Sunday, November 26, 2006

10 things to make you proud to be an Indian

Considering that there are so many top 10 lists on Reddit these days, I figure that I should write an optimistic piece about why Indians ought to be glad that they're Indian.
  1. We are secular. Sure we have our ultra-right wing fundies, but India is one place where you can scream, "I am an atheist", and not have anyone trouble you. Richard Dawkins wouldn't have a tough time in India. We listen, we think, and if you believe in a great Juju up the mountains, we don't trouble you. Also great if you don't believe in any Juju at all. Nobody will bat an eyelid if you wear a t-shirt saying "atheist" (or the local language equivalent) and parade around India. We're used to the complexity of faith, and the possibility that it might not exist for some people.
  2. Our politicians aren't out attacking some other country. We don't also kid ourself about a higher moral standard. We're just as human as the rest. We've had our share of brutality, and now we'd like to leave that behind, thank you. We showed the world that brutality is not the solution. If you cannot win the war in a peaceful manner, you can certainly not win it with arms. A Gandhi figure in Africa would do wonders.
  3. Vada-pav, and other absolutely lovely food. I often meet people who aren't from India but love our food. Just today I met an Argentinian who loves dosas. Now that is enough to hold your head high. Think dosas, curry, basmati, naan, chicken tikka, and dal. One of my favorite incidents is an elderly Japanese lady gushing, "I love curry", in a remote part of Hokkaido, which must see less than two Indian visitors a year. And cooked right, Indian food is very healthy.
  4. You don't need a car to get around. That means lower emissions, lesser trouble to mother Earth, and a quieter conscience. You don't need to drive to get from Bombay to Delhi: you don't even need to fly! You can take a train, and meet some colorful characters on the way. On more than one train journey strangers have invited me to an impromptu train party, complete with alchohol.
  5. We've got a democracy. Not a very functional democracy, but atleast we elect the person at the top. Every person's vote is counted, and not by a machine that can be hacked by a chimp.
  6. We know that we're poor, and we're trying to come out of it ourself. We aren't begging for aid, we aren't pleading for support. Let us study, let us work, and we'll provide for our own people. We've got a lot of poverty, but you won't hear of a "Fund for India" anytime soon.
  7. We love education. Everyone values education. Hindus even have a goddess of education. Parents tell their kids that education is the difference between misery and prosperity. And not the kind of education that says the Earth is 7000 years old. We study in real schools.
  8. Families exist. Parents don't get divorced as often. Children are brought up in a stable family of both parents, sometimes with a supporting cast of uncles and aunts. I have fond memories of spending time with both my parents, who are still together. I love my brother, my parents, and we're still a close family. We still visit, we care for each other.
  9. We waste very little. Bags are reused. Bottles are reused. Clothes are given to younger members of the extended family, or to household helpers, or exchanged for utensils. My family's monthly garbage fits in the weekly garbage output of average American families. Our newspapers are thinner (though just as pointless), we abhor wastage of food. Things aren't packaged in kilos of plastic, made of stronger material than bomb-shelters. Vegetables are sold fresh, and you bring your own bag. We don't put monthly carpets of grass on our lawns to make neighbors jealous.
  10. The law doesn't dictate personal freedom. Abortions are legal, for good reasons. Drugs like cocaine are illegal, but it is unlikely to get persecuted just for this, unless you're into other stuff as well. Alchohol drinking is permitted at 18, though it is no big deal to get it when you're 12, or 10. [1] Indians don't binge drink when they turn 18, because they can choose to binge drink at 10. Even tobacco isn't made into a big deal, so it isn't. If people choose to smoke, they can start as early as they want. This takes the sparkle off. Homosexuality is still technically illegal, but it is unheard of to persecute anyone for it in the way Alan Turing was persecuted.

Footnotes:
1. There are states where alchohol isn't permitted right now, but these things change with time: states have experimented with prohibition, democracy at work. States with prohibition are exceptions, not the rule.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Waiting for the online fraud

I came across a blog entry on lack of security in Indian online trading. People are shocked when they find that online trading and banking sites in India are a joke. In my experience, Geojit's website is so bad I won't use it. Luckily, it is also designed quite poorly, so using it is impossible anyway. Within minutes of using their website, my wife and I found a fairly large security loophole. The support at Geojit is also ridiculous. Actually, Geojit has no redeeming quality whatsoever, so let me not pound on them anymore. The point of this post is not how bad Geojit is (they are bloody horrible: get your money out, and move elsewhere), but how such bad examples are spoiling the whole basket.

In the blog entry linked above, the first post was by a person who said the equivalent of, "but Microsoft is so insecure and crappy, why should Indian websites be better". The second post was by a person who said, "but American banks are insecure and crappy, why should Indian websites be better." You get my drift.

First, Microsoft is a bad example. The entire company is chugging along on the strength of their monopoly. Many people avoid Windows if they can. I use Linux, and many people I know use Linux, Mac OS, or something else. So don't hold Microsoft up as the epitome of software design. They are bad enough that most of my peers (at University, in Computer Science) would not work for them if they had anything else.

Second, American banks might have security loopholes, but these are fixed quickly. The support team is looking for bug reports, and they get their websites looked at by independent security experts. A trading site like Geojit wouldn't last a day in America, if it had any customers. Moreover, the US isn't the best in online trading. My European friends have 2-factor authentication, where they get an RSA card, which generates a changing ID, which you type in along with your password. So even if someone snoopes and gets your password, they cannot login unless they steal your RSA card as well.

