One Ring to rule them all?

Before I start off with a situation I am sure some of you are familiar with, let me provide a quote which I guess most of you are familiar with

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings

I am sure the lines above need no introduction, but they definitely need some context. When I moved to the US, my first instinct was to purchase a TV, since a TV and internet are the two things that are absolutely essential for my survival. So with the TV I needed to get a cable service or a dish, which came with its set-top box.

To ensure that Tanuka wouldn’t get bored sitting at home, I got her a subscription to Netflix. Initially we were content with watching the movies on our laptop. But soon it felt too underpowered. So we got a DVD player. I like to think of myself as someone with foresight. Since I have a large number of DVDs from different countries I needed a DVD player that could play DVDs from multiple regions. So I got one of those.

In due course of time I bought a MacBook and a handycam. Very soon the speakers on my TV started feeling underpowered. So I bought a home theatre system. I then took a fancy to Nintendo Wii and managed to get my hands on one of those. Next I wanted to get a nunchuck for the Wii to try out games like boxing. I also thought it might be a good idea to play against another person. So one more Wiimote and one more nunchuck.

As time went by, I fulfilled one my my long-standing desires – getting an HDTV. There was an offer on at that time, which let us get a free upconverting DVD player. OK, so we got those. A few months later I wanted to move from my analog audio, which was essentially comprised of a large number of cassettes and vinyl records, to a digital format. So I needed a cassette player. It would be a bonus if that could manage to record directly to a digital format. Well, I managed to get one that recorded from cassettes to MP3. I still need to get one for the vinyl records.

Now I have one remote for my old TV, one for the set-top box, one for my DVD player, one for my Mac (Front Row), one for my handycam, one for my home theatre, 2 Wiimotes and 2 nunchucks for my Wii, one for my HDTV, one for the upconverting DVD player and one for my music system. There are 13 remotes/devices in all. Some of these are proprietary (4 for the Wii, 1 for the Mac, 1 for the handycam and 1 for the music system) and I hoped that the others could be replaced by one of them. Unfortunately I had no such luck. I had the highest of hopes from my Comcast cable remote and my Samsung HDTV remote, but they were the first to fail. At the end of it all I could just combine the HDTV and the upconverting DVD player remotes.

I could not find the one remote to rule them all and I am stuck with 12 remotes now. **Sigh**.

Oh Gallery, My Gallery!!

After my previous post I set about to do one of two things:

  1. Create a full-blown application for uploading photos – My way of uploading photos was a multi-step process:
    1. I would select photos I wanted to upload and put them in a separate folder on my local disk
    2. I would then use Picasa and export the subset of photos as a web-page. This would automatically resize all images and create the thumbnails.
    3. Next I would create a file with image names and descriptions. I had a script on my home-page that parsed this file on the fly and displayed the album.
    4. Then I would upload the photos, the thumbnails and the file with the names.
  2. Use a package and customize it using a template – This would require me to operate within the constraints of the application that I was using.

I ultimately settled for the customization of a package. Writing my own photo-loader was way too much effort to handle in the hours after work. I considered a lot of options:

  1. Picasa web albums
    This was my first choice, because I love Picasa and I use Google for a lot of things. Moreover I could really harness a lot of things like Cooliris’ PicLens (which is awesome) and create some snazzy stuff. Unfortunately what got in the way was Dreamhost. While very good in most aspects, Dreamhost didn’t provide out-of-the-box support for Picasa. So I would have to customize my Dreamhost installation and make some changes to my PHP configuration for this. As it would turn out, this was less than a stellar idea because I had to run “sudo” on Dreamhost and I did not have the right permissions for it. While I did not get any email saying “Sayontan, you are a bad, bad boy”, I did get a return message on the command prompt notifying me that this incident had been reported!!
  2. ZenPhoto
    ZenPhoto is one of the two packages that Dreamhost provides. I tried it out, but unfortunately this falls under the category of software that you cannot customize on Dreamhost. So, two down.
  3. Gallery
    Technically Gallery was the first thing I attempted, even before my misadventures with Picasa, mainly because it was available with Dreamhost and secondly, I could customize it. However, I found it extremely counter-intuitive to use when I first installed it. But after I exhausted my other options I was compelled to revisit this. My typical style of using anything involves first fiddling with it, then reading the documentation / manuals to clarify any doubts that I have. Most software and hardware today have very friendly interfaces, so this approach works very well for me (as it does for most other people, I am sure). Naturally I had very little joy with Gallery the first time. But faced with no other choice to bundle on my website and with a mounting stack of photos to process I bit the bullet and dug in. Piece by piece it came together and with a few hours of effort I got the basic layout figured out. There are, however some annoyances:

