Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The religious right should target the capitalist system rather than gays

America’s religious right is emotionally and culturally lost. As it sees it traditional mores and culture giving way to a new liberal culture that pays little attention to religious issues, it is trying to reverse the change, for example, by influencing the country’s choice for President.

It is also spawning a whole lot of groups on the lunatic fringe, people like the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas who picketed the funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Church claims God is punishing the U.S. because of its tolerance for gays, according to this report in CNN.

America and a lot of other cultures and countries have promoted unbridled capitalism and consumerism, often at the expense of traditional value systems. The breakdown of traditional culture and value systems is in a sense part of the grand design of capitalism to stress on integrated and homogenous markets for which it is more efficient to produce and more efficient to distribute. McDonald’s and its attempts at global homogenization has been the symbol of this attempt to neutralize cultural and yes religious differences in the interests of the markets.

This neutralization of local culture is being resisted in many countries, and often takes the form of anti-American sentiment. In America too, the religious right is now reacting to attempts of capitalist society to homogenize and control tastes, values and lifestyles. You may ask what do lifestyles and culture have to do with religion ? In the past, they have all moved together with religion, culture, and lifestyles influencing one another. You can’t neutralize or modify one, without pulling down the entire superstructure.

The religious right have made homosexuality and abortion rights their key issues. But they have conveniently avoided taking on the real cause of their problems – the breakdown of culture, religion, and values by mass consumerism, and the consequent anomie.

The fringes of the religious right are the real problem, as they are lunatic attempts to cope with the social and cultural anomie beget by modern consumerist society.

The religious right, which has typically voted Republican and in favor of the glorification of the current capitalist value system, has in a sense contributed to the social and cultural anomie in American society. They cannot blame homosexuals and abortionists for America’s problems. The devil is in the system – the capitalist system, and the value system it promotes to perpetuate its existence.

The religious right will probably look at these issues through their traditional demonology. They will probably say, “Hey, here is another self-serving homosexual”. I am not a homosexual. I believe that the religious right should put aside its witch-hunting of homosexuals and go after the big Satan – the system itself of which they are both the supporters and the victims.

Related articles:
God is dead, and I am not feeling too well myself

Monday, October 29, 2007

Media companies see the light with Hulu

Hulu, an online video service from two large media companies, News Corp. and General Electric's NBC Universal, started testing its service Monday. Using an advertising based business model, Hulu will have programming from a number of media companies including now shows from Sony Pictures Television and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

The move by these companies to move their programming online indicates the growing popularity of online video, as is evident from the success of Google Inc.’s YouTube. Besides adding a revenue stream for these companies, the programming online may also prove to be a promotional medium, providing users a sample of movies and other video that they could then buy on DVDs or view at the local theatre.

Along with Hulu's own site, the company said its videos would be available through partners such as America Online Inc., MSN and, although links for Hulu on these sites were not apparent at the time of writing, according to a report by Computerworld.

The companies involved are likely to ensure tight control over their copyrights on content, including discouraging download and distribution of their content. Leading Internet and media companies announced earlier this month a set of guidelines for user-generated content (UGC) services, without infringing copyrights.

Among the measures proposed is the implementation of filtering technology with the goal to eliminate infringing content on UGC services, including blocking infringing uploads before they are made available to the public.

Given that the high Internet bandwidth required for the services proposed by Hulu is not available even in some parts of the US, Hulu will likely be more popular for viewing short clips from movies, and other short content, rather than as an alternative to television, and other medium for watching TVs.

Related articles:

Media companies announce plans to protect copyright online

Why Turkey should not cross the border into Iraq

Turkey’s proposed invasion of Iraq to flush out terrorists could provide a dangerous precedent for other countries handling separatist terrorist movements.

Just as the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan to flush out the Taliban, who were protecting Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, it would at first blush appear reasonable that the Turkish army crosses the border into Iraq and flushes out terrorists from the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK) who are using Iraq as a base for terrorist attacks into Turkey.

The Turkish government is under pressure from its citizens to cross the border. The country has a significant Kurdish population, which by some estimates is as high as 20 percent. The PKK aims to establish a separate Kurdish state in a territory (traditionally referred to as Kurdistan) consisting of parts of southeastern Turkey, northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran.

The Turkish people find that the PKK is operating from within the Iraqi border, with neither the self-governing Iraqi Kurds or the government in Baghdad able to, or trying seriously enough, to stop them.

However, once this policy of invasion to settle scores with terrorists is established as acceptable, it could lead to a number of wars around the world, as countries invade other countries to chase terrorists hiding there.

India could, for example, build a case to attack and flush out Kashmir separatist terrorists who take refuge in Pakistan. In fact, India claims that its has evidence that the Pakistani intelligence agencies are involved in training Kashmiri terrorists, and other Islamic fundamentalists, who then cross the border into India to kill and maim.

Kurdish terrorists from Iran have also used Iraq as a base to attack Iranian positions. So Iran may also feel justified to attack Iraq from another frontier.

An attack by Turkey into Iraq, and the consequent political disruption, could also lead to the PKK, and its separatist agenda, winning popular support among Kurds living in various countries. It could disrupt US efforts to bring the Iraqi Kurds into the country’s political mainstream, as a lot of Kurds may now see a separate nationhood as an alternative. The Kurds are already close to it in Iraq, where they already enjoy considerable autonomy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

In India, lots of spending on poor quality

Over the weekend in Bangalore, I had promised my daughter I would take her to an up market store that sold a variety of breads with exotic names and ingredients ranging from olives to sunflower seeds.

On Saturday morning, we braved the maniacal traffic and went to this place, only to find that the breads were two or three days old. The cheese-and-garlic loaf, a favorite in our household, was three days old, according to the label. An employee graciously recommended the wheat bread that was only a day old.

Close by is a Chinese restaurant that serves Indo-Chinese food, a mix of Chinese flavors and a pungent Indian idiom. The “ drums of heaven” there are usually soggy, while their noodles can be very sticky.

But the bakery and the Chinese restaurant continue to attract customers by the droves. They stand in queues outside, something unthinkable say a decade ago when most of Bangalore eat home-cooked food. A number of restaurants, with claims to offer Thai, Spanish, Italian, Provencal, Egyptian and other varieties of cuisine have also sprouted across the city. The fare is in most cases indifferent, but that does not deter customers from queuing up and paying exorbitant prices.

That had me surprised until I recalled an old, but no less relevant it seems, concept in sociology. An eminent Indian sociologist, M.N. Srinivas, observed in his field studies among one some of the communities in India, that the castes positioned lower in the hierarchy tend to imitate and modify their culture to resemble that of the dominant caste in the locality. Srinivas called the phenomenon Sanskritization, as the values and culture that tend to get imitated by the new social upstarts were the Sanskrit, Brahmanical ones.

What does this have to do with the large number of crowded restaurants and malls in Bangalore ? A lot, I think. Unlike previous upstarts, who believed that assimilating Brahmin and Sanskrit culture, rituals, and customs was key to their social climbing, the new upstarts have in a strange twist decided on American culture as the dominant culture to be imitated and assimilated.

These days Indians have wine tasting parties, to refine their taste for something they never consumed earlier. You have chefs of five-start hotels and other, usually self styled gourmands, writing in the society pages of newspapers on the finer points of rare delicacies like caviar and truffles.

A lot of affluent Indians are turning their back to their own rich and ancient traditions in food, dressing, and other aspects of culture, to a new world of mainly American kitsch. They are getting there rudderless and without discernment, creating an opportunity for a new set of consultants and purveyors of culture, most of them parvenu. Add to them snooty restaurateurs and five-star chefs. If you find the pasta sticky, don’t complain to the chef. He is more likely to turn around and tell you, without batting an eyelid, that is how pasta is eaten by the Italians. Probably he is learning too.

Maybe this is a transitional phase, but these days in Bangalore, and most of urban India, good food is a rarity, particularly if the idiom is not Indian.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More recalls of China made toys

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)in the US has announced more recalls of products made in China, that violated lead paint standards. The products range from Halloween pails with Witch decorations from the Family Dollar Stores to toy gardening tools from Jo-Ann Stores Inc. of Hudson, Ohio, according to this listing on the CPSC website. Fisher-Price is also recalling 38,000 of its “Go Diego Go Animal Rescue Boats” on account of excessive lead in the paint.

The companies have variously offered to replace the faulty products or give customers a refund. Jo-Ann, for example, promises a full refund for the gardening tools at their stores.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, companies are acting very irresponsibly. Instead of ensuring without doubt that there isn’t lead above permissible levels in their products, they seem to believe that a product recall and free refund or replacement is a good enough measure.

The fact is that these lead contaminated products were in the hands of children, and there could have been irreversible damage to the children.

