I am thinking of a career in Computer Programming

It was 1988 – 1989, and I was in ninth standard (ninth grade). One computer training institute under the auspices of the Archdiocese had ‘sold’ their student-computer-training-course to our school. I was one of the few students who got the money from our homes to do that introductory course. The theory session covered all the basics of computers and also the basics of GW BASIC programming language which were being taught right after school in the evenings. A handful of practical sessions were also arranged in the air-conditioned computer lab for which we had to go to their institute on holidays. I still remember the two PCs costing about Rs 100,000 each at that time. Intel 486 or 386’s ? I think it was 386s. Rs 100,000 was also the price of a new Ambassador Car at that time. So, adjusting for inflation, those PCs cost somewhere in the region of Rs 300,000 to 350,000.

We learned about Charles Babbage, Analytical Machine, valve-based computers, LSI and VLSI,  first , second, third, and fourth generation computers and the impending fifth generation. But there was no mention of Ada Lovelace.

For the practicals, we started with computer games and then ran the GW BASIC programs we learned.

10 REM PROGRAM TO FIND THE PRODUCT OF 2 x 3

20 LET A = 2

30 LET B = 3

40 LET C = 2*3

50 PRINT C

60 END

and then hit ‘RUN’

Voila 6!

From then onward PCs exploded onto the scene, and by 1996 computers were ubiquitous. At least it was like that for students. That was when I decided to learn a course in Computerized Accounting. I went to the same institute and this time, I was a grown-up. The curriculum had an overlap with PGDCA students (Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Applications), so for the theory classes I had to sit with them.

Basics of Computers, binary number system, and the like. That was when I learned that to do a subtraction in binary, you just have to swap (in the number to be subtracted) ‘all the zeros with one’ and ‘all the ones with zeros’ and do an addition. The result would be the same. That is how computers handle subtraction.

I remember Java becoming popular.  Java compiles into code that is run on the JVM (Java Virtual Machine). So it is platform independent. Whether you have Windows, Mac, Linux, or any other operating system, once JVM is installed, it will run Java. It is unlike C language, which compiles into machine code which is different for different computers.

Notwithstanding all these, I never thought that I could become a computer programmer. I was totally frustrated by the thought of communicating with a machine that knew nothing but machine code, a string of 0s and 1s. Then I decided to learn more about programming. The findings astonished me.

In the basic sense, computer programming is asking to do the computer what we want to do. If we type something onto a word processor and we don’t like the font, we change it by selecting whatever we have already typed, and then pull down the font menu; and after selecting the new font, we press ‘Enter’. The font is changed. This is using a word processor, but the idea is same. You are asking the computer to do what you want to do.

We need not reinvent the wheel. We all learn the multiplication table in school. 7 x 7 is 49. We learn it by heart.  Whenever we encounter 49 in life, we can break it down to 7 times 7 or vice versa. This is the gist of programming. All the code is broken down to simpler code, and all the simple codes are assimilated into complex programs. And ultimately, it is compiled down to binary that the computer can understand.

In the above analogy, code is already written to make a word processor. When we select what we have already typed, and then pull down the font menu; and select the new font, and press ‘Enter’ – code is executed in the background.

In the same sense, for a piece of computer program, I select a few lines of code that is already written, and modify it to suit my needs. If I write it properly, it will run smoothly. I need not worry about all the binary code that is ultimately going to get processed.

It is the quality of our human brain. We can only process a certain amount of data at the same time. We can only deal with a few things at the same time. But hundreds of people, or even an individual can use hundreds of instances to process small chunks of data. When sequentially and logically written, it becomes one big piece of software.

The problem solving approach is the right way to look at programming. You need learn to program logically, learn about computer algorithms, study about data structures and the like. I am thinking about a career in computer programming.

There are serious flaws to our education system

As a part of my current job as typist near a University, I am regularly encountering all sorts of thesis reports.  From an undergraduate level to Ph.D.  These tomes are a part of their requirement for the award of the Degree from a University: whether it is B.Com, BBA or MBA ; or M.D. for medical doctors, and Ph.D for teachers.  What I see is terrible standards of writing.

