A different take on Swacch Bharath

(pic source: news.oneindia.in)

(pic source: news.oneindia.in)

I have been thinking about this Swachh Bharath Abhiyaan that is the “in-thing” nowadays. For those who have been living under a rock for the last 2 months, this is the initiative kicked off by our PM – Narendra Modi – which encourages people to take on a pledge to ‘clean our India’ by spending atleast 2 hours per week. He said his characteristic fervour and said if our ‘sava sow karod desh vaasiyon’ (1.25 crore people of India) each do their bit, our country would be sparkling clean. Very noble initiative, I must say. And yes, we need to do something about our state of the country with respect to cleanliness. It is a mess. And sure, no other PM has ever touched this subject. So it is commendable.

But I digress, let me get back to my thoughts. As much as I think it is a great initiative, it is my personal belief that the implementation methodology might be slightly flawed. Again, disclaimer, I stress on the words “I think” and “my personal belief”. I would love to be proved wrong.

Ever since the initiative started, there have been challenges that have taken place on celebrities who have awkwardly held brooms that they have never held in their hands before, and made pretenses of cleaning a bit of a street (here, here, here, and several more). Our PM did a good job – probably because he had done this kind of thing during his RSS days. My problem fundamentally boils down to two things:

The scale of garbage and junk in our country is way more than can be handled by how many ever people awkwardly wielding brooms, wearing green gloves, and a black plastic garbage bag in hand. It is not a scalable solution.

If the people are going to be cleaning, what are the corporations going to be doing? Are there any initiatives that have percolated down to the Municipal corporations? Atleast I have not seen any change in the BBMP or in the Chennai Municipal Corporations. These fine folk have the equipment, the machinery, and the skilled manpower to handle garbage. Given adequate direction and incentives, they can bring about change that the billion of us cannot achieve together.

Ok, I now see the dozen of you come forward quoting the fabled – “Ask not what the country does for you .. blah blah”. I agree. But be practical. More practical would be the case, where there is a massive drive by the Government with the corporations, panchayats, municipalities (all working together), perhaps even with participation from the public (the ambanis, khans, and the rest of us mango folk too) – and then, the Government says – Now, you sava sow karod vaasiyon, we have given you a clean slate to begin with. We are now giving you a methodology for waste disposal. We are giving you these laws by which we can punish the wrong-doers. Now, do you bit, in preserving this beauty.

Now, you may say, is this scalable? Is such a massive drive even possible? Give it some thought. This does not need happen over night on one day throughout the country. National Clean Our Garbage Day. NO sir. That will not happen, and does not scale. But as a good software engineer will tell you, start incrementally. Start working on portions of a city. It has been proven possible. I have read articles about Surat doing it. I have seen parts of  Electronic City (In Bangalore) do it (the IT companies partly fund this). I have seen portions of Coimbatore like this. In short, I have seen this in all places where there is a good corporator.

In short, get a concerted effort by the government (multiple bodies working together and perhaps public participation) to do a first sweep cleanliness drive. Then work with the public to ‘keep’ it that way. Formalize processes for waste segregation and waste disposal. Impose regulations and penalties. That is the way to go IMHO.

Book Review: Connect the Dots

connect-the-dots-400x400

  • Loved the book.
  • If you are a wantrepreneur (person who is permanently dreaming about being an entrepreneur), this is a book you should read.
  • Talks about a dozen or so start-up stories. And the variety is amazing.
  • The book is in the form of informal interviews with the entrepreneurs.
  • Most of these are folks who broke away from tradition. Son of a government employee turning into a wildlife photographer, or the son of a business man growing brocolli and iceberg lettuce in India, or the person whose passion it was to making cheese in India.
  • Some stories are those of grit – like the Dosa Plaza story. Some are of the kismat/Junoon type. There are some stories of breaking away of monotony. There is of course, the famous story of Veta (the English training institute) starting from a thatched roof for rent.
  • The tantra tshirt story, the Haathi Chaap (recycled paper from Elephant dung) story – fascinating reads.
  • The exotic story of an economics professor in an university wanting to get into the hotel industry, where he worked 3 hours every night (after teaching the whole day) — Oriental cuisines, which owns several mall food courts and fine dining restaurants across India.
  • Read the book in my Kindle paperwhite. Gave me the edge to skip chapters that I was not too much into (there are a couple of stories about folks who made it big in the theatre industry).
  • Overall good read. Written in a very engaging style. Lots and lots of research.
  • Kudos to the author – Rashmi Bansal.

