Feb 12, 2009

Chintalgiri Shashank hasn’t been sleeping much. When he’s not building a satellite for ISRO or helping organize TechKriti 2009 (for which sethb and I are in town), he’s Mozilla’s Campus Rep. at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK). And a full time Master’s student there in the physics department.

Night Robotics
Night Robotics

IITK’s annual TechKriti festival seems to have increased this place’s cranial buzz (if that’s possible). We hear about the “Build Your Own Supercomputer” project, in which students take some NVIDIA GPU components and string them together to do complex calculations, powered by hardware from the local market in Kanpur. Then we actually witness some guys tinkering away on robots — Shashank tells me they’ve been up for two nights trying to get their robots to do stuff. I’m in town with sethb to give a talk about the Open Web. I’ve got some experimental stuff to show off from Mozilla, too.

For one thing, Dion and Ben have been up really late (like at 3.45a.m. their time — good for me, since that meant that I could chat with them in my time zone) tweaking Bespin for a sort of a special soft launch, exclusively for the workshop I’m doing as part of IIT Kanpur’s FOSSKriti event. They’ve given me a special URL which I can give to the students at the workshop, which I’ve titled “Hacking the Open Web.” My slides will follow soon-ish. Sure enough, there are some 11th hour bugs and quirks, and Ben sends me an email with a list of do’s and don’ts. The workshop has a capacity crowd of over a hundred, and I’m about to run an experimental web application on all the installations of Firefox in the IITK Linux lab — w00t! Shashank built me an ad-hoc projector screen with large sheets of paper, and in order to project my voice better, I strolled around the large room. The entire session was just really interactive, since I get stopped on my stroll with plenty of questions.

I started the workshop out with a general discussion of the Open Web, showing off some demos of SVG, Canvas, CSS+SVG, and bringing it all together with the video element invoking Ogg Theora content (layering SVG, CSS, and some Canvas action, stitched together with JavaScript, in different demos). There are some Flash fans in the crowd, who ask quite rightly whether all this will be made simpler with great tools, like what Adobe provides for Flash. We do need better tools, but I ask him to wait till I talk about tools in The Cloud.

The meat and bones of the workshop is really for folks to use Bespin, a day before it launches. My talk has some of Ben and Dion’s killer slides, describing (with eye candy) the “IDE in the cloud.” When we get out the starter gate, however, we hit a snag. My first exercise is to have students draw the Indian flag on screen (Deep Saffron, White, and Green). Turns out the Wikipedia entry on the Indian flag has an image in SVG, and I thought it might be fun to have a replica in Canvas. All the students name their project “IndianFlag” and suddenly start getting permission errors. Somebody smart figures out that about a hundred people can’t call their project the same thing, so I ask folks to add the last four digits of their cell phone numbers to their project names. That worked, and soon enough, people are playing around with Bespin, hacking on project IndianFlag0438 (or somesuch).

They identify all the early-stage common issues — no cut-paste (you can’t cut-paste from an image! Ben thinks that later on, an extension might help), and syntax highlighting for tab-delimited HTML files is just busted. There are, of course, general accessibility concerns and Bespin is still very much a work in progress. I stressed to the students that what I wanted them to absorb was that a graphics context coupled with high-performance JavaScript was where some promising directions on the web lay.

A smart student figures out how to use the Canvas2D context to draw the tricolor in about 20 minutes, and I enlist him to help the others. I’m still offering an honorable mention to anyone that can draw the Ashoka Chakra within the tricolor. This is a mixed audience of seasoned programmers (some Drupal hackers are there, as well as other Mozilla Campus Reps) and newbies. We didn’t have enough time for my jQuery examples (which I pinched from jresig’s talks), but I’d say the workshop was a success.

The next morning, I gave a talk on HTML5 and the standards process, which is also attended by a capacity crowd. Both sethb and I are pretty overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge that we encounter at IITK’s FOSSKriti event. It’s not all pure love, though — we get nagged about memory leaks again, and get questions about Chrome’s use of WebKit. Someone in the audience claimed that on his tests, WebKit outperforms Firefox, and wants to know whether our emphasis on platform means that we have performance compromises, which WebKit (being lean and mean and XUL-free) doesn’t have. Wow! That’s pugnacious. I’d like to take that question to the test-suite mat, and see what happens. I’m not above eating humble pie, but this one seems focused on a particular use case.

There are a LOT of contacts that I’m keen to follow up with. If you attended this event feel free to drop me some email or a comment — I’m still traveling, but will sift through my inbox when back — promise! I met students, professors, and professionals, and saw some artificial intelligence as well. This campus basically blew us away.

One thought on “IITK”

  1. with arun’s guidance and a brilliant tool like bespin, i was a developer for about 2 hours. arun created such a cool set of exercises and instructions that all were impressed. bespin was a bit buggy, but it’s potential was quickly felt by all in the room. our time at IIT Kanpur was energizing and i have a feeling some of our future contributors will come from that classroom. great work on this one, arun. it was a real winner.

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