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Tuesday, July 29

Travails of a Lazy Kannada Learner

Old Kannada inscription dated 981 CE in Vindyagiri hill at Shravanabelagola.jpg
"Old Kannada inscription dated 981 CE
in Vindyagiri hill at Shravanabelagola" 
Based on my efforts to learn Kannada, I have come to realize that there is a disconnect between the resources available and resources required for learning the language. While there is a steady stream of apps to help Kannada learners, they all seem to be based on the same basic pattern which I believe is not useful.

When learning Kannada, a speaker of another Indian language is presented with two difficulties. One is the language and other is the script. In the absence of reading, the sole source of language data being absorbed is spoken. With spoken data, the learner can neither control the speed of the incoming data nor can he reliably repeat it. This severely slows down the vocabulary acquisition process.

Without knowing the script, he cannot read the newspaper which is a good cheap source of plenty of reading material. Reading the newspaper in a language also provides a good sense of the environment in which the language operates, allowing one to connect with the pulse of the city. This is a very important part of taking language beyond a mere transnational medium with handful of people.

But without knowing the language, learning to read is also difficult. One can always start with the approach of mugging up the character shapes, ligatures, diacritic marks, but how do you know if you read something correctly since you do not know the language. Also, in the beginning the process is so slow that it is easy to give up. One can try reading the boards on the road but at the vehicle speeds, it is next to impossible (might work in certain areas of Bangalore like Hosur Road!). Even today, by the time I am able to read "Sarkari" on the school boards, the boards are well past. It seems silly, but it is a real problem!

So how do we break this cycle? From my personal experience, I can suggest a two pronged approach that helps start a positive reinforcing cycle.

For the problem of learning the script, I made progress by focusing on the proper nouns. Since names do not change between languages, we can leverage our prior knowledge to make this work. Place names and boards on shops make an obvious candidate but as I have described above, shop boards are not suitable for a sustained study in the beginning. I believe person names are a better source.

So I turned to Wikipedia. While Kannada Wikipedia is much smaller when compared to English, you can still find articles that are available in both. Out of these, the most useful are pages that list names in a particular category. I started with Presidents of USA, following it up with Chief Ministers of Karnataka and so on. In 1 week, I made more progress than I had ever made with all the books promising me to teach Kannada in 30 days.

I have a theory about why this works. A list of names of Presidents of United States of America is at a sweat spot between what you know and what you don't know. Some of the names are very common, so you can figure it out by only reading the first 1-2 characters. With others, like a uncommon middle name, you have to work till the end. So there is a good balance of challenge and reward.

Additionally, here the characters are repeated based on the usage frequency. So the most common characters and their common variants are reinforced and little effort is spent on characters not so common. Of course the frequency is a little off with English names and so I switched over to Kannada names afterwards. I now buy a Kannada newspaper once in a while and try reading it. To my surprise, I find that a lot of vocabulary is pretty close to Hindi/Sanskrit!

On to the language part. Most of the apps, classes and other resources available focus on teaching the spoken Kannada. As far as I know that is also the recommended way to approach a language. I tried books like Learn Kannada in 30 days, Rapidex English to Kannada, even an old book written by Rev. F. Ziegler meant for British officers. But none of them worked. I also tried bunch of Kannada learning apps. They also proved more or less ineffective for long term sustained learning. Over time, their interfaces are getting more polished but the underlying content or ideas are not evolving.

There were some common problems. All these resources were based on collection of sentences, conversations for use in different circumstances. As is bound to happen with any made up conversation, they were awkward, forced and became useless very fast in real world situations. None of them provided any instructions or pointers for further reading, additional vocabulary etc. Some of them had Kannada text printed is such bad quality that it is useless for a beginner.

One book that has helped me tremendously though is called Conversational Kannada. Although this book is also focused on spoken language, there are some crucial differences. The best thing is that instead of dividing the material as per situations, it divides and arranges it in the order of increasing grammatical and sentence construction complexity. For example, in the first 10 chapters, you work with sentences without any verbs. Each chapter also has a theme for the conversations as well as introduces the informal phrases that are used in that situation. All the Kannada text is in roman, so you can read it without knowing the script.

But there was still one problem when reading the above book. Beyond the sentences in the book, I had no reading material available in roman Kannada. While I was able to read the script by now, my speed was not fast enough to allow me to read fluently which is required for vocabulary building. Also I needed to control based on my current vocabulary. For this, I turned to Twitter.

