Thursday, June 16, 2005

I am moving!

I checked out MSN Spaces and it rocks! Its all that I wanted from Blogger and much more. Its awesome and I am moving my blog out there.

These are the new coordinates for my brand of paranoia on the web.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Great (fire)Wall of China

The blogging world has been turned upside down over reports that Microsoft and Google (amongst many other companies, for a list look here) have bowed to the Chinese government in their effort to curtail free speech and post only 'appropriate' content on their blogs on MSN spaces and are treated to only those news pages that have been stripped off sensitive content. It has been reported that sensitive words such as "democracy" or "human rights" result in error messages and do not show up in posts (I am not sure if this is in the title of the post or in the body, reports vary) on the chinese version of MSN Spaces. Google too has suitably altered their news pages so that they do not provide the 'dissident' chinese with 'inflammatory and incidiary' content. They have joined hands with the Chinese government in their effort to build the The Great (fire)Wall of China.

Robert Scoble, numero uno blogger of Microsoft defends his company here
Rebecca MacKinnon rips apart his arguments here and makes many valid points about Chinese culture and is sort of inline with a point that I made many posts ago of the lack of effort in understanding foreign cultures. Read this, its very interesting. There is also an update clarifying a few issues [here].
Dan Gillmor asks - "Microsoft and Google, like so many others, rose to enormous wealth and influence by leveraging the freedom they enjoy in the United States. They may be serving their shareholders' interests. But what they're doing is not honorable. Why does money trump honor? Is this really the American way?". Listen to his post here

Given that "MSN Spaces is not exactly my idea of a new form of journalism that will set the world free and change the geopolitical landscape for decades to come" (from the comments section in Dan's blog) - I agree with this point but one should look at the bigger picture of cencorship of speech and access rights to any and all information and that of corporations siding with this form of oppression and making money in the process.

Meanwhile, Rick Segal sighs and says, "Its hard to be an American"

To end it all, a very nice wrap up by Shelley Powers [here]

Some people have started to test how free is speech on the web here in the US and have discovered that MSN spaces also clamps down on usage of certain words, words that are synonymous with the porn industry. Certain combinations are allowed and certain others aren't. People who want to get around will always will. Scoble asks if its cencosrship if I can still get my point across without using sensitive words. I think banning certain words (I am talking about the US MSN Spaces) is okay given that the words deal mostly with the porn industry and MSN spaces have no age verification scheme in place and is accessible even my pre-teens and kids. If innocent looking combinations are not allowed to pass through, then I guess one better swallow the pill and re-write your post title - its the intention matters here - a scammer can have a perfectly innocent title and banned content in the body while normal bloggers can use 'dangerous' titles for socially sensitive topics such as "Prostitution and the Law".

I also am of the opinion that MSFT took a monetary decision that allowed them to do business in a new country - they are not in the business of revoltion but in that of computer technology which they want to push into an emerging market. Operating in a different country means that you obey the law of the land or just pack up and go home. First amendment activists often forget that the same oppression makes it possible for Chinese goods to be half the price of US produced goods and americans have embraced these goods making Wal-mart, Apple and dozens of other companies very profitable in the process. Three guesses why US trade deficit with China is so high.

You can't oppress them in one way and balk at oppressing them in an other way. And wondering whether the average citizen is truly free on account of whether he can include certain combinations of words on MSN spaces blog posts and using that as being representative of his right to free speech is rather lame.

Go here to read Dare Obssanjo's (he works for MSN Spaces) post on this issue. It clarifies what content they are exactly monitoring and what it means to operate a common platform for users of all ages across countries and languages when each one's definitions of appropriateness is defined by prevalent local culture.

I am going to put an end to this topic. Enough said!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Eastern Front: World War II

I have been reading this awesome memoir of Germany's greatest generals on the Eastern Front - General Ehard Raus, its called "Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945" and is compiled and translated by Steven H. Newton, a professor of history at the Delaware State University. By war's end, Raus had earned a reputation as one of Germany's foremost tacticians of armored warfare and was considered a prized catch when he was captured by the U.S. He wrote this detailed memoir in US captivity. The book is all about armored military strategy and is recommended for all who are interested in strategic warfare.