    1. The BreadCrumb
      This is a pretty nice feature that could do with a few configuration options that would enhance control. E.g. I cannot ask it to exclude certain levels or to show the caption / title of the image rather than its name
    2. Sub-albums / Album groups
      This is a hard one to explain. On my earlier site I had groups like “2004”, and then separate albums under it. On the main page I would see both, 2004 and the albums under it. But I cannot conceive of a way to “tag” my albums without using sub-albums, and if I create one album called 2004 with a bunch of sub-albums, I cannot see the names of the sub-albums from my main page.
    3. Slideshow control
      One good thing that Gallery did is an integration with Cooliris. But now I have a new problem: I want to define things like the pause between two photos in the slideshow, I want to remove the links that show up at the top etc. I am sure I can figure it out, but it isn’t obvious.
    4. Square thumbnails
      This is a major gripe. Gallery can display a sized down thumbnail, but it feels the need to pad it with some solid color. The other option is to use a square thumbnail, which does away with the padding. I wonder, though, if it will allow me to set no colour for the padding.

Anyway, I guess it worked out alright in the end. There are a lot of things I would have liked to improve, but as is the case with packaged software, the best plan is to wait and play along. Most of the stuff comes by anyway. Of course, if you believe I botched some of the implementation or missed some features, please let me know – I would love to hear from you.

An Interesting Story

As an addendum to my previous post, here is something that I saw someone else post on Aamir Khan’s blog. It is a pretty interesting story by an unknown Canadian student.

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something decisive to meet the increasing complexity of their society. They held a meeting and finally decided to organize a school. The curriculum consisted of running, swimming and flying. Since these were the basic behaviors of most animals, they decided that all the students should take all of the subjects.

The duck proved to be excellent at swimming, better in fact than his teacher. He also did well in flying, but he proved to be very poor in running. Since he was poor in this subject he was made to stay after school to practice it and even had to drop swimming in order to get more time in which to practice running. He was kept at this poorest subject until his webbed feet were so badly damaged that he became only average at swimming. But average was acceptable in the school so nobody worried about that – except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of his class in running, but finally had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up time in swimming – a subject he hated.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed psychological blocking in flying class when the teacher insisted he start from the ground instead of from the tops of the trees. He was kept at attempting to fly until he became muscle bound – and received a C in climbing and a D in running.

The eagle was the school’s worst discipline problem, in climbing class he beat all of the others to the top of the tree used for examination purposes in this subject, but he insisted on using his own method of getting there.

The gophers of course, stayed out of the school and fought the tax levied for education because digging was not included in the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to the badger and later joined the ground hogs and eventually started a private school offering alternative education.

“The Animal School – A Parable” by an Unknown Author


Floored. Completely.

My absences keep getting longer and longer. Luckily I decided to write something today, otherwise I might have finished 2007 without a blog!! Anyway, here is something I actually posted as a comment on Aamir Khan’s website ( about his recent movie Taare Zameen Par. It is tough to do an “Eloi & Morlocks” analysis for this movie, so the comment is general. Aamir’s blog has a limitation of 1000 characters per comment and my first draft was 3772 characters long! So I decided to split it into sub-sections and tried my “precis-writing” skills. I eventually brought it down to 3 sections from 4 and posted it. Here is the content.

(Here is a really long comment that I have split into 3!)

Part I

My wife and I would like to first thank you for making a splendid movie. We sincerely hope that the movie makes a lot of money otherwise the message will not go to the masses. That being said, the movie set us both thinking.

I have, for the past few years, been a contributor to a group called Parivaar in Kolkata. Parivaar takes complete care of destitute and vulnerable children. Two things stand out when you visit Parivaar – the children and the administration. The children are in many ways like the ones at “Tulip”, but they are not suffering from Down’s Syndrome or autism or other congenital ailments. Instead they have been given up by parents who couldn’t take care of them. The founder is a young man in his twenties with degrees from both IIT and IIM, who chose not to pursue a life of luxury and dedicated himself to helping the underprivileged.

