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Vivek Nallur

Apr. 1st, 2011

10:59 pm - Does Gandhi need a two-bit politician to defend him?

Predictably, there's been quite a brouhaha over Joseph Lelyveld's book on Gandhi. All the self-appointed guardians of the honour of the nation, have frothed at the mouth and spouted nonsense, in their usual manner. I haven't read the book and, therefore I have no opinion on whether Gandhi was a homosexual/bisexual or any other kind of deviation from general norm. I wish these politicians would have the grace, to do the same.

Right now, we don't even know whether the author definitively claims anything about Gandhi. All we know, is that some reviewer whom no one has heard of, whose reputation is definitely not on the line, has taken some lines, de-contextualised them and written his opinion of them. So what? Who cares what this reviewer thinks? As an apprentice academic, who frequently submits papers to be reviewed by others, I know for a fact that sometimes reviewers don't have a clue, what they're talking about. They don't get the idea or just can't be bothered to do their bit of research, before commenting on a piece of text.

Even if one is generous and takes the reviewer's word as the gospel truth (foolish, but bear with me),the real question is: what would Gandhi have said? Would he have reacted with fury and demanded that the book be torn to shreds?

Gandhi's accomplishments are so big that his personality demands research and insight. We need to know that he was human, and subject to all the frailties that come with being human. We need to know this, so that we might be inspired by "such a one who in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth". We do not need cosmetic surgery to hide his warts, or make him more handsome.

I'm not even a big fan of Gandhi, but I can appreciate what he achieved and the enormity of his undertaking. If we are to pay the slightest tribute to him, it would be to have the intellectual capacity and integrity to look an argument in the face, and rebut it with facts, research and reflection. It is certainly not a tribute, to have a knee-jerk reaction against an opinion that we do not like, and roar and crush objects like a barbarian. If this be the only response we're capable of, what is the difference between GoI and the Taliban?

Feb. 24th, 2011

11:09 am - Can we have a scam-free event in India, please?

I wonder if the World Cup tickets will be sold without controversy. It's not like selling tickets is rocket science. We know the expected demand, we know the available seats, we know the number of reserved tickets for sponsors and their ilk. We know all the variables in the equation! Create a transparent system for buying tickets. It shouldn't be that difficult.

Jul. 17th, 2010

12:38 pm - steadily declining ambition

To every omega-consistent recursive class K of formulae there correspond recursive class-signs r, such that neither v Gen r nor Neg(v Gen r) belongs to Flg(K) (where v is the free variable of r)

-- Proposition VI of "On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I", by Kurt Godel.

Most PhD students (or at least the naive ones) start off their PhDs with a burning ambition to do ground-breaking research, leave a mark on the world. They hope to write a thesis that will change the world. Slowly they realize that science doesn't work that way. Most science is the patient accumulation of tedious research, probing, gathering, reflection. And that's if you're good AND lucky. More often, it's going down dark, blind alleys, postulating hypothesis, performing controlled experiments, altering parameters, hoping for a statistically significant result. At the end, the only thing you can say with some confidence, is that x is possibly related to y, under conditions of z. Change z to z' and nobody has any confidence in your results anymore!

It's taken me two years (almost) to work this out for myself, and my burning desire to explore new frontiers has dimmed considerably. Actually, the desire still remains; the confidence that I will be able to, has gone. It's two years in, and I'm still discovering relevant papers! A couple of sessions with a greybeard and suddenly I'm wondering where I'm headed and when the journey ends. The path ahead is completely muddled, and I'm afraid of taking a step.

This isn't very good, since it's the kind of fear that keeps me in stasis. And remaining in stasis, is a self-defeating strategy. A girl that I may be dating, once wrote to me about her PhD experience:

"It is likely that no one ever masters anything in which he has not
known impotence; and if you agree, you will also see that this
impotence comes not at the beginning or before the struggle with the
subject, but in the heart of it." (Walter Benjamin)

Well, I'm certainly in the heart of it, right now. The competition at Carnegie Mellon was hard, but it was nothing compared to my current struggle to possess a calm, clear mind.

