Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Last Post!

It's 3 a.m. (and yes, it's Wednesday Morning!) and I'm extremely sleepy, but this is probably my last chance to post on this blog. I'm packing up my computer tomorrow and sending it to Coimbatore for my aunt to use for the next two years while my parents are in Brunei. Blogging has been a fun experience: From searching desparately for subjects to write about on a slow news day to being accused of incompetence for maligning Rumsfeld, I've enjoyed it thoroughly. I'd particularly like to thank my readers and commenters for all the feedback and comments, and the folks at Blogger for designing a wonderful publishing service (What about your parents and dog? What is this, an Oscar acceptance? - ed.)

Anyway, there might be more posts, but probably not for a while. I'm spending the weekend visiting relatives, and then will be home for only a few days before leaving for Urbana-Champaign. With luck I'll be able to blog from UIUC; let's see how it goes.

Signing off for now,
Nitish

A Sample CS Curriculum

This post is best read in conjuction with, or immediately after the previous post, which describes the general outline for the curriculum. Here I present the courses which a hypothetical student majoring in Computer Science could take to satisfy the requirements. His (unrelated) interests are mainly Theoretical Computer Science and Physics.

First Semester
Mathematics I (3)
Physics I (3) (Selected topics from Mechanics and Optics)
Chemistry (3)
Biology (3)
Computing I (3)
Engineering Workshop (3)
Methods I (2) (Writing)

Second Semester
Mathematics II (3) (Algebra)
Physics II (3) (Selected topics from electromagnetism)
Applied Mathematics I (3) (Probability and Statistics)
Measurement Techniques (3)
Computing II (3) (CS version: science, not programming)
Engineering Graphics (3)
Methods II (2) (Design)

Third Semester
Mathematics III (3) (Differential Equations and Complex Analysis)
Circuit Theory and Introduction to Electronics (3)
Engineering/Science Elective I (3) (Modern Physics)
Humanities Elective I (3) (Introduction to Economics)
PC 1 (3) (Discrete Mathematics)
PC 2 (3) (Digital Electronics)

Fourth Semester
Applied Math II (3)
Engineering/Science Elective II (3) (Mechanics of Solids)
Humanities Elective II (3) (Principles of Management)
PC 3 (3) (Data Structures and Algorithms)
PC 4 (3) (Microprocessors)
PC 5 (3) (Graphs and Networks)

Fifth Semester
CDC 1 (3) (Theory of Computing)
CDC 2 (3) (Operating Systems)
CDC 3 (3) (Database Management)
CDC 4 (3) (Theory of Programming Languages)
Applied Math III (3)

Sixth Semester
CDC 5 (3) (Computer Networks)
CDC 6 (3) (Computer Organisation)
CDC 7 (3) (Compiler Construction)
CDC 8 (3) (Artificial Intelligence)
Control Systems (3)

Seventh Semester
Elective (3) (Parallel Computing)
Elective (3) (Advanced Algorithms)
Elective (3) (Computational Complexity)
Elective (3) (Theory of Relativity)
Elective (6) (2 Independent Study projects)

Eighth Semester
Project/Practice School

As a practical matter, some of the courses listed need not, strictly speaking, be requirements for Computer Science students. In the place of 'Theory of Programming Languages' and 'Compiler Construction' a single course could be taught in the second semester. Artificial Intelligence could also be removed as a hard requirement. In the two vacancies created, students could choose from one of several two-course sequences that the department may offer, which could include (among others):
a) Advanced Algorithms and Computational Complexity
b) Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
c) Image Processing and Multimedia Computing
d) Data Warehousing and Data Mining

The Proposed Curriculum

Here it is... the much-delayed proposal for a curriculum (see previous posts). I've procrastinated far too long, but packing up an entire house should be some excuse. Before I begin, the abbreviations I use are:
PC - Preparatory Course, an elementary course in a student's field that is required for the more advanced CDCs. An example could be Discrete Mathematics for a Computer Science student.
CDC - Compulsory Discipline Course, a required course for students majoring in a discipline. A CDC typically covers one field in reasonable depth, though not as much as a specialised elective. CDCs roughly correspond to 'higher-level' courses at several universities. Microelectronic Circuits might be compulsory for Electronics students, and Statistical Mechanics for Physics students.

Further explanations will be required, but it will probably help to see the curriculum first. I have listed courses in a semester-wise pattern, with between 18 and 20 credit hours per semester. One course is listed per line, with the number of credit hours in parentheses.