(Continued …)

Part II

My point in the above is that most of us lack the courage and conviction to do something so radically different. We forget that the smiles on the children’s faces are often a greater reward than any other. Why is it that most of us want our kids to grow up and become doctors or engineers? It is due to our conditioning. An average Indian is by nature more conservative and risk averse than say, an average American. Not our fault – there are more jobs and benefits available to a mediocre engineer than to a good artist. So the parents feel more secure if the child is in a low risk track. To that extent I sympathise with Ishaan’s parents – how is a child to survive in the rat race without the 3 R’s? After all, no parent wants his or her kid to do badly. It is just that in India our inherent nature really narrows down the range of “doing well” to academics. Come to think of it, even TZP’s ending shows that Ishaan has become better in academics.

Part III

I think that for the movie to make a tangible impact to society, everyone has to accept that there are more choices than becoming an engineer or a doctor. Moreover these opportunities really have to be available, profitable and visible. Our taxes should be used better to build a good infrastructure for handling unemployment. Once this happens TZP can go down in history as the movie that kickstarted a progressive society.

High points:
– Darsheel. It was astounding how he conveyed so much by speaking so little. Besides the “3 x 9” sequence, I believe he has less than 30 lines of dialogue, which goes to show how well he emotes with his eyes. The scene where his mother tells him that she cannot visit was top notch.
– The song “Maa”. And the music in general.
– The script and the direction. I now fully understand your comments on “Black”
– The research. “Solomon Islands” was a gem

Sorry for the rather long-winded comment. I hope I haven’t worn you down!


Coming soon – a tribute to our soon retiring generation of great cricketers.

The Art of Bad Examples

After a prolonged absence, I am back! I had initially intended to publish at least once a month. However, with August rolling by and September too failing to motivate me to write, I decided to finally do something about it in October.

How often has it happened that while you are having a debate with someone, your opponent gives you a rank bad example to make his / her point? I was trying to recollect various instances in which this has happened and not so surprisingly, I found three such cases in the past 6 months. The first two, incidentally, happened on the same day, with the same person (which perhaps goes to speak volumes about his having a completely wrong hold of things).

I am notorious as a person with a strong dislike for Bombay. Readers might jump at me for not using the politically correct Mumbai, but then I say Madras and not Chennai and Calcutta and not Kolkata. To hell with political correctness. While I do agree that Bombay has a lot of merits that help it sustain a burgeoning population, I believe that most of these merits stem from a typical Bombayite’s (or Mumbaikar’s) immense patience and inherent sense of discipline or order within chaos. The city itself is chaotic:

  • The weather is quite lousy
  • It takes an incredibly long time to get from one point in the city to another, thanks to traffic
  • The public transport system, though good, is grossly inadequate. Dissenters simply need to look at a local train station there during the peak hours.
  • Real estate prices are sky-high, without much justification. Yes, people will claim that there are more opportunities there, but the ratio of opportunities is disproportionate to the rents that people have to pay to live there. New companies shy away from setting up centres there (this includes companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo – all IT companies, as the doubting Thomases will agree)
  • Roads are no great shakes in most parts of the city. If a road is being repaired, it stays that way for months together
  • The political environment is quite horrible – there were talks of banning non-Bombayites from purchasing real-estate there and of mandating a “Bombay visa” for people to get into Bombay.

But the people are good and friendly and the food is perhaps the best among all places in India. Anyway, liking or disliking a city is more a consequence of a man’s personality rather than anything else. I prefer quieter areas, so Bombay grates on me. I like to call it the largest village in the world, much to the chagrin of my acquaintances from there. I agree that I am being quite uncharitable there, but the fact that the largest slum of Asia, Dharavi is in Bombay only strengthens my case.

But I digress. One fine morning I had a lively discussion with two Bombayites who claimed that their city was the best place to live in. Not to be outdone I put forth my arguments, which, needless to say, didn’t gel well with them. I argued that Delhi is a much better place, thanks to excellent infrastructure (it is remarkable how Delhi went from being the most polluted city in India to becoming a very clean city – a feat that other cities will find hard to match). On the topic of real estate being very expensive there this was a discussion that ensued:

Opp: Let me give you an example. Have you ever been to a casino?
Me: Yes, quite a few times
Opp: If there are two tables, one where you bet $1 and the other where you bet $100, which one will have a higher return?
Me: If you win, then obviously the one with $100
Opp: Then you have answered your question yourself
Me: Really? Then let me ask you – where are you going to lose more if you lose?
Opp: The one with $100
Me: Then you have contradicted yourself.
Me: In a casino you are gambling – not investing based on sound principles. There you have a greater chance of losing, since the house always wins. And when you lose at a big table, you really lose there. On a $1 table even if you lose frequently you will not feel it much.
Opp: You are taking my example too literally.
Me: That’s because it is not the right example to give. Real estate investments are more a study of trends rather than gambles. In most cases if you have done your homework well you will leave with a profit.

