April 18, 2016

Smartcontracts : Cryptocurrency : Blockchain

Rise of the digital autonomous corporation

Think of a company that offers a service that helps people track their assets and transfer the same to others on the basis of validated instructions -- similar to a current account with cheque facility. Think of the same company as hiring people to do this and paying them for their effort with shares in the company -- sweat equity. Think of this company as being in operation since 2009 and the value of its shares spiking to US$ 1200 before stabilising at around US$ 200 over the past two years. Think of this company having a current market capitalisation of around US$ 5.5 billion.

Now what if this company were to have to no human managers and but only programs on multiple computers interacting with each other!  Is such an unmanaged company possible? Strangely enough, it is possible, it does exist today and it is called Bitcoin. The only twist in the the tale is that the only asset being tracked by the company also happens to be the shares in the same company, that is Bitcoins!

Bitcoin, that hit the headlines in 2013 when its price surged to US$ 1200 in international markets, has been viewed, and promoted, as a new kind of currency called cryptocurrency. Thanks to its features that guarantee anonymity, it was quickly adopted by the underworld and used in massive cross-border, illegal transactions until regulators caught on and imposed strict KYC norms. After the regulatory shake-up, it is now viewed and legally treated as any other  commodity, like gold or crude oil.

The commodity analogy is reinforced by the name, mining, given to the process that regulates the creation of new Bitcoins and their entry into the economy. But this association is misleading. The actual goal of the process is to validate asset transfer - to check whether the transferor owns the asset and is entitled to transfer it to the transferee as per the conditions under which the transferor acquired the asset. This process is labour intensive, or rather CPU intensive, and so the entity, or computer, that carries out the validation is rewarded with a few units of the asset as an incentive. Hence the mining process that generates a reward is actually a by-product of the validation process that is essential for the success of the original book-keeping service that was on offer.

The genius of Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous creator of Bitcoin, lies in establishing the equivalence between (a) the validation process and the reward process  and (b) the asset under management to the equity of the company itself. He then built the software that does all this and released it into the public domain in 2009 and since then it has been running on multiple computers connected in a peer-to-peer network. The software running on these machines is controlled by humans but the resultant entity or phenomenon, the network of peer-to-peer nodes is independent of any specific node. Its existence and the validation service that it delivers is an emergent phenomenon that (a) depends on the existence of multiple nodes that adhere to the bitcoin protocol of data exchange and yet (b) is independent of the existence of any specific node. This is where Bitcoin transcends its earlier identification by being neither a cryptocurrency nor a commodity but becomes instead, a digital autonomous organisation (DAO).

But how does all this really work? The mathematics behind this is rather cumbersome, to say the least, but it has been tested by the best minds in academia and industry and there is complete consensus that this is no scam. As an analogy, consider Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that has been in the limelight because its spectacular prediction of gravitational waves was recently validated by scientists. None of us really understand the mathematics behind relativity but we are confident that had it been erroneous, the scientists whom we trust would have exposed the flaw. So is the case with the bitcoin network. Cryptography, the mathematics behind bitcoin, ensures that not only is the value of the assets under management preserved but the cost of any effort to subvert or defraud the network is far higher than the asset value that can be obtained through the subversion! Hence there is an economic motive for everyone in the network to make sure that the system continues to operate as designed and that is why the system has been working smoothly since 2009. In fact, this is true for any society of rational humans where a stability, or rule of law, is ensured when the cost of breaking the law is higher than the benefits that accrue by breaking the law.

If  bitcoin is indeed a digital autonomous corporation then the corporate office that it works out of is the blockchain. Blockchain is the underlying technology platform and bitcoin is just one of any number of DAOs that can operate on it. This is similar to the Internet, a hardware platform of networked computers based on the TCP/IP protocol, that supports many applications of which, only one is the well known http-based World Wide Web. In fact if the blockchain is in place, creating a DAO like bitcoin is not difficult and many alternate DAOs ( or alternate coins) exist though none has reached the level of popularity or market capitalisation as bitcoin. In fact, Ethereum has created an open, publicly accessible blockchain and the Mist browser that makes the creation of DAOs so simple that the author created and deployed indiCoin, a bitcoin lookalike that is just as robust but a little less sophisticated, in less than thirty minutes.

The blockchain is a public ledger or record of asset transfers that is both visible to all members of the network and yet guarantees anonymity of ownership. This incredible property of the blockchain is of immense interest of those who deal with publicly traded securities in global financial markets.

