Friday, December 12, 2008

Mumbai Attacks and Rahul Gandhi

Rediff had a link on Rahul Gandhi's statements after the Mumbai Attacks here.
As I said in the post below, I am very very suspicious of people who call terrorist acts as war.

"We will fight this war against terror and win this war," he said lauding the unity shown by Parliament in response to the Mumbai attacks.

As I explained, he is trying to act like Bush did after 9/11. 7 years after Bush declared "war on terror" the USA is mired in two bloody, brutal wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan and has not achieved any strategic goals.
Our leaders now want to act statesmanly and try to use flourishes of rhetoric - but I have a more important quote here:

"It is not enough for us to protect the people. We should go one step beyond. People who have done this should understand very clearly that not only do we hold lives of our people highly, but there is also a cost to killing innocent Indians," Gandhi said.

Is Rahul Gandhi joking? What country is he living in? Innocent Indians are killed all the time in totally avoidable accidents and poverty and hunger because our government has abndoned its role of regulatory authority for the last so many years. Indians are killed and maimed by other Indians all time in our roads - from pedestrians crossing ill-designed roads to speed limits that are never enforced.
I am curious - why wouldn't we declare a war on traffic violations?

1. Why are our leaders not angry when a tragedy like the Kumbakonam fire accident happens and a hundred children burn to death in a school that should NEVER have been functioning or granted a license?
2. Why are our leaders not angry when lung diseases and cancer incidence increases throughout India and people die prematurely because of the massive pollution caused by zero regulation or action by the Indian government?
3. Why are our leaders not angry when tens of thousands are killed by reckless driving and unregulated traffic in our cities and highways?
4. Why didn't we declare a war against incompetence in Chennai when a stampede caused by inappropriate organization of crowds killed hundreds of poor people during last year's rains?
5. Why didn't we declare a war against callousness when building after building collapses in Mumbai and regulators who certify them sit by without punishment?

Bush could declare a war on terror because atleast the US government does take care of its own citizens in that country. They could truly state that they were shocked by the deaths of innocents. I am amazed that Indian politicians pretend to be outraged by innocent Indian deaths. Innocent Indian deaths have been happening for a long time because the value of our lives is zero in front of the massive greed of our rulers.
Let us first declare a war against incompetence, against brutality, against callousness. Then we can declare war on terror.

As a practical matter, the Indian state can never get its act together regarding terrorism unless our regulatory and enforcement wings actually work - our coastal areas will not be protected; our cities won't be protected either unless the government can actually ensure compliance with law and regulation at every level. The idea seems to be that every police department would continue to function as badly while dealing with local laws - but somehow we will be protected against foreign terrorists just by forming central agencies. Unlikely.

By the way, Salman Khan is still running around attending movie shows and television shows - even though he was charged with running over innocent pavement dwellers several years back. No justice has been served. The case keeps dragging in court.
Sanjay Dutt is still making movies though he was actually convicted and sentenced.
So much for protecting innocent Indians.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks

(Updated Below)
1. First of all, stop calling the attacks India's 9/11 - we have endured lots of attacks; Kashmir alone has seen somewhere around 50000 deaths in the last decade. "Terror" attacks or bomb blasts are common in India these days. No need to tie ourselves with unique American tragedies.
2. By the same token, stop calling locations as "Ground Zero" and so on. For a change let us come up with our own terminology.
Having yelled that at the media, I want to point out a couple of things:
1. Now that the attackers seem to be Pakistanis, all our focus seems to have shifted to Pakistan. Here is the thing - Pakistan is a profoundly troubled country (like our own). Its populace has radical elements (just as ours does). In fact, this is the age of radicalism (more about that later). Our public officials seem to be affecting tones of righteous indignation and submitting lists.
This last 10 years we have heard repeatedly that Pakistan is a "failed state". And that anyday it will collapse thus bringing peace to the subcontinet. Well, it IS collapsing and what we see is not peace reigning.
The truth is that there are no failed states - and we should never have wished failure on Pakistan and its people. There are many, many innocent citizens going about their business in that country and they are being harassed by increasingly radical movements. Peace in the subcontinent depends on Pakistan's success over radicals (and our own success over native radicalism).
Every time a terror attack happens, media stars pose the question "should we go after training camps in Pakistan?". Barack Obama said that India has the right to defend itself - and this seems like code to a cross-border raid. Our own hawks are itching for just such a raid. But the truth is that Pakistan cannot "close" its training camps that easily - it is not as if they get government approval for such activities. Terrorism is called as the single most important threat to the Pakistani state - by Pakistan's own leaders. Pakistan has nukes and a conventional war is out of the question. We have NO options of engaging Pakistan militarily and those advocating such action are irresponsible.
It is obvious that the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI is out of control. Our spy agencies seem clueless and have not prevented any of the attacks in the last three years. This is going to be a long drawn process - but we have to work with the Pakistani government and people. I think this is the right opportunity, because they are on the defensive. The more we cooperate the better.

2. Again, one of the frequent media questions is if we are "soft on terror". Our own government follows up with tougher and tougher laws. I am quoting Glenn Greenwald's sane words here:
Any decent, civilized person watching scenes in Mumbai of extremists shooting indiscriminate machine gun fire and launching grenades into civilian crowds -- deliberately slaughtering innocent people by the dozens -- is going to feel disgust, fury, and a desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, regardless of what precipitated it. The temptation is great even among the most rational to empower authority to do anything and everything -- without limits -- to punish those responsible and prevent repeat occurrences. That's a natural, even understandable, response. And it's the response that the attackers hope to provoke.

It's that temptation to which most Americans -- and our leading media institutions -- succumbed in the wake of 9/11, and it's exactly the reaction that's most self-destructive. As documented by this superb Washington Post Op-Ed today from Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India, the Indian Government -- in response to prior terrorist attacks -- has been employing tactics all-too-familiar to Americans: "terrorism suspects have been picked up at random and denied legal rights"; "allegations of torture by police are routine"; "suspects have been held for years as their court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between"; Muslims and Hindus are subjected to vastly disparate treatment; and much of the most consequential actions take place in secrecy, shielded from public view, debate or accountability.

As Padgaonkar details, many of these measures, particularly in the wake of new terrorist attacks, are emotionally satisfying, yet they do little other than exacerbate the problem, spawn further extremism and resentment, and massively increase the likelihood of further and more reckless attacks -- thereby fueling this cycle endlessly -- all while degrading the very institutions and values that are ostensibly being defended. The greater one's physical or emotional proximity to the attacks, the greater is the danger that one will seek excessively to empower and submit to government authority and cheer for destructive counter-measures which allow few, if any, limits.

I think competence in intelligence gathering is required; we need the support of local communities; we need capable anti-terrorist forces that are part of metropolitan police departments. We definitely do not need laws like POTA which have no effect on terrorism but do manage to take away basic rights.
Most experts suggest treating terrorism as a criminal act and thus use existing criminal laws to pursue terrorists.

3. This is the age of radicalism - apparently terrorists who committed these acts are motivated by riots in India. Those riots are in turn motivated by other acts of violence. The truth is that many segments of Pakistani and Indian populations have become more and more radicalized; they demand and justify violence for any purpose. We saw that Raj Thackeray could attain notoriety and a following within a period of two months. The Sangh Parivar's own radicalism is well-known. Meanwhile Muslim and Christian populations around the world also suffer from the radicals amongst them - the entire American neo-conservative movement and its intellectual defenders such as Norman Podhoretz are radical. The global economy is getting worse and it will result in more extremism.
I think we should look at preventive measures for this trend - it does not involve stricter laws - radicals consider themselves martyrs. It does not involve blaming particular communities - every community has its set of whackos.
What we need in the long haul is to promote a kind of self-awareness through education; to promote more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. To promote the rule of law so that disputes can be resolved within the civil framework. Sadly this is going to be very hard in India(and in Pakistan). Our governments lack the will and resources to push through changes in social structure.
It is hard to see the connection between global inequality and terrorism, if the argument is emotional - but terrorism does have political and economic reasons for thriving.

So, what do I suggest? I suggest we sit with Pakistan and work out a way to treat the attacks as criminal acts (and not as acts of warfare). I suggest we improve efficiency in intelligence without passing knee-jerk detention laws. And I suggest we try to have a debate about radicalism in our societies.

