Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kids, leave the teachers alone

I've had the misfortune of having some very terrible teachers. Despite being a very privileged child, who attended some of the nicest schools possible, I still had to suffer through some crazy people.

One in particular was a fat, heartless shell of a human being. She taught a completely pointless subject called Socially Useful and Productive Work (SUPW). That was a glorified arts and crafts kind of class, where it is nearly impossible to have objective standards anyway. Really, how do you judge a 12 year old on his hour-long craft work? So grades meant nothing. But that didn't stop this heartless woman from being rude, belittling the work of kids, and expressing her strong disapproval at 90% of the students.

At the time I thought she had something personal against me, but now I realize that she was equally scathing to nearly everyone. I disliked her weekly class enough that I even considered being ill regularly on that day. My brother and I knew where she lived, and we concocted elaborate plans involving her walk from the bus-stop to her house... and hockey sticks. Too bad we were too cowardly to actually do anything. Sadly, we didn't even own hockey sticks, and took no interest in the sport either.

As a child, it is difficult to appreciate how useful and valuable you are. Teachers like her shatter any feeling of self-worth that might have grown in the child. This, I feel, is a terrible loss. Children should be told at every step of the way that they are valuable and special. And no teacher should be allowed to shatter this belief. If the child is to be fed a delusion, I prefer a delusion that allows them to experiment, to feel powerful and capable rather than a delusion that they are worthless.

It is easy to think that school is the entire world, when you are 12 years old. School is all you have seen, after all. Your life revolves around it. Contact with the outside world is extremely limited, and it is difficult to get a perspective of the school's role. Students don't realize that the teachers are actually employed by the students (the students' parents, really) and are paid to teach. Even in Government schools, the state (through taxes paid by the citizens) pays the teachers. The position of power is actually in the student body. In the case of minors, the position of power is with the parents' collective. They can force the management of a school to discipline teachers.

But no teacher wants to tell the students this. After all, a collection of 30 students vastly outnumbers (and outranks) the teacher. If everyone complains, the teacher is headed for trouble.

So here is my delayed advice to my younger self (or my timely advice to the younger generation):

Suffer through no teacher. Get together, and discipline that bad teacher, because that person is working for you. Preserve your self-worth and know that you're headed to make a significant impact on the world around you. Unlike that bad teacher.

And in case not much action can be done, ignore the teacher. Find another way to learn the subject. There is little impact to skipping class when the teacher is horrible. I speak from experience! You will walk away with a better appreciation of the subject if you don't let someone butcher the topic first.

Leave the bad teachers alone, to wallow in their own misery. You have the whole world to explore.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bangalored: The Expat Story

It is after a long time that I've read a book about India that had me enthralled. Eshwar Sundersan's book, "Bangalored [the expat story]" is about expatriates who live in Bangalore. He meets with various people who are expatriates in Bangalore, and talks to them about their reasons for being in India, their experiences. It sounds quite watery when I put it this way, but it is a very persuasive book.

I feel one learns a lot about their own country by seeing other countries. You finally start questioning long-standing beliefs. Meeting foreigners who are visiting your country is very similar. Since they are new to a lot of customs, they question the establishment a lot more. They have a perspective which forces one to think, and justify a lot of our actions.

Bangalored brings this out very clearly. You see people struggling with Indian concepts that are quite pointless in reality. You see people actually solving problems that most Indians are quite content to complain about. Arranged as a collection of informal meetings, Eshwar does a wonderful job of transcribing thoughts and letting the people tell their story.

As a bonus, Eshwar has taken the time to write a historical perspective on the expatriate phenomenon. The bibliography lists many pointers for the eager reader. This book could not have been arranged better.

And if humour is what you seek, read it to find out why the Bangalore Electric Supply Company is mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Definitely worth reading, for every Indian who wants to understand India better.

A short interview and review by the Hindu on the book is also available online.

Update: Changed ex-patriot to expatriate (thanks, Vlad)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The need for a single timezone for India

Pierre Fitter has an article in Business World on two timezones for India. My view in the article is against timezones and DST.

Ajay Shah blogged about this recently.

Viral Shah and I wrote a small paper about the need for a single timezone in India. We argue that a single timezone is a convenience, technically sound, and a great proposition in terms of nation building. I would appreciate comments on the paper, either on this blog, or at vikram@mayin.org.

I have been told that there are studies of cost savings due to DST or time zones. If you know of any, I would appreciate links or full text PDFs.

Bank of India, compromised!

The website of the Bank of India at www.bankofindia.com has been compromised. You can read about the attack on the Bank of India site at the SunBelt Blog. This is a fairly big issue, and if you have money at the Bank of India, I would seriously recommend you to withdraw it (in cash) and close your account immediately.

This is what happened. The website has a hidden page element that forces you to visit a malicious website. While you cannot see the page element (since it is hidden), you cannot notice it. But in the background, it downloads a long list of malicious programs. These programs are designed to take over your computer (rootkits) and allow the attacker to have complete control over it. Many of these rootkits allow the hacker more control over your computer than you do. The least destructive end goal is to use your computer as a spam host. Since this is linked from a bank's website, my guess is that the intended goal is to steal personal, financial information and use it to withdraw money or steal identities, or a variety of other creative pursuits.

If you still don't get it, it is the equivalent of having your house keys copied, and the thief has your check book and PAN number, and passwords to all the websites you visit. Not only is this a liability to your Bank of India account, but also to other accounts you have (financial and service websites), and legal documents on your computer.

If you have visited the Bank of India website in the past two or three months, I would highly recommend copying your sensitive documents, and formatting your hard-disk and re-installing your Operating System.

This is interesting for a variety of reasons
  1. The abysmal security of Indian financial websites is being noticed internationally. I wrote about this earlier, when I said that it was only a matter of time before this is noticed, and exploited. When a bank puts a website online, it should be prepared to match wits with some of the most devious minds. I am sure that in the months to come we will see a lot more of such attacks, directed primarily towards poorly designed Indian websites, of which there are plenty.
  2. The possibility of destruction that this attack aims at. While being a spam host is a bad thing, the worst possible outcome is having your bank account emptied. There are 22 pieces of malware that this attack installs, and there is bound to be many computers where a lot of them will stick.
  3. Shockingly sad security of Windows, affecting the customer directly. A fully patched system should be unaffected, but how many Windows systems in India are fully patched, especially if they are attached to a slow dial-up? The worse the connectivity, the lesser the likelihood of the system being up to date. Notice that the attack requires a Windows machine. On every other platform (including every possible Linux version), the attack will fail.
  4. Trust brokers are broken. Mc Afee site advisor did not report any problem with the website. Neither did Google's extension, or any other system that Sunnet Beskerming Pvt. Ltd. checked. So if you rely on a website to certify that your bank's website is hacker proof, you would be misled. Trust brokers are not trustworthy.
Clearly, Bank of India's website team is to be blamed here. They have failed terribly at their job of ensuring secure access to their customers. Bank of India customers should move to another bank for this reason alone. Money earns interest in nearly every bank. We choose banks either on convenience or on the perceived security of our money.

The larger blame is to be placed on all of us. We regard security concerns with ambivalence. When evaluating a financial service, we should expect them to provide a competent web interface. What good is an extra 2% rate of interest if the money is going to sit in some Russian's bank account?

I would highly recommend keeping your system up to date, and patched. While I realize that this is often difficult, it is critical if you are running Windows. As a larger argument, I would suggest not using Windows to access critical financial services. If Microsoft is not held accountable for its security flaws, then such attacks will continue. I would highly recommend using a Macintosh or a computer running Linux. For the attack to be successful, the Bank of India website has to be compromised, and your computer must be riddled with security holes. Once the website is compromised, you're on your own, and having Windows leaves you completely defenceless.

I visited the attacked website, and it is currently down right now. The malicious code has been removed, and there is no mention of it on the website. It says instead that "This site is under temporary maintenance till further notice. Kindly bear with us." If the maintenance is until further notice, how do we know it is temporary? Clearly they brought it down in response to the malicious code.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Please stop the aid

I was reading through the latest Scientific American issue, which is titled "Feast and Famine". It talks about the growing danger from obesity in developed (and developing) countries. It also talks about the problem of malnutrition in countries.

India falls in both categories. In a city like Bombay you can see both, quite often next to each other. There are overweight, obese people, walking right next to malnourished children. Actually, the overweight, obese people are more likely to have their driver take them home in an air-conditioned car, while the malnourished kid taps their car-window in the hope of getting some money.

