Friday, June 26, 2009

Opportunity: Essay competition

Friday, June 26, 2009 View Comments
The Goi Peace Foundation is running its annual essay competition. This years theme is "The role of science in building a better world".

Here's basically the gist of the topic:

Scientific progress has brought many benefits to humanity, while some applications of science have had adverse impacts. What kind of science and technology do you think is needed for realizing a more equitable, prosperous and sustainable world for all? Please express your vision for the future of science, including examples of studies or researches you wish to engage in.
What's the booty? Winner gets an all expense paid trip to Japan. Last year's winner got to chill with Mr Gates. Now a lot of you might have differing opinions about the man (esp the linux guys), but I would still want to rub shoulders with him. And yes, they throw in a little cash prize of 1000 USD as well.

I missed out on this competition last year but this year I am doing it. Here's wishing you all the best kid.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What I picked up from "The folly of finding what works"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 View Comments
“The impact of information technology on the Global Economy” was the title of my research project last semester. 2 weeks into the project and I was still finding newer things to study. Around the same time, my professor in charge advised me that I better stop searching for more topics and better get to work.

I, on the other hand wanted to make this a comprehensive study on the impact of IT. So I wanted to include Overview of the situation today, the booms and busts, the venture capitalists, web1.0, web 2.0, the long tail, Outsourcing, trickle down effect, ICT for development, mobile communications. Phew. No wait, there's more, e-commerce, e-governance, case studies of famous companies, the semiconductor industry, exports, imports, recession. Relate that to GDP, employment, education, productivity, FDI...

Did I leave out anything?

Clearly, if I did manage to include it all, I'd have a PhD thesis, which I would have sold and made money from.

Just one problem.

This would never get finished. In fact, my project wouldn't even start. I'd be so busy finding newer things to study about that I'd hardly put pen to paper and actually document anything. Instead I would just be reading and researching on every single item that was remotely related to the IT industry.

Moving on,

This May, when I started my summer internship, I was fascinated by the health care industry. In particular, primary health care. The numbers were huge and I was overwhelmed by the scale of their operations. So when I had to pick my project, I didn’t want to leave out anything. I tried to include everything, using variety of economic formulas, different theories. My internship coordinator asked me why I don’t stay for a 6 month fellowship. As flattered as I was, I also got the underlying hint. I understood that given the time frame it was unfeasible to carry out the study with so many parameters. Heck, I wouldn’t be able to make sense of all that data. So I picked one or two core areas and focused on them.

As far as personal experiences go, these were the first two instances that came to my mind while I was reading Ken Banks' blog post titled The folly of "finding what works". He brings up a very valid point:
As with the confusion caused by multiple interpretations of sustainable development, the social mobile space is struggling with its own definitions of concepts such as collaboration, empowerment, scale, “enabling environment” and “finding what works”. We hear these terms on a daily basis, yet we never stop to ask what they really mean. What does an “enabling environment” really look like, and do we really need one like people say we do? Who decides what scale really means, and how important scaling really is? We all nod in agreement when people use these terms at conferences, but refrain from questioning them through fear of appearing ignorant.

The “folly of finding what works” strikes particular resonance. Although mobiles for development has only been around for a few short years, surely by now we’ve identified at least a few things that work? Isn’t that the purpose of all these reports, blog posts, tweets, projects, conferences, workshops, barcamps and academic studies?

After six years-or-so of social mobile, we’re surely at the point where we can throw some real resources around at least a few tools? Surely we can pool our collective skills, knowledge and resources into helping at least a few reach their full social change potential? Instead of sitting around talking about our commitment to social mobile, we need to show our true colours and act, regardless of who gets credit for those actions.

Reading this also started another chain of thought in my head, the credit for which has to be given to Stan Thakaekara. In the course of what would turn out to be a vociferous debate on issues relating to the environment, education, caste and equity amongst other things, Stan gave us some gyaan on how he feels that technology hasn't quite lived up to its promise. How technology hasn't quite created an equitable world. How the more answers we try to seek, the farther we seem to move from actually arriving at the truth. And instead we're just making the world worse off.

