Category Archives: Tech-talk

Canned corn at Google’s cost

Bessie Braddock (to Winston Churchill): Winston, you’re drunk.

Churchill: Bessie, you’re ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober.


George Bernard Shaw showing scorn and resentment at corny humour such as this poem

This exchange (perhaps apocryphal like any other exchange attributed to Churchill) is up there for no particular reason. I find it funny and that quite suits.

Well, here’s another poem and like my previous poem blogs, again not by me, but in reaction to email dissemination of my attempts at serious rhyme through poem. In response to fierce criticism through email that in the real world could have translated to egg on my face, I retorted with the life experience of George Bernard Shaw and his travails at finding a publisher for his work for nine years. Of course, the implication in invoking Shaw being that I may somehow be of such a kind. A good friend from  this lab which has some science on its menu had this to say:


Please desist from the literary arts
Yours stink worse than lighted farts
If at all you must persist
Then let your works be lost in mist

By mist I mean oblivion
Forever and ever – time AND space
We are not your guinea pigs
So spare us all, the human race

You would be better received on Mars
Where life forms are not yet sentient
Go recite to rocks and fungi
At least they’ll be more patient

And if this is a dent to your ego
I hope it comes well in time
For failure after much persistence
Is like your work, an empty rhyme

Coming from a person with as corny a sense of humour as corn itself, I chose to make it funnier using a recent and under-utilised humour tool, called Google Translate. Yes, as useful as it might be for writing emails in our own languages (even Indic ones now!), it can be used very effectively for humour. Running this poem through Google Translate produces:

कृपया साहित्यिक कला से विरत
तुम्हारा जला farts बदबू से भी बदतर
अगर तुम सब पर दृढ़ रहना चाहिए
तो फिर अपने काम करता है धुंध में खो दिया जा

धुंध तक मैं विस्मरण का मतलब
हमेशा के लिए और कभी – समय और स्थान
हम अपने गिनी सूअरों नहीं कर रहे हैं
इसलिए हम सभी को छोड़ दो, मानव जाति

आप बेहतर मंगल ग्रह पर प्राप्त होगा
जहां जीवन रूपों अभी तक संवेदनशील नहीं हैं
चट्टानों और कवक को सुनाना जाओ
कम से कम वे अधिक रोगी हो जाएगा

और अगर यह अपने अहंकार के लिए एक गड्ढा है
मुझे आशा है कि यह समय में अच्छी तरह से आता है
बहुत हठ के बाद असफलता के लिए
अपने काम, एक खाली कविता की तरह है

And that is how you can have canned corn at Google’s cost!

A recipe for free lunch

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch

Milton Friedman, Nobel-prize winning free market economist

Haroon, a colleague from Panacea asked about FOSS, “Who is marketing it, if it is really so good?”. It is an interesting question with the implication that it may not really be so good, otherwise, why aren’t so many of us already using it!

I strongly feel that FOSS is the next in technology. There was a time when innovation was driven by funding and money. You launch a company, make lots of money and hire the best talent and produce a wonderful software. But, the very nature of the internet and the inherent ‘symmetry of information‘ between the designer, user and the owner of software prevents unreasonable run-away profits! It is not like in health care where the patient and the community have no clue about the surgical process or technique. In the case of software, the community is as well informed, or sometimes better informed than the designer or owner of the software. The only way to make your software best, is to co-opt the community in the development. Of course, it is your choice as to what level of co-opting you would do. The farther you go on that spectrum of involving the community in development, greater are your advantages.

Of course, then Haroon’s logic of why everybody around is not using FOSS still applies. Well, here is the issue. In many countries in the South, the rampant availability of pirated free software like Windows is the problem. It speaks so much of the proprietorship over software, when intuitively, people use software without paying and many are surprised that these actually cost a huge amount! Many of my colleagues are simply ‘used’ to proprietary software, and if faced with paying in retail value for these software, would quickly look for free alternatives. In a world where many would not use IE even if given money, we can see that the transition is beginning.

And it is not as if the big guys do not see this. No company today remains exclusively in software. There is no money in it. Who knows, the next door neighbour may have a better go at an OS than a multi-million dollar corporation! That is how this ‘market’ of software works, not like health care where the asymmetry of information between the provider and the user is phenomenal.

