Of harlots and men.

Short post, just a few random thoughts. Been doing the Bangalore-Mysore trip quite a few times in the past few months, and usually reach the station at B’lore late in the evening (Since I don’t believe in political correctness, BengaLuru won’t appear more than this one time). A walk through the subway to the bus station from the railway station transports you quite literally (and metaphorically) to the underbelly of this silicon(e?) valley wannabe.

Women lined up, reclining against the subway walls, which are stained with chewed betel leaves, showing that if these women are comfortable in these surroundings, one can only imagine what their regular surroundings would be like. They bear the lewd looks of passersby and retort with stinging remarks to the equally stinging and demeaning remarks of abhorrent men. Being highly enterprising businesswomen, they answer even cursory glances with a questioning stare : “How about it?”.

Another interesting group of people are beggars. Their methods have become more and more sophisticated (or crude?) as time passes by. The woeful, pained look which appears only when someone passes by (I have actually seen the transition from normal to unhappy happen!), using kids and handicaps as props, and resorting to touching and pawing at people as a last try. Atleast people would give in not to be pawed at. How many times have we not seen people jumping back or warning beggars not to touch them?

The third group is that of the hijras. This group is probably discriminated against the most, you would not find one travelling via public transport even if they are able to afford it. Wearing loud makeup and using equally loud voices and claps to get paid to get away from a certain place is one of the very few options for them to make money. Though they are getting organised to fight against it, how widespread such a movement would be and how it would help change public perception is to be seen.

The thing to be noticed about all the above mentioned groups is that they are highly incapable of earning money in ways which does not have to reduce them to sideshows due to a large number of factors. Also to be noticed is that the only way to keep body and soul together is by feeding off the lust, shaky ethical stands and disgust of the rest of the society respectively. Interestingly also, these are largely urban phenomena: the more affluent the city, the more prevalent are members of these groups. What inferences can one draw from such observations ? Each will have their own views, i’ll leave it at this.

Wireless Sensor Networks — ICT4D in embedded form ?

One technology that has fascinated me ever since I heard about it was Wireless Sensor Networks. It promises to reduce both cost as well as power consumed for computation. The technical challenges it offers (mainly in the field of routing protocols) are good enough to capture any self-respecting Computer scientist’s attention. The amount of research going into this is a good indication that the technology holds tremendous commercial promise, with big players like Intel, Freescale, Texas Instruments vying to get a grip in the market.

The good thing about WSNs is that they are capable of automating various monitoring tasks which otherwise would have to be done by people. They are, being machines, are not susceptible to errors and falling asleep (unless the battery runs out!), and consequently, a highly reliable system. The standard that is presently the most popular is the IEEE 802.15.4, which takes care of low-level things and the Zigbee standard, which is a higher level thing based on the 802.15.4. A properly configured 802.15.4 device can run for months on one set of batteries, which makes it attractive where power is scarce and expensive.

Unlike regular computers, which have one CPU, the network behaves like a giant distributed computer, and hence designing algorithms is an interesting task. To cut up a big task into many small ones, distribute them over many small computers, then collating the results, and to do this reliably and efficiently, are big issues in the research community nowadays.

So, where does this fit into ICT for Development ? we don’t really care about complex algorithms, but the attractive feature is low power consumption, and cheap cost of computation. There are competitive solutions which cost less than a thousand rupees per node. The applications are quite a few : Intelligent agriculture, Forest fire detection system, animal monitoring systems, to name a few. These are things that are done manually and with large inefficiencies in the process. Lack of regular, reliable information is the main issue, and that is what these networks address.

At AllGo Embedded, we have been working on some interesting applications which we hope will make a difference in the common man’s daily life. More on this matter, as and when progress (or patents ;) happens.

Chak De!

This movie is doing the rounds, a lot of them(rounds) in fact, and raking in the moolah. Went to watch it, did not like it as much as everyone thought everyone else would (or should). After being told this and that (mostly derogatory this’ and thats) about my taste and outlook, well, no qualms or issues. But this was really it, the last straw. Obviously, raving and ranting about it in an email to the editor won’t do much good, so thought i’ll do the same here.

There are probably things one can appreciate in this movie, though none of them appeared to my cinematically retarded mind. But one thing you cannot say is that the movie is original. Anyone who watches Hollywood will have seen scores of such films with baseball or basketball or football (American ishtyle), in all kinds of movies: drama, comedy, tragedy, horror, any combination of the above. Some of the passages in that horrendous piece of feminist (If one can call it that) rhetoric are worth quoting:

None of these is a Hindi Film cliche. They are all
individuals ….

