Thursday, April 21, 2005

Not as unsafe as you think it is

I have not been traveling by train of late, but that does not mean that my respect for Indian Railways has gone down even a bit. For a railway System that carries 4.2 billion people a year (that's almost the population of the world) every year - the system is extremely safe and robust. I'm a fan, and I believe that it would be unreasonable to be anything but.

Rail accidents are a reality anywhere in the world - even in London and New York - or even on the sparse plains of Siberia. Certainly, not any different India. After all human errors will occur - after all people are human. However, I do take exception to the international press calling the Indian railways a chronically unsafe sytem. As railways go, it is incredibly safe. It's just that when you transport three quarters of the world population every year - some accidents are bound to happen. It's more likely that you shall win a lottery than die in an IR accident. I did not win any lotteries yet - and I am unlikely to do so.

It's not that constructive criticism is not welcome. It's just that labeling it as a decrepit system
is a tad out of sync with reality. IR is probably one of the most well oiled and functional systems in the world. The Guardian says (after that recent accident in Gujarat killing 18)

"Every day at least 13 million people use the state-run network which has poor safety standards and is plagued by accidents"

This typifies the reaction from the international press to any accident in the third world. This shows their utter ignorance of the ground reality of India - and more importantly, an ingnorance of elementary math. Even assuming such an accident occurs once a month, 18 / ( 30 x 13 x 1000000) are odds I can live with. It's more probable that I die while crossing the road - or by a disease.

Perhaps changes are required in the railways. Perhaps it's time we started to respect our envirnoment a little more - and incorporated a little more sophisticated waste disposal system in the railways bathrooms. If only our stations were cleaner....

But look at what the railways have done to keep up with the times. IR has elecrified most important routes - and has a very robust and error free computerised ticketing system on par with any international system - and is contemplating online monitoring of coaches. IR has also improved catering on almost all trains - the food is quite edible now-a-days. The delays are on the decline, of late - and the introdcution of air conditioned 3 tier sleeper cars has the luxury of air conditioning (for such it is in India) within grasp of the massive Indian middle class.

Indian railways is among the cheapest-to-travel-in railways in the world, a massive subsidy to the masses (from the AC class travelers?). This subsidy has managed to keep India together - since there is no other concievalble connection between the distant north and the south - and even the north east. Any compromise on this subsidy might be playing around with the unity of India.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Injustice of a Bribe

What I am saying now is, probably, quite obvious to most people. Bribes are bad. Corruption is bad. But I contend that corruption is inevitable and mocks the very concept of a democracy (which guarantees a level playing field). Democracy in a corrupt nation is a farce.

The Great Indian Road Trick

Picture yourself cruising along one of the roads in an Indian city in your Maruti 800. You're in a hurry - so you jump a traffic light - a practise common in most smaller Indian towns. And suppose a policeman catches you. The rule book has it that a fine should be imposed on you, the sinner. But a crisp Rs 50 note changes hands - and you go back to jumping lights.

Petty Corruption. Can this be stopped?

A job as a policeman in India isn't as glamorous as that of an officer in the U.S. It is somewhat a menial job with a very low salary. These small bribes that change hands are all an unofficial part of the pay package of a policeman. This payscale, everyone has to follow. I say 'has to follow' because the salary otherwise will be utterly inadequate to feed a family. A vicious cycle. However, this corruption is inoccuous; it acts as a deterrent to bad driving - and there is no overall loss to society.

Clinching a Deal

However, clinching a deal usually requires a large payout to some middleman somewhere. Be it getting admitted into a school, securing raw material for a manufacturing concern, manufacturing coffins for the army, you name it. And here is where the level playing field collapses. The poor entrepreneur seldom has the resources to bribe his way through. A rich corporate on the other hand (such, as say a Birla, A Tata, A Sahara or even an Ambani) has plenty of resources. If bribing is the only way to secure a deal, a rich corporate would be in a better position to secure it. And thus collapses a level playing field. Thus collapses equality.