There was some rubbish that I had doled out too, but luckily his example was too off-centre for him to come up with a counterpoint.

The same afternoon this gentleman and a few other colleagues of mine were having another discussion. This time the topic was companies using an outsourcing model. The company I work for is a pretty big consultancy firm with well over 100,000 employees worldwide. It does have a couple of big centres in India too. This gentleman was singing paeans of people in the US centres, saying that they are much better employees, since they have equal technical skills and much better presentation skills. While I agree with the presentation part, the technical skills, I believe are a whole different ballgame. But that is a subjective issue and is best not discussed here, lest it gives rise to some unhealthy “us vs. them” debate.

According to him if he had a person working under him and that person couldn’t present his point, then that person had no business working for us. Not a bad point to make, though that would make our organization a bad place for people who are off the charts in technical brilliance but are quite lousy in presentation skills. It would also reflect poorly on the organization’s ability to mentor such a person and would undermine the value of teamwork – the panacea of disparity in a firm. The organization might actually let an uncut diamond slip through its hands if all its managers take this attitude.

On the topic of outsourcing itself, we were remarking how the quality of work coming in from places like TCS and Satyam in India is at 70-80% that of homegrown consultants from our firm, but the price is probably just about 20-40%. In this aspect this gentleman decided to throw in another of his brilliant examples:

My friend: What I don’t understand is when other companies in India like TCS or Satyam or Patni provide almost the same quality as our firm but at a much lower rate, how does our firm expect to survive?
Opp: Let me give you an example. If you have to buy a shirt from Macy’s or Walmart, which one would you choose?
Us: Obviously Walmart (unanimously)

Obviously he expected us to say “Macy’s” (unanimousl
y), but this was an outright horrible example: a much better example might have been a choice between Walmart and a factory outlet of a named brand.

Anyway, this discussion concluded with another set of contentious statements:

Opp: Can the Indian offices of our firm survive without the US offices? No. Can the US offices of our firm survive without the Indian ones? Definitely.
Me: That is rubbish. Without the Indian offices you would be so undercut by Indian firms that you might end up getting no business. In fact a couple of years ago the CEO of the firm had said, “There are four new threats to our company. They are Infosys, TCS, Wipro and Satyam”.
Opp: Again, you are taking my examples too literally.
Me: Well, you are behaving like a child. You start of by trying to give an example and when it turns out to be a bad example you protest if anyone points it out.

The fact is that people providing bad examples simply don’t know how bad their examples are (I am pretty sure I have used a fair number of them in my blog). Very often you have people who try to use a word that they have just read or heard, thinking that they are being very erudite in doing so. I once had a person who had heard the term “comparing apples and oranges” being used quite frequently against him. When two competetive methodologies were being discussed, he said, “That is like comparing apples with oranges”. Luckily for him he got away without much being said.

End of rant.

Let Me Check My Skejule

While working for WebTek in 2000 I happened to be speaking to a colleague from overseas who said, “Let me check my skejule and get back to you”. At that time the sentence created a jarring effect on my ears. A few days later I happened to be watching a movie which had me laughing with respect to the skejule.

An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other
Englishman despise him.
One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.
Oh, why can’t the English learn to set
A good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!
Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady

An erudite British colleague of mine once pointed out certain differences in accents between speakers of American and English. “Nicaragua”, he said, “is pronounced ‘Nicaragyua’ by the English and ‘Nicaragooa’ by the Americans”. That shed some light. Friends of mine who had joined universities in the US for higher studies provided further insight, “Americans pronounce words like they are. Since ‘school’ is pronounced ‘skool’, ‘schedule’ becomes ‘skejule’.”

Really? Why is “argue” still “argyu” and “tongue” still “tung”, then? I also reasoned that it should have acutally been ‘skedule’, but then figured out that ‘individual’ is pronounced ‘indivijual’. The American interpretation of the language is actually just that – an interpretation. That isn’t to say that it is wrong. Language, after all, is how you define it.