Excellent. The girl who tries to seduce the coach to get her a prominent position in the team, one who tries to prove a point to her boyfriend by scoring a copious amount of goals against the best defences in the world (which are completely bamboozled by her wizardry with the stick, leaving her usually in a one on one situation with the goalie), a girl who gives up her self prestige for a higher cause, none of these are cliches, because they are not portrayed by cliched men, but women! And wonder of wonders, they are all individuals! And all the time I was thinking they were parts of some giant amoeba out to take over the world! The only characters that are developed (however little) in the movie are that of SRK, Chandigarh based hot-babe, the goalie. Naik, to some extent maybe, but the rest are there just to fill up the team. How one can call ‘all of these’ as ‘individuals’ is left to the reader’s imagination to fill up. Just to take the gender point of view further, why a man lead a women’s team ? Are there no competent women to coach, even in the fantasy world of Bollywood ?

As to the question if a Hindi film can alter deep rooted prejudices, the answer lies …. applause richocheting through cinema halls ….. Beating the daylights out of men who whistle.

Right. Hooliganism, if practiced by women is called empowerment. God knows where the author learnt about freedom or empowerment, it definitely was not from Gandhi. I may not know the problems a Delhi woman faces, but it can be debated as to whether beating up eve-teasers is going to solve anything. And people applauding loudly is a sign of alteration of deep rooted prejudices. People applauded with greater gusto during the screening of Rang De Basanti, but (un?)fortunately, our youth did not take the matter of governance into their own hands. Wonder why.

And the cliche smashing scenes roll on: woman risks marriage …. girl … won’t stop playing hockey … cricketer boyfriend .. player offers herself coach .. realizes … without self respect will only go so far and no further…

Won’t even try to comment about this. The author has seen quite a lot of movies for somone who realizes that all movies are mere cliched, male chauvinist portrayals.

The women sweat not in kitchens ….like … Barjatya films .. dance bars and steam baths to appease voyeurs.. but on hockey field. They are asexual creatures though not dispassionate. They play unselfconsciously ….

Asexual ? biologically, this means these ladies are quite like bacterium. Another instance of social sciences borrowing metaphors from the natural ones, thus making them devoid of meaning and ambiguous. If it means that they do not look smouldering sexually on the screen, I don’t see why this is such a great deal. The author’s gripe about sexuality expressed on the screen ‘from a male view’ must elaborate on what a ‘male view’ is and what expression of sexuality from a ‘female view’ is. Maybe then the poor directors will stop making such raunchy flicks and try to appeal to a larger demographic. About the unselfconsciousness part, well, even item numbers portray the actresses as quite unselfconscious. The author seems more conscious about their unselfconsciousness than the players themselves. Ask a sportswoman in whatever sport, she would not consider herself to be an ‘asexual being’ playing ‘unselfconsciously’. She is just playing, for the love of playing. The psychological embellishments add no substance to the argument.

And so on and so forth … The director seems to be a decent man trying to make a honest buck by showing people what they want to see, and reading feminist victories in cinema after 60 years of oppression by the ‘male view’ seems to be going too far.

What is freedom ?

Statutory Warning: Content that follows may be unsuitable for science, math, engineering majors, and similar juveniles.

Was reading (yet!) another book, this one is named Political Ideas in the Romantic Age by Isaiah Berlin. Halfway through, and there is definitely no way I will review this book, being far too philosophical in content. So, thought I’ll just write a few words about the central theme of the book, or rather set of lectures compiled into a book.

Berlin was a professional philosopher and became interested in politics (like most people in his time, living through two world wars). The idea that Berlin explores is that any work of a (wo)man is only understood fully with reference to the context of the time that (s)he lived in. Hence, he explores the history of the political ideas of the most turbulent times in recent European history in terms of conflicting views, opinions and philosophies, the 18th and 19th centuries. He does not delve into deep analysis of each and every philosopher (Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Helvetius, Bentham, Adam Smith, Rousseau ……), rather, he tries to capture the spirit of the age, or as is popularly known, the zeitgeist.

For Berlin, the central question of political philosophy is “Why should one man obey another ?” and from here flows the logical successors : “What is more important, obedience to the State or personal liberty ?”; “Can a person be subservient and still claim to be free?” . Taking this as the starting point, the solutions proposed by various stalwarts of the Enlightenment and beyond are explored, will not go into the details, as promised.

