Monday, November 17, 2014

The Linux Phenomenon

This note examines the impact of the open source and FOSS movement with particular focus on Linux kernel development on sociological structures

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Crichton's explanation of nature and god . . May he rest in peace

I'm reading Michael Crichton's Micro (a book that has been published posthumously). The book (this is not the main theme) is about a group of young scientists (Rick Hutter, Karen King, Peter Jansen, Erika Moll, Amar Singh, Jenny Linn and Danny Minot) specializing in various branches of biology lost in a rainforest trying to survive the odds. In a small clearing; exhausted and spent, one of them wonders why humans fear nature so much. he expresses his thoughts aloud to the group. I found the passage very interesting. 

What is it about nature that is so terrifying to the modern mind? Why is it so intolerable? Because nature is fundamentally indifferent. It's unforgiving, uninterested. If you live or die, succeed or fail, feel pleasure or pain, it doesn't care. That's intolerable to us. How can we live in a world so indifferent to us. So we redefine nature. We call it Mother Nature when it's not a parent in any real sense of the term. We put gods in trees and air and the ocean, we put them in our households to protect us. We need these human gods for many things, luck, health, freedom, but one thing above all--one reason stands out- we need the gods to protect us from loneliness. But why is loneliness so intolerable? We can't stand to be alone--why not? Because human beings are children, that's why.

 Very surprising to find such a refreshing nugget of wisdom in what otherwise would be characterized as a "masala" novel. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Response to Allegations on Dr. Narendra Dabholkar

I could not believe my eyes when I read a recent post about Dr. Narendra Dabholkar by Dr. Subramaniam Swamy. It could not be true. I always knew that Subramaniam Swamy was and is rabidly religious to the point of absurdity, but he had touched a new low here. Some months ago, I had commented on some of his more rabidly Hindu posts with a rational response and since then his Shankhnaad team has blocked my comments entirely on all his social media platforms. Though this article has reached scores of his followers on Facebook, I feel it is my moral duty to point out to as many people as I can the vicious nonsense that Swamy has in this case spouted without any research. As a rational human, I will repudiate his article and make no allegations around the man himself (who is none of my concern).

The verbiage of his Facebook post reads as follows -
 “Conversation between a neutral observer and an anti-superstition activist can go like this:
- "Though I doubt how much actual reforms you actually do, it's appreciable if that helps people"
- "Well, thanks for support"
- ".. you're welcome. But I feel you guys use this activism as a garb to attack every thing of Hindu faith. Why so?"
- ".. how else do you suppose we receive FCRA funds in millions from abroad?"
- "I rest my case"
Murder is an extreme crime. However for some it becomes a silver lining that white washes their deeds and saves them from a possible public shame. More, it gets the label of greatness to some. One such example is so called anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar. He was murdered last year and his murderers are still at large. They took Dabholkar's life and also an opportunity for the law to catch up with his deeds and the media made him a 'martyr'.”

The article in question is published on which is the mouthpiece for his social media platform. While I have no say in what this mouthpiece can and cannot say (for India is a free country where expression of opinion has to be unfettered and unhindered), it was obvious to me when I perused this website that it had an overt religious tone to it. Check one of its home-page tabs –

Countermeasures to corruption, terror and insurgency are “hinduization” of politics (whatever that means) and militarization of hindus! I can’t even begin to enumerate the reasons why this is not secular. Politics and religion should be kept separate. Religion and state should have a clear demarcation and this website is propounding not only the exact opposite but also the militarization of citizens.

The article’s title and its label on this website is a clear indication that this is a hack-job done without any research.

The article’s category is “communists”. There is no reason for this. Absolutely none. Narendra Dabholkar had nothing to do with communism. Zit. Nada. He was simply a person fighting against the adverse effects of religious superstition.

The article starts off by asking very leading questions. Those in itself are completely against the rational precepts of inquiry. For example, about Dr. Dabholkar’s murder, it says –

Open and shut case! Or was it? Today we revisit the person whom the left proudly declared as a 'rationalist'. was he just an activist ? or was his alleged reformist campaigns a mere charde, to mask a deep left-leaning criminal nexus ? We may never know for sure as the person in consideration is dead, but we can try and throw some light here on his activities while he was still alive.

While I ignore the typographical and grammatical errors, I simply cannot ignore the venomous tone of this article. Dr. Dabholkar fought all his life against religion and superstition. It is not only the “left” that proudly declares him to be a rationalist but common sense that will make each and every person declare so. He had no particular leanings towards either the left or the right. He was simply advocating reason in an irrational country. And was gunned down in broad daylight for it.

The article goes further to list certain transgressions that Dr. Dabholkar and his organisation allegedly committed while he was alive. Let me systematically repudiate the claims made in each and every one of them –

