Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Google - the Omnipotent

I find myself coming back to this topic yet again... how Google has completely taken over most of our lives. That Gmail servers were down for some time today has been talked about extensively all over the web.

I started out the day with my friend complaining how crippled and helpless he felt because he was unable to access his Gmail account. As unusual as this is, it comes as another sharp reminder. He said he spent the first 1.5 hours of his day waiting for Gmail to return to service and I sympathized with him.

I got to work and found another friend cribbing that the Gtalk feature in her Gmail window was acting up. All of us in the room spent the next 10 minutes talking about the issues Gmail seemed to be having since the wee hours of this day. I was glad to note that at least Gmail was now working.

I was reading some lecture notes about computer networks and found a mention of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. I caught myself thinking whether that was the reason the Google servers were down; also wondered how powerful/critical the attack was and when and how Google might recover from it. A few hours later my friend left, still annoyed at the fact that she couldn't talk to her husband over Gmail, as is her norm.

I read an article that quoted an expert who categorized intelligence into two types - fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is having knowledge of how to go about things, while crystallized intelligence is knowledge of the specific details. Interesting, I thought ... I guess I'd say I have fluid intelligence since I usually figure out the broad approach to take to solve any problem that I'm tackling and turn to Google for the 'crystallization'.

Come evening, I called up a company I am interviewing with and was trying to schedule an online timed test. The lady at the other end asked me to send her an email and told me she would respond immediately and administer the test. I sent her the mail and prayed that Gmail wouldn't let me down and would deliver it immediately. I spent the next half hour hitting the refresh button on my mail client, waiting for her response. Nothing! I logged into Gmail - thanking my stars that it let me do so. No mails there either. I checked the Spam folder and the Trash folder. Nothing still!

I called up the company again and asked them if they'd received my email. Thankfully they had and it turned out to be only a confusion about the start time of the test. I gave them a specific time within the next half hour and took what I felt was a truly deserved break. I met a friend for coffee during my short break and once again we were discussing the troubles we had been having with Google so far in the day. I returned quickly hoping mightily that the test had been delivered to my Gmail inbox. Was glad to note it was!

I was expected to work on the test and email my answers to the company within the next hour. I completed the test in less than 40 min and yet again prayed that Gmail be back to normal since I had to email my answers or the whole effort would have gone a waste. It worked - Go Gmail!

I come home and am Stumble-ing as a way of relaxation and Stumble hits me with an article describing why Google servers were down today. The article termed it something like the digital equivalent of a power blackout. True indeed! I find it just as obstructive of all my activities as a power shutdown. Power failures are quite common in my hometown, Bangalore. But I know how to deal with them and we have a UPS there to give us upto 2 hours of backup power. But how do I deal with a Gmail failure? Especially since I depend on it solely? Redundancy is a good way to have a failback system, they taught me in EMC. Maybe I should create an email account with another service provider and get Gmail to forward all incoming mails to that as well. Even then, only mails received will be forwarded. What's the guarantee that they will be received at all - if the servers are down? I'm still trying to think of a reliable fail-back system.

In effect I've spent most of my waking hours today realizing just how dependent I am on Google. To top it all, I consider my dream job to be at Google and fantasize about all the great things that I would work on, the power (ie technology) that would lie at my disposable and how I could make an impact on millions of people I'll never meet but who will thank me for making some part of their lives easier. Wouldn't it be nice to turn this preoccupation into an occupation as well! Should I start working at Google, I wonder, could it get worse(!!??) than that?

Google, you fill me with both anxiety and admiration - I don't know how much of each, but in my mind they coexist for sure! Go Google! :D

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Despicable Slumdog Millionaire

Of late, I've participated in a lot of discussion about the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Most of the arguments go along the lines of "It doesn't portray India in a good light, so this is not what foreigners must see". I liked the movie - I like the manner in which 10 stories have been weaved together to make one good movie. In all honesty, I cannot entirely agree with or deny everything that's been shown in it. I was annoyed at the callousness of some statements : "This is India! ... This is America!" But in the end, my opinion is that "It's just another movie - so let it be."

Here's something that's worth spending more time discussing... something that portrays India in bad light... something that I want no foreigner to see... for it is shameful. I received this article in a forwarded email and feel absolutely bound to share it. Don't despise the movie - it's these "Slumdog Millionaire" animals that are truly deserving of it.

Read on... I quote...

A few of my friends and I were just paying our bills and coming out of
our regular Friday night watering hole and dinner place in Rest House
Road, just off Brigade Road, and most of the women in the company were
already standing outside. Some of us outside were smoking, people were
happy, there was laughter and jokes, as there were many other people
in the street, all coming out, satiated, in the closing hour of the
various pubs and restaurants around.

