Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In the wonderland of computers

My love affair with the computer started a little over twenty years back.
IBM's PC, though a wonder child, was still in its infancy and the model that had recently entered the market in our country was called the PC AT. Though AT stood for 'advanced technology - an improvement on the earlier versions of PC XTs - with its processing power of about 8 mhz and 1 MB of memory, it would really be considered primitive by today's standards. Computers have evolved so fast in the last twenty odd years that kids toying with powerful PCs or laptops today won't give the AT a second look and would rather be amused at the word 'advanced' applied to its configuration.
Let me put this in the historical context. IBM came out with the PC in 1981. It took a few years for the PCs to reach our shore. Though the PC was a personal computer, very few were thinking of using it at home - it was too expensive ! Moreover, there was not much you could do with it at home unless you were into programming. You had to learn at least the commands of DOS ( disk operating system ). The 'user friendly' graphic user interface - GUI - ushered in by Windows 3.1 was still somewhat away and the 'mouse' was safely hidden in the corner of a room behind the cupboard ! There were some earlier versions of Windows, but I have not come across any.
Some of the foreign banks at that time were trying to introduce computers to simplify their operations in Calcutta, but were facing stiff resistance from the trade unions apprehensive of  job losses. One or two tea companies were also facing similar problems in their tea gardens in the Dooars. I was involved in negotiations with some of the trade unions to try and persuade them to accept computerisation in the interested tea gardens. I had only a vague idea of what the computers did, but was a firm believer in new technology and knew, from whatever little I had read, that computers held a great promise. In discussing with the unions I was not merely doing a job, I was doing so out of conviction.
We were then executing a ILO-UNFPA project for the welfare of the families of tea garden workers in the Dooars. Our office soon got a computer, a dot-matrix printer and a photocopier on the project's account. The computer was meant for preparing a database of the tea gardens and for processing information relating to  various  project activities. There was a catch though. Nobody knew how to operate the computer ! The desktop remained on top of the desk with its black and white monitor gazing idly at the horizon and if someone thought of switching it on, after some irritating noise and few letters flitting by on the screen, it showed a cursor blinking invitingly against the letter C in capital.
We were in a place known as Binnaguri in the middle of the Dooars, in the back of the beyond so to say, about 100 kms from Siliguri - the nearest city where one could hope to get someone who knew about PCs and programming, though programmers those days were hard to come across. I was meanwhile going through the DOS manuals which came with the PC  and trying to familiarise myself with its commands, but it did not take me far. I was yet to understand that we needed a programming language to develop our database and an interpreter or compiler on our computer for the purpose.
Our project director got in touch with a professor of physics heading the newly formed computer centre at the North Bengal University near Siliguri. He agreed to help and came over to our office one day. He told us candidly that he was new to a PC and its programming though he had some experience with mainframe computers, but he would be able to prepare a database management system with dBase III plus, a software  he had brought along in a floppy to install  in our computer. I was fascinated as I watched him make a new directory and transfer the files from the floppy. But when he started giving a brief outline about how to go about dbase programming, my attention was riveted to the book he had brought along. It was a book on dbase III plus. With his consent, I got the book photocopied, all 200 odd pages of it - thanks to the copier we got for the project, this was no problem !
Armed with the DOS manuals and the book on dbase, and with a computer at my disposal, I got neck deep into my own project - to understand the computer, its operating system and dbase III plus programming.  I would be in the computer room every day in the evening after office hours. Every one knew where I could be found in the evenings those days. Since  my bungalow was in the same compound, there was no problem about getting a cup of tea or any other beverage for that matter, to keep me going. It finally paid dividends- I created the database system for the project and the professor did not have to come again.
When I was able to generate a report for the first time after all the inputs had been given, I felt an exhilaration which I thought could be compared to the feeling of a farmer at harvest time when he watches his fully grown crop that he has so painstakingly planted and nurtured.
