Thursday, May 28

Big-B or Whiz-B?

It seems that the multi-purpose national identity card (MNIC) for Indian citizens will be available by 2011. It is to be a smart card with an unique identification number that will store information about the citizens. This seems like a good project, and should eliminate the need for multiple address/identity proof documents for educational or business purposes. It could also be a useful tool in the electoral process which is still struggling with the voter identification cards. And maybe help its intended purposes of countering terrorism on Indian soil.

However, considering the scope of the project I think it will face the same fate as the voter identification cards. There are way too many people and far less infrastructure in place to create a comprehensive list and distribute cards. But the babus are on it.

The more serious concern however is that of privacy. Would having this smart card mean that the government will know what I do, buy, sell, learn, read...? Will I be required to carry it at all times and produce when requested? That is something one would associate with travelling to a foreign country. Will the government be policing our lives, instead of simply maintaining law and order? How will it ensure that the information is not abused by any government agency? I can definitely imagine a scenario where someone with influence uses it to bribe and tweak information in the database to make life difficult for someone. Can we be sure of the integrity of those with access to such crucial information? What about misuse by political parties like the MNS to determine the number of "outsiders"?

If the government can satisfactorily answer these and numerous other similar questions maybe the MNIC will be a good project. Till then I can think of nothing better than this episode of Yes Minister.

Friday, May 22

Do we have it to lose it?

Today Anand Giridharadas asks if India will lose its "charm" as it becomes 'world class.' Coincidentally I have also been reading about the Indian "heart" in Shantaram as he ponders over how it is the "heart" that really matters in India, and how that 'charm' keeps the billions from killing each other. And each time I read that I wonder if it is only a romanticised version of India, or are we really are as charming.

If you are a Punekar you are well aware of the 'impoliteness' allegations made against us. In fact, Facebook's quiz would categorize you as "overeducated, underemployed, lazy, rude to guests and think customer service is for wimps." (This in spite of the fact that people in Pune are polite, kind and hardworking. ) We are also said to be one of the worst tourists, and neither are we the most courteous of drivers. Indian languages are rich with expletives and we use them rather freely. There are mean high school girls all over India, as there are rude rowdy boys. We don't necessarily respect our minorities, poorer classes and women.

Just like any other society we have our combination of all sorts of good and bad people. So why do books and Western accounts make us seem like some exotic creatures with hearts only of gold? I would love to believe that we are unmatched in our politeness, courteousness, friendliness, dildaari... But with all my love for India and Indianess, and my patriotism I don't think that is true. We know how to love another, we know how to care and be kind, but that is just part of the story.

Friday, May 8

Saudi ban on women drivers

Very few people today can claim to be oblivious to restrictions imposed on freedoms in Middle Eastern countries. And yet sometimes stories like these can take you by surprise. A driving ban! I am no scholar on Islam, but I am sure there is nothing in the holy book that calls for a ban on women driving. I understand that curbing women's mobility is just another way of controlling them, and yet it is difficult to comprehend such laws. We are used to taking so many of our freedoms for granted, that it is difficult to imagine people living under restrictions. I hope the Saudi government realizes what it is doing and lifts the ban soon. In the meanwhile you can support and participate in the discussion at

Wednesday, May 6

Breakfast with TED

Up until a few months ago I was oblivious to the existence of TED. But thanks to my ever curious husband weekend mornings soon became 'Breakfast with TED.' Now everyday I look forward to a new talk, a new idea, a new speaker. The idea of TED is at once simple and profoundly enriching. And I regret not having known about it all these years.

While I pride myself at being an avid reader, the sheer variety of subjects that a few TED talks can expose me to is amazing. I have never picked up as diverse a variety of books, and neither can I see myself doing it. But listening to a 20 minute talk on war, and then neuroscience in the next 20 seems like a piece of cake. It is a small investment of time. It is something I can do even as I check my email. Reading a book on neuroscience would be rather time, energy and will-power intensive, and with poor interest rate that would be a rarity. But this is doable.

Not only are the ideas worth spreading and sharing, the speakers are too. Sarah Jones, Ken Robinson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jill Bolte Taylor were wonderful orators with great ideas and messages. But even the not so great orators like Iqbal Quadir with his baldness and paunch is a speaker worth sharing. His work, his ideas and the results are inspiring. It shows a selfless man who could give up a good job in the US to help his country fight poverty. But not one of those blind romantics who forget they need to feed their own families too. People like him make good examples for reformers and entrepreneurs in developing or underdeveloped countries, where grass-root homegrown efforts are crucial to progress.

TED does an applaudable job at enriching minds and I wish it grows stronger and farther in years to come.

Monday, May 4

There is a method to the madness

A very new and interesting analysis of modern war data. The results are surprising and could perhaps even provide clues to ending conflicts like Iraq. As Sean Gourley presents his 'number of attacks - people killed' graphs, they seem to defy logic. How can the number of people killed increase as the frequency of attacks goes down? The remainder of the talk provides a good explanation, and the pattern displayed begins to seem almost obvious.