Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Shri Kamalakar S Kane (1934 – 2019), Computer Pioneer - note by Minoo Dosabhai, Ms VK Joglekar and Srinivasan Ramani

Shri Kamalakar S Kane (1934 – 2019), Computer Pioneer

KS Kane passed away on 6th July 2019, after a short period of hospitalization for a heart problem. One of the first few Indians to learn computer programming and, to master its uses in engineering, KS Kane played a key role in the Computer Group at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He had studied engineering in Sweden and returned in 1959. He joined the TIFR Computer Group headed by Dr DY Phadke and was assigned to head computer programming activities. Later, he worked for a couple of years at the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay, as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre was then called. 

A large number of Indians who entered the field in the 1960’s learnt computer programming from Kane and his colleagues, C Natesh Kumar, Mythili Rao, VSN Reddy GT Redkar, and P Sadanandan. The TIFR Computer Group served hundreds of institutions all over India, welcoming them to share the TIFR computing facilities, teaching them introductory courses, and offering them help in coping with program development and debugging efforts. These were exciting days when many fields of science and technology were making rapid progress with the new computing tools and techniques they were developing. For instance, revolutionary insights were coming out of analyzing x-ray crystallographic data. Some of the bridges, flyovers and buildings were designed during that period using computers for structural analysis for the first time.

Kane collaborated in software development with Prof R Narasimhan, who had headed the effort to design and build the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator (TIFRAC). This was one of the very early computers, which was dedicated to the nation by Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, in 1960. Narasimhan and Kane had together designed and implemented a three-address assembler for TIFRAC, the earliest instance we know of an item of system software developed in India. Three address codes gained importance years after the TIFRAC was commissioned because optimizing compilers used them as an intermediate representation. However, the TIFRAC team seems to have chosen a three-address system for other reasons. Computer memories of those days were amazingly small, by today’s standards. TIFRAC had a 2000-word memory, words being 40 bits in length. 11-bit addresses were enough to address the whole memory and 40-bit words could accommodate an instruction code as well as three addresses.     

The TIFR Computer Group later acquired a CDC 3600 (1964), vastly increasing its computing capacities. Kane stayed on as Head of Programming till 1977 when he left TIFR to set up his own software activities. One of his sons, Shridhar, joined him in 1985 when the activity was converted to a Private Limited Company.

Kane is fondly remembered for his human qualities as well. He was a soft-spoken and friendly person. He was highly approachable and very helpful at a time when so many people were scrambling to learn computer programming, for use in science and engineering.

While we knew of Kane as a computer pioneer and a senior colleague, he was also playing an important role in maintaining his family’s institution in Mumbai that has set standards in excellence and popularity in serving ethnic food – Mama Kane’s Swatchha Upahar Gruh in Dadar. This institution had been founded by Kamalakar Kane’s grandfather in 1910. Kamalakar Kane showed equal zeal and passion for his busy computing/software activities and for this family business. He was always on the look-out for innovative ideas to implement in his ethnic food business too.

With great humility, he mingled with ease with a broad spectrum of people ranging from leading scientists to the lowest rung of workers in his business. A very generous and helpful person, he always enjoyed the respect and affection from all sections of society. He was usually referred to as Bapusaheb in Dadar.  
Prof PVS Rao recalls that in the early sixties when a computer engineer from abroad was struggling to teach a course on FORTRAN for users at TIFR. Rao requested Kane to take over and solve the problem, which he did very successfully. Dr SG Wagle recalls meeting Kane at his residence a few weeks before his death and listening to his memories of the days TIFRAC was being built at TIFR. Dr Mathai Joseph recalls the work he did with Kane on a time-sharing system to run on CDC3600. He also recalls that Kane did his Master's in Sweden and worked on the first Swedish computer, BESK. In Dr Mathai Joseph’s words, “Kane was the person people went to when their programs did not work as desired. He had an acute eye and could often spot faults very quickly. Many large TIFR scientific programs owed their successful operation to Kane's insight”. 

We would like to say in conclusion: A kind, thoroughly civilized, sincere, and dedicated person like Kamalakar Kane is rare to find. He enriched the lives of all of us who worked with him.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

Bill Paying in time

I used a facility for paying bills online though a bank account for paying a credit card bill. Earlier I was using NEFT for this purpose, and I thought that facility called Bill Pay would be an improvement. Two days later, the credit card company sent me a reminder to pay. I was irritated to be reminded after paying well in time and called the customer service to complain. The person who took the call said the payment had taken four days to reach them, and on the day the reminder was sent the amount had not reached them. In the modern day and age, justifying a four-day delay in passing the customer’s money on seems wrong to me. Computers do the work and unless the bank consciously slow down the process, they would not take four days. What is the moral?
  1. Don’t assume that mechanisms banks provide for online payment are fast. Your account is debited immediately! But when your bill gets paid is another matter. Get them to tell you in writing how fast they will pay your bill.
  2. Prefer to pay using NEFT. There is an intermediary here who does not allow banks to profit from delaying your payments. 
I   Later, I received a "politely" worded message from another card-issuer saying "You can now use NEFT to pay our card bill and get same day credit of funds". This was part of their acknowledgement message saying that my payment was credited on such and such date. Why not be fairer to millions of customers and say "Watch out! NEFT may be the fastest way of paying our bill. It usually gives same day credit of your funds". 