  • FCRA Fraud – The article alleges that Dr. Dabholkar received foreign contributions and did not report these foreign contributions under the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act of 2010.
    • The article only presents the covering letter that the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
    • This letter alleges that Dabholkar has been receiving contributions from foreign sources for years.  An allegation IS NOT proof of wrong-doing. Far from it.
    • The actual letter posted on the website has no proof attached.
    • Coming to the actual allegation, the letter talks about contributions that MANS has received for “years” from foreign sources. Points to highlight here are that MANS (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti) is NOT an election candidate, NOT an MP or an MLA, NOT a Correspondent, columnist, cartoonist, editor, owner, printer or publishers of a registered Newspaper AND therefore CAN accept foreign contributions as long as they are reported.
    • Furthermore, the actual allegation (though no proof thereto is attached) is around money that Narendra Dabholkar himself forwarded to MANS. This money was actually given to him as a prize by the Maharashtra Foundation (which is based out of North America). It was not a contribution. It was part of a lifetime achievement award that this organisation bestowed upon him. Instead of accepting this prize money (which Dr. Dabholkar very well could have), he forwarded it to MANS. Quite a noble act/gesture I would say.
  • Forgery – Appendix B of the article showcases a letter that Dr. Dabholkar sent to the Charity Commissioner of Satara as a no-objection to his re-appointment on the board of the trust (MANS is registered as a trust). The by-laws of the trust prescribe that members of the board have a certain tenure but at the same time also allow re-appointment after that tenure has ended provided the trustee (ex and to-be) provide a no objection certificate.
    • The only reason the designation on the letter-head is changed is because when Dr. Dabholkar submitted the letter, he actually was not part of the registered trust and therefore using the old designation would have been inappropriate.
    • There is no change of date. The letter was written in 2000 and Dr. Dabholkar is simply stating that he has been part of the MANS trust since 1998 and that he has no objections to being re-appointed.
  • Alleged links with left-wing terrorists – These are just that; allegations. There is no basis in truth to these allegations and never has been. Shailesh Wakade, Naresh (there’s a typo in the website which refers to him as Narendra) Bansod and Narendra Bhurle were small-time/part-time activitsts of MANS. However, the police cleared them of all suspicion and set them free after due investigation. The fact that they attended certain events which were organised by people with Naxal links (as activists of MANS, they travel to rallies, events and gatherings to speak about superstition and the adverse impacts thereof) does not mean that they were Naxalites. They had no information about the nature of these events and were cleared of all allegations.
  • The fourth point is a reiteration of the third one. The letter that is attached as evidence is again an allegation that the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad (HVP) has filed with the income tax office citing irregularities in the financial dealings of the trust. 

The point I am trying to make is a simple one. Narendra Dabholkar was an honest man. He spent his entire life trying to eradicate superstition from our culture. The falsehoods presented by this Shankhnaad article proffer a skewed picture of the man and harm his legacy without reason. MANS is a very small organisation whose sole intent is to educate the masses. They have no wealth. The activists pool in money themselves for events and initiatives they undertake. I have worked with them in the past and it was inspiring to see the passion and the commitment which they bought to all that they did for MANS despite having jobs and families of their own. The few days that I spent in an event organised by MANS revealed a dark and depressing side of humanity from which MANS was working perennially to raise the masses from. The shocking acts of cruelty that I saw religion perpetrate have left scars on my psyche ever since. Frauds who proclaim miracles using sleight-of-hand, sadhus beating women to exorcize “evil” within them, babas standing on the chests of babies to relieve them of a spirit who has taken their possession, believers who sacrifice their own daughters to fictitious gods. The list is endless. These are the social evils that MANS is fighting. MANS is not against religion. MANS is against superstition. And if fighting against superstition means fighting against this form of religion, then so be it.

There are so many trusts, charities, NGOs and people who are actually defrauding the public of much larger amounts of money. Why is the HVP not gunning after them? Why are they systematically targeting one man and one trust? The reason is obvious. Rationality is a danger to organisations such as HVP. A thinking, educated man is a danger. A person who asks questions about hide-bound faith is a threat.

I spoke to Milind Deshmukh who is a life-long advocate of reason and a senior member of MANS. Though he assisted all my efforts to write this article, he also mentioned that I would learn in time that there is no use in giving such organisations or people sanctity by even responding to such allegations. While I agree with him in all that he said, I could not help write this post; just to make peace with my own conscience. People like Mr. Deshmukh and Dr. Dabholkar lack a mouthpiece to defend them. I can be the mouthpiece (in my own small and humble way).

We all can. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Modi Phenomenon . . And what it means to me as an Indian

Narendra Modi. The name resonates many feelings (positive more than negative nowadays). But before the elections and from 2002 to 2014, Modi has been the centre of many a controversy. He has battled them all and has emerged as the Prime Minister of the country. But what does the Modi phenomenon mean for me? It means a lot. I asked myself this question – why was I so happy that Modi has practically turned the BJP/NDA around and has single-handedly taken over the reins of the country? How does it have any effect on my life and my routine?

Till I was in college, I was pretty much unaware of politics and the ramifications of the massive societal changes happening around me. The first recollection that I have of involving myself in political affairs in any form or manner was voting in 1998 for the BJP. I felt relieved (though I don’t know why) when Atal Behari Vajpayee was made the Prime Minister of India. He served a full-term and more till 2004. In that period, the Indian economy saw the telecom boom, the ITES revolution and the sudden expansion of the national highway network. Before nay-sayers begin booing; let me clarify that statement.