 

Internet Nostalgia

The year is 1995. It is past 9PM. Our typical tam-brahm household in Chennai has started ramping down for the day. Mom is clearing the kitchen and setting up for next day. Dad is finishing up watching the long form news (yes, the DD news that aired between 8:30-9PM ; there was a short form news between 730-745PM). I am generally vetti (vella, jobless, whatever) – a generally acceptable state for an engineering student in my second year of college.

I may look vetti, but excitement inside me is rising. The time is approaching. Half hour more. You ask for what? I will tell you what. INTERNET TIME.

I finish up my nightly glass of milk and run to my dads computer – a clunky X86/486. Dad had always been up-to-date on computers. For formality sakes, I run up to each family member in the family and tell them I am ‘going to the internet’ – not because they will miss me, but when I am ‘in there’, there will be no phones that will come in. *Pause for dramatic effect*. Yes, no incoming phone calls. And there was only one phone in the house – no mobiles then. So I basically cut off the primary communication channel to the home. On hindsight, I am thankful for family to have even let me do that!. Wow thats huge. If my son tells me, he is going to muck with my internet for a school project, I am not sure if I would be OK with that. (I would probably get him another Docomo stick or get myself one).

But I digress. I switch on the computer. (Yes, those were times when you switched on your computers only when you needed them). We had a choice. You could use the VSNL dialler or if you are adventurous, you can open up Windows Hyperterminal and could control the modem using the ATDT commands. The Zyxel modem used to be pretty much the same size as our cable modems now. I guess that has not really changed much.

Tariff:

vsnl

Dang. It was expensive. I had a student account. 500 bucks a year. And I got a low speed terminal access account. My email was gcmouli@giasmda.vsnl.net.in. GIAS was the Gateway Internet Access Service. The only window from India to the world.

vsnl3

You get this screen and you fistpump. You made it. There were a fixed number of dial-up connections that could be opened up. So you keep trying. Most used keys were up-arrow and enter. Repeating the ATDT for redial. And then you would hear the screeching noise of the modem and then the busy tone. Up-arrow and enter. More screeching. And then you hear a different screeching sound. And a dramatic pause later, NO CARRIER. Dang. Up-arrow and return. Now you see why, when you see the above screen, you fistpump.

After we got into the internet, we had a grand list of 10 things you could do.

vsnl4

Three of them were most popular. Email. Lynx. UNIX prompt. And you typically went to the UNIX prompt to fire up IRC and chat with folks. There used to be a Madras Chat Room. There used to be a room with SVCE (our college) folks. Fun Fun.

But yeah, we got only a terminal.

And then entered Ranga, who wrote a software called BlueSpec (I think – dont fully remember the name of the software!), which could bring up a TCP-IP connection interface (that is what we used to call an internet with pictures :)) with a shell connection. You downloaded Mozilla (or got it from the free CD in PC Quest – remember??). You fired up BlueSpec only if you wanted to see pictures. It used to be terribly slow though. The shell connection was faster. So lynx it was. A site was considered good if it opened up clean in text and in a browser. That was the ‘responsive’ design of yesterday.

And then you would continuously be looking at the clock. You also had a limited number of hours – remember – 500 hours per year. So an hour a day would be comfortable – so that some time is remaining for ‘emergency’ internet times.

