Sunday, December 28, 2008

Are you Indian enough?

Newspaper reports in the Indian Express and others have mention that the sports ministry has decided to ban players not holding Indian passports from competing for India. Remember, that this is the same ministry which asked Sachin to remove the tricolour from his helmet some years ago. This is the same ministry that could not handle the false doping issue of Laishram Monika correctly. And of course, as I said earlier, if you are incapable of fixing the real issues in a field, you take something insignificant, blow it up into a big issue, and then make crude attempts at hacking a solution for it. Our health minister is the best exponent of this craft in this government, but it appears that the sports minister has decided to give him competition.

What is wrong in PIOs playing for India? They are allowed to buy land in India, they can carry on any occupation in India, and they have every right that a citizen has except the right to vote. Then, why create another class of citizens there? Isn’t it enough that we’ve created separate classes of citizens for flying the flag, separate classes for healthcare, for education, and for every social service? Why do it in sports as well?

This is exactly the sort of megalomania that ministers in India are prone to. Ban live bands, Ban parties, Ban flag-flying, Ban sportsmen.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Technology Notes, Vol 1 Issue 7: Computation and Philosophy (Part 2)

See my report on the first day here. Unfortunately, it has been a while since I attended the conference, and too many things have happened in the interim, so this part of the report may not be as crisp as I’d like it to be.

I could only attend the afternoon session on the second day of the conference, and only one talk on the third day. I did miss a few (possibly interesting) talks in the process – I have abstracts and contact info of them, so if you are interested, talk to me.

The first talk in the afternoon session on Day 2 was “Mathematics, Computation and Cognition” by Rajesh Kasturirangan of NIAS. His premise was that the study of cognitive basis of mathematics and computation is best done on experienced mathematicians as opposed to children or chimpanzees as is usually the case. He talked about the classic Turing papers on Computational machinery and intelligence and George Lakof’s work which said that computational thought is essentially metaphorical. The question that we must ask, Rajesh said, was of the origins of that metaphorical ability. After this point, I lost him, and the discussions on what should be done got mixed up with what is already done (at least in my mind). He gave some characteristics of mathematical phenomena (like precision), and said that some interesting questions in the area were understanding the cognitive capacity for induction/recursion, and formulating theories for mathematical understanding. In conclusion, he advocated taking a holistic interpretation of the metaphor-mathematical thinking link, to see if they mutually interact and benefit each other. Q&A was OK, and there were some theories that floated around natural language and natural numbers, but I didn’t understand most of the discussion. Important reference here is “Number sense” by Daheane.

Next came what I thought was the least interesting talk of the conference, “Marr’s three-level typology for Cognitive Science”, by S. Pannerselvam of the University of Madras. The speaker simply read out the paper he’d authored without bothering to look once at the audience, or pausing to see if people understood what he was trying to say. Anyhow, Pannerselvam started with the Vision module that Marr describes, where he gives a three-level typology for cognitive science, each level corresponding to one of the three, why, what, and how questions of implementing such a module. He then appeared to contrast it with a connectionist approach pioneered by Jerry Fodor (See "The Elm and the Expert”). In that approach, as opposed to the “implementationist” approach of Marr, there is no central CPU processing information – instead, there is a more of a neural net that has parallel “total cognitive states”. A “Cognitive Transitive Function” would define state changes, although the characteristics of that were not explained by the speaker. The most interesting part of this talk was when Pannerselvam mentioned Jerry Fodor’s Somehow, amongst all these, he mentioned a “Language of thought”, which he said was not a natural language. During Q&A, many in the audience asked him about the characteristics of the language, but he didn’t say much. If you are interested though, go through the link above, and it has quite some information. Dan Dennett and Don Davidson both support the “no thought without language” thesis.

What does a cognitive agent have to do to develop meaning/understanding, or what is called a “grounded representation”? The next talk, by Nagarjuna G of TIFR was on this topic. He introduced Taddeo and Floridi’s (TF) criteria to solve the “Symbol Grounding Problem” (paper by Harnad here) and explained that the drawback of the system was that it did not specify a filtering mechanism to select the states that the cognitive entity would process. Other models were discussed, for instance, the Symbolic model (where the brain was a CPU that had sensory I/O), and the Connectivist model (that of neural nets and parallel states). The other shortfall, btw, of the TF criteria was that the entity under observation was assumed to have an abstracting ability that evolved from evolution! From what I understood, these models assumed something like the following: the eye only let light through, and the brain and its structures decided what we were seeing and equally importantly, what was the importance of what we were seeing. The alternative model that the speaker proposed used “Active perception” and a sensory system where inputs collided with each other (think seeing and hearing at the same time),  and not everything that was perceived was processed. There was more information on this, but I’ll let you read his paper: “Muscularity of the Mind”. The talk seems to make more sense, the more I chew on it, so I’ll try and post an addendum here later.

The final talk of the day was on the "Status and Justification of the Church-Turing Thesis (CTT)”, by Jonathan Yaari of the Hebrew University. The premise of this talk was that CTT was a contingent (i.e. aposteriori and necessary) thesis and one that didn’t require proof (or was unproveable) – similar to the fundamental axioms in geometry. The speaker wanted to use Kripke and Putnam’s theory of the existence of scientific ‘sentences’ that are both aposteriori and necessary to show that CTT was both a posteriori and necessary. See this article for more on the theory itself. What he failed to give though was a proper ‘reduction’ from CTT to the K-P theory. He also described CTT, attempted proofs for CTT, and K-P theory for too long to have time for a proper explanation of his ideas. Q & A focussed on this and other questions on computability, and while there were some good points raised, I don’t remember any of them now :(.

The last talk I attended was “Modularity revisited” by Pritha Chandra of IIT-D. The question Pritha raised was whether FL(N),  the Faculty of Language (Narrow) was modular as Fodor defined it. I didn’t really get the point of the talk, except for her conclusion that FL(N) was modular. I’ll put some references here if you are interested: Chomsky’s Minimalist Program, Spelke’s work on why FL(N) isn’t modular, paper talking more about FL(N) by Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch, and papers defending modularity of FL(N), by Fodor and Butterfill

I’ll post my conclusions on the conference in a separate post. :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Of love, leagues and relationships 7: Page rank

Previously in love, leagues and relationships…
…New samvat's, the festival that celebrated 60,000 years of human existence. Would he be able to enjoy the day?

Arthur felt a light feeling in his head. His feet weren’t on solid ground. Trying to piece together what had happened, Arthur recollected drinking heavily on Samvat, getting into a car and driving off into a dark highway. He could recollect seeing two big lights, growing ever larger, swaying from side to side, approach him. What happened next was no mystery. As Arthur struggled to get a firm footing on the ground, he realized that he was no more.

Arthur kept feeling lighter, he felt himself being sucked up as though a power vacuum was running up in the clouds. In seconds, he flew through the clouds, through the solar system, outside the Milky way, and landed in a long queue that led to a train station.

A large board in the distance read “Pearly Gates”. A smaller board indicated that the Pearly Orient was due to start in half an hour.

The queue progressed forward at a rapid pace. Soon, Arthur was only a few feet away from what he thought was a ticket counter. To his surprise, he saw most people disappear once they reached the counter, and only a few were let through. Intrigued, as Arthur waited for his turn, he overheard this conversation:

But I have been a man of god all my adult life! And how can you let this terror on the street through while preventing me from entering?”

The TC replied: “God is not only concerned about your means, but also your ends. This auto driver from Bangalore made more people pray to God while he was driving, while all you did was put people to sleep with your sermons! Three years in Hell for you!”

With a poof of smoke, the preacher disappeared.

Arthur was next, and the man at the ticket counter pulled up what looked suspiciously like Arthur’s favourite search engine and typed his name in. In seconds, Arthur’s life flashed on the screen. Images from his life, videos of acts he’d done, reams of text of things he said or thought, profiles of his friends, in short, his entire life appeared on the screen. Finally, at the bottom, there was a single score in large bold letters: a small negative number with the title “LifeRank score”.

The ticket collector’s face darkened.

“You will have to go to Hell.” he said.

Arthur was terrified. “But I’ve done nothing wrong!”, he exclaimed. “I was god-fearing, did the right things always, was pro-environment, kind to animals and was helpful to people! Why should I go to Hell!?”, he asked. Unable to contain his curiosity, “What is that LifeRank score?”, he added.

“Ah, a software engineer, aren’t you?”, replied the TC. “Always curious, but never doing anything useful.” Arthur was peeved by the judgment. Still, one doesn’t argue with a man who decides your time in eternity, so he let the TC continue. “LifeRank is a score computed by weighing in your accomplishments in life, your carbon credits, animal credits and other factors. However, the most important factor in the LifeRank score is the rating given to you by the people you know, and their LifeRank scores. You see, in eternal life, as in real life, where you end up depends mostly on who you know.”

Arthur was amazed. “Why is my score negative? Is that bad? What _are_ the components of my score?”, he enquired.

“Sorry, that is a secret”, replied TC. “The precise weights given to each component is only known to the One. What I can tell you is that you seem to know many people with a negative life rank score who think you are a great person. And that is BAD.”

