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This is London

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture feature today features London from above, a bunch of stunning photos by aerial photographer Jason Hawkes. Go see them all.

Also, if you like great photos, add the Big Picture’s RSS Feed to your feed reader. You’ll get some real gems from time to time, like the Olympic opening ceremonies and events, California wildfires and even astonishing photos of the Large Hadron Collider (a couple more photos below).


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29 August 2008 11:55 pm

Most Brits spell "organize" wrong

Using -ise for words like ‘maximise’ and ‘organise’ is a relatively new phenomenon in Britain, probably because maximize with a z looks too American to British eyes. In fact, the -ize form originated in Britain and is the preferred international form.

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26 June 2007 9:30 pm

CNN-IBN covers Blackle, gets most of the story wrong

According to CNN-IBN “Google has done its bit to save energy by launching Blackle — a Google search page that saves energy”, based on the theory that black pixels take less energy to display than white pixels. (Here’s a screen-grab of the story.) There are at least two problems with this.

First, this is not applicable to LCDs — the backlighting on LCD displays uses energy no matter what colors you use on the screen. The good news is that LCD displays use far less energy than CRTs do, completely eliminating the need for display hacks. LCD monitors are still not ubiquitous in India, so if you wish to save energy you should probably buy one.

Second, Blackle wasn’t launched by Google. A quick look at its About Page would have told IBN that. Or a whois check. Apparently a “Google Custom Search” logo is enough to confuse IBN’s tech reporters. Good to see that India’s mainstream media continues to remain cheerfully clueless about technology reporting.

(Update: IBN has now corrected the story. See the screen-grab if you want to see the original.)


6 June 2007 3:22 am

Pins and Labour

That the new 20 pound note would feature Adam Smith is old news. What I hadn’t known is that his pin-manufacturing ‘case study’ would be immortalized on banknotes as well:

New Twenty Pound Note - Adam Smith

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13 March 2007 5:39 pm

The Network is the Computer (except from 11pm-12.30pm)

This story about IIT Bombay (IITB) disabling internet access in its hostels between 11pm and 12:30pm is not at first glance as hair-raising as the one about Chinese Internet de-addiction clinics, but it improves upon acquaintance.

Consider the consequences: one of the finest research tools invented by man is effectively off-limits to students for half a day (Is that really right? Or did the Economic Times flip an AM into a PM?) Of course, in the name of compulsory ’socialization,’ students will crowd into university clusters, which never quite have enough machines to accommodate the crowd.

Involvement in Open Source and Web 2.0 projects will drop because budding programmers at IITB will lose access just when many of them are most productive — given extremely hot Indian summers and the lack of air-conditioning in most (practically all?) dorm rooms, night-time is often the most comfortable time to start a long hack session.

Of course, the most enterprising students (especially in departments like Electronics and Computer Science) will probably use their ability to access department networks to get around this interruption in service, but a more interesting question is: in 2007, should students really have to wrangle for network time?

The point about regulations like these is that they demonstrate the knee-jerk short-term thinking that passes for leadership in many Indian institutions. Apparently the drivers for this decision included the death of IITB’s “hostel culture” (by which they mean late night vodka parties, night shows at cinemas and card games — oh wait, that was my misspent youth) and, rather more seriously, a string of on-campus suicides by some loners. Of course, while it is regrettable, it has to be asked: are the vast majority of well-adjusted (and not-so-well adjusted, trying-to-cope) students well-served by over-paternalistic regulations? Pre-Internet hostels weren’t exactly idylls.

And if IITB is scared of internet in the hostels, wait until they hear about this newfangled thing called wifi in classrooms:

“At any given moment in a law school class, literally 85 to 90% of the students were online,” Professor Herzog says. “And what were they doing online? They were reading The New York Times; they were shopping for clothes at Eddie Bauer; they were looking for an apartment to rent in San Francisco when their new job started…. And I was just stunned.”

