Friday, May 22, 2009

Airtel Super Singer

(Updated below)
Update I:
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Original post below:
I have been watching this show on Vijay TV for the last 8 months. I also follow other talent shows in the North such as SaReGaMa; and have watched Pakistan's "Sangeet Icon" show.
At this point the finals are running and some interesting questions have risen - Super Singer's current edition being one of the most popular.

Performance vs Musical ability
The reality shows emphasize performance on stage along with pure singing. They also make the performances attractive by themes (such as patriotism) and specific costumes.
I have seen even judges (such as Vani Jayaram) question such performance based shows. The reason is, of course, that Indian music's ideal is when the singer can express emotions completely through their voice. In classical music shaking your head to bring out "gamakam" (the peculiar curving of Indian music) is banned. Indian art traditionally tries to simulate a half-merged state between the sub-conscious and the ego - and therefore immersion in Indian music requires minimum distractions by the singer's actions.
Singers such as P.Susheela and Jesudas were famous for this - they showed no outward emotion while their voices expressed maximum pathos or romance.
But the reality shows are based on American Idol style rendering. They seek to entertain their audience, so they require the singers to perform wildly. These performances are usually confined to faster songs or "Kuthu" style songs. Along with it, the singers are encouraged to show lots of emotion even while singing softer, melody songs.
But in the case of Super Singer, the end goal is to produce a play back singer. The idea is not to create a showman (as Indian Idol does) but to select a voice and singer who is best suited for employment in play-back singing.
Thus even though Super Singer borrows all of its entertaining elements from other talent shows to the North and West, its prize (a singing stint with music director Yuvan Shankar Raja) is at odds with its selection process.
Why does this matter? We will see below.

The Super-Singers
The current batch is very talented and they have evolved over the last nine months. The singer Ravi, who has the best grasp of classical singing has already won on SS music channel. But as the show has progressed he has been found to be a great singer of semi-classical or old songs. His voice has an amazing range but I do not think it is best suited for play-back singing. He can run his own band.
The singer Ajesh is the youngest of them. He has a very casual way of singing and his voice changes between higher and lower scales(which is sometimes disturbing). He is talented, no question there, and could win.
The singer Ranjani, is one of the most sincere and confident singers I have seen on this show. She killed in the final rounds. Her voice is a boon and sounds very well in higher and lower ranges.
The singer Prasanna - I initially liked him. He has a very good adaptable voice. His song delivery (particularly "Shambo Shiva Shambo" from Ninaithaale Inikkum) was amazing. But somewhere along the line he seems to have lost his moorings. He tries excessive drama and has been annoying and embarassing to watch. I will return to him later.

The singer Renu is my favorite. She has been consistent, even though she does not have a background in classical music. Her voice is absolutely soaked in honey. Her songs such as "Unna Vida" from Virumaandi; "Saami Kitta"; "Ninaithu Ninaithu Paarthen" from 7G Rainbow Colony are unforgettable. I think she has the most unique and cinematically suited voice of the lot.

[Not in this list, one of the singers, Vijay deserved respect, but was eliminated from the finals. He was passionate about music and he could sing Bryan Adams or Hariharan's Gazals with ease. He was better at Hindi and English songs than Tamil. He does not belong in talent shows - he should run his own band.)

Thus, if I were to choose simply for the purpose of their utility, I would choose Renu - she has the ideal voice for play back singing. But as we will see, that is not just the determinant here.

The Mass Voting Process
I remember the show SaReGaMa, the unquestioned king of music talent shows in India. During the late 90s SaReGaMa was not run as a reality show. A set of judges chose the winner. A few years back that changed; the voting system came in.
Since the voting system came in to music talent shows, there have been many controversies. At one point Indian Idol contestants and the audience fought with each other, because one of the singers, Debojit was getting all the votes from East India. There were campaigns to vote for him from Assam to Bengal and that year's Indian Idol was one of the worst.
A certain set of music lovers believe that the voting system is open to such pulls and prejudices that have nothing to do with music. For example, some of the best singers in the shows such as "Junoon - Kuch Kar ke.." (Akbar Ali and Ali Abbas), SaReGaMa (Amanat Ali) and SaReGaMa Little Champs (Ameer Hafeez) have been eliminated for no good obvious reason. It is suspicious that Pakistanis and Muslims are routinely eliminated from Indian talent shows. To me, it seems possible that prejudice is at play.
In the case of Super Singer, there is no such room for prejudice; all the singers are actually from the same background. But Prasanna, the singer I mentioned before, was eliminated by a judge (Unni Menon) and then brought back in by the voting system. When he was "reselected" he mentioned that he targeted "popular" performances mainly because he knew people would then vote for him. This was a smart move - being an "entertainer" he calculated that he would get more votes from the public than from the judges. Thus while the judges repeatedly criticised his "drama", he stands a very likely chance of winning the Super Singer contest.