“What!?”, exclaimed Arthur. He could not believe what he was hearing. “Why should I get a bad score because some bad folks think I’m good?”, he asked in an agitated voice.

“Simple, my man.”, replied TC, with the patience that only eternal life can bring. “Who do you think would Adolf, the patron saint of Hell, rate highly, Mussolini or Gandhi? Who would Gandhi rate highly? Stalin, or Lincoln? If you are rated highly by someone with a negative score, your score becomes negative. ”

Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing. His mother always told him to be careful of the company he kept, but little had he realized that her advice could come to haunt him this way!

“But I must know a few good people”, he said, defensively. “Yes, you do”, replied TC. “However, none of them rate you as highly as the negative ones do. Sorry, I must let you go.”

Dejected, Arthur took one last look at the screen, and saw the hint of a familiar multi-coloured logo. Suddenly, with a smile, he said, “Are _you_ using the PageRank algorithm developed by Search., Inc? Wait, this even looks exactly like their home page!”. TC was taken aback. Clearly, he hadn’t met many software engineers, particularly not those with Arthur’s keen eye. Recovering, he said “PageRank? That is just a prototype of the real algorithm. What we use is LifeRank – which the One created. He did give away an early prototype to Lerry Brim and Sogay Page. However, PageRank is ages behind LifeRank – it doesn’t scale, it requires expensive computers, and a whole lot of energy. LifeRank, on the other hand is IJW. It Just Works.”

“So, _you_ guys started the greatest battle of 21st century computing!”, exclaimed Arthur. “But why did you give Page rank to Search., Inc, and not to their rivals, Myahoo?”. Arthur knew he was on to something exciting. “Oh, that is because of their motto – don’t be evil.”, replied TC. “And yes, we know, they haven’t really stuck to their ideals, but hey, they’ve served as a brilliant marketing tool for God. Remember, everyone does marketing all their lives. Even God.”

Arthur could not believe what he was hearing. He managed to ask: “What about their rivals?”.

TC replied, with a huge smile: “Oh, they went to heaven. After all, haven’t you heard of the Vista operating system? By making people wait for long minutes during reboots, the company gave people, particularly, a community as under-devoted as software developers, time to think about the true meaning of life. Would such a deed go unrewarded?”

Arthur had no more questions. He closed his eyes, expecting the worst.

(PS: A number of statements and anecdotes here are not my own. Full credit to the authors - Vibhuti for the "marketing statement", and Anon for the autorickshaw joke.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Technology Notes Vol 1, Issue 6: Computation and Philosophy (Day 1).

This issue of Technology notes is dedicated to the "Computation and Philosophy" conference held at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. There were more than 25 talks (of which I attended 13), and although I went in with some degree of trepidation, I must say I wasn't completely lost. I am still chewing on what I heard and on my notes, so what you see here is a half-cooked report on the three day conference.

A few caveats first: As I don't have formal training in philosophy, everything I say here is what I understood from my low perch in Computer science, so please take everything in this post with a healthy dose of skepticism. Further, conclusions I draw here are my own, and they may not be what the speakers intended.

The one big lesson I drew from the conference is that a reductionist approach is grossly insufficient to describe many complex systems, one of which is our own ability at computation, which includes the ability to learn language.

The first hint towards this came from the talk on Templates, Complexity and Autonomous systems by Paul Humphreys. Prof. Humphreys is an authority on emergent behaviour, and he contrasted reductionism to a constructionist approach to explain higher-order properties. While reductionists argue that all higher orders of properties can be explained by interactions amongst lower-order properties, constructionists believe that there are levels in the reductionist hierarchy which are not algorithmically accessible from the previous levels. That is, there are higher-level properties that cannot be reduced to the interactions between the properties that exist at lower-levels (think genes->proteins->organs). The question Prof. Humphreys asked was whether this irreducibility was provable. He explained his results using Ising models and Cellular Automata, but I was unable to understand the gist of his discussion, as it assumed that one knew these concepts apriori. Overall though, I think his point was that it can be proven that it is not possible to have models of sufficiently complex physical systems where every property can be computed. I'm still reading up on some of the papers he mentioned, so if you are interested, Sorin Istrail's paper at STOC 2000 is one suggested for reading. I'm still trying to figure out what he said, and once I do, I'll put it up here for more discussion.

The next two talks, "Algorithms in Indian tradition" and "Mathematical, Algorithmic, and Computational thinking in the Indian mind-scape" were rather boring. Both speakers talked about the glorious Indian tradition of science, and while the first speaker, M D Srinivas, gave an illustration of how Aryabhata and other Indian mathematicians wrote maths in poetry, and were able to compute functions like sine-inverse, Veni Madhavan who gave the second talk said that the notion of proof and generality didn't arise in the Indian mathematical tradition because of the poetic way in which mathematics was passed down. The first talk was a repeat of a talk I'd attended at MSRI, and the second had zero proof and lot of hand-waving as to why poetry caused Indian mathematicians to miss a glorious opportunity to own, for example, the "Chinese remainder theorem". The speakers tried hard to avoid being patriotic, but that feeling somehow snuck in, and in addition, beyond making an unproven statement that poetry is some sort of an enemy of generalization, was completely unrelated to the topic at hand.

Some of the Q&A here was good though, with some people debating whether notations freed or constrained thoughts of people - Greeks, for instance, not going beyond the third power simply because their mathematics reduced to geometry, and they were unable to visualize a fourth dimension. No conclusions were drawn though.

These talks were also the started the trend of poor presentations in the conference by many of the speakers. So many of them came unprepared, many didn't have slides and read from papers or books they'd written, and one person literally recited his paper during his presentation.

Anyhow, the next talk was by N. Raja from TIFR, on the "Philosophy of Software Artifacts". This talk was another disappointment, particularly because I was really looking forward to what he had to say. N. Raja spent a LOT of time talking about denotational v/s operational semantics, explaining the lambda-calculus, and quoting books (for instance, "Meaning and Interpretation" by Charles Travis). I didn't get the point of his talk, however – I guess he was trying to introduce the different approaches to semantics in Computer Science. Some of his references though are interesting reads, notably the Scott-Strachey paper "Towards a mathematical semantics for computer languages" and Peter Landin's work on a lambda-calculus-based abstract machine. Overall, the talk wasn't crisp and while the speaker had slides, there was a lot of back-and-forth movement, and not enough time devoted to making a single, "take-homeable" point. The one thing I remember about the talk was a flat joke about how computer scientists are formalists on the weekday and 'something else' on the weekends, but I forget what.

The next talk was post-lunch, and it was by Amba Kulkarni on "Panini's Ashtadhyayi", on Sanskrit grammar, which incidentally is the first generative grammar known to us (think Chomsky's hierarchy for what a generative grammar is). Kulkarni made the point that Panini was aware of information coding abilities of language, and the need for brevity while defining grammar, and she explained how Panini used anuvrutti or factorization to get brevity in his definitions. (See the section on "IT markers" on the wiki page.) There was a lot of room for ambiguity, and in such cases, he took refuge in meta rules and akansha (what the listener expected) to resolve it. Essentially, there were phonemes, called shivasutras and rules called anubandhas that mimicked Niklaus Wirth's famous book: Programs = Data + Algorithms, with shivasutras playing the role of data, and anubandhas, the algorithms that defined the composition and behaviour of these data items. Kulkarni also gave some 'proof' (quotes intentional) for how the system is similar to OO programming, and quoted a paper by a Yale professor on inheritance in ashtadhyayi which had dealt with this issue. I only realized later that she meant a completely different inheritance - the paper here says

"What distinguishes Panini's approach is not only temporal priority, but a novel method of interleaving formal and semantic specifications along a single inheritance path to model many-to-many correspondences between the formal and semantic properties of derivational affixes"

leaving me clueless. Maybe a linguistics person can clarify this? Meanwhile, it was time for Q&A, and when there is talk of Sanskrit, how can talk of programming be far behind? Quickly, a consensus formed, excluding the two Microsofties present, on the suitability of Sanskrit for computer programming. Never mind that the grammar itself is ambiguous, and requires human understanding (see the point about akanksha) for interpretation. Of course, I'm NOT a qualified linguist, and it may indeed be possible to program in Sanskrit. One does wonder though why a compiler hasn't been built to translate Sanskrit into say, English.

Next was a talk on "Computation and the Nature of writing" by Sundar Sarukkai. This was an interesting talk, where he first defined computation as the manipulation of symbols leading to a conclusion. Then he asked the difference between writing and computing. Quoting from a reference I didn't record, he mentioned that the essential characteristics of writing were temporality, progressivity, and that it was a representation of speech, which itself was a representation of thought and was a second order copy of information. He then introduced cognitive models of writing favouring the "planning, organizing, goal-setting" model, and was emphatic that all three occur in parallel. Writing was also goal directed, he said, with process and content goals being satisfied through a process of translating thought to symbols. Coming back to computation, he mentioned semantics was the bugbear for math, and that removing meaning from symbols gave it a certain purity, and allowed 'logic' to operate on them. Thus 'symbol-centrism' became central to computation. Ultimately, his conclusion was that the two were similar, as both did translations of thoughts into symbols on a medium. He did leave a few questions open, for instance, the rules for a "metaphysics of computation", or the difference that writing and speaking make to the computability of mathematics.  Considering how the talk concluded, I must say that while the talk itself was well presented, the conclusion was something anyone with very little knowledge of philosophy would have come to. But I guess that is the challenge of philosophy - to provide theories for understanding even those things that we think are obvious.