This was the beginning of an affair that continues, an affair that has gone through many phases - firstly, it was learning some of the languages like Basic and C and making simple programs with them till I realised that the computer world was moving too fast for an amateur like me dependent solely on books and his own methods of trial and error, then flirting with newer and newer application programmes that I could get hold of freely thanks to my subscription to PC Quest, a magazine which I think did the most to popularise computers and the internet in this country in their early stages ( by this time I had shifted to Calcutta and had my own computer, a 66 mhz 486, my costliest purchase till then i.e end 1994 ), and finally the internet and the World Wide Web.
The internet when it came, provided three options. The graphic option which is commonplace today was very expensive, the shell account which allowed text based access was only slightly less so, but there was a concessional shell option for students. I took the third one of course in the name of my son who had just been admitted to the degree course in Electronic Engineering. Incidentally, my son was taking some interest in programming those days and learning pretty fast. He has gone on to become a software professional and possibly my old 486 had some contribution to it !
In the text based internet access, you could not see the images in any website, but you could know their locations and download any if you wanted to view the same with a picture viewer or imaging software some of which you could get free from the net itself. Still surfing was not a pleasant chore. It was at this time I came across a program called 'shellsock' floated by some young men in Bangalore. I downloaded and installed it in my computer. A bit of tweaking was necessary with the Internet Explorer or Netscape and I had graphic access to the net ! And had no problems thereafter. Except that access was always slow and frequently interrupted.
I still marvel at how two youngsters who came out with the 'shellsock' beat the system. VSNL, the only provider those days and wholly Govt.controlled then, soon started lowering the access charges and though graphic access charge was still moderately high, I switched over soon.
Today of course the net is almost a lifeline. It not only helps me pay my bills, book my tickets, speak to my son in UK and write this post, it remains a vast reservoir of information which I can tap whenever I need. I was just checking with the net when Microsoft came out with Windows 3.1 and found it was in 1992. I started out on my journey into the wonderland of computers a year or so before that. I think I am one of the few oldies to do so.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

English and me

I think it was in one of the episodes of Dadagiri hosted by Sourav Ganguly which I happened to watch. A well known Bengali film actress was an invitee in this episode. She was giving forthright answers to the questions she was being asked and when asked if she had any regrets in life she said yes ; one of her regrets was not studying in an English medium school.
Her answer struck a chord in me. She did not explain or elaborate, but I felt I understood what she meant. From whatever I knew of her from the newspapers I knew she was a smart and educated person. Someone who lived in Mumbai for long periods in different spells, has attended numerous International Film festivals and must have had interactions with people in English over the years and from the few expressions of English that she used in the episode while talking, I could see that she knew English well. Then why this regret ?
We are a country with many regional languages. Though Hindi has been and continues to be promoted as an official language, English retains its importance as a link language, a language you need to know to pursue higher education and to have better job opportunities and greater career options. More importantly, in the common perception all over the country, anyone who knows English well is considered an educated person and in fact some amount of 'superiority' is attributed to a him if he speaks and writes in English with some amount of fluency - this may be a legacy of 200 hundred years of British rule which we have not been able to shed off yet.
As a result, someone with just a smattering of English learnt through indifferent schooling may find it hard to move up - in careers or in social circles. He may have to do a lot of hard work to brush up his English to be able to belong, and till then suffer from a feeling of inadequacy for no fault of his.It could be a he or she, but the position remains the same and a regret is quite possible.
I faced some problems myself. English literature was one of the subjects we had in our Intermediate Science years in the college. I used to feel quite uncomfortable in the class of one our English professors who taught us English poetry. I did not have much of a problem in following his lectures even though they were at times in quite a flowery language and had too much T.S.Eliot thrown in for a first year student to comprehend, but he had this habit of asking one of the students to stand up and narrate in his own language some points he had been explaining. Being unable to speak in English, I used to be afraid of being called up. More so because, branded as a good student, I dreaded being exposed as one who could not express himself in that language. Instead of facing up to this challenge- after all a bit of broken English would not have mattered that much and in any case, most of the other students were facing a similar situation   - I chose an easier route, a psychologically weaker one I must admit, I started skipping his classes.
