Saturday, March 27, 2010

Indian blind people find FOSS important

Orca is gaining massive exceptance amongst indian Blind community

I just returned from Pune, a city in India known for its educational heritage and culture of respecting knowledge.

I conducted a workshop to train Blind computer users on Ubuntu GNU/Linux with Orca.

The Orca screen reader, is by far the most advanced Screen reader in almost all aspects of accessibility for Blind people.

It not just includes the best features from other (proprietory ) screen readers, but has added a few more toppings on the cake.

It is now more than sufficient for all ICT needs except a handful of computing tasks (which most people rarely do any ways).

I arrived in Pune univercity's computer cell for the blind and immediately realised that most computers were running the popular proprietory screen raeder called JAWS.

I was told by Dhananjay Bhole, the HOD that there are hardly any blind students who even want to use Linux.

Dhananjay, who is himself blind has been Using Orca since a year or so and we had been planning this workshop since last few months.

I told him on the day before the workshop that we must ourselfs take initiative to encourage and orient people to stay away from any proprietory technology and use only FOSS.

he immediately replied "no, this might not happen because Jaws is extremly popular and you will not get good response in just 2 days."

Actually I have already led the setup of an IT trainning center for blind In Kerala, a southern sate in India.

The uniqueness of the Insight center in Kerala is that it is the first one to make exclusive use of FOSS, particularly Orca.

Although Dhananjay and his crue knew this fact, but they were not aware of many aspects of orientation of Blind in using FOSS.

This was the exact reason for such a pesimistic view. And from his Point of you, the Head of that lab was right given his limited knowledge about the technology itself and the way to teach it.

Well, just read on and you will know how true and correct was the assessment made by dhananjay.

about the workshop

Anusha as always has been my hand, my brain and my "one man army ".

She has the right attitude and the needed knowledge to manage such workshops.

What's more, she knows wen where and how of promoting FOSS, and she is absolutely perfect in it!

As usual she set about installing Ubuntu on the machines. I had been planning the workshop with Dhananjay in all aspects. During our discussions, he had told me that the machines had just windows and he will need windows to boot up as the first (and *default*) operating system after we dual boot with Ubuntu.

Whether we did it or not is to be revealed later. So just read on.

I know I am creating too much of suspence. Nice way to force people to read the entire blog ha?

Any ways, conclusions are always mentioned at the end so I have not really talked about the outcome so far.

I went about configuring Orca on every machine which Anusha had setup in a very short period of time.

Since our last couple of workshops, we have started to use a USB startup disk to install Ubuntu.

This saves time a bit and we don't need Cd ROMs on every machine.

So the day ended with all the setup done and Orca configured with relatively slow speed, Tutorial messages turned on and the option for speaking shortcut keys turned on as well.

I Also keep the echo by character, word and sentence checked as well.

These settings have proved to be very helpful during my workshops, because participants tend to come with an Idea that Espeak speech Synthesizer is difficult to understand.

This is particularly true with those users who have used JAWS or Window-Eyes before.

So with speech rate set to 40 and all the other settings which I just mentioned, I find it easy to clear out the misconception.

Besides I also set the person to UK english which is even more clear.

Day 1

The day started with Usual inogural talks and introductions. Dr. Nandedkar, a blind PH.D in pharmacy was the chief guest.

He made a few very important points in his inogural talk.

to quote him,

"technology is so crutial in blind person's life that at times I find it more loyal than my wife ".

That was interesting.

Another interesting point was,

"Open source is a major thing for every one and for blind people it is all the more important. We must understand that the freedom to alter and customise software is very very important so that we can have Orca exactly made the way we want".

I was happy that at least he mentioned about factors beyond lisence fees.

Well apart from this, most of his speech was a kind of self introduction of how he got award from the president of India etc.

But the moral of his talk was, "take full advantage of these 2 days and since you have an experienced resource person from the field, you will have all your doubts solved".

I followed it up with my initial "need for free software " talk where I heavily focused on the aspects of free as in freedom and how it directly affects the accessibility of ICTs.

One factor which really appealed the participants was the socio echonomic disadvantage of proprietory Screen readers.

I found meny participants commenting in the feedback saying, "if my employee has to invest 1000 dollers in getting a software for me, then he *will* choose a sighted person of my caliber and not spend that money ".

This is indeed a major observation and its pritty obvious yet not so well recognised by Blind community.

my opening talk was terminated abruptly because there was another program to happen (and our program started late due to some management issue).

Any ways, I had already covered the most important aspects such as how restrictive is the proprietory software and what it means by a community driven project, which is also well funded.

I also raised a few questions such as "if windows is your ICT GOD and JAWS your true friend as many think, then why is it that blind people can't really install Windows without any sighted assistance?"

This obviously initiates a thinking process in the listeners mind.

Another spark to kindle the fire is, "by the way how many Indian languages does any proprietory screen reader support? and are there web sites your proprietory screen reader can't access?"

So finally with an almost complete FOSS talk, we moved on to the lab which we had setup the previous day.

I started to demonstrate the Orca preferences and how one can modify the settings to the liking.

I made a mention that one can even change the keyboard shortcuts in orca.

I then went on to walk through the Applications menu in Ubuntu.

there were 3 immediate remarks which the participants made and almost every one agreed.

Dinesh Thole, one of my favorites remarked, " the speech is so very understandable and infact more clear".

Secondly, a few participants who were already JAWS users, commented that they found commands almost similar.

and an important observation was made by a few others that the Menus in Ubuntu are very well organised.