First Semester
Mathematics I (3)
Physics I (3)
Chemistry (3)
Biology (3)
Computing I (3)
Engineering Workshop (3)
Methods I (2)

Second Semester
Mathematics II (3)
Physics II (3)
Applied Mathematics I (3)
Measurement Techniques (3)
Computing II (3)
Engineering Graphics (3)
Methods II (2)

Third Semester
Mathematics III (3)
Circuit Theory and Introduction to Electronics (3)
Engineering/Science Elective I (3)
Humanities Elective I (3)
PC 1 (3)
PC 2 (3)

Fourth Semester
Applied Math II(3)
Engineering/Science Elective II (3)
Humanities Elective II (3)
PC 3 (3)
PC 4 (3)
PC 5 (3)

Fifth Semester
Four CDCs (12-14)
Applied Math III (3)

Sixth Semester
Four CDCs (12-14)
A systems / lab course (3)

Seventh Semester
Six electives (18-24)

Eighth Semester
Project/Practice School

A long series of explanatory notes is obviously called for, so here goes.

Numbering: Why are Preparatory courses numbered 1, 2, ... while Mathematics Courses are I, II, ...? As I said in earlier posts, one of the goals of this curriculum was to increase the amount of choice available to students. A Roman numeral after a course indicates that it is part of a series where the student has a certain amount (sometimes more, sometimes less) of freedom to select individual members in the series.

Mathematics: Mathematics I, Calculus is required of all students. In addition two more pure mathematics courses (6 credits) are required to cover Algebra (2/3 credits), Differential Equations (2/3 credits) and Complex Analysis (1 credit). A student can select as his first course either Math IIa (3 credits of Algebra) or Math IIb (2 credits of Algebra and one of Complex Analysis). If he has chosen Math IIa, he will have to take Math IIIa (1 credit of Complex and 2 of Differential Equations); else he will take Math IIIb (3 credits of Differential Equations). A student may choose either path depending on his interests or preferences, or on what he believes will prepare him better for future courses. Departments may recommend a stream for students of their major, but it can only be a recommendation, not a requirement. As an example, the Computer Science department may recommend Math IIa as better preparation for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science. On the other hand, a chemical engineer might prefer to place more emphasis on differential equations than advanced linear algebra.

Physics: Two physics courses are required, but students can choose from one of two streams. The first provides a general introduction to mechanics, electromagnetic theory and optics at a level slightly above high school. The second covers selected topics in greater depth: introductions to fields like relativity and quantum mechanics may be provided.

Computing: The first computer science course is common to all students. It provides an introduction to computers and computing, operating systems, programming, etc. The second course has two avatars: the first on programming, with topics such as file I/O, and the second covering abstraction, basic algorithms and data structures. Students hoping to major in Computer Science or related areas would be required to take the latter course; all others may choose.

Applied Mathematics: A three course sequence covering Probability, basic Statistics, Numerical Methods and Operations Research (including Optimisation techniques).

Methods courses: I cannot describe these better than Timothy Burke does in his proposal for the 21st century college. Note that Measurement Techniques (in the second semester) is also essentially a methods course, but it is named in the curriculum because it is required of all science and engineering students. The other two may be selected from a subset of those Tim Burke lists, with the proviso that either Reading or Writing must be chosen.

Engineering/Science Electives: This is one of the more complicated parts of the curriculum. Every student must, in his second year, choose two courses outside his own discipline from basic sciences or engineering fundamentals. Every department must offer one or more courses that meet this description, forming a pool from which students select. Typically, preparatory courses for students of one discipline could fill this elective slot for other students. Thus, Microprocessor Design and Interfacing is a required preparatory course for Electronics students (and hence cannot fill this elective position), but could be an elective for a Chemistry student. The idea is to provide a student with an elective slot to pursue an 'outside' interest, and/or expose him to a technical area he might not have otherwise studied.

Humanities Electives: To round out the sophomore year, a student must take two courses from a pool of humanities electives. These may include History, Economics, Management, Music, etc. The same rule applies here as previously; a student may not select a course that would normally be required for his major.

Every student is also required to do several preparatory and advanced courses from his own discipline; this is usually a minimum of thirteen named courses (in addition to some that may be common to all students) and a few electives. The seventh semester is reserved entirely for electives; students may use them for advanced study in their own discipline and/or to explore interesting areas in other fields.

I'll post a sample curriculum for a Computer Science student soon, but I'm done with the basic outline. I'd love any feedback: criticism, suggestions or compliments. (Note: compliments are especially welcome!). I may not be able to respond immediately, but I will reply to all comments.

Before I forget, the credit (or blame! - ed.) for this proposal isn't entirely mine. I really have to thank Karthik Narayanan, Sohini Roy, Divya Devarajan, Prof. Sundar Balasubramaniam and Prof. G. Sundar from BITS, Pilani for all their time, ideas, and help in various forms.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Why do we need a new curriculum?

In my last post on the subject of science/engineering undergraduate curricula, I described some possible goals of any curriculum and a few thoughts that I had. The comments I received were interesting; I'll summarise some of them and explain the rationale behind my ideas today before posting the proposed curriculum tomorrow.

Ranjith said the the chief problem was not with the curriculum followed or even the quality of professors, but rather with the attitude of students. They should break away from a mark-centered school system and learn to explore subjects independently, but often don't realise this. Dileepan agrees that students are marks-oriented and proposes the solution of evaluating performance based on labs, case-studies or assignments instead of emphasising tests that encourage rote learning.