With the ability to see the conversations, Twitter is a goldmine for a language learner. Plenty of people use roman Kannada on twitter. You can search for specific words and find conversations where that word is being used. Best part is that the conversations are natural, there is plenty of English mixed in allowing you to follow the conversations and more reading material is being created all the time. People are helpful, so you can even ask some of them what a word meant. I did this for many days. There are challenges around search - some words are common in other languages as well, some are spelled in multiple ways, some others may not have been used on Twitter in recent past. But overall, it was very helpful.

So combined with the above two, I am confident that I will be able to read some simple books in Kannada by the end of the year. Both the ideas that helped me can easily be packaged as apps and provided to the new learners. I did all the work manually - finding parallel Wikipedia pages in English and Kannada, searching the Twitter conversations. All this can be handled by a centralized service that can collect & process the data and then serve it to the learners based on their requirements. Based on my experience, it will prove to be a lot more effective than the cookie cutter apps that are available now.

Since then I have discovered one more resource that is Quilpad Switch. This tool allows you to view any webpage in the script of your choice. So now you can read any Kannada page in roman or in Devanagari script thus immediate access to tons of reading material. This may even reduce the need of the Wikipedia pages that I used. The requirement is now for a curator that can point out the texts based on the current vocabulary of the learner. Another idea ripe for making into an app. :)

Image by en:User:Dineshkannambadi Original uploader was Dineshkannambadi at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Papa November using CommonsHelper.(Original text : Uploaded by creator). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Thursday, April 17

The Impostor and Impostors

I am not a registered voter in Bangalore.

There. I said it. I am sitting here diddling my thumb as others around me go and elect their government.

In the 14 years since I qualified as a voter, I have voted once. As it happens, shortly before I turned 18, I left home and have lived in hostels, other cities, other countries ever since, never remaining in one place for more than 4 years. Being politically aware at the national and state level but mostly feeling as an outsider to the proceedings in immediate vicinity. I voted in the last LS elections because I happened to be in Lucknow on the election day.

In 2009, When I looked up the candidates I had to choose between, I was stuck. For me, Lucknow meant Vajpayee, someone I had come to admire. Given that he was a top level leader, his views on variety of issues were well known. But by 2009, he was no longer around. As his nominee, we had Lal ji Tandon from BJP - someone I had never liked. Congress had Rita Bahuguna in fray. Hardly knew anything about her. There were other candidates from SP, BSP (Nakul Dubey?). Nobody seemed particularly engaging or worth choosing. Whomever I voted for, seemed like a compromise. The choice was an illusion.

Come 2014, things looked different. Many people I admired for their views and stands on issues were in the fray. Or let me put it another way. The important part is not that I admired them or agreed with them. The important part is that I knew their views and stands. In the party driven politics, you broadly know the contours of ideology, you hear from the top leaders and spokespersons but that is it. For example, I had no inkling about how Lal ji Tandon proposed to make trade offs between development and environment when developing Lucknow. What were Rita Bahuguna's view about women's issues? Did she think they should remain in house to be safe?

It is strange when you stop to think about it - 200 odd MPs of a party, coming from different backgrounds, different places, representing different electorate, all agreeing on every single issue and legislation. Voting for a party is like those package deals - you either buy into everything or nothing. Not only that, given the history, elected MPs will change their views as convenient. Since they are only judged based on the party ideology, they don't need to justify anything - they can demand death penalty in one case and a pardon in another, pointing to the party line. They can breath fire against FDI in retail when in opposition but welcome it once in government. It is only occasionally, only when a stronger identity collides with the party identity, that we see some action cutting across party lines. Example: Telangana issue.

So I find 2014 to be a welcome change from the last time. I would like to see more and more of our candidates acquire more personality and not appear merely as a stand in for the party. (BTW, not the Pappu Yadav and Mukhtar Ansari kind of personality! Unfortunately mafia dons seem to be the only ones willing to break party ranks at will.) Once we have a better set of elected representatives, perhaps they will have enough willpower to make necessary amends to Anti-defection laws and make themselves free to represent their electorate in the real sense.

Even if you support a more presidential government, you have to realize that in presidential form, you get to elect a president AND a representative. So there is that protection. In a representative democracy, without checks and balances needed for a presidential democracy, if the representatives get compromised, we are done.

