Random Thoughts

The Air Traffic Volume Graph of India: The Partitioning of India

posted Jul 29, 2018, 4:20 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jul 29, 2018, 4:45 AM ]

This is a plot of relative Air Traffic Volumes (passengers) in India for June 2018. Roughly, darker and thicker lines represent proportionally higher passenger volumes on routes.
Notice, how apart from Delhi, there is almost no major hub in the northern part of India. 
India is gradually cleaving into two distinct halves with one having (in relative terms) significantly higher presence of corporates, industries and organized employment. 
Using Nagpur as the marker for central India and analyzing North and South relative to it. 

For the entire country, for ever domestic journey: 

At least one among source/destination above Nagpur (N) 70.89%
At least one among source/destination below Nagpur (S) 72.54%
Both source/destination above Nagpur (N-N) 27.45%
Both source/destination below Nagpur (S-S) 29.10%

Now if we remove Delhi, notice how the first and third number dramatically drop.

At least one among source/destination above Nagpur (N) 53.06%
At least one among source/destination below Nagpur (S) 86.35%
Both source/destination above Nagpur (N-N) 13.64%
Both source/destination below Nagpur (S-S) 46.93%

This kind of a drop is not seen if we remove (individually) Mumbai or Bangalore or Hyderabad. 

Removing Mumbai: 
At least one among source/destination above Nagpur (N) 75.55%
At least one among source/destination below Nagpur (S) 63.23%
Both source/destination above Nagpur (N-N) 36.76%
Both source/destination below Nagpur (S-S) 24.44%

Writing Skills, through a Utilitarian Lens. And the Changing Economics of Journalism.

posted Jul 20, 2018, 11:14 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jul 20, 2018, 11:16 PM ]

Over the years, I discovered a specific use case for writing skills which potentially has tangible ROI to it. Now, I went to a school, where everyone had a very direct usecase for education: it was an extremely efficient assembly line for techno-managerial and business related careers. Like many of the good ICSE schools, the standard of English was fine, but there was no humanities section; in fact I probably didn’t even know at the time that non-STEM or non-Commerce subjects existed at the grade 11-12 level. Let alone humanities, most people I knew (from school and from college) didn’t even have a second language in grade 11-12. 

Add to this a STEM education after which everything subconsciously clicks into place in terms of worst case complexity or efficiency or cost-benefit analysis. Everybody around me understood the general value of good communication and writing skills, but writing skills were seen in a relatively abstract light, not direct money spinners as knowledge of finance, law, programming or circuit design.
But in the last couple of years I found a new and direct kind of value to it. I wanted to experiment with ways to build up traffic to my site, which itself was an ever-going experiment of sorts. (the real planned, polished and formal site never really took off and the test portal ended up pulling all the traffic, but that’s a different story). I did not have any VC funds for marketing simply because I didn’t even have a clear agenda to know what to ask VCs for. And there were various components of my portal best kept away from too much publicity in any case. 

That is when I discovered the power of actually writing in newsportals or online-magazine-kind-of-places. I submitted a whole bunch of data-tables as well as well as pieces to places like News Minute, FirstPost, Swarajya, ORF, OpIndia, Scroll, Quint, DNA, IE, ToI as well as regular news outlets like Times Of India, HT etc. Some of them got picked up and published. My condition was very simple: I don’t care whether it goes or not into the print edition, I don’t care whether I’m marked as the author on the piece, my inputs can just be embedded within your article; all I want is the relevant backlinks to my portal, NOT to be stripped off. I quickly figured that many of these houses (like TOI, HT) simply do not want to send links to other sites so I stopped dealing with them after the very first instance.
This form of “writing-driven-marketing” worked and the site pulls in between a quarter to half million unique pageviews in most of the months (not much was done on the site in 2017). Of course, these numbers sound fancier than what they are, because directly monetizing digital content in India, is next to impossible, and in general the max you can generate directly out of this much traffic is a revenue stream which takes care of your monthy bills and expenenses even if you choose to do nothing at all for a bit, but that’s another topic.

I guess the bigger missing piece in the economics of digital journalism jigsaw will show up, when more and more people discover, that writing for free (for general PR or publicity or to embed a link or video) translates into greater monetary gains than writing professionally. Out of curiosity, I’ve often enquired about the rates which media houses pay. The numbers are generally so dismal that it’s simply not worth the hassle to fill up the forms required to claim those amounts. I can think of at least a few more people who write articles and submit them to these portals in the same way as I do.