Recalls don’t make good corporate citizens. Prevention does, and in this regard companies were caught napping. Consumer patience may be running out.

Products from some of the companies like RC2 Corp. and Mattel Inc., who have announced product recalls because of excessive lead in their products, are also sold in countries outside the US, either directly by vendors or by independent importing companies.

These countries may not have a monitoring agency like the CPSC or the standards prescribed in the US. This does not however absolve vendors from the responsibility to ship non-hazardous products worldwide.

Related article:

RC2 Corp. recalls toys again, patience runs thin

George Bush to prove he is a leader

“You know Condi, folks question my leadership capabilities these days. Wish it was the World War II, and then like Winston Churchill I could flash a “V” sign that would get famous, and yes maybe I could even start smoking a cigar.”

“ Not to worry Mr. President. As you said the other day, if Iran has a nuclear bomb, we will certainly have World War III”.

“Can you remind me how that was to unfold ? The Iranians would nuke Israel, and then we would nuke Iran. But then Iran would stay nuked. Doubt I can have World War III”

“Or maybe you could nuke the Russians for not being as critical of Iran as we would have liked, and then they will nuke us ---- all the ingredients of WWIII Mr. President.”

“Gee, I just can’t wait for that, but how do we get Iran to make a nuclear bomb ? “

“ Maybe we should provoke them with more sanctions, call them names, blame them for everything that is going wrong for us, say they are supporting terrorists, promoting sodomy, punishing homosexuals etc etc.”

“Ok Condi, go ahead, call the media, and make the announcement. I’ll just pop along and pick up some Havanas. Wasn’t that what Churchill puffed on ?”

" Don’t buy too many. Don't forget we have sanctions on Cuba as well Mr. President."

An hour or so later, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made this statement:

"The Iranian government continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to a nuclear weapon; building dangerous ballistic missiles; supporting Shia militants in Iraq and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; and denying the existence of a fellow member of the United Nations, threatening to wipe Israel off the map," according to this report

Related articles:

After WMDs, Bush is now talking about WW III

In Afghanistan no end in sight…..

British prime minister Gordon Brown is calling on the international community to share the burden of the military campaign in Afghanistan, according to a report in the BBC.

"We cannot allow the Taleban to be back in control of such an important country. And the work that has been done in the last six years to build a democracy in Afghanistan is an important bulwark against terrorism everywhere in the world," Brown said, during a visit to Downing Street by Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Six years after the US and UK invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban regime that was providing sanctuary to the Al Qaeda, including its leader, Osama Bin Laden, the war in Afghanistan is far from over. The Taliban is having a revival of sorts, and the country has emerged as a major dealer of opium as drug cartels induce poor farmers, struggling for a livelihood, to take up illegal poppy cultivation. Some NATO countries have also deployed troops in the country.

The invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001 is generally regarded as a military intervention by the US and the UK that was morally justified. After the attacks by terrorists on the US on September 11, 2001, the attack on Afghanistan was seen as a collective act of self-defense, and backed by appropriate resolutions of the UN.

Sending soldiers and ordnance to Afghanistan can only be one part of an overall program to weed out the Taliban, and extend the influence of Karzai outside Kabul. Development funds have to reach the people and generate employment and long-term means of livelihood. However, rampant corruption, local war lords, and renewed fighting with the Taliban have proven to be a major obstacle in rehabilitating the masses of the country.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Much ado about a Jewish nose

Americans are so concerned about being politically correct, that they could be losing their sense of humor, their ability to laugh at themselves. For a country that prides on being a "melting pot" for various races, communities, and ethnic groups, race or community are surprisingly becoming touchy issues.

Actress Halle Berry has apologized for making a joke about the appearance of Jewish people, according to various reports, including this one from the BBC.

If you are wondering what Berry said that could be seen as an affront to the Jews, hold your breath ! She said during US chat show Tonight with Jay Leno that a distorted photo of herself with a huge nose made her look like her "Jewish cousin".

That was a poor joke, and it doesn’t make me laugh, but I don’t think any Jews in their right mind should have objected to it. A huge nose is not part of an offensive stereotype of the Jew. In fact a number of Jewish writers do refer to Jewish characters in their books as having long, and even beaky noses.

To be sure, some will argue that this is fuel to anti-Semitism. Unfortunately anti-Semites and all other types of racist people will co-opt anything into their stereotypes of the folks they are prejudiced against whether it is “slit-eyed” Chinese, or the Indian “brown skin”.

That does not change the fact that the Chinese have slit eyes and Indians have brown skins, and yes, Jews tend to have long noses. Nothing pejorative about it. It are the facts of life, and the earlier we are willing to laugh about it (if the joke is good), and take it in our stride, the better.

Mr. Bush, Cuba’s politics is none of your business !

US President George Bush’s commitment to promoting democracy worldwide has turned out to be no more than an opportunity for petty scoring of points with traditional foes.

Bush, with an eye to the Hispanic population of the US, is planning to issue a stern warning Wednesday that the United States will not accept a political transition in Cuba in which power changes from one Castro brother to another, rather than to the Cuban people, according to a report in the New York Times.

Bush will say that while much of the rest of Latin America has moved from dictatorship to democracy, Cuba continues to use repression and terror to control its people.

It is cynical that Bush is concerned about democracy and change in government in Cuba but not in Saudi Arabia, that he is concerned about suppression of democracy in Iran but not in Pakistan.

This selective concern about democracy makes a mockery of freedom and democracy, and attempts to manipulate it to serve the US’s pet peeves and geopolitical concerns.

It is embarrassing for us in the free world to find that the most vocal and often quoted advocate of democracy is a cheap trickster, who invokes people’s freedom only when it suits him, and his meddling in other affairs.

Bush is also violating principles of national sovereignty. What happens in Cuba is none of his business ! Cuba is a sovereign country, and the new government came to power in a revolution against the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista supported by the US.

Nor is the US record in promoting democracy in Latin America even-handed. The US used a variety of economic and political levers to replace the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile by that of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Bush should also put his own house in order, before positioning the US as a beacon and advocate of freedom and democracy. The torture of detainees by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the snooping on calls in the US, the growing impotence of Congress, and the emergence of an imperial presidency, do not speak well for US democracy. Probably the Castros and Bush have a lot in common after all.

Related articles:

US Congress a lame duck !
They torture prisoners in Myanmar, Iran, and yes the US

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Indian outsourcers have to head home

Indian outsourcing companies are facing shortages of good quality staff, particularly in the call centers and business process outsourcing businesses. The attrition rate in these two businesses can be as high as 50 percent, according to some reports.

Most staff are leaving to join other companies for better terms. But some staff are leaving because of burn-out, including the long commute time to and from work. Some others are women who leave their jobs to start a family. India’s traditional joint families, in which entire generations lived in one household, are falling apart in the cities, reducing the traditional support systems offered to new mothers.

Indian outsourcers could have access to more workers if they would allow more staff to work from home. Apart from young mothers, a lot of other categories of people, including freelancers and pensioners may be willing to join the workforce, if given the option to work from home.

In this way, the outsourcers would go a long way towards empowering a whole section of Indian society. They would also save on transporting staff to and from work, providing them meals in the campus cafeteria, and other perks employees have come to expect.

To be sure, customers will not take kindly to calls being taken from homes with the dog barking, the door bell ringing, or a child crying in the background. But once home workers see the opportunity they will make the adjustments necessary to ensure that the customer gets top quality service, undisturbed by any extraneous noises.

None of the suggestions outlined here are startlingly new. They have been tried extensively in the US and the UK. They are new in the Indian context, where surprisingly Indian and multinational services companies have been hesitant to move away from proven techniques and processes to exploring new sources of staff.

But there are still a lot of challenges going forward. Mothers and pensioners in India are less likely to own personal computers. Outsourcing companies use their computers over three staff shifts. Giving a computer to a single home worker would therefore lead to an underutilized asset. Probably companies can enter into an agreement with home workers whereby they take a computer on a bank loan, on assurance of business from the outsourcer. High quality telephone and VOIP (voice-over-Internet-protocol) links are available, and outsourcers can probably buy the capacity in bulk and distribute that out to the home workers.

The biggest sticking point is however likely to be data security, the fear that outside company monitored facilities, home workers could misuse confidential information such as credit card and social security numbers.

Companies are already masking at their facilities the data that could be used to compromise the customer. In many cases because of data security laws in their home countries, customers themselves are already filtering what information is available to a call center agent.

So outsourcing companies will probably have to rely less on physical monitoring using closed circuit TVs (CCTVs) and other technologies, and focus more on masking the data that is accessible to the home worker. There are also a lot of processes in business process outsourcing that do not require handling information that is confidential and liable to misuse.

