Friday, March 25, 2011

Did you know that ...

Almost every aggressor-country in the War of Libya has been consorting or hobnobbing with the despots ruling Arab countries that have been experiencing huge political upheavals? More ...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Are Web Apps the Next Big Thing?

Nowadays, everyone and his dog seems to be extolling the virtues of web apps. Examples:
  • iPod first created the concept of an “ecosystem” built around a product, with integration with iTunes. They followed it up with iPad and a huge App Store to go with it.
  • MS Office 2010 buyers get free online applications of Office that run under most browsers. This is a significant “webification” of MS Office 2007 which transitioned from creating binary objects to XML objects for the first time.
  • Google's Chrome browser has created a Web Store and several of the apps available on it (I have only checked some of the Free ones) are stunning. The browser now reads PDF files natively without need for a PDF reader plug-in.
  • The Chrome browser will eventually become the OS itself – where you directly boot up and go online. The browser is the OS.
  • Splashtop offers a Linux OS of that kind, with a difference – it is is installable like any Windows app, from within Windows (indeed, that is the only way you can install it), and offers a quick boot option that actually boots and goes online in 10 seconds on many machines.
  • Much electronic ink is being expended on whether Firefox will survive or not, revolving around the preesence or absence of its App strategy.
  • The CEO of Nokia, in his now famous “burning platform” email to Nokia employees, says that Nokia failed to see the “ecosystem” concept that Apple, Android and others were building around mobile handsets, and lamented that Nokia tried to replicate feature after feature, but not the ecosystem. It's Ovi Store is an attempt to catch up.
Tablet PCs were touted as the rage a few years back (Gates demo-ed a device running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition at Comdex in 2001), but flopped. So did e-book reading hand-held devices like Treo, Palm, et al, that were PDAs and e-book readers but not phones. Both these concepts were a little ahead of their times, so today, e-book readers like Kindle and Nook and hand-held tablet PCs have become the rage. Smartphones like Blackberry and iPhone have e-book reading apps pre-loaded, or downloadable free.
For some time, now, Google has been evangelising the idea of storing and depending more and more on “the cloud”, but it will be some time before people learn to depend completely on the cloud, to the exclusion of local access and storage. The same way that news reports that the Nano caught fire has deterred many potential Tata Nano buyers, I am also a little cagey on reading recently that some 150 users of Gmail had the entire content on their Gmail account deleted. What if I was among those 150? A simple hard disk crash is something we have learnt to take in our stride, using the redundancy in the form of cloud storage plus regular local backups and redundant copies. But what is the alternative in the cloud? Is there redundancy ? How can it be affordable? Now it is free, but for how long? These are concerns everyone has, and until these are taken care of and seen to be taken care of, web apps will not become universal.
So, while I think the concept of web apps will take off finally, currently, the apps are curiosities that early adopters are adopting; to accelerate that into a burgeoning “movement” where all will migrate to web apps will take many many more adopters. I can see it happening in 3-4 years from now, but not now. Now, many will begin co-opting “the cloud” into their redundancy plans, for non-secure data.
What do you think?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why is the War of Libya being fought?

We think it is a war between the rich nations and a despot ruling a poor African country, in order to free them from, among other things, economic hardship. Right?
What is a rich country? A country whose income is far in excess of its spending. That is how we define a rich man, right? A man who earns more than he spends, by a wide margin? 
A good proxy for that at the country level is Current account balance (Percent of GDP)
Look at the table below: It is a report from the IMF's World Economic Outlook database, October 2010 edition.

Guess what? All the countries in the list are those who are actively fighting in the early part of the war in Libya. It clearly shows that Libya is the rich guy; and all the others are the poor guys, who are spending in excess of their incomes! For the last 3 years, and were it not for the war, that is what would be happening next year too, according to IMF estimates.
Not fair, you may say. What you should look at is the net indebtedness of the country, as a percentage of its GDP. That is a true indicator of who is rich, and who is not. Let us look at that, then, from the same source.

Guess what? You're right! Libya, again, is the richest among these countries - it had positive forex and gold reserves (not net indebtedness) to the extent of 88 to 100% of its GDP ! Indeed, Italy is getting as poor as Libya is getting rich by this definition, for the last 4 years!
But then you may say, what we need to see is whether the citizens of the countries are becoming richer or poorer; not whether they are rich or poor.

