Log in

No account? Create an account
RTE has driven education to the dogs

Recently in Bangalore, there was huge opposition to the BBMP's proposed rules for keeping pet dogs. And rightly so! These were draconian, arbitrary, ignored the reality of responsible pet owners who are in the huge majority, and seemed like the typical heavy babudom response to fix non existent problems. But consider if the rules were frames to be even more crazy:

  • Before getting a new pet, you had to get a no-objection certificate (NOC) from some government authority. To do this, you need to prove that the current population of pet dogs in your neighbourhood is not sufficient, and the neighbourhood needs more dogs.

  • In order to get or keep your dog, you need to have certain minimum facilities - let us say, 5 square meters per dog, at least one family member needs to be at home all the time to take care of at the dogs, and one person can take care of at most 2 dogs.

  • If you have a dog, or are getting a new dog, by law, you need to keep an extra dog as selected by a "transparent process". The government will decide which dog you'll get in addition to the one(s) you want. You pay for the upkeep out of your pocket, and the government will "reimburse" some amount it decides is the right amount.

Sounds crazy! But let's say the government made this even crazier:

  • For certain people - none of these rules apply. You can keep as many dogs as you like, in whatever space you like. Government rules don't apply to you via amendments to the constitution.

  • These special class of people belong to religions designated as "minority" by the Government. Yes, you read that right. A completely non-religious activity, like keeping a pet, has different privileges based on the person's religion.

  • A special central body determines which group can be designated a "minority". If you're a Hindu - tough nuts. You can never be part of this decision making group, by law. This body has absolue right to hand out certifications.

Perhaps you knew, perhaps not. But this religion based discrimination has been the in place in India via the terrible Right To Education (RTE) Act and 93rd constitutional amendment. This was done by the scheming mechanisms of the UPA government, and the constitutional amendment gives blanket protection from government interference to non-Hindus alone when it comes to running educational institutions.

We protested the proposed BBMP rules so vigorously and effectively - because the government was meddling in draconian ways in private lives, ignoring existing reality and penalising good citizens.

However, we are doing nothing about the the situation facing Hindu run educational institutions, which is far worse - the ridiculous imaginary rules I proposed above are a reality for Hindu run schools. It is clearly leading to a death of Hindu run schools, combined with a booming of minority run educational institutions. We have become so callous about ourselves and our culture, that we're willing to fight for our dogs, but not for the educational well-being and cultural future of our children! Shame on us.

PS: If you want to find out more, for outstanding commentary on RTE and other "Idea of India" thinking - where there is no uniformity of law, and identity drives what your legal rights are - please see @realitycheckind on twitter and their blog.

Indian Banks - poor software design
Web sites of some Indian banks unnecesserily burden the user with implementation details, and compound it with terrible usability. I'm referring to Citi, Kotak, and HDFC. To retrieve statement from a past time, they restrict the time period to unreasonable amounts (3 - 6 months), almost certainly because of their backend DB design. Further, HDFC restricts it to last "n" transactions - again, almost certainly because of DB design. Crazy!

They add insult to injury with a terrible UI. Though all have a calendar widget to choose the range, and can easily check the range at the time of entry, they all choose to raise an error *after* submitting. Very frustrating!

Indie Indian music recommendations
OkListen is a great site for fans of Indian "indie" music - non clasical, non film, non devotional. In fact, I think that it's the only site to find great music by great up and coming Indian bands! Here's what I've bought from them, and my ratings. FWIW, I like classic bluesy rock, blues, prog rock, and whatever has lots of guitar riffs the most, but I listen to almost anything except bubble gum pop (unless it's bollywood or kollywood!! :P).

  1. Project 1 by La Pongal - barn raising Tamil folk music set to pop/rock riffs. Band has a great sense of humour too! 5*, must buy.

  2. Behosh by Parvaz, a band with Kashmiris and hudugas. Bluesy, psychedelic rock. One of my favourite bands, and even more awesome live. 5* must buy!