In January 2016, DTCC, the world’s largest central securities depository, the US version of India’s NSDL and CDSL, has floated a white paper,  stating that the blockchain offers a “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine and modernise its infrastructure” for trading of securities in the US. The change in the way financial securities can be stored and transferred is being compared to the change from physical securities to dematerialized securities that occurred in the 1970s in the US and in the 1990s in India. The staggering implication of this new way of dealing with securities will be explored in a symposium on the blockchain that the DTCC is organising in New York on March 29, 2016.

In a parallel development, the US Securities and Exchanges Commission has, in December 2016, given formal approval to Overstock [Nasdaq OSTK] to formally list its new equity shares on an “alternate trading platform”. Patric Byrne, Overstock’s visionary CEO, had, in June 2015 already floated private corporate bonds for qualified institutional investors on a blockchain based trading platform that they have created and it is widely expected that the equity shares will be released there as well. This, read along with DTCC’s strong interest in the blockchain means that there is a strong possibility that securities trading will move into the same blockchain environment that is currently being used to trade bitcoins.

Whether it is with bitcoins, equity shares or any other tradeable asset, the power of the blockchain lies in its ability to create mathematically enforceable smart contracts. Contracts are fundamental to any process that transfers ownership of assets and the idea of a smart contract was created by Nick Szabo (who was erroneously thought to be Satoshi Nakamoto, until he denied it) in 1997. Controlled by cryptographic keys owned by buyers, sellers, lenders, mortgage owners and anyone who could have an interest in an asset, smart contracts can be triggered by events like presentation of a key, receipt of money, the passage of time or by other contracts. For example the ignition  of a car’s engine that normally responds to the owner’s cryptographic key can instead respond only to the banker’s cryptographic key if mortgage payments are not paid in time. And in the case of cryptocurrency like bitcoin, a payment contract can be executed if and only if a previous receipt contract (or incoming transaction) can be activated. Similarly, smart contracts can be created where multiple signatures (or cryptographic keys) are needed to transfer an asset or to ensure that an asset cannot be transferred until certain escrow conditions are met -- and no human beings are needed to verify any of these conditions because they are all programmatically coded into the contract using the blockchain protocol.

The internet transformed communications by making exchange of information inexpensive, secure, decentralized and democratic. Similarly, the blockchain could transform finance by making it just as easy to exchange digitised assets. By linking assets like shares, bonds mortgages with cryptocurrencies through smart contracts, blockchain technology could convert the world of financial services into one gigantic digital autonomous organisation that is as resilient, robust and reliable as the World Wide Web.

This article originally appeared in Swarajya, the magazine that reads India right

April 01, 2016

Auditors, not Regulators, necessary for Higher Education

India has a glorious tradition in higher education that stretches back to the hoary antiquity of Nalanda and Takshila but today this tradition is under stress. We have too few colleges for our kids and most of these lack the infrastructure (“hardware”) or the faculty (“wetware”) necessary to deliver the kind of programs (“software”) necessary to be world class institutions. In an earlier article we had explored how inexpensive technology could address this problem and here we explore structural issues that may offer useful alternatives.

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There are different kinds of reasons why we do not have enough good colleges. In the case of government, or public-sector, colleges it is a combination of lack of money, mismanagement and political interference. Central universities and institutions are better off but they too are plagued by cronyism and inefficient use of money. Instead of creating multiple IITs and IIMs in far flung parts of the country we should have increased the seats, hostels and faculty at the existing institutes to create world class institutions. But then we have regional politics and lucrative cutbacks from civil construction! Ergo flood the country with new institutes without bothering to increase the effectiveness of the existing ones. Private sector investment in education is stuck between a rock and hard place - between the socialist obstinacy of not allowing profit in educational enterprises and the philanthropically challenged mindset of the Indian uber rich that precludes the kind of endowments that US universities enjoy.

This leads us to the third and final problem. Since one cannot be seen to be making profit from education, private entrepreneurs have to depend on irregular, backdoor techniques for making money and this allows “factory inspectors” of the license-permit raj -- in AICTE, UGC, MCI and elsewhere -- to take their illegal pound of flesh by approving institutes of dubious quality. This unholy nexus of unscrupulous investors and extortionary regulators operating under the malignant influence of the corrupt politician is too well known in educational circles to be described once again.

So is there any alternative?

Let us begin with some plain talk. Can government institutes be made more efficient in their usage of funds? Certainly, but that would be the subject of another article. Second, should we rethink our obduracy with not-for-profit education?  We could, but the philosophical issues are so divisive that we would end up with pointless polemics. So let us explore  structures that simply ensure that customers (students, guardians) get a fair return on their investment in education while vendors (faculty, staff) are adequately compensated for their effort. But the real challenge lies in executing this on a demonstrably not-for-profit platform.