Suddenly from up the street a massive SUV comes revving and speeding,
hurtling down, and stops in a scream of brakes and swirling dust,
millimeters away from this group of 4 women, barely missing one of
their legs. A white Audi, imported, still under transfer, with the
registration plate of KA-51 TR-2767. Some millionaire's toy thing,
that in the wrong hands can kill.

Naturally the women are in shock. And quickly following the shock
comes indignation. These are self made women running their own
businesses, managing state responsibilities for global NGO firms,
successful doctors. They are not used to being bullied. So they turn
around, instead of shrinking back in fear. They protest.

And as soon as they turn around in protest, the car doors are flung
open, and a stream of 4-5 rabid men run out towards these women,
screaming obscenities in Hindi and Kannada against women in general,
fists flailing. Some of us who came in running at the sound of the
screaming brakes now stand in the middle in defense of our women, and
then blows start raining down. One of the goons make a couple of calls
over the cellphone, and in seconds a stream of other equally rabid
goondas land up. They gun straight for the women, and everyone – a few
well-meaning bystanders, acquaintances who know us from the
restaurant, basically everyone who tries to help the women – starts
getting thoroughly beaten up.

Women are kicked in the groin, punched in the stomach, slapped across
the face, grabbed everywhere, abused constantly. Men are smashed up
professionally, blows aimed at livers, groins, kidneys and nose. A
friend is hit repeatedly on the head by a stone until he passes out in
a flood of blood.

A plain-clothes policeman (Vittal Kumar) who saunters in late stands
by watching and urging people to stop, but doing absolutely nothing
else. A 'cheetah' biker cop comes in, with our women pleading him to
stop this madness, but he refuses action, saying a police van will
come in soon and he cannot do anything. Everyone keeps getting
hammered. Relentlessly.

The carnage continues for over 20 minutes.

Finally when the police van does come in it is this vandals who are
raging and ranting, claiming to be true "sons of the Kannadiga soil",
and we are positioned to be the villainous outsiders, bleeding,
outraged. How do the cops believe them, especially seeing the bloody
faces of our men and the violated rage of our women, while they carry
nary a scratch on their bodies? Don't ask me! Yet, it is us who these
goondas urge the newly arrived law-keepers to arrest, and the police
promptly comply, and we are bundled into the van, some still being
beaten as we are pushed in. Some blessed relief from pain inside the
police van at least, even if we are inside and the real goons outside,
driving alongside in their spanking white Audi. The guy who was hit by
the stone is taken separately by the women to Mallya hospital.

Inside the police station at Cubbon Park it becomes clear that these
goons and the police know each other by their first names. The
policeman in charge (Thimmappa) initially refuses to even register any
complaint from me, on the purported grounds that I am not fluent in
Kannada and I have taken a few drinks (3 Kingfisher pints, to be
precise) over the evening. No, it doesn't matter that I didn't have my
car and was not driving, and no, it doesn't mater that the complaint
will be written in English. We watch them and the goons exchange
smiles and nods with our our bloodied and swelling eyes and realize in
our pain-clouded still-in-shock brains the extent of truth in the
claim of one of the main goons when he claimed earlier in the evening
in virulent aggression: we own this town, this car belongs to an MLA,
we will see how you return to this street!!

This was the turning point of the saga, I guess. For we refused to lie
down quietly and be victims.

One of our girls, a vintage and proud Bangalorean who is running one
of the town's most successful organic farming initiatives, took upon
herself to write the complaint, when I was not allowed to write the
same. Another Bangalore girl, a state director of a global NGO firm,
wrote the other molestation complaint separately on behalf of all the
girls. Some of us called our friends in the media and corporate world.
Everyone stepped up. And even when the odds were down and we were out,
we did not give up, and as a singular body of violated citizens we
spoke in one voice of courage and indomitable spirit. That voice had
no limitation of language, not Kannada, nor English, or Hindi. It was
the voice of human spirit that cannot be broken.

And in the face of that spirit, for the first time, we saw the ugly
visage of vandalism, hiding behind the thin and inadequate veil of
political corrupt power, narrow-vision regionalism and self-serving
morality, start to wilt.

