December 25, 2008

India under Seige

When we talk of India under seige, who do we usually think of as our beseigers ? The obvious culprit are the various terrorist outfits operating out of Pakistan, next in line is the Peoples Liberation Army in Tibet and then you have the various terrorist outfits operating from Myanmar, Bangladesh and of course the LTTE in Sri Lanka -- who were the first to create a maniacal cadre of suicide bombers of whom one was used with devastating effect against Rajiv Gandhi ....

But if we think again, we will find the real culprits lurking -- or actually not lurking, but parading proudly in our legislative assemblies and in our administrative structure !

This has been reiterated once again with deadly effect in the murder of Uttar Pradesh PWD Engineer M K Gupta by the MLA of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the ruling party in the state ! And why ? because he could not provide Rs 50 lakhs for the birthday party of the state Chief Minister. With such enemies residing in our bosom who needs Kasav & Party for petty stuff like the Mumbai Mayhem ??

We all know that India is a most corrupt state ( Pakistan, Zimbabwe and others could be worse, but who cares ? I dont live there ... let bloggers there talk about their corruption ) and Uttar Pradesh is the most corrupt of all the states of India -- irrespective of who is in power there .. be it the SP, the BSP, the BJP or even the venerable Congress. We all know that anyone engaged in any economic activity has to pay money to survive .. but what has emerged from the current episode boggles the mind ...

First all government contracts are handed out to contractors chosen by -- or who are fronts for -- the various MPs and MLAs in the state. Next these contractors do not do any work and yet government officers -- who are of course no paragons of virtue -- are supposed to certify that work has been done and make the payments.

Which means that the taxes that you and I pay ( I presume that those who read my blog are not the kinds who can become MPs and MLAs ) is routed from the Central Government to MPs and MLAs through contractors for doing nothing but ensuring that the same MPs and MLAs are elected once again so that the drainage of money can continue !

Which makes me wonder why should I pay any income taxes at all ?

I am told by my more conscientious friends that I pay taxes for the services that I consume. In general I make direct payments for most services -- for example electricity bills, road taxes and municipal taxes for sewerage -- but for the sake of argument, I will agree that I do not directly pay for the police or the army or for any kind of security services. [ Some people pay for private security but I dont]

So I am paying income taxe for security but am I secure ? To an extent yes, I can sit in my house and not be molested as yet .. but the question is : Am I getting value for money ? Most people would say NO and I would agree.

Without going into the detailed breakdown about what happens to my money, I can see very clearly that if government funds are being (in)directly being paid to MPs and MLAs through their cronies then it simply cannot be that I am getting value for my money that I am paying as income tax.

This post is not about payment or non-payment of income taxe -- that is a side issue. What is amazing ( or rather disheartening ) is that our own so-called rulers are looting us while pretending to look after our interests.

From this perspective, the Mahmud of Ghazni ( Ghajini ?) or Nadir Shah were better ... they looted us but without being hypocritical about it. They were honest enough not to pretend that they have our interests at heart ... as our MPs and MLAs do.

And the worst thing is that there is nothing we can do about this -- except writing blogs like this.

December 23, 2008

The Real "Nano" car

While we wait for Mr Ratan Tata to come out and present us with the Nano here comes news of a real nano-car that has been built -- but is not quite on sale as yet.

These cars, created by Prof James Tour, Professor of Chemistry at Rice University, Houston, USA are approximately four nanometers across and includes a chassis with an engine, a pivoting suspension and rotating axles attached to rolling buckyball wheels, each made of 60 carbon atoms !

For more information see Computerworld or USNews for more details

November 28, 2008

Pseudo Secularism & Pseudo Democracy in a Pseudo Nation

Not one, but TWO of India's formidable enemies were in the newspapers today even though the Islamic terrorists and their assault on Mumbai were by far the most prominent.

Politically correct readers would of course take offense at my reference to Islamic terrorists and would point out that Hindu terror also exists and that is precisely the point made most loudly by our pseudo-secularists that I want to debunk first.

For the past couple of weeks the Anti Terror Squad is being used by the UPA government in a vain attempt to find these elusive Hindu terrorists who are claimed to be the most dangerous people in the country.

I have no doubt that anyone who bursts a bomb and kills people is a criminal and should be punished. But when resources are limited the focus should be on the bigger problem !! Despite all claims to the contrary it is an indisputable fact that if you exclude the Naxalites-Maoists, then 95% all terrorist attacks in the country are carried out by Muslims with the active connivance of Muslim countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh.

And yet, the UPA government in its blind desire to see its political rival humiliated is diverting all intelligence resources to dig out obscure groups like Abhinav Bharat and its members -- who would have contributed, at best, 5% to the problem.

Why is this ?

To know the answer let us find out who is the SECOND enemy that I referred to at the beginning of the post >> Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

The Muslim terrorists would at best kill a 100, 200 or 500 people and may damage India's image in the world but that is a minor matter compared to the havoc that VP Singh let loose with his Mandal commission. While the overt reason was to uplift and empower the OBC, the real reason was of course to get votes and build a vote bank.

The Mandal commission by first injecting and then spreading the cancer of militant casteism has resulted in demolishing all that India was proud of ... but none as profoundly and completely as the system of higher education -- in particular the IITs and the IIMs.

Elections in India are of course farcical -- despite our proud claims to the contrary, the people who vote are clueless of who are what they are voting for. So while VP Singh -- and his political heirs -- use casteism to get votes, our pseudo-secularists in the UPA government want the Muslim vote and for that they are even willing to forgive and forget Afzal Guru who was a part of the team that attacked Parliament.

So pseudo-secularism is an offshoot of our pseudo-democracy.

Why do we have this stupid pseudo-democracy ? Because we are a pseudo-nation !!

Our politicians are our favourite whipping boys ... if only they were better, the country would have been far better ... such is the lament in most genteel drawing rooms.

But is that so ? As are the People, so is the Prince.

Our politicians are an accurate reflection of the kind of people that we really are : Corrupt, Hypocritical, Anarchic and Incompetent !! For a vast majority of us corruption -- financial or otherwise -- could be an acceptable way of doing things. We are hypocritical -- we want Pakistan to stop supporting Jihadis and yet we want to support and help LTTE in Sri Lanka. We are anarchic -- we shall obey no law and yet we are incompetent.

But still we want to vote and be counted as the worlds largest Democracy !