I then showed them the basic text editer (gedit) and told them to type a few lines of text and navigate around.

This way they not just checked with adjusting Orca preferences but could also use Applications menu and also get used to the Orca navigation keyboard commands.

Post lunch I took up some more advanced tasks such as using the word processor.

I made it a point to show them how similar is the set of shortcuts for selecting and formatting text between Microsoft Office and Open Office.

All the participants ended up practicing office softwares in the later part of the day.

But the main surprise for me came in the last session.

I did the demo of Hindi speech with Espeak and to my utter disbelief, participants just loved the way it sounded!

"this is not so bad at all!" said Anuja, a Blind girl who is doing journalism from a college in Mumbai.

Of course some students pointed out that a few words are not that correctly pronounced, but that did not seem to bother them a lot.

So, I took them to Hindi wikipedia and also showed them Hindi google.

I had to stop the session at that point because Internet was to be covered in details the next day.

We took a quick feedback, and for those of you who are waiting impatiently to know about that dual boot issue, here's what happened.

Anusha took over the feedback session and asked, "do you all feel comfortable using Ubuntu? will you like to use it often?" to which all the participants answered yes.

she then asked if we should change the boot options to show Windows by default so that you can use it for most part of the day?

"noooo!" came a resounding reply and struck those who had asked us to do it by all means.

It was clear from the feedback that The participants had become fairly comfortable using Ubuntu. They said that although they will need windows for a few days untill they get totally used to and confident with Ubuntu, they will only use the proprietory OS to solve any problems.

day 2

The Second and last day was mainly for internet related softwares.

We started by demonstrating firefox with Orca.

The Trick I used here was very simple yet effective.

I opened FF and started asking questions to the participants regarding the keyboard commands they use on Windows with IE or FF and JAWS.

Soon the trick started to show its effect.

"sir, press u for moving to the next link." said Dinesh who was already happy to know that the headings and visited links are navigated in exactly the same way he did using JAWS.

I made them tell me all other commands such as alt + d for the address bar and CTRL + enter for completing the www and .com before and after a URL respectively.

they were so happy to know that even 1 to 6 would exactly do the same heading navigation as JAWS does.

I gave enough time for practicals. By now participants had not just Excepted Orca, but started to enjoy it.

What's more, I found Anuja, the would-be journalist was oepning hindi web sites and trying to read news etc.

At this point the Lunch was due and I decided to let them play a bit more with internet.

They all were glad to know that twitter and face book were accessible using Orca.

Post lunch I again used a typical padagogy of asking people about how they chat.

"we use google talk for chatting on google, Yahoo messenger for yahoo and msn messenger for msn ".

I asked them what if they get an "all-in-one" messenger for chatting?

And I could impress them with pidgin.

As if that was not enough, I also showed them how to use IRC and get instant help.

This as always happens, raised the confidence level of participants.

When you show them IRC channels, they tend to feel more secured and relaxed about the potential problems they are going to face during the learning curve.

The day ended with a short overview of the Ubuntu installer which is accessible with Orca.

conclusion brought happy surprises

We did the final feedback session with Mr. Sonavane, a senior faculty in Pune Univercity as the chief guest.

the conclusion after the student's feedback was that we will now have to setup more machines with Ubuntu.

"I am going to contribute to the development of ORCA!" said Dinesh Thole who was doing his Batchler of Computer Applications (BCA) from Pune.

Another interesting comment from Sangapal was, "linux is so systematic. I find it more comfortable than windows".

Anuja added that Hindi was what she came looking for and orca with espeak is giving a fairly good output.

All participants (25) to be presise, raised the concern that they nither have a pdf reader nor a software that does scann and OCR.

This is an important and a serious concern which has to be solved pritty soon.

I asked all the participants if they are really thinking to make Orca their screen reader of choice.

Every one told me that within a month, they see themselves only using Orca.

Dhananjay who had told me "they will not change in 2 days " was proved to be totally wrong.

But the best part of his personality is that he happyly excepted his misjudgement and told me that now he will take up the responsibility of following this up and continue trainning more students based on the pattern I had shown him in the 2 days.

Now we are planning advanced workshops and the Dhananjay is creating a FOSS based computer trainning course.

It can be expected that hundreds of students in and around Pune will now start using Orca and will raise their chances of employment.

I am starting a similar project here in my home city Mumbai as well.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Orca, the ICT lifeline for Blind

With its latest features,Orca is now the best screen reader

I have been using Orca for last 3 years and alas I did not need to touch the digitally dangerous and restrictive windows since then.

I am so happy that I could break free off the absolutely useless crap called Microsoft windows and the related software like Microsoft office etc. Interestingly enough one of the best fullforms I created for windows is "Where I Never Do Operations With Safety".

Any ways enough jokes and bashing, back to the topic.

I thought I must talk about Orca because it is getting better than the best day by day and improving on its own previous featureset.

But being the state-of-the-art screen reader, oracle has stopped the funding for this project after they took over Sun Micro Systems.

This is a major concern for the daily life of many blind people including their future in jobs and professions through which they earn livelyhood. I think after reading this blog, my readers will firstly understand how important Orca is given the features I am going to list. As a result they will also understand why we should do every thing to not just keep Orca alive but developing at full speed.

So what does Orca offer to Blind computer users?

Well, as is expected basically from any screen reader, Orca integrates seemlessly with the Desktop (Gnome) on GNU/Linux.

