Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Web @ 2010

(Business Standard gladdened my heart by asking all its columnists on the Weekend section to crystal-gazing. This was my take on the shape of the Internet circa 2010.)

Yeah, I know how the script's supposed to go. You're woken by Ali Farkatoure, picked at random from your IPod and set as an alarm on the Blackberry; as you roll out of bed, the IntelFridge SMSes Lalaji to say he'd better deliver tomato juice and eggs in ten minutes; Mozilla Firefox's TheCompetitionsToast service has programmed the toaster to produce perfect, honey-coloured slices of bread at the right time.

Gmail's GMom service has already prescreened the day's email and sent responses to several by using its database of most-often-used responses, your Concall screen is set tactfully to voice-only so that the buyers from Narita can hear your clipped accents and see your spiffy avatar instead of the real you in the shabby housecoat with slept-in hair.

Your relatives from Shekhawat are arriving at four pm, but you've Our Planeted and Google Earthed the directions to all their PDAs and the cabbie's cell. And you've pre-bought extra credits for the latest SickCity Role-Playing Game so that cousin Munna can engage in virtual shootouts with the LAPD instead of driving everyone crazy. Work's going well: the competition will take a while recovering from the hijacking of their wireless network, the first use you've made this year of the UBully service. You might use UBully again, but there's this neat offer from the local boys at Hi-Bandit Network…

Wake up and smell the Java, it's burning to a frizzle. Come 2010, the Net's going to be a) faster and b) unpredictable. Back when the music industry was screaming its guts out over music downloads, no one predicted the iPod; three years ago, when an amusing curiosity called the Wiki popped up, no one predicted that it would become the world's default encylopaedia—and no one predicted today's Wiki wars, as users vie to get their version of truth, lies and statistics on record. No one predicted the rise of blogs; no one knows how far podcasts and vlogs (video blogs) or collablogs (collaborative blogs) will take the medium. No one predicted that the biggest challenge to Microsoft and Explorer would come from a small operation called Mozilla Firefox. On the plus side, several experts did predict the shift of the Net from the desktop to mobile services, the rise of voice communications and the steady march of spam.

Some of the stuff outlined in that cozy vision of Internet 2010 will happen—but whoever writes the script for the web of the future is likely to be more Charles Addams than Disney. Here's a tour of some of the exhibits you might find in the bad new world. It was only in 2009 that art critic R'Ash Li vlogged his pathbreaking insight into spam as great art. He saw spammers, a reviled, despised community, as the last torchbearers of genuine creativity, reexamined the semiotics of the original Nigerian Scam letters and reframed them as the elegant anti-hegemonistic pleas of the dispossessed. Dubbing spam the great Dada, or Boro-Dada, movement of its times, he started the Spamuseum. Here you can find the early drafts of the Penis Patch poems, the angst of a civilization revealed in the haiku-like pitches for time-share estates, university degrees and Rolex watches. Since the early wave of amateur phishers, hackers and virus-creators was replaced in 2007 by government-approved corporate hacks, legitimate spyware and pre-approved bank phishes, the nostalgia for spam has been growing. Spamuseum is doing well, though the Boro-Dada movement has been rocked by Mej-Dada, the breakaway group who want equal recognition for chain letter creators and joke forwarders. . From the Manifesto of the first Silent Nighters: "We hailed Voice Chat, not knowing that in Skype and Google Talk, verily, we had sealed our doom; we sayeth aye to streaming radio when we shouldest have sayeth nay; in the darkness of our ignorance we moved from the written to the spoken word and the Lord Our God visited the Tower of Babel upon us in Her Wrath. Our PDAs chatter, our portable flatscreen folders maketh unceasing noise, advertisements and jingles pour out of every mobile device. This hell is of our making—unmake it. Say no to voice, return your Screens to the God-given Silence of the Berner-Lee era; come back to the purity of lines of chat on the azure blue of the Telnet screen. Take the Vow of the Mute Button with us." Though initially popular, the Silent Nighters were helpless against the wave of sound—voice chat, podcasts, ads, music, soundtracks, conferencing—that drowned the silent Net. They may still be around, but they're keeping mum on their future plans. Not to be confused with the popular WhoAreWe site, for victims of multiple personality disorder, WhoAmI was started by Blogger ?. This legendary unfortunate had been subjected to repeated attacks of online identity theft, until finally in late 2007, he was informed by two governments, his bank, his old school, his wife, his office and serendipitously, the Income Tax Department, that he did not exist. "We live online; our identities are virtual; our Amazon Shopping History, our RSS feeds, our passwords, our porn preferences, our birth, marriage and death certificates, our employee histories are all a click away. Lose that identity, as I did, and you will pass from confusion to acceptance and finally, receive enlightenment."

