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Wednesday, December 26

Spare me dear

.. and dude too !

While somebody calling me a "dude" is merely annoying, somebody calling me "dear" (like in "How are you dear?" and not "Dear Abhaya, how are you?") feels downright cheesy to me. Of course the previous statement needs to be qualified with the assertion that both the addresses might be ok in some contexts or when used as part of the rhetoric. What I am complaining about is the stock version.

It is hard to pinpoint the root of these annoyances. Dude perhaps has to do with the mental images of dudes from college days and the slight negative connotation it carried in college lingo. With dear, things are not so simple. One visual image associated with dear is of nuns or teachers from convent schools or governances calling the children dear. Another one is of Jitender calling his better half as dear as in "tum abhi tak tayaar nahi huin dear? hum party ke liye late ho jaayenge !". It is hard to blame either of them for my bad feelings. Then what is it? I can also vaguely recall a movie in which one of the heroine's sidekicks used to call everybody a dear and that quite annoyed me. But now it is hard to say what came first, the annoyance with dear or the movie.

Anyone else has similar feelings at being called dear? Or is it just me?

Sunday, December 23

Chat Agents: Humans and Bots

I am sure some of these things already exist with a different name or are probably present in those mega expensive enterprise solutions that companies sell and companies buy but here are some ideas I have recently been thinking about.

Consider the live chat based support that is present on a lot of websites these days (Examples: lulu.com, backcountry.com). The idea is that if you want to talk to someone, you can start a chat right then and there rather than call customer support and spend 15-20 minutes on hold. It is a plus for the company also since they no longer need to maintain a call center (or outsource it). This is specially attractive for startups who cannot afford to spend a lot on customer support.

So how I imagine it must be working is that there is somebody sitting on the other side of the comp and probably talking with one or more customers at the same time. They would have many chat windows open or many tabs open, one for each customer. I would guess that even a trained support person would not be able to hold more than 4-5 customers simultaneously. What happens if more users are looking to chat than the available support staff can handle? Do we run into the same "please hold" thing?

In short, I have been wondering what tools we can build which would help optimize the ratio of customer to support staff in the chat based support scenario. One option is a chat-bot which I have heard deployed in some places (or are all these companies using chat-bots only and I am wasting my time?). How good are they, I have no idea but I would guess not a lot. And even if they are, they can be effective only for starting the conversation. At some point of time or for certain types of conversations, we would like a human to kick in. So let us think about the problem of one support person and many customers.

First thing would be to save the support person from the problem of switching focus between windows. I think a better interface would be like a chat room with the difference that only support person can see everyone and everyone else can see only him. Since we don't want to mix up the conversations, we can have the chat window separated into panes but one single message box to send messages to all of them. It should be possible to choose the panes by putting some markup in the message itself rather than switching focus explicitly. The @ notation that is used as a convention in public chat rooms can be used here: "@sunder I am not going. @ram that is a cool idea". Software should take care of sending the first message to Sunder's window and second to Ram's window. There can be IDE style completion which presents the drop-down of all the active user ids as one starts typing the @ symbol.

To push it a little too far, information filling tokens can be allowed which would be replaced with the actual information pulled form the database before finally sending the message. So a message might look like: "@Sunder We received your last payment on #last-payment-date# and your current balance is #due-amount#" which gets populated before sending in. This will save the effort of working with another application that pulls up the data and then transferring the data manually to the chat application.

A second and more tentative thing would be to have a mix of chat-bot and human where chat-bot can identify and handle parts of the conversation that are routine and human can chip in with the rest. So if a customer wants to know his account balance, it should be possible for chat-bot to handle that directly. Or the chat-bot can generate the text for the human and not send it directly. So as soon as one types @sunder, chat-bot can suggest the response to be sent and human can decide what to do ( although this may become more intrusive than helpful ). In fact by feeding on the chat transcripts of one human, chat-bots that generate text in his style should also be possible.

Any thoughts and pointers are very welcome.

Update: liveperson is a company that provide these softwares but don't know if they have these features or not.

Saturday, November 17

Sorry !

While walking to the school today, I came across a old lady. She was walking slowly on the sidewalk in the same direction. The sidewalk was narrow and there was not enough space for me to walk past her. So I walked slightly off the sidewalk on to the grass and crossed her.

As soon as I passed her by, I heard her say sorry. It was not a sorry that we just hand down to others every now and then. It sounded as if she was sorry that she is old now and cannot walk fast enough. It sounded as if she was sorry that she was walking in the middle of the sidewalk and thus blocking my way. It made me feel very bad. I wanted to stop and tell her that it was alright to be old and to walk slowly, that she need not worry too much about us young people walking slightly here and there because society is not meant for only young and active, it is meant for everybody and she has a right to be old and walk slowly without feeling bad.

Instead I said "it's alright" and moved on. Today was a bad day.

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Saturday, November 10

Xkcd

Randall Munroe of xkcd fame was on campus today. Unfortunately I dozed off at my desk and missed his lecture (but read about it on Wikipedia just now which, surprize-o-surprize, is already updated with a short blurb about it).

I discovered xkcd few months ago, through the legendry angular momentum strip and it was an instant favourite. By next morning, I had finished all 300 odd strips and was hooked.

As the tag lines says, it is 'A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language', and physics and computer systems and pop culture. It is full of geek jokes, allusions that only a computer science graduate would understand and a celebration of nerdiness. However the best of the bread for me are those in which romance interplays with geekiness. They are just awesome. Here are some of my favorites. Find many more on the xkcd website. Enjoy and Happy Diwali !

















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Friday, November 9

OpenSocial : Developers vs Users

OpenSocial form Google is the new big thing that everybody has been talking about, especially since it is being seen as a major blow back by the Google to the Facebook. It will allow developers to write one application and have it run on multiple social network sites. In other words, a Java for web apps (looks like Java has become too unfashinable since I saw this analogy hardly anywhere else). This is great news for developers. But what about users?

Users will now have a choice of thousands of applications since developer can actually spend time in creating new applications rather than try and make one application run across multiple sites. So consider, a flixter application that I found to be very cool and added to my profile page on Orkut, spent 2-3 hours adding all the movies to it and comparing notes with friends. Then I logged in to Facebook and found the same application and now I want to match my interests with my friends here. No problem, spend 2-3 hours, add all the movies and there you go. More networks? Absolutely cool ! Same application, same interface, same fun - every time ! After all the fun of using the application is really in filling up the data and OpenSocial makes it possible to do it again and again and again.Also, on different networks, my social graph differs. So if I want to watch a movie, I just need to go check the same application everywhere and decide.

Ok, I'll stop. I think everybody got the point and that is, having the same application everywhere may be nice for developer but it is not such a big deal for user till the data also starts moving between sites. With a social network based around eah and every niche, a very urgently felt need is to consolidate the data, something which OpenSocial doesn't address yet.

At this point, I must conceed that probably a lot of users do not face this situation of having very different social graph on two different sites. As long as you assume that there is only one primary social graph for a user, OpenSocial is actually great because now every new player that comes along with a brillient idea that needs an underlying social graph to run on, can just leverage the already present social graph instead of going off and build one of his own. But what happens if the site that owns the social graph, decides to kick out this application? It can be a set back but I guess the applications will still have the data that users filled them with and hence, should be able to survive on their own. Or it may happen the other way round that a new site can bootstrap itself off some other network and then spin off.