The article "Still Hungry", by Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Fuzhi Cheng talks about the problem of world hunger. Unfortunately, this article is not free, but I'll write down the paragraph that goe my attention:

Internationally, policies and institutions need to do more to guide globalization for the benefit of the poor. Industrial countries should accelerate opening their markets, and the World Trade Organization should work closely with civil society and national governments to remove barriers that hinder the movement of laborers across borders, distort prices, impose unfair intellectual-property rights, and choke competition. The U.S., the European Union, and Japan have erected trade barriers against imports of food and agricultural commodities produced by poor farmers in developing countries. At the same time, they pressure developing countries to open up their markets for the products of industrial nations, including highly subsidized agricultural commodities. These practices are worse than hypocritical; they actively hinder efforts to reduce world hunger.
Quite something to think about!

It also reminded me a lot of the article "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!", by the Kenyan economist James Shikwati. In it, James argues that development aid is one of the causes of the continued poverty in Africa.

With so much poverty and hunger that I have seen in India, I don't care about the troubles of the obese.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Yes!, for no. India rejects OOXML

Good news everyone. After much consideration, India has decided to vote "no" for OOXML. Infosys Technologies and CSI voted for Microsoft, and were the only two organizations supporting Microsoft. Everyone else was opposed.

You can get a sense of how important this is. It is featured on the front page of Slashdot, and made the front page of Reddit as well. Both these are technical sites, and looking at the comments, it is nearly unanimous that this was the right step for India to take. (Not that idle commentary should decide India's vote.)
Since my last two posts were about this issue, I am greatly relieved. Brazil also voted no for OOXML.

This is a big step forward for India. Standardizing on ODF will help focus our efforts on a single open format.

Friday, August 17, 2007

OOXML is bad for India

My previous post was about ODF versus OOXML. This one is too. In the previous one I might have put in too much information. This is an attempt to clear the matter.
  1. OOXML and ODF are document formats, like JPG and PNG are image formats. Open formats mean that anyone can write a program to read the file. Closed formats mean you cannot write a program to read the file. PNG is an open format, like HTML is an open format. Document formats are best when they are open.
  2. OOXML is Office Open XML, Microsoft's attempt to pass another standard. It is a competitor to ODF.
  3. ODF is already an ISO standard, and is already open, and already implemented and used by a variety of software.
  4. OOXML is NOT Open. There are many many technical reasons why it is almost impossible to implement it fully.
  5. India is forced to vote on the issue, and India's vote is important.
  6. Everyone who is in the business of writing Office Suites: IBM (which owns Lotus), Sun (which owns Star Office), Google (which owns Google Docs), and the Open Office team agrees that ODF is the superior format. ODF is already supported by many programs, some of which cost no money.
  7. China's IT experts are completely against OOXML.
  8. IIT Delhi is already on the ODF committee, and is strongly against OOXML. We don't know what IIT Bombay's view is, but my guess is that they are against OOXML as well. CDAC is against OOXML. IISc, and IIM-A are against OOXML.
  9. There is no "document war". ODF is already an open, ISO standard, and Microsoft refuses to follow along, and make its office software read and write ODF files. This is plain simple, bullying by a monopoly.
  10. Two standards for the identical thing are a very bad thing for consumers. Realizing this, US and South Africa have already stated that they will vote against OOXML. China is against OOXML as well.

Please take the time to write to the Indian delegation at ird@bis.org.in. Please be polite, and respectfully tell them that you are against OOXML. If any other Indian bloggers pick this up, I'd be grateful.

For technical reasons why OOXML is harmful to you, please see the previous post. For a quick slideshow about why OOXML is bad, please see Anand Vaidya's delightful slideshow.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

ODF support: Express your viewpoints

(Importance to India: This might be a long post, so if you are curious about why this is important to India, skip to the end of the post.)

You are reading this blog due to the magic of HTML (or its successor, XHTML, an XML file format). The magic is that I don't know what your browser is, and it does not affect my selection of browser. Currently I'm using Firefox, but in the past I have used different browsers to view posts. It has not affected you. You could move your browser to Opera, Mozilla's Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, or even Links2, and you can read this website. In short, there is complete independence on your part when viewing my blog. It is the same with email. My mail program has little to do with your mail program. As far as we follow mail standards, we can communicate by email. In the past, I have used at least five different email clients, and yet the recipients of my email weren't forced to use my email program.

Shouldn't all documents be like that? When you mail someone a file, they should be able to choose which program they want to view it. I don't force you to use Firefox version to view this blog, just because that is the browser that I use to create this. But if I use office documents, the same is not true. If someone sends me a Microsoft Office file, they must specify the program and the version used to create the file. This is why it is sometimes preferred to send PDF or image files, because they are standards, and can be viewed through many competing programs.

Office file formats (letters, presentations, spreadsheets) are very common, and these files need to be read by a majority of computer users today. It is easy for Government websites to put up applications and forms online, so you can download them, print them out, and fill them in the comfort of your own home. What used to take a visit to the local Municipal office can be done at home. So far, so good. But in the absence of an HTML or JPEG like standard, there is a glut of competing office file formats. The most common office productivity software is Microsoft's Office program, though there are competing programs like Open Office.

The Microsoft Office file formats are not open. There is no central information source which tells you how to decode them. Despite this, many volunteers have tried to figure out (and reverse-engineer) MS Office file formats. This is why Open Office can read MS Office formats. The reverse engineering isn't feature-complete, since only Microsoft knows what the file format contains. It is workable, but not something to rely on for large volumes of data. Further, as Microsoft continues to evolve the file format, the volunteers have to struggle to keep up. It is a slow and painful process, and not something that is a reliable solution in the long term.

The long term solution is to have an HTML like format for office documents. Then, much like this blog, you can use your favorite program to view the content. You can choose to use Microsoft's Office suite, much like you are free to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer to view this blog. I cannot enforce my choice on you. On the other hand, if you find Open Office to be better suited to your needs (perhaps because of its Hindi support), then you can choose to use that. The choice is yours.

This choice of program is different from the choice of file format. Right now, I don't have a choice of which file format to publish this blog in. It is HTML, no matter how much I might dislike it. HTML is an open format, and another competing open format wouldn't add much to mix. If you had two open formats, every office suite would be forced to implement both formats. After all, the content could be in either, right? This is not a useful choice. This forces the developers of Office suites (both MS Office and Open Office) to spend twice the energy in supporting two different file formats, which do the identical thing.

Currently in India, there is only one specification of the power plug. Everyone makes power adapters that fit this plug. When you go to the market, you don't have to ask if it works with the power socket at your home. Of course it does: that is what standards accomplish. They guarantee interoperability. A choice in power sockets and adapters wouldn't do any good. Every toaster would have to be made with both plugs, because then you aren't sure what socket the consumer has. It has doubled the work without offering the user any new feature. Of course, the consumer pays for this confusion, since that second plug costs money to put in every appliance.

This is even more true of document standards. There is very little to be gained in having two competing open formats. As far as the first is truly open, and can be implemented by everyone, the second only adds more work for software authors, and confusion for users. Today, if you were to push a competitor to HTML, there is little to be gained. After all, HTML already is truly open and well supported. Why force every browser maker to waste time supporting another format?

Currently, there is already an office format that has ISO certification. It is called ODF (Open Document Format) and it is already supported by a variety of programs. Even Google Documents supports exporting and importing from it. In time, every program willing to read and write documents can support the ODF file format. No more emails with "Please open the file in version x of program y".

This marks a departure from the backward world of proprietary formats. Secret file formats are what props up the lack of choice of Office programs today. While there is a large choice of browsers, there is comparatively little choice in Office productivity software, all because of the closed nature of the file format. The ISO standardization is a step in the right direction. It is a good step for consumers, since we can choose a program based on technical merit rather than its inside-knowledge of a secret. It is a good step for software authors, since they have to support one format, which everyone else can read and write. It is a good step for interoperability, since my choice does not constrain yours.

Microsoft has traditionally held on to the Office productivity market due to its proprietary file format lock-in. With the standardization of the file format, they stand to lose this monopoly. While they are free to implement the ODF file format in Microsoft Office, this will mean that they must compete on features and price, much like other software authors. If Microsoft Office truly was a superior product, they wouldn't have any problem with this. The trouble is that MS Office might just face some competition from Open Office, much like Internet Explorer faces quite some competition from Firefox. Open Office is a free download. Even though Open Office might not have all the features of MS Office, it has the most of the common features. Many individuals may choose to pay more for the advanced features that MS Office has, but that number may be smaller than the number now.

Enter OOXML, Microsoft's competing document format. Its name is Office Open XML, named for maximum confusion. I'll call it MS OOXML, to be safe. This file format is neither open, nor truly XML. MS OOXML isn't open because it has lots of pieces that depend on the behaviour of previous Microsoft programs, which only Microsoft knows. MS OOXML isn't truly XML, because it lacks definite specification of many features (like Drawings, etc). Without a clear specification, it becomes impossible to implement this fully. MS is pushing MS OOXML as a competing document standard to the existing ISO standard ODF.