My job as typist, and MS Word Specialist, is to edit all these reports into printable form so that they can be digitally printed and bound into a presentable format. Spelling is a problem for many. The universally accepted convention is to follow either British or American spelling throughout the document. Follow either British or American spelling, but there has to be consistency.  I suppose the culprit is the default dictionary in our word processor like MS Word. Most people have an American dictionary installed, and since Indians like to use British spelling, things can get complicated.The solution: change the dictionary.

Even some doctorate level scholars do not know the difference between ‘effect’ and ‘affect’. The government effected a change, and it affected people. It has to be as simple as that. I still consider these scholars to have domain knowledge, but it could have been better if their English is impressive also.

But when it comes to undergraduate students – BBA, B.Com, and even students of courses like M.B.A, things get very pathetic. Totally made up thesis reports, plagiarism, and the grammar can’t be edited without change in meaning. Sometimes, I do not understand what is being written. Without understanding the semantics of a sentence, syntax can’t be changed.

In my days, two decades ago, the government was very supportive of education up to Matriculation, or Class 10. The government, or the education system, would give ‘moderation’ or free marks to ensure that you pass out to the next class. If you need to go any higher than Class 12, then no ‘moderation’ or free marks were there. You got to earn it yourselves. That is why we have good scientists even to send our small spacecraft to Mars – a feat never achieved by any nation in their first attempt.

Currently our education system is something like this. You spend some time and some money in pursuing an undergraduate degree or an M.B.A. After the stipulated number of years, if you follow the system – bunk classes, make up attendance registers, use dissertations and thesis reports that are ‘recycled’ at least ten times – you get your degree, no matter what. Is has become as simple as that.

For thesis reports that are ‘recycled’ at least ten times, I guess the process is like this. It starts with fewer mistakes. Every typist who typed it would add to the errors and ‘typos’ of the former typist, and after about  ten ‘recycling’  the current report will have no resemblance to the original. I mean, “What does this sentence mean?” type of errors. Every report is ratified – signed and co-signed by the teachers also. ???

Personally, I would not recruit any of them. I am not an employer, and I do not intend to become one, but my advice to potential recruiters would be to stay clear of these people. These are people with degrees with the value of the paper that is used to print the certificates.

How to be more productive at work?

Every boss or manager would be happy if their employees’ productivity is increased.  Increased productivity means increased output which translates into increased profit. Employees also like to increase their productivity, because the more productive they are the more valuable they are to the company which means that at least their take-home-pay would be higher.

If productivity is so important, then how to be more productive at work? When it comes to being productive at work the most important component is motivation. Motivation can be both intrinsic and extrinsic.  Rewards such as increased pay and bonuses are extrinsic motivation.  But the most important type of motivation comes from within – we try to be more productive because we like to me more productive. This is a well researched and well debated subject.  This is why increased pay and material rewards do not always make employees more productive.

How to be more productive at work? A simple method is to work longer. This is commonsense. If an employee works longer, rest assured, he will produce more output.  This is not always possible due to labor issues.  If an employee is rewarded with a pay that is commensurate with output he will be motivated to work longer.  Japan was literally ground zero after World War II but was quickly able to recuperate and became one of the biggest industrialized nations of the world.  It is mainly attributed to their work culture.  A 12 hour workday was (and still is) more of a rule rather than the exception.  But as people of Japan realize that there are more important things in life than literally die doing work, Japan is also adopting the strategy of decreasing working hours and increasing output in whatever hours they work.  In other terms they are also thinking about how to be more productive at work.

How to be more productive at work?  The key is to be focused at work. Keep workplace chit-chats and personal emails to a minimum.  Also while we do this, it is important to know the output we are supposed to give. If something can be measured it can also be delivered. While working, note down the things that increase or decrease productivity.  Also, motivation is of paramount importance.  It is the job of managers and bosses to keep their employees motivated. A workplace filled with eagerness and excitement is bliss. And let us strive to make our workplaces one like that.

The reassurance of love

Everyone would have heard the story of the prodigal son in the Bible.  A son wanted his share in his father’s wealth and he took it and went to a faraway place.  After squandering everything, there came a famine.  And this man was given the job of feeding pigs in a farm.  He wished to pacify his hunger by eating the stuff they give to pigs. But nobody gave him even that.  Then he thought about his father and his love.  Remorseful, he went back to his father’s place.  He decided to say to his father to consider him as one of his hired servants; for he is not worthy to be called his son.