So that settles that. But going beyond, I am surprised that posts should be so defensive of everything Indian. Look, we make a killer vada-pav, and some absolutely gorgeous biryani, but online trading isn't our forte, right? Online newspapers ain't our forte either. Compare the Times of India to New York Times, and you see what I mean. Saying that in India, Geojit is the best, and so it should be applauded is stupid. Geojit is absolutely horrible, and you should have the courage to say that it is unusably bad.

And going even further, don't use lousy examples to support theories. Microsoft gets held up every time some software gets trashed. Yes, Internet Explorer crashes every day, and Windows has a tough time with just 1G of RAM. But do your research before claiming that all software is bad. Microsoft is setting up a very wrong example for my field. There are systems which are rock-solid. Microsoft isn't. Deal with it.

The pity is that the culture in India has been feudal for so long that we tend to bow down too quickly. The notion of support doesn't exist because for a Geojit employee to actually listen to a customer is unthinkable. Further, to admit that they made a mistake, and to correct it is even harder. Ultimately, Geojit, ICICI and others need constant reminders that their pretty PR is not sufficient. That customers demand good service.

As with Windows, once enough incentive exists to attack this systems, attackers materialize from nowhere. (Kind of a nice twist to the Zen saying, "When the student is ready, the master appears".) Most spam originating now is coming from bot-nets: giant collections of Windows machines that have been taken over by malicious software. These are pumping spam day and night, unknown to their owners. And these are all over the world.

So I'm waiting for the day when online fraudsters realize what a goldmine Geojit is, how easy it is to pry open, and force these companies to deal with reality. Being on the Internet also means that you have to leave your large ego behind, and learn how to manage a world-class website.

India needs Libraries!

One of the pure pleasures of living in the West, and specially the US is the absolutely gorgeous public library system.

Every county that I've lived in has atleast one library, and I've applied for membership everytime I've moved. The public libraries are fairly well stocked, they have both fiction and non-fiction. The staff is helpful, curteous, and friendly, and there hasn't been a single library where I've encountered librarians as rough as those in Indian schools and colleges. Books can be reserved, so you can pick them up when they arrive. They can be requested from other county libraries, so you can get a book that your library does not have. Books can be returned any time of day or night in collection drop-boxes. You can check the catalogue, either at the library, or online. You can even check how many books you have issued, when they are due, and renew them, all online.

I've lived in a few cities before moving to Bombay, and none of them had any acceptable library system. My parents ended up buying all the books we read, and a few books were borrowed from friends. Even though my parents were very generous in how many books we could buy, I still read much less than I would have if there had been any decent library. The British Council Library in Bombay was the biggest library I had seen before I was at IIT, and even that had a very small collection. The IIT library was nearly devoid of fiction. Both those aren't even public. My wife had the misfortune of visiting a public library in India, and she doesn't wish to repeat that experience.

Why are we in India so devoid of good books? My guess is that the government spending on libraries is either too little, or, more likely, after the politicians have a go at it, almost none of it makes its way into a library. Bombay does have some book libraries run privately, but they too are shoddily stocked.

To make matters worse, I just read John Wood's facinating book: Leaving Microsoft to Save the World. John left a very lucrative career to start a company called Room to Read which donates books and sets up schools in third world countries: India, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka... It was a lovely read, and I found myself hoping that he had started sooner, and that my school had a Room to Read library. And I went to private schools for most of my school education in India! Even the library at Christ Church School in Bombay was very starved of books. It took a large room on the top floor of the school, but the room was nearly empty. I don't know of many people who used that room to read, or used its contents much.

India needs libraries, very badly right now. I think John's work is commendable, in that he is targetting the root cause of the lack of education. There are a few solutions out of this.

  1. An Indian Andrew Carnegie could fund a huge public library system. Getting Mr. Birla or Mr. Tata to set up a giant library in their hometown would be great publicity event. The gain in publicity might itself make the donation worthwhile.
  2. A private company could set up a library. It is cheaper to pay a monthly fee to a library than to purchase each book separately, and let it gather dust later. Using the netflix model, the company could set up collection centres on the edge of the city (keeping real-estate cost low), and either mail the books or allow people to come themselves.
  3. Local government could raise money from residents, and buy a large stock of books, and store it centrally.

Ultimately, it is upto us to do something about this.

Using big phrases to sound smart doesn't work

I'm quite tired of hearing management speak. I was listening to a podcast of an interview with someone who teaches MBA students. After a while, it was jarring to hear the following phrases:
  1. "What they bring to the table"
  2. "system of methodologies" (?)
  3. "technology and innovation arbitrage" (?)
  4. "building an ecosystem"
  5. "the Xs of the world", as in "the McDonalds of the world"
  6. "leveraging cost"
  7. "access to your talent pool"

I used to think people who use these words wanted to sound very smart and knowledgeable. Deep in their hearts, they knew that what they said was a load of dirt, but they wanted to disguise it as very deep wisdom.

The reality is much simpler. A lot of these words are standard management-speak, transferred annually from teacher to student. When you hear your professor say the word "vertical system of methodologies" enough number of times, you begin to believe that it really means something. A year later, you're out with an MBA, and before you know it, you are confidently talking about "systems of methodologies", which just happen to be vertical. And you advice your clients to build an ecosystem that creatively encourages technology and innovation aribitrage, leveraging cost, and proactively maintains access to your talent pool.

A lot of this talk is just rubbish, and reminds me of Psychology majors, who talk endlessly about a subject without knowing anything about it. There is a large difference between saying something which is technical and just sounding technical. When a scientist says, "Octree discretization for level set methods", each term has a very clearly defined meaning. Clear enough that you can describe the above statement with a mathematical equation. But just stringing together technical sounding words doesn't get you there.

