Australia Vacation – Part 7

Day 3 was a tour out to the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge. It took the full day. We also took a river cruise and saw a couple of crocodiles. At the restaurant in the rainforest where we had lunch, a python showed up on the roof, even as we were getting ready to take a walk at the nearby stream. Overall, a day made for nature.

Our final day in Carins was a walk down on the promenade at the Esplanade, looking into some of the shops, and finally packing up for our 3-hour flight back to Sydney.

Cairns is a tourist town in what they call the “wet tropics.” They have done an amazing job – combining the power of two different ecosystems, the reef out at sea, and the rainforest inland. The journeys are very comfortable, and each is an experience to savour. The airport at Cairns makes travel in and out so easy.

Most of our meals were at Marinades, where we got excellent Jain food.  Food normally is a bit of a challenge when we travel, but in general, we do manage to find Indian restaurants where we get Jain meals. Breakfast is typically at the hotel, and then we carry sandwiches for lunch when we are out.

Australia Vacation – Part 6

I had planned out our four days in Cairns as 3 days of tours, and the last day for general walking around town. This was to be our real sightseeing part of the vacation.

Day 1 was a trip to Kuranda.  A 7.5 km cable skytrain takes you over the rainforest into a small village. Return was a 2-hour train ride back on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The dense rainforest views from the top via the cable car and then all around on the train ride back were simply amazing. In Kuranda, we went to the Butterfly Sanctuary and the Zoo. For Abhishek, the highlight was holding a butterfly and touching a kangaroo. We saw kaolas sleeping and some crocodiles.

Day 2 was a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We took a catarmaran out to a pontoon 50 kms into the sea. The 90—minute ride was tough – the waters were very choppy and the high winds added to the discomfort. We were all feeling extremely seasick by the time we reached. It took an hour or so for us to start feeling normal again.

Abhishek and I weren’t up for snorkeling and scuba diving, even as Bhavana did both. All three of us went on both a semi-submersible and a glass-bottomed boat through which we got a good look at the coral reef. As Bhavana was out in the water, Abhishek and I ‘suntanned’  on the upper deck of the pontoon . The ride back, thanks to the low tide, was very comfortable.

Blog Past: Bali Vacation

From the last part of my Bali vacation series  of a year ago:

For me, Bali was a good break with family. This year, we split our summer vacation into two – Bali for 5 days, and then Binsar in Uttarakhand for 4 days. It is faster to reach Bali from Mumbai then Binsar!

For me, the vacations are the one time in the year I get extended time with Abhishek. And each year, I can see his growing independence. Being a single child, it does get a bit lonely at times when we travel. But he is good at creating props from trains and other toys to create his own imaginary worlds. This time around, there was plenty of CricketAttax we played. Add to that his beyblades and TV. We watched Cars 2 (freshly acquired DVD).

I too got my own time to think and look ahead. Vacations slow down the pace of life. No meetings to worry about. A completely different context. And long stretches of contiguous time. This vacation, the thinking was less on work and more on what we need to do to change India’s political and policy future. The Mumbai blasts were yet another rude awakening. We have to change people’s minds in India and transform the country. How to accomplish this was what I spent time thinking on the beach in Bali.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Olympian Contradiction: by David Brooks. “The Olympic Games appeal both to our desire for fellowship and our desire for status, to the dreams of community and also supremacy. And, of course, these desires are in tension. But the world is, too. The world isn’t a jigsaw puzzle that fits neatly and logically together. It’s a system of clashing waves that can never be fully reconciled.”
  • The Quantified Community: by Esther Dyson. “Someday, citizens will not just complain about local problems; they will have data to prove their case–and to figure out how to fix those issues.”
  • Why Project Managers should write a Blog: by Maria Burton. One of the 10 reasons: “When problems arise, a quick scan of the blog can tell you where and when the trouble actually started. This can be treated as “chalk it up to experience” or the basis of a detailed report to upper management.” (via Shrikant)
  • 11 Leadership Secrets You’ve Never Heard About: by August Turak. “We often switch between leader and follower many times in a single day, and success depends just as much on being a great follower as it does on being a great leader.”
  • Software and Mirror World: by John Battelle. “It seems to me that if true “mirror worlds” are going to emerge, the first step will have to be “software eating the world” – IE, we’ll have to infect our entire physical realities with software, such that those realities emanate with real time and useful data. That seems to be happening apace. And the implications of how we go about architecting such systems are massive.”

