America, Politics, Social Issues

NSA – Who pays for it all?

I have mentioned in my blog before the justification for NSA to collect, store, analyze large-scale data should not just be based on constitutionality or its ethics or even its outcome. The question people should ask and a government funded by people should certainly ask is – is this benefit worth the effort?

The headlines today read, “Obama calls for an end to NSA bulk data collection”. As is true with any headline, it only makes you want to read the whole article and doesn’t mean anything by itself.

Quickly I concluded that the administration was merely moving the responsibility of data collection and preservation to the phone companies. He shifted the focus from NSA to private companies without a least bit affecting the fact that data will continue to be collected to the same extent. The ethics have not changed, the legality has changed, the constitutionality has not changed – what has changed is just the technicality of it.

There is another aspect to it – the cost. Collecting and preserving data requires large spending. If it is done by NSA, the cost for it would be borne by taxpayers. If it is done by phone companies, the cost for it would still be borne by taxpayers (through additional charges). There are roughly 140 million taxpayers and there are perhaps more than 300 million cell phone lines alone.

Perhaps this is just a move to divert scrutiny from NSA and spread the expenses to another book, all while completely preserving the capabilities of NSA to what they have always been doing. And since the treasury money saved through scaled-back NSA programs are unlikely to result in reduced taxes, people are effectively paying net-extra.

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Technology

CarPlay

Apple has long delayed its debut of what they now call CarPlay. Truth is people are already using phone, music and map capabilities inside the car, thanks to Bluetooth technology. So is there a market space? Are people going to buy, and much worse, wait to buy cars that are essentially locked to their phone brands?

For one, CarPlay is a very compelling strategy to build captive customers. Though the conversion numbers (people switching from Apple to competition and vice versa) doesn’t appear to be staggering, it is nevertheless an issue for Apple, which has not fundamentally transformed we use phones, since the original iPhone. Every feature that came after that, including my personal favorites, are incremental “nice to haves” as opposed to innovative. So in the fiercely competitive mobile space, every brand including Apple, Google and a distant Microsoft, have to do something not only to grow their market share, but also to sustain their install base.

The sad situation with car industry is that incremental features are uber-expensive and the quality of the dashboard has not improved in several years. The GPS ship has left shores long ago, and it seems the car industry did not get the memo. At any rate, addition of new features has led to a car’s dashboard looking like an airplane cockpit, when it doesn’t have to.

So will CarPlay succeed? Will the market have enough space for more than one company to keep it thriving and on the edge of innovation?

I guess the answer depends on following aspects:

  1. Car manufacturers cannot charge ridiculous amounts to have CarPlay added. With a very optimistic view, this should be included in base-model or the fee should be low enough.
  2. Usability – CarPlay should redefine how we use the phone features. It should actually make a difference to how quickly we access information, without taking our eyes (or mind) off driving. If it just replaces the current Bluetooth-supported functionality with a  more expensive one, this would have failed.
  3. Performance – AirPlay is a mind-boggling innovation. But at least in my house, it cannot be relied (it uses WiFi). You could (and Apple most likely will) blame my signal strength for it. But for CarPlay to succeed, it should be responsive and fast. Even if takes 0.5 seconds for a button push and the resulting functionality on the phone, it is a failure.
  4. Car manufacturers should allow the phone/ apps on the phone to perform car functionalities. For example, if two people use the car (lets say you and your spouse), depending on the phone plugged in, it could be configured to set different temperatures, different radio stations, different playlists, different seating memory positions etc.. At the very least, I have to be able to change any of this, getting rid of all those archaic knobs, dials and buttons on the dashboard.
  5. Competition must exist – All Apple (or all Android) makes for a dull market. Cars should have the ability to switch the native phone integration between Apple and Android – as an after-market (but a manufacturer supported) swap-out.

After redefining how we use a phone, a camera, a GPS system, a gaming device and now, how we use cars, hopefully, the phone industry is focusing on the next big area – smart homes – something I am personally looking forward to and will a separate post later on.

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America, Economy, Politics

Minimum Wages

I am very confused by Obama’s speech on Federal Minimum Wages (FMW). Though I am not completely neutral to political ideologies, let us assume I am for the purpose of this discussion (hence I wont question whether minimum wages are required at all). I also do not have the expertise to say what is the correct value of FMW. Is $6 enough? Is $8 enough? Is $10? I do not know.

My confusion is simply due to one argument Obama made – he says by increasing FMW to $10.10, people will make more money and hence will have more money to spend and hence money will move and hence economy will benefit.

But if FMW were to increase, the price of goods made by people with higher wages will also increase. Will it not? If that is the case, people’s buying power will remain the same, even though their wages has increased in absolute terms. How is this beneficial to economy? Isn’t he effectively artificially causing inflation?

I also believe that by increasing FMW, he is making a number of people (who were earlier right on the borderline) pay income taxes. And secondly, the sales tax of the price-hiked goods will increase, and the revenue to the government will increase.

So was his FMW about improving quality of life of citizens or increase revenue for the debt-stricken nation?

Further reading – More harm than good?

Change tracking – Edited on 2/27 to include link for further reading

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Culture, India, Politics, Social Issues

Intolerance, the plague

I had written long ago about the new-age disease that is plaguing India. It is one of intolerance – it is one that rejects pluralism, freedom of speech, strong-arming anything and everything that doesn’t conform to one’s own thoughts, beliefs, values, opinions, systems, religion, god, politics. It is one thing to reject something that you don’t identify with; it’s a whole different thing to try to shut the person up that said it.

The latest is of Wendy Doniger’s Alternative History of Hindus and Hinduism. In reality, I would never have read a book on this subject, and even if I had to, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have picked up Doniger. There are enough negative reviews about her works, written presumably by non-bigots.

