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2005 — Yearly Archive

Paris Burning

The riots in Paris are regrettable but I am astonished about the number of people who expressed surprise that this sort of thing could happen in France. Back in April 2003, I pointed to Barbarians at the Gates of Paris and in the light of recent events it makes chilling, prophetic re-reading.

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6 November 2005 1:19 am

It took a Tropical Storm to shut down Chennai

Satellite photo of tropical storm Most Chennaites will not be coming to work today; the rains preceding this tropical storm have made travel within the city virtually impossible. That would mean today would be the first time (since I moved to Chennai in June 2000) that the city has lost a day of work for any reason. In a country known for frequent strikes — Bangalore was shut down for a day in 2000 when the actor Rajkumar was kidnapped, Hyderabad had its day when police fired on a mob, Calcutta shuts down because of strikes so often it isn’t even funny — this says something about the work ethic of the city.

Here’s hoping the storm misses, and they get back on their feet soon!

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27 October 2005 3:48 pm

Indian Blogosphere == Bitchy Wannabes, says Outlook Magazine

Outlook magazine has a rather astonishing aside in a story covering IIPM: TR Vivek writes (screenshot)

The Indian blogging community (or blogosphere, as it likes to call itself) is essentially a bitchy, self-indulgent and an almost incestuous network comprising journalists, wannabe-writers and a massive army of geeks who give vent to their creative ambitions on the internet. Given that the average blogger-age is 25 years, it’s clear bloggers love to indulge in hearty name-calling and taking college-style potshots at others. This is probably why some of them get into trouble.

Of course, Outlook would never indulge in self-indulgent cheap potshots. Oh no.

Thankfully for Outlook, the average Indian is still far too deferential to authority and India far too unwired for it to really get hit where it hurts — on the bottom line — the way the US media is. However the gratuitous name calling is likely to do Outlook little good because ultimately the vocal, articulate, well-to-do urbanites who comprise India’s blogosphere are ultimately its best customers, and instead of working with them it is clear some writers within the magazine have chosen to take an adversarial, condescending stance.

The outcome of that — a battle between a weekly magazine versus an always-on network increasingly reaching the most well-heeled of that magazine’s customers in an increasingly wired country — is foregone; it is a question of when not if. And given Mr Vivek’s snarkiness, I am not sure many would shed tears for him and the magazine he writes for.


23 October 2005 6:29 pm

India in Regress

JK over at varnam.org has a great post asking ‘What Argumentative Indian?’ to Amartya Sen’s new book. I wasn’t very happy with the book either because it seemed to me while it did a good job of supporting his thesis that many ‘Western’ notions were in fact not so Western after all, it did not do a good job of explaining why despite these ideals much of the West ended up with secular democracies while India ended up first a rag-tag bunch of kingdoms that was easy pickings for the British (who then through their education system created a new generation of educated Indians who re-introduced concepts of civic democracy and nationalism back to the country).

It seems to me that the prodigious intellectual output of India during the Vedic period had given way to near-intellectual bankruptcy around 10BC. The chief culprit that destroyed India’s intellectual depth, I would say, was an increasingly rigid and unforgiving caste system, which had a side-effect of compartmentalizing knowledge and denying a first-class education to all (incidentally making Sanskrit effectively a court language and sealing its fate by making it incomprehensible to the masses, and as a third-order effect creating India’s modern tower of Babel). A rise in superstition and ritual mirrored the decline in education, as cows became ‘holy,’ temples became richer and rituals more elaborate. Brave and occasionally successful attempts to present alternatives to this dysfunctional society would abound in the next 500 years (starting with the Siddhartha Gautama and leading up to the Bhakti Movement and the Sikh gurus) but they had little impact on the majority of India’s Hindus who returned to worshipping rats and snakes, believing in Karma and generally accepting their lot in life.