Those were the days. Good days. Nostalgia.

All screenshots courtesy: (http://guide2net.net/bookweb/dnload/guide.pdf)

GPS directions in ‘Madras tamizh’

I use GPS directions in two ways. I have a MapMyIndia ZX 250 which I forget to take most times, and during those times when I forget to take the GPS device, I use Google Maps.

Recently, Google Maps surprised me with an Indian sounding voice. Very nice. That set me thinking ofcourse, of how it would be if the Directions were given in ‘Madras Tamizh’ or Madras Baashai as it is sometimes called. For those not in the know, this is mostly the tamizh that the auto drivers use, and mostly made famous by ‘Loose Mohan’ in tamizh cinema.

Iruba .. Route pudikaren == Syncing satellites

Nera poyikine iru  ==  Go straight on

Rightla cut pannu == Turn Right

Leftla cut pannu == Turn Right

Leftla cycle gapla pooru == Turn Slightly left

Rightla cycle gapla pooru == Turn Slightly right

Vutla soltu vantaya == Navigating to home

Aprom paaklam ba == Shutting down

Dei Dei Kasmalaam Turning-a vuttaya dei behmani == Rerouting

If you have any more, let me know in the comments …

Why do I honk?

You ask me, “Why do I honk?”. I will tell you why I honk.

And no, I do not honk incessantly like the cabbies, but you got to be super pretentious to claim that in India, you can drive without honking. Sure, I will reduce and have reduced honking, but if I do not honk, the following classes of living beings would probably get killed, if not seriously injured:

  1. The college kid with the backpack talking on her phone looking at the wrong direction while crossing the road
  2. The old uncle in his smokey scooter who claims that old scooters have the right to drive in the middle most lane
  3. The real estate agent who is talking on the phone which is resting on his shoulders and his head bent at an impossible 90 degrees to keep the phone from falling down.
  4. The style-bhai on his Yamaha FZ-whatever who feels that he is driving faster if he makes more noise and if he challenges the center of gravity of his bike to the maximum.
  5. The auto-wallah who brakes in the middle of the road to enquire where the passenger on the road wants to go, only to shake his head and go on.
  6. The occasional suicidal canine.
  7. The callous bovine whose business it is not, to realize that it is in the middle of the road.
  8. The aunty crossing the road holding a kid in each arm hoping for divine intervention to stop traffic when she crosses the road. (She did not get the memo that, the traffic might seem like a sea, but she is not Moses).
  9. The gush of humanity that drains out of a buses door when the bus stops at a bus-stop – even if the bus stopped in the middle lane.
  10. The IT dude in the car right in front in an intersection, who is checking email on his jazzy smart phone.

If you have more ‘characters’ for whom the ‘horn’ in our cars and bikes still serve an existential purpose, let me know in your comments.

Book Review: Arjuna

arjuna-saga-of-a-pandava-warrior-prince-400x400-imadgqfhrxh95s5n

This book by Anuja Chandramouli starts off at a good pace and keeps the reader engaged until about a quarter of the book. The Mahabharata is a story of epic proportions. Even though the core is the 18 day war, the build up to the war, and the culmination of the characters is elaborate. Given the book is so huge, and the fact that there are innumerable complicated sub stories woven into the epic, this book tries to extricate out the stories of one of the main characters – Arjuna.

While the attempt to experiment is much appreciated, it is difficult to do something like this and sustain interest. The Mahabharata is what it is, because of the complex interweaving of plots. It loses its magic touch when you bring out the stories of only one of the protagonists.

Very soon after the first quarter of the book is over, the reader is faced with the problem of sequencing. While telling only the stories of Arjuna, the book runs like a kid having control of the rewind and fast-forward controls of a cartoon movie. I was bewildered and let confused multiple times, about whether a certain event happened before or after another. The fact that most of us know this story in a sketchy manner makes it even more difficult. Perhaps, if I did not know anything about the Mahabharata then, it could have been easier on me.