It reads out all text and related attributes, provides spoken feedback as focus shifts from one widgit to another.

It also reads popups and message boxes requiring user input.

Looking a little further, it works really good with Office software (Open Office) and also helps to surff internet using firefox.

We must remember that unlike many proprietory software like Jaws for Windows, we get all this for free.

And yes not to mention that unlike Jaws and other proprietory software, Orca can also be localised in regional languages.

Even the Espeak speech synthesizer which Orca uses by default is free.

But that's not all to it.

The features I have mentioned before are there in every screen reader. And yes, write or wrong, almost every one uses pirated software for personal without paying for the proprietory License. This means people might argue that cost is not a major factor, although commertial or non-commertial organisations (generally) don't take chances with non-licensed software.

Never the less issue is not about cost. The important fact about Orca is that it is free (as in freedom) and there is no law violation if it is used on any numbers of computers for free.

Infact it is this freedom which has resulted into the superior features and better accessibility on GNU/Linux based desktops.

People from all around the world have contributed to Orca's development. And today here it is, the best screen reader a blind person can ever get on Linux.

Talk about the best internet accessibility and Orca with firefox is just awsom.

May it be face book or twitter, from any on-line forum to an on-line newspaper, Orca provides accessibility through Firefox with perfection.

What's more, I just installed the 2.27.92 version of Orca and now I can even interract with mouse overs!

What's more, the navigation bundle which comes as an extention to firefox is also totally accessible with orca.

the moment I press ctrl + shift + l, I get the list of links on the page as a dropdown. I know I know, this features are in Jaws as well, But remember Orca is a total replacement for jaws and what is generally excepted as good accessibility feature is incorporated in Orca.

And add to it that it is free in all sence, meaning you don't buy any license by paying fees. Yu also get the updates free.

On office productivity suite, Open office with orca just rocks.

I am particularly impressed about the level of accessibility with spreadsheets.

For example, if I type more in a certain cell than it can accomodate, Orca warns me that the text I entered is x characters longer. How amaising! I can then use the optimisation tools on the given cell for the column or row.

I can even set column and row headers so that I know the context of the information in the given cell.

All I need to do is to press capslog r for laptop or insert r for desktop and Orca will announce the column heading taking the text from the cells of the row I selected.

These are just a few important developments which have happened in orca off late. Infact these new features got added very rappidly and the speed at which orca has grown in last few months is like never before. This is all due to the dedicated programmers and accessibility experts like william walker of the accessibility department of Sun.

Joanmary is also from the same dedicated group. Infact her work on accessibility of Firefox is some thing which hardly any one can achieve in such a short span of time.

Talk about thunderbird or pidgin, or even the cd burning tool brasero, these dedicated set of developres have put their heart and brains into accessibility with orca.

I hav done a couple of huge educational projects for blind students and orca proved to be a blessing for them.

the most successful of these projects resulted into a dedicated lab for trainning blind computer users at Trivandrum, a city in south India. Insight as it is named, this project involved creating FOSS based course for blind people. I personally did 4 major faculty trainning workshops there. I also developed a plan where young blind students can study normal computer lesons at school using orca.

The project was successful in not just education but also led to employment of many blind people on desk jobs.

Following this project, I also led the true vision project about which enough has been sed on other blogs created by members of the orca mailing list.

True Vision was the biggest project ever in India for bringing computer based education to masses of blind people.

Led by me and funded by Electronic Corporation of Tamilnadu (ELCOT), it resulted into all the schools in the southern India state of tamilnadu install orca on their computers.

Besides, all the blind schools in that state were given free computers with Ubuntu and orca pre-installed.

Given all the superior features and the amount of promotive work done for orca, we should have expected that the progress will catch more momentum. I think it will certainly accelerate in terms of programming, but would take some time to regain the speed.

I am not talking of bug fixing or adding pending features. I am refering to the challenges ahead of the Orca team.

Oracle has narrowmindedly decided to shut down any further support to Orca and the programmers of the accessibility Department are thus rendered jobless.

I don't want to say any further on how senceless and careless Oracle is about orca. I won't even discuss how Oracle thinks of blind people being useless and how they don't feel a need that we as blind people don't need free information access.

Some discussions on the orca mailing list further confirm my conclusion. It seems that oracle hardly responds to any accessibility calls.

Any ways let that be a dirty past. We must look to the future.

Perhaps some people might be daydreaming about how Oracle one day might change the mind and restart the accessibility department. And how I wish that it really happens!

But we can't rely on private profit making organisations like Oracle to do much for the most important need of a blind computer user.

looking ahead

I think while people like Your's truely are doing a lot of work in educational policys using FOSS and particularly Orca for blind students, an active efert must be made to sustain a dedicated team of developers for Orca. We need able and expert leaders like William Walker to really work dedicatedly for Orca, but not at the cost of keeping such people hungry.

We have to look for options to bring in Funds.

I propose a few organisations like NL Net or Software for Public Interest (SPI) be contacted for such things.

I am myself persuing this matter with FSF India and would also try getting some big research organisations involved into Orca.

I think many people all around the world can try to help in many ways.

Orca has reached to a place where blind computer users can totally rely on it.

It is no more just a software tool. It is a lifeline for B lind people today. Given the fact that digital access to information is as important as food clothing and shelter, the only way blind people can get education and employment is through freely available accessibility tools.

And with all its features (and growing ) Orca is the only perfect choice for Linux based desktop which is free as well.