And in a few hundred years much of India would come under Mughal rule, and (Akbar’s catholicism in religious matters notwithstanding) her history would roughly mirror those of other Islamic empires: people-rich empires (rich enough in people and uncaring enough of talent, it is said, that Shah Jahan had the hands of the creators of the Taj Mahal cut off that they may never recreate its wonder again) turning out intricate works of art, craft and clothing; but ignorant of the European renaissance and the rumblings of scientific enquiry emanating from the West, blissfully unaware that their ignorance of these would soon prove their downfall.

Yes, as the good Professor argues, Indian had achieved a high level of intellectual achievement at a time when most Europeans were in bearskins. What to me matters more is that Europe came out of her dark ages and saw a continent-wide Renaissance that it followed up with a scientific and industrial revolution. Whereas India never thought of herself as being in one and as a result various renaissance movements (Mahatma Phule, the Brahmo Samaj, Periyar) had extremely limited effect, even socially.

It is no wonder the Vedic period is unfailingly eulogised by traditionalists who then blithely ignore the rot that set into India in subsequent years. Perhaps the most telling fact about this loss is that it became necessary for Amartya Sen to write his essays to help his countrymen ‘rediscover’ these ideals in the first place.


21 October 2005 5:26 pm

IIPM Needs a New PR Officer

It’s the cover-up that gets you, not the screw-up. IIPM are about to find that out first-hand. Overselling (or tooting one’s horn for that matter) isn’t a crime, but the fine b-school academics over at the sue-happy institute should perhaps have been new-age enough to read The Cluetrain Manifesto and realize that rubbish threats (like these fine bits of public discourse involving toilets and molotov cocktails, archived here) do more harm than good.

I’m sorry I didn’t find out about this sooner, because I really have little to add to the sea of posts this has already generated. All I’ll say is IIPM’s antics were excellent entertainment (and fodder for many jokes) up to the point that people started quitting their jobs because of threats of portable computer immolation (!). I’m still waiting to see how this’ll pan out — and when someone at IIPM will realize that a high-profile court case involving a ridiculous sum of money will give them far more of the spotlight than they really wanted.

Updated 15 Oct: The Indian media continues to maintain radio silence on this, barring NDTV and a city edition of the Indian Express. Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that IIPM is one of its largest advertisers. No sirree.

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14 October 2005 7:11 pm

Google+Sun: No Fireworks, For Now

After getting excited (against my better judgement) about today’s Google+Sun announcement, it’s turned out that the all the noise was primarily about a marketing junket — the most notable software announcement was an earthshaking Google Toolbar bundling deal.

I was expecting some noise about Google and OO — perhaps a Save to Google Storage in OO’s Save As dialog, or beefed up OO document search powered by Google. In retrospect, of course, both of those were silly — Google’s ’standards’ approach would mean the only way they’d ever offer file storage would be WebDAV and Google Desktop already searches OO files just fine.

Of course, the Web 2.0 types who got excited about a ‘webified’ OpenOffice (like many of Scoble’s commenters) had better not hold their breath. Current browser technology, even with AJAX, is very fragile (Gmail’s autosave, for example, is very flaky and I’d be very interested to see if Yahoo’s new mail handles drag/drop well — Oddpost had frequent problems) and definitely not the platform you’d want to build a solid productivity app on. And OO.o’s desktop heritage pretty much precludes it from being an effective browser-based cross-platform app… Google would have better luck with Mozilla’s XULRunner (and given Google’s wooing of the Mozilla foundation and Eric Schmidt’s refusal to get into discussing Open Office today I believe they have come to the same conclusion).

Consequences for Google: What is interesting is that with today’s announcement it’s the second time Google fans have expected red meat but come away disappointed. As a Google user since google.stanford.edu, I associate Google with simplicity and simplification — i.e., Google’s products reduce noise, not add to it. Google Search obviously reduced search noise, Gmail (either by itself or by scaring the bejeezus out of its competitors) reduced noise by removing the tedium of constantly having to delete email. Google Talk added to the noise by adding Yet Another Client to an already crowded market, and today’s announcement did not help matters. Google’s upcoming Calendar product had better be orders-of-magnitude stunning for the company to recover some of its mojo.