  • Though privatization of the telecom industry was commenced in 1991 under PV Narasimha Rao, real progress happened after the BJP government opened the flood-gates by privatizing VSNL. After Tata took over, it enabled private players to foray into the Indian market. After 2000, the government became much more liberal in giving licenses to foreign players. This was helped further by the New Telecommunications Policy, 1999.
  • Again, though the ITES sector was theoretically commenced after privatization in 1991, real progress came after the Atal Behari Vajpayee government set up the National Task Force on Information Technology and Software Development. It set up a lot of policies, procedures and benefits for indian IT players and brought the country up to speed with the rest of the world. The Information Technology Act 2000 further acted as a catalyst for increasing investor confidence in e-commerce and e-business. 
  • Expansion of highways is also largely credited (and rightly so) to the Vajpayee government. As soon as it was formed, the NDA government set up National Highway Development Project (NHDP) which commenced and was partly successful in delivering the ambitious plan of the Golden Quadrilateral. The plan took care of the main north-south and east-west connecting corridors and highways connecting the four metropolitan cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata) They have now been fully paved and widened into four-lane highways. Some of the busier National Highway sectors in India have been converted to four or six lane expressways. For example: Delhi - Agra, Delhi - Jaipur, Ahmedabad - Vadodara, Mumbai - Pune, Mumbai - Surat, Bangalore - Mysore, Bangalore - Chennai, Chennai - Tada, Delhi – Meerut, Hyderabad - Vijayawada and Guntur - Vijayawada.

In 2004, I was commencing my job at Wipro Limited. I was at a situation where I occasionally read the news, infrequently saw news channels and still more infrequently interacted with people who were interested in current affairs (I know; it was a sad state of affairs). I was also dating (my first relationship) and I was pretty much self-involved to the point of not caring too much about social issues plaguing India. I did not vote in the general elections of 2004. I remember feeling quite confident that with so much good work under its belt, the BJP was sure to win. I also remember feeling what difference would one vote of mine do? I was relaxed and confident that the BJP would come to power again and I could go back to my self-involved life without a care in the world. Other people would take care of the country’s problems and I wouldn’t have to bother. Most analysts believed the NDA would win the elections; this assessment was also supported by opinion polls. The economy had shown steady growth in the last few months and the disinvestment of government owned production units (a continuation of India's liberalization policies initiated in the early 1990s) had been on track. The Foreign Exchange Reserves of India stood at more than USD 100 billion (7th largest in the world and a record for India). The service sector had also generated a lot of jobs. The party was supposed to have been riding on a wave of the so-called "feel good factor", typified by its promotional campaign "India Shining".

Boy, was I in for a shock! The UPA, led by the Indian National Congress won 218 seats (an increase of 83 seats) and the NDA slid to 181 seats (a decrease of 89 seats)! I was flabbergasted.

Was performance no guarantee of success? Was merit no surety of reward? Was honesty (relative) no benchmark of political success and good governance? The ten years that followed solidified this feeling. In Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar and his coterie had begun making inroads into the political affairs of the state. Since 1999, Maharashtra has been ruled by the INC-NCP alliance; and they have wreaked havoc not only in governance but also in the cultural psyche of the Maharashtrian common man. The INC-NCP alliance has systematically side-lined values like honesty and meritocracy and instead inculcated values like racism (based on caste) and sycophancy. And the result is there for all of us to see. Maharashtra is a racist and hypocritical society. Maybe the INC-NCP is not the root cause of this behaviour, but it sure has promoted and used these tendencies very nicely to ensure that they stay in power.

Typically, I detest even mentioning castes in any of my posts but to make my point clearer I am going to have to do that in this particular paragraph. So ingrained are our racist tendencies that we automatically ask for the last name of an individual to gauge his or her cultural identity. None of us can deny doing that. In Maharashtra, a first name is no identity at all. A person will automatically bracket you into a “stereotype” right from being introduced to him/her by asking your last name. Marathas treat Brahmins with disdain, Brahmins are wary of Marathas, the “lower” caste hate the Brahmins, The Marathas are condescending and patronizing towards other “lower” castes and the venomous story goes on and on. I am a staunch atheist and I completely disregard castes, races and other stereotypes altogether. Despite this, I have been bracketed into a “stereotype” many times solely on the basis of my Marathi accent (which is characteristic of a particular type of caste and I can’t help that) and my last name. I credit the INC-NCP combine for taking advantage of this tendency of Maharashtrians and using it to the hilt to ensure that they keep the caste equation fizzing. And if the people in power do something, it is but natural that the same behaviour percolates down to all aspects of life. Racism is embedded in our society to the point of over-ruling individual identity and I blame the INC-NCP (the NCP more so) for this extremely vile aspect of our culture. The nadir of this tendency is reflected in the recent Kharda murder incident where a bunch of hooligans of an "upper-caste" ruling community tortured and killed a Dalit boy just because he spoke to a female member of the family. You can read about the incident here.

From an era where the great warrior king Shivaji was able to bring together all people of all castes to fight against the Mughals; from an era where the extremely capable Peshwa Bajirao I (Thorle as he was called) laid the foundations of a mighty Maratha empire which under the Peshwa rule, stretched right up to Peshawar; from an era where Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak brought together a dysfunctional Indian society to rise against British imperialism . . . to an era where we squabble amongst ourselves on the basis of caste, fight amongst ourselves over a scrap of the reservation quota, allocate assembly seats on the basis of caste rather than performance and debase the very concept of unity in this vast democracy. We’ve sunk a long way. And we have the INC-NCP to thank for that.