The problem lay in the way we were taught English at our Bengali medium schools. We learnt the letters of the English alphabet more or less at the same time we learnt those of our own language and English was a major subject we were taught in school. In our time in the fifties out of eight papers in the School Final, two and a half were of English. But no classes were there even at the senior level on spoken English nor were there classes to teach you how to write in the language on your own. Some schools or some teachers might have been exceptions, but what I am saying was generally true. There was some emphasis on grammar, rightly so, but otherwise we had to answer question from texts, prose or poetry, which the teachers more or less explained in a class. We prepared the the answers either from some notes given by the teacher in school, or from a private tutor (for those who could afford) or from the numerous books- the so called 'notebooks' - that were available in the market with suggested questions and answers. So, it finally came down to memorising some of these answers and hoping for the best in the final exams.
The situation may not have changed much over the years. In fact with 'objective' questions where you have to choose from multiple answers and less emphasis on composition, the situation could have only got worse. When the Left Front came into power in 1977, it banned teaching of English in primary schools and the primary sections of the Govt. or Govt. aided schools. There was a lot of uproar about this at that time and a section of the intelligentsia came out strongly against this policy. I thought at that time that the debate missed the main point. It is not when you start teaching a student a language, but how you you teach him is more important.
My own experience is quite illustrative in this regard. When we were in class VII, we were for the first time required to answer questions from English texts in English only. Our English teacher would come to the class, write out a question from a prose or poetry piece on the blackboard and then its answer from a notebook he kept for the purpose. We used to copy whatever he wrote and memorise the same. That is how we were being taught the language. I wish he had acted differently and taught us in those preparatory years to write on simple and familiar topics, including those in the textbook  and tried to develop our speaking and writing skills, but I realise now that he was just a product of  a system, an exam oriented mindset and a syllabus that did not leave him any time or inclination or for that matter much of a scope to do so.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The gentleman's game

I felt I didn't have much of an option. When the whole country would be glued to the TV to watch the match, I could not afford to be the odd man out. An unprecedented hype had been generated in the week before with all the newspapers devoting their first pages to its possible outcome, analysing the past history of clashes between the two teams and their current strengths and weaknesses. Someone even went into a hyperbole and wrote that it was the game of the century which, of course, was a tall claim considering that the century is as yet too young. But then, it was not just a World Cup semi final played by India, it was a semi final between India and Pakistan. And that makes it different. It was not only two highly skilled teams meeting in the cricket field, but two nations born twins in 1947 and having a long tradition of rivalry clashing metaphorically, in a simulated war - a Kurukshetra of cricket in which national prides get involved.
I watched the game and was glad that I did. What happened is now history. India won though there were times when it looked like they wouldn't. The game went almost through a roller coaster and there were occasions when you could bet either way. It was undoubtedly enjoyable cricket with some good batting, some good bowling and fielding, some goof ups and some miraculous escapes.
Any way much has already been written on this game and on individual performances by better experts than me. I don't intend to cover the same grounds here. I will leave it to the political analysts to speculate over the outcome of our Prime Minister's diplomatic initiative in inviting the Pakistan PM to watch the match and having a cosy chat with him during the game and then at the official dinner hosted in his honour. It is better left to them to speculate on the political significance of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi's presence amongst the aam admi in the stands at Mohali and of course on her smile which is indeed rare and the jubilation expressed by her after the Indian victory.  For me, this only indicates the significance of this game and also shows how much cricket has become part of our popular culture.
Oh, well, I forgot to mention Sourav Ganguly who seems to have added another feather to his cap by debuting as a commentator in this match. His was the sole Bengali presence, if not in the field, at least associated with it.
Those things apart, what I felt and I am sure everyone else who watched the game did too, was the palpable tension all through and the strain on the nerves individual players must have undergone with the burden of expectations they were carrying from their respective countries. What really was praiseworthy was the total absence of any foulmouthed abuses or lack of decency during the game which is not very uncommon these days. Even in this war of nerves, the teams kept their cool and played like gentlemen.