The next session of three talks was dedicated to Biology. It started with a talk by Vijay Chandru of Strand genomics on a "Systems View of Biology". Vijay started by saying how a reductionist approach to biology has failed to describe higher order behaviours like organ function, (See "Music of Life" by Dennis Noble for more on this), and gave an illustration of the work Strand is doing in their field by the example of hepatotoxicity detection. Strand seems to be doing very well, and they appear have teams of PhDs and MDs tackling every problem in a co-ordinated way. The talk though didn't have too many insights beyond telling us that computation will change the way biology is done in this decade or the next.

Next in the biology series was Dr. Raghavendra Gadagkar's talk, "Decision making in Animals", by far the best talk of the conference: well presented, with a lot of content, and independent research backed up by evidence. The subject was apparent intelligence of decision making in bees and other social insects - for instance, bees are known to convey both the distance and direction of food accurately, and other bees are known to follow up taking into account the rotation of the earth. Ants find what is usually the shortest path to food. His conclusion was that all this is done by following certain simple heuristics - for instance, ants set off in all directions in search of food, leaving pheromones on their path. When a food source is found, the ant finding it traces its way back to the nest. If two ants find two different routes to the same food, the ant which returned first would leave a stronger pheromone trail (as it has passed the route twice). An ant that sets off after the first one returns will simply follow the path of the stronger pheromone, increasing its strength. Ants that come later continue to follow the same rule, making the path the standard one. The experiments suggested were simple, and brilliant (at least to a layman), and this was clearly the best talk of the conference. [May I make a recommendation that he be invited to give a talk at MSRI?]

The final talk of the day was by M G Narasimhan of NIAS on "The Genetic Code as an Information Entity". The speaker spent a lot of time talking about DNA and Watson and Crick and the whole history of the study of DNA, and by the time he came to his conclusions, his time was up, and so was our patience. We left without waiting for the Q&A.

Will write about Days 2 and 3 in the next post.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Google OS.

It is so gratifying when a prediction you make comes true (or nearly true). Internetnews says that Google is hiding OS signatures for packets coming out of Wonder why. Remember though, that you heard it first here, a few months ago, when I'd speculated that the ultimate Google weapon against Microsoft would be a Google OS - this report says that they may actually be working on one, even as we speak!


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Open Source

I am a big fan of Open Source. I think it is the greatest ode to teamwork: Just imagine, getting people from nearly all over the world, with completely different interests, who've never seen each other, to work on a common project! Simply amazing. The sophistication of processes that open source teams (well, at least in Linux development) have achieved deserves kudos. Not to mention the opportunity it gives for students and amateurs to learn both by doing and by actually seeing what goes on under the hood of any software application. Being open to scrutiny, bugs get fixed relatively quickly, and security flaws are fewer - well, that is at least what I've heard.

However, what bugs me is the simplistic formula - "Open source = good; Proprietary software = bad." That is, anybody, any entity that supports open source is cleansed and becomes pure good, while any entity that doesn't becomes an incarnation of the anti-Christ.

Take, for instance, this comment on a page debating the virtues and vices of Google:

"Google is not evil. They encourage open source software. They have effectively counteracted Microsoft and Apple closed source systems to the benefit of the public. ..."

(Ed: I've removed the part of the comment talking about text ads - those are great innovations and have nothing to do with evil or good.)

Of course, the author of this comment wasn't probably aware that Google's search algorithm is still secret. (Don't pop the PageRank paper at me now - Google hasn't open-sourced it's actual search algorithm that runs on production machines - a lesson they learnt after publishing the page-rank algorithm as grad students.) Or that Google has been sued many times for violating someone's patent (this maybe simply for money), or someone else's copyright. Or the fact that Google submitted to the Chinese censors without as much as a whimper.

If you are not giving out secrets that matter most to your company, then you are no different from all the companies that work with closed source. Why isn't this obvious to people? Why are we always on the lookout for a white knight that battles the dark satanic forces of commercialism?

Open source software is no longer groups of individuals creating world-class software for nothing but fame or their love of software development. Open source is now backed by companies with millions of dollars - think Google with Mozilla/Linux, IBM and HP with Linux, and the countless others that pay developers good money to write Open source software. None of them are doing it out of the good in their hearts. They are doing it because it gives them a competitive advantage, good publicity, or the chance to shoot at a rival over the shoulders of 'Open source' developers.

(Been unable to write anything on the Mumbai attacks yet. Still trying to formulate a sensible post.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

(Not a) Quantum of Entertainment

I am not a fan of Bond movies, so when my team decided that "Quantum of Solace" was where we'd spend our morale money, I suppressed a silent groan.

Nearly all Bond movies I've seen follow a theme. The movies start with a chase of sorts, after which Bond goes to M for a debriefing, then meets Q and examines some cool gadgets, then goes out to a gathering, meets the Bond girl, introduces himself with the time-worn "Bond, James Bond" line, sleeps with her, pisses off the villain, and then, well, you know. And Bond is cool, and never gets ruffled by all the action around him, while the villains only keep a facade of cool, before losing their cool and their game to Bond.

However, I'd seen 'Casino Royale' and was impressed with Daniel Craig's portrayal of the Bond character, and was therefore semi-keen to see this movie.

Unfortunately, the movie has no storyline, has no original action sequences, has poor continuity (although we may have our censors to thank for that), and pointless characters. 

However, the elephant-in-the-room problem is that the villains in the movie suck. They are terrible. The director seems to have forgotten that the most important part of any superhero movie is the villain. It's the villain who is proactive, who throws the gauntlet, and the superhero simply responds. So, for the superhero to be 'super', the villain must be super too. A Superman must have a Lex Luthor with alien technology, a Batman must have a Joker, and a Hulk must have a gamma-ray enhanced Maj. Blonsky.

The villains in the "Quantum of Solace" are anything but super. Dominic Greene looks like the fake secret agent who pees in his pants in the movie "True Lies" and the other villain, the general, cannot stay within his pants and wants to do everything in sight. There is absolutely no class in the movie.

But this is not the movie's only problem. Throughout its one-and-half-hour span, one is left wondering what it is trying to say. I concede that some of it might be due to our over-eager censors exercising their fingers, but I came out of the theatre with a headful of plane crashes, car crashes, and killings, without being able to piece them together into a story. Further, I think the director does not know the difference between a fast-paced movie and a movie which has fast-paced camera work. This is particularly evident in the first fight scene, in which both Bond and the corrupt agent wear the suits of the same colour, and keep moving through buildings, making it near-impossible distinguish the puncher from the punchee through most of the scene.

Continuity is another issue - in the last scene, Dominic Green tells Bond that he has answered everything Bond asked and should be left alone. But that scene is never shown in the movie!

Finally, the movie brings in characters that have no meaning whatsoever to the story. For instance, there is the cute-as-a-button girl from the English consulate, who has no role but to be the Bond bimbo, and of course, a convenient target for the villains.

Zero stars for the movie. I'm just glad I didn't pay to watch this crap.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

132, 6809, 619, 10/74, 110*, and a gentleman to boot.

"Only one team played in the spirit of the game"
If you wanted to know what Anil Kumble's words were worth to the world's cricketing fraternity, the response he got to this line at Perth should be enough.
Goodbye and best wishes to a brilliant bowler, a wonderful team man, and above all, a gentleman cricketer. Thank you Anil Kumble, for your wonderful heroics on the cricketing field.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where is our Obama?

Through Krishna, the protagonist, Maharshi Veda Vyasa has this brilliant saying in the BhagavadGita :

"यदा यदा ही धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भावती भारता। अभ्युथ्थानाम अधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम। परित्रनाय साधुनाम विनाशायाचा दुष्कृताम धर्मं सम्स्थापानार्थाया संभवामि युगे युगे।"

"Whenever righteousness is on the decline, O Bharata, and Adharma is on the rise, then I will incarnate, to protect the innocent, punish the evil doers and establish dharma, I will incarnate in every yuga"

If you look at the BhagavadGita as the allegory it was meant to be, what the poet is saying is that societies produce great men and women at times of distress, great men and women who fight lawlessness, injustice, and ignorance, and attempt to establish an order of righteousness. Think about it - the darkest period in Indian history, that of occupation by the British produced some of our greatest heroes. Interestingly too, each one perished as soon as his ordained job on the planet was done. The Mahatma was killed after India got independence. Sardar Patel died soon after integrating the princely states. And you could say that Nehru passed away only after laying a firm foundation of democracy and secularism in India (although I myself may not agree with that). My favourite columnist, Rajeev Srinivasan once wrote about precisely the same issue, although with a slightly religious bent here.

