Python for the visually impaired

Since April of last year I have been volunteering for Vision Aid as a Python programming instructor. Vision Aid did a pilot program to teach computer programming using Python to the visually impaired in 2016. The pilot program was well received and so the folks at Vision Aid decided to offer a more structured course based on the pilot.

I learnt about Vision Aid and the Python course from my cousin Swaroop and his wife Reena, both of whom have been volunteering for Vision Aid for years now. Swaroop was part of the pilot program and asked me to volunteer when they offered the course to a wider audience. More details about the course and other programs offered by Vision Aid can be found here. The idea of the program is to teach basic programming to folks and give them a solid foundation on which they can build further by learning more advanced programming concepts as well as use the knowledge in their work places to advance their careers.

So far I have been part of 3 quarters and have taught 7 students. Swaroop and I conduct joint classes, one class of around 2.5 hours, every week. We are teaching the beginning/introduction to programming course. The course is designed to be completed in 12 weeks but depending on the students sometimes we end up overshooting by a couple of weeks depending on our availability as well as the students'.

We conduct the classes over Skype and we suggest the students use Liclipse as the IDE since we have seen that it provides a good balance of programming features as well as accessibility features without hogging too much memory. We use Skype because it allows screen sharing, the students have some previous experience using it and it's free.

Most of our students are located in India and come from various backgrounds. Of the 7 students that we taught over the past year, we have had 2 students pursuing university education - one majoring in history and the other in computer science, one bank manager, two folks working at SEBI, one computer instructor, and one accessibility tester. All of them are visually impaired and are fairly well versed at using the computer for their daily tasks and needs. They use a screen reader to navigate and perform tasks on the computer.

Over the past 3 quarters of teaching, I got to learn a lot of things. I learnt firsthand how the visually impaired navigate computers, how screen readers work and that so many things that we take for granted are not available to them. Screen readers read every single word, character, link on the screen. The experience can be quite overwhelming specially since we are also giving instructions over skype at the same time as the screen reader is speaking.

Additionally, Python, by the nature of the language itself, brings its own challenges. The concept of indentation is quite new to non-programming folks and that causes some confusion. The IDE/editor adds indentation automatically at the beginning of a code block which is not read by the screen reader, so the students have to pay special attention to what indentation level they are at currently. But these are minor hiccups and I have seen that our students overcome these challenges gracefully.

My experience teaching over the past year has been very fulfilling and I have had the pleasure of meeting and teaching highly accomplished people from various walks of life. The students from the previous quarter went on to participate in a hackathon organized by Vision Aid and one of our students - Abhishek Agarwal - went on to win a prize at the hackathon. Students from previous batches have participated in hackathons organized by Shaastra - the IIT Madras tech fest.

Below are some of the students that we have taught over the past year:


Gopal Suryavanshi

Abhishek Agarwal

Astrophysics For People In A Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Amitha bought this book for me as a birthday gift this year. Both her and I maybe called astronomy and astrophysics enthusiasts. We both love reading and learning about space, planets, stars, and galaxies as well as the physics behind some of the astronomical phenomena. And I have to admit, we both got a bit emotional when Cassini ended its mission last month.

This book is a surprisingly breezy read. If you follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on the internet and are familiar with the talks he gives and the concepts he presents, about 40-50% of the concepts presented in this book may be things that you may already know. But that doesn't mean that the book is useless. It does introduce and briefly explain a lot of new concepts. Briefly being the key word here. After all, the book is called `Astrophysics For People In A Hurry`.

There is a chapter on the periodic table that explains where most of the naturally occurring elements come from and how they are formed deep inside star cores. There is also a chapter on why most of the astronomical objects are spheroids and how these objects get shaped based on their own mass and their proximity to nearby heavy objects. There is also a very interesting chapter on how exo-planets are discovered and the different kinds of telescopes we use to study outer space. And, of course, there is a chapter dedicated to the quest for extra-terrestrial life forms.