Srinivasan Ramani

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Digitization of electoral rolls

India has made amazing progress in computerization. Look at what digital wallets have achieved in the last three years. Railway computerization, Banking Computerization, e-Commerce portals are examples of world class computerization. You cannot, however, put election related computerization in that list. Is it because the job is neither the central government’s nor that of the state governments? Is it because a lot of the work is done by staff whose daytime jobs have nothing to do with handling election data? Is it because you can fob off thousands of complaints with excuses more easily than you can do in railways or in banks? Whatever be the answer, the challenge of reliable computerization of election data is a task ahead of us rather than behind us.
There is no denying the magnitude of the task, particularly when data is recorded in multiple scripts, and there is probably no central computerization. A tradition of quality audit seems to be unheard of in the software implementation. The user interfaces leave a lot to be desired. Data is not accessible for verification and updating/corrections on a continuous basis. Once the borrowed staff go away, there is no way to maintain the data till the next election arrives.
My wife whose name was not on the rolls, though she has a valid Voter ID Card. She has been told to wait till May 25 and fill up a form, and submit it with photographs and a copy of her Aadhaar card. Hasn’t the judiciary put limits on purposes for which you can demand an Aadhaar ID?   
Visit the following article that talks of 1.35 million voters being deleted from the rolls in one city and 6.5 million voters being deleted in a state! Did they inform the people concerned?
What is the total number of voters that have been denied their votes in this election? I am sure they would say “We do not keep track of the complaints made at the voting booths, Sir!”
The number could be in excess of ten million, if you go by examples given in the quoted article.
Let me make a suggestion. Every bank keeps mobile numbers of its customers. If the customer registers for it, every deposit and withdrawal from their account is reported to them within minutes. Could not the system inform 1.35 million voters in a city who are being deleted from the rolls through SMS? Tell them what is missing, and how to get this rectified.   
When the number of voters who get their names deleted is large, people will easily believe that there are mala fide deletions in plenty. 

Srinivasan Ramani

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Unusable Digital Wallets

I had installed a digital wallet app from a bank a few months ago, but never got around to using it all this time. Every time I tried to use it, I ran into some hitch. Let me mention two.
It is logical that the designer of a digital app should worry about what will happen to the money the customer deposits, in case he drops dead. This wallet had allowed me to go through the registration procedure easily, but woke up suddenly after I had ordered the week’s groceries and tried to pay. It demanded that I nominate someone to receive the proceeds if the inevitable were to occur. Meanwhile another clock was ticking, a man-made one, with 4 minutes or so for the session to be closed. I was supposed to give the nominee’s name and account number. What account it did not say! Is it the wallet account of the nominee, their bank account, customer relation number, etc. By the time I ran around getting the nominee’s bank account number, the 4-minute session was over.
The next morning, I was back at it again. Cautiously I tried to log into the wallet and find out if the nominee I had managed to enter just before my session was cut off had been registered. In the process I had to press “Forgot my pin” or some such button once. My cell phone was immediately taken over by some evil AI. It prepared an SMS, with some some addressee number and filled up the message body with some unreadable “text” that I suspected was some programmer’s code that would have carried out some action somewhere. Because, I was supposed to send it, the responsibility for this action would be mine. Not wanting to be a party to all this, I killed the SMS before it could go out. Was it the digital wallet software that tried to send this unauthorized SMS in my name? I don’t know. The Internet world that allows such stupid practices to be used has to be condemned as a whole.
Don’t they teach students of engineering, web design, computer science or whatever that such short cuts are likely to raise users’ suspicion and irritate them?
Now, you know why they offer big discounts when you use a digital wallet to pay for your bananas!