Surprise!! The average Libyan is getting richer (except in 2009 when international oil prices dipped) and citizens of all the other countries seem to be getting poorer, over the last 4 years.
No, you might say, is the country growing or not? And which country's economy is growing faster? That is a good indicator of economic well-being. 
Yet again, it is Libya that comes out on top, with an estimated 10% rise in GDP in 2010. 

The War of Libya, 2011 is underway

It bears striking similarities with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. A long-standing despot; international condemnation; soothing noises made by the despot when attack looked imminent. Only one difference: The UN Security Council has actually authorized implementation of a no-fly zone. In case of Iraq, the UN stopped short of authorizing entry. This resolution is the fig-leaf. Under cover of this resolution, the NATO and US forces will not stop short of doing anything to ensure “regime change” - doublespeak for killing Gaddafi. It will begin, almost certainly, with “decapitation” attacks aimed at eliminated Gaddafi, right at the start. The strategic justification is “elimination of command and control”. Then, there will be invasion, and finally occupation. Till here, things will move exactly as planned by the NATO forces. Of course, a few hundred civilians will perish for no fault of their own, especially likely in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.
Libya is a huge country - the 17th largest in area, though relatively sparsely populated (less than 6.5 Mn), with barely 1% of its land area being arable and under cultivation - it therefore imports almost 90% of its food. Its oil riches, however, have given it one of the highest per capita GDP in Africa. Libya has the 14th highest reserves of foreign currency and gold in the world. 
One must remember that till now, Al Qaeda has not managed to make major inroads into Libya because Gaddafi did not allow it in his own self-interest. Gaddafi attributed the unrest in Libya to Al Qaeda in a recent interview telecast on BBC. While this allegation got swamped by the propaganda machine in full force by then, it might be worth bearing in mind that there could be some truth in it. Northern Sudan, to the south-east is a known Al Qaeda stronghold, as well as the abode of several “warlords” who have been quite willing to let atrocities happen on the populace in Darfur. Besides, there is a thinly policed 400-km desert-border between Libya and Sudan. To the south-west of Libya is Algeria – another country with known Al Qaeda sympathizers. Algerian nationals have been arrested in several parts of the world, implicated in terror plots bearing the unmistakable Al Qaeda stamp.
Already, hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee Libya. I fervently hope that the NATO and US forces authorized by the UN have a foolproof plan not just for the war, but also for the peace to follow; i.e., for what will be done after Gaddafi has either been eliminated or forced to flee and go underground. After all, we cannot forget that the US had a plan to win the war, but the debilitating influence of Iraq on the US economy and psyche was its inability to win the peace. There will be a power vacuum; and how that will be filled has to be planned. Till now, no clear rebel leader has emerged. It might be informative to know that Libya is 97% Muslim, with nearly 85-90% of them being Sunni. The Ibadis, constituting between 5 and 10% of the population, are neither Sunni nor Shiite, though they often follow Sunni doctrine. So bloody Shia-Sunni conflict is unlikely, even if Gaddafi goes. But power vacuums are always dangerous. Gaddafi, by the way, is a devout Sunni, though he feels that the ulama's (religious scholars) role should be restricted to religion alone. 
As an Arab hero, Gaddafi still stands tall in several parts of the Arab world, because he is one of the few who has stood up to the might of the US and is still standing.
I am praying that Libya emerges as a peaceful nation after a brief bout of inevitable violence. If my prayers are not fulfilled, we may see another large part of the Arab-Muslim world descend into sustained violence and chaos that no one can resolve. If that happens, it is time to start questioning why the war-mongering Western powers (NATO, US mainly) should get away cheaply while condemning large parts of the world to sustained violence. Is this why Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize? For announcing that he will withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and not doing so, while opening up many more war fronts in the Arab-Muslim world (Iran, Libya)?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Teaching

I have always known that teaching is not equal to learning. Sometimes, learning is a multiple of teaching, but more often than not, it is a fraction. The words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet have deeper meaning in this context: 

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

In recent times, I have felt exasperated - however hard I try to teach - that so many of my young  students do not get the "feel" for numbers I have. And I have always felt inadequate as a teacher. Till I came across these words of Gibran recently. They immediately calmed me down. 

The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

Now I understand, and hopefully they will learn more, and more deeply, thanks to this understanding. 

In Times of Danger....

With danger coming home to roost in so many places, we have created significant awareness among people on the need to write wills to let their loved ones know what to do with their assets, and to head off family fights. But have we thought of personal contingency plans? One in which you can conscript your neighbours/ friends?

