Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My experiments with Solar Cooking - part II

Continuing from my previous post on the topic, I had tried out different vessels (glass, steel, ceramic and plastic bag) in the experiment. But none were black as the inner box itself had black paper walls. It turned out that the rice in the plastic bag seemed to be the best cooked among the four. However the sizes and shapes of the four containers were not the same to make an apple to apple comparison. Further the initial water to rice ratio (2:1) was insufficient and water had to be added in between. In any case using plastic bags daily was not an option. The cooking was continued on day 2 with only a steel vessel. The results showed that the rice was not uniformly cooked (there were grains of raw rice) while portions seemed well cooked. I am yet to get clarifications from the veterans of solar cooking on this aspect. Will post an update when I receive it.
Another operational challenge faced was strong winds blew off the reflector portion of the solar cooker. This could be temporarily solved by sticking it to the lower half with tape. The tape needs to be removed every time the lid is to be opened and hence is not a proper fix. Need to solve this problem too. Further the reflector is a bit fragile and so even if the wind does not dislodge it the shape gets distorted. Again a temporary fix of placing cross rods inside was adopted.

My experiments with Solar Cooking - part I

It all started off with a post by Dr. Gananath on sukhijeevana if anyone was interested in making Parvati solar cooker. So I started reading up about solar cookers and thought that it was trying out since it did not look too complicated and needed only simple easily available materials to make a low cost version.
My first version did not work. The rice and water remained pretty much the same after more than 4 hours in the sun. I have to admit that I did not follow the instructions precisely as mentioned on the website (angles of different pieces, aligning system etc.) Also figured out that I had not used a black vessel and had not covered the vessel.
I was reluctant to paint a vessel black (issues of which is a safe paint, the vessel may become useless for other purposes). Luckily there was a teflon coated black pan at home which was the candidate for iteration 2. This was covered with a plastic sheet to retain the heat inside. There seemed to be some more activity this time as water vapour condensed on the sheet. However raw rice remained as it is. The temperature inside the cooker was around 50degC. My questions to the inventor Sri Ravindra Pardeshi received prompt responses. I felt that the
precision of construction plus the mechanism for aligning the cooker to the sun would be critical. I was not ready to take up these steps. Further my reading up (this site is a good reference) revealed that while the panel type to which the Parvati cooker belonged to is one type of simple solar cooker the better option would be to build a box type. This need not be turned to follow the sun while cooking, can reach higher temperatures etc. After discussions with friends Vasant Jajoo who directed me to his friend Rakesh who had been using one finally led me to build a box type which I would say is a mix of Maria Telkes type with the Heaven's Flame. Two carton boxes were used (one inside the other). I used black color paper inside the inner box. An old glass sheet was available which was reused for the top lid. It was a little thin and unfortunately cracked during use. The top reflector portion was a spatial geometry project figuring out t
he angles and sizes! Pieces of cardboard were used with aluminium foil pasted inside.
With this version we were able to finally "cook" rice. More on the results and operational challenges in a separate post!

