Thinking out loud

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

TOI bashing

For any of you who thought the Times of India was unnecessarily berated for poor journalism, here is another entertaining headline (the "funniness" becomes clear when one reads the actual article)

"Al-Qaeda suspect killed in Kenya bombing"

ISLAMABAD: An Egyptian al-Qaeda member wanted for his role in the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Kenya was killed by Pakistani forces close to the Afghan border, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said on Thursday ...

Photoblog - now with RSS feed

Yup! I've created an RSS feed for "Glimpses of India", my photoblog. Now get notified when I post new photographs...
Glimpses of India RSS Feed

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Well it has been a complete let down, frankly. We've been watching Webaroo for quite a while now. So many IITians have worked for them by now and on apparently very interesting things too. There were people working on image compression, video compression, information retreival, etc. They spent money too. Pizzas for lunch... etc etc. I was pretty excited about Webaroo myself. With them spending so much money on interns and the kind of work going on, I was expecting some spectacular products to be announced. Come 10th April and the only expression I had was - "What? All this for a webpack?"

And what a webpack too. A friend tells me that the Mumbai webpack does not throw up IIT Bombay in its search results. Ok, you can say I have an inflated ego but come on, I'd still say IIT should be there in a Mumbai-only webpack. In any case, the whole idea is indigestible. Lots of people have already pointed out several problems with the concept.

1. hard-disk space on laptops is expensive. Does 40 gigs of webpack make sense?
2. a webpack for cellphones? how many MBs did you say? duh?
3. anyone who knows he'll be away from a network connection (as when travelling on an international flight) for an extended period would simply download relevant stuff he'd want to read - well maybe this does not hold that much water, but fine.
4. connectivity is exploding. Beyond a certain threshold it does not matter how much hard-disk space you have. Is this a product to just act as a filler for the time when connectivity becomes ubiquitous, even in aircrafts? (yes, even today you can get network connectivity there, albeit at a fairly high cost and only on some carriers).
5. The internet is an interactive medium. Once you "download" it, the interactivity is essentially gone. You can't read email, can't eshop, etc. so what's the point.

Those are common arguments that are raised. I, however, had other questions on my mind. The first is that of copyright infringement. What Webaroo is offering is basically redistribution of content from the web. Now such material could be copyrighted and yet make it into their webpack (if it doesn't, quite a lot of good content would be absent). Google only stores it in an index for searching, so perhaps that's fair use. But giving it away as a product... is that fair use?

Second, what about websites that make money by online advertisements? Aren't they losing revenue because there obviously cannot be ad-tracking? So isn't Webaroo running at the expense of other site owners?

As I said, I was pretty much disappointed with Webaroo. So much research for (in my opinion) a fairly crappy product. Maybe they have something else hidden away; waiting for the right time to announce it. Maybe, just maybe. One hopes. Meanwhile, I'm just happy IIT has given me a 24 hour net connection and I can blog at 4 AM in the morning.

[Wait! Maybe people in IIT Chennai would like to download this stuff; what with LAN down during the night... just a thought]

[I remembered a joke I heard years ago. It was basically when the internet was only entering common vocabulary. This guy walks up to a computer store owner with a floppy and says - "can you give me a copy of the internet on this floppy?". It was pretty lame even then but I think the Webaroo guys got serious about it. Floppy maybe not, but an HD-DVD surely (or Blu-Ray disc, depending on which camp you're in)]

Saturday, April 08, 2006

On reservations and national progress

Gurcharan Das, in his book "India Unbound", laments the fact that India has failed to become a tiger, moving forward in leaps and bounds, but is instead more like an elephant, lumbering ahead slowly, occasionally even taking a step backwards. Well, we just took one step backwards and there is talk that there will be an even bigger one soon.

One of our esteemed national leaders with all his intelligence and social goodwill has announced that he plans to allow reservations for the OBCs in the so-called higher centers of learning. This will take the percentage of reserved seats to just below 50%. This certainly should be good news. The backward classes will now have access to higher learning. They will use this higher learning to get better jobs and use their new wealth, position and influence for the emancipation of others of their own lot. This is good; very good. Only there is a problem - the problem of equity. As grown-ups, we are expected to understand that some sacrifices have to be made for the overall development of this country. This itself is a difficult task but wait, the problem is worse. Consider the plight of an 18 year old, who does not get admission to IIT because of this high reservation. Try explaining to him why a student with much lesser ability is eligible to go to the dream institute while he is not. Its easy to explain meritocracy; its not easy to explain caste-based discrimination. To him, it is an opportunity lost because of an individual from another caste. It is difficult to see how it leads to healthier feelings among children of different castes. I see this system fostering bitterness - that's all.

To overcome this problem, it has been suggested that the number of seats in these institutes be increased so that the actual number of students from general categories need not be reduced. This sounds fair but lets not rush to conclusions. What this proposal means is that the intake into these institutes should be increased by over 50%; i.e. for example, an IIT should increase its intake from around 500 students each year to over 750 students a year. This increases its total student population from 4400 to 6600 students. A noble thought; unfortunately extremely short-sighted. These institutes are barely managing to provide the quality of infrastructure that their peers in other places are providing. "India is a poor country. We cannot afford to provide those facilities. We have to first focus on bringing everybody at par". This is how the argument goes. In my opinion, if we spend all our time "bringing everybody at par", we will never move to the next phase.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that students among the SC/ST/OBCs are not capable. I'm saying that they should be provided support at primary and secondary levels. Tremendous support. I'm all for it. However, should we do it at the expense of other students? Probably not.

As if it is not bad enough that they are pushing reservations our institutes of national pride, they now want to push it onto private companies. To my mind, this is an outrage. Companies become profitable because of meritorious/talented people. Also, companies (typically) do not indulge in caste based discrimination while hiring. They look for talent. When they find it, they hire it. Having been given all the opportunities (read reservations at every level of education) if a student does not manage to raise his capabilities to work usefully for a company, is it society's responsibility anymore? People like Narayanmurthy apparently support such reservation. Naturally. They don't care. They have tonnes of places where they can absorb less-skilled people - they have call centers. On the other hand, consider the case of Google or GoldmanSachs and the like. As soon as such a rule is passed, these companies will wind up their business and run off in a jiffy. Their businesses are incredibly mobile. They offshored to India. They can offshore to China (or Taiwan, Singapore, Japan...). At a time when such companies are generating so much economic activity (and even perhaps revenues) in the country, can we afford to lose them?

I love this country and hope to do my bit. However, if this hare-brained scheme for "bringing equity within the country" ever makes it to the law-books, I will lose hope. I'm sure many like me, and more capable than me, will lose hope too. Perhaps then it will be time to leave in search of other lands....