Settling down into the madness that is IISc, but had to complete a (somewhat tiny) report for my final semester here in JSS college, Mysore. It is an account of theoretical and practical issues and experiences that one should consider while trying to design something which has to be used by others. It’s main focus is on rural areas and LED lighting, but I believe that the principles are quite general in nature. The interplay of science with everything else is quite obvious in this report, if somewhat implicit since that was not the main focus. You can find the report here and the slides here, or check out the documentation section.
One notices a funny dichotomy when one flits through publications catered toward different sections of society, like India Together and The Times of India (if one can actually call it a ‘news’ paper anymore). One set seems to tell us that everything is going to hell and the other seems to paint an extremely optimistic picture of the whole thing we call liberalisation. Since people usually buy that which they relate to, it follows that both pictures are true: the excruciating poverty and the sleek new capitalism.
Society can never be comprised of watertight compartments. It is more likely to contain personalities who occupy the continuum between the two extremes. Take Bangalore, my favorite example. The slums are a picture of scarcity whereas the IT SEZs are a picture of excess. It is highly unlikely that the lower strata of society will gladly give their scarce resources to a population that already has too much. Someone must be doing it, for a price, of course.
Usually, the technological artifacts of an age represent its zeitgeist. The F-1 car is to me one such symbol of this era. It has all the striking features of our society:
- High performance
- Very high levels of organization (in terms of car design)
- High dependence of the whole on every single part (heard somewhere that the car won’t even start if all components are not working properly)
- Requirement of relatively ideal conditions (very wide, flat tracks, almost fricitionless profile, specialised tyres, etc ., )
The current financial crisis can be compared to a car crash due to failure to adhere to ideal conditions. Something fails, which brings down everything else. If you read any material on supply-chain management, you’ll understand what I mean. This is why Chinese melamine finds its way to the breakfast tables of half the globe. In comparison, the society of a century ago was like a Kinetic Luna – not very complicated, low performance (in terms of economic output), easily maintained by the owner herself (assuming minimal savviness), and useful in potholed roads.
With such stringent requirements, most modern corporates are willing to pay a high price to ensure that they get the resources they need. It is only when ideal conditions are created will it perform at desired levels. The march of the corporation in India has unfortunately turned into a zero sum game which is also unsustainable, quite like running a Ferrari in Chickpet. You have to break things down to give it room, and make sure nothing comes up later. For the Ferrari owner, life is good, but not for the person whose house was pulled down.
Thus, it is not quite the IT czars who are spearheading ‘growth’ in India or anywhere else, but the people who break things to make way for them. In an era of ever rising populations and decreasing resources, the industrial society requires resource allocation which is quite disproportionate to the number of people it represents.
A few examples are in order. Take the case of land in and around Bangalore. Scare resource, no doubt. But if one saw the number of IT parks coming up before this financial screw-up, one could easily think otherwise. This article (watch the embedded video!) describes the land mafia in Bangalore and the important players, including Muthappa Rai, who was interviewed for the article. It is an open secret that if you need 10 acres for building swanky townships or glass-enclosed IT greenhouses, you go to the mafia, not the government. Pratically everyone in Bangalore, especially in extension areas, lives on illegally occupied land, which later the BBMP is forced to regularise. Those who lose out on land are farmers and who lose out jobs are unskilled locals (due to huge migration), and hence arise organisations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike which are kept in check by the police. The mafia to disenfranchise, and the police to keep it that way. Neat idea.
Water is probably hitting Bangalore more than any other resource, and the trenches are occupied by the private water tanker operators. Like the article shows, a single operator may deliver 50 – 60 loads of water a day, each of roughly 20,000 liter capacity. This adds up to mind-boggling numbers, and this was more than a year ago. I have myself seen Leela Palace getting atleast 10 – 15 tankers of water at 5 AM in the morning. And the website says:
Ensconced in 9 acres of tranquility that includes an azure lagoon, The Leela Palace mirrors the lushness of the Garden City. Harking back to the royal heritage of the Vijaynagar Dynasty, our hotel earns it name by showcasing gold leaf domes, ornate ceiling and grand arches.