Australia Vacation – Part 5

Over the rest of Sunday and part of Monday, we did our walkabout through Sydney visiting different streets and places. I took some time off for myself and visited a couple bookshops, Dymocks and Kinokuniya, on George Street. I spent quite some time looking at the huge collections – in Business, Political Sciences, Sociology and Literature. I made notes on the books that I wanted to possibly explore later – with Bhavana having put a strict limit on the books that I bought.

As I was browsing through the bookshops, I realised what we are missing in India and online. While Amazon has more titles, the joy of serendipitous discovery is an experience only a big bookshop can offer. Over the years, this was something I had not indulged in. On trips abroad, Abhishek is always around and his patience is limited. In India, the bookshops have limited variety. So, for me, the only solution has been to order books online.

We spent more time on Monday walking around Sydney after taking the monorail from my cousin’s place to the city centre. We had discovered a nice pizza place at the north end of George Street, where we got our pizza without onion and garlic, and so we had lunch there. Abhishek had I spent time looking for toy shops. He developed a fascination for the Sylvanian miniatures – much like Bhavana had a decade ago.

Monday evening, it was time for our 3-hour flight to Cairns.

Australia Vacation – Part 4

Next morning, we went to Manly. It is less than an hour’s drive from Sydney. We took off on one of the trails and walked along the beach and through a bit of forest for about 5 kms, and then turned back after lunch at one of the picnic benches en route. The 10+ kms took us about 2.5 hours. Abhishek did the walk without any grumbling. The cool weather was a big help. A promise of an ice cream at the end of the trek was the incentive.

That afternoon, we switched homes to my cousin’s apartment nearby. Abhishek (7 years) found her son (4 years) great company and the two played a lot together. Kids have an ease of making friendships and connections that is so refreshing.

On Sunday, we visited the Powerhouse Museum. It is about science and technology, and beautifully done. We spent a couple hours in there – including some time at a story reading session for children. Museums like these are what we need in India. They capture the past and give a glimpse into the future. More importantly, they spark imagination.

Australia Vacation – Part 3

The flight to Sydney via KL is long – a total of about 13+ hours flying time. Some time was spent sleeping, some reading, a little watching the inflight entertainment. We reached a wintry Sydney in the evening. My cousin surprised us by landing up at the airport to pick us up. A short ride and we arrived at my friend’s place – on the 62nd floor of a tower in Central Sydney. The views of Sydney by night were amazing.

The views grew even better as daylight streamed in the next morning from the windows. We took a long walk around Sydney. Hyde Park, Botanical Gardens, Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay, a look at the Harbour Bridge. It was amazing to see the expanse of the Hyde Park and the Botanical Gardens so close to the city centre. Then, we walked down George Street and popped into some of the stores as is always the case with Bhavana and Abhishek. I found a nice bookshop, Ariel, which had a very interesting collection of books.

Post-lunch, we visited Darling Harbour, and spent an hour at the Aquarium. We got a first glimpse of the reef and some sharks. Late afternoon was more walking around George Street. We all quite liked George Street. Not as long as some of the NY streets, and yet has plenty of variety to keep one engaged for a few hours.

Australia Vacation – Part 2

Doing research for a trip is now so much easier thanks to the Internet. TripAdvisor was a useful resource, condensing the wisdom of crowds. I also bought a hard copy of Lonely Planet’s Australia guide. Between these two, and a few other sites, I planned out the itinerary. It would be 4 days in Sydney, then 4 days in Cairns, then a day back in Sydney, and then the transit time in KL en route to Mumbai. I had to also ensure maximum weekend time in Sydney so I could spend time with my friends and cousin.

For me, vacations are about spending time with Abhishek. On regular days, it is difficult to get much time. Weekends too are sort of hustle-bustle, and he was a few cousins to play with also. Of late, I have also been travelling on some weekends. My best memories of Abhishek are from vacation to vacation.

Vacations are also when I get a long period of time to think about the year gone by and what to do next. Flights, walks, general free moments combined with a very different context help in spurring the mind into many different directions. The past year was especially interesting because a diversification of activities happened, and so there was plenty to think about.

Australia Vacation – Part 1

Our annual vacation this year was in Australia – Sydney and Cairns. It sort-of just happened. We were wondering where to go. A friend said he was going to be in Sydney for a couple months on work, and suggested we could come over. My cousin also lives there, and she too got excited about the prospect of us coming. I had been once to Sydney for a conference almost ten years ago, but had not seen the place at all. So, we decided on Sydney as one place.