Fortunately such a platform already exists in the form of a Section 8 company. But while anyone can create a section 8 company, a Gordian Knot of Indian red-tape ensures that it cannot be used to deliver educational services until it is allowed to do so -- or accredited --  by one of the regulators like AICTE, MCI or the UGC. That is where all good intentions flounder in the quicksand of venal corruption.

The fundamental difference between a company registered with the Registrar of Companies and one accredited with a regulator for the purposes delivering educational services is that the latter is hobbled by a host of additional restrictions, many of which are evidently questionable but cannot be formally challenged. These were designed to ensure that students are not cheated but unscrupulous operators get past these restriction using time-tested practices perfected  during the license-permit-raj. However honest operators are squeezed out and the net result is that students in India are denied quality education at an affordable cost.

So what happens if we remove all regulators, along with the need for any kind of academic accreditation, and allow Section 8 companies to offer educational services leading to an academic degree. In a free market economy, customers and consumers purchase goods and services based on their perception of value for money. Why can we not trust them to have the same wisdom while choosing educational services. If students and their guardians can choose between rival coaching institutes and private tutors on the basis of their perception of quality and value for money then why can they not be just as prudent in choosing the final college? Why would they need a nanny-state and its regulators to tell them which college is good or bad? The real challenge is of information transparency.

Investors choose stocks of companies based on the disclosures that companies make to the stock exchange. Customers choose consumer goods based on feedback received by word of mouth and through reviews. Students choose colleges based on word of alumni but also track key parameters like placement. This where we need to ensure that all Section 8 companies that offer educational services make additional statutory disclosures every year, of key operational parameters that, like financial statements, have been audited for credibility by auditors accredited with the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

However the nature of disclosures and the way the metrics are calculated -- the equivalent of the GAAP -- must be clearly defined. For example, the educational audit must disclose information in these eight categories :

Income from students against various heads like tuition, lab fees, hostel fees and from other sources like grant, donation or corporate services.
Expenditure on faculty, staff, laboratory, sports, rent, electricity, other services and bank interest.
Number, qualifications and experience of teachers along with the number of hours or days that each faculty actually spends on the campus.
Number and size of classrooms, laboratories, libraries along with list of equipment.
Placements in terms of number of companies, number and profile of jobs offered along with actual, non-inflated salaries.
Published curriculum and the contact hours that were delivered against each subject along with attendance records for each class.
Record of examinations conducted, scripts evaluated, marks awarded.
Statistical distribution of marks and the number of pass-fail students along with their marks and attendance records.

All these records must be available in any case and hence professional auditors would have no difficulty in verifying and certifying the same.

Can an auditor be bribed or otherwise compelled to give false certificates? This is possible, but given the long history of the audit profession in India and the fact that lakhs of crores of rupees of investors money is riding on the veracity of the statutory audit process, the possibility of this happening is low. Nevertheless we have to be prepared for situations like Satyam or Enron.

To operationalise this concept, we need an additional sub-section to Section 8 of the Companies Act that explicitly recognises colleges, or “educational” companies, as being distinct from other similar companies and hence are required to provide additional disclosures as explained above. Moreover it must specify a minimum contact hours and minimum duration for each category of degree, namely BSc, B.Tech, B.Arch, MBA, M.Tech, LLB. etc., based on current UGC norms.

Now the process of starting any college would be no different from registering a new Section 8 company with the Registrar of Companies. Just as the end of industrial licensing meant that no company could be barred from manufacturing any product, so would this new approach ensure that no college can ever be barred from offering any degree. But just as the registration of a company does not guarantee either the quality or the sale of its product, the registration of a college is no guarantee of either quality or enrollment. Students, like customers, are no fools, and if the RoC and the statutory auditors can ensure stringency in the disclosure norms, then students and employers will be guided towards the better colleges by the invisible hand of the free market. If some people are still fooled by certain colleges, then all we can say is caveat emptor -- because a fool and his money is soon parted.

So what would the erstwhile regulators like AICTE and UGC do? Instead of micromanaging the unnecessary regulation of colleges, they can be converted into pure funding agencies that will train teachers, fund the development of new programs and hand out research grants to deserving colleges and their faculty. For this they could have their own rating criteria against which colleges may voluntarily agree to be evaluated if they want access to public funds. This way, public money that flows into education will be utilized more efficiently.

