Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Right to Convenient Information Act

On 12th October 2012, The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, made a speech to the annual Convention of Information Commissioners. The speech had the usual platitudes expected from the Prime Minister of the largest creakily functioning democracy in the world. What made people get up from the somnolence brought about by these type of speeches was an ominous part which, interestingly, had words like frivolous and vexatious in it. Reproduced below:
There are some obvious areas of concerns about the way the Right to Information Act is being used presently, and I had flagged a few of them when I addressed this Convention last year. There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose. Sometimes information covering a long time-span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticized. Such queries besides serving little productive social purpose are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use. Such requests for information have in fact come in for adverse criticism by the Supreme Court as well as the Central Information Commission.
 There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that it needs to be analyzed in detail. The worrying part is that the things wrong with the paragraph are wrong in principle.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Battleground Office Suite

Software has always been an arena, with its sands bloodied with the invincible behemoths of the past, one set of Goliaths usurped by new Davids who become Goliaths themselves as their popularity and ubiquity increases. However,  there are some wars which have continued for what can be called ages in software years: the browser wars  (Remember Netscape and Lynx?) or recently, the mobile OS wars. Microsoft vs. Apple are locked in eternal struggles for users'  screen real-estate, irrespective of the dimensions of the screen.
But there is one software that is almost as necessary as the Operating System itself: the office suite. It is in the cloud, like Google Docs or MS Office Live (or whatever it is called); or on your Mac or Windows desktop or laptop, like MS Office. On your handheld device be it an Apple, Blackberry or Android. Or, if you are like me, on your Linux desktop as well.

But there are hardly any suites which are open source. And none, repeat none, that are good and open source. Libre Office, a fork of Open office, another open source office suite (which apparently took 20 years to make and ended up looking like the disfigured twin of Office 97) was supposed to fill in this gap. Not to put too fine a point on it, it sucks. Currently, at least. As my friend/sister, an avid Ubuntu user herself said, "I used MS Office after a long time...I didn't want to do it, but it felt so right!" I could very well relate to it. MS Office, despite its memory hogging, buggy experience, just works. It is as intuitive as it can be. There are thoughtful touches, tremendous resources available online for help, attractive colour combinations and themes built in...the works.

And what do we have in the Red corner? Ghastly colours, unintuitive, Socialist-era layout and GUI (Hey, it can't be open source if it doesn't make you sweat. How else will you feel good about yourself and self-validate your choices?). The latest version of Libre Office Impress (the equivalent of MS Powerpoint) on Ubuntu 12.04 repeatedly crashed while opening a Powerpoint presentation, which had no animations, slide transitions or any other bells and whistles. This is in 2012.

Why? Is it not obvious that a cross-platform Office Suite which works the same way whether it is on your Android Device or you IPad, is simple to use and offers great choices for creating documents, presentations and spreadsheets is humanity's requirement? Much more than the browser ever was? Imagine a powerful spreadsheet open source software that allows kids in Somalia the same type of tools to do their math and essays as the executive in Manhattan - or even better, allows the executive in Manhattan to redefine her tools (hey, it's open source) as easily as the primary school teacher in Somalia. The first one exists, it is called MS Office. The second is still a gleam in some people's eyes.

Are there people out there who are willing to redesign the whole Office Suite experience? Who can bring the power of MS Excel on low powered tablets? Designers who write magical code which can allow PhD students to create complex mathematical models and B-School students to ace their presentations or better still, create a new form of presentation beyond the confines of Powerpoint? Can an MS Visio comparable allow Engineering students to draw complicated process flows or better still, convert those process diagrams into CAD by itself? There is a lot of promise (and fame) to create this open source paradigm. Who will rethink the Office Suite?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Law of Inspiration

Human psychology interests me. That is one of the reasons why I am in this profession. The need for humans to write, narrate and be inspired by stories, both fantasy and reality, is a continuing source of fascination for me. And the interaction of these narratives, especially the magnum opuses, with human beings' lives is even more interesting.

What accounts for football fan riots? Why did more than 70000 people in Australia declare their religion was Jedi? (Link). Why are people ready to kill others inspired by the rousing lines and episodes in their holy books?

The answer, I have found, is quite simple. It can be read to the cadence of Arthur C Clarke's third Law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The Law of Inspiration simply states:

Any sufficiently broad narrative can be used as a guide for making life decisions. 
The Corollary to the Law of Inspiration is:

The sufficiently broad narrative chosen as a guide for making life decisions will be applied completely out of context for self-serving ends.
There are more corollaries here, but I leave it to you, dear reader, to come up with them. In your free time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Long Overdue Movie Review: Deool (the Temple) Marathi

Go for it. If you are the type who wants an 'executive summary' before reading a review and believe stars look better in the sky than in movie reviews, then I suggest you watch Deool. It has a  rap song, a garish temple, a car with a number plate (4131) which is stylized to read as 'Bhau' (elder brother, or Don), a God-finding cow, lots of politics and superb cinematography. And lots more. 

Deool, which is a corrupted/colloquial form of the word Devalay (abode of God), means temple in Marathi. The movie tackles the issue of temple towns and how and why they grow...and prosper, especially in rural Maharashtra. And by extension, the rest of India. At a deeper level, it is an interesting commentary about belief, scepticism and how rural development can (and is) shaped by these thoughts. 