Rahul concurs with Ranji and Dileepan, but feels that there is a problem other than attitude. Students think that they need knowledge in their own areas of specialisation and believe that this is affected negatively by learning things that they don't need. They would love to know how the whole world works but don't want their core compromised. Though BITS permits you to do electives from any area, students choose them from subjects that they think they need (either to increase their specialised knowledge or programming courses to help them get software jobs). While doing a three-and-a-half year course, they give their discipline their first priority and compromise on stuff they would otherwise like to do.

While trying to design a new curriculum, I began from premises similar to Rahul's. I hoped that I could simultaneously increase the number of requisite discipline-specific courses so that people could choose electives as electives instead of using them to address a lack of knowledge that should have been covered and to increase the number of elective slots available to an average student. An ambitious goal, but I think I succeeded partially.

To respond to Ranji and Dileepan, if students were required to choose - early in their college lives - a few electives that were specially designed to explore new areas, with an emphasis on individual thought and few (if any) written tests and exams, would it help change their attitudes? The first-year courses at Timothy Burke's 21st Century College would seem perfect for this purpose.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's post, where I have to actually describe a curriculum that achieves all the targets I've set for it. A pretty tall order, and one I don't know if I can fill; most of my previous attempts at curriculum design fall short in one way or another. An interesting challenge!

Thursday, July 22, 2004

I hate packing!

Why, you ask? Besides the fact that it keeps me from blogging, it's one of the most boring forms of work imaginable. My parents will be working in Brunei for two years, which means that we're packing up the entire house. And, of course, I have to take stuff to Urbana-Champaign.

Anyway, I'm nearly done, so with luck I'll get to do some blogging again. In particular, I have to finish the series on science/engineering curricula. Thanks to everyone who left comments, and I'm sorry for the long gap between the last two posts!

9-11 Commission report released

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9-11 Commission) has just released its final report. Unfortunately, it's a 7.4 MB PDF. You could download the summary instead, but at 5.9 MB (That's a summary! - ed.), it's not much better.

If you don't have the patience to download and read the report, CNN has good coverage, as do many other media organisations. The chief recommendation appears to be the appointment of a national intelligence director (possibly with cabinet rank) to co-ordinate intelligence gathering among the (approximately) 15 agencies involved in it. The Director of Central Intelligence (head of the CIA) would no longer have this responsibility, which probably explains why the CIA opposes it.

Hat tip: Dan Drezner.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Blogging resumed

I just got back from Madras, where I had a wonderful weekend. I had intended to continue writing about university curricula, but I'm just too tired at the moment. Expect the post tomorrow morning.

Also, thanks to everyone who left comments. Ranji, if this were Slashdot, you would be +5, Insightful. Dileepan, I'm looking forward to yours. And Arun, welcome back! :-)

I think I've mentioned this before, but could readers please not leave anonymous comments? If you don't have a login, that's ok; you can include your name (or initials, even!) in the text of the message. It makes life so much easier on me.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Curriculum Redesign, contd.

If you haven't read my previous post, do that first. I was speculating on the possibility of revamping the course structure of an Indian science / engineering university. It seems reasonable to measure the efficacy of a curriculum by how well it meets the goals of its designers. I believe that the goal of a university's undergraduate curriculum should be to ensure that its graduating students:
a) have a working knowledge of various fields of study, are able to meaningfully apply this knowledge, and can increase their knowledge without assistance should they choose to do so.
b) possess the confidence and ability to begin learning any subject they find interesting.
c) are sufficiently qualified to begin either their professional lives or more rigorous graduate study in their area of interest.

To be successful, any proposed curriculum would have to require a broad set of foundation courses to fulfil the first two requirements and permit sufficient specialisation to fulfil the third. Unfortunately, Indian universities seem to focus only on the last requirement. At the few colleges where a broad range of subjects are taught, students are often 'spoon-fed', leaving them unable to go further on their own and thus leaving the first requirement unfulfilled. Sadly, as I said earlier, any college that decides to focus on providing a strong general education is usually criticised for not teaching students enough about their own discipline.

BITS is a case in point. It attempts to teach a common core of subjects to all students during the first two years, but still fails to provide a good general education. Students acquire random bits of knowledge about several fields, but little or no epistemology. (A couple of Timothy Burke's Methods courses would do well here.) All the discipline-specific subjects are compressed into the third year, which is plainly insufficient to do justice to them all. Many students have criticised BITS for not spending enough time on these important courses, but increasing the number of discipline-specific courses (hereafter CDCs) seems to require a decrease in the common 'core' of the first two years. Given that the core already seems to do its job badly, decreasing the number of courses further is hardly likely to help. At first glance, then, there seems to be no solution to this problem.

Perhaps, though, we're approaching it in the wrong way. Why assume that this is a zero-sum game? Can we strengthen one aspect of the curriculum without weakening the others? Can we simultaneously satisfy all the requirements of an effective curriculum? One (naive) workaround is to substantially increase the total number of courses. Students are not machines, so that seems unlikely to work, though a slight increase might be acceptable.

