Monday, December 08, 2008

Music Today, gone tomorrow

Dear Music Today

So I get myself a new Sarod CD set: one with Amjad Ali Khan, my hero. It is called The Best of Sarod and has music by Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan.

Unlike the other CDs that I own, this one must have passed through Satan's fiery hands. For one, it had two layers of plastic covering that was scientifically designed to repulse knives. So after much struggling, I open the packaging, and look at the label sides. Nothing fancy, they seem decently manufactured, though the authoring is only marginally better than the illegal CDs that one can buy along the roadside. The first CD was fairly error prone. cdparanoia, my ripper of choice, struggled with the first but came out with a decent rip. The second CD was a completely different story. It had track errors by the dozen. The first track had some read errors and cdparanoia gave up after multiple reads. The last track had so many errors that I let the rip run for two whole days, and still it did not rip a good quality file. If I were to play this on a CD player, I am guaranteed that the last track will skip nearly constantly, and will resemble a rat squeaking more than great masters playing sarod.

This is about the worst CD I have seen, and for a brand new CD to do this is unimaginable. Imagine my surprise when I visually inspect the shiny side, and realize that it has extremely poor pressing. When light reflects off it, you can see large patches of discoloration. Music Today must have little or no idea of quality control, for this disastrous CD to pass through.

Every CD is authored in an automated setup, where it is usually trivial to test a large fraction of the CDs for quality. I'm guessing this was not the case. The ring identification says "SL NO. 0044 7172 B. THE BEST OF SAROD II ACD MT/CIPL", in case it helps someone track down the pressing plant.

Luckily the missing track has music by Ayaan Ali Khan, and not Amjad Ali Khan, so I can rationalize its loss. Note to self: avoid Music Today CDs like the plague.

On a more positive note, the CDs that were not Music Today worked beautifully. Somehow, I enjoy the sound of the sarod far more than the fretted sitar. In case you haven't heard the sarod yet, here is a recording at the BBC and a video of a live performance.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Please donate to Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia a lot. In many cases, it is better than any other website, is free of advertising, and has authoritative information. It is of great use to people in India, where other forms of reference might be unavailable.

If you can afford to, do consider donating to Wikipedia. All it requires is a Paypal account, and some money. Even a donation of a single dollar would help in keeping their servers running. Millions of people make small edits to Wikipedia, to make it a great reference. A million of small donations can help the website running free of advertising, and make it a model of knowledge dissemination on the web. You could visit yourself, or click on the link below.

Wikipedia Affiliate Button

Back in the day, I had a copy of Microsoft Encarta that came free with my sound card. We used it for a while, and were amazed at how much better it was to have an encyclopaedia on a computer. Before that, we had only seen the World Book in other people's homes, and in libraries. And now you had something similar, on your computer! We couldn't even begin to compare the difference in cost (or shelf space). People spent thousands of rupees on the World Book, which mostly sat unused on shelves. We could never afford the volumes, and it felt awkward that there was such a high price on learning. Whatever happened to the zen saying, "When the student is ready, the master appears"?

Many years later, when Wikipedia came on the scene, it changed everything. It didn't matter if you had a powerful computer, a CDROM drive, or money! All you needed was access to the Internet: even a cybercafe would do, and you could access an amazing source of information. All without a username, a password, without payment, and without advertising. The Wikipedia page design has always been clear, crisp and elegant: even when other websites were brutally assaulting us with banner ads, blinking text and the HTML table tag. Wikipedia had more information than any book or CDROM that we had access to. We were hooked, and since then, it has improved every day.

Wikipedia has made such a difference that when I received a promotional copy of the World Book (on CDROM), my father suggested that we trash it. "Who needs it when there's Wikipedia", were his words.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why Mumbai is different from Bombay

I grew up in Bombay, and spent a large part of my childhood here. When the city was renamed to Mumbai, I resisted the change in name, partly because the reasons for renaming the city were so superfluous. The government that forced the change did so for political reasons, and partly because they did little else. As I recall, that was also when the name of the airport and the train station was changed.

Quite some has changed in Bombay, and not all for the better.

The traffic has become absolutely terrible. Drivers seem to be playing a video-game where points are earned for every move that can get people killed. Vehicles inch forwards at signals, and consider traffic lights as mere hints. Traffic cops stand in the side and are paid to discuss cricket scores. Drivers have no concern for pedestrians, even when pedestrians are forced to walk on the street due to missing pavements. I used to think that bad driving was a result of illiteracy till I saw a well-dressed seemingly literate lady driving the wrong direction on a one-way street, carrying school children in her car. If you want to see what a raging herd of angry Mongols would drive like, visit Bombay. Ooops, sorry. That should be Mumbai, the evil and angry version of Bombay.

The air quality has gone to garbage, literally. Every morning I am amazed to find a thick haze as far as the eye can see. Buildings and trees farther than 250m are hazy and dull. October in Bombay was like living in a furnace. October in Mumbai is like breathing the exhaust of a coal furnace too. Every morning, I am amazed at the low-grade fuel fires: cowdung fire spewing out a thick smoke, and wood fires in the nearby areas. All the garbage in the area is burnt, to transfer rubbish from the streets to the air, spreading it evenly among everyone. All these make the air warm and thick with particulate matter. Trees in the distance become impossible to see early morning. If you want to feel like an asthamatic, you should visit Bombay. Ooops, sorry. That should be Mumbai, the evil and angry version of Bombay.

The biggest problem is that we don't acknowledge these issues. The newspapers carry short stories of how some old man was killed at some intersection, and how some children died when they were run over by a bus. Is this news? Does it surprise anyone that people die on the streets because of the wild mongols that are driving huge boxes of metal? Every driver seems to relish passing by other cars and pedestrians. In this atmosphere, death and destruction are expected. I would consider it news if there was no traffic accident for a day. Bad traffic in Bombay has a precedent: around 1992, South Bombay had terrible traffic, and the traffic police laid out high barricades to prevent pedestrians from crossing major junctions, they started laying down thick stones to separate turn-only lanes, and clamped down on drivers ignoring traffic signs and signals. Result: good traffic behavior in Bombay. Traffic can improve, if people focus on it. Bombay has done it. Maybe Mumbai can do it too.