Update I
As I expected some people have been talking about a "war on terrorism". This is the dumbest little term. Terrorism is a tactic and you cannot wage war on a tactic. It has become fashionable to repeat the exact same terms that people have heard in the United States press. These terms have no relevance in the situation in our sub-continent. We are neither a "world power" (whatever that means) and our neighbor is not a push over.
Several commentators in the United States have themselves criticised this war on terror terminology - please note that since the "war on terror" was declared every National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in the USA have said the threat of world terrorism has gone up, not down. We now live in a more dangerous world than before that "war on terror" was declared.
Our leaders (as I expected) have already put the blame on Pakistan and are pretending that the onus is on that country to prevent further attacks - meanwhile, it is obvious that our intelligence agencies failed; our own citizens were acting in collusion with the terrorists; and that the government simply lacks the ideas for any prevention program. Let us not be in a hurry to declare imaginary war on a verb.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stress Relief for the modern worker

I worked in a public sector company in Chennai for a couple of years after college. I was assigned to the R&D division but ended up working in the shop floor. I did some assembly and C programming at that time and spent a lot of time at home.
One of the useful things I figured out while at that company was this - mechanical work, as in repeating something over and over, is a GREAT stress reliever.
It all started like this - I was asked to slightly modify and add additional functionality to a STD (phone billing) machine. The programming was in assembly language and the first day work started, I got a foot thick printout at my desk - the whole source code was in that stack. The chip with this embedded code was sitting innocently in front of me.
I had to read the stack, understand what was going on, and modify the code in appropriate places.
To slightly complicate things, the chip can be "burnt" only at a different building. So I had to make modifications to the code, take the chip over to the other building, burn it, come back and test it. Repeat.
Needless to say, I was greatly stressed by this line of work. All my classmates were leaving for the USA (this was around 1997). They were talking about this brand new problem called "Y2K" and they were going to save the world from the Y2K monster. They had to be in the USA to do that. It all fit in, and I was terribly upset that I was sitting with pipes over my head in a shop floor. I wanted to fight Y2K.
(Little did I know that my classmates were having printed stacks of COBOL to pore over and change dates in)
Production companies have a very strict hierarchy - the workers are all treated with suspicion. Security used to pat them down to see if they were taking something home. The officers were treated with reverence - and at 23, with an engineering degree, I was an officer. The security would even salute me, sometimes (if I wore shoes). When I walk upto a worker, they would stand up. As an engineer I would stand up for senior engineers, and so on.
It all sounds ideal, except that the workers get to kick the crap out of you, literally, during a strike. The company was pretty unionized. Unlike other public sector companies, they actually got work done. I thought they were well run.

Anyway,one day I am sitting next to the senior engineer when the shop floor got a big consignment of telephone jacks. This company was the only manufacturer of the tiny telephone jacks that are installed in your home by the pre-BSNL DoT. So, we got a big shipment of them to deliver. They were almost ready except that you have to tighten some pin at a single place.
They distributed the work and all the workers started picking up the connectors and tightening the pins. I watched them with fascination - they had a big pile of telephone jacks in front of them. They would pick up each one, bend a pin and then move it to another pile. It was like watching Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights".
I had a tough assembly algorithm to crack that day. I postponed that. I got the unfinished jacks, a big pile in front of me and proceeded to tighten the pin.
I spent the whole day on it and it was my happiest day in that company. I could completely forget about life outside, its problems, even Y2K.
It was better than being idle. Or sleep. I felt I was actually accomplishing something - my STD machine work was meant for Ethiopia (We were selling those machines to Ethiopia). But this telephone-jack-tightening was meant for the people around me - patriotic Indians. I felt I was making a difference by tightening the pin.
I tried doing it the next day but the senior engineer chased me away.

Since then, whenever I get into stressful situations, I try to do mechanical work that still accomplishes something. Let me list such activities here. Try them at home and work:

1. Potato peeling - my wife heats up the potatoes. Once they are cooked, I have to peel the potato skin. You require a bowl with the hot potatoes and a plate to drop the peeled potatoes. Patiently waiting for the potatoes to cool is fun.

2. Phone Contacts - transferring contacts from one cellphone to another, when you get a new phone. I am sure there are easier ways of doing this, but do not try them. Do it manually, one by one. Type each contact's name in the new phone. It is more fun if the cellphone has a really small keyboard. You will make mistakes and then you can correct the mistakes and feel good.

3. Photo Album - transfer print photos into an album. Sort the photos, then insert each one into the album cover. If you want more fun, create small labels and stick them on the album about where the photos were taken and more.

4. Data Transfer - at work, you will have excel sheets with some data that needs to be transferred to some other form. Do NOT write a program to do it. Transfer manually. Have both excel files open and move data from one to another by copying and pasting. With around a hundred rows of data, this can be very fulfilling. Do not attempt for more than hundred rows.

The key idea here is that you should not have to think too much about the work other than placement. "Where do I place this?" is a good stress relieving question. "Should I place this?" is not. "How should I place this?" is a very stressful place to be. This is why cooking is not a stress reliever (for me). It requires a little bit more thinking and thus causes my head to explode and ruin the food.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Land of the Free

Woman to American Republican presidential candidate John McCain during a campaign rally:"I don't trust Barack Obama; he is an Arab"

McCain's answer:
"No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues"
Apparently Arabs cannot be American citizens or decent family men. To call someone an Arab or a Muslim has become an acceptable racial slur in the United States. I bet McCain would be surprised if it is pointed out that Arabs are actually human.
Must be great, being the leader of the free world. I am sure we will hear a lot of preaching to other countries about tolerance, once a president is elected.
Did I mention they have nuclear weapons and a much celebrated "button" that can wipe out the planet?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Quick Note on Economic Downturn

If you are in the IT Services industry in India and your clients are international, you may be familiar with the downturn and impending job cuts. Many of you may be facing a recession for the first time. I have a few suggestions from my experience. Think about them:
1. Your company maybe churning and you may be assigned to different projects. You may be asked to take paycuts. Your location preferences may not be respected. Companies usually crack the whip during a downturn. You may be outside your comfort zone - working with managers unknown to you, and you may have to re-establish your credentials.
All this causes much anxiety and sometimes prompts irrational decisions such as lashing out at the work place; taking a break from work; going on long leave; or even trying to switch jobs.
My advice is do not make emotional decisions based on fear or anger - particularly at this juncture. It is hard to think rationally and it is possible that you may feel ill-used or neglected. It is also possible that these feelings are purely psychological. You will not be able to judge this by yourself. Therefore do NOT make life-changing decisions, such as leaving your job; taking a break; plan a career switch; plan an academic sojourn; or anything like that. Think carefully about your decisions for a few days. Discuss with friends and family. As far as possible do not plan a change.
2. Save, save and save money. Do not take long vacations; defer decisions to buy costly items.
3. If you are laid off - remember, whatever society or your former employer tells you, you know your true value. These are bad times and people may lose their jobs for being in the wrong department at the wrong time. There are forces much beyond our control at work - do NOT blame yourself or fall into self-pity.
4. Have a strong support structure at work and at home. In tough times, friends need to support each other. Have atleast a few friends with whom you can share your fears and inner-most thoughts. That will be more helpful than sitting and brooding.
5. Do not antagonize anybody at work for perceived insults. This is not the time to be touchy about not responding to emails etc. Everybody has their own problems and you never know when a contact will be useful.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How To Blog

This is my 51st post in this blog. I thought it should be about what I have learnt about blogging.
I will cover the following in this entry:
- How to start a Blog and some technical tips
- Why would you blog? What is the purpose of a blog? Is it necessary to start one? Is it a fad? What do we write about? How often?
The opinions are strictly based on my experiences.
I am not going to define a blog and all that. Please read Wikipedia's excellent entries on that here.