There’s the paternalist, knee-jerk reaction of banning the undesirable, so typical of India (Here’s another great example). Then there’s the embracing of the new, and treating students like responsible human beings:

I also tend to wander around the room a lot (I’m one of those don’t-stay-behind-the-lectern professors), which may discourage some of that behavior. And I tend to call on the students who don’t seem engaged. But I don’t make any particular effort to ensure that students aren’t surfing or IM-ing or whatever. They’re grownups. If they’re willing to risk their grades, and to look dumb when they’re called on, well, I’m willing for them to do that too.

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5:11 pm

India’s Research Gap

The Telegraph writes about a recent scientometric exercise comparing India’s and China’s science & technology workforce. The results are eye-opening for anyone who still believes that China and India can still be compared at roughly the same level. If I were an Indian policymaker I’d give up the organized S&T stats game as lost for the medium term and focus on other things instead.

  China India
Research Workforce 850,000 115,000
Fresh doctorates per year 40,000 4,500
Per Capita Research Spending $12.15 $3.53
Share of global research publications 5% 1.9%

1. Re-architect the education system starting at the primary level. China’s education push in the late 1970s is really paying off now, while India is bedazzled by its IITs and IIMs that service a vanishingly small fraction of its population. Merely rebranding other institutions with the IIT rubric isn’t helpful, what’s far more essential is a commitment to good universal primary education — something we have just not seen in the past.

2. Promote private research and entrepreneurship. India’s free-er society ought to produce world-class companies — and India’s large conglomerates are doing well in this regard. What’s missing is a systematic effort to encourage start-ups as low-cost test-tubes of innovation. It’s great that the SEZs are trying to cut red tape and aiming at a 7-day approval cycle for new companies, but why can’t a similar time-frame be applied across the country?

3. Stop complaining about talent being poached away. (which is what the PM’s scientific advisor is doing in the Telegraph article.) Instead figure out what how you can network with the poachers and use their help to help you grow the economy to the point where you’re less worried about poaching.

The communication in Current Science can be found here.

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20 February 2007 9:17 am

Mysooru Sandal Soap

Karnataka’s got the whole Kannada Pride thing going. From 1 November, they’re getting rid of ‘colonial’-era town names:

Bangalore becomes Bengalooru (this is the correct spelling, not Bengaluru)
Mysore becomes Mysooru
Mangalore becomes Mangalooru
Shimoga becomes Shivamogga
Hubli becomes Hubballi
Belgaum becomes Belagaavi

Maybe this is a good time to remind them of West Bengal’s Calcutta → Kolkata experience. For those not in the know, practically no one but Bongs can actually pronounce Kolkata right, thereby guaranteeing that I’ll cringe every time I hear the City of Joy’s fair name being mis-pronounced on Indian TV, usually as kol-katta or kol’kaata or worse. (The correct pronounciation is ‘kol-kata with a soft t, people. Or just say kal-katta in Hindi, Calcutta in English, and whatever you want in other languages).

Heh, now that linguistically sensitive Kannadigas will face the same mangling (how do you spell Hubbali again?), I no longer feel quite as bad.

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1 November 2006 1:56 pm

The Church of Gaia

In 2003, Michael Crichton aroused some indignation from largely-nonreligious environmentalists with his Environmentalism as Religion speech at the Commonwealth Club of California:

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsdaythese are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs.

Fast forward to 2006 and the Anglican church has decided to become eco-friendly. Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, was recently quoted in the Sunday Times as saying “Making selfish choices, such as flying on holiday or buying a large car, are a symptom of sin.”

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had a short but interesting chat (mp3) with the man today, and I thought some of what he had to say was particularly apposite to the environmentalism-as-Faith (capital F) thesis:

Q: … You’re a bishop, and what gives what you say particular force is when you give it a moral dimension, which is why I’m trying to establish whether you’re saying … whether the language of language of sin is appropriate to use in the context of these decisions [flying on holiday, buying a large car].

