I travelled to Trichur (also called Thrissur) in Kerala on Friday to attend Renaissance 2005, a FOSS festival at GEC, Trichur, Kerala, India. The festival was conducted by the MCA students of GECT. It was a 3-day event but I attended only the 2nd day - I was there to give a talk on Python.
(Tip : Hover the mouse over the photos to get insightful info ;) Also, as usual, click on it to see the bigger version of the photo )
The train arrived in Thrissur at 5 in the morning. Two of the students came to pick me up and took me in the big Tata Safari to the Government Guest House where I was lodged. Apparently, one of the ministers suddenly showed up, so I got bumped from an AC room to a non-AC room. Well, no big deal.
After a light snooze, I met with Shuveb Hussain of NatureSoft in Chennai. He was going to speak on High Performance Computing. We went down for breakfast together and we instantly hit it off. He was a delightful person. 4 years ago, he graduated from B.A. in Literature where he studied Shakespeare. Today, he was going to speak on clusters and kernel patches. Amazing, eh? It seems Linux and OSS excited him so much that he started to dabble in it a lot and eventually made a career out of it.
It was a government guest house, so most of the stuff, from the pillow to the plate, was branded with the famous "God's Own Country" slogan After breakfast, we still had some time left before our hosts had to pick us up. So, we went for a stroll and we came across a 'pen hospital' :shock: . Apparently, its very real and they do 'heal' pens. I didn't know whether to laugh or be shocked. I remember from my last Kerala trip where I saw a building with its name 'Hilarious Building'. Heh.
After that, we stopped to get a coconut. The coconut water was simply delicious and the white kernel was so thick! Well, after all, Kerala is the land of coconuts. I wish I could get such tasty coconuts in Bangalore. Then, we headed to the campus.
The GECT campus is really huge - over 100 acres! They teach almost every kind of engineering branch and have so many labs. I heard that GECT is one of the best engineering colleges in Kerala, probably next only to the Trivandrum engineering college.
There were some paper presentations going on in the main hall. These students were talking about ext3 file systems and optimization of IPC in the kernel and so on. Yikes.
There was a short break after the paper presentations got over and before the techie talks started. The HOD of the MCA department was sitting next to me and the nice lady was telling about the GECT college and I was curious about the college and stuff. She pointed out that one of the judges was Pramode C E, a well respected personality who teaches students in his own computer learning lab. I had heard a lot about Pramode previously from many students. I don't think you can find a single CompSci or IT student in Kerala who doesn't know about Pramode. He has also written many articles for Linux Gazette and Linux For You magazine. I planned to meet him later on.
The next thing I know, Pramode comes over to us and talks to Shuveb and myself. He looks at me and says 'Hello BangPyper' and then says 'I am a big fan of your blog'. I was speechless. We three soon got talking about lots of techie stuff, everything from favorite distros to Python (of course) to our work and so on. I convinced him to join our BangPypers group as well.
Then, the talk on embedded Linux by Sree Kumar of NeST, Thiruvananthapuram started. He explained how Linux was taking the embedded market by storm and the kind of work his company was involved in. He gave a good overview of embedded Linux and tried to convince the students that a career in embedded Linux is very rewarding as well.
Next up was Shuveb who talked about high performance computing and clusters. It was interesting to hear about openMosix and other software which autodetects other computers in the network which are also running openMosix and automatically start to work as a cluster. No need to edit any sort of config file! He uses a cluster in his office environment and uses it for compiling lots of stuff and apparently, this setup gives a lot of performance.
It was 1 pm by now and a lunch break was due. The speakers were taken to a separate room (by the looks of it, a staff meeting room) and we were served lunch there. One of our hosts, Brajesh asked us to eat 'without formalities'. I said 'Well, you made it too formal already!'. I also learnt my first word in Malayalam - 'Vellam' means 'water'.
After the sumptuous lunch, I had the formidable task of talking to students in the post-lunch session. I started off with finding out the programming background of the students. Majority knew C and C++. None knew Perl and about 3-4 knew Python (again, taught by Pramode). So, my task was a bit easier since explaining a dynamic language like Python is always exciting to a person from a static language background.