Google’s power is exaggerated

In the old days, if you wanted to research a topic, or if you wanted to find out if a medicine is good for your kid, or if you wanted to buy a music system, you had to hop various locations ranging from a visit to the library, to a visit to the drug store for a long chat with a knowledgeable person there, to a visit to the local electronics store.

Along came Google Search and changed all that. I can research a topic, find out all the information available on a medicine, and comparison shop a music system, if I use Google. I need to have a lot of patience, as most of the results thrown up by Google Search are totally irrelevant to my immediate needs.

However intelligent Google may have made search, it is still only an algorithm fetching information from a whole variety of sources, based on the keywords I have typed.

With Google having the dominant share for search, it gives Google enormous power on how information, including commercial information, flows to the user. That is one of the reasons publishing houses are increasingly seeing Google as a competitor for advertising revenue. Rather than pay an online newspaper for an advertisement of their latest laptop, a vendor may be better off bidding for keywords that would ensure that their advertisement shows up whenever somebody does a search for “laptop”.

Does this mean that Google will be the ultimate arbiter of what a consumer buys ? I think that would be exaggerating Google’s role as a search engine. When I am searching the net using Google, all that Google throws up is a lot of text and links containing my keywords. Google Search cannot provide context. More importantly it cannot provide guidance.

Even as Google throws open the web to users looking for information, it also floods you with irrelevant information. What that means is that increasingly people will need gatekeepers who will sift the good stuff from the not-so-good, and the lousy.

Recognizing this opportunity there are a number of web sites and blogs that position themselves as buyer guides to everything from cameras to music systems, to automobiles to gardening gear. Not unexpectedly these sites have ads placed by Google on them, as well as ads from vendors.

So humongous is the web today, that we now need a new super-set of gatekeeper sites that will guide us through these various comparison shopping and peer review web-sites. How do I know whether a site is recommending a laptop from a particular brand, because that brand has long –term advertising contracts with the web site ? What do I know about the integrity or for that matter the maturity and qualifications of the reviewers ?

In the final analysis, it will be the well-known brands that will provide us our guide-posts. For laptops, for example, we are more likely to go to sites like or to make an informed choice.

Google Search, and those sponsored links Google puts on top and on the right hand side every time you search for a term, may however be relevant when folks are buying a product they already know well, a product with either a known brand or well-known specifications. Then people are only looking for the online vendor that can provide the product quickly and conveniently. If people are looking for anything more sophisticated than that, they will look for gatekeepers and editors to counsel and guide, a role Google Search is ill-equipped to play.

Google can also ill-afford to be partial on search results whether in general search or in news. If I am looking for the latest news on Iraq, and I can’t get it from some of the better known and popular newspapers after I do a Google search, I will head straight to their web sites. If I search for laptops, and the key vendors or the key buyer guides I know are not listed, again I will look at Google as unreliable, and head for the web sites of the vendors I know.

If Google wants to make money on search it has to continue giving reliable results, and not play gatekeeper. Google knows that is not its role.

Related articles:
Finding gold on the Net is a long shot
Will you buy potatoes on the Net ?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Now showing: Bin Laden on Al-Jazeera

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called on insurgents in Iraq to unite and avoid divisions in a new audiotape aired Monday on Al-Jazeera television, according to reports, including by the Associated Press.

The message, issued to commemorate the Eid, is part of a longer message that is expected to be released through the internet shortly, said anti-terrorism experts Laura Mansfield on their site.

Today's audiotaped message, released through Al Jazeera, was directed specifically to the "mujahideen" of Iraq. The message calls for them to unite and join forces, and avoid sectarian fighting within the jihadist groups, Laura Mansfield added.

"Some of you have been lax in one duty, which is to unite your ranks," bin Laden said in the audiotape. "Beware of division ... The Muslim world is waiting for you to gather under one banner."

The authenticity of the tape could not be immediately confirmed, but the voice resembled that of bin Laden in previous messages. Al-Jazeera did not say how it obtained the tape, according to the Associated Press.

Bin Laden’s last message was a threat to President Musharraf of Pakistan. Ahead of the commemoration of 9/11, Al Qaeda distributed a video appeal to Christians to convert to Islam, attempting to point similarities between the two faiths.

In his new avatar, Laden did not directly threaten the American people, instead focusing on convincing his listeners that they and the Muslims were on the same side, all victims of the capitalist system.

The US has claimed that it has been able to win over the Sunni opposition to Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia in Iraq. Bin Laden is probably referring to this split in his speech, or to divisions in the ranks of the Al Qaeda itself.

The frequency of communications by Bin Laden does however raise doubts that he may be losing his touch. He is beginning to come across as a fading film star, refusing to let the curtain come down on his act.

If he wanted to unite insurgents in Iraq, he had access to other means, besides a televised audiotape. Splits in any movement are kept a closely guarded secret, more so in a terrorist outfit. Bin Laden is either losing his hold on Al Qaeda, and is trying to prove otherwise by these communications, or is trying to distract attention from something more sinister he and Al Qaeda are planning.

Related article:
Osama Bin Laden's seductive new avatar

Sunday, October 21, 2007

After WMDs , Bush is now talking about WW III

“It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success,” said Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda from 1933 to 1945.

The latest we hear from Washington is that the President of the US, the largest superpower, is running scared that Iran will trigger of World War III.

The plot, as hinted by President George Bush, is that Iran, armed with a nuclear bomb, will attack Israel, which by the official line is unarmed and without nuclear capability. By some strange logic known only to Bush, the attack by Iran will spark off WW III.

The corollary to this twisted logic is that of course the US and/or Israel should preempt Iran by attacking the country, or destroying its nuclear capability.

Bush, at a news conference on Wednesday, said, "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

"The President was not making any war plans, and he wasn't making any declarations," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino quickly clarified Thursday. "He was making a point, and the point is that we do not believe - and neither does the international community believe - that Iran should be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons."

Like in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the world was mislead into believing that Saddam Hussein had terrible weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Bush and his coterie now intend to convince Americans and the world at large that the best way to protect the world from WW III is by attacking Iran, because one never knows when they will cross the threshold and make a bomb.

Bush’s theory of a belligerent and nuclear-armed Iran potentially leading to WW III is disingenuous and unintelligent. For one, Iran does not have a nuclear bomb. Also, self preservation would ensure that Iran will not use a bomb against Israel or any other country. The country knows it would be pounded by the nations of the free world, including the conventional and nuclear military power of the US.

Iran it looks like is going to get pounded in any case. The battle plans, it appears, are being drawn, and Bush and co. are just building up the hysteria preparatory to an attack, an attack that would unleash death on a whole lot of people in Iran, and spark off a backlash of Shia terrorism. Like in Iraq, George Bush is opening a Pandora’s box, and the whole world will suffer from it.

Unfortunately, what the public of the world think about the current administration’s actions matter little to Bush and coterie. We saw it in the case of Iraq when the US and allies occupied Iraq without a supporting resolution from the UN. This time too it is unlikely the Iran adventure will clear the vetoes of the Russians and the Chinese.

What is more surprising is that the opinion of the country’s people and its Congress seems to matter even less to the US president. As pointed out in my previous posts, by voting on partisan lines, rather than as statesmen and elected representatives of the people, Congress has rendered itself impotent as a countervailing force against a Presidency that seems very much out of control.

In search of an agenda, the Republicans are taking shelter behind Bush’s presidency. The Democrats have stolen the thunder from the Republicans on the Iraq war, on tax policy, and on welfare and other benefits aimed at revitalizing America’s middle class.

If the Republicans in Congress do not distance themselves from Bush now, Iran will be another millstone Bush will have passed on to the Republicans to shoulder.

Related articles:

US Congress a lame duck !
They torture prisoners in Myanmar, Iran, and yes the US

Saturday, October 20, 2007

God is dead, and I am not feeling too well myself

Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, as the religious pie-in-the-sky came in the way of the proletariat realizing their revolutionary potential. A new school of thought, and a rash of books have emerged over the last one year, that are clearly anti-religion and atheistic, and put the blame for society’s ailments entirely on religious beliefs.

Religion is a delusion, according to these writers, including Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, and is responsible for the fundamentalism and divisions in today’s world. In contrast the scientific method, applied thoroughly, will usher in a brave new world.

There is an element of déjà vu to these new theories. This time over however the new wave of secular, nay atheistic writings, are a reaction to the mayhem and violence that the world is seeing in the name of religion.

One thing is clear is that despite Hume, the empiricists and the logical positivists, religion continues to thrive. By dismissing ethical statements as mere ejaculations, and religious statements as meaningless sentences, philosophy restricted its area of activity to being the handmaiden of science, providing the logical framework for science, without answering the questions about eternal truths that was the primal impetus for philosophy.

Logical positivists like A.J. Ayer disenchanted the world, and killed God by dismissing any questions about the supernatural as meaningless.