According to the Aspiring Minds National Employability Report 2015, 80% of engineering graduates from AICTE / UGC approved institutions are unemployable. So do regulators add any value? Does the government have the courage to disband its educational regulators and bring in the Registrar of Companies as the only supervisory agency? Can we trust the Institute of Chartered Accountants to audit educational statements correctly and honestly? Can customers in India be duped by vendors even if they have access to detailed information about the vendor’s services?

Despite, and perhaps because of, stringent regulation in the education sector, India faces the paradox of a drought of skills amidst an ocean of people! Replacing regulator by auditors will unleash entrepreneurs in education who could convert people into talented resources.

This article first appeared in Swarajya.

February 29, 2016

Re-Imagineering MBA education in India

Management education in India is in crisis. Enrollment is falling as students realise that jobs for freshly minted MBAs are nowhere as abundant or glitzy as they used to be in the past. MBAs still get recruited because earlier batches of MBAs are in middle management positions and they need more of their type to keep their own brand value high but in the upper echelons of corporate India their presence is rare. Finally hordes of B-schools, all trying to model themselves as third cousins of IIM Ahmedabad, and handing out PGDBMs by the hundreds have reduced the value of the certificate to the level of a B.A. or B.Com. degree. Necessary but not sufficient for low paying, white collar “executive” jobs so beloved of middle-class India.

But management skills is really, really what India needs. There is no dearth of high technology in the corridors of organisations like TCS, L&T, ISRO, SBI, Mahindra, NTPC, ONGC, DRDO and yet we somehow cannot bring it all together in a manner that can deliver higher standards of living. Cynical, sectarian and political skulduggery aside, sound management principles are essential for this country to thrive and prosper. In this article, we reimagine management education and explore how we could break free from its current state of dejected stagnancy.

The problem starts with the nomenclature itself - Master of Business Administration. Administration is what the District Magistrate does -- given a set of rule and regulations, all bound up in red-tape, the DM is expected to work within a set of constraints and execute on a plan articulated by an elected politician. A manager however, is expected to create a transcendent yet cohesive vision that can be articulated and implemented. This perspective is missing in our business curriculum that is broken up into narrow slots like finance, marketing, operations and human resources. These slots are skills that lure people with the promise of a great placement in investment banking, brand management or management consultancy. But these skills are, conceptually speaking, not really different from that possessed by a roadside mechanic! Roadside mechanics are absolutely essential when your car breaks down, what we really need are mechanical engineers who can design cars or better still, scientists who understand the mechanics of Isaac Newton and can extend it into the quantum mechanics of Heisenberg and Schrodinger!

So the keystone of any new curriculum must be Leadership -  in thought and deed. Leadership is the tip of the arrow but to be a thought leader in the corporate world, as opposed to a political or religious leader, one must have a thorough understanding of technology that is the prime driver, the motive force, that propels an enterprise in this age of age of competition. However the raw thrust of technology must be measured, modulated and controlled by a raft of quantitative techniques and behavioural sciences that constitute the nuts and bolts of managing an enterprise. Putting all this together we have the first draft of a new curriculum with four basic components.

Let us now drill down into the figure and see what lies inside each box. If we open the technology box we see that there are four fundamental areas that shape human society, namely energy, agriculture and bio sciences, materials and of course computers. Any successful commercial enterprise must be drive on any one of the core technologies.  So for tomorrow’s visions to take shape, management students today, need a solid grounding in the technical and commercial aspects of these technologies.

In the area of quantitative techniques, we begin with data analytics, a combination of descriptive statistics enhanced with database systems and the effective use of spreadsheets. Predictive statistics and simulation gets clubbed into modelling. Operations and operations research are addressed through optimisation and all this is supported through a roll-up-your-sleeves style computer programming. In today’s digital world, managers must realise that programming is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic was in an earlier era.

Moving into behavioural sciences, managers need to learn not only about consumer and organisational behaviour but also about interpersonal behaviour as evident in clean, crisp and effective communications. Conflicts are inevitable and so a knowledge of business law needs to be extended to include the larger issues of conflict resolution.

We finally reach the tip-of-the-arrow and teach business strategy but this needs to be tied closely to entrepreneurship. While every student need not start his own company, it is the spirit of enterprise that must be inculcated from day one, so that the student knows how to push forward relentlessly, on their own, without waiting to be told what to do. But for the good of society, this whatever-it-takes attitude to success must be tempered with an understanding of ethics and equity and the ability to handle the expectations of the political and social environment in which enterprises operate.