When you choose one protagonist over others (there are 4 other brothers and Krishna himself), the other big problem is that of justifying why this character was chosen. Again, this is a problem only because a big subset of the readers know the original story. So when sub stories are told about Arjuna, the sub conscious mind is thinking – “so what, Bheema did stuff even better, Yudhishtira is equally good, etc…”.

To be honest, the book did not sustain my interest past the 75% mark. And this is one of the very few books, where I have kept a book down without completing. It had started to drain me. It had started to feel like a chore to complete the book, and that is when I stopped.

You may like this book if you are die-hard Arjuna fan. If so, get the book here.

I would rather recommend Devdutt Patnaik’s Jaya – An Illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata. Devdutt does a far better job in retelling the Mahabharata as it is. [ebook] [paperback]

 

Johny Ive on Xiomi

homescreens

http://mashable.com/2014/08/19/miui-6-ios-7-compared/

“Its theft and its lazy, if you ask me.” — Johny Ive

This was the statement that Johny Ive when asked about Xiomi. There has been considerable discussion online about how the MIUI layout and design is very similar to iOS. And this is making Johny nervous and irritable. But is this the mature way of handling it? Isnt everything like that?

A person or a company typically invents (or produces) a concept or a product after a lot of hard work, and then it becomes a success. Then there are others who try and ‘copy’ or ‘emulate’ if you will, to see the copied version can become a success too. There are times, when it does, and times when it does not.

Famously, Steve Jobs (once Ive’s employer) quoted the great artist Pablo PIcasso:

Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

If you read Steve’s biography and listen to some early tapes of his, you would see why he said that. His escapades around ‘stealing’ ideas from Bill Gates or more famously from Xerox PARC. Did the world cry fowl then? No. The capitalist philosophy is that, it does not matter if someone invented it. If someone can turn what was invented into what can make money, then that is success. A small town inventor who invented a great way to pump water from a borewell is considered a success in his neighbourhood. Someone who gets inspired by it, and makes it a production product and sells it to a hundred thousand farmers across India, becomes a resounding success.

See, Ive should understand that, just because you put in years of hard work into creating something very nice (and I agree, design wise, apple is probably way higher than any other company) does not mean that he can cloak it and keep it in his safe forever. It is a public product. This is a free world. He should probably feel proud that, there is another product which is considering his design as a role model and emulating it.

On a side note, Apple should probably feel good that, a company is atleast releasing this as something different (and is inspired by iOS) and not creating a fake iPhone and cheating others. By the way, that also happens. Come to India and see. You will hear talk about real iPhone vs Chine make iPhone.

And lastly, going by the track record of Apple, there will always be a fan-boy-club for Apple, who will always buy only Apple, even if they can get something that looks and feels exactly like Apple for half the price. So Apple, why do you worry? Or are you noticing the fan-boy-club dwinding? The numbers do not seem to say so.

Fear factor

flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thejcgerm/

flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thejcgerm/

Quite contrary to what most of you might be thinking, this is not about any reality show, but is a part 2 of my previous post on random policing to deter minor traffic offenses.

I am originally from Chennai. My parents still live there and I make occasional trips to this beautiful city (Singaara Chennai, as we call it — beautiful Chennai). This post is about 2 observations and my take on how they could be connected.

First observation is the general talk (or sometimes lack of it) about the reduced petty level crime on the streets. I keep hearing that the police is also very sensitized to crimes like eve teasing, chain snatching, and the likes – which I shall term (very loosely, since I am not a law) petty crime on the streets.

