The Auto Rickshaw

It’s really quite something to see and sit in an auto rickshaw (henceforth rickshaw) for the first time. I have been riding in them since as long as I can remember at least once every visit I’ve made to India. The little three-wheelers are unlike anything on the road in most other countries in the world. They’re obviously not Mumbai-specific, but they iconize the streets of Mumbai as well as the BEST buses or taxis. The truly spectacular thing about these vehicles is that, north of Bandra, they are everywhere. It makes them the best way to get around the city.

If you come to Mumbai, you absolutely have to sit in a rickshaw. The open sides and sheet metal body create a subconscious thrill of danger, and the tiny wheels and lack of any real suspension means you will truly experience why Mumbaikars cannot stand the roads of the city. The front wheel and corresponding fitting is reminiscent of the front wheel of a Vespa; indeed, rickshaws in Mumbai use a two-stroke scooter engine. Steering is controlled by handlebars rather than with a wheel. At my height, if I sit straight, the canvas tarp that is stretched over the top of the frame comes till my chin. Mumbai rickshaws are tiny, and are barely comfortable with two people. Unlike cities like Bhopal, where rickshawallas are proud and decorate immaculately cleaned vehicles, Mumbai’s rickshaws are usually filthy. You’ll see bare wiring flaying about in the breeze, rust gouging fist-sized holes in the body and cracked windshields on most rickshaws.

Auto Rickshaw

The meter on rickshaws are mechanical, so despite the fact that is might say Rs. 2.20 on the meter, you might pay Rs. 21. It always begins at Rs. 1.00, and stays that way for the first kilometer, and then increased proportionally by Rs. 1.00 for every additional kilometer thereafter. As of October 2009, each meter rupee is approximately Rs. 9 of real money. The government adjusts this value every once in a while, and you can buy meter cards at newsstands, since it is not intuitive, but most Mumbaikars follow a simple rule: multiply the meter value by ten and subtract one rupee. It is not perfect, but it seems standard. I have not seen a meter card since the early 2000’s. Put a mechanical meter in the hands of a rickshawalla though, and it is going to get tampered with. I would guess that rickshawallas fiddle with their meters less than taxiwallas, but it definitely happens more often that I first suspected.

Rickshaws are one of the major causes of bad traffic in most Indian cities, and Mumbai is no exception. They have a top speed of 50 km/h and probably cruise at 35-40 km/h, though I am guessing—I do not remember the last time I sat in a rickshaw that had a functional speedometer. I have to assume they come broken from the manufacturer. Despite the rather humbling resumé put forth by these vehicles, rickshawallas are the king of the roads. When you flag one down, he will stop (it is always a he), and you’ll tell him where you want to go. With an almost imperceptible leftward rotation of his head, you can get in the back1. Now, the fun begins. Every rickshawalla thinks he is Michael Schumacher, and his rickshaw has the power and agility of a Formula 1 car. Expect a roller-coaster of tumbles, turns, heart-stopping close calls and earfuls of swearing from the rickshawalla to the public around his rickshaw, in or out of cars. They are masters at making everything part of the road, be it the sidewalk or a lane of opposing traffic.

I absolutely love rickshaws2. It is by far the most incredible way to travel in the city. I would advise a fairly large subset of the population, however, to stay away from them. Asthmatics are the first: I remember taking a rickshaw with my aunt nine or ten years ago. We stopped in traffic right next to a bus. I stuck my head out to marvel at this towering behemoth of red and smiled at the passengers so high up above me. The bus lurched forward, and out of the exhaust pipe came this seemingly sentient dark mountain of smoke. It made quick headway towards my face, and as I sat there, terrified and unable to do anything to stop the impeding emphysema, I wondered if this is what Bob Dylan was singing about in Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

The old should also consider avoiding rickshaws. It is not an understatement to say that sitting in a rickshaw is to feel the pulse of the city; you can feel, deep in your bones, every groove of every pebble on the road. Standing on solid ground after a thirty-minute trip requires patience and effort. Your knees will not hold, head will swim, and heart will threaten to stop. It just does not pair well with afflictions of the body that come with age: blood pressure, arthritis, muscle degradation and a weakened immune system. Pregnant women should avoid them too, or risk giving birth in a moving, open-air vehicle.

