We all love to hear stories. One learns from anecdotes. I decided to chronicle some of my adventures exploring new topics in technology, society and socio-economic development (Indian context). I am excited to add a second track of posts, titled Adventure Series.
30 September 2002, Media Lab Asia, Transitioning from my life at Atlanta to a new life in Mumbai-Pabal
I had just succeeded interviewing and landing a Research Associate job with MIT Media Lab’s brand new India lab: Media Lab Asia in Mumbai. I sold off what I had, didn’t own anything significant then except the car below, a 2000 Mazda Protege
and relocated from Atlanta to Mumbai city and reported to my boss, the titan Dr Bishnu Pradhan who could not believe that I had said yes to his village assignment.
Dr Pradhan was a burly man wearing small frame glasses who had several accomplishments in technology R&D for Defence, Energy and Telecom. He introduced me to Vigyan Ashram¹. The lodging and food facilities are spartan he warned me, knowing that I had just quit a Wireless startup after working several years in Atlanta, you may find it hard to stay. The village does not even have 5000 people, but we have housed in it the most advanced 3D printing lab: The Fab Lab.
My assignment was to spend 3-6 months at Pabal. MIT had received Rs 10 Crore (~1.5 Million US Dollars) to setup a new research center, Media Lab Asia, with an office in Andheri (Mumbai) and labs in each of India’s IITs – Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Madras (now Chennai). You can see what such a lab looks like today. At Pabal this is how it looked like during my adventures in 2002, and this is what it looked like in 2013. The first target that Dr Kalbag gave me was to look at his list of problems to see which ones I could start solving. We first took up the Diesel Engine Tuning Project.
The goal Kalbag gave us was to develop a low cost device to attach to their home-made tractor (made of jeep parts). The idea was to detect the different strokes of the 4-stroke engine and adjust the fuel-air mixture to optimize the power stroke. We did this by attaching a light sensor (the U-shaped object at the bottom (middle) of the image on the right. You can see copper-colored strips along the engine flywheel. These were fabricated using a CAD-based plotter. Infra-red light is sent from one arm of the U to the other arm. Light gets blocked whenever it encounters a copper-strip and it passes through where the copper is cut out.
The revolution of the flywheel is thus converted into light pulses detected within the sensor. Its a very basic Analog-to-Digital converter and the digital inputs of the sensor can be read in many ways. We connected it to the Serial port of the laptop and used Hyper-terminal for the values. After that we plotted the graph to measure the period/frequency etc. of the waveforms. The final step was to find the optimal frequency that maximised the power stroke by tuning the engine. The next idea was to have a LED light up when the correct range was reached, allowing a mechanic to tune via the device instead of the conventional way of listening to how it sounds!
The person referred to as Ike Chuang is another genius and so is the man in the blue shirt that I will cover in other anecdotes. Here let us focus on Dr Kalbag’s work. He is the man wearing the white cap in the picture.
¹ Mr Ram Rao’s fascinating account and pictures from Vigyan Ashram
Here is a school in Pabal that teaches his lab modules.
When I met Dr. S S Kalbag, he had devoted more than 20 years of his life educating rural youth, particularly school dropouts. A man of science himself, he gave up his position as Head of Research & Development at Hindustan Lever Limited to pursue this mission. He tries to provide an education that enriches the life of a village child by integrating him with his/her local community and ensure against his migration to the city. This is done by provide services to the local community, many times for a fee. So the charges paid by the community subsidize the child’s education. This was his genius, this insight, makes Vigyan Ashram’s IBT Program the most cost-effective in India that I came across. His Mantra: Learning by Doing! Understand his entire social business plan by browsing the below link (the first time I went through it, I was transfixed, binged the entire report through the entire night). This is how I chose to spend 6 months there! That is another anecdote.