This will be excellent for owners of digital media portals as well as enterprising writers or journalists who take the trouble of setting up their own portal, and setup some kind of crowdsourcing process, and collate content created almost for free, without having to bear the expenses of a payroll. But this tsunami of gigization and crowdsourcing will also erase the more traditional roles of structured jobs related to print media or writing. There will invariably be problematic consequences as well, as digital content will see less of news and more of embedded self-promotional activities, even if the self-promotion happens in a subtle way. I’d also wager that current “digital outlets” with less than a million monthly unique pageviews *per employee on their payroll* are simply not sustainable unless they have an unremitting flow of funds from political or corporate players, which see this as an investment. 

The likes of Skype, Hangouts and other video conferencing and cloud based office-productivity tools, were a direct competitor to the airline industry, as the need for flying for business meetings, saw a sharp drop. Similarly, a modern day news business, is in the general quest for eyeballs, and practically every site out there, from a porn site to one with cat videos, is a competitor. How all of this will play out, specially in India, will be interesting to see, 10 years from now.

CBSE vs ICSE vs IGCSE/IB vs State Boards

posted Jun 15, 2018, 6:30 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jun 15, 2018, 7:04 AM ]

This is a dilemma for several parents and students.

Several things need to be kept in mind. 

IGCSE and IB, the international boards, are best suited for those students who know for sure that they're going to head abroad for undergrad. 
These boards offer a hands-on curriculum, with a greater scope for creativity than the regular Indian syllabus. Many Indian universities however, are unfamiliar with these systems. 
And the timing of the results of the International Baccalaureate in particular, is out of sync with the academic year of Indian universities and schools - and hence, they don't have their results while college admissions are going on. 

State board schools cater to a vast socio-economic spectrum. Many state boards such as Maharashtra and West Bengal have a rigorous curriculum, but their examination system, also keeps in mind the needs of first generation learners, and is tuned accordingly. The syllabus at the level of grade 11 and 12 is similar to that of the ISC and CBSE, but the questions are generally several notches below those of the central boards. 
State boards leave students underprepared for rigorous entrance examinations, but in states like Maharashtra and Rajasthan there are several integrated programs, where the school or junior college, prepares students, both for the state board examination (in class 12) and for the entrance examinations such as the IIT JEE or the NEET, for MBBS admissions. Do keep in mind, that top American and British universities are often unfamiliar with the SSC and HSC certificates from State Boards, and they prefer to see a School Leaving Certificate from the CBSE or ISC system. In general, however, state board schools are relatively affordable, and the student body is a more accurate microcosmic representation of society that what one would find at several CBSE or ICSE schools. 

The biggest confusion, however, is between the CBSE and ICSE boards. 
In many of the cases, it is really the school which matters. Mayo College, Delhi Public School (RK Puram), Modern School (Barakhamba), Lawrence Schools, St. Columba's, Heritage, National Public School, RN Podar are some of India's finest schools and are all affiliated to the CBSE board.  What is unique to all these schools, in general, is that they make an attempt to do a lot more beyond the mandatory curriculum prescribed by the board. All these schools have a great emphasis on experiential learning, extra curricular activities and language skills, which goes beyond the bare minimal rubric prescribed by the board itself. 

The ICSE board on the other hand, has fairly rigorous standards in middle school as well as grades 9 and 10. CBSE students have 5 or 6 board papers, whereas ICSE students have 11 papers, in addition to practical work and project work which is relatively limited in CBSE.  In addition, the ICSE system forces a "sixth subject" such as Computing or Drama or Art or Technical Drawing, even at the grade 9 and 10 level. CBSE doesn't have any mandatory sixth subject. The difference in the standard of english is particularly stark, but some CBSE schools ensure that their kids read supplementary books and novels, in each session. 

In grades 11 and 12, the syllabus of both the boards is largely the same in subjects like Science, Mathematics, Economics and Commerce. The ISC system has a higher workload in subjects like english, computers and humanities courses. However, few ISC schools offer humanities, compared to the CBSE schools. Despite the CBSE and ISC syllabus being largely similar, from the point of view of IIT JEE and NEET aspirants, the "integrated programs" where schools have coaching for entrance within class hours, is often available only in the CBSE schools, which is why there is an annual exodus of ICSE students defecting to CBSE, after the class 10 board exam. 