But then what is the truth anyway?

Coming back, Stan was of firm belief that the divide is getting larger and larger. Technology is giving only a few answers. It's a balloon effect, where squeezing one side of a balloon makes it expand in the other direction. You can't ignore the consequences and certainly can't escape them. So we have to now come up with clean technologies in order to clean up all the mess that we created over the years* **. Jeffrey Sachs also says that it's not that we don't have fossil fuels, we have plenty of it (maybe not oil, but coal surely), its about using it in an optimized manner.

Jeez, I digress again.

When Stan first told me all this, it did strike a chord somewhere but I was still too mesmerized by capitalism. I now realize, I didn't quite understand capitalism. Maybe I still haven't. But after having read works of Jeffrey Sachs, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Joseph Stiglitz, I have been exposed to a whole new way of thinking. These guys aren't dishing out dung. They all emphasize on the same thing, there's little time.

Bottom line being:
The reforms have to take place now, the access to credit/capital for the poor has to happen now
and heck social media for development better deliver now. Because everyday, a kid is losing his life in Africa (and India and Latin America and Bangladesh and...). Like Ken said, we need to stop talking and start doing now.

*Of course there are numerous theories which say that we would have reached this stage anyway even had it not been for the pollution, but lets leave that for another day.

** And then there's yet another theory that says that no matter what you do, we're way past the threshold. So we have to release chemicals in the air such as sulphates to cool our system (remember the TED talk on climate change? No? Here)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Tuesday, June 23, 2009 0
This is really more of a self note. If it helps you, oh well, that would make it all the more resourceful.

A little while back, I had mailed Sasha Dichter, yes yes, of the Acumen Fund fame. He finally replied (albeit a little late, which is alright, I'm a patient man) and it made my day.

I went back and checked the mail I had sent him to refresh my memory. I read the mail three times.

I was so ashamed.

And that's really point of my post. Mails. Over the last one year or so, I doubt if I have benefited more from anything else. Alright, maybe that also implies I shouldn't lead so much of a virtual life, but let's not digress.

I was so bloody ashamed by my mail. The content was great. It was the presentation. Shabby, grammatical errors neatly sprinkled and perhaps a typo or two. I wouldn't blame him if he thought I was uneducated. I checked the time of mailing. 9.48 AM. That explains it. I must have been blurry eyed and having just woken up with my laptop resting beside me, would have shot the mail.

The only problem is that it doesn't explain it. It doesn't excuse typos and suchlike. It's sort of ironic that I excavated this right after reading John August's mind blowing piece on Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur, which I came across while reading Shripriya's blog.

You represent yourself as well as your affiliated organizations when you mail someone and its your responsibility to present yourself in the best possible manner.

I used to always double check the mails I sent out to people. But somehow, in the recent weeks, with the number of mails that I was shooting out, I would quickly structure my mail and send the first draft itself. Next time onwards, I will surely double check. I think that's all it takes. Just read once you're done writing the stuff. It helps a lot. Besides, I have a knack of writing long sentences and double checking really helps me condense the matter and make it compact (when the need arises of course).

P.S: Please do subscribe to Sasha's blog. Its awesome.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How to use...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 View Comments
Now this is something no?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Friend Sancho-hardly a review

Sunday, June 14, 2009 View Comments


I had read the book about 3 weeks ago and then procrastinated writing my thoughts about it. But then isn’t that befitting? Considering how the book speaks so highly of the protagonists’ procrastination amongst other things of course.

My Friend Sancho (MFS) is the debut novel of India’s star blogger Amit Varma (more about Amit here). The book is short and addictive and one should seriously finish this is one go. Three pages down and I was laughing out loud, while reading it on a sofa, waiting for my turn at Barbeque Nation. Yes, I know its annoying, never thought I’d have to wait for a table in Hyderabad. Happens.

It’s very very funny. The book I mean.

Abir Ganguly, the book’s lead character, is one heck of a journalist. He is a self proclaimed armchair cynic; jaded, horny and works in the crime beat to come up with gems such as Man swats himself to death. I loved Abir’s character. The exaggerations which are random at times, the pertinent observations and everything else, really made me feel as if I had known Abir all my life. Okay, so maybe I down played the exaggeration part a bit. The lizard is part of the cast, though not big enough to disrupt the storyline. You get the idea.