Now we have a magic quadrant of 16 compulsory subjects that the student takes in the first year. However, typical 2-year management program in India requires a student to take 32 subjects and complete 96 credits. So the remaining 16 subjects, drawn from the traditional areas of specialisation, namely, marketing, finance, operations and human resources, can be distributed in the second year. If we are happy with the traditional 2-year, 4-semester format with a summer internship sandwiched in between, then we are done!

But can we do any better?

This 96 credit requirement in Indian B-Schools is far higher than that required in most well known US B-Schools like Harvard (60), Wharton (63), Haas-Berkeley (51), Stern NYU (60) and Kellogg's (72). But do all those extra credits really add any significant managerial value to the students? Not really. Management encompasses so many diverse and specialist skills that it is impossible to have a syllabus that will cover everything. So let us not even try because beyond a certain point we have academic fatigue and the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

Instead, let us add 2 more compulsory subjects, namely Financial Accounting and Marketing and 4 electives from any area of specialisation and wrap up with 22 subjects and 66 credits. Such a program can now be comfortably accommodated in three semesters and students students need to be on campus for only a year. This will significantly reduce the student’s investment in both and time and money and automatically increase the ROI and hence the attractiveness of the program.

What is missing from this scheme is the summer internship that in its current form is quite a farce and more of a formality. Most line managers view interns as an imposition and use them as cheap labour for unpleasant tasks like data collection whose pedagogical value is minimal. A better option would be to replace the internship with an equivalent probation period in the company where the student is finally placed because the student will now take his work seriously and the company would have a vested interest in investing its manager’s time for the training of an actual employee and not a transient intern. Also the placement process will become shorter and simpler since there is no additional process for summer internship.

Net-net we are looking at a one year program that will equip students with the breadth of vision that is necessary to be a leader in thought and deed, not someone who waits for and follows orders. Deeper technical skills in specific areas can always be picked up, from the web, from online courses or from short term management development programs offered by B-schools themselves as and when it is required without having to burden, bloat and increase the cost and duration of the core program.

Will a new-age management  program like this be acceptable to companies that recruit on campus? Will they be able to wean themselves away from the comfort zone of hiring from the standard, “cookie cutter” management programs? Big brand corporates whose corridors are crawling with standard issue MBAs may find it too difficult to make the transition but smaller, nimbler and smarter companies should show the way. Once recruiters start visiting these campuses, more and more students will join these programs leading to even more interest from recruiters and the start of a virtuous cycle as HR managers in large corporates eventually decide to follow the herd.

As a way to prime the pump, enterprising B-Schools, may be some of the new IIMs, could experiment with two parallel programs where both will share the new, first year curriculum. Then students will have the option of either finishing the program in the third summer term with a Masters of Management  (MM) degree or, go for a traditional summer internship and come back to finish the two year program for an eXtended MMX degree. That way, we still rock the boat, but not enough to capsize it. Then as corporates see value in this new approach there will be a smooth transition to the new program.

This article was first published in Swarajya magazine.

February 20, 2016

Bitcoin, Blockchain and the Crypto Corporation

If 2013 was the year of Bitcoin, the enigmatic crypto-currency created by the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, then 2016 is going to be year of the BlockChain -- the shared public ledger technology that provides the platform on which Bitcoin works. In fact, Bitcoin is just ONE of the many applications that can be built on the blockchain and this fact is gradually dawning on the world of technology as different groups are racing to create new products.

While many strange and wonderful products like an automatic Uber-like car service have been proposed, the most powerful applications seem to be coming out of Wall Street. This is because of two reasons
  1. The fundamental premise behind the blockchain is control and transfer of assets and this is what Wall Street does for a living
  2. Wall Street has realised that rather than resisting the arrival of a disruptive technology it is better adopt it first. Resistance is futile. Just as retailers who ignored the eCommerce revolution got wiped out by the arrival of Amazon and eBay, dealers in financial securities could face the same problem. Hence the urgency to board the blockchain bandwagon
In fact so urgent is the desire to join the blockchain that DTCC, the body that controls the transfer of trillions of dollars of financial assets in the US market has teamed up with The Linux Foundation to plan for that "once-in-a-generation change of technology infrastructure" to create the HyperLedger and the Securities and Exchange Commission has authorised the release of equity shares on this alternate trading platform. The adoption of blockchain technology for the management of financial assets is as fundamental, if not truly tectonic, as the move from physical shares to de-materialised shares that we saw in the US in the 1970s and then in India in the 1990s.