He went back and while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.  He asked his servants to put the best robe on him, and a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet.  He asked to bring the fattened calf and kill it. He ordered to have a feast and celebrate…. For the full version of the parable read the Bible –  Luke: 15: 11-32

Also in the parable, we see the disposition of his elder son.  He head the music and dancing and asked one of his servants what was going on. When he found that his brother has come back he became angry and refused to go in, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”.

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

This was from the Bible. I did not understand the elder brother’s disposition all these years until someone wiser, someone of the Church, explained it to me.  It is ‘jealousy’.

After every debauchery, man would, sooner or later, come back to his senses.  If we have to be fortunate like the prodigal son, we have to stay fortunate.  Be grateful to what we have.  There is no point in squandering everything before we regain sanity.

The convention of naming things

Not so long ago, I came across a Dollar Store or something like that in my hometown in Kerala, India.  Painted in star-spangled-red-and-white, and perched first floor above the ground level; the shop had drawn my attention.  The shop’s name was painted right in front of the building. The name — well I will come back to it later.

I am talking about naming inanimate objects:  businesses and companies, although I might add that our naming of children is far from perfect; especially when we deviate from tradition and find new, interesting names.

Someone who is the son of a very successful builder has named his company. Born Builders. When I heard that name for the first time, I conjured up images of a dog with a big bone right between his teeth. What this particular builder has imagined might be that they are the lineage of a successful builder and that construction, or ‘building’ happens naturally to them.  They are ‘born’ builders.  It might be just that I am a little bit more wicked that normal.

Also, while commuting to work I see a small boutique selling clothes or something. Cattleya Collections.  Well, all right: Cattle Collections.

An aunt who lived in our neighborhood once asked me where I was going.  When I told her that I was going ‘shopping,’ she suggested that I could say that I was going ‘marketing’ because I was literally going to a farmer’s-market-kind-of set-up and buy fresh vegetables.  No. Language is standardized. For me, shopping is buying goods and marketing is selling goods. It is always safe to say that I was going shopping because anyone who hears it is expected to assume that I was going to buy stuff. Snobbery and superciliousness are not good substitutes for good language and meaning.

Good advertisers and marketers are good at naming things. They look at things from different angles.  They look for meaning from every conceivable language and come up with a good name. Mess up and you have got a no-brainer.

Coming back to the star-spangled store, the name of the owner of the shop was obviously Anu. ANUS RETAIL. It seems that the lady had forgotten to apostrophize the possessive.

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

There is something called noblesse oblige

Noblesse oblige is a French word which literally means ‘nobility obligates’.  It refers to the obligation of noble men to behave honorable, responsible, and generous.  But who are noble men? After the demise of monarchy, and with the advent of democracy, the word noblesse oblige is forgotten along with the root word: nobility.

Who are noble men then? A dictionary will tell you that ‘noble men are people who are born into nobility’.  People of high birth, class, or station.  I had known a few of them in my childhood. Our high school headmaster was one.  A Roman Catholic clergyman.  For me, someone who embodied the most noble person mankind has ever seen. Son of man, Jesus Christ himself.

I had known a few others also.  But those times were different.   If one had chosen it himself, one could have lived a life of nobility, bliss, and solitude.  Not now.  There were no mobile phones.  Unlike the present, evil was not communicated fast. Currently, TV and the internet is everywhere. Everyone is inter-connected at a high bandwidth. Evil-and-evil-people get easy access to noble people so that they can tempt them.  Make ‘em do wrong. It needs a very high level of personal integrity, solitude, access to good people and circumstances, and a little bit of luck – blah, blah, blah to remain noble and honorable these days. And I am talking about aristocratic people.

For lesser mortals, things get even more difficult. A lot of things ordinary people think are right are simply just not right. Nobody is there to teach them.  Of course, the holy scriptures are there. The biographies of all the good men are there in all the good libraries. But unless someone embodies them, no one is going to see them.  Nobody is going to do them. All the preaching in this world will not change the world.  Because if preaching alone would have changed the world, the world would have already changed many times over.  Every preaching, including this one; starts with the person who preaches it.  If he does what he preaches, then other people will see it.  And they will believe it.  Only then, people will start to change.