Nobody acknowledges the bad air either. Since my mom is an asthamatic, I was convincing her to buy a military-grade gas mask. You need that to inhale the air around some parts. The poor have no alternative but to breathe in the fumes, and the rich are too happy turning on the air conditioning, and isolating themselves. I saw some deluded people jogging on the pavement in the morning. If the traffic doesn't kill them, the air surely will. Death is in the air. You can smell it in Mumbai, the evil and angry version of Bombay.

I'm sure many things have changed for the better. My point is many things have become much worse, and that we can only change the situation if we notice the problems. There's a lot of noise about employees of some company that were laid off. Why is that worth worrying about? I'm more concerned about the toxic fumes that everyone is breathing in.

It is very sad to see such a beautiful city go down the toilet like this. Mumbai is a difficult city to live in. Mumbai is a difficult city to visit. I am glad that some of my immediate family has moved out of Mumbai. Bombay was a wonderful city to visit. Mumbai is a wonderful city to leave.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Culture and law

Tom Vanderbilt in his new book, "Traffic", mentions how the traffic of a country correlates well with the amount of corruption in the country. This set me thinking: why is that so? When there is a large amount of corruption in the country, the traffic is more chaotic and follows no law.

At the outset it seems that traffic and bribery both stem from a disregard of laws. If a person is more likely to break a traffic law, then they are more likely to break a rule about accepting bribes as well. Move along folk: blogger finds nothing new. Let's all read some real content instead.

I think the issue is much deeper, and it seems to tie well with some current issues regarding piracy (!). Along the way, I hope to show why we are all equally culpable when the traffic is terrible in India, or when another woman becomes the unfortunate victim of a dowry-related crime.

Culture and law

The issue is of culture, and the intersection of culture with law, which always bodes ill for the law.

A friend of mine told me this anecdote recently. A German friend of his was visiting and they walked by a gated parking lot which had a sign saying, "No Public Parking". The gate was to disallow unauthorized people from parking in the lot. On seeing this, the German asked, "why do you need the gate?"

The Germans might need just a sign to ensure that no authorized parking occurs, but in India, even a gate might be insufficient. Personal experience, and lots of funny anecdotes establish that the Germans are an orderly bunch. Put up a sign saying that no parking is allowed in a certain area, and they will follow it.

Over in India, we seem to have made a pastime out of being disorderly. Do Indians ever wait for a traffic light to turn green before they accelerate? No, we inch forward while the light is red, nearly reaching the other end in some cases. We don't care for the law. It is merely advisory. Unless we spot a police man, we do as the Bombay-folk do: we inch forward. Many years ago, this wasn't the case. I've lived through a Bombay where people stopped at red lights, and patiently waited for the light to turn green. You got frowned at if you drove like "someone from the North". Now you don't, and if you're one of the unfortunate few who does drive properly: you'll get honked at. If you wait for a pedestrian to cross the road, both the driver following you and the pedestrian will look at you as though you've arrived from Mars.

Following the rule of the law will get you honked at by those you don't. Culture asserts itself over the law, and you follow the culture by inching forward at the red signal. Congratulations, you're a law breaker and a part of the problem.

Dowry is illegal in India, but it is exchanged at weddings. It happens all too often. It is in the culture, and the culture isn't frowning on it badly enough. Further, the law is too lax, and isn't frowning on it either. It happens, it is rampant in some areas. What's worse, when you hear that someone else took dowry, it is not in hushed tones. I've heard plenty of people talk about how much dowry was exchanged in so-and-so's wedding. Out in the open, with kids and servants within earshot. Or out in the open, in a train compartment. No repercussions by the law. And what's worse: nobody looks at you funny. That's why dowry is such a big issue. Culture permits it. Hell, culture even encourages dowry. What's that: you didn't accept dowry at your son's wedding? It's because you're a damn fool, that's why. Any sane person would have. At least 20 lakhs for a boy like him.

It is more difficult to talk about your beef kebab dinner than it is to talk about accepting dowry. That's why dowry is here to stay: we don't care. We've made up our mind that it is acceptable. When our relatives talk about it, we don't look at them as though they're uneducated yokels. We don't debate it, we don't question them. Too bad: innocent women will suffer because of us. Innocent women will die because of our attitude towards it. We're all killers! (Who says blogs aren't as good as media? I try to be just as sensational.)

Many years ago, it used to be that sati was in our culture: women were expected to burn themselves at the death of their husbands. Everyone did it, it was encouraged. If a widow didn't burn herself, she was frowned upon, perhaps ostracised. Many people worked very hard to change that. There was a huge change in the law, and its enforcement. The British get a lot of the credit here, since their law enforcement was a bit more persuasive than our current system. But there was also a huge shift in culture. Cultural leaders like Dayanand Saraswati convinced us that this was a poor choice, and that we needed to re-evaluate this bit of our culture. We did, and we're much better off for it now. Sati is a hazy memory, a mere paragraph in history texts rather than a practice as widespread as dowry. So eradicating sati is due to a fundamental change in both culture and law. Something similar happened in the mid 90s, when the tax code was significantly cleaned up. It was made simpler, and the enforcement was tightened. Culture, too, started accepting this new-fangled thing called tax. Things are better now, and more people view tax evasion as disreputable rather than a mark of pride. Many years ago, great dinner conversation included how much money people were hiding as "black" money. It is much less now, and boasting about tax evasion is a thing of the past (in the humble middle-class groups that I have access to).

Is bribery so prevalent in India because the law permits it? I would argue that it is entirely because our culture embraces it so openly. Postal employees come by every Diwali to openly ask for money. What the hell for? Why do we have to pay them? Because otherwise they might misplace some mail. This is open bribery. Think about it for a second: a person who is paid to deliver your mail comes up to your door to ask you for money once a year. If you don't pay him, he might disrupt your postal deliveries. He is openly asking for a bribe. And we pay them! We hand out this cash, and claim that it is because of the holiday season. Well, why not pay everyone? Why not pay the vegetable seller some more, or give extra money to the bus conductor? Clearly, we pay one person and not the other because we are bribing them for a service they will perform all the year round.