Srinivasan Ramani

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Prof J R Isaac, Retd Prof, EE and CS Departments of IIT Bombay passed away on 22-01-2019

Prof J R Isaac, 03-04-1930 to 22-01-2019
Photograph by Jaisingh Isaac, taken on 25-12-2019


I look back at the time I was a student of Prof Isaac. He was one of the three or four computer technology pioneers who taught the early professionals in this field in India. It was the early sixties. Computer science and technology were the sunrise subjects to study. Anyone who entered these fields at that time was going to have an exciting time. But Isaac’s success went beyond all this. What was his secret?
In one’s life we learn a lot from our parents. Later we learn from our teachers. Parents and good teachers leave a big mark on one’s life. Why? Because they care deeply about the learner. They create gifted children and gifted students.  How? They gift so much!  Education is not knowledge transfer! It is the giving of the greatest gift that can be given by one human to another! Good teachers have faith in their students. They are relaxed and, by example, teach their students that learning is fun; and that being generous is a great way to live. They treat students as friends and behave informally all the time. The students sense all this and reciprocate. In the case of Prof Isaac, he was always Jimmy to them. He was accessible any time of the day, at the office or at his place inside the campus.  Caring deeply for his students was not an academic obligation for him. It was humanity, a profound concern for students.

Let me mention a simple act of kindness of Prof Isaac involving a student he did not know. It was 1980. A new student of IIT Bombay, Harish, was standing at nearby bank branch. When his turn came for attention, he told the bank staff member “I am new here, have just come into Bombay, and don’t know anyone here who can sign a reference form for opening a bank account”. Someone in the queue behind him spoke up, saying “No problem, I teach at IIT, and will sign the form for you.” Harish later learnt computer programming from Prof Isaac. After completing his studies, he went on to become a very successful chemical engineer. His ageing mother made a call from Bombay yesterday to her daughter, who is our neighbor, to convey this story of Harish’s experience to me. Almost anyone can be a professor, but some not only teach, but at the same time care as deeply for their students as a parent. No wonder, their acts of kinds and informality are remembered over decades  not only by students but also by their parents!
I will not name Prof Isaac’s students who have become rich or famous. There are dozens of them all over the world. To Prof Isaac, they were all the same. In fact, he remembered his mischievous students more often than the others!  
May his soul rest in peace!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Did Indians adopt the heliocentric theory long before Copernicus?

I wrote about this two years ago.
There are many temples in India devoted to deities representing the Sun, moon and the planets in India. Most of them do contain a visual representation of the Solar system, with the Sun at the centre. All other deities surround the sun. The individual deities face random directions, possibly illustrating the concept that each rotates independently around its own axis. There is no deity representing the earth, showing that the builders did not have the concept of the earth being yet another planet.

Do the Navagraha models indicate that there was a wide spread heliocentric concept before Copernicus formulated it as a theory? Or is the central placement of the Sun God only a way of showing his relative importance?

I found some information relevant to the whole question, when I ran into a book published in India in 2005:
Navagraha Temples of Tamil Nadu Kaveri Delta
by Padma Raghavan and Savita Narayan,
ISBN No: 81-89066-22-6, Published in 2005
English Edition Publishers and Distributors (India) Pvt. Ltd.
5/10, 11, 105 Jogani Industrial Complex, V. N. Purav Marg, (Near ATI) Chunabhatti, Mumbai 400022
The book describes fourteen temples, each devoted to a single deity. The deities involved are Sun and moon, five visually dominant planets, and Rahu and Ketu representing places along the Sun's apparent path in the sky where eclipses occur.
Based on the compositions by the Nayanmars which mention them, the authors believe that the temples were in existence in the 7th Century A. D. They say that there is evidence that the Suryanar (the Sun God) Temple near Kumbakonam was built in 1100 A. D.

Srinivasan Ramani 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Are Administrative Reforms Dead?

The Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) Reports are important documents from the UPSC civil services exam perspective, says the site https://byjus.com/free-ias-prep/arc-reports-for-upsc-mains-exam , but what about comprehensive, public  discussion of administrative reform issues from the nation’s point of view? Don’t we need it every year?
There have been two Administrative Reforms Commissions in India. They have produced a series of reports, which have received Government Consideration. Some recommendations have been implemented. All that was long ago.
Now, there seems to be a Dept of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances https://darpg.gov.in/about-arc
However, there seems to be no public report of any action related to Administrative Reform after 2011. 
The one exception I could find was a blog post by Amitabh Kant of Niti Aayog. 

Discovering that there is a Ministry of Administrative Reforms  reminded me of something that Dr Kirit Parikh said in a public talk over two decades ago. It was about a gardener who was taking care of a small piece of lawn in the economics department of JNU. One day, the gardener goes to the Chairman of the Dept. and says that they have to find another gardener. “Why?” says the Chairman, “Are you leaving?” “No”, says the gardener, “I have been made permanent!”
Don’t we need to review our administrative practices regularly? Don’t we need to make visible improvements to them, and tell the country about it? 
Srinivasan Ramani