And so while till now, it didn't pinch me much when a election passed by, it is pinching this year. So as soon as these elections are over, I am going to go and register my name in the voter's list and push for better candidates with my vote.

Tuesday, April 15

एक नेता की व्यथा

पोस्टर छपवाने पड़ते हैं, विज्ञापन देने होते हैं,
रैलियां सैकड़ों लगती हैं, गठबंधन करने पड़ते हैं.

जनतंत्र के सागर में मित्रों,
कुछ लहरें सहसा उठती हैं,
बाक़ी उठवानी पड़ती हैं.

कुछ बात भूलनी पड़ती हैं, कुछ अजब करिश्मे होते हैं,
अपराध मुक्त भारत के लिए, अपराधी चुनने पड़ते हैं.

जनतंत्र के मेले में मित्रों,
कुछ नाच नचाते बन्दर को,
कुछ बन्दर-नाच नचाते हैं.

कभी चाय बेचनी पड़ती है, इंटरव्यू देने पड़ते हैं,
जब लोग कुर्सियां ना छोड़ें, तो धक्के देने पड़ते हैं.

जनतंत्र की होली में मित्रों,
कई रंग दिखाने पड़ते हैं,
कई रंग बदलने पड़ते हैं.

Wednesday, January 1

New & Old

Almost 10 years ago I started this blog. At 273 posts, it amounts to 1 post every 2 weeks. I can't think of any other habit that survived that long with that consistency. Of course, just like all statistics, this hides more than it reveals. For the past 3 years, I have written 7, 7, and 5 posts respectively.

I don't know why I am writing this post. Not here to promise another flurry of activity. This is not the last ditch effort to save a dying relationship. It is not meant to be a epithet for something that has been lost. This is me spending some time with an old friend where the friendship has become such a part of you that gaps in time can be bridged at will. Threads can be picked up wherever they were left. And new yarns can be weaved effortlessly.

Welcome 2014. Hope we will have a good time.

Sunday, May 5

Thoughts on reading an ebook

Let me confess something. While it has been years since has been selling ebooks and it has been years since I have been talking and thinking about ebooks, it is only recently that I read a complete book on a dedicated reading device.

The book was Lean Analytics published by O'Reilly Media. But this is not a review of that book. This post is about what it felt like reading a fairly long book on an e-reader. I read part of it on Kindle and part of it on Nook touch.

The first thing I noticed was that e-readers these days are very good and you don't miss the paper version all that much. I have said this to many people who express doubts about e-readers - Try one out for 1-2 days and do some serious reading on it. I bet a lot of people would change their mind one they try out a device. The key is to not see it as a replacement of paper books - the only way they are represented in most media coverage. Instead take them up as a device on their own and see if you like them. Amazon Kindle is quite fantastic and Nook is not far behind. The text is sharp, controls very non intrusive. Once you get into the rhythm, you won't even notice the pressing of button or the tap on the screen. They are lightweight and you can curl into a chair with them just fine. Yes, there is no smell of new (or old) books but I am sure couple of trips to your bookshelf can take care of that.

The best part is the instant availability of almost any book. So you come to know about this lovely book at 12:00 AM from a friend and have an urge to try it immediately. Guess what! you can. And you will. Once you have that kind of power on hand, it is hard to not exercise it. And since you cannot see the books pile up, there is nothing to guilt you into not buying that book instantly.

However, there are also not so good things about the e-readers. Having to wake it up and unlock the screen again and again is certainly one of them. I don't like my books to go to sleep and I want them to open immediately. And more importantly, I want them to remain open while I close my eyes and ponder over what I just read. Part of your brain learns pretty fast that this book tends to go to sleep and it sets up an alarm in your subconscious that makes you check every 2 minutes to make sure the device has not gone to sleep. This gets annoying pretty quickly.

The other annoying thing is perhaps specific to the kind of book I was reading. Lean Analytics is a non-fiction book that requires good engagement on part of the reader. It is the kind of book that begs you to underline and take notes and go back and forth. It is also a book with content that can be skipped for reading later.

For such a book, navigation is very important. This is where I started to admire the amazing navigation capabilities of the humble paperback. Its physicality gives it a simple but powerful navigation mechanism. You instantly know how long it is, how much have you read and how much is left. Random access is effortless. You can skip ahead 10-20-30 pages almost instantly. You can flip the pages to glance through them.