Microsoft's efforts are a definite step backward. Remember the websites in 199x that would say, "Supported under IE 5.0", and you were forced to get IE 5.0 to view the website? This is the world that Microsoft wants to take us back to. The growth of alternate browsers has forced website authors to write clean HTML, instead of HTML with the proprietary Microsoft extensions. This has benefited every user of the Web, and every website creator. If the website parses as clean HTML, it will show up fine on every browser.

Mark Shuttleworth has a good post about this, and Rob Weir has a wealth of insight into this matter. The No OOXML website is stocked with good information, a list of delegates by country, and cogent arguments against MS OOXML. As always, Pamela Jones at Groklaw has complied a giant list of links about this issue. I am not affiliated with any of these organizations, and have no technical background in this area. I recommend reading the facts for yourself, rather than relying on my views. However, if you do have a view that conflicts with mine, I'd be happy if you post a comment.

So this is important for India, because India is on the ISO committee, and is a member that is forced to vote on the issue. USA, China and South Africa have resolved to vote against a competing document format. They are voting for a single file format, which is the right step. India's delegation can be reached at
ird@bis.org.in, and it is in every Indian's interest that they vote "no" as well. Please take this time to write a concise, professional mail to them, indicating why you believe that a second file format isn't a good step. Respect the delegates' time, but do let them know what your views are. If you aren't an Indian, your delegate can be reached at an address listed here.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Finally, it is over

SCO has lost. Nobody every doubted it, but it is good to see this finally put to rest. The long story short is that the court has concluded that Novell (and not SCO) is the owner of the UNIX name. Thus SCO cannot sue, because they don't own Unix. It is ironic that the work of Novell is what saved Linux. A really good day for users of Linux everywhere. Watch this chart tomorrow, though I wonder if it can drop any further.

I dislike your cooking

I love Indian food. I love Indian cooking. Most people I know are fabulous cooks (especially motherly Indian women with a child or two). Quite a few people I know make the best food I have ever eaten. This includes many aunts, parents of friends, and a lot of my friends.

With a small exception (roadside vendors in India are awesome), the greatest Indian food is at Indian homes.

But I cannot openly praise it. Especially when I am at the person's house, enjoying this delicious food. Can not praise it, for fear of being force fed.

This is how it works: In India, the guest is supposed to God-like. Even if guests like me look more like little hungry rascals rather than divine creatures. So the tradition is that every guest is to be offered the best food. This happens even if Indians move outside India, and this custom is out of place. I remember offering a repair-man some orange juice. Being an American, and a stranger to Indian customs, he was surprised. But it was a fairly hot day, and he was visibly relieved after a glass. Indians continue to treat guests in a special way, even if they aren't in India, or even if the guests aren't Indian.

So the standard is supposed to be to make the Guest feel comfortable at helping himself. No self-respecting Indian will complain if the guest has seconds or thirds, or focuses a little much on the sweet-dish. Often, Indian kids game the system by ignoring the main course, and focusing completely on the sweet dish. I know, I used to be one of them. Especially when I visited some aunts who were notorious for keeping the sweet-section well stocked.

But over time, the convention of politely allowing your guest to gorge himself has changed to a convention of force feeding him. It is not unusual for a guest to have to continue saying, "Oh I'm done. This has been too much." all throughout the meal. Since the host keeps asking you, you are better off starting out with a story of how you are already full, and cannot possibly eat much more. Then the hosts continues offering you food, knowing that you aren't done, and you continue refusing, while gently eating a slight bit. At no point must you admit you love a specific dish. If you do, a lot of it will be forcibly dumped on your plate. If you can finish it, more will be dumped. If you cannot, the host will quip, "Oh, you must not have liked it after all." The arms race is fierce. Especially to an untrained cadet like me.

If you eat too little, the host will complain, "Oh, you didn't eat much at all", "अजी आपने तो कुछ भी नहीं चखा". So that is a bad strategy because a good cook will feel their cooking was no good. If you eat too much, more will be placed on your plate, and you will end up stuffing yourself silly, "If you liked it, here, have some more", "आपको तो यह पसन्द आया, आप तो और लीजिए".
It is a disaster, of epic proportions, as you are next to all this delicious cooking, but you cannot help yourself. Wasting food by leaving it on the plate is a bad idea (host is offended), so you must finish everything. But if you have a bit more of the parantha, the host might pop some more on your plate. On the other hand, it was absolutely heavenly parantha. Got to risk it. A few people are good at this art. They start out with some fabricated story of how they are already stuffed from a previous meal or meeting. Cannot possible eat any more, see. Oh, well, I'll help myself to just one parantha to give you company at the table.

Man, what a mind-game!

I can remember many settings where I would have loved to eat some more, but the game didn't let me. Or where I wanted to tell the person that she (usually Indian women are remarkable cooks!) was one of the best cooks this side of the Himalayas.

At the other end of the exchange, I've been told to be a better host. Offer stuff to everyone. If they say "no" the first time, continue offering. They're just being polite. They're too polite to say yes, why don't you dump some on their plate anyway?

Ever seen Indian gatherings, where the host has a spoonful of stuff positioned dangerously on the guests's plate, and the guest has both his hands blocking his plate.

What has the world come to!? I much enjoy visiting my friends, who are also very good cooks. Just so I can be honest with them. People my age are less trained in this warfare. I can be open with them. I can tell them that I love their chicken curry, and they should watch me dive in a third time. Or that I'm really hungry, having ignored both dinner and breakfast when I was told that they were cooking chicken curry.

Hey, I'm only human. Not a God.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The magic of Hindi, GIMP, and some free time

GIMP is an image manipulation utility that you can download and use for free. I can't get over how powerful it is. Especially when you add in the ability to type in Hindi, and then perform all the usual transforms with it. Imagine if the truck-painters in India get the idea that they can use GIMP to generate their fancy logos.

I'm reading a book called "Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional", by Akkana Peck. It assumes zero knowledge of digital imaging, and patiently explains basic topics like additive colors, transparencies, layers. It is very helpful for a lay person like me who has little idea of the basics. I'm glad the book talks about these, instead of being a laundry list of what all the various tools do. Every chapter covers a single topic, which might cover many GIMP tools. At the end of the chapter, there is a project putting together the ideas of the chapter into a single task. True to its name, it ends with a chapter on writing GIMP plug-ins and scripting in GIMP.

Overall, the book is arranged very well. While I'm reading it cover-to-cover, I think it is just as good to randomly flip pages and see all the pretty pictures, and learn how to make them. The entire book is printed in crisp, glossy paper. And it has plenty of pictures of examples, and GIMP screenshots so you can follow the instructions easily. Considering that GIMP costs you nothing, $40 for a book+software is very good value for money. (The book itself doesn't come with GIMP. It is easier, and better to download the latest version from the GIMP website.)

I highly recommend the book. It covers the latest GIMP versions (2.2 and 2.4), and has a lot of information. It is helpful for both digital photography enthusiasts who want to touch up their pictures, and digital artists and tinkerers who want to play with GIMP to splash some paint around.

Feel free to use the two images above as you see fit. Better still, download GIMP and you can make much better pictures than the ones I did.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The train wreck that is Windows Vista

There is little doubt that Windows Vista has abysmal adoption. Earlier this year, many computer vendors brought back the Windows XP option with new computers. Even today, you can get Windows XP on laptops and desktops from Lenovo and Dell. You can check with your favorite vendor, and most probably, they'll ship Windows XP.

Now there's this: the Acer president criticizing Vista.

This is a sign of the times. At first, poor adoption was limited to the tech-savvy, it has now grown to the non tech-savvy, as well as business partners of Microsoft. Despite what Microsoft may claim, the fact that most major vendors continue to offer XP as an option speaks poorly of Microsoft's new OS.

It is no surprise that businesses are going to wait a long time before deploying Vista as well.

Even though Microsoft continues to make money whether XP or Vista is sold, it is a very poor sign when your aging, five year old OS is doing better than your latest OS. Remember, we're talking about a purely software company, not a hardware or service company. And also remember that they had five years to develop this software. And that Windows and Office are the only two product lines that make Microsoft money. I hope you're still comfortable holding Microsoft stock after reading that.

I might not know much about developing software, but this group took five years to develop something. At the very least it should be better than what they already had.