I talked with relative ease (having had quite a bit of practice in recent months and students seemed to be listening. I was worried that they were not asking questions but I ignored that for the moment. I could see the sparkle in the eyes of few students when I typed programs at the interpreter prompt and showed instant results. That's exactly what I love about giving these talks.
The talk went on for about an hour and I am always surprised to see that Jython and IronPython make a significant eyebrow-raising experience for students. The fact that you can write Python programs and run it on all the three - native (i.e. C), Java and .NET platforms, seems to be a big plus point for everyone.
We finally had the Q&A session and I then faced a barrage of questions. The session lasted a good 15-20 minutes with questions like "Will Python take a chunk of the Java market ?", "What about it's speed?", "What kind of people use Python a lot?" and so on. I was relieved after this session because the range of questions seemed to indicate that the students did listen to the talk and did become interested in Python.
I then went out of the main hall and decided to go for a stroll around the college. Two students followed me and volunteered to guide me around the campus. They kept calling me 'Sir' inspite of my request not to. (It seemed kinda strange to me for people older than or the same age as me to be calling me 'Sir').
As I had said earlier, the college campus is really huge. I would've loved to have studied in a college like this - big, full of greenery and lively. I came to know that the foundation stone was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru.
There are so many labs in the college including a 'Fluid Dynamics lab' (whatever that is)! They showed me the 'MCA Tree' where the MCA students hang out after classes (and even during classes ;) ). Then there was the mini-forest inside the campus where the 'coolest classroom' (literally) was located. It seems the girls hostel is next to this side of the campus. No comments on that one.
I then went to the other hall where Pramode was going to give a talk and demo the Phoenix project. I had heard about this before and knew it had something to do with Physics but didn't know much else about it.
Pramode introduced that PHOENIX stood for 'Physics with HOme made Equipments and iNnovatIve eXperiments'. Nifty acronym. It was a electronic circuit designed by B. P. Ajith Kumar, a researcher working with the Nuclear Science Centre of India. It is designed as a general-purpose circuit to help students create experiments to understand and learn Physics, Electronics and much much more.
The idea of the Phoenix project is to provide a computer interface to the electronic circuit. This allows the student to write simple programs and manipulate the circuit and then observe the effects. Ajith Kumar has provided an interface in C. Obviously, it is difficult to expect a non-CompSci student to learn C and write programs for this. So, Pramode has written a Python interface to this program and now a student can write simple calls at the interpreter prompt and see results instantly!
He ran this program at the prompt:
and then voila, the bulb was lit! This might seem boring to you now but try to think back as a student when you did your first experiments in the laboratory. This would've been fascinating to do then. Physics seemed too theoritical for me but projects like these can make a big difference. Pramode even showed how to use the setup as an oscilloscope by running a small TkInter Python program and showing the graph on screen real-time. Changing the wavelength changed the graph instantly!
One of the major plus points of Phoenix is that all the parts used to make the circuit are locally available and it costs just about 2000 rupees. Compare this to an oscilloscope which costs 20,000 rupees. Also, the Phoenix circuit board design, the C API and the Python API are all free for everyone. Anybody can contribute further to the project as well. This is the power of free and open source software and this is an example of innovative projects in India at the same time.
Pramode has written a full article at Linux Gazette about Phoenix.
After an enlightening session on Phoenix, the fest part of the day was over. I took a few snaps of our wonderful hosts and the girls who took care of the speakers as well as the speakers ourselves.
The guys - Ragesh, Arun, and others (our hosts) offerred to take Shuveb and myself to the Central shopping mall in Thrissur. This part of the city looked like MG Road and Brigade Road to me. Lot of hustle-bustle and commercial shops here. The Central shopping mall looked like the kind of place where all the cool kids hang out. We had dinner in one of the hotels in the mall and the 5 of us enjoyed talking about lots of stuff and joking around.
Then, it was finally time for me to catch the bus back to Bangalore. My only regret was that I couldn't stay back another day. Ragesh told me about a good trekking place just 2 km from Thrissur. Damn, I missed that! The guys have already invited me for Renaissance 2006 in advance
To summarize, a lot can happen in a day!
Also, the complete set of full-size photos is in my Renaissance 2005 photoset.