Spitting and littering in Bombay is another classic example. No law will be able to stop such an activity, especially with the enforcement being as poor as it is today. You'd need a 1:1 ratio of policemen to civilians to stop spitting and littering. They are a huge problem because our culture allows it. It encourages it. Parents encourage their kids to spit on the street, to toss the empty packet of potato wafers right on the street. Eat some food on the street, and drop the packaging right there, in case you have to trace your steps back. Friends don't mock others who litter. Parents don't correct their kids, and the policeman doesn't care. Suddenly, Bombay looks a lot like a garbage dump, and we all complain about "our" beautiful city that others are ruining. The same Indians that litter copiously in their home cities carefully obey litter laws when holidaying in Europe. Partly because of the steep fines, and partly because the locals will shoot nasty looks. When in Rome, they do as the Romans do. Again, culture wins.

An example of culture clashing with law is taking place in the developed world with piracy and law. Copyright law wants to punish school-kids who copy MP3s from each other. Unfortunately, schoolchildren have decided that this is a completely harmless activity, which it is. They fail to see who they're hurting when they burn somebody a copy of their music CDs. Culture has embraced copying and sharing of music. In the past, when copying equipment was precious and rare and music came on records, very few people could copy music. If you had somebody's music collection, chances were that you were depriving them of their property. Today, I could give you a full copy of my music collection while still being able to play my music. Cultural norms of sharing tell us that this should be fine, and so people freely copy music. It is unclear which side wins this clash, but it looks like the law is losing ground. Many new artists are releasing their music as free downloads, which sides with culture rather than the law. This also puts to rest the faulty argument, "Who will pay the artists?" Guess what, the artists like their music shared. Record sales don't add much to their bottom-line anyway, so they'd like schoolchildren to share their music freely. In this struggle too, culture will eventually dominate.

Before you push your keyboard into vitriol mode, I should point out that clearly our culture isn't all bad. I would claim that our education is so good because of our strong culture of seeking academic distinction. Parents feel ashamed if their child is a poor student. Thus the incessant pressure to perform well. While we may debate the utility of this performance-driven education: it does churn out a lot of students who pride themselves in their academic qualifications. I'd rather have kids compare academic standing than the number of guns they own. So in this case, we come out ahead. Well done.

So the next time you see a dowry related crime, or mountains of litter, or traffic that resembles a herd of cattle rather than flow of civilized humans, blame yourself. We're all complicit in the problem. If we aren't speaking up, and changing the culture, we're perpetuating it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Indian languages work better in Linux

I've been reading Hindi websites on Linux for a while now. Recently, I had the chance to try out Hindi on Windows, and was shocked at how poor the fonts were.

Have a look at the comparison of the same Google News website opened in a Windows installation versus a Linux installation: the difference in font quality is startling.

Here is a snippet of Google News in Hindi in Windows:

And here is the same in an Ubuntu session:

The Linux fonts are less choppy, and the page of text looks much more smooth.

For the comparison, I used a vanilla Windows XP with SP2 against Ubuntu Hardy Heron. Both are running Firefox 2 on the same website. No tweaking was done on either installation to change the font quality. No extra fonts were installed on either system. Full screen shots are provided here: please click on the images to see the entire window.

Click on the image to see the Windows session:

Click on the image to see the Linux session:

In addition to having beautiful fonts, Linux (Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE) supports Hindi typing out of the box. For Windows, an extra download is required. All my tests relate to Hindi, but not other Indian languages. I suspect that support for other Indian languages is just as good -- perhaps someone else can post a comparison including other Indian languages as well.

Ideally, this post should have been written in Hindi. The reason this was still done in English was to convince people to try out local language websites, since this is something that many people are unaware of. Mac, Windows and Linux can all help you read local language websites.

Another reason for this post being in English is my laughably slow Hindi typing speed. With some help from klavaro and gtypist, this should stop being an hurdle.

Linux for India

A week ago, I turned off my home computer. By then, it had run nonstop for a month. This is a two year old computer, which is our primary home computer. It runs Linux.

In many ways, Linux is tailor made for India: the cost is minimal, the software is available in source form, which allows modifications, and there is a vast user base built around localizing it to Indian languages. This post is about two projects in particular that show how Linux is well-suited to the Indian market.

The first is about the Asus EEE PC. This computer generated a lot of interest when it was released in November last year. It is a tiny computer: about as big as a small hardcover book. It is less than 1kg in weight and comes with a Solid State Disk that works perfectly even in a rattling bus. The screen is small at seven inches, but very readable. At the desk, the EEE can be attached to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. The external monitor can be driven at a maximum resolution of 1280x1024, which is not small by any means. The most inviting aspect of the EEE is the price: $400 for a medium configuration is quite cheap.

I bought the EEE in late December, and used it for a few months. It was my main home computer, and I enjoyed traveling with the tiny machine. The keyboard was cramped for long typing sessions, but I don't type too much when I'm on the move. Further, there were small, cheap and handy full-sized keyboards that I could attach via USB if I needed to. The computer worked really well for me till my father saw it, and wanted to try it for a while. This was the first Linux machine that he would use, so I wasn't sure it would work out. Today marks a month of his using the EEE. He loves the size, he loves the fact that it connects to the Internet wirelessly, and that it is perfect for checking his webmail. He was particularly happy that it wasn't Windows, because malicious online sites target Windows users. It looks like he is going to keep the EEE PC.

The initial EEE PC hype was surprising -- the blogs were rich with praise. After using it for under half a year, and seeing my father's response, I'm well convinced of its utility.

The EEE can easily serve as a home computer for a family. With an additional full-sized display, keyboard and mouse, it is just as comfortable as a home computer. It is a product that could only be possible with Linux. At $400 for the computer, there isn't much room to charge for a software license as well. Even at $50 for an OEM license of an operating system, the cost of the OS is significant.

This is an example of a project that wouldn't be possible without Linux. As the price of hardware drives down, there are two options: existing software becomes cheaper, or the existing software gets replaced. It is hard to justify a $300 license charge for a computer that costs $400.

The EEE has a slower processor, but even that is good enough. As computers get more powerful, even the slower processors can handle everyday tasks.

How powerful are today's computers? Well, for starters, you could allow two people to use the computer simultaneously, and neither would notice that there was anyone else on their computer. The second project that I'm excited about does exactly that. It is called Userful Desktop multiplier, and it allows more than one person to access the computer using his own keyboard, mouse and display. The userful program is proprietary, though they do hand out two user licenses for free. I have been using this for about a month, and my wife and I can simultaneously access the computer, without being able to tell that the other is on. Each user gets his own display, and can surf the web, read and write mail, and do everything else.