I remember how dogmatically the logical positivists clung on to this circumscribed version of truth. When I asked my philosophy professor, a logical positivist, what one makes of my own consciousness, which is not empirically verifiable, he turned around to me and said that consciousness had no place in philosophy. When I insisted that I was conscious when I spoke to him, and could not hence exclude consciousness out of the discussion, he promptly chided me for picking up my knowledge from “popular magazines” like the Reader’s Digest. The discussion was closed as far as the professor was concerned.

Not unexpectedly, logical positivism had taken philosophy into a sterility. If the positivists had decided that questions about God were meaningless sentences, other schools of philosophy decided that logical debate on God was impossible. Some of the existentialists like Sartre went along with the disenchantment of the world, and built a philosophy around the meaningless and emptiness of life. Taking a leaf from Søren Kierkegaard before them, other thinkers attempted to restore subjectivity into philosophical discourse, and the “leap of faith” into understanding God. God was in the realm of subjectivity, and so was morality.

Demolishing God and religion has serious consequences on social and cultural life. It makes ethics and morality relative --- my expression of likes and dislikes is as good as the next person’s. If there is no agreed moral truth, we cannot reason together. All truth becomes subjective or relative, no more than a construction.

Enforcement of morality becomes even more tenuous, without the fear of God. Many will argue that despite the Holocaust, and other cruelty against humanity, that man is naturally moral, and does not need the Bible or other religious books to guide him on what is right or wrong. Maybe, but the historical evidence ensures that the jury is still out on this issue.

As dangerous as moral relativism would be the breakdown of organized religion. For all its faults, organized religion provides the basis for community, shared experience, shared values. The breakdown of religion, approved by the neo-atheists, in fact leads to attempts to re-enchant the world through new religious cults that focus more on subjectivity than on community, more on a personal morality, than social morality.

The proclamation of the death of God, or the need to get him out of the picture is not new, but its revival at this juncture in history is positively dangeorus. In a world that is already divided by nationalities, ethnicity, language, and a whole host of other factors including the fringe elements of organized religion, the disenchantment of the world can only lead to nihilism of catastrophic proportions.

Related story:
When atheists and secularists want to play God

Friday, October 19, 2007

In Pakistan, a spectacle turns to gore

Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming was designed to be a spectacle, a show of strength. The former prime minister boasted to an Indian television channel, NDTV, before her departure to Pakistan that she would meet with a groundswell of popular support in her country.

In organizing a spectacle of this scale, with over 200,000 people accompanying her motorcade from the airport in Karachi, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) however took tremendous risks.

A crowd of that size was sure to be unmanageable, and a huge security risk -- a point not missed by the suicide bombers who attacked her convoy killing more than 125, and injuring more than 150.

The recrimination has now begun. Bhutto’s supporters say that the government did not provide adequate security to the procession. There are also dark hints that the Pakistani police and intelligence may have been involved in the attack.

Much is also being made of the radicalization of Pakistan, of the proliferation of Islamic fundamentalism. These arguments will surely buttress President Pervez Musharraf’s bid to stay in power, and will also ensure that Ms. Bhutto, regarded as pro-West by sections of the US and European media, will be regarded as the best hope of the US and the West to lead a transition to a democratic, pro-Western government in Pakistan.

That a bunch of terrorists were able to attack Bhutto’s procession is not an indication of widespread support for Islamic terrorists in Pakistan. It may be just that Bhutto’s temptation to make an impact on her first day in Pakistan created a security risk, an opportunity for the terrorists to fulfill their murderous mission.

It is difficult to put the blame at this point on the security provided by the government. When there are over 200,000 people shouting and yelling and jumping around in jubilation , management of these crowds can be a nightmare for security forces, and it is easy for a terrorist to infiltrate the crowds. At a press conference on Friday, Bhutto said she had been warned of terrorist attacks, with very specific information.

In a cynical sort of a way the terrorists have made a “martyr” of sorts of Bhutto, while embarrassing Musharraf.

This is not to say that radical Islam is not getting popular in Pakistan. It will in fact get worse, if a transition to democracy does not happen soon enough. If the US insists on maneuvering a pro-West government in Pakistan, over the heads of Bhutto’s opponents like Nawaz Sharif, it risks once again antagonizing large sections of Pakistanis. The US has to realize that it does not need pro-West government to fight Islamic fundamentalism. It needs democratically elected governments.

Related article:

Can Musharraf ride the tigress ?

The Indo-US nuclear deal was flawed from the start

India’s communists are these days being blamed for the failure of the implementation or “operationalizing” of the 123 Agreement that would give India access to nuclear fuel and reactor technology for civilian applications.

First, the positive side of the agreement. Although India is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under the 123 Agreement it would get access to nuclear fuel for civilian reactors, even as it maintain a nuclear arsenal. There is a section of opinion that believes that the NPT itself is iniquitous as it perpetuates the dominance in the nuclear weapons area of countries that tested nuclear weapons before 1967.

India’s communists typically see only through ideological blinkers. They never look for the broad picture.. They stood by former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, as she trampled political rights and imposed an emergency in the country in 1975, raising the bogey of communal forces. The communists now have a knee-jerk reflex to anything proposed by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which draws a considerable part of its support from Hindu fundamentalists.

This time over, the Congress, triggered a knee-jerk reflex, by trying to do a nuclear deal with the Americans. Through the communist blinkers, the Americans can only appear as “imperialists”.

However if we keep ideological issues out of the debate, there are still reasons for concern about the impact on India’s sovereignty from signing the 123 Agreement. Yes I am referring to the “United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act” of 2006, which in fact forms the legal framework for the proposed 123 agreement. The Act by the US was devised to exempt a nuclear cooperation agreement with India from certain requirements of the Atomic Energy of 1954.

The Act does not however entirely protect India’s right to take decisions on its own on its non-civil nuclear program. It states for example that “a determination and any waiver under section 104 shall cease to be effective if the (US) President determines that India has detonated a nuclear explosive device after the date of the enactment of this title”. Click here for the text of the Act.

What this provision in the Act means is that all the waivers extended to India could disappear at one go if India tests a nuclear device. It does not require the US to prove that fuel or technology meant for India’s civilian program was diverted to the country’s military program.

If there are doubts as to how the situation will unfold if India detonates a nuclear device, then one has to look to the 123 Agreement for the details. Click here for the text of the proposed 123 Agreement

At Article 14 of the proposed 123 Agreement, it says that “Either Party shall have the right to terminate this Agreement prior to its expiration on one year's written notice to the other Party.” So if India detonates a nuclear device, under the “United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act” of 2006, the US can, among other actions, immediately withdraw its waiver to India, and call for a termination of the 123 Agreement

“Following the cessation of cooperation under this Agreement, either Party shall have the right to require the return by the other Party of any nuclear material, equipment, non-nuclear material or components transferred under this Agreement and any special fissionable material produced through their use”, according to the 123 Agreement.

That would leave India’s civilian nuclear program starved for fuel. There have been hints that the US would in such a situation come to India’s rescue, by arranging for alternate supply from third countries.

But a country’s civilian nuclear program cannot be built on vague promises of good-will. If 123 Agreement is to go forward, the US will have to incorporate into the proposed agreement a clause stating that notwithstanding anything in earlier agreements and Acts of the US government, the supply of fuel from the US to India will not be affected by any developments in India’s military nuclear program.

By insisting that all is alright with the deal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may be doing a dis-service to India.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Media companies announce plans to protect copyright online

Leading Internet and media companies announced Thursday a set of guidelines for user-generated content (UGC) services, without infringing copyrights.

Among the measures proposed is the implementation of filtering technology with the goal to eliminate infringing content on UGC services, including blocking infringing uploads before they are made available to the public.

The companies supporting these principles include CBS Corp., Dailymotion, Fox Entertainment Group, Microsoft Corp., MySpace, NBC Universal, Veoh Networks Inc., Viacom Inc. and The Walt Disney Company, according to statements issued by these companies.

The ease of uploading video content on the Internet has led to the creation of millions of original works by new creators – works that range from scripted programs, to virtuoso musical performances and to humorous skits and social parody, the companies said. It also has resulted in the proliferation of uploaded content that infringes copyrighted works, they warned.

For details of the new content identification and filtering program advocated by these media and Internet companies click this link.

Interestingly the companies say that they are willing to accommodate fair use of copyrighted content. For example, when sending notices and making claims of infringement, copyright owners should accommodate fair use, according to the new principles. Fair use has however not been defined in the principles.

Google Inc., which runs the popular YouTube video sharing site is not a participating member of this program. Google and YouTube are facing a number of copyright-infringement legal suits, including a US$1 billion action filed by Viacom Inc. The company however unveiled on Tuesday content filtering technology, called Video Identification. The technology does not yet allow the blocking of copyrighted content from being uploaded, according to reports.