The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination, has a smaller network of schools, but a disproportionate number of heritage schools and upscale schools are still under its aegis. La Martiniere Schools, Bishop Cotton, Hyderabad Public School, Frank Anthony, Doon School, Welham Girls', Shri Ram, Lilavatibai Podar, Singhania, Rishi Valley, Jaipuria and City Montessori are some of the prominent school under its hood. The standard of english in ICSE/ISC schools is far better than those of CBSE and State Board schools. Students read the works of Shakespeare in their pure, unabridged form, in high school.

While choosing between CBSE and ICSE, it is really the school which counts. ICSE/ISC schools are often somewhat on the upscale side, have better facilities for sports and extra-curricular activities, and are more expensive for that reason. For those in transferable jobs, CBSE is a safer bet, as there will generally be no problem finding another CBSE school in a new city or town. CBSE also has a reasonably large network of schools in the middle east. The one flip side to CBSE's large network is the entry of subpar schools and teachers into the system, which often leads to poor evaluation and assessment of answer scripts and a ton of marking snafus in the board examination These things most certainly do happen in the ICSE and ISC board examinations as well, but the quality of teachers correcting answer scripts, is slightly better over there. 
CBSE and ISC scores are readily accepted by the best of universities abroad, and the science stream syllabus leaves you in good stead to take a shot at the Advanced Placement (AP) examinations, along with SAT-1 and 2.  Board the boards are also known for their relatively lenient marking pattern, which makes it easy for their students to enter Delhi and Mumbai University which often have cutoffs well into the nineties. 

My experience with Air India support

posted May 23, 2018, 12:23 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji

Calling up Air India support.

Me: ma'am, I made a transaction, didn't get any SMS or email or PNR; amount got deducted from my account
lady: asks for name etc, fumbles around for a bit, says she can't find anything. this goes on for a bit
Me: well- bottom line is that I paid the money
lady: cooks up excuses. can't do this, can't do that -- drop an email with your transaction number to our ecommerce team
me: nopes, I'm not going to do anything of the sort. This problem is yours not mine. And I'm not going to call/email XYZ.
Me: can you tell me your name?
Lady: tells her name
Lady: i can't do anything, please mail our ecommerce team the details. Have a good night. Passing the buck, basically
Me: listen, you incompetent work shirker, I'm not asking you for a favor - you're being paid from *our tax money* for customer support,
not to say hi and bye and good-night. I'm just asking you to do your job at an airline which shouldn't exist in the first place.
Do whatever it takes but I want my PNR else I'll narrate this entire incident on social media with your name.
lady after 2 minutes: asks for my phone number and email id. Gives me the PNR. Tells me that I'll get the email with the ticket in an hour.

Off the top of my head this is the third time I got something fixed/done promptly by just threatening to post stuff on social media.

Another genius offers his solution to IITs not producing enough DeshBhakt types

posted May 1, 2018, 6:56 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated May 1, 2018, 6:57 AM ]

Referring to this article: https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/science-nomad/one-more-open-letter-to-jawdekarji-on-how-iits-are-destroying-india/

Kids + parents aspire for this route because it makes it easier for them to flee India, get into good grad schools abroad, or to move into the next orbit of income groups. If these institutes embark on some kind of grand civilizational mission to churn out more deshbhakt types those students will simply turn to private institutes like BITs Pilani and the new IIIT-D/H (which are also excellent conveyor belts to good grad schools or tech companies in the US/UK/etc). It's not as if the top layer of those colleges stays back.

Already, a lot of folk in the country's best high schools are applying directly to undergrad programs in the US (though this is often difficult and expensive so the JEE is still a reliable escape route). 4% of those who took the ISC 2015 class 12 exam left India for their undergrad. The level of problems the author presumably has in mind (clogged drains and potholed road) are critical but they don't require over-educated folk anyway, it just requires work done regularly with warlike seriousness and efficiency.

IITs are popular because they are excellent tools for specific objectives when it comes to careers, immigration and stepping stones to good grad schools. If they decide to be tools of a different kind they simply won't be half as sought after. We should make no mistake about it: beyond select pockets of excellence like the CS and EE departments, the only thing excellent about these institutes is generally the student intake.