But what on earth is this blockchain? That is difficult to explain in a few words without trivializing the concept. Please be patient and work your way through these three slide decks and hopefully you will understand what this marvelous technology is all about.

The first slide deck explains the basics of cryptography that are essential to understand how the bitcoins and other crypto-currency work. If you are already familiar with public and private keys you may skip this, but the idea of smart contracts is introduced here.

The second slide deck is where the bulk of the bitcoin protocol is explained. We also explain how bitcoin or any other equivalent crypto-asset can be managed with the shared ledger also known as the blockchain.

Finally, in the third slide deck we leave bitcoin behind and step into the mind-bending concept of an autonomous corporation. Where we look at futuristic concepts like programmable money and also some of the projects that are happening now and today.

The blockchain creates new way to hold and transfer assets that represent real life "value". It is going to transform the finance industry in the same way that the internet has transformed the way information is transferred and consumed. But could it  also go a long way to create a new kind of robotic entity and would that entity follow Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics?

In fact this technology is so significant that I would not be surprised if someone proposes that Satoshi Nakamoto be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics even in absentia!

January 26, 2016

Android as an IOT platform

The term “platform” is very ambiguous when used carelessly by programmers and consultants in the information technology business. Under various circumstances, TCP/IP, Linux, Oracle and Java are all referred to as platforms even though they are neither similar nor comparable to each other. Even within the narrower definition of IOT we can look at platforms from at least three directions. First,  we have hardware based platforms like Qualcomm’s AllJoyn, Intel’s IOTivity, Apple’s Homekit  and Android/Brillo from Google. Second, we have different data transport protocols like XMPP - used in Internet Messaging (IM), MQTT - a publish / subscribe model for messages, DDS - another pub/sub model for data distribution services and AMQP - Advanced Message Queuing Protocol. Finally we have integrated, cloud based platforms from big and small companies like IBM Bluemix, Carriots, n.io, thethings.io, thingworx and many others that claim to provide end-to-end solutions to transfer information from one machine to another.

All this is very confusing for any programmer who has built traditional, multi-tier applications that have a human user in the front and an RDBMS at the back. How does he get into the exciting world of IOT? What are the components that he needs to understand and work with?

Let’s break up the problem into four components. First we need a sensor A that will detect a physical property like temperature, air-pollution or blood sugar and generate a digital signal. Second we need a mechanism B that supports data transfer. Third we need a device C, a processor with an OS, that supports a device driver for A and programming language that can interface with B. Finally, we need a program D to receive the data and store it in a persistent database. It is now our job to identify the components A, B, C and D.

A, the sensor, would be very domain specific and would have to be sourced from specialist hardware vendors. Many kinds of sensors are readily available along with their device drivers for Linux, Windows and Android.

An important requirement of component C is that it should be small, portable, have a low power consumption and yet provide continuous data connectivity. While dedicated devices can always be built to meet these requirements, IOT enthusiasts often begin with Arduino or Raspberry Pi. But an inexpensive Android device is perhaps a better option because not only does it meet these basic requirements but also supports a wide range of sensors natively. Moreover, given the frenzy around Android development, there are many tutorials available and android tagged questions in stackoverflow are answered quickly! So for the choice of C, Android is a good option.

Moving on to B, the data transport mechanism, the two simplest options are XMPP and MQTT. Both are available as open source implementations and work comfortably on the IP networks that an Android device routinely connects to using either WiFi or 3G/4G data service. XMPP, formerly known as Jabber, is the basis of all Internet Messaging or “chat” services, like Google Chat, and there are free servers and services available for building and testing applications. XMPP also offers the security of a login and a password along with the concept of authorised “friends” or “contacts”, but this can become a challenge if we have to allocate and manage IDs for each and every machine in the IOT network. MQTT, formerly known as IBM MQ Series until it was made open source, offers a convenient publish / subscribe model where any device can publish messages under a topic into a central server, like Mosquitto or HiveMQ, and which can be retrieved by any other device that subscribes to the same topic on the same server. Both XMPP and MQTT have Java and Python libraries that allow applications developed in either of these languages to transmit and receive data as text strings. These libraries are available not only for Windows and Linux platforms but so can be used for in Android apps.

With these libraries it is now entirely possible to write applications on component C that will transmit data. Corresponding applications on component D, which could be a standard Linux server running Python, Java and either SQLite or MySQL, would receive the data, decode and process it with business logic and store it in a persistent database for subsequent analysis and display.