I spent a large part of last semester wrestling with these problems and produced several curricula. Before I present the latest iteration, I'd like some comments. First, are my goals for a curriculum meaningful? Can you think of better ones? Even if they seem reasonable, are they practically achievable? Am I being too ambitious? Second, do you have any ideas for a science/engineering curriculum? While this is a hypothetical exercise, the faculty at BITS has expressed some interest, so I'd like to keep it practical. That means that we would preserve sections of the current BITS curriculum wherever possible. Don't let that chain you down, though. If you have some radically new ideas, go ahead and post them. Quoting Dr. L. K. Maheshwari on a possible curriculum change, "Sometimes you have to destroy a structure before you can begin rebuilding."

I'll post my ideas on Monday; I'm going to Chennai for the weekend. I'll look forward to reading all the suggestions when I get back.

One last note: I've been saying science/engineering throughout these posts for a reason. Any engineering college will have to offer science courses as prerequsites for several subjects, and as electives for interested students. It is technically possible to have science departments that don't offer degrees, but such departments are unlikely to attract good faculty. A 'service' model, where faculty are retained only to teach introductory courses will almost always be unsuccessful. An integrated science/engineering university (like BITS) seems like a far better idea than a 'pure engineering' college.

The 21st Century College

Timothy Burke has written a proposal for what he calls the 21st Century College. It's too long for me to reproduce here, but you can read the whole article on his website. From the prelude:
I have come to the conclusion that so many of the problems of contemporary academia are wrapped up together in the same knot that incremental reforms may not be able to deal with these issues. I think we can do a better job that we presently do, though I also think—and have been scolded for saying so—that at its best, contemporary academia is good enough and performs many useful functions. While I perceive an overall crisis, a failure to live up to expectations, I also think things are not as dire as the strongest critics claim. I think liberal arts colleges can continue credibly as they are with some reforms, though I also think research universities, particularly public ones, are staring some more fundamental problems in the face in the near-term future.

However, I’m also attracted by the idea of trying to imagine a radically different kind of institution that carries forward some of the virtues of higher education but implements them in a radically new form, partly precisely because I think it’s not necessary to storm the ivory tower and burn it to the ground.

There are discussions of the essay on Critical Mass, Cliopatria and Crooked Timber. His ideas and comments apply mostly to liberal arts colleges in the US, but they got me thinking about how one could apply them in an Indian university. More specifically, can one redesign an Indian science/engineering university curriculum in this fashion? Some of you may remember that I spend a significant part of last semester considering a change in the curriculum of BITS, Pilani. The idea was to simultaneously increase a students preparation in his/her (Oooh... politically correct, are we? - ed. Not any more... too tiring!) own subject and improve his general education. Lest I sound presumptuous, let me clarify that. I don't mean that students of Indian universities are generally uneducated, but that students from American universities often seem to have a broader knowledge of subjects outside their own disciplines. Colleges outside India seem to have more of an emphasis on the humanities and subjects of general interest. How many Indian engineering colleges require (or even offer!) courses in political science, economics, or history? The purpose of an undergraduate education shouldn't be only to provide you with the skills to do a particular job - that's what a vocational education is for! Even the so-called 'professional' colleges should turn out students educated in a variety of fields, students who are able to pick up any subject they find interesting and gain a reasonable appreciation of it.

The problem, though, is that students here - and their parents - often obsess about a professional education, pushing their kids to become doctors, engineers, etc. An engineering / science college which reduced the professional component of its degrees to teach social sciences would find itself rapidly becoming unpopular. I know I wouldn't have wanted to attend a college that didn't teach me a substantial amount of Computer Science. (And yet you went to BITS! - ed.) These conflicting needs to generalise and specialise makes curriculum design particularly challenging.

How does one resolve this tension? Stay tuned for the next post.

Hat tip: Critical Mass

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Redesign

To begin with, let me apologise for the lack of posts recently. I was busy with setting interesting questions for What's the Good Word? and had time for little else. I couldn't even sleep without dreaming of words chasing each other around in my head! Thankfully, I'm done with it; the contest was held this morning and it went off well, even if I do say so myself (Well, no-one else is going to say it! - ed.)

You may have noticed that I redesigned the layout of the blog slightly. I moved the blogroll up (something I should have done a long time ago) and added a promotional section to list products/services that I think are worthwhile. For now, the promo contains links to Opera and Firefox; more will be added later.

The real reason for the title Redesign, though, is that Swarthmore Professor Timothy Burke has described a radically new kind of college, reshaping higher education. This is a subject I'm particularly interested in, so look for a post on the subject soon!

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

What's the Good Word?

Yesterday was Ditch's first blog post; let's hope there are many more and that the Cyc project succeeds. I, for one, will welcome our new AI overlords! :-)

C.M.C. is holding it's annual sports/cultural festival, Pegasus, this week and I've been asked to conduct What's the Good Word? For those of my readers who've never seen it, it's a contest where teams try to guess words, similar to dumb charades. Each team has 2 members, one of whom knows the word and gives clues to his partner. Only three single-word clues are allowed. For example you might provide the clues attorney, court, prosecutor for your partner to guess lawyer.