The next decision was whether to go to the Gold Coast or look at an alternative. We are not beach people, so we decided to skip it in favour of Cairns. The reef-and-rainforest combo looked interesting.  And so that became the second destination.

We took Malaysia Airlines, and so had a forced transit time of 16 hours in Kuala Lumpur and decided to make good use of the time to see a few sights around on our way back.

Blog Past: A New Mobile Phone

It has been a year since I bought the Samsung Galaxy II S. This is what I wrote a year ago:

After a couple years of the Nokia E71, I got myself a new mobile – Samsung’s Android phone which sold 3 million worldwide in its first 55 days. It cost Rs 30,500 ($680).

It is a beautiful phone. Quite light, big sharp screen, and quite an intuitive interface. Of course, the Apps are now being downloaded and tried out. I still think the iPhone feels much better from the experience perspective, but Android is now very good. It is a good fight between the two, so the innovations should keep coming.

I intend to keep this as a second phone for some time. With a battery replacement, the Nokia E71 is still quite a reliable talk-and-sms warhorse, and I like its qwerty keypad.

The II S has been working well, and the Nokia has been consigned to the drawers. Somewhat like the fates of the two companies.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Capitalism Debate: by David Brooks. “For centuries, business leaders have been inept when writers, intellectuals and politicians attacked capitalism, and, so far, the Romney campaign is continuing that streak.”
  • On Stephen Covey, who died this week. 800-CEO-Read and Economist.
  • Nokia’s Bad Call on Smartphones: from WSJ. An account of what went wrong. “Nokia led the wireless revolution in the 1990s and set its sights on ushering the world into the era of smartphones. Now that the smartphone era has arrived, the company is racing to roll out competitive products as its stock price collapses and thousands of employees lose their jobs.”
  • Brand Transformation on the Internet: from strategy+business. “To Aaron Shapiro, CEO of the digital agency Huge, online marketing means creating immersive environments where people go to get their problems solved.”
  • Rights and Freedoms: Atanu Dey distinguishes between the two. “Somehow people start thinking that the expansion of rights enhances freedom but in fact it is the opposite: the expansion of rights actually reduces our freedom.”

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 10

A week or so ago , there was a very good article in the New York Times by David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami.”  It  talked about online education. And I’m going to read out a small passage, because it’s very important from the perspective that we are thinking through, what we need to do for Indian education for the next 5-25 years.   Seeing what changes are happening around , I think are very critical.   So I’ll quote and then give closing thoughts.

The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.

Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies. In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process.

How are they going to blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects? How are they going to build the social capital that leads to vibrant learning communities?

This is what we  got to  think about. With the investments that are happening, in the next few years , the amount of lectures, array of content available on the internet is going to multiply tremendously.    In the past few weeks ago  Harvard and MIT announced multi-million dollar investments into putting  a lot of their course content online.  And we in India  can actually  benefit from a lot of this.   I think the key point which we have to think  really is the following. India has an option to radically re-invent  education – to meet the needs of our young  population. How  is it that we can have the will and vision  really to make this thing happen . This is the disruption that is happening in education, and we in India can be at the forefront leading it.

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 9

A few points about these government funds for education. For primary and secondary education,   these funds have to be given as grants. For tertiary education, for higher education, these funds have to be given as loans which have to  be repaid once the person is employed.

So the key point here is that  government should not be in the business of running schools or colleges.    It should not fund schools either.   It should fund students.      And that will make a big difference.    Among all the challenges that India faces, as  it seeks to transform itself,   perhaps none is more important than education.

To summarise, the 3 key messages which I want to share: a new set of skills are needed for success in our world which is information and internet access.  The world is changing and I think the skills that are needed to succeed are going to be  a different set of skills going forward, and a wider dimension of skills. Technology is not the answer to problems that are not technological in nature.  The government’s  primary business should be funding students  –  not schools.

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 8

The role of government in education is the third topic I’d like to address.   There are three important facts we have to keep in mind.   First,   at the core of the system of education is  a human being, an individual, a person.  He or  she learns skills during the process of education and becomes a more useful  member of society.   Education thus makes the individual more productive and therefore promotes general social welfare.  Education therefore has  both private and social returns.   So,  it is in the interest of society to make sure that everyone is educated to the degree  that one has the ability to.