My standard trick to blast through the bullshit defence is to ask the person to explain what they are saying, but using simple words that a 5 year old can understand. If you cannot explain "vertical system of methodologies" without using those three words (I'll be generous: you can use "of"), then you don't know what you are talking about. Incidentally, I can explain an "octree discretization for level set methods" without using any of those words. And, I have successfully explained the concept to parents, people without Math knowledge, a 9 year old kid, and an Indonesian orangutan. Ok, maybe not the last, but all others.

Using big phrases to sound cool doesn't work.

Friday, November 03, 2006

An ad-free world!

Last evening, my friend and I watched the advance screening of the Borat movie. I won't discuss a lot about how good the movie was (it was amazing), but what occurred to me was how much of the discussion before the advance screening was about ads of the movie.

None of which I had seen. Just before the movie, there was also some trailers. Apparently a new James Bond movie is going to be out, and James Bond looks different from Pierce Brosnan. I had no clue. Apparently, ads are everywhere.

The same thing happens to me when people discuss some new TV show about to start. Again, I have no clue. I do watch TV, though I'm in favor of renting out the DVDs, once someone tells me they really like some show. (Thanks Eduardo and Shelly: you got me loving Futurama).

I've got ad blockers on Firefox (which is the only browser I use, on all the operting systems), and I don't watch live TV. The only TV viewing I did this year was 15 minutes of a Clapton concert, and about 1 hour of some comedy show on my brother's TiVo. No ads.

I read news on the computer, so no ads there once you've got a nice set of ad blockers in Firefox.

I drive large distances, but mostly on open country roads, where there aren't many mainstream ads. There are ads about the next rest area, and how they have the world's best Split Pea soup and all that. But these are more like roadsigns as far as I'm concerned. And I commute on a bicycle, on a bike lane. Not exactly good places for PR. (Though they could be!)

So even though I'm tuned into news (Ted Haggard getting a massage. Diebold, elections. North Korea. hmm.) I'm completely untuned from ads. It makes for an interesting time, as the information that I get about the world is the one that I choose to get. I am interested in what goes on in the world of computing, so I'm tuned in there: Vista to be released. Zune, gonna be a disaster (probably), Apple planning on their new OSX release, Ubuntu kicking ass. But I still don't get the marketing hype, which means that I get a much more reasonable blend of information. Superlatives do exist, but I create them. I'm excited about stuff that I choose, not because some bikini-clad chick is standing next to it. For instance, I really enjoy my music player which was suggested by a friend (thanks, Inna). I liked it a lot, and told another friend, and we ended up buying our units together. Lovely device. Hint: it isn't an iPod. It has all the features I want, costs about as much as other players, and doesn't come with its own fanaticism.

I have a lot of fun when I'm shopping for cereal these days. Women with their children have such a hard time deciding which shiny box to take home. I've heard moms tell their kids that they should take a cereal they want to eat, not something whose mascot they like. Again, the fact that cereal had a mascot was alien to me. Now I see why McDonalds has Ronald.

Me, I'm happy with my Malt-o-Meal cereals, they come in convenient zip-lock bags. I prize the convenience over the cuteness of the mascot.

So yeah, try it sometime. You'll see what it is like to make your own decisions for a change.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Certificate of authentic Science

There's a silly debate raging in America right now. Some people believe that Evolution is just a silly theory, and really some divine being created the Earth. This means that you and I are original creations, have nothing in common with monkeys, have never evolved, and so on.

Think about that for a second. A country we think is well educated is having a discussion based on stupid theories, blind faith, and ignorance.

Alright, so I don't want to annoy anyone here, but I want to point out two very important things that are useful to any student of Science.

Small Steps


Firstly, good science proceeds in small steps. New research shines light on a very small puzzle. If you read any research paper, you will notice that stating the problem takes quite some space. Scientists publish very specific results. I am yet to find a research paper that says, "I know everything, everywhere, everytime." So when I see a person who claims to be a scientist, and is very glib, my warning lights go off. A good scientist says, "I don't know" much more often than, "yes, I know." Focussing on a small problem helps learn enough to solve it. Usually, even a big breakthrough impacts a very small section of science. The structure of research is like a grid of a large number of small stones cemented together. Take a very big breakthrough as an example: Einstein's theory of relativity, and the fact that mass is not constant. Before it, mass was held constant, and a lot of research was based on this. Doesn't Einstein's theory throw it all in the water? Well, not really, because at low speeds (even that of a Formula One racer), mass is constant, and the change in mass is almost negligible. So we can ignore it. Mass changes only as we approach the speed of light, which is quite difficult to achieve for most of us. And Einstein's theory changed nothing in Biology: we still have cells that make up humans, eggs create new birdies. And zero impact in Geology: erosion still happens, plate tectonics don't change, and people still don't know how to predict earthquakes. So even a big, huge breakthrough like that has a relatively small impact overall. So when you see a theory that has such a big impact that entire fields of science get called into question, chances are it is false. Consider the changes to Science if there really is _magic_: people can fly (gravity might not exist), pigeons come out of hats (and not eggs), trains disappear (mass is completely destroyed, without energy being created), and women can be cut into half (Biology is wrong, basically). That is a pretty darn broad claim, and chances are that it is false.

Some research might be false, but one little claim cannot disprove absolutely so much existing science. This is one reason why I don't believe in the huge number of Indian Babas, charlatans who claim to do magical stuff. If they could do what they claim, mainly magical stuff, it would mean that 5 or 6 giant areas of Science would be wrong. That kind of impact is too big to not get noticed. Occam's razor says the chances of Babas being crooks is higher than the chance that Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics are all simultaneously false.

What will prove it wrong?