Purely as a game show. Prasanna's move is smart and focussed. But the result may not be of utility value - I do not think that he has such a unique voice for playback singing as compared to the current crop of talented singers. Thus while the Super Singer contest may select a good performer, by no means does that help Yuvan Shankar Raja.
What is the ultimate goal of a music talent show? The voting public may consider the show from a bang-for-buck or Paisa-Vasool kind of angle. They do not end up selecting the best, most versatile musician. There is a disconnect between the show's purpose as seen by different "stakeholders":
1. The corporate show organizers consider it an effective way to increase the channel's popularity. They are not specifically interested in contribution to the music world.
2. The contestants, of course, see it as a game with a prize and so try to win.
3. The voting public consider the show a popular search for musical talent, and therefore vote for the person they would like to hear more.
4. Poor Yuvan Shankar Raja, meanwhile, is looking for a good play back voice.
5. A small minority, of course, see this as a genuine opportunity for music to be enriched and look forward, not to a single winner, but a collection of stars. This minority is somewhat "knowledgeable" about music and are passionate about it.

If you take a step back, this is no different from the questions raised by our nation's election process itself. Different groups act in self-interest and hope to have an outcome desirable to themselves. If nobody is "gaming" the system, then such a popular voting contest will eventually succeed in finding good talent. But there is a difference between a somewhat objective search for administrative talent and a subjective search for a good artist.

My core question is this: is the system of selection by a voting public (in a music talent show or any art show) better or worse than a system in which a few judges pick the winner?
It is a very political question - and it relates to recent ideas such as crowdsourcing.
Is popularity a good measure of talent in art?
Is popular art better art?

Meanwhile, below is Ameer Hafeez singing Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (starts at 1:52). He was eliminated in that show:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Quick Note on Narmadha Dam

I have always wondered about this - that the Narmadha Dam issue has been projected as a fight between capitalism, development one side; and the anti-developmental forces of leftists on the other.
Purely from a theoretical perspective, private property is sacred and inviolate in capitalist society. In fact the origins of modern forms of government were based on the question of the guarantee for private property. What I mean by private property is the rights of a human living in peace to hold property without threat of confiscation. In medieval days, such property was held to be liable for confiscation by the King. It is to stop such violations on indviduals that Magna Carta was signed.
In a capitalistic society the rights of an individual holding private property is inviolate. On the other hand Communism demands the placing of all private property under the central planning authority, for public good.
This is one of the fundamental differences between capitalism and communism.
Yet, in the Narmadha dam issue, the private property of Adivasis (who are granted such rights by the Consititution) is being confiscated by the government, by exercising its power. And the cheerleaders for the Gujarat government call it development work of capitalism.
The people fighting against such confiscation and who seek to protect the rights of private property, such as Medha Patkar are, instead, called as Communists and holders of a failed philosophy.
The irony of it never seems to amaze me. Capitalism means, in our country, whatever the kings will. The kings shall take from us when they want, in the name of development.
"The real object of all Despotism is revenue" - Tom Paine

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Religion and Science - a debate

(Update - Smitha replied)
I recently wrote a blog on Science Education in India. In that blog I mentioned that rationalist movements are not effective and that their mission is a failure.
In comments, one of my frequent commenters, Smitha, challenged this statement. He also pointed out (read his comments here) that rationalist movements have precedent and that faith needs to be challenged as an obstacle to progress.
I have no big problems with faith, although I do not believe in God. I am an atheist, but I do not consider religion a threat. Since I wanted to explain my point of view to Smitha and vice versa, this blog post is being written. The idea is that Smitha's comments to this blog will be promoted to the main post as an update so that we can carry a civil debate. Let us see how far it goes. We are both busy people and may not update frequently. But please check back this post from time to time if you are interested.

The Case against Religion
Let me start with this first - I do understand that a set of humans at this juncture have a healthy hatred of religion. Starting with practices such as Sati, child marriage, female circumcision, racism, casteism, the horrors of religious wars such as the crusades, burning witches at stakes, stoning for adultery and so on; to the current global tinderbox of non-state-terrorism to state-terrorism there are many evils of society that have been instigated, sustained and sanctioned by religion.
Even at this present time we have seen the horrors of 500 year old grudges held by Hindu fundamentalists; the End Times driven evangelical fervor of Christian fundamentalists that drives American violence against West Asia; the ethnic hatred perpetuated by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka; the Caliphate dreaming Al-Qaeda and Taliban's reign of Terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan and several other conflicts around the world based on religion. New cults spring up all the time - such as the LRA in Uganda; Wahaabism in Arabia or the several Kalki avatar based cults of South India.
It is tempting to see these obvious effects of religion and then come to a conclusion that the concept of religion (broadly defined as a belief in a Supreme God) needs to be eliminated from Human society. That, in the future, we will LEARN about religion at schools, just as we will learn about untouchability or casteism - as a thing of past.
The proponents of this non-religious future point to increasing trends of population in developed countries to be non-religious. This future, they insist, is attainable using the following methods:
1. Education that emphasizes rationalism
2. An effort to eliminate religion from the public sphere
3. A constant effort to scrutinise human actions through rationalism