Professor Kaushik Basu talked about it in the morning –  that we underinvested in basic education post- independence. In fact, I was talking to a friend  and he put it very well.   He said all we had to do in India  post- independence was to educate one generation of Indians well.   If you are educated,  then you will ensure that the next generation probably will   get more  education than you.   But, we did not do that well.

Second, the returns to education takes time. The   investment has to be made first and then some years later the benefits arise.   Because of the time lag between the investment,   the net present value of the future gains,  depends on the rate one uses to discount the future,  which is related to paying for it now and enjoying the returns later.

This leads us to the third fact  –   that some people are poor enough, they cannot afford to invest in education.    If they had the money,  they could have paid for education now and recovered their investment later.

These facts define what the role of government fundamentally has  to be in education. The role is simply this – to make funds available to those who don’t have the ability to invest in education.

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 7

There’s another relationship between  information and education. Education gives people the skill to transform information into knowledge.   Sometimes we tend to confuse what information  is,  and what knowledge is.   Information may be presented in books or over the internet. Regardless of that,  how effectively one uses the information,  depends on how good the education system is  in training people to use that information.  So the role of technology in education has to be understood as that of a tool  or an  instrument.   Tools enable us to do tasks more effectively.

Let’s take an example.    A spreadsheet makes manipulating data – tabular data – easy.  How to use the spreadsheet is a skill that can be learnt.  We are teaching that today in many computer courses.  How quickly one learns that depends on how educated,  that person is.  But how to calculate is the basic skill.  The more advanced skill is what to calculate.   And finally,  education teaches us to appreciate what the result of that calculation means.

Technology certainly  speeds up the  information  dissemination and access,  but because technology is a tool,  it can only  be as effective as the skill of the user.   Most importantly,  a broken education system cannot be fixed by introduction of technology.   An analogy  is useful here. You know you have a roomful of mediocre writers and we give them computers,  word processors and printing software, printers   —   that’s not going to make their writing any better.  Their writing will stay as poor as it is.

So,  digital technology cannot fix a problem that is not digital in nature.   Computer hardware and software, PCs, laptops, search engines, softwares, broadband connections, internet  are neither necessary nor sufficient for education.     That   they are not necessary is clear from the fact that billions of people were educated before these tools were invented.   That these tools are not sufficient  is also clear.   There are thousands of schools in rich countries that have all of these and yet fail to adequately educate their students.

Essentially, technology is not the answer to problems that are not technological in nature.  I think we need to keep this in mind when going out there, and going overboard on technology and devices.

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 6

The second topic I want to talk about is the role of technology in education.

In India, somewhere we got our focus wrong. In schools, it is all about setting up computer labs. It’s about getting those ten computers in there – a mix of  thin clients, desktops with some connectivity. Content is always given an after-thought,  and I’ve seen this happen in states,  multiple states, time and again.   If one state does it,  then other states just replicate the tender  and repeat it all over. Content  is an afterthought.  It is getting the hardware infrastructure in place.

The same stupidity is being replicated in the higher education system, where we are now looking at devices, all sorts of devices out there.  And we’ll talk about that in a minute. So thousands of crores are being spent, there’s no assessment, of whether this really  makes a difference in education.   I mean all of us got educated without computers!

This spend on free devices helps to win elections, and perhaps its good pocket money for the value chain, but a different perspective needs to be understood.

Technology has always had a role in education.  In the history of the use of technology in  education, technological advance in printing was the most radical and innovative.    Books were the first of the information  and communications technology. They were the  means to store, disseminate and access information.  The modern innovation  – the internet  – which helps production, distribution and consumption of information on a large scale.   The role    information plays in education has to be recognised. What we know, our knowledge, is a function of what information we internalise. We need access to information together with the ability to comprehend that information. Education requires that information is available  for internalisation and conversion into knowledge.

Blog Past: A Journey and A Conversation

From a post a year ago about a visit to Nageshwar temple in Madhya Pradesh:

I asked the driver and the watchman about the government. They said the government made no difference to them. The MPs and MLAs only came to ask for votes and were never seen again. Both voted, and would flip their vote each time because they saw no progress.

Many of the 12-15 year-olds end up going to Mumbai, taken up typically by a family which wants a domestic help or someone to help at the shop. Employment opportunities locally are few and far between – there is no manufacturing happening. NREGA provides some employment once in a while, but it only ends up being at best a few days in a month.