The basis of this racism is the assumption that your small-knit community is more important than someone else’s small-knit community. It does not take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what happens next. Shrinking the community concept even further, the INC-NCP promoted nepotism like never before. The result is there for all to see –

  • Indian National Congress – The Gandhi family
  • Nationalist Congress Party – The Pawar family
  • Shiv Sena – The Thackeray family (The Shiv Sena would have been a slight deviation had it favoured Raj over Uddhav; but it was sadly not to be)

Each family favours its progeny and its coterie over member of another family and their coterie. Sharad Pawar pushed his nephew Ajit and his daughter Supriya into important political positions. Narayan Rane pushed his sons into politics. Murli Deora automatically paved the way for his son Milind Deora. Shankarrao Chavan similarly paved the way for Ashok Chavan. Maharashtra politics is basically about families who have ganged together like bands of scavengers in prehistoric times or like feudal families who lorded over their territories in the Medieval Ages.

Since 2004, I have seen so many of these examples in all walks of life. I have seen honest people pushed out of the system. I have seen upright individuals being shunned as too rigid. I have seen law-abiding citizens derided as losers. This has percolated down to our personal lives as well. I see people take for granted the fact that your caste is your identity. I see educated people practice racism in their lives and think nothing of it. I have seen these examples all around me. The perception that meritocracy is dead in India had firmly seated itself in my psyche. I continued to act honestly in my own personal life. I would (and still do) stand at red lights when vehicles all around me are jumping the gun. I didn’t (and still don’t) litter in the streets when people around me were (and still are) throwing trash willy-nilly. I was (and still am) as honest as possible in my dealings with people around me. I avoided (and still do) lying to the point of it becoming a problem. I did it. But I was a pessimist at heart. I was bitter.

The last straw for me was Narendra Dabholkar’s death. Why was he killed? All he did was advocate freedom from superstition. The utter futility of his death and the callous way in which the INC-NCP alliance has run its investigation boils my blood. I met the man. I have worked with him. He was nothing but honest. He personified rationality in all he did. He was simple, humble and he had the one trait that Maharashtra so badly needs – integrity. He fought against religious superstition all his life. And he was gunned down in broad daylight. This is the religious intolerance that the INC-NCP has bred in our culture. This is now Maharashtra’s culture. By the time Modi was made the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP, I was a complete cynic. Not just a cynic, I was (still am to some extent) a misanthrope.

Against this backdrop, Narendra Modi arrived on the national stage as a sign of hope. A man who had risen from humble origins and was yet the Chief Minister of Gujarat. A man who transformed a state from a riot-ridden stink-hole to one of the fastest growing states of India. I was cautiously optimistic. But I was still cautious. I wanted to be sure of myself before endorsing him (even in the limited social circle that I mingle in). In August last year I and a friend of mine took a road-trip to Gujarat to observe basic infrastructure and form a prima facie opinion of his handiwork (superficial as it may be). I was impressed. You can read about my road-trip here. After years of believing that all hope was lost for Indian society, here was a man who meant business. No scandals against his name. No progeny to favour. No wealth from illicit means. No personal agenda except one – India. I then proceeded to read as much about him as possible from all possible sources. From his worshippers to his detractors. I read everything I could lay my hands on. And slowly I was convinced that he was the right choice for us all. I hoped that he would win.

Since that time, all his actions have confirmed to his stated goals – India first. The strong way in which he banished the absolutely bureaucratic concept of GoM (groups of ministers), the decisive way in which he sent a signal to the civil services about punctuality, his well-thought nationalist stand regarding the WTO trade deal (you can read about the whole mess here), his media-savvy strategy of creating a BRICS block as a viable option to American hegemony in world affairs have all sent the right signals to the world. That meritocracy is back in India. Once more, the thinker is more valued than the operator, the honest is more valued than the corrupt. There is still room for me and people like me in this country. Room to live a life that is guided by moral principles. 2014 is the year of revival. Of resurgence. It is the beginning (I hope) of a new era in Indian social transformation. We must not let this opportunity go to waste.

From being a cynic and a pessimist a couple of years ago to today; where I am optimistic about our country, our culture (non-religious), our potential and our abilities, ‘tis is indeed a big change. And if I can change, so can we all. We must banish the green monster of racism, religion and lacuna from our hearts and rise towards the best within ourselves. We must nurture that part of us which wants to rise above what we are today and become better every day. The part of us which thinks about right and wrong. The part of us that disregards stereotypes and thinks rationally. The part of us which is impartial and honest. The part of us which makes us hold our head high and proclaim patriotism all year round, not just on one day. We must nurture that part. Only then can we begin to collaborate in the grand vision which our forefathers lay down in the idea of India and which Modi so passionately proclaimed yesterday on occasion of India’s 68th Independence Day. Of a society that is based on mutualism and cooperation. A society that is based on performance, merit and honesty. A society that is based on rationality. A society that we can call Incredible India. And mean it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Other side of the WTO Trade Deal

There has been a lot of furore about how the Indian government in general and Narendra Modi in particular has blocked a crucial trade deal and how our current "nationalist government" has played spoilsport to an international treaty that would increase global cooperation and create a new framework for a unified trade consortium. On the other hand, I also read about a few small voices that supported India's stand. As an educated Indian and a concerned citizen, I wanted to find out more. 

In this post, I intend to set forth before my readers the essentials of this controversy in understandable terms and why we need to take into consideration what the Indian government is saying seriously and why it cannot be relegated as mere bull-headedness. This post is as much of a revelation for me as for you. The deeper I went into the clauses of each agreement and the history of the WTO, the more there was to unearth. I'm no Amartya Sen, but I can read and understand English. So I tried to get to the root of the whole issue. Here goes my take on the whole mess. What does the WTO controversy consist of?