Deool pans into the breathtaking desolateness of the village of Mangruul, a sleepy, boring and electricity-deprived hamlet where nothing much really seems to happen. Yes, there are ruins of an ancient civilization discovered in the village, but that is not really very exciting for the village folk. The hamlet does not even have a proper S.T. (State Transport) bus stop. 

Keshya, a cowherd, is a simpleton charged with tending to the local politician's (Nana Patekar) cow. The cow, Kardi (Kardi comes from the colour Karda - greyish brown - a little like naming the cow Browny), is one of the two-three most important things in Keshya's life. Keshya, while once chasing the perpetually moving cow, finds her under a Banyan tree. As the heat saps his energy, he falls in a dazed slumber. And a strange dream envelopes him. He sees Lord Dattatreya (Dutta) in it. Shaken by this vision, he runs into the village to share this astounding incident. People knowing Keshya don't immediately take him seriously. Only his mother, after her initial indifference abates, believes him. The headman's wife, once she hears of this story, starts believing this as well. Soon, the meme is developed and people start talking about it, with a mix of mirth and mock-seriousness.  The senior wise man of the village, Anna (played by Dilip Prabhavalkar), one of the first persons with whom Keshya shares his vision, advises him to keep it to himself, since belief is a personal thing.
But such a thing cannot remain under wraps. Bhau's nephew and his band of wastrels are keen to latch on to something which can propel them into the big league. They get this news into a local newspaper (called 'Mahasangraam' - the great war) by paying the local reporter. Bhau is initially against this idea and in favour of building a hospital in the village. Anna creates the blue print and the plans and there seems to be an implicit agreement to get the project funded by Bhau. But in a coup of sorts, Bhau's political leader does a turnaround and asks Bhau to support the Dutta phenomenon.

And then, it begins. A temple town comes up in front of our eyes. The temple, the centre-piece of the sleepy village, is constructed. Earlier wastrels become dedicated volunteers, using 'moral suasion' in the way only religiously motivated volunteers can - getting donations from students, making people pay up by getting them to commemorate tiles in the temple in the names of their dear departed and asking businessmen to include Lord Dutta as a business partner - for luck and profits.

Anna can only watch in dismay as private belief - and fear - is exploited and commercialized in a superstructure which feeds itself. New stories of the Lord's miracles are created, devotional songs to the tune of Bollywood Blockbusters are sold on CDs and flowers and coconut plates (which are meant as offerings to the deity) are sold - and resold - to the believers by the 'simple' townsfolk.

Bhau, who by now has re-established his position as the most important and influential person in the village, realizes that Anna is dismayed enough to leave the village. He goes to meet Anna and then follows a dialogue which defines the core of the movie. I will not describe it here, it is better to watch it. One exchange, which I will mention though, is this:

Anna: Blatantly illegal things are happening in the name of development. One day, the Law will catch up with you, Bhau!
Bhau: Anna, on this side we stand, on the other side stands the Law...and between us, flows the endless stream of devotees. To reach us, Law will have to cross this stream and in doing so, it will hurt the sentiments of those devotees...(then, in a reassuring tone) everything will happen legally, don't worry.
Anna eventually leaves. But he is not the only one who is bothered by this unstoppable 'progress'. Keshya, the simpleton, cannot make sense of his surroundings. He cannot fathom why his mother doesn't go to the temple everyday to pray , but is perfectly happy to sit outside and sell flowers. Her response that if all villagers keep going to the temple, outsiders will never be able to see the Lord only angers him. After a fistfight with Bhau's nephew and the unbearable shock of seeing Kardi pass away, he takes a bold decision. 

You need to see the rest.

You need to see it, because, really (and pardon my pun), the Deool is in the details.

The brilliant performance by almost all actors, be it the way Sonali Kulkarni (Bhau's wife) walks and talks, with the easy confident air of being the First Lady of the village, Keshya's discomfort when his wife-to-be hugs him (she's still his wife-to-be, after all!), Bhau's ability to quickly turn on a dime, the weak and venal female Sarpanch, who cannot take any decision unless authorized by Bhau (or her mother-in-law), the wastrel gang who suddenly turn into powerful and honourable citizens - all turn in performances that flow effortlessly. 

The other level of detail is the keen observation of modern village life that never fails to evoke surprise and laughter - the old lady who keeps watching Saas bahu serials wearing her post-cataract dark goggles, the fantastic number plate on Bhau's SUV, the simple bhajan (devotional songs) singer in the village who sings touching, uncomplicated songs, but struggles to reproduce them to Bollywood tunes - and which is done very easily by Bhau, Bhau's larger than life poster, which is in the inimitable style of village politicians (in a walking position, talking on the cell phone)...all add up to a fantastic, funny mix.

This movie is thoroughly deserving of the National Award for the Best Film and Best Actor (Girish Kulkarni - Keshya)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Indian cricket -breastbeating edition

 Picture Courtesy:
The Border-Gavaskar trophy has two parts: the trophy itself, which will be given to Australia, and the Indian cricket team's backside, which is detachable and is being duly handed over to the Indian team. And thus, open season for depression and anger begins here in India. Media and general public get back to doing what they do best: blame BCCI, the cricketer's characters - especially Mammon-worship, flat pitches in India, bouncy pitches in Australia, Australian sledging, Indian finger-showing, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Manmohan Singh, European crisis and some other things.

There will be more analysis of this performance than that of Lehman Brothers' solvency in 2008. The quality of this analysis will yield exactly the same results. As a disinterested, though not dispassionate, match watcher, I noticed one fact which many people are not able to observe, or perhaps, not willing, to admit.