From satellites to streets

11 Jul

There has been a tremendous growth in Satellite guided navigation systems and secondary applications relying on these “GIS” systems like finding shops near the place you are etc. However, it remains opaque to me as to why we are using satellites to beam in this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. The road signage needs to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

Indeed it would be wonderful to have “rich” devices, connected to the Internet, where we can leave our comments, just like messageboards, or blogs. This will remove the need for expensive satellite signal reception boxes or the cost of maintaining satellites. The concept is of course not limited to road signage and can include any and everything from shops to homes to chips informing the car where the curbs are so that it stays within lane.

Possibilities are endless and we must start now.

Iraqi losses remain uncounted

9 Jul

Andrew J. Bacevich asks in his Washington Post article, “What’s an Iraqi’s Life Worth?, and finds that it is not much. He believes that this lack of respect of Iraqi deaths may be the key reason why the Americans are losing the war in Iraq. And I agree. Here’s an excerpt from the article –

“Through the war’s first three years, any Iraqi venturing too close to an American convoy or checkpoint was likely to come under fire. Thousands of these “escalation of force” episodes occurred. Now, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has begun to recognize the hidden cost of such an approach. “People who were on the fence or supported us” in the past “have in fact decided to strike out against us,” he recently acknowledged.

….”You have to understand the Arab mind,” one company commander told the New York Times, displaying all the self-assurance of Douglas MacArthur discoursing on Orientals in 1945. “The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.” Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book “Cobra II,” Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: “The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I’m about to introduce them to it.”

Such crass language, redolent with racist, ethnocentric connotations, speaks volumes. These characterizations, like the use of “gooks” during the Vietnam War, dehumanize the Iraqis and in doing so tacitly permit the otherwise impermissible. Thus, Abu Ghraib and Haditha — and too many regretted deaths, such as that of Nahiba Husayif Jassim.”

On India: reforms don’t reach rural heartland

6 Jul

Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, takes on the myth of “New India” –

“Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

Nor is India rising very fast on the report’s Human Development index, where it ranks 127, just two rungs above Myanmar and more than 70 below Cuba and Mexico. Despite a recent reduction in poverty levels, nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition affects half of all children in India, and there is little sign that they are being helped by the country’s market reforms, which have focused on creating private wealth rather than expanding access to health care and education. Despite the country’s growing economy, 2.5 million Indian children die annually, accounting for one out of every five child deaths worldwide; and facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of the country (the official literacy rate of 61 percent includes many who can barely write their names). In the countryside, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, the government has reported that about 100,000 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003. ”

A related article in BBC talks about how the recent economic growth in India and China has meant little reprieve for those living in the rural areas.

What does it mean to be literate in India?

3 Jul

A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000).

Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

  1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
  2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
    of the next line immediately below.
  3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
  4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.

….

“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people — literate according to the Census — can read the headlines of a newspaper?

If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10-15% would be fully literate.”

Source: Brij Kothari and others

In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving health to access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But how to invest? Brij Kothari believes that the problem can be alleviated by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS) – subtitling the lyrics of song-based television programs (e.g., music videos), in the same language as the audio- with popular regional language programming like Chitramala. Initial tests for SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and like elsewhere, they watch a bunch of it.

Counter Point
Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto correction make the ability to write and read the written word increasingly optional. Thus, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another way would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.

p.s. An article on inequality in achievement in maths in India: India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.

On Delhi: Vignettes from a short visit

5 Jun

My flight landed on a humid and somewhat benign May morning in Delhi. On entering the Delhi airport, I marveled at how much the airport had improved since my last trip to Delhi two and a half years ago. The airport was still not even close to the standards of an airport in a country like Peru, or Jordan, or Costa Rica, but still the turnaround was there to be admired.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, as the Delhi Airport is named, still operates out of a puny single terminal building – which is odd for a country with so many development pretensions. Condition of India’s infrastructure is best put in perspective through the following – there are a total of 333 airports in India, including small airports handling only private jets, as compared 14,857 airports in the US (CIA Factbook, est. 2004). These facts may raise an eyebrow among the cognoscenti brought up solely on the uniformly gleaming newspaper reports announcing India’s emergence as a new economic superpower.