The second interesting thing about Science is that real Science comes with conditions that will prove the result false. Read that again. If I am a real Scientist, and give you a theory, you get to say, "What will prove you Wrong?", and I should be ready with an answer. If I don't know the answer, I am not a real Scientist. If my answer is "nothing will prove my theory wrong", then my theory is not science. It is blind faith. Take Einstein's theory again[1], where mass can change based on the velocity of the object. What would prove his theory wrong: If you took a 1Kg object, and hurled it to very close to the speed of light, and it was still 1Kg, then clearly, his theory is rubbish. This is something a novice can construct, but there are more elegant circumstances that invalidate his theory. This happens in all fields, even Mathematics[2]. In Computer Science, there is a famous result regarding the Halting problem, saying that you cannot solve the Halting problem. I don't have to believe in the result. It comes with a nice certificate which will prove it false: if you find a program P that can look at any program A and say whether A will halt or not, then you have shown that the Halting problem can be solved (and the result is false). But elegant arguments show that no such P ever exists, so don't go looking. Even such a strong result comes with a condition which will cause it to fail, completely and utterly.

This is one reason why "belief" in Science and "belief" in religion are completely different. I have not seen a single condition which will cause any religious belief to be incorrect. You cannot possibly show that it is wrong, which is surprising. You do not give proof for why it is correct (one is supposed to have faith that it is correct), and there is nothing that can prove it wrong.

See this for a similar argument: "Because of Vik." That is my entire belief. Why is the Earth round: Because of Vik. Why do cows moo: Because of Vik. Why is the atom built of Protons, Neutrons and Electrons: Because of Vik. You're supposed to have faith in those words: Because of Vik. What will prove it wrong: NOTHING. This is absolutely perfect: no burden of proof on anyone: everything is "Because of Vik". And nothing can show it wrong. What use is such a philosophy? It doesn't lead to any new understanding: doesn't lead to Physics, Chemistry, detergents, computers, watches, medicine, cars, and the other fruits of Scientific study. More importantly, since nothing will prove this wrong, this is not science at all. This is blind faith. You either subscribe to it, or you don't. People who subscribe to it cannot say why it is true, and people who don't cannot show why it is false.

So while you could claim I believe in Science, that is a very different thing from belief in religion.

And Science is open to criticism, open to dissenting voices, and open to scrutiny. Try to find holes in Newton's theories, and if you succeed: people will praise you.

Try doing that in a Theocracy.


Footnotes



1. My examples are all in Physics or such, because that is a field I know a little better than others. The ideas here are common to all of Science, and even a Masters student should have no trouble providing examples from their field: Biology, Chemistry, ...

2. Mathematics is a little more elegant, because stuff in Mathematics is shown to be always true. Pythagoras' Theorem is true, and cannot be shown to be false. There are hundreds of proofs for it, and so you could say that Pythagoras' theorem would be false if there was a right angled triangle whose smaller sides (x, y), and larger size (z) did not follow the ratio x*x + y*y = z*z. But in Euclidean geometry, this will never happen. But you're welcome to try, just be good to kittens and teddy bears in the meanwhile.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Asian Age

Lovely newspaper, I liked it over The Times of India. So I figured I should try to read it online. When I went to their website, I was surprised. Since I don't have Internet Explorer, I'm given the wonderful message, "

"This page can only be seen in IE"

Compatibility:

Your web browser needs to support
HTML4.01, CSS2 and JavaScript to correctly view this page.

Haha! That's funny. Do the site authors know that Internet Explorer doesn't support CSS2 itself? What a joke. I seriously hope this is not the Asian Age. We Asians are much better than that. I think they should rename their site, "The Stone Age" instead. The Asian Age web admins want to come across as smart people, throwing acronyms at their audience to wow them. (Oh they need HTML, CSS, XML and PRQSST! Sweet!) Unfortunately, using acronyms doesn't make you smart. Making good, standards-compliant websites makes you smart. (And attractive to the opposite sex! Growl!)

Thinking that Internet Explorer is a reference browser is an unfortunate attitude. Internet Explorer's standards compliance has never been applauded. Try this simple demo in IE, and then try it in any other standards compliant browser to see just how much difference there is.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Showing up for war in your pajamas

A friend of mine had a terrible experience recently. Her Windows computer was compromised, and a lot of her financial information was stolen. She got to know of it when the system administrator at the Computer Science department asked her about suspicious activity at her University account. Then she found out that her machine was compromised.

She had a lot of financial information on the computer, and with the threat of identity fraud, she was forced to cancel all credit cards. (And change all her passwords) Even though no financial damage has been done, now she doesn't know if her SSN is out there or not. Even if she used Firefox for financial transactions, her browser cache could have sensitive data.

Fraud prevention websites always say, "Keep your computer secure". This person was a Computer Science Grad student, and quite smart. Despite her best efforts to keep her machine secure, it was compromised.

Contrast this with silly, stupid financial websites that only work in Internet Explorer. In essence, HDFC securities and Geojit are saying: we want you to run a browser that only works on a software whose security is a joke. Oh, and by the way, do large transactions with this insecure browser, ok? Every time I have to interact with their support staff, I have to search for words that will express my level of frustration with this stupid requirement.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 is a five year old browser (released in 2001) with a known track record of abysmal security. Any financial company recommending it is seriously demented. Firefox also has its problems, but they are far smaller than Internet Explorer, even though the numbers might be the same. The issue is not the quantity of bugs but the severity. Combine that with financial websites requiring Internet Explorer. Using Internet Explorer for financial websites is like showing up for war in your pajamas. (I coined that, so give me credit when you say this, ok?)

If your bank, mutual fund, or stock broker requires you to use Internet Explorer, you should complain. Internet Explorer has holes severe enough for security experts to scream and shout about. The financial companies (HDFC, Geojit, and many others) are deliberately forcing their customers to use an inferior and unsafe product. It is our financial security at risk, not theirs.