So if there is anyone who considers himself noble, please show it in your deeds. Show others the generosity, compassion, honor, and responsible behavior. And if there is anyone who would like to live nobler – without being born into nobility; do it in your spirit and works. Because you are the chosen ones.  To lead us, so that other ordinary mortals can follow.

The rising cost of healthcare

Two days ago, I had unusually exerted myself physically about the evening. And at night when I went to sleep I noticed some difficulty with breathing and my throat was congested also. It progressively got worse and worse and my breathing became increasingly difficult. Well past midnight, I noticed that my left arm started to become numb and I had immense thirst. I panicked. I was alone at home. Fearing that I was going to get a heart attack, I somehow managed to get into the hospital that was ‘only’  300 meters away.

I asked for a glass of water and they quickly gave me it.  They attached a small clip-like device to my finger (for checking the oxygen saturation in my blood), checked my BP, and immediately they did an EKG.  Oops.  It came out completely normal. Sinus Rhythm. I had also 99% oxygen saturation.  It was something more related to my gastrointestinal system than my heart.  The doctor, a lady, on duty offered to give me an injection for that.  I refused it (Pantoprazole). The next thing she told me is that I can go back home.  So about 3’O clock in the morning, I started to walk back the short distance from the hospital to the place I live in. I went to work that day.

In early days, though people had a more healthier lifestyle, they used to contract with all sorts of diseases. I am not talking about the very-early-times when plague, leprosy, and TB killed a very large number of people all over the world:  In those days, even the demography of a country was changed by the outbreak of a disease like plague. But, I am taking about a period-of-time that was as recent as twenty or thirty years ago.

In those days also, when someone was contracted with an illness he used to get admitted in a hospital. A laboratory was attached to the hospital.  There was an operation theater also. Like now, some doctors were even trained in the UK and US. But the treatment was not at all expensive. Unless one had to perform a cardiac bypass or a kidney transplant, which they had to do in a big hospital, preferably outside the state, treatment costs were under the realm of common man.

But a lot of things have changed.  Drug prices were gradually decontrolled. Surgeries and procedures that were only done in big hospitals, in big cities, started to be done in an average hospital. Hi-tech diagnostic tests have become commonplace. The aftermath: the high cost of healthcare.

Earlier, to visualize the structures inside the human body an x-ray was the one thing what the doctor needed. Currently, we have CT and MRI scans. Ultrasound scanning which was unheard of before has become routine (since it is comparatively cheaper to CT and MRI). CT or MRI essentially serves the purpose of an x-ray machine.  But with much clarity (resolution).  And the price: cost.  Generally, the clearer the type of scan, the more money the patient has to pay.

Also, people’s changed lifestyle may have contributed to the newer diseases people are getting.  I use a Teflon-coated non-stick pan in my kitchen. In my childhood we did not have Teflon. Nobody had.  What is Teflon? Well — some kind of plastic. Is it safe? After its invention it has been ‘tested’ and found to be safe.  How safe? Nobody knows.  What if Teflon causes some kind of cancer or other ailments? Just because no case has been definitely linked with Teflon-coated-utensil-use with some kind of malady, it does not mean that it is 100% safe. Metals we use to cook food like iron and copper were here for billions of years.  Teflon was invented in the last century.

Teflon, and beverages like Coke, and the preservatives we use on processed food are only recent phenomenon. Certain preservatives and certain ingredients of carbonated-bottled-sugary-water like Coke are alleged to be carcinogens.

Even though we lead a more healthy lifestyle, sooner or later we may get admitted to a hospital for a reason that sometimes be not our fault; like a motor-vehicle-accident or a natural catastrophe. If we need expert treatment (read expensive) there has to be a way to pay these bills. That is where medical insurance comes to our help.  Developed countries have a  healthcare system that is almost fully supported by the insurance companies. Treatment costs are not borne by the individuals.

Following suit, I suppose India is also getting world-class doctors and world-class treatment facilities.  So healthcare is going to get even more expensive. I am planning to take healthcare insurance for myself.  And I do it before I buy my next smartphone.