The second observation is a more personal one – something that I have been seeing in the last 2-3 visits. Chennai Police seems to have procured a large number of interceptor vehicles. And no, I am not talking about the old ‘Police Jeeps’. I talking fancy Innovas, Xylos, and the likes. And these interceptors have the blue and red flashing lights mounted on top of them – very much like the Interceptors in the US have. Firstly, I am seeing a large number of them on the road – randomly policing, parked in sensitive corners (near the auto stand in Chennai Central and T.Nagar Pondy Bazaar are two examples). Secondly, these vehicles are standing there with their flasher lights on. This makes them visible from at least a km away.

cop1 cop2 cop3

So this brings me to the fear factor. When these police interceptor vehicles are ubiquitous and very visible from a large surface area, there is a sense of safety for the common man, and a sense of fear for the offenders. I believe this is probably the link between the two observations. I have also seen these interceptors ‘prowl’ areas – smaller streets, bigger avenues, you name it – I have seen them there. This probably also has an effect for petty crime – the fact that, at any time an interceptor might turn up.

As a side note, I am one of those who firmly believe that, if the Police Department is funded well (by means of equipment and salaries), the corruption would definitely reduce (note that I said reduce, for nature will also bring forward some bad apples to surprise you). When the corruption reduces, there is more respect for the police, and in turn towards the law. I really hope the governments look into this as well.

Net-net (as we say in tech circles sometimes), I believe this improve policing is step in the right direction towards a safer future. Kudos to Chennai Police. I really hope other Police Departments pick up the cue and take this to their cities too.

 

Random Policing and Minor Traffic Offences

(Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eirikref/)

(Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eirikref/)

This is something that I have been talking about for quite a while with friends and family. With the Bangalore Police getting more and more social savvy, I thought, I would try and pen down my thoughts here, and maybe point them to here.

This here, is an experiment based on human psychology, which has been very effective in traffic offense management in other countries. My experience is in the US, but all I have unfortunately, is anecdotal evidence and no formal numbers. Still, it is worth a try.

The principal premise of this experiment is that, if there are random checks and apprehensions of traffic offenders in a certain spot, drivers tend to be a little more careful, fearful of being apprehended in that spot.

Let me explain with an real life example of what I saw in the US.

There are certain areas in the US interstates, where it is known that there are hidden cameras catching traffic offenders. There are also certain pockets where there is ‘mostly’ a cop car hidden in the bushes waiting to nab a speeding vehicle. Over a period of time, drivers tend to know this, by either learning the hard way or through word of mouth, and these areas become very cautionary zones. After a little while, even if the cop car is not there, or if the camera is not there, this zone becomes a relatively safe zone.

I do have to admit that Bangalore police (and other state police) have attempted similar strategies and have had marginal success. I believe it is just that, this needs to be done more consistently and the net spread wider. For example, the Intermediate Ring Road in Bangalore. Drivers know that during non-peak hours, it is best not to over speed, since there is a good possibility that there is an interceptor with a radar speed gun at one of the invisible turns. So a lot of regular drivers in that area, are careful. And let me be honest, I learnt it the hard way too. I have seen similar exercises on the Delhi-Noida-Delhi (DND) express way as well in the NCR region.

What do I mean by widening the net? I recommend installing cameras at obscure junctions where there is very repetitive signal jumping or turning at no-right-turns. Or, in a less tech savvy experiment, have a hidden policeman, noting down numbers and pictures using the cameras given to the traffic police. Challan offenders continuously and consistently for a month. Then move on to the next junction. The same effect as what happens in Intermediate Ring Roads would extend to junction after junction. Drivers would start ‘fearing’ hidden cameras or policemen. You would start people looking around for cameras and hesitantly start following rules. Get news media (social and print)  to cover this.

We would need patience to see large scale effect of this experiment. But then, neither was Rome built in a day, or for that matter, neither did all Americans drive with fear of the law, in a day. The world’s oldest democracy probably took quite a while to get this state. It is just that it is not publicized.

This is, in my humble opinion, a relatively low cost, low effort, experiment to start instilling road sense into drivers. It starts off with “fear of being challened”. But then, when people start seeing the effect, I am sure fear would turn into respect and appreciation, and it would sustain.

Signed,

Eternal Optimist.