Google may have to go along with the Internet and media companies, as it has always said that it would like to protect copyrights.

Putting controls on copyrighted content, while allowing for a liberal interpretation of fair use would ensure that YouTube and other such sites continue to be tools for innovation and creativity.

Related article:

The Internet helps RIAA squeeze profits

US Congress a lame duck !

Three of the largest US telephone companies declined to answer questions from the US Congress about President George Bush’s administration’s efforts to spy on Americans' phone calls and e- mails, saying the government forbade them from doing so, according to a report in Bloomberg.

What that means is the in the US today the President, and agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can do what they want to undermine democracy, including undermine Congress, which by the way also consists of elected representatives of the people.

This is not the first time that information about the executive branches of the government has been refused to Congress.

Verizon and Qwest said the Justice Department prohibited them from offering any substantive comment on their roles in the spy program. AT&T said Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell invoked the state-secrets privilege to prevent the carrier from commenting, according to the report in Bloomberg.

Whether it is phone tapping or alleged torture of detainees by the CIA, the Congress seems to be almost always the last to know. Even when Congress has demanded information, the administration has procrastinated. And yet Congress votes typically along party lines, when Congress as a whole, as an entity has been belittled.

Earlier this month, the New York Times revealed the use of torture on prisoners by the CIA. The interrogation techniques endorsed by a 2005 Justice Department memo were some of the harshest ever used by the CIA, according to the New York Times. They included head-slapping, exposure to freezing temperatures and simulated drowning, known as water-boarding.

As shocking as the revelations, were the reactions from the elected representatives on Capitol Hill who knew nothing about what was going on.

“I find it unfathomable that the committee tasked with oversight of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program would be provided more information by The New York Times than by the Department of Justice,” Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to the acting attorney general, Peter D. Keisler, asking for copies of all opinions on interrogation since 2004, the New York Times said.

With centralization of power in the President and the executive of the government, democracy has been reduced in the US to a once in four years charade when the people elect their President, and surrender control of their lives to the person elected. Congress has become impotent.

More frightening is that in the name of fighting terror, the President of the US and his officials in government have consolidated, nay arrogated power, by a series of laws and regulations, including laws on surveillance of people, and a domestic spying program. Some of these rules, particularly the secrecy rules, have even deprived Congress of the right to know what is happening.

Make way for an imperial presidency and a lameduck Congress.

Related article:

They torture prisoners in Myanmar, Iran, and yes the US

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Can Musharraf ride the tigress ?

Benazir Bhutto is scheduled to return to Pakistan on Thursday, with a wink and a nod from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and some say the Americans too.

Bhutto, a former prime minister of the country, will be received by hundreds of thousands of supporters who are gathering in the port city of Karachi to greet her, when she returns, after eight years of self-imposed exile, according to a report in The Times.

The former prime minister return to Pakistan is in sharp contrast to that of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose return to Pakistan last month was marked by arrests and lathi-charge of his supporters. Sharif was immediately deported to Saudi Arabia after the Pakistan government claimed that Sharif had signed an agreement to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years.

In contrast, the Government has deployed 3,500 soldiers and as many as 8,000 policemen are on duty to protect Benazir’s route from the airport to a rally near the tomb of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah tomorrow, according to The Times. A shipping container strengthened with bullet-proof glass was being prepared to take her through Karachi, it added.

Musharraf’s government has already passed an ordinance granting amnesty to her and other politicians on charges of corruption. That amnesty has been challenged in court. Musharraf’s own election as President earlier this month has not been declared officially, pending the disposal by the Supreme Court of petitions challenging the President standing for elections while in uniform. Musharraf has promised he will quit as army chief if he retains the post of President, and has already nominated his successor.

Into this chaos steps in Bhutto, attempting to claim the mantle of the democratic movement. Musharraf needs her to give his government legitimacy, and also to help him counter a tide of popular disaffection against his government. That will be particularly important when a new Parliament is elected.

Bhutto will in turn demand an amendment to rules prohibiting her from standing for a third term as prime minister. She will also demand more powers to the prime minister, including amendments to the constitution that prevent the President from dissolving Parliament.

On the face of it a superb deal, brokered by the US. The Americans get to keep Musharraf, an ally in the US war against terror, as President, while using Bhutto as a safety valve for democratic forces.

Benazir pledges to fight to restore democracy in Pakistan. In an interview to NDTV, an Indian TV channel, she however declined to commit herself on the return of Sharif to Pakistan, saying it involved a friendly country, Saudi Arabia. With Sharif out of the way, Bhutto evidently aims to fashion democracy in her own way in Pakistan.

Where will Musharraf figure in the new dispensation ? He suits Bhutto well to help remove the obstacles in her way, in return for his political legitimacy.

But Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) can hardly afford to be seen to be too close to the President who is unpopular in Pakistan after years of his rule as head of the army and the government.

Bhutto is hence likely to push for an early election, reduction of the President’s power, and a third term for herself as Prime Minister. Her agenda will however be served only if she can keep the army in the barracks.

Related articles:

In Pakistan, Bhutto gives in to Musharraf ?

Will you buy potatoes on the Net ?

Once again we are hearing rumblings that online sales are killing brick-and-mortar sales. That story, if you remember, fueled the dotcom boom, which busted soon after.

Now many years later, people are more net savvy, there is a lot of stuff folks can buy online, but for a variety of reasons including technical and cultural, it may be again premature to talk about the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar store.

Movie Gallery Inc., the second-largest U.S. video-rental chain, sought bankruptcy protection from creditors, citing increased competition from Blockbuster Inc. and Netflix Inc., according to a report from Bloomberg.

The point here is that Movie Gallery may have lost out to guys like Netflix, which save you the walk to a Movie Gallery store by letting you select online from a large repertoire. But the delivery of the DVDs is still done offline to the customer. So it is not a case of a brick-and-mortar play losing out to a pure online play.

A pure online play offering high quality, low-cost video downloads alone may not be as successful as Netflix, because that assumes large Internet bandwidth pipes to the home, which are not there yet across the US, and less so around the world.

In music too, don’t expect online music to wipe out the CD business. It is true that online music stores provide access to a much larger repertoire than a large brick-and mortar store can ever offer. But after the first flush of excitement over quick gratification, folks are going to take a long hard look at sound quality.

They will not only look at encoding bit rates, but at the encoding formats for downloaded music. These formats like MP3 are lossy, because to make files sizes smaller and manageable, they lop out a lot of music information that you would ordinarily find on CDs.

A lot of folks may go back to buying CDs if only because they offer better sound quality. A not-so-fringe benefit is that currently most CDs are not covered by DRM (digital rights management). I got back a week ago to buying CDs, after a downloading frenzy. The downloaded MP3 files were okay on a portable digital music player like an iPod, but the lossy character of the format really showed when the file was played on a home music system.

Finally, would folks buy potatoes and other groceries on the Net ?

I doubt it. Not a lot of folks buy vegetables without feeling them for solidity, consistency, and to spot out for those pernicious insects that tend to get to vegetables. They would rather go to the nearby store, or call up the store that has delivered reliably, quickly, and top quality stuff over the years. What is the buyer’s incentive to shift to buying online ?

Would folks buy art online, after taking a look at digitized images of a painting or sculpture ? Would die-hard shoppers give up the real-world shopping experience for clicks on a computer ?

Some categories like packed and branded products, we have bought and tried before, will most probably be purchased online. Coke cans for example, but certainly not designer wear, or furniture. Well known books by authors with impeccable credentials may be bought online if the store nearby does not stock it. Most people would still like to flick through the pages of a new book before they buy it.

Some of the conditions that proved the prophets of the online retail (etail) boom wrong in the late 1990s still hold good.

Related articles:
Radiohead: unwitting players in an imaginary revolution
Finding gold on the Net is a long shot

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Armenian genocide vote losing to cynical calculations

It was a grand and appropriate gesture, befitting statesmen, by the US House of Representatives to officially dub the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as “genocide”. The US need not have made the first move on this, but it did it in line with its assumed role as a global leader, as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, reality hit the House representatives, real hard. It is not the truth that prevails, even if it is a genocide. Usually it are the hard, cynical ground realities that win.

Turkey understood that well when it warned the US that its special relationship with Turkey was at stake if the resolution was passed. That would mean loss of Turkish logistical support for the US war in Iraq. That could also mean that Turkey would go ahead, despite pleas for restraint from the US, and invade Iraq to flush out its Kurd rebels.

Worried about antagonizing Turkish leaders, House members from both parties have begun to withdraw their support from a resolution backed by the Democratic leadership that would condemn as genocide the mass killings of Armenians nearly a century ago, reports The New York Times.

Earlier President George Bush had asked the House to reconsider passing the resolution, because of its repercussions on relations with Turkey.