So where do I stand on these?
(Throughout this essay I will use the male term God to denote a supreme being, purely for convenience. I understand it may as well be a Goddess, if she exists)

My Views of Religion
Before I begin, I want to point out three broad trends in my arguments:
1. I have a belief in the universal declaration of human rights, which guarantees practise of religion.
2. I do not like judging the actions of humans who cause no harm to others through their private lives.
3. When I talk about science and scientists I include the soft (inexact, humanity-based) sciences such as psychology and sociology. In fact, I think they have more bearing on this debate than the exact sciences.

Thus, even though I have a pretty good knowledge of and fascination for science, I do NOT think that science and religion are two opposing poles from which one needs to choose for living a happy life.

The Judgements of Rationalists
The biggest mistake that religious people make, when judging atheists is this: they think establishing a moral compass (to know right from wrong) is impossible for people who do not believe in a God.
It is absolutely possible to know right from wrong just by being self-aware. You do not have to believe in God to know right from wrong.

By the same token, rationalists believe that it is not possible to be interested in Science or be a professional without a disbelief in God. That is, you have to reject religion in your PRIVATE life to be a doctor in your public life.
I think this is a completely false item of faith among rationalists. They are making the same mistake that religious people do - of judging people's private lives to be a guide to their public efficiency.
Let me explain why this is false:
a. There have been innumerable scientists who have been religious in their private lives. That does not prove anything deductively, but it does call into question the rationalist basis.
b. The truth is, the human conscious mind can perfectly live with contradicting beliefs. We do it all the time in relationships. It is possible for a person who reads the Bible or Quran or Gita daily to ignore their literal meanings and treat it merely as a vehicle for some peace of mind. That same person can step into their office and be a doctor who knows the germ theory of disease. It happens all the time in daily lives - in India most people pray at roadside temples and then go to work and fulfill their social and professional roles quite successfully.
Now, I am NOT saying that religion is essential for society. But at the stage in which we are, people can manage the dissonance effectively.

It is only when religion gets oppressive and authoritarian and provokes a LITERAL interpretation of scriptures that you have a problem. That is best managed by compromises - by a good education and self-awareness, I believe, it is possible to minimise such effects.
So, I believe, frankly, that rationalists have NO right to judge other human beings who cause no harm to society.

A Life of Illusion
One debater quoted Carl Sagan to me on this. Sagan said a life of reason should be preferred over one of illusion (I don't remember the exact quote).
Now, I think Sagan was wrong. He was obviously speaking from a exact scientific perspective. Psychologically speaking all of us have basic illusions through which we observe the external world. One simple illusion is, of course, the illusion of immortality.

The Yaksha asks Yudhishtira what is the greatest wonder in this world. Yudhishtira replied, "The greatest wonder is that every human sees others dying before him, all around him. And yet carries on living as if he is immortal".

We all have it. Going by the exact sciences, our very purpose is only to pass on our DNA. Yet humans strive to reach immortality by works of imagination and creativity. Everyone tries to find meaning in their lives. That is the whole role of philosophy.
Thus, an illusion-filled private life is fine - as long as you don't act like Chandramukhi.

The Rationalist Ideal
This is why I believe superstition and myths and rituals have their place in human life. The rationalist ideal is that of a life in which every action is examined for rationality. I am an atheist but I don't carry around this belief in rationality in all actions. There are many, many sources of irrationality other than religious belief.
For example, take a marriage ritual. Remember the premier rationalist movement of DK in Tamil Nadu pushed for a non-ritualistic marriage. In the end such marriages became rituals themselves, with some even tying the Thali. The point is, many of these rituals are engaged in as a duty or as fun. They are a communal activity and have deep psychological implications for a social member. American presidential inaugurations have rituals, for God's sake.
I am not arguing (as religious people do) that rituals need a rational meaning - such as a meaning for the tying of Thali. If there is a conscious meaning it is not a ritual. Human beings seem to form conventions and some kind of social acts in sequence as rituals from time immemorial. A goal to eliminate these (which cause no harm to anyone) is a goal born out of passing judgement on other people's lives.
This is why I have no problem participating in a ritual. In fact, even religious people do not participate in rituals out of a deep conviction for "meaning" or blessings or whatever. They do it automatically.
Let me put it this way - irrational rituals have as much meaning as life itself has meaning.