WhoAmI is the top blog of 2010. It has attracted and enfranchised those erased by mistake from their bank's records, those erased deliberately by bitter ex-lovers and those who had their IDs—traumatically—overwritten by the IDs of wanted terrorists of the same name or body type. Its sister dating site, WeToo, is hugely popular but ran into controversy when it was discovered several people had dated rogue avatars from multiplayer games who were taking refuge at WhoAmI. Conflict resolution is impossible—forget the identity of the accused, the identity of the victims has never been established to anyone's satisfaction.

http://CCR/riotpage/memorial.htm One of the darkest pages in the history of the web has found a permanent bookmark here. Call centre employees, for long the happiest coolies in the history of the labour movement, felt stigmatized when they became the only group of humans to be officially "deskshackled". Because of the nature of their work, they were banned from using mobile devices or flatscreen folders, becoming the only workers left on earth who actually had to use desktop computers.

They secretly joined forces with the Laddite movement—anti-child labour activists protesting the practice of implanting PDAs in children's hands so that they could put in longer working hours. On May 1, 2010, the infamous Call Centre Revolt started with the burning of desktop machines, but rapidly went out of control. By the end of the day, 17 Grade 1B Arties (Artificial Intelligence beings, allowed to have bank accounts and marry but not vote), 46 Hello Dolly clones and one self-help seminar expert had been terminated. Except for the self-help seminarian, naturally, the rest were deeply mourned. Call Centre employees are now allowed to use flexiscreens, but are given the option of being legshackled to prevent free movement or wearing sound implants that blast Rabbi Remixed Rap at them if they try to sneak out of the centre—99 per cent opted for the shackles.

The Best of 2005: Non-fiction

(Not that this was comprehensive to begin with, but this year-end look at non-fiction shrank even more on the page. Carried in the Business Standard, December 2005. I did a fiction round-up too, but can't find that in my archives--will post if it turns up.)

According to S H Steinberg, the first printed book that might be considered a bestseller was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, which ran into 99 editions between 1471 and 1500. Europe's bestselling author in the 16th century was unquestionably Martin Luther; by 1774, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther had provided the European market with the first book we would still recognize as a fiction bestseller. The USA had to wait till the 19th century for its first bestselling author in the shape of James Fenimore Cooper.

It's a fair bet that none of those authors, from Thomas a Kempis to Goethe to Cooper, had any idea that their early literary success would eventually spawn a separate industry of its own—listmaking. I should be immune to the virus of bestseller lists, lists of the best books of the year and eclectic lists of gift books, but I catch the bug every year despite my best intentions. Here's a list—highly selective, of necessity--of the most interesting non-fiction books of the year.

Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) grabbed the popular imagination, though several critics found his analysis of Globalisation 3.0 lacking in futurist detail. There were fewer quibbles with Steven D Levitt's brilliant and provocative Freakonomics (HarperCollins), with its comparisons between management structures in crack gangs and other businesses, and its analysis of whether Baby Einstein toys really produce smarter kids (not really, say Levitt and Dubner). John Battelle's The Search (Penguin USA) was a fascinating if slightly wide-eyed peek at what drives Google, the world's largest search engine.