How To Start a Blog

What you need is a personal blog that you can use. This personal blog will
- allow you to manage all your "posts" or entries
- allow you to create new posts
- allow you to manage "templates" for your blog - that is your background color, layout, top banner and such things.
- allow you to manage comments in your own blog, so that you can delete them if offensive.
- manage history in your blog by archiving old blogs,, and many other sites allow you to do most of the above. The assumption here is that you want a public blog. Some blogging sites also allow you to create members only blogs. You can create a blog and invite a set of people to view it. Noone else will have access. Corporations also have blogs in their local network for knowledge management.
There are also several blogging sites that are domain specific - for example, is an American political blogging site. Your audience are mostly looking for political commentary in such a site - they may not be interested in your love poetry.
The choice of a blogging site is, thus, guided by your interests. If all you are interested is in writing about Microsoft technologies, then there are several sites specific to that purpose. Some bloggers (like me) maintain several blogs at different sites. That makes it slightly difficult to manage your posts but targeted audience reach may be better.
One important consideration is multi-language support. There are several sites (including that provide support for Unicode - thus if you want to write in Tamil, you need not create your own site from scratch.
Most blogging sites allow you to embed images and videos. You can effectively build a corporate style article using a blogging site. Check for such features.
Most sites provide steps to create a blog that are really simple. Generally,
- create a username, password and a profile. Depending upon your nature, you may want more or less detail in your blog profile. Be aware that people across the internet, who do not know you, may like/dislike your opinions and may come after you. On the other hand, in case of a technical/professional blog particularly, you may want people to know you for your skills. Choose carefully what information you reveal.
- choose a template. In my blog, the orange color top banner was picked up by me, along with the layout. I have a different color in my technical blog. When you choose a template, I beg you, please do not pick white text on a dark background. It is tempting, but the way computer monitors work, your site will hurt people's eyes.

That is it. After this, you can go to your dashboard and start typing a blog any time.

Apart from the blog itself, you may be interested in knowing how many people visit, and also make your blog searchable. My articles on my Coorg trip, Ilayaraja's music and others still attract traffic mainly because people reach them through searches. How do you measure number of people visiting; what is popular; how to get attention? How do you know who links to your articles?
I follow these tips:
1. I downloaded and installed Google Toolbar in my browser. It shows the page rank for my blogs. That kind of gives a rough idea if you are even "seen" by Google.
2. I registered my blogs with There is a set of steps to do this, including adding some code to your blog template. They give detailed instructions on how to do this. Technorati clearly tells me who else in the blogging world links to my blog. It also shows authority and genuinity.
3. I registered my blogs with Google Analytics. They also have a set of steps and some code to add to your blog template. You can log into Google Analytics at any time and see data about the number of people visiting your site, which pages they are interested in, their geographical spread, the time they spent in an article and if the traffic came from direct hits, referring sites or search engines. It is an amazingly effective tool to gauge your effectiveness as a blogger.

Why Blog - The philosophy of blogging

Should you always blog in this day and age? We see people around us starting blogs all the time. They do it for different purposes. In my case I have some key motivations.
- I have been trying writing since I was 6 years. I have tried my hand at fiction, writing letters to the editor in local newspapers, tried participating in writing competitions. Basically I would rather be a writer and do it for a living. Before blogging I used to send emails to a bunch of people with my thoughts on different subjects even though my audience hated those emails. Thus, when I discovered blogging, I primarily thought of it as another tool for reaching a larger audience with my writing. Thus I did NOT start writing with blogs. I was always "blogging" in some form, even before the internet. If you have never been interested in writing, blogging may not help you. It will only make a person feel guilty about not maintaining a blog frequently.
- Even if you are not too interested in writing, blogging (for a professional) is a great way to build an online presence, and showcase your knowledge. It is one of the best resume formats. A frequently updated blog link makes people want to recruit a person. In my job searches, I send out cover letters with links to my blog articles - it is unusual, but credentializes you before you meet a person.
- Writer or not, a blog is a good way to atleast hone my marketing and presentation skills. You can experiment with a larger audience than you can imagine. Particularly for technical leaders and aspiring technologists, it is a good way to organize your thought process.
- One great reason to blog is its usefulness as a knowledge management tool. One of my earliest posts was about a few recipes for cooking. They were simple recipes, but they are available in the internet wherever I go. I refer to Praveen's blog about how to enable fiddler for Firefox all the time. I do not have to remember these details. You can blog about the little tips and tricks you learn in your professional and home life and then have them available to help you later.

Now, note that in all of these cases, there is a clear self-interest to blogging. There are people who have a different view - they claim that popularity of their blog is not their concern. They claim that the number of comments their blog attracts does not interest them. When someone mentioned such a near nirvana state in the Chennai blogcamp (2006) there were responses in agreement and disagreement. It is hard for me to adopt such an attitude about my blog. I shamelessly pimp my blogs to my friends and contacts. I want my views to be known - that is why I use analytics and technorati to measure my performance. I value feedback and discussion on what I am writing about.

Some tips for interested bloggers

1. What do you write about?
In my experience, when I think of some interesting angle, I brood over it for a day. Then I sit down and write a blog article for an hour. But I have noticed that I am constantly looking for such angles. I select some ideas, I reject others. Other bloggers have talked about a kind of urge (restlessness) you feel if you have not written a post for some time. All of this, of course, depends on time being available (more on that next). I write for my technical blog when I feel it is necessary to store some detail or process some knowledge.
Thus, in general,
- you can write opinion or commentary posts
- or you can write an informative, observation based post
- you can write long article sized posts (such as this one)
- or you can write shorter posts
Opinion or commentary posts attract people's attention. My Ilayaraja vs Rahman post still is one of my top picks. People will feel either for or against and they will comment on it. Of course, your opinion should be authentic, and have some fresh angle. Otherwise, you will not get repeat visitors and a regular readership.
But informative posts are also valuable - they will help you manage knowledge and build expertise. They will also provide more durable value to your readers.
I usually alternate between these. For example, this post you are reading is meant to be informative.
The core idea is to keep looking at any knowledge you acquire as a potential blog post.

2. When do you write?
I do not allocate any special time for writing and I do not stick to a schedule. Bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and Digby blog daily multiple times. But they also make money from blogging. Most of us amateurs cannot blog at that frequency.
The problem is to capture readership and make them come back for more. A frequency of once a month is insufficient for maintaining loyal readers.
There are many of us who start blogging ferociously and then just stop at a certain point. Then we feel guilty about stopping. There is no point in feeling guilty about not blogging - the readership is low, and most of the blogs do not attract traffic at all. It is hard to keep your spirits up under these circumstances. Also, as I said earlier, writing may not be your idea of fun. If so, there is no need to feel guilty.

3. How to attract initial readers?
I read an advice for frequent blogging, with one long article atleast a week and multiple shorter posts during the weekdays. Hard to do, but does attract loyalty (provided the content is good).
Send the blog article link to all your friends, family (when you feel ready about the content). There may be habitual forwarders among them and they will spread the news.
Have your freinds with popular blogs to link your blog.
If you have MSN or Yahoo Messenger, put the blog url in your signature. Put the url in your Facebook or Orkut or LinkedIn profile.
And have good content. There is no substitute for good content. Market yourself, but have good content.

4. Some Do's and Don'ts
Do NOT plagiarize - do not steal someone else's content and dump it in your blog. Do not quote an entire article and then add a link at the end. Write original content. Since you are publicizing your blog, having copied content will lead to people having a lower opinion of you.
Do NOT hope to make money out of blogging. Takes a very long time to be established and very hard to make money out of it.
When you finish writing a post, DO re-read it again for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. They turn off visitors.
Whenever you quote someone's blog or opinion online, DO add a link to that quote. It is professional to do so.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The selection of the American President

The presidential elections for the United States are due first week of November. The contenders have been finalized by their parties this week - Barack Obama the Democrat, with Joe Biden as the VP candidate; and John McCain, the Republican with Sarah Palin as the VP candidate.
What do the American elections have to do with India? Although the TV news shows cover it, they focus on the outsourcing question. The predominant view is that the Democrats would fix loopholes in tax law and thus work against the money flow to India.
Yet, the American elections are of critical interest (beyond outsourcing) to India and to the rest of the world. We have to remember that the United States has launched two aggressive wars in our neighborhood and currently the US Army is engaged in operations in Pakistan NWFP. It is a country that is the driving force of world economy, and is also seriously in debt. Our government is seeking a nuclear deal with them on the basis of which the ruling party almost caved in.
Certainly, more than ever before, the United States is held in very high regard by Indians (India is one of the very few countries in the world that has favorable opinions of the USA). Our economic model is hinged on free market policies championed there. So much so that the very real fight within the USA against free market fundamentalism is not even visible here. Indians also tend to see the American government, the American public and American corporations as the same entity.
Thus the selection of the American President has an effect on us and the rest of the world. Considering America's military might, and far-flung bases, people have suggested that citizens of the world's nations need to have voting rights in the American elections.