Religion and State
The word secularism in India has been corrupted thanks to the BJP's pushing of their brand word "pseudo-secularism". I believe religion has no role in public policy. But it gets more subtle than that.
France recently banned headscarves in schools. They also banned crucifixes and any religious symbol, but it immediately caused a problem. It is obvious to me, as an Indian, where the problem would be. For example, for a foreigner, the Sikh turban is a religious symbol. To me it seems a matter of cultural identity. This is more so in a foreign country, a colonial country like France, with deep-seated racism. It is no wonder to me that people see the ban as an assault on their identity.
The issues of identity goes very deep into our psyche. In movies we see characters spouting lines such as "I am Indian first, then a Tamil, then a Hindu" and so on. It is not as simple as that. The world has not gone through an ideal development phase that enables seeing ourselves just as humans. In fact, I suspect it is impossible for us to NOT recognize racial, regional, linguistic, religious and cultural identities - such is the diversity in this planet. Instead of attempting to fight identity, it would help if we managed such issues by recognizing the rights of minorities separately.
This is why I pointed out that sociology is at odds with the rational movements. While the rational movements attack frontally any role of what THEY SEE as religion, religion itself is not, simply, religion. The practice of untouchability, for example, has "religious" sanction. But it is likely that the sanction was AFTER the practice was widespread - I doubt if Manu Smriti INVENTED caste. Similarly what we call Islamic terrorism, is seen as a knee-jerk response to the forces of globalization, by sociologists.
I am NOT saying that religion is all good - mind you. I think it enables authoritarianism - deference to a master authority no matter what. It enables a literal interpretation of its scriptures.
But there are several aspects of religion and it is possible to regulate some while understanding and appreciating others.

One such aspect is the ability of religion to trigger an exaltation in the human spirit. I am not saying that only religion can do it. But there are a lot of creative people who are also religious - particularly in Indian music and art. This trend is also there in Arabic, Persian, and almost every regional art. How can we pass judgement on religious people, while at the same time wondering at the poetry of Andaal or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? The mystical and spiritual strands of religion have enriched many lives and helped them find their own meaning.

In conclusion, I think rationalists have swung to the opposite pendulum from religion. Their faults of judgement are similar to those of religious people. Both of them seek an utopia instead of trying to make sense of where we are at this stage. Both of them are extremist in their views and selectively apply knowledge.

Smitha, your turn.

Update: Smitha's reply
Smitha says in comments:
I tried to post the rebuttal here. But it wont allow more than 4096 chars at a time. So I'm posting it in my blog instead.

P.S: I've a tendency to digress. You also have to excuse the general structure of the argument, I was pressed for time. Also, the text contains many unacknowledged quotes and verbatim arguments from many of my daily reading materials.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Some notes on Homosexuality

(Updated Below); Update II
I first read of homosexuality when I was in 8th std. There were American and British novels at home; written by Frederick Forsyth; Jeffrey Archer and other trumpets of the glory of the West. Some of the male characters showed a predilection for other males. When I first read the word "Homosexual" somehow I understood its meaning.
You see, one of the kids in the neighborhood (he was 2 years younger than me) was known to make advances on my friends. This was in Tirunelveli, and I bet he was not "converted" into homosexuality by anyone. In fact I doubt if he knew the term. There was no Tamil equivalent then (now there is - ஓரினச் சேர்க்கை ).
We used to harass him a little bit; but we all knew that homosexuality was taboo.
At that point of time, people just pretended that homosexuals exist only in the West. Homosexuality burst into public consciousness following the rapid spread of AIDS. AIDS was thought (incorrectly) to spread primarily through homosexual contact - so much that a friend thought it was unique to homosexuals. Of course, it was not unique to gay people. It was a virus that spread through unsafe sex, or sharing needles or a hundred other ways.
But when AIDS started spreading, there were advocacy groups who came on television and they openly talked about being homosexual. They advised tolerance for homosexuality in society. I believe that primary reason why AIDS patients are reviled in India is because of the association with homosexuality.
During this period, I got hold of a book based on popular psychology. It was one of the books such as "I'm OK; You're OK". It had lots of information about sexual behavior and variations. I have always believed that knowledge is the true key to fighting fear; reading that book has since made me more aware of the variety of sexual behavior common among humans and consider it normal.