There's nothing to be gained by sitting on my ass and brooding. So, I'm going to take a little break from doing stuff, and, just go back to reading.

Jun. 30th, 2010

12:51 pm - alleyways, cul-de-sacs on the big road

I've been staring at the screen, trying to think through my next steps, for the past couple of days. I've tentatively planned two experiments and one dose of formal analysis for the next term. My supervisor thinks that the formal analysis is a bit ambitious, but I'm willing to give it a shot. While I know the general aim of the two experiments, their details are a bit foggy at the moment.

Unfortunately, the one that I'm clearer on, depends on another PhD student and he's away. The second one is related to my claims of scalability of my approach, but I'm not very sure as to what I'm measuring. Although, I can put my head down, parallelize the code and then worry about what I'm measuring, I don't want to take that road. After all, the PhD is supposed to be a process of teaching myself how to think and do things, scientifically. Before I started the PhD, I thought that the supervisor was going to be a guide, in quite the literal sense of the word. I thought that he'd be advising me every step of the way. But I've realized that it isn't so. A supervisor is one of those orientation points on a map. Every so often (once in 2-3 months), he checks to see, if I'm still alive and not dead in a ditch. But whether I take path A or path B, cross a bridge or take a shortcut, is entirely up to me.

This freedom is new. It's also scary.

On a more positive note, today I was describing my research to a graybeard. He listened and said, "Ah. That could be useful". Of such little bits of happinesses, is a PhD made of :)

May. 12th, 2010

01:24 pm - buy vada paav using a credit/debit card


Individual commerce will probably go electronic, if the gadget (above) takes off. It's not a revolutionary or even a bright idea; just enough new tech married to old tech, to slot into existing infrastructure and, ease a pain point. All those craigslist/gumtree sellers can now make do without paypal/cash.

Guess who the first customers are likely to be? Escort services? Strippers-at-stag-parties? Small-time betting agencies?

May. 6th, 2010

10:40 pm - The scientific method and the Election Commission

Recently, a team managed to conclusively prove that the EVMs used in Indian elections are vulnerable (ref: http://indiaevm.org/evm_tr2010.pdf). And as a even more scary conclusion, it's difficult to prove that tampering has taken place. This is the perfect circumstances, that someone could create for throwing an election:

1) An election commission that refuses to believe that its machines can be tampered with - cockiness
2) It refuses to allow independent and open security audit of these machines - security through obscurity
3) The machine's design makes any tampering invisible to all but the most detailed inspection - near un-verifiability

To security researchers, this is a disaster in the making and to criminals, this is a scenario even better than their wildest dreams.

Every security researcher, worth her salt, knows that the way to secure a design is not by locking it away, but by opening it up to the community for open examination.

The scientific method does not promise perfect results, every time one performs an experiment. Rather what it promises is a protocol, a protocol that ensures that results are relied upon only after *independent* verification. What this ensures is that there are no magic numbers, conditions, incantations that produce a given result. The methodology of the experiment is open, for anyone to replicate. In a certain sense, this is exactly what democracy is. Formation of a government is done through a method that is open. The results may not be ideal or what we wish for, but the protocol ensures that it is at the very least, honest. The EC's attitude towards the voting machines creates a serious flaw in the open protocol. And this is ironic, since it is the EC's responsibility to ensure that the protocol is secure against mischief.

Again, given that India is supposed to be a software powerhouse, it becomes laughable that we take such foolish approach to security, in our most basic protocols. Any software/hardware that any public machinery uses, should be open-source and independently verifiable. It is time that we demand this basic necessity from our public servants. That openness is a *good* thing, needs to be instilled into the very fabric of our society.

Apr. 27th, 2010

05:34 pm - connectedness, privacy and the orwellian nightmare

I wait a week or so before posting about a topic (as a sort of litmus test of whether I really feel strongly about it. But this time I've waited for more than a month and I find that the more I wait, the more disturbed I get.