There are many advantages to having one computer rather than two. The big advantage is cost, since you only need to purchase a single computer. The additional cost of a keyboard, mouse and display are minimal, and would be required for two computers anyway. Other advantages include lower maintenance, and much less noise. Further, when you upgrade one computer, both your terminals are upgraded. The biggest saving would be power -- over the life of a computer, we spend more for electricity than the cost of the computer itself. This is not true of laptops currently, since they are expensive and power efficient, but is true for nearly all desktops.

The computer that we are using with Userful is a two year old, entry level computer. It has 1.5G of RAM, which is its strongest feature. Apart from that, it has a standard Celeron processor. The video card was purchased separately, since it needs to be able to drive two displays. That is a simple requirement, and such video cards can be bought for $20 and up.

Userful is another example of a software that no existing company would be much interested in. Intel would sell fewer processors if two computers in every home were replaced by a single one. Microsoft would sell half as many software licenses. Further, the current Microsoft Windows license does not allow two users to simultaneously access a computer. For that, you have to buy the server version, which costs significantly higher. I am sure that Windows can be made to support two simultaneous users on a single computer, but Microsoft has no incentive to do so. The Userful corporation could do it, but then you'd need to purchase two licenses from Microsoft, increasing the cost.

Userful is tailor made for computer labs around the world. Even with the free license, one can halve the number of computers used in the lab. That alone will reduce the ongoing costs associated with computer labs in schools and cybercafes around India. Further, since many cybercafes and labs need a backup power generator: this reduces the price for the generator and the fuel.

Both the EEE PC and Userful are examples of ventures that have been made possible by Linux. They give more choice and power to the user rather than the software/hardware vendor. They work well for a specific need where the user stands to gain a lot, and it is a need that is not being currently met. Specifically for price-sensitive markets like the Indian home, both these approaches hold a great deal of potential.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Movies at home: the premium experience

I recently went for a movie in a theater. This is something I do once a year, even though my wife and I end up watching a lot of movies at home. This time around, we went to watch a new movie, "Kung Fu Panda", which has been getting glowing reviews. Our experience was not a pleasing one. It is not something we plan on repeating.

Firstly, there was the issue of parking. We went to the AMC Mercado, which is a short drive from our place. Our first attempt was to go there on Friday evening to watch a movie called Wall-E, another critic favorite. Alas, we couldn't find parking. After twenty minutes of driving around searching for some place to abandon our car, we drove back home. The second attempt was made on Sunday afternoon, when we hoped all sane humans would be at home sipping tea and having savories to go with it. I did find parking this time, since I started looking for parking in lots very far away from the theater entrance. The parking spots near the theater were crowded with cars waiting for parking. While this is not a fault of the theater owner: they must know how many people to expect, and they're all going to drive. That said, I don't hold parking against them. My wife and I could just as easily have bicycled to the place. The bigger problem was with the audience.

The movie we watched is a children's animation. No fault then for the hall to be filled with lots and lots of kids. But I had underestimated how noisy the hall could be. There was the chatter of kids, and laughs, giggles and cries that one expects. But the kids were the best behaved. The worst behavior was by the adults. A person sitting behind me had his phone ring, loudly, during the call. And he answered it! I turned back and gave him an astonished "que?" look, but he was unperturbed. And he had come there with some kids, perhaps his own. During the movie, adults left the hall, and entered with snacks and popcorn. It felt more like a crowded bar than a movie hall. We had taken a friend of ours along for the movie, and he watches many more movies than my wife and I. He is too young to enter a crowded bar, but he agreed that the theater was remarkably noisy, and distracting.

Lastly, the movie started with trailer after trailer of upcoming movies. I guess there were at least five trailers. Even at two minutes each, that is ten minutes of forced advertisements. I thought I paid for a movie here! One of the advertisements was for a movie that is due to be released in January, 2009! That is more than six months away. If I am expected to get excited about it early, the promoters failed horribly -- I don't even remember the name of the movie. If I am paying for content, I don't want it preceeded by brainwashing.

It could be that after watching movies on our tiny 19" computer screen at home has spoiled us. At least we get peace and quiet, and we can pause it to prepare snacks, or answer a telephone call. Further, we can skip the advertisements. Our home movie watching rig is not comparable to home theater systems that can be purchased these days. All it involves is a single Linux computer, and speakers that have been donated by a friend.

Our original intent was to watch Wall-E in theater. After this experience, we have decided to wait for the DVD, and watch it at home instead.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Condoleezza Rice and Indian diet

Fear-mongering happens in both directions.

It seems that the Indian media is all upset about the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement, "growing Indian and Chinese appetite is contributing to the global food crisis", on , on Democratic Underground, on Commodity Online. Also covered on

That would be an irresponsible statement indeed, particularly by the US Secretary of State.

Apparently the statement was made at the Peace Corps 2008 Country Directors Conference. Sounds like there should be a transcript available?

Here is the entire transcript of Condoleezza Rice's session at the Peace Corps 2008 Country Directors Conference

Search for India on that page, and you see that the remark she made was quite harmless:

The question was, "Many of us are in countries where the predominant source of food is grain, rice, et cetera. And I’m wondering about your thoughts about the U.S. Government’s thoughts about the skyrocketing prices of grain worldwide."

And Condoleeza Rice's answer that pertained to India was, "Secondly, we obviously have to look at places where production seems to be declining and declining to the point that people are actually putting export caps on the amount of food. Now, some of that is not so much declining production as apparently improvement in the diets of people, for instance, in China and India, and then pressures to keep food inside the country. So, that’s another element that we have to look at."

Later, her solution to this was to purchase food that was locally grown instead, "So, there are several pieces here that need to be understood better, but there are certain things that we know can work. One is: The United States needs to be able to locally purchase food. It would considerably drive down our transportation costs, it would considerably help markets in the market for local goods. Right now, we have to buy so much American and transport it that it really does eat away at our food aid dollars. And there is a bill on Capitol Hill that would help us do that. And I’ve been talking to a number of Congress people about trying to get that pushed forward."

That is the only mention of India on that session. Nowhere did she say that "growing Indian and Chinese appetite is contributing to the global food crisis".

Relax, people.