How to Write a Great Essay

posted Apr 13, 2018, 8:33 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Apr 13, 2018, 8:34 AM ]

How to Write a Great Essay

Essays are part of school, college and sometimes life. Plenty of people hate putting proverbial pen to paper, but if English is on the curriculum or you are applying to college, writing essays is a necessary evil. Who knows, you might even enjoy composing your thoughts and giving your imagination a workout?

class, diary, exam

Royalty Free Photo

If, however, you are one of the millions of people whose mind goes inexplicably blank when they have to write an essay, read on for some tips.

All Your Own Work

First of all, let’s tackle the issues of essay writing services. Google “essay writing” and dozens of writing factories will pop up on your screen. How they work is simple. You pay a fee and an anonymous writer produces an essay to suit the prescribed brief. If you are lucky, a cash-poor grad student will pen your essay and it will be so amazing that you’ll score top marks, much to the surprise if your tutor. But, what is more likely to happen is someone with a poor grasp of English and the subject at hand will email you a terrible essay a few hours before its due and you’ll be left high and dry.

Think twice before you pay for essay writing services. They often sound like a great deal on paper, especially when you are up against the wall and you don’t have a clue what to write, but paying someone to write your essay for school, college, or any other type of application, is a high-risk strategy. Unless you are truly desperate, don’t go down this route. Instead, speak to your tutor and see if you can have a deadline extension. As long as you have a legitimate reason for falling behind, it should be okay.

Getting Started

Good essays are not just a stream of consciousness in the style of James Joyce. You could try writing an essay this way, but it isn’t recommended. Instead, plan your essay. Select a suitable topic and draw up an outline. Put your ideas down on paper. Link them together and figure out what angle you want your essay to take. The very act of writing your ideas down can often stimulate new trains of thought, which in turn leads to other avenues of research. Do not skip this stage; it’s very important.

Next, write a synopsis that outlines your ideas and what you are trying to prove, disprove, or discuss. Is your topic worthy of an essay? Do you have enough facts and figures available to formulate ideas? If not, go back to the drawing board and start again.

Begin writing the main body of the essay. Use bullet points to give your essay structure. Fill in the gaps and flesh out your ideas. If you refer to other texts or research, make a note of your source, as these will need to be included at the end.

Finishing Touches

Once you have written the main body of your essay, write the introduction and conclusion. Fact check the entire essay and make sure what you have written makes sense and is logical. Go through the essay and make sure you have linked to all references. Run your essay through a grammar and punctuation checker if you are not confident about the technical aspects of writing.

Lastly, put your essay to one side for a day and then go back and re-read it. Look for typos and missing words or phrases. Does it all make sense? Is there any repetition of words or phrases? Is this the absolute best you can do?

When you are happy, ask someone else to read the essay as one final sanity check. Now you’re done!

A necessary dose of Minimalism - Why I prescribed Scholastic Textbooks for our Primary School

posted Feb 8, 2018, 7:03 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Feb 8, 2018, 7:49 PM ]

I have written in the past about how India's rote learning culture is largely a consequence of our textbooks. There is an unnecessary level of detail in most of our textbooks and this is generally for the sole purpose of expanding the number of pages and using that as an avenue to charge more. There is a whole cartel of players with vested interests in this game which makes it very hard to find compact textbooks, simply because they can't be priced at outlandish levels. Paying Rs. 350 for a class 3 Science textbook with nothing beyond the usual Indian curriculum, does not make any sense when the Scholastic series is excellent and is priced in the range of Rs. 150-250.  We'll be prescribing the "Mastering Science" series for ~500 kids between class 1 and 5 and the "Exploring Social Studies" series for ~275 kids between class 1 and class 3.

A little bit of minimalism will go a long way in helping the Indian education system. A little less detail will throw open a lot more time for casual reading and practical activities. 
One does not need ten pages of detail when ten gigabytes of information on any topic, are a few Google searches away. If anything, excessively thick textbooks do a great disservice in the primary years because they steal time required for far more critical language, math and spatial skills - and even playtime. 