Lakshmi and I were talking about it this evening and discussing our favourite funny, strange or generally pleasant and interesting words. Some of them were: discombobulate, dulcet, effulgent, epiphany, halcyon. Are there words that amuse, intrigue or please you? Leave a list of your favourite words in the comments.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Philosophers Wanted. Enquire Within.

As an AI researcher, I find my internship at Cycorp Inc. a stimulating experience. But job satisfaction at Cyc is probably highest for the 20-odd philosophers that Cyc employs. That's right, philosophers.

The goal of Cyc is to build a complete Formalization of Human Knowledge, stuff we take for granted every day as "common sense". This includes seemingly trivial facts like "Rain is wet but ice is not." but also arcane wisdom such as "The temporal intersection of two events is disjoint with their spatial intersection." This kind of thing is, of course, right up the Philosophers' alley. Lunch-time discussions at Cyc are peppered with wry observations and vigorous debate over issues the rest of the world would dismiss with a "Whatever". Of course in true philosophical fashion, Cycorp view the rest of the world as a special case.

For example, did you know that the set of all unicorns is not equal to the set of all vampires; but the collection of all unicorns is equal to the collection of all vampires? Because a set is defined intentionally, ie. It has a meaning independent of its elements, whereas a collection is defined extensionally, it is merely the sum of its parts, which in both the cases above is zero.

Go ahead, scratch your head.

(To explore the wonders of Cyc more thoroughly, visit Opencyc - the Free [as in Beer] release.)

The Browser Wars

Recently, there's been talk about the return of the Browser Wars. Internet Explorer has been the subject of a lot of criticism for it's vulnerability, with even the US Government's Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) recommending that users consider switching browsers. (Ok, to be honest, they listed that as the last update, after applying Security Updates, downloading the latest Antivirus Software, etc.) There's also been a lot of media coverage of alternative browsers. One result is that downloads of these browsers have increased sharply. This article in Wired News discusses how Mozilla has gained from IE's woes.
Downloads of Mozilla and Firefox -- an advanced version of Mozilla -- spiked the day CERT's warning was released, and demand has continued to grow. According to Chris Hofmann, engineering director at the Mozilla Foundation, formed last July to promote the development, distribution and adoption of Mozilla Web applications, downloads of the browsers hit an all-time high on Thursday, from the usual 100,000 or so downloads on a normal day to more than 200,000.

Hofmann said the Mozilla team wasn't surprised when CERT issued its warning.

"Mozilla and Firefox downloads have increased steadily since last fall, with the Firefox user base doubling every few months, as more people seem to have reached their threshold level of frustration dealing with problems with IE and Windows, and have found the Mozilla software a good solution to solving those problems," said Hofmann. "CERT's recommendation is just a reflection of the trend we have seen for quite some time."

I'm thrilled that people are beginning to realise what a terrible piece of software Internet Explorer is. It's slow, bloated, doesn't follow standards, and has more holes than Swiss cheese! What I'm depressed about, though, is that people don't seem to have heard about Opera. Everyone talks about Mozilla and Firefox and praises them for their innovative features (particularly tabbed browsing and mouse gestures). These were both Opera innovations! Even normally technically aware people like regulars at Slashdot don't get this. There has recently been a flurry of Slashdot stories on browsers (the two most recent). The vast majority of comments, though, deal only with Firefox. Commenters say that they have long wished for a browser to have certain features and hope that Firefox will incorporate them soon. Opera already implements most of them! Also, Gmail doesn't support Opera!

Opera seems (to me) to be both technically superior and have a far better User Interface, besides being almost infinitely customisable. I'm not alone, PC World voted Opera best browser of 2004. (And that was version 7.23; 7.50, the latest version is even better.) So why don't more people talk about (and use) Opera? There's one obvious reason to prefer Firefox; it's Free Software, whereas Opera is not. (Note to my non-tech readers: Free Software means free as in "free speech", meaning that you can view the source code, modify and redistribute it, not as in "free beer", meaning that you don't have to pay.) Both Opera and Firefox cost nothing, though the free version of Opera has text ads. (The paid version, which costs $39, does not.) The ads appear in a narrow band on the screen, though, and they are always relevant. I actually like them, which I never thought I'd say about ads. That annoys some people who don't want ads and don't want to pay, either. Firefox allows them to have their cake and eat it too. The ads aren't a big deal, though; in version 7.50, they're absolutely unobtrusive.

To many people the Freedom of software is important, and you have to respect that. If you don't want to use proprietary software, by all means use Firefox. It's one of the better options there is. But many people don't care about Free software, and just want the best software they can get. Do yourself a favour; try Opera today. If I haven't convinced you, and you're still running IE, at least check out Firefox. It's nearly as good, and both browsers are miles ahead of Internet Explorer in terms of features and security. In addition, they're smaller, faster (both to start up and to load web pages, especially on a slow connection like a typical Indian dial-up), and standards-compliant. Just get as far away from IE as you can!