A lot of words have been taken liberties with, not only in terms of pronunciation but also in terms of their spelling and meaning. Being from a place that was a British colony not long back and working in the US most of the time poses a difficulty of switching contexts every now and then. I am in the habit of writing “civilise”, “analyse” etc., which my word-processor has a ripe gripe with. I also write “fulfil” as opposed to the American “fulfill”. “Program” has made its way into my dictionary, but only when I am talking about a computer program. I guess things will get really creepy the day I start saying “I cannot believe where I am at.”

Raymond: That is what has got me to where I am at.
Marie: Where I am at?
Raymond: Where I am… where I am.
Marie: Have I taught you nothing?
Raymond: I know, I know. You cannot end a sentence with a proposition… A preposition.

That is gross. Truly gross. Another thing that vexes me is the use of “presently” to mean “currently”, while it actually means, “in a short time”. “Prodigal” is another word whose meaning has changed quite a lot in the last couple of decades.

As a general rule I have decided to stick with the English roots rather than the American variants because I believe that in most cases the American variants start out as idealistic approaches and then lose their way. Moving beyond the realm of language, I recently discovered the discrepancy between and American gallon and an Imperial gallon (which is used in the rest of the world, wherever the FPS system is still in vogue). I believe that I can be forgiven in this regard because India uses the SI system, which is much easier to handle. But what is the point of having two different measurements with the same name?

Then there is the custom of left-hand drive and right-hand drive. And here is a curious thing – there is a reason for travelling on the left side of a road. In medieval times when Englishmen travelled on horseback, they used to doff their hats at people coming from the opposite direction using their left hand. That way if they saw an adversary coming they could have their right hands free to draw their swords and fight (most people were right handed). It thus made sense to travel on the left side of the road. This practice extended to horse-driven carriages and eventually automobiles. I don’t know the reason for driving on the right side of the road, though I can only guess that since most people in a sample set used to be right-handed the tendency was to choose the right half of the road (assuming that you weren’t going to be fighting while using a road).

An interesting digression – why are a large number of Chinese left-handed? Again, here I don’t have a concrete answer, but I do have a theory. In February this year while my wife and I were doing the Singapore tour that Singapore Airlines provides, the tour guide showed us the “Suntec Building” that was shaped like the left hand. She explained that it had everything to do with Feng-Shui and Yin and Yang. The right hand gives away wealth and the left hand gets in wealth. In places where such beliefs are strong you would naturally encourage your children to be left-handed since that would be considered auspicious.

Back to Americanisms. Actually another digression. I have a large number of vegetarian friends. Some of them claim that they do not eat meat because it is cruel to animals. And they continue to use leather purses/wallets, belts, bags, jackets and shoes. Another attempt at starting out idealistic and stopping midway.

Anyway, English as a language is fine. And the American interpretation is fine as well. As I said, language is all about communicating. And both the versions are mutually compatible. They don’t castigate you for not getting your pronunciation right. So everyone is happy. And let me schedule my next blog update.

The Premium on Life

When I was in London for around 8 months in 2001-2002 I used to marvel at the content of their news. An ordinary person like me being kidnapped or going missing would typically occupy the headlines on all news broadcasts for weeks at a stretch. But back in India a similar incident would have to really stand out to even merit a mention. Maybe it is due to the burgeoning population of India, but somehow the life of a person doesn’t seem to hold much value in the greater scheme of things. People get shot dead and the culprits walk free because they have managed to buy the witnesses out. Ask Jessica Lal or Priyadarshini Mattoo’s relatives. Or the relatives of the BMW hit and run victims. Vermin like Manu Sharma, Santosh Kumar Singh and Sanjeev Nanda are murderers walking free.

I had just started work on my first job in the erstwhile WebTek in Bangalore. Typically the first couple of months of one’s professional life are spent in finding one’s bearings. Things were no different for me: I used to sample different places to eat every evening (I did not know how to cook), I was saving up for buying a two-wheeler and I was trying to make new friends.