What I like about this book:
very analytical, paints a complete picture of both armies at each battle - right from the number of men, artillery pieces, tanks, reserves etc (this means remembering who is who and where they came from. For eg., 320th infantry division, 6th panzer division etc.). Before you start to groan, this book is replete with analysis, both pre and post. He gives a lot of credit to refining soviet tactics as the war progressed. He makes an analysis of what it means to invade a country and one as unique and immensely huge as the Soviet Union. He analyzes the socio-political situation in soviet Russia during those years and even comments on the economic might of the Soviet Union - its massive collosal army, the never ending tank production lines - its almost limitless industrial capapcity far outdoing Germany's resources that were stretched thin between Africa, Western Europe and Russia. He gives very good insights into how the Soviets fought and made use of the fact that they outnumbered the Germans in all modes of combat. You should read the book to appreciate this lopsided battle and how the Soviet Union rallied around and started to push the Wehrmacht out of Russian soil. Raus gives credit where its due to the Russians. He also gives you some sense of the number of soldiers required to fight and maintain a line that at one time was along the entire breadth of Russia. No commentary of the Eastern Front is complete without tales of the winter war and its telling effect on German soldiers. Raus camped 26 miles out of Moscow in the winter with his unit being hit with 800 casualties every day owing to the cold. At that rate, he estimates, that his division would have been reduced to a 'band of brothers' within 7 days! His analysis of the Russian winter counter offensives are admirable and he points out that the Wehrmacht retreat from Russia was at no time a rout. Germans inflicted huge and heavy losses on the Russians even while on the retreat but they themselves were so dimished in strength that making a stand was not a viable option.

What I don't like about the book:
Maps - a severe paucity of them renders the book very dry and leaves to the imagination of the reader battles that were fought at different cities with nothing to differentiate or identify them but general directions such as to the south of Stalingrad. You will have to read certain battles more than once to truly appreciate them.
Advice: stick to it and try to imagine it and you'll be plesantly surprised as to the wealth of information you will get.
This general obviously did not fight in all the battles and therefore some battles like those for Stalingrad and Leningrad are absent. He does make references to them of course to cite the magnitude of German losses (an entire army of around 300,000 men. I am not sure of the losses in equipment). You will find more than enough information in many other battles like those of Kharkov, Kursk (Operation Zitadelle), battles for the Ukraine, the Kiev salient, Lvov and finally Pomerania (in these battles, german panzer divisions fought at tank ratios 1:20 in favor of the russians).

Just to give you an idea of the lopsided nature of most Russian battles: consider Operation Zitadelle (the battle of Kursk). Here are the numbers for each of the armies that clashed for this city that was the industrial and economical heart of the Ukraine.
Germany:In total they assembled some 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 800,000 men.
Russia: The Red Army laid over 400,000 landmines and dug about 5,000 kilometers of trenches, with positions as far back as 175km from the front line. In addition they massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft.

Operation Zitadelle did not achieve the outlined objectives and is generally considered a german tactical loss.

Casuality figures: Just from the battle of Kursk, the Soviets lost 322 tanks (more than half of them beyond repair), had more than 1000 dead and an additional 2500 missing or wounded. German losses reached less than 20% of that.
Of the total casulaties from the entire operation, the losses sort of looked the same - 60,000 dead and missing (germany) and 70,330 for Russia. But what these figures don't tell you is that the Germans didn't have manpower left after taking losses that ran at roughly 3:5 in their favor. The soviets through the lend-lease program and owing to their advantage in numbers were able to bounce back.

More later. I really should change the template to include categories so that I can open one just for the Eastern Front. Anybody want to help me out on this one?

Jackson to Change Lifestyle

Read my previous post [here]
In my previous Jackson post, I completely left out the pornography and sex toys that he let the children come into contact with. Pretty abnormal eh?