In order to better understand the situation, we must understand the relevant sections of both (the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, hereafter referred to as TFA and the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, hereafter referred to as AoA). 

The WTO TFA was discussed in December 2013 at the 9th ministerial conference of the WTO held in Bali. The ministerial conference is the apex decision-making body/platform within the WTO and since 1996, there have been 9 of these (once every two years). 159 member countries of the WTO agreed to (in principle) take a better look at the specifics of the trade facilitation agreement which (if ratified) would mean - 
  • Expediting movement, release and clearance of goods (including those in transit) from one country to another. 
  • Increase cooperation amongst members (classified into economic status from developed to least-developed)
  • Recognise the needs of aforementioned "developing and least-developed" economies and facilitate help from the developed nations to the latter category (termed in the ministerial decision document published on the WTO website as "enhance assistance and support capacity-building endeavours"). 

The WTO AoA was also discussed in the same conference and entails - 
  • Member countries making a commitment of reduced domestic support
  • Any such domestic support to be in the "green box" category. 

Here's all the relevant documentation. 

What does this all mean? Essentially, to explain in layman's terms, the TFA is a treaty that seeks to ease customs and other regulations and facilitate the movement of goods from one country to another. However, it involves certain commitments that member countries HAVE to make. All member countries HAVE to abide by certain reporting norms (articles 1-3), HAVE to upgrade their technologies in order to fully do that (article 8.1) and HAVE to ensure that they follow certain standardized practices in case of legal disputes. All straight so far. However, at this conference in Bali; there was also a discussion on trade regulations relating to agricultural products (which falls under the AoA). The AoA states that though the ministerial body recognizes the need for member countries (particularly developing and least-developed) to promote domestic support (through various measures which we shall come to in a bit), said measures should not "disrupt" international trade. The ministerial body has then classified activities which any government can undertake into boxes. Activities like agricultural research or training to producers (farmers) are "green box" activities while activities like buying food-grain or equivalent produce at a guaranteed price are "amber box" measures. In language that you and I can understand, AoA seeks to limit the manner in which governments can intervene to help their producers (in our case; farmers). If we want to comply with the AoA, we need to reduce domestic support or ensure that said domestic support is of a non-disruptive (to international trade) nature. 

The TFA is a crucial deal for developed countries. It shall ensure that developing and least-developed countries HAVE to comply to certain standards and to certain reporting regulations. It shall save everybody (mostly developed nations) money to the tune of USD 1 trillion (as per an article on However, the TFA only talks about best-effort activities that the developed countries MAY or MAY NOT take to help enhance supply in developing and least-developed countries and to assist in capacity-building measures. If you check the actual verbiage, it is cleverly worded as "member countries are encouraged to share best practices . . . ". There's no obligation through. 

Since both discussions (the TFA and the AoA) happened in parallel, we saw this as a golden opportunity for negotiation. What the Indian government wants is to ease the regulations on the AoA. It wants to increase domestic support to ensure that it helps farmers grow more produce. It wants to buy that produce at guaranteed prices to give the farmer a better deal. It wants to ensure that its vast poor population is fed through subsidized produce. Just before the recently concluded elections, the Congress government (misguided and moronic though it was) pushed through the food security bill which entails enormous trade-disruptive practices that the government MUST adopt if it wants to bring this bill to fruition. At the 9th Bali conference, we negotiated hard. We wanted to ease regulations in the AoA if developed countries wanted to have their cake and eat it too in the form of the TFA. 

As soon as India took this stand, the western media must have swung into action. Through it's tentacle-like reach and its mass user base, it spread the word. India was the cause of the TFA to fail. India reneged on its original promise. India is to blame. Check out the sample headlines and you'll see why I call it either an orchestrated attempt of the media to spread misinformation or sheer laziness to do basic research. The headlines painted a very bad picture of the Indian government. 

I expected the Indian media to swing into action and defend the government. After all, here is a government that is trying to ACTUALLY help the poor. A government is trying to bring to light a scatter-brained idea of the Congress which they (the Congress) never hoped to implement successfully and is going all-out and taking a stand for its own people. At the center of this controversy is of course Modi. The man is a leader. He's the champion for the underdog here. It's a sure-fire winner of a story for the media. But the media failed. It stuck to the tone that the western hemisphere was taking. Maybe it did not understand the issue. Maybe there's money involved in mainstream media houses and we can't afford to antagonise the big guns. Maybe the Indian media was just plain scared. Whatever the reason, our own people did not support Modi. When they should have.

There's a lesson in here for us. For you and me. That information can be represented anyway we want. but to sift through all the information that is available to us, we need to take effort. We need to rationally think our way through misleading words and evaluate facts. More importantly, we need to take a stand after evaluating those facts. A moral stand. In this case, the stand that India's poor need to be fed, need to be supported. The small and marginal farmers in India need to be given economic assistance by assuring them a minimum support price. 

I don't know whether our media will bring to the general public this side of the story. I don't know whether our media houses will decide that journalistic integrity also means taking a moral stand for the sake of the nation and bringing to the public attention the courage that it took for Modi to take this stand on an international forum so soon after taking charge of the country's affairs. I also don't know the global ramifications of this stand and why our media is not supporting our own government. But I do know that in this day and age of information, I shall be doing my little bit by spreading this word. I do know that a government's first and foremost duty is towards it's citizens. 