Now that I’ve convinced you that this is the best transportation method in the world, excuse me while I go and find one to take me to work.

  1. What many newcomers never find out is that rickshaws and taxis are required by law to accept any fare if they are For Hire. Just get in, and if he complains, suggest a trip to the nearest police chowk.
  2. Obviously a lot of what I’ve said here is in jest—though it is all true—but I truly do love them. I’ve been in a serious accident sitting in one, have been ripped off by the rickshawallas more times than I can count and have been so frustrated with their speed, but I still crave the thrill.

—★—

Buzzwords

People are obsessed with buzzwords. Obviously, almost everybody knows this. Most marketing is based around the idea of shoving a new buzzword down uneducated consumers’ throats. What astounds me, however, is how little people see beyond the word itself.

Let’s take the example of televisions. This is one of my favorite examples, and it is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest consumer hoodwinks in recent years. The buzzwords are no surprises: “1080p”, “HD-ready”, “LCD”, “LED” etc. I would eat my hat1 if anything more than a tiny minority of the people reading this couldn’t tell me2 what every single one of those 4 buzzwords mean, what the difference between 1080p and 1080i is. Or hey, between LCD and plasma televisions.

My television has a feature I hadn’t seen before on a television before I bought it: Bluetooth. The television has a Bluetooth receiver, and you can send it photos and display them on the screen. That’s it. Anybody who has used Bluetooth for anything more than hands-free will understand why this is ridiculous. Not only is it absurd to view photos by sending them one-by-one to a television over a medium that has throughput that barely rivals 1990’s ISDN lines, but it’s even more ridiculous once you realize the TV has no storage. The picture is gone when you don’t want to look at it anymore.

This is a feature? No: this is perceived value-addition. For people who don’t know any better, this seems like a wonderful solution. But a solution to what? I know I didn’t have the problem that I wanted to look at crappy-quality photos from my phone’s camera on my television’s non-persistent screen.

Another place where I’ve seen this come up is in professional settings. You’ll hear a lot of people throw around words lifted from management or statistical training books and try to pretend they know when to apply them. I recently met someone who works in a non-durable goods manufacturing industry, and he mentioned to me that he uses the statistical tool ANOVA, something which I have been using at work myself. This guy didn’t know what ANOVA stands for!

This rant has a purpose, I promise, and this is it: if you’re going to throw around a buzzword, make sure you know what it is. If you don’t know what it is, you come off looking either pretentious or like an idiot3. I’m fairly knowledgeable about computers, so I’ll know at the drop of a hat if someone mentions, say, “solid-state drives” to me and doesn’t even know what the “d” in the “drive” is. But, on the contrary, I know absolutely nothing about cardiac function, so I won’t walk into a hospital and say someone had an acute myocardial infarction4 when all I really think is that it’s a heart attack.

Stick to your strengths.

  1. I agree it’s generally not the best idea to insult your readers, but I know I am right here.
  2. No Wikipedia.
  3. This is much the same as people who use vocabulary beyond their means.
  4. I didn’t know until just now that it’s not infraction, but infarction.

—★—

Getting the most out of Firefox

James Somers posted yesterday about Firefox’s Google search integration. In summary, he suggests that you change your search bar (shortcut Ctrl/Cmd+K, for Win/Mac) to point to something else—say, Wikipedia—and let Firefox’s address bar (Ctrl/Cmd+L) take you directly to Google for searching.

Before I continue, let me add that I’ve been doing something along the lines of what I’m about to show you for a long time now—none of this is particularly new functionality.

My setup is a bit different to James’—I actually never use the Firefox search box, and so I hide it (Right Click > Customize…). I’ve seen a lot of people get a little confused when they try to search something on Wikipedia, for example, on my browser, but I find this makes my life much simpler.

I find myself regularly searching on a wide variety of websites besides Google. I daily search Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, Wolfram Alpha, YouTube and Google Books (to name a few). In doing so with a search bar, I find myself constantly changing the engine (which can be changed by Ctrl/Cmd+Up or Down when the search box is highlighted) and wasting time. Instead, I use search engine keywords (click the search engine selection button and hit Manage). Once I’ve got the keywords set up, I hide the search box.