Of course, the question is if all the data is used in a open manner all around, who gets the money that is generated off it and how is it distributed? Nobody till date has figured out a sureshot way of monetizing a social graph. Facebook is betting on ad revenue and only time will tell if that will work. So the problem is two fold. First off, the social graph owners have no idea about how to make money off what they have. In addition, if they open the data and somebody else figures out a way to make money from that, it is not clear how will they get their share. So on what conditions should they open it and how much mashing up of this data should they allow is not clear.

Well so many questions and very few answers. My feeling is that somebody will take a bold move forward and that will either make or break the whole thing. But that needs to happen soon. When Orkut came along 3-4 years ago, I remember the enthusiasm around it, spending long time on it but slowly everybody around me is kind of loosing that enthusiasm, more and more people are becoming inactive. Probably OpenSocial can bring back some of that interest with some interesting applications. I am all eyes/ears :-)

PS: Tim O'Reilly also thinks that It's the data stupid ! (I read it before writing this post though I have been thinking about these issues for sometime now ).

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Thursday, November 8

धन तेरस and Wikipedia

I donated some money to the Wikimedia foundation today and then realized that it was also धन तेरस (Dhan Teras, one of the days in this festival season, dedicated to Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth) today. It is a tradition to buy something new on this day, preferably made of metal. You can think this is as our own Indian thanksgiving in that sense but without discounts ! We being Indians, Gold is obviously the first choice but people buy all sorts of new things, cloths, utensils, jewelery, furniture, home furnishing etc.

Thinking in that respect, donating to Wikipedia seems like a good idea. I will have to see if this can be my own little way of celebrating Dhan Teras every year. Although it is often said that सरस्वती (Saraswati, Goddess of knowledge) and लक्ष्मी (Lakshmi, Goddess of money) don't go well together, where one lives, the other leaves, times seem to be all changing now :-) !

Monday, November 5

कूचा-ए-जाना

चलें कूचा-ए-जाना से, शहर को देख कर आयें,
तबीयत भर गयी फ़ूलों से, कांटे देख कर आयें।

नये मौसम मे सुनते हैं, नये अंदाज़ हैं उनके,
बदल जायेगा दो दिन मे, नज़ारा देख कर आयें।

जो आयें तेरी महफ़िल मे, ना जायें फ़िर कहीं उठ कर,
कुछ आयें नये और कुछ सब ज़माना देख कर आयें।

वो पिछले मोड पर जो राह छूटी हमसफ़र छूटा,
कसक उठती है रह रह कर कि जायें देख कर आयें।

हवा मे घुल रहा है दर्द, फ़िज़ां हो चली गमगीं,
सुनाता है गज़ल फ़िर से अभागा, देख कर आयें।

Sunday, November 4

Thinking Big but not like that !

Before reading my post, read this post about the problem of Indian Entrepreneurs not thinking big enough. There was a followup post on the same blog that countered some of those point.

It was during undergrad days that I heard this argument for the first time. The biggest problem with people pitching their business plans in competitions, according to one of the judges, was that they were not asking for enough money ! It sounded quite counterintuitive to my middle class trained mind. My instincts told me to borrow as little as possible and to bootstrap as much as possible, the old Indian way of doing business as somebody later put it.

But I was naive back then, didn't understand the importance of capital, didn't understand the central premise of running a successful company in a capitalist setting i.e. growth ! Year after year, every year, growth in terms of bottom line, revenue, profits ! Because although we start out with customers, with efforts to solve a problem they are facing, we end up running the show for investors and for share holders who want return on the money they have invested. VCs want a return of 10-20 times in a framework of 3-5 years, so they want entrepreneurs to focus on big market opportunities, billion $ markets and they want companies to dominate those markets. I have no issues with dominating the markets, I have no issues with 10-20 times the returns. I have problem with the way market size is estimated and profits are measured!

A market essentially breaks down into two components. Number of customers and how much each customer is willing to pay for your product. Now Indian market is very price sensitive, something that I admire. Everything should be priced for what it is worth, it may be costly but it should be worth it. It should not be costly because it can be, something known as "charging a premium" in business terms. Another problem is that Indian market is highly fragmented. Uniform means of accessing the market are virtually non existent in most of the industries. The great enabler Internet reaches a small minority of the country. Mobiles a little more. Organized retail will perhaps reach to slightly more in few years. So the easily accessible part of the market remains small.

Faced with such conditions, what should a new company do? It is difficult, unless you are operating at the scale of Reliance or Bharti, to reach out to a large population. At the same time, the small part of the population you can reach easily, is also the most wealthy, those who are learning the first lessons of consumerism, those who can and will spend. So to get a big market size, you charge premium. And that is the trend we see. Start looking at the burgeoning startup space in India and you will see tons of startups for people who can access Internet, who are urban. Some of the startups are selling something, others are hoping to get enough ad revenue.

On the other hand, it is only the big players that are expanding into the markets beyond that. Organized retail, printing, telecom are the spaces left for giants. What effect will that have on our own home grown entrepreneurs, those who are called unorganized sector is a post for another day. But in my mind this is a very clear dividing line currently. We may talk of inclusive development and bring down the fruits of free economy to everybody but the real promise of a free economy, entrepreneurism that will be primary driver of that aim, is being held back by the old notions of big markets and big profits. The article I linked above says,

Ask: what does it take to dominate the market opportunity? Capital availability is the easy part. The hard part is building out the product/service, hiring globally scalable talent, and penetrating global markets. Capital will make this happen in large part. And the ability to think big (obviously backed by a clear focus and execution plan) will make the capital happen!

I think capital availability is easy for those who are playing by your rules, to those who are going after markets that promise Billions and double digit growths. And if such a market is not available in India, we can always go global. But what about the huge but highly fragmented market that remains untapped within our own country? We can always offer medical tourism when our own citizens will not get medical health. We can do cheap printing for other markets when thousands in our own country go without books to read. And this is because markets are defined by purchasing power and not by need.

Let me take a example. Consider the blind people in India, around 10 million of them. They are probably quite a fringe part of the so called market. There is no dearth of opportunities for those who want to make something to specifically target them but first there are only 10 million of them and second, not a whole lot of them can afford to pay a premium and so market opportunity in traditional terms remains small. Will there be capital available for those who want to entertain this part of the market or must they forever be served by NGOs and CSR initiatives?

And this is what my gripe is with this concept of thinking big. I think it is very limiting to think big if that must only be in terms of money. I love big opportunities but they can be big in n number of ways, in impact, in terms of serving a part that will forever remain neglected otherwise or in terms of the problem they are trying to handle. They may need more than 3-5 years, they may not grow as fast. Read this excellent Nobel prize acceptance speech by Mohammad Yunus, specially the section on Free Market Economy where he describes the Grameen Bank's social business.

Fortunately, as always, we have people already working on this. The second article linked above talks about SKS Microfinance, something which has received VC funding actually. Another one is Eko. And I am sure there are many more which I have simply not heard of. So while social networks, video sharing may be nice and 'big' , unfortunately they will not bring in the real fruits of this free economy. For that we will need to plant new trees instead of just aiming for tree tops.

