Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The power of imagination

Mahatma Gandhi once said, Stone walls do not a prison make, nor do iron bars a cage. He was probably talking about human imagination that cannot be shackled. Thats why bad ideas like thought policing will never survive, even though there are societies where there are, quite literally, thought police!

To Gandhis quote, I might add, A cape makes you superman, fly all you want.

As you might have seen, children need just a small straw to clutch at and leap into the clouds of imagination. A few days back it was "Superman" . All they need is a cape to leap into the wonderous land of imagination. The cape gives them superpowers to leap over buildings, climb over mountains and do things that they never thought possible in their "human" avatar. These days, the little one sleeps with the said "cape" one so that she continues to be "superman" in her dreams as well.

Whats your cape? Wheres your cape? Why are you not wearing it often and leaping off a cliff of your imagination and flying?

Ramayana, Divine Loophole

I recently purchased this book from Flipkart (where else). The title of the book is Ramayana, Divine Loophole. I got the link from Varnam, a blog I hugely respect.

So, without thinking much, I ordered the book. The book is basically Ramayana, but the way Sanjay tells the epic with graphic, technicolour illustrations is quite nice. The structuring of the book is quite simple and it retells the story so familiar to all of us - but I just liked it. Who knows, you may too!!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Secret of Success

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

Via Brainpicker 

The joy of creation

Our activities together involves a lot of imagination - sometimes it is storytelling, sometimes it is sports, sometimes both of us will be poring over a screen learning about seaplanes or “the worlds largest car” or “satellites” or something else.

But the biggest joy we derive comes from creation. We have made paper airplanes off the net, made random things that show up in childrens shows (MAD used to be a favourite and we made quite a few things out of that) and made other even more random things – like cutting out a cardboard phone or a gun or creating a "scene" using cardboard. And more often than not the idea comes to the little one when he looks at the raw material. So, he holds up a soap box and then he will say “let us make something with this” or at other times, it is a shoebox “make me a guitar out of this” and sometimes we succeed and at other times we do not. 

So much so that he now has a box in which he fills all this raw material with which at some point, we will make something.

Working with hands is an experience children ought to have. Whether it is using water colour or mud or making things, working with ones own hands and creating something and then playing with it has been some of our best loved experiences thus far. 

Our recent find along this route is a site known as sciencetoymaker. And this is a lovely site. Has detailed pictures and videos and scientific explanations to boot.

And our first project here is stuck – the putt putt boat – which is in a state of limbo now since we cannot figure out how to get a glue gun. But we have tried a few of the more simpler things and we are happy to say that all of them have worked!

Creation is a great way to learn!

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Professor and The Trainer

Recently, I had to chance to attend a session on "Strategy" by two people. Let us call them Professor and Trainer.  (No, the ending is not what you think it is)

The Professor had a lively interactive discussion - as did the Trainer.
The Professor spoke for the same time as the trainer - but the Trainer was more interactive, had exercises for us to complete and had reading material.
The Professor spoke about experiences from his work and around the world including historical examples- the Trainer spoke about data points around the world.
The Professor was not the most suave, articulate - the Trainer got all his accents right and could speak like a dream.

So, whose talk do you think we enjoyed?

If you thought that we enjoyed the Trainer, you got it wrong. The Professor beat the Trainer by a wide wide margin.

And therein lies an important lesson for me. That is about understanding the audience.

Sometimes, we focus on making trainings interactive, lively, fill it up with valid data and interesting snippets, but much of that information is public. I mean, if all your talk about strategy is about the usual suspects (Refer my post on customer service), then why do I need a trainer or a professor?

With the spread of the internet, anything that you can get by googling (esp the first page of google) - the chances that your audience can get the same information is as high. Or if you are using the same data points that are available and/or evident to everybody, there is no point.

What you have to say has to be thought-provoking, insightful and create wow moments for your audience along these lines (not the font of the ppt or colour or your accent).

And in this case, the Professor was able to do that far better than the Trainer.  Simply because he gave us more insight and sparked many more "Idea" moments in our brain.

As someone who runs trainings, understanding the audience better will help us create more of those moments. I am not saying knowledge can be substituted (thats a given), but the important realization is that all that jazz in making trainings interactive is useless unless there is substance. As a former boss of mine used to say, "There is no icing without cake".