Within hours of using the Geojit online trading system, my girlfriend and I found a gaping hole in their security. I have been told it has been fixed, but the relative ease with which we found one makes me jittery about using their website. (Both my girlfriend and I are relative nobodies, not security experts.) In any case, their website is nearly unusable, even in Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Security by unusability.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The undervalued Xaviers education

When I was in Xaviers, doing a BSc, I was amazed at how undervalued the education was. Most people thought that people did a BSc solely because they couldn't get into an Engineering college. I actually chose to get into Xaviers. My brother was in an Engineering college, and he said that I should visit his college one day, and then visit Xaviers. And then decide for myself. This is the best possible advice anyone has given me. I went to his college, looked around for a day, saw some students, and some professors (yow!). Then I went to Xaviers, and met some students. My brother was around, and this was the first time that even he had visited Xaviers. It was a nice experience. Didn't meet any professors, but that was ok. The place spoke for itself.

I met some real hackers at Xaviers: pure brilliance in Mathematics (which is what I was studying). Three students that I saw there were sparkling genius, and everyone knew that. Not only did I meet peers, but during Malhar I met some super hackers who were much older than me. And when I went back there after graduating, I met some lovely people much younger than me. The youth and verve of the place is astonishing. At the time I didn't appreciate it much, and wasn't as socially capable as I am now. But to think back, I wouldn't have been this socially capable if it wasn't for Xaviers.

I still remember the first day of class. The first class was by Felix Almeida. He spent the entire first class telling us how we shouldn't be disappointed that we didn't get into Engineering or Medicine, and that there were lots of avenues after BSc. He also told us that he was going to take us from the point of complete indifference towards Math to a point where we'd love the subject so much that we'd have trouble sleeping till we had done some Math in the day. I remember smirking, back in the last bench. After all, who was Felix to break me. But he did. By the third year, I really loved Math, and had developed a crazy interest in the world. It was astonishing. Felix remains a good friend, and he always makes his old students talk to his current students, which I think is a great idea. When I was a student, I appreciated the alumni talking to us about the "real" world.

Now that I look back, I wouldn't change those three years at all. I spent two years with the damn race: 11th and 12th. It was the most miserable time: I met very few interesting people: everyone was interested in the stupid 12th standard exams: the teachers were terrible, and the students were equally bad. Nobody was interested in learning: Just in getting those all important marks. I shudder to think of four more years of that in terms of an Engineering degree. And the Junior College I was in was way better than nearly all Engineering institutes in Bombay in terms of both students and teachers.

So if you're in Xaviers, give yourself a pat in the back. Respect the Math faculty, both Almeida and Gurjar are true cats. And make sure you have fun! If you're making your mind: just visit the options yourself. Don't take my word for it. Two hours in an Engineering institute should have you pulling your teeth out in despair if you are sane.

Thanks to Ruchi for sneaking me into Xaviers at the right time. It was great!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Listen to Frizbee NOW!

Apparently I overlooked this when I posted about Frizbee. Their music is available for download from their website. I really wish Frizbee was on Magnatune, so that I could send them some cash for their other albums.

To listen to good Welsh music, go over to their website, and download the MP3s. Don't worry about the wierd words: their website is in Welsh, and so it looks strange. Just look for the word mp3, and get everything from the album "Hirnos", the big green one with the eskimo on it. And if you like it, please mail them telling them how much you loved it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Good news, Great news.

I used to blog about bad sites, but rolling in the mud is a bad way to keep clean (thanks, Aldous). So I'll talk about something positive for a change.

I'll talk about the news that I read these days, as an indicator of the way things are going on the Internet. Clearly blogs are big, but what is bigger are blog aggregators and sites which filter the good news.

The top on my list are Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot, and occassionally I read The Great News Network. And more often than not, I read Bloglines, the feed aggregator for my choice of news and blogs.

Notice the complete absence of print media, because they're just not relevant news anymore. The New York Times website is still a little better than the rest, publishing a CSS feed, so that you can read them in a blog aggregator, and pick and choose just the technology and Health. And toss that worthless Sports section out forever. (It is worthless for me, but many people read just that one section.)

It is instructive to compare the layouts and fonts, and general arrangement of the above sites with a typical Indian newspaper: Times of India. Even after blocking all the ads out, with Firefox, and a specially crafted hosts file, the page is still unreadable, and the news stories are very shallow, sometimes no more than two paragraphs of completely obvious stuff. Even a robot is better than these fellows. A very well made robot, no doubt, but it illustrates the disastrous effects of incompetence. Also, the top story today on the Times of India is how Sonia Gandhi wins the Rai Bareily Lok Sabha seat. How gullible do you have to be to think that this is newsworthy? At best, it is something that should be in a three line statement. Now Sonia Gandhi winning a marathon, or a bicycling championship deserves front page. (Sonia Gandhi is the top Congress polician in India.) The top page photograph is about Brooke Shields being happy after giving birth to her second daughter. Really, why do we care? Sorry Brooke baby, but nobody in India cares about you. We like you, (hell, we like everyone), but you're just not someone we care about.

A few years ago, we had to read the newspapers, because, like my father puts it, There Is No Alternative (TINA). Well, this is 2006, my warm friends. There Is A F#*@ing Great Alternative (TIFGA), and that is called Technology. See, you can choose blogs that list articles of interest, speak from the heart, and aren't swayed by press releases that are completely biased in favor of the PR company.

These are great times to live in. Every morning you get great news, all in clear fonts, nice CSS, and with comments that sometimes are quite lovely. Even Slashdot has moved to CSS now, I admit with a tear in one eye. Of course, Google News might serve your interest well, if you spend five minutes customizing it to your interest.