A brave effort by the House seems now doomed. Bush seems to understand global realities and play them better than the House representatives. The US does not have the moral leadership of the world, nor should it try to adopt that posture.

In the months to come, the US will bluff and bluster, rant at Russian and Iran, say it is promoting democracy, justice and freedom around the world. But as the folks in the White House already know, this is only propaganda. The folks in the House were naïve enough to take it seriously, and tried to be genuine promoters of good causes around the world.

Turkey has promised to turn over documents and support a conference to determine whether there was a genocide of Armenians. That conference would take years to convene, and maybe years to arrive at any conclusion. But it may now provide the House of Representatives a fig-leaf of an excuse to get out of the embarrassment their idealism got them into.

Related articles:
The Armenian genocide, and Turkish denials

Radiohead: unwitting players in an imaginary revolution

When Radiohead announced that it would allow downloads of its new In Rainbow album, fans and the media talked about a revolution in the music industry. Not only was the band by-passing the music labels, and offering its music directly to users, but it was offering the music for download in MP3 format at a price chosen by the user.

This move certainly appealed to the residual hippie in all of us, and also cheered up a lot of folks who have been chafing under DRM (digital rights management), and hoping for a revolution in the music industry.

It turns out that the downloads came at a sound quality that was not optimum, as it was encoded at a bit rate of 160 kbps (kilobits per second), according to a report in USA Today.

Contrary to earlier reports, the downloads were only promotional, and the CDs of In Rainbow, with top quality sound, will be on the shelves in January, according to the report. In fact, when I visited last week, there was an option to pre-order for £40 a discbox.

In an interview to MusicWeek, the band’s managers Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge described the downloads as a mere “promotional tool”.

Far from being enthusiastic about digital downloads, both managers strongly favour the compact disc as a format of superior quality, according to MusicWeek. “CDs are a fantastic bit of kit,” Edge told MusicWeek. “You can’t listen to a Radiohead record on MP3 and hear the detail; it’s impossible.” Edge recommends labels get aggressive about promoting CD, according to MusicWeek.

The interview in MusicWeek was published October 8, ahead of October 10 when the downloads were available. It is hence tought to justify that Radiohead ot its managers did a con job. It is just that these days users and the media are hoping for a revolution in the music industry, to the point of imagining and contriving one.

This week there was again widespread coverage on Led Zeppelin offering their music for the first time online next month.

To my mind nothing earthshaking about that. Like the music labels, the British rock group is exploring alternative channels as CD sales have been flagging. Don’t look for revolutionary meanings between the lines ! This is a plain business decision. "The addition of the digital option will better enable fans to obtain our music in whichever manner that they prefer," guitarist Jimmy Page said Monday, according to this report.

Related articles:

The Internet helps RIAA squeeze profits
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Russia reacts to American unilateralism

The end of the Cold War was one of the best things that happened to the US. No longer deterred by a belligerent Soviet Union, the US seized the opportunity to consolidate its position worldwide as a global policeman, deciding which countries should go into an international blacklist, and even occupying Iraq without an UN resolution enabling the attack.

The US is even now reported to be planning an attack on Iran, because Iran is allegedly developing nuclear weapons, and it is supporting rebels within Iraq.

Now Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has come out strongly against the US view of the world. During a visit to Iran, Putin said force should not be used in the Caspian region, which includes Iran, and countries in the region should not be used as a base for attack on another country in the Caspian.

Last week he told reporters, “We have no objective evidence to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans", thus putting him directly in opposition to the US.

This is not the first time that Russia has indicated it will not go along supinely with the US.

"We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state's legal system," he told a conference in Munich on security policy in February, at which US secretary of defense, Robert Gates was in attendance, according to a report in The Guardian.

The US government has typically reacted to Putin with its sanctimonious holier-than-thou attitude, including castigating Russia for the breakdown of democracy and freedom in Russia.

Which all adds up to US arm-twisting the world to coming around to its view of the world on all issues. Russia has already indicated it will not go along with that.

It is not yet clear what Russia will do if the US does attack Iran.

But recent moves by Putin, including his visit to Iran, suggest that Russian wants to play a bigger role in the world, if only to counter American unilateralism. That will also make Putin very popular in Russia which has historically reacted strongly to political slights.

Putin also recognizes that to have and keep friends around the world it has to deliver on its friendship – stand by them through thick and thin. Else Russia will be reduced to a cipher in global politics.

Related articles:

Iraq – a war that need not have happened ?
Why the US should stay in Iraq

Google says don’t shoot the messenger

Google Inc. is agitated that the Indian government may retain a provision in its Information Technology Act., that makes intermediaries such as ISPs (Internet Service Providers), website hosting companies, search engines, email services, social networks liable for illegal user content. See here the comments from a policy analyst at Google India.

Google has reasons to be worried about “intermediary liability”. Recently a cantankerous political party in Mumbai, called the Shiv Sena, demanded that Google’s social networking site, Orkut, should be banned in India, and prosecuted, after some users posted content considered defamatory of the party’s leader.

There is a precedent of sorts for that. In 2004, Avnish Bajaj, the then CEO of eBay’s Indian subsidiary was arrested in connection with the sale of a pornographic video clip on the online auction portal. Bajaj was arrested under the provisions of the Information Technology Act relating to intermediary liability.

I agree that intermediaries should not be held responsible for illegal content. Google’s policy analyst, Rishi Jaitly, says a telephone company is not held responsible if two people use a telephone call to plan a crime.

The argument about the telephone is specious and does not recognize that the times have changed. The content of a phone call between two housewives slandering somebody remains between the two, or if it spreads it will be a few persons at a time.

In contrast, because of the viral nature of content on the Internet, if somebody takes a young girl’s naked picture, using a spy camera, or he takes her face shot and adds someone else’s naked body to it, that picture will be all over the world in seconds.

By the time the aggrieved person discovers that it has happened, and reports it to Google, and then Google goes through its internal procedures to decide whether the content should be brought down or not, that picture will be all over the Internet, and the young lady’s honor and privacy in shambles.

Folks like Google and other Internet service providers have been pushing social networking and online communities without coming up with appropriate ways to counter misuse of these large-scale communication platforms. “It would be technologically infeasible for ISPs and web companies to pre-screen each and every bit of content being uploaded onto our platforms, especially as the amount of information coming online increases exponentially in India and around the world,” says the Google policy analyst.

Fair enough, but what this means is that technology innovation and new applications like social networking, touted as part of the brave new Web 2.0, have thrown up new problems. Like Google and a lot of other people, Indian Parliament's Standing Committee on Information Technology is also fumbling in search of a solution. Don’t blame them. Work with them, because as government they are more concerned about the individual. Perhaps the government worries that if intermediaries are not at all held liable for content, they may be more inclined to turn a blind eye to such content.

Instead Google decides to harangue the government with its self-serving view on Internet freedom and economic development. “More importantly, imposing such a burdensome standard (of intermediary liability) would crush innovation, throttle Indian competitiveness, and prevent entrepreneurs from deploying new services in the first place, a truly unfortunate outcome for the growth of the Internet in India,” says the Google policy analyst.

Internet growth is not the topmost priority for all people. More important to most of them is protecting their modesty and privacy, and that of their children.

Related article:

Internet reflects, nay amplifies social problems

Monday, October 15, 2007

AOL: business is fine, but sorry you are sacked

The pink slips are flying at AOL as the company tries to make a transition from a subscription-based ISP (Internet Service Provider) to an advertisement supported portal company.

Over the next couple of months, AOL will lay off 2,000 people out of a worldwide workforce of 10,000, according to a letter to company employees sent by CEO Randy Falco today, said a report in The Washington Post. These staff reductions begin Tuesday.

In a mail to AOL employees, Falco said, “Importantly, we're taking the business global. We're extending AOL's reach into seven new countries this year while globalizing our product development efforts. By the end of next year, AOL will have a presence in 30 countries. That's a remarkable achievement in a relatively short period of time”.

For all his self congratulation, Falco by expanding into other markets may be over-committing AOL, taking it further down the tube. Outside the US, AOL does not have a strong brand or the stickiness that a portal requires. In the US, a lot of users still swear by AIM, AOL’s Instant Messenger, and some use its email service too.

But in most other countries, instant messengers and email services from Yahoo Inc., MSN, and Google Inc. already have a head start. These are the applications that generally bring users to a portal.

Unless AOL comes up with a new killer application, there isn’t a way they can dislodge the current players in each market. Many countries have their own very strong local players. has a traffic rank of 51 to’s first place, according to traffic rankings from Alexa Internet Inc.

Media, analysts love to knock down Indian outsourcers

It is probably got to do with the success of the Indian outsourcing industry, or can be perhaps put down to an unconscious resentment that the Indians are close to challenging big global services companies. Or maybe they are just plain lousy in their forecasts.