As a nation are we mature enough to vote ? We dont allow kids to vote until they are 18 but what about the Indian Nation ? Democracy is an European idea that has taken hundreds of years to take root ... but we think that we can handle this responsibility within days of being born ...
That is why we end up electing films actors and actresses in South India, that is why end up electing thugs and thiefs in the cow belt, that is why we fall at the feet of kids whose only claim to fame are a few scraps of DNA from a long dead politician, that is why an abomination called the samajwadi party or a Chinese agent like the Communist party is allowed to dictate the national agenda.

So what is the solution ?

I do not have an original solution ... but I can say it once more. We have had too much of democracy in the country and this is really distorting all decisions and processes.

Pseudo-democrats would of course disagree vehemently and point out that for every Lee Kuan Yew who has steered Singapore along a very successful course of limited democracy there is a Mugabe and a Pol Pot who have led Zimbabwe and Cambodia to ruin.

Let us take a chance. Our current version of pseudo-democracy is simply not working out and what is worse, there is nothing better in sight in this direction. So let us ditch this and take an alternate route ... and may be we shall move from darkness to light, from pseudo-nationhood to nationhood.

October 30, 2008


All hail Vishwanathan Anand -- the undisputed chess champion of world. On a day when the whole of India celebrates and shares in Anand's spectacular win at Bonn, news comes of a czechmate of another kind and this is in a sense that is hilarious if not downright poignant.

The rule of law in India as articulated by the police and the judiciary is shown up to be the sham that we in India know so well.

When terrorists are exploding bombs all across the country and Raj Thackeray's thugs are beating up Biharis in Bombay who does our police jump on ? a Czech entomologist, Emil Kucera who is collecting insects in Darjeeling ! Ok, perhaps he was Chinese spy or a Pakistani terrorist in disguise but since no has even hinted anything like that it, is unlikely to be so. What is more likely is that fell foul of the law and local sarkari babu felt that this was too good an opportunity, to make money, to let go so easily. Had Emil been wise to the ways of the India he would have coolly pushed across a Rs 500 note to the oily babu ( such is our perception of the Indian bureaucrat) and that would have been the end of the story. But then Emil being who he is, he perhaps thought that it is best to the stick with the laws of the land ... and that was his biggest mistake. It is of course too easy to fall foul of the law in India. There are so many silly and idiotic laws in the country that almost anyone can be found to be guilty of one or the other as Emil Kucera discovered to his misfortune.

But his bigger revelation was the utter ineptitude with which the judicial process moves in the country. Those of us who have been in the 'system' know that unless you know how to 'work' the system, justice is very scarce in the country. While thugs, ministers and people who have the right connections are rarely inconvenienced by the nitty-gritty of the law of the land, it is the common people and the foreigners who have to face the full brunt !

Emil was lucky. Being a foreigner he could afford to flee ! And this he did with great panache without breaking any law -- other than the laws of India. His own country legally arranges for a second passport ... so that he can walk out of the country without the original passport that the Indian system was triumphantly holding on to ! He had realised that the best way to beat the Indian system was to step out of it. Thugs and politicians do it all the time !

Unfortunately for the rest of us -- the much beloved Aaam Admee -- in India, there is no place run to ! If you fall foul of the authorities -- however foul and unfair they may be -- you have no recourse but to work the system. Get to know people, pay the right kind of money and then you may be allowed to live at peace until the next thug -- very often with an official designation -- comes to make your life a little less peaceful.

That is the tragedy.

October 21, 2008

Unparalleled Hypocrisy in Tamil Nadu

Politics in Tamil Nadu has taken an unparalleled and unprincipled turn towards hypocrisy with the naked espousal of terrorism.

For years India has been crying hoarse about Pakistan and its overt and covert support for the insurgents in Kashmir -- first of the indigenous JKLF variety and then the imported Jihadis of the Taliban, and just when the world has started to listen to us ... the Dravidian parties want us to do what we have been criticising Pakistan about !!

The LTTE represents the most venal and vicious brand of terrorism that has menaced the planet -- they were the first to deploy a human bomb and have devalued the concept of motherhood by having their lady cadres conceive a child so that they can take advantage of their pregnancy to elude security checks while carrying bombs strapped to their bodies !!!

Whether such depraved terrorists have a genuine cause to fight for or not is none of our concern. There is a democratically elected government in Sri Lanka and they are doing their job of cleaning up their own backyard. And there is no evidence of any Rwanda or Bosnia style ethnic cleansing.

Given this scenario, why on earth should India poke its nose into what is very clearly none of our business ? And that too when we scream from the rooftops that Pakistan is aiding and abetting terrorists in Kashmir and even in Assam !

Fortunately the Government of India still has some sane and sensible people and it is doing its best to stay out of the mess but that cannot be said of the people and agitators ( let us not call them leaders ) in Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil MPs have threatened to resign from Parliament ... I would suggest that let them do that ! Parliament is anyway on its last legs and its days are numbered. Elections are just a few months away and a few MPs more or less hardly matters.

So let us call the Tamil bluff and let Sri Lanka solve its own problems on their own.

September 25, 2008

Kalidas was a Bengali ..

Now that a motley menagerie of politicians that includes the apparent "leader" Mamata Banerjee, shadowy Maoists, the thuggish cadres of the ruling party and an utterly incompetent yet hugely arrogant political leadership have managed to drive the little Nano out of Bengal ... it may be useful to think back on events that have happened in and around the dying city of Calcutta.

Folk wisdom says that it is the militant trade-unionism of the CPM that has led to the de-industrialisation of Bengal. Those of us who are old enough to remember the tumultous -- or anarchic -- 70s and 80s might remember slogans like "Tata Birla'r kalo haath, bhenge dao, gunriye dao" -- break and destroy the evil hand of the Tatas and the Birlas. And then there was the mindless opposition to computers : "Automation, rokto diye rukhtey hobey" -- Automation has to be stopped with bloodshed !

However, a close look at recent events would tell a different tale. Nirad Chaudhury had articulated this best in his Bengali book "Atmaghati Bangali" -- the Suicidal Bengali.

It does not need the CPM or any party to ruin the state. The Bengali is perfectly capable of doing so .. and if in the process someone else benefits that is even better. The CPM realised this early enough and have been enjoying the fruits that foresight for the past 30 years. Mamata Banerjee has learnt the same -- better late than never, and now she wants to ruin Bengal so that she can rule over the graveyard for the next 20 years. And then of course there is the CPM's trusted ally, the Forward Block, that is going all out to "block" the modernisation of the food business in Bengal.