A few points come to mind:
  1. Complacence: This mirrors the Firefox -- Internet Explorer story. When Internet Explorer captured too much of the market, they grew complacent. What Firefox did to Internet Explorer is being done to Vista by Windows XP (and Mac OS, and Linux).
  2. Talk is Cheap: No amount of marketing can sell crap. My dentist (and he is a venerable 60 year old) is not a computer geek. In his words, "...you can put lipstick on a pig, but nobody's going to buy it..." He was talking about Windows Vista. Techy customers are quite jaded when it comes to the numerous Microsoft announcements, especially after years of product announcements that are just talk. Now even the lay customers are seeing through the hype.
  3. DRM: It is difficult to say how much this is a backlash against DRM, but clearly it plays a part. Vista drivers have to rewritten from scratch because of the DRM. As a result, XP has better hardware support than Vista. And techy customers loath the Vista DRM.
  4. Vendors' Misfortune: For hardware vendors, the only non-Microsoft option is Linux. Apple is absolute about refusing to let OS X run on non-Apple hardware: it is even enforced in the Mac OS X EULA. So for hardware vendors Windows XP and Linux are the only options. Dell already sells machines pre-installed with Ubuntu, and if you have noticed, their Ubuntu product lines are increasing.
  5. Microsoft Lacks Options: Unlike the Windows ME debacle, Microsoft doesn't have a second OS line that it can rely on. Windows ME was also a train wreck, but it took less time to develop. When Microsoft realized that it was a disaster, they were able to repackage the NT kernel in Windows XP. Right now, I am not aware of a second product line that can take this slack. In effect, vendors falling back on Window XP shows that everyone is looking for the second line. Windows XP is now saving two train-wrecks worth of customers: Windows ME and Windows Vista.

Friday, July 20, 2007

हिन्दी का मज़ा कुछ और ही है

क्या मजे हैं। आजकल हिन्दी में कहानियां मिल जाती हैं। यह कहानी मैंने पहले नहीं देखी थी।

यह मेरे नए उबुन्टू का कमाल है । उबुन्टू मुफ़्त में मिलता है, और आप भी इसे इस्तमाल कर सकते हैं।

हो सके तो हिन्दी में जवाब दीजिए।

This is nice. We can find Hindi stories online. I hadn't seen this site before.

This is all because of my new Ubuntu installation. Ubuntu is free for download and use.

Please try to leave comments in Hindi.

Guitar with a begging bowl

I've been learning how to play the guitar for a few months now. At first, I used a book called Mel Bay's Complete Method for Modern Guitar. It is a huge tome. If you are unfamiliar with sheet music, it is considered remarkable progress when you can cover three pages a week. So at 320 pages, it is enough material for me to practice for many years. However, the book has one major flaw: there is no recording to listen to. When I started learning, that was a big failing. I needed to hear if I was playing the music correctly. Since I had no teacher, I was responsible for checking whether I was correct, and this was hard to do if I didn't know what correct was meant to be.

So I did what any logical person would do: Buy yet another tome. (Actually, I also joined guitar classes) The new tome is called Hal Leonard's Guitar Method, the Complete Edition. This is a set of three separate books, and it comes with three CDs with full recordings of nearly all the music written in the book. It is an impressive book, and the CDs help immensely in figuring out right from wrong.

But there's something wrong.

Both books are filled with what is best described as crap music. One of the songs that I'm working on, for instance, is completely lacking in imagination and power. This song is partly religious, so I don't want to name it. Let's just call it "Juju in the valley", and save everyone a lot of grief. So Juju in the Valley is a crap song. The kind that nearly everyone can agree is not music any more than clanging pots and pans is music. It is not something I enjoy playing, though I enjoy the sense of accomplishment after I can play it. My wife heard that song, and her first comment was, "This song is best played with a begging bowl in front of you." For those of you who have not suffered in Bombay local trains, this is a reference to the tonal quality of the beggars in the trains. And this song was being played on a top dollar, electric guitar, with the best possible strings money could buy (I'm cheap, but so are the best possible strings). Oh, and the amp is killer too.

No wonder it doesn't pay to learn music. In one his comedy routines, Eddie Izzard made fun of learning music when he was a child. As a child, his incentive in learning music was to get popular, and be a heart throb among women. So understandably, he was looking to play sexy songs. Instead, he was forced to play complete rubbish, kind of like the mess I'm in. I can't possibly imagine playing "Juju in the valley" in polite company. I'd be ridiculed. That is an understatement. I'd probably be shot.

It could be that such songs are the only things that new guitarists (like me) can play. It is possible, but I highly doubt it. The opening riff to "Wish you were here" by Pink Floyd is absolutely super easy. As a matter of fact, one of the students in my guitar class picked it up all by himself. So did I. It is easier than this particular piece I'm trying. It has more impact, and more class. It is certainly within the "sexy songs" category. A lot of rock music has repeating chord patterns. They're easy. Ask any budding guitarist, and he'll tell you the three chords G C D, and how much damage you can do to listeners ears if you just know those three. There's even a video online by a group that plays just three chords, and covers a variety of early and recent rock.

So why aren't there common three chord songs in my guitar book? Why must I search online for guitar tabs to simple songs? More importantly, why aren't simple tunes in my book? Simple tunes of the "earn me groupies" variety?

The point boils down to copyright, as always. The composers own the tunes, and you cannot reproduce them without their permission. Years ago, when Eric Clapton played riffs originally played by Robert Johnson, he was celebrated. Today, any other musician will be persecuted. Just as well that Eric Clapton made his music in the 70s. Today he'd be a homeless bum. If you've heard any Robert Johnson, you can tell that the two artists are very different. Buying one Eric Clapton album doesn't mean you won't buy any by Robert Johnson. Blues and Jazz grew out of a collaborative art form. Since not many recordings were present in the early days of jazz (till Okey records, and other companies started selling jazz), the musicians played live. They revelled in playing together. Louis Armstrong played often with other musicians, a lot of whom copied his ideas, and improved them. To be fair, Louis himself built on a strong tradition of jazz that started in New Orleans, and he was building on the work of others. It was completely normal for him to play what someone else did, but embellish it in his own way. This sold records of both artists. Without this, there is no art. There is no jazz.

Today, the existing laws prohibit even sharing the information required to play a song. I cannot tell you how Eric Clapton played wonderful tonight. I cannot tell you the entire lyrics. For those who remember OLGA, the OnLine Guitar Archive, this is how you play wonderful tonight. Notice how the lyrics are missing. If the lyrics were there, this site would be ordered to take them down. Sheet music? Forget it. You have to pay for that. So a new guitarist like me tries, and tries, till there is some resemblance between my playing and Clapton's. Of course, it is is easy to play the song like he plays. The magic is in playing it exactly as he played it, or even playing it better. Without sheet music, a new musician finds it very hard to play the song exactly. Sheet music is available, for a discount price of about $25 per musician per book. And sheet music covers the full songs. I've gone through books of sheet music of guitar legends. It is worthwhile only to an established musician. For students, entire songs are difficult and time consuming. Even the Hal Leonard "Blues" book is good, but it only starts making sense after you've got a concept of sixteenth notes. So you are forced to plow through three books of Juju in his damn valley. The only reason guitar instruction books don't put bits and pieces of good songs is because those songs have composers who still have rights on the songs. Even after years and years of anyone wanting to play the song in public. There are no Louis Armstrong cover bands, but it is still illegal to learn from his playing. Even if a person takes the time to write down the sheet music and puts it up online, it would be illegal.

Recently, the composer's guild forced a guitar teacher to take down videos he had posted online. In these videos, he showed you how to play music by some current bands. The videos were available free of charge, and the teacher saw this as a way of boosting his clientele. He also sold DVDs with this material, so his videos could be interpreted as commercial. Even so, the loss to budding guitarists has been great. The videos were simple, honest, and had a very personal touch that is missing in other productions. A comparison to a similar video created by a true artist is instructive. I once watched a video (on legal DVD, thank you) by the guitarist Buddy Guy, where he explained some of his chops. The instructional quality was near zero. It was impossible to follow, it came with no sheet music, and the entire DVD was worthless to a new musician. I learnt no new guitar tricks from it. Compared to that, these amateur videos made by a guitar teacher were crisp, and clear. Even though there wasn't sheet music, he covered simple topics, and got you to play "sexy songs". Eddie would have been proud. Eddie would have continued learning to play.

For the full answer, I'd recommend you read Larry Lessig's absolutely brilliant book: Free Culture. No matter what you think you know about the music business, or the RIAA, please read the book. The entire book is available for download (in many languages) at the link in this paragraph.

With the recent extension of copyright terms, the world is moving to a place where we cannot learn how Louis Armstrong played a lot of his music. We cannot record a guitar solo on top of his trumpet. He learnt from people around him, and built on their work. We cannot do the same. Even though with a $400 computer, I can record my guitar tunes alongside his trumpet, I cannot share it with you. Even if I put a 30 second Louis Armstrong trumpet solo alongside my guitar playing, I cannot put it up online. Go figure.

The copyright extension was only in the US. India still has a 60 year copyright term, which is noteworthy. But through WIPO and WTO, even Indians will be denied access to ancient music. Really, Louis Armstrong is ancient music. Even Americans don't care about it. So why not allow new musicians to learn from this? Where's the harm?