Considering all of these, you would expect that the American election process is a very serious business, and that Americans weigh the candidates throughly and consider all implications before voting for a candidate. You would be wrong.

How Is The Campaigning Going?

The first bad news is this - the 72 year old Republican candidate, John McCain selected his running mate, VP pick last week. Who did he choose as the probable leader of his country (in case something happens to him in term)? Remember, this person has a shot to have their hand on the nuclear button; decides how to "protect" American interests; and basically has the biggest fighting force in history under their thumb.
John McCain chose Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska (Alaska has one-tenth the population of greater Chennai). She has been governor for all of two years. She thinks the theory of evolution got it wrong and wants to introduce teaching in schools about how God created Earth. She also believes that the war in Iraq is a task to America directly from God.
The reason McCain chose Sarah, apparently was because she would energize right-wing religious voters.
Where does that leave the world?

You see where I am going with this? Us, poor people around the world are thinking that the "greatest democracy in history" is going about delivering its four-year lesson in democratic functioning to the rest of us. Meanwhile, "all politics is local" and McCain was obviously thinking about winning - not particularly concerned about putting the nuclear button (and our lives) in the hands of a person who believes in the End Times.

This is why the world order is all wrong.

The American elections are conducted more like a reality show than policy debates. The elections are completely given over to images and "dogwhistles" on race, gender and religion.
In terms of competency in debates and policy positions, Democrats like John Kerry and Barack Obama tower way, way above the Republicans - yet George Bush won the 2004 elections. He won the elections AFTER it was found that Iraq had NO WMD. 51% of the voters voted for him even though they knew he lied and caused misery elsewhere in the world. I was in the United States at the time of the 2004 elections and the explanation for Bush's winning was that "values" voters chose him. Well, obviously those values did not include killing innocents.
Locals vote for local issues. There are low-information voters who have no idea what is going on in politics. The media has a big role in deflecting from issues to keep viewership. All of these are factors in Indian elections and in American elections. But the leaders chosen by American voters control the beast - the military-industrial complex of the USA.

There is no relation between the weight of the responsibility on American voters and their ability. I don't think most American voters even consider the implications of their choice. Definitely John McCain has not - and hence Sarah Palin may very well start new "tasks" from God.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Porn Library of Chromepet

(This is not meant to be an adult post - it simply analyzes a model of working together as a community. Nothing offensive in here)
I went to engineering college in a suburb of Chennai called Chromepet. My first lesson in civics was in that college, from unlikely sources.
The college had several hostels, with different batches of students. There were also dayscholars (although most of us were far from scholars), who resided in Chennai and did not need the hostel services. Still, most of us spent lots of time in the hostel.
Within a few months of starting college, the hostel rooms had a good supply of porn books. Some of these books were supplied by our seniors (in the sense they were left over). Some were actually bought by our batch mates. With the frugal money supply we had, we still managed to allocate some "charity" money for buying porn. A few of us were more avid hobbyists - they got the weekly and monthly Tamil and English magazines with religious regularity.

Side Note on Porn Books
You would expect that English magazines rule; but actually the regional industry is more innovative in porn. The writers in the English magazines want to get into movies or something - so they write very high quality English with obscure vocabulary. They also take a long time getting to the point - most of the time the "incident" has happened without any warning. The Tamil porn books excel - the writers are not going anywhere, so they have more motivation to make the magazine succeed. So usually the way it works is this - you read the tamil books and then take a look at the photos in the English magazines. Repeat.

The Community Forms

Soon it became apparent that there was a problem with our collection of porn. The books were not available in one central location. Since they were distributed, someone in a hurry (don't go there) had to go room after room. Since many of these books had similar looks you may pick up an already covered book by mistake. Our premium and newer books were not well-managed - nobody knew where they were.

At this point I want to point out that the porn book collection follows a model very similar to the Web 2.0 model (as described by Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo! VP-product strategy in his blog here). 1% of the community contribute the money and the books (contributors); 10% are more active users and volunteer administrators (synthesizers). The remaining use the books (consumers).
It seems that this model will never work for anything other than porn books in the non-web world. The contributors gained nothing by spending money, getting the books and then handing them over to the consumers. But the porn books were kind of "hot property". You could NOT take them home. Plus once you had gone through them a couple of times, they are done (so are you). There is no point in scrawling your name in them or anything stupid like that. Thus, the contributors were motivated to share the books with their batch mates.

Back in Chromepet, thus, there was a strong case for some community activism that would better the situation for everyone. The first thing a couple of synthesizors did was to find a permanent location for the library. There were pros and cons in hosting it in a room - our first choice of location was disrupted because the "scholar" had his dad visit him the next week. We finally chose a classmate's room which was easily accessible and whose family did not care about him. The idea was that the library should be accessible all the time - so we put the collection next to a window which was always open.
We also had a volunteer librarian who would sort the books and put new books on top and did some housekeeping.

Issues with Community Sharing

Now, this is, of course, a trust based model. There are different reasons for it to fail:

1. It is possible for a guy to not buy a single porn book; and still manage to get the best and latest on time.
This is a classic problem and relates in a way to the "Prisoner's Dilemma". If enough people became convinced that they could get a free ride without buying a single book ever, and the contributors sensed this; then there exists a strong disincentive for the contributors to keep buying. The whole community would stop working - which would be a personal catastrophe.
Please keep in mind that, in the web world, a contributor to YouTube atleast gets to see people visiting his video, commenting and thus has a sense of fulfillment. This never does exist in the non-web-porn-book-library-community-in-Chromepet. If exposed, actually the contributor faces ridicule and ostracism (I should be writing English porn).
But, this never happened in our case. The community came together and even the poorest of us contributed atleast a couple of times to the growing library. Dare I say it, there was a sense of shared purpose.

2. If people took the books, there was no punishment for not returning a book. Actually no one kept track of loaned books and returned books. We were trying to become scholars. If this system was misused, people could just stop returning books to the library. Eventually the library would shrink and may cease to exist as a community endeavor.
Again, this never happened in our case. Our batchmates always returned the books - very rarely were pages torn and eaten. There was a commitment to keep the porn stash in its allotted place.

Thus, our model of community work survived in spite of many challenges. In a pre-web world, it is a miracle that it worked. Now, of course, with the internet, there are several porn boards and groups were people share videos, and stories. But there are several incentives for a user to gain "credits" in such a community. And of course, in a virtual environment, the user need not be afraid of his video getting "lost".

The Community Thrives

When I left the college, the library had thrived through the years. We left it to our juniors to manage. There may still be books marked with our names being circulated among younger scholars (unless they have all shifted to YouTube).
We left fulfilled that we had built an institution. I am reminded of Subrata Bagchi (MindTree) in his famous speech, Go, Kiss The World:

That was my first lesson in success. It is not about what you create for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success

Friday, August 01, 2008

The danger of melancholy

I was hearing this song in youtube:

After a long time, I felt tears in my eyes. After a long time because I have been avoiding the experience of melancholy for some time now, consciously.

Here is the tragedy of human expression - in music, in literature and in movies, the best experience is the saddest.
When I was in 6th Std, I read "Sivagamiyin Sabatham", Kalki's historic novel about the tragic romance between a Pallava Prince and a dancer woman. When I finished I vowed that I would never read that book again in my life. Since then that novel has been published multiple times in Kalki magazine - and I have sneaked around and read a few lines; but I cannot bring myself to read it through, particularly the last chapter. There is this song that she dances to in the end "Munnam Avanudaya Naamam Kettaal" - I can still picture that song in my mind.

Aftre I had finished college, I had a brief break before I joined work. I was supposed to join August 1st, 1995. A week before that I had a nasty viral fever. While recovering, I borrowed the novel "Gone With The Wind" from a neighbor and finished it in three days. I would wake up every morning and start reading; continued till the night. On the fourth day, I was to go to work. I started for work, went upto the train station and then came back home. My mother was shocked. (She complained that I would retire without ever working). I sat in my room and brooded about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler for two days.
If "Gone with the Wind" had a different ending, with Scarlett and Rhett walking off into the sunset, my response would have been very different. But, again, I vowed that I would never read that book again - after 13 years, the effect of that book still stays with me.