Strangely enough if the BJP were to come to power here -- though that is unlikely given the number of illegal Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh -- I am sure that even they will start singing an equally illogical tune. The BJP in Bengal will be different from the BJP in Delhi and certainly different from the BJP in Gujarat.

Which begs the question .. why are Bengali's like this ?

A simple answer is that the Bengali is ruled by his heart, not by his head !! Who ever wants to rule ( or 'loot') the state must act irrationally in order to get the votes -- and so the right, to do so. That is why we have lots of poets, artists, movie directors (rituPorno !!) and what not ... but no one who can take hard decisions and run the state.

We cannot really rule but we can sit at the court of the ruler and (m)utter verses ... somewhat like the great Kalidas at the court of Vikramaditya ... and then again like that famous person we can also cut the branch that we are sitting on.

So let us rejoice : Kalidas was a Bengali .. we should have another holiday in his honour -- only in Bengal.

August 26, 2008

Zoho : The Continuing Saga

In an earlier blog post I have written about Zoho Creator, the truly amazing platform for developing applications and deploying them on the web using the metaphor of Cloud Computing. I have introduced this platform in my Systems Engineering course both at the Praxis Business School as well as at the School of Management at IIT Kharagpur and the product has been very well received by students at both places. Management students who had in the past felt that programming was beneath their dignity ( though in reality it was more often beyond their ability :) have now started writing real programs.

As a part of the course, the students have to develop a basic order collection application that has a few slightly complex concepts like referential integrity and updating multiple tables and to help them I have created a presentation that shows the various steps that are involved.

Being an open source enthusiast I had created the presentation in Open Office but then I found to my dismay that many students do not have Open Office !! I could have of course converted my OO presentation into PDF and uploaded it but then I discovered Zoho Show.

Zoho Show is generic presentation tool ( much like Microsoft PowerPoint or Open Office Impress) except that it works on the web and in a browser. Just like Zoho Creator, there is nothing to purchase, download or install ! Just go ahead and create a presentation and show it to the world ...

Which is fine except that I already had an Open Office presentation sitting on my laptop and had no intention of creating another one. This is where Zoho Show comes in very handy. It readily imports an Open Office presentation ( as well as Microsoft Powerpoint ) and converts it into a Zoho Show! ... and then you can actually embed it in a website .. just like this ..

or you can see it at this public URL. If you have difficulty in reading the text go to full screen mode.

Do take a look and if you want to see the actual application that is described in the presentation, then go visit it at this URL.

July 19, 2008

Fast Track Courts : Is this a blackmarket for judicial services ?

The news that the Supreme Court is planning to introduce a fast track court for corporates who can afford steep judicial fees -- and in the process earn windfall income -- raises some very disturbing questions.

Profiteering from the sale -- at high prices -- of scarce goods and services is referred to as 'blackmarketing' and in India both the administration as well as civil society views it as crime. Jawaharlal Nehru had in fact wanted blackmarketeers to be hanged from lampposts and even today the government threatens to crack down on hoarders and blackmarketeers every now and then.

Unfortunately, if not paradoxically, the Indian state is no stranger to this tendency towards blackmarketing when it comes to the delivery of its own goods and services. "Tatkal" schemes -- in telephones, rail tickets and gas connections -- are nothing but blackmarketing in disguise where those who are willing to pay a premium are delivered scarce goods and services ahead of those who are able to pay only at the standard rate.

Shorn of its traditional trappings, the courts in India are nothing but mechanisms that deliver judicial services to citizens of India who through their taxes fund the judiciary. Viewed from this perspective the citizen has a right to ask (a) is he getting value for money ? and (b) is this service being delivered in a fair and equitable manner ?

We all know that the judicial services in India could have been delivered better -- both in terms of quality as well as timeliness. There are two ways to fix this - either (a) work out a way to improve the quality so that everyone benefits or (b) create this 'blackmarket' where those who can pay more can avail of the service. Unfortunately we have chosen the second route.

If a private citizen were to adopt this approach, he would be penalised -- if not hung from lampposts, if Nehru would have had his way !! But since this the Government of India, the Sarkar Bahadur itself, who is there to question -- let alone penalise it ?

Is this not extremely immoral ? Should civil society not protest at this naked display of sarkari immorality ?

With due respect and without any intention of exhibiting contempt I would request the higher judiciary to think twice before embarking on this drastic step. Having thus sold their services in the 'blackmarket' the judiciary would lose the moral right to try and convict anyone else who is accused of 'blackmarketing' goods and services in India.

Instead it would be far better if they engage the services of professional management consultants who can advise them on how to re-engineer the process of service delivery, put in place modern metrics -- key performance indicators or KPIs -- that will help identify bottlenecks and ensure higher levels of customer -- or citizen -- satisfaction. Prima facie this may sound rather theoretical but the judiciary must learn to accept that what they deliver is not really justice but actually judicial services. This calls for a change in mindset but once this change happens, it will not at all be difficult to find experts who have a demonstrated track record of improving service delivery in the most complex and challenging environments.

Will we have the courage to call them in ? For the sake of the country, I hope we do.

June 25, 2008

Victory at Lords -- 25 Years Ago

During the Second World War, the Allies had D-Day ! We in India were never so fortunate but the closest we could have come to that event was when we won the the World Cup at Lords -- exactly 25 years ago.

India as a nation had been around for a long time, but India as a state had arrived ! It was our beachhead in the Global Arena ... yes there will be miles to go, but nevertheless this was where we planted our flag and showed -- not so much to the world, but to ourselves -- that, yes, we could do it. No one had yet thought of offshoring, outsourcing or that the world was flat ! Mittals acquisition of Arcellor or Tata's acquisition of Corus and JLR was inconceivable .. but even though we did not any of this -- nor did most of us suspect that it would turn out this way -- yet it was a defining moment : Yes we could, we would, and we DID it !!

Where was I on that day ? At Goa, in the restaurant of Hotel Zuari having a single plate of biryani for the entire duration of the match ! Why ? Because that was the ONLY place where we could see a TV and all I could afford was just one plate of biriyani with the Rs 400 stipend that I had just received from TELCO ( not yet Tata Motors ) for summer training !