Monday, February 22, 2010

FOSS based education gains importance in Latur

Another awareness camp, another success

I was in the auradh district of Latur (Maharashtra ) between 26th Jan and 3rd Feb 2010.
The experience me and the entire team got was some thing unique.
It was full of contrasts, surprises and amaisement.
I arrived on the republic day in Latur. The train was on time and we stepped out of the 2 tier AC compartment, just to find that the AC inside was much better and warmer than the outside climate.
We had been informed by Prof. Shingare that the climate is pritty cold (infact chilled ) and we better be prepared.
It was around 6 degrees outside and Shantanu from the FOSSy group was oblivious of this fact.
He did not come with any jirkin or swetter.

Any ways, Mr. Prasad Patil who also happens to teach at MDM college aurad came to pick us up from the station.
at a short distance we met Lakshmikant the founder and MD of Swayam Shiksha Prayog (SSP) Latur. We sat in the near by hotel for a cup of tea and Lakshmikant informed me that the poli technique college was actually not doing the right thing by trying to get us do a 1 day workshop.
"Linux is not so unimportant that you just do a workshop for the sake of it ! I scolded the management and told them to do the workshop for at least 2 days." Said Lakshmikant who was going to accompany Us to Master Dinanat Mangeshkar (MDM) college of engineering.
Actually the problem was that we had got a call from the poli technique college for a workshop as well but we could not schedule it.
We reached at Aurad in about 90 minits and quickly got ready for the republic day program which had already started in the college campus.
On first look the college looked very simple, nothing as compaired to the one we saw in Konkan.
But the campus is the richest I have ever seen in terms of the gurus it is prowd to have working there. Infact Prathamesh was just telling me on the last day that the students are so lucky that their teachers are encouraging them to learn. They not just follow FOSS as in software but also follow the culture.

about the Python programming workshop

On the first day itself we came to know that The senior faculties out there are pritty serious about Free Software, what we were unsure of was how well will the students participate?
We had been told that students in this part of the state don't open up easily and we might find a tough time initially to get them involved. "They don't start communicating right away" told Manik Shingare who was having a cup of tea with our team.
We knew that this is some thing we always come prepared with but what we saw on the first day in particular really stund all of us.
Meanwhile the lab was setup perfectly by Anusha, Prathamesh and Shantanu despite of several power cuts due to load shedding.
We were going to make participants aware of the python programming language because it is the biggest growing language in Industry in terms of popularity and exceptance.
From Google to NASA and from Nokia to reliance (India) all use python either for every thing or at least for some thing.
We covered python right from its basics till designing User interfaces with Glade and also gave a demo of the Pylons web application framework.
We had devided participants into 2 batches and took 3 days workshop for each group.
Out of our experience we have observed that People tend to understand the basics of python very very quickly provided they are used to indenting their code in c, c++ or java.
Infact we generally manage to get participants to understand datatypes, conditions, loops and functions in a matter of 4 hours (our sessions are around 2 hours each including hands-on ).
The method we adopt is to give small chunks of information including concepts, then demonstrating the examples on the screen and then allowing time for hands-on.
I am blessed with an excelent team of programmers who also know how to teach in a creative way. So generally the entire team would go around the class and check if every one is doing the assignments right.

new experiments and new experiences

On the first day itself we discovered that the information which Prof. Shingare gave us about the student's mindset was absolutely true.
There was hardly any student who was responding to either our questions or our jokes (I tend to make sessions very funny if students are not opening up).
What stund me and Anusha in particular was that girls were slowly starting to participate from the second session of the day, but boys were shying away from answering even "yes " or "no" when we asked if every one is understanding.