Read story [here]

Jackson, now says that he is going to change his lifestyle and refrain from sharing his bed with young boys so as not to be vulnerable again. Whoa! hold on a second. Who is the victim here - Jackson or Gavin Arvizo, the 13 year old who accused Jackson of molestation. It sounds like the kid is a gold digger and Jackson is an innocent victim whose senisitive, caring nature has been irrepairably hurt by these baseless accusations against his moral character. With reference to my previous post, atleast kids are most probably not going to sleep with Jackson anymore. Thats a great development if you ask me.

I also looked at the lead that I left open - the british journalist who started it all. His name is Martin Bashir and he was sued by Jackson for 'breach of contract and breach of confidence over the film'. Jackson, in an attempt to offset the huge legal costs he has accrued, is all set to re-open his legal battle with Bashir.
Learn more about the original film 'Living with Michael Jackson' and other Martin Bashir news here.

He is apparently rumored to be performing at the Live 8 concert either at London or at Philadelphia and is also considering a world tour aptly called 'Framed'. Jackson's debts and legal costs must be quite high for him to affect a miraculously quick recovery from his recurrent back problem and mount a world tour. Its all in the image - the sensitive, caring, children loving benevolent pop star crushed under these accusations suffers from moral scarring and even leaves him in poor physical health. A pretty picture of innocence don't you think?

And life goes on....

Seeing Is Believing

1. Click on the image to view it in a better resolution. Save it on your computer.
2. Open it in any photo editor that gives you the RGB values at a particular mouse position (like IrfanView)
3. You can also open it in MSPaint and use the ink dropper tool to see what color is a particular region.
4. Using either of the two tools, observe the RGB value of the sqare marked B is exactly the same as that of the square marked A. yet, 'B' looks a lot lighter than 'A'.

Can you explain why?

Answer will be up in two days. Its an interesting question. I am sure people googling it will find the answers but this is not about testing Google but your ability to come up with convincing answers.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Jackson hobbles away a free man

[story here]

Michael Jackson, accused of molestation and attempting to seduce a boy by providing him with alcohol - a total of 10 different charges were filed against him, hobbled away a free man. For 14 weeks, the two sides presented their arguments and listened to testimonials and the jury of 8 women and 4 men took 7 days to set him free on all ten counts. He apparently was motionless as the 'not guilty' was handed out for each of the ten counts and in a restrained manner hobbled out of the court room, huggled his family and close escort, got into his motorcade and drove away - completely free.

This is what I find so shameful in this verdict -
assuming that Jackson was 'truly' innocent and with God as his witness, did not touch the children, ply them with alcohol or take advantage of them in any manner that may be deemed inappropriate - he still solicited mothers to send their kids to his ranch so that they can spend the nights with him in his bedroom. This was proven and is as undisputable as the fact that he took a bath with some of them (of course, with the best of itentions). The jury might have taken this as a sign of his 'love' towards children and in light of the character tainting his lawyers indulged in (this is a common practice to dismiss the arguments of your opponent - reduce credibility by tainting his character) might have thrown the accuser's case out of the window. But what they cannot deny is the abnormal behavior or preference on Jackson's part to sleep and bathe with children other than his own (even if they were his own, this practice is inappropriate after a certain age). And what I think is tragic is that none of the jurors thought of that before setting him free with all honor and respect that is due to him. They didn't quite fathom that acts such as these are not within the confines of normal human behavior and this was evident in that they didn't even find him guilty of something like a third degree misdemeanor and issue him a warning. He may have been truly not guilty of molesting those kids (including his accuser) but the way he chose to spend his time with those children sure was unnatural. One of my friends drew my attention to a certain BBC interviewer by the name of Basheer (or some similar name) who in an interview a year or two earlier (at around the time these rumors first surfaced) made the same comments and added that Jackson in all his star wisdom just didn't get it - its abnormal/unnatural to get kids to sleep or bathe with you. The Jackson camp sued him for libel and slander a little while later with the outcome being unknown to me. Will my enlightened readers leave me a comment if they know more about that story?

So, another 'landmark' judgement has been handed out and another page in our judicial history has been turned. Are you surprised? No sir, I am not.

An apt quote from the recent movie "The Cinderella Man", "If they take this long to decide, they usually decide to screw somebody".