I think it has become a necessity, and in the coming few weeks, I shall devote more thinking to it. A Sidhu-ism applies aptly here: Better to prevent and prepare than to repent and repair!

Some stray ideas: 
1. We can use a Google SMS channel to prepare a list of all residents of a building to be subscribers. This way, we can use the facility to communicate with everyone living in the building instantaneously by a single SMS: invaluable in times of danger. The channel owner could be the security head on duty. If, say, every building in your locality/ complex set up such a channel, then it would be a small matter to make another channel to alert all the channel owners of each building - the modern equivalent of jungle drums! This could also be the means to circulate notices of meetings, and even to wish residents for birthdays and anniversaries, but mainly to alert residents to things like water supply shortage, electricity cuts, lifts not working, traffic rules in the area, notices of meetings, etc - all by a single SMS ! In times of bigger danger at locality or city level, often phone lines are choked, but sms's go through. So this could be a boon!

2.   In case one cannot communicate with or reach one's loved ones, knowing that all will be following a pre-agreed contingency plan can be an immense source of relief. It will be especially useful to train children beforehand in what to do, in case they cannot reach home from school, or they cannot enter the home on their return from school.

3. It may help if the security head always has a long length of strong nylon rope, a flash light, a tall step ladder, and first-aid kit on hand; and every security personnel and building resident knows where they are available.

4. Any more ideas?...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan facing Freezing Hell

Japan has in the past few days, been buffeted by 
  • Earthquakes, including the 3rd strongest ever recorded
  • A devastating tsunami and several tsunami warnings
  • Three nuclear reactors melting down and exploding, with the possibility of upto three more going the same way
  • Homes succumbing to earthquakes, with some heroically surviving due to man's ingenuity in designing and building them 
  • Homes being washed away
  • People fleeing homes dues to radioactivity - if Tokyo has to be evacuated, it would be the largest evacuation in world history
  • Public transport being affected because of roads, bridges, even trains being washed away
  • A volcano in a different part of Japan spewing ash 4 km into the sky
  • Power supply being disrupted indefinitely in several cities
  • Talk about nuclear power option being reviewed and many more plants possibly closing at a later date for an extensive safety review
  • A huge stock-market crash, more than 20% down in less than a week 
  • Rising prices of coal due to a supplier-oligopoly
  • Near-record pre-existing price levels for crude oil (both, spot and futures)
  • Civil ferment in Bahrain, which is in the heart of the Persian Gulf  which supplies 100% of Japan's oil. If shipping lanes through the narrow Strait of Hormuz are blocked, Japan literally has nowhere to source the oil from - at any price.  
  • Icy cold winds and weather settling over most of Japan - coinciding with record homelessness
All-in-all, Japan will need all their resolve and resilience, and more, to survive these tough times. I would not wish such bad times upon even my sworn enemies.

Japan and Facebook

The triple disaster in Japan has been covered very well with umpteen videos and photos on Facebook depicting the horrifying scenes. What's worse, many people have "liked" these posts, as my son pointed out to me yesterday. 

What is the world coming to? How heartless have we become?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Action in Bahrain - A Drama Foretold

This post follows up on an earlier recent post three days ago. In that, I had said that the Saudi ruling elite could be expected to crack down heavily and early on any incipient Shia protests in their own country. Well, they were even more jitery than I thought. So as to not give the Shias in their own country any ideas of rebellion, they have sent their troops to Bahrain to help quell the Shia rebellion there. All this is playing into Iranian hands. If they interfere, they now have justification; and if they don't, they occupy moral high ground - they can simultaneously, covertly, stoke the fires in Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia. 

I had said, the next big theatre is Bahrain. That is proving to be right. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

While many of us are enjoying cricket ...

...The nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan is progressing. This makes it the third disaster -- this time, man-made -- to hit Japan in the last few days. Not to speak of the foreshocks and aftershocks of the 8.9 monster earthquake.

According to World Nuclear News,
"Over the last several hours evacuation orders for local residents have been incrementally increased and now cover people living within ten kilometres of the power plant." This is bound to go up if the seriousness of the incident escalates.

Put this in context: (see

  1. Chernobyl is still a no-go zone for a 30-km radius after 20 years.
  2. Radiation exposure for the average individual is 620 millirems per year, split about evenly between manmade and natural sources. The firefighters who served at the Chernobyl plant were exposed to between 80,000 and 1.6 million millirems. Exposure rates outside the plant were at about 620 millirems per hour, though it is not clear whether that report came before or after the reactor’s containment structure exploded.
  3. Japan’s troubled Fukushima Daiichi reactor site is only about 300 kilometers from Tokyo. While current wind patterns indicate that any radioactivity in the air would be carried out to sea, that can change at no notice at all. 
When the dust settles down on the disaster, it is time to re-examine whether nuclear power is really clean.

