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2004 — Yearly Archive


Shooting the Common Carrier

If you mail a bomb through the post, the law doesn’t hold the post responsible. However, if you sell porn on Baazee (now Ebay’s Indian arm), Baazee’s CEO Avnish Bajaj goes to jail.

For those who don’t know about the Delhi MMS scandal, here’s coverage. This ‘unexpected consequence’ was triggered by a college kid using Baazee to sell VCDs of that clip — apparently innocuously labeled “Delhi girls having fun” — on Baazee. For those who want to know why Baazee’s CEO’s arrest was brain-dead, there’s a great thread now running on India-GII.

All over the world, and indeed even in India, network service providers are given “common carrier” exemptions as long as they cooperate with the authorities. The ‘arrest first, look up the law later’ attitude the Indian police have displayed here do them no credit.

Update: several news outlets, including Rediff and the Indian Express, reported Friday Dec 17 that “anyone who transmitted [will] face action.” Considering the video made the rounds in Delhi on MMS far before it got sold on VCDs in Palika Bazaar, I wonder when Airtel and Hutch (Delhi’s leading MMS providers) will be taken to task (hint: never).

1 Comment

20 December 2004 2:54 pm

The Digital Bourgeoisie

Instapundit talks about how easily accessible bits are changing the fundamentals of several industries, and finds the creeping hand of Karl Marx. For example in computer software

the first indication came when the falling price of computers crossed the point where the average programmer could afford to own a computer capable of producing the code from which he typically earned his living. This meant that, for the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the ownership of the most critical tool of production in the most critical industry of the world’s leading economy was readily affordable by the individual worker. Throughout the first three decades of the Information Age, the individual worker was still dependent on his employer for his means of production, just as any textile worker in Manchester or Lawrence was in 1840.

Suddenly, this changed. Now it is as if a steelworker could afford his own blast furnace or rolling mill, an automobile worker his own assembly line.

It is hardly surprising that the nascent free software movement exploded in the early 90s, especially after Linus’ success with Linux — powered by cheap x86 processors and a cheap data network (the Internet) the share-alike academic ideal of MIT AI Lab became a practical reality for millions of users.

As pointed out, there are lots of interesting implications for webloggers (free news/opinion creators) and audio- and video-casters (free broadcasters): the entreched media will find it hard to compete in an environment where one-man shops can reach out as much as they do. Like the computer software industry, entrenched media will not die, but it will have to change.

2 Comments

27 November 2004 11:45 am

Unexpected MOOX Benefit

I decided to try out the optimized MOOX Firefox builds today (I used the SSE-ready M2 build of Firefox 1.0). An interesting quirk I observed is that the text reflow bug #217527 that caused havoc on Slashdot goes away with this build. This is consistent with how timing bugs sometimes vanish, although by the same token the MOOX builds could introduce several other bugs. I have now switched off Raefer Gabriel’s Slashfix extension and Slashdot renders well again. Lucky me.

5 Comments

15 November 2004 3:16 pm

Jointness in Fallujah

The Belmont Club and The Adventures of Chester have excellent coverage of the Fallujah campaign.

What I find interesting is how well the Marines have adapted to urban combat. Of course, there was a huge body of literature on the subject, but this is the first real campaign that shows urban theaters present no great shelter from a modern armed force.

Also interesting is the extent to which infantry is using technology:

For the first time in a major battle, guided artillery is being used quantity. In addition to the now familiar JDAMs, or GPS guided bombs, there are now GPS guided shells. Space based positioning satellites, laser range finding, robotics and networked computing are now as much a part of infantry combat as the boot heel.

Compare this with even the second Gulf War, when poor coordination between various branches of the armed forces (and especially the US and English troops) led to quite a few blue-on-blue casualties. Given that the Fallujah operation occupies a smaller geographical area and thus gives far less wiggle room to the men on the ground, I believe the US armed forces have figured out how to do jointness right.

1 Comment

10 November 2004 6:15 pm

Superpower Baiting

The contents of previously unreleased 14 minutes of OBL’s tape are eerily similar to what John Robb has been writing about for some time. (If you don’t read him regularly, you should.)