For the most part, little has changed in the lives of this India. As a nation, we have failed them – by not being able to provide a decent education and by not providing adequate employment opportunities. The time has come for India’s politics of votebanks to be replaced by the politics of development. We need to get Zakirbhai and Radheshyam dreaming about a New India for their children.

Weekend Reading

This week’s reading:

  • Natural Gas: A survey in The Economist. “New sources of gas could transform the world’s energy markets —but it won’t be quick or easy.”
  • India and China’s Growth Challenges: from WSJ. “China doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes—such as triggering a property bubble—that it made in its all-out response to the global financial crisis of 2009. India, meanwhile, is struggling to carry out structural economic reforms it failed to enact during its recent boom years.”
  • Why Walmart is like a Forest: from strategy+business. “Thinking about your company as an ecosystem yields lessons for innovation, growth, and renewal.”
  • The Opportunity Gap: by David Brooks. “Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern.” In India, we need to shift focus from equality of outcome to equality of opportunity.
  • Urban World: A Mckinsey study. “Understanding cities and their shifting demographics is critical to reaching urban consumers and to preparing for the challenges that will arise from increasing demand for natural resources (such as water and energy) and for capital to invest in new housing, office buildings, and port capacity.”

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 5

Critical thinking skills, ability to ask meaningful questions, how to  ask questions right, ability to seek out answers from sources , ability to communicate effectively,   ability to work together,   to collaborate effectively  — these are skills which are going to be much more increasingly important going forward,  irrespective of what kind of jobs people are doing.

This latticework of skills is really changing and  has to really change  what higher education looks at.   So whether its basic economics, numerical literacy, finance, sales, the best ideas in psychology, history, a bit of software programming , manipulating data, writing macros and Excel, these things are very important today as we go forward.

Writing, presenting – these are skills needed for success in tomorrow’s world,  and very little of this is actually being taught today.   In fact education has not changed as much in the last 20 years since I graduated from IIT Bombay in 1988.   In my own education, we had the Humanities department teaching economics courses. I realise the value of economics now,  in the last few years.  And at that time it was almost looked down upon, the arts and humanities.  It’s one of those courses where the lectures were skippable, you could just learn up something, the grades did not matter and  all that stuff.

It took me  nearly 15 years to really undo that bias against economics, sociology and some of these subjects and that’s a big big  drawback in the world that we’re living in today.   What you need to get across to people,  when you talk about multi-disciplinary skills,  is a mix of humanities, business and technology. It needs to be drilled into people at a much earlier age.

You have today,    6-7-8 year old  kids, very familiar with computing, they play video games , they are on facebook with email addresses and so on,   uploading photos, and so on. That’s the world we have to really  look at. These are the kids  who are going to be the customers of higher education going forward.   Are our schools and  universities preparing us for this?   This is one fundamental point which needs to be thought about.  It is almost  that we need to hack  education for tomorrow’s world, and that is not happening.

Higher Education Innovation Speech – Part 4

The world has changed and the education system has to reflect that change. Earlier,  information was hard to access and distribute.  Now it’s possible to, quite cheaply,  have all the information that we need  out there.  You don’t have to memorise when  the first battle of Panipat happened — just go to Wikipedia and it’s all out there.  One search and it gets you right there.     You have YouTube,  Khan Academy, you have US universities like MIT, Harvard spending tens of millions of dollars  putting their lectures online.

The role of the system is therefore to teach students how to learn and how to critically evaluate information. Rote learning is not at all useful in a context where facts are easily available, but understanding what the implications of facts are is what  matters.    In fact, if you look at many of us as parents,  especially when I look in Bombay,  at some of my colleagues, we all have gone through the rote learning system in India, we have all done professionally very well, but given the  choice,  we want to send our kids to ‘IB’ schools.

There is a much wider set of learning that is taking place, and in a way it is reflective of how we are seeing the world change outside.   These are a set of skills that are important in the world going forward.    There’s a book I was reading recently The Art of the Sale’, and in there towards the end,  a friend of the author asks the author “ You have a young kid,  if you were to die tomorrow and you wanted  your kid to know one ability, what would it be?”    And the author answers, “The art of Selling.”    He says it is all about —  a lot of what you’re  doing here — persuading.  Even here, over the next two days,   the idea is to try and persuade different people to a set  of ideas which we can then go out and implement.    Is that  taught   in schools and colleges? Not really.