Saturday, January 24, 2009

Moving forward: We are back!

For all those who thought we have been missing, we are back. As I can see the last post is from 2007, which means that the blog failed to capture any activity in 2008. So here is a quick update on what MILLEE accomplished in 2008:
  1. In Spring 2008, we held a full fledged deployment at a private school in Kanaar (a village near the city of Nawabs, Lucknow). Aside: The place is famous for mangoes! :)
  2. In Summers 2008, we did an ethnographic study with help from a new team member Deepti (a master's student at the Berkeley i-school). The goal of the study was to look at the usage patterns for cellphones. We had a lot of interesting observations from the same, go bug Deepti if you want some details.
  3. In December 2008, we worked down South in Andhra Pradesh with the Byrraju foundation. The aim was to set the ground to go full throttle, i.e. to hold a large scale study with 400 odd kids, which would happen sometime in 2009.
  4. In Spring 2009, the goal is to do an out-of-school deployment at our site near Lucknow, and try to understand the belief systems and the usage patterns around cellphones.
For an update regarding the people who used to be involved with MILLEE:
  • I, Anuj Tewari, am now a graduate student in CS at UC Berkeley.
  • Neha Kumar is also a PhD student now at the Berkeley i-school.
  • Dave is done with his PhD and working for Accenture. He owns a nice condo (I know that since he invited me to a party there!).
  • Aish has become a globe trotter. :)
  • Anuj and Akhil are in their final year now, and continue to be valuable pair of hands for MILLEE
  • Sid is also in his final year and works in network security now.
  • And last but not the least, Matt is now a Assistant Professor at the HCI institute at CMU.
As we move forward, I will keep this blog updated.

Monday, August 06, 2007

MILLEE says goodbye to Karekura

after spending an unforgettable summer at karekura, millee has now switched base to lucknow (uttar pradesh). it was heart-breaking to leave the 50 kids that (not just david) we all fell in love with, but with the objective being to do a comparative study in the north, it became necessary to pack our bags and go north :(.

not that saying goodbye is ever easy, but this time was especially hard. how do you explain to these kids that you've shared every day with (for all of 8 weeks) that you might never be back again? when they've spent nearly every summer morning looking forward to your arrival? truth be told, we had come to look forward to our days with them quite as much. after all, we too had our learning experiences to undergo.

david put it aptly - they loved us just because we were there. i still remember my first day with them - i was embarrassed to be given so much attention. ten of them were on me at a time, asking "what is your name?". on hearing mine they would promptly offer theirs (and i'd try hard to remember, to do justice to their enthusiasm). but these were all the words we could exchange in a common language. all other communication we shared was across the language barrier.

a memorable incident i shall always recount was when i was showing anusha the pictures i had taken on my camera one morning. she asked me to scroll through all the pictures, then go to the ones i had taken the day before. i had visited my (stanford) room-mate's grandparents, aunt, and cousin. anusha made me explain to her who was who, and registered all. i was touched beyond words at the way the conversation proceeded... not because she registered all (obviously), but because she really cared to understand who was who... in the bit of my life i exposed to her.

there are many little things that made these children unforgettable to us...
  • their undying enthusiasm in greeting us and saying goodbye for one. gosh, it was a process to get in and get out of school. in the afternoons, an incessant wave of "bye"s would surround us, making the ensuing silence almost hard to handle.
  • the hypnotic effect the camera had on them (esp. mine, truly :). they'd lose interest in all else and beg for photos. radha, in fact, cared little for anything around her if a camera was visible. also adorable was the pose anusha and co. would strike as soon as the camera was aimed at them. definitely mind-blowing :).
  • sheer lack of inhibition when it came to pouncing upon us to tickle, shower us with hugs and kisses, and inevitably causing us to lose our balance. (i learnt to shed mine, day after day.)
  • the tender smiling faces when they saw the "winner" screen on the phones. (and sometimes, even when they'd lost but thought they'd won... in floored e.g. :)
  • the "fider"-"spider" incident between siddharaju and anusha that will be talked about to kingdom come.
  • srividya showing attitude, according to aish. the little miss has the most beautiful, penetrating eyes i've seen on a child.
these are only among a few, and those that came to mind first. the entire experience is hard to sum up in words. i think i speak for us all in that the infectious smiles and laughter that these kids added to our lives for this brief period will be reminisced about for years to come.

david, in all his awesomeness, put together an awesome yearbook for the kids. hopefully they will remember each of us, and each other. we'll definitely remember them all.
if you'd like to see the yearbook, david will be only too happy to oblige. if you'd like to see more photos, just send me a request and i'll send you the url.

as for the present - our move to lucknow has been an effort, but successful. there will be more on that in a later post.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Dave says goodbye to MILLEE

On June 26th, 2007, I spent my last day with the kids at the school. I remember telling one of my friends that when I first came to India, I was expecting to keep networks networking, internets internetting, and the laptops laptopping; perhaps even sneak in a bit of research at the same time. What I didn't count on was falling in love with nearly 50 kids. And for that reason, leaving the school was one of the most difficult things I've had to do, not just in India, but in my life.