Some Terminology
1. Homosexuals are not the "Third Gender" (Moonram Paal). They are not physically varied from general males or females.
2. The people we call "eunuchs", Napumsak (in Sanskrit) or "Aravaaani" (அரவாணி ) in Tamil are humans born with slightly different genetic make up. They MAY have both male and female sexual organs (hermaphrodites) or some other genetic difference. There is an ongoing fight for their rights and dignity.
(In Tamil Nadu they call themselves "Aravaani" because they trace their history from the oral story of "Aravaan", a warrior character in the Mahabharatha. An important part of the narrative of such marginalized and oppressed groups is their myths and legends. We will look at a few about Homosexuality later))
3. Transexuals are people who have a desperate wish to belong to the opposite sex. They are typically called as men trapped in a woman's body or women trapped in a man's body. In the West, transexuals actually have the option of undergoing medical procedure to change from a woman to a man or vice versa.
(Again, the Mahabharatha story of Shikandi - reborn from a woman to a man for revenge - can be taken to be a reference to a transexual.)
4. Cross-dressers are men or women who prefer to dress like the opposite sex. Men who dress in skirts (called "drag" in American popular culture) is an example. Cross-dressers NEED NOT be homosexuals. That is, even though some men may like to dress in women's clothes, they may not be attracted to other men.
5. Bi-sexuals are people who are attracted to males and females - their own sex and the opposite sex. Psychologists believe that bisexuality is very common, but it is concealed.
6. Finally, homosexuals are general males and females who feel sexually attracted to their own sex. In Western popular culture male homosexuals are called gays and female homosexuals are called lesbians. There are several derogatory terms for gays and lesbians in English. I won't list them here.

Homosexuality has NOTHING to do with child molestation or incest. There are people among us who somehow feel like having sex with children. They are called pedophiles and it is a horrid crime. Psychologists can try and cure pedophilia but Homosexuality is not a disease.
In popular culture, some of the worst offences on homosexuality are committed by comparing homosexuals with pedophiles or people who have sex with animals. Please note that homosexuality is consenting sex between two adults - that is, both the partners agree to have sex.

Homosexuality and the Fight for Equal Rights
In modern times, homosexuals in the West have been leading a more open lifestyle and have been demanding equal rights in society such as the right to marry and adopt children. We have to remember that even in the 1950's homosexuality was punished in the UK and USA (although they have forgotten all about that and use gay rights as a convenient beating stick on countries like Iran). Alan Turing, the founder of Computer Science and the main cryptographer who broke the German Enigma cipher machine was gay. He was punished by an English court to take medicine to "cure" homosexuality and he ended up committing suicide by taking Cyanide.

Why is homosexuality so reviled? It is "abnormal" in the mainstream's thinking and it involves sex. But there are also religious reasons in the West.

The Biblical sanction against homosexuality
The Book of Genesis in the Bible describes the story of Abraham. At the time of Abraham, there were two cities in Palestine called Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have been involved in several acts of sexual deviancy. The Abrahamic God gets angry at this and plans to destroy both cities. He informs Abraham about this impending destruction.
Abraham remembers that his cousin Lot lives in Sodom and therefore begs the God to protect his life. God agrees and a couple of angels turn up like ordinary men at Lot's house in Sodom.
Unfortunately, the deviant people of Sodom had seen the angels and they demand from Lot that the men be handed over (presumably for raping them). Lot manages the situation. He is warned by the angels to flee the city of Sodom and not to look back.
Lot gets out of Sodom and across the plains towards the Sea of Galilee, as clouds gather above Sodom to inflict God's punishment. With him are his wife, and two daughters. His wife, curious as to what is happening behind her to Sodom, turns back and immediately becomes a pillar of salt. (Even now, near the Sea of Galilee there are several salt pillars and tourists are informed that one of them can be Lot's wife).
The acts in which the people of Sodom engaged are collectively called "Sodomy". They are identified with homosexuality. The laws of several states in the USA prohibit Sodomy, because of such Biblical sanction. The Indian Penal Code forbids Sodomy - that is homosexuality is a CRIME, still, in India. Although the law is hardly enforced.

Other Arguments Against Homosexuality
The "abnormality" of homosexuality has prompted it as a assault against society's basic structure. For example, Homosexual marriage is portrayed as an assault on heterosexual marriage. The gay lifestyle is thought to be hedonistic. As I said above, people (ex- Rick Santorum ex-Senator PA) have compared homosexuality to sex with beasts or with children. The idea that our kids will choose homosexuality or will become homosexuals is a potent fear for some people.
These fears are caused by sexual repression, and religious superstition. Psychologists believe that strong homophobia (fear of homosexuals) may be caused by repressed homosexuality itself (ex- Senator Larry Craig of USA sponsored several anti-homosexual resolutions, but was found to have solicited and had sex with men in airport restrooms).