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sardar Patrappa Road and the Scientific Temper

During my chat with the students through the Science Exhibition, I casually enquired with them about the components that they had put together. The list of things included, LDRs, Solar Cell assemblies, Flexible LED panels, Programmable robots, Assembled Helicopters, Spy Cameras and the usual assortment of Batteries, Motors and Bulbs. Each time the answer was, SP road, short for Sardar Patrappa Road.

It was nice hearing that from them. Most people here know this place. Sardar Patrappa Road or SP road as it is known is at one end of the road leading to Chickpet (an adventure in itself, but this much I can say – If you have not visited Chickpet, you have missed much in Bangalore). This is the place for electronic junkies. Bangalores answer to Funan Square, to put it mildly, but much more exciting, in my humble opinion. You want to assemble your own computer, check. You want newer electronic toys, check. You want to buy some gizmos or connectors to some gizmo you got or want replacement spare parts for something that everybody has given up on, check.

This is the place to come to for all electronic stuff. And if you are a tinkerer or a student working to think what she will put in her exhibit, you cand spend a day here and not get bored. If it exists, they would have it.

I think SP road is doing much in building the scientific temper amongst students and it was nice to see them talk about SP road. And that reminds me, I need to go there as well…

SP Road is one of those areas which a mall can never replicate - of course, they could make a Funan Square type of place right there, but thats a different story.

We need more SP Road kind of places that provoke curiosity and make one want to do things by themselves and get the fun out of making rather than just the fun of unboxing!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Science Expo memories

Over the weekend, I chanced upon a board at a school which was holding a science expo. The board said, “Open to all”.

So, in a bid to give “exposure” to Science to the little one, we landed there. And walked around, talking to students – who were explaining things with a lot of gusto. The little one was, of course, impressed, seeing children do stuff and explain to him was a thrill in itself. Also, to see them demonstrate concepts such as robotics, electronics was something else. I can imagine the rush of adrenaline he must have had on seeing it. More on that in a moment.

But first, a word on the exhibition itself. The Chemistry and Biology section were quite ordinary – not in terms of the exhibit itself – or on the enthusiasm of the students. What I mean here is that, as concepts go, the concepts that the chemistry and biology section were talking about are all atleast 50 years old. When I was in school (and that was not 50 years ago), we had pretty much the same exhibits then as well – the sugar and vinegar volcano, pollution, ozone layer. Or thinking about biology, the double helix, human heart and so on.

However, the physics section is where all the action is. There were programmable robots, exhibits using sensors, assembled electronic kits, solar panels, led lights and all that. The work was very impressive. And the students (all below class X) had great answers. There were a few laptops being used as part of their exhibits for control purposes. Overall very impressive. So, why the big difference between Chemistry and Biology on the one hand and Physics on the other?

The answer, in my mind is that Chemistry and Biology are dependent on school labs for putting up things. So, in order to put up a really cool exhibit on Chemistry and Biology, one needs specialized equipment in the school lab or access to it outside. Both of these are not easy, I suppose. Because schools are wont to do what the syllabus prescribes and knowing our syllabi, we may be quite behind in the times. However, when it comes to Physics, while the labs are pretty much at the same levels as the other two, a lot of items are available in the private domain quite easily. So, electronic kits, batteries, sensors are available quite easily, than, say, liquid nitrogen or a bunch of rabbits. Which is why the physics section was way cooler.

Again, more on this later, but in my mind schools need to focus on getting ahead of their syllabus and making students think ahead than just sticking to what the board says. Especially in subjects where it is not possible straightaway – like Chemistry and Biology.

Which brings me to the science exhibition of my school days. I recall us building three exhibits. One was a cardboard space station, a thermocol city and one was a magnetic door that opened when a vehicle (with a magnet)came near it. Yes, our exhibits were quite unimpressive when I see what these students had put up.

Even in those days, 80s, there were a few intrepid students and parents who put up something that was quite mindblowing by those days standards. The dads or uncles (in all probability) who dabbled in electronic components put together something that blinked with a few lights and did something quite unique and it was quite a crowd puller. I remember an automatic direction finder or some such contraption that was part of one such exhibition. I also remember someone cobbling up a fortune teller in one of those then available computers and people would not let go of the exhibit.

And there were cool electric items like fans, elevators and hydel power stations.

