to find random women and seek franship. But that was that. Nothing to do on a sustainable basis.

4.Lack of privacy There was absolutely no privacy on orkut. Everyone could see what you did, who you talked to, what photos you put, where you had been, and in essesnce your entire life history. This, combined with the fransip seekers meant that people “shut down” on orkut. Away went the interesting pictures. Scraps would get deleted. Everyone suddenly became “committed”. People basically started lying, and hiding information. There was no way a forum that encouraged this could help sustain “keeping in touch”.

5. Spam Orkut stupidly allowed some stupid scripts to be run, and so on new year’s day 2008, i had a hundred messages on my scrapbook, all of them having been generated by some stupid script. Orkut had ceased to be personal. You could write a script which would write “hello world” on all your friends’ scrapbooks.

Once the balance had tipped towards facebook, there was no looking back towards Orkut. Orkut tried some themes, which ended up making people’s pages very gaudy indeed. The photo tagging tool was added, but navigation was tough. They tried to introduce a friend feed, but most of the feed was taken up by random thrid party apps. Over the course of the last one year, orkut has kept getting progressively worse.

If you look at it, some of hte features of orkut that enabled it to fail recently were what made it so popular in the early days (2004-07). In that golden age for orkut, people were busy reconnecting. Finding lost friends and relatives. You would crawl through entire friends’ lists in order to find that special friend who you had lost touch with. And you found dozens of them every day. It was incredible. People who you hardly talked to in school suddenly became close “orkut friends”. New relationships were built. New bonds were made. And then you realized that you had gotten back in touch with practically everyone you’ve known. Orkut was of no use to you any more.

I think there is a business school case study waiting to be written over here – about what made and broke Orkut. And it can be used in that session in corporate strategy class where they teach that your greatest strengths can turn into your greatest weaknesses.