Democracy in the absence of equality

One of the basic axioms of democratic existence in India is that everyone is equal. It is boldly proclaimed in the constitution. We all swear by it - and some of us actually believe it. But with the collapse of the level playing field - we see that almost all opportunities go to the richer class - regardless of merit. This is when democracy metamorphisizes into hypocrisy. And this facade of democracy is a very effectively shields the dark underbelly of India - a society ridden by corrpution - a society which is prejudiced toward the rich.

It's not just India. The entire world suffers from this - but chooses to ignore this - be it the Mighty USA or the impoverished Africa. But usually, the scales are larger in poorer countries. America is probably more of a democracy. India will take some time to get there. People need to get richer first.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

An Unequal Race

India has an area of roughly 3 million square kilometers. It houses a billion people. Its northern provinces of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand itself house 300 million people. 5% of all the people in the world.

America has close to 10 million square kilometers of area. It has a population touching 300 million. Three times the area of India and one third of India’s population. America is a rich land – it has lots of minerals, massive oil deposits, vast stretches of extremely salubrious climate, reliable water supply, lots of rivers…….

Australia has seven and a half million square kilometers in area. Its population borders around 20 million, a figure which Bombay’s population shall beat in a few years. It has an area more than double that of India, but houses only a negligible fraction of the population. The inhabited land is fertile – and the climate is salubrious.

The third world is not downtrodden by its volition. Its people are not any worse than the inhabitants of richer lands. They are just worse off. Ridiculing a third world nation is the hare ridiculing the tortoise. Not fair. You can’t have all the minerals, all the good climate, all the natural resources and mock someone else.

Expecting the third world to ever rise to such levels is probably impossible; but something wonderful is happening in India. The developed world brings children into a life of luxury and plenty. A satisfaction sets in, which prevents any ambition. Very few people from developed nations like to become professionals. In stark contrast, necessity ensures that more then a hundred thousand Indians take up engineering every year. An order of magnitude higher than USA. The best minds in India might become worldwide leaders of tomorrow. But the best minds of America might be stock-boys in the local Walmart. But then again, the best minds of India might languish undiscovered in some nondescript farming town miles away from a large city, as they probably are.

We still have a long way to go. But we sure have a better future than the developed world.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Satisfying ways of doing nothing

I, the owner of a computer inhabited by M$ software of doubtful authenticity had recently realized that M$ is a monopolist. Since it is a monopolist, it can't be all that good - as there is a loss to the society whenever there is a monopolist around. Elementary economics tells us so. Irked by this deduction, I decided to spend all my idle time (which could mean my entire life) on figuring out the intricacies of alternate software distributions.

There are many Linii around. There's the ubiquitous Mandrake - and the tribal Ubuntu or the impossible Debian - not to mention Fedora, Gentoo, Vector Linux, Suse, Novell....... Installing each of these versions is a rather challenging affair, and a nice way to spend half an hour.

The problem with most Free/Open source software is, of course, the geeky documentation and the rather steep learning curve. M$ Word is intuitive and easy; LATEX is impossible for a person who does not have a background in C/C++/Java/Vi. Oofice, if it ever opens, is hardly a replacement - and MPlayer needs to be compiled from source. The Samba server is benevolent: it reaches a state where you share data with others easily - but getting data from others is almost impossible. All these problems are not problems, actually. They were designed that way. Onky the perseverent geek shall survive.

It isn't that extra little bit of functionality that people use Free Software for. It's for the fun in learning it. Writing a technical document (My Master's Thesis) in Word is what you would call a bore. (Usually, anything you have to do with a mouse is a bore - such as equation editor - perhaps with the exception of a gem of a game called 'Copter'). Add to this ennui of writing equations using equation editor, the ennui of putting references and figures in order.