Note: Both Opera and Firefox are cross-platform; they run on Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and many others.

Disclaimer: I strongly support the Free Software Foundation, think that the GPL is a Very Good Thing (tm), and use a lot of Free Software myself. However, honesty compels me to admit that Firefox isn't, in my opinion, the best browser out there right now; Opera is. I wrote this post because I felt it was unfair for such a great product to receive so little attention.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Miscellany

#1 A few people asked me why I didn't comment on the budget. Two reasons: I'm not an expert on the subject (Like that ever stopped you before! - ed.) and much more importantly, I think there's plenty of good information and analysis available, both online and of the Dead Tree variety.

#2 At his request, Ditch will be appearing as a guest blogger on occasion. I think most of my readers know him, with the notable exception of Arun.

#3 I know there was a 3... now I'm going to be preoccupied until I can figure out what it was. Will update this post when it occurs to me. UPDATE: Finally! Critical Mass has a discussion of the National Endowment for the Arts recent report entitled "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America". Also check her previous post on the writing of Tupac Shakur being taught in American schools.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Attempt to weaken Patriot Act unsuccessful

A proposal by Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders to water down the controversial Patriot Act failed to pass by a single vote in the House of Representatives today. The proposal would have barred the federal government (specifically, the Justice Department) from demanding records and reading lists from libraries and bookstores without showing probable cause.

From the New York Times article:
The vote, a 210 to 210 deadlock, amounted to a referendum on the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act and reflected deep divisions in Congress over whether the law undercuts civil liberties. Under House rules, the tie vote meant the measure was defeated.

Federal law enforcement officials say the power to gain access to such records has been used sparingly. Still, the provision granting the government that power has become the most widely attacked element of the law, galvanizing opposition in more than 330 communities that have expressed concern about government abuse. Critics say the law gives the government the ability to pry into people's personal reading habits.

"People are waking up to the fact that the government can walk into their libraries, without probable cause, without any particular information that someone was associated with terrorism, and monitor their reading habits," Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who sponsored the measure, said in an interview.
... [T]he Justice Department on Thursday sent a letter saying that at least twice in recent months "a member of a terrorist group closely affiliated with Al Qaeda used Internet services provided by a public library."
...
Last September, Attorney General John Ashcroft accused critics of the government's library powers of fueling "baseless hysteria," and he grudgingly declassified government data showing that the Justice Department had not yet used the power to seize library records.

But the department has refused to say how often the authority has been used since, saying the information remains classified. The American Civil Liberties Union said last month that documents disclosed in court challenges showed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had sought to use that section of the law soon after Mr. Ashcroft's declaration.
The Washington Post article provides some more information.

At one point, the proposal seemed sure to pass, with the tally reading 219 in favour to 201 against. But the vote, scheduled to last for 15 minutes, was extended by Republicans to 38 minutes as they desparately tried to persuade defectors from their ranks to support the bill. Their efforts were successful; 9 representatives (8 Republicans and 1 Democrat) changed their votes to ensure the tie.

Of course, there's no point expecting logic from Ashcroft, but this is even worse than usual. I'm sure 'members of terrorist groups closely affiliated with Al Qaeda' used the U.S. postal system or public transport. Is the government going to demand records be kept on all letters/parcels and taxicab customers? Would you approve of the government scrutinising your reading habits or keeping tabs on who you write to? And using the argument that the government had not examined such records prior to last September (though it has since then) is ridiculous. The frequency with which a law may be applied should have nothing to do with whether it is passed.

The admininstration will, I'm sure, hail this as a 'victory in the war on terror'. It's a shameful defeat in the war for freedom.

Meanwhile, I hope the Indian Government keeps their promise to repeal POTA, and soon.

UPDATE: Slashdot (slightly late, as usual) has a discussion going. My favourite part is this quote from Thomas Jefferson: "I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy?"

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Up the Down Staircase

A few years ago, when they were leaving the country, some friends gave us a large pile of books. Many of them are extremely uninteresting, so I went through them a couple of times and extracted the ones I thought were worth reading. Somehow, I missed this treasure until today.

Up the Down Staircase [Amazon.com] is the story of Sylvia Barrett, a young teacher who begins her career at an inner-city high school. From an Amazon Review:
Miss Barrett arrives at Calvin Coolidge High, to teach English to a motley band of students. Among them are: Hormone-addled Linda; resentful, angry Joe Ferone; woman-hating Rusty (who repeatedly tells Barrett that he would like her if she weren't "a female"); Edward Williams Esq., who thinks that everything is racially-prejudiced; soppily romantic Alice, and a slew of others. Miss Barrett realizes over time that the kids are screaming out not just for education, but for love and understanding. But will her idealism break through to them?