Tuesday, October 16

Where I get to blame Google for my laziness !

A big reason for my decreased frequency of blogging had to do with Google launching the Hindi Transliterator in blogger. While, like every red blood Hindi lover, I was also very much pleased by the turn of events, the joy was short lived. Very soon, I discovered that on Linux Firefox version 1.5, the on line blogger editor became very very slow. So slow that I can type 1-2 sentences and than sit back and watch as it works very hard to bring the characters in view one by one, at the speed of around 1 character per second. And this is not in transliteration mode but in normal English typing mode. Now being a busy grad student that I am, I spend a large part of my day and night in my office and away from my laptop. So it was a sad situation.

Finally I started looking around for an alternative blog editor and after some false starts, landed at ScribeFire from performancing which is an extension for Firefox. From the first looks, it seems to be quite fast and have all the basic facilities in place, though I haven't yet figured out the categories business with it. I am hoping that this will be a durable solution but you never know. If you guys have any suggestions for desktop blogging tools for Linux, please leave a comment.

Sunday, October 14

Days ahead !

These are some heady days in my life. Lots of things happening and at times I get the feeling that everything might just slip away. And often times I remind myself that what you have is not what you hold in your fist but that which rests on your open palm.

So the big news is that I am going back to India next year. Things moved fast and there are chances of a startup looming on the horizon, already threatening to block the sun of rationality and rob the clarity out of life. Let us see where it goes.

Back from the future, in the present, there are some more things to be excited about. For next few months I am going to work on a Urdu to English Machine Translation System. Now given the state of the art, you can be sure that this MT system will be pretty useless for almost any use. What is exciting however is that it may produce as a side effect some nice tools for Urdu, conversion of Urdu script into Devanagari being one of them, an issue close to my heart. For the starters though, Bhomiyo already seem to have something along these lines up and running. It has problems but it is a start and a good one. I can already read BBC Urdu :-).

Friday, October 12

What the future holds !

Next week promises to be very special. Kalaam is coming to CMU on 16-17th and then on 18th, I am flying to Boston to attend a one day workshop in MIT and guess what ! Noam Chomsky is going to be there.

Exciting Times !

Sunday, September 30

From India, in Hindi

..couple of books, self published and printed on demand. Jaya at Miles to go is offering her poems in a book form. Also available is a book of poems from Flying Bird's blog. Head over if like me you also enjoy it the good old way, on paper, in ink :-).

Monday, August 27

One level down and counting

This landed in my in-box today. Offered with no comments.

dear friends

one of my friends needs advice on how his brother needs to prepare for getting admitted to bansal classes. if you know anyone who could help, please reply to this mail.

thanks,
xxxx

Monday, August 20

Language Digest - 6 [Language and Development]

After a long time, some language related articles. It is no secret how powers that be have often tried to control the nature of public discourse by introducing new words for old ways and substituting neutral sounding words for words having negative connotations. As it turns out, they are often successful, thus giving little credibility to the famous Shakespearian adage of what's in a name.

In this piece on India Together, Shripad Dharmadhikary points out the changing language of development debate in India. Irrespective of which side of the fence you are on, it makes sense to know the tricks of the trade.

And if you ever doubted the power of sentence restructuring, perhaps this will convince you otherwise. How should we think about our farmer's?

PS: This post is 201st post on Basket Case. It took almost 3.5 years which would mean on average 1 post per week, though as usual that statistics hides more than it reveals :-)

Saturday, August 18

The why of Brain Drain

Let me pick up this thread from my last post. I lamented there about the lack of higher education (PhD level) opportunities India. That is one of the reasons I am here. But make no mistake, majority of the Indian students who come to states every year, do not come here to get educated. That degree they get is just a stepping stone to this land of opportunities. In most cases, it is not even the oft repeated story of becoming used to things here and finding it difficult to return back. They made up their minds long before the passports were stamped and bags were packed.

Considering that the job market in India is booming like nothing before, markets are open and shops are full, why do people still leave? And for most of them, money is not in short supply, these are not the people who didn't get the opportunity or faced oppression. In fact most of them belong to the most privileged class of people. And I don't know what you thought when Haneef after everything that happened, asked the Australian PM for honorary citizenship to Australia.

I think Reality Check has a point.

Pardon me for the following statement, but there is a reason why Indians flock to Western (read "white mans") countries. Even after such alleged mistreatment, why must Haneef fight deportation? Why cant he just say, "To hell with you and your laws" - and return to India ?

I have asked this question to many NRI folks, the answers range from better environment, freedom, tastier fruits and thicker milk, to roads, to 911. I suspect the real answer is along the lines of , "Hey, we can let these white guys do all the nation building (or maintaining). We will let them deal with root issues maintaining the sanctity of the constitution, coming up with laws, the environment, and basic liberties. That would be cool because we can just focus on our jobs. All we have to do is follow a well codified set of rules. We get our promotions, our house, and cars. How easy is that ?"

The problem is apathy. I know so many around me who couldn't careless about the world around them and being an immigrant in another country affords you just that.

Friday, August 17

On Independence Day

In the ever growing list of days to celebrate, Independence Day has started looking more and more like any other of them. In the world that I inhibit or am forced to inhibit, these days are marked by a surge in Orkut messages, group mails, gestures so meaningless that I am amazed over and over again (like changing your Orkut profile pick to Indian Flag on 15th Aug). Nonetheless, Independence still brings back the memories from the past, from the days of innocence when it was so easy to believe in things. Back than the morning actually felt a little special on such days and heart felt a little extra spring.

But I am in in a different place and in different times now. In US, 4th of July is celebrated in form of sales and deals. Yes, there are fireworks all over the place and probably other ceremonies which I am not aware of yet but there are also cheap things to be bought. Not as many as on Labor Day or on Thanks Giving or on New Year but still some. Thankfully, Indian community probably has not been identified as a targeted consumer group yet and so no special discounts on 15th Aug yet.

CMU Indian community, however, has a nice way of celebrating it. There is an old tradition of fence painting here. There is a fence in the middle of the campus and whatever is painted on it previous night, stays for all of next day. So every year on 14th Aug night, it is painted with tri colors which stay on for all of 15th Aug. Looking at it next day feels nice and a little warm in this distant land.

Incidentally, 14th Aug is also the day every year when orientation for new International students starts in CMU. Many of the new Indian students, feeling more patriotic than ever before come to the function and excited talk about the first day of orientation. I find it a little ironic as I mentioned on this blog last year. I heard that this year somebody described the pride she felt when in the morning she saw so many Indians among the new students.

That set me thinking. What is it that she felt proud of? No doubt, coming to CMU is a personal achievement for many, a moment of pride. I would be lying if I deny that I felt the same when I got admitted. This is one of the best places to get educated in certain fields and to do world class research. I am glad I am here. But then I wonder, why did I have to come here to do research and get good education? I will not speak on behalf of anyone but I personally would have preferred to stay back and do my PhD in India. I am here because there were no decent places for doing that. My dreams and aspirations have my country built into them but to fulfill them, I have to spend these 4-5-6 years in this foreign land. When I think like that, I feel my being here, of all those new students being here is not a moment of pride for my country, it is rather a moment of introspection.

