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April 2003 — Monthly Archive

Army Capability and Empowerment

USS Clueless:

As a general rule, you can tell how good an army is and how well it will do on the battlefield by looking to see how much responsibility and authority it gives to its sergeants. And as De Atkine points out: “a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has as much authority as a colonel in an Arab army”. The Israeli army’s sergeants are about the same as ours in terms of level of authority.

I wonder how the Indian and Pakistani armies would rate. Anyone with contacts in the military care to write about this?

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26 April 2003 3:37 pm

Reverse-Chronological Aggregators

I am not sure why presenting an aggregator’s output in reverse-chronological order is the best way to do things.

RSS readers that work like Usenet readers are a waste of time, imho. Aggregators should not organize news by where items came from, just present the news in reverse chronologic order.

Actually, Radio’s aggregator doesn’t present the news in reverse-chronological order either: it presents it in reverse-chronological order ordered by feed. And while the reverse-chronological view may be useful, I am not convinced it is the only show in town. In particular, Radio’s implementation gives me information overload because the News Page bloats massively as I cross about 30 frequently updated or verbose subscriptions. IMHO Syndirella had a much better interface: no-frills, highly keyboard-friendly and geared to minimize visual overload.

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24 April 2003 11:24 pm

The Apache Farmer’s Tale

BBC: The ‘Apache’ Farmer’s Tale.

The elderly Iraqi farmer who, according to Baghdad officials, literally shot his way to fame by downing a state-of-the-art US Apache helicopter with an old carbine has flatly denied he had anything to do with the crash.

Via Instapundit, who puts it best: “What? Lies from the Iraqi Information Ministry?”

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10:44 pm

Updating Criminal Law

In the very same report:

Presenting the report to deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who holds the home portfolio, Malimath said the changes were proposed for the first time in 150 years. He also recommended that from now on, criminal laws be reviewed every 15 years so that they are in tune with the ‘changing times.’

Why only criminal laws? Hellooo, Earth to Malimath, if we are talking about laws inapplicable for their times, then Indian telecom is still governed by the 1885 Telegraph Act, inspite of a century of change. How about changing that first?

In fact, there’s a reason criminal laws change little. Criminal law covers the most primal of offences: indeed very basic ones — murder, rape and thievery have been with us since millennia. Indeed, modern criminal law merely codifies ancient religious ‘thou shalt not steal’-style commandments. Updates to criminal law in response to modern technology happens, but only once in a while when a technological change is profound enough to enable criminal behavior: for example, in some societies, the technology of ultrasound may bring about a law that makes aborting a fetus based on a ultrasound sex-test a criminal act. The communications revolution may cause stealing passwords and PINs to be treated equivalently to stealing cash.

But, despite technology rah-rahs, technological revolutions do not happen on schedule every two decades, and nothing suggests to me why a compulsory 15-year review of criminal law is necessary, or indeed preferable over the normal day-to-day working of a functioning parliament. Indeed, the British parliamentary model, which we follow, allows for a living constitution that makes such periodic review un-necessary for criminal as well as civil law.

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22 April 2003 11:42 am

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Holy cow! The innocent-until-proven-guilty pillar of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence is under attack from (In)Justice VC Malimath. This would mean that the burden of proving innocence would lie with the accused rather than the prosecution having to prove the person’s guilt “beyond reasonable doubts.”

The ‘criminal justice system is virtually collapsing under its own weight as it is slow, inefficient and ineffective’ due to which ‘people are losing confidence in the system,’ the report said. The present system of the prosecution having to prove the guilt of an accused ‘places a very unreasonable burden on the prosecution,’ the committee said in its report and recommended that in India, like in the continental countries, a ‘clear and convincing’ standard of proof should be statutorily prescribed.

This is probably one of the most business-unfriendly ideas I’ve heard in a long time. The laws have never been a problem in India, the enforcement has — and the venal corruption that eats into almost every walk of public life. One of the reasons India had some credibility (vis-a-vis, say, China) was its familiar legal traditions. Now, at one stroke, Justice Malimath and Mr Advani wish to wipe the slate clean, and make India’s judicial system just as arbitary as the Indian bureaucracy is.