Those pictures of India winning were burnt into my brain but thanks to Star Ananda, I relived those moments again today -- in replayed BBC footage -- which I saw an hour ago !

And I realised how far the world has moved when I grabbed these images of my colour TV with my Sony Ericcson phone and immediately uploaded them to this blogsite for the world to see. A far cry when one had to go a hotel to see a black and white TV !!

Jai Hind

Kapil's famous catch the turned the tide towards India's win.

The moment of victory !! The last West Indies wicket falls !!

Champagne at Lords

The World Cup

June 21, 2008

Open Source : A Personal Perspective

My students at the Praxis Business School are forever curious to know why I am such an ardent user of open source products -- particularly Open Office. If the whole world is using -- or is perceived to use -- MS Office, why is it that I have this aversion to MS Word, MS PowerPoint and MS Excel ? Of greater interest is their concern that by using -- and advocating -- Open Source, are they jeopardising their own career prospects in the software industry ? Will companies that thrive on selling software blacklist them -- at campus interviews -- if they are perceived to be too enamoured about Open Source. My response is as follows ...
# We need to have a clear understanding of what is meant by Open Source ..

1. Open source is not necessarily free software. Actually the Hindi nomenclature is more explicit in this regard. Open <=> Mukt, whereas Free <=> Muft !
2. When you "buy" software, or obtain "free" software through a legal channel, you get the rights to use the software. You do not get ownership rights on the source code nor the rights to modify and redistribute it. So from a legal perspective, there is no difference between free software and paid software ... except that the numerical value on the invoice is zero for free software. That is an accounting issue, not a legal one.
3. When you obtain and use open source software, you get ownership and redistribution rights ( may be in a restricted form, depending on the license) on the source code. From a legal perspective, this is significantly different from stance taken in point 2 above
4. Not all open source software is free, but in a vast majority of cases they are.
5. Why do people create open source software ? What is the business model ... that is a long story by itself. As a user of Open Source, that is not my concern. I will leave it to those who develop Open Source software to answer that question.

# Why do I use and support Open Source ?

1. This is no case for 'religious zeal' -- eg Jihaad! -- nor is it a case of secular chauvinism -- not a India Pakistan cricket match
2. I use open source because it is (generally) free -- so I do not have to pay money : pure pragmatism ! you could say that my real interest is in Free ( or muft ) software and not really Open ( or mukt) stuff .. but in most cases the distinction is blurred.
3. I use open source because it helps me save cost in a legal manner !! I have my sense of ethics, I do not wish to use pirated software and be identified ( even if only to myself) as a thief !!
4. I use open source because most of what i do in open source is perfectly compatible ( and interoperable) with what my friends, colleagues, customers, and others do .. so there is no loss of productivity or convenience. For every piece of popular commercial software, there is a corresponding OSS implementation ( with the only exception being Visio !)
5. Net-net : Open source is (usually) free and equally useful .. so why pay ? unless you are a moron ... OR you simply want the luxury of a Business Class seat in an airline when you know jolly well that the Economy Class seat will take you to the same destination in exactly the same time
6. I feel extremely irritated when people tell me that using OSS is too complex and difficult. Given the obvious advantages of open source, you should jolly well learn how to use it. How would you react if someone told you that he uses snail mail or land lines ... because he feels that email or cell phones is too complex to use ? I would (like to) give him tight slap and tell him to get real ...
7. Finally i cannot tolerate arrogant bullies in the neighbourhood ... whether it is BSNL or Microsoft !! and GSM and OSS are good tools to poke and prod at these beasts !! So other things being equal, I love to use these tools to the extent possible.

# Open Source @ Praxis

1. A college or an university should introduce ideas to a student ... not be seen as a way to indoctrinate students to a line of thought ...
2. Hence neither Praxis nor the IT club should be seen as evangelising OSS as the only way to nirvana ... individual members of the club can take on this evangelist role as long as the club allows the other point of view to be articulated as well. Now if there is no one else to champion the other point of view ... there is not much I can do about it. But we will never actively oppose commercial software.
3. I am not unduly worried about software companies being allergic to OSS ... in fact other than Microsoft all other companies would be quite enthusiastic to hire anyone who has a deep experience with OSS ... and even Microsoft in not uniformly evil !! they will certainly have a fair sprinkling of good people who will certainly appreciate OSS type folks ... though that may not be case for the Microsoft Marketing Mafia who are trained to be as rigidly monotheistic as any of the three middle eastern religions.
4. Within these parameters, i suppose you can do what you want as long as you do not violate either the Laws of Physics or the Indian Penal Code.

May 23, 2008

At Last : A Microsoft Free Environment

I achieved a major life-goal today when I managed to acquire a new machine which is completely free of Microsoft products ...

Thanks to Financial Express and the Big Idea contest, I am now the proud owner of an HCL Ultraportable Notebook MiLeap .. and it was delivered today ... loaded with Ubuntu, the Linux distribution and the ease with which it became operational is amazing.

I simply pushed the power button and the machine blinked to life. It offered me a choice of Ubuntu and DOS to boot up .. and when I pressed the Ubuntu option it asked me just three questions : my name (and password), my city / country and language. That was it ! Machine was up and operational !!

I connected my Airtel broadband cable into the lan port and the machine sensed the network and hooked on. I fired up the Firefox browser and breezed into my portal. No problems .. not even with the bangla unicode font. I had to only download the Shockwave plugin to see some of my fancy stuff.

Next stop OpenOffice .. which is also inbuilt into the Ubuntu distribution. I am an OpenOffice user on my previous non-Linux machine and tranfered quite a few files using my USB drive. All files worked perfectly.

Next stop, the printshop. I plugged in my HP PSC 1400 printer and for the first time Ubuntu kind of stopped and scratched its head. But not for long ... for very soon it detected the brand (HP) the model (PSC1400) and started searching for the driver .. and found it. I shot off a test print and it printed perfectly, both Roman fonts and my strange unicode bangla fonts ... which I am yet to install in the machine.

Last stop, image editing ... of the picture you see in this post. I had heard of GIMP and used it for the first time. As easy as my favourite Paintshop. So there ...

There are tons of other software for music, images, games and what not .. and it will take me some time to figure this out. But right now I am in business with Firefox, broadband, OpenOffice and the HP printer. Who could ask for anything more ?