Update: Express India has picked up this story as well, as has the Mathaba News Network.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Will not use OOXML

After the mud that has been flung over the OOXML versus ODF issue, it is fairly clear that ISO passed OOXML despite very relevant objections that many countries had with it. India was one of the countries that decided not to pass OOXML through ISO, and I still stand by that decision. It seems that Norway and Sweden have serious corruption issues regarding their vote.

Groklaw has extensive documentation on OOXML and I recommend its resources. The Wikipedia entry on OOXML is also illustrative.

Standards are pointless if there are too many of them. In this case, ISO should clarify why another document standard was required when ODF was already an ISO standard.

Unfortunately, today ISO asked for a "cease-fire" by everyone with valid criticism against OOXML. I had no idea ISO and OOXML had such a problem with valid criticism. And this is even before it is fully accepted as a standard.

Listen to (Slashdot) geeks rake OOXML and ISO over hot coals over the issue.

Come on, ISO and Microsoft: address the criticism, and clarify the doubts rather than hiding behind a letter asking people to stop the criticism. Demanding that the criticism stop is a good way to encourage it.

Standards are also pointless if people don't accept them. Given how much resistance there is to the idea, we would all benefit if we just ignored OOXML as a standard, ISO be damned.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Proud of the Fatherland!

Why is it that when any well-meaning criticism is placed on Indian topics, people would rather point fingers at the critic? Usually the retort is that the critic doesn't love the country, or that he isn't proud of his country.

Well, you know what: I love my country, and am proud as a lion about it. Can't get enough of Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vada pavs, Pav Bhaji or the Kama Sutra. Still love the feeling of travelling in India, by Indian railways, and meeting completely unfamiliar people, all without needing a passport.

All this is fine, and nobody doubts an Indian as far as he is singing praises of Hariprasad Chaurasia and Vishwanathan Anand. But it is the minute you point out how Bheja Fry is a shitty copy of the French movie, Le Dîner de cons, that you transition from being a loved fellow Indian to a clumsy, foreign, NRI, outsider, spoilt by your love for all things Western, or Eastern, or everything non-Indian. Soon your entire life is called into question: were you really born in India? Maybe you're too rich, too poor, too smart, too dumb. Maybe your parents spoilt you rotten, or maybe they left you in an empty room to play with the light-switch.

Can this get any more retarded? Why must we equate love for country with blind devotion to a fascism where no dissent is tolerated.

I once was part of a conversation where Indian movies were being discussed. This conversation happened in a moving car, so I was not free to leave it if I wanted. One of the people asked me what Indian movies I had watched recently, and I blurted out that I had not watched any Hindi movie recently. Immediately her reply was to question my Indian-ness, my love for India, and how I must be ashamed of my country. Admittedly, this person was not the brightest spark, but her reaction is typical of some Indians I have met.

How the hell did that kind of mentality come to be tolerated?

Not keeping in touch with Hindi movies for a period of a few months immediately disqualifies you from being Indian these days. The central question in the Indian passport form must be the names of the recent Hindi movies, along with the life history of Aishwarya Rai.

Then, if you actively criticize something, then you're bound to get your mailbox filled with hateful speech. Say if you were to complain about some Indian Institute, you're bound to get blasted to little bits. Even worse if you actually compare that institute to some foreign institute.

This isn't pride, this is fascism. If you cannot meaningfully discuss basic things like the state of our education, you don't live in a democracy. Kiss up to Stalin, and better love everything Koba did for his subservient followers.

Democracy, and true love for the country demands that you bring to notice the wrongs that you see. Criticism of Sati led to a gradual change of attitudes. Would you question the Indian-ness of the people involved?

Without critical thinking, there can be no change.

1. Yes, all Indians are not like that. Many Indians are fine individuals, who accept, challenge, and aspire for better. Clearly these people are not being blamed here.

Dowry, the scourge of Indians

Dowry is prevalent, despite being illegal. Two persuasive stories tell of new brides who were tortured for more dowry. These two stories are additions to a growing statistic of dowry related crimes. Combined with the poor literacy of girls, dowry makes brides powerless and vulnerable.

Let's not turn our minds away from this. The glamour, the glitz, the booming economy mean nothing to these two women (and many more) who are preyed upon for dowry. Let's not be so smug in our achievement that we forget basic human rights.

The deeper root of dowry is the lack of women's education. If a boy doesn't study Engineering or Medicine, he is considered a failure. After all, how will he provide for the family? But a girl is not encouraged to academic achievement, they are rather trained to be good housewives, discouraged from being financially independent. Subliminally, girls are repeatedly told that their marriage is not something they can have a say in. (Unless they are over educated, in which case they're spoiling their own chances at marriage.) This has got to change. The problem of dowry exists because a girl isn't expected to be skilled at the time of marriage. Her education and job prospects don't figure into the equation, either because she isn't educated, or is not allowed to work after the marriage.

All this is specific to the poor or the rural setting. Things are changing in the cities and among the educated, but even here, dowry isn't completely absent.

Let's eradicate dowry in our lifetime. हम मिल कर दहेज की प्रथा को मिटा सकते हैं ।

[ Clarification on Wednesday, March 26 2008: What is specific to the poor or rural settings is the lack of women's education.

Dowry itself is rampant, and perhaps the worst when the groom is educated, accomplished, and believes that he must exact his worth from the bride's family. The only glimmer of hope is among marriages out of love, or marriages between working professionals, where the wife has equal rights as the husband.

Dowry is rampant, and it is a rare marriage where it isn't involved. If the marriage was arranged, dowry was involved. Despite the rhetoric, and the illegality, little has been done to combat it.

Educated, rich people see nothing wrong in accepting dowry, and that is what makes this practice all the more shameful.]

Monday, March 24, 2008

चोखेर बाली

हाल ही में किसी व्यक्ति ने मुझे चोखेर बाली के बारे में बताया । यह एक प्रभावशाली चिट्टा है, जो भारतीय नारी की नई आवाज़ है ।

Lately someone told me about Chokher Bali, which is a very nice blog: a liberation of women. It is all in Hindi.

Note to self: Got to practice Hindi typing.

How the IITs can suck less

It is a general observation that if you allow comments on any online forum, it usually degenerates into a cesspool of filth and dung. My blog doesn't fit this observation, probably because it isn't as much a forum as it is a vent for my viewpoint. Plus, nobody reads it.