And when you need some entertainment, you can read a newspaper, and laugh at the page-high ads selling miracle creams. And more entertainment when you read these paper's websites, complete with whooshy-poppy ads.

Come on, Indian kids: make a Reddit clone for India, and get rich. How tough can it be? And when Reddit/Digg goes global, they'll buy your company for one boatload of money.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

More work, less drama

What do you do when your software vendor uses strong arm tactics? Not much, unless you have your own 100 kilo (200 pound) gorilla for a corporate lawyer.

Software is a very funny product. When you buy it from someone, you can copy it without telling that person, and use it on other machines. If the other person doesn't find out, does it hurt them? Apparently software manufacturers think that it does, and go to great lengths to build in copy protection so that people cannot effortlessly copy their product.

What would happen if Microsoft starts targetting the small companies in India to make them cough up money for software licenses? How many roadside DTP places in Bombay have legal Windows? Or for that matter, how many *cough*colleges*cough* actually have licenses for every copy of Windows they have?

In the US, people are shocked when I tell them that software in India is all free. You can buy a copy of Windows, along with all the usual software on it, for about Rs.50. (That's a little more than a dollar, and with the sinking dollar, it is getting more expensive for tourists to tank up on software when in India!) And from what I have seen, it works a lot better than legal copies of Windows, since it doesn't matter if you lose the CD case with the hundred character CD key. I've heard conspiracy theories about software manufacturers purposely turning a blind eye towards piracy, since it helps their user base grow.

But the thing that people should be thinking about is: what can I do if I get a legal letter from the Software Alliance in India? How much of my life hangs by proprietary software? This is not just for people using pirated software, but also people using legal software. Does your company have the legal weight required to fend off a bullying attack by a software vendor? Infosys and Wipro might be able to fight off a vendor, and a vendor isn't about to bully someone as big as Infosys or Wipro anyway. But smaller companies don't have huge legal teams.

What if a disgruntled employee of yours calls the Business Software Alliance or NASSCOM, to tell them that your company uses pirated software?

What if some students call their BSA or NASSCOM to tip off their college? When I was in college, this was something kids always wanted to do, but didn't.

Tipping off NASSCOM is completely anonymous, by the way, and you can use the services of various anonymous emailers on the web.

And what if your company does pay up regularly, but is strong armed into giving more money? Do you have all the copies of your sales receipts?

With the sudden growth in the use of computers, coupled with the huge amount of piracy, it is just a matter of time before it becomes lucrative for the software vendors to show up demanding money. Some companies, like Ernie Ball, will be forced to think of an exit strategy.

Personally, I like the concept of zero drama, and more work. In any case, a lot of work that Windows machines are put to is so mundane that it can be easily done with Linux + OpenOffice. Even in colleges, the biggest use for computers is to teach BASIC, C, C++ and Java programming, something that actually works better on Linux than on Windows.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Music knows no boundaries

Right now I'm listening to a lovely album called "Hirnos" by a band called "Frizbee". Frizbee is a little known Welsh band that my roomie introduced me to. All the songs are in Welsh, and I cannot tell what they mean, or what the words are. My roomie told me what some of the songs were singing about, but Welsh isn't easy for an Indian to pronounce, so I cannot sing along. Even though, the album is brilliant, and I love listening to it. It is the one contemporary album that I listen to, amidst my Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Joseph Haydn sessions.

Absolutely gorgeous music: quite easy on the ears, and very melodious. The kind of music that makes you want to fake the rock star moves. And makes you want to learn Welsh, just so you can sing along...

Thank you Ywain Gwynedd , Owain Jones, and Jason Hughes (band members of Frizbee).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The supreme power of ignorance

I came across this post on reddit. It was supremely hilarious. It is a person going on and on about how Linux is an Evil European invention to take over America. Sadly, the person does not know that her own domain is hosted on a Unix machine, which is most possibly a Linux or BSD box. The comments are outrageous.

Usually I ignore such stuff, but this post had me laughing really hard. Lovely stuff. There is so much comic power in ignorance.

Paul Graham is fond of saying that the average blog is actually quite bad, but nobody looks at the average blog. People look at the best blogs, so the competition from blogs is actually quite significant. I think the argument works for supremely bad blogs as well. The usual newspaper report is bad, but the worst blogs are so outlandish that they are outright funny! This person for instance, is so clueless, that it is like a perfect stand-up act.

ShellyTheRepublican.com has pushed the limits of ignorance into uncharted territory. (to borrow something Jerrold Kaplan would say)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Part of the mafia? Get into publishing.

Neha and I came across a book called "Applied Multivariate Statistical Analysis" by Richard Johnson and Dean Wichern, 5th edition. It is available on Amazon. For the small sum of $118 you can own this book which comes with a CD. It is all good till you look inside. The main features of this book include gems like "better highlighting" and important results are now "boxed". Apart from that, this new book is almost identical to the old edition. The one feature they don't tell you about is that the exercises have been relabelled. Page numbers are now inconsistent with the previous volumes, so if a student gets the old edition of the book, he is lost in class.

What does the 5th volume really add? A firm belief in the stupidity of teachers and students. Many texts now have these new editions, where the material is identical, but the page numbering and exercise numbering has been completely changed. Many of these come with a CD of data sets along with the book. I am not against CDs with data sets, but why not put it up online? Which university would mind having students download data sets? And this book has a CD with 342 Kilobytes of data. That can fit on a floppy, which tells you how tiny this information is. Even on the slowest dial-up connection, it can be downloaded within minutes. Why do we need a CD for that?

It is amazing how much students and teachers will take this rubbish. Here's an idea: why not use the old editions for a change. Let the students buy their texts online for $30 or so, which is much closer to their real worth than the sticker price of $118. Why not teach exclusively out of older editions to make it easier for students to learn, without having to take up an extra job at the local McDonalds, just to pay for the text-book.