If we leave aside the integrated, proprietary, cloud-based platforms then the Android platform with applications developed with either XMPP or MQTT libraries is a very viable option. Why do we say so? First Android devices are dirt cheap and available at retailers like Walmart for US$10. Remove the unnecessary audio and video components and wholesale prices will drop to half of that. Second the gigantic and ever expanding community of Android app developers represents a huge pool of talent and expertise that can be leveraged inexpensively. Third, Android already has native support for all popular data transfer mechanisms like 3G / 4G / WiFi / Bluetooth / NFC and is likely to support anything else that comes in the future. Fourth, Android devices routinely support many kinds of sensors for gathering biometric, motion, position and environmental data and thanks to the pressure from app builders there are many third party sensors in the market for biomedical and additional environmental data all of which are very useful for IOT applications.

But the fifth and most important reason to bet on an Android based IOT is the massive ecosystem around it. Google has not only invested US$ 3.5 billion in acquiring the home automation company Nest but has also thrown its weight behind a brand new product, Brillo, that is based on Android and extends it with Weave, a data communication platform for IOT. Of course, not all Google products are equally successful -- Google+ or Google Wave are nowhere as popular as its search engine, Gmail or Youtube -- but with an 80+% market share Android is miles ahead of the competition in the 2+ billion smartphones that are in the market today.

This article was originally published in TheStack

January 21, 2016

Building the World Wide (mind)Web

The Advaita-Vedanta School of Indian philosophy posits that every sentient mind is interconnected as a part of a universal consciousness. Mapped into modern technology, this could be viewed as the biological equivalent of the World Wide Web consisting of computers connected over the internet. The web that we see today had its genesis with the Ethernet, invented in 1973 and TCP/IP adopted in 1983. How far away are we from a similar network of minds?

Controlling machines with thought is the first step and Craig Thomas’ 1982 sci-fi novel, Firefox, was the first to predict thought-controlled aircraft. In just about 30 years since then, technology has progressed to the point where we have thought controlled-wheelchairs, not in research labs, but as a do-it-yourself project at Instructables! In fact, this technology has now reached the consumer level and companies like Emotiv sell headsets that pick up electrical signals from the brain and work as an input device, similar to joystick controllers for video games. The core technology behind all such devices is the ability to sense electrical signals in the brain in a non-intrusive manner and to discriminate between random noise and a signal corresponding to deliberate intention. While the problem is complex and non-trivial it is well within the domain of data science and signal processing. As detection and analysis of these signals become more granular, the corresponding control systems will become more complex and sophisticated. Perhaps it is a matter of time before such input devices will become as common as a mouse, a touchpad or even a touch screen.

The problem of reaching out to, and then controlling, one mind from another is an order of magnitude more difficult because of the uncertainty at each end of the communication process. While physiology identifies the muscles that influence a particular part of the body, say the hand, it is still not very easy to determine the nature and intensity of the electrical signal that will cause a specific muscle to contract and make the corresponding body part behave in a specific manner. However, the problem is certainly not intractable. As early as 2013, researchers at the University of Washington have demonstrated a noninvasive human-to-human brain interface that allows one person to control the movement of the hand of another. A more sophisticated system was demonstrated a year later where one person actually made the other perform a specific action like operating a game console. An obvious medical spin-off from this research is the technology that allows a paralyzed man to move his limbs again. This technology is also becoming easier to implement as, Greg Gage shows here how simple it could be to hook one person’s hand to another person’s brain and have it being controlled over-the-wire.

But can we move beyond muscle contraction and work with abstract thoughts and emotions? Can the pleasure of listening to music be conveyed to someone who cannot hear? Can the fear of impending death be felt by someone who is not dying? Can the answer to a mathematics problem be picked up by someone who does not know the answer from another person who does? In principle, it is only a matter of sensing and making sense of electrical signals but the complexity of  implementation is very high. Making a muscle contract with thought is as simple as pressing a switch in one room and having a bell ring in another. But reading another person’s mind is like using a browser to access and understand the contents of files on a remote web server. However, with scientists like Phil Kennedy collecting data from their own brains, there is more than just hope.

If we map the problem to the domain of computer networks, then chronologically we are located somewhere between the invention of the Ethernet (1973) and the adoption of the TCP/IP protocol (1983). We can transmit signals from one body to another. What we need next is to encode brain signals with a markup language like HTML and access them through an HTTP application. Eventually, we would need a browser, pioneered by Tim Berners-Lee (1989), that interprets signals from diverse sources and also the equivalent of an xAMP stack -- PHP programs that extract MySQL data and serve it through an Apache server.

Are we running away with our imagination and talking science fiction again?