My friend Rohit Khandekar was visiting Bangalore for a couple of weeks for a conference in IISc. Along with my housemates Abhishek Saxena and Umesh Batra we made plans to do a day-long trip to Mysore. Roughly at the same time that we were returning from Mysore at night a veteran Kannadiga thespian called Rajkumar was kidnapped along the same route by the notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

The next day office closed early. The reason was that fans of Rajkumar had started rioting in parts of the city and our company’s management did not want to put us in a situation where we would have to brave riots to go home. Those days I was finalising the purchase of my motorbike. The bike was decided, registration was done and the balance amount needed to be paid. While I would have the entire balance amount when my salary came in, pay-day was still a few days away. So I had decided to take a loan from Abhishek for a few days to speed up the process. Taking advantage of the fact that office was out I decided to visit the HSBC ATM in Manipal Centre on Dickenson Road with Abhishek.

Abhishek put in his ATM card and withdrew Rs. 1000/-. After closing the transaction he realised that he was supposed to withdraw Rs. 5000/-. So he put his card into the ATM machine again. And then a mob appeared at the end of the road opposite Manipal Centre. And the machine started taking very long to process his transaction. As the mob drew closer we started to panic. The card was still stuck!!! The mob was around 30m away now. The card came out. We took the card and the money and fled the scene from another exit of Manipal Centre. That evening we learnt that the mob had torn down the ATM. We counted our blessings.

This kind of a tale has, I am sure, happened to quite a few people. Hell, I remember sitting in an autorickshaw as a 12-year-old not 20m away from a burning bus in Hyderabad during the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid flare-up in 1990-1991 (when L. K. Advani was arrested during V. P. Singh’s regime). I also remember sitting in London when not far from my parents’ home in Baroda there was communal carnage instigated by Narenda Modi.

People talk of India’s diversity in glowing terms. Indeed there is no other country anywhere in the world that has such a rich blend of culture, tradition and people. Ironically it is this diversity that gets India into trouble every now and then. Just consider:

  • It is ridiculously simple to cause a riot between Hindus and Muslims. All it needs is a few miscreants.
  • The esteemed elected body of India managed to cause mass upheaval and subsequent massacre of the otherwise communally peaceful Sikhs.
  • You can give special privileges to one section of society (and be assured of its fealty) and make the other sections of society completely hostile to this one.
  • You can board a train from Delhi to Calcutta and be sure of a fight happening between people of UP and Bihar.

The diversity gets exploited by random freaks like Arjun Singh or zealots of the Sang Parivaar or bigots like Narendra Modi for reasons that rational thinking humans would have found to point solely to vote banks. It is indeed interesting that the politicians strive to keep people backward and divided just to cash in on their misery and differences. Sounds very much like anti-virus companies wanting Microsoft to have virus attacks so that they can fix them and make money!

পশ্চাতে রেখেছো যারে সে তোমারে পশ্চাতে টানিবে ।
(Paschatey rekhechho jaarey se tomarey paschatey tanibe … For people who cannot read Bengali or Unicode)

Rabindranath Tagore

It is indeed ironic that Tagore’s quote about people whom we are leaving behind pulling us back should continue to bite us 60 years after our independence. An Indian’s life seems to be just as valuable as its rulers deem fit!

Consumption of Income

My dear friend Vivek Haldar has often talked to me about how a country should have a consumption tax instead of an income tax, arguing about the merits of the former. His contention is simple – why be taxed for something that you have earned? Taxes, he argues, should be levied upon people when they are trying to purchase something. Or when they are using a means of transport like a road. That way people earning more will not feel shortchanged by income tax. Also, people with moral objections to supporting unknown people via schemes like social security will have reason to be happy about.

Savvy? Not so. Well-intentioned though the plan may be, it is fraught with difficulties. How will a country pay for things like defence if there is no income tax? Ok. So we can have a flat tax for defence. And how will people whose job doesn’t involve generating any profits (like the President?) get paid? Well, there could be another flat tax for all administrative and judiciary management, which will cover things like law and order etc.

Then there is a question of quantisation. Are these flat taxes we are talking about going to be fixed values or percentages of income? A fixed value tax might completely wipe out the income of a person earning little and the tax will be for things that probably concern him very little. And a percentage of income tax essentially means going back to square 1 – you are looking at the capability of a person to pay and then you are making that person pay accordingly.

Can a compromise be struck? The more I think about it the more sense it makes to have the plain old income tax as opposed to a consumption tax, simply because the number of things where it is difficult to define consumption is simply overwhelming. Here are examples:

  • Space research, or for that matter, any kind of research that is funded by the government. None of us is a consumer of research, but we all agree that we are benefited by it in some way or the other.
  • Use of intangible resources. It is possible to track how much of the country’s roads we are using by simply tracking the mileage on our vehicles and taxing us accordingly. But what about cases like using manpower for work. Let’s say you own a company and employ a fairly large number of people. You are, by virtue of using these people to attain your profits, using resources of the country. But how are you going to pay taxes for them? And to whom?

