After three days, I am finally connected to the internet once again. More pertinently, I am still off mobile phone because I decided not to activate international roaming and am not yet in India. When I arrived in Paris a week ago, I felt lost. I know the city well, speak its language, and yet, I felt totally cut off from the rest of the world. Arriving as I did on Saturday night, I had no time to go check with Orange on why the France sim card I was carrying would not work. And Paris being Paris, everything is closed on Sunday. Yes…I mean everything. Even supermarkets and pharmacies! This basically meant that I went all of Saturday and Sunday without a working mobile phone connection. Work started in full swing on Monday and I realized that I would have no time at all to go get a mobile connection.

After feeling slightly out-of-touch for a few days, I settled in. I realized I got by perfectly well without a working mobile connection, and with limited internet access. I came to enjoy the small things like observing people while having dinner, carrying on a conversation without obsessing about who is texting me or tweeting to me. After a very long time, I realized that some things in life can only be enjoyed if we cut ourselves off, at least momentarily, from the world wide web and from mobile telephony. Without the constant buzz of my wifi-enabled, EDGE-connected smartphone, I realized I was actually noticing more of the world that I ever have over the past year.

The point here is not to decry the use of mobile phones or mobile internet. I would be guilty of that addiction myself. But somehow, I got the impression that by staying connected with friends on every network possible (BlackBerry, What’s App, Twitter, GTalk, text AND FB), we deny ourselves the joys of a real meeting. What can be so urgent that we feel the need to tell the world through FB or Twitter about a beautiful pebble beach, even before we have fully taken in that experience ourselves? Really? What are we running away from? Are we so insecure with ourselves that we feel the need to connect with others 24/7? Or is it peer pressure? Or am I just overreacting? I know that this temporary absence from the web and from telephone was forced. Left to myself, I would never have cut myself off voluntarily from the internet or my phone. But now that I know what it feels like, maybe I should do this one day in a month. Just maybe!

Security vs. Privacy…among other things…

I just came across this excellent article on the security-privacy relationship in an increasingly insecure world. Bruce Schneier sums up all the post-September 11 drama in two words: security and privacy. Which would you choose? About 90% of my readers would probably say security. After all, what exactly do you do with privacy if you are not alive to enjoy it. This issue has been consistently and constantly debated and analysed by experts around the world in the years after the September 11 attacks. But, what Schneier says is interesting. He says that the dichotomy is, in itself false. He argues, rather effectively, that the question is one of freedom and control rather than of security and privacy. I agree. After all, my identity and freedom are at stake. I should be the one who decides what to reveal and what to hide. That freedom is increasingly being taken away from individuals in the name of security.

There is increasing awareness of security threats, and attempts to plug the holes in an extremely ineffective security system. Take the airports for instance. No Indian airport allows passengers to carry on more that one piece of cabin baggage, including laptop computer. That forces the poor passenger to make the difficult choice of checking in either the precious computer, or valuable documents in the carry-on bag. In short, the unsuspecting passenger has no choice. While such ridiculous rules may be justified by lack of cabin space, they make no sense when they are intended to make travel more secure. What exactly can I do with an extra file of college certificates? Blow up the aircraft? Give me a break. Equally dumb is the no-liquids rule. Even a bottle of water, or baby food is subjected to thorough checks. If I were a terrorist, I would not carry an obvious explosive on board. I would find better, and more ingenuous ways of making my plan work.

And then, there are biometric identifiers. While I would not object to giving my fingerprint to the passport office so they can issue biometric passports, I would have a serious problem with other identification methods like DNA analysis. With a tissue from the inside of my cheek, the government can get information that is entirely personal, like the state of my health and my susceptibility to heart attacks. Even if there is no danger of my DNA sample being exploited without my consent, biometric identifiers are, by no means, foolproof. I am reminded, rather forcefully, of the opening pages of the Dan Brown novel, “Angels and Demons”, where a man is discovered lying dead on the ground, with his eye ripped off to be used in an iris scanner. Scary thought, that. In short, I cannot help but agree with Schneier’s contention that a false dichotomy is created intentionally, to override any major concerns of privacy invasion. After all, most people would choose security over privacy.