They have a freaking lagoon!! This issue is becoming global. This set of pictures shows what can be, and is not very reassuring. Also, years of industrial farming is taking a toll on land and water, with desertification of erstwhile farmlands becoming a major issue. Farmland drops, food is scarce, starvation and conflict are inevitable.
The recent flare-up in Maharastra has also to do with appropriation of jobs (which are getting scarce nowadays!) by Biharis in the Railways. The fact that railway ministers for the past 12 years have been from Bihar may have something to do with this. The actions of the MNS may not be justified, but the resentment unfortunately is.
Another gory example is that of coltan, used extensively for manufacture of computer chips. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of it is available in Congo, which has a war going on to secure these resources, destroying everything in its path. Like this article says:
More profitable than gold or diamonds, and more easy to extract, is the rare substance, colombo tantalite, known as coltan, an essential ingredient for microchips and cell phones. Found almost exclusively in eastern Congo, it can bring in a whopping $400 per kilo in the international market, giving rebel factions and neighboring governments a financial reason to keep the war going indefinitely. Only when the Congolese conflict caused a temporary suspension of coltan mining did the western world feel the reverberations of a war it had all but forgotten: Sony was forced to delay the launch of its popular Play Station 2.
My My. The poor rich kids must have found it intolerable without their PS-2s.
The unfortunate reality is that we have designed a system where comfort and excellence is almost always at the expense of the powerless and weak. There are very few daily activities that we can perform without directly or indirectly grabbing something from someone else. It of course comes packaged in hygenic tetra-paks, but the people driving our ‘development’ be it the State, the crime lords or those who exploit nature are getting their hands dirty enough for all of us. The world is going nuts, as it has been from a long time, but never before has the resource crunch affected us like now. Blame the population problem or WalMart, it is high time we learn to live within our (material, not financial) means.
Yup, word limit reached.
Had been to Gnu/Linux Habba today, it elicited quite a good response from the student community, compared to what Im used to from my student days. Gnu/Linux is getting a fair bit of attention, since it is also being viewed as something that can get one a job. The Free Software Movement has grown phenomenally to say the least in the past few years, not least because of events like the Habba.
It is not a coincidence that the FSM exploded with the explosion of the internet. The great levelling power of the internet contributed immensely to the growth of the FSM, and this is well known. If one analyses the FSM, the key features one would find are:
- Community: pariticipants think (or are urged to think) of themselves as part of a larger community. It is only the mutual give and take that makes Free Software what it is now.
- Cooperation: Helping each other to solve problems, in whatever capacity possible is a by-product of the feeling of community. Big egos exist, but they are usually reined in ‘for the greater good’.
- Equity: Notice that Communist also derives from the word community. The reason why the FSM did not end up becoming a dictatorship is the equity among its participants. Any person with a reasonable contribution is welcomed. Communism, for all its hype, never featured equity at the level of the FSM. There is a reason for that, however: most participants, atleast in the development process are of similar skill and background. They differ in terms of ideas and experiences, which makes for the vibrancy in the movement.
- Communication: members are highly communicative, in one medium or the other. The value of this need not be stated, especially in reinforcing the above three.
- Zealousness: Firm belief and identification with the goals of the FSM of people from varied backgrounds, skill and intellectual levels keeps the fire alive, at all costs.
The FSM defines a ‘commons’, a shared resource that anyone can use without interfering with anyone else’s rights, especially the right to private property. Noone or, equivalently, everyone owns it. IMO, it is the largest movement of our times which has altruism as a core tenet.
This was one of the reasons for the initial scepticism that it faced from the corporate world, who are taught that everything must be owned by someone (not everyone!). Fortunately for the FSM, the developed economies were rapidly transitioning into service economies at the same time as it was growing and viable business models came into being which put service ahead of the product. The corporates, adaptable beasts that they are, probably saw the value that FSM can bring in a service economy and joined forces. It is quite amazing that two social institutions, one based on altruism and another based on selfishness have managed such a fruitful interaction.
It is not as if only the corporation adapted to the FSM. The other way round happened as well. People who previously talked in terms of freedom also started talking in terms of business models and bottomlines. This is a constant feature of resilient social institutions: they learn other’s languages and develop a hybrid one at the end. With the corporation firmly behind FSM, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and flourish. Thus, the FSM has learnt to value selfishness to some degree, and corporations have learnt a (very little) bit of altruism.