Now, I hit Cmd+L to activate the address bar1, and then type (to search Rotten Tomatoes, for example) r district 9. It’s quite simple: [keyword] [search term]. So to search any engine in Firefox, it’s three (if you use one-letter keywords) keystrokes: Cmd+L, w and [space]. That’s not bad.

Here’s the catch—and in my opinion, the biggest flaw with James’ method. Like me, you’ll probably use Google most often, and those extra two keystrokes (g and [space]) will probably begin to add up over time. Firefox has the cool feature of letting you just type in the address bar, hitting [enter] and instantly searching Google, but for whatever reason, this sometimes takes you to the “I’m Feeling Lucky” result, and sometimes not. I’m not sure how or why it’s decided, but it seems arbitrary2. Google is good, but not close to good enough for me to trust Mozilla’s sending me directly to a result on a whim.

The solution is about:config. Look for the keyworld.URL parameter and change it to http://www.google.com/search?btnG=Google+Search&q=. The btnG=Google query string dictates here that we are going to be using a standard search and not I’m Feeling Lucky.

This pretty much solved most of my search related problems. I have a cleaner browser with less chrome, and I’m more efficient overall at using it. In fact, this feature is essentially the only reason I use Firefox and not any other Mac browser. I am reasonably extension-free, so I could happily switch to any browser that offered me this exact functionality and customization.

Let me know how this works for you, or if you can replicate this on any other good Mac browser.

  1. Awesome Bar is a terrible, terrible name, Mozilla. It’s also not really that much awesomer than it was before the renaming.
  2. Search for “scrabble dictionary” and then “scrabble book”.

—★—

I’ve started pushing updates to the Best of Wikipedia on to Twitter, @bestofwikipedia, for people who want to get the updates on their Twitter client rather than RSS client. Updates should hopefully be just the same as the website, once every 12 hours.

—★—

Best of Wikipedia

Tired of bookmarking every Wikipedia page I find interesting, I decided to start a tumblelog (using Tumblr) to catalogue the best of what I read there. I’m trying to be vigilant about this, as I explore Wikipedia quite often, and want to maintain a queue on Tumblr to let a new link be pushed every 12 hours. I’ve tagged each link as well as provided a synopsis of the most interesting part of the article—it is mainly for me because I can go back later and take a quick glance at the summary to find the relevant information.

I’ll eventually get around to pushing this to a Twitter account, but that’ll come later. For now, head to Best of Wikipedia to subscribe and read.

—★—

The June Fourth Incident

Tank Man

June 4th, 1989

—★—

Llama Land

I wanted to write a sample app to get comfortable with Sinatra, and given that the Hello, World of web frameworks seems to be writing a URL-shortner, I decided to go with the flow.

Llama Land (named from the Sinatra classic Come Fly With Me) is a tiny URL-shortner that fits within 30 lines. Sinatra (the framework, now) is like a little BB gun. It is pretty silly, but you can have fun, and then all of a sudden, you realize that in the right hands, this is a pretty dangerous thing.

I’ve pushed the repository to GitHub. No idea if anyone would find it useful—it’ll probably be comparably fast to write it yourself than fork it—but the code is GPL-licensed.

—★—

I’ve recently taken to comparing large numbers (tens of millions) to the population of Australia. For example, there are about five times as many copies of Thriller in circulation than there are people in Australia.

—★—

On Schooling, Part 1

Last November I wrote On Teaching, a detailed breakdown of what I think were the essential qualities of a brilliant teacher—the kind you’ll remember when your kids (or even your grand kids) are going to school. This is somewhat of a follow-up to that original article, and is the first of a series of articles on this topic.

Previous concerns

I’ll begin by addressing some concerns that were emailed to me about that post. By far, the largest criticism that I received was that I missed out some fundamental social or communication skill that every teacher should have. The criteria people gave were usually in the form of “excellent speaking skills”, “be a good listener” or “have legible handwriting”. I’m going to address the handwriting issue separately, but for almost every other case, it’s a given. I didn’t explicitly state that a great teacher needs to not only be a good teacher but a good orator, listener, etc. because it’s so obvious I took it as assumed. Clearly, I was mistaken in thinking others would do the same, but now that I’ve handled the issue, I’ll take it as cleared.