No, I have not become a religious person overnight. I still don't think that a God re-incarnated, or that the Mahatma and Sardar Patel were destined to do what they did (I used those words in rhetorical flourish). I do believe though that societies that survive for long, produce from within themselves, heroes on a regular basis - heroes who challenge the status quo, who inspire millions to fight against the injustice of the day, and who change the history of the society irrevocably.

Every lasting society has seen such people. Heroes like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson guided the country through its creation. Lincoln, JFK, and Lyndon Johnson came in to bring equality. And today, Barack Obama has become the harbinger of promised change after eight years of 'Bush-raj'.
At a time when the very existence of India is under theat, when those principles that put Indian citizenship above considerations of language, religion, caste and region are under severe stress, where, I ask, is our Obama? Where is the Sardar who can fight the 'Raj' of the Thackeray clan? Where is the Nehru, or the Shastri who'll inspire the people to put the nation before themselves? Or the JP who will put the law above petty considerations of religious vote banks?

Little men, huge and fragile egos, a sound-bite ridden media and an uninterested educated class. The perfect recipe to kill the Indian experiment with democracy.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Indian man and the wall.

Have you noticed how most Indian men are attracted to walls? To them (I deliberately won't use the word 'us', because a decent minority is an exception to what I'm going to say), a clean wall is what a canvas is to an artist, what a sheet of empty paper is to a poet, and what a pole is to a dog. In fact, these worthies like walls so much that they even named a person after that.

Ofcourse, not all of them have the same sentiment towards the wall. A clean wall brings out the artist in some, who by wavy motions of their hips etch out their self-image on the wall. For some others, it brings out the literateur, and encourages them to sign off on the wall, and for most, a clean wall brings out the animal, forcing them to mark out their territory with the zeal and enthusiasm of their four-legged ancestors.

And there are the mechanisms of 'delivery'. Some prefer to stand at their full height, as though they are covering themselves in glory. Some others squat, hiding their faces in shame, as they imprint their pathetic selves on the wall. Still some others focus intently on the 'job' at hand, ignoring everything happening around them.

You know what I'm talking about - rivulets of shame that adorn all public walls in the country. If someone unaware in the way of the Indian man were to look at our walls, he/she would have to be forgiven for thinking that it was some form of post-modern depiction of mountainous scenery.

Try stopping these worthies from carrying out their business, and you'll face a flood of abuse that is only rivalled by the trickle they are letting go on the wall. You are first asked if you own the wall, or if your father inherited it, and if you reply in the positive, you are accused, among other things, of being a wall-owning elitist, who can't even stand to share it with those whose need for it obviously exceeds yours.

Ingenious methods have been devised by wall owners to prevent their walls from falling victim to a passing 'painter's fancy. Messages like "ಇಲ್ಲಿ ಹೇಸಿಗೆ ಮಾಡಬಾರದು" are regularly ignored both by the literate and the illiterate. I remember many years ago, the BMP introducing sign boards like this one in the city, and one man went about doing his job squatting under the sign. Apparently, he thought that it was only wrong to stand while 'doing his job', but squatting was perfectly acceptable.

The only sign that has worked though, is to embed into the walls, pictures of gods. Now, with India being what it is, a secular democracy, people have even gone to the extent of including gods of all faiths - I once came upon a wall that had Ganesha, Jesus, Guru Gobind Singh, and the cresent moon and star sign on the same side. Apparently, this had worked, as the wall was spotlessly clean!

Just ranting on a holiday. Happy Dasara folks!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Free speech and conversions

In recent days, there have been a spate of attacks on Christian churches in Karnataka, apparently fuelled by illegal conversions and by some literature that was circulated regarding the Hindu faith. Now, I've read many Christian cartoons that lampoon other faiths. They all read the same - two friends are talking, one of them is a Hindu/Muslim/'Pagan', and the other, a Christian. The non-Christian talks about how his god is great, and the Christian demonstrates by either kicking the idol, or invoking the Bible, that the Christian god is the greatest. Some other times, the non-believer in question faces trouble and invokes his god, which doesn't work. He then 'takes refuge in Jesus Christ'. Lo and behold, all his problems are solved, and he converts to Christianity.

Hilarious, don't you agree? The same stories have been used to convert masses of lower-caste and poor Hindus into Christianity. Apparently, these people were also given bribes - money, education, or health-care at missionary institutions to convert. And that, according to the BJP government, is anti-national, never mind what the constitution says about free speech and freedom of religion.

Countries have a right to free speech enshrined in their constitutions because a citizen's words must be protected from those who are 'offended' by them. Similarly, a right to freedom of religion includes freedom to propagate it, as long as it is not accomplished by coercion or force. Incidentally, religious conversions through bribes is NOT illegal nor is it a 'cognizable' offence.

Of course, I don't expect the VHP/Bajrang Dal goons to understand the constitution. But what I don't get is why the VHP, BD and whoever else produce evidence on those who convert forcibly? Why don't they setup hospitals, schools, and go and work with the poorest and most deprived, and convert them back to Hinduism? Why don't they educate the illiterate, so that they can distinguish between genuine intentions and propaganda? Instead of beating up people and generally giving Hinduism a bad name, why don't they read the Bhagavad Gita, and recognize that even Christianity is another way to the same god?

Well because, that is hard work. Because it takes an understanding of Hinduism that these goons are incapable of fostering within themselves. And because it isn't as easy as vandalizing a place of worship with implicit state backing.

Shame on you, Yeddyurappa, for supporting these acts.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Dark Knight.

I've postponed this review for a long time. Because I never thought I'd get this right. I still don't think I can express in words, my euphoric reaction to The Dark Knight, but I have to try.
Nearly everyone who has seen The Dark Knight agrees that it is a fascinating movie and that Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is 'iconic'. So, I won't waste bandwidth by repeating that. I will though, try to explain why I liked the movie so much, and hopefully, that'll highlight a different perspective from the ones so far.

As a child, I was a prolific reader of comic books - Phantom, Flash and Batman were among my favourites. Of course, I read all the Indrajal comics, Super-,Spider-, Iron- and many other men, enjoyed Suppandi's jokes in Tinkle, Premchand's epics in the Chandamama, and a dozen others. Batman, though, was very different from the rest of them.

Nearly every character in Batman has a tragedy behind him/her. Batman and Robin's parents were murdered, the Penguin abandoned as a child, the Riddler was ridiculed, Mr.Freeze lost his wife, and Two-face was a staunch attorney till he was burnt and his girl-friend left him. (In the original; the movie says otherwise.)

That made the stories very interesting. Every character battled with their own history as well as with their opponents. A cloud of sorrow hung over the battles that were fought. The city of Gotham was dark, not because of a lack of light, but because of divisions, crime, and corrupt leaders, not unlike any modern Indian city.

Amidst all these, was the Joker, the prima donna of villains, the complete psychotic, who was was in a different league of villain.

Until Christopher Nolan came on the scene, no Batman movie came close to capturing the essence of these characters. The sets were too dark. Futile attempts were made to give Batman an aura of "batness" that never worked. The actors didn't know what they were doing (Tommy-lee Jones playing Two-face as a raving lunatic) or were too cute (nearly every Batman and Nicole Kidman) to portray the nuances of the Batman characters. In particular, Tommy-lee's portrayal of Two-face was more pathetic than Indian hockey - completely out of character, hopelessly out-of-depth, and looking for excuses to cover up bad performance. Catwoman and Mr.Penguin were better, but the directors did not succeed in freeing them from naive story-telling.

Nolan, with Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Christian Bale has done it right. Finally, we have a trio who understand what made the Batman comics a hit. We have a trio who are as comfortable with Frank Miller's dark knight as they are with Bob Kane's Batman. Add to it brilliant special effects, perfect support roles, and scintillating screen-play, and even while we have to forgive some mistakes like the story of how Harvey becomes Two-face, we get magic. Pure magic.

It's been a long while since a movie captured my imagination and brought back memories like this one did. Christopher Nolan has displayed amazing knack for portraying characters in The Prestige, The Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. Here's hoping that he gives us many more moments of magic. For Heath ledger - May your soul rest in peace.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Chrome plated world domination

So, Google has released its browser. And if you are one who is wondering why Google released yet another browser when developers are struggling to cope with the four different ones that are already in the market, welcome to the club.

It isn't that the users are going to be benefited either. There aren't many features in Chrome that aren't in the IE8 Beta. For instance, both run tabs in separate processes. Both have a private browsing mode, and both consume tons of memory. Further, IE8 while being standards-compliant, also has a IE7 mode for sites that won't comply by the time the browser is released.

And V8, while being a better Javascript engine, isn't revolutionary. Running apps in secure sandboxes isn't new either.

Nor will Google's clientele necessarily switch to Chrome. From what I know, techies who would be the ones that download and use Chrome nearly never click on ads, while non-techies are generally happy with their default browser, be it IE or Safari. Yes, the percentage of techies who use Google Docs/Spreadsheets may have a better user experience, but again, unless they click on ads, how does Google benefit?