There are some glimmers of hope, like the Internet Archive. But we all need to contribute to it. We need to make sure that we don't just turn into passive consumers of music. In as much as learning music should be fun, and about creating new types of sounds, we should encourage it. We can learn from Jazz, and Blues, and play it alongside Indian music and Indian instruments.

And as Aruna Subramanian and Neeru Paharia, show in their lovely song, we're better if we are allowed to.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Online companies: lacking professionalism

This is what I came across when looking at the website of Indian Airlines, now just called Indian. Jokes about their name aside, they have the most ridiculous email reply team. There are six domains. Count them. Six separate domains at which you can mail them.

This is bad for a variety of reasons:
  1. Phishing. What happens if you get mail from a domain called imrbint.com? Well, it is official Indian Airlines mail, but it sure doesn't look like it. Making six domains responsible for getting in touch with customers makes it very difficult to get customers to identify phishing attacks, since you don't even have to spoof the email sender for the customer to take your mail seriously.
  2. Branding. Six domains clearly makes it hazy which website to go to.
  3. Confusing for the customer. If you have a query, do you expect the customer to look up this giant table? Or would you rather point them to a mailbox support@companyname.co.in, so that it gets routed internally, and someone from the company responds?
  4. Impossible to remember: iacshq@nda.vsnl.net.in. Who thought up iacshq? Why not ialccsqhwo? How impossibly complicated can one make a helpline email address?

Yahoo Canada messes up!

Here is what Yahoo Canada had on their Mail sign up page.

The caption is "Quick! Find email from an old flame". The stock image is of a disturbingly little girl. Someone at Yahoo clarify what their target Yahoo Canada Mail audience is, because I don't match it anymore.

I checked yahoo.com, and yahoo.co.in. Luckily, both are devoid of this picture.

Why are we poor?

Last year, Tim Harford wrote a lovely article called "Why Poor Countries Are Poor". I just came across it today, (the magic of the Internet) and found it a gripping read. It talks about the crushing poverty in Cameroon, Africa, and tries to go behind the scenes to get to the cause of the poverty. It is a lovely read.
Even if you might dispute his analysis of what causes poverty, I was shocked at how so many of the situations were similar to ones that I had seen in India. I have grown up in many parts of India, and the setup in Cameroon sounds sadly familiar.

  1. Terrible roads. I remember the awful roads in Dehradun, or more recently, the absolutely terrible roads in Gorakhpur and Lucknow. The typical government response is to either patch the roads with low quality tar that wears off after the first rains, or to claim lack of funds as a reason for not doing anything. While Bangalore might have decent road quality, the overall road network is shoddy.
  2. Thugs exacting money. In Bombay, street vendors used to pay a hafta: a weekly dole to ensure that the local thug (partnering with the local police and politician) did not destroy his shack, or break his legs. An acquaintance of mine in Delhi was recently threatened by the local thug into parting with a plot of land, adjacent to his house!
  3. Libraries. Anyone in India seen a functioning local library?
I admit that a lot of these have changed for the better. Dehradun roads had improved since I left them, and some roads were being worked on before we left. After the civic council in Bombay passed some sorts of hawking regulation, hawkers and street vendors have some limited legal status.

Yet, we need to acknowledge that we do have these problems. We need to admit that no city in India has a functioning public library. People in UP need to ask where are the schools and roads. People in Bihar need to ask why the local economy is so broken that nearly all their labor goes elsewhere, to work as taxi drivers, or dhobis.

The sadder fact is that complaining about this stuff is not seen as the right thing to do. We are told that India is a poor country, and cannot have all the facilities available in richer countries. Or that "This is how it is in India". I have heard that phrase so often, I've lost count.

We look at the West so often, we forget to look at parts of India that look almost exactly like Douala.

Friday, June 29, 2007

wat u tawkin?

i hope ppl rote welll............ not coz t wud make teh world better....... but it wud make my hedache go awy............ i get a ton of mail....... n affte tw lvls of spam-filtering....... i stilll hav 2 reply 2 a few messages.......... tis means that i must b abl 2 red those messages....... n understnd teh content............ easier said thn dun...........

i hav noticed tis trend over sum time now............ most mail 2 me from my peers is horrribly written........ it is eitehr missnig spelllnig....... or grammmer........ in a lot of cases....... it is missnig english altogetehr.......... it is written in a sms langauge....... usnig acronyms that i havnt heard of....... like gtg....... btwn....... cyl n gr8......... if n wsn't rnd 2 explain sum of tehse 2 me....... i'd probably go insane......... i luv gettnig mails from friends....... but i detest teh throbbnig headache um of tehse mails give me.......... i luv teh content....... but teh presentation is so abssmal that i dread gonig beyond teh subject line.......... combined with teh fact that my mail prgram gives teh entire screen 2 teh message....... tehre is no escape...........

what am i cmplainng so much about.............. here is a laundry list....... but im sure u can add 2 tehm........... i'm sure you....... dear reader....... get a lot of tehe mails as welll...........

  1. lots of dots.......... loook....... one dot is a sentence end.......... three make elllipses....... which indicates sum sort of suspension....... ro omission........... i luv pavbhaji....... chaat....... idlivada............................................. but i realy should stop........
  2. acronyms for simple things.......... waht is gtg.............. or gr8....... or 2 in teh middle of a sentence.............. if u r tooo lazy 2 type gr8 instead of gr8....... tehn perhps that word should b omitted...........
  3. capitlization........... wy.............. hw hrd is it 2 press on teh shift key.............. teh otehr exteme is writing in fulll caps.......... thxfullly....... most ppl dont do that.......... but stilll....... capitalization is a goood thing.......... it helps pulll out teh sntnces.......... it hlps telll burns n burns apart...........

i am not advocting ptting on a formal dress....... n taling like pizsy nglish nbility here.......... alll im askng for is 2 fllow teh rules....... ro atleast eough of tehm 2 mke teh langauge easy for teh reader........

affte alll....... if u words r important enough 2 b read....... tehn tehyre important enough 2 b written welll.......... a pooor wriing style suggests two things 2 me...........

  1. you do not think your readers time is valaudle........... writing pooorly says that you're willling 2 trade your readrs time for yours........... it takes sumone forever 2 read a pooorly writen msage....... n u think teh tradeoff is worth it..........
  2. u do not think your words r important enough 2 b read........... if u could not spend teh time writing tehm welll....... expressing your thoughts clearly....... tehn perhps your thoghts arent of value.............. your words r a reresenation of your thoughts..........

a friend of mine....... who runs a smll cmpany in bmby once comlained about how trrrible teh email writing skilll of teh currrent crop of gadautes was........... he was shocked that tehse were ppl with a technical training (he does sum coputer conultancy)....... but could ot rite a sngle email that could b read........... e said that even ppl wrking for him wrot such awful messages....... that he ws ashamed 2 let tehm looose on clients...........

dut even busiess aspects aside....... mails r a means of communicaon........... emails that do nt folllow english r teh same astalking 2 a peronwho mubles n coughs affte every word........... both trnsmt teh message....... but being clear n pecise works better for you...........

dut i guess u know that already...........

What are you saying?

I hope people wrote well. Not because it would make the world better, but it would make my headache go away. I get a ton of mail, and after two levels of spam-filtering, I still have to reply to a few messages. This means that I must be able to read those messages, and understand the content. Easier said than done.

I have noticed this trend over some time now. Most mail to me from my peers is horribly written. It is either missing spelling, or grammar. In a lot of cases, it is missing English altogether. It is written in an SMS language, using acronyms that I haven't heard of, like gtg, btwn, cyl and gr8. If N wasn't around to explain some of these to me, I'd probably go insane. I love getting mails from friends, but I detest the throbbing headache some of these mails give me. I love the content, but the presentation is so abysmal that I dread going beyond the subject line. Combined with the fact that my mail program gives the entire screen to the message, there is no escape.

What am I complaining so much about? Here is a laundry list, but I'm sure you can add to them. I'm sure you, dear reader, get a lot of these mails as well.

  1. Lots of dots. Look, one dot is a sentence end. Three make ellipses, which indicates some sort of suspension, or omission. I love pavbhaji, chaat, idlivada,..., but I really should stop.
  2. Acronyms for simple things. What is gtg? Or gr8, or 2 in the middle of a sentence? If you are too lazy to type great instead of gr8, then perhaps that word should be omitted.
  3. Capitalization. Why? How hard is it to press on the shift key? The other extreme is WRITING IN FULL CAPS. Thankfully, most people don't do that. But still, capitalization is a good thing. It helps pull out the sentences. It helps tell Burns and burns apart.

I am not advocating putting on a formal dress, and talking like prissy English nobility here. All I'm asking for is to follow the rules, or at least enough of them to make the language easy for the reader.

After all, if your words are important enough to be read, then they're important enough to be written well. A poor writing style suggests two things to me.