The ostensible thinking behind this is that ministers and other VIPs caught with wads of currency notes on their premises during raids need not come under the category of ‘presumed to be innocent till proved guilty beyond reasonable doubts’. Rubbish. Ministers survive raids like these because of inept prosecution and political influence. And they will continue to do so. Meanwhile, it will become much easier for average Indian to be victimized via planted evidence: “Your Honor, a search of Joe Ramkhilawan’s housed revealed wads of fake Indian rupees, a sack of poppy and a copy of the Pakistani national anthem. He is obviously an agent of the Foreign Hand(tm) and should be hanged!”

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11:26 am

The Indian Cellphone Industry Enters the Age of Reason

Free incoming calls is a go from May 1 onwards, about four months after the TRAI originally presented the proposal.

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20 April 2003 2:08 pm

Localization in Vain

Localizing software for Indian languages is an interesting task, but has little practical value other than preserving the agendas of assorted state governments. Software developers (especially open source ones) looking to reach ‘untouched’ users would be better off spending volunteer time adding better internationalization support to applications, better fonts, IMEs and input technologies. (This is a bit of a long post, so hang on.)

It started with an interesting thread at india-gii on localizing Linux for India, especially the quality of translation. This screenshot is symptomatic — it relies far too much on English technical jargon and is therefore totally out of touch with the language actually spoken by those who most need localized software.

It’s easy to dismiss this problem as poor translation by volunteers (indeed, Microsoft’s translations have been consistently better), but there is a deeper point hiding here.

The point is an interesting, hard, problem — especially for India. India’s approach to education is peculiarly skewed: the majority of children, especially lower income groups, attend state-run schools that teach in the local language. A minority (usually better-off) go to private schools that teach English (a proliferation of private English schools has ensured that more children today go to private English schools compared to, say, a generation ago). After school, however, the tables are turned. The majority of state-run colleges and nearly all private colleges teach in English (and these are accessible to all based on merit+affirmative action); a minority choose to go to (usually state-run) local-language colleges, and almost always enter into government jobs or academia after graduating.

Based on this, there are five categories of potential Indian computer users, in order of size:

Category Description
1 Those that have tenth-grade or less read+understand skills in their
local language only.
2 Those who can read and understand English moderately, and use it mostly at work.
3 People who (actually or effectively) illiterate.
4 Those who read+understand English comfortably (usually have used it as a medium of instruction all their lives, or from college onwards).
5 Those who have college-level skills in their
local language only
(nearly all of this category can also read and understand English moderately
to well, but do not need to use it at work)

The current marketplace for software is overwhelmingly dominated by Categories 4 and 2, in that order. In sheer numbers, on the other hand, Categories 1 and 3 dominate — being (wild-ass guess) around 60% of India’s population. In order to grow, however, commercial software companies (and Open Source Advocates) are localizing their software to attract a wider base. The thinking goes like this:

  • Category 2 may buy a computer for the home if it was localized. This is IMHO misguided thinking. The Indian middle class (especially the Middle and Lower Income groups) from which Category 2 springs has time and again shown its preference for English (and upward mobility) rather than the native-language initiatives of their own state governments. Private schools discovered a long time ago that people do not wish to pay to receive a native-language education, so will the software industry, as long as most Indian home computers are bought with the kids in mind, or for self-improvement.
  • Category 5 will use computers at work if the UI is localized. This is a valid point, because Category 5 mostly is the state governments and bits and pieces of the central government. Localized UI may ensure state and central government orders — and this is a pretty big market.
  • Category 1 and/or Category 3 will be better able to use software if it is localized. Generally, neither of these audience buys or downloads software. (In fact, they have very little disposable income or purchasing power.) Rather, they use software that is chosen for them. Quite often, that software is custom-written to do a specialized task. It is increasingly becoming clear that you cannot make an average farmer sit down in front of a computer and expect him to use Evolution (or Outlook) comfortably, simply because the culture and worldview of the developer — vis-a-vis the user — is dramatically different. The successful apps for Category 1 and 3 will not be localized, they will be specialized and custom-developed for the world-view of its audience. Of course, ideally, eventually Categories 1 and 3 themselves would disappear.