Here is my take on the "how". This is Google's first step towards world domination. I'd written earlier (see the comments) that all Google needed after Docs and Spreadsheets was an OS and a browser that they can ship as default on systems. Not only would you then use Google software, but all your data would be on Google servers, making them indispensable. In addition to really hitting MS revenue sources, this will insulate Google from the low cost of switching that plagues its services. 

Welcome, folks, to chrome-plated world domination!

(PS: Needless to say, and like every other post on this blog, this post only reflects my views and should not be construed as being that of my current/previous/future employers.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A new dawn in Indian sport?

The cynic in me put the question mark in the title. Otherwise, the events of the past two weeks do point to a new dawn in Indian sport. Over the past few days, I've been making this point at our lunch discussions that Indian sport can only improve from here. As in so many fields, we are probably at the take-off point for Olympic sport and while we may never become a sporting power like China or the US (or even South Korea), 2008 might just be the beginning of more consistent Indian performances in the Olympics as well as other avenues.

Wait, we've still won only three medals, compared to the 96-odd won by the other billion+ country. One gold, as opposed to tiny Jamaica that won six. Even countries like Ethiopia and Cuba did better than us. So, where is the ray of hope?

It is in the quality of performances by both the medalists and the ones that missed. Take a look at the history of the past games. Other than the eventual medal winners like Leander or Rathore, few Indian sportspersons made it beyond the first couple of rounds. Never before did an Indian player take advantage of a repechage to claim a bronze as Sushil Kumar did in 2008. Never before did we have three players in the round of 16 in any sport. And never before did we see an Indian ranked No. 1 in a shooting sport (although he didn't participate, deferring to Rathore). Add Saina, Sania and the archers, and round it off with the large number of international and grand masters that have made it in chess, and even the cynic in you will see that we are doing better than ever in sports other than cricket.

There are two ways to get medals in sport. The first is the regimented way, followed by the ex-Soviets and China where the government and the army play the central role in finding talent, grooming it under government privilege, (threatening it with dire consequences at times), in short, making it a national project. Then there is the free-market way of encouraging people to follow their heart, ensuring competition, and sitting back for the medals to pour in. Given the abilities of our government, the free-market route is the only one we can hope to take. And that, I believe will start bringing in the dividends in the near future.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

To hell with you, Apple.

Should you buy the iPhone 3G? Well, a friend of mine gave me a lowdown on the phone's capabilities in India, and the verdict is simple. If you earn your money like I do, the hard way, don't buy the it.
Why, you ask. Why not buy the most desirable piece of hardware designed for your palm? Well, here is a rundown of reasons:
  • 3G is not available in India yet, and you don't know what prices these operators will charge once it does come up
  • The previous point is important because like in the US, the iPhone ties you to one operator. You cannot switch (at least not officially).
  • Your GPS has no driving directions (unlike the Nokia phones) and as a corollary, no audio directions either.
  • The hands-free kit is extra
  • There is no option for bluetooth headphones
  • You cannot increase storage beyond what you're provided.
  • Price: At Rs31,000 for the 8GB version, the phone is not only four times more expensive than the ones available in the US, it still subjects you to the same conditionalities, of being stuck with one operator.

As someone who fell in love with the iPhone the moment I saw it (many a time I would go to my colleague's desk only to try the touch screen), this has been a major disappointment. I am OK with all the other drawbacks (those of GPS and storage, and bluetooth headphones), but I cannot stand thae fact that I'll still be tied to one operator despite paying the full price for the phone. This is shameful and shows the utter lack of regard that Apple has for Indian customers. Just for this reason, I'll say - "Shame on you, Apple".

Monday, August 18, 2008

Gold medalist and Olympic champion, representing India

Six words, uttered in less than 10 seconds. But how long had we we waited to hear these words? For how many years, we had seen or heard Indian sportspeople flattering to deceive, missing medals by milliseconds, losing battles that should've been won, even missing to match their own personal bests. But as you see in this video, those days are finally laid to rest. Even as silver medalist Zhu from China wept in dismay, Abhinav stepped onto the podium, becoming the first Indian to do so in individual capacity. I had a lump in my throat as the flag rose, with the national anthem playing in the background. Twenty-eight years of wasted opportunity, with one final redemption.

We are not out of the woods yet. While we celebrate the single gold won by a billion people, we should pause to think why we didn't win in some proportion to our population.

Still, this medal is a landmark event. It proves the fact that we are not doomed to fail in sport. It proves that with the right kind of support, Indian sportsmen and women can bring glory to the country. And it proves, that unlike dictatorships, the only way to produce sportspeople of high calibre in a democracy is through individual initiative, with a supportive role from the government and from industry.

With badminton's Saina, the boxing Kumars, and the shooting stars showing the way, this may still be a new dawn for Indian sport. But is the government listening? Is our nonagenarian HRD minister willing to pull his head out of the reservation muck for long enough to see the faint rays of the morning sun?

If history is any guide, I'd doubt it. However, democracies thrive on individual initiative, and for the first time in our nation's history, we have companies and individuals with the money and the motivation to drive Indian sport forward. Let's hope they come forward and find for us, India's place in the Olympic sun in 2012.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Sethusamudram debate

What is the problem with the "Sethusamudram" project? The hullabaloo raised by the BJP, the tamil parties and various other groups over the issue has completely negated the possibility of sane, rational debate on the issue. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court has also issued directives to avoid "hurting the feelings of a community to the extent possible", thus making everyone lose sight of the real (read rational) issues that bedevil the project.

Let's first dispose the issue of the bridge being built by Lord Raama. Now, is it important that Lord Raama existed? Or as the veteran legal brain, Fali Nariman insisted on behalf of the government, is it important that he ordered the bridge to be demolished? IMHO, no. It doesn't matter if Lord Raama existed or not - what matter is whether the bridge is man-made or natural. If there is enough evidence to prove that it is man-made, it is a piece of our history and must be preserved, otherwise, it is 'just' a piece of rock and can be dealt with as such, subject to the other points I'll make now.

The two most important objection that has been raised against the project are its economic viability and the environmental cost. No party in the dispute has really focused on this, although there have been brilliant op-ed pieces in the newspapers. I'll let you read them - they are on the Indian Express website. Bottom-line: the experts think that the project is environmentally disastrous and economically unviable.

If that is so, why on earth are we hollering about Lord Raama, and the Dravida right over the channel, setting rational thoughts aside? Because, my dear readers, that is the Indian way. We love symbolism, meaningless gestures, and endless emotional debates.

What we need is to take a value of out Google - that data talks. That the right kind of data, mixed with the right kind of analysis is the way to take decisions.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The art of Microsoft (R) Windows (TM) programming

Eric S Raymond has an amazing set of Unix Zen koans here. His book, The Art of Unix Programming summarizes the Unix philosophy extremely well. I've wondered for a while if there was an equivalent for the Microsoft way. The closest I came to was an article by Joel Spolsky called Biculturalism. There were other posts I found on philosophy of specific windows features, but I failed to find anything that describes the Microsoft way of programming.

Recently, we had a talk by Dr. Sundar Sarukkai from NIAS on the "Philosophy of Science". Suggesting that despite it's attempts, science wasn't independent of the observer, and that it had a belief system not very unlike religion, and with its language, mathematics being incomplete, science too was incomplete, Dr. Sarukkai raised a few hackles amongst the listeners. Personally, while I thought that they were all interesting observations I didn't agree with the conclusions he drew from them, but that is a story for another day.

What this talk did though is to force my train of thought towards the station of philosophy - specifically, programming philosophy for Windows. Now, Eric Raymond and Joel Spolsky make the point about the GUI being part of the application instead of being an afterthought (as in Unix), and I agree with that. But a fundamental principle of every Microsoft API is to get programmers hooked with rapid development of basic applications. As early as MFC, you could create a fully functional Notepad application without writing a single line of code. Then there was COM that attempted to hide the complexity of developing distributed applications from you. Today, we have .NET, with LINQ, giving you hidden code generators and attributes for everything from RPC to serialization to workflow management. The underlying principle of all these APIs and platforms is to give users a helping hand when they start, by hiding complexity. In short, a large part of the new Microsoft APIs are tailor-made for the novice-intermediate programmer, who wants to develop a mashup or a cool Forms picture viewer for his grandmom.

This approach has a serious drawback. Because programmers don't have to invest upfront in learning these APIs (instead relying on code generators and other tools/constructs), there is no incentive to learn the basics well. So, when something breaks, or if a programmer wants to do something that the API designer didn't anticipate, he is left high and dry, because he hasn't made the investment in knowing what is happening underneath.

In addition, many crucial features are provided as random attributes or "facts you need to know". Therefore, the transition from a novice programmer to an intermediate one is accomplished by increasing your vocabulary, something developers aren't comfortable doing (I mean, if you could remember things instead of having to learn them, why would you take up computer science instead of history?) Of course, you can turn to your favourite search engine for help, but many times, that isn't sufficient.