So, there you go, there may not be a free lunch, but FOSS is definitely the recipe to prepare one for yourself! And if you get your recipe in GPL, better inform the recipe owner about that extra salt that you added after the tomatoes!

Kindling myself

Front view of Kindle 2

Ahem….before the naughty ones go overboard on this one, I am talking about my new gadget acquisition. Well, not yet really an acquisition, but, my new Amazon Kindle, an addition to the assortment of extensions to my phenotype, is soon going to be shipped to India. After much ado on “to buy or not to buy”, against all reason, economics and rationality, I placed my order online for the Kindle.

What is Kindle?
Kindle is Amazon’s gadget for reading ebooks. It does a bunch of things. Among many great features it has, is the eInk feature that makes text appear like paper on the reader without glare or backlight. It is very portable, with a great battery life and books can be dowloaded via 3G (whenever that makes it to Bangalore) or through GPRS (which is a good patience test). Enough said by somebody who is yet to own a Kindle…..anyways, all this is secondary information which you can find online in a bunch of places. Chirag gives us a good idea of what to expect here.

Ordering a Kindle in India appears to be quite a task. Amazon is loath to selling their products through the guy down the street, and they do not have an Indian site either.  Chirag seems to have navigated through some thick red tape and so did Rollercoaster. Am hoping that Bangalore is better and I dont have to sign such declarations here, but we’ll soon see.

For those of you who are wondering about its name, there is some complicated connections established to Candle, through Old Norse kyndill. Kindle does mean to set afire, get aroused etc. anyways. Of course, there are all those theories about how Amazon named its product thus to indicate a metaphorical ‘burning away’ of books because of the advent of such a device. All this lateral thinking apart, I am still yet (and probably never will) to get over those good ol’ paper books that mess up my table.

Anyways, apparently this guy (who I am sure charged Amazon more than a candle) gave the name to the product based on the aforementioned Norse connection. For my southern friends, there is no connection to Kindal in Tamil which means “to tease”, that in turn might cause arousal. For a good analysis of Kindal of Tamil, Kindle in Norse and many other homophonic words, see Bala Gopalan’s post on inderSTADT.

There I am, waiting for my Kindle.

Aint no pedia like Wikipedia

Gracula religiosa is the latin name of the Hill Myna, a beautiful bird seen along the Western Ghats and associated South Indian hills. It is one of the endemic birds here and has recently been elevated to a full species, and rechristened Southern Hill Myna. Not getting into the boring details of why this was done, and how this is relevant to anybody, the above image introduces you to the similar looking forms of this bird, found across several areas and islands in South and Southeast Asia. Now, whether these other forms are actually the brothers of the myna we see in places in the Western Ghats or cousins, once, twice or thrice removed is the boring taxonomic question. Pages and pages of literature are available on the above and lists are often updated. Particularly, bird families such as warblers are prone to causing confusion and consternation, both in the field as well as in literature!

Now, this beautiful illustration that is used in a small corner of the article on the hill myna is created by a volunteer editor and a friend for Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia…..the one that ‘anybody can edit’. Well, almost….and that is exactly the problem for Evgeny Morozov. In an article for the Boston Review, he presents his viewpoint on the way wikipedia is being run (or not run).

Illustrations like the one that Shyamal has created are created voluntarily and for illustrating wikipedia articles. However, the fact that people like Shyamal have put up these illustrations in Wikimedia commons under a license that permits anybody to use it, especially for non-commercial and educational purposes evokes intrigue and incomprehensibility for Morozov. He asks “Why do Wikipedians spend countless hours improving the site, often doing mundane, repetitive tasks they would never do for money?” It is a very well articulated question? And it would be too romantic of me to profess, greater common good or information equity as answers. While such lofty ideas do drive many contributions, many others are there for much more mundane reasons – geekiness, exercising authority and many others for sheer fun.