On an unrelated note, I recently read on the India Uncut blog that a certain Mr. Prakash Kumar Thakur from Bhopal specialises in prosecuting people for showing disrespect to the national flag. On reading the related Indian Express article, I was convinced that the man is simply desperate for some media attention. I think Amit Varma is being too generous by calling such people Mera Bhaarat Mahaan patriots. I am quite convinced that such actions have nothing to do with patriotism. They are simply a rather desperate attempt to stand up and be counted. Our revered Mr. Thakur has done nothing worth commending. Nor does he seem capable of doing much. No wonder he specialises in prosecuting people (ever wondered why the victims are always celebrities?) for “disrespecting” the national flag/anthem/song/bird/dog poop…

And finally, Harbhajan Singh has finally been let off the hook for racial abuse. While the verdict is welcome, the BCCI has behaved rather like a petulant child in the issue. I did say earlier that the Indian team must come back home if the Aussies cannot stop being so arrogant. To their credit, they have behaved themselves, losing touch with their cricketing talent in the process. While the BCCI was right to threaten cancellation of the tour if Harbhajan was not given a second hearing, they had no business demanding a favourable verdict. As I said in my earlier post, the Proctor decision was miscarriage of justice. After all, Proctor had no evidence whatsoever against Harbhajan Singh and relied entirely on the testimonies of three Australian players. That said, the demand of the BCCI to drop all charges against Harbhajan is unfair too. If Proctor was wrong to indict without evidence, the Appeals Commissioner would be wrong to let him off the hook despite (possible, new) evidence. When the judge wanted to hear the stump mikes, the BCCI reacted childishly, by refusing to accept any new evidence that might exist. There are limits to the BCCI’s blackmail. I vigorously defended India’s right to throw its weight around and get things done. But that should not result in the BCCI deciding the outcome of a misbehaviour hearing. That would put the entire game in jeopardy, and any country with money would then be able to decide the outcome of a hearing through blackmail. And that is injurious, both to India’s reputation as a cricketing nation, and to the governance of the game.

Outsourcing revisited

Yesterday, I watched, for the second time, a Discovery Feature by Thomas L Friedman that deals with the phenomenon of outsourcing in India. When I first watched it a year ago, I was impressed by the depth and range behind the feature. I stopped there. I did not bother to go through the comments to the video on YouTube. But yesterday, I found the comments more interesting. The video explores the changing relationship between the service provider and the customer. Call any service centre in the US and chances are, you will hear an Indian voice on the other end. You could have problems with your computer, your bank account, your investments, your food processor or your hair dryer and more often than not, it will be an Indian fixing it for you. This state of affairs would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. The internet, falling cost of communication and technological development have made this kind of outsourcing, not just possible, but very common. Think about it, you have decided to mortgage your house. The bank approves the mortgage. The next day, the formalities are complete and you have your money. Would this be possible in the pre-BPO world? I doubt it. For, when you are enjoying a good night’s sleep in the US, India is awake and working to complete the paperwork you will need in 12 hours.

All this sounds fantastic, but some of the comments to the said video on YouTube are shocking. One person says,

“i can hardly begin to tell you how disgusting this phenomenon is. You people that are so impressed by this “great” video do NOT seem to understand that 99.9999999% of Americans HATE getting an Indian voice when they call and need something. Please take a moment and let? it sink in. AMERICANS CAN’T STAND INDIA CALL CENTERS!!!”

Need I even comment? This person, who so hates getting an Indian voice on a call can’t spell the word Indian properly. And yes, he seems to think that people are objects. No wonder people that are impressed don’t understand something. I mean, what the &^@!?? Being American does not give someone the right to be derisive of those who are not. The last time I checked, Indians spoke English as well as anyone else. In fact, we stick to conventional English grammar more closely that the Americans. And, I thought English was English and not American. Honestly, I don’t care what the Americans like and what they hate. If I were a call centre employee in India, I would do my job because I am paid for it. Whoever said I needed to speak with an American twang to be considered competent? Try telling the Quebecois that their French is not French. Or the Australians that their English is not English. You wouldn’t dare, would you? So why do people assume they can say what they want about Indian English just because we have other, well-developed languages? (Or is this guy/girl simply racist?) Are we any less fluent than the Americans because we don’t have an American accent?

I have nothing against Americans in general. But, this comment by one American effectively ensures that other, moderate voices are never heard. This guy (or girl) goes on to claim that the American Customer Service people clean up the mess Indians create. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Don’t believe me? Visit a call centre and find out for yourself. Or, believe people like Friedman who are, at least, objective in their evaluation of outsourcing.

No matter what the Americans, or anyone else for that matter, think, the fact remains that outsourcing is here to stay. Live with it! If people don’t like hearing Indian voices when they call, they should learn to live with their million gadgets that don’t work. I have lived in France for two years. It is a fact that people cannot survive in the west if their gadgets were to stop working. Try living with broken computers, banks that take 8 days to clear your cheque and investments that go haywire because the financial consultant is on vacation. Then, you will understand how much easier your life has become thanks to outsourcing. The reason is simple. Indians do the same job, as well as any American (or Brit/Frenchman/Australian) for half the cost. And companies exist to make money. Indian call centres are not disappearing any time soon. The sooner the world learns to cope, the better.