The Arguments for Homosexual rights
What are the equal rights that the gay community demand in the West and in India?
They want the anti-Sodomy laws repealed.
They want awareness of homosexuality in society so that "hate-crimes" against them stop (remember the guy burnt to death in a Chennai suburb for having AIDS?)
They want to be not discriminated against in jobs (that is even if someone is openly gay, he/she should not be fired for that reason.)
They want to be able to serve in the military or police
They want their marriages (between a guy and another guy or a woman and another woman) recognized in courts so that benefits and property rights follow.
They want to be able to adopt children.

It is clear that in the West homosexuality is rapidly gaining social tolerance and equal rights will eventually be theirs. Most younger people are tolerant of different lifestyles. In India, there is a long way to go - even women have not reached a tolerable lifestyle here.

Some of the arguments made by homosexuals to be considered as part of society are interesting:
The "Hardwired" argument
One strand of homosexual advocates have tried to present homosexuality as a genetic difference. Thus, they argue, homosexuals cannot help being gay; it is hardwired in their brains.
As a proof they have tried to show some scientific work. The religious community has hit back with other scientific work and at this point it is a stalemate.
I personally believe this argument may make homosexuality acceptable in people's minds; but I don't agree with the thrust of it. Hardwired or not, even if it is a matter of choice, society HAS to give equal rights to gay people. Who cares if it is in the genetic code or not? The private lives of adult humans are not the business of laws.

By the way, interestingly, as a part of this argument, gay rights advocates also point to the fact that homosexuality exists in the animal kingdom - dogs can be homosexual; and zookeepers have known homosexual animals for some time. For example, Baboons are said to be 50% gay.

The Historical Argument
The oldest surviving epic in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is a classy Sumerian poem compiled around 1700BC and has miraculously survived and has more miraculously been translated.

I will quote a few classic lines from the debate on Death in this epic. Nothing to do with the subject of this essay, but these are thoughts of people who existed 4000 years back:
But man's life is short, at any moment
it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman -
in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death's face or heard
death's voice, suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us, all of us, old or young.
And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers
divide their inheritance, conflicts occur -
as though this human life lasted forever.
The river rises, flows over its banks
and carries us all away like mayflies
floating downstream: they stare at the sun,
then all at once there is nothing.

-- Gilgamesh, a New English version. Stephen Mitchell. Free Press Publishers

Gilgamesh talks about a very close, extraordinary friendship between the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and a savage in the forest, Enkidu. Several of the descriptions of their friendship sound like a homosexual relationship. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh dresses him in a bride's veil.
Homosexual rights advocates claim of a historical tradition of homosexuality being accepted in society. They point to Greek and Roman societies and their literature points to accepted homosexuality.
Further along, Leonardo DaVinci, one of the greatest Renaissance men was said to be homosexual.
These arguments legitimise homosexuality and try to detach it from the biblical context.

In several ways, the thrust of these arguments is a demonstration of human rights - that society shall not take away the natural rights of humans. I think it is time for a repeal of the Sodomy laws in India and some education about alternative lifestyles.

Update I
I missed clarifying a few common misconceptions about homosexuals.
1. Psychologists say that many "straight" men and women have a few homosexual fantasies. This does NOT mean they are gay.
2. You do not become a homosexual because you had a domineering father. This belief, common in evangelical circles, is a myth.
3. Homosexual men need not be impotent. Impotence has nothing to do with straightness or gayness.
4. The converse too - if someone is impotent it does not mean they are homosexual or even feminine.
5. Homosexual men need not be feminine acting or feminine thinking. Homosexual women need not be masculine.

Update II
I know I am digressing too much here, but I am unable to resist.
The Epic of Gilgamesh has meaning for Indian readers. The character, Enkidu, who becomes Gilgamesh's friend, is found as a savage in the forest. He is said to be born the son of Goddess Aruru. When Gilgamesh hears about this formidable savage, he asks a guide to contact Shamhat, a priestess of Ishtar in his city (Uruk). The priestesses of Ishtar are described very similar to Devadasis, being available to any man, having dedicated their bodies to the goddess.
The guide takes Shamhat to meet and seduce Enkidu into coming back to Uruk. Shamhat reaches the forest and observes Enkidu. He has never seen a woman and is smitten byher. She then convinces him to leave the forest and go with her to Uruk.
This story must be familiar to Malayalam movie watchers. This is the story of the movie "Vaishali". Vaishali is based on the legend of Rishyasrunga described in the Ramayana.
The kingdom of Anga has not had rain for a long time. The King is advised to perform a yaga (fire worship). The yaga has to be performed by a man who has not known a woman. The sages advise the king to get Rishyasrunga, son of the Rishi Vibhandhaka and the celestial dancer Menaka. He was born in the forest and brought up by his father without contact of any woman.
The King of Anga sends a delegation of Devadasis, to seduce Rishyasrunga and bring him back. They go and accomplish the task.