Friday, February 3, 2012

My first visit to a Balawadi

This was my first visit to a Balawadi center run by PRATHAM. There were two friends who were also coming and one of them was celebrating her birthday. Being North Indians to ease their communication with the children a center in a Muslim area was selected. The center was a one room operation but quite spacious with a high roof and a shady mango tree outside. All the walls were decorated with pictures and charts. There were about twenty children aged between 3 and 5. They all greeted us in chorus with a cheerful "Good Morning". I was surprised to see a German lady assisting the teacher in-charge of the Balawadi. I subsequently learnt that foreign volunteers (mainly German) come regularly every year. They do volunteering full time spending time at the Balawadi as well as Goverment schools as part of PRATHAM's programs. Soon there were several rhymes recitation by the children which was on par with any kindergarten in the city. Next one of the children gave a hand made greeting card to the visitor and this was followed by the "Happy Birthday" song. Evidently they had prior information of the visit! After sweets were distributed by the visitors and children had their fill, it was touching to see the German volunteer take a broom and clean up the place just as we Indians do. It showed the amount of integration with the local culture that she had imbibed during her stay.
After a long series of handshakes with each of the enthusiastic kids and bye-byes it was time to leave.
While we could not look at the mode of teaching, the specific aids designed by PRATHAM which are used, it was still a good experience which provided a glimpse of the workings of the Balawadi. Going by the children's enthusiasm I can say that the dedication and hard work of the staff is very much evident.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Continuing on the subject of values this was my recent experience.
I have started my gardening after shifting to Mysore. I was looking for raw materials like cow-dung and sugarcane bagasse. I will write about my gardening experiments separately but restrict this post to my attempts at procuring sugarcane bagasse. I went to a sugarcane juice vendor who said somebody had already taken it and I could come the next day; he would keep it for me. Accordingly I went the next day and he had a cement bag of bagasse. I took it and asked him what he was expecting for the same. He answered that I could give him whatever I was giving earlier. I could not elicit a figure from him and finally gave him Rs 5 which was what I was paying to the vendor at Bangalore. At this point he seem to be "ashamed" to receive such a low amount. Finally he said that the other person (who takes it to feed his buffaloes) pays Rs 20 independent of the quantity! So finally I handed him Rs 15 (which was the change I had) but with some reservations in my mind. Somehow it became a business transaction without goodwill and my mind was already thinking of looking up an alternate source. Perhaps he did have a customer who paid him Rs 20; I had no means to verify but I felt he was overcharging me for what is essentially a waste product of his main business - vending sugarcane juice.

I always felt that whoever is recycling waste is doing a service to the society and hence should be encouraged. We did the same with my old newspapers. We always gave away freely to the raddiwala who came by since I felt that we are paying to read the news content of the newspaper. If the raddiwala can make living out of it we should not cut into his meager profits. But this had the side effect that each raddiwala wanted newspapers to be exclusively reserved for himself while we did not have any preferences! This created a goodwill that even now when we visit our old house if a raddiwala is passing by he recognizes and has a conversation.

Now back to the sugarcane bagasse story...
I located another vendor and asked him about the bagasse. He said he just puts it in the vacant site behind and whoever is interested can pick it up. I handed him a bag and requested him to fill it up which I would pick up in the evening. When I went in the evening he pointed to the bag and was about to leave. When I tried to pay him he refused and rode off on his two wheeler! So I was left standing there with a sense of gratitude or goodwill and respect for this person.
Now from an economics point of view it seems foolish on his part to not seize this "business opportunity" to create monetary value out of his waste. But in terms of human values and goodwill generate I feel he has gained a lot more.

What is value (of anything) ?

I am not talking of the value in terms of money which is ever changing but the core intrinsic value of anything. For eg: if 1 kg of rice can satiate the hunger of "x" people that is its value and it is required irrespective of the market value of rice. Money value which is only a convenient mechanism for exchange of different goods has no intrinsic value in itself. For eg: what is the value of Rs 100 if there is no rice to available to buy? However associating a money value distorts our own value system and priorities over time. For eg: some one was commenting growing off-season crops in the garden would give great satisfaction since we get it free when the market prices are high. I feel the real satisfaction is in the challenge of growing a crop (some might be easier compared to others) and also in relishing it but it should not be linked to the market value in Rupees. A pomegranate tastes like a pomegranate and it should be enjoyed as such irrespective of its price. Whether one grows tomatoes or strawberries the joy is in growing process itself and not really in the end product. Many a times it is painful to pull out the robustly grown carrots or radishes!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

communication - its all in the mind

As I am writing this there are ideas in my mind which are taking the shape of words and being put here. Whoever is reading this will form his/her own ideas which may be the same or very different from what I intended. Sometimes we read too much into words and this affects our own thoughts and feelings (ego in short). We either get elated or totally upset independent of what was intended by the transmitter. As some one said we all live in our own worlds (in our minds)!