And which idiot would want to pay money for MS Vista, IE and MS Office when you have Ubuntu available free of cost ?

I think that even MS knows the answer ... which is why they have started to support the ODF format of OpenOffice .. because that is where we will finally be.

P.S. The MiLeap Ultraportable seems to be an excellent piece of hardware but for its screen size ! but i suppose that is what an Ultraport is all about !! The software works fine but some of the Ubuntu configuration screens are partially masked and since they are not scrollable, this causes some difficulty

May 19, 2008

Education : From Darkness to Light

Today's copy of the Economic Times carries two articles that, taken together, highlight the disastrous corner that India has painted itself into in the area of education, and then offers some hope of finding a path through which it could extricate itself ! If this is too confusing, consider the following :

First, Rajrishi Singhal [ End License Raj in Education ] has very elegantly made the point, known to most of us in academia that it is the license-control mindset India's bureaucracy -- led by the last two, regressive and venal, education ministers -- that is at the heart of the darkness that has eclipsed the academic landscape. Jurassic institutions like the AICTE -- that insist that educational institutions cannot have a profit motive but must pretend, hypocritically, that they are charitable organisations -- have ensured that educational services cannot be delivered to the citizens unless it is through entities that are controlled by politicians. This includes both the Public Sector Institutes ( like IITs, IIMs) as well as private institutes owned by crony capitalists. Can this control mindset change ? Can it be made to change as has been the case in telecom or airlines ?

Which brings us to the second article by Niranjan Bharati & Rajeev Jayasway[ The Professor as a Businessman ] where we see a glimmer of hope. Apparently, the government is considering the option of allowing academic institutions to pick up an equity stake in companies formed by faculty. While this may certainly benefit the entrepreneural academician, what is at stake is something that is far more fundamental. An entity that delivers educational services could now be allowed to behave like commercial -- and god forbid, profit seeking -- entity ! Which is a revolutionary thought for our fossilised socialists. For to make this happen, the AICTE/UGC -- or hopefully the Higher Education Regulator -- must discard the requirements for a hypocritical, not-for-profit business model and replace it with the more pragmatic and efficient corporate structure ... and then who knows Dalal Street might start dreaming of and IIM or an IIT coming out with an IPO.

But that could be too much to hope for. Let us be happy to dream about publicly owned, board managed corporate institutes that give Public Sector Institutes a run for their money.

May 09, 2008

Upgrading Engineering Faculty : Barking up the wrong tree

PanIIT in association with Infosys has embarked on a well meaning programme to get professors from the US come and teach professors in India how to teach effectively. Unfortunately they are missing the wood for the trees, or even if they did find a tree, it would be the wrong one that they would be barking up against ! Because you do not need people from the US to come and teach us how to teach ! There are enough people in India who can teach, and teach well, but the problem lies in getting them to teach.

But why do good people not take to teaching in India ? The answer has been given out ad nauseum but since PanIIT has still not understood it, let me explain once again.

A full professor at IIT, with 10 years of teaching experience, gets Rs 40,000 per month before taxes are deducted. Whereas a student passing out of the B.Tech program in almost any engineering college gets about Rs 20,000+ from day 1. So unless a person (a)has a separate and independent income that makes the IIT salary irrelevant OR (b) is of an ascetic bent of mind who enjoys a frugal lifestyle OR (c) is unfit to work in the corporate sector -- he will never want to be teacher at IIT. The number of people in category (a) and (b) is rather small and so it is the category (c) type -- those who have no option but to teach -- who swell the ranks of faculty in engineering colleges. And notwithstanding anything that PanIIT and Infosys does, it is impossible to improve the quality of teaching delivered by these category (c) people.

Which brings us to the next question .. why are faculty salaries not increased to corporate levels ? Given the acute shortage of good faculty, why is it that the free market does not push up faculty salaries -- just as in the case of, say IT, telecom, retail or insurance ? The answer to this has also been spelt out ad nauseum, but needs to be repeated again anyway ... because, unlike other areas, there is NO FREE MARKET in the education space.

The IITs and IIMs are relics of the PSU age and are steeped in PSU culture. Everyone must be paid at the lowest common denominator -- defined by archaic Pay Commissions in terms of the demands of the legions of Class III and Class IV staff. Even at the faculty level, a professor of Computer Science and a professor of English must be paid at the same level -- even though the market value of the two outside the educational sector is vastly different. We all know this but we cannot do anything about it. Such is hypocrisy in India.

OK, but what about the thousands of private engineering colleges that are sprouting by the dozen ? There could have been some hope of free market policies here but government policy has eradicated almost any hope even here as well. Whether it is under Murali Manohar Joshi or Arjun Singh -- the two persons who have had the intention, the capacity and the track record of having dealt a lethal body blow to education in India -- the government of the day continues to operate a perverse version of the Licence-Permit Raj -- that has been mercifully eliminated from the rest of the economy.

To operate a technical college in India you need a permit from the AICTE : a truly neanderthal entity that ever existed, and no educational institute with any measure of self respect can subject itself to its whimsical ( and occasionally diabolic ) supervision. Incidentally, ISB - the only management school that has been ranked on par with global institutions -- has had to engage in a running battle with this dinosaur to survive. To abide by AICTE regulation you have to begin with a blatant lie : you have to state upfront that you are not-for-profit organisation and you are running an educational institute as a charitable public service. All AICTE approved private colleges are of course for-profit organisations ( and there is nothing wrong in making money ) but they have to repeat this lie and THEN work out complex -- but very well known -- strategies to suck money out of the system to generate a return for the investors. So in principle you cannot run an honest, profitable institution in India.

In short the whole system reeks of corruption, well designed corruption.

So net-net what should PanIIT and Infosys do ? Instead of tilting at windmills it would be better if they could leverage whatever influence they have in India to remove the stranglehold that the Government has on education. The obvious thing is to dismantle the License Permit raj -- restructure the AICTE and UGC by repealing or amending the enabling legislation -- and replace it with a Education Regulatory Authority, similar to SEBI, TRAI or IRDA. If this and only this happens we will get better teachers -- and better teaching standards in engineering colleges in India.

Till then, grin and bear it brother -- you have no choice!!