See any similarity? Isn't this amazing? The Sumerian legend had obviously spread around and influenced the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharatha, both of which contain this legend. The original Sumerian poems, which were written much before the epic was compiled, were from around 2500BC.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Establishing an Internet Presence

I wrote about the administrative details of starting freelancing here. In the below article, let me talk about a few guidelines for getting clients.
When you plan to take the freelancing route, as I mentioned in the above article, be clear about your role: A freelancer in IT is usually a programmer (or graphic designer). You need to be ready to program and be hands-on.
You are NOT starting a business - for now. You are a one-man show initially. Do not be over-aggressive in going after clients. Do not commit to more than you can do. All the rules that apply as a programmer in a project applies to a free-lancer too.
There are certain possibilities for getting clients as a freelancer - let us consider these:

The GetAFreeLancer route
Here is a link to a set of freelancing websites for coding: 85+ Tools & Resources for Freelancing
When you start, it is tempting to look at getafreelancer or other sites and assume that you can bid lower than everyone and get projects. This route is completely packed with a million other programmers all over the world. The clients are mostly cheap and try to lowball every bid. They have no idea about the true value of programming and may not pay at the end either. I have seen people who ask for an Email campaign system for $200. It is ridiculous, and I would advise you to stay away from this route.

The NRI route
As I mentioned in the previous article, if you have been abroad for some time, maintain contacts with your immediate friends. This does NOT mean that you go after any contact like an Amway rep. Stay within your comfort zone but let people know that you will be available for freelancing. Open a account and keep it current.
In my experience, if you let people know that you are going back to India, they will approach you with offers. In this technological age, remote working is pretty easy and so feel confident about going into freelancing.

The Long Hard route
If you are in India, have not had time to cultivate contacts abroad, you can still get clients. But it is a long haul. You need to prepare from now. Most Indian programmers with a talent and passion for programming would be in the situation I describe below:
1. You will have had some years of experience (3 or more) in a services company.
2. You will have worked with foreign clients. You would have communicated with them via email,IM; you would also have interacted with them personally when they come over or you go abroad on short visits.
3. You know that there are a set of "soft skills" - writing grammatical English with some structure; how to organize your thoughts and write emails; and you understand a few foriegn accents. If you are not skilled at these, you atleast know that you have gaps and try to get better.

The method I suggest below takes a long-term view. It may not yield results immediately; but there is no question that it is a clean route to take.

Note: Most services companies have non-solicitation agreements. Based on those agreements, you cannot usually work with direct clients of your company for a time-period. So, PERISH the thought of freelancing directly for your companies' clients.

Establishing an Internet Presence
1. Register a web domain name with a good hosting provider. For now, go cheap. Think a bit about your domain name. Remember that you MAY grow to be a business at some point, so create a professional sounding name.
2. Make sure that you get a hosting provider which offers platforms with the technology you are most comfortable with - such as .NET framework and SQL Server if you are Microsoft; or PHP and MySQL if you are in PHP.
3. Google (and other providers) offers email services under your own domain. For example, if your site is, then you can get email services for Most hosting providers give you a way to map from the domain name to a third party email service such as Gmail. Use that and create professional email ids such as and an email address with your name.
4. Some hosting providers give blogging packages for a small fee. That way, you can host your blog in your site itself. Or you can try the route I chose - I have a blogspot technical blogging address ( I link my articles from my website (
Having a blog is important. Having some backend such as .NET or PHP with database support is also important, even if your site consists of html pages only at this stage.
5. Have a graphic designer design a decent website. Develop it and make it available for public.

At this stage what is the content strategy for your website? How do you get traffic?
You have to create content based on your goals. Your goal is to be known as a good technologist. This website will be seen by your potential clients. They will NOT take a decision solely based on how good your content is, but it is definitely ONE of the factors. You are trying to gain popularity in the internet.
The best way to create content is to write blog articles. These articles can be of certain types:
a) Explaining a concept such as XML parsing or concurrency checks in a O-R framework.
b) Explaining a tip such as how to trace HTTP calls with Fiddler while browsing from Firefox.
c) Exploring a new technology such as Microsoft Silverlight or Adobe Flash Collaboration Service.