Happy Independence Day !

Wednesday, August 8

Past two months and some

Note: The post was written 2 days ago, so please adjust the timeline accordingly.

A lot of time has passed. Almost four years since I graduated, almost 1 years since I came to US, almost 1 month since I returned from San Diego/ Bay Area trip, almost 1 week since I moved into this new house, almost 1 day since I returned from the whitewater rafting trip from Ohiopyle. Somewhere along that time-line lies the one and a half months mark since I have not posted. Not that I was totally gone, I wrote somethings on wasted margins.

So now you know that I have changed houses, have been on a couple of trips and read couple of books. During those trips, I visited Coronado beach and La Jolla coves in San Diego, met a lot of old friends, some of them already finishing up their PhD and staring a new phase in life, visited the famous Golden gate bridge, ate a one pound crab and learned a lot about its anatomy along the way, lost and found my phone, sat in a train after almost one year, rafted (guided) the 7 mile stretch on the lower yough, pulled 3 people out of water along the way :-) and managed to stay on board myself. Since the trip required no experience, the safety-excitement tradeoff was there. I am looking forward to do something more exciting next.

Moving to the new place a week for that proved to be much more tiring than we imagined it to be. Thanks to the driving skills of a friend and a canceled trip by my roommate, we managed to successfully shift two households into new places over 3 days. The nice thing is that many of my friends have all moved to close by places now and many others were already here. So we have quite a crowd around and the locality is much much better, look-wise and safety-wise, compared to the previous one. I am hoping to not move from this place unless something drastic forces me to.

Although I avoid writing about it here, work is not exactly going great guns at the moment. There were big plans for summers but the summers are now gone, leaving plans behind along with a missed deadline. The whooshing sound it made as it flew by was no consolation either. Coupled with a string of negative results, that has cast a little gloom but nothing to worry. We are working on it !

BTW, congratulations to Diwaker Gupta of Floating Sun fame on getting engaged. Couple of other friends have got engaged/married. I wish a great life and all the happiness to them.

Stay tuned !

Friday, June 22

Amazon : Search Inside

Recently I have been buying some books from Amazon and I think the Search Inside feature totally rocks ! Especially in a place like Amazon that shows related and similar books (which is again quite accurate), it is easy to get confused while choosing. Moreover often the titles of the books and reader reviews help little in the process of choosing since every decent enough book will have somebody giving it raving review and somebody else calling it names.

With search inside feature however, you can actually see the contents and read few pages. This makes the whole process much more personalize and much closer to the experience of buying books from an actual store. I believe that those not providing this facility for their books, stand to loose in the long run.

Tuesday, June 19

Running

Finally after years of contemplation and after some false starts, I made another start towards running yesterday. This time I hope I will go some distance (pun intended).

Just like flying which I know is close to impossible, I have long dreamed about running. Running not to narrow my waistline, not the endless rounds in a closed stadium or even sprinting. I have always wanted to run outdoors and run long distances. To go places while running. If it sounds like inspired by Forrest Gump, it probably is.

In fact just like almost everything in that movie, that running was also a allusion to something in contemporary USA. Running is a obsession in USA. People run here everywhere, every time and every weather. I have seen people running at mid night in the middle of the road because the sidewalk was chocked with snow ! And I have seen males, females, teenagers, old people, very old people all of them run. And I love seeing it. Those sweating bodies, those long and steady strides, those agonized faces ! But as someone said,

" To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who's never run it is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind. "

Jerome Drayton

I will probably never run a marathon but hopefully someday I will be able to run enough distance to feel that agony.

Coming to think of it, running seems so much like doing Number Theory, another one of my long held desires ! Both are very simple to get into, you require no special equipment and only thing required to get started is your willingness. However this simplicity belies the hardness of doing anything substantial in them. Runners hit the wall and Number Theorists run in to things like Fermat's Last Theorem. However the sweet pain of getting stuck in a problem and of pushing yourself beyond your limits is what creates the craving for them.

I think following quote by Jesse Owens captures the feeling perfectly.

"I always loved running...it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs."

Jesse Owens

Thursday, June 14

Bill Gates gets it right !

I never hoped he will ! In fact when I saw the forwarded mail in my inbox, I felt slightly irritated. What with all the commencement speeches being forwarded. I am sure at this rate and given the consumerist society we live in, we will be able to buy a collector's edition of these speeches very soon !

So I reluctantly opened it up and expected the now old formula speech of most-dramatic-events-of-my-life, the recent speech by Narayan Murthy at NYU being one very bad example (but people seem to be getting inspired by that also !!). As I have mentioned before on this blog, my disillusionment with such speeches started after I saw the video of Steve Jobs delivering his wonderfully written piece at Stanford. His presentation had no life, no soul and for me, no inspiration either.

But to my pleasant surprise, Bill got this one right ! Looking back, Steve Jobs and Narayan Murthy sound like 2 narcissists now. And this when I had much less sympathies for Bill Gates than for Narayan Murthy to start with. Anyway, I guess I will let you read the speech for yourself and decide. To me he said all the right things, things that we need to realize most in today's world, things that you me and all others need to give a good piece of our minds.

Here is the text of the speech.

Friday, June 1

मन

इस नयी ज़मीं पर मैने था जब धरा कदम,
"मन लगता तो है?" पूछा जाता था हरदम।
शुभचिंतक सब चिंता करते थे घड़ी घड़ी,
यारों के मुंह से थी गुड लक की लगी झड़ी।


अन्जान डोर एक थाम चल पड़े थे हम भी,
मन मे थी थोड़ी खुशी और थोड़े गम भी।
जिस ओर उठायी नज़र, मिला कुछ नया नया,
उठ पायें कदम उससे पहले मन गया गया।


नित नये नये आकर्षण मन को बहलाते,
हम उत्साहित हो हो प्रियजन को बतलाते।
उत्साह भरे स्वर ने उनको आभास दिया,
हो गया अभागा वैल सैटल, अहसास दिया।


तब से अब तक कुछ एक बरस है बीत चुका,
और पात्र नयेपन की मदिरा का रीत चुका।
अब मन यथार्थ की भूमि पर नंगे पांव,
ढूंढा करता स्मृतियों की ठंडी छांव।


जिन प्रश्नों पर हम गये बरस थे झल्लाते,
अब उनके उत्तर ख़ुद को ही हैं दोहराते।
"मन लगता तो है?" पूछा जाता था हरदम,
मन लौट गया है देश, यहां तन्हा हैं हम।


Wednesday, May 23

The vows of scripts

I have often read/heard people rant about the bad status of Urdu in Hindi heartland, place where it originated and from where some of its best poets and writers came. Cities like Aligarh, Lucknow used to be centers of Urdu adab but no longer.

As usual blame goes to the government, a claim of systematic bias against Urdu due to which it was removed as a medium of instruction by the early governments of UP. It was only in the last decade that Urdu was again given the status of official language in UP and that too because of political considerations and not any love for the language.