Politics, security and technology…

Here is a post, once again, that talks of things that are unrelated to one another. Let me start with politics, security and armed political opposition. Yesterday, I was at the CSA seminar on Civil Society in Conflict situations. (will link to the report on it once it is up.) There, one of the speakers, a distinguished and retired army officer analysed some of the characteristics of violence-ridden and conflict-torn societies. He said, in his rather interesting presentation, that conflict situations are often characterised by a lack of basic amenities, poverty, high levels of unemployment and absence of infrastructure. That reminded me of the fabled robbers of Chambal Valley, so famously characterised by Phoolan Devi. But, these factors do not always lead to conflict. Or inversely, all conflict situations are not necessarily characterised by the above problems. In fact, some of the most violent armed struggles of the world have been started and sustained by the prosperous.

Take, for example, the secessionist violence that the Democratic Republic of Congo suffered for decades. The province that wanted to secede, Katanga possesses practically 90% of DRC’s natural resources. The same is the case with insurgency in Punjab. Punjab is one of India’s richest states, in terms of agricultural produce. As I said some time back in my post on Bihar, the desire to secede or rise in arms against the state comes, not only from the poorest, but also from the richest states. Was Tamil Nadu ever as backward as the Northeast? Why then, did the campaign for a separate Tamil nation catch the people’s imagination in the 1960s? Armed political resistance only starts where the insurgents are sure of carrying it on successfully. Insurgency will hardly work in a place where the common man is too worried about his next meal to support insurgent groups. What creates problems and incites insurgency is economic development and influx of money in the absence of good governance. That said, there is no linear relationship between poverty, unemployment and violence. the relationship is much more complex and merits a more detailed study then is possible on a simple blog. So, I will leave that to someone else.

Now, over to technology. The other day, I saw the brand new Lenovo with an in-built face recognition system. Now, that is the kind of computer I would like to buy. But, the said laptop had many more features and weighed just 900 grams. And, cost a whopping 120,000 rupees (about $3000.) So, I contented myself with just looking. The way technology has evolved over the last ten years is amazing. Using fingerprint identification or face recognition to access your computer would have been unthinkable at the turn of the century. At least, for us non-techies. Today, biometric identification for security had permeated every aspect of life. The French Government’s decision to include biometric identifiers in all passports issued after September 2006, is symbolic of the change that is sweeping Europe and the rest of the world. It will perhaps take a few more years to get to India, not because we are far behind technologically, but because the Indian government takes a lot longer to act that the EU does. Not to mention that decisions are implemented a decade after they are actually taken, by which time they become redundant. Let us hope we get biometric passports soon. At least before my passport is due for renewal in 2014!

Mobile phones, cricket and much more…

Before you start wondering what the connection is between mobile phones and cricket, let me clarify…NOTHING. I simply have two unrelated things to say and did not want to publish twice on the same day. Ok…mobile phones first. I have been obsessed with mobile phones lately. The introduction of the new MotoRazr2 (V9) did nothing to diminish it. I don’t pretend to be an expert in mobile phone technology, but the MotoRazr sure has a special place in my heart. Maybe because it was the first mobile phone I actually had a choice in buying. I remember going with my dad to buy my very first mobile phone in December 2003. I had just started working at the Alliance Francaise and Dad had agreed to buy me a phone on the condition that I would pay the bill. As he was not very happy with having to buy me a phone, he settled for the cheapest available model, a Sony Ericsson T105. It was a rather boring phone that one could use for nothing other than making calls and sending text messages. Just my luck that it stayed with me for nearly 21 months, until August 2005.

Then came the Nokia 3120. I did not want that phone. I wanted to go out and choose a decent one myself so that I did not have to embarrass myself with the T105 in France. In fact, I was not even sure it would work there. My aunt chose to surprise me with a new phone and went out and purchased the said Nokia. It lasted exactly a year. It conked out the minute its warranty expired. I have no idea why. After using a borrowed phone for a couple of months I decided enough was enough. I wanted a proper phone, one that I would be proud to own. And it turned out to be a MotoRazr. It’s been 9 months since I bought it, and I have not had a single complaint so far. That is why I was so excited when I learnt that Motorola was launching an upgraded version in the MotoRazr2 (V9). I don’t care what more it can do and how different it is from the V3i that I own. I am totally in love with the way it looks and am wishing someone would offer to buy it for me as a birthday gift. 😛