  3. Blood and Prayers by BeachDog - don't quite know how to categorize these guys. Melodic, but heavy, rock. Angst driven lyrics. Love them. 4*.

  4. I only have eyes for you by the Radha Thomas Ensemble. Straight up jazz. The lead singer has a smoky voice and vocal range to rival the best American jazz singers. 4*.

  5. Bigger than Blues by Big Bang Blues - real Chicago blues. Buy if you're a blues fan. 4*.

  6. Jag Changa by Raghu Dixit - Fantastic fusion of rock and folk by one of India's premier bands. 5* Must buy!

  7. Down and Dirty by Blues Conscience - straight up Chicago Blues. Great live too! 4* must buy for blues and rock fans.

  8. Ocean by Nischay Parekh, a singer songwriter. Poppish, but very nice music and lyrics. 4*.

  9. Lagori by Lagori - hindi pop fusion. When I first saw them live, at a soul sante, thought that the musicians were tight, but that the singe was totally off key. Thankfully, the singing is right on the dot in the album. Very nice. 5* must buy.

  10. Epic Shit by Sanjeev T and co. Trippy pop, enhanced by many songs in Malayalam. Has the effervescent Baiju Dharmarajan on some tracks. Great stuff, 5*!

  11. How are you? We are fine. by the Down Troddence - I usually don't listen to metal, but this is suffused heavily with folk and rock melodies. Once again, the Malayalis produce a winner. 5* must buy

  12. Ramdango by Mick Clarke - straight up Chicago blues. Very very good. 5*.

  13. The White Mug - blues from our very own Bangalore! 4*.

  14. Mumbai Blues by the Mihir Joshi band - good blues. 4*.

  15. The Day Job by Green Rhapsody - pop/rock. Surprisingly pleasant to hear. 4*.

  16. Stripped by Ledge13 - acoustic prog rock. Buy it if you like Nirvana, especially their acoustic session. 4.5*.

There's lots and lots of music that I haven't even listened to. OkListen is just fantastic for us desi rock lovers!

On Aadhaar and biometrics
I recently read this article criticizing Aadhaar and the UIDAI, and why it's evil. Without much verification of what's said, here's my tl;dr summary (with some comments)

  1. Aadhaar has no statutory backing. (Does that mean it's illegal?)

  2. Biometrics form the basis for "identity" in Aadhaar

  3. Collection and storage of biometrics is done without any security safeguards in place

    1. There is no verification that your biometrics were tampered with on collection? Can your identity be stolen this way?

    2. If anybody's fingerprints are available so easily, are use of fingerprints as part of criminal investigative procedure negated??

  4. Use of aadhaar for many interactions a citizen has with a government - and private providers - can enable the government to easily track your every move. But how's it different than any other type of id?

  5. The article claims that civil rights are being garrotted because the government is collecting biometrics. I am unable to understand how, though!

  6. Further, the article claims that individual rights are being impinged by the collection of biometrics. Again, I fail to understand the connection.

I am wary of the collection of biometrics because of the lack of safety and safeguards around their misuse. Also, the SC has recently ruled against the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar by the state to provide *any* service.

It seems clear to me that collecting biometrics has sufficient dangers, with insufficient benefits. However, I'm still ambivalent about the need for a universal Indian id. Unfortunately, I think that the article muddies the issue, instead of making a clear and lucid case against biometrics and Aadhaar.

Bing Ads api bug report
I'm having trouble using the bing ads api, and I had complained (loudly) via Twitter. I had already noticed, shall we say, certain egregious errors in their docs. In response, their customer support folks had asked me to email the errors I had noticed to them. Surprise, surprise!! The email address I was asked to send to is apparently "protected" and bounced with the message" Your message can't be delivered because delivery to this address is restricted. "

W T F??? So, here goes, Bing Ads, these are the errors I noticed in your "documents".

  1. The getting started page talks about the headers which are supposed to be sent with every request. Just above the section on required headers, there is a disclaimer that only AuthenticationToken must be used instead of username and password. So which auth header is supposed to be used?? And why is username/password there in the docs if it's not being used??