The central talking point of the presently read 100-odd pages are two words : does and should. The question is not why does a man obey, but rather, why should a man obey. The first question can be answered by empirical data, the second question is far more difficult to answer. If someone can write 250+ pages showing how people confused does and should, or even took does and should to be identical, it no doubt will not be easy reading :D

On a more earthly level, the questions posed are quite interesting even to the non-professional (and hence more creative) philosophers, which consists of most of the humans on this planet. What does it mean to be free ? Why should we bow down before a King or a Prime Minister ? Can duty toward a State be consistent with the idea of personal freedom ? Does being free necessarily imply that you are happy ? Take the case of Singapore. Quite a wealthy state, but absolutely no freedom. Take the case of some Sub-Saharan nomadic tribe : not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but as much freedom as the breadth of the Sahara (barring visa restrictions ;). What relation exists between money and freedom ? Does one increase proportionally with the other ? Or upto a certain limit ? Can we say Anil Ambani is more free than a naked wandering Jain monk ? If yes, why ? If no, why ? Can there be singular answers to such questions ?

Yup, the spectrum over which we can analyse is huge and very interesting. Most of these will at the end turn out to be subjective issues. But are there objective metrics which we can use, if not to answer all questions, atleast to serve as indicators ? Can social policy be formulated with regard to such parameters ? How easy or difficult will it be to empirically measure these parameters to ascertain the progress of an implemented policy ? What can be considered as a viable endpoint in development programmes which involve such parameters ? Most of the questions in this paragraph were raised in class today by Ashok Rao, and most of this semester will go into trying to answer such things, if possible.

The approach to development lies in these questions, one intuitively feels. One can approach development from the pseudo(or quasi?)-scientific outlook of the social sciences like economics or sociology, or from the (more pseudo?) philosophical/empirical basis delineated above, in a highly nebulous form. This course is turning out to be fun :D

LED lighting : when rather than if !

For the past few months, I have been looking at alternate lighting using LEDs. These devices show tremendous promise with regard to power saving, ease of use, and durability. So, thought would write a post for spread of info and concretizing my own readings.

LEDs, especially white LEDs are coming in big time into the market, and you can see them in all sizes and shapes in small flashlights and mobiles phones instead of flash bulbs. The biggest volume market right now is for low wattage(less power consuming) LEDs and Chinese goods are simply flooding the market. However, there is a silent background revolution happening, led by Philips, Cree, Nichia and Seoul Semiconductor. There is also an Indian company in the fray, based in Hyderabad. These and many other companies are trying to bring out high power LEDs which have direct applications in home and architectural lighting. These are rated in the range 1 Watt to 5 Watt. In contrast, the LEDs are found in your phones and flashlights are in the in the 200 milliWatt or less range, around one-fifth of the big guys.

These light sources are among the most efficient light sources available today, with efficiencies comparable with Compact Flourescent Lamps(CFL). However, most CFLs do not add the power consumed by a choke present on every lamp, and hence are usually less efficient than claimed. The unit of brightness is called lumen, and both LEDs and CFLs have an efficiency of around 50 lumen/Watt. In contrast, normal incandescent bulbs have an efficiency of 15 lumen/Watt! This implies you can replace a 100 Watt bulb with a 30 Watt CFL or LED and not perceive a difference in brightness. However, the light emitted by normal bulbs is more pleasing to the eye when compared to the other two. Therefore, you can see amber coloured CFLs and LEDs, neither of which have made a big dent in the market as of now, but promise to.

If CFLs are as good as LEDs, then why the whole fuss of typing out a whole post on them ? LEDs have many advantages, despite the fact that those in the market are only as efficient as CFLs.