That's why I turned to LATEX. Though I am almost positive that it shall take me less time to compile the entire thesis in M$ Word, the intellectual thrill of composing a document in TEX bears no M$ paralells. Word is like building a mansion and living in it. TEX is like building a hut (poor ol' vi!) and then finding out (after compiling and looking at the pdf) that the hut is actually a palace. It is this thrill that has me hooked on to TEX. Not common sense. Just a drug-like addiction.

We do have this amazing program called Fluent (which assumes an almost biblical status to most Master's Students here at IIT Madras) which solves the bitch (the N-S equations) with all sorts of turbulence models thrown in. But people still like to write their own code - to get the same results. This often takes them more than a year - and a lot of agony. But they march on - criticism notwithstanding. After a lot of trials and tribulations they try to compate their results with the same Fluent. They fine tune their code till they agree with Fluent. The thrill of getting your own method to work is amazing. But doesn't it border on masochism?

Coming back to the point: There are a lot of times when you can do a lot in Linux: you can work very hard; spend a very satisfying morning working on trying to get something to work; learn about the beautiful intricacies of OS design but your actual problem is something else. Linux is an amazingly satisfying way of doing nothing. Most students do nothing anyway; so they love Linux. I do too.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Is it a good idea?

Walking around in the IIT campus right now (an activity indulged in only by the intrepid under the hostile Chennai Sun) will certianly result in you running into the Aideu'05 posters. The graduands' farewell, though indeed and annual function, is never considered a big deal enough to publicise by posters. An IP on the notice board usually did the trick. So, why are there so many posters all over the place?

On a closer perusal of the posters , I found that they had sponsors' logos smeared all over the bottom. This solved the riddle. Years later, we will remember that Saint Gobain helped see us of at IIT Madras. This is not isolated occurence. IIT Madras has been growing more commercial of late. Our festivals (Shaastra and Saarang) have reached mammoth proportions - with sponsors giving money and demanding their pound of flesh.

Event coordinators are not forgiven if their event goofs up. They are hunted down by a quality control team; they are hunted down by sponsors for goofing up. These festivals are losing their amateur nature - and are becoming more professional year by year. Why, we even have the ISO for our Tech-fest. The campus is gradually becoming the big bad world itself.

This growing professionalism has created problems similar to those encountered in the real world. The press (the Shaastra newsletter) was stifled; criticisms of articles were hidden in order to retain the ISO. Events were covered by that oh-so-uncomfortable video camera.

Sponsors think that they own the festival just because they paid a little money. The only problem is that they actually do own the festival. Any oversights by the sponsorship coordinators and cores could result in a big mess. I recall an Ad in a national daily which forgot to mention a main sponsor. All hell broke loose. I remember writing a rather cynical article in the newsletter about it.

These festivals are all about having a good time and having fun. They are obviously viewed as marketing opportunities by a large number of sponsors - and they are indeed right. As long as they do not interfere with the people having a good time.

As of now, they are not interfering with people having a good time. But it is moving in that direction. The 'have a good time' motto of a festival is changing to 'make a lot of money'. These festivals are gradually becoming all about human greed. A good idea? I don't know.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Planet Xob

Planet Xob isn't a good place to live in.

Goods that normal Xob people use such as clothes and televisions and even manufacturing equipment comprise only a fraction of the Gross International Xob Product. A sizable chunk of it is a redundancy, viz. weapons - usually manufactured only by certain technologically developed nations. Weapons that everyone tries not to use, but needs to possess for national security; but weapons that can kill all the same. A significant chunk of the Xob's resources are trapped in these weapons. Resources that could help eradicate poverty are spent in making atomic bombs; resources that could be used to predict tsunamis are used to build battle tanks.

The people who actually rule planet Xob are not politicians. Politicians are people who draw attention away from power - like Zaphod Beeblebrox. Politicians are puppets. The actual rulers are a set of corporations trying to maximize their profits. They are instrumental in trapping Xob's resources in redundant weapons. They also control a large section of the media. They have their branches in almost all the nations that constitute Xob. They parade around under the name 'MNC's.