The dialogue is funny, especially since quite a few of the students don't spell-check. ("Fuk"?) There are also suggestion box excerpts ("You think it's fair when a teacher takes off 5 points on a test just because I misspelled his name wrong?"; "We're behind you 85%!") and book reports ("We study myths to learn what it was like to live in the golden age with all the killings"; "We read it because it's a classicle").

Up the Down Staircase is similar to To Sir, With Love [Amazon.com] in its portrayal of an idealistic teacher who struggles to break through students' distrust, but with significant differences. Up the Down Staircase is more light-hearted and personal, funny and quick-moving. It isn't a novel in the traditional sense; the story is narrated entirely through letters, memos, circulars, excerpts from a suggestion box, minutes of staff meetings, and so on (reminiscent of 84 Charing Cross Road). Well worth the read; I stayed up with it all night.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Back to Blogging!

My last few posts weren't displayed for a couple of days; Blogger seemed to be having some trouble with their servers. It looks like the problem has been fixed, so I can post again! I hadn't realised until now how much I enjoy blogging; it was incredibly frustrating to be unable to comment on things I found interesting.

Dileepan just told me he has a blog. Also, I found Shivku's blog via Orkut.

And to make a good day better, The Hindu is carrying a story about BITS being excluded (temporarily) from the AIEEE counselling. This is merely until the Supreme Court decides on the petition filed by several students. The case is due for hearing on July 12th.

Monday, July 05, 2004

The Politics of Software

Via Slashdot, I came across this article in the New York Times:
In a campaign season of polarization, when Republicans and Democrats seem far apart on issues like Iraq, the economy and leadership style, it is perhaps not surprising that the parties find themselves on different sides in the politics of software as well.

The Web sites of Senator John Kerry and the Democratic National Committee run mainly on the technology of the computing counterculture: open-source software that is distributed free, and improved and debugged by far-flung networks of programmers.

In the other corner, the Web sites of President Bush and the Republican National Committee run on software supplied by the corporate embodiment of big business - Microsoft.

Reflective of their respective positions on intellectual property? Or just coincidence? Either way, check the lively discuussion on Slashdot.

Pay Cut for Disrupting Parliament?

Lalu Prasad Yadav has come up with a novel idea to reduce disruptions of parliament by MPs: dock their pay for each day they prevent parliament from functioning. The reason for his concern appears to be that the NDA has hinted that it might boycott the presentation of his first Railway Budget, though the BJP has deferred the final decision until tomorrow morning. From Rediff:
Railway Minister Lalu Prasad has suggested the enactment of a law to stop an MP's salary on the days he/she disrupts proceedings in Parliament.

"A new law should be adopted to see that those disrupting the House proceedings should not be paid salary for the days they disrupt the proceedings," he said on Sunday while participating in a programme on BBC Radio.

He said despite the National Democratic Alliance-led Opposition's threat to boycott the Railway Budget, "I will present it on the 6th [of July] whether anybody listens or not. Through Parliament I will inform and address the Indian public, I don't care, damn care," he was quoted as saying.


It's surprising how he manages to come up with good ideas once in a while. For outrageous originality, there's no-one to touch him in Indian politics.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Great Visa Give-away

Lakshmi had her visa interview yesterday; she was told she'd get her (F-1) visa in a day or two. Arpith, Pradheep, Shastry, Suresh, Vishaka, Bugs and I all have ours as well. In fact, I haven't heard of a single F-1 visa rejection this year. Most of us had extremely cursory interviews, and it often seemed that the interviewer didn't really care about the answers. I'm not complaining, though. It's good to see that genuine students are being granted visas without much of a problem.

In other news, the Dhananjoy Chatterjee case (more detailed coverage here) seems to be the subject of intense debate. My mother has one comment to make: Why is everyone asking the hangman for his opinion? He has a vested interest in the execution; he gets paid Rs. 10,000 if Chatterjee is hanged.

I'm not sure whether I agree with all the demands for the execution. While rapists deserve to be severely punished, the death penalty is final. A conversation from the Lord of the Rings comes to mind, Frodo and Gandalf discussing Gollum.
'I can't understand you,' [said Frodo]. Do you mean to say that you, and the elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.'

'Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.'

Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Control Room

Via an op-ed in the New York Times on Al-Jazeera (and Fox News), I came across a review of "Control Room", a documentary made by Jehane Noujaim on the difference in perception of the Iraq war by Americans and Arabs. Quoting from the movie's brochure:
In the early days of the war in Iraq, Americans could turn on their televisions twenty-four hours a day and take a front row seat with coalition troops careening across the desert. We could follow the action live as precision bombers brought Iraqi cities to their knees and American POWs were rescued and triumphantly returned home as television heroes. We could watch soldiers toppling statues of Saddam Hussein.

But as Americans witnessed U.S. victory at home, a different story unfolded on television sets throughout the Arab world. Qatari-based Al-Jazeera broadcast images of Iraqi civilian casualties and American POWs that were taboo in the American media. Many claim that as a result, America barred Al-Jazeera journalists from reporting on Wall Street and bombed their headquarters in Baghdad.