For those in search of more rigorous intellectual fare, books on science and technology did the job. There are too many to name in this column, but here's a look at the best. God Created the Integers (Running Press), edited by Stephen Hawking, looks at 31 milestones in the history of mathematical thought, roaming through the lives of 17 mathematicians. Jared Diamond's Collapse (Viking) was possibly one of the most influential books to be published this year. He asks a deceptively simple question—what caused some of the world's great civilizations to collapse, and what can we learn from them—and, as always, comes up with challenging answers. I have a soft spot for Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale (Houghton Mifflin) because he chooses to tell the tale of our ancestors by using Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as a literary model for the lessons to be learned from bacterium, peacocks and rodents. And Ray Kurzweil's dazzling The Singularity Is Near (Viking) should be required reading for anyone who's wondered when the frontiers between man and machine will be crossed; he imagines a future containing everything from nanotechnology implants to meatspace brains uploaded into the Net to create the ultimate wetware.

The great Bombay, Patna and Calcutta books this year were all in the fiction category; but if you're looking for city memoirs, two names: Pamuk and Berendt. Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul (Knopf) crosscuts between literature, personal history and geography to create a portrait of the artist as a young man in an ageing city. John Berendt's City of Falling Angels (Penguin USA) takes the masks off Venice; he does a nice outsider-as-insider number and comes up with more gossip than a Delhi socialite on her sixth Cosmopolitan. My favourite travel book this year, though, was probably the offbeat and thoroughly entertaining cricket odyssey, Pundits from Pakistan (Picador), by Rahul Bhattacharya. Mishi Saran’s Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin) set her on the trail of Xuanjang; this year, two Chinese monks have announced their intention to follow in his footsteps, and it should be interesting to compare their account of the journey with Saran’s.

If you have room for only two food books this year, don't miss Lizzie Collingham's entertaining history of Curry (Chatto & Windus) and Madhur Jaffrey's recollection of a life built on scent, texture and taste, Climbing The Mango Trees (Ebury). The works of John Keay form a small library within my library, but even so I was glad to add The Spice Route (John Murray), a competent look at the origins of the fascination with clove, cinnamon and the other spices of the Orient and early globalization, to the list. It should be read in tandem with Simon Schama's Rough Crossings (BBC Books): the brutal cost of trade hinted at by Keay is at the heart of Schama's account of how the promise of freedom for slaves turned into a rough, racial deportation. In a strange but compelling exploration, Sumathi Rangaswamy tells the story of The Lost Land of Lemuria (Permanent Black), the imaginary land supposed to have bridged India and Africa.

The best thing about Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian (Viking India) is the argument it's kicked off: the book has been discussed and debated by everyone from Ramachandra Guha to Pankaj Mishra, proving at least one of his contentions, about the strong tradition of debate in India. A far lighter read, but one with resonances for Indians brought up on a diet of Jeeves and Wooster, is Robert McCrum's biography of Plum-- Wodehouse: A Life (Viking).

If I had to pick one defining genre for the year, it would be biography and memoir. Hanif Kureishi's My Ear At His Heart (Faber) brings together his father's unpublished novels with the often pugilistic tale of his own journey as a writer. Ira Pande mined her own memories, family accounts and translated her mother’s stories and writings for Diddi (Penguin India), a collage of voices that wonderfully captures her mother, the Hindi writer Shivani, whom her children knew as Diddi. Vikram Seth muted his own voice in Two Lives (Viking India) to the point of invisibility, to tell the quiet story of his uncle and aunt, two ordinary people caught in the grip of World War Two. And two writers map different landscapes of loss and love with poignant and marvelously written memoirs: Joan Didion (Knopf) in The Year of Magical Thinking and Timeri Murari with his tale of losing an adopted child to another family in My Temporary Son (Penguin India).

That is still the stuff of normal lives. Alexander Masters' Stuart: A Life Backwards (Fourth Estate) tracks a homeless man's story from his dark childhood to moments of epiphany on the streets, brought to an abrupt close when Stuart kills himself in 2002. And Tom Reiss goes in search of The Orientalist (Chatto and Windus), the mysterious Kurban Said, bestselling author of a romance set in Azerbaijan and published in 1970.

And if none of this appeals, all I can do is to direct you to The Complete New Yorker (Random House), the eight-DVD set that contains eighty years worth of issues. That should take care of the reading list for 2006.

