Places that showcase knowledge

Never been to museums much, atleast in the last few years. Visited a few as a kid and hardly remember anything from those visits, I do have some faint memories of the Nehru Planetarium and Rail Museum in Delhi. Thought let’s give it a shot one more time.

Visited the MIT museum in Cambridge last month. Seemed like going there was a big thing, the kind of thing which becomes an experience that you remember. The place seemed geeky, well that was something I had expected. Stepping through the halls in the museum area, it seemed like you’re leafing through various topics, and running through the chronology of events and milestones in the past decades. Real models, machines, theory explained and a proof of concept demonstrated. Well, that’s what engineering really is: see an issue, identify the problem, devise a solution and provide proof that the solution works. That’s what education does for us, teaching us to solve problems. And each problem we solve conditions the mind for newer problems.

At MIT museum, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics were the halls that mesmerized me the most. Going through the AI & robotics hall, seeing that the greatest challenges are comprised of attempting to solve problems that can be stated simply these are the kind of problems that are most complex to solve. Early models demonstrated on getting machines to do predictable tasks, but tasks that required accurate coordination….making a machine walk, run, perform a somersault. Some of the newer research explored a whole new paradigm, that it’s not just about wiring a machine to do a fixed thing but the future lies in building a machine that is capable to learning and adapting to changing conditions. The robotics hall had some models on display that attempted to solve these problems. AI has the potential of making a huge impact by having humans spend time on tasks that make full use of human faculties and let machines take care of mundane tasks that machines can be taught. In a way, automation is happening all around these days, and is directed towards achieving the same results … reducing manhours spent on performing repetitive work.

The other section that was impressive was the Holography hall. About that, I won’t say much….you have to see it to experience it 🙂

Science Museum in Boston is another museum that I visited. Massive place, 4 floors and a diverse range of topics, from wildlife to flora fauna to mathematics to computers to engines, a whole day isn’t enough to cover the museum and absorb what it has to offer. From what I got a chance to watch, the best things I liked were the Abacus (finally got to see it after seeing so many pictures of it) and Aibo, the robotic dog from Sony. Aibo sure is an interesting machine, the form and shape makes you forget it’s a robot and not a real dog.

There’s so much to see and learn in these places and it really opens up your eyes wide and mind wide open. Sometimes, it makes you think there’s only a small percentage of people in this world who’re impacting how the rest of us live our lives and to a great degree, the future too. Makes you want to contribute too, in whatever way you can. But for now, I’m back to my usual life with a MIT pen as memorabilia and a T-shirt from the MIT store that reads “There are 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t”. Geeky, eh?

The SQL query that made me smile

A few days back, I filed my income tax online. To many, that may seem like something ordinary but to me, being able to do that online was a milestone in itself. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that when I heard that taxes can be filed online, I started off exploring with a pessimistic outlook … maybe the website would be down … the system might be slow … will it be reliable … will it do what it claims. I had reasons for thinking this way, as over the years I’ve seen that these processes and the bookkeeping behind the curtains has been largely manual and on paper. And I’ve had my shares of experiences that have made me form my opinions … I’ve stood in queues for hours, I’ve visited the IT office(*1) and seen how much time & effort it takes to locate a physical file and have always wished that someday (maybe in 10-15 years), things would get computerized. I wasn’t expecting it to come so soon though.

The experience of filing my tax online was a surprise so pleasant, that I was actually …. QUITE surprised. I entered my name, date of birth and PAN number and the query pulled up my address on record. I’m a programmer myself and have written quite a few queries myself but let me tell you … no other query has given me so much happiness. For this query to be able to fetch data meant that the records existed in digital form and could be queried. That, in itself, opens so many avenues and limitless possibilities.

The overall process including registration, downloading and filling up the form and uploading the data took me less than an hour. The overall workflow was very thoughtfully designed, with a few exceptions which I’ll come to. I was able to file my tax from halfway around the world and there was only one manual leg in the process (since I didn’t have a digital signature).

These were my highs and not-so-highs..

The Highs:

  • Was able to file tax online
  • No attachments (Form-16, investment proofs) required
  • Non-proprietary software for filling the return Form. These days, Adobe Acrobat can be considered a standard software.
  • Query for PAN in registration process boosted confidence, was quite fast too
  • Website has an advanced users option (for programmers) where XML data could be edited manually
  • When filing tax without a digital signature, the acknowledgment form is generated as a downloadable PDF file (which has to be printed, signed and submitted in the IT department). Generating a downloadable PDF was a thoughtful design considering people want to retain acknowledgment in soft copy for their records and also may not have a printer at hand to print immediately.

The Not-So-Highs:

  • The name of IT website in digital signature didn’t match with site name verbatim due to which the browser gave a warning.
  • The completely automated option requires a digital certificate. Only certificates issued by one of the 7 affiliate agencies is accepted, even certificates issued by international issuing agencies aren’t accepted. None of these companies sell digital certificates online, so human interaction is required.
  • The return form gave a prompt for upgrading Adobe acrobat when it was opened in Acrobat version 6. When the upgrade option was chosen, Adobe Acrobat got upgraded to Version 7 and not Version 8.1. As per the IT website, the version needed Adobe 8.1.
  • The document opened up without any prompts/warnings when opened in Acrobat 7. While exporting to XML though, all dates in the form were getting dropped from the XML and was causing validation errors wile uploading. This problem was solved when user upgraded to Acrobat version 8.1.
  • IT department could’ve given a FAX number where the signed acknowledgment could be faxed directly. Or maybe an email address where you could send the scanned copy of signed acknowledgment. This would save a trip to the IT office (*2)

Overall, filing tax was a Breeze; IMO, the process isn’t perfect yet but it definitely a big step forward. Believe it or not, I actually jumped with joy after completing the process in less than an hour. And the SQL query for PAN, that’s brought on an instant Smile!

(*1): The best part about visiting the IT office at Mayur Bhawan in Connaught Place, New Delhi … getting to have the Special Choley Bhature/Rajmah Chawal/Kadi Chawal at Shankar Market…Mmmmm, I can smell those bhaturas from here
(*2): Maybe that trip really is worth it (Refer *1).