I have no reason or evidence to doubt that indeed there might have been bias against Urdu in the years right after Independence. Partition and creation of Pakistan, the usual association of Muslims and Urdu, adoption of Urdu as the official language in Pakistan may all have played out in the minds of early policy makers, consciously or unconsciously. But even before partition, Hindi literature saw very strong movement towards more Sanskrit oriented vocabulary and attempts to replace Persian, Arabic and Desi words. This lead to the creation of some Hindi literature that was beyond the understanding of large masses because the spoken and day to day language retained its character and vocabulary.

I however have a very different caveat and my own explanation of why Urdu continues to suffer and I draw from my own personal experience. First thing to point out is that I have come across many people who wish they could read and understand Urdu. Urdu has a special appeal to young, primarily because of its poetry, its sher-o-shayari that is almost entirely love poetry. So the question remains, why does it continues to loose ground then?

I think one of the main reason is the almost exclusive use of Arabic script to write Urdu. I come from Lucknow and my language has a fair amount of Urdu but if you write something in Urdu in front of me, I cannot read it at all. If somebody could read it to me, I would understand but I am paralyzed by this lack of reading ability. USA and Britain are called two nations divided by the same language. I think Hindi and Urdu remain the same language divided by a script. Just by removing this high entry barrier, we can be sure that Urdu will attract many more admirers and pursuers. But just like religion, matters of languages are sensitive. I don't know how deep, if any, the attachment to the script runs but I once hared that Basheer Badr's original poetry collections were available in only Arabic script for a long time.

I have been making efforts to learn Urdu script to be able to read more of poetry and probably some other literature as well. My interest is strong enough to do it. Majority of the people just give up and rely on whatever small they can find or get their hands on which is really sad. Urdu is a beautiful language and I believe that making it readable without extra effort will go much further than an artificial identity forged around a script.

Thursday, May 10

To a teacher !

It was around this time last year when the whole reservation saga started or must I say the recent wave of reservation saga started. At the helm of the ensuing crisis was AIIMS and its director P Venugopal. The fight have mutated into legal battles since then but he continues to face the music in increasingly ridiculous ways.
Watch the following and see if this rings any bells.

Monday, March 26

सागर किनारे

आज जाने क्यों बैठे बैठे मन मे पांडिचेरी का ख़्याल आ गया । लगभग २ साल हुए जब मैं पहली बार वहां गया था। बहुत सुना था उसके बारे मे पर पहली नज़र मे तो थोड़ी निराशा ही हुई थी। ग़लती शायद जगह की कम और साथ वालों की ज्यादा थी पर जब वापस लौटे तो उतनी ख़ुशी नही थी मन मे। कुछ ठगा सा महसूस कर रहा था, क्या मालूम था कि अपना थोडा सा मन वहीं छोड़ा आया था ।

उसके बाद से एक बार वहां जाना और हुआ पर मात्र एक दिन के लिए और आज अचानक यहाँ अमरीका मे बैठे बैठे मुझे याद आ भी रहा है तो पांडिचेरी ना कि दूसरे अनेक ऐसे स्थान जहाँ के यात्रा अनुभव कहीं अधिक स्मरणीय हैं । मुझे पता है कि कारण क्या है। मेरा मन पांडिचेरी की गलियों मे नही, उसके समुद्र के किनारे कहीं छूट गया है । असल मे पांडिचेरी ही एक मात्र ऐसी जगह है जहां मैं कुछ घंटों से ज्यादा, असल मे कुछ दिन तक समुद्र के पास रह सका हूँ । और गरजते समुद्र के सानिध्य मे कुछ पल बिताने जैसे अनुभव इस संसार मे कम ही हैं । आप अपने ह्रदय की कोई भी झंकार उन लहरों के गर्जन मे सुन सकते हैं और वो उमड़ती लहरें, एक मंझे हुए अभिनेता की भांति , एक धीर श्रोता से लेकर एक चुनौती देते प्रतिद्वंदी तक सभी पात्र सहजता से निभा लेती हैं । एक ऐसा साथी जिसके पास उतना ही समय है जितना आपके पास है, ना एक मिनट ज्यादा और ना एक मिनट कम ।

आज के जमाने मे ऐसे साथी कहॉ मिलते हैं और जब मिल जाते हैं तो छोडे कहां जाते हैं। देखिए ना, हज़ारों मील दूर भी पुकार साफ सुनाई देती है ।

Saturday, March 10

Speaking your heart out

As you get ready to walk up and take stage, your hands get moist, your feet give out that strange sensation of standing on top of a 100 story building, suddenly you need to go to loo, your throat is dry, your heart is going to stop. The place is not even well lighted but you feel all the spotlight on your face, as words come out you cannot even remember to breath and then you take one deep breath and ...

... you either loose it or you flow.

In my 14-15 odd years of public speaking, I have gone through this numerous times and I have been on both sides of the line. I have screwed it all up and I have taken the day. But what has not changed is the thrill, that rush of Adrenalin. Yes, like a drug addict, small doses don't satisfy the craving that much now and with the college life gone, even those small doses don't come my way any longer.

I realized this a few days ago that I have hardly stood up to speak in the last 2 and a half years since leaving college and that realization has reignited the craving. So much so that I am looking forward to my 2-3 class project presentations coming up later this semester. However, I am also a little skeptical. The audience I will have here would be so different from anything I have had before. Would I be able to connect to them? Would I be able to command all the nuances of English to bear upon my points as I used to in Hindi or let's say Hinglish? What about his tricky thing called sense of humor, do I even have one in context of Americans? And just how would I make up for all the cultural references which just became out of bounds?

Challenges are many. Perhaps this is the next stage of evolution for me as a speaker, moving from a frog in a small pond to the whole new world. Now I can choose to become a cautious, methodical and a won't-screw-up kind of speaker after whose talk people clap and mumble and forget. Or I can still try to go all out, speak from my heart and try to connect.

Of course I will screw up at times if I choose to be later but would that really matter? I am suddenly reminded of a very good example in this context. In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement speech at Stanford. I received its text from some friend and was so delighted that I really wished if I could have been there to actually listen to it. Some months later, I discovered its video on youtube and after 2-3 minutes into it, I was so disgusted that I left it in between. Those powerful words that seemed so inspiring then actually look so hollow now that I can't even bring myself to read them again.

It is a speech that draws heavily from Steve's own life, beautifully joining the dots as he himself calls it. It is a speech that has to come directly from heart. And when you look at the video, you see a Steve Jobs standing there, reading it out from paper, not even looking up for half of the time and words which have so much emotions in them are just falling out like some dry stones. I was shocked but this was the first time I was listening to him so I gave him benefit of doubt. I decided to check out his keynotes in apple conferences to see if this is his normal talking style. But lo and behold ! there is the same Steve Jobs striding across the big stage, with a huge screen in the background, no paper in hand and you can see the passion, the enthusiasm now.

I don't know what to conclude about Jobs from this but what I know is that I never ever want to give a speech like that commencement speech to anyone. I think he ruined their day though somehow I saw all of them feeling very happy and cheering him. Perhaps he has too much money and is too successful for these things to matter or perhaps this is the cultural difference that I talked about earlier.

I just hope that honesty and passion would cut across these barriers.