I am reminded of a scene from Beverly Hill Billies the movie. The Clampett family which has moved from a rural area to LA is on the freeway. A car filled with gangsters pulls along and one of them makes the "middle finger" sign irritated by their slow moving jalopy. Thinking this is the way folks greet each other in LA, granny smilingly responds back the same way. Angered the goons show their guns. Further encouraged, granny pulls out their shot gun. Panicking the gang speeds away from the scene. Only if you are familiar with the two contexts from which the participants in this scene come from you can fully enjoy the (mis)communication that is going on. It goes to show how much the context plays a role in any communication.

Recently I was watching a video of an informal session with Sri M (Mumtaz Ali Khan) which had come along with his autobiography "Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master". The author and his spiritual journey make an interesting read but that is a topic for another blog. One point "M" makes in the video which caught my attention was that all our thinking is dependent on a language. Or in other words we think using a language, without language there are no thoughts. Brain does work outside of this language boundary and it has to do with emotions and feelings. Something to ponder about.

whats in a name (mysore versus bangalore)

While most of the names of modern planned localities in Mysore can be found in Bangalore too like Jayanagar, Vijayanagar, JP Nagar, etc. (but B'lore does not seem to have a Siddarthanagar or Saraswatipuram) I am intrigued by some of the old traditional names (villages which have got swallowed by the growing city). Mysore is unique for its koppalus like Tonachi Koppalu, Manchegowdana Koppalu, Kumbara Koppalu and so on. Can't recollect any Koppal in Bangalore. Similarly Bangalore has its unique Kavals - Kaval Byrasandra, JB Kaval, VyaliKaval ...
Bangalore also has its share of palyas such as Malleshpalya, Murugeshpalya. Palyas seem to have crossed the religious divide with areas like Sultanpalya, Michaelpalya! Mysore has a few. I am aware of Nachanahalli Palya and Bandipalya.

The other USP of Mysore are the Mohallas of yore like KR, VV, NR, Fort, Devaraja Mohallas.
Bangalore has these fabricated names associating areas to the adjoining roads. Perhaps the burgeoning city made the authorities run out ideas? Some examples are W.O.C Layout (West of Chord Road), HRBR layout (Hennur Road - Banaswadi Road), HSR Layout (Hosur Road - Sarjapur Road). Have not come across them in Mysore yet.

Another speciality of Mysore are theme based naming of roads. For eg: Roads in Kuvempunagar are based on the poets compositions, while roads in Siddarthanagar are based on the values expounded by Buddha. While they sound nice it becomes a nightmare for one unfamiliar with the area to locate an address! The traditional main, cross co-ordinates give you some idea of where you are and where you may have to go but being in Vinaya Marga does not give you any clue on where you will get Moksha Marga! You will have to resort to the friendly neighborhood which still exists thankfully.

Monday, January 23, 2012

mysore gardens

Since I moved to Mysore one of my areas of interest is to see how Mysore is (still) different from Bangalore.

It is heartening to still see a few houses with expansive gardens but the numbers are diminishing by the day giving rise to apartments, malls and multiplexes. I guess no one can escape the wave of globalization (or being "bangalored" as the expression goes).

In the area that I stay which is one of the newer localities people have maximized their built-up space even in 40x60 plots (just as in B'lore) but the key difference is that they have still found a way to keeptheir gardens. The Mysore approach is to use the footpath space outside. You will invariably see flowering bushes, fruit trees like guava, sapota and even jackfruit in these footpath gardens but the common factor is coconut trees. I have even seen parts of MUDA areas which are earmarked for parks being used for these gardens! Since MCC has not yet discovered the "business" of concreting foot paths that has been going on in Bangalore, Mysoreans can have their homes as well as their gardens! I have no complaints with this externalization of gardens phenomenon though.

stopping by woods...

I had read this as part of my +2 English course. The last lines were on Nehru's desk.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Another of my favorites from Robert Scot! The full poem.