So Abir’s all fine and chillin’, just another nut in a huge machine. However, things get complicated when he is asked to come up with a story humanizing one Md Iqbal, who was killed in a police encounter.

And thus enters Muneeza, Iqbal’s daughter. And with it the wheels of an innocent love story are set into motion. Varma does a wonderful job of limiting the cliches here. Because Abir does get a boner while Muneeza is pouring her heart out. Just saying.

Now there’s something I must confess. Is it just me (no, turns out I have company)? Or did Muneeza remind you folks of Zaheera from the Best Bakery fiasco too? Because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t fight off that picture.

This was one of my main complaint from the book. The character of Muneeza. Not enough information was given about the sort of girl she was, or maybe the book just ended too quickly. I would have loved the story to extend a little longer. Because after every page I got more and more confused about the sort of person Muneeza was. The end seemed abrupt. I was seriously expecting there to be more to the story.

Okay, I think I sounded a tad too harsh in that last paragraph. Trust me, I simply adore the book. Because of its simplicity and easy nature. Because of Inspector Tombre and what might have been one of the best speeches delivered by a civil servant in the history of this nation. I think one should buy the book for that speech itself. Because Amit so wonderfully expresses human emotions and because I have not laughed so much in a span of 200 pages for a long long time. Strangely, I can compare it to the feeling I got when I first started reading xkcd. There are things we feel and seldom put on paper. MFS does exactly that. For example, look at this

I worked for a couple of hours. That is to say, I tried to work. My mind kept wandering, and the internet gave it places to wander to. Every three minutes I told myself, Just two minutes more, let me just check out this page, then I will work. But I’d check out that page, and click on a link there, or think of something because of what I was reading and go somewhere else, and so on and on until it was almost lunchtime and I was better informed about the world but less so about my own piece.

And that’s just one instance.

Another thing I really enjoyed is that every character has their distinct voice and Amit doesn’t compromise with that.

Dissecting each and every part of the book is something I don’t really intend to do. So I shall say this, do definitely give it a read. Its really easy going yet doesn’t mock your intelligence. Its fun and light. And there is a bit of self publicity, but it’s all in good taste.

I guess at the end of it, one could look at the book as Abir’s myopia.

The book was longlisted for the for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Read the first chapter here

Crossposted at Mutiny

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Of programmable matter and abolition of Patent system

Tuesday, June 09, 2009 View Comments
Firstly I came across this article in Wired. It made me go...errr....ok. Both astonishment and awe mixed in disproportionate amounts.

It basically says that

Even by the standards of the Pentagon fringe science arm, this project sounds far-out: “programmable matter” that can be ordered to “self-assemble or alter their shape, perform a function and then disassemble themselves.”

One day, that could lead to “morphing aircraft and ground vehicles, uniforms that can alter themselves to be comfortable in any climate, and ’soft’ robots that flow like mercury through small openings to enter caves and bunker complexes.” A soldier could even reach into a can of unformed goop, and order up a custom-made tool or a “universal spare part.”

The real party though, is taking place in the comments section. And the one that took the cake is this by one georgert:
Pbbbt! This was demonstrated in the movie Demon Seed years ago
Check it out for yourself

The second article, also from Wired, which caught my attention is the Swedish Pirate Party winning a seat in EU Parliament. Pirate Party wants to restructure copyright laws, abolish the patent system and guarantee online-privacy rights. But the question that many are asking (including Wired) is that will one seat make a difference considering the EU parliament consists of over 700 seats. Very much like the coveted "Senate" seat that many young BITSian stalwarts fight for.

It is also very clear that the reason the Pirate Party won that seat is because of the Pirate Bay trial (there being a massive spike in the number of members in the organization during the trial). However the people who comprise the Pirate Bay, what are their views on politics? This article is most intriguing. It tells us of another facet of Carl Lundstrom (the man who funded The Pirate Bay). Do read it.

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