After marriage, and a career shaping up, I have been consciously avoiding reading books in which tragedy lurks - no Thomas Hardy style books. I seek P.G.Wodehouse or Dave Barry. I watch Vadivel comedies every night. I do not ever watch movies to completion at home - I prefer Sarath Kumar or Arjun beating a hundred people. I watch and read movies and books that I KNOW cannot cause me to experience melancholy again.
The problem is this - I do want to read better literature. I can understand subtlety. An year back I bought Jeyamohan's Tamil novel "Vishnupuram". The writing delighted me and I zipped through it, until half way through, a child passes away. I closed the book and never read it again.
Thus, I am prevented - purely from the point of self-preservation - to enjoy the best out there. If I ever went through "Gone with the Wind" or "The Mayor of Castorbridge" again, I know that it is bye-bye to work. I would be sitting and crying in a room.

The same effect happened to me while listening to Ali Abbas or Amanat Ali's singing in the music talent shows. There is a different kind of Pakistani infiltration happening now into India - those damn good singers with their Sufi style rendering. Listen to the video below and tell me how you can go face stupid programming bugs next day:

So, I keep running away from the music talent shows on TV; turn my face away from the literature section in book stores. I have stored Vishnupuram and other such books in the house in a store room so I do not have to look at them and be reminded of fictional people's tragedies. I watch Spiderman and Shrek and Arasu and Marudamalai, thinking that I can wipe away an yearning for something of substance.

A few days ago my wife successfully got me to watch an Iranian movie called "Children of the Heaven". It is about two kids who have a problem with getting a new shoe. That is it - sounded harmless. I watched the whole movie riveted. Guess what - it seemed full of lurking tragedies (although nothing happened) and I was shaking with concern for the children by the end of it.
I will never watch that movie again. In fact, Iraninan movies - you are dead to me. You are too realistic. If you can make buying a shoe so tragic, I don't care to think of your war movies.
I am planning to compensate by watching back to back shows of "Arasaangam" and "Walter Vetrivel".

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


First of all, I like the movie; and this is one movie on which everyone has a different opinion. Everyone has their favorite character. A few liked the graphics. A few hate it. A few liked the "butterfly effect". A few thought it had no relevance. The 12th century scenes made sense to some; no sense to others. Kamal Hassan successfully got everyone talking.
There are so many subtleties and sub-texts that people have noticed - one person mentioned that the Lorry on which Kamal jumps in Chengelpet road had "Siva-Siva" written on it. Kamal got people watching the movie multiple times. Good job.
A few items of discussion:
1. Kamal has a problem with religions but not with all of them, as people could see. That is fine. An artist belongs to his day and age and Kamal is still a product of the sixties, with DK ruling the roost. Plus, I think the majority religion here can afford to take a few hits and not be so touchy about it.

2. It is incredible that people actually tried banning this movie - whatever happened to freedom of expression? The argument everytime in India goes, "Freedom of expression is fine..but you cannot go overboard". But who decides what is overboard? Even if a majority is hurt by a movie, an individual's freedom of expression trumps that majority. It is a fundamental right. More on this in another blog post.

3. Kamal's final conversation with Asin on God brought back memories.
Me and my friends Tayo and Lucy were having a conversation 3 or 4 years back. Tayo is a Nigerian who had finished college in Odessa, the Ukrainian port city. He was out of money and wanted to go to London and try getting a job. He caught a train in Odessa and went all the way to London (yes, that is possible). He had all his earthly belongings, and a friend's phone number in London. He lands in London and finds that he has misplaced the phone number. And cannot afford a hotel or anything in London. He cannot go back either. He is standing in the London train station, cursing himself.
At that moment, a miracle happened, according to Tayo. A classmate of his from Nigeria, a country he had left seven years earlier, walked past him in the London train station. And he had the phone number of their mutual friend.
Think of the odds of that.
Tayo finished this story and said, "That is why I believe in God".
I said, "But if God was there, he wouldn't have caused you to miss that phone number".
Lucy interjected and said, "Yes, but then Tayo would never know the presence of God".
It is hard arguing with that. I have noticed that many atheists act with lots of contempt towards religious people.I myself do not believe in God or any supreme power, but I can understand the power of that idea. Kamal Hassan, in this movie and in others, shows that contempt of the ill-informed. Religious people are not idiots.

4. One part that disappointed me was the run-up to the tsunami. Fletcher and the Japanese guy are fighting on the quayside. The helicopter is overboard. Govind and Asin are watching a little way off. How nice would it be if the camera had shown the receding of water during the tsunami? Everyone would have been oblivious except for the viewers, who had already been excited by the birds fleeing the coming doom. I though they would show that effect, but they seem to focus more on the martial skills of Kamal.

5. What was Kamal thinking about the finale of the movie? How could they show that ridiculous stadium meeting with Bush and Manmohan Singh and then K.S Ravikumar (for god's sake) dancing WITHOUT showing the titles? That ruined the whole fantasy of the movie and made it look like a circus. That must be one of the reasons people felt a vague discomfort about the movie - because the director ruined the fantasy in the end.

Overall, good movie but far from perfect.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

What is the purpose of IT corridor?

(Updated Below)
When the Chennai IT Corridor (Rajiv Gandhi Road or OMR) was originally planned and laid out, I thought of it as an office district. It was supposed to be a 4 lane road with medians, trees on either side, sidewalks and so on. The part that got my attention was the side walks because Chennai as I have noted before is a very pedestrian unfriendly city. The planners have taken lots of trouble to make sure pedestrians get hurt walking in the city streets.

Now that most of the IT corridor is laid out, I am bewildered about the path it has taken. My office is in the middle of it and the government is coming up with a Toll Plaza right at the beginning of Perungudi.
The side walks are not being built and not just that - it is impossible to walk in that road because of all the building construction stuff that is laid out on both sides of the road. You walk at your own risk while IT cab guys threaten you with maddening speeds.
I am not talking about walking the whole length of the IT corridor - people have to get down from buses and walk somewhere, don't they?

Then, they are now laying the medians in such a manner that there are only gaps every one kilometer or so. That means a pedestrian has to walk one kilometer to cross over and double back to a place that is just opposite to them - or, they have to jump over the median. So you always find a bunch of people hanging on for dear life at the edge of the 4 foot tall median.

That makes me angry - the planners are obviously considering the IT corridor as a free way - there are no signals; there is a toll plaza after which you can speed your way where? Where is the IT corridor free way going? This is not the high way people will choose for going to Pondicherry or Mahabalipuram. Was that the original intention? That this is a highway for going somewhere? How moronic is that?

The IT corridor, for all purposes, is being built with IT companies and other technology companies (and supporting services such as restaurants) on either side. It is an office district. It is NOT a freeway. It SHOULD have been laid out with pedestrian crossings. The government is not only giving pedestrians a bad deal - it is actually making sure that services such as restaurants or other shops on either side NEED A CAR or other vehicles to get to. In this age of global warming and all round environmental concern, the planners are laying out a road in an office district that will require a car to cross over.

In the bus stands across the corridor, people are hanging on to the edge of the road as cabs and buses speed past them over taking each other and wildly honking. People have to land exactly at their office door (and never should come out) if they want to live a long life with all limbs intact. Or they should have a car.

This is what our government has become - this was a much talked about seriously planned road and this is what they have come up with. As a utility road to fulfill a base purpose, the planners have completely failed. What they have laid out is a needless freeway going nowhere.

What should actually happen is this:
Ban private cars and IT company buses from going into the corridor at the Velachery link road and Madhya Kailash. These two places are well connected through train (MRTS) and bus.
Have the companies in the corridor pay a sum to the public transport corporation according to their employee strength. Have buses that operate all day long shuttling from Madhya Kailash to Sholinganallur.
This way private IT company buses will be eliminated (many of them travel empty). And the pollution will come down substantially because people are forced to share the road space.