I do know that if by supporting such a stand, I am labelled a "nationalist" (as the media is so self-righteously labelling Modi and the government), so be it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Road to Detoxification

A while ago an ex-colleague of mine posted on a social networking website a very sensitive piece of information that usually people prefer to keep private. This was a sad event in his life (a divorce) and all said and done; took courage to put out there for everyone to see. It kind of felt like a soul-baring act to me and one that must have taken immense guts. That got me thinking. The past few years of my life have been tumultuous to say the least. I have no doubt that there is much more to go, but given that I have finished almost half of my life; I sure hope the worst is over. I’ve been through a failed marriage, an alcohol addiction that brought me to the brink of ruin, a nicotine addiction that threatened my health visibly and to top that off, a stagnant (then it was pretty stagnant) career that had me frustrated all the more. I have no claims on being some strong Guru with answers for my peers, nor do I lay claim to any deeply philosophical wisdom that I have gained through my experiences (such as they are). However, through a very misspent youth and a reckless adulthood; I have struck upon some actions that have helped me keep my sanity. This act which I mentioned above has spurred me to write this passage. Call it a confession, call it a white-paper on detoxification, call it what you want. If in some small way, I can help someone overcome addiction and cope with the withdrawal symptoms (yes, they are real); I shall go away a happy man.

Let me tackle each addiction separately.

Let me begin with how I got into the habit of smoking in the first place. I am sure we have all been there. Rebellious teens, sudden freedom in college; you know the drill. And when your parents say that something is off-limits, boy does it suddenly become cool! My peer group back in those days too left a lot to be desired (much like me). Bunch of odd misfits with tonnes of issues that actually needed counselling and guidance. And an expression of our rebellion seemed like that flaming stick in our hands. At first, it was just curiosity coupled with the “coolness” that smoking was associated with. Pretty soon we graduated to a cigarette everyday (albeit we did not inhale). Then we moved on to properly inhaling the cigarette smoke. I remember the sickness and nausea that was initially caused. But sheer determination to make fools of ourselves forced us to continue through this phase to get finally get hooked. I graduated quickly from one cigarette a day to 5 and then 10. And then it kept constant. Never decreased. From the fag (pun intended) end of 1999 to 2010 (when I quit), I smoked a minimum of 10 cigarettes a day. Towards the end, I was smoking 15 a day on days that I did not drink. When I sat down to drink in the evenings after work, I was going through 15 a day before starting to drink and a pack-o-ten with alcohol. From Charminar to Gold Flake Regular and the more expensive Sobrano; I had tried it all.

By the time I decided to quit, I had acute bronchial cough pretty much all year round, lungs that felt like they were made of paper and the stamina of a lame duck. The journey of my nicotine detoxification was painful to the extreme. The reason I had decided to quit was pretty strange in itself. My marriage was pretty much on the rocks by the fag end of 2010. We had both decided to move on and things were pretty much in the doldrums personally. In the midst of all this, I undertook this activity with the morbid curiosity to check whether I could. I just wanted one thing to feel good about myself and I decided this was going to be it. In the midst of all the misfortune, I wanted to hold my head high and say I quit smoking. By this time, I was on the 15 a day routine. A smoke as soon as I woke up followed by an hourly smoke and one smoke right before I retired for the night. I had a packet constantly on me along with a lighter, a charred lower lip and a constant cough. I wheezed if I climbed even one flight of stairs and I indulged in no physical exertion to speak of. In summary, I was a wreck. A disaster waiting to happen.

I remember the first three days of my efforts with crystal-clear clarity. As if those 3 days have just gone by a week ago. They were perhaps the worst days of my life up to that point (that benchmark got broken pretty soon). I remember it so clearly. At the stroke of midnight on 26th November 2010, I stubbed out my last butt. It was a Gold Flake Lights. My last cigarette. I was at home. I put out the cigarette, culled the water from my makeshift ashtray into the toilet, flushed it out, threw away the matchbox and the empty packet of cigarettes into the trash bin. Then I locked myself into my room. It was a Saturday. I took a leave on Monday and I did not come out of that room (other than for my ablutions) for 3 days. I ventured out on Monday evening . . . and rushed back in. Those 3 days were hell. More than 70 hours of withdrawal symptoms. As my habit was pretty advanced, the first pangs (or tallaf, as it is called) started as soon as I woke up. I quelled it. I brushed my teeth and got back to my room. And then began my fight with myself. After 10-odd hours, I got light-headed. I ignored it and read a book. I soon got frustrated with that and switched on the computer. I soon got frustrated with that and then turned to some music. And that kept happening. By evening, my throat had an itch. An itch that only a cigarette could cure, or so I thought. But I persisted. I drank copious amounts of water. I watched movies back-to-back. On Tuesday I went back to work. This was quite courageous considering how close I was to quitting. For the rest of the week, my routine was pretty straight-forward. Go to office, sit at my desk, work, work and work; and then head home. No stops en route. I used a company cab just to ensure I could not stop en route. For that first week, I did not take any breaks which would require me to leave my desk. I would eat at home, reach office and leave without a backward glance after the day’s work was done. In the second week of my voluntary incarceration, I decided to venture to the cafeteria. I went down to have a cup of tea and rushed back up. And then slowly, my itch began to fade. In the second week, I decided to attempt to go to the smoking zone and come back without smoking! I wired myself up for this for a couple of days. I thought about it, planned it, obsessed about it; till I thought I would sail by – and then I spectacularly failed! All my mental pictures of me walking in sanguine fashion to the smoking zone and chit-chatting were pipe dreams. I could smell the smoke as soon as I walked to the common area and that drove me wild! I needed a smoke. I needed it so bad! I still remember the desperation that seized me. It was almost unbearable. I held my breath to try and block out the smell, but I couldn’t very well stop breathing. Somehow, I made it there for ten minutes without smoking, and then I ran off. I just couldn’t take it anymore. If I had stayed there for even one more minute, I would have fallen off the wagon. Slowly, I regained my confidence that I had broken free. I had finally quit smoking!

