Monday, November 27, 2006

The Rajinder Sachar report, Part I

Ok, so you've heard of the Rajinder Sachar committee report. At the least, you've heard of a report doing the rounds - the one which first tried to split the army across communal lines, and later lamented the poor state of Muslims in the country.

The conclusion of the report is something we all expected. Muslims are worse off in many areas of health, education, employment than even the Dalit community. Most Muslims live in ghettos, in slums, and have lower-than-average access to credit, to education, and to jobs. The only area where the community has adequate representation, the report says, is in our jails. Sordid.

No one can argue with the conclusions of the report, in terms of the facts presented. However, once the report came out, we had the usual cacophony of voices, criticising all and sundry for the community's backwardness, arguing how the discriminatory Indian state was jailing more Muslims considering them to be terrorists, and of course, asking for reservations for Muslims, further reservations for Dalit Muslims, and so on. Fortunately, it didn't reach a high enough crescendo to actually ask for reservations in Parliament!

We should examine these arguments in some detail. Let's take the easiest one first - the question of a far higher Muslim "representation" in our jails than in the population. Why is this so? But before that, we should ask, is it really a sign that the state discriminates against Muslims? To answer that question, we should impose another question on ourselves. Is the number of criminals 'produced' by a community only a factor of its population? So, should we have precisely 80% Hindu criminals, of which 52% are OBCs, some 2% are Brahmins, and precisely 13% Muslim criminals? This kind of pseudo-logic is one propagated by our 'intellectuals' (read commies). The argument goes - since everyone is equal, everyone is equally likely to commit a crime (as the women's rights advocates argue - every man is a 'potential rapist'). Since everyone is equally likely to commit a crime, the number of criminals who belong to a community should be proportional to its population (actually, these worthies would say "male population", but that would be blatantly sexist). Ergo, if a community has a higher 'representation' in the jails, it is being targeted. Conventional wisdom, don't you agree?

Unfortunately, this is just convenient wisdom. Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system will tell you that factors like a high level of education, fruitful employment, family support and a standing in the community all go a long way in keeping people away from crime. Therefore, communities that are less likely to foster these characteristics are more likely to have criminals amongst their midst, not to mention the fact that in this country, it is the rich that get away with murder while the poor pay for even the slightest crime.

So, yes, there is discrimination, but it is economic, not social. The State is targeting the poor, not the Muslims.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Cricket crazy? No, power drunk.

What can you say about the hours of debate the honourable members of parliament spent in discussing the Indian team's performance in SA? One way to look at it is that the honourable members are as crazy about Cricket as the rest of us. Another way to look at it is to think that the honourable members have conveyed the dismay(!) of the rest of us to the team. But in reality, it is nothing more than the honourable members being so drunk on power that they can't distinguish between national issues and notional ones. It is about them being so high on the power drug that they think they own all of Indian Cricket, simply because one very honourable member is the chief of the BCCI.

But why am I so angry? Well, it pisses me that my weekend-working-eye-drying-rsi-causing work is going to pay for these a*holes' power trips. It pisses me that when there are 260 million people starving, the rulers of the country have nothing better to discuss. Most of all, it pisses me that this is another intervention into the private space of the individual (or in this case, the team). What we'll have next is Ramdas Athavale criticising Rahul Dravid's fashion sense. And then criticising Aishwarya Rai's performance in a Bond movie (if and when she gets to it). And then, parliament will pass a resolution criticising Shah Rukh Khan for singing badly. And get the idea.

But like everything else in this house of honour, this debate wasn't devoid of humour. Sharad Pawar with his cancer-eaten jaw talking about performance and Ambika Soni talking about sportsmanship(!) were both so much like Brutus talking about Roman democracy that I could only marvel at the similarities. But the icing on the cake was provided by the anti-Dalit, anti-performance Ramdas Athavale, who suggested that the only way out was to provide Dalit reservation in sport! Yeah, and then we can also amend cricketing rules so that Dalit batsmen don't have to walk until they are bowled thrice, we can amend the rules so that any bouncer bowled to a Dalit batsman will automatically add 5 runs to his score, and we can amend the rules so that every 5 balls a Dalit bowls, an opposition batsman must walk. See more of the consequences here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

No one is irreplaceable

Among the many urban legends governing the software industry, the one which has gained currency in recent times is the one about no engineer being irreplaceable. We've all seen it in action - many times, a lead developer quits in the midst of a project, and yet the project reaches fruitition. A manager may leave, but the project gets completed on time, on budget. In fact, a rather gory saying for this phenomenon, where you can simply replace an engineer by an other, is: "If your lead engineer gets hit by a truck, your project should still run on schedule."