The road not taken

This is the title of another of Robert Frost's poems another favorite of mine. I feel his poems reflect my mind exactly.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

For the whole poem see here

vocation and avocation

It has been a year since I left my IT job. While my primary interest remains the environment space I am yet to find a full time "job" that fits the bill. Some of the organizations or individuals do it as a weekend activity since they are into regular jobs doing the weekdays. In some other cases their location or daily travel to the field can be a deterrent given my own constraints. Some are into deep research and hence I lack the credentials to contribute ... the list goes on.

I managed to do some teaching at an NGO for Master's degree students for a semester in two subjects - Project Management (given my IT background) and Sustainable Technologies (primarily due to my interest in this space). Apart from this my reading, gardening, thinking continue...

So in summary given my IT background there would be jobs available but I am not keen on them while the one the I am looking for in the Environment space may not be there / not available at this point!

In this context I am reminded of my favorite poet Robert Scott's poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time". I am reproducing the last two paragraphs which best explain my predicament. You can read the whole poem here.
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Made Snana & the power of the mind

No, I am not going into the debate of whether Made Snana should be banned etc... My observation is more on the power of the mind and how the context can change something from hated to desirable.
In a general context leftovers after eating food are considered "unclean". Many people may not even wash their own plates at home - there would be a housemaid who does the job.
But switch the context to the temple people because of their tradition, belief system are ready to roll over the leftovers on leaf plates eaten by some else!
So the same mind which considers one thing as unclean can see the same as a very religious and hence "pure" thing to do in another context.
On the topic of the power of the mind, my wife (who is a doctor) says that in psychiatry they are taught about women who are infertile but the desire of having a child is so strong that they get all the symptoms associated with pregnancy except that there is no child growing the womb.
It is said the mind can be your greatest friend or your greatest enemy.
No wonder most of our spiritual teaching focuses on the mind!

P.S. Happened to come across this interview with Deepak Chopra on NDTV after writing this piece which also touches upon the power of the mind.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

School Hunt

My daughter is finishing her U.K.G shortly at a Kindergarten. When we moved to Mysore the priority was to find a place near home and starting late (to give the extra sleeping time for her since she is a late riser) and hence did not do too much of a research or long term thinking. So now we are on the hunt for a school for her I standard.

Given my software engineering background I took a very structured approach to the whole process (much to my wife's amusement who does many of these things instinctively). Made a list of criteria (distance, timings, class strength, no. of floors which is an important parameter considering the burden they carry, fees, syllabus followed - state, CBSE, ICSE ...) and started visiting the schools to collect data. Just like in software (or any other area) it is easy to capture the functional specifications. But the soft or non functional aspects are always difficult. A visit helps to give a notion of some but not all. For eg: the responsiveness, attitude of the staff, openness in sharing information on fees, formalities do give some indicators. However the quality of teaching cannot be easily perceived. One can take opinions from other parents but again these are colored by thier own values, expectations.

There were schools we liked but had to drop since admission was not available or they charged exorbitant fees (upto 1 lakh!). These posh schools which their steep fees ensure that only students from a certain section of the society get in (either intentionally or otherwise). This shapes the behavior and culture of the students who study there. A family friend of ours who has a daughter studying in such a school while their son is in a more modest school have had bitter experiences of this. It seems the daughter is ashamed to say that her brother studies in the "not so posh" school. Also they have parties for which they get choreographers (at a cost), expensive dresses etc. While parents put their children into such schools perhaps because of their achievement these are the unfortunate side effects.
The other end of the spectrum are alternate schools like CFL, Shibumi (in Bangalore) while there was only one that I could find in Mysore - Arivu. It was an attractive option - very reasonable fees, experiential learning not going to the extreme in terms of doing away with exams etc, the main challenge was the distance - about 12kms from where I reside.
The final alternative was to home school if nothing works out!