Most of the efforts for the search of extra-terrestrial life seems to be focused on finding carbon-based life forms like us and thus focused on finding planets that support liquid water and an abundance of carbon. I had always wondered why this was the case. And I found the answer to that question in this book. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, followed by Helium and then Oxygen. That makes water the most abundant compound in the universe. In addition, Carbon is the 4th most abundant element and Carbon's unique property of being able to form polymers very easily makes the likelihood of alien life being carbon-based very high.

The book ends on a philosophical note asking the reader to acknowledge their position of privilege to be able to think about what is out there and what our place in the universe is. For, it is people who lead lives that don't involve a daily struggle for basic necessities, who can afford to think about these things.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It has encouraged me to look into some of the more detailed works in this field.

Evolution and software engineering

I came across this (slightly NSFW) post shared by Roshan on Facebook and started wondering about how evolution does not have foresight and cannot see forward nor can it go back and re-design things from scratch. I also remembered this (NSFW for gore) video of the autopsy of a giraffe where they trace the path of the laryngeal nerve from the brain to the throat which goes all the way down to the heart and back. Notice how many times Richard Dawkins uses the word `legacy` in the video. That made me realize how similar evolution is to programming on large software projects. So much of programming on large projects involves building on top of code that already exists and that involves, many a times, writing patchwork code that keeps adding on top of things so as to not break legacy support. Now, nature does not need to do maintenance and provide user-support unlike software engineers. After a point, doing this kind of patchwork starts to get unmaintainable. No wonder programmers are so eager to throw everything away and start from scratch most of the times.

Podcast recommendations

This past March was 'Podcast Awareness Month' apparently. It was a concerted effort by leading podcast publishers to expand their audience. Most podcasts I listened to asked their listeners to share their podcast recommendations with the hashtag trypod on social media. So I too shared my podcast recommendations here. I thought, in addition to the tweet, I could also expand a little more and talk about what about these podcasts I like.

NPR Ask Me Another

The show describes itself as "NPR's hour of puzzles, word games, and trivia" and that's what it is. The show usually has 4 contestants who compete in pairs. They each play 2 games and the 2 winners of play in a final round to determine the grand winner. The games are based on trivia and involve a lot of puns and usually will also have a music round. It's hosted by Ophira Eisenberg and the music is provided "One-man-house-band" Jonathan Coulton. They are both hilarious and play well off of each other. The show also has a VIP (Very Important Puzzler) guest each episode.

NPR Wait Wait Don't Tell Me

This is NPR's weekly news quiz. The show has 3 panelists and call-in participants. The panelists are quizzed about the week's news and have a lightning final round with quick fire questions. The call-in participants play for a voice mail recorded by Carl Kasell. There are 3 games for call-in participants, each with a different participant. The show is hosted by Peter Sagal who is hilarious.

NPR Politics

This is my go to news podcast. The show analyzes the news and breaks down various news stories and explains it in some detail. This show is mainly focused on US politics, of course. The show is hosted by Tamara Keith, Scott Detrow, Domenico Montenaro and others. They are all politics nerds who talk about all the minute and obscure details about various policies and of course, Star Wars and Star Trek and other pop-culture nerdy stuff.

Welcome to Nightvale

I can't even begin to describe this show. All I can say is that the school board president of the Nightvale school is a glow cloud (All hail the mighty Glow Cloud, all hail). Also, the weekly weather report is particularly recommended.


Serial has been one of the most popular podcasts and it broke all kinds of download records when it debuted in 2014. It is a podcast that explores true crime stories through investigative journalism. The first season was about a murder of a girl in Baltimore, MD and the subsequent trial and conviction of Adnan Syed. The second season was about Bowe Bergdahl an American soldier who was captured by Taliban and held for five years and later charged with desertion.

NPR Invisibilia

This show explores the invisible forces that shape our world. The show talks explores things like how a town in Belgium dealt with mental illness or how the personality of people is not a constant, predictable thing but a lot more fluid than previously thought.

Revisionist History

I started listening to this podcast very recently, thanks to Shantanu's recommendation. It's a show hosted by Malcolm Gladwell. It describes itself as a show that "goes back and reinterprets something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.". The show explores concepts such as moral licensing, capitalization and the education system in the US, and so on. It is one of the best podcasts I have listened to and I can't recommend it enough.