Update I: Two comments are promoted to the front page. I will answer them below:
First, from subbu:
Even though the banning of private vehicles on the corridor seems to be the ideal thing to do,it is impractical to follow, as people have to come till Madhya Kailash on their own. And Chennai doesn't have an effective Mass Rapid Transit System.Think about some one coming from Thiruvottiyur to Navalur. For him sitting in the company bus and sleeping is the better thing to do than catch a bus,train,bus and the shuttle from Madhya Kailash.

The otherway is to have companies operate their buses only till the starting of the corridor but that doesn't solve any problem.The traffic and pollution level inside the city will still be the same.

Secondly from Maheswari:
I think it is premature to comment on the new OMR since lot of things are still under development. I also second Subbu remark of streamlining the private vehicles. BTW the toll plaza is not going to be hard on all sections, if i am right.

To answer subbu - what gave us the impression that there is lots of choice when it comes to controlling pollution? We HAVE to reduce fuel burning at some point - it is not about a person getting on a company bus and sleeping. That is not an acceptable or sustainable "requirement" any longer. If we started from the assumption that there are infinite resources to consume and then proceed to deduce models of transportation, of course, comfort is what you aim for. That is not the case any longer. I think it is clear to most people that we do not have infinite resources and the cost of private vehicles burning fuel at this rate is never going to work out. If you start from that, a person getting into a bus and sleeping without a change-over is the least preferable alternative.
If private vehicles were banned in the OMR, it would lead to people choosing public transportation from home. I agree that public transportation is not perfect, but then the goal would be to make it better - the pressure would be on the government to solve that problem. Now the pressure is to widen, widen, and widen roads so that enough private cars can go through. It is never going to work out.

My answer to Uma is this: How many years should we go before we CAN comment on the OMR? It has been built for the last 3 years.
Let me ask you a simple question - it is obvious that the government is building this road without pedestrian crossings and without signals. Everybody who goes in the road in a car is comfortable, while if you go walking or cross the road, you are in trouble. Did anyone ask the question about the reverse happening? Did anyone wonder why the road was not built with concern for pedestrians actually SHOWING? You think that concern for pedestrians is there and that the government actually is waiting to unveil some magic solution after 3 years. Ok, meanwhile, why are pedetsrians forced to jump over medians while cars streak along? Why do pedestrians get a raw deal every time? Why can't car drivers be forced to wait at a signal? What is the big problem here?

The truth is obvious - the government does not care about pedestrians for the same reason that it pays more attention to airports than busstands - the IT corridor is really meant for "foreigners" who can streak through in their taxis and land at office doorstep. It is not meant for you and me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Worthy conversations

I remembered this conversation I had in Boston last year in a buffet. It stands out for the deep insights it offers into the human condition.

I step around and see an office colleague at the buffet.

"Hi..How ARE you?"
"Good..Good. How are you doing?"
"Very good. How is everything?
"Going fine."
"Excuse me."
"Bless you"
"Thank you"
"Well..see you around"
"See you too"
"Nice running into you"
"Same here"

And then we walked apart.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

When you come back from the States..

Beware of the false prophets.
In this "global age" and the "information world", they say, you do not really have to be "There". "There" is now, it is "here". You do not have to be in India - just stay connected. That is what they tell you atleast.

But then the people who say this are clueless.

I called one of my friends in the USA, an NRI, sometime back. He is Telugu. He was talking about coming back. He said that he would return in 3 years, when Coastal Andhra becomes a separate state, with Vishakapattinam as the capital. Why? Because he loves Vizag and thinks IT companies will open shop in Vizag only if it is made state capital.
I heard this and I thought the creation of the separate state was a done deal. I mean, my friend pretty much "knew" when he was coming back.
Well, I talked to a couple of Telugu friends and here is the deal - they have been having this fight in Andhra for the last 40 years. No luck.
But my friend was pretty much convinced. I am sure he would not be so convinced if he was actually in Andhra, if he was "here" instead of "there".

People tell you distance means nothing in these times, but it does. You are more distant from realities "on the ground". No amount of browsing and discussing over the phone seems to help.

When I was in the US planning to come back, I would call up and ask people how things were. I learn that getting a phone takes one day, getting a ration card may take a couple of days and getting a gas connection - well, they will be waiting with the cylinder when I land.
After landing, I learnt that to get a PREPAID phone, you need address proof! And, get this, you need a separate ID proof and address proof. So, your passport won't help. You need your passport (which anyway has the wrong address) and then either a ration card, or PAN card or voter's id.
So then started my long struggle to "prove" that I exist and that I am me.
Gas connection - they need a ration card or something that says you do not have a ration card. How will you get that something? With a ration card, of course!
I made multiple trips to the ration office in Mylapore. People told me I had to bribe the guys there. I was worried that they would arrest me for trying to bribe a public official. Everytime I went there a guy would come up, stand real close to me and whisper how I should fill up the forms or what I should get the next time. I automatically assumed that this guy would ask me for the bribe, so I also took to whispering. Both of us would stand in the center of the room and whisper perfectly legal things to each other. Our romance continued every time I visited that place. He never asked me for money and I never offered.
It took me a year and a half to get my ration card.

When I came back I had a bunch of stories written in Tamil. I was sure that I would just have to walk up to Mani Rathnam and then say, "Mani, listen, here is a script. You need not cast me; but I would need all the royalties and merchandising profits". I was so convinced that is all I had to do - I did not plan to work when I came back. I thought I would make so much more writing for Mani Rathnam. Well, guess what, I started the daily grind within a month of coming back and I have not "walked upto" Mani Rathnam.

Lastly, the people that piss me off are the ones who said, "Go back. Stay at home and we will give you dollar business." I was busily calculating the money (in dollars) I would get working from home, maybe even working from Coffee Day. Ofcourse, nothing materialised.

That is what distance does to you. Information is not everything. Context matters.

My poor Vizag friend is worse off - he is waiting for a new Indian state to be created for his purpose.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My post in - Would you relinquish power?

Below article was written by me in, here. I post very occasionally in dailykos about American politics:

Political reconciliation hasn't happened, and violence has leveled off and may be creeping back up," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House committee. "So how can we encourage, if not force, the intransigent political leaders of Iraq to forge a real nation out of their base sectarian instincts?

That above is from AP article here on the Petraeus testimony.
That is a Democrat there, talking as if the Iraqis actually invited the USA to invade them.

American liberals and progressives complain all the time that Democrats in the Congress and Senate are not opposing Imperialism enough. I have seen many imply that the Democrats really do oppose imperialism, but are afraid of being attacked on national security platform.
Read that quote above - it looks almost as if Congressman Skelton admits no culpability for the United States in the current mess - oh no, the States went in with noble intentions and is still acting nobly; but curse those nasty Iraqis for being so sectarian!
The presidential candidates, of course, have to be more careful about this. They never, ever blame the policies that took America here.
Yet we are all scrounging through campaign speeches and debates to find out evidence that Obama or Hillary will indeed make a difference in foreign policy.

We can stop looking forward to that.

If YOU were the most powerful person in the world, and your "base" is asking you to relenquish that power and position, so that "America's image" improves abroad, will you do it?
If YOU were sitting in the Capitol Hill, being solicited by the lobbyists of a hundred countries around the world, knowing that you could use your military at your bidding, at your convenience, would you relenquish that power and seek "multilateralism"?

I think, by definition, it is impossible - for the men and women who are at power's doorsteps in the United States Senate, Congress and White House - to voluntarily give up power. Saying "No" to aggressive war CANNOT be done by the men and women who are at the power center. It is futile to expect that.

Of course, I accept, that if you took long term interests into consideration, it probably makes sense to curtail that power - probably. But they do not know that for sure. All that they know is that it is going to take a long time and the results are iffy, in their mind, to take the noble route of NOT using America's power.
So, what do they do?
They ignore their base.

Why complain about that? Aren't the expectations of us, the leftists, incompatible with human nature itself? How can we expect this from America's leaders?

This is what they mean when they blame "the angry left". Because these leaders know that you do NOT hold the power of America's military (I know, you think you do) - so it is easy for you to ask for moderation of that power.
The leaders are sitting with that power at their finger tips. Why would they get down from there?