Last Word: XXX rated

(For the Kolkata Telegraph, December 2005)

In Nepal, by the Pokhra lake, the locals will nod at the benches strewn around and explain cheerfully that these are for courting couples. You see them everywhere, young boys and girls looking into each other's eyes, or just quietly conversing. There's an unspoken line that doesn't seem to be crossed: no passionate kissing, no fumbling at clothes. But they're content. "Even in public, we need some space for ourselves, madam," one boy explains.

Galle in Sri Lanka is famous for its "umbrella lovers"; courting couples discreetly shielded by umbrellas, scattered all over the ramparts of the fort. The height of the umbrella is a good indicator of the intensity of the relationship: in the more private nooks and crannies, the umbrellas will be slung low, affording a measure of privacy to couples who can't keep their hands off each other. If the lovemaking proceeds too far, someone will gently tell off the boy and the girl, but otherwise locals turn a blind eye to small gestures of intimacy. "Your blood sings that way only when you're young, no? Good to let them sing, but not too loud."

You don't have to look to the West if you're looking for sanction for young love. The Nepal tradition of courting couples is borrowed, locals admit, at least partly from "foreign films"—but that "foreign" label includes Bollywood cinema. Galle sets its limits, or relaxes them, according to prevailing Lankan—not Western—norms of morality. It's only in India that we refuse to look at our own traditions clearly and dismiss the entire idea of public displays of affection as a Western import.

This week, the Meerut police triumphantly carried out Operation Majnu—"cleaning up" parks and public spaces by pouncing on hapless young couples (defined as any boy and girl seen together who weren't actually blood relatives) and slapping them around in the name of morality. Operation Majnu has been denounced by almost everyone—including some of the supposedly "conservative" parents of those traumatized teenagers.

But ask most Indians what they consider acceptable romantic behaviour for any couple, adolescent or middle-aged, and watch the confusion. In many urban circles, friends will greet each other quite casually with a hug or a kiss. In many of our supposedly cosmopolitan cities, though, even a middle-aged couple holding hands on the road might face disapproval or lewd comment. Chennai has recently adopted a Quakerish disapproval of dancing—what, people touching each other in public, and enjoying themselves?

So what's publicly acceptable behaviour? Shaking hands, yes; a hug between two people of opposite genders, no? Is it all right for married couples to kiss in public, provided they have attested copies of the marriage certificate at hand to flourish at guardians of morality? Would engaged couples be allowed a peck on the cheek in public so long as they refrained from locking lips? If it was considered inappropriate for unmarried men and women to exchange a hug, would a gay-hetero embrace be exempt from moral scrutiny?

Operations like Majnu teach teenagers nothing except that they need to sneak around more and that they don't deserve privacy. We should have been teaching these young adults that respect for themselves and their partners is as much part of love as is passion and raging hormones; instead, we're teaching them that love itself is a dirty word.

The BS Column: Bedtime stories

(For Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, 5th December 2005)

For a country that's obsessed with sex, we have a terrible track record when it comes to writing about it.

This year's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award was won by Giles Coren for a passage that had the male protagonist gasping and glugging as other bits of him leaped around "like a shower dropped in an empty bath". But Tarun Tejpal kept the Indian flag flying, with a passage from The Alchemy of Desire that featured burning cores, peaks and valleys and The Last Tango of Labia Minora.

Tejpal's nomination was unfair; he didn't plumb the depths in the manner of previous authors of Indian origin who've made it to the dreaded shortlist. Unlike Aniruddha Bahal, the 2003 winner, he made no unfortunate comparisons between women and cars: "She picks up a Bugatti's momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen's steady trot." Unlike Salman Rushdie (nominated for The Moor's Last Sigh and again this year for Shalimar the Clown), he had no clunky references to perspiration: "For ever they sweated pepper 'n' spices sweat."

Unlike Siddhartha Dhanvant Shanghvi, Tejpal offered no descriptions of "weasel-like loins clutching and unclutching [his] lovely, long, louche manhood, as though squeezing an orange for its juice". And he eschewed toothbrushes all together, unlike Arundhati Roy, who was nominated years ago for a passage from the God of Small Things that featured "nut-brown breasts" that wouldn't support a toothbrush and haunches that would support "a whole array" thereof. Rohinton Mistry hasn't featured on the shortlist, but some of his aura lost its sheen when I read a passage in A Fine Balance that referred to a menacing seducer's "Bhojpuri brinjal". It made baingan bharta out of that scene.