Hidden Brain

This is also a podcast that I have started listening to recently. It "explores the unconscious patterns in human behavior". It's hosted by Shankar Vedantham and he presents research about human behavior in an interesting and engaging form.

America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness That We Never Weren't by Stephen Colbert

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness That We Never Weren't by Stephen Colbert. I picked up the book at a local Barnes and Noble because it was on sale and it looked funny and interesting, the sale thing was the primary reason of course. Anyway, the book was written in 2012 and at the time Stephen Colbert was still playing his character on the Colbert Report and the book is written in character.

The book is funny, of course, but more importantly, it's in 3-D(glasses provided)! It satirizes everything quintessentially American, from the healthcare system to wall street and from the food to the elections. There's a chapter on the justice system, the constitution and its amendments. There's one on American jobs. There's even one on the concept of American Exceptionalism.

The chapter on the American Healthcare system starts like this:

"Give me liberty, and mercury to cure my syphilis, or give me death!" – Ben Franklin, Paris, 1773
Dr. Franklin was right. America does have the greatest healthcare system in the world. And the reason is simple: because America spends twice as much on healthcare per capita as any other country. Whatever is the most expensive is always the best. Same reason the best Broadway show is Spider-Man: The Musical and the best house pet is a snow leopard.

It also has a "sample" insurance application form which includes questions like,

Can you breathe? Has this been a recurring problem?


Does your skin have a dark pigmentation, which makes it hard to get approved for bank loans?
Currently getting pulled over by the cops

Reading this book now was both funny and sad at the same time considering the current political situation. Ironically, based on much of the rhetoric being spouted by the administration these days, this book seems more non-fiction than satire.

Uplifting things from this past week

A few things I found uplifting from this past week.

  • Courts refused to re-instate the immigration ban exec order
    So last week the courts refused to reinstate the immigration ban executive order until the administration provided more information regarding how many people the order affected. The next hearing is happening tomorrow (Tuesday - 02/07/2017). It was good to see the judiciary performing its function of keeping the executive in check.
  • Melissa McCarthy's SNL sketch impersonating Sean Spicer was an absolute killer.
  • This rendition of Mirza Ghalib's Har Ek Baat Pe by Kris Ashok is beautiful.
  • NYC Subway riders scrubbed Swastikas from subway cars
    This was a very heartening story in a rather bleak few months. NYC subway riders scrubbed the train after some vandals wrote swastikas inside the cars. One of the riders who helped clean up wrote a Facebook post about it.

"I guess this is Trump's America," said one passenger. No sir, it's not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.

And finally,

  • This brilliantly thought out tweet from the PM of India. And this reply to it.

What is a country if not for its citizens?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with my aunt. One of my cousins, who had been living in the US for almost 20 years, had taken up US citizenship and she did not seem too thrilled about it. She felt that it was ungrateful to give up one's citizenship to her/his birth country and take up citizenship elsewhere. I did not agree with her, but at the time I couldn't coherently put forth my reasons. I have been thinking about it for quite some time now. I have been living in the US for more than 6 years now. I am not at a stage where the option of taking up US citizenship is available to me. But, I have often wondered if I would take it up, if and when, the option became available. Is it morally wrong for you to give up the country you were born in? Side note, I haven't yet processed the events of the past month or so properly, so my opinions may change significantly.

I don't yet have an answer to that question. I do like India. After all, a lot of who I am, is because of where and how I grew up. But, for quite some years now I have felt out of place in India. And this started way before I ever stepped foot out of India. And I don't think it was because I was too posh or sophisticated to live there. It has pretty much nothing to do with the physicality or the everyday challenges of life in India. But I always felt like I am not being my true self. Even now when I visit, I am not completely vocal about my opinions and I fear that if I do express myself truly, people will either be hurt or outraged about what I have to say. Judging by the rhetoric that is spouted these days, I fear that by expressing my opinions I might even put myself in danger of physical harm. What with people getting beaten up just for not standing in theaters for the national anthem and all that. There is this sense of hyper-nationalism that's been floating around for a few years in India now. In fact, it was a huge factor in BJP winning so comprehensively and Modi getting elected in 2014. And since then things have only gotten worse. Actors have been called traitors for expressing concerns about the state of the republic. Writers have been assassinated for expressing secular views. Any skepticism about or criticism of the govt. is considered treason. This comic by Zach Weinersmith sums it up pretty well. Why is it that expressing concerns about the atmosphere in the country make me a traitor?