May 03, 2008

Bangla Fonts in Blogger

Star Ananda -- the popular Bengali TV channel from Calcutta -- has started an interesting bengali community at their website but the tool that they offer to write in Bengali is rather diffucult to use. I have modified the excellent tool that Deepayan has created on his website and have made it available as a widget that you can embed in your blog.

Since Deepayan's tool is available on available under the terms of the GNU General Public License, version 2, i believe that i am free to use, modify and redistribute it with the provision that it is under the GPL again.

If you want to embed it in your website use this code :

This tool has been used to create the Sonartoree blog as well as to post in the Star Ananda website. It should work well with as long as your machine is unicode compliant.

P.S. For a good collection of free, Unicode compliant, printer friendly Bengali fonts I would like to thank the good folks at Omicronlab.

April 17, 2008

NScAI : National School Authority of India

I have always been fascinated by the possibility of high volume education delivery and the immense potential this has to transform the country ... without taking recourse to divisive tactics like reservation.

My first attempt to articulate this was in 1999 when I participated in the CSIR sponsored New Millenium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative and proposed the idea of Shikshaajaal. The proposal, like most proposals sent to the government went -- i suppose -- straight into some bureaucratic dustbin.

My second attempt was in the CII Eastern Region Meeting on Talent Management in 2007 where I delivered the keynote address and presented the idea once again ... but all to no avail. The distinguished delegates, had their lunch, dozed through the lecture and went back to their mundane existence.

My third attempt was directed at

Big Idea Contest
that asked participants to send in ONE Big Idea that can change the face of the country and to articulate this in less than 50 words

My ideas was as follows : Modelled on NHAI, the National Schools Authority of India, will raise finance through tax-free bonds, and build a network of primary schools in every district of the country. After construction, the schools will be leased out to local entities through transparent bidding and operated as franchisees of NSAI.

This idea has been adjudged by the FE panel as the best idea and the results were announced in the paper on 11 April 2008. New Delhi Edition, Page 2 - International section.

I am unable to find the link but here is an imagefile of the news :

Financial Express has kindly promised to present me with an HCL Laptop computer for which I am very grateful but will this idea go anywhere after this ? I hope it does but am also very sceptical ... If you like this idea please spread the word.

April 11, 2008

In Search of IRRELEVANCE : IITs and IIMs

Mediocrity has finally triumphed over Merit. The Supreme Court of India -- led by the Chief Justice who has been a direct beneficiary of the politics of reservation -- has sided with our politicians and have declared that in India, the search for Excellence is over. From now on we should be in search of Irrelevance. The IITs and IIMs, that last, albeit shaky bastion, of the intellectual elite has fallen to the powers of the Dark Lord of Venal Populism ... from the depths of despair the citizen cries out What Next ?

For all such anguished souls ... all that we can say is Take Heart. This is not the first and shall certainly not be the last ... Let us go back in time and reexamine the painful journey that the people of this hapless land have had to travel .. and how they have fared.

Those of you who have been born and brought up in Calcutta in the late sixties and early seventies may recollect an organisation called Haringhata Diary, owned and mismanaged by the Government of West Bengal. As the sole supplier of milk to the city, it was a paragon of high-handedness but citizens had no option but to literally beg for the milk cards that were the only source of milk for the population. But with the arrival of Amul, Metro and a host of other suppliers this once haughty and arrogant organisation is now a ghost of its former self ... its once imperious employees now reduced to sitting on the footpaths to offer their shoddy wares. Such is the invisible hand of the free market.

Fast forward to the nineties and ditto is the case with Department of Telephones ( or in its new avatar, BSNL) and Indian Airlines ( now simply Indian ). With Airtel, Vodaphone, Reliance and Tata Teleservices offering telephone connections in 30 minutes flat ... only the insane will go searching for a BSNL phone. So is the case with Indian Airlines .. now reserved for and serving only sarkari babus. Such is the invisible hand of the free market.

So would BE the case in Life Insurance and Banks in the next few years. Those of you who are reading this blog would hardly have any interest in any of these government organisations.

In a larger sense, so is the case with all government provided goods and services. Including jobs -- which is seen as a public service or charity to be doled out to the population. V.P. "Mandal" Singh might have reserved 50% government jobs for his constituency of so called backward classes, but today, do we really care ? Does anybody really care for jobs in nationalised banks ? in the railways ? as BDOs in the state government ? even in the so-called mighty IAS ? No sir. Thanks, but no thanks. We are better off looking for jobs in Tata Motors, Arcellor Mittal, Wipro, Larsen & Toubro or in any of multinational entities opening shop in India.

What does this mean in the Education Sector ? What it means is that the days of IITs and IIMs are numbered. As more and more private colleges open out ... it is these that will attract the best marketing talent, the best faculty, the best recruiters and so the best students. Do any one of our children go to government sponsored primary and secondary schools any more ? Certainly not. Shall any of our children go to these anaemic government colleges any more ? For the next five years, possibly and regrettably yes ... but then ? What then ? Stanford, Harvard and MIT are all private organisations that have served as benchmarks of excellence ... so would be the private colleges started by industrialists and businessmen ( even corrupt businessmen ) in India.

And then who will care about the levels of reservation in IITs and IIMs ? They will simply drop out of view ... out of sight, out of mind ... just like Haringhata Dairy, BSNL, Indian Airlines, LIC and United Bank of India !! and good riddance.

So relax and enjoy yourself ... at least for the time being.

But is this picture all that rosy ? Is there not the hint of dark shadow lurking in the background of this otherwise rosy picture ? Do the forces of darkness not realise that this irrelevance is just a matter of time ? Of course they are. And what are they doing about this ?

There is a move afoot to introduce reservations in both private sector businesses and in private ( and un-aided) colleges and deemed universities. Should that happen -- and it is certainly not impossible, given the powers of populism ranged against those of good sense -- then it will only lead to an even greater irrelevance ... The irrelevance of India itself in a globalised world.

Just as we have stopped caring for Haringhata milk, the world will stop caring for Indian goods and services. Now that is a serious problem for which -- alas -- I have no solution at the moment.

Or do I have a solution ? If you have the inclination and the time, read my book The Road to pSingularity ... or if you do not have the time, read this last chapter .. The Contours of the Eternal. It may make you feel just a little bit better.

March 10, 2008

The Fourth Era ...

The Internet -- as the TCP/IP backbone network -- has been around for a long time but the World Wide Web ( or simply the "Web" as we know it) really took off with Netscape.