Of course, not all the excitement about the ‘economic miracle’ is bogus – fortunately.  Outside the airport, the roads leading to the center of the city are broad and well paved, exhibiting none of the shoddy tar-deficient loose gravel construction that has ailed Indian road construction for the past half century. The roads are flanked on either side by stunted trees sitting in oversized steel cages. In a arid climate like Delhi, and under constant threat of being marauded by cows (hence the steel cages), it is hard to expect healthy trees minus enclosures, yet they make for a sad spectacle. Poor impoverished children, so memorably captured by the firangi (Western) tourists, remain in spite of the repeated demolition drives to eliminate jhuggis (poor hutments) (and other such deportation schemes) that have moved the poor to the outskirts of Delhi.

Mall Culture

Ansal Plaza, a prominent mall in Delhi, carries a perfume showroom that seems to have been transplanted from the US. The air conditioned mall also has an escalator, once an unimaginable luxury. I still remember an episode from the time when I was probably about 10 and we had gone to attend a reception at a five-star hotel. We parked our Chetak a couple of kilometers away and took a taxi to go to the hotel. And there in the hotel I first lay my eyes on an escalator, which I rode repeatedly albeit timorously. The point is that escalators were potent symbols of luxury and I don’t remember seeing any escalators while growing up. Anyways, I clambered on to the escalator and entered a department store that had a sort of a haphazard but American department store like decor. One thing that set the mall apart was the sheer number of people in the shop. It is likely that the number seemed greater because the mall was significantly smaller in scale – perhaps not ambition – than typical a American mall. The other significant difference in Indian malls is the legions of well trained and polite sales staff. And thankfully, there were not there right behind you making your life unbearable  – as one may have expected- but close enough around to be easily available if you needed help.

Delhi Metro

Delhi Metro is a landmark achievement for which Delhi Government and others associated with the project deserve unreserved accolades. It is a first world subway system built in record time, even by Western standards. The subway cars appear to be of much higher quality than used on the Boston (and much less the New York) subway. The cars are quieter primarily because – the path is straighter, better carriages lock noise much more efficiently, and use of overhead electrical cables rather than the screechy ‘third-rail’. Traveling on the Delhi Metro brought a sense of déjà vu – It reminded me of a time when I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and I had taken the Calcutta metro when it had just started. There was a police guard checking to see if people didn’t step over the line and the general over staffing that coincided with the inauguration of the system. A similar air of daintiness surrounds the current Delhi Metro. After all this is a first-world shiny subway system in a desperately poor city. People act coy around the gleaming subway but I am sure that five years from now the train system would come to resemble the rat infested dilapidated system that our railways is. It will still work and be on time but the AC would occasionally stop and there would be desperate overcrowding and the seats would be dirty. In all it would be “broken in”. However, it remains an impressive achievement. One last aspect of traveling on the Delhi metro – get ready for passing through a ramshackled metal detector system that probably doesn’t work and a friendly pat down by a policeman.

In Memoriam

Delhi, the city where my parents grew up in and I grew up in, is vanishing behind the mindless facade of humdrum commercialization and sprawl. Delhi was never a beautiful city, at least not in my lifetime. Jamuna was always dirty and houses were built to occupy every square inch of land. It was an impoverished city with a tough detached spirit that came from the number of Punjabi refugees that settled in Delhi after partition.

Narrow streets in a city give it its charm and intimacy but the forever widening sprawl of Delhi roads is destroying the feel of a city. Shabby jhuggis have been replaced by faceless parks that look out of place, and construction workers wear orange jackets like elsewhere in the first world, and rich kids now go to air conditioned schools. All of that has come at a cost. But this is a resurgent city, proud in the money it makes, proud in its metro and its flyovers, and buoyed by the economic and social upturn. To Delhi, my home.

Addendum:

The part of Delhi I thankfully missed! New York Times article on the Disneyesque Akshardham complex.

On London: Vignettes from my visit to London

1 Jun

London, the heart of the old empire. The city made infamous by Dickens. A city that sprawls and meanders shackled by its building laws. But where o where is thy charm?

I went to London expecting a charming European city with a laid back appeal but found it to be a bustling megapolis in its last stages of shedding its soul. Yes there are numerous green areas and yes there are few skyscrapers but yet it seems as if the soul of the city has been taken away by the avenging horde of tourists who stock its every corner, the corporatization of its stores and streets and the hustle and bustle that does stop for the history that envelopes it.

The first thing I noticed when I reached London is how little it is different from US. The feel of London is almost like being in some uncertain city in US. The second thing I noticed, and much more shocking, was the preponderance of the closed circuit cameras. This looks like a city under siege with a Closed Circuit camera hanging from every roof, every gate and every passageway. I felt like I was under constant surveillance.