Monday, March 5

मुलाकात

दो दिन का तेरा मिलना जाने क्या क्या रंग दिखलायेगा,
मिलने की होगी खुशी या ग़म जाने का तेरे सतायेगा।

जो गले लगाऊंगा तो आंखें बोलेंगी दीदार करूं,
जो दूर हटा तो मन बांहों मे भरने को ललचायेगा।

यूं तो मुझको पर्याप्त नही जीवन भर भी तेरा मिलना,
और यूं दो पल का मिलना भी दिल गांठ बांध इतरायेगा।

बरसों फ़ैले बंजर मे ये दो कदमों का फ़िरदौस सनम,
आंखों मे भर दिल बंजारा, हंसकर आगे बड जायेगा।

हम साथ तेरे फ़िर से जो दिल की बंद पोटअलिया खोलेंगे,
कुछ लाद सकेंगे साथ और कुछ वहीं धरा रह जायेगा।

दिल का ना पूछो हाल, अभागा पगला है, दीवाना है,
दो दिन को धडकेगा फ़िर वापस ढर्रे पर आ जायेगा।

Thursday, March 1

गूगल समाचार अब हिन्दी मे !

तुलसी की लिखी हुई चौपाई याद आ गयी आज, "अति आनन्द उमगि अनुरागा..." जब गूगल के हिन्दी समाचार प्रष्ठ पर नज़र पडी तो। ना जाने कितनी बार google news India पर नीचे की सूची मे जा कर देखा था और सोचा था कि अगर यहां हिन्दी भी होती तो कितना अच्छा रहता। अब वह मनोकामना पूर्ण हो गयी है।

गूगल समाचार का आना सिर्फ़ एक भाषा प्रेमी का व्यर्थ का उत्साह नही है। इसके अनेक ऐसे फ़ायदे हैं जो कि शायद पहली नज़र ने दिखते नही हैं। अव्वल तो ये कि अब अलग अलग जाल प्रष्ठों को देख्ने के लिये अलग अलग फ़ोंट लगाते रहने की आवश्यक्ता नही है, जोकि हमारे आपके जैसे लोगों के लिये तो सिर्फ़ एक छोटी सी समस्या भर हो सकती है पर अनेकानेक लोगों के लिये बस वही अन्त हो जाता है। साथ ही साथ यूनीकोड मे होने से समाचारों को ढूंढना भी सरल हो जाता है।

पर इस सबसे बड कर बात है कि भाषा बदलने से समाचार पत्रों का पूर नज़रिया भी बदल जाता है। Google News India से अभी तक समाचारों की जो झलक मिलती थी वो अंगरेज़ी मीडिया के द्रष्टिकोण से दिखती थी, उन्हे क्या महत्वपूर्ण लगता है क्या नही वगैरह। हिन्दी समाचार पत्रों का द्रष्टिकोण इससे काफ़ी अलग हो सकता है। मेरे विचार से उस नज़रिये को भी पाठकों तक पहुचाना गूगल समाचार की सबसे बडी उपलब्धि है।

तो आप भी पडिये और आनन्द उठाइये।

Saturday, February 24

From machines with love

There are some moments which make you realize the power of perspective in how we see the world and these moment catch you at most unexpected of times.

A new computer science campus in under construction on campus. It is right next to the Newell Simon hall where my dept is situated currently. At the ground floor, there is a huge window which looks down upon the ditch where the new building is coming up.

Few days ago, I decided to eat my lunch sitting right next to the huge window looking at the beautiful scene outside what with all the snow covering almost everything. There were some big machines working in at the site. From where I was sitting, I could only see their front part and not the main cabin where the driver sits. They were moving soil and filling up some part of the ditch.

I looked at them for some time and after few minutes it was so easy to believe that they are some huge odd looking autonomous things working on their own. I have read a lot of science fiction in which machines do all sorts of wonderful things, gain a consciousness and even over take the world. Sitting there watching those big crude machines making short graceful movements, I could believe all of that.

But even more than a futuristic vision I felt like I had felt while reading the first part of Specimen Days where a child thinks that machines, big mean machines love their operators and try to grab them as soon as they get a chance. In that world, a old and unsophisticated world, humans and machines co exist in a sort of love hate relationship, not out to destroy one another but still coming to terms with each other, or rather humans coming to terms with machines. Once you start understanding that world, it looks very scary.

That day I felt like I got a glimpse into that world.

Friday, February 23

The B'day cake

I am not sure if there exists any soul on this earth who actually enjoys having a cake all over his/her face on his/her b'day. Still year after year the trend goes on as is evident by the mandatory presence of a "caked face" snap in all the photo albums on Orkut and elsewhere. If nobody likes it (as was indicated by a quick survey I conducted on some of my friends and found only one supporter), then the question is why does it go on? Well I have some theories as always :-)
1. It is encouraged by those who don't like cake. So this way they can bring out all their hidden contempt for cake and do the worst that they can do to it i.e. waste it.
2. A slightly less skeptic view says that people are trying to take revenge for what happens to them on their b'days. So it is a vicious cycle in which we are loosing both fun and cake.
3. A more rational explanation by my sister. She says that people do not like to have it on their own face but they really enjoy putting it on others' faces. Now at any point of time, there is only one person who dislikes the act and many more who like it and so the total amount of happiness generated is more. This is what makes it happen year after year. While this sounds much more logical, this also reflects pretty badly on us. It says that we inherently have double standards and that all of us are a little bit of sadist in our hearts.
So which one of the above fits you best? None? Then you belong to the majority that almost never knows why they are doing what they are doing but since everybody else is doing it, so are they. This is worst. There are so many reasons why it is bad idea to waste a cake like this, you most probably don't like it also and still you are doing it year after year without even knowing why.
As you may have guessed, I absolutely hate it and would go to any length to avoid it. I have bought myself fruit cake instead of a cream cake just to avoid this ritual. I am glad that people around me have been understanding and I have never faced a ugly situation. I am thinking of starting to refuse to step into or click any photographs in a party where a person has cake on his face.
Let me suggest some alternatives. If you don't like cake, say it out aloud and refuse to eat it. It's not a crime to not like cake. If you are trying to take revenge, isn't it better to not let it happen to you to start with? And if you really really enjoy it, carry some colors or something else, something not eatable at least, to put on the face. Wasting food is criminal.
(This was prompted by the images of faces covered in cake in Orkut albums and soon to come Holi.)

Thursday, February 22

Social Networks and patterns

No more poetry, I promise. For sometime at least :-).

I have spend at least a dozen hours in last one week going around orkut randomly. Well, not randomly, there are so many interesting games you can make out of randomness. Like you visit the top most friend of the person you are visiting now and see if you come back to familiar circle or not. If you do, you find out a new way of connections that you didn't know existed before. Or you can surf going only through girls/boys profiles which at time can hit a road block.

While doing all this, I see patterns, very vague ones and in almost all the cases, false ones owing to the nature of human brain which does a selecting strengthening of evidence. But they are interesting anyway. One of those observations is that a good looking person also seems to have on average, good looking (or photogenic if you want to be technically correct) friends. Another one is that often people who have not put up their own picture in profile , will have more friends of similar kind. As you can see, these observations are wrong right on their face. Of course, for any one example in favor, you will find thousands against it.