A: … The language of sin is absolutely right as we look at our responsibility as people living in what we believe to be a creation… the responsibility to their neighbours especially the poor of the world and our responsibility to our wellbeing so I think it is very proper to put these questions in the context of our moral responsibility … and that’s what a Christian understands sin to be … sin is living a life that’s turned in upon itself that’s unaware of responsibility and connections.

Q: So we should think about things like the sort of decision we take about the car we buy in the same context and in the same way as we think about decisions we make about relationships with other people, sex, all those issues which perhaps have been more traditionally the area in which people have used terms like, particularly like, living in sin?

A: Well that’s absolutely right because our energy use is something that has an impact on the creation and on other people. And seeing that it is a really important moral issue is one of the ways in which the church has to respond I think to the conditions of today [...]

(The rather hurried transcript’s mine.) It is fascinating to see the environmental movement’s message of ecological responsibility being co-opted as a religious message, turning the non-compliers into sinners, with all the heavy connotations that word contains (would people who enjoy driving end up with the gluttons in the third circle of Hell?).

I’m sure the intention behind these interviews, and of the bishop’s recent booklet on environmental matters circulated to every diocese, is noble — to appear to be a church that’s up-to-date with the current scientific consensus. And yet in doing so, Bishop Chartres has harkened back to one of the oldest devices of organized religion (and a particularly Puritan device at that) — control and prohibit the things the masses might like under threat of damnation and bring them back to a life less filled with luxuries and presumably closer to God. Me, I’m betting technological innovation (examples 1 2) will before long make such sinning unncecessary: a culture of environmentally inspired privation is no more necessary than a culture kept in privation by vested religious interests or poor state planning.

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25 July 2006 1:44 am

Animals, by Frank O’Hara

The Tube in London is not as art-laden as the Paris Métro, but the Poems on the Underground project does get some good poems into the tube-cars from time to time. Frank O’Hara’s Animals was one of the best poems (that I was not familiar with) I’d come across on the Tube, and I was very pleased to be able to find it on the ‘net today. So without further ado, here it is:

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

i wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

I am not sure why this poem appealed to me so much, but the vivid imagery and uneven meter (…want to be faster / or greener than now if you were with me O you) probably played a part.

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22 June 2006 9:36 pm

The Fifteen Percent Solution

Rediff interviews Dr Udit Raj, chairman of the All India Confederation of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The interview was fascinating, I think, because it offers a nice counterpoint to the world of protestors who come from a largely urbanized middle-class environment where caste is largely meaningless and highlights the levels of us-vs-them identity politics that drives much of Indian politics. This retort from Dr Raj particularly highlights why the divide is so visceral:

For long, in many places 70 per cent to 80 per cent seats were open in the general category. The upper castes were using it. Right? Now they have been given 50 per cent of the total seats whereas the upper caste population is just 15 per cent. I think that is good enough. What more do the upper castes want?

Ultimately, one’s views on quotas will be colored by the India one sees. There are those who want a meritocratic India free of the curse of caste, where the disadvantaged are helped using sound economic principles such as better primary education and easy student loans. Then there are those who see quotas as a shortcut to success, for who dividing up every pie the country has (from institutions of higher learning to private industry) according to the caste divisions of the country makes perfect sense. (I can’t wait until they try this particular formula in Parliament, by the way.)

What I am most appalled about is that there is not one leader in the country who can make the case for sound economic welfare for the poor without carving the country up on the basis of caste. Punishing modern India’s middle-class for historical wrongs seems to violate every principle of natural justice, upto and including the Fundamental Right to Equality India’s constitution grants to its citizens (by limiting opportunities available to a person based on his caste, not his ability). I am not very hopeful about this, but I hope Manmohan Singh has the spine to resign and call for fresh elections before he is asked to preside over this travesty.

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16 May 2006 3:22 pm

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