Demand for weapons is kept alive by orchestrated disputes, also called wars in local Xob lingo. Having installed power hungry egomaniacs (using a procedure called electoral funding) as leaders of all nations ( democratic* and totalitarian), large corporations see to it that these states are at war with each other almost perpetually. However, though quite rare, things are known to go wrong for corporates every now and then: the leaders actually start making peaceful overtures toward each other! Xob corporates have a remedy for this irksome scenario: civil war. Fund some guerrillas with some specious cause. Human (also the intelligent life form on Xob) greed will see to it that fighting goes on. This policy has been known to be extremely successful - especially in an AIDS ravaged equatorial continent.

Once a nation finds a dispute within itself, international opinion is influenced by stories on the mainstream press. Since almost all mainstream media is owned by the same corporations that manufacture weapons a bias is introduced into the news - in a manner subtle enough to fool the masses. The Media executives do learn a lot a finesse at Business School.

Weapons are manufactured by the prosperous nations. Lots of jobs hinge on the purchase of these weapons by poorer nations. There have been many instances when the poorer nations decide not to procure these weapons - perhaps due to a sudden bout of pacifism. Then the rich countries try the age old trick of pampering the competition of the poor nation by selling them some new weapons. Competitive pressure - temporary good relations with the competing nation notwithstanding - requires that similar weapons be procured by the poor nation - either from the rich nation in question or any other rich nation. These acquisitions help drag the rich nations out of a recession. Thus, the poor man pays the rich man's debt.

The rich nations, however, outsouce simpler non sensitive work to the poorer nations. When the poorer nations start getting a little money from these jobs, a backlash in the rich land restricts the number of jobs that change hands.

Doesn't Xob seem a particularly depressing and dishonest planet? Thank god I don't live on Xob. After all, Planet Earth is a much better place than Xob.

* As per the folklore of certain parts of Planet Xob, Democracy is the from of government in which people write the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper and drop it in a box. Then the box is misplaced - and a random number generator (developed by of the corporates mentioned earlier) is used to determine the winner.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Gender Determination

Sex determination of the unborn child is considered a crime. Authorities are scared that if the birth of the male child is preferred, a proportional decline in the female population (compared to the male) is imminent. Low sex ratios in most Indian states confirm this.

This prejudice against female offspring is reprehensible - to the extent of being deplorable from an individual and a moral point of view. I would never indulge in such practices - and would never befriend anyone who is known to do so. But that is my point of view.

But consider this. If a family does not like a girl child (as some narrow minded Indian families don't) - and considers a the responsibility of parenting the same onerous - then we ask: should they be forced to have a girl child in the first place? It is extremely likely that they shall exploit the child - both sexually and physically. Is letting the child be born humane?

A concequence of girl child not being born, is the dip in the sex ratio. Lots of people contend that this dip in the sex ratio is unhealthy. But look at what it does: it reduces the population of that particular section of society - which would be better for soicety as a whole - as, essentially, it is that illiterate and ignorant section of society which creates population problems anyway. So is sex prediction, despite being extremely morally reprehensible a blessing in disguise?

After all, women give birth. If we have less women around (especially in the poorer sections, where such prejudices are rife) - then wouldn't it reduce the population of the nation in the long run? It is more likely that the population that it would be reducing would be that of unskilled workers. Less poverty? Better economic progress? More happy people? Is the recent legislation (passed by some state legislatures) banning sex determination tests populist politics? After all, 50% of the population is female. Their votes are invaluable.

This topic is a potential minefield. I already have faced fierce criticism from an outraged woman when I mooted this idea. She held that a low sex ratio would encourage sexual exploitation - more desperate men..... you get the idea.

I am sure that lots of people, not unlike the aforementioned woman will be repelled and disgusted by this idea. I'm not comfortable with this idea myself. I would like to discuss this with others and see what they think of about this. Your comments are welcome.