  • Prototype LEDs are available in labs of the above mentioned companies which are as efficient as 100 lumen/watt. However, most of these are sub 1 Watt category as of now. With all companies scrambling to outdo each other, this situation is likely to be rectified very soon.
  • LEDs are solid state lighting devices, which means that they have no moving, breakable parts unlike either CFLs or bulbs. This means they can be used in more extreme places and applications.
  • They are made from established manufacturing methods which make all our computer chips so cheap, which means at large volumes, the cost of lighting will be negligible. (Note: companies might keep cost high initially to recover cost. But once the Chinese get their hands on the technology, it should come down :) Evidence is available in the cost at which you get cheap LED based chinese goods. )
  • These lights can be dimmed to suitable requirements, which is not an option on the CFLs. Bulbs can do this, but they do not even figure in the discussion.
  • For spot lighting applications, where the light is required in only a particular area (street lights), LEDs are more suitable than the conventional tubelights (Sodium vapor lamps are not considered, since they are the most efficient lighting solutions with efficiencies of 150 lumen/Watt, but they are high voltage lights, and not used everywhere.) since they have a small angle beyond which the light output is almost zero. This means that all the light is focused onto a small area, unlike tubelights which radiate light every which way, which is essentially a waste of light.
  • These run on DC current, which means that they can run off batteries in areas which do not have access to grid power. With suitable circuits, they can even run on AC current. These are cheap circuits and do not require as much circus work as running CFLs on DC, which require another kind of light itself.
  • The (claimed) lifetime of LED lights is around 10,000 hours, which works out to be close to 10 years of operation. In comparison, CFLs have an average lifetime of 5-7 years, and forget about bulbs.
  • The size of CFLs increases significantly with wattage increase, not so with LEDs.

My own tests with Kwality India’s 1 Watt LEDs have been very promising. From a technical perspective, these babies require constant current rather than constant voltage, (which is what all our wall sockets and adaptors provide) but this issue has been solved as well, in a cheap way without resorting to expensive LED driver chips. There is a loss in efficiency, but not enough to give anyone sleepless nights. 4 LEDs and a driver circuit drawing a total power of around 5 watts gives enough light to illuminate a 40ft x 10ft area with reasonable amount of light, comparable to a 40 watt tubelight. These tests were subjective, but we can be sure that tests with a light meter won’t be too far off as well. These lights will eventually find their way into streetlights in Timbaktu. Hopefully, very soon, will write about it when it happens.
So, why does not anyone as yet have LED lights in their house ? Packaging, lack of awareness, high prices (low volume :( ) all have contributed to this. Hopefully, this will change soon.

Book review : Dietmar Rothermund and Francine Frankel

Consistent with the agenda to read a lot of history, two of the recent books that I happened to read were An Economic History of India by Dietmar Rothermund and India’s Political Economy 1947-2004 by Francine Frankel. Both are different outlooks toward the same issue, the former purely economic in outlook, whereas the latter also puts a large stress on politics. One sweeps past 200 years or more in 200 pages, whereas the other trudges through almost 60 years in 788!

Rothermund is a WYSIWYG kind of writer, and does not worry too much about writing well, as long as the message gets through, and data is passed on. It requires some decent background in economics, since it concentrates on monetary aspects, and since I lack the same, some of it went overhead. Frankel writes in more enjoyable prose, though the sheer size of the book may be daunting to the unmotivated. It is very readable, even by the lay reader. She goes in depth into the various aspects of Indian politics and helps us see our leaders without the aura created by party propaganda.

The ironic and saddening part is the the most athoritative syntheses of Indian politico-economic history is by Westerners rather than Indians. God knows what our economists and political scientists doing. There were people like Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C Dutt who wrote about India’s problems before Independence, but there seems to be no Indian equivalent to these books.

Rothermund’s main contribution is showing how the Indian economy grew from being a feudal one under the Mughals to a capitalist economy which was grafted onto the feudal one by the East India company mainly due to the western ideologies of private property and laissez-faire (This insight is due to another book, not reviewed here). Private property was non-existent and most farmlands were communal lands, owned (symbolically) by the king and tilled by the whole village. One of the reasons why this was done was to make tax collection easier, since you need an owner to collect tax from. Thus, the Permanent Settlement was implemented in Bengal and most of N. India, the Ryotwari system in most of S. India. These systems for collection of land revenue had far reaching consequences in India, both in the political sphere and economic sphere. For instance, it can explain why the Green revolution led to such prosperity in the Punjab and left most of South India untouched. It also explains the structure of the Congress Party and why it was so difficult for Congress policies which tried to empower the poor landless labourers to be implemented.

He goes on to describe the parasitical relationship between the Empire and its colony, how the World Wars made England’s grip on it’s colonies weak, and WW2 broke its back to almost guaranteed independence to India, regardless of the great nationalist movement led by Gandhi. He describes the rise and fall of the cotton and jute industries of Bombay and Calcutta respectively, and why Bombay flourished even after Independence whereas Calcutta did not, comparatively speaking.