Travel

Public Transportation system in London is pretty darn good. Given that a lot of it is more than a century old, it is amazing how well the underground subway network works. The buses are super-efficient double deckers that make your head spin if you sit on the upper deck but extraordinary remarkable efficiency and convenience.

Food

London is dotted with hip sandwich shops – predominantly EAT and Pret a Manger. Both look snazzy and hip and the food is good. What I really enjoyed in London is getting those Chutney and Cheese sandwiches – sweet onion chutney that goes fabulously well with the dull taste of cheese.

South Asian States on The Failed States Index: What it Means for India

9 May

A joint survey by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace on ‘Failed States’ was unveiled recently. The “Failed States Index” puts Pakistan at number nine, or in other words Pakistan is seen as the ninth most likely country to fail.

The survey, which is based on “data from more than 11,000 publicly available sources collected from July to December 2005” and tracks 12 socio-economic and political factors, puts Pakistan one rank above Afghanistan. That is reason enough to doubt the results of the survey.

2005 was a traumatic year for Pakistan with insurgency gaining ground in the west, a massive earthquake that destroyed parts of its north-west, continued sectarian violence in Karachi and of course the continuing rule of the West’s favorite military ruler – General Pervez Musharaff. All these factors were enough to make Pakistan lose ground from its relatively safe 34th position last year, to the shaky 9th this year. The report itself counts the earthquake as the chief reason for the decline.

India’s neighborhood it seems is getting very unstable. Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal are consecutively placed at number 18, 19 and 20 respectively on the scale. If the data from the current year was to be included, I believe Nepal would surely make it to the top 10. Sri Lanka of course is simmering again and is likely to lose ground from its current ranking of 25.

The surrounding instability in the neighborhood may affect India critically if one or more countries see a prolonged conflagration. Let me refine this hypothesis a bit – there is encouraging evidence that a country can withstand chaos in the neighborhood. Take for example South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe and has seen massive flow of immigrants from the country. On the other hand, Nepal’s resurgent Maoist movement may find support in the beleaguered northeast areas on India and the impoverished villages around Himalayan region. Similarly any problems in Bangladesh may set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India. There is already wide-spread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in part of North-east and any spurt in immigration is likely to set off violent demonstrations.

While prognosis for long-term stability in South Asia seems bad, things aren’t particularly hot for East Asia either. Among the other countries that saw a precipitous ‘rise’ in the rankings over the past year include China, which on the basis of its “87,000” peasant strikes lost 10 points to clock in at 57th.

Piracy – the real Mantra Behind Indian Success, And What the Wall Street Journal Doesn’t Get

9 May

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran an opinion piece yesterday arguing that the reason why India is “rapidly evolving into Asia’s innovation center” and “leaving China in the dust” is because of India’s famed Intellectual property regime.

Not only is the above claim ‘patently’ bogus, but I believe the alternative is true – that the Indian innovation is surviving primarily through piracy. Then we have to address whether “China is being left in the dust”, and surely that would be very difficult to prove.

But first, let me focus my attention on India’s so-called success story in copyright law. It is, of course, very clear that the authors of this article have never ventured to Palika Bazaar or to Nehru Place in Delhi or to the countless other entities that use and sell pirated material throughout India. Nor have the authors ever read an Indian science book for all they will find is hasty copies of works by foreign authors on poor paper. Nor of course have they ever been to an Indian store in the US. For over the seven or so years that I have been in the States, I have yet to see a rightfully purchased Bollywood movie; Indian stores as a rule carry jitter-prone pirated copies produced on substandard equipment.

Yes, India has a wonderful copyright law. At least so the gentlemen would like us to believe. However, it is really hard for me to imagine that it is ever enforced. Surely the authors quote the number of times police have successfully prosecuted copyright violations in India. Well, maybe not, for they were too embarrassed to quote the lowly figure of zero in the past.

The WSJ article points out that in 1994 the copyright act was amended to explain the rights of holder and penalties for infringement. “In 1994, the Indian Copyright Act was amended to clearly explain the rights of a copyright holder and the penalties for infringement of copyrighted software.” Nowhere does the WSJ article mention that the act itself was rewritten to make it tougher. The only effect of the law, which the article mentions has been called one of the “toughest in the world” (without of course quoting sources), was to create this handbook.