Last week saw some remarkable filth and dung on one particular post, though some comments were surprisingly insightful. For the record, I haven't deleted any comments, and all comments are still available for all to see. In places the comment author (not me, the blog author) has decided to delete their comments.

A heartfelt thanks to the person who posted anonymously saying the following:
The strange thing one can easily notice about IIT UGs is their un-necessary superiority complex(there is exception). They think, cracking the exam (where our education system is read, re-read, and reproduce) entitles them to be a creative genius like Einstein or Schrodinger.
Remarkably true, and I think you've put it better than I could. This post comes from a person who teaches at an IIT coaching institute. Instead of thinking deeply about what was said, a variety of clumsy comments were posted, railing against this person. Most comments were ad hominem attacks on this person being a tutor rather than an Aryan JEE graduate. These comments pointed out what I was saying all along: we don't know how to react to criticism.

Another beautiful comment was again anonymously posted, and quoted a snippet from an Indian magazine Outlook.
SOURCE:OUTLOOK April 30,2007

Tata Steel MD, B. Muthuraman, an IIT Madras graduate, says IITs are now thriving on their "past reputation" and TISCO is "not likely to recruit" IIT graduates any longer

Many IIT professors too find the present crop of students lacking in creativity, and the spirit of innovation and inquiry

They blame the students' blinkered, robotic approach to their studies on the fact that a large majority are products of coaching factories.

They call for reform of the joint engineering exam (JEE), and of the IIT curriculum as well, to develop the students' societal awareness, communication skills and knowledge of the humanities.
This is an understandable development, and was bound to happen given the skills of the graduates. I am glad that TISCO is honest and forthright in their opinion of IIT graduates. Even if the IITs are world class, not addressing such concerns is a remarkable failure.

To the person who pointed out the insignificance of my blog: Thanks, I already knew that. Yet, here you are, reading it, and writing a comment on it.

Finally, someone decided to rail on me personally by asking what my suggestions were. Thank you for you very inflammatory attack and your obvious anger. First, realize that if you are asking me for suggestions, you admit that the institution is broken. We can't fix something that is perfect, so at least you agree with me on that part. That alone was the point of the post where I was pointing out how the IIT Bombay was broken. Now let's go on to the suggestions, which are put into categories on N's suggestion.

  1. Fire all the Nazis running the administrative offices, and the administrative section of the departments. I never understood what the role of the administrative people in the Mathematics department was. They did nothing useful when I was there, and only served to impose a strict power structure over the students. Move administrative tasks online. Make the administration accountable to students.
  2. Fire the clowns doing security. They wouldn't notice if someone steals their furniture. There's very little worth stealing, so stop running the place like the Manhattan project is under way. Bolt computers and screens down, and leave the labs open.
  3. Stop treating the boys and girls like they were cherubs. These are young adults, and they will engage in mammalian behaviour. Hint: the sign-up system in the girl's hostel has never worked.
  4. Decrease the feudal nature of the institute. Have you see how big a house the director lives in? Have you compared it to the lodgings of normal faculty? Get rid of this fawning feudal organization, and you might just see change. This sycophantic nature carries over to the departments, where the department chair has way too much power, all the way to the security setup. Everyone and his dog wants to assert their control and their position. Nobody helps the students out unless they kiss up to this power structure. Realize that the institute is primarily for research and for students, and treating students like crap isn't a good strategy.
  5. Remove the thought control headquarters that censors access to the Internet. Students already have all the porn they could ask for, so clearly the Gestapo isn't working. Legalize the local network that has all the unmentionables.
  6. More openness in the running of the campus. How much money do we rake in, and where does it go?
  1. Do something useful with the teacher evaluations rather than throwing them into the fire each year. Get rid of the bad teachers. Allow students to anonymously post their grievances. Take videos of all lectures, and put them up online. You'll know in a week who the poor teachers are.
  2. Increase the pay of the professors, and give good incentives. Faculty housing needs to be improved. Give faculty more control over their research, and allow them to hire students with start-up funds. Give faculty more control over their teaching, rather than the strictly regimented teaching load.
  3. Allow students to sign up for more classes than they need in a semester. Allow students to drop classes after the semester has started.
  4. Decrease the crushing workload on students. Focus on learning and not coursework. Give students time for rest, thought, and flirting.
  5. Strike up partnerships with industry. Allow industry funding to sustain research. Give professors generous cuts of the funding they bring in. Allow industry representatives to attend classes, collaborate in research projects, and mentor students. Allow industry to subsidize needy students by sponsoring fellowships.
  6. Post the syllabus of courses online in a wiki. The difference between the published course info and the actual course info is immense. When you think you're learning Mathematical Modeling, you're actually learning what Nazi Germany must have felt like. Let the wiki reflect this.
  1. Stock some general books in the library. Allow individuals and institutions to donate books for use in the library. There is Western literature beyond Shakespeare, you know.
  2. Increase the fees to allow for a humane living environment, and then clean up the hostels. There are some new hostels but the old ones are abysmal. Journalists who claim that IITs are a prestigious institute should be forced to live in the old wing of Hostel 4 for a month, preferably in May.
  3. Much of the surrounding area needs to be scrubbed clean of the damn mosquitoes. It is nearly impossible to go for a walk, or to study if there are so many mosquitoes all around. The area near the lake needs a very good scrubbing: the filth really clogs up, especially after festivals where trash is dumped in the lake.
  4. Herd the cows together, and launch them off to Mars. I don't think the dogs are that bad. Some of them were very close to me, and a source of honest companionship. A big exception is the rabid, angry mongrel near the staff quarters. Donate him to the local ultra-nationalist party.

Let's welcome criticism

When I started this blog, it was with the grand design of exposing hypocrisy and lies. Thus the grandiose name, "The Truth about India". I have not always covered what I think is significant, and I am not averse to cheap pandering either. I have also held back discussions on some topics that are critical, but are bound to get me death threats. All in all, I'm a pretty average guy with a pretty pointless blog.

Yet, the one entry that consistently gets comments are my post on how IIT Bombay sucked so damn hard. A small aside: I would appreciate if people flaming me wrote in English, Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Spanish, or Japanese. You're only proving my argument if you write in half dead SMS, which makes you come across as a drunk chimpanzee.