So we see that for all the activity to localize software for India, the primary benefit will be gee-whiz value to government bureaucrats who were perfectly capable of using the un-localized versions. Meanwhile, the masses (Category 1 and 3 primarily, but others as well) see little research directed at their real needs, which are:

  • It is too hard to type in Indian languages! (and it’s an un-natural activity for Indian scripts, most of which use conjugates extensively). What we need is research on handwriting recognition, something China (for fairly obvious reasons) has been working vigorously on.
  • Deep internationalization support in applications. Categories 2, 4 and 5 are perfectly capable of reading English if that is the the UI language. However, they need to be able to work with their native languages in their applications. Most post-2000 apps from Microsoft (and most apps that target Windows 2000 and above) satisfy this criterion, but it is the open source movement’s Achilles’ Heel, largely due to lack of cohesion between OSS projects.
  • Good IMEs (for as many Indian languages as possible) that work well on US-English keyboards, the cheapest and most common variety found in India. Historically, Microsoft’s IMEs have been very good indeed, and OSS IMEs haven’t. However, standard OS-based IMEs for all major Indian scripts do not exist yet, even on Windows.
  • Good fonts and display logic. Most Indian scripts are too complex to be displayed reasonably at 8px, which is a the minimum-readable standard for Latin characters, so the display logic has to account for this. Hinting for Indian fonts also leaves much to be desired.
  • Specialized applications that are culturally sensitive to Category 1 and 3 users.

Microsoft has been one company which has traditionally had the deepest internationalization support, although their work on handwriting recognition for Indic scripts is unknown. Indeed, Microsoft’s marketing campaigns on Indian-Language computing has focused more on their deep internationalization and IMEs, rather than localized UIs (the UIs in the demos are in English).

Open Source solutions clearly have their work cut out for them in all these departments, although text display is likely to be less of a problem in the future with software like Pango being used by Gnome.

Some may argue that internationalization and localization are very orthogonal activities, involving different skillsets, and it is harmless if one continues while the other doesn’t. In fact, premature localization is harmful:

  • localization heightens user expectation about the software’s internationalization
  • poor localization (especially translation by amateurs) is a turn-off

If deep internationalization is achieved, then does localizing software for Indian audiences become easy? The answer is: only for some audiences (and these are the audiences who would probably have used un-localized software if they had to).
Translating the jargon of the tech industry (from files, folders, and directories to cookies (how do you translate ‘cookie’ without knowing why a cookie is called a cookie in the first place?), web-bugs and defragmentation) into terms that will make sense to Category 1 and 3 remains a daunting literary task, given how ill-equipped most Indian languages are to handle technical terms in common usage.

We run the risk today of turning software localized for India into superficial ‘Hinglish’-style translations at one end, or Academie Francaise-style ivory tower translations at the other. Companies with larger budgets, who can employ better writers/linguists, will see better results, yet the comfort zone  between Hinglish and the Ivory Tower is a thin one.

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19 April 2003 11:53 pm

Newfound Blogs

Good blogs I’ll queue up in my blogroll real soon now: madhoo.com, ravikiran.com and varnam.com.

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7:46 pm

Europe on the Edge

USS Clueless: Extreme Solutions. Scary picture of that bastion of old Europe, la belle France: it is in a demographic mess, hasn’t integrated minorities into itself as well as anglo saxon societies (for all their flaws) have, and are increasingly paying the price for stasist economic thinking.

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7:41 pm

Lifeless Insurance

The insurance company Aviva Life Insurance (recently started in India) has a name that has made me cringe every time I see its advertisements. A- is a standard prefix for without, and viva is a form of the latin vivere, meaning “(to) live”. Viva also connotes vitality in common English usage. Taken together, Aviva sounds like it means “without living” and by association, “without vitality” and “without life”. Just the sort of cheery notion a life insurance company should be spreading.

Aviva (their old name was CGNU Plc) actually has a webpage saying that their new name resonated positively “among 15,000 customers in 15 countries, being associated with life, vitality and living well.” I wonder which 15 countries they polled, and, more importantly, who their brand manager was.

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17 April 2003 5:27 pm

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