The basics of Python went very well, with about 95% participants understanding the concepts and getting the assignments right in the first go. A few students were lagging behind, mostly due to the fact that they never followed the better programming practice of indenting their code in other languages.
Trainners conducting workshops for python should particularly take care of this aspect of Python while teaching. There are indeed many programmers who don't indent their code and as trainners we must make a point to properly explain the analogy. We soon got even those lagging programmers to come up to speed although we had to extend the session by half an hour in the evening.
We wer also going to teach python database connectivity using DBAPI, and generaly choose postgresql as the RDBMS.
Fortunately Participants were very good at SQL, except that they used oracle. Obviously we got the common question which mostly all participants ask, thanks to the brand based education VS concepts. “will Oracle SQL commands work here?” Prathamesh told them to actually practice their regular SQL assignments, including the DDL and DML statements.
Students were obviously happy and surprised that all there select, Insert and update statements worked and so did the create table commands. Once Prathamesh showed them how to use psql prompt, they all practiced SQL. Later on we explained those students the fact that SQL is a standard which all RDBMS follow, no matter free or proprietory.
Amids all this, some thing struck me as well as Anusha and Shantanu. “students are slowly speaking out, but their programming concepts are very week.” Having informed the college administration that we will be teaching Python programming language, we had the basic asumtion that at least students will be knowing programming to an intermediate level. But we have learned one thing, no matter how strict you remain about your pre-requisites, you really can't be sure that 100% participants will fulfill them.
But here the case was even worst. More than 50% students were not communicating for one thing and secondly, they were syntactically good in the language of their choice, but were no good when it came to concepts such as classes. At this point we had decided that we will not go too deep into the language right away and teach them a certain concept when the need arrises. For example, I experimented with the concept of a python package. I did not cover it in my session on python core as planned before, but only touched that topic when we came to things like creating GUI where one module needs to talk with another.
Further details were covered during the pylons hands-on.
Similarly concepts of callback and inheritance were covered in details only when Anusha took up glade and PYGTK.
In short, we only introduced students to certain basic concepts when need arrised and specially when we could show them a real-world example that could create an impact.
For example while many of them already knew VB, we had no trouble explaining what an event is but when Anusha took 3 sessions of Glade, she explained what a callback function is and how it is used to connect a given widget with an event.
This way, students got to see real callback function in action, not just its concept.
The moral of the story is that “teach it when need arises and demonstrate it when application is known “.
Amongst all people Guruji was one personality which took major part of my mindshare during the visit. I was discussing the same concept which I just mentioned with this 80 year old gentleman, and it just took me a few minits to realise that he was the real “teacher “ by flesh and bone as they say.
A person who probably does not even know what programming is or can't even use a computer efficiently for daily work was giving me more suggestions on how to teach programming.
“bring out some examples with rural flaver such as farming and map it to your programming ideas, students will easily pickup.” While this sounds obvious to all of us, many of us will tend to bring out same old examples with slight alterations during such challenging workshops.
He tought me how the sugarcane business works (Not to mention the lovely juice we had at Prasad Patil's farm).
“Give them the example of how they can create a database for farmars and you will see that the students will love it.”, said Guruji and I indeed followed his words.
Anusha went ahead with her glade sessions but to our disappointment, we were informed in the evening that students found the basic event driven form very heavy for practice and many have not picked up the concept.
This apparently happened because we asumed that the students knew event driven UI programming.
No, our asumtion was not completely wrong, just that we should have realised that their story of event ended with “privat sub command1_click() … end sub” of VB and they practically knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of real event driven model.
Again, the brand based education came in our way and also their way.
I had to explain them why we did things the way we did and how important are these concepts.
Never the less, we started the 3rd day (last day for the first batch) with a repeat of GLADE where Anusha patiently gave an overview of what we tought the previous day. This time though, the form was much smaller and we told them to analyse the events in 3 parts.
1, the widget whose event needs attention.
2, which event are we interested in? Meaning we must connect that widget to the event in which we are interested.
3, what should happen if that event happens (and don't use words like fired or executed ) on the concerned widget? Meaning writing a function to have the activity performed.
Thankfully with the change of words in our notes and using a bit non-technical language which sounds kiddish at times, there was no further misunderstandings about the concept of events.
Try explaining the message pump like a real heart and students learn it easily. Compare the try: except: to a bypass surgery and students pick it up.
“look, just like when there is a blockage in heart, the doctor would bypass that part of the artary with an alternative root created by attaching a small part of the artery around the blockage, similarly when there is an error in your code, the course of flow will bypass the remaining part of the try block and take an alternative except path”.

This idea really worked and there were many such small examples we gave them.

On the Final day, after Anusha re-iterated on the event driven programming with pygtk, I took over for the pylons workshop.
I must say, this was the toughest session for me. Fortunately students knew html pritty well, although Prathamesh helped me by conducting a rivision/ test of their concepts.
We found that they were ok with forms and request-response system.
Most of them also knew the http protocol and that it is “stateless”.
I then went on to show them the installation of pylons. We first did a hands-on for setting up the virtual environment and then using easy_install to setup pylons and all its dependencies.
I always believed in doing off-line installation because one can't guarantee that internet will work when it is expected to work.
I had carryed the pylons and its dependent packages in my machine. And easy_install, true to its name makes it realy “easy” to install python packages.
For example I generaly teach students to use the -i argument with easy_install and specify the path to the directory where we have unpacked the pylons archive.
It all worked well and soon students understood the basic idea behind the virtual environment.
We then created a simple project to start with and I had planned to have a small form based database application.
But it took quite a long time for students to understand the Model Vue Control “MVC” architecture and we had to explain it in-dept with some code and after 3 or 4 repeatations, students actually understood the idea.
I think one leson we have learned is that it is vary important to teach the MVC concept in very intricate details if we decide to teach any web application framework.
So from now on we will never keep pylons on the last day of any python programming workshop.
Never the less we indeed wrote an interractive form and managed to explain how things work between a View and Control.
What we could not do as per plan was the Model part of pylons which we planned to show withSQLAlchemy.

Any ways, the second batch started on the very next day.
We were fearing the same kind of situation for the coming batch, or as Shingare suggested may be even worse.
But it was quite the other way round.
The second batch of students was more verbose. Infact they all were responding and specially the girls liked the song I made for the programming assignments,
“python karta hain ye nashila badan, likhna chahe har koi ismay function.” This is a modification of a hit number from a popular film.
This Time we also did a demo of installing Ubuntu. This really worked as we expected and people not just wanted to learn python but also got curious about using Linux in their home computers.
Anusha took the python basics upto functions and I took the Object Oriented Programming.
I have found one way of motivating students, specially for python. I told them “you learned python in record time. Just think of this, it took so many days for you to learn how to write functions in c, but in python you took just 2 hours, because the syntax is clean and presise to the point”.
The rest of the sessions including anusha's glade and pygtk went very well. We were getting much better response and also post session feedback was very positive.
Guruji was even suggesting me that I should actually communicate more in English, because I was talking more in Marathi and Anusha in Hindi.
To my pleasant surprise he told me “it is good to respect our mother tongue, but our students should not spoil their own communication by making this a weekness. Are we expecting that companies coming for campus placements are going to ask questions in marathi?” I am happy that such respectable seniors don't take the traditional ratially discriminating attitude of “English is not ours and we will only speak marathi because we are prowd of it” attitude.
Infact he told me whether they understand or not, first explain the problem in English and avoide talking to them in Marathi unless it is really necessary and if they are really not understanding any thing.
I must say I thoroughly respect this real “guru” and as I said before, its only due to people like him that the college is rich with culture and knowledge.
We also had a paper presentation competition on 1st Feb so had to shift the final day of batch II on 2nd.
Never the less this time pylons sessions went pritty well, although some thing else disturbed us, but we enjoyed it never the less.
Krishna, who also happened to be Anusha's favorite student of the workshop, had organised a small party along with other students for all the resource people.
We had great fun, and the girls, who seemed to be shy in such things were also (finally!) informal with all of us.
We had a realy nice experience and the experiments we conducted tought us a lot. Fortunately we could also share with the students, the repository of what ever little knowledge and experience we had. Students in MDM are quite talented, all that they need is proper mentoring and little motivation.