With its genesis in Mosaic / SpyGlass ... Netscape was the first icon of the fledgling Web and the Netscape IPO is very often taken as the first milepost in the long journey. That was the First Era, the era of Netscape.

But Netscape was shouldered aside by the marketing might of Microsoft but strangely enough was not quite replaced by it. Despite trying so hard and with its flagship IE becoming the default browser by sheer brute force, it was not Microsoft but Yahoo that symbolised the Second Era. With Tripod, Geocities and other web properties under its belt, Yahoo was the big boy and the definitive icon.

But like hot adolescents that grow into pot bellied middleage, Yahoo too had to give way to next emerging hotshot .. that is Google. The Third Era of the Web was symbolised by Google .. the icon of innovation that took something as humble as search ( for which Yahoo was so well known ) and monetised it into a multibillion dollar advertisement distributor.

Google can apparently do no wrong ... whether it is buying Orkut or YouTube or flaunting its principle of doing no evil ( and thus indirectly stating that Microsoft is the evil empire ) it took the web where no one has taken it before ... at least in hype and hope !!

But then again, nothing is permanent and neither can be Google !!

So is Google's days numbered ? Not likely .. even COBOL exists today .. but the baton is being passed to new generation of Web 2.0 players ... and who symbolises Web 2.0 ? The jury is not yet out ... but if I were to lay my bets, it would be on Facebook.

This is the Fourth Era - the era of Facebook, the era of Web 2.0. What is web 2.0 ? It is all about (a) user generated content and (b) rich media and while many players are trying very hard to crack this .. I believe it is Facebook that will finally triumph ... until someone else arrives.

Netscape >>> Yahoo >>> Google >>> Facebook .... each an icon of its own era on the web.

February 24, 2008

বাংলা ভাষায় ব্লগ লিখুন

বাংলাতে লিখতে গেলে প্রথমে আপনার চাই একটি রোমান হরফ থেকে বাংলা হরফে ট্রান্সলিটেরেট করার একটি সহজ উপায় এর জন্য আপনি চলে যান এই ওএব্সাইটে অথবা এই ওএব্সাইটে অথবা ওফ্ফলাইনে কাজ করতে হলে এই ওএবসাইটে গিয়ে একটি বিনামুল্যের ওযার্ডপ্রোসেসার ডাউনলোড করে নিন মহাআনন্দে এই রকম কথা টাইপ করুণ স্ক্রিনে যা দেখবেন কাট্-পেস্ট করে একটি উনিকোড UNICODE কম্পাটিব্ল ওয়ার্ডপ্রোসেসারে নিযে চলুন তার পর যে ভাবে সাধারন ইন্গরাজি ব্লগ পোস্ট করেণ সেই ভাবে নিউ পোস্ট খুলুন এবোন্গ নোটপাড থেকে আবার কাট্-পেস্ট করে দিন এই বার সাধারণ ভাবেই পাবলিশ করুণ দেখবেন ব্লগে বান্গলা হরফ দেখা জাছে ! যে মেশিনে ব্লগ লিখছেন আর যে মেশিনে ব্লগ পড়ছেন দুই মেশিনেই উনিকোড (UNICODE) ব্যবস্থা থাকা দরকার সব আধুনিক কম্পুটরেই এখন উনিকোড থাকে সুতরান্গ চিন্তা করবেন না সব ঠিক কাজ করবে একটু আধটু বানান ভুল হলে মাপ করে দেবেন জয বংলা!

February 06, 2008

Thought Controlled TV Remote !!

Long before there was Firefox, the browser, there was Firefox : the fictional Soviet cold war era fighter aircraft around which Craig Thomas had crafted a wonderful techno-thriller novel that had introduced the idea of controlling machines by thought.

Twenty years later when I was writing my book on Vedanta the idea had cropped up again as I tried to reconcile reality with the idea of a maya or illusions. This was in the context of virtual worlds like Second Life and and it was my belief that these advanced technologies would one day blur the borders between the real and the virtual.

But even while I was writing these, I had always felt that perhaps the usage of these technologies was way, way into the future and it is perhaps unlikely that I would get to see these being applied in my daily life.

No more !!

Given the rapid speed at which this technology is maturing I believe that we will see early versions of these technology being deployed in the next five years. Why do I say so ? Consider the following ...

As early as December 2006, the University of Washington has demonstrated the feasibility of using thoughts to control a robot. See Researchers demonstrate direct brain control of humanoid robot or if you want more detail read this page.

Even earlier, Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading had worked out the technology of picking up neural signals from the body and using them to actuate mechanical devices.

But what is really interesting -- and what is in my mind a giant step forward in thought control / thought reading -- is the breaking of the "content barrier". As reported in Newsweek researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed the necessary expertise to distinguish between various pieces of thought ! After a reasonable amount of training, it is now possible to determine whether a subject is thinking about a hammer or a drill or a castle or an igloo and so on .. In fact, the prospect of reading thoughts by decoding brain activity patterns is no longer difficult to imagine.

Determing the state of a neuron in the brain -- whether it is ON or OFF -- is a matter of bio technology. In the past this was done with physical implants inserted (painfully ?) into the brain but now it is much easier ... somewhat like electro encephalogram technology that has been around for decades. What is difficult is the software part -- the pattern recognition software that can decode which set of ON/OFF patterns means what ? Pattern recognition has always been a computationally intensive and algorithmically difficult [ perhaps NP-hard if not NP-complete !] but again thanks to funding for anti-terrorist technology, a lot progress has happened on this front. Perhaps this has had a beneficial spin off in the area of thought reading.

A low tech but possibly very high impact application of this technology could be in the area of remote control devices for TV.

We all know that there are only four buttons that are regularly used in a TV remote : Channel Up, Channel Down, Volume Up and Volume Down. To which you can add a fifth function : jump to a specific channel. What if a TV company could come up with a very simple thought controlled device that can recognise these four or five thought patterns and do the needful !!

While thought controlled wheel chairs for paraplegics may be a wonderful idea, a thought controlled remote TV switch would be easier to demonstrate and would have an immediate market in the commercial electronics space.

But who will be the first to take up this challenge ? The high-tech firms like IBM and INTEL or the consumer electronics folks at SONY or PANASONIC ? Or would it be the kross-over kid - APPLE ? Let us wait and watch.