A lot of similar examples can be advanced in this regard.

Now let us approach the problem from a different angle. Let us assume that we have handled the complex issues of defining consumption and thereby put together a taxation structure in place. Now let us look at some numbers. An average single person in the US pays a certain amount of tax each year. If we were to get rid of income tax and make the entire system consumption based, then extracting the same amount of money in taxes could result in a phenomenal amount of taxation on what you consume. You might be paying 3 times the cost of fuel in taxes for the distance you travel.

One of the contentions of taxpayers is, why pay taxes for social security benefits when all you are doing is creating a safety net for yourself and paying for other people of your age to get along in life. Point taken, but again, with a pinch of salt. The fact is that if unemployed or homeless people aren’t given a helping hand they soon resort to catastrophic means with disastrous consequences.

Of course. Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens, such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.

Ra’s Al Ghul to Batman in Batman Begins

The upshot – while income tax is not the nicest way to spend one’s hard-earned money it is a tried and tested method of moving a society forward. Unless we come up with answers to the various issues that plague the assessment of consumption and how to tax it, we are better off with income tax.

Googly for Google

Though the Google Watch site has been around for quite some time now it was only recently that I came upon it. The site kicked quite a few thoughts into action, not because it is accurate, which it is quite often not, but because it set off the whole line of thinking around Eloi and Morlocks.

Google Watch’s Daniel Brandt talks about Gmail being creepy, how Google is a privacy hazard, how its caching is a copyright violation and how Google Print is potentially depriving authors of royalties. Naturally, given the popularity of Google, the site has a fairly large number of detractors and takers.

But the one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail

Green Goblin to Spider-Man in Spider-Man

Well, Google is not a hero of the society, but it certainly is its darling. And while I come off as a person with a bias towards Google:

  1. I don’t work for Google.
  2. I don’t own their stock.
  3. I wish I could do at least one of the two above.
  4. I do believe that a lot of things that come out of Google’s stables could use an overhaul, like the accuracy of Google Maps and the polish of Google Talk.

Daniel Brandt’s crusade is laudable. He points out a lot of shortcomings of the PageRank algorithm, like how easy it is to fool, how “Back Links” often play truant when it comes to deciding the relevance of a page and so on. And these are indeed true. But I believe that in most other aspects Mr. Brandt gets it wrong.

One thing that piqued my interest when Gmail made its entry in the market was how and why would people kick up such a big fuss about targetted advertising. Most people aren’t averse to having spam filters and virus checkers on their email accounts. Yahoo, Microsoft and every other email provider worth its name provides these facilities. And these are automated tools that go through each of your mails before deciding if something has a virus or is from a suspect source. So why complain with Gmail, when all it is doing in addition to checking for junk in your mail is putting in some ads in context of your original mail? In any case, the negative publicity seems to have paid off and most lay people shy away from opening Gmail accounts.

The privacy hazard accusation is another thing altogether. It is also something that I am least equipped to address, coming from a place where privacy is probably among the last of people’s concerns. Hence I will defer to Mr. Brandt’s comments regarding the easily available information about a person, though I must say that the only way cookies will cause you harm is if someone very adept at extracting information from cookies has access to the computer you use to access the internet, particularly to the folders where your browser stores the cookies for you. Google is not that villain.

That brings me to caching and Google Print. Google keeps obvious copies of pages in its cache. As of today so do Yahoo and MSN, but not Windows Live or By obvious what I mean is that it is difficult, if not impossible to fetch results from the web fast without actually having a copy of the pages on an instance local to you. So even though Windows Live Search or don’t display their cache to you, it doesn’t mean they don’t have one. They simply choose not to show it. Now, if you don’t want your page to be available and available fast for any web-search, why would you want a webpage at all? Having search engines throw up your page at the top of a heap is good advertisement for your site and caching certainly attains that goal. As for Google Print, it aims at scanning all books in a library and making them available through a search. A search on Google Print, besides showing a few pages of the book does nothing else. You certainly cannot read the entire book without having to pay the author any royalty. As I see it Google Print is one way of representing a library online. When you have a membership to a library you still get to read the books there, or at least excerpts from them without having to buy them. Is that a copyright violation? Google, by bringing the library online is, I believe, simplifying things to a great extent.