future plans

I will be going to MDM next week.
On 16th I will visit the college for guess what?
Prof. Shingare is going to provide students a web server for their practicals and also for the project!
He wants to provide this service to the students so that they can even do their assignments or the project work from their home.
I think he is visionary because he knows exactly what is to be done both in short and long run.
What I also suggested him was to apply for the Short Term Trainning Program (STTP) and do a workshop for faculties.
Another major part of my visit was the 3 day evening workshop on GNUKhata. Anusha and Preety did the workshop with college students and local business people.
Those sessions went quite well and a few businessmen actually tried it on their machines. So the happy thing for GNUKhata team was that it dod not stay in just the MDM labs.
We are also taking up some good projects with MDM college students.
One being a small system to collect farming based data and have a database which can be utilised by an expert to give advice to local farmars. They will also be able to bid for selling sugarcane
in the market with the help of this system.
Students liked the Python language very much. Probably it is the result of the pedagogy we have come to develop over last 3 years of conducting such workshops.
And the most important decision which Prof. Shingare took as the HOD was the real success of our workshop.
“I announce that all the final year projects in this college will be done in Python and should be done on GNU/Linux”. Said Shingare at the end of the workshop.
While I did explain him to not base this on just one FOSS based language, he wants to take up python this year as they find it interesting.
Perhaps next year they will take up ruby as well.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

german and french governments take stand against IE

Internet Explorer prooves to be a tool for digital terrorism

Once again the digitally dangerous Internet explorer has been used by crackers with some dirty motives in mind.
After the attack on google which was related to some activity from China, The german government followed by the french government, have issued strong warnings against the use of this internet browser. Microsoft as usual promised to fix this bug and put up a patch.

More official details on these decisions can be found


and here

some serious concerns

with these recent attacks, there are a few questions which keep coming up in the minds of many people who understand the fact that ICTs play the most important role in our life.

How many and how long?

After the recent problems with IE, Microsoft has shamelessly promised to fix the bug. While this is no obligation that they are doing, this is a commitment that they had to give any ways.
But my question is how many more such "security holes " are still hidden by Microsoft (knowingly?)
I am pritty sure that this is a dirty racket between microsoft and anti virus companies.
Infact we should dive a bit deeper into this problem because Microsoft's Internet Explorer is just one tip of the ice burg.

In the 1970s Unix which was used on large servers had already provided a comprehensively perfect solution for the so called "virus " problem which actually started after Windows came into the market for end-users.
The read, write and execute permission system and the POSEX standards were all that was needed for preventing all the virus related activities to thrive.

When Unix had already given an answer to the solution, why did Microsoft which holds a big part of the desktop market, did not use the same stratergy. Why did windows not come with the same architecture like Unix?
This is obviously on purpose to encourage such dirty business at the cost of people's security.
This is not the first time that IE or the operating system itself has exposed its security lapses.
Every time we get a "patch" for (probably really ) fixing the problem.
And we never know when the next will come.
Obviously Free and Open Source browsers like Firefox or the GNU/Linux operating system does not suffer from all this, partially because the source code is open and thus transparent, but mostly because they did what Unix did.
so those softwares or the OS does not suffer from all these problems, although microsoft trys to fool people with a sterio type "linux is not popular so there are no viruses " answer.

how important is this?

People talk about computing comfort and also about the fact that they are used to a certain thing.
The corporates ask obviously practical questions about support and on-site ervice.
While these questions are easily answered, there is some thing which every one of us must learn following the security problem in IE.
It is well known that GNU/Linux now with the advent of distros like Ubuntu have become more user friendly than windows.
The point is if we are ready to open our eyes to a new and better possibility.
Many chained smokers or drunkards know that they are spoiling their helth and what they do might even kill them, but similar to windows adicts, they are adicts to some thing harmful.
Will we make ourselves ready for using a totally harmless computer software suite (Including the OS, Office software, browser etc) which is infact more feature rich and powerful?
Corporates faile to find somehow that a lot of commertial support is available for FOSS and infact getting problems solved or even bug fixed is much faster.
Unfortunately just like in a war where our enemies have some better artilary or some weapon, Microsoft has got a better "show off " art and proper contacts in the government to ... (you know what I mean?)
But above all this, my major question to the readers is,
"is our privacy, our information and our freedom so worthless that we take all these digital attacks for granted?" Are we so unconcerned about our digital information?
to me all that is stopping us from strongly refusing digital terrorism like this is the fact that we are not realising the potential time bomb which is ticking away in our computers or mobiles or ATMs or what ever digital technology we use dayly.


