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.

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.