Our little Primary School will be switching over to the Scholastic series for Social Studies and Science. 
There are several things I liked about them 
- Compactness. They cover all the required topics, but they do so within 100-130 pages. Many other textbooks have 200 plus pages. One wonders how much of that a 10 year old will retain. 
- Excellent visuals. Diagrams, pictures and figures make learning a lot more efficient and enjoyable. Each image is worth a thousand words. What can be learnt via a picture does not need a two page description.
- A reasonable number of questions at the end of each chapter. One does not need 50 questions for a 5 page chapter. Many other books have forcefully tried to insert questions and exercises. 
- Reasonable pricing. About 50-70% of the price of books used by good schools (for no real reason). 
- Will leave enough time for hands-on activities such as making posters or projects or practical tasks. 
- Chapters are covered in a manner which is concise without skipping any essential details. The mental clutter created by including a ton of trivia for kids to memorize, is something we can do without. 
- Some fun activities like crossword puzzles: kids enjoy these things a lot. 
- Scholastic also has a lot of affordably priced casual reading books for different age groups. Their Clifford series is exceptionally good for kids under 8 years of age. 

Mastering Science and Exploring Social Studies are the two series and we'll be using them for classes 1 to 5 and from classes 3 to 5 respectively. 
We hope to have an efficient curriculum which reduces the time spent on rote learning and opens up enough time slots for effective hands-on and practical activities. 
We will also help parents save up money which can instead be spent on storybooks, toys, puzzles and encyclopaedias. 

It's Nursery Admission Time in the Capital - The Mess. Once Again

posted Jan 27, 2018, 7:37 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 28, 2018, 8:30 PM ]

This is the state of the most basic form of education right in the national capital. There are hardly any worthwhile schools, even for those who can afford to pay. The Delhi Nursery Admission mess. Now that this cake has baked once again (like it does every year, with the regularity of Christmas cakes) - the numbers I had estimated last year.

"2.5 lakh students appeared for the CBSE class 12 exams in Delhi in 2016. And there are barely 5000 odd seats in what may be considered "good or okay schools" (judging on class average > 75% which is hardly a criteria). "
Takes something like 25-28 Cr to setup a Shri Ram like school in Delhi (and 15-18 Cr in a town in UP). And then, if someone has to run it as a non-profit with the RTE quota, is it any surprise that the last time some okay schools came up in the capital was in the mid nineties? And then the hassles for an NOC + affiliation. Might as well setup a warehouse or an onion storage center. Capacity first regulations later. That of course will come with its own share of problems like Mumbai or Hyderabad-style fees going into lakhs, but at least there's capacity. It is distressing to see parents come and literally plead to us to add more sections/classes in our small primary school but the risks and hassles are simply not worth it - and how does one monitor quality.

Learning Resources - Wonderful, affordable teaching aids for Primary Schools

posted Jan 15, 2018, 8:40 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 15, 2018, 11:15 PM ]

Our family runs a small primary school in Meerut, UP (India). 
We have a lot of laptops but not enough space for a full fledged computer room, so I wanted a different way to introduce computational thinking. 

And then I discovered this little programmable mouse by Learning Resources! 
It has 6 buttons on it. The mouse is "programmed" to follow a path by entering a sequence of instructions via the buttons, which correspond to start, forward, backwards, left, right. stop. 

There is also a very nice maze which can be setup - and the mouse can be programmed to follow a path which leads it to a piece of cheese. 

YouTube Video

The iBlocks programmable robot is another very useful medium to introduce computational thinking and the basics of loops, conditionals and sensor-handling. 
This requires the installation of mobile or tablet apps which have their own toy programming language for specifying steps, loops, conditions. 
For instance - a robot can be programmed to respond in a specific way if it touches something like a wall. 

Kids thrilled with the iBlocks Robot

Learning Resources has also made it possible for us to purchase spinners, packets of dice as well as two-counters. 
These are useful tools for teaching Mathematics in a hands on way - and introducing topics like probability and fractions. 

Tangrams are another great way to improve spatial and geometric skills of kids in a hands on manner. 
Kids right from class 1 to 5 had a great time with these. 

All said and done, Learning Resources was a great way to aquire material for hands on activities. The bulk of the things we purchased were from there. 
Sometimes, there are shipping delays as the items are shipped to India from abroad. But that is fine. There is no tearing hurry. 

Launching a New Data Series: Data with Python

posted Jan 14, 2018, 7:48 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 14, 2018, 7:49 PM ]

These tutorials have been very kindly contributed by Niraj Dev Pandey, a graduate student from India, currently studying in Germany. 
Hopefully, these will get you started with the very basics of statistical learning, or machine learning. 
These are a basic set of tutorials and they cover classification, regresion and regularization. We hope that this will be a gentle onboarding to the world of data. 
Python is a simple and popular language and will hopefully help you understand the basics of machine learning logic. 

His contact details are as follows: 

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