While this shows OBL is far from being a mere rabble-rouser, some have noted that his economic thinking is extremely simplistic. This is no doubt true: the US economy has depth and is likely to sustain a war by itself for four more years, however it also misses the point; Al Qaida’s motive is not to win but to be stomped upon, again and again. This stomping, they hope, will be heavy-handed enough (shades of “we had to burn the village in order to save it” Vietnam style warfare) and cause enough collateral damage to arouse resentment across the world, further isolating America and especially arouse the fury of the demographically-surging Muslim world:

[America] has started a campaign which has forced the majority of Muslims against it. But of course tactically it has scored major gains. A lot of these so-called strategic analysts mistake these tactical gains for strategic leverage. The point is that these people are not strategic analysts because they never bring the historical, ideological and social dimensions into their calculations. They only consider political and military factors…

There is some reason to believe that of late the current administration has become more sensitive to social dimensions: the siege of Fallujah being a good example. Interestingly, by fighting in Iraq, the US has opened up a new strategic front in the war on terror.

Do opportunities for strategic gain exist in Iraq given the US’ heavy-handed application of military force? Yes — if it is able to deliver on its promise to plant democracy in the middle-east. A thriving democracy in Iraq will show the Arab street that a third option exists, away from their rigid mullahcracies and away from the promised glories of martyrdom. It is a admittedly a huge gamble to take, because it questions the conventional wisdom that the Muslim world would never accept ‘Western’ traditions like liberal democracy and the separation of church and state (incidentally, conventional wisdom in 1947 was that India wasn’t ready for democracy either). If it succeeds, it will resoundingly show once and for all that like all men Muslims too desire happiness in this world as opposed to the next.

1 Comment

2 November 2004 9:27 am

Partisan Hats and Academic Hats

Joshua Allen notes that Tanenbaum — in his current incarnation as the Votemaster — does not seem to be too rigorous about statistics.

I was struck by this as well, while going through the Votemaster FAQ, where he accepts the statistically questionable Lancet study without question: Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the war, mostly women and children, he says.

Of course, given that he is a declared partisan in this contest, it is likely that Tanenbaum abandoned academic rigour for more effective rhetoric. However it also underlines why academic enquiry and politics don’t mix; to do either effectively, putting on one hat requires putting down the other.

2 Comments

5:55 am

Death of a Broadsheet

One of those end-of-an-era moments: The Times is now a tabloid (or, in their own words, a ‘compact’). In other news, folk who wish to continue hiding behind their newspapers on the Tube switch to the Telegraph. That said, having struggled to read a newspaper on the move, I’m happy about this and hope other newspapers get with the program too.

Perhaps the Slime of India will follow suit? Content-wise, after all, it is already a tabloid.

2 Comments

1 November 2004 2:26 pm

Strategic Nationalism

I missed this, but thanks to the wonders of the Bharatiya Blogger’s Digest er, Blog Mela, I was able to find Madhu’s screed on Indian-ness. He asks how he can strongly identify with India when on many points (go read them all) he is clearly out of the Indian mainstream.

Not surprisingly, his comments have attracted (besides the usual accusations of brown-sahibbery) a lot of people who feel the same as he does. I must add here that as little as two years back, I would probably have been firmly in the “me too, Madhu” camp. These days, I’m happy to be at ease about it.

The problem begins with the way Madhu states the problem: just how “Indian” am I?. As we will see, ‘how’ is the wrong question: ‘what kind of’ is a much better one.

Attempts to measure Indianness by counting the number of national stereotypes conformed to is not only misguided but dangerous. Nationalism, except in hate-mongering hands, is an instrument of inclusion, not exclusion. Measured by Madhu’s criteria, Pandit Nehru with his perennial Anglophilia or the pre-South-Africa Gandhi would not have been very Indian either.

Madhu goes on to call himself a cultural misfit. To my mind, this is a good thing: cultural misfits create progress. It is because of cultural misfits that most people don’t think of Sati, or child-marriage, or widow-remarriage-prohibitions, or treating wives like chattel as terribly important Indian values. Conflating the idea of cultural “fits” with Indian-ness is therefore misguided.

The key phrase that underlies Madhu’s thinking seems to be Ravi Kiran’s quote: Every generation finds things we have in common, things that we share, things that we value and things that we can be proud of, and builds a nationalism out of it. This is a classic clarion call to what I call ‘cultural nationalism’: in the early 1900s it was Vande Mataram, khadi and the tricolor; today it’s cricket, B(|T|K)ollywood and Indipop. Easy.

Or maybe not. Cultural nationalism is a great tool to get a nation together where none existed before. It appeals to the masses who then see unity where previously there was diversity. In a nation that already exists, cultural nationalism is a sure road to disaster simply because every special-interest group has slightly different and often conflicting ideas about what the shared ‘culture’ represents. Look no further than the VHP/RSS’ brand of values to see how even majority values can be divisive. Even seemingly harmless values like Bollywood become objects of dispute, as in the recent Karnataka cinema fraças. Most tellingly, the last German experiment with shared cultural values and nationalism left 55 million dead around the world.