It is a fact that FOSS based OS and related softwares have been known for a long time for their security and also the fact that huge organisations like google use them on a large scale.
But it is only off-late that these softwares have also become very user-friendly. Now it is our time to change our hopeless mindset and give up our helplessness prone attitude.
We must stop saying "linux and foss is too good to be true " and realise that fact that some big organisations are spying on us and the attacks like the recent ones on google will continue if we keep using the proprietory softwares, specially from companies like microsoft who think beyond business and are often used by other selfish and power hungry organisations.

If we don't value our information and if we don't respect our own privacy and freedom, then we can't expect others to do that for us.
End-users can use softwares like Open office and firefox with operating systems like GNU/Linux without fearing virus attacks.
Corporates should invest their time to analyse their digital technology decisions.
The free software community backed by heavy commertial support has brought about a revolution in ICTs. Now it is upto us to embrace it for our own freedom.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sipna College of Engineering adopts FOSS in labs

Another Short Term Trainning program goes successful

free software is spreading rappidly in Maharashtra and the latest workshop Myself and Anusha did at Sipna College in Amrawati is a proof if this.
I wrote about my experiences on FOSS orientation workshop at SSPM Kankavali in the last post.
I hardly got a breather after that, because the very next day, I along with Anusha set out to Amrawati for this STTP workshop.
This is a delayed post because following 2 workshops back to back, there was a lot of work to cover on GNUKhata back home.
Today I met Dhananjay dakhne, The faculty who was the mastermind behind this workshop.
I had a lengthy discussion with him over Lunch about the future plans.
One thing is that his wife cooked splendid chickan (vharadhi style with lot of spice ). I love the way they cook food at amrawati.
The other most interesting part is that he told me about the plans he has for his college.
"Our students are really behind the Computer Science department for an extensive workshop on GNU/LInux with Ubuntu distro and we plan to do it with your group in the second week of Feb 2010", Dhananjay told me and Prathamesh who accompanyed me to his house.
So readers might wonder what majic is happening that where ever I go with my team of fossers, we not just get good response, but Free Software is taken very seriously both by students and participants.
Well, there is no real magic here, nor any great marketing stunt (not that we don't propagate the exclusive use of free software and its obvious and not so obvious advantages).
The point which all of us should understand is that most people were unaware about "linux" say about 5 years back, But due to rappid growth of popularity and its very "free to use and free to modify " nature, people today at least know that an alternative free software based Operating System exists. Or most of them at least have a sweet miss conception that on server side there is a much secured and rock solid operating system called linux.
The misconception is not about the fact that GNU/Linux is totally virus free and highly secured and solid at the server side, infact it is its strongest point. The misconception is about the fact that it is only good at the server side and that only experts can use it given the "command line " nature of the OS.
That way now a days I almost always see that there are a few GNU/Linux boxes in every computer lab, specially of engineering colleges.
Most of these machines are used as ftp or mail servers or a few are also used for teaching bash which is (somehow) in the books of cariculum for Computer Science in univercities.
But people hardly believe it when they hear me saying "well, I don't use windows or any other operating system on my desktop. I exclusively use free software".
Time and time again I have seen that it is the mindset which people carry about "user friendly windows on desktop and linux being difficult".
I have already shared a lot of tips and written about my experiences while conducting such large scale GNU/Linux orientation and awareness workshops. Most of the things we did in Sipna College workshop were usual and we did our regular stuff of actually initiating a smooth mentel migration from proprietory software to FOSS. As i always found in other workshops the case at Sipna was no different. It was just about the mindset and Anusha who always accompanies me, did her regular "it's just those same things you have done in the other OS and will not do any thing different here" exercise in an interractive way.
" asking people to bring over their pen drives or digicams and letting them try opening their documents or photos in the way they know has really reduced the feer in the participants minds about linux". Told Prof. Dhakhne, when he was taking me and Anusha to a memorreablly beautiful dinner. I have now realised that the best wey to get people into using free software and GNU/Linux in particular way is very simple. May be it is too obvious for many experienced trainners.

Stepps I suggest to follow in a FOSS workshop

I and Anusha did the same introductary demos, hands-on installation (with a plesent surprise on the feedback) and tought python on the second day. So I am not going to repeate the schedule we followed in this workshop.
You can ready my previous blogs to learn about the topics we cover and our general schedule.
On this post I thought I would share a set of general guidelines I have developed out of my experience.
I have provided 3 step guideline which any trainner/ resource person can follow for good success in migrating people from proprietory software to FOSS.

step 1 Show them the similarities

What I strongly suggest out of my experience is to first show the users what is similar to what they have seen on windows as the first step. Showing them the fact that opening word documents or excel spreadsheets is the same on windows (infact I make it a point to tell them that excel or calc, the application is a spreadsheet). Also let them try attaching their digicams and opening photos.
The other good thing about the Desktop is that the softwares are well categorised in different menus.
"in windows, you have to click start for shutting donw the machine. How funny and confusing!" this icebreaker joke really gets people into a mindset of listening. although this was a simple joke I cracked at the workshop, it created a small impact in that, people started to appreciate the applications, places and system menu on the Gnome desktop.
I also made it a point in Sipna as I do every where to show them the office and internet menu at the absolute start of my first practical demonstration.
Firstly in Ubuntu, we have things like "open office word processor" and "open office spreadsheet". This suddenly makes things look very simple and user friendly to the participants. Also make a point to show them VLC, their favorite media player. Just like firefox, even VLC appeals to them because most people use these two software on their proprietory OS without knowing that they are Free or what is called as Open source softwares.
One thing which really catches the attention of every one (even the most stubbern and rigid windows user ) is the 3D desktop with things like the cube effect. Most people still use windows xp and this is some thing very attractive for them and they can't resist using it.
Once people just start getting interested to actually know more, I suggest the second step.
Note that now a days in a crowd of around 50 participants, you will find at least 2 or 3 people who have tryed some distro of GNU/Linux and either were ok with it or were extremly amaised and started to use it as the Second Os on their machines.

