Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Indian censorship

The Indian government is putting an end to freedom of speech online. A variety of content that the government finds objectionable can now be censored for Indians surfing the web. This is a surprising development. I would highly recommend reading through the full statement of regulations so you know what the new rules are. The full rules are far reaching, and go beyond censorship. In addition to the censorship on the Internet, there are some big limitations on computer use:
  1. The list of violations is vague: anything that could be "harassing", "pornographic", "disparaging".  Half of what I write here could be considered disparaging.
  2. Websites have to keep identity information, and provide it to law enforcement for these violations. So Twitter needs to know who is posting "disparaging" tweets.
  3. Websites collecting sensitive data (even sexual orientation is considered sensitive) need to allow users to review information being collected, and offer them a way of deleting this sensitive information. This might be a good thing, but many websites like Facebook retain user information even after the account is suspended. This practice would be illegal under Indian law.
  4. All cyber-cafes need to be registered. All of them need to validate the identity of the users. All terminals have to be publicly visible: they cannot be hidden. All cybercafes need to keep a log of websites visited by the users. This is far-reaching and impossible to implement. How practical can identity verification be in a country where you can obtain a fake driving license?
When people look at China, it is easy to criticize their censorship, which is a lot more repressive. I used to think that this is impossible in a true democracy. After this development, I don't know what to think. Either this is possible in a true democracy or that India isn't a true democracy.

We can guess the reasons behind this regulation. I suspect the government needed some ways of logging cyber-cafe activity after the terrorist attacks in Bombay. Much like the concern about open Wi-Fi access points, this is a knee-jerk reaction.  Unlawful activity will effortlessly move elsewhere: unlawful elements will find a cyber-cafe owner who is happy to accept a bribe to allow a few of his "friends" to use the computers without identity, and without logging their activity.  In the past months, we have witnessed the corruption within the government. It wouldn't be surprising if the first law-breakers are elected representatives.

The wording could be vague for a good reason: the government wants to cast as wide a net as possible.  Even encouraging gambling is illegal under the new rules.  Maybe they want to be able to nail everyone. Another possibility is simpler: it is just poorly worded, and there's no ulterior motive. We'll have to wait to find out.

I wonder if there are motives behind the timing. Even accounting for the slow-moving Indian government, the timing on this could point to a worried government. The economic miracle hasn't helped everyone, and the lower middle class and lower class is untouched by the explosion in tech-related jobs. The inflation has hit them the hardest, especially in rising food prices. The last few months have exposed a lot of corruption within the government, which has led to resentment and disillusionment. Finally, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries are undergoing radical democratic changes, most of which was organized online, largely anonymously. This is a good time to clamp down on harmful free speech online, under the pretext of curbing unlawful activity. The Chinese government has felt some of these changes too, so it isn't a stretch that the Indian government is worried.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Smart brand building

Companies spend a lot of effort doing all sorts of "brand building". Usually this involves advertising and showing your customers how you're the best. The effectiveness of this is debatable: how many people actually listen to broadcast advertising and just how often do they remember the message? My favorite example is a video advertisement I saw many years ago. It was a beautiful Rube Goldberg machine made from auto parts. After seeing the ad, I remembered that the ad was entertaining, but I didn't remember the auto company whose ad it was. What a waste! They were trying to build a brand-name, and that was the one thing I didn't remember: the brand name.  Even in the job market companies often proclaim how their workplaces are better, how the company is like a family.  Again, the impact of this advertising is debatable.

Google seems to be perfect at brand building, at least in the job market. Google's Summer of Code is a perfect example. They provide money for students across the world to write Open Source software. Google doesn't dictate what projects students work on, and they are happy if the software is not of immediate interest to Google. They want to make Computer Science students work on programming. Some of these will continue programming and will want to work for Google when they graduate. They've built a brand very early. Students remember that they were paid handsomely for their skills back when they were poor. Further, these students are the perfect audience: they are smart, dedicated, and self-motivated. When these students seek employment, they look towards Google as an example of a company they'd like to work for. This is a relatively small amount of money for Google, and the goodwill among students and open source projects is immense. I'm really surprised that other companies don't do this.

(Disclosure: I work for Google, and I participated in the first Google Summer of Code when I was a student.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

The curse of sequels

We just watched Toy Story 3.  It was quite a poor movie, which is sad given how much I liked the previous two movies.  But it was bound to happen.  Sequels are often of poor quality.

Sequels impose constraints on creativity: the franchise cannot be risked by an innovative storyline, so the story doesn't deviate from previous stories.  The characters do what they always do, just bigger and better.  The stakes get higher, and the characters replay their same personalities all over.

Toy Story 3 kept to the standard plot-line of Woody and Buzz disagreeing over something, and both of them working together with all the characters in the end.  What was disappointing was the morbid storyline, the Mafia-esque characters at the daycare center, and the constant Mattel advertising for Barbie.  The story was very weak, with a disaster introduced just to move the plot forward.  The toys were thrown into daycare where they are misused by careless children.  I don't need to reveal the plot for you to guess that the good guys win in the end, and the evil ones are defeated.  All the characters are clearly one-dimensional, and the story barely strings together the wild and improbable adventures that are required by this franchise.  Also distressing were the long segments of thinly veiled Mattel advertising.  It made an already weak story pathetic and lifeless.