I have written a detailed article on the idea of blogging here. You need to learn to write well. Apart from writing articles, provide free code. People will always visit sites with free code. For example, if you wrote a business app based on Silverlight as a proof of concept, provide the code as a zip file, linked and downloadable from your website.
If you create good content, then there are two advantages from it:
1. Obvious one - people will visit your site; they will link to you. It serves as online credntials.
2. Subtle one - for every article you publish, send the link to your clients, friends and contacts. Put the link in, facebook and so on. What that does is it REMINDS your contacts that there is a talented guy/gal out there who is available. They will keep being reminded by your work. Let us say, instead, that you send an email every month telling everyone that you need contracts. people will not react favorably to that. But sending the blog link is a very subtle reminder.
I think this is the best way to use the internet as a marketing tool for personal work.

One big question is how far you can market yourself while STILL working for another company. If you look at my website,, I am explicitly marketing myself. But I ONLY did it after I left my last job. Before that, the site was available and so were the articles. But I did not cross the line and ask for work for myself. I think that is safe. Maintain a website and post articles, but don't let your company feel threatened.

This internet presence you create will take time to accumulate. Over time people will link to you, download code. But you may not get actual clients who ask for services. That is fine. There are other indirect reasons it will help you.

The Website as Credential
As I said earlier, you cannot directly approach your clients. But your clients have friends and their own network. THAT is the network you can tap into. It is one level separated from your own network. If you impress the people known to you, they will refer you and remember you when someone is looking for a freelancer.
That network does not know you personally. But your website and the work that has accumulated in that website over a period of a couple of years will serve to convince them to trust you.
If you are passionate about technology and want to freelance anytime in the future, it is IMPERATIVE for you to establish an online professional presence. Start the process NOW.

So, again, the steps to create an internet presence are:
1. Create a website
2. Create a blog in your website or separately
3. Start writing a couple of articles
4. Popularize your articles by linking them in your website; linking them from your IM; Facebook; LinkedIn; and send emails with the links to everyone who likes technology in your circle.
5. Write frequently
6. Create demos in your website with free code downloads.
7. You can also write articles in online tech journals and link to them. It requires professional writing skills but you should try.

Back to my original point, you require this kind of long haul approach to seeking clients for freelancing. Particularly if you do not have many contacts abroad.

Layoff Dharma

I want to quickly point out a couple of things about layoffs.
I see people often arguing that layoffs are essential load shedding for a business cycle. Whenever you rant about layoffs, a bunch of guys talk about the businees point of view.
While it is true that layoffs are unavoidable, we have to look at a bunch of predicaments employees face in the Indian context:
1. They are not paid fair compensation during layoffs - most companies only pay till the day the layoff occurs, while according to law they are supposed to pay till the month end. Thus companies violate the law for their benefit.
2. Even during the peak of this recession, you see companies insisting that the layoffs are performance based. Obviously, (as I have argued here and here), almost every layoff in this cycle is because companies THEMSELVES are not performing well. They are losing projects, are unable to hold on to clients and find new clients. Yet, the fallacy is mantained that a vague "performance" criteria goes into layoff listing. The truth is, there cannot be any independent verifications of performance. It is a vague term. Whoever heard of companies laying off employees from billable projects enmasse?
3. As I wrote before, companies have hiked the "notice period" for an employee to leave to be an unmanageable THREE MONTHS. This was done when the market was good so that companies can treat employees close to bonded labor. They have thretened and cajoled employees to sign these notice periods.
But while laying off those same employees, they do not adhere to any notice period. By any standards this is unfair. While we are ready to give allowance to companies for maintaining their interests, we are not ready to grant the same to employees. Why can't the notice periods be mutual?
4. More than anything, what makes me angry is that the HR and management keeps talking about "loyalty" as a prime virtue in any company. The relationship between an employee and employer is contractual, and there is no need to talk about loyalty. Yet, they kept claiming some kind of divine moral authority based on loyalty. How loyal have THEY been to their employees?
5. There is another very important consideration here - companies like to treat employees as if they are contract workers, during a recession. But, they are NOT allowed any of the conveniences of a contract worker. If you work for a company, and you want to earn more money, you CANNOT freelance. If you do it you have to secretly. Thus, you KNOW that you will be laid off during a business cycle, YET you cannot accumulate additional money for the rainy day. I think this is the unfairest condition, either mentioned in employee agreements or implicitly enforced. If an employee does NOT use any of the company's resources and does NOT go after a company's clients (non-solicitation) I don't see why he/she cannot freelance.

Thus, the scenario in India is loaded against employees. Layoffs are fine, if you give a sufficient notice, adhere to the severance package, and allow employees to freelance in their spare time. Otherwise it is just naked exploitation.

I will write more about freelancing next, but here are the list of my links on the recession:

IT Layoffs - Stop Blaming the Staff
IT Layoffs and Corporations
A Quick Note on the Economic Downturn
Being Self-Employed in IT