Back to the criticism, which falls cleanly into two piles.

  1. Now that I'm abroad, I criticize.
  2. I must be jealous of everyone else at IIT.

The first issue comes up repeatedly. Not just in this post, but my entire blog. It is central to my entire point, so I'm going to sharpen my knives for this. Yes, I am abroad, and yes I do criticize, but those are the plain facts. What is missing is that I criticized and challenged when I was in India, and even before I joined the IIT. This criticism is not a feature of my location. At IIT Bombay, I once gave a piece of my mind to the security guard at Main Gate, with my last statement being, "come by my Hostel sometime: I'll set you right" (of course said in spicy Hindi for maximum effect). There are countless incidents that I could relate that support my nature.

Since people aren't aware of all this, I hope this prompts smarter criticism. Further, I haven't achieved anything spectacular in the years that I've been away from IIT, so success surely isn't getting to my head. If it isn't success, it might just be failure! So this leads to the second criticism, that I'm a failure.

This second point is subtle: it is that I have an MS, a Dual Degree, or an MTech, thus immediately making me inferior to all those that came in through JEE. For the confused: there are a few types of entrance tests at IIT. The JEE is the all-important test that gives you a rank called the All India Rank (or AIR). Apparently, because I'm not full of AIR, I am jealous of the people who did better at the JEE. The implication is that my not getting through the JEE disqualifies me from constructive criticism.

Yes, I did not take the JEE. My route was to take the entrance test that the Mathematics department administered; which has since been made a national test. And I admit I didn't do well in this test either. If only fifteen people had been admitted in the program (instead of twenty), I wouldn't have fit. Sadly, I'm a failure, and jealousy keeps me from appreciating IIT Bombay for the cherub infested heaven that it is.

Even if the JEE was the definite test of a pure-bred IIT Aryan, this argument is very weak. There is nothing special about the JEE. Students who get in through the JEE were housed alongside us failures. We ate the same food, and suffered under the same professors. I did not take identical classes as a four year track B-Tech student, but I did have some classes in common. If anything, it gives me great relief that I was not in the asylum for four years. Two was plenty for me.

Even if I was jealous --- does this invalidate my concern? Are all the B Tech students thrilled to bits? Do you all think that the teaching at IIT Bombay was super? Did you enjoy your living quarters very much, with two students to a monk's cell, the water seeping through the walls, and the mud outside? How much fun were the summers, with the mosquitoes, and how did you find the bathrooms? If you truly enjoyed them, will you want to live in a similar arrangement all your life?

Why is criticism so hard to take? Why can't we just admit that IIT Bombay has a bit of a cow problem, that poop gets in the way of a walk, and that the official campus bird is the mosquito? Why can't we admit that the administrative staff in the main building are apathetic and unhelpful? And when a professor is a poor teacher, why can't we admit it? Why maintain this façade, this front of perfection?

Instead, it is easier to say the Indian Economy isn't doing so well, that it is fine by Indian standards, that in some way it is sufficient. That Indians are fine with this particular institute, because it is the best in the country. Why are you comparing it with other universities, why are you making our jobs tougher? Look at how much better we are than Nigeria and Ghana. Somehow the IIT itself is above criticism. The blame might lie with me, because I'm the guy who was herding all the cows perhaps. Or maybe the mud was all my doing. The broken toilets were my fault too, perhaps. Things should have immediately improved after I left.

Excuses, excuses, without admitting anything is wrong, without seeking to fix the broken parts. Let's congratulate the Emperor on his fine clothes.

Rohinton Aga, the founder of Thermax, wrote in his book "Changing the Mindset" that Indians have a crab mentality. When there are eight crabs in a hole, and one of them tries to escape, the other seven pull it back down. (For the record, Rohinton was an Indian businessman, who achieved more than I can ever dream of.) I was a young child when I read his book, and I have always agreed with this evaluation. Rather than looking outside our tiny hole, and seeing the wonderful possibility, we rather look at each other, and continue congratulating ourselves on our collective condition.

This is not how things change. This is not how we make our education system accountable. This is not how we aspire for a better education for the next generation. This is not how we can advance research in India.

Flinging dung at me is not the best way of getting clean. -- with apologies to Aldus Huxley

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mainstream Indian media versus Blogs

Recently, I set up my machine to view Hindi fonts. I've blogged about it earlier, so I won't go into very much detail. If you're looking to duplicate this setup, get yourself a copy of Ubuntu.

Onward to my main story. For this post, you don't need to have Hindi fonts installed on your computer, or know the Hindi language.

Using Linux, I've been reading a few Hindi blogs, and a few Hindi newspapers. The contrast is quite striking.

The average Hindi newspaper has a remarkably crappy layout: Here is the best possible Hindi newspaper online: Lok Tej, and you can see how difficult the layout is. Compared to that, the layout for the average Hindi blog World From my Eyes is easy on the eyes. The advertisements are few, and well placed, and the font is clean and beautiful.

Little differences like this make the page readable on a daily basis, and I'm a sucker for good layout.

But the more surprising aspect arises when you scratch the surface, and dig deeper. The amount of content for the Hindi newspapers is tiny. Even stories covered on the main page take up all of one single paragraph. This cover story has exactly one paragraph in which the main idea is repeated again and again. There is little analysis by the journalist, and except for methodically writing down what Amar Singh said, it isn't really obvious what extra value the journalist is adding in the process.

Sunil Deepak's analysis of the violence is a much better read about the mattter.

A direct comparison is lacking here, so let's look at our average Hindi blog again: A commentary on Jodhaa Akbar which has quite a deep content. It offers analysis, insight, and a very good perspective of the issues. And it is humorous too!

After a few days of reading Hindi blogs, I really cannot justify reading a Hindi newspaper. Balendu Sharma has a very nice blog: Wahmedia on the Indian media (and sometimes Western too), which points out inconsistency and stupidity in print media. We need more people like Balendu Sharma and Sunil Deepak.

Special mention

The incidence that is being reported on deserves special mention: There are some ultra right-wing nutbags who think that Maharashtra should be for the Maharashtrians, and are inciting violence against people from "outside": North Indians. Indians everywhere (not just Maharashtrians) should loudly proclaim that they do not support this ethnic bullying. We should have the courage to say that these nutbags don't represent us: they are not our leaders. These Indian-Nazis have a platform very similar to the Nazi party, and their slanderous rhetoric is not what I want to support.