As a franchise, Toy Story is clearly dying.  Toy Story 1 and 2 were both good, and now this franchise is being mercilessly milked for cash.

A much better choice is to watch a fresh movie instead.  We watched MegaMind a few days ago, and loved it.  It had a refreshingly new story, characters with distinctive personality, and witty dialogs.  The theme was old: superheros saving the world, but with a beautiful new twist.  Another good new movie was How to Train Your Dragon, again with a new story, great characters and dialogs.

Pixar seems to have lost its creative steam.  The upcoming movies are sequel heavy: Cars 2 (sequel) and Monsters Inc 0 (prequel).   Cars 1 was pretty average, so I won't bother with Cars 2.  I loved the original Monsters Inc, and I fear that they'll completely ruin its next version.  I might just stick to non-Pixar movies as far as they keep milking their franchise.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Satya Sai Baba

Many people had investigated Satya Sai Baba's claims of supernatural powers, and found them to be hollow.  Most stage magicians can do better than Satya Sai Baba.  Both P. C. Sorkar and B. Premanand were outspoken critics of Satya Sai Baba, exposing his spiritual powers as cheap magician's tricks.

Though this God-man too, died like a mere human.  He might have fooled humans all his life, but couldn't fool death itself.  If the man was so holy, why did he spend his last few days in a hospital, surrounded by real doctors?  Why would a person with a direct channel to God need doctors as intermediaries?  Why would a real spiritual guru need so much property and wealth, and why was he always asking for more money?

Technical skill in engineering managers

There was a recent study at Google about managers of technical employees. The results from the study were that technical skill doesn't matter in managers. What matters is helping the employees with career goals and having a clear product vision. This study is being used as a confirmation that when it comes to managers, you can hire anyone with good people and product skills, and their technical skill won't count.

I don't agree with this line of thinking at all. At the very least, I have found technical expertise to be useful in managers. It helps them draw sane timelines and recognize hard work. At its best, an engineering manager with technical skill is able to guide development away from technical pitfalls, and avoid costly engineering design decisions in large systems. I remember a technical review where a senior Google exec was asked why we needed a specific infrastructure. His answer was shockingly clear: we need x millisecond latency response time from this region, and without this infrastructure, the best we can achieve is x + 200 millisecond. Technical expertise allowed the exec to understand the various issues involved and formulate a clear working strategy.

I have worked with two excellent managers, both of whom are exceptional engineers in their own right, and this has made a large impact in our immediate relationship. They understand the core of my work, they help guide the project towards success, and offer valuable advice when we encounter tricky technical areas. My daily interactions with managers is often on a fairly technical level, because they understand the technical issues. These conversations would be difficult if they had a higher-level view, but not an understanding of the technical core. In a recent project, my manager used his technical insight to plan the project to perfection. The project involved many large changes in infrastructure, and this manager untangled the intricate dependencies to allow everyone to work in parallel. Without his technical insight, this task was nearly impossible.

I suspect the Google study has arrived at a flawed conclusion from the study. All managers at Google are technically gifted, due to the strict selection criterion. Among this selected set, other qualities begin to matter. People skills and clear product strategy are important, but only after the manager is technically capable.

One way to think about it is to look at soccer players. Among all soccer players, determination and team-work are core qualities that predict success. So you could mistakenly conclude that physical strength and stamina don't matter. The truth is that all soccer players are in top physical shape. After they have excellent physical shape, other things start to matter: like their determination, or their team-work.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Bend in the Ganges

I just finished reading a lovely book by Manohar Malgonkar, "A Bend in the Ganges"

The book is about two young guys around India's independence, and the turn of events in their life. The book explores interesting concepts of filial admiration, the nature of love, duty and morals. It is a very insightful read, even though the end is somewhat lukewarm. In its best places, it is a mixture of "Crime and Punishment" and "Anna Karenina".

This book was recommended to me by a close family friend, who is aware of my general interests, but has little idea of which books I read. In this case, the recommendation was spot on: I loved the book. This person is keenly aware of my general interests: he has seen me grow up over the years, though he is very unaware of my specific interests.

In general, book recommendations with such sparse information is a very difficult problem. Tying my interests together to suggest a book which has nothing in common with what I read is difficult. Many companies: Netflix, Pandora, Facebook, Google are trying to do this, and I suspect for most of them, the answer is 'social'. If Pandora knows who my friends are, they'll try suggesting songs that my friends play. Where this gets really complicated is using my preference in one domain to influence my choices in another. Using my choice of music to make intelligent book recommendations, for instance.

To make things more complicated, I weigh book recommendations differently for people: I know that I'll never be interested in a book person X recommends, but I'll always be interested in a movie the same person recommends. This is another field that 'social' might not completely answer, though there are experiments with different possible approaches.