Similar interactions have happened between the Environmental movement and the corporation, leading to environmental economics for the greens and green manufacturing for Wall Street. One of the reasons that I feel the corporation will be the dominant institution for a very long time to come is this high adaptability that it possesses. Religion pretty much disintegrated in the West after the Enlightenment, but the corporation has withstood many assaults from the time of the Industrial Revolution.
Then why is adoption to Gnu/Linux still slow ? the FSM, quite like the environmentalists, had been interacting within themselves for too long. Not anymore. Gnu/Linux Habba was a focussed session on usability, especially in Kannada. Similar outreach activities will continue to push Gnu/Linux to the mainstream. However, its impact will not be as high as the environmental movement until they make a fundamental shift in approach: most interactive sessions focus on the outcome part of using Gnu/Linux. For a person, especially in places where software piracy(!) is not taken seriously, the outcome of using Gnu/Linux is not very different from using MS Windows or Word. Some things cannot be captured by the outcome of using a software product, like the experience of using it. Like the marketing tenet says, sell the experience, not the product. One has to ‘sell’ the status, moral superiority of using Free software. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. This is what the environmentalists are trying to do by asking for labelling of products, and what Apple does when it is selling the iPod, which is otherwise just a box which makes noise.
This is a slow process, but systematic brainwashing will defintely lead to favorable results. Maybe some perusing of marketing literature is in order ;)
PS: you cannot really sell an experience if the product does not work well. However, I think GNU/Linux is almost out of the blocks in this matter (at long last!)
Alternatively phrased, will we run out of sources or sinks?
Before answering the question, it is important to understand why we ask such a question in the first place. It has been a long-standing view of a school of natural philosophy that nature has no intrinsic value, and all value ascribed to it is by humans. In other words, what nature can do for us is the important thing to be considered.
Thus, we take things from nature (say, a rock), convert it to something that is valued by society (say, an iPod) and exchange it for something of equivalent value (say, toilet paper). This process of interaction with other people to determine the value of something and exchanging it for something of equivalent value is what is called the market mechanism. Since exchanging stuff is usually cumbersome, we use a common medium to signify value, and we call this money. Money in itself has no value is indicated that you can find it in so many forms, from solid gold to bits in a database maintained by MasterCard.
To increase the amount of money in circulation, one can do two things: print more money, which makes it lose its value, and this we call inflation (which can happen due to other factors as well), or increase the value of stuff we produce, either by value addition (This instead of this) or simply producing more of it. At the end of the day, the value of an economy (what is called the GDP) reflects the value that society places on the stuff we produce.
Producing things essentially means taking things from a natural source, modifying it to a form useful to humans and then sending it to a sink when its utility is over. Therefore, the throughput of resources from source to sink is what (roughly) determines the size of an economy. The rate of change of this throughput is what is rate of change of GDP (8%, in our case).
A source is a stock of some resource, generated by natural processes, like coal. A sink is what breaks down what we dump into a form that is absorbed by natural processes (like decomposition for organic matter, and oceans for CO2). These processes are not usually under our control, and this puts fundamental physical limits to the throughput of material or equivalently, the size of world GDP. We cannot use a stock of material faster than nature can replenish it, for obvious reasons, neither can we dump stuff ‘somewhere’ faster than natural processes can break it down. These natural processes are known as biogeochemical cycles. If we do change the throughput to greater that what can be sustained, we get effects like eutrophication and global warming.
Many of the early environmentalists stressed on the finite sizes of the sources like coal, oil, metals which made up our economy and said that we will run out of it soon. Unfortunately, the were proved wrong. Newer and larger stocks were found, and all environmental concerns were brushed off as alarmism. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what ever the size of the sources may be, we may actually be running out of sinks to dump our garbage in. Over and above this, many artificially manufactured substances (especially from chemistry, and nuclear waste) have no known natural sink, and therefore they persist in our ecosystems for large amounts of time, gradually increasing in size of stock. The problem lies in the fact that not many toxicology studies have been done on such chemicals, and we have absolutely no idea how they work in conjunction with each other.