However my guess is that it still occurs more often than you would expect it to be out of pure chance. That is, given that there is nothing special happening, even then by a sheer chance of luck, you may come across a person who has above characteristic. You may expect to find only one such person in 10k people. My guess is you will find more than one. Has anybody else observed something similar?

Tuesday, February 20

अदा

नये जौहरी नयी अदा वाले,
तौल कर भाव बताने वाले।

सब मिले हैं हमे ज़माने मे,
यार अहसान जताने वाले।

दिल खुदा का है यार का मेरे,
और अंदाज़ ज़माने वाले।

दिल की कालिख है आंख का काजल,
वो हैं आंखों से पिलाने वाले।

नाम कहने को है अभागा पर,
हैं सब अंदाज़ दिवानों वाले।

Sunday, February 11

Language Digest - 5 (Articles/Editorials)

This is the long promised article only edition.

This one comes from Pakistan, lamenting the bad condition of Madarsa education.

Pakistan again, this time a view in favor of the recent step of making English compulsory. Sounds very much like the recent argument of Prasad about English for Dalits.

Continuing on the common thread of Urdu, condition of Urdu press in India is not something to brag about. There is hardly a Urdu news paper that commands a voice at national level or even in a sufficiently big region. Moreover, it works both ways. While Urdu papers carry mostly Muslim centric perspective of problems, Hindi press lacks it to a large extent. Here is an attempt to start a Hindi paper with a Muslim perspective.

Not sure why this article is called "Hegemony of Hindi" and it is not even well written but it notes an interesting point about mother tongue reporting in census data. Read with a grain of salt.

Marathi or Kokani? As the article says ;
India is home to extraordinary diversity- cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic. All such differences ought to be harmonized in a spirit of mutual accommodation rather than through coercive methods of homogenization which may only lead to agitations and revolt.
Here is an interesting reading of the role of English in the rise of Indian nationalism.

The half full glass of an optimist never fails to cheers me up. Here is Mrinal Pandey on the state of Hindi.

Lack of scientific and new vocabulary is a major problem plaguing Indian languages and in fact lot of other languages. This piece reiterates the importance of lexicographical work in a language and makes a case for its active pursuit in our universities.It is said that history is written by winners and languages are no exception.

Now for some heavy reading. Historical linguistics has developed as a discipline in last couple of centuries. One of the major accomplishments of the discipline has been a organization of languages in a genetic tree, showing their mutual relations. But this organization also makes strong claims about history in general and in particular about population diffusion in the yore. A. ananth Kumar questions this view.

And to end, here is a question. While a lot of ads appearing on TV are in Hindi and in other regional languages, why is the packaging often only in English? Why o why?

Thursday, February 8

डरते हैं

डरते हैं ना साकी को हम दिलदार बना लें,
मय को ना ग़म-ए-दिल का चारागार बना लें।

बस्ती से जो गुज़रा तो मुसाफ़िर ने की हसरत,
हम भी ठहर के अपना एक घरबार बना लें।

है चुक गया इंसान के दिल से खुदा का नूर,
कहने को रहे बुत चलो दो चार बना ले ।

दे दो सभी के हाथों मे कलमें-ओ-किताबें,
जुल्म-ओ-सितम से लडने का हथियार बना लें।

ता उम्र बावफ़ा रहीं हैं हमसे अभागा,
मायूसियों को ही न क्यों हम यार बना लें ।

Sunday, January 28

Republic Day !

What a wonderful way of celebrating Republic Day ! I just loved the concept and the wonderful entries. Surely my try out list is a little longer now. :-)

A happy and thoughtful Republic day to everybody. May you become a more responsible citizen in the year to come.

Sunday, January 14

Why we need to look beyond English !

Call centers and BPOs are the poster material for many people these days who firmly believe that English is the way to go forward. I have been trying to see how far their stand goes.

To me the whole hoopla about the necessity of learning English seems more like a rather short sighted view. the BPO and the call center industry primarily serves US and UK now a days. Together they constitute a very small part of the world population. Two of the major developing countries of the world, China and India still have only a rather small portion of their population using English for their daily transactions. The huge number of English speaking population that are reported are a little misleading in this respect.

Consider that India is estimated to have 35 crore English users. For example my father would qualify as a English user since he is able to use it on purpose but he is not comfortable using it in his daily life. Now consider that the developing economies of these countries are creating a huge middle class lead markets which is on the radar of all the major companies of the world. Tomorrow when customer support and call center services would be required for these markets, they will have to come in languages other than English. Reliance has customer support in various Indian languages already.

The current approach completely ignores the potential of the local market and demand for these services. In fact, even apart from local market, there are large parts of world where regional language services (for example Spanish) will open up new markets. Concentrating only on one language in the name of global language would be to loose out on a big opportunity.

I also see the current scenario as a huge opportunity for India and Indian people. For those who believe in looking towards US for inspiration, there is already plenty if they look closely. US is investing huge sums of money in language research and in encouraging students to take up foreign languages. Indians have the advantage of being at least bilingual by default. This is the chance to cash in on that default and expand our expertise to all the various languages and not just English. Already there is a huge market for the translation industry because companies need to translated huge amount of product related documentation in to various languages. EU which has 22 working languages generates a huge amount of translation work. It is an opportunity for not only persons with language skills but also language related technologies.

In a more broader perspective, a lot of digital revolution is still limited to a small part of the world. Now there are two future scenarios. Either it will spread out to all the parts or it will simply not be sustainable because as the world gets connected, the whole chain is only as strong as the weakest link. So let's be optimists and say that indeed the digital divide would be filled and that more and more people would be able to reap its benefits. Now again, we may argue that English is necessary for this to happen and become one of its allies, rooting for adoption of English as a global language or we may see this as a challenge on our part and make the technology more language neutral, make it available to people in the language which they understand best. This way we reach them fast since speed of technological development is always faster than the cultural changes. This way we generate less commotion, face less resistance and most important of all, we save the beautiful things that are languages.

Now that last statement may be lost on many people. Why is it important to save languages? For one rather scientific reason, study of various language and the relations among them gives us important clues about the evolution and spread of man kind on the planet. The huge diversity in various languages gives as an insight in to the human mind and how it works, how it has developed. But more importantly, a language carries with it whole cultures. One language gone is an important part of our heritage gone, wisdom of elders that distilled down the generations gone and one color of the colorful world gone.

Choice is ours and we have to make it now.

The Culture Shock III - Measure for Measure

I hold you as a thing enskyed and sainted;
By your renouncement an immortal spirit,
And to be talked with in sincerity,
As with a saint.
Measure for Measure, 1. 4
USA remains one of the only 3 countries which do not use Metric System of measurement. For somebody coming in from a country that uses metric system, it can be a real pain in the ass. So temperatures are in Fahrenheit, distances are in miles, weights are in pounds and liquids in gallons and I am in trouble. So how do you decide how difficult would it be to walk home from a grocery store which is 1 mile away, carrying 4 pounds of potatoes and 1 gallon milk when the temperature is 60 degree Fahrenheit. I would rather walk and find out. Even now it is so easy to get lulled into the sense of closeness when suddenly a factor 1.6 pops up.