In the e-reader, random access is not possible. Table of contents provides a poor substitute but even that is at least 2 actions/clicks away. You cannot flip through the book to glance at the contents. Clicking the buttons quickly or tapping rapidly makes the device squirm as it tries to render each page in quick succession. You get the delay but not a chance to look at what is there.

Referring to something you have already read in the book is also a chore. In part because you cannot use one finger to hold on to where you are currently reading and quickly come back. It has to be a complete trip through multiple page flips and back. The maneuver is also made difficult since there is no muscle memory to fall back on to guess where you need to go. I realized that while reading a paperback, you form a rough subconscious map of content to book pages since the object you are holding is constantly changing. In the e-reader, the physical artifact remains the same. So the map has to be drawn along the time axis - how long ago I read it. This does not work as well. Although e-readers do have a progress bar at the bottom of the page to help you anchor where you are in the book but that doesn't help much with the problem.

Through out reading Lean Analytics, I found myself quite comfortable at the act of actual reading or moving around in close neighborhood around the current page. What I struggled with was holding the bigger picture in my head which is very important while reading a book like this. I constantly found myself referring back to Table of Contents to get a grip on where I was, what I had read and what was left. Not in terms of number of pages but in terms of the conceptual flow of the book. I found it hard to easily go back and forth to reinforce what I was reading. In the end, I was left unsatisfied and feel that I would have to get a paperback version to really get on with this book.

As I said in the beginning, my experience is specific to the kind of book I was reading. I think e-readers are excellent for fiction/non-fiction where the primary mode of engagement with the book is a linear reading. I am yet to read a complete fiction on an e-reader but I have read significant part of The Invisible Man on my phone and found the experience just fine (save for the small screen size of the phone, a problem e-readers do not have).

What has been your experience with e-readers?

Tuesday, April 9

शहर के फूल

छोड़ कर शाख क्यों सड़कों पे चले आते हैं,
फूल मासूम हैं, नाहक ही सज़ा पाते हैं।

स्याह पड़ती हुई इस शहर की बेनूर शकल,
रंग दो पल को झलकते हैं, गुज़र जाते हैं।

भागते दौड़ते इस शहर के कुछ वाशिंदे,
साल भर फरवरी की याद में बिताते हैं।

फूल इंसान की उम्मीद के सितारे हैं,
आँख उठती है दुआ में, तो नज़र आते हैं।

शहर के फूल अभागा बड़ी किस्मत वाले,
ठोकरों से नहीं, कारों से कुचले जाते हैं।

Saturday, February 23

The problem with building what people want

One of the mantras of entrepreneurship is to build something that people want. The road to success is lined with geeks who dreamt of beautiful solutions existing in perfect worlds for problems that no one seemed to have. Lean startup formalizes this in terms of customer development. The aim is to identify a customer who is willing to pay you money today for what you can deliver tomorrow.

Recently there was an article in NYT about how the American fast food industry  has filled people's plates with more salt, sugar and fats in an effort to sell more junk food. Many of the executives, when confronted with questions about these practices, defended themselves on the pretext that they were only giving people what they wanted. If they do not give it to them, someone else will.

Why is it that these executives seem to be doing something wrong (or bad if wrong sounds too strong)? They were merely following the oft repeated advice for building a successful business. In fact, making food more addictive seems very similar to making something viral. Already the terms from fast food business are making their way into how we talk about online habits - heavy consumers, information snacking. Is it the case that the advice is lacking something?

Of course, there is an implied limit in the advice - you are not going to do something that is illegal even if you have many customers who want it. But that limit is problematic in at least two ways. One is that if you really only stop at the legal limit, you may already have gone quite far - legal loopholes allow companies like Apple and Google to play double Irish with their taxes. On the other hand, many a times, laws get old and do not represent the reality of the times. Successful business can be built by challenging the laws and thus pushing for change.

If legality can't be used as the guiding light, perhaps we have to fall back to a inner compass? How much are you willing to let the world compromise your original vision? What part of the original dream is open for negotiations? I heard Dr. Nachiket Mor in IIT Kgp recently. He believes that one ought to hold on to the original vision and not let the world distort it. Every vision comes with certain assumptions and those assumptions should be open to testing. Changes should be made to the original vision to make it clearer and more concrete based on the result of that testing. But following the market, going where the money takes you and changing your vision because the original seems too radical, will limit your ability to truly disrupt the systems, instead leading you to a local maxima.