However, is it true? Are engineers replaceable/dispensable?

I don't know. Years ago, the team lead, my mentor and guru for my first project suddenly quit. He was followed by two other senior members in the team. Now, all we had was a team of freshers, and the average experience of the team in that domain was around 6 months (down from around 2 years). Still, we pulled the project through. A couple of years later, two of my close friends left the team. The project went on as usual. Then, I quit, and there was still no material difference to the project - yes, people worked harder to make up for the loss of a teammate, but otherwise, to the external world, everything was hunky-dory. Since then, I've left two companies, and many people have left my place of work, and life went on as usual.

What this ignores though is the sociological aspect. In a well-jelled team, every team member has a place of his own - not just technologically or organizationally, but also sociologically. Invisible threads of trust, of emotional support, of friendship that take months to build are usually torn off when a person leaves. Those are harder to replace. When the seniors in my first project quit, the rest of us were able to take over the technical and organizational aspects quite well. The ten things that my mentor was responsible for, we split amongst the four (or five) of us. What we couldn't split (immediately) is the sense of confidence of having someone to turn to when we were in trouble. What we couldn't take over was the friendly smile that greeted us when we approached him with a problem. Ofcourse, with time, we built support structures of our own - which were again dismantled when people left.

I think this is the aspect of turnover that is largely ignored by companies. What thinks you? Use the comments link freely to express your opinions.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Technology notes Vol 1, Ed 2, Nov 06

Welcome to the second edition of Technology notes. This time we have:

* Peopleware

At the recently held Bangalore Book Fair, I got the opportunity to finally buy a book I'd been hunting for a long time. This book, called "Peopleware", written by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister is a classic - something that can be compared with "The Mythical Man-month".

Now we've all heard about hardware, software, shareware, and even vapourware. So, what is peopleware? Well, it is about the only raw material that matters in the software world - people. It is all about how people must be managed, the kind of work environments that software companies must provide, and the kind of managers/senior leaders that you must have in the profession for a company to succeed.

A must read book for anyone, including those not in the profession. Nothing in the book is new - just uncommon, like common sense. Let me know (if you're in Bangalore), if you want to borrow the book.

* Pair programming

The first time I heard about pair programming, I laughed my heart out. My good friend Sathya who introduced the concept tried very hard, in his own inimitable way, to convince me about the worth of the concept. Nothing would make me budge...two programmers working on the same piece of code at the same time!? What crap! What about productivity? What about cost!? What about conflicts!? These were all questions I asked.

It is a different matter though, that later in my life, I actually wrote a paper on the benefits of pair programming! Even then, despite having officially pair-programmed more than a few times, I hadn't experienced the "Aha" moment - when I was convinced that pair programming helped me do a better job of something.

Around a month back, a manager at my workplace had a cool idea on some updates to a web-site that we host. Essentially, we were changing the rendering algorithm, and he asked if I would work with him on it. I agreed, and man, was it fun! The three hours we spent deciphering the existing code and tailoring his algorithm were probably the most productive hours I've spent in some time! And it was fun! We each complemented the other's skills, learnt from the others' approach to code, and finally came off with renewed respect for each other.

Now that is the "Aha" moment I was looking for. That is one of the biggest benefits of pair programming - building better teams.

Anyways, this is all for this edition. Keep visiting this space for more technical updates. Next time, I plan to write about user-interfaces and the general stagnation in the area.

See the previous edition of technology notes here:

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Linguistic Abuse

The eternal bard once said "What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Maybe true. But every word has a meaning. And to use a word in a manner as to distort its meaning is unfortunately, today's journalistic trend.

For example, take the word (phrase?) "high-tech". It stands for high-technology - which means technology of a certain calibre, a certain novelty, and a certain degree of precision, one that stretches the state-of-the-art in a field. How do our papers use the word? Well, simply, everything in the 'high-tech' (sic) city of Bangalore is high-tech. The bus-stand is hi-tech, even though it doesn't have proper water-proofing. The buses are hi-tech, even though they run on 80s technology. The government is hi-tech, even if it doesn't understand technology. Everything is hi-tech. Most vulnerable to this phenomenon is the New Indian Express - which is otherwise an excellent read.

Here is an other one. "Militant". Websters' defines "Militant" as someone who takes to arms for a selfless cause. A "terrorist", on the other hand, is one who "systematically uses terror as a means of coercion". So, are the terrorists in Kashmir working for a selfless cause? Or are they using terror to coerce the Indian government into accepting the two-nation theory? Well, if you go by the anchors, they are those fighting for a selfless, no doubt, secular, cause.