The fact is that a story about Indian outsourcers going down the tube, or almost down the tube, sells.

It started with stray incidents of data theft in Indian call centers. Adopting a shocked and sanctimonious stand, the media and analysts tried to embarrass not only the outsourcer affected by the data leak, but the entire Indian industry. The media quite forgot that there are more incidents of data theft in call centers in the UK and in the US. Reporting on data theft got less popular after an exasperated Nasscom lay bare these comparative figures on data theft.

Perhaps to be fair to the media and analysts, it was only goading India to do better. After strong measures by Nasscom, a local trade body which believes that India should raise the global bar on best practices, there haven’t been incidents of data theft reported in recent months from India.

As India got successful, and not only Indian outsourcers but multinational technology companies like Dell Inc., Intel Corp., SAP A.G., and Oracle Corp. started expanding their operations in India, the prophets of doom started forecasting over two years ago that Indian workers were getting too expensive, were getting too difficult to hire. The upshot: India was going to lose its competitive edge to China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

They miscalculated on a number of counts. Yes, Indian engineers and other workers were getting a little expensive, but where else do you find such a vast talent pool to set up development centers or call centers with thousands of staff ? Even if Indian staff is getting expensive, the quality still seems to be in the favor of the Indians, else it gets tough to explain the continued expansion in India by multinational companies.

The proverbial last straw for the Indian outsourcer was said to be the weakening of the dollar. Indian outsourcers were expanding outside India because the strong Rupee was killing them. Once again it was overlooked that setting up some near-shore centers to Europe and the US would not dramatically change the economics for Indian outsourcers, but were only designed to improve customer comfort-levels with the outsourcer.

Instead dramatic cost-cutting, which Indian outsourcers are good at with their process focus, seems to have done the trick.

Less than a week after Infosys Technologies Ltd., said it had improved its margins despite the weaker dollar, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. on Monday said that it had got around the currency impact by hedging and cost cutting. TCS’ revenue and profits grew 45 percent in the quarter ended September 30.

Wonder what the pundits will come up with next ?

Related articles:

Indian outsourcers not yet hit by weak dollar
Indian outsourcers not floundering, not migrating

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Universal Music short on ideas to take on iTunes

Universal Music has plans to allow vendors of digital music players to bundle unlimited downloads of its music for free to users, according to a report in BusinessWeek.

Universal will make its money by charging the device makers for the monthly subscriptions to the music. Makers of music players and mobile phones may then have a decent chance to overthrow iPod’s dominance of the digital music player market, as they can package downloads from Universal’s vast inventory of titles, as well as potentially from Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, the report suggests.

But the deal is not likely to be a threat to the iPod any time soon. I doubt users are going to buy a second tier device just for the free music, even if it is “all you can eat”. Music fans want the entire experience – that is a good player with excellent music.

Currently the iPod is perceived to be the best player, and a strong iconic brand as well. Users have put up with a lot of crap from Apple Inc., including its various proprietary locks, but that is because they love the iPod.

Consider the figures. Apple had sold over 100 million iPods from the product’s launch in 2001 to April this year. In contrast, for all its marketing muscle, Microsoft Corp. has sold only 1.2 million units of its Zune since November. Will free music downloads change that ? I doubt it.

It is also not clear whether Universal’s Total Music will be free of DRM (digital rights management). If it is, the music is more likely to be downloaded for Total Music devices, and end up getting played by iPods users who never paid for the devices or the music. To avoid that, device makers will certainly insist on some kind of DRM. That will most likely mean that this music won’t play on iPods, and yes the non-DRM music on iTunes will not play on these devices. Once again the outcome will be fragmentation and chaos.

Universal, Sony BMG, and Warner Music are better off setting up an online store for non-DRM music of their own, that offers the basement rates the companies are willing to offer device makers. That way, like eMusic, another digital music download service, the music labels will have access to iPod users as well as users of other devices.

Related articles:

The Internet helps RIAA squeeze profits
Finding gold on the Net is a long shot

Friday, October 12, 2007

It takes more than theology to bring Muslims, Christians together

A group of Muslim scholars and religious leaders have made an overture to Christian leaders including Pope Benedict XVI, by pointing out similarities between Islam and Christianity, particularly the belief in one God, and the injunction to love one’s neighbor.

However on these two points of similarity alone, it is unlikely that Christians and Muslims will be kissing each other on the streets. The similarities are also only apparent. While Christianity believes in the Holy Trinity as one God, Muslims believe in one God.

The injunction to love one’s neighbor is there, implicitly or explicitly, in most religions, and that did not prevent the Crusades. It did not prevent Catholics and Protestants from killing each other in Northern Ireland. It hasn’t prevented Muslims and Hindus from killing each other in India. It did not prevent 9/11.

The upshot is that it takes more than a theological dissertation to bring communities together. You have to able to wipe out history, a lot of which is traumatic to both communities. You have to able to wipe out old hatreds and suspicions. Here too, the Christian injunction on forgiveness, will not change bitter feelings and memories on the ground.

There is also the issue that these Muslim leaders do not represent all of Islam. Unlike Christian churches who have heads, like the Pope, Islam is far more amorphous in its leadership structure. Like Christianity it has a lot of sects and divisions, the most distinct and known being that between the Sunnis and the Shias.

The hand of peace from the Muslims to Christian leaders is therefore welcome, even if the theological argument begs the question.

A more compelling argument for peace, I think, is pointed out at the very outset in the letter from the Muslim leaders to Christian leaders: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

Can religious leaders on either side deliver that peace, when extremists on both sides, including notably Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are not signatories to this letter ?

To be sure the hand of peace from Muslim scholars, and not their dissertation on theological similarities holds out promise. If moderates take the lead in sufficient numbers surely the extremists in the community will have to re-evaluate their strategies.

To be effective however, the moderates, will have to recognize that the popularity of Islamic extremism, does not have its roots in religious differences alone, but in injustice, poverty, hurt, and the perceived feeling that this is the outcome of a conspiracy between Christians and Jews. Try telling the Palestinians that they should love their Israeli neighbors who occupy their land ! Try telling them that America is Christian and that Islam enjoins them to be tolerant of Christianity !

That feeling among Muslims of persecution surfaces in the letter too when it says “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes”.

A rapprochement between Muslims and Christians can only come by a combination of political, social, and cultural moves, and not by attempting to find out similarities between the two religions. That is not a precondition. Hindus and Christians don’t usually kill each other in India in a religious frenzy. Although Hinduism is polytheistic while Christianity is not, the two communities generally respect each other’s right to worship different gods.

The text of the letter is available on a web site which calls itself the Official Website of A Common Word.

Al Gore wins Nobel; good to go for US presidency

Former Vice President Al Gore and the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Friday for their efforts to spread awareness of man-made climate change and lay the foundations for counteracting it, according to an Associated Press report.

Meanwhile people claiming to be grass-roots Democrats plan to draft Gore to contest the Democratic nomination and eventually the US presidency. They have asked sympathizers to sign a petition to Al Gore on their web site called

Going by his track record on Iraq and his leadership stand on environment issues, Al Gore may in fact give America a chance to play a leadership role worldwide, a leadership built on civic initiatives, rather than on the power of arms, that the country has been associated with under President George Bush.

In my opinion Al Gore has some advantages. One he is not a Clinton nor a Bush. If Gore gets elected as president of the US, it will prove that the country is not short of leaders outside the Bush and Clinton dynasties.

Gore may also help make the world a safer place.

Hillary Clinton voted authorizing the war in Iraq, and has now back-tracked with the naïve line that she didn’t know George Bush would mess it up. In contrast, Gore has criticized the invasion of Iraq as way back as 2002. On consistency he scores over Clinton, but he is on par with Barack Obama.

Gore however breaks from the pack of Presidential wannabes as he comes across as a man with a vision. His commitment to environment issues, and his active participation in a variety of forums on other serious issues like the role of the Internet, makes Gore clearly statesman material, unlike the rest who have yet to articulate a vision of what they stand for politically, socially, and on the environmental front.

Al Gore has so far shown no interest in running again for the Presidency. From his current position as a statesman, he would be getting into the rough and tumble of daily administration, bipartisan politics, and other challenges, including extricating the country out of Iraq and maybe Iran if Bush has already got there by January, 2009. His election is also by no means a foregone conclusion with Hillary Clinton once again aiming for the White House. She has raised cash and set up a campaign organization, that Gore may find tough, though not impossible to match at this point.

But if he changes his mind, he can perhaps help make the world both a safer and cleaner place.