Sources of raw materials have developed over millenia, and will in all likelihood last us atleast another century (in case of fossil fuels). Sinks, however, are usually biological systems which have slow rates of flow. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, material throughput is usually limited by sink flows. Thus, we find the classic sign of sink overflow everywhere: pollution.
Can humanity conform with natural processes ? Yes. One way is to find technological advances which make it possible to increase value without increasing throughput, which is happening everywhere. The main problems with this approach is how fast will humanity react to physical limits – will it be too little too late ? Another is to reduce consumption, accepting a smaller GDP with more equitable distribution of wealth so that all may live better. The problem with this is that it is politically impossible (well, almost!). Ignoring limits that are put on us will result in devastation, like what is happening to the fisheries of the world today. Hope we can garner enough moral strength to preserve our physical strength.
A few lessons learnt from my lighting project design and other things happening now, both from a process and target perspective.
Document, document, document!
I’m sure most people reading this would remark – “Yeah, right!”. But learning it the hard way has made the lesson all the more invaluable. It are useful for the following reasons:
- Forcing yourself to put ideas into words makes it concrete.
- Writing down fundamental assumptions in your design will give hints as to why the design failed or performed well in a given situation.
- It makes it easily replicable.
- Translating a well documented design into the real thing is extremely easy.
- Testing your work against a detailed design as a benchmark will be always good.
That being said, it is not necessary to mention implementation level details, which will ruin clarity of presentation. Make it modular, use subsections and sub-subsections frequently.
Have a clear idea of the end product
This should have been the first in the list! As far as it is practically possible, you should be clear of the function your product should perform. People have a good idea as to what they want, it makes sense to listen to them. Unless you can say what your product does in 25 words, you are in trouble!
It is never as easy as it sounds!
Only the most trivial things like say, painting a new color onto a pinhead are as easy as they sound (on second thoughts, even this is quite an issue ): The translation from the space of ideas to silicon or code or metal is limited by a large number of things, not excluding human stupidity. Like someone once said, “[I]f you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it”.
You are not God…
… and therefore, you cannot know nor forsee everything. Talk to people, pick multiple brains for multiple viewpoints and use the expertise of as many people as possible before, during and after product design. Everyone, from the person who wipes the floor to your boss can have something to offer. This of course means that you will have to swallow your own ego and bear a few unbearable ones, but is a good strategic initiative.
Test what you create
Not everyone will be as stupid as you, and therefore cannot understand the magnitude of your mistakes. Test in all weather, habitations, altitudes, attitudes. This business of “testing teams” is only for large corporations with plenty of money to employ bored people to miss your errors.
Can you do with easily available materials
Ideally, all my designs try to use stuff available on SP road (or KT street in Mysore) or something that any workshop can fabricate. Using off-the-shelf stuff makes it all the more easier to replicate (or as the big boys put it, pirate) and maintain even by local electricians/mechanics with minimal training. The more replicable it is, the more competitive the market can theoretically be, with the beneficiary being the end user (Economics 101!). This is also one of the only ways to beat economies of scale concerns.
High tech is not always best
This complements my previous statement. Most people’s needs can be satisfied by things which are already available, usually in their own village or town. It definitely needs more creativity to make things simple, which is why we have so many complicated gadgets in the market. Simpler usually implies cheaper which, for people living at the margin, usually implies better.
Do not downgrade modern tech, but upgrade traditional tech
Unless you are introducing something which was not part of traditional life (like solid state lighting!), you should look for ways to improve over existing things than making cheaper and smaller copies of things available in the city. I’m extremely cynical about selling toothpaste in sachets when you can make do with the neem tree on your street. The reason why people in rural areas can live on a smaller income is that nature subsidises many of their acitivities. Trying to change that just to sell your product – which was meant for a society that gets no such subsidy and also earn higher incomes – is a trap.
Try and make a significant change in people’s lives
If this is answered with a no – after thinking as objectively as possible – then you are in it for the money. It is definitely possible for products to bring about a huge change in lives, but finding such an application requires networking with people who speak your language and the people’s language (not in the sense of Kannada and Marathi, but in terms of context), or better learn to speak their language.
Finished two books of essentially opposite characters, One was ‘One Straw Revolution’ and the other was ‘In defense of Globalization’ by Jagadish Bhagwati. Was interesting to read one after the other, since it covered the extremes of the globalization spectrum.