Wikimedia commons is an immense repository of over 5,000,000

Scan of the front page of an 1838 Danish newspaper

Scan of the front page of an 1838 Danish newspaper

images and media contributed by the same ragtag lot that is alluded to in the article by Morozov. These are today being used widely in schools, colleges, research presentations and to illustrate scientific work as well! The site encourages reuse, if necessary with modification in as many words! For me, this is an expression of information equity. An effort at bringing information of all kinds on a platform where it is easily usable by anybody, with no tags attached. Just that, if achieved, I would view any number of articles that happen on Wikipedia as just a fringe benefit. And what I see is much more than fringe, and a lot more than benefit.

Morozov’s rant on Wikipedia spurred a few thoughts of mine that are neglected in his piece.

Bureaucracy was expected

Morozov brings up the valid argument that bureaucracy is choking the cyclopaedia. No large institution was ever run as in a fly-by-wire manner in which small NGOs or garage-based companies are run. Bureaucracy is an expected consequence of such a mass collaboration. If you compare wikipedia to countries, it started off as a kingdom (very briefly in the beginning), progressed to run like a small NGO, then a garage-based company, but now the numbers are just too much! Yes, it does need a bureaucracy to sustain it. In the Mintzberg prism, this would be a transition of Wikipedia as an adhocracy initially into a mechanistic bureaucracy. Yes, it is unfortunate.

Growth of Wikipedia is plateauing

After the few million articles that got created, what did anybody expect? The development that is going to happen over the next few years is going to be much more on quality. Wikignomes go about improving citations, checking spellings, inserting quotations and italicising Latin names of biota. In isolation, all of these are ‘those mundane edits’ that Morozov talks about, but in summation, they add up to much more.

The demography of wikipedia

“Wikipedians are 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, and around 70 percent of them are under the age of 30.” I am male, single, without a child and around 30! I am a fairly representative sample of a Wikipedian editor. Now, Morozov intends to portray this as a consequence of Wikipedia. I believe this to be the cause.

In July 2003 Lih joined the then-two-year-old encyclopedia, and within a few months became one of its administrators. (That a novice could move up so quickly illustrates how badly Wikipedia needed talent in its early days.)

Being an administrator is not an award for editing or a promotion of sorts. Morozov confuses the designation of admin on wikipedia to be that of a higher caste of editors, while in fact, many prolific content contributors are not admins. They don’t choose to be either. I will not get into this, but the wikipedia I see and the one he sees are quite different.

Experts are forced to engage in pointless debates with Wikipedia’s bureaucratic guardians, many of whom are persuaded only by hyper links, not cogent arguments.

Scientific collaboration and networking among professionals has increased many times through Wikipedia. Biologists across the world interact with others for identification of photographs. They share data, viewpoints and arguments. There are curators of leading museums among the editorial team at Wikipedia. These get missed out in the bad biographical articles that get picked up by the media. It is nice and easy to write a polemical piece by choosing the skeletons from Wikipedia’s cupboard (which is open for all to see, by the way), but not an easy task to appreciate the meticulousness with which several professionals and amatuers collaborate in this internally chaotic, but wonderful exercise….a bit like…ahem…life itself. In an era, where divorces between erstwhile lovers is so high, how could anybody expect seamless co-existance of a few thousand editors from across the globe writing on issues from Palestine conflict to fellatio in fruit bats!

That Wikipedia is chaotic, bureaucratic, plateauing in growth and biting newcomers is all quite well known and has been said before. Morozov deserves credit for putting these things together in one essay. But, seeing the end of Wikipedia round the corner is more than just speculation.

I have spent a few thousand edits and a few hours on Wikipedia. I continue to, in fact. Recently, I was impressed by an article in a scientific journal calling for wikipedia contributions from scientists, more as a professional responsibility rather than some late evening altruism. But like most others (I presume), my work on Wikipedia has been immensely satisfying for me. A side-effect of this was that several article got written or improved. And that is the strength of Wikipedia. It never had the great grand vision that our chieftain evangelises around the globe. The stuff he talks about happens is a side-effect, which is not at all bad for me or for Wikipedia. It is only people who have charted some kind of a yardstick for Wikipedia that keep getting disappointed.