The other aspect I've recognized is the preference given to large, monolithic APIs and heavy integration. Of course, it serves Microsoft well to have its tools and APIs jell with each other, but the heavy levels of integration (think for instance, an ASP.NET grid view) and monolithic APIs end up leading to an all-or-none approach that developers are forced to choose between. Customization is next to impossible, and important aspects of the code get hidden from the developers leading to performance headaches and again, maintenance nightmares as the codebase evolves.

I'll update this post as I think of others.

API headaches

As a programmer, you sure have your favourite API-thrashing story. You know, the one where a destructor fails to release memory held by the object, causing an innocuous leak that is only caught when a million-dollar contract is at stake. The one where you need to call a function twice to use it once. And the one where you sacrifice your types at the altar of someone who thought it would be fun to use void pointers in a public interface.

API design is notoriously difficult. This paper says why. Suffice to say that the task of balancing conflicting requirements, for instance, of power v/s ease-of-use, along with constraints imposed by the target language, by the large (unknown) user base, and of issues like maintainability, extensibility, and performance - you have hell on your hands.

Still, I can't help but wonder why the APIs I use on a daily basis have the flaws they have. Why, for instance, does the Linq Aggregate function throw an InvalidOperationException when I pass an empty list to it. Why, for instance, the DateTime class does not comment what its MinValue is, beyond saying that it is public, static, readonly, and is the minimum possible date. Why, for instance, should the Enumerator be modified to check for end-of-container.

I have similar problems with some language features. The illogical distinction between structs and classes in C#. The whole mess created when operator overloading (specifically, op ==) meets reference equality.

I'm just venting. The C# language and the .NET runtime have amazing utility for programmers and have replaced native C++ as my choice of programming language.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The nuclear deal

So, what do you need to know about the nuclear deal (I won't call it the Indo-US n-deal), to support or oppose it? Very little, actually. All you need to know is that three parties are opposing it - Pakistan, China and the Indian Communists. If these three oppose the deal, you know it is good for the country. You know you should support it, and support the PM, who finally has got a spine, after four pointless years in power.

Beyond the legalese and all the wrangling, what are the commies worried about? Well, as one worthy said: "The deal will make India a US outpost against China." Now, is that necessarily bad? Wouldn't you sup with your enemy's enemy, just as China has done with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and is now trying to do with Nepal? Why shouldn't we be a thorn in the flesh of the country that invaded us, still holds on to large tracts of our territory, refuses to acknowledge international borders it shares with us, and let's face it, is our competititor in every field of activity?

Incidentally, when was the last time you heard a left leader or that bastion of leftist writing, The Hindu condemn Chinese intrusions into our territory, or Chinese support for Pakistan's missile and nuclear programs, or even their attempts at encircling India with military outposts? What you've heard, I'm sure, is opposition to India's friendship with the US, opposition to India's relationship with Taiwan (which we still don't recognize, btw), or with India's friendship with Israel. In recent times, the communal nature of the Indian communist was also revealed when one of their general secretaries commented that the Indian Muslims were against the nuclear deal. What better example of ghettoising, generalizing, and internationalising an already targetted community?

However, the biggest farce in the whole drama is the one enacted by the BJP. In sacrificing national interest for petty bragging rights, L K Advani has shown that he's learnt nothing from being Vajpayee's right-hand in the government for six years. Shame on you, BJP, for calling yourself a nationalist party.
It is not Hindu fundamentalism or Islamic that pose India's biggest threat. That 'honour' goes to the commies and the pinkos of the country.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Teen pregnancies. Updated

Read a Rediff article on the same topic:
Recently, there was this item in the news, where a group of seventeen "yet-to-turn-16" high school students made a pregnancy pact in the US, and succeeded. The reason? Well, the insidious effect of the coverage that celebrity pregnancies got in recent times. If you keep glorifying unmarried, under-aged pregnancies like that of Britney Spears' sister, and you keep pointing cameras at celebrity pregnancy bumps - what would you expect kids to learn?

A friend of mine who's into fashion, once told me how new fashions were invented. According to him, there weren't many avenues left for creative expression in clothing. So, designers had a choice - either they could drag themes back from the past, or they could shorten or lengthen existing clothes. He gave a very insightful description of how thongs were invented, but in the interest of your stomach, I'll let it pass. Anyway, what was even more interesting was their promotion strategy, which was two-fold: get celebrities to endorse the design, and demean those who stick with existing ones. For instance, to popularize women's pants, they'd associate it with feminism, so that anyone who didn't wear them, wasn't with the times, and was therefore, a supporter of male chauvinism. Similarly, to sell over-sized clothes, you glorify pregnancy, make motherhood the in thing for the times, get celebrities to advertise their pregnancies, and make a quick buck.

Now you know where I'm going with this line of argument. The loonies who control the fashion world, the loonier celebrities who model for them, and the still loonier media that covers these like there is no tomorrow - these are flooding adolescent minds with a steady supply of utter crap. Add to it, declining family cohesion, and the obsession with adultifying our kids to the point that 10-year olds start dictating their parents, and you have situations like the ones Massachusetts is trying to grapple with. With an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, adolescents who are not in a position to make sound judgements, are ruining their lives and the lives of others, causing serious harm to the health of a society.

Scroll your favourite maps to India. We have a similar recipe brewing in our midst. Will this soup turn as sour as that of the Americans?

Money v/s Work

Folks who are in the IT field are lucky, in the sense that we are paid well to do something we(hopefully) love. At least, me and many of the people I know in the industry enjoy our work - and some of us do "dream in code". Choices we've made in life would reflect this - we've picked quality of work over money or other considerations, we've always strived, maybe imperfectly, to reach perfection in our work, and we've put team goals above individual monetary gain. However, a question has been bothering me for a few months now: is there a time in life when you should give in, and start looking at the other side of the equation seriously?

It's not that I'm underpaid, or that I feel I don't make enough to sustain a good standard of living in today's Bangalore. But, as you grow older, and hopefully become more mature, you start asking yourself the tough questions, and that is when money comes into the picture.

When I joined my current organization, I took a big hits both in terms of salary and in terms of promotions and 'career growth', all for intellectual and academic growth. Recent developments have made me realize that the compromise on conventional 'career growth' is not a one-time affair, but is something that I'd have to accept as being a long-term phenomenon. As my senior in the org pointed out, I'm now trying to straddle two different boats, and with both pulling in different directions, there is a definite threat of me falling in between. Since one of the boats, that of academic growth is not a very viable option, maybe it is time that I bit the ಕಬ್ಬಿಣದ ಕಡಲೆ and made the switch.

What do you think? Let me know :)

Monday, June 16, 2008

The limits of freedom of speech and expression

Time and again, I've argued on my blog that free speech is absolute, and that the state or "society" has no business setting limits to the right of freedom of speech and expression. However, I must admit today, that there are limits to those rights.

The first limit is accountability. If you are making a statement, you should be willing to be held accountable for its consequences. Anonymous character assasinations are not covered under free speech. Nor is "hit and run" - false accusations, and change-of-topic when someone responds to a point you made.

Second, is preaching violence. Asking someone to kill, rape or maim someone in the name of religion, caste, ideology or any other fault-line.

The reason I'm pointing it out is because I've been reading some anonymous blog posts about a wing of my organization (search for "minimsft" on your favourite search engine), and the shameless way in which, without responsibility, people have proceeded to character-assasinate senior execs in the company. I'm not saying that the senior execs are all dyed in white (which they might be), but if you are making personal, imbecilic, and crude attacks on someone, the least you can do is identify yourself, so that the victim can respond with appropriate action.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Yeddy, Reddy, Chaddi, and Gaddi.

So, Yeddy has finally gotten his Gaddi with the help of Reddy and Chaddi. While it means a lot for the BJP and for Yeddy himself, I'm not sure that the message is totally positive for Karnataka. Yes, it is a landmark verdict, and the Karnataka voters have largely done the right thing, ridding ourselves of the Devegowda clan's shenanigans, albeit only temporarily. And while this blog welcomes the new government and hopes that it delivers, it remains unconvinced that the rule of the BJP will actually make a difference for the state or for Bangalore.

Yeddyurappa's own shenanigans at the Vidhana Soudha today - conducting a 6 hour Hindu ritual in what should be a secular seat of power, doesn't give us much hope.

Earlier, Yeddyurappa agreeing to break away from the BJP and begging the Gowda's to give him chief ministership, doesn't give much hope either.

Nor does infighting in the BJP over ministries, nor the fact that the Mining Reddys who spent over 60 crores in this election will demand their pound of flesh.

In today's "ವಿಜಯ ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ", ಪ್ರತಾಪ್ ಸಿಂಹ (who is fast becoming my favourite columnist) wrote about the the damage that Yeddy's 'dream budget' has caused to the Karnataka finances. Now, I'm one who says that there is no reason for governments to turn in surplus budgets when farmers are committing suicide, or when large parts of the populace still remains illiterate. However, hand outs are not the answer to the problems facing the electorate. Yeddy doesn't seem to have the mindset required to really bring in the required change. For Bangalore, it is doubtful if Yeddy will override his partymen and restore the BATF.