With regards to handwriting1, I am a firm believer that as long as your handwriting is legible at the most basic level, that is all you need to worry about. When I was in year seven2, my parents, concerned at my admittedly horrific handwriting—it was legible—asked one of my teachers at a parent-teacher meeting what the ramifications were and whether they needed to focus on ensuring it wasn’t going to be a continuing problem. His response was that (and I’m obviously paraphrasing, I wasn’t there) as long as he could understand what I was writing, he didn’t care about how neatly3 I wrote. He went on to say that he was much more interested in cultivating an environment for me where I could write my mental discourse without the added hindrance of having to concentrate on writing better.

This isn’t to say that I don’t value penmanship. Nowadays I can write at what I am sure is very well above the average writing speed of a college student with about average legibility. If I slow down, I can write fairly neatly, but I don’t have a flowing script, the kind you see in older letters or calligraphers write, so I try to make the words count more to make up for it.

So you might be inclined to then think that I believe that computers ushered in an era where people were able to be more expressive and creative in their writing because there is zero barrier to writing directly in your mind4. I actually disagree with this. It is unfortunately hard for me to pin down exactly what I find so much more mentally stimulating about writing things down as compared to typing them, but I know for a fact that, at least personally, memory retention for me is far higher if I write with a pen on paper. That’s the reason why I will never keep a calendar on my computer (the lack of a good calendaring app aside), why I will never use an online to-do app (unlike calendaring applications, I have seen many, many good to-do applications) and why I do all of that on a piece of paper. Aside from that, I also happen to love the tactile sensation of writing with a good, smooth pen on high-quality paper5.

On the schools themselves

That little tangent finished with, I’d like to present the main focus of this piece: the schools themselves. More specifically, the way in which I feel they should be administered, the kind of curriculum they should look at devising, and the environment that I feel would best cultivate young minds. I’m looking to design the ideal high school, a four year curriculum. I’m going to attempt to make these rules agnostic to at least education systems and curricula, and hopefully the rules themselves are easy enough to extrapolate downwards through the schooling system. I can’t imagine these criteria would apply well to a higher education setting.

I was fortunate enough to have parents who sent me to the best possible school where I lived6, so a lot of what I am about to say stems from the fact that my school had a big budget, a lot of open space and a lot of clout to be able to hire who they wanted. I will, to within reason and for the most part, assume that this school we’re designing is fairly similar, but I won’t assume anything is unlimited.

Teachers

We’ve already highlighted what makes a great teacher, so with that set of criteria in hand, we need to hire teachers. If you haven’t already read the original teaching article, I suggest you do so now. Pragmatically, I would assume schools don’t begin by doing this, but for the purposes of this we’ll get this out of the way.

I think that the kind of people we need to hire are those that have worked with students of this level before, but more importantly, we need a way to gauge the quality of the teachers as judged by their previous students. Here’s something that surprises me: as far as I can tell, there is no real push to have teacher evaluations in schools. By contrast, in college, I get bombarded with emails when evaluations are in season. I think that, if not by the start of high school, the most definitely by the end of it, you will appreciate what is a good teacher and what is not. If you do not, then, as I have explained, you are probably not going to do so in college.

So, short of instituting a universal successful push for high school teacher evaluations, what can we do? Sadly, I don’t have a good answer for this. I’m not entirely sure what the current hiring model most schools use is7, but I guess that would be the same but with a more stringent review process that looks at recommendations with more scrutiny.

But I’d guess, without going too far out on a limb, that if word gets out that we’re looking for the best, the best would apply. This is going to be a school where the curriculum isn’t the forced drudgery that plagues most others, where the faculty will be surrounded by excellent facilities and minds, and the students want to learn.