  2. The link to the getting started video refers to the v8 api, and uses username/pasword instead of oauth.

  3. The examples for python all refer to v8, not v9. Further, they all hand craft the soap xml! And, of course, the 2-3 ones I tried don't work.

  4. This example again uses username/password instead of AuthenticationToken. It also doesn't work. It also uses a namespace for the auth tokens xmlns:cus="https://adcenter.microsoft.com/api/customermanagement" whereas the "getting started" link doesn't mention any such namespace.

I didn't have the patience to try beyond this. I'm frankly shocked that even the "getting started" section is so replete with errors. I don't know if people even use this  api, and if Bing is serious about supporting an api??

Save the open web!
If you're an old-time dev, or have worked with RSS, you know of Dave Winer. He was a seminal contributor to RSS, as well as other crucial ideas powering open software ecosystems (such as xml-rpc). So, when he says that the open web is under assault, pay serious attention! My take on what he's saying is that blogging didn't live up to the expectations of empowering grass-root voices - partly because the successful blogs became commercial, and partly because the distribution system is heavily weighted against such voices. Next, tools like Twitter and Facebook are essentially big walled gardens with less and less incentive to keep their networks open to the web. This is a huge threat, IMO, giving them unprecedented control over who gets heard, and what gets seen. So, go read what he has to say about fighting for the open web.

Buyer Beware - Inkfruit
I get so many marketing emails from Inkfruit these days, I finally got irritated and decided to write about my not-so-delightful experience buying from them.

I got 2 t-shirts - one round neck, and one polo, both XXL. They arrived quickly - however, the polo was clearly smaller than the round neck. When I called up their department of customer "delight" (so named at that time), I got my first shock when the dude told me that polos are always smaller. WTF?? Can't you put that up on your site? He then promptly asked me to return it for a refund - however, when I protested that I had to pay the courier charges, I got a verbal promise that they would refund the amount.

So, I returned the polo, and waited for the refund. And waited. And waited. After around 4 weeks, I noticed a credit in my bank account, but it was less than the cost of the polo - and there was no hint of the return charges. So, I once again called our purveyors of "delight", and asked them what's up with both. As expected, their first reflex was to not accept the cockup, and their next was to try and bug the crap out of me (to dissuade me, perhaps)? I had to send them the NEFT transaction id, but no, that didn't suffice, so I had to send them the actual transaction details from my bank account, and another 2 weeks or so later, the delta cost was refunded. Without any acknowledgement of incompetence or apology. Still no refund for the cost of shipping back their defective product.

So, Inkfruit morons, I shall pass on the "delight" via this blog post.

Say no the Forest Elitists!
The recent ban on tourism in core areas of Tiger reserves has set of a s**t-storm - with the most dominant voices being the hoteliers wringing their hands and crying gloom and doom. And certainly some (most? all?) of it is certainly self serving!

Finally, here's an article supporting the ban from what I shall call as a "wildlife firster". The author, Jay Mazumdar, has a stellar reputation. However, I feel that this article completely ignores various important points to support tourism.

  • Will the local people - mostly poor tribals - be hurt economically? They may certainly not make the money the resorts make (have you seen the effing JLR rates of late???), but do they get nothing? What will be the adverse impact of this? The article completely ignores it.

  • The author suggests that the core be restricted to hardcore nature lovers. "With only a hard bed, a clean toilet and basic food on offer, the core will only attract those who really care for the forests and the picnic crowd will automatically move their party to the buffer." What about kids? If they don't experience our wildlife in its magnificence, how are they going to get interested and invested in conserving it?? What about the elderly? This is green elitism at its worst.

The points about polluting and explosion of resorts on the outskirts of forests make sense. They should be tackled effectively through laws, regulations, and enforcement. Unfortunately, a strong current of "Only the green elite, of whom I'm a member, should experience our forests" runs through the article, and ends up detracting from the arguments. The green elitism is compounded by the fact that *nothing* is mentioned about how important it is to get people from economically weaker sections to also enjoy our wildlife, and thereby get vested in protecting and conserving it. I'm disappointed.