However, the government hasn't even started functioning, so visit this space in a year for a proper review!

Postscript: This election has really been a mixed bag. While I'm glad that the Gowda family is not in a position to influence the government, and am glad that people like Dharam Singh, the Bangarappa family, and Bangalore's very own Vatal Nagaraj were shown the door, I can't help being sad that an excellent MLA and corporator like K. Chandrashekar (Congress, from Basavanagudi) lost. It is also tragic that the fascist Congress high command overruled its MLAs to deny Siddaramiah the opposition leader's post, instead giving it to a spineless Kharge.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Racism, pigmentism, communalism

Racism: Why is there such a controversy over the racism (it is really pigmentism* - discrimination on the basis of skin colour) issue in picking cheerleaders (or in asking some of them to leave)? There is already discrimination (let's call it sizeism) in cheerleader selection - why is it that you don't find a fat cheerleader? If your sales item is a body - let's be frank about this - then you have to accommodate the fact that a majority of the people have a certain taste there. In the west, people think thin is sexy. In India, we think white is sexy. Why is one necessarily worse than the other? 'Equal opportunity' does not work everywhere.

I'm not saying that pigmentism or racism is OK in any domain. I'm only making the point that when you are selling beauty, you can't blame people for having a particular taste and for your marketers to cater to it. I've seen casteism and pigmentism at work in my previous company, and believe me, it sucks, even if you are not at the receiving end of it.

Communalism: You may recall how Manmoron lost his sleep when he came to know Indians were involved in the Glasgow blasts, and how (correctly) his 'secular' government fought tooth and nail to get him acquitted. Now, Indian cab drivers are being attacked in Australia, and these are racist attacks, why is the moron silent? Which cat has got his tongue? Why isn't there at least a demarche issued to the Australian mission in India? Well, if you didn't guess it already, it is because the victims are Hindus. If Muslim Indians were targetted, our secular government would have jumped into the fray - now, if a few dozen Hindus are killed out of the 850 million or so around the world, why bother?

* Thanks to a journalist friend for coining the word.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Blatant International Airport Loot Ltd.

For nearly three months now, lunch discussions in my organization have revolved around the new airport. Last week, I got a chance to preview it first hand - BIAL has a "scheme" to allow MNCs to take teams of employees for a visit, and I signed on. So, what is my conclusion?

As passengers take the first flight out of BIAL, the taxpayer will be taken for a ride.
(Disclaimer: I don't know anything about running an airport, so things may be radically different once the airport actually opens.)

The reason is simple: the airport, particularly the terminal, is not designed to handle anything more than the traffic that HAL airport used to get in the early 2000s. It is tiny, particularly in comparison to what was expected of it. Terminal size of 71,000 square metres is dwarfed even by the Hyderabad airport at 105,300 square metres. And the PR folks at BIAL have the nerve to claim that they can handle 11 million passengers every year, while HIAL with nearly 50% more area claims a modest 12 million. HIAL beats BIAL in aerobridges: 12 to 8, and even in terms of runway width, which our host at BIAL acknowledged is insufficient to handle A380s. The person in question even claimed that no airline was ordering A380s in the near future, saying "why dedicate capacity to something that won't happen in the near future" (paraphrased). Apparently, he hadn't seen this:, or a million other news items easily accessible from your favourite search engine.

We continued discussions about the airport, and he said that in Phase 2, an identical terminal would be built, taking the total capacity to 50million passengers. Now pray, according to BIAL numbers (which I completely reject), their terminal can handle 11million passengers. If you double of the area, what pot must you be smoking to let you quintuple the capacity!? When we entered the departure area, we were told that the seating could accommodate 1200 passengers, which was definitely a stretch of the imagination. Still, assuming that it can, let's examine the reality. A quick look at the departures from Bangalore between 8:00 and 9:00 PM reveals that there are around 20 flights taking off between those times. Taking a simple number of 70 passengers per flight, we have 1400 passengers. Similarly, peak hour international traffic happens between 00:30 and 2:30 hrs. Anyone who's taken an international flight during those times will testify that the cramped HAL airport had over 1000 passengers during those hours. So, we've already exceeded capacity! How will the airport handle traffic growth, which currently is at 20% per annum?

Now, this is not an accident. Ever since its inception, BIAL has refused to acknowledge the need for higher capacity in the airport, quoting dubious studies, while ignoring the ground reality - 10 million passengers took off last year - and the new airport is claiming to accommodate only 11 million (which, I'll bet is a total lie).

Let's now take a look at its finances. Are the user charges of BIAL, currently at Rs.675/- for a domestic passenger and Rs.975/- for an international passenger are too steep?

Here's a back-of-the envelope calculation. Taking an average charge of Rs. 700 per passenger, and with today's passenger numbers of 10 million per year - we get a figure of 7 billion rupees, or 700 crores as revenue from the measure. The total investment made by the partners is:
  • Rs 375 crore from Karnataka Govt (32.6%)
  • Rs 379.5 crore from Indian financial institutions as debt (33%), and
  • Rs 51.42 crore from the three member international consortium of Siemens Project Ventures, Larsen & Turbo and Unique Zurich Airport
Which means at nearly 900 crores expenditure, the airport venture will break even in the first two years of operating! And without _any_ increase in passenger traffic! OK, they have to pay salaries, there are running costs and utilities, but I haven't considered the revenue they will make out of the airport city, the planned "five-star" hotel, and from all the retail outlets that will be setup in the airport.

In addition, the airport will not allow KSTDC taxies to operate in the airport - what'll become of the livelihoods of those drivers?

These are the issues that Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Mohandas Pai, and the rest of the rabble rousers must raise. Not travel time to the new airport.
On a final note: we went when there was less than two weeks for the airport to open, and finishing work was still on at the airport. Think about it, this is an airport that the company claimed was ready to open on March 31st! Looks like Mr. Brunner has learnt some Indian habits during his long stay here!

Postscript: It is a shame that none of the channels or the newspapers that covered the airport controversy bothered to present a statistical analysis of the airport, instead relying on sound-bites and "feelings". This points to a drastic reduction in the quality of journalism caused by the increasing numbers of those who come in for the "cool"ness of the job, not its rigor. Few journalists today are trained, or are willing to train, to achieve the analytical rigor that a Sainath, a Shourie or a Gurumurthy have achieved.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I was trying to clean up my e-mail a few days ago, when I came across a bunch of e-mails sent by my friends who had just named their children. Now, each generation goes through a different trend of "name choosing". For instance, around the time I was born (will keep both the decade and the year a secret :)), one fad was to name kids after communist leaders. So, many kids were named after Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Che Guevera, and similar leaders. Another was to name kids simple, non-godly names. So, out went the Gopals, the Krishnas, and the Ramachandras, and in came Anils, Sandeeps, and the like. My good friend, (who shall remain unnamed) once told me that in the 70s, there was a movement, not just a fad, amongst Indian Christian families to give their kids Indian names. So, out went the Johns and Michaels, and in came Ajits, Ajays, and the like.

Freakonomics writer Steven Levitt talks about how so many people decide to name their kids using similar "principles". He shows that educational levels are a factor. As are income and upward mobility. (I would go on about this, but you should simply read his book. It is AWESOME.)

A trend I observed in the recent times, particularly amongst my friends, relatives, and distant relatives, is one where they name their kids names starting with the letter "A". Anwesha, Anahita, Anagha, Arya, Ankita, Anandita, Anusha, Apoorva, Ananya, Ayush, to enumerate a few. I wondered, Freako-style, why this was the case?

One answer seems to be that there is a trend, particularly amongst the IT folks, to use Sanskritized names. Maybe, it gives an impression of being in touch with Hindu tradition - imagine, someone asks your kid's name, and you say "Anwesha", you can be sure that the next question will be, "oh, what does that mean?", giving you an opportunity to show off your knowledge of ancient Hindu names. :) Or maybe, just maybe, people tried reading Maneka Gandhi's book of Hindu names from cover to cover, and couldn't get past the letter A! :)

Well, I pitched this idea to a couple of colleagues, and one of them responded: "Maybe the names start with A because they want their kids to become accomplished researchers, and become first authors of every collaborative paper they write!". [Editor's note: If a paper has nearly equal contribution from all its authors, the accepted "policy" is to put author names in ascending order of either their first names or last names.]

So much for working in a research lab! Well, what do you think?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

How to become a hero?

So, you are a politician and this is election year. You've done nothing towards solving big ticket problems in your constituency, or ministry (if you are a minister) for the last four, and now people want to know why they should elect you.

What do you do? Well, simple. You find a trivial issue, sensationalize it, and pretend to solve it by victimizing someone.