Also, I would be naïve to call intolerance entirely a new-age disease. India has suffered several issues along same lines throughout history. Nehru’s secularism and a freshly written constitution was a new lease of hope for an India that would truly value secularism, freedom of speech, democracy and most importantly, peaceful coexistence.

Doniger’s (or actually Penguin’s) conundrum, along with those of Salman Rushdie, MF Hussain and events such as the Gujarat Riots, Babri Masjid, Kushbu (actress) all can be boiled down to a singular issue – intolerance. Sadly, people that suffer intolerance have great levels of success bending the system of justice (and by extension, the constitution itself), making their actions legal in justice’s eyes and righteous in popular eyes. Superficially, this is an issue of freedom of speech – but deep down it zeroes in to human decency. That is what we seem to be lacking.

Elsewhere in the open world, Doniger’s book would have quietly been added to the shelves. The commercial and intellectual success of the book would have been determined by only one thing – the author’s POV and how she articulated it. The popular culture may still dismiss the book of being anything of value – but there’s zero possibility that a court would have asked to recall, much less burn those books.

In any case, I am guessing most Indians have not heard of this issue or even if they did, they are not spending even a minute thinking about it. It is this indifference which is killing India, but also which has come to define Indians.

Further reading:

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Book Review, Literature, Music

Book Review – A Southern Music

southernI first started writing a review for this book in the form of a letter to the author, and later changed my mind. In the letter version are many questions I had written as I read the book, hoping to pose them to the author some day. I am still hopeful.

The author TM Krishna has sometimes been sung as the rare personality that challenged the prevailing conditions of their profession, while still being at the apex of popularity. Is that true? I am not so sure.

There are 3 sections of the book – which he calls Book 1, 2 & 3. After reading it, I feel like they must actually have been 3 different books – with the possibility of combining 1 and 3. The first section of the book deals – in great detail – with the format of a Karnatik concert, including the structure, definition and construct of the individual components and how it ought to be experienced. While doing this, he asks many questions challenging how it is done today and how it ought to be done – which left me confused. A reader who “needs” those definitions is not in a position to contemplate or provide a response. Someone that is in a position to contemplate is probably skipping that section. It is an irony. In any case, I thought this section deserved to be a lecdem.

The 3rd section delves into the history of Karnatik music – how different concepts evolved, who the torch-bearers of specific traditions were, the evolution of specific practices – all in a beautiful narrative. While I enjoyed this section, I felt this could have been part of a lecdem as well or at least could have been less theoretical and more narrative.

Section 2 (aka Book 2) is perhaps the most compelling section of the book. Karnatik music today suffers a heavy dose of religion and a multitude of smaller issues, when it doesn’t have to. Also, most Karnatik musicians and aspirants quickly get into the mold, unjust as it is, and hardly get time and voice to articulate them, much less challenge them. In this regard, the author comes across almost a whistleblower and exposes several issues the discipline of Karnatik music still suffers. In addition to religion, the music still suffers diseases of gender inequalities and those of religion and caste. The industry also suffers corruption – the author dives into each of these topics and proposes actionable ideas on how to make Karnatik music clean. He also discusses external issues such as technology, film music and influence of other systems of music etc.

The biggest puzzle I am still not able to figure out is who is his target audience for this book? Fellow musicians may not read it, newbies will find it too technical – is he targeting a very niche segment of people who are neither here nor there – somewhere in-between but thirsty to advance to their next level? I wonder how many such people there are. Overall, it is a good read – especially if you kept yourself to the 2nd section.

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Technology

Flickr

I closed my Yahoo! account today. Not that this is an event of significance but I am blogging about this for a reason. I would have closed my account several years ago, had it not been for their acquiring Flickr, effectively forcing me to have a Yahoo account.

Flickr is still the best site from a photographic sense – serious photographers, ones that are not serious enough to have their own websites anyways – flock to Flickr. Reason – its interface is good (gotten much better over the years), organization is very neat (tags/ sets/ collections etc..). Also, I have not seen another site that publishes the metadata (EXIF) along with the pictures.

On the downside, I saw Flickr seriously lacking engagement – big thanks to Facebook. While I have some pictures on Facebook, I moved away from that as well. My current photo sharing method of choice is iCloud (suited very well engagement within CUG) and my current photo storage method is a home NAS.

Each tool still has its merits and specific use cases. If you are exploring options for photo management, let me know. I can give my POV.

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Business, Culture, Funny Bone

Jingos Unchained

Indians derive hubris every time anyone in any part of the world, does something worthwhile mentioning, as long as their name and the word “India” can be used in the same sentence. The size of their accomplishment hardly ever matters, especially if the word “America” can be used in the same sentence as well. Their accomplishments, the size and nature of it, their relevance outside the immediate context, their relevance to India – none of this matter.

Right now there’s someone bursting fireworks in India celebrating Satya Nadella’s appointment as CEO of MS. It could be someone from India, someone from AP, someone from the same college he went to, someone who had coffee with him in Starbucks, someone who had coffee at Starbucks while he was there or someone who had coffee at a Starbucks visited by Satya sometime in his life or someone who lives in the same zip code, someone who was born in the same town as Satya was etc…Facebook and Twitter will be filled with chants of jingoism and hubris. Indian media will host special shows to highlight his accomplishments and what it means for India.

The government, having just concluded the announcement of the Padma awards and Bharat Ratna, must be seriously considering putting Satya on the Padma Vibhushan list. If Satya is able to salvage the damage done by Balmer on their mobile strategy or even the company as a whole, he might even be put on the Bharat Ratna list.

People get inspired by different things and/or different people. Is there inspiration to be taken from Satya? Yes. Is there reason to be glad? Yes. Is there reason to feel proud? What for?

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