As the saying goes there are always two sides to every story, but in a media-managed war where does the truth lie? With exclusive behind-the-scenes access to Al-Jazeera, American journalists, and the players at Central Command, CONTROL ROOM takes an unprecedented look at the business of war. Uniquely qualified with a cross-cultural perspective, Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane
Noujaim (Startup.com), travels to the headquarters of Al-Jazeera and U.S. Central Command to capture the staging of the war in Iraq and the media’s vital role in writing history.

This quote from Rumsfeld seems to describe the gulf perfectly.
"We know that Al Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again," Don Rumsfeld complained during the war. "What they do is, when there's a bomb that goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children. . . . We are dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case — and to the extent people lie, ultimately they are caught lying and they lose their credibility."

Rich, isn't it, coming from him? What was that proverb about glass houses and stones again?

Anyone know where I can get my hands on a copy of this movie? Might make an interesting counterpoint to Fahrenheit 9/11, another documentary to watch this summer.

Friday, July 02, 2004

President (Kalam, not Dubya) recommends Open Source

From an article in The Hindu:
The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, today advised defence scientists to shun proprietary systems and opt for open source codes to enhance software security in defence networks.

"Open source codes can easily introduce the users to build security algorithms in the system without the dependence of proprietary platforms. We should take maximum care to ensure that our solution is unique to protect our own defence security solutions implemented on open platforms," the President observed at the silver jubilee celebration of the Indian Navy's Weapons and Electronic System Engineering Establishment (WESEE). During his interaction with IT experts in civilian and defence fields, Mr. Kalam has consistently advocated the use of open source software over proprietary software whose building block is rarely disclosed by corporates who own and sell them.

This is why we love the man. I can't imagine that many heads of state recommend Free Software, or even know what it is.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

ISPs permitted to read users email

Wired News reports:
E-mail privacy suffered a serious setback on Tuesday when a court of appeals ruled that an e-mail provider did not break the law in reading his customers' communications without their consent.

The US First Circuit Court of Appeals (covering large parts of New England) ruled that Bradford C. Councilman was not in violation of wiretap laws when he copied and read customers email so that he could monitor their business transactions with rival Amazon.com.
Councilman, owner of a website selling rare and out-of-print books, offered book-dealer customers e-mail accounts through his site. But unknown to those customers, Councilman installed code that intercepted and copied any e-mail that came to them from his competitor, Amazon.com. Although Councilman did not prevent the mail from reaching recipients, he read thousands of copied messages in order to know what books customers were seeking and gain a commercial advantage over Amazon.

Authorities charged Councilman with violating the Wiretap Act (formally known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or ECPA), which governs unauthorized interception of communication. But the court found that because the e-mails were already in the random access memory, or RAM, of the defendant's computer system when he copied them, he did not intercept them while they were in transit over wires and therefore did not violate the ECPA, even though he copied the messages before the intended recipients read them. The court ruled that the messages were in storage rather than transit.

However, the court did acknowledge that the Wiretap act might be inadequate to protect consumers privacy over the Internet. In spite of all the criticism being levelled at them, the decision could have been correct; the court was merely interpreting this law, and not legislating, as American courts too often do. (Roe v. Wade, anyone?) The judge, in his decision (PDF) appears to rely on the distinction between electronic and wire communications. Quoting from the ECPA:
"wire communication" means any aural transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the
transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception (including the use of such connection in a switching station)... and such term includes any electronic storage of such communication

"electronic communication" means any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic or photooptical system that affects interstate or foreign commerce...

"electronic storage" means--
(A) any temporary, intermediate storage of a wire or electronic communication incidental to the electronic transmission thereof; and
(B) any storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for purposes of backup protection of such communication;

Note the absence of the phrase "electronic storage" from the definition of "electronic communication", even though it is included in the definition of "wire communication." The judge cites precedents which uphold the principle that
"When Congress includes a particular language in one section of a statute but omits it in another section of the same Act, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally and purposely in the the disparate inclusion or exclusion."
As RAM most definitely is electronic storage, he appears to have interpreted the law correctly.

It seems that the judge sympathises with the authorities, but believes that a strict interpretation of the law compels him to acquit the defendant. In order that this miscarriage of justice is not repeated, they believe that the ECPA should be revised. To that extent, I agree. If this is what the law says, then (quoting Mr. Bumble) "the law is an ass" and we need a new law. The implications for online privacy are stunning. Any email you send over the net can now be legitimately read by your ISP and/or email service provider, and they can freely use the data however they see fit. I can't even begin to describe the consequences! Compared to this, the automated parsing of email by Gmail is entirely innocuous. The ECPA should be modified immediately. Posters on Slashdot have a brilliant solution: Gillbates writes "I feel like starting an ISP and offering free email accounts to congressmen, judges, FBI agents, etc... The time difference between an embarrassing email leak and legislation outlawing reading another's email is left as an exercise for the reader...."