Let's see some examples. Our health system maybe in shambles, we may have 74 children out of 1000 dying below the age of five (27 in China), 0.8 beds for 1000 people (2.38 in China), 47% of our children are underweight (10% in China), only 42% of births are attended to by qualified personnel (70% in China), and...well, you get the picture. But our do-good minister of health affairs is not interested in these numbers. After all, how can you explain to the electorate that the number of hospital beds is now 0.82 per 1000 - how will they understand? Instead, you can wage a jihad on something visible - cigarettes, for instance. Not satisfied with banning smoking in movies, and not satisfied with having large skull-and-bones pictures put on packs, our worthy minister even tried to edit old movies to remove cigarettes from them! Luckily, saner minds prevailed. Next, the minister targetted alcohol - the no.1 cause for malnutrition deaths, high infant mortality, and maternity deaths. Now, he is targetting junk food - your next meal at Mc Donalds might actually come with a lecture on good eating habits! Or, the next time you buy a can of saturated fat, you could be made to attend a refresher course on the evils of cholesterol.

Anyhoo, another candidate in this space is the most cultured home minister of Maharashtra. Now, I don't know much about Marathi culture, but if you believed the minister, it would mean antagonism towards bargirls, towards cheerleaders, and towards "modern" clothing, while turning a blind eye to the violence perpetrated by goons supporting one political family. It would mean supporting weird notions of Marathi pride, including burning books written on Shivaji - who in his time, established a kingdom of tolerance and respect. It means targetting the innocent, and letting the vile go scot-free.

India, my friends - the latest "super-power".

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

National mess

I was watching "Chak de India" yesterday, with the book "Billions of Entrepreneurs" by Tarun Khanna in my hand, while simultaneously flipping channels to get a glimpse of a debate of sorts about Indian hockey. The movie is awesome, and is right up there with the classic "Remember the Titans", but that is not the subject of this post.

It just struck me that in the same month as the national animal is found to have suffered it's greatest loss of numbers, the national bird lost two dozen individuals and the national sport faced its worst defeat ever.

The conclusion is clear. Anything that gets tagged as "national" in our country goes to ruins. Readers that are old enough might recall the obsession with the electronics industry in the 80s. It was given "national importance" - which led to its suffocation. Programmes like Garibi Hatao that grabbed national attention were a disaster, as were attempts at "nationalization", banks, for instance, forgetting the customer completely. No one watches the national channel (DD-1) unless they are forced to, the national games are a sleight of hand, and our national interest is discarded at the bidding of opportunistic politicians, the nuclear deal being a good instance.

Similarly, our national song is submerged in controversy, our national flag represents how shamefully we allow differential treatment of our citizens, and those who give up their lives for their national cause are treated shabbily.

Is there a silver lining in the national cloud? Probably. Why don't we nationalize garbage? That may cause it to disappear. Or make corruption our national pastime? We could also try making our politicians national animals - they might go extinct then!

Any other ideas?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The case for India

This is the title of Will Durant's awesome book on India. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I've been reading a lot of India books lately, and this one is probably the last on the list. Written in 1930, the book, banned by the British government, and God knows why, never resurrected by the Indian governments, is an excellent account of how the country was raped, with the connivance of our own people, for over 200 years by the British.

The figures are amazing. Robert Clive, the resident governor of Bengal, getting an annual tribute of US $140,000, in 1930s money. The national debt of India, which was really caused by twisted pricing of goods, rising to a whopping 3.5 billion dollars by 1929, the cost of maintaining the British army in India was paid by Indians, to the tune of 200 million dollars a year, wars, in which Indian troops fought for the British were paid by taxes on Indians, to the tune of 1.2 billion dollars in the late 1800s, all of these reducing India from the second largest economy in the world in the 1820s to a basket case by 1947.

The book talks of how Indian industry was broken and how farmers were driven to penury in supporting the opulent lifestyles of company and British officials. What is more shocking is the kind of torture inflicted upon the common men by the British:

"A troop of English soldiers had reached the spot, and without warning, began firing into a crowd that had women and children. [...] Some people got as many as twenty-one bullet wounds in their bodies. [...] A young Sikh boy stood in front of a soldier and asked him to fire at him, which the soldier unhesitatingly did. Similarly, an old woman [...] came forward, was shot, and fell down wounded. [...] The police snatch off the men's garments, twist and squeeze the testicles, and even batter them until the victims foam at the mouth and become unconscious."

Madeline Slade, an eyewitness, says: "And so we went on from this house to another. [...] 1.Lathi blows on head chest, stomach and joints, thrusts with lathis in private parts, tearing off loin cloths and thrusting of sticks into anus, dragging of wounded by legs and arms, beating them, throwing of wounded men into thorn hedges or salt water, thrusting of pins and thorns into men's bodies..."

What stands out in the book are these:
- The extent of torture and exploitation of the British
- Active connivance of Indians in the British services, including the police force
- The bravery and determination with which "ordinary" Indians fought for freedom.

After reading this though, I started to wonder. As a country, we have such a poor sense of history. Our Moronic PM, intoxicated by a doctoral degree, praises British rule. Common people have no clue about how we won our freedom. Even educated people think the positives of India are the grace of the British.

Read this book. Buy this book. At 140 pages, it is not a long read. And let me know, if like me, you kept wondering whether we have simply replaced a white brute with a brown one after Independence.

Happy Republic Day folks!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Can't dynamic languages scale?

See this:

BTW, if you don't know what Chandler is, ask for my copy of "Dreaming in Code", by Scott Rosenberg. It is an amazing read, and a must for any software engineer.

If cabin crew were replaced by autodrivers.

Last Tuesday, I flew to Hyderabad to attend an "Advanced C#" course. My flight from Bangalore was scheduled during the evening rush hour, and we spent nearly 20 minutes at the edge of the runway, waiting for planes to land before we took off.

As I saw the planes land in a single file in front of us, a sinister thought entered my mind: "What if we removed all cabin crew and replaced them with Bangalore auto drivers?"

Well, at first, my plane would have made a mad dash to get on the runway before the last plane landed. We'd have the sight of two planes rushing in a V to get to the lone aerobridge (domestic) in the airport. Cabin crew would snort and turn their heads if you asked them which flight flew to your destination. Your onscreen monitor that shows remaining distance and time would be tampered, and your credit card deducted by amounts much more than the advertised "fare" when you flew.

Oh, in mid-air, pilots would refuse to continue to your destination unless you paid extra.

What else do you think would happen? Use the comments field below.
Postscript: Kingfisher airlines now has a fuselage mounted camera whose footage shows up in one of the inflight channels. Guess what the camera caught on the Hyderabad runway, just as we were about to take off? A couple of dogs taking a break from their rounds of the airport! And the AAI Hyderabad employees have the nerve to protest against the closure of the airport, stating it is against public interest! What do these worthies know about the public?!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Star gazing on a cool January night

If you didn't know, winter is the best time for star gazers in India. The nights are cool, the sky is cloudless, and throw in a new moon night and a power cut - you have a star gazer's paradise. Turn to the north, and just above the horizon, you see the pole star - our own Dhruva taare. A little away, the Saptarshi mandala or the Big Dipper. Turn your head 90 degrees and you see the brightest object in the sky, Venus, and as you reach the perpendicular, the belt of Orion.

When I was eight (or maybe seven), the science club in my locality got hold of a telescope. Boy, were we addicted!? Every night in winter, we would go up the stairs of my friend's place, position the telescope and keep watching. Of course, the telescope was a manual one, which meant that if you didn't look through the lens in 30 seconds your star was gone (due to the rotation of the earth). We had a pair of binoculars that we could look through, star charts for reference, and even a powerful torch to point at a particular star. To add to our viewing pleasure, the Karnataka Electricity Board (as it was known then) turned off power for half-an-hour at night everyday.

Today, I spent most of the late evening gazing at the stars, and trying to recollect names for them. The pleasure of lying down on your back gazing at the sky has to be experienced to be believed. No wonder early men thought stars were night-time landmarks created by God. Just seeing the stars twinkle away as newer and newer ones grace the skies every minute is simply overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the city has grown so much (particularly towards the north) that many stars that graced the horizon are no longer visible. Maybe one can get a better view from a place like Nandi Hills...hey, I can drive!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What is so great about Python?

No, I'm not making a statement. I'm asking a question. What is so great about Python? I made some faltering attempts at learning it, mostly through reading the O'Reily book, "Learning Python" and experimenting with some trivial programs.

So, what makes Python so great? Of all the answers I've heard, the most irrelevant and pointless answer seems to be the significance attached to indentation. Apparently, unlike other block-structured languages like C, Python has no delimiter to demarcate the start and end of a block. So, a program that looks like:

if ( x == 0 )
    printf ("This is crazy\n");

would be transformed into:

if ( x == 0 ):
   printf ("This is crazy\n");

Apparently, the founder of Python was so frustrated with the poor indentation that many C programmers use that he decided to make indentation a significant aspect of the language. So, why should I, someone who always cribs about other people's poor indentation styles, have a problem with it?

Well, simply because this is a fascist solution to a simple problem that can be solved by a keystroke or a command (depending on your environment). We don't need a language to force us to do this, in the process causing more problems than it solves. Think for instance, you are looking at a 1000-line Python file, and accidentally you hit a tab or a space. A 'worthless', 'invisible' token like whitespace will now give you logical nightmares!

Any other features that are useful?