The UID project aims to uniquely identify every individual in the country, via means of biometric data that supposedly cannot be fudged(this has been proved to be utter nonsense, time and again. To cite just one instance: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article4467106.ece) Ostensibly, the aim of this endeavour is to enable better provisioning of social services, and to ensure that duplication of identities does not occur. On the face of it, it looks like any other piece of identification. It enables me to assert that I am, whom I claim to be. Also, this means that I cannot claim to be, someone I'm not. This, on the face of it, is quite nice since the nation would save a lot of money through weeding out of people who scam the exchequer out of pots of money (ref: http://uidai.gov.in/ [historical background])

The problem however arises, when the UID starts to be used for purposes other than mere verification of identity. The creation of NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid), NPR (National Population Register) and the DNA Bank, when placed in context with the UID are what must give us pause. As soon as one starts 'living' with a UID, one's shopping habits, one's credit history, one's travel history, one's family history, one's religious convictions are all available to the government on a real-time basis. Combined with the fact, that there's no checks and balances (none that I've been able to glean from public documents), with regard to who can access all of this information, makes it a potent tool for harassment, at the very least. A citizen's relationship with his government has been completely changed to one, where Big Brother knows and sees everything that he does. This sort of power is just ripe for abuse. To assume that the government always acts benevolently is to ignore all that history has taught us about totalitarian regimes and the abuses they perpetrate on their own populace. It's telling that all the intelligence agencies have resisted the need for imposition of checks on their access to an individual's data (ref: http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article388037.ece [unfortunately, a secondary source, and not a primary one])

One of the more ominous revelations about the NPR and the UID is that their mandate is not derived from the Census Act, 1948, but under the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. How is this relevant? According to the Census Act, section 15 (http://www.legalindia.in/the-census-act-1948):

Records of census not open to inspection nor admissible in evidence:- No person shall have a right to inspect any book, register or record made by a census-officer in the discharge of his duty as such, or any schedule delivered under section 10, and notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, no entry in any such book, register, record or schedule shall be admissible evidence in any civil proceeding whatsoever or in any criminal proceeding other than a prosecution under this Act or any other law for any act or omission which constitutes an offence under this Act.

What this means, for the common man, is this: any information about your religious beliefs, sex, number of children or any other demographic information *cannot* be used by the state against you, except if you lie about them during the census. The Citizenship Rules 2003 simply do not mention anything about evidence!

Again, to add context, if one considers the number of times the govt. has tried to access online information about people
(raw data of requests - http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/apr/21/google-data-requests-governments#data

adjusted for connectedness - discounting the Armenian outlier - we're second highest! http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/apr/23/google-censorship-country-uk

it becomes very apparent that the govt. has no compunctions about trying to obtain information about individuals. Who are these individuals that the govt. wants information on? Who authorised these requests? What is the check on people authorizing information requests?

Given this, do we really want to surrender all of our information to the powers-that-be? I'm not suggesting that one should be an anarchist and resist/manipulate/delete one's biometric identity from the NPR (though what happens if these are stolen has not been addressed). Neither am I suggesting that one should be a luddite and abstain from all kinds of electronic transactions. What I am suggesting is that we should demand a much higher standard of transparency and accountability with regard to what happens to our data and and who has access to it. Just because Nandan Nilekani is at the helm of affairs with regard to the UID, do we assume that it'll be used for general weal? He may genuinely hope and intend to do so, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

However, I don't see much public discussion on this issue in the media (there are some exceptions: http://bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/how-uid-will-transform-india-into-a-police-state/). More column inches and airwave-share has been focussed on whom our sudden-darling tennis star marries and their shenanigans, than on issues that could fundamentally transform our lives for many years to come.

The debates over the concept of an ID card have been long and furious in Britain. Visit http://www.no2id.net/IDSchemes/whyNot to see reasons why the concept of national ID is flawed and dangerous.