All this led me to this question, what is a country if not for its citizens?

Aren't the citizens who make the country? And if so, how is a minority citizen's concern any less important than a majority citizen's? JFK famously said,

Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

But there is something that a country must do for a citizen. At the least, the country must provide safety. The least it can do, is guarantee the fundamental rights of a citizen. That is the definition of being a democracy. And if a country cannot do that, then, it must not expect a citizen to do much for the country. A citizen cannot be forced to feel pride, loyalty or respect for the country. All of those things need to be earned. Forcing me to stand up for the national anthem is not making me respect it. All it is doing is making my legs stretch. Giving me the freedom to express myself, giving me the safety of being free from persecution, giving me the guarantee of justice, that is earning my respect. And when that happens, you won't have to force me to stand up, I will do so with pride, with my head held high.

Coming back to my first point, because of all these things, I became a fan of the US. At the time I did not know as much about the US and its history as I do now. And I do understand that it is a lot grayer than it is made out to be. In spite of all that, I still feel that as a country it has had its citizens' backs. Or at least it did till about 10 days ago. To a large extent, it does take its citizens' rights seriously. Or at least it did, till about 10 days ago. And that's why I feel that it's not morally wrong to give up your birth country. I still am not sure if I would take up citizenship here, but one thing I am sure about is that I wouldn't reject it outright on moral grounds.


This past week has been, to put it very, very mildly, eventful. There have been too many things happening and I need more time to process all the outrage and the anger inside me and be able to coherently write about them.

So I don't wish to write about the events of this past week, excepting to say, the immigration crisis is real and is scary. People had built their lives here in the US, have families here and now suddenly their lives and families and livelihoods have been snatched from them. So please donate to the ACLU. Help fight the oppression. To my fellow Indians here on visas, please for a second, do not think that this cannot happen to us. If the events of the past week are any indication, I wouldn't be surprised if we're next. This fight is not for someone else, this is as much our fight as it is for the immigrants from other countries. We need to be together in this.

Also, just wanted to share this beautifully written post by Zach Weinersmith of SMBC.

You cannot arrest the mayor.

Does education remove bigotry?

The last couple of months have been specially hard, as you can imagine, for a bleeding lefty like me. And today, this and this happened. Those two tweets were a response to Rep. John Lewis saying, "I Don’t See Trump as a Legitimate President" in an interview to NBC. Rep. John Lewis, for those who don't know, is one of the important icons of the US Civil Rights movement. NPR describes him thusly in this article:

Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders and a top lieutenant of [Martin Luther] King's, helping organize the March on Washington in 1963 and marching with King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, where his skull was fractured.

Rep. John Lewis, literally, put his life on the line in the fight for civil rights. I have huge respect for the man and it is one of my greatest wishes to meet him in person at some point. I was quite disheartened to see Rep. Lewis attacked by the orange jackass, although not the least bit surprised.

I wondered, does this moron have no idea about the significance of Rep. Lewis's sacrifices and accomplishments? And then I saw this tweet from Hari Kondabolu and that got me thinking, does education really help or matter? Because, Trump is not uneducated. In fact, and I can't believe I am saying this, Trump and I went to the same school - Penn. There are plenty of educated bigots and plenty of uneducated liberals out there. I don't think it's just a lack of education that makes a bigot. I think it has more to do with one's company and upbringing.

Being in an echo chamber and being fed the same angry rhetoric over and over is probably what makes a bigot. Education can only dispel these things to a certain extent, because education, I believe, is only as effective as one makes it. In the end, I don't think education imbibes empathy. I see this happening in India as well. Many people who are quite close to me, my own family and friends, most of whom are quite educated and privileged tend to have closed minds. And their opinions are echoed and replayed which validates them. There is no one to give counter-opinions. Of course, I might be wrong in this opinion. And I am more than happy to discuss it with people holding different points of view than my own.