Perhaps in response to this, some commenters have suggested that in this interconnected world nationalism is passé, that all it means is a passport, nothing more. This “citizen of the world” thinking has struck me as wooly-headed before, and this is what this post is really about.

Of course, the world is highly interconnected today. 16 year olds in Brazil can contribute to the development of an OS kernel that’ll be used around the world. Teens in Bangalore can buy Evanescence albums almost as soon as they’re out in New York. There is an entire spectrum of global and local experiences that one can be — given the inclination and ability — exposed to.

Let us assume a ‘national average’ of exposure that lies somewhere between completely local and completely global. A typical autorickshaw driver would be skewed towards the local end of the scale. Madhu, on the other hand, is highly skewed towards global end of the scale, much more than the national average. Madhu and others like him are the leading edge of India’s ‘globalization’, and they pay for it with anomie towards the society they inhabit.

Europe is a more balanced example. Today, shared cultural experience in Europe (which was never low to begin with) is at all time high, thanks especially to the common market and free interborder movement for citizens. By the ‘cultural nationalism’ touchstone, then, nationalism must also be at an all time high. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Fervour for nationalism in Europe is low, hindering the progress of the European superstate. The reason is a lack of common strategic interest. Lower-cost Ireland has prospered under the Euro regime where Germany has suffered. France indignantly chastises a resurgent Poland for not ‘knowing its place’ even as it suffers low growth and rise in pensioners.

Nationalism — first and foremost — is shared economic and strategic interest. Everything else, cultural symbolism included, is window dressing.

What kind of Indian is Madhu? An excellent one. Far better, I would argue, than the IAS officer who’s blasé about his district’s poor roads. Far better than the politician who knows that keeping his poor constituency hooked to handouts is the ticket to his own success. Madhu is an excellent Indian because he has a very personal stake in India’s success. He wants his restaurant to do well. For that, Bangalore has to do well. If Bangalore does well, so will Indian IT, and (given IT’s role in the economy) so will India. And while all the macroeconomics flies thick and fast, Madhu goes back to delivering great food and service and creating jobs.

Anyone who’s labour is directed towards making India thrive is an Indian, even if he doesn’t have a passport that says so. Even indirect labour from those offshore counts: those who invest in India, often simply by sending money home; those who by their very lives offshore create goodwill for India; those who, despite feeling like misfits, like India enough to blog about it. Of course, these days we recognize some of these Indians by giving them PIO cards.

Of course, apart from that there is also the little matter of accepting the framework of Indian law and all the obligations that brings about, which is what legally makes you a citizen in the first place (some of us are born into it). However, it is only shared economic and strategic interest that can truly make one a citizen, as opposed to a mere accident of birth.

2 Comments

12:03 pm

Liberal Rage

After Elizabeth Edward’s “no riots if we win” (audio, mirror), it’s now time for self-confessed pacifist hippie Dave Winer to step up to the plate:

…We’re so divided because of Bush that people are actually talking openly about civil war after the election. This is no good. I find myself ready to say to our friends in Europe and Asia, it’s time for you guys to plan your invasion of the US. We need a lot of help here.

(Boldface mine). With peace-loving pacifist citizens like these, the United States doesn’t really need outsiders to wish it harm.

Update: more Liberal Rage here.

Update 9 Nov 2004: Post-election, Dave seems to have got put away the partisan rage and gotten back to normal again, which is great. Now maybe the (necessary, given that it was an election year) partisan shrillness on both sides can be put aside in favour of more important issues, like making life difficult for people who make snuff videos out of beheadings.

2 Comments

27 October 2004 4:09 pm

Firefox’s Slashdot Rendering Bugs

If you use Firefox and visit Slashdot, especially as a logged in user, you may have noticed Firefox mess up the rendering on the home page and many inner pages. This is due to Bug #217527 and it seems it will not be fixed in Firefox 1.0 (but is scheduled to be fixed thereafter). I wish the Firefox devs would reconsider, it’s never a good idea to render one of your biggest booster sites badly.

That said, workarounds exist: hit Ctrl+ followed by Ctrl- to reset the display. Or download the latest Mozilla trunk builds. Or (gasp) use IE, it works great with Slashdot.

Update 9 Nov 2004: Hardgrok has a handy little hack extension that sort of fixes this problem, although /. pages opened in background tabs still get borked.

5 Comments

18 October 2004 3:18 pm

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