So what did I learn from this grueling experience? That the mind is the key. If you want to, you can do anything as long as you apply your mind to it. From that point on, I attacked each activity I undertook like a methodical checklist, and I have been successful in many endeavors after that; which I would hitherto have been pretty scatter-brained about. It gave me confidence in myself. But most importantly, it restored my self-esteem and my pride. That I had battled this addiction, and I had won. And that pride helps me in my lows. That pride keeps me going when the chips are down. I keep reminding myself, if I can do this; I can do anything.

Once I quit nicotine, the battle may have been won, but the war was far from over. I was still in a mess. Personally and professionally, I was still in the doldrums. And the negation of one addiction was compensated in another – my alcohol intake shot up.

I had started drinking in college (in the year 2000). Again, through the same path that many moronic teenagers follow - peer pressure, drunken binges, late nights, and the works. By 2008, I was drinking 3 times a week (usually Fridays and the weekends). By 2009, though the frequency had remained constant, the amount of alcohol I would consume had gone up. By the end of 2009, I would consume 180 ml of whisky every time I sat down to drink. That’s still pretty reasonable. But once I quit nicotine, my compensation became alcohol. I began to drink every day. Without fail. Come 1900 (that’s the time bars open in the city that I lived) and I would automatically take the direction of the nearest bar. It all began quite innocently. I would socialize more and gather friends who would drink. Each day would be a different friend. The problem was when the friends ran out. I knew I was stepping over a threshold, and I am sorry to say I failed that test. I began drinking alone. Pretty soon, I was drinking 240-300 ml of whisky in one sitting; and I was drinking every day. A typical Saturday’s drinking session would begin at 1100 IST at K-Lounge with 1 pitcher of beer and 3-4 tequilas followed with one more mug of beer for the road. By this time, it would be 1600 IST or thereabouts. I would walk out, while away the time till 1900 IST and sit down for my daily quota of whisky. I would polish off 240-300 ml of whisky and then head home with around 30 ml for the road tucked away in some pocket in a small bottle. I would reach home, have some food, lock myself in my room to finish this last remnant of the day’s alcohol intake and go to sleep. Towards the beginning of 2012, I sanctimoniously decided to stay away from whisky and only drink Bacardi Breezers. That experiment upped the ante in my alcohol intake rather than control it. The Breezer experiment smashed and burned like a meteor from the sky. By the time I gave up the great Breezer experiment of 2012, I was drinking everything else along with 2-3 breezers mixed with 2 pegs of Bacardi rum.

And that’s when I decided that enough was enough. I saw my future flash before me. And I realized that I was going to end up harming myself on a long term basis. The woman I was dating at that time (now the woman I am engaged to marry) stood by me in this turbulent time. If at any point of time she felt I was going overboard, she did not nag me with that worry. She would just ask me if I felt comfortable drinking so much. She never, ever nagged; and that helped me quit much faster than if she had constantly reminded me that alcohol was a bad habit. I completely agree with the fact that your better half has to stand by you when you try to quit an addiction. And I am happy to say that mine was there in full measure. I can also confidently say the same thing about my parents. They retained the same rationality about the problem. I can only imagine the turmoil going through their minds as well. However, they dealt with the situation maturely and gave me space to think about my problems myself.

If you ask me to compare, I can definitively state that quitting alcohol was just as difficult as quitting nicotine. No more and no less. Fortunately or unfortunately. Problems began on the 4th day. It was a Thursday (22nd November 2012). I had already had a bad day coupled with a day-long training I was scheduled to be part of at work. Towards the end of the training, my withdrawal symptoms started to set in. Irritability, nervousness, shaky hands, sweaty palms, I shit you not. I conferenced a couple of my friends and arranged to meet them at Pizza Hut on the way home. All through this, I was debating with myself on whether to call the whole thing off and just have a drink. I ploughed on nonetheless and reached Pizza Hut around 2045 IST. By this time, I had a weird buzzing in my ears and a sensation of ants crawling along my back. I ordered for a large pizza like a drowning man clutching at a floating barrel. I shoveled the food into my mouth and as my digestive juices kicked in, I could feel my craving subside. It was touch and go. That was the day I knew I would never touch alcohol again. I experienced the urge again on the 8th day, 9th day and the 13th day. But by then I had the confidence. And I knew I had won. 

What have I learnt?
A few days ago, I tried to collect my thoughts on what I had learnt in my journey to becoming a teetotaler and an article sprang to my mind. It was written by some author/journo named Mark Manson and it made an instant connection with me. You can read the original article here –

Essentially, what Mark asks is, “For the happiness you want, what is the level of pain you are willing to sustain”. What it boils down to is that for the perfect physique, how many hours of working out am I willing to invest? For that successful career, how many long hours am I willing to put in? For that perfect backhand, how many hours of practice am I willing to put in?