We spent 6 hours next day in the police station. The sub-inspector of
police who filed our FIR, Ajay R M, seemed a breath of fresh air
inasmuch that he did not appear a-priori biased like others, even
though the hand of corruption and politico-criminal power backing
these goons was still manifest in many ways: a starched, white-linen
power-broker walked in handing over his card to the sub-inspector in
support of the goons; the goons got an audience with the Inspector
because of this intervention, while we had to interact one level lower
down in the hierarchy; the plains cloth policeman of last night, even
though he had arrived far too late in the crime scene, gave a warped
statement, passing it off as a "neutral" point of view, repeatedly
stressing that we came out of a pub and hence were drinking,
positioning this as a 'drunken brawl', while completely forgetting to
mention the unprovoked attack against the women and the one-sided
vandalism and violence that ensued. I guess one cannot blame the low
ranked police officer – the criminal connections of these goons must
be pervasive enough for him to be careful.

Thanks however to the impartial handling of the situation by Ajay,
soon the goons were all identified. The lead actor was one Ravi
Mallaya (38), a real estate honcho and owner of a small property off
Brigade Road which he has converted into a "gaming" (you know what
that means, don't you?) adda. The others identified are Mohan Basava
(22) of Chamarajapet 12th Cross, R. Vijay Kumar Ramalingaraju (25) and
Shivu Rajashekar (20). All are residents of 12th & 13th Cross in
Vyalikaval. Their bravado and machismo were by that time evaporated.
It was good to see their faces then.

Of course nothing much happened to them, nor did we expect it. They
were supposed to be in lock up for at least the weekend till they were
produced in court, but we understand that they were quickly released
on (anticipatory?) bail. The car, purportedly belonging to an MLA,
also does not figure in the FIR, apparently for reasons of
"irrelevance to the case".The media also have given us fantastic
coverage and support so far, strengthening the cause.

The goons meanwhile, as an after thought, also filed the customary
reverse complaint on the morning after we filed our own complaint: the
women have apparently scratched the car! (Why did they not file the
complaint the same night, considering they came to the Police Station
in the same car? Why was the car allowed to be taken off police
custody? Why is the car still irrelevant to the case and not in the
FIR? Questions.. questions..).

Is this the end of this saga? Probably not. Are these women, more
precious to us as friends and wives than most things in our lives,
safe to walk or drive down Brigade Road from now on or are the goonda
elements, slighted by this arrest and disgrace, are lying in ambush,
waiting, biding their time to cause some of us more grievous harm? We
don't know. Is there reason for us to remain apprehensive of future
attacks and victimization? Perhaps.

But here is the point.

We stood up.

We believed in the power of individual citizens even in the face of
hooliganism, intolerance, corruption and power mongering. Even though
many of us have the option of leveraging political or government
connections, we deliberately chose to fight this battle as
individuals. Sure, these connections have been activated and they have
been kept informed, should the worst case scenario unfold tomorrow.
But we have chosen to not leverage them. And in every small win we
register as a group of individual outraged citizens of Bangalore and
India, however insignificant these milestones may be in the larger
scheme of things, there is one small notch adding up in favor of what
is right, one small notch against what is wrong. And we believe that
every such small notch counts, each such mark is absolutely

It is the people who make this city, this country, this world. It is
you and I, as much as the terrorists inside and outside. And in our
small insignificant little ways, it is my responsibility and yours to
not shirk from investing effort – not just lip service or any token
attempt, but real effort – in backing up what we ourselves believe in.
It is so easy to logically argue that everything is corrupt, nothing
is worth it, there are so many risks involved. We must not fall trap
to this escapist trend. We must not fail to try.

Next time you feel outraged, violated, abused, don't let it go by and
add up to your list of litanies and complaints. Stand up and take it
to the limit - at least your own limit. Not in the same way as they
wrong you, but in the way that every citizen, at least in theory, is
entitled to complain and protest. Do not let the hooligans power rant
scare you or prompt you into submission. Do not allow the corrupt cop
make you give up trying. Carry the flame forward. Try harder.

If are up to it, start right now.

Forward this note to everyone you want to be made aware of this. Post
it in your own blogs. Talk about it amongst your circles. And if
anyone of you should like to step forward with a word of empathy or
advise, talk to me. Comment.

It is not Bangalore that is going to the dogs. It is us. We have far
too long become accustomed to let everything go. And the more we let
things go without any protest or fight, the dormant criminal and dark
elements of the society get that much more encouraged. Every time we
turn the other way, the hooligan next street gets incentivized to push
the boundary a little further, provoke a little more, try something a
little more atrocious. It is time for us to refuse to let this go on.
We are responsible for making ourselves proud. Lets believe in
ourselves. We can do this.

My name is Saugata Chatterjee. And I am standing up.I refuse to let
Bangalore go to the hooligan slumdogs, even if some of them are pets
of corrupt power millionaires.