Anyways, the point I am trying to make is that Wikipedia is the best we have. The mundane editing that happens is an inescapable consequence of keeping the encyclopaedia open. The governance is transparent and open to criticism. It is much too early to pass a judgement on online content collaborations such as the one that Wikipedia is leading. The delicate balance between conserving professionalism and keeping alive collaboration by amateurs is being managed brilliantly by Wikipedia. Other spin-offs which tweaked the balance some slightly, and others more towards the professional, are slowly fading away. We could do a China, and legislate articles, or blow up internally like a banana republic….but, well, at wikipedia, we choose democracy. Democracy comes at a high price, and we pay that for Wikipedia. It is slower to get that damned card from the ‘sarkari’ office, but hey, at least, I do not have to get orders about my future from a colonel!

In as much as Morozov points out these things like the extreme bureaucratisation, ‘biting of newcomers’ and the flawed model in adminship and regulation of biographical articles, he is absolutely right. There are umpteen discussions ongoing in the back alleys of Wikipedia on all these. Change will come slowly, and that is a flaw. But there is no better way to it.

And, still that ultimate question is not answered which I have put up on my user page

“This user believes that anyone who thinks Wikipedia is an unreliable source should continue their quest to find a better website.”

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons/Shyamal

Ping is my birthright and I shall have it…

I have a dream….

If Martin Luther King were born in the forests of BR Hills in Southern Karnataka during the nineties, apart from perhaps running into Veerappan, he could’nt have expected more adventure. Nonetheless, I am sure he would still have had a dream.

His dream would have to do much more with owning a television and watching an action film. It may have been about having a bulb at home and a tap with water. It may have been about seeing the insides of a car or wearing colourful clothes. These are some dreams that a ML King look-alike, Ketha has in BR Hills.

Ketha from Gombegallu

Ketha from Gombegallu

Ketha is a Soliga tribal boy far removed from the realities that some of us take for granted. He does not have a facebook profile and the only tweets he hears are that of a a bird which shares his name, the Kethanakki, named after a tribal god’s coming that this bird announces promptly. He lives in a small hamlet within a wildlife sanctuary.

His life is a part of several debates in which he has no voice. There is for example the school of thought on development that wonders why indigenous tribal people are being ‘developed’. What about erosion of their culture? Another argues passionately that the fruits of development (Facebook and twitter included!) cannot be denied to them. The State refers to him as marginalised and has scheduled him.He is one of the 400-odd tribes in India constituting 8 per cent of our population.

Another group of people strongly believe that he and his kind living in protected areas are in fact the obstacle to the conservation of our forests. Wherever, man and wildlife have tried co-existance, some say has ended in a diasaster. Inviolate areas for wildlife are touted as a prerequisite for any conservation strategy. Others weave a more utopian reality for Ketha, suggesting that conservation of wildlife and human livelihoods can go together. Others nuance it further saying that this has definitely happened in some areas. Ketha, of course is blissfully unaware of such realities.

Where would he read these debates? In the textbooks….

Hardly….In the textbooks, Ketha finds references to events, he cannot understand even….such as September 9/11 terror attacks on the US. While, this chapter in the 9th Standard English textbook of Karnataka State Board makes a good effort at trying to convey to Ketha what a watershed these attacks were for global politics, it perhaps misses the boat on connecting with him on issues closer home such as tigers, tribal people or traditional knowledge.

What about the internet? Hardly. Ketha has no access to the internet. Having a local NGO run a school itself is such a privilege for him, when compared to his other tribal brothers in other areas.Perhaps, on the internet, Ketha could have participated in these debates that adorn journals and blogs.

Ketha and Pareto come to my mind as I read the recent guarantee of broadband internet access to every Finn as a fundemental right. I still remember joking about how I am waiting for the day when the Indian State will guarantee 2 Mbps per citizen with unlimited download as a fundemental right. Less than a year from my joke, a country that Ketha has never perhaps heard of, has guaranteed it. Recently, when Michael Moore made that wonderful ‘reality show’ called Sicko, he apparently removed scenes shot about the Norwegian health care system, because, nobody would believe it!

Anyways, my point is that there is today within Ketha’s lifetime, a country where broadband internet access has been granted as a fundemental right, while in Ketha’s country, we are still wondering how to give him and his kind a good primary education.

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