To be fair, Fukuoka was not trying to flagellate globalization as much as he was trying to point out an alternate way of life. Bhagwati, OTOH, was quite focused, as the title itself suggests.
One Straw Revolution
The book claims to be an introduction to natural farming, but is definitely far more than that. Though most of the book deals with Fukuoka’s method of ‘do-nothing farming’ (where you let nature take care of most of the work, with minimal intervention from the farmer), it also puts forward a way of life derived from the method of farming itself. Like the author says (paraphrased)
Once I realised that man knows nothing … Instead of talking about my philosophy, I tried to show the same to others by practicing agriculture.
He derives an alternate type of agriculture which uses the variety and complexity of nature to do most of the hard work, like controlling weeds, pests and manuring, with the farmer himself doing very little. Someone who knows a bit of community ecology will be fascinated by the practical usage of the same to make life easier. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, humans spend most of the energy they harvest/mine to modify ecosystems. However, given the complexity of ecosystems, this is usually a ham-handed approach which leads to other issues which need to be patched up, and so on and so forth. Fukuoka essentially tries to observe natural patterns and see how it can be used to his benefit, rather than fighting it. Of course, he builds his method around his philosophy of ‘man knows nothing’, but the method is useful even if you do not agree with his thinking. This book definitely lies in the ‘inspirational’ category and will leave the reader invigorated, if nothing else ;)
However, given modern logic of efficiency, this method is highly inefficient along the time ordinate, since gradually observing and adjusting to natural rhythms is extremely site specific (for obvious reasons) and iterative (Fukuoka himself took close to 2 decades to reach his level of expertise). NPK fertilizers and pesticides win out on this measure while losing out on practically everything else. Natural food is cheaper (those who buy from organic shops in Blore might find this shocking!), easier to grow and maintain while growing, and does not cause farmer riots all the time. Fukuoka also mentions the variety of problems farmers face when growing cash crops for a global market, especially when they are not sophisticated like corporations to hedge against the inherent risks.
In Defense of Globalization
Bhagwati is quite of the opposite character. Man can sufficiently control nature to increase welfare of all, any lapses are just because science is not yet perfected, and this implies the Western nations – given their superior science and technology – must help developing countries to grow faster. His idea to support growth is that
I noticed that the economic profile of all countries, developed or developing is pretty similar. Therefore, the obvious choice is to make the pie bigger.
As opposed to distributing the pie better. One cannot doubt that he is quite concerned with the welfare of all, just like Fukuoka, but supports globalization of trade as the best way out, in direct opposition of Fukuoka’s way out. Judging by the present scenario, Bhagwati has definitely been more influential!
Leaving aside fundamental differences in opinion, I found it quite instructive to read this book since Bhagwati makes a cogent argument about the various faults in the anti-globalization movement, most of which centre around them being more about good intentions rather than solid research. He concedes that globalization does not mean complete deregulation but needs to be ‘managed’ to cope with what he calls its ‘occasional downsides’. The problem that I have seen reading newspapers and such is that these downsides seem to be quite frequently ‘occasional’. One can hardly agree with Bhagwati that culture are environment are not affected, but rather helped by globalization, and that one should eat genetically modified foods because there is not scientific evidence that they cause any problems. There was no evidence that atmospheric pollution was bad in the 1800’s – the only lamenters being poets and artists – but no one disagrees now. Precautionary measures are something that Bhagwati dislikes saying that ‘anything and everything can be disallowed using moral arguments and this is bad for global trade’. If that is the price for precaution, so be it.
One consistent strain throughout the book is North-South relationship and how developing countries must learn from the big boys how the game is played (technology, management practices, financial aid, the whole nine yards!). USA uses 30% of the world’s energy. If everyone in India consumes like the average American, we would need to mine not only Mars but the Asteroid belt near Jupiter as well. If we concede that all cannot be Americans, then why should we follow the path of development that they did is not very clear. Our 9% growth is essentially creating brown-skinned Americans within a sea of poverty. India, like what we did with NAM, needs to chart its own path of development which is not infinitely optimistic about mining asteroids but takes a more realistic and cautious approach which increases the welfare of all.
