Sunday, February 24, 2008

License to Tinker

I have been reading much more about hardware these days, partly due to my work, and partly because it took my fancy. Being a software person for a long time, I wasn't too far away from hardware. I had never taken very much interest in it though, beyond the occassional soldering of readymade kits. Recently I came across a microcontroller board called the Arduino which has interested me like never before.

The basic idea is to make a cheap microcontroller board that can be programmed via USB on the big three platforms: PC, Mac, and Linux. The board has plenty of digital and analog IO pins and already there is a great interest in it from people from various backgrounds. For a software person, this is a great opportunity to play with hardware, and many hardware people are looking at it as a nice introduction to software. For a person who knows electronics, this is a great introduction to both. The board design is open, and clones already exist. Lady Ada has made a wonderful breadboard version called the Boarduino, and a free arduino clone called the Freeduino is out already. Got to love the community's funny naming schemes. Using this microcontroller, you can hook up your home's appliances, your cameras, lights, stereos, and even train your household pets. The potential is very great, and I am certain that this will lead to a blossoming of creativity in the hardware department. Much of ideas behind software hacking that lead to Linux (and other free software) are being applied here: Commodity parts, Free exchange of information, lack of patents or other ways of stifling creativity, and interest from people who are doing it Just For Fun.

It is hard for me to figure why I am suddenly interested in it. There is no aspect of my work or my social life that will benefit from this, but it just seems like a fun thing to play with. Maybe it is Nicholas Zambetti's invention where you control an alarm clock using a teddy bear. Maybe I'll finally use it to remotely reboot hung machines. It is hard to tell whether it will ever have real utility, but I think it has great amusement value.

This idea of tinkering has recently been popularized by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his wonderful book, "The Black Swan". He argues that in many cases, wonderful inventions were never the product of dedicated work, but rather a fortunate product of random tinkering. His article (thanks, Dad!) forms a nice summary of The Black Swan and is highly recommended if you aren't inclined to pick up the book.

Of course, all of this is very relevant to India. We are riding the technology wave, and many of our creative tinkerers will be responsible for the next wave of economic activity. I know of fresh college graduates starting companies, and it is such efforts that will lead to the next Big thing, whatever that may be. It is hard to tell what ideas will be popular, but the tinkering spirit is what will lead us to discover new ideas. Instead of chaining children to desks, we should set their minds free, and allow them to experiment, learn by trying, even if it means handing them a powersaw at an early age.

At this point I usually take a pointed jab at us Indians, stuck in the backwaters, and how far we are from Arduino hacking. But this time there is no disapointment! The wonderful TechSouls group already has an Arduino clone that you can buy in India! Go ahead, pick it up, and tinker away.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

History, without the rhetoric

I wasn't a big History fan in school. I thought the concept was interesting, but the presentation left much to be desired. We were told what happened, and at what date, and this was expected to be enough. It might have just been me, but not very many people I know took a liking to this bland plate of facts. Years later, I remember very little of what I had miraculously committed to memory.

Years later, I had the fortune of rooming with a person who had a very keen insight into Indian history. His knowledge of recent events: Blue Star, Indira Gandhi, as well as older events: Partition and the Mughals, was a welcome breeze. Conversation was always an opportunity to learn something new, and it helped me understand the world much better. Since then I have actively sought out books on History, for they give me a much better insight into why this world is in its current state.

I've been reading a few books recently that make the puzzle of India open up. On the recommendation of my father, I picked up "Punjabi Century" and "Beyond Punjab", both by Prakash Tandon. My father is surprisingly well-read, and these days our conversations often hover around books. I thought I was being quite the fox when I mentioned Nabakov to him, only to find that not only had he read Lolita, he had read it many years before I was born. "Punjabi Century" traces a hundred years of Prakash's family, and is a riveting read. A lot of Indian customs: that of forced feeding, of treating the guest like a God, of being unduly deferential towards the elders, suddenly start making sense. "Beyond Punjab" is more about his life, of how he started work at Unilever, which later became Hindustan Lever. It has a very insightful look into the British Raj, and how our current administration is bogged down by problems of the Raj.

Both books are surprisingly well written: the language might be plain, but the content is exactly what I have been looking for all these years. Most history tends to be written by those with an axe to grind. RK Narayan's books are well written, but too wishful: yearning for an India that never existed. Pandit Nehru writes well, but he is also too keen to prove his point. His books have a very strong sense of what the optimism around the freedom movement must have been like. The bias is clear, and it is difficult to escape it. Both RKN and Nehru are very good writers, and I have deep respect for their clarity of thought and expression, but they aren't a very clear view of history itself. The only book that came close to an unbiased view of India is Salim Ali's autobiography, which talks of India around the time of Independence. It was made sweeter for me, because Salim Ali and I went to the same college in Bombay: St. Xavier's College, set up and run by a group of Jesuit priests.

Prakash Tandon's books are a step ahead. He talks of India before the British Raj. His grandfather was born seven years before the Raj began, and his father died seven years after the Raj ended, so this is a wonderful time of Indian history to read about. Prakash brilliantly explains the setup of a Punjabi community, its caste structure, the jajmani system, and the way the community worked. Sometimes I get the feeling that he wrote it with me in mind.

I have been trying to convince my parents to write down such a record of their own lives. It is very important to the generations that come after them. The statement of history without rhetoric gives us a very stable bearing of our heritage. A lot of customs had very good reasons when they began, and we need to know those reasons. Being educated in our history, we don't yearn for it. We can see the beauty of the past, but also its deficiencies. Moreover, no one group can remodel history for their benefit, when unbiased reports flourish.

Prakash Tandon started writing after strong encouragement from Maurice Zinkin and his wife (as mentioned in Beyond Punjab). In the foreword to Punjabi Century, Maurice Zinkin says, "Nothing is more important to the illumination of history than a good autobiography. It becomes particularly valuable in times of transition. Documents and statistics can give us the facts of change; only Cicero's letters tell us what the fall of the Roman Republic meant to those to whom the Republic mattered".

Every generation owes it to the next to have such unbiased facts written down. My grandmother-in-law has written one, and I hope many more such autobiographies will emerge -- free from the bias of current-day thinking.