That should teach the Publishing Mafia a lesson.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Open Source University

I was recently interviewing for an internship for this summer. This was the first time I had interviewed so extensively, and I was a little suprised at their focus. Most of them asked me about the work I did with Pootypedia instead of my college education. Every interviewer quizzed me about some random code-patching that I did last November. Nobody bothered with the courses I had taken. The college education on which I spend so much time was less valuable than little code hacking that I did for fun.

I think working with open source software makes a few strong statements about you. Firstly, it says that you are interested in computing, you do it in your free time, with no cash incentive, which can only mean that you love it. In management talk, this would be "strongly motivated", "driven", "proactive", and a few other words with lots of alphabets in them.

Secondly, it means that you are capable of working with existing software, and this I think is more important. In most projects at work, you do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. Most work involves maintaining someone's code, or adding features to an existing codebase. A lot of work is looking through someone's gnarly code and finding a bug, and then fixing it. Under time pressure, with little resources, and the developer either missing, or very reluctant to admit that it was his sloppiness that is causing you misery. Compare this situation to school, where every project requires you to start from scratch, implement something, and demonstrate that it works. These two require completely different skill sets. I don't know of any classes that teach you how to maintain code, or to understand someone else's code. Fixing a bug in Firefox says that you have the capability to enter unknown territory, find that bug, and smash it. It might not go on your resume, but it is documented, you are acknowledged as the fixer, and others benefit from this action of yours. If you fix a big bug in Firefox, Apache, or other high-profile Open Source projects, I would recommend putting it on your resume. Chances are, that will be the first thing a recruiter will ask you about.

Starting an Open Source project that fills a need is also a great way of getting recognition. If your project happens to be used by millions all over the world, people will know you, you will be invited to talks, and companies will be beating your door down to hire you. Starting and maintaining a project is clearly a lot more work, and finding an unmet need might be half the battle. Most of the easy problems are taken, and the tough ones remain undone for a reason: they are tough. If you can start a project, and take it to 1 million users, though, recognition is guaranteed.

The open source world, and software in general isn't about starting new projects, necessarily. It is about good utilities, and good contribution. A patch that brings a new capability to an existing project is much better than writing a new program altogether. Instead of writing a program to read WordPerfect documents, add Wordperfect support in Open Office or KOffice. This way you get all the existing users of these programs for free: which means more bug reports, bug fixes, and inclusion into the big distributions.

Now comes the strange part: you probably already have all the tools required to do this. If you are viewing this on a computer on which you can install any program, then you have everything required already. You can get a compiler (gcc), a debugger (gdb), some editor (emacs). But that is the small stuff. What you really need is the source code. This is where Open Source shines: the source code is there for you to look at, download, copy, deface or improve as you see fit. Without asking for permission. Without revealing that you're a 14 year old in a small Indian city, and your mom disapproves of your late night hacking. And if you contribute a bug fix, nobody cares that you are a 14 year old. Open Source is a brutal meritocracy. You, as a 14 year old kid can beat a 40 year old veteran software developer.

What is even more surprising is that competing projects don't mind cross pollination. You can do a bugfix for GNOME, and then fix something in KDE. Use emacs one day and fix a bug there, then give the vi developers some of your love by patching their code. Unlike the software industry, nobody in the Open Source world holds you from working with competing projects, there are no non-disclosure clauses, and no one-year waiting period, twiddling your thumbs and forgetting everything you learnt in your previous job. You could use some of GNOME's code to fix KDE's bugs, just as far as you acknowledge the original author.

In a year of bug fixing, you could get your name in twelve projects. All from your room, while your parents are blissfully unaware of your moonlighting hero-work. One high level techie in a very large and well-known software company told me that he would do this if he was my age right now.

Here's the Indian context. You could be a college student, unhappy at the intense competition for the IITs, RECs, or local Engineering colleges. (They aren't that good, believe me.) You could be a BA student, sad that the Engineering world has passed you by. You could be an engineering student, keen to see the real world, cut your teeth into world-class problems. You could be a school kid, eager to know what real software development is like. Or you could be super smart and itching to prove it. This is your opportunity. An invitation to the Open Source University: with no fees, great books and reference material, and some brilliant fellow students. You decide when you are smart enough to enter, and smart enough to leave. And if you do well, the world acknowledges you, and you get entries into your resume that can be independently verified by anyone in the world.

The strength of numbers and youth

Ever wondered why Bill Gates spends so much time in India, and why India is pretty much the only country where he spends so much public time?

It is because he needs India, and the Indian market. He needs India much more than India needs him.

Consider the current situation: Microsoft is at the top of the OS market in the US, where the government is unwilling to do anything meaningful about their monopoly status. In Europe, Microsoft is in a soup, partly because people don't trust them there. Hence the recent lawsuits, and the significant adoption of Firefox, OpenOffice and Linux in the area. Both China and India are big markets in both size, and growth potential. Microsoft wants a big piece of action in both countries. In both China and India, Microsoft software is absolutely free. Most computer hardware sellers give you any software you ask for, with a new computer. In the unfortunate case that you forgot to ask, you can buy a "installer" CD at the streetside. These CDs have all the software you'd need: Operating Systems, Office software,.. all in one easy packaging, and cost about Rs. 50. That's one US dollar. Like I said, software in India is all free. (And even then Linux is popular there. But that's a different story.)

So where does that lead us? China seems unwilling to support the large costs associated with running Microsoft products. Often, their government makes noise about this, supports the local Red Flag Linux, and forces Microsoft to keep their prices low. So Red Flag is more a bargaining card. (Aside from being a totally fun name!)