I'll add more as I remember them.

The biggest threat to India

Here is a pop quiz. In one word, what is the biggest threat to the security, development, and integrity of this country? Terrorism? No. Poverty? Not at all. So, is it fundamentalism? Nope. So, what is it?

Well, it is Communism. And communist control over premier educational institutions in the country. This in turn has led to their control over all of primary/secondary education, over most of the print and visual media, and over many influential institutions like the ICHR. As Ayn Rand, in her book, The Fountainhead, eloquently stated, this bunch of commies are not interested in 'physical' power. What they want is power over thought. Power over the minds of the people. They want to hold the levers to power, not power itself.

So, how do they accomplish this mind-control? By obfuscating facts. By telling lies. And by having acolytes back their lies. Here is an example: In today's "We the people", the debate was about "Health-care outsourcing". Barkha Dutt introduced a Bill-something from California who had come in to Fortis for treatment. He was obviously impressed with the world-class facilities and the low cost. Obviously. And two other truths are self-evident. Health-care outsourcing helps hospitals improve, it gets India more foriegn exchange, and it clearly benefits the patient. Now that the worthies cannot dispute these facts, the JNU-types on the show ask, "Who will do anything about the Indian Bills?". Point. But what does this have to do with the whole concept? Indian Bills cannot afford treatment because the government spends 1% of the GDP on healthcare, instead of 5-7% like the other countries, and even that 1% is not used effectively. It is not because the private hospitals treat foriegn patients. But the force with which these guys put it, the private hospitals are put in the dock, for no fault of theirs. And in this debate, you can be sure, there will be no mention of all the Pakistani kids who got treatments done here! BTW, if you treat a Pakistani, if you treat a Kashmiri terrorist, you are a national hero. If you treat an American, you are a blood-sucking vulture.

And this is typical. Praise a NarayanaMurthy for creating Infosys, and these worthies will say "Oh, it provides jobs to only 50,000 people." Praise the software industry for letting these worthies fly to other countries witout being treated as terrorists, and these will say "Oh, it is *just* a few million jobs." Praise the export sector for doing well, and these worthies will point to all those below the poverty line. But praise a Mao, praise a Stalin, praise a Caucescu - all butchers, and these a*holes will clap with you.

Disgusting. And if you haven't read these three books - Animal Farm, 1984 and The Fountainhead, I'll urge you to read them now. It is the duty of every citizen to see through the propaganda of these a*holes.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Much more typecasting

If you are one of those who is going to heave a huge sigh of anguish, you are not the only one. Yes, I know, I've ranted on and on and on about typecasting people. And I've admitted that I've been guilty of the same. So why am I blogging about it again!? Is there anything new I want to say about the topic? Well, not really, but it is surprising that even after I made my transition from C++ to C#, the typecast haunting continues, albeit in different forms, which is what I want to mention.
The underlying theme is the same. Being ever so slightly(!) on the plumper side of things, people are surprised that I ran the marathon. But what is most funny is when other people who throw run-time exceptions when typecasted, typecast you. Oh, you make jokes, so you can't handle serious! Oh, you don't believe in God, so you cannot enjoy classical music. Oh, you like the US, so you cannot enjoy Mohd Rafi. Oh, you speak ever so softly, so you cannot drive your Swift at over 100 kmph. What is worse is that when conversations steer to the above mentioned topics, I'm automatically classified as a liar, a futile boast, and what not.
Oh, well. The good thing is that I'm getting used to it. The bad thing is that I'm still guilty of typecasting. :)

Cell phone conversation

Those of you that know me in the real world know that I don't have a cellphone. Now, being without a cellphone in 21st century India puts one in funny situations at times. Here is one incident that happened when I had just joined my present job.

Receptionist (Opening a register of employee contact information): Sir, can I have your cellphone case someone wants to contact you

Moi: No, sorry, I don't have a mobile phone

R (Incredulous look on his face): Sir, but we'll keep it confidential...won't give it to anyone

M: No, really, I don't have a mobile phone!

R: Sir, but we need it for our records...
(At this time a 'worker' walks in carrying a heavy case. He keeps it on a table nearby, fishes out a mobile from his pocket and dials...)

R: Sir, even *he* has a cell phone...

M (big smile on my face): Well, OK...what you mean by that!?

R: Sir, you *really* don't have a mobile?

M: No, *really*, I don't have a you want to check my bags now to confirm it?

R: No...sir, sorry...

(Moi walks out of the door...the 'worker' suspiciously follows me out, staring at me most of the time...)