January 30, 2008

ZOHO : Amazing Web Based Application Developer

I believe I have found one of the most complete as well as easy to use Application Development platform. Why do I say so ? Consider the following features :
  1. A relational database for the persistent storage of data.
  2. A total GUI drag-and-drop front end forms builder with the ability to extend the logic with a scripting language.
  3. The database supports multiple tables linked through foreign keys and updateably both directly and from the application
  4. Easy integration with internet ( send mail ) and web.
But the real icing on the cake is as follows
  1. There is NO SOFTWARE to buy and install. Both the RDBMS as well as the IDE are web based.
  2. The final application can be embedded into any website that allows Javascript. No support required for CGI / Perl / PHP whatever on your webserver.
  3. The entire service is currently FREE !!! and I really hope that it stays that way

To see the kind of applications that can be built .... see

Contact Manager Application

or the

Bank Transaction Application

The two of them were developed and deployed in about three hours.

to know more about this visit the Zoho website.

This is extremely useful for developing small, lightweight applications.

January 27, 2008

Kollaborative Klassroom : A Web 2.0 Platform

Web 2.0 means different things to different people but perhaps the most authentic -- and original -- definition is given by Tim O'Reilly in his now classic articulation of What is Web 2.0.

One of the key aspects of his articulation was the premise that Web 2.0 is less of technology and more of a platform -- or if you use the analogy of "Hindu" sanatan dharma, less of a dogma and more of way of life !

The word platform -- like the word architechure -- is widely used and abused in the world of computers. So to make things easier for us, let us first look at a more traditional platform : the ERP as implemented in SAP or Oracle. An ERP consists of a collection of applications developed using a one or more technologies. At the core there would be a database management software and on top of this would reside application, integration and presentation software. Woven into this is a set of business logic which in a sense should be common to or at least relevent to a vast number of business entities.

This platform is now used to support a wide range of business requirements : finanancial accounting, human resource management, sales and distribution, material management etc., for companies ranging from steel plants to retail stores. The magic lies in the fact that the platform is flexibile enough to meet the requirements of almost any company. All that is needed is some customisation of the platform and some flexibility of the client company to adapt itself to the platform.

What are the components of a Web 2.0 platform
  1. A network of trust -- or as they say, a social network best exemplified by Orkut or Facebook and others of the same genre. Web 2.0 needs the wisdom of the crowd and a social network is perhaps the best way to create one.
  2. User generated content. A network cannot be built by one or a restricted group of people. That is why company sponsored networks -- like AOL or MSN could never keep up with the Internet. The content in the network must be generated by the users. The best example of this is of course Wikipedia where legions of users generated tons of content to overwhelm established brands like Brittanica or Encarta.
  3. Rich content. Human beings are accustomed to the audio-visual experience -- certainly not text. Hence the content in the network must consists of images, music and video. This is why image networks like Flickr and video networks like YouTube are essential icons of the Web 2.0 platform. Of late, 3D virtual worlds like Second Life offer a whole new experience in terms of rich content
  4. Web 2.0 is ever evolving and it is impossible to state that the platform is NOW ready for use. It will never be ready .. it will always be under construction and so the technology that will drive it has to compatible to what is loosely referred to as "mashup"s. There will never be a SAP for Web 2.0. There will be hundreds of small components -- and widgets are a good analogy -- which will be assembled and made to work together to deliver results.
  5. Finally -- and perhaps axiomatically -- Web 2.0 cannot run either on isolated machines or on restricted networks. By its very nature it must run on the internet : it is a living example of Sun's tagline "The network is the computer"
So to qualify for a Web 2.0 tag, a platform must
  • be based around a social network
  • encourage user generated content
  • support rich media
  • extend through mashups
The Kollaborative Klassroom is an experiment to develop a Web 2.0 platform to support management education at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta. It is based on
  • A social network based on technology from Ning that is used to support the community of students and faculty
  • A wiki created with Zoho that is used to create teaching material in a collaborative manner
  • Rich multimedia that is supported on FlickR, YouTube and the virtual world of Second Life
  • Extensions like widgets, calendars that can be integrated to the main platform.
In an earlier post I had discussed how the corporation may be change under the impact of Web 2.0. With the development of platform like the Kollaborative Klassroom the day when this will happen has just come closer !

January 05, 2008

Prinsep forgotten at Prinsep Festival

We should be grateful to INTACH and HSBC for taking a very positive step to revive and rejuvenate the Strand along the Hooghly by organising the Prinsep Festival at the forgotten Prinsep Ghat -- that wonderful piece of architecture on the river.

With the twin towers of the Second Hooghly Bridge towering in the background, it was a wonderful setting for the evening program featuring a very vigorous Manipuri Dance by Preeti Patel and an equally impressive interpretation of the Dasha Avataras in BharataNatayam by Bhanumati. Not being a dance critic I will not hazard a display of my ignorance by commenting on the quality of the presentations .. but from the perspective of a layman, it was a truly enjoyable experience.

What was a little disturbing though was the immense ignorance about James Prinsep and the reason why he was honoured by his fellow citizens !!

Neither the compere nor any of the other dignitaries had anything to say about the man who was the first to decipher the Brahmi Script and paved the way for our understanding of what is now known as the Rock Edicts of Emperor Ashoka !

Keeping aside the legendary Bharat ( after whom Bharat and Bharatvarsha is named ) it was Emperor Ashok who gave a physical shape to the political entity that has now evolved into the nation-state that is India today ... and it is his symbols and emblems that was rightly chosen by post-Independence India as its national logo : the Ashok Stambh !!

James Prinsep was an employee of the East India Company and worked in the mints at Banaras and Calcutta. He was passionate about ancient India "but the crowning achievement of all his labours over the decade was the decipherment of the Brahmi script and the consequent clearing up of many of the mysteries of ancient Indian history."

This script was used in Ashokan rock editics and so in a sense we should be grateful to his labours for introducing us to our own glorious heritage !! No wonder his fellow citizens had honoured him with this ghat on the river.

Mr Simon Wilson, the Deputy High Commissioner of the UK, was present at the Princep Festival last night and I was expecting at least him to mention this wonderful piece of fact to the luminaries ( or chatterati !) who had assembled ... but unfortunately he missed this opportunity to showcase the good work done by his countrymen for India. Perhaps he would be better prepared next year.

But all said and done, it was a wonderful experience.