Mar. 27th, 2010

08:35 pm - a quick link to a disturbing essay

More often than not, I don't agree with Arundhati Roy's methods or conclusions (and sometimes her writing is downright silly ["We count to twenty and then start from one, because that's as far as most Gonds count. Twenty is enough for them. Maybe it should be enough for us too."]), but democracy means the stories that she tells must be allowed to be told. And heard.


Of course, the fact that I'm a bit wary of the State's willingness to sacrifice people, in the name of development, prejudices me as well.

Mar. 23rd, 2010

05:58 pm - Sierre, Switzerland

Am in Sierre for a conference. Of course, I'm couchsurfing :-). My hosts are constantly amazed at my attempts to speak french. It's just the fact that I'm making an effort, when I could easily get by in English. My hosts are all art students and hence one of my assignments is that I have to create some art before I leave their house. I'm more nervous about this, than my conference presentation!

The conference itself is, well, a plain old conference. There are a few interesting people to talk to, but sitting in a session where you understand nothing of what's going on (combined with really bad slides) quickly drains interest. My talk is on the last day and I have a feeling that most people will leave by then (so much for motivation!)

The swiss keyboard is, ummm..., different. There are a couple of keys with about 5 symbols on them! But thankfully, most of them are bound to US key-bindings. So, as long as I touch-type, I'm alright. Any attempt at looking at the keyboard is a recipe for confusion.

Unfortunately, due to visa restrictions, I won't have time to travel and see parts of the country. Will have to save all that for a separate backpacking holiday (whenever that will be. possibly after the phd :-( )

Hope to get some chocolates and cheese back with me, though :-)

Jan. 25th, 2010

11:52 pm - first python project

By sheer chance, I've started using Python for my experiments. I'm coding up a double-auction market with buyers, sellers, applications that ride on top of buyers and strategies. It's basically a discrete event simulation package and by far the definitive implementation is JCAT (http://jcat.sourceforge.net/). In a PhD, since you get absolutely no credit for writing any code at all, my advisor was quite keen that I spend the least amount of time setting up the experiment. So I spent all of the christmas hols, hacking through JCAT and by the first week of Jan, gave up. There were just too many changes to the protocol and the entities, for it to be a clean end-result.

I decided to chuck everything and start afresh with SimPy. In two weeks, I've got a working (somewhat) marketplace. This is more than where I reached in three weeks with Java. I had forgotten how much of a boost a scripting language gives, to programmer productivity. Keeping in mind, that I'm fairly comfortable with Java and this was my first *ever* python program. I haven't written a hello world before this.

I simply read the SimPy tutorial and started coding. Of course, it helped that I'm fairly comfortable with Ruby, so a lot of the concepts translate smoothly. I still get stuck when 'the Ruby way' doesn't work in Python, but then this is more a problem with my understanding of Python than Python itself. But there are some syntactic peeves that I think, that Python could've avoided. The colon as a block marker, for instance. I didn't particularly feel odd about the indentation rule (I really don't understand why lots of people crib about this. One would do it in other languages, anyway. Set autoindent on in Vim, and you're off!), but I keep getting caught out by the need to insert a colon at the header of every block de-lineator. Also, the three-scope rule could've really accommodated instance variables inside methods, instead of making the programmer type self.X every time. The interpreter's error messages could be a little more verbose than the bland 'syntax error at line'. I guess, I'm expecting something more on the lines of the perl/ruby interpreter. For instance, I was trying out a conditional inside a list comprehension and all the interpreter told me was that I had a syntax error. Now, I'm sure that it's perfectly obvious to a seasoned pythonista, but it doesn't hurt to give the novice a hint, now and then. More functional constructs like inject would be handy, too.

All that being said, I'm extremely satisfied with the state of the code and Python. Given that I'll have to build on this experiment, all of my coding during the Phd will probably be in Python. Even at this novice stage, that feels more satisfying than contemplating writing it in Java.

Bet chirag will have a little smug smile on his face, if he reads this. It's high time you did a few ruby libraries too, mate!

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