The entire policy of policing Google puts a curious spin on things. Sites like Google Watch would have us believe that Google has only one interest – information on our lives for its money. In this way an analogy can be drawn between Google and the Morlocks of our title – Google provides us information, while secretly harvesting information on us and setting us up for slaughter. Google Watch indeed says that people matter naught to Google.

Pointy Haired Boss: I’ve been saying for years that “Employees are our most valuable asset”… It turns out that I was wrong. Money is our most valuable asset. Employees are ninth.

Wally: I’m afraid to ask what came in eighth.

Pointy Haired Boss: Carbon Paper.

– Dilbert’s Still Pumped From Using the Mouse by Scott Adams

I am, however, not so sure. Google prides itself on good search results, but most people at Google itself consider it an advertising company. They also know that they are only going to be this rich as long as they manage to stay ahead of the curve with their core competency – search. The key rule of advertising is to not rub people the wrong way. When people find out that a company is scamming them, they boycott the company of their own volition. Google, by dishing up innovation through technology and not actually charging any of its users for anything will manage to stay the people’s favourtie for long, or at least until something better comes by.

Enough said. The intent of this page is not to sell itself by advertisement of Google or Google Watch: I have deliberately tried to avoid any “Search Engine Optimisation” here, apart from having written this in my blog. I do believe that not only does Mr. Brandt make a lot of good points, but also that quite a lot of his statements that I don’t agree with provide healthy food for thought. The issue here is not whether a company is getting fascinatingly rich, but whether the contributors to its wealth get anything in return. I believe I get a decent return out of using Google’s products (I also get a lot out of using Microsoft and Yahoo’s products) and I don’t believe my privacy is compromised. I consider myself satisfied.

My very first post after restarting my blog and I already seem to have violated the objective of being objective. But then, perhaps one of the most biased statements possible is, “This statement is unbiased”, by means of which the statement automatically biases itself in its favour.

I will sign off by pointing out a classic paper, “Reflections on Trusting Trust” by Ken Thompson. Whom will you trust?

The First Post … Again

I used to have a blog called Cockroach Cluster. Actually I still have it. Considering that the last post to that was more than 2 years back I decided to start one afresh rather than continue with the old one.

Why did I call my previous blog “Cockroach Cluster”? A slight familiarity with Harry Potter will tell you that “Cockroach Cluster” is a kind of candy that the kids of the series have. That blog was created in April 2004, long before the release of “Half Blood Prince”. Had it been written after “Half Blood Prince”, I would probably have picked up the title “Kreacher Rocks”, simply on the basis of the following dialog:

“No, of course I didn’t,” said Harry quickly. “Dobby, you can sleep, all right? But has either of you found out anything?” he hastened to ask, before Hermione could intervene again.

“Master Malfoy moves with a nobility that befits his pure blood,” croaked Kreacher at once. “His features recall the fine bones of my mistress and his manners are those of—”

“Draco Malfoy is a bad boy!” squeaked Dobby angrily. “A bad boy who — who —” He shuddered from the tassel of his tea cozy to the toes of his socks and then ran at the fire, as though about to dive into it. Harry, to whom this was not entirely unexpected, caught him around the middle and held him fast. For a few seconds Dobby struggled, then went limp.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

And a few paragraphs later:

“Yeah, we don’t need to hear about you being in love with Malfoy,” Harry told Kreacher. “Let’s fast forward to where he’s actually been going.”

Kreacher bowed again, looking furious, and then said, “Master Malfoy eats in the Great Hall, he sleeps in a dormitory in the dungeons, he attends his classes in a variety of—”

“Dobby, you tell me,” said Harry, cutting across Kreacher. “Has he been going anywhere he shouldn’t have?”

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

Needless to say, Kreacher had me in splits.

Back to the point. What is this blog supposed to have? I am not particularly sure of that, but I guess I will fill it up as I go on. From the title I would have you believe that the intent is to analyse two sides of issues discussed. From H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” the Eloi and the Morlocks are two races that the humans have evolved to. The races have contrasting characteristics, hence the allusion. But analysing contrasting sides of every issue is very much of a challenge and it is difficult to prevent an element of bias from creeping in. Nevertheless I shall try. Whether I succeed or not can only be assessed in the months to come.