There are fifty different ways to write bad sex, and Indian writers have explored all of them. There's the Washing Machine Manual variety—bland and overly descriptive, as in the works of Shobha De (move from position Y to position Z, insert body part here) or Khushwant Singh (all women have buttocks like tanpuras) or Abha Dawesar (where gynecology replaces emotion). There's the Lyrical Effusion, as exemplified by Shanghvi, where Mills and Boon prose goes a shade of deep purple: "Aw, Lord, it was only love. Thick as molasses; hungry as a leech." There's the inept metaphor—think Bahal and his Bugatti; and the empty cliché—Tejpal's "burning core", that old M&B standby.

So much for the land of the Kamasutra—but then that drily descriptive manual, so unerotic in its obsession with classification, may have been responsible for at least one strain of Indian Bad Sex writing. Some of the blame might lie with mistranslation; writers who have ghazals or Tamil erotic poetry on the brain struggling to translate those images into a language less tolerant of effusion. But the trouble with Indian writing about sex is that we take it too seriously, and too literally. And we write about sex the way we write biography, with the disapproving ghosts of our families looking over the writer's shoulder.

Kalpana Swaminathan understands that one aspect of writing about sex is employing the right contrast. Clarice is obsessed with keeping herself "pure, so help me Jesus". The deluge of poisonous memories and filth that she vomits up in one passage is neatly balanced by a catalogue of the beautiful, silky lingerie that she keeps with fastidious care. It's the contrast that makes Clarice, Swaminathan's character, so real.

Ruchir Joshi understood another aspect of writing about sex: it's not about the body, but the mind. In The Last Jet Engine Laugh , Paresh and Magali begin to make love. But as he bends to Magali's body, what's important is the story Paresh wants to tell—about his mother, Suman, and why she refused to marry his father the first time he asked her. Suman and Mahadev's story unspools through the lovemaking, the track running in parallel in Paresh's head as he sees images of his mother leaping for the last time back across the narrow galli that separates her roof from Mahadev's: "…She felt, for a moment, like a kite that had been cut loose." Suman does not sing at Mahadev's wedding; years later, she becomes his second wife, at a quiet ceremony--perhaps she dreams of kites.

It's like the passage from Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay , where Sartaj and his estranged wife mourn the death of their marriage across a marathon, four-page-long lovemaking scene. Like Joshi, Chandra knows the secret of writing good sex: if you're writing about the body, remember that it's all in the head.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Last Word: Home, alone

(For The Kolkata Telegraph, December 3rd, 2005)

The testimony of 24,000 women across ten countries confirms one of the nastier truths about violence against women: the home is the last place where women are safe.

Though India wasn't one of the countries covered in this landmark survey by WHO, the findings in these countries--Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand, and Tanzania—showed strikingly similar patterns to what happens here.

Abuse is a great leveller. The effects of violence were the same regardless of whether the women came from urban or rural backgrounds, or whether they came from high or low income families. Women who had suffered abuse or violence at the hands of their partners tended not to report the abuse; aside from physical health problems, they also suffered long-term mental health problems and tended to be in poorer health for years afterwards. (Fewer men suffer domestic violence, but the ones who do are even less likely to report it than women—they are twice victimized.)

Experts say that the findings of the study mean that we need to rethink our public health policies worldwide, and start seeing domestic violence as a serious health risk. More than that, the study indicates the many stereotypes through which we view violence against women.

The strongest image of violence against women is the "stranger" rape—combining the fear of the outsider with the fear of sexual assault. The statistics on rape tell a different story: most rapes are carried out by men who know their victim well. The average rapist is more likely to be a family member, a neighbour or an acquaintance than an absolute stranger. And though rape is a terrible crime, the average woman is actually at greater risk of facing assault, sexual abuse and violence at the hands of partners, husbands or family members.

But that violence is not something that most of us want to see or acknowledge. As a former colleague demonstrated once, the doors of silence close faster on the home than on any other place. This woman, a senior editor, was a woman who walked into doors a lot: we knew that she and her husband had what was euphemistically called a troubled relationship. She arrived at office one day with bruises too visible to be easily explained away.