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4 October 2005 10:10 pm

Non-proliferation vs Realpolitik

A while back Madhoo wrote about people who refuse to live in the present:

…Does it make any sense whatsoever to react to decades-old stuff just because it has just been declassified? Nixon is no more, Indira Gandhi is not alive and Kissinger is in no way involved with the current administration – what is the point on making a big deal about this now?

I think this is what is the problem is with us – living in the past. We refuse to let go of the demons of the past and refuse to look ahead. Every time there is a remote chance of us getting anywhere better, we go into a self-destructive mode and shoot ourselves in the foot. Idiots!

On the other hand, it seems living in the past isn’t the exclusive preserve of the Rediff webmasters but also senior American policymakers:

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) condemned the agreement as a “dangerous proposition and bad nonproliferation policy” and said he will introduce legislation to block it. “We cannot play favorites, breaking the rules of the nonproliferation treaty, to favor one nation at the risk of undermining critical international treaties on nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement. “What will Russia say when they want to supply more nuclear materials or technology to Iran? You can be sure that Pakistan will demand equal treatment.”

Bolton, Bush’s nominee to become U.N. ambassador, argued that such cooperation would mean rewarding a country that built a nuclear weapon in secret, using technology it obtained under the guise of civilian power. Both North Korea and Iran are believed to have tried the same route to develop nuclear weapons. Some within the administration said the deal would be damaging at a time when the United States is trying to ratchet up international pressure on both those countries to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions.

Non-proliferation made sense in a world where few nations had access to nuclear weapons. In a changed world where ‘responsible’ superpowers ship fissile material to irresponsible anarchies (which then scatter the lethal technology amongst the world’s worst), proliferation is a fait accompli and non-proliferation is a lame duck. Yet the policymakers for whom non-proliferation is an end, not a means to peace continue their sad, irrelevant dance on the DC stage.

What is interesting about non-proliferation is that it has worked for as long as it has: countries like Brazil and South Africa which signed up for the NPT did not do so primarily for the carrot of civilian nuclear tech, rather their national threat perception did not indicate the need for a nuclear deterrent. In the shadow of nuclear China and belligerent Pakistan, India obviously saw things differently.

The fact that the non-proliferation hawks in DC can still talk about ‘favorites’ and ‘breaking the rules [for India]‘, can still equate India with Pakistan and North Korea indicates that they are far more out of touch than the tactless webmasters at Rediff. For the rules have already been broken and the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and the posession of the genie must today be predicated on a nation’s record rather than its level of technological accomplishment in 1968.


19 July 2005 2:28 pm

There Will Always be an England

Beware Dog

These are not the images of September 11 — people walking in one direction out of the city. These are Londoners walking left, right, up the street, down the street, going about their normal lunchtime business.

We have faced terror before — Nazi terror, Irish Republican terror — and have not been beaten. This will not beat us either.

The overwhelming feeling round our office is “Is this best they can do?” – it looks and sounds much worse on 24hr news channels than in person.

… in the National Review

Just a word. My sister was at Tavistock Square at the time of the explosions, and my daughter and nephew were also in central London. We had some anxious moments, the more so because the cell-phone system was down (probably due to overloading), but we’ve all spoken now by land-line and email and they’re all safe and well.

For those of you who are anxious to know how the UK will react, we’ve been bombed for years by the IRA, and no-one spoke of quitting. Half of London and much of Coventry was flattened by the Luftwaffe a generation or two back, and no-one ran. Before that, in my grandparents’ time, we were bombed by Zeppelins and didn’t give in. We gave up appeasing after Czechoslovakia. There’s no panic today, and there won’t be, but we, all of us, are bloody angry. Al quaeda may think we’re going to run up the white flag, but I promise you nobody else does.

