Learnings from ScienceComm'17 India
Yesterday I attended a conference organized by Swissnex India that was hosted at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) at IISc campus in Bangalore. Although the event was focused on science, the theme applies just as well to technology. Being an engineer, I write more about technology than science per se. Nowadays, the boundary between science and technology is fuzzy and the lag between research and commercial application is also shrinking.
The premise is that science is not just for scientists. Everything that's discovered and later applied comes back to affect society and the common man. Genetically modified foods, cancer research, climate change, species extinction and artificial intelligence are just some areas of science that people need to know about, discuss and debate. But science and technology is not written in simple language. Use of technical jargon and dense writing are common traits of scientific writing. It may be understood by the scientific fraternity but not the common man. Worse still, if written by journalists who don't understand science very well, facts can be misrepresented, misquoted and misunderstood. How then can we simplify science for all?
Author: Marcus du Sautoy
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2008
Published first in the UK as Finding Moonshine, the first US edition got a title that a layman can relate to more easily. Symmetry is everywhere, in nature as well as in man-made objects. Symmetry gives balance and stability to structures. Symmetry is aesthetically pleasing just as lack of symmetry can be used cleverly to draw attention or to suggest that perfection must be left to the Gods. Flowers use symmetry to attract bees, whose vision has been honed to recognize patterns rather than colours. The way bees form their honeycombs is also symmetrical. Outward symmetry can sometimes hide inward asymmetry, as in the human body. Symmetry exists in the molecular structure of methane.
The way to explain symmetry is through mathematics and this book takes the reader through the journey of one specific branch of mathematics called group theory. In particular, the book is about the classification of finite simple groups (CFSG), which is the pinnacle of achievement in this branch. While mathematics is not every reader's cup of tea, this book simplifies the subject a great deal. Anecdotes make it entertaining. The book is also an insightful view into the world of mathematicians and how they work.
Visualizations in R and their discussion
Two days ago I was thinking of starting a new meetup group in Bangalore but in the process I asked a few questions. I wonder how many meetup groups are there in Bangalore? I wonder many of these are really active? Which are the big ones? How many members are there in total? To answer these questions and satisfy my curiosity, I downloaded some data from Meetup.com and analyzed the same.
In fact, Meetup offers an API to make this process easier but the API has its limitations. You can only look at the details of a group after you have joined it. So I adopted a manual approach since I was interested in only high-level metrics. I copied some overview data manually from the web browser. Subsequently, individual group information was obtained by web scraping. The language of choice for this and subsequent visualization was R. So, here are the findings.
Authors: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Publisher: Random House, 2010
Rework is a book about a different approach to work and running a business. It was authored by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson who are the founders of the web application development company "37Signals". Since 2014 the company renamed itself to their successful flagship project management tool Basecamp. The company was also behind the development of the web application framework, Ruby on Rails (RoR). RoR was subsequently open sourced in 2004.
Rework is for anyone thinking of starting a new company or changing the culture and practices at their current place of work. It is a condensation of their collective wisdom and lessons learnt from running successful businesses. Unlike other books that I have read of a similar aim, Rework does not read like an autobiography with a few punchy pieces of relevant advice and lots of padding otherwise. It reads more like a collection of anecdotes and opinions on how to run or manage different aspects of a company. The layout of the book is such that it is a very easy read; even pleasurable; and you can complete a few of its short yet to-the-point chapters in a single sitting such as on your bus ride to work or before you sleep.
Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Publisher: Penguin, 2009
This book is about the important role that probability and statistics play in our lives. It's title comes from the fact that the path traced by molecules are haphazard. In fact, it was first observed by Robert Brown, later analyzed by Boltzmann and Maxwell, and finally mathematically proved by Einstein in one of his papers of 1905. Just as random bombardments by molecules on a piece of pollen suspended in a liquid sometimes reinforce and give the pollen a visible nudge, so do random events in our lives sometimes shape our future more than we could have predicted.
There are in fact, two problems with accepting this. Firstly, our minds are not really built to either generate or recognize randomness. Our minds more naturally look for patterns and attempt to find the cause of things. Secondly, we like to be in control. We value skill and ability. So to say that our future is determined by chance is quite the opposite to what we like to believe.
JAM, UPI and related developments
Yesterday I had the chance to attend an event that focused on issues of demonetization, FinTech (Financial Technology) and digital payments. Held at Thought Factory, Bangalore, it featured speakers from Byte Academy and Nidhin George, a writer passionate about FinTech. While FinTech as a domain is well defined in the West, it's still nascent and evolving in India. There's been a lot of focus on payments but FinTech is much more: investment, lending, insurance, digital currency, and so on. This obviously means that opportunities for innovation are plenty and as yet untapped. Perhaps 2017 will be the year when FinTech really takes off in India, thanks in part to the recent demonetization that has given it a major push.
While the demonetization exercise of Nov-Dec 2016 is something that had high-profile coverage, the government has been building up the case for a digital and cashless economy more quietly for quite some time now. At least, the public and media ignore them because they didn't create an immediate impact like demonetization. In the Economic Survey of 2014-15, the government introduced JAM Trinity: Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile. Let's look at each of these briefly.
A melting pot of ideas and conversations
Makerfest 2017 was held from January 6-8 2017 at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Ahmedabad, just a short distance away from the venue for the last two years. Unlike the serpentine layout of maker stalls in the 2016 edition, the Makerfest in 2017 went back to the layout similar to 2015, with maker stalls located along criss-crossing walkways and a central stage for the talks and panel discussions. Nestled under a bright multi-coloured canopy, this was a perfect melting pot of ideas and conversations, where new thoughts and connections inevitably got forged.
As always there was a wide range of maker projects on display. Along with the regular candidates like 3-D printing, IoT, drones, mobile applications, virtual reality and so on, there were also projects and exhibits from the good old offline world. A student from NID showcased his work on creating digital archives for artisans. Shradha Jain, an NID alumni, caught the audience's imagination with her knowledge and passion for board games from around the world. There was an exhibit which demonstrated electricity generation using gravity. There were also at least two projects that dealt with new innovative methods of constructing buildings and houses and at least two that demonstrated upcycling of materials like old tyres and rejected PVC sheets into objects of daily use.
How good ideas evolve
The four quadrants that you see here are adapted from Steven Johnson's book titled Where Good Ideas Come From. We have in fact done a review of this book many months ago on IEDF but I thought there's one aspect of innovation that deserves more attention and explanation. Johnson tries to analyze innovations with respect to the surrounding ecosystem and the models in which individuals and companies operate. The result is the four quadrants.
Broadly, someone who invents or innovates is either doing it individually in the proverbial garage or attic; or she is part of a bigger research group that has access to funds and resources. The other axis of analysis is about the motive: are the inventors interested in profiting from their creations or are they open to sharing them with everyone else in the ecosystem. This is what the four quadrants are all about. Let's now look at some specifics.