What determines your success is "How much pain do you want to sustain?”

That has been my learning from my victory over alcoholism and nicotine. That I need to bear the pain of effort if I really want something badly enough. And if I really want it badly enough, I will bear and sustain the pain as long as is required to achieve my goal. 

A victory of mind over matter.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Big Brother is watching . .

I saw an article somewhere on the internet a while ago and it set my brain whirring. Apparently, sometime back in 2012, Facebook collected usage trends of approximately 689000 users over a period of 6 months and conducted a massive sociological experiment without the users consent or knowledge. You can read more about the actual incident here. You can read the detailed report that the FB team published on the Proeedings of the National Academy of the Sciences ( here. Why is it such a big deal? Companies analyse information about their consumers all the time in order to gain leverage for sales. What's all the ruckus about?

In my mind, I immediately painted a scenario. In the first part (and call me an addicted Googlophobe), I admitted the fact that a lot of my personal data is stored with Google. Google knows about my physical characteristics through my photographs. Google knows what my mobile number is since they confirm it periodically through Hangouts. Google knows my likes and dislikes (those which I want the world to see through my Google profile and those which I do not necessarily publicise through my usage statistics for Chrome). That's a little bit scary. But then it goes on. Google knows my location almost all the time even if I have my GPS switched off. Google knows my location VERY accurately if I leave my location services on. Google knows personal details of my life minutely since it has all my emails since 2000. Google knows the ups and downs of my life. Google knows about the things I buy, about the music that I listen to, about the movies that I watch, about what kind of information I like and dislike, even what turns me on . .

Gets a little bit scarier right? I recently bought an external HDD from Amazon. The next time I logged in to Google, I could observe more instances of these adverts on my mail page. I could not believe that. It had to be a coincidence. But I was wrong. It's not a coicidence. When I bought earphones online, I saw adverts of audio equipment manufacturers. Gets even scarier. Google Now is already analysing me and suggesting things to me which I currently club under technological innovation and smile at. But now I am seriously worried. For example, I had gone to a village called Dandeghar near Panchgani for a small vacation. The road that I took from my hotel to the main road is a "T" junction. To the left is Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. To the right is the national highway which takes one back to Pune. The first time that I turned left, Google Now (When i say Google Now where "N" is capitalized, I mean the app of that name) popped up a question, "Are you going home?". I answered back in the negative and moved on. The next time I took a right and it asked me the same question again. This time, since technically the direction was correct (even though I was not going home), I answered in the affirmative. The third time that I left the hotel and took a right turn from the "T" junction, Google Now automatically popped up a card informing me that home was a little over 90 kilometres away and would take a little under 2 hours in moderate traffic near Sinhagad road. I was flabbergasted. 

I now couple this knowledge with the outcome of this rather cheeky and daring experiment conducted by Facebook. Here's what they did and found - "For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves."

Consider the implications. A technology company can actually tweak what you think by manipulating what you see insidiously. Now you'll say that it is exactly what the public media has been doing since ages. It has always been bombarding you with what's right and what's wrong. It's always been building perception and has been an important part of mainstream culture. But this is different. The Facebook experiment is a landmark event in the new era - the era of insidious control. 

Now let me draw your attention back to Google for a wee bit. Consider three very interesting projects that Google has been working on. 

  • Project Loon - Essentially, Google is trying to connect the entire world to the internet. A vast array of balloons floating in the stratosphere giving away an internet connection in remote areas of the world. Areas where even food can't make its way easily, internet will be accessible. Why does Google want to do this? 
  • Google Glass - Everybody knows what this is about. Essentially, Google will be your eyes and your ears. It will hear everything you hear, see everything you see. It will be a part of you. As much as your brain. Quite obvious why Google wants that so much. 
  • Google Ingress - This is an augmented reality game. It immerses you in an alternate reality where you are a part of either faction (one faction trying to annihilate certain areas/buildings/objects desginated as "portals" and the other faction trying to protect them). Why did Google spend so much money buying an online game? 
The answer, I feel is in combining these three technologies (cloud tech, wearable computing and augmented reality). Imagine a world where Google will be connected to you no matter where you go and will be able to get inside your head and will be able to manipulate even the sensory inputs you receive to change your perception of reality. Is that scary enough? Just a teeny-tiny example of how it may manipulate its power. This is just a VERY small example mind you. Imagine that Google gets into an agreement with a local restaurant. The local restaurant pays Google money to designate the restaurant as a portal on the game. Gamers (who wear Glass and play Ingress) will automatically gravitate to the restaurant if they are passing near the vicinity to either destroy the portal or to protect it. Increased footfall, increased revenue. Get's even scarier right? Wait for the kicker.

Imagine a world where a rich, nebulous and multinational corporation has the power to tweak reality, make or break politicians, determine or at the very least manipulate public opinion and therefore determine the course of history. Imagine this corporation. This is where Google is right now. It's a world power. Already. The only difference is that it hasn't begun flexing its muscle. It hasn't invested in military tools. Or maybe it has . . ?

Call me paranoid. But I am definitely alarmed at the signs all around me. I can see that technology is getting more and more "wearable" and I worry about it. I don't fear technology at all. Far from it. But I certainly fear the entity that will eventually end up controlling me through the technology that I use. 

Should I be taking steps? I shall wait and watch . . 

But one thing I do know for a fact - Big Brother is watching.