Say no to our local Hitler!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

License to Tinker

I have been reading much more about hardware these days, partly due to my work, and partly because it took my fancy. Being a software person for a long time, I wasn't too far away from hardware. I had never taken very much interest in it though, beyond the occassional soldering of readymade kits. Recently I came across a microcontroller board called the Arduino which has interested me like never before.

The basic idea is to make a cheap microcontroller board that can be programmed via USB on the big three platforms: PC, Mac, and Linux. The board has plenty of digital and analog IO pins and already there is a great interest in it from people from various backgrounds. For a software person, this is a great opportunity to play with hardware, and many hardware people are looking at it as a nice introduction to software. For a person who knows electronics, this is a great introduction to both. The board design is open, and clones already exist. Lady Ada has made a wonderful breadboard version called the Boarduino, and a free arduino clone called the Freeduino is out already. Got to love the community's funny naming schemes. Using this microcontroller, you can hook up your home's appliances, your cameras, lights, stereos, and even train your household pets. The potential is very great, and I am certain that this will lead to a blossoming of creativity in the hardware department. Much of ideas behind software hacking that lead to Linux (and other free software) are being applied here: Commodity parts, Free exchange of information, lack of patents or other ways of stifling creativity, and interest from people who are doing it Just For Fun.

It is hard for me to figure why I am suddenly interested in it. There is no aspect of my work or my social life that will benefit from this, but it just seems like a fun thing to play with. Maybe it is Nicholas Zambetti's invention where you control an alarm clock using a teddy bear. Maybe I'll finally use it to remotely reboot hung machines. It is hard to tell whether it will ever have real utility, but I think it has great amusement value.

This idea of tinkering has recently been popularized by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his wonderful book, "The Black Swan". He argues that in many cases, wonderful inventions were never the product of dedicated work, but rather a fortunate product of random tinkering. His article (thanks, Dad!) forms a nice summary of The Black Swan and is highly recommended if you aren't inclined to pick up the book.

Of course, all of this is very relevant to India. We are riding the technology wave, and many of our creative tinkerers will be responsible for the next wave of economic activity. I know of fresh college graduates starting companies, and it is such efforts that will lead to the next Big thing, whatever that may be. It is hard to tell what ideas will be popular, but the tinkering spirit is what will lead us to discover new ideas. Instead of chaining children to desks, we should set their minds free, and allow them to experiment, learn by trying, even if it means handing them a powersaw at an early age.

At this point I usually take a pointed jab at us Indians, stuck in the backwaters, and how far we are from Arduino hacking. But this time there is no disapointment! The wonderful TechSouls group already has an Arduino clone that you can buy in India! Go ahead, pick it up, and tinker away.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

History, without the rhetoric

I wasn't a big History fan in school. I thought the concept was interesting, but the presentation left much to be desired. We were told what happened, and at what date, and this was expected to be enough. It might have just been me, but not very many people I know took a liking to this bland plate of facts. Years later, I remember very little of what I had miraculously committed to memory.

Years later, I had the fortune of rooming with a person who had a very keen insight into Indian history. His knowledge of recent events: Blue Star, Indira Gandhi, as well as older events: Partition and the Mughals, was a welcome breeze. Conversation was always an opportunity to learn something new, and it helped me understand the world much better. Since then I have actively sought out books on History, for they give me a much better insight into why this world is in its current state.

I've been reading a few books recently that make the puzzle of India open up. On the recommendation of my father, I picked up "Punjabi Century" and "Beyond Punjab", both by Prakash Tandon. My father is surprisingly well-read, and these days our conversations often hover around books. I thought I was being quite the fox when I mentioned Nabakov to him, only to find that not only had he read Lolita, he had read it many years before I was born. "Punjabi Century" traces a hundred years of Prakash's family, and is a riveting read. A lot of Indian customs: that of forced feeding, of treating the guest like a God, of being unduly deferential towards the elders, suddenly start making sense. "Beyond Punjab" is more about his life, of how he started work at Unilever, which later became Hindustan Lever. It has a very insightful look into the British Raj, and how our current administration is bogged down by problems of the Raj.

Both books are surprisingly well written: the language might be plain, but the content is exactly what I have been looking for all these years. Most history tends to be written by those with an axe to grind. RK Narayan's books are well written, but too wishful: yearning for an India that never existed. Pandit Nehru writes well, but he is also too keen to prove his point. His books have a very strong sense of what the optimism around the freedom movement must have been like. The bias is clear, and it is difficult to escape it. Both RKN and Nehru are very good writers, and I have deep respect for their clarity of thought and expression, but they aren't a very clear view of history itself. The only book that came close to an unbiased view of India is Salim Ali's autobiography, which talks of India around the time of Independence. It was made sweeter for me, because Salim Ali and I went to the same college in Bombay: St. Xavier's College, set up and run by a group of Jesuit priests.

Prakash Tandon's books are a step ahead. He talks of India before the British Raj. His grandfather was born seven years before the Raj began, and his father died seven years after the Raj ended, so this is a wonderful time of Indian history to read about. Prakash brilliantly explains the setup of a Punjabi community, its caste structure, the jajmani system, and the way the community worked. Sometimes I get the feeling that he wrote it with me in mind.

I have been trying to convince my parents to write down such a record of their own lives. It is very important to the generations that come after them. The statement of history without rhetoric gives us a very stable bearing of our heritage. A lot of customs had very good reasons when they began, and we need to know those reasons. Being educated in our history, we don't yearn for it. We can see the beauty of the past, but also its deficiencies. Moreover, no one group can remodel history for their benefit, when unbiased reports flourish.

Prakash Tandon started writing after strong encouragement from Maurice Zinkin and his wife (as mentioned in Beyond Punjab). In the foreword to Punjabi Century, Maurice Zinkin says, "Nothing is more important to the illumination of history than a good autobiography. It becomes particularly valuable in times of transition. Documents and statistics can give us the facts of change; only Cicero's letters tell us what the fall of the Roman Republic meant to those to whom the Republic mattered".

Every generation owes it to the next to have such unbiased facts written down. My grandmother-in-law has written one, and I hope many more such autobiographies will emerge -- free from the bias of current-day thinking.