Nuclear Plant Meltdown

10 minutes back, came reports of a meltdown in a Japanese nuclear power plant. This will be the third, after the Chernobyl and the Three-Mile Island disaster.

Keeping fingers crossed that things don't go out of hand - earthquake, tsunami followed by ... nothing else serious, I hope.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Changing Political Theatre

What began as a self-immolation by an ordinary vegetable vendor over gross injustice has resulted in a significant change in the political landscape of Arab nations. Over 10 countries have been affected to varying degrees (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen have been directly affected; Israel, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon are indirectly affected by uncertainty because of the tectonic political shifts, mainly in Egypt). More countries have seen change in a brief span than the world has seen in the last half-century (the last major shifts happened when, following the end of WW2, India and several other countries "liberated" themselves from occupiers. Only, this time around, it is their own Governments that are being overthrown.
It is a measure of pride that all these countries have seen non-violent protests; in some, violence has resulted because of the violent response by incumbent Governments. Nice to see that the spirit of the Mahatma lives on in the world. Since non-violent protest is inherent to democracy, even if the governments that emerge are not classical democracies, one thing is sure - they will be closer in spirit to democracy than the predecessor Governments. The predominant drive is for openness and freedom of expression – which will itself ensure transition to democracy, though there may be local flavours.
Another fallout is that it will leave American foreign policy-makers non-plussed: how can they curry favour with newly minted democracies? What will they use as a fig-leaf for their hegemonic ambitions? George Bush wanted to export democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan and  attempted to rid the world of one despot and religious bigotry to do so. The first happened, the second may never. 
Now, Obama cannot use that excuse, because the people themselves have ensured that democracy happens, in so many countries key to America's interests in Arabia.

The next big theatre is Bahrain – which is almost a part of Saudi Arabia (they are linked by a causeway). The US 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, and thus US and Iranian interests are opposite. Like Iraq under Saddam, Bahrain has a majority Shia population, ruled by Sunnis. Iran, which is Shia majority and Shia-governed, clearly has strong incentive to support overthrow of the Bahraini Government, while Sunni-governed Saudi Arabia has very strong incentive to support it. Hence, we can expect a jittery Saudi ruling elite to crack down heavily and early on any incipient Shia protests in their own country. If they fail, and the contagion of rebellion affects Saudi Arabia too, with Iran ever ready to pour oil on troubled waters, and with the US looking to withdraw combat troops from Iraq in particular, and the Arab peninsula in general, the scenario looks very, very uncertain. 
We have seen how fast the contagion spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya. So Bahrain could be the starting point for a similar chain reaction East of the Suez. Thus, quite apart from Libya, the events in Bahrain promise to have strategic overtones that are far more ominous and high-stakes.

As an observer from far-away India, I have a mere academic interest, but I can say from this vantage point that the years 2008 to 2013 will be as world-changing as the years from 1945 to 1950. Democracy, political equations, and the balance of world economic power, will decisively shift. As far as I can see it, India will be a beneficiary because of relative political stability. If only we can cure ourselves of the corruption disease, we can race ahead in the global sweepstakes.

A Fantastic Article on the Tata Group

Very readable, very authentic, and (for once) fairly uncritical article in The Economist.on the Tata Group.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Have you tried Splashtop OS?

If you are afraid of installing or migrating to Linux, for whatever reason, here's an option that will warm the cockles of your heart. Here's a flavour of Linux that is easy to use (the browser is the OS) and easy to install (you download an executable like any Windows application, and reboot after execution - that's all. And it is available for download (approx 317 MB) from today! It does not override Windows, it simply is available as a choice at boot-up time, in case you are in a hurry to do something online; to get back to Windows, simply re-boot and choose Windows on boot-up.

Splashtop OS is a Linux kernel based OS that uses the Chromuim OS developed by the Open Source community with support from Google, and is an instant-on OS. It boots in less than a third of the time it takes for Windows (any flavour) takes. On solid-state disks, it claims to start up in 5 seconds flat! So no more World-wide-wait for Windows users.

Do let me know how SplashTop is. I think it is great. I have just now installed and run it on my home machine, and my first action was to write this blog entry.