I guess as one of bosses would say we are all of middle-class mentality. We want something in the middle of the road nothing too extreme. Our expectations are modest and we are ready to work a life time towards those modest goals. We are sceptical of any overnight get rich proposals. Similarly anything which rejects all current systems is also suspicious. I guess systems were working reasonably well, there were still dedicated teachers who delivered even if they did not inspire, the food we bought in shops had some nutrition, was safe, we could trust our leaders to generally do well for the country. There were always exceptions but the general feelign was of trust of various systems.
Unfortunately this has eroded over time. We are trying to seek solace in systems which are now focused on "business of making money". It is time to get involved in each aspect of our lives to the extent we can and make a difference - whether it is the food, it is the education for our children. Perhaps the middle ground is a mirage and no longer exists?

BTW the school hunt is still on. Will post once the marriage is finally over!

Is it the journey or the goal?

A question that often arises is - the journey or the goal which is more important?
Based on my children's school experiences atleast in that context I can say that the answer is the goal is what matters. Every school seems to be in a race to get the students reach some goal out in the future. Perhaps it is not only the schools to be blamed. It is a reflection of the aspirations of the parents and society as well.

Several examples:
In case of nursery / kindergarten students it is getting admissions to the most sought after schools for I standard.

For +2 students it is all about clearing entrance tests for various professional courses. Most colleges are PUC + CET + AIEE + JEE + ...

For high school students in 8th (at least in ICSE) it is about clearing the board exams in 10th.

Some extreme cases of these are that ICSE 8th standard students start off with 9th standard text books and they study 10th std books in 9th! In 10th they keep writing exams one after another to gear up for the grand-finale board exams!!

I read in the prospectus of a college (which itself started of as a coaching center but metamorposised into a +2 college) that the time students spend on each question of CET (common entrance for Engg and Medical in Karnataka) will be analyzed and improvements will be made!

While yes there needs to be a goal, somewhere the joy of learning for the sake of learning, living in the present seems to have been lost with this never ending focus on the future. Can students, parents and schools not focus on the heart of the matter that is learning and then goals & achievements will follow as natural consequences of that learning?

To share or not to share...

This is a big debate in the software industry freeware, shareware v/s proprietary software. Here I am confining to more mundane physical matters (hardware if you please).

I am reminded of a travelogue by Dinakar Desai a great chutuku writer in Kannada (chutuku is a small four liner with a hitting message) about his experiences in England when he went to attend a conference (in the 60s I think). In a bus or train he asked another passenger (English) permission to borrow his newspaper, this being a pretty common practice in India. The Englishman haughtily answered "We don't lend papers, we buy them". In his writing Desai appreciates their sense of paying for a product/service.

However the question remains in my mind - what is right? It depends on the context of-course. In the context of the economy, the producer is happy with as many of his products are sold. But in the bigger context of the environment and the purpose should it be so? Is it not okay for more than one user to take advantage of a product already produced thus meeting their need while also reducing the burden on the environment?

In our school days it was the norm to pass on text books to younger children. These days in many schools books have to be bought as a package (good for the school and the publishers but a burden for many parents) and so there is no question of reuse. I tried to offer my son's books on Freecycle but there were very few who were interested and only once I managed to give them to be reused. They ended up with the raddiwala on all other occasions. Another dimension to it is that the way children maintain their books (another related post on the load they carry which impacts the condition) it is a wonder that they last the whole year forget being used by others subsequently!

So going back to the question perhaps we need to look at some way give credit to producers who make things that last, which can be shared thereby reducing the raw material consumption as well as the load on the garbage dump. Otherwise the current Economics favors greater production and greater consumption alone ignoring the limits (remember the 'linear system in a finite world' statement Anne Leonard makes in Story of Stuff?). Alternately there should be a disincentive to those who consume and waste more. Until we citizens of this earth realize this and bring it into the systems in place there is no hope!

How much should a person consume? A review

This is a book by Ramachandra Guha which I read with interest some time back.