  1. You do not think your reader's time is valuable. Writing poorly says that you're willing to trade your readers time for yours. It takes someone forever to read a poorly written message, and you think the tradeoff is worth it.
  2. You do not think your words are important enough to be read. If you could not spend the time writing them well, expressing your thoughts clearly, then perhaps your thoughts aren't of value? Your words are a representation of your thoughts.

A friend of mine, who runs a small company in Bombay, once complained about how terrible the email writing skill of the current crop of graduates was. He was shocked that these were people with a technical training (he does some computer consultancy), but could not write a single email that could be read. He said that even people working for him wrote such awful messages, that he was ashamed to let them loose on clients.

But even business aspects aside, mails are a means of communication. Emails that do not follow English are the same as talking to a person who mumbles and coughs after every word. Both transmit the message, but being clear and precise works better for you.

But I guess you know that already.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Comment spam

I recently noticed a very interesting blog comment spam. This was posted on my article about The moon being made of swiss cheese, posted early in March this year (more than two months old). Go ahead, read the comment at the end...

The spam is interesting for the following reasons:
  1. The comment was made to an old post, so most people wouldn't even notice that they're being spammed. The post was made over two months ago, so the traffic on that post is dead. I only noticed since I get an email every time I get a comment posted on my blog. I don't get so many comments, so I want to know of one through email. This would go completely un-noticed if a person got a lot of comments on their blog.
  2. I have enabled a captcha. So everyone is provided an image with some letters on it, that they have to faithfully type before the comment is made. However, they might have circumvented it. Read on.
  3. They circumvented the captcha by logging into Blogger. Once you are logged in, then you don't have to fill a captcha. This most probably means that they have automated their comment spam.
  4. Their username is EGB Systems & Solutions Inc., and their user-linked website defaults to the spam target. There are a few links in their post that all point to the spam target. They have gone through the trouble of creating a blogger account, even though this particular spam (to my blog) won't help them at all.
  5. The company is an Indian outfit that does web design. Their website is filled with crummy clipart shots. You know, the kind of pictures of a multicultural group, in crisp clothing, completely delighted. You see a photo like that and you can tell it is a generic shot. No company looks like that. They also do Search Engine Optimization (SEO), so you would expect them to know of something called the nofollow directive.
This is a very interesting attack vector. All I have to do is find a way to keep the blog cookie safely, and present it when posting. There are no captchas, so this process can be completely automated. Post only on old posts, which are indexed by search engines already, and already have a decent page rank.

Why won't this spam help them? Because the problem is quite old, and many companies are aware of comment spam. Blogger (and other blog software) automatically adds the rel="nofollow" directive to their outgoing link. This directive make the link have no effect on their Google pagerank. All that effort to post to my blog, and none of the benefits. However, if your blog does not add the nofollow directive, the spammers will benefit from posting on your site.

But wait a second! The spammers need the links, right? So here they are: Comment spammers, Shameful comment spammers, liars and comment spammers, they might be spamming your website, where do I learn about comment spam.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Misleading and uninforming

Recently, there was an article about Microsoft's war with Open Source in the Financial Express.

It was interesting, though quite misleading in a lot of facts.

Firstly: TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) studies with Linux are widely quoted, but usually fairly incorrect. The first study was carried out by the Yankee group, who were funded directly by Microsoft, and clearly, Microsoft came out the winner. Later studies are equally lopsided, and are debunked quite easily. A full report is available from Levanta's website. If you selectively set up the test environment, you can show anything you choose. So after all the criticism worldwide, if Microsoft sticks to its line of lower TCO, it is both misleading and uninformed. If there are new studies, then those should be presented. Otherwise, the Microsoft argument of lower TCO is plain marketing, with no real evidence. At this point, companies that are deploying thousands of servers should ask themselves what they know that Google doesn't. Google runs all its servers on Linux, and they have a lot of them, so clearly cost (and TCO) are very important to them. How important is cost: Google designs its own power supplies to get the most cost efficient machines.

Second: Microsoft's attempts to look like they're a part of the Open Source movement, with the launching of their Codeplex site is fairly meaningless. Free Software participation is measured by how much code is released as Free Software. Microsoft's contributions here are zero at best, and negative at worst. Their efforts at pushing competing standards (OpenXML to counter ODF), breaking standards (with the browsers), or forcing developers to reverse engineer their work (SMB version 2, because Samba was a better SMB server than Windows) is well known. Microsoft has never contributed any body of code to Open Source. Sun has released the Java language under GPL, IBM released many projects, including Jikes, and Eclipse, and are at the forefront of corporate Free Software development.

There is also the sticking point of interoperability. Microsoft's recent attempts are to pitch itself as a company that is keen to be interoperable with Linux. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two products at Microsoft form a bulk of their profits: Windows and Office. With ODF, and OpenOffice, Microsoft Office's user base is being steadily eroded. OpenOffice is very capable, and does nearly all the functions that you would expect (Word Processing, Presentation Software, Spreadsheet, ...). It runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS and is free of cost. You can download it and start using it right away. It might not have all the millions of features that Microsoft Office has, but it has all the ones that most people use. It can even open files written in MS Office format, which has traditionally been the lock-in for MS Office. To restore the lock-in, Microsoft is pushing its new document format called OpenXML, which, despite its naming, is neither Open, nor completely XML. If you have all the time, you can read why OpenXML is not really Open, or XML. Only Microsoft can implement it completely, as it depends on proprietary information, and breaks many existing standards.

The competition to OpenXML is Open Document Format (ODF), which is a published spec, that anyone can implement. It was created by the Oasis Group, which is the same team as the OpenOffice project, and has been successfully implemented by other independent groups. It is in Microsoft's interest to kill ODF, before its adoption is widespread. If Microsoft were to really support interoperability, they would implement ODF in Microsoft Office. This would be great for interoperability, but terrible for Microsoft's shareholders, since the Office cash cow would essentially vanish overnight.

The other place where Microsoft's Interoperability claims fall flat is its adoption of Web Standards. Microsoft's Internet Explorer is among the least standards compliant web browsers. This causes endless amounts of grief to web developers who write correct HTML, only to find that Internet Explorer renders it incorrectly. So they have to struggle to make their page work on IE, when every other browser (Firefox, Opera, Safari) does it just fine. Internet Explorer 6 was absolutely terrible at following standards, and Internet Explorer 7 is also bad with standards, and terrible at correctly implementing the standards it does follow. The previous links aren't about security bugs, but just bugs in correctly showing the web pages. And I should remind you that Safari (by Apple), Konquerer, Firefox (Free Software) and Opera (commercial) all are excellent at web standards. Either Microsoft lacks the incentive to write a good browser, or it lacks the people.

In the article, CESC Ltd's chief information officer Subroto Das makes some fairly uninformed claims. The first claim is that using Linux would mean that you have to release your code for free. This is completely false. Using Linux does not mean that you have to release all your source code under an Open License. Many companies use Linux desktops and servers, and maintain giant bodies of proprietary code: Google is a prime example. All their search code is proprietary, and they don't have to release it.
He claims that companies would have put their databases under third party control by using Free Software. This is also absolutely false, and a remarkably callous statement.
Lastly, he claims that "there is no such thing as free software". You have to pay Red Hat or Novell, or someone. Hey Mr. Das, why not download Red Hat's software free of charge, or if you can download 1.6Gb of software, here's SuSE, from Novell, or Open SuSE from Novell. It is absolutely free, in that you pay nobody to download it, or use it. So there is some such thing as free software.

Finally there is a gem of a quote from Microsoft India's Radhesh Balakrishnan,
Microsoft clearly stands out with a clear advantage of being able to give a short term and long term vision and roadmap.
Well, if Microsoft has such great vision, why is Vista floundering so badly? Vista sales are absolutely terrible, and corporates are not going to move to Vista anytime soon. Home users are either sticking with their old machines, or reinstalling Windows XP on their Vista computers. Why is Microsoft's online presence so shoddy, their web services are poor at best, with Maps Live being the only saving grace. Why is Linux on so many machines, starting from desktops, to the largest supercomputers, and everything in between? Developers are making web applications, or using Java, or other free tools. The amount of developer interest in .NET technology is very low. And why is Microsoft's share price so flat with little or no prospect of growth in the near future?

Microsoft has a clear vision for all its customers, and that vision involves a proprietary lock in for an unlimited amount of time. Indian companies, much like companies elsewhere are looking for a cheaper, safer, and competitive solution that ensures that they're not at the mercy of a single supplier. There is plenty of Free Software development and use in India. No matter how hard Microsoft's spin machine tries to change the facts, it is established that Free Software is a very viable solution for many tasks previous handled by proprietary software.

Dynamic companies are evaluating Linux to take advantage of cheaper, higher quality software.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Education rot -- whose fault is it?