There are two assumptions that mess up our politics:

1. That America is the democracy that others should aspire for. Partly true. But then you think America has already reached the zenith of the democratic system. No, you have not. You think that senators and congressmen SHOULD exercise power with caution because you think YOU are in charge. But you are not. It is no different from any other system around the world - the powerful like power. They think they deserve power. No surprise there.

2. That the right leader will tone down American imperialism. That will never happen, because it is against the nature of powerful men to take down the source of their power by several notches.
What, then, is the solution for American Imperialism?

I think we have a lesson from history - the same solution that solved British Imperialism. Imperialism can only be ultimately confronted, exposed and eliminated by the victims.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Are SEZs a good thing?

You have heard the slogans about the Indian Dream and India Shining. Most Disney movies talk about how you can become anything you want to be and how you can always realize your dreams. News media covers the stock market extensively, even though only 2% of the Indian population invest in stocks. We are told that our airports need to be privatized and maintained sleek - even though 98% of Indians do not use airports; nobody talks about the busstands and train stations that they do use. The Indian middle class welcomes Special Economic Zones (SEZs). It welcomes so called labor reform with hire and fire policies. It opposes trade unions actively.

There is a connecting thread between all of this - and it is a phenomenon that happens in the USA also. Thomas Frank covered this in his 2004 book "What is the Matter with Kansas?".

The United States state of Kansas was at one point (during the last century) a hot bed of left wing activism. Some of the earliest war protests and populism originated there. Yet,
worsening economic conditions on the Midwestern plains have only driven voters further to the right, into grass-roots antiabortion activism, campaigns against the teaching of evolution, obsessions with cultural indecency and other largely symbolic crusades


Michael Moore talks about this phenomenon in his book "Dude, Where's My Country?". Middle and poor voters should normally vote for increased taxes, improved labor standards, support trade unions and so on because these measures align with their class interests. For example, it is obvious for some time now that the IT and BPO industry employees need "collective bargaining" - that is, the right to organize as a union. Yet the normal industry employee opposes unions. So does their family.
That is, the middle class in India is acting against its own class interests - the question is why?

That ties in with the book I mentioned above about Kansas and the Disney movies.

The reason why the middle class is vocal for improving airports, is against trade unions and why the news media covers the stock market so much is this: our middle class believe that they are going to become rich business owners at any point soon. This is the myth that has been created by our government and media even though unemployment is now standing at 8%.
Let us take the case of Special Economic Zones - every state capital is vying to create these as a silver bullet for "creating wealth". Whenever someone protests the SEZs they are dubbed anti-development. Suddenly the intelligentsia are all about GDP-based development. But there is hardly any analysis of what the SEZs actually mean? Who do they benefit?

Special Economic Zones
A special economic zone is created out of apparently barren land and handed over to developers at a cheap cost. Companies that open there do not get any tax on their dollar exports. To be part of an SEZ you have to be a new entity - you cannot move older contracts into the SEZ.
Sounds like a good deal for business owners. We have all been hearing about how business has to be simulated by tax cuts.

But there is a hidden cost to SEZs. There is a reason that taxes exist. Just to maintain transport infrastructure along the SEZs, governments pay considerable amount of money. The company does not pay taxes - so where does the money come from?
Correct - it comes from OTHER tax payers. That is, people like you and me. Where do the benefits go to? To a set of business owners.
Thus SEZs transfer money from average people to business owners.

The idea is that business owners then can competitively succeed and that they will bring more jobs in. Thus the community - kind of - benefits by giving the business owner a break.
The truth is that nobody has really measured this and determined that the tax sacrificed and the hidden cost to the community is worth bearing for later benefits from the business. It is just assumed. And that is the problem.

For the last 15 years we are set upon a development model about which there is very little debate atleast in policy making circles. Let us consider what our development model is.

The Indian Development Model

1. Provide tax benefits to business owners
2. Encourage foreign investment by dismantling certain environmental and labor standards.
3. This will result in more jobs.
4. More money to spend for consumers.
5. Trickles down to poor people and lower middle class.
6. Wealth has been created!!

This is the model and most people reading this will probably have no problems with it. It is likely we consider this the only possible model to attain Western standards. This model depends on tax cuts and making rich people richer - the exact policies that Bush has been following in the United States for the last 8 years amid much revulsion and a 25% approval rating. Those policies have been denounced repeatedly in the USA - yet there is hardly any debate in India.
The reason why there is very little debate about SEZs and the principle they are founded upon (other than debate on land grabbing) - is because that is how the media and policy makers would prefer it to be. Those who challenge this model are not simply against the chosen model - they are against development itself!
Thus a policy that actually takes money from tax payers and transfers it to business owners is never debated in India! We blame the government all the time for misusing tax funds - yet no voice is raised against the SEZs.
My point is that there is no substantive debate - the same "meritocrats" who rail against reservation do NOT seem to be interested in proving how the development model that is even challenged in the West has any chance of working in a country where 25% are below the poverty line and 35% are illiterate.

The Indian Dream

The Indian dream does not exist - for 80% of us, survival is the dream. Instead of acknowledging that, our middle class is sufficiently brain washed as to actually support policies and practices that are against its own class interests. Let me repeat this - most of us have little chance of becoming the next Narayana Murthi. There is nothing wrong in supporting policies that will actually help our class, instead of "labor reform".

Thursday, February 21, 2008

IT layoffs and corporations - Continued

Since I wrote this post, a few people have come to me and said that I have not written the corporation's point of view. I would like to respond to that.
The fact is that post was written because I do not see ANYTHING BUT the corporations' point of view in news media. There is really no criticism or inquiry into whether the corporation is fudging the facts.
We have to note a key fact here - corporations have to be regulated and challenged to be truthful and not to abuse their powers. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power and therefore that comes with big responsibilities and regulation. That is how it works in all developed countries.
Again, these corporations are pretty well behaved in the United States or the UK - only in India do you see them attempt to manipulate the system.
Let me give you a further example - has anybody noticed that the notice period that an employee has to give before leaving keeps creeping up and up? In late 90s it was one month. In some small companies, it now stands at 3 months. In Cognizant it is 2 months, I think. These same companies stick to the 2 weeks notice for employees in the United States. Has anyone wondered why that is? From a corporation's point of view, this is of course, their perfect plan for combating attrition. I would love to see it from their point of view, but their point of view violates all labor regulations.
If left unquestioned, corporations of course would LOVE if employees were bonded labor. There is nothing really like that to combat attrition, is there? What keeps that from happening? Definitely not sudden goodwill. It is labor regulations and the courts that prevent that from happening. Yet, we ignore that it is government regulations that have to force companies to behave. You see postings in online forums all the time about how government should get "out of the way" - but this is precisely why government has to be "in the way".
I know of companies that refuse to give the relieving letter to employees after serving their correct notice periods. Companies that do "creative" salary packages to make sure a part of their employees salaries stays with them if they leave. Let us not pretend that corporations are somehow benign creators of jobs and wealth - it is much more complicated than that.
They have a proper role and that role requires questioning and regulation.

Friday, February 15, 2008

IT Layoffs - Stop blaming the staff

In the recent days TCS and IBM have cut jobs in sight of a looming US recession. This has been widely reported in the media and much analysis has gone through.
I have been reading these news items and analysis, and there is a common thread running through them. A recent Ananda Vikatan article I read prompted me to write this post.
The industry "analysts" and the company's own people are at pains to point out that the employees were fired because of lacklustre performance. It is a regular "weeding", they say and has nothing to do with the company's own performance.
In the case of IBM, the people who were laid off were mostly trainees. These companies recruited these people after different rounds of interviews. Suddenly, when the US market was going down, these guys realized that they had "non-performers" among them?
This is corporate India for you - in the last few years we have become a country that shamelessly celebrates corporations. News media calls them "India Inc" as if they represent India herself. The media have been brainwashing us into thinking that nothing "India Inc" does can go wrong - and that these are men of steely will working towards a common purpose. Most corporate advertisments try to align themselves with patriotic fervor.

The middle class has gotten to think that its interests are closely aligned with those of these corporate masters.
That is why, TCS and IBM can get away with this, without criticism for their spin.
Mind you, I am not saying they cannot lay off - my point is that there is a difference between layoffs and firings. By calling mass layoffs as firings (for performance) the companies are trying to keep their reputation clean. These companies want to keep their sharholders happy - so for naked advantage, they are saying that nothing is wrong with themselves. They are laying the blame on the poor employees laid off. The truth is that TCS and IBM anticipate revenue problems. They are shedding people BECAUSE of the company's problems - not merely because of performance. By shifting the blame on the victims, TCS and IBM are trying to shield themselves.