Related Article:

Alas, yet another Clinton presidency

Thursday, October 11, 2007

When celebrity mush passes off as business reporting

In the days of my grandfather, if you weren’t in show business or in politics, your reputation (or brand) as a professor, or a doctor or writer was built assiduously and as an accidental by-product of your competence and performance. A teachers’ reputation was spread by word-of-mouth by students, a top thinker collected around him a group of other thinkers who in turn carried the message forward.

Martin Heidegger or Carl Gustav Jung did not have paid publicists. They had devoted followers, and yes a lot of detractors too, which all added up to making them very famous.

The spin-doctors have generally turned this thinking on its head. You first build brand, and then find something intelligent to say and do.

Or so it seems if you look at the way they are trying to convert ordinary corporate executives, presumably just doing their duty, into celebrities. Since many of the men don’t have the biceps or the looks of a Brad Pitt, and the women don’t come any close to the looks and audacity of Paris Hilton, they have invented new buzzword like “thought leader”.

The folks anointed to help them build those larger-than-life brands are, you guessed right, journalists.

So you have unsolicited mails to journalists saying that so and so is an expert on outsourcing, because he runs an outsourcing company, and he would like to comment on anything you plan to write on outsourcing. Or so and so is a legal expert, and available for comment, if you are doing a story on the legal aspects of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition”. And yes, if you are doing a story on “extramarital sex” they have views on that too.

The upshot of this is that flacks fill a journalist’s mail box daily with solicitations about a corporate executive you never knew, and never cared to know. Or you will have an invite to a presser where the flack will tell you “and by the way XYZ is in attendance”, where XYZ is not a stripper or an entertainer or a speaker of depth, but just a boring corporate executive peddling his wares.

These brand exercises by the spin doctors create “little monsters” too. There was one executive who aroused my curiosity because I saw at least ten interviews with him in various publications around the world in the span of seven days. It turned out that the guy wanted a change of job, and his frequent visibility helped him land one.

The flack and the spin doctors are doing their job. The corporate executive is having a joy ride at company expense. But do you know who is left holding the can, doing all the dirty work, just an instrument in the hands of spin doctors and corporate executives. The gullible reporter !

I just think that a company’s key “takeaways”, to use a popular corporate speak, should not be the alleged cerebral glow of its executives but its business strategy, its products, its financials, and everything related to the business.

The corporate executive as celebrity is irrelevant to the business, because what investors, consumers, and employees want to know is not whether the executive had a closed door meeting with the President of the country, but about what the company can deliver to them – the investors, consumers, and employees. I once attended a presentation by a corporate chief to investors, and it was short on business plans, but heavy with snaps of him posing with political dignitaries.

The danger is that if you make the corporate executive a celebrity, he could turn into a “big monster” too, arrogant and unaccountable, with starry-eyed folks unwilling to tell the new-age emperor that he has no clothes.

Have we forgotten what the celebrities at Enron and Tyco, and many other companies did to the people they were supposed to serve ? People then focused on the celebrity, rather than on the deliverables that matter, and lost a lot of money in the bargain.

China’s Internet censorship unparalleled, says report

China now has more than 160 million Internet users and at least 1.3 million websites. But the Internet’s promise of free expression and information has been nipped in the bud by the Chinese government’s online censorship and surveillance system, according to a joint study by Reporters Without Borders and Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Chinese Internet expert working in IT industry.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government have deployed colossal human and financial resources to obstruct online free expression, according to the study. Chinese news web sites and blogs have been brought under the editorial control of the propaganda apparatus at both the national and local levels, it added.

The study comes ahead of the 17th National Congress of the CCP, which opens this week in Beijing. It is also less than a year to the Olympic Games in Beijing, when China will attempt to present the best side of the country.

The Chinese government controls traditional news media like TV, radio, and print, but finds that its control is eroded by the Internet. The Internet has emerged as a new forum for dissident activity in countries like Myanmar and China where information flow is controlled by the authorities. During the recent crushing by the military in Myanmar of an agitation by Buddhist monks and students, blogs and videos posted on the Internet were the main information source on the army brutality for the outside world.

Foreign Internet businesses have been quite willing to go along with the Chinese government, if only to get market access. Their pet line is that they have to play by the rules, and that they actually help by being in China, by providing the Internet tools for people to communicate and collaborate.

In 2005, Yahoo was accused by Reporters Without Borders of supplying information to China which led to the jailing of a journalist for "divulging state secrets", according to this report in the BBC.

In 2006, Google said it would censor its search services in China in order to gain greater access to China's fast-growing market, according to this report. Those that don’t cooperate like online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, find themselves sporadically blocked out.

For a PDF version of the study see here

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Indian outsourcers not yet hit by weak dollar

Infosys Technologies Ltd., India’s second largest outsourcer said Thursday that its margins have actually improved in spite of the appreciation of the Indian Rupee against the US dollar. Yesterday another outsourcer, iGate, said its performance was not affected by the weakening dollar.

A weakening dollar impacts Indian outsourcing companies because over 50 percent of their business comes from the US, and is billed in dollars. The work is delivered offshore from India, where the payments to staff and other services are in Indian Rupees. Because of the weakening dollar, Indian companies now have fewer Rupees for every dollar earned abroad.

Indian outsourcers have however taken drastic cost-cutting measures and hedged on currency. In a business model that is cost-plus, where the key cost and input is software developers, the company cannot reduce its hires. But it can increase their productivity, and also shorten the bench – the number of staff kept idle to be able to meet any peaking in customer demand.

Infosys and iGate have also been aided by the willingness of customers to raise prices.

Infosys said its revenue for the July-September quarter was US$1 billion, up by 37 percent from the corresponding quarter last year. The company’s net income grew by 36 percent to $271 million during the quarter. iGate said net income went up 127 percent in the quarter, but revenue actually dipped. The company said there had been a delay in customers placing orders.

Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. (TCS) and Wipro Ltd, India’s largest and third largest outsourcing companies, are scheduled to announce their results next week. They may also report that they have countered the impact of the weak dollar by good currency hedging, and cutting costs.

For Indian outsourcers, the current problem is a sharp reminder of a problem that they knew all along. You can’t depend on one country for a majority of your business, even if it is the US. Indian outsourcers are now attempting to mitigate that risks by focusing on other markets like Europe and S.E. Asia. It comes at a good time when Europe is opening up to offshore outsourcing.

They are also looking closely at the Indian market, which they de-focused earlier because it didn’t pay well enough, and in dollars. Folks like IBM and Hewlett-Packard have in the meantime made deep inroads into the market.

These are trying days for Indian outsourcers, but these companies excel in their ability to respond quickly to the business environment, because of the strong processes they have in place. The Rupee is meanwhile expected to continue to appreciate as foreign capital inflows into India increase, and the country’s economy is booming.

Indian outsourcers not floundering, not migrating

The Armenian genocide, and Turkish denials

Despite the evidence, Turkey denies the genocide of the Armenians during the first World War.
Like the Germans after World War II, Turkey should accept that there was a genocide on its soil, apologize for it, make reparations where required, and move forward. Then only can it claim to be part of the civilized world.

As the successor to the Ottoman empire, the modern Turkish state has instead spent millions of pounds on public relations and lobbying to dissuade western governments from labeling the events of 1915 - 1917 a genocide, according to The Guardian. It cancelled defense contracts with France last year when its national assembly voted to make denial of the Armenian holocaust a crime.

Against the protests of US President George Bush, who is worried about retaliation from Turkey, the US Congress is planning to officially recognize as a genocide the forced deportations and massacre of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey does not accept that there was a genocide against the Armenians arguing instead that the Armenians were killed in widespread fighting.

But critics within and outside Turkey insist that the country come to terms with this gory and controversial element of its past. Turkish author, and Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted in Turkey after he referred to the Armenian issue. "What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo," he told the BBC in 2005 after he returned to Turkey to face charges against him.

Turkey’s reign of terror against the Armenians was an attempt to destroy the race, and the Armenian death toll was almost a million and a half, according to Robert Fisk in his book “The Great War for Civilization.” On September 15, 1915, Fisk writes, the then Turkish interior minister Talaat Pasha, cabled an instruction, of which a carbon copy still exists, to his prefect in Aleppo, telling him that he had already been informed that the government “had decided to destroy completely all the indicated persons living in Turkey”.

Fisk found from eyewitness that in Margada on the Turkish-Syria border over 50,000 Armenians had been killed. Turks tied together Armenian men, women, and children, starved and sometimes naked, and pushed them off the hill of Margada into the river, and shot one of them, according to Fisk. The body of the person shot then dragged the others down into the water, at the expense of a single bullet.

There are innumerable parallel that can be drawn between Margada and Auschwitz, and between the Ottoman Empire and Nazi Germany. Where the paths differ is that while Germany acknowledges and repents for the Holocaust, the Turks insist that there wasn’t a genocide of the Armenians. It resorts to blackmail of countries that would refer to the killings as genocide.