There is a lovely article on a county in the US where rich whites and rich blacks live. Students study in the same school, and yet black kids have lower grades. An anthropology professor studied this problem, and published his findings. In his analysis, the students and their parents are to blame, for not rewarding success, for equating academic success with "being white". It might be hard for the parents and students to accept, but I think he is right on target.

This might help explain why Indians and Chinese abroad do so well in academics. Both groups are hell bent on academic success. Indian parents feel like their child has been a miserable failure if he returns home with lower than average grades. Indians are also more likely to track the academic progress of their child. A favorite dinner conversation among Indian friends is their children's academic achievement. And everyone finds out when someone's child fails a single subject.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Strikes give us a bad name

So the employees of Indian Airlines are striking about something they feel is very unjust. Yet another strike in our country, so who cares!

The problem with such actions is the terrible reputation that this gives India, as a working economy. The remaining world sees our functioning economy as one entity, and disruptions like general strikes, or (please, not another) riot, kill this reputation. Readers outside India remember reports like this longer than we'd like to imagine. Many years after the Bombay riots, I was still asked about them by people new to Bombay, or to India. These reports continue to be written into tourist handbooks, cautioning the traveler against unreasonable travel delays due to bandh's or strikes.

We should also be wary of a group which chooses to make its presence felt in this catastrophic way. What if all the poultry producers of India went on strike tomorrow? We are programmed to shrug it off as a "misery of the common man" issue. In reality, the poultry producers are just providing a service, and ganging up against all the consumers should be viewed as monopolistic practice. Just as easily, all milk suppliers in the country could strike, and force the price of milk to skyrocket? Still think it is alright? How about all medicine distributors strike? How about all wheat and rice suppliers strike? Where do you draw the line?

I have lived through taxi strikes, bus strikes, cable TV providers strikes. As a consumer, I was enraged that all the people offering the services could so easily gang up against me, to enforce their will.

As a consumer, I do not support a single strike. Strikes are too reminiscent of the license raj, where a single company was allowed to make watches (HMT), and their workers could strike when they wanted, without fear of reprisal. Who else can you buy watches from, anyway? Luckily, now we can buy a watch which is cheaper, and more functional from a variety of vendors. How often do Casio employees strike? How often do all the watch makers in India strike now? In this case, the government has taken a tough stand, and refuses to negotiate while the strike is in effect. I would advocate a much tougher approach, but this one is a healthy start. Countries that don't negotiate with aircraft hijackers have fewer hijackings, I would guess.

When you see a strike, look for the monopolist, the sole supplier in the background, and ask yourself: do I really want to live at their mercy? What have I done to grant this group so much power, and how can I take some of it away?

Update: The strike is over now. The Government was "acting tough" and suspended 27 people. In a strike of 13,000 employees, that is 0.2%, or 2 out of a thousand. That is acting as tough as a purring kitten.

Linspire, Xandros, SuSE

What do the three distributions have in common?

Yesterday, Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony announced that Linspire and Microsoft are now in a patent agreement. The announcement is quite confusing and it is not clear what Linspire stands to gain, though my guess is that there is a lot of money changing hands behind the scenes.

The announcement makes little or no sense because of its timing. This deal comes in the wake of agreements that Microsoft has made with two other Linux distributors. Despite the intensely bad publicity these have generated, Kevin is convinced that this is a great idea, and something the customers have been pleading for. I do not know of any Linspire forum in which people were thinking, "What we need is patent protection from Microsoft".

In fact, it is generally believed by geeks and lawyers alike, that the Microsoft patent claims will not hold up: either because of prior art, counter lawsuits, or because the workarounds will be all too trivial. There is also the possibility that if Microsoft does enforce its patents, it will cause a major rehaul of the US software patent business, which sorely needs a rehaul by now.

The other thing that Linux users get is "interoperability". With Windows Media files and Windows IM. This might be more reasonable, but if this is required, why should Microsoft team up with Linspire? Why not make their IM protocol known, so someone can write his own program? Why not develop a Microsoft IM for Linux, like a little known VOIP company did? How hard can it be for the giant eye at Redmond to do what a few hackers at Skype did?

Then there is interoperability with OpenXML which, despite its name, is far from Open. If interoperability is so important, then why isn't Microsoft writing an ODF plugin for MS Windows? Or cleaning up its act with OpenXML? There are countless clauses in the OpenXML spec which ensure that nobody but Microsoft can implement it well.

Is this the same interoperability which prompted Microsoft to break SMB2, just so that Samba couldn't work with it anymore?

In the most extreme case, if it really was interoperability, then why doesn't Microsoft release a version of its software for Linux? Like VMWare does? Sell your software directly to any Linux user, and not have to sign a patent covenant with each distributor separately. Linspire sells software through its Click and Run service, and including Microsoft software should not be too hard. If there is such a huge growing band of Linux users screaming that they need interoperability, then they must be willing to pay for it, right? Why not sell to them directly? And if they're not willing to pay for it, then why bother?

That's the other thing I am not sure about: this growing crowd of interoperability demanding customers. It could be that these are all corporate customers. How many corporate customers does Linspire have? And if it is personal users, then it must show up on the Linspire forums, right? Why are the forums so silent on the interoperability issue?

If you do check the forums on responses to Kevin's move, it is filled with confusion. There are longtime users who have a feeling of betrayal. This quote sums up the feeling of some users,

And Thanks to you for your betrayal. I really really feel bitter and used.

How much are they paying Kevin? I am sure they had you sign a contract sealing your lips for evermore but it wouldn't prevent someone with a shred of honesty admitting they were "ahead" in the deal. You certainly didn't do the deal for me.

It is so hard to lie about what the customers wanted, especially when the customers are vocal, and their needs are easy to assess. Dell's Ideastorm is an acceptance of this fact. If you lie about what your customers want, you will find out, very soon, and very vocally, from the very customers you lied about.

So what's the answer to my question at the beginning of the post?
Their users have this link fired up.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Teach girls martial arts!

Despite all the drama about equality, Indian girls still get a very rough deal. While a family will allow a boy to venture out in shorts, the girl should dress up appropriately. If it is lewd for a girl to show her legs, then it should be lewd for a boy to show his. And in most of India, shorts are way more comfortable than something longer. People frown upon girls wearing comfortably short clothing. And in rural areas, even pants are the preserve of the men. The reason cited is very lopsided -- it is not appropriate, or that it is wrong for women to advertise themselves.

This logic reeks of something from the Taliban regime. When you force women to cover themselves completely, then their red socks will begin to excite men. Biologically, most men will be attracted to women, and trying to stop this is pointless.

A friend of mine was telling me about Gorakhpur, where she was brought up. Many years ago, when she was in school, she would bicycle to school, wearing pants. This was completely acceptable, and nobody expressed disgust. Today, it is unheard of for a girl in that area to bicycle to school, wearing pants. All in the space of about 20 years. What are we so afraid of?

The girl child is usually brought up in a very different state of mind: she is taught that she needs to be protected. Girls are advised not to walk alone at night, despite most Indian cities being absolutely harmless at night. Girls are not required to support themselves financially, since their husbands will provide for the family. Girls aren't expected to be fighting fit. Instead, they should have the two or three qualities that set them apart in matrimonial classifieds: 'fair, convent educated, and with family values'.

This gentle psychological warfare wreaks havoc on the minds of girls. When you are brought up with the notion that you are defenseless, you end up being defenseless. When you are taught all your life that all important decisions will be taken for you, you lose the capability to make the important decisions by yourself.

This is damaging for both girls and guys. Children spend much more time with their mother, and their maternal grandparents. Children learn more from their mother as well, since they see her much more than the father. For the first few years, the development of a child is influenced more by the capabilities of the mother than the father. Uneducated or undereducated women can teach their children (both boy and girl) lesser than if they'd been educated.

Also, there is a great freedom in both parents being capable of earning. They might not both work, but if required, the woman could be the wage earner instead of the man. This eases situations considerably in case of an accident, or a layoff. In America and Britain, the Second World War forced all physically able men to fight for their country. The war machinery was then run by women. Factories making amunitions, aircrafts, and tanks, were run by women laboring on the factory floor. Reading their accounts gives a sense of their wonderful sense of freedom and accomplishment. One woman was so delighted that she could "write her own cheques" instead of relying on her husband to write them for her. Without this massive manpower (womanpower, actually), the huge production required to sustain the war would have been impossible.

Independent, strong women are the key to India's success. They're half our working force, lying dormant. We need them to start companies, to work in factories, to work in the fields on their own terms, and to help open our minds to new ideas. Teach them martial arts, and get them started early with the idea that they are neither defenceless, nor helpless. We'd all be much better for it.

Linux Journal losing focus

I've been a subscriber to Linux Journal for a few years now. The technical articles are still top notch: they focus on real tech. Reuven Lerner's articles on web development, Marcel Gagne's focussed articles about a wide variety of topics, Greg Kroah-Hartman and Robert Love's articles about the kernel, Dave Taylor's articles about shell scripting. All very good, and highly recommended.