Three of us, all in relationships where we had never faced and couldn't imagine the kind of casual abuse she was clearly going through, gently confronted her and asked if we could help. "I can't leave," she said, citing the usual reasons—she loved him, there were the kids, he wasn't really a violent man. When one of us remonstrated, she flung back: "It's my marriage; I don't ask you what happens behind closed doors." We watched her go home, to another round of abuse and battering, helplessly.

Now I wonder where that helplessness came from. We would have thought nothing of intervening if we'd seen her getting beaten up on the street. "It's a private affair, it's her home life; it's none of our business," many of us said. But the WHO study contradicts that. Domestic violence is a public health matter; if you aren't safe in your own home, where can you be safe? That is everyone's business.

Play that funky malware, live!

(Written for the Business Standard, November 30, 2005)

Among the albums Sony released last month on CDs backed with its patented DRM (Digital Rights Management) system were Suspicious Activity by Bad Plus, Nothing is Sound by Switchfoot and Invisible Invasions by The Coral.

Prophetic titles. On October 31, Mark Russinovich discovered that Sony's CDs installed a rootkit on computer systems. Rootkits are hacker tools, designed to hide "malware"; if you tried to uninstall Sony's rootkit, Windows crashed. Sony is now at the centre of an epic PR disaster. Its stealth DRM systems were designed to prevent unauthorised copying of CDs, but they created serious security holes in the user's system, and allowed data to be transferred back—not just to Sony, but to any other hacker willing to exploit the vulnerabilities opened up by the malware.

In effect, if you played a CD encrypted with Sony's new DRM software, you had just blown the security system of your computer sky high. As geek after geek discovered, the rootkit is fiendishly hard to remove—Sony's own malware patch opened new gaping holes in computer security systems. Sony is one of the world's most respected companies, but its response was appalling: first it denied and played down the problem, then it stopped shipping CDs but failed to pull the offending CDs off the racks.

In the face of growing anger from fans and musicians and a score of lawsuits in the US and Europe, Sony is finally coming to grips with the debacle. It should be stressed that Sony's stealth malware didn't just create privacy problems—it constituted a serious security threat.

Pity the ordinary music lover. Caught between downloading pirated music or being nuked by malware distributed by the record company, what are the options?

1) CD-buying: Check to see if the CD will play only on a proprietory system or if the CD is digitally encrypted with DRM/ CP (Content-Protection) systems. If either of these is true, don't buy it. You wouldn't have bought a record that played on only one kind of player; don't do it with a CD. You wouldn't buy malware-ridden software—don't do it with CDs either. If you are going to play a music CD, read the EULA—the End User License Agreement—it may be thousands of words of fine print, but it should list any spyware-like properties and tell you if something is being installed on your system.

2) Music downloads: I can't recommend the many file-sharing networks that sprung up in Napster's wake, because several are illegal and also bundle spyware onto your system. If you must, try Shareazaa. It isn't spyware-riddled, but it's like buying pirated CDs in Malaysia or Sri Lanka—if you get in trouble, you're on your own. Legal options include the iTunes music store, the Real Networks music store and a score of others, which typically charge 99 c per song. All of them use their own DRM protection; we can't vouch for Sony, but the iTunes DRM systems are regarded as fairly benign.

3) For broadband babies: If you're on broadband or a good WiFi network, you're probably already plugged into streaming radio and Podcasts. Many media players offer ways to record the stream legally; Podcasts can be recorded. Existing radio playlists can be downloaded and modified by the listener. The sound quality isn't great, but radio playlist recording and modification is already a popular way to listen to music.

3) The direct route: Many sophisticated users go directly to musicians' websites and download their music from there, cutting out the middleman. This has a downside: many bands and artists don't yet have an online presence, or don't own their music. But more artists are moving in this direction, and some websites, like Calabash Music, have been offering music from small, independent world musicians for a while now.

I know; these options aren't great. The best of them is actually the streaming radio boom and the growth of online music stores. But the music industry has been protecting its rights by holding the customer hostage. Until they figure out a new way to do business, you'll have to see whether you can afford the high cost of doing business with them.
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