I'm glad Neha, who recently joined the group (WELCOME, NEHA!), described her experience of the school with a fresh set of eyes. It reminded me of all the things I loved about working with those kids. And even though Neha's experiences were all new to her, I take a lot of joy in the fact that each day for me was as exciting, fun, and full of love as the first. Just to reiterate what Neha had said, "they are happy any which way, which is one of the things that makes them so special". She was talking about pictures, but I feel like this is pervasive in their life which, indeed, makes them very special and me very happy.

My last day there, I had to say goodbye. I walked into a quiet classroom and said goodbye to the kids. I remember how they ran up so that they could give me a hug with their precious, filthy hands (if you've been following along, you know how I feel about their hands). I remember the questions they asked, each one broke my heart: "Where are you going?" and "What is your phone number?" so that they could call me. The hardest question for me to hear was, "When are you coming back?"

I will dearly miss those kids. I will miss the excitement of having their pictures taken and showing it to them. I'll miss all the silly things they said during our interviews with them. I'll miss the fact that they loved you, not because of who you were or where you come from, just because you were there.

Since then, I have enjoyed a whirlwind tour of beautiful India and now back in the US trying to get caught up with all the work that has been waiting patiently for my return.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

another day at karekura

picking up where siddharthA left off, on the week that was.

there hasn't been an update on the activities at the school for a while. seeing as i am the new (and thus, most wide-eyed-in-fascination) member of millee, i take it upon myself to do the needful...

our tata sumo (driven by the able purushottam bhaiya) picks up a sumoful of people each morning (a subset of all researchers and interpreters) and heads to the village that is karekura, a few kms off the outskirts of mysore. the ride is a tad bumpy once we get to the village, as expected, and we are treated to the sights of sugar-cane and rice fields, bullock carts, sheep and goats, and many, many palm trees as we trudge along, for roughly 10 km.

the kids await our arrival with much anticipation, ready to pounce upon us in full force as soon as we're out of the vehicle. there are incessant sounds of "hi, __ aunty", "hi, __ uncle", 'til it's time for them to line up for assembly. assemblies consist of the children standing height-wise in four very straight lines, while one of the teachers takes charge. in unison they recite a few prayers and sing the national anthem. a couple of kids sneakily look toward us on the side, chanting on all the same :).

when assembly ends, there is a short break before the kids assemble into their classes. this is when the camera comes out and chaos reigns. there are a million echoing sounds of "torsi aunty" as i click away (torsi means show in kannada. everyone wants to be in the photo, and the kids push and pull to be in the frame. little do they know that i almost never have a wide angle lens on, so there is just not a chance that more than two faces will fit. but they're happy to pose, and happy to see their friends on the lcd after the picture is taken :). in fact, they are happy any which way, which is one of the things that makes them so special.

when work actually begins, anuj (in matt's absence) decides which of the kids will do what (with the phones) and activity begins. watching the kids learn, or even not learn (as the case may be) is a fascinating experience. we stumble, often fail, and thus we carve our route towards success....

as for the logistics, we only work with some of the kids some of the time. since school continues to run 'normally' for them, we're really stealing their time away from classes. one wonders if one does them enough justice by taking away those hours of study from them. one tends to conclude in one's favour... the last week saw the kids pick up the clothing game, floored with action verbs, and the tree-tree (local) game.

'tis hard to document everything that happens in school, simply because every day is so different and new. you can imagine that not a boring moment is found within the walls of karekura. leaving is always sad, and quite a process. it takes only about 15 minutes for each of us to bid goodbye to each of them, with promises of seeing them the following morning. the sea of kids crowds around our vehicle till we are all in, and then sings farewell till the vehicle is out of sight. what does one do with all that attention, really?!

oh, and this post took so long (could not help the lack of internet supply these last few days) to finish that there's another update - david did a brilliant job with putting together the yearbook. it's finally done and looks inordinately spiffy. please contact him if you'd like to take a look.

over and out.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Don't Dream It's Over

A wise guy once said-"Don't write crap when you can write better." Being the fool I am, I have chosen to chuck those words of wisdom down the garbage chute and come up with some trash so as to earn some well deserved curses, slangs and abuses. I just couldn't help it fellas. I know I have to write something when instead of dozing off, I think of getting hold of pen and paper and coming up with some fancy introduction to an even jazzier post. Not that I usually end up doing that. Sleep is too expensive a commodity to be trifled over such whims.