Then there's all the fluff. I was shocked to see the first article Nick Petreley wrote when he took over as Editor in Chief. It was an article a 12 year old fanboy would write. He also wrote this fine article. And this nutter became the Editor in Chief! Holy Hormones! Since then, his articles have toned down, but they are still pointless. Nick has little or no background, doesn't write any code, and is a fanatic on the loose. According to the bio on his column, he is "a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant". Greg K-H and Robert Love know what they're talking about, since they actually do write kernel code. But even if you think of Marcel Gagne: at least his column adds value to the magazine. Nick's articles are nearly always pointless, if not scathing and acidic. This kind of irresponsible behavior gives Linux users a bad name. I can still tolerate Richard Stallman making some wild remarks, but he wrote some large programs. His opinion carries more weight. When complete nobodies start making crazy statements on behalf of the Linux user population, we all lose our credibility. Many of Nick's articles, if posted online, would get marked as 'flamebait' within seconds.

And this month, there's an article by Doc Searls about death threats to a blogger. Why something like this should be covered in Linux Journal is beyond me. Sure, he does say that blogging is like Open Source development, but then the article goes on, around and around. No point to make, no story to tell, no lesson for the reader. An abject waste of paper, and time for the reader. Doc used to have reasonable articles, but now his Linux Journal articles are beginning to look like his personal blog: covering whatever it is he wants to.

While I have renewed my subscription because the technical articles are still great, I'm sad to see a complete lack of a good editor at Linux Journal. Maybe all the good geeks are out writing code.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Learn to cook, it is worthwhile

Last night N and I cooked up a few things: green beans, and pulav and rajma. It took us about half an hour to get everything prepared, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

I began cooking many years ago, when my mom needed kitchen help. It started out with simple things: I learnt how to chop vegetables, since this was something I could help her with often. Then there was a long period of no learning. I would assist my mom, but didn't venture into trying to cook myself. I think this is in part because my mom is a fantastic cook (whose mom isn't?) and no matter what I tried, it was disastrous in comparison.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself living alone, and missing Indian food completely. I enjoy a variety of flavors, but for everyday cooking: I need my usual dal and rice, or some veggie with some kind of wheat. So I started experimenting. My first Indian dish was cauliflower, cooked Indian style. It was absolutely horrendous, and I had to throw it all away. Luckily, that phase was very short. I soon learnt how to make basic food first: dal and rice, and then I moved on to more difficult food: like gourmet chicken curry.

Cooking food at home has a lot of benefits, and specially Indian food. First, home cooked food is nearly always healthier than eating out. Restaurants compete on price and flavor (in addition to service), and the easy way to make something tasty (and cheap) is to be generous with butter and other fats. McDonalds gets a bad rep for this basic idea: they're greasy, but for a brief while, the food is tasty. Even Indian restaurants abroad have greasier food than Indian homes abroad. And if you want to eat salad in restaurants, you can just as easily eat salad at home.

More importantly, a lot of Indian food can be cooked in advance, and stored for future consumption. This is not true of a lot of Western food, for instance, which must be prepared fresh. A prime example is a hamburger, or steaks, or pasta. You cannot prepare a week's pasta in advance, and stick it in the fridge. A few Indian foods are like this: dosas, bhel-puri, kachori. But in general, a lot of it refrigerates quite well. This means that you can make 2x the quantity, and avoid cooking on the second meal. Or even better, make 5x the quantity, and make two dishes, and stagger the meals so that you have one thing for lunch, and the other for dinner. An hour's cooking will easily last a few days. You only spend time cooking once, and for the remaining time all you have to do is fire up the stove, or the microwave, and food takes no time to prepare.

It is also cheaper - in terms of money, and in terms of the time involved in making the food. And since raw foodstuff is much cheaper than prepared foodstuff, you can buy the very best ingredients, and still come out ahead. Eating higher quality chicken at home is cheaper than eating poor quality chicken outside.

Cooking is a very social thing. Some of my nicest memories have been cooking with friends, or learning to cook their favorite foods. In most cases, helping someone prepare dinner, and the associated conversation has always been more interesting than if we had gone out for dinner. It is even better if the dining room and the kitchen aren't separated. Half my recipes have been learnt through such sessions. Such gatherings are even better when people have different backgrounds. These are the sessions that give rise to Macaroni Masala, and Pasta Bhaji.

It is surprisingly easy once you get started on the basics. Most North Indian cooking follows two or three basic principles. Once you know how to make one dal passably, it is almost trivial to cook the others. Rotis and naans are tricky, and I haven't practiced enough to make them well, but I make do with substitutes like rice, or bread. Even meats are quite easy, though the rules are slightly different. With little effort, one can whip up a killer chicken curry, with almost no grease, as spicy as you like, and with genuine flavor.

A lot of old traditional Indians laugh when my wife says that I'm just as good a cook as her. To them the idea of a man cooking alongside his wife might be amusing, but they have no idea what they're missing. We cook things twice as fast, experiment with new ideas, and have fun cooking together.

It's like playing with clay, or making music. Just that you get to eat it afterwards.

Yoga and the mystery of the Universe

I seem to run into this topic no matter how hard I try to escape it. Yoga, the great Indian export. Some stuff that really works, and a lot of rubbish around it which just cheapens the message.

Yoga, or specifically hatha yoga is a bunch of stretches, and balance exercises. Very nice if you want to stay fit without using much equipment, in your own home, or without exerting your body too much. I completely like this, can identify with it, and hope that more people do this. Some yoga postures are quite challenging, and one needs balance more than strength to do them right. Nothing more fun than taking a yoga class, and have a person in the back of the class lose his balance and fall loudly. This yoga I enjoy, this yoga I recommend.

Then there is all the mind and soul kind of yoga that I don't get. My yoga teacher would sometimes do a little of this towards the end of the class. She would put on some music involving running water (or birds chirping). Then she would read from a script, about the one-ness of the Universe, about the great flow of energy through our hearts, about capturing the energy in the palm of your hand, and about increasing one's conciousness. It was always about these nebulous concepts of conciousness, of great inner peace, of feeling one with the creator. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.

I have no problem with doing the stretches, since I found it genuinely useful. After a month or two of practice, I could do postures with comfort. That was nice. But this mind and soul business never did anything for me. There wasn't a single instance when I was in a tight spot, and her "one-ness with creator" speech came to the rescue. For starters, I wasn't sure how to achieve this elusive one-ness. And when do I know it is done? It wasn't like the postures at all, where you could tell you are doing the postures well. The great flow of energy was missing in me when I started, and I guess it was still missing when I left. I didn't ask the teacher to find out how much energy I had managed to capture in palms of my hand, or how much more I could expect to capture at the end of the course. There is a direct parallel between this and the Chinese martial arts. The physical part of the training is very valid, and there is a marked improvement in agility and strength when learning martial arts. And then there is the whole drama with chi: the life force. There is so much hype about chi, about how you can knock someone cold by throwing a ball of chi at them. Not every martial art stresses this chi (or ki) angle. As a complete outsider to Oriental martial arts, I think chi is a bunch of hooey, and I would like to be proven wrong.

Invariably, I open my big mouth at inappropriate moments, and there is usually a heated discussion about this whole mind and soul business. The most common retort I get is that I am too inexperienced to get this whole thing. Too stupid to understand these deep concepts, and what is worse, there is no place I can learn this from! Perhaps one day I'll see it all.

So I don't have this knowledge, and nobody can teach this to me. How do all the others get it? Meditating? Tried that, and found it mildly useful. But didn't come across any one-ness or flow of energy. Yoga? The postures are good, but they didn't teach me any one-ness.

I think this stuff might come across as very profound, but it cheapens the real utility of yoga. If the mind and soul stuff is central to yoga, then someone should come up with real answers, and not this touchy feely stuff that nobody can teach you, nobody can measure, and nobody can learn. If this is not central to yoga, then it should be taught as a separate entity, for people who are looking for a belief-system in addition to their fitness routine.

Eventually, I find the mind and soul stuff to be an impediment to really learning yoga well. I would like to spend time to get the postures right, but if I consult a teacher, they'll feed me this assorted blend of mysticism that doesn't interest me. Further, a strong belief in this mysticism makes me nervous, and doubt the knowledge of the teacher. It is like trying to learn arithmetic from a person who forces his choice of diet on you at every lesson. He might be right about the diet, but it just gets in the way. I've learnt many things from people holding different political, religious and dietary views, and it would have been impossible if they required me to subscribe to their entire thinking before they taught me something.

It is entirely possible that I'm a child, screaming my head off about something I don't know. It is also entirely possible that I'm yelling about an Emperor who is walking around with no clothes.