While abundant computing power helps, algorithms to make sense of information stored as unstructured data models are fiendishly difficult to build. One would initially need to decouple the browser from the server and work instead with a staging area where a data warehouse style extract-transform-load process would unload data from one set of minds, like the Hogwart’s Pensieve in Harry Potter novels! This data could then be accessed by another mind through a bionic eye that helps blind people to see by sending visual signals directly into the optical nerves in the brain. In fact building a browser into a bionic eye could be an independent first step that will allow a person to browse the existing World Wide Web before he ventures into the World Wide (mind)Web.

The English mystic poet, William Blake’s claim that “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite” was explored by Aldous Huxley in his seminal work, The Doors of Perception, where he envisaged the use of psychotropic substances to open up the mind to an infinite global pool of thoughts and ideas. Today, we can replace narcotics with digital and biomedical technology.

From the discovery of the Ethernet in 1973, through the adoption of TCP/IP in 1983 and the creation of the browser in 1989, the World Wide Web came of age with the Netscape IPO in 1995. Viewed against this timeline, and adjusting for the acceleration of technology, we can expect the digital web to be cast into the World Wide (mind)Web within the next ten years.

Originally published in the TheStack.

January 03, 2016

The Ruins of Angkor - 4 - Phnom Kulen to Tonle Sap

North of the ruins of Angkor Wat, that we have described in previous posts [1], [2], [3] is the relatively small mountain range, Phnom Kulen [ the "Mountain of Lychees"] that most visitors give a miss to because there are no ruins of any massive temple that the Angkor civilisation is famous for. But for the rulers of Cambodia, these mountains were very significant. Jayavarman II, the first powerful king and the de facto founder of the Angkor dynasty, announced his ascendancy to the throne and the assumption of the title, Chakravartin -- the Supreme Ruler as per Indian / Hindu traditions -- from the top of this mountain in the 8th century and even the communist Pol Pot regime, that virtually destroyed the country in the closing years of the 20th century held on to these mountains as their last redoubt before they were ejected by the invading Vietnamese army.

Why are the Kulen Mountains so important ?

If you go back to the early years of the first millennium, yes, somewhere between the first and the seventh century CE, we see a trickle and then a flood of Hindu travellers, traders, adventurers, exiles, coming together to create an Indian state first in Funan and then in Angkor. It is possible that these people were from the Kamboj clan, mentioned in the Mahabharata as living around Gandhar, and hence the current name of the country, Kambodge, Kampuchea, Cambodia. The other possibility is that they were from the Chola kingdom from South India who too, had a tradition of making long sea voyages into South East Asia. It is most likely that they were a mixture of both.

Whatever be the case, being Hindus, what they all missed was the proximity to the Ganga and the purificatory benefits of ablution in its holy waters.

So the Kings of Angkor decided and decreed that what is now known as the Siem Reap river, that rises in the Kulen mountains and flows in the huge and ocean like Tonle Sap lake will henceforth be known as the Ganga of Kambodge! and its headwaters in the Kulen Moutain will be their very own Gangotri!

But how to give the sanctity of the Ganga to an unknown river in a far off land? They located the fountainhead, to the natural springs from where the river flows out and all along the river bed they carved a thousand, yes nearly one thousand, ShivaLingas. So now their very own Ganga was flowing out Shiva's Locks and they had their very own Holy river.

Here are some pictures of the Thousand Lingas, -- the Sahashra Lingas. Do remember that the river has been flowing over these Linga for more than a thousand years and hence they have been eroded but nevertheless they are clearly visible as a labour of love and a love for the Divine.

in this picture, there is an image of Vishnu, but not very clear. The Shiva Lingas, come next

a big one

we passed through some shady glens through which a tributary of the Siem Reap flows

and finally we get a clear view of the hundreds of Shivalingas

Shiva Lingas in the background

here they are very clearly visible

And this a picture of one of the many natural springs from where the Siem Reap river gets its waters. Unfortunately, there are no Himalayas and its snow capped peaks

Getting into the water and walking over the Shiva Lingas is obviously forbidden.
However a little downstream there are three small waterfalls where people can have a bath in the sacred waters.

some more Vishnu images on the river bed, cordoned off

the first falls 

After travelling through the Land of the Angkors, the river finally empties itself into the gigantic Tonle Sap, the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. This lake has floating villages where people live their lives out on houseboats that actually move around.

the lake is huge and indeed looks like the sea
and with alligator farms and mangrove trees reminded me of the the Sunderbans

If there was a Kapil Muni Ashram as at Ganga Sagar, the picture would have been complete!

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