At a broad level Guha tracks the history of environmentalism in US and India. This provides a contrast of sorts. The key message being in US it is more of a preserving nature for the urbanites to visit in vacations. Nature takes precedence. On the other hand in India it has been intertwined with the lives of the people (tribals) who are integral to the forests. So the two have to be dealt with together and not in isolation.
This table provides three different environmental philosophies:

Utopias / viewpoints

Famous proponents


Grain based civilization

Modern industrialized


(Dominant env philosophy in India)

Thomas Jefferson,

Mahatma Gandhi

Nasty, brutish, short


Ideal is the peasant society, human scale technology, strong community bonds

Pursuit of wealth

Widlerness thinking (Dominant env philosophy in US)

Jared Diamond “Collapse”

John Muir

The ideal state of hunter, gatherer where man and nature are one.

A fall from the ideal state.

Further distancing of man and nature

Scientific industrialization

(universal – held by experts / scientists

Gifford Pinchot (US Forest Service)

Jawaharlal Nehru

Illiterate, pre-scientific

Illiterate, pre-scientific

Future thinking. Solve industrializations problems (not look back at the past) with scientific knowledge

(Edward Wilson?)

Some other interesting points:

The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts – Mahatma Gandhi, 1928.

One of the key contributions of the Indian environmental movement has been to point to inequalities of consumption within a society or nation.

Analytical Social Ecology framework : omnivores and ecosystem people

Omnivores: Rich farmers, industrialists, state officials and the growing middle class based in the cities – have the capability of drawing upon the natural resources from the whole of India to maintain their lifestyles.

Ecosystem people: Roughly 2/3rds of the population rely for the most part on resources within their local vicinity. These are small and marginal farmers on rain-fed tracts, landless laborers, hunter-gatherers, swidden agriculturists, animal herders, artisans..

Development is the channelizing of ever increasing volume of natural resources via the state apparatus and at the cost of the exchequer to serve the interests of rural and urban omnivores.

1. The concentration of political power/ decision making in the hands of ominvores

2. The use of state machinery to divert natural resource to islands of omnivore prosperity especially through the use of subsidies. Eg: wood for paper mills, fertilizers for rich farmers, water & power for urban dwellers.

3. The culture of subsidies has fostered indifference among omnivores to the environmental degradation caused by them. This has been compounded by their ability to pass on most costs to ecosystem people and to society at large.

4. Projects based on capture of wood, water and minerals such as eucalyptus plantations, large dams and open cast mining have tended to disposess eco-system people who previously enjoyed ready access to these resources.

5. “Development” has created a third class of people – ecological refugees who are permanently displaced in large numbers from their homes and end up in slums and temporary shelters in the towns and cities.

Given Guha's background, his strength in capturing the historical context and putting it into a neat framework shows. The area of solutions (answers to the question raised in the title) seems to be hastily dealt in the last chapter and causes some disappointment. Not that there are easy solutions but it needed some more attention is what I felt.

Have you ever thought of Social Investment?

For starters Social Investment is an investment not charity but for social purposes. You get the satisfaction of helping the needy and also get your money back with a modest interest.
On one side we have this huge poverty challenge and many of the rural poor trying to make a living and looking for some capital to give them a break (as low as Rs 5000). On the other hand there are quite a few busy urban people who want do something socially relevant but do not know how. This is where Social Investment comes in. Internationally there are organizations like kiva. The one I would like highlight here is our own desi organization Rangde which started off 2006 and has grown quite impressively with about 3,350 investors making investments to the tune of over 6 crore impacting the lives of close to 12,000 borrowers as of Jan 2012 .
They have an impressive website which links the investors and the borrowers backed up by a professional and dedicated team. I have been an investor since 2008 and have always had a pleasant experience in interacting with the team.
So what are you waiting for? You can start with as low an investment as Rs100. Start Today!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Getting back to blogging...

After a long hiatus I am trying to get back to regular blogging... This post is to restart the engine!
A brief recap...
Left Wipro in Dec 2010 as planned.
Moved to Mysore in May 2011 (was not planned).
Settling down to gardening, reading, a bit of teaching apart from spending time with the kids.
Will share some of these experiences in the coming posts...