Help me buy!
Deciding what to buy is still broken! I recently wanted to buy a new phone, and boy, was it a tough thing to research. It required a combination of multiple visits to the store, lots and lots (and lots) of sites visited and revisited on the web. In the end, I ended up selecting a phone almost by serendipity.

Here's what I wish I could've done, and what were the problems encountered along the way:
  1. I should be able to say what the important specs are, and get back valid recommendations. Think filter. So, I can specify a minimum screen resolution and size, max price, good battery life, good camera, etc., and be presented with a set of choices. Seems like a fairly simple thing to do for all those sites with specs data to enable.
  2. Products recommended must pass a review filter. Obviously, the better the aggregate reviews, the better the product, but its almost never that simple. For instance, I almost bought the LG Optimus L7, but the reviews showed that it had a nearly obsolete processor. I ran into spec not holding out in actual reviews many, many times! An issue with flipkart reviews - many reviews for the phone seem to be made by people commenting on the specs, without even looking at the phone IRL!!
  3. Equally, a multitude of reviews from different sources were essential to get an unbiased and complete view of the product. There are a ton of "review" sites which are basically SEO bait - they take the specs as announced, pronounce that this "looks good" or the equivalent, stuff keywords - but which are completely useless. The ones which I consistently found useful, i.e., hands on reviews, were thinkdigit, phonearena, and gsmarena. phonearena was especially helpful, providing alternate suggestions. Even these, though, tended to be incomplete and inconclusive for positive decisions, and had to be enhanced by reviews by users who'd bought the product.
  4. I'd have loved to see how the phone looks (and better, feels) compared to my old phone, a milestone. High res side-by-side videos or photos could have helped, but the store was the only way to do this.
  5. There didn't seem too much price difference between online and offline for many models - at least those I was interested in. Hence, it would've helped to provide location specific availability and price info. MySmartPrice had the best price data out there, but it was only for online sellers.
When I started my company (WisdomTap, old website now defunct) I intended to solve this very problem. I intended to do it by scarfing up reviews from across the web - including enthusiast forums - and apply NLP to get detailed, feature specific reviews. While it would've helped somewhat, its clear that it wouldn't have actually helped fully.

I think that there is a crying need for tools to make it easier to decide what to buy. Maybe somebody will find this useful and actually solve this problem!

Namma metro - first thoughts
I recently spent a lot of time traipsing around NYC on the metro, and therefore consider myself an expert on metro commuting! ;)

I recently had a  joyride namma metro with kids in Bangalore, and these are my first impressions.
  • Wow!
  • Wow! This can be a game changer!
That being said, surely the guys who designed this system have seen other, more mature systems like NYC or London? Its not clear that they have, because some of the design is downright stupid.
  • The trains are too short. It was jam packed on Sunday, and all trains had only 3 carriages. Just add more carriages at high traffic times already! Thankfully, the platforms are big enough to accomadate longer trains.
  • Plastic rfid? tokens are not optimal. Need some cheap, disposable tickets which need not be retrieved from passengers. NYC dispenses paper tickets with a magnetic swipe. It also introduces a choke point when people exit, needing to return these tokens.
  • Buying a ticket is painful. Only one-way tickets are stupid. Just introduce day passes and round trips already! WTF are the metro guys waiting for??
  • Are the turnstiles 2-way? They need to manage exit better, only a few turnstiles were available, while the entry turnstiles stood empty but unavailable.
Also, the planners have made a BIG mistake - the East of Bangalore is very poorly connected. The Koramangala/Whitefield/Indira Nagar is a big IT corridor, with huge traffic, and is not touched by the metro at all.

All in all, it seems like a 50/50 job - what's been done looks very promising, but is marred by typical Indian "jugaad" - the bad kind. Hopefully, it will be fixed and soon.