This is cruel, because our society has no social security net for people fired or laid off. These employees are victims of capitalism and they should be called as such, instead of blaming them. The companies should be honest about this.

The point is also that in modern India, these employees have no constituency. An employer just has to say "This guy did not perform" and everybody accepts it without questioning. Performance is a general word and no one can really cross check.

This reminds me of the 2001 recession when H1B workers started returning to India. The same kind of jeering response rose from our media at that time. The writer Sujatha said that "non-performers were sent back" - as if the American companies were the ultimate arbiter of performance. I was in the United States at that time and I know for a fact that people who were laid off just happened to be in the wrong departments. Entire divisions were cut down.
You cannot call yourselves a capitalist society and then keep jeering at people laid off.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Running into celebrities

I have been living in Chennai for almost 12 years (with gaps). When I was in Madurai I frequently heard that Chennai people get to see MGR or Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi just walking around in local markets. So you could be shopping for a clothes and boom! you could run into Rajinikanth. (It was a simpler time then).
I also heard that the people of Chennai were so used to celebrities that even if they ran into Rajinikanth looking for leather pants, they do not react like "country fruits" - that is, they will not rush towards him and bother him. They will act as if they shop with Rajini all the time.
So, that was the myth about Chennai - it was hot, sweaty and rude - but then you could run into superstars anytime.
This appealed to me a lot. When we were moving to Chennai, I expected that I would be running into Mani Ratnam or SPB pretty soon. I even imagined how "cool" I would behave when I saw them. I used to debate whether I should smile at them or give them a frosty look.
It was all a matter of time.

I moved to Chennai in 1989 - and from then to just an year back, I did not see a SINGLE celebrity. I hung around all the cool places in Mylapore and Adyar and Nungambakkam. Yet, I saw no one - and I never got to practice my slow "acknowledgment" smile.

My woes continued in the United States - I visited New York City pretty often. No celebrities there either.

After I came back to India, around an year back, my luck changed. I went to the Subway restaurant to get some food. And I saw Krishnamachari Srikanth sitting and munching a sandwich with his family.
Remember this was my first time - so I abandoned all caution and stared at Srikanth so hard that his family seemed to be alarmed. They all started pointing at me and whispering and I left the restaurant very embarassed.
But I was excited - surely my luck was turning. I could figure out why I was missing all the celebrities: celebrities are like the tigers in Discovery Channel shows. You catch them at the watering hole - they still needed to eat! The reason I had not seen ANY of them all these years was because I was stone broke in college and initially at work. I ate in local tea shops. The celebrities will not be caught dead in those shops.
Now that I could afford Subway, a new world opened up before me. I visited that subway a couple of more times to see if anyone else would turn up.

Then I realized there was someone else blocking my access to celebrities - my wife. Let me explain:
By the East Coast Road in Chennai, there are sevaral resorts. One of the more famous ones is Fisherman's Cove. Me, my wife and my brother-in-law went to the Cove one day for lunch.
We were sitting in the restaurant - and I was keeping an alert eye on the other guests to see if anyone turned up. I was concentrating so much inside that I did not immediately notice that my brother-in-law and my wife went silent.
When I noticed, they were staring intently out the open french window.
I asked them what happened.
My wife initially shook her head, then relented and said, "Vikram walked by".
From the nonchalant way in which she said that, it seemed like one of her friends or something. Then I turned and saw a well built man walking further off, walking away from us and everyone in the balcony of the restaurant were waving to him. Some even had their cameras out.
I said quietly, "So you mean actor Vikram just walked by?"
"You, of course, mean the guy who won the national award for
acting, who kicked so much ass in Dhool, Dhil, Saamy and all those movies?"
I was apalled. They apparently saw him walking in our direction, and wanted to appear SO cool that they did not even tell me that this world-famous (ok, among Tamils) actor just strolled past us.
All that I got to see was his behind.

This level of ultra-coolness hurt me again, once in the beach. We were sitting and chatting in the Besant Nagar beach. My wife said singer Chinmayi walked past. Again I was too late; Chinmayi is the singer of Kannathil Muthamittaal and Ennuyir Thozhiye.

All these celebrities sneak around my back and I am utterly clueless about how to spot them.

Then a couple of days back I hit jackpot.
I was going to work, at peak traffic time. We were waiting for the signal at one of the busiest intersections in Chennai. Suddenly police stopped all traffic. A bunch of guys walked to the center of the intersection and started exploding firecrackers. I was late for work and along with my colleagues I was cursing the person causing the delay.
A bunch of white SUVs went flashing by. And then there was a slow moving van with a open sunroof. Actor Sarath Kumar was waving to everyone in the intersection.
He did not seem to understand that we were not gathered there to watch him pass by. We all had to get to work - and in the heat and the smoke, here was Sarath kumar, mighty pleased with himself, waving at us.
Nobody waved back.
So, here was the first movie celebrity I ever saw - after so many years in Chennai - and I was already praying for him to be gone so we could move on.
Such is life.

Oh, by the way, I saw one of the guys who acted in "Chennai - 600028" in Cofffee Day yesterday. I am going to hang out more there. I am sure Kamal Hasan will come along any day.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Women's Hostels and Police Attitudes

I have seen lots of postings in online forums about how women are so free now and how they get preferential treatment everywhere and how men are suffering. The assumption is that social problems with respect to treatment of women in society, in public and private spaces is solved.

One of my friends stays in a women's hostel. I narrate here a list of problems they go through.

1. Near that hostel the women have been hit 3 or 4 times by guys in bikes. In a couple of cases the victim had to be treated for injuries.

2. When the hostelites complained to the Police, they were "advised" by the Police to behave. The policeman in charge told them the victims were to blame because he had seen some of the women talking over the mobile phone while walking. So he told them if they stopped talking over mobiles, the guys will stop hitting them.
(Remember that the policeman had no idea if the people who were actually hit were talking or not. He was "improvising" - he had seen too many Vijay movies with "advising").

3. The police apparently want to be sure that the women are not prostitutes. So they have asked for 3 photographs of each tenant to be given to the police station and their parents' phone numbers.

4. One of the women was dropped off by a male colleague because it was late at night. The hostel owner saw this and has asked to talk to the woman's parents to "warn" them.

Everytime someone is a victim our brave police steps in and blames the victim. They have no ability to stop wrong doing.

Secondly, can we even imagine ANY of this happening to a guy in a men's dorm or mansion (equivalent to a hostel)? When women stay alone our society gets all kinds of ideas and loves to harass the hell out of them for daring, simply daring to work. They always will be threatened by "reporting" to their parents.

I was talking to an inspector in a police station some time back. He said he found a couple of girls in the beach at 10 PM and decided they were not dressed appropriately. He called their dad and explained to him that the girls were "out of line".
The dad said he did not think they were out of line and police should not regulate how women should behave (as long as there was no violation of the law). The inspector told me that he yelled at the dad. He told the dad not to come to the police if "anything" happened to his daughters.

The inspector sounded very self-righteous. Apparently he thought he was within rights to warn women; he will not dare any such warning to the screaming, threatening bunch of thugs roaming the beach side.

Our society has pretty much accepted that women HAVE to be "controlled" or else all hell will break lose. That whatever is wrong with us today is mostly because of the way women dress. That women do not have the same rights as men.
In the above hostel incidents, the women are not even "bold" or "forward" or anything. They are just living their normal lives - while trying to escape being hit by bikes, while trying to stay in the good books of their hostel owner and while trying to stay in the good books of the police.

In the recent movie "Vel", in a completely disconnected scene, Surya sermonizes to Asin about the way women dress, and says "a woman should not expose the body meant for her husband" or some such bull. Leave alone the fact that his own former girl friend and current wife went dancing half naked in her movies. That this guy who dances for money actually "educates" our females about how to behave is the height of hypocrisy. It is not "acting" - that scene had nothing to do with the movie really.

I hope everyone who laments about how good the women have now shut the hell up after reading this.