Coming back to more familiar grounds. As some of you might be knowing, I am currently interning in Mysore under the aegis of University of California, Berkeley. My work involves serving as a researcher in a project named MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies). The project seeks to promote English Language Literacy in developing regions through mobile technology (read games, applications etc etc that can be deployed on mobile platforms like cellphones). As a part of the MILLEE team, I have had the fortune of being mentored by an extraordinary doctoral student, Matthew Kam, whose brainchild is known to us all as MILLEE.

MILLEE, a name with which 8 guys have become synonymous with over the past 4 weeks. A name that seeks to bring a change. A name that changes the people it touches. Okay, as usual, maybe I went overboard. But the fact of the matter is, MILLEE seeks to cater to the impoverished section of our society. And that is reason enough that it should get all the support we can muster. It is always a good feeling to be helping out the needy. I can vouch for that from experience of working with rural kids for two consecutive summers now. :-)

But working our asses off (if only sometimes) doesn't mean MILLEE is all about work and no play. Neither am I. So when on one hand we spend entire nights deploying the apps on 20 highly irritating Motorola Razr cellies, we also go biking on Wednesdays up the Chamundi Hills (OK well maybe not all Wednesdays :P). Then there are the unrelenting sessions of leg-pulling, jokes and Davidisms that keep all of us on our toes. All sane mortals here very wisely choose to ignore the steady stream of PJs coming from a direction named Anuj 'The Graduate' Tewari. Not included in this category is Anuzz 'Chiku' Kumar, who manages to fall over himself on hearing the silliest of jokes.

Recently, the entire team went around Mysore, visiting the regal Mysore Place, followed by a session of some kick-ass amateur bowling. All of us were bowling for the first time and I almost managed to kill a guy by hurling the bowl thingie as high as it would go. Anuj (Tewari that is) managed to steal the show by snatching victory from Jacek aka Kebab through the very last throw. I very conveniently finished last, just behind Chepu Champ, Mathurz. Aish 'Hadd' Aunty somehow managed to perform spectacularly even though he was bowling and cell-phoning at the same time. I tried to goad him into telling me the secret of his multitasking capabilities. But he has, so far, refrained from letting out any secrets.

That is the story till now (only the rosy parts of course). Let's see how things develop. As and when they do, I'll make sure to keep you buggers posted. As of now, the coding team has to get cracking on its next assignment - the second set of prototypes. Till next time, all you huduga's and hudugi's keep commenting on the damn posts.

P.S: Oh Yeah! I almost forgot. We had Akshaye Kumar (yeah the dude in the damn Khiladi movies) shooting right in front of our farmhouse. He was there shooting for some crappy Priyadarshan movie called Bhool Bhullaiya.

Monday, July 02, 2007

MILLEE Team "Strikes" again (in bowling)

The MILLEE team is hard at work, but we recently took a day off to tour the beautiful city of Mysore. As part of our day, we went bowling! The bowling allies here are second to none.

Here are the boys, ready for a night of bowling. Jacek is particularly feeling it tonight.

Bowling shoes are on!

For many of us, bowling was a new experience. I decided to post some of the pictures online and rate them as "Pro" or "No".

PRO: Nice form, Siddharth. Smiling all the way.

PRO: Anuj, let's not take the credit away from him. He won it after all!!

PRO: Hey Akhil! Bowling... not ballet!

PRO: Oh definitely. Bowling while on the cell phone is definitely slick.

PRO: I must admit it!!

NO: I must admit!! I need to learn from these guys!! They are simply awesome :)

PRO: Okay, from this pic, it looks like the ball will totally fly in the air. And that's exactly what it did... okay, siddhartha... uhhh.. nevermind. I give up.

Okay, there you have it! the MILLEE bowling team.

Fun with Parathas

Paratha Man!!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Massive Technological Failures

You know what the problem is when developing technology for developing regions? Yes, it's partly the regions, yes it's partly the developing (of both the regions and the technology) but I have to say, it's mostly the technology... Here are just a few of the things the MILLEE team has had to overcome to continue our work...
  1. The failure of two laptops due to hardware failures
  2. The failure of two laptops due to viral infections
  3. The inability to restore said laptops due to special hardware requirements which cannot be found here.
  4. Near daily internet connection failures
  5. Near daily power failures (including our backup!)
  6. A lot of funny quirks in developing on mobile platforms.
  7. Camcorder failures
  8. Failure of the machine that converts DV tapes to DVD's

It's a wonder how we get any work done!

But we're still doing it ....