After nearly 5 months of postponement and conflicting schedules, managed to make my visit to Timbaktu last week. This was again with regards to the demo of my (ever!) prototype lighting system, which has somewhat matured now. As always, the takeback from Timbaktu is more than what one expects.
I was accompanied by Arun from the company I work with on this lighting project. He and I share common interests in education, especially at the primary levels and there are few places in the world where one can learn better about this than Timbaktu. This trip had two main takeaways: one in education and another in technology.
The Timbaktu school takes in only those children who are from an underprivileged background and those that the Government school rejects as failures. These children, from what I saw manage to do pretty well, atleast getting their 7th standard certificates which is definitely better than having none at all. Subba Raju, who has been in charge of the school program for more than a decade enumerates the following guidelines for providing children with a happy childhood:
- Good Nutrition is something he seems completely convinced about. On analysis, this seems obvious, but I have not seen many educators speak as passionately about it as Subba Raju.
- No-fear environment is another stress here. The children are rarely chided or restricted to things that they want to. It is usually difficult to find teachers in the classroom since they are with the children on the floor ! The children easily approach strangers like us and speak to us with what little English they have picked up (The medium of instruction is Telugu). It embarasses me sometimes to notice that small children have picked up English while I have not been able to learn any rudimentary Telugu. Their curiosity levels are extremely high and they will buzz around like bees if you are carrying any interesting looking gadget. Girls play cricket with the boys and are not ridiculed but treated with patience uncharacteristic of children their age. We witnessed a practice for a play which was written by the kids themselves with a little help, complete with songs set to popular tunes. They had been practicing it for 5 days, and one cannot but develop an inferiority complex looking at their proficiency within such a short span of time. Such observations strengthen my belief in the futility of externally imposed discipline and the power of autonomous learning. Remember, these are kids in the age 5-15!
- Non competitive learning is another interesting feature of this place. One may balk at the idea, but at then end of the day, it is similar to eating wholesome food, whereas competitive learning is like a body-builder’s diet supplement. Picking a few ‘desirable’ traits and encouraging only these is doing a great injustice to our posterity. Such practices are sometimes supported by simple-minded appeals to evolution, but are undoubtedly harmful given our lack of understanding of a phenomenon as complex as human development. One can ask how such children do in the outside world, and unsurprisingly, given their fearless attitude they adapt extremely well. Contrary to conventional wisdom, non-competitive learning creates more creative and committed individuals, since they usually converge to a discipline they are most suited to. Children are given ample choices to occupy themselves with, and choice available to individuals (not only economic) is increasingly being accepted as a metric of how developed a society is. Timbaktu no doubt qualifies as an extremely developed community.
The Timbaktu school is a must-visit pilgrimage for those interested in education of children and also for those who think starting their children on a IIT coaching class in 10th std is the best thing they can do.
My association with Timbaktu and Ashok Rao’s lectures have gradually moulded my perspective on technology and its purpose. Technology is undoubtedly shaped by the cultural milieu it is surrounded by, and this is apparent if you listen to technical proposals from different cultural universes. IITB’s business plan competition awarded a 1 crore prize to a group which came up with an idea to make a more realistic simulator for automotive video games. The people in Timbaktu are more enthusiastic about a system that will help detect wild boar intrusions into fields. Like I had mentioned in a previous post, Liberal thought left purpose for individuals to define for themselves. This sounds good in theory, but ground realities makes social purpose identical to what those with the most money think it should be. Which is why a video game simulator is more valuable than a boar detection system. Since technology has a high correlation to social purpose, it is hardly surprising that HDTVs, iPods, Mobile phones (or whatever they are calling it nowadays) generate a lot more interest, since the reigning social purpose is to pander to consumer preferences. Like a friend puts it “One rupee, one vote”.
With technological virtuosity being the order of the day, it is natural to think of villages as a primitive society where nothing ‘happens’. However, if one cosiders a hypothetical society where conserving the environment or promoting an equitable society was considered good, many of the technological artifacts that we consider as ‘cool’ turn out to be exactly the opposite. Timbaktu may be considered a ‘poor’ place, but will be exemplary in this hypothetical society. Technological development will take place in such a society, but in a direction that does not make too much sense in our present culture. It is my hope to further the technological boundaries of such a society.