Now I don't have any pro or anti metric stand since I haven't found any huge benefits of one over another. I think it is a matter of getting used to it.
However not everybody shares my opinion and there are people here who see Metric system as an assault on their way of measuring, on their heritage ! For God's sake ! heritage? I would think that there would be better things to hold on to as heritage. Even in India I never heard anyone say that ser should be preserved as a weight measuring unit or kos as a distance measuring unit because they are part of our heritage !

As I see it, the issue is not about one thing being better then the other but about standardization. I don't think there is any country which exclusively uses Metric units. Units like beegha, gaj, tola are still prevalent in India. But having Metric system in public usages makes it easy for people to work smoothly wherever they go.

Common sense would say that US should see least resistance to Metric conversion owing to strong emphasis on science and technology (the moon mission was all in imperial units), a relatively new society with so much diversity which would negate any historical attachments and the large immigrant population who come here well versed in Metric system. But strange are the ways of man !

In fact I got reading about the Metrication efforts in other countries of the world. It seems almost unthinkable that even India converted to Metric system during 1956-1961. Before independence, there was very little or no use of Metric system in India. The conversion was relatively smooth since most of the population was illiterate at that time and so there was no resistance from them. One would usually think that education makes a person more open minded and rational. In this particular case, the situation seems to be completely at odds.

Another strange thing I have noticed here is that there don't seem to be any standard packing sizes, not even in terms of pound and gallons. The Garlic powder I bought yesterday is some 347 gm and some 12.25 oz. And there are all strange packing sizes like this on the shelves. Either I am missing something very basic here or it is yet another trick of the trade that makes price comparison all the more difficult.

Friday, January 12

Faces of Democracy - Czech Dreams with Stolen Eyes

Many overdue posts lurk in the darkness while I sleep and dream the Czech Dream.

Journey of a nation from a communist past to Capitalistic future seen from the eyes of two cynics, I mean in a good way, the kind of cynics every society needs. How the people depraved for years become such a easy target for consumerism - that endless world of cheap deals, huge super stores and feel good experience and how the media plays a associate while claiming innocence. An exchange between the directors and ad agency guys who are a part of the whole game is very telling:
"Maybe you filmmakers lie to people, but we advertisers don't!"
However the film is a very clever one. Not because of the prank but how it pretends to hold up a mirror to a consumerist society but along the way slyly puts the partners in the game, the advertising agency, the media production companies, the market survey companies under scanner. It is them who are the real subject of the movie and the whole prank is just a distraction to catch them when they are most off guard. The camera trains at these people again and again probing their moral values and exposing how most of them exist in a denial of the dilemmas that are all around them, giving themselves shallow justifications for their choices.

This is the kind of movie that everybody in India really needs to see today.

However not with Stolen Eyes. This was a big let down in the whole festival, a movie that I left in between which is very rare for me. Ironically this was a very critically acclaimed film but it seemed such a shallow and superficial affair to me that it was difficult to understand all the praise it has been getting. Many scenes through out the movie looked more like a Nat Geo dramatic adaption then a movie. The historical background in which the movie is set is really saddening and will prove to be heart wrenching in good hands. In 1985, Bulgarian govt decided to rename all the Turk population of the country that has been living there for generations and remove all traces of their culture. It was a ethnic cleansing of horrifying measure but all the strong premise has been royally wasted in the movie. They have tried to do this love story set against this background and failed. The starting part of the movie is a visual treat however due to the beautiful country side and the colorful Turkish culture that it shows but there is little else but frustration of viewer as the movie progresses.

So watch Czech Dreams and open your eyes. I am sure you won't need Stolen Eyes after that :-).

Sunday, January 7

Language Digest - 4 [News]

This dose of LangDig is going to be a pretty big one, owing in part to my extended vacation and in part to the accumulating bits from every edition. I have tried to organize the clips in categories so that they are easy to follow. Some of these stories are now around 1 month old but better late then never ! Also it is broken in two parts, this one being news and the second one being of general articles.

Political:

Let us start by looking at the reactions to the Marathi being compulsory in all the schools. CBSE is not amused. IBN tries to carry out a debate over the recent spat of make-compulsory steps taken in Karnataka and Maharashtra and when Congress has done it, can Bala Saheb be far behind?

Taking a clue from the neighbors, Andhra Govt is considering making sign boards in Telugu compulsory. In a function organized to award Gidugu Smaraka Puraksaram-2006 to C Dharma Rao, who has done lot of work to bring up Telugu, Andhra Pradesh CM said that they will push harder to get classical status for Telugu. State assembly recently passed a resolution about this. On the other hand, Sanskrit lecturers are accusing the state intermediate education board of an attempt to wean away students from Sanskrit.

Among all this, Gujarat govt is introducing programs to improve the English skills of Gujaratis to give them an edge in job market. Also, there were reports that text books in Gujarat have many linguistic errors. That should be the first place to set the things right.

Demands for govt support for Bodo medium schools is being raised by Bodoland Territorial Council.

Upcoming resources:

Open universities are taking steps to provide education to prison inmates in their native languages. Bhojpuri and Rajasthani are being considered to be included in 8th schedule and a committee has recommended that all the 22 languages currently in 8th schedule, should get separate funds for their development in the 11th 5 year plan.

Following RBI guidelines, all public sector banks will now have to provide all the customer output in Hindi in addition to English.

Dayanidhi Maran envisages a parliament with Machine Translation technologies ! I am so glad :-).

BSNL has started providing SMS services in many local languages including Kannada.

Cultural:

A church in Hyderabad that speaks local languages !

The first International Literature Festival of India is happening.

A reference book about Romany, the Gypsy language, is making waves. This language originated in India but is largely extinct now.

A new age film called SMS 6260 is coming out in Feb, 2007. It is based around the SMS culture and has characters speaking upto 11 languages ! Also a Tamil Animation movie, Inimey Naangathaan is slated to be released late this month. It claims to be the first regional language animation movie.

Technical:

A new new portal for Oriya language, odisha.com has been launched which offers mail and search in Oriya language. Another company called guruji.com is working to bring out search for regional languages by developing keyboards for them. Talking of keyboards, HP Labs has been developing a gesture keyboard.

C-DAC is the nodal agency in India working to bring out freely available software tools in all Indian languages. Following up their recent release of software CDs in many languages, they have many plans ahead.

[To be Continued]

Wednesday, January 3

The cynic within me

also wants to have a say, not because it rejoices at the new year but because it sees everybody else rejoicing !

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again !

-- The Who, "Won't get fooled again !"

Monday, January 1

Best wishes !

- Today, tomorrow, next week, next year
- Somewhere a full stop.
- The fear of death
- Of a life again
- Of never waking up
- Of an endless wake
- Of things words don't know of
- Because we go to them in silence
- On the floor of reason
- The what ifs hang
- Protected from love
- walk we safe
- And we count the years
- One two and three
- longing for insecurity
- longing for no name
- craving for loosing the me
- Let this be the year
- Let this be the day
- Let this be the hour
- To you I wish
- Not conquest
- But surrender !

Have a magical and most wonderful year !