That leaves India. While Microsoft is aware of piracy in India, it loves the piracy, since it makes new computers users dependent on Microsoft for their needs. The dollars lost in today's sales will show up in handsome profits tomorrow. Also, India has a very small installed base of computers, in comparison to the West, and Microsoft would be sad to see Linux capture such a big chunk of the computer market. Thus the frequent visit to India, with Bill Gates at the centre of it all, to lure the Indians with his status as the world's richest man. And the Indian press loves mentioning how he is the world's richest man, again and again, till everybody is tired of the fact.

What India needs most is intellectual capability and choice in software. As the largest markets, if India and China choose to use Linux, Microsoft will no longer be the monopoly player. The OEM agreements in India are too loose, and software bundled with the hardware can be changed all too easily. This scares Microsoft. What would happen if 40% of the world decides that it needs Linux or BSD or Mac OS X on its machines, and not Windows? And imagine the nightmare if Indians and Chinese start contributing to Free and Open Source Software? Even at one bugfix for every thousand people, that is a mighty bug-fixing machine.

Both India and China may decide the direction of commodity software if they choose wisely. We need to learn our strength of numbers, and the strength of our youth. We need to have the confidence to stand up against a monopoly and say that we want a choice. We need to help out Linux, BSD, Apache, Firefox, and other Free and Open Source projects. Because in the end, Linux and Firefox belongs to us, while Windows XP and IE 7 never will.

So ignore Bill Gates altogether. He offers us dependance on an inferior technology. The Linux and BSD systems offer true freedom and independance from vendors. And they give us software we can own and control, and a position of power in the world: the power to say no to a convicted monopoly.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Subtle shift of power in computing

The front entry has been negative for too long. Time for some happy news!

I recently suffered from a disastrous system failure: [How is that for good news? Well, continue reading to see why I think this is happy news...] I think I was pushing my motherboard beyond its capabilities, and it decided to fail on me. True to my word, I looked around and purchased a used computer from a classified site locally. It only set me back by $350, and I have the following benefits:

  • An absolutely snazzy machine: 1G of RAM, a lovely video card
  • Zero price for software I do not use. The minute I got it, I installed Debian Linux anyway.
  • The benefit of low, low price
  • Supported hardware: I was assured that everything worked with Linux, and I wasn't paying for hardware which lies unused.

From the time of failure to a completely working system, I spent about six hours, most of which was spent having dinner, while my machine was running apt-get, happily synch'ing itself with the rest of the world. The old disk was shoved in, I had my $HOME again, and life was good. And after the six hours, our computing setup was identical to the previous machine: mail was being fetched as usual, all Firefox settings remained, even my .bash_history was the same, so it was difficult to tell what had changed. Except that OpenOffice took about one tenth the time to load up, and Firefox fired up in an instant.

The new machine has dual video, and I'm going to try running a dual head computing setup: two monitors, two keyboards and two mice, all connected to the same machine.

Just a week earlier, I was planning to buy a Dell machine, which would have cost us $600 or so (though it shipped with a nice LCD display, and the machine I bought doesn't have one). At the very last minute, I noticed that the USB controller was not supported in Linux, and since the motherboard had no PS2 adapters, a USB controller card was essential to connect a keyboard and a mouse. Really, who needs that kind of drama? Why would I possibly spend more time and more effort on it, when I can spend less money, get a machine which is a tad faster because of its RAM, and all the hardware is completely supported in Linux?

In a sense, brand new hardware is largely irrelevant to me. (The "to me" part is important. New hardware is very relevant to other people.)

Hardware vendors still do not get this shift completely. The glut of second hand computers means that I do have a viable alternative to purchasing a new machine, with OEM software that I do not plan to use. And with Linux, the life of a machine is typically longer than with proprietary operating systems. My previous computer was in its sixth year of use when the motherboard gave way. And in the last year, it was used very extensively.


In a sense, the freedom of software is directly translating into a freedom of hardware, which is the subtle shift that I spoke off. Not only am I not directly reliant on a software vendor, now I am also largely independent of hardware vendors, since the last few purchases have all been used.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

They're all terrible

Recently, I blogged about how terrible the LSR website was. Apparently, bad websites are the norm when it comes to Indian education.

Even the mighty IIT Bombay has an inconsistent website, with a hideous site design when you descend one or two levels deep from the main site. The first page looks rather nice, but every link underneath it has its own design, no css, and absolutely no consistency. The right hand doesn't know what the left is upto.

http://www.iitb.ac.in/

Which is all pretty reminiscent of the place itself.

The most hideous website I have seen!

Neha was showing me the website of LSR college, apparently a well known college in Delhi.

Please, put on some very dark glasses, because what you see here will literally drive you blind. I saw this, and wondered what kind of image this college wants to project.

Look at their main page: it is some sort of giant billboard.

http://lsrcollege.org/


Then walk on to their contents page, where half the links are under ConstructioN (sic).

http://lsrcollege.org/home.htm

What a hideous background image, that looks like some fish was chopped to get it.

Click on the extra curricular activity link and be prepared for the worst site design, complete with fifteen different colors and a dark black background.

http://lsrcollege.org/extra.htm

Neha and I are still exploring this wonderful site, along with the stop press link.

http://lsrcollege.org/stoppress.htm

And while we are at it, let us inform everyone that LSR makes its alumni run around for getting transcripts, and tortures them for these scraps of paper. LSR refuses to give more than fifteen transcripts at a time, which means that if you need thirty transcripts, you need to go twice. And the principal doesn't feel any compulsion to stamp the transcripts, so if you need them stamped, you've got to go there again.

Welcome to one of the best schools in Delhi: where the quality of education is about as good as their website.