That said, I come to cricket. The semi-finals of the T20 World Cup is currently under way. I am praying, like millions of other Indians, that India beat Australia in this match. But you never know. The Indian team has the habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in crucial matches. While I am a supporter of the Indian team, my desire to see India win goes beyond patriotism. To be truthful, I am sick and tired of Australia winning all the time. A good game needs to see some decent competition. I wish India would fell the giant and get to the finals. It would be sensational to see India play Pakistan in the finals of the T20 World Cup. Personally, I prefer the longer 50-over version of cricket. Watching a match of T20 feels like watching a match of football disguised as cricket. The feeling was reinforced when I heard that there is something similar to a penalty shoot-out if a match is tied. Anyway, to each one his own. T20 is here to stay and it generates interest. Let’s see what happens to Team India in the T20 World Cup…

A hyper-connected generation?

I came across this article on BBC News a short while ago. An increasing interest in social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Orkut is giving rise to hyper-connected generation. As the writer puts it, users are not only sending mails and text messages but “lifecasting” words and video 24 hours a day. I wonder whether all this worth something. Why are we so obsessed with remaining “connected” with the rest of the world all the time? Why are we so entirely incapable of living our lives “offline” without feeling the obsessive need to check our mails every 10 seconds? There is also apparently a new phenomenon that the author calls micro-blogging. They are one-to-many messages broadcast like blogs that help people keep up with goings on in your life.

Now, I am all for blogging, seeing as I am myself a regular blogger. However, I fail to understand why anyone would be interested in whether you have brushed your teeth and had coffee in the morning. Being on both Facebook and Orkut myself, I can vouch for the fact that both are terribly addicting. In fact, they actively encourage you to abandon all pretense of productive work and distract yourself. I have been guilty of the behaviour several times myself. But now, the novelty has worn off. I am no longer as interested in either site as I was when I first joined. It is convenient to get in touch with friends when you feel like, but sometimes I feel constrained to check and update my profile because my friends expect me to do so.

Then, there is the question of who exactly a “friend” is. Does someone you knew when you were five years old and in kindergarten count? Believe it or not, I actually got a request from someone claiming he was in kindergarten with me and would like to be my friend. He added, in his scrap on Orkut, that he thought I was a fantastic person and warm-hearted too!! What the hell? How does he know I am a nice person when he hasn’t even seen me for 20 years? This spurred me on to abandoning my Orkut profile. I am back on it now, a year later but am much more conservative about who I accept as friends than I was then. There are days when this networking nonsense goes completely out of hand and I feel like a fool for having accepted it in the first place.

So, while staying in touch is an excellent thing, a balance must be struck between a person’s online and offline life. To me, my offline life is more important than my online life, hopefully. And, I certainly hope I never become one of those Facebook-obsessed individuals who are online all the time. I do have a life outside of the Internet and proud of it!

Technical problems and randomness

I have done it! And proud of myself. 🙂 My Windows XP installation crashed last evening. I came back from dinner with friends and tried starting my computer and it simply refused to start. After many failed attempts at reviving it, I finally set down to the task of effecting a complete system reinstall, something I have never done before. It is convenient having a technician father who takes complete care of your computer and its maintenance. A week to go before I get back home and my computer had to choose to fail now. It is a cruel twist of fate that all the notes I needed for my Grand O on Saturday were stuck in electronic form on my system. So, here I was undertaking what I once considered a Herculean task, at midnight.

Twenty four hours later, my computer is good as new. All essential software installed, Windows updates installed and all files and folders completely intact. Boy, am I proud of myself! May I pat myself on the back for it. I am not a techie, far from it actually. But, I am gifted with the ability to wriggle out of the most inconvenient situations (ex. my computer crashing) with a lot of effort. So, it is done! And I am so thrilled that I managed to get it up and running without any major mishaps. Maybe I should have been a techie after all. 😉

Man on the moon? for what good?

Recent news reports (Vote for Manned Space Mission) have suggested that he ISRO may be seriously considering sending a manned mission to space. My question is, why exactly? What is the mission going to accomplish? If there is any concrete and useful outcome, it makes sense. Otherwise, not really. Should the government and the ISRO not refrain from such unnecessary expenditure when all the information that is needed from the moon is already available at the NASA? What is India trying to do? Declare itself as part of the developed world by launching a mission which was the exclusive domain of the Cold War powers. I do not think so.

The keyword today is collaboration. If India can think seriously of collaborating with the US on areas of nuclear technology, what stops the ISRO from signing a similar accord with the NASA? I fail to understand the rationale behind the decision. If you understand it, do let me know.