Frankel’s work is more contemporary, concentrating on the relationship between political pressures and economic policies of Independent India. She goes into details of the planning and execution and results of the Five year plans upto Indira Gandhi’s time, the break from a socialist development strategy to a more liberal one (and how this was partly due to pressures of the World Bank), its results, which were both positive (self sufficiency in food due to the Green Revolution) and negative (economic disparities widened, the lowest strata were the worst hit). She goes on to give an account of the rise of populist politics, starting from Indira Gandhi, more so by Rajiv, though it was more out of external pressures, rise of the BJP due to an exploitation of the frustrations of the Hindu middle and upper classes, the rise of various regional parties and the inevitable move from single party to coalition rule. She also expresses concern about the challenge of Hindu fundamentalist politics followed by the BJP to the Indian democratic fabric.

One worrying pattern noticed in both books is that regardless of which form of economic ideology was followed in India, socialist or capitalist, benefits were seen only by a small group consisting of rich farmers and urban middle class.
One reason for this could be that the shining examples of socialism, China and the USSR, were both created by outright class wars, the Russian revolution being the more famous one. China also had a civil war between the Communists and the right wing Kuomintang. The social structure was torn down and rebuilt from scratch. Where liberal ideologies were successful, namely Western Europe and the USA, were due to lack of any social structure in the USA before migrations from Europe (American Indians can be neglected since they anyways were decimated), England was anyways more liberal than any of the others, which explains why it was the first to be almost completely industrialized, with the ruling classes in other countries were in the way of allowing a capitalist middle class to rise as fast as England. Hence also her dominance in the colonial race.

In India, however, after seeing the effects that a revolution had had in Russia, a more moderate policy of trying to cause a non-violent revolution was tried, without directly trying to attack the class structure. Attacking the upper classes was even more difficult since they were the ones that funded the Congress Party during the struggle for freedom. This is Frankel’s thesis. This, however, had the unfortunate effect of having to rely on the upper classes in the villages to help implement policy decisions, which lead to more concentration of power in their hands. The Indian electorate was not class conscious in the early days of Independence, and would vote for the local landlord or someone he supported. Rising of class consciousness was made possible by the CPI and CPI(M), with the unfortunate effects of the birth of Naxalism. It was hoped that this would lead to outright class war and bring about another Russia.

Whatever may be the ideology, India has proved an exception, and nobody was in any mood to try and find an alternative mode of economic organisation suited to Indian needs, may be with the exception of J. C. Kumarappa, who was anyways sidelined. There are still people who do not consider Kumarappa an economist, never mind the fact that he studied economics in Columbia.

Now, India seems to be riding an euphoric wave of unbelievable wealth creation, but there seems to never have been a time in India’s history when so many farmers have committed suicide in such a brief time period, (both in Vidharbha and Andhra Pradesh), a more skewed and uneven development, the lower classes venting their frustrations by taking refuge in narrow linguistic and cultural nationalisms, talks about privatizing water supplies and distribution by market demands (so that a golf course can get more water when compared to a farmer), and our demigods in the Parliament trying to disable farmers via subsidies and handouts without trying to solve fundamental problems in Indian agriculture of irrigation, short-sighted cultivation of cash crops, and lack of support prices.

The scenario seems to evoke mixed feelings about the direction that India is taking, both within the ivory towers of IT-BT zones and the disaster zones without. Political will is the need of the hour, with NGOs not able to really be effective unless there is some sound backing by the governments, and that is the one thing that seems difficult to exert with the pressures of populist and coalition politics on every Minister’s mind. Is there any hope for Tagore’s vision of India to be realized ?

Hope so :)

Classes begin :(

Classes started today for a course that I joined recently, called ICT for development
Check this page for details.

Like any contemporary issue in development (of any kind), there have been wide ranging opinions and controversies from the famous Bill Gates’ remark about people needing vaccines rather than computers to people who simply cannot begin to imagine how contemporary development can happen without ICTs. For that matter, the very ideology of development itself is under attack.

So, this course will be an opportunity for me to look first hand at the issues and their substance surrounding ICT for D and Development itself. Taught by Dr. Ashok Rao, who is himself a pioneer in using computers for social causes and has vast knowledge of the grassroot realities of the Indian scene, the course promises to provide the necessary incentive for me to actually do something. The onus, of course, is on me to make use of this opportunity.

Wait and watch, wait and watch ….

Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow. — Some dude.