… in the Mudville Gazette.

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7 July 2005 5:45 pm

Bobby Bedi plans the Mahabharata

The Slime of India (I know, I know) is running an article about Bobby Bedi’s (of Bandit Queen, Fire and Saathiya fame) plans for his next project after The Rising
: an ambitious three-film retelling of the Mahabharata.

Now, I’m sure Bedi can pile on the creative talent — Maniratnam, arguably one of India’s finest directors, will apparently be at the helm — but what interests me at this stage is the budget for the trilogy (Rupees 300 crores, approximately US $70 million) and his stated desire to create a ‘historic’ epic with production values similar to that of The Lord of the Rings.

Interestingly, $70M would make this the most expensive Indian movie venture ever, with Devdas at $10M a distant second. Bedi obviously hopes for a long and lucrative run in foreign theatres and in DVD sales, because the biggest Indian hit so far — Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) — made not more than $30M after a marathon year-long stint at the box office. Of course, in Bedi’s favour is the fact that the Mahabharata will find a ready market when dubbed into various Indian languages, as also in DVD collections across the country. Obviously the producer will be hoping for a HAHK-style blowout in the very first film that’ll ensure audiences can’t stay away from the other two. On the other hand, sequels have never done well in India.

Of course, an open question would be how well the scriptwriters and the director balance Indian tastes in drama (which tends towards the melodramatic) with Bedi’s goal of taking the epic to the ‘American, British [and] Japanese’.

A bigger question is about production values. One reason Bollywood films look relatively unpolished is because a greater chunk of the budget goes into paying off the stars without who no big-budget Bollywood feature is complete. As the article says, Bedi is looking at casting not one but two A-list actors (Shahrukh and Aamir Khan) and an A-list actress, who together will eat into at least 10% of the budget. The question is therefore: can Bedi get LoTR-level gloss into three films for the money it took to make the Matrix?

As I’ve written before, great effects on small budgets have been done before: Crouching Tiger took $12M to make, for example, and 28 Days Later took $8M. But the limitations of those movies compared to the big FX films are apparent, and so are the budgets. The Titanic sank in $300M, The Matrix weighed in at a relative shoestring $65M and LoTR, made in New Zealand to cut cost and making use of extensive digital technology for its FX, needed $270M to recreate Middle-Earth on the silver screen.

Can diminishing digital costs, the availability of Massive and Massive-like packages, filming in India and using Indian post-production staff create the same FX quality for a third of the cost? As an FX geek I’m not holding my breath, but it would be great if good FX let Indian filmmakers think outside the boy-meets-girl box. And I’m sure Hollywood would love to add India to Mexico, Australia and now New Zealand as a low-cost destination for making movies.


4 July 2005 8:21 am

Be careful of what you want, you might just get it

Robert, stop conversing with the market and start shipping something that people can actually use. Neither Apple nor Google converse much with the market and both are doing quite well, from what I see.

That said, since you wanted a conversation, forget about RSS for a minute and get your fundamentals right — that means Mail. Calendaring. (My MSN, thankfully, is in much better shape.) I pay $20 a year for Hotmail and it’s embarassing that it still doesn’t have autocomplete, or that last I checked it won’t allow me to save a message into my Sent Items folder unless I click a checkbox. Every freaking time. You invented Ajax. Great. Use it. Time was when IE4-powered DHTML ran circles around NS4. Why are you ceding the space to Firefox today? And if you’ve got people who can make start.com, why are they kept in a sandbox and not allowed to touch the rest of MSN?

The way I see it, Microsoft has taken a strategic decision that Firefox and LAMP have commoditized the web so it’s time to cut losses, stop spending millions on IE and squeeze profits out of the fraction of users who will pay to have a marginally richer ‘integrated’ experience (with IE7 and XAML). Prove me wrong. Ship something to show me Microsoft still cares about putting great, usable apps on the web.

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30 June 2005 6:10 am

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