Star Trek's first "First Officer" and a 13 year old Canadian's record breaking marathon

Today I read two very interesting articles. One was about the first "First officer" on Star Trek. Star Trek - The Original Series ran from 1966 to 1969 and it was famous for its Captain, Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner, later reprised by Chris Pine in the new movie series) and even more famous for its first officer Command Spock (played by the amazing Leonard Nimoy, later reprised by Zachary Quinto in the new movie series). But, the pilot episode did not have either of these characters. The Captain in the pilot was a character named Christopher Pike. I knew this because the character makes an appearance in one of the later episodes of Star Trek. However, what I did not know was that the first officer in the pilot was played by a woman. She was referred to only as "Number One" apparently. The actress who played this character was Majel Barrett. And apparently, people were not ready to accept a woman playing the second in command on a starship. Not just the network execs but even the test audiences were not happy with this apparently. And so, the character was ditched. In fact, Majel Barrett went on to play a nurse on the series and later she appears as a different character in Star Trek - The Next Generation. In addition, she was also the voice of the ship computer on all the TV series. And hopefully, she will continue to do so in the future as well.

The second article I read was about a 13 year old Canadian girl who broke the world record for the fastest marathan in 1967. It was a time when women and underaged boys were not allowed to compete in long distance running events such as the marathons. This article is an interview with Maureen Mancuso who ran the marathon in 3:15:22 in 1967. In the article she talks about how instead of recognizing her amazing feat, the media created a controversy of her achievement. Her parents and coach were admonished for letting her compete citing health concerns. And apparently, one of the news agencies even asked her coach if she was a male in disguise. In spite of all this, she is still going strong. This is a story she shared in the article about her will to compete:

“I was running this run in Burlington, not so long ago. The Robbie Burns. And I guess nobody expected it, but the last hundred yards to the finish line, I went into a full out sprint and the guy that I was catching up to, heard me coming and he was like, ‘I don't think so!’ And so we battled it out hard as we could to the line, and then we just sat laughing at the end. The crowd caught on, and they were laughing along with us…the pair of us charging along saying ‘Oh no you don’t!,’" Mancuso laughs, again.


  • The first article, I think I found on Reddit.
  • The second article was shared by Leigh Honeywell on Twitter.

Sceptical Patriot

I just finished reading this book called 'The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring the Truths Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories' by Sidin Vadukut. I haven't been reading as much as I'd hoped but I have been trying to change that recently.

Before starting 'The Sceptical Patriot', I read 'Lord of the Rings'. It took me a little more than a year to finish reading it and I am quite ashamed of that fact.

Anyway, I highly recommend 'The Sceptical Patriot'. It's a breezy read and yet gives you plenty to think about. It's especially relevant in this day and age of fake news and fake pride that is spouted around. The book picks up a few of the very common 'India facts' that are forwarded on emails, WhatsApp groups and Facebook by so many and examines them in some detail all the while maintaining a charming and funny tone.

It evokes a sense of awe about the study of history, specially Indian history. I felt that there are so many historical places in India that are under appreciated. One of the 'India facts' that is explored in the book is 'India has not invaded any other country in a thousand years' and in this chapter the author mentions the 'Brihadeshwara temple' in Tanjavur (or Tanjore). I have been to this temple when I was very young and have very vague memories of it, but I hadn't understood its historical significance nor appreciated how old the temple is. Reading this book made me want to visit that temple and many other such historical places.

The book takes these 'India facts' and tries to determine if they are true by searching for and examining the evidence that supports these so called 'facts'. The book purposely does not go into great detail with the research so as to not be boring. However, it does provide references to all the research papers and historical records referred, for anybody inclined to research.

I feel that we, as Indians, tend to spout, repeat and feel proud about these so called 'facts' very often. I am sure that I have done it myself many a time. And so I wanted to learn if there is any truth to them. As it turns out, some of them do and some of them don't. To varying degrees. And I shall not spoil the fun by revealing which ones are true and which ones aren't. Go ahead, read the book and, find out for yourselves.