Since the implementation of a copyright law that was “one of the toughest in the world”, a government study on copyright piracy in India done in 1999 concludes, “The total value of pirated copyright products sold in India during 1996-97 was about Rs.1833 crores which formed 20% of the legal market. Segment wise, the piracy rate is found to be the highest in computer software (44%) and lowest in cinematographic works (5%).”

So moving on to the authors’ contention that India is leaving behind China in dust, the authors use the following line to support such an exaggerated claim, “The number of Indian patent applications filed has increased 400% over the past 15 years.”

Aah, the wonders of statistics.

So let me put the numbers in perspective. “According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO), the number of international patent applications from Japan, Republic of Korea, and China, has risen by 162%, 200% and 212%, respectively, since 2000. These growth rates reflect the rapidly growing technological strength in north east Asia.” More instructively, China in 2004 filed for 1705 patents while India filed for 689. [PDF – WIPO statistics]. Let me just make one more comment about China – Chinese economy (and innovation) with annualized growth rates of upwards of 9% and with high tech stalwarts like Lenovo is flourishing. Any comments as to leaving China in the dust can’t just be called wrong, they are either dumb or deliberately incorrect.

Let me finish this piece by focusing on how piracy has helped India innovate. Without the countless street level computer training centers which mostly rely upon pirated software, there wouldn’t have been an IT revolution in the country. Without the lax patent laws on Pharmaceuticals, which patented only the way in which a medication is produced and not the mix of ingredients itself, there would have been no Indian success story in Pharmaceuticals. Without the cheap knock-off science books that are abundant for poor Indian students, there wouldn’t have been the countless educated Indians with a high level of understanding of fundamentals of science.

Lastly, I would like to address the question of why this poorly researched article trumpeting fake achievements and rationale for India’s success has made it to the Wall Street Journal. My guess is that this is a deliberate piece, produced after much ‘deliberation’ with the ‘businesses’. It comes as no surprise that one of the authors of the article, Mr. Wilder is a lawyer representing the euphemistically named IP lobbying Association called the ” Association for Competitive Technology”.

Copy on and succeed!

‘Paneer This, Paneer That’ – The Story of Not-So-Indian Food

5 Apr

News Flash: The creamy intestinal discomfort-inducing food that is commonly served at Indian restaurants across the US is not Indian food. At least, no proper “Sari-wearing Indian people” think so.

Indian food outside India has taken on a life of its own. The ‘Indian’ food that is generally available includes a crimson red chicken dish and an overly creamy generic curry dish with paneer and creamy spinach. All of the curry dishes seem to be made from one generic pre-packaged powder, whose assault on the tongue is only moderated by a handsome amount of cream.

Of course, the debasement of Indian food hasn’t stopped there. Indian restaurateurs, in their effort to cater to the Western palate, are making up entirely new dishes that cannot be found anywhere in India. And then, there is the cross-fertilization with other cuisines.

When McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Italian eateries and the famous “Hooters” restaurant can find their place in India, who am I to complain when Naan gets wrapped around a kabob, becomes “Naan Burrito” and finds its way into western palate.

Khana Khazana

For a country that is as vast and diverse as India, ‘Indian cuisine’ has come to mean some uncertain version of cuisine from a specific part of North India. Of course, a few restaurants have opened in New York and parts of the West Coast that are taking back the ‘Indian cuisine’ from the vile hands of cheap third-rate restaurants manned by $5/hr cooks busy annihilating flavor and subtlety with MDH (an off-the shelf spice brand) and cream and then, as if that weren’t enough, abysmal service.

That leaves the question of the innumerable western gourmands who swear by the crispy samosas filled with spicy potatoes and peas, and the scarlet-red chunks of chicken breast from the tandoori oven. It always leaves me in splits how the truly ignoramus of the food critics spend time listing down the ingredients of these foreign-sounding dishes (‘traditional Roti, which is whole-wheat dough flattened into a disk and plastered against the side of the tandoori oven to cook’) while doling out pointless remarks about the ‘crispiness of the samosa’ or the merits of the ‘balance’ in the curry, while of course there is no such thing to be found. Samosas as a rule are limp and soggy and still dripping in oil in most Indian restaurants.

If you are one of those food critics – stop pretending to be one and get another job. And to the countless many who enjoy ‘Indian cuisine’ in its current iteration – well continue enjoying whatever suits your fancy but don’t ask me to join you when you decide to go to the Indian buffet. I’d rather skip that.

How about some pizza, instead?