One thing I remember was that somehow, one of the students managed to get approval for making soap as part of the exhibit. And his stall was right next to mine. All day he just made soap – and soap making was quite a tedious process. He had a huge stove and a wok and a long ladle and he stirred all day long. For anybody who came and asked him what was his exhibit all about, he pointed them to a flow chart where he then explained which part of the process he was at. When the exhibition ended on day 1, his soap was ready. And given that it looked rather different than normal soap (his soap had no fragrance and perfume) nobody wanted it and some of the school support staff were happy to take lumps of washing soap home.

When I look back, it amazes me that this kid got such a great idea and was allowed to do it. Imagine making soap in the middle of a huge assembly hall. And now think how these things stick to our minds…Whether it is flying helicopters, robots or soap!

Whatever it is, expos are generally great for stickiness...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Google and Magic

Quite simply, the best opening para I read in a long long time.

" When the first Harry Potter book appeared, in 1997, it was just a year before the universal search engine Google was launched. And so Hermione Granger, that charming grind, still goes to the Hogwarts library and spends hours and hours working her way through the stacks, finding out what a basilisk is or how to make a love potion. The idea that a wizard in training might have, instead, a magic pad where she could inscribe a name and in half a second have an avalanche of news stories, scholarly articles, books, and images (including images she shouldn’t be looking at) was a Quidditch broom too far. Now, having been stuck with the library shtick, she has to go on working the stacks in the Harry Potter movies, while the kids who have since come of age nudge their parents. “Why is she doing that?” they whisper. “Why doesn’t she just Google it?”
That the reality of machines can outpace the imagination of magic, and in so short a time, does tend to lend weight to the claim that the technological shifts in communication we’re living with are unprecedented..."

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/02/14/110214crat_atlarge_gopnik#ixzz1lEPRsYNm

MSExcel and the progress of technology

Once upon a time at the beginning of my career, I was poring over some data. That data happened to be in MS Excel. And I tried to sort it, sum it all of it to no avail.

I was facing a classic problem that we see. Whenever any new technology replaces an older one, we look for it to be incremental or the same. So, in this case, technology had replaced paper, but we were still using technology as paper. So, the spellings in the sheet were not organized, they were entered as text and there was no uniformity in the sheet at all. Hence most of the standard functions were useless, unless the sheet was cleaned up.

After about a week, I finally was able to produce a sheet that blew the minds of the people who saw it. And it was nothing great. Just totals, subtotals and a reverse sort by value. Which was difficult to come by in a paper mode, but far far easier when we move technologies.

Why did initial digital cameras have the sound of the shutter? Same reason.
Why does the ipad have a tap to mimic mechanical keyboards? Same reason.
Why are we thinking about sounds for new electric cars? Same reason. (On that note I believe there are better ways to for electric cars to develop – there is no real reason they need to look like IC engine cars from outside, but that’s a different rant for some other time)

Why do most MSPowerpoint presentations look just like digital flipcharts? Or why is MSPowerpoint itself like Flipcharts? And that’s why something Prezi is a smarter way to use the digital presentation medium!

I asked for Super-Man

and they gave me an office person! said the little one.

He was playing Scribblenauts Remix on the iPad. If you have an iPad please download Scribblenauts Remix and read the rest of the post.

If not read it anyway. The game has a simple premise. You are given a situation to solve – pretty simple ones – like giving someone a haircut or painting a car. And how do you solve it? By asking for tools that help you resolve the issue at hand. How do you ask for tools? You spell it out and the game provides it. That’s it.

Simple as the premise is, the little one (and his dad) has gone crazy over playing it and in the process both his spellings and his imagination have gone up. Take a scenario – where the character of the game has to reach something in the sky. You could ask for a hot-air balloon, a winged horse, a magic carpet or an aeroplane! If he is hungry, you can ask for a idli, a burger or anything. We once asked for a nuclear bomb and as you might imagine, it killed everyone in the level – pretty neat way to learn, I suppose. You can pretty much ask for anything that’s in the dictionary and your imagination! And that what makes it so lovely.

Few rules, lots of fun and learning is imbibed. Wow. Whatay combination.

And it does not allow for the player for copyrighted names and trademarks, hence no Superman when the little one decided to invoke him in a game. And as you can see by the response on top, he was quite disappointed by the response. Be that as it may, it gave us a few laughs at the way he said, “office person” (someone wearing a suit or dressed formally, I presume). Yay, son, your dad is no superman either, he is, indeed, an office-person.