Step 2, attractive inovations

By this time most of your participants are saying to themselves, "hey, this is not what we learnt about linux. This is so much unlike we thought how linux is. Now we know there is a GUI with all our favorite softwares!"
And the magic of things like 3D desktop and the sight of their favorite firefox and VLC is already working.
once you have got people to listen to you and convinced that GNU/Linux is a choice as another OS, it is time to now show them the new and attractive things on the desktop which they might have not seen in their proprietory OS.
Additional features of Free Software, such as "export as pdf" in open office is a striking example which people appreciate. Another example is the f-spot photo manager. I have seen people getting zapped at the eas with which one can upload photos to on-line galaries.
I often get one interesting question from Engineering students and faculties, "how to defragment the hard disk " and "what letter is used for pen drives and cds in Linux?"
These are some new but attractive things to demonstrate. I put the pen drive issue in the following way.
"we need not confuse ourselves with c:s d:s and e:s in linux. A pendrive will come as an icon on the desktop and will have the lable which was given to it by its user. Same is with the cd. So, GNU/Linux ames to do away with technical naming conventions and works in a way which looks natural and obvious".
So just show those features which are different but very useful. At this point you might go for some hands-on with participants trying to open their own presentations, or spreadsheets/ documents they made on windows.

Another thing unique about some softwares like pidgin is that you can answer the question on chatting on google talk, msn or Yahoo.
empathy is some thing you might consider to demo for audio video conferencing.
One thing which you must follow as a stratergy is to make people aware that Many of these softwares get installed by default when GNU/Linux is installed.

step 3, Time for advance features

If you have followed a a somewhat similar or an exactsequence given so far, Then you most probably have got people deeply interested and curious to know more. You will see that the overall attitude towards "linux" is changing from "afterall it is some thing difficult and may be good for some server side tasks" to "well, this is an superb replacement for windows and we are curious to try out on our machines".
This step is the most critical one and you will really have to take decisions on your own, depending on the crowd's capability of understanding the concepts.
One thing I was surprised to learn in the Sipna workshop is that people liked to use the text based installer of Debian (or Ubuntu alternate cd).
The problem in the college lab was that all the machines were having 256 mb ram and we did not dare to run the live Ubuntu cd.
"next time you do a workshop, we will have faster machines ", Prof. Deshmukh asured me. This ment that I was in for another orientation workshop to be conducted soon.
In this step you can start with the installation hands-on.
I would suggest that the maximum concentration be given on partitioning the disk. My experience is that the best way to teach concepts such as mount points and file system selection is to go for manual partitioning.
Make sure you explain the role of / partition and /home partition. I would generally use the analogy of a "rolle" being given to a partition.
"how do we recognise c: where windows is installed? we don't want to delete that partition because we want a dual boot machine". This is one question I was well prepared at Sipna workshop.
I gave them the idea of sda1, sda2 or 5 depending on the number of primary partitions on the machine and how to make the installation easy.
My recommended method is to empty the last partition and then install linux into it. The trick is that the last partition obviously has the highest number in the partition table.
One thing I Liked about the participants in Sipna workshop is that they were not detered by those things which did not work for them on the first go. This can certainly be your experience if you make the initial orientation of their minds smooth and painless.
We also showed them how to add new softwares from an apton cd or from the internet. This is some thing you must do only after the hands-on installation session.
The other approach could be to do this session during the desktop overview, but that is only recommended if people are keen to see the big picture first.

Outcomes of the workshop

We had covered the basics of GNU/Linux with Ubuntu distro on the first day. Our aim was to make people feel that it is really not just user friendly but offers more than what they get on the proprietory OS. We also made a point to make them understand that they can directly involve in improving the experience in all different ways ranging from contributing bug fixes or new features to the software they like till writing documentation or helping on mailing lists or IRC.
This is one thing which is not so well developed culturally in proprietory software development.
It might sound strange or impossible to get people think FOSS, but my recent experiences at Konkan and Amrawati show that the "get involved it and it will develop the way you want it " works a lot in favour of popularising free software.
This is exactly what people took very seriously at Sipna college.
The Profs and the HOD told me that people (students in particular) are already asking about projects to which they can contribute.
Today I met Dhananjay, who is one of the most popular faculties in the college. He told me very happily that they have decided to adopt GNU/Linux in their cariculums in a big way.
The first big change will happen in the programming course. VB will be replaced by Python and Glade interface designer.
And the other change planned next year is that They will have rails in the Second year IT course.
And the best part is that we will be doing a workshop in Feb for the students, followed by a python workshop for faculties in April this year.
I think this is a major success for free software and can make a good case study for others who wish to migrate to FOSS but are not confident enough.

You can also at this point talk about concept of a "home folder", taking on the arguement about the way pen drives and cds are accessed.
Most often than not, participants tend to ask "how can I chat on google, MSN, Yahoo and how can I use skype?"