One aspect of college education that I think would greatly benefit high school is visiting professors. Can you imagine learning introductory economics from Greg Mankiw, physics from Alan Guth, or philosophy from Timothy Williamson? This is actually contradictory to what I’ve said in On Teaching, because chances are, despite their intellect these guys are probably terrible teachers. But to have been taught a class on M-theory by Guth, despite the fact that knowledge retention wouldn’t been 100%, would have been unimaginably awesome. Assuming this school has the clout to be able to ask for this, the hit to the overall level of teaching would be far outweighed by the boost to the students’ passions.

Students

Obviously the best school should have the best students, so there’s a few things we need to tackle. In judging the kind of student we want, I feel the criteria to look at are (1) the academic prowess of the student, (2) the extra-curricular interests of the student, (3) the scholarship potential of the student and (4) what others think of them.

It’s clear that we want the smartest and most academically forward-thinking students possible for this school. If you’re taking math at this school, you’re going to learn Calc II before you graduate, if you learn physics, expect to have done a reasonable amount of mechanics, thermodynamics and basic particle physics before you graduate. And so on for other subjects. The problem with this is that I would imagine it is difficult to judge a middle-school student applying to our school for this kind of academic prowess based purely on grades, which is why I think looking at the other three criteria helps.

Extra-curricular activities, while clichéd and college-prep sounding, are important. Despite how many times colleges tell applicants this, it is true: a well-rounded student is better than a recluse genius. That’s not to say I’m interested in developing a state championship football team8, but rather, a school where music, basic athleticism (likely track and field as a focus) and artistic ability are nurtured and encouraged if the student is interested in doing so. If we do get what will be the next Ramanujan, then we’ll be his G. H. Hardy.

With regards to scholarships, we need to assess the potential for each student. Scholarships are (generally) handed out for merit and need. So we can have three types of student: smart, poor, smart and poor. Essentially, a smart and poor student would attend for what would essentially be free (much like some of the bigger and richer colleges are doing now), and the smart and poor students would be judged based on their respective merit and ability to pay. Obviously, we are going to need a substantial endowment. While this is something that happens over time, I’m going to assume our first few years are covered by that pot of gold we started off with, but as time goes on, alumni would contribute, corporations would contribute etc.

What others think of our potential students is extremely important—we want students who can work great as leaders or as part of a group, students who take initiative and students who aren’t the kind that their peers hated for being obnoxious. We’re unlikely to find too many students who match all of those criteria but we’re looking for the largest possible subset. I imagine recommendations are really going to help here—the student’s teachers from their older school, counselors, principal etc.—because it’s essentially the best way we are going to find out about the student without physically interviewing everyone (obviously), but recommendations more importantly shine light on aspects of a student’s academic life that grades just don’t show. How do they engage in class? How is their demeanor towards other students? Do they actively go beyond what is required by the syllabus? Are they extremely interested in a particular subject but don’t perform as well in it? Conversely, are they naturally talented in a subject that doesn’t interest them at all? Questions like these are going to tell us how to create an environment for each student that is going to maximize their learning and potential.

While this seems like a lot (colleges attempt this but it usual has poor results), I think this is something that can be pulled off. Unlike a big university, we’re going to have a few hundred students at most, meaning that we can have this kind of focus on a student-by-student basis.

Next time

There’s a lot left to talk about, but I want to focus mainly on curriculum and facilities. On the material I’ve already written about, I’m more than open to suggestions, so please email me with what you think, any changes you’d make or if you think I’m completely wrong.

Vote for this at Hacker News.

  1. Admittedly, this was a small fraction of the criticisms as compared to communication skills.
  2. Sixth grade for those not familiar with the British education system
  3. Neatness is not organization. I’ll get to this.
  4. Assuming basic computer skills and a mediocre typing speed
  5. I love writing with a good quality, black gel pen on index cards.
  6. Where I grew up, public schools were only accessible to locals who were a minority in their own country. Everyone I know went to private school.
  7. Though, I’m sure it is reasonably consistent across countries and curricula, cultural and social norms taken into account.
  8. Well, unless they’re all able to explain basic radiation theory to me.

—★—

I still haven’t quite decided on whether I am going to do a write-up on the Battlestar Galactica series finale, but while watching the second half of it, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the show’s conclusion and the idea behind Asimov’s The Last Question, which is incidentally my favorite work of short fiction.

—★—

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