Monday, June 06, 2005

China's hunt for oil

Obviously the US is not the only country which looks for oil and resources leaving no stone unturned. Its just they are either most vocal about it or they make all the headlines everywhere.

Look here for China's largely silent (silent in the media but hardly unnoticed) hunt for oil. I must say they have been pretty ingenious in acquiring so many leads all over the world. No wonder the US is jittery about its oil reserves and the ones it controls. I really can't blame them.

Its Official: Apple goes with Intel

I have this long post in mind where I will link interested readers to relevant posts and my thoughts on Apple deciding to go with Intel, what it means for the market, developers, its carefully cultivated brand image, other products like the iPod and possibly new products that we haven't seen from Apple.

After work maybe?

[Link] Apple said is was making the move to x86 architecture chips because they offer more power and better efficiency. Where art thou oh technology pundit who oft immersed thyself in lengthy diatribes against Intel architecture as compared to the PowerPC architecture? According to this news report, one main motivation behind the switch is because IBM has not yet been able to produce versions of the G5 chip, used in Apple's desktop G5 machines, which are suitable for Apple laptops without overheating. This was also attributed to the fact that it just wasn't profitable for IBM to spend millions of dollars in developing the new laptop version of the G5 just to satisfy 2.3% of the global market share. Their (IBM-Apple) relationship has been stormy and has finally has been dissolved.

Apple, on the other hand, moved from their OS 9 onto a UNIX based platform in their OS X and now have moved onto Intel chips. Doesn't it seem like they are trying a few populist measures (they make sound economic sense too) to break out of the niche (read as 'hole') they have carved for themselves? Intel makes so many different kinds of processors that are suited for the mobile laptop segment that such a move seems logical in retrospect given the intention to break out and capture more of the market.

more later. so much to say and so little time to say it in.

The US on Iran-Pakistan-India gas deal and on human rights violations by China

A project to pipe gas to India from Iran via Pakistan could begin next year, India's oil minister says. Mani Shankar Aiyer has said, "It may not have become reality but has become a certainity".

Who'd you expect to throw 'reservations' into this seemingly prosperous (financially and politically) deal?
Who else? The US of course!

Mr Aiyer dismissed US reservations over the purchase of gas from Iran and said Pakistan and India would not accept any pressure in this regard. I think he should just disregard US concern/interest/opinion on this issue.

I also read here that the US had called upon China to come clean on its human rights violations in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in which security forces apparently used exessive force in clearing an apparently peaceful student demonstration. What happened there was indeed a tragedy, I am not condoning the act of using armed force against students protesting against the communist party but for the US Secretary of state to issue a statement calling for China to 'come clean' on this issue is, I think, going too far. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said the US should pay more attention to its own human rights violations. I think this reply is befitting of the dichotomous reality of human rights violations by the US. They talk a great deal about it but in practice mostly never seem to adhere to it. Its not enough to have policies that deal with human rights violations if none from your own side really follow it and it definitely doesn't justify booking someone for similar offenses.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Colloquial Speech

I finally decided to do something about my bad colloquial speech (which I think has gotten worse after I came to the United States). I have been observing how people speak in public (I don't mean on a public platform but just amongst themselves) and have come to the conclusion that I have picked up what I have been hearing around me. I am determined to get rid of some of the 'figures of speech' that I seem to have picked up. Let me very briefly list a partial taxonomy of most common words that pepper (and in some cases, even drown) conversations -

1. By far, this is THE most irritating and aggravating word - Like
It seems so innocuous and small but people use it so often for everything that my blood boils whenever I hear it. I live in a small laid back college town and all I hear from every 16-22 year old college student is 'like'. Its range of applicability is jaw dropping. It is used as a substitute for so many articles that it really boggles the mind (mine atleast).
"She's like blah blah", "He's like blah blah" and the frequency with which they throw this word into any and all sentences could outgun any AK-47. Thankfully, I do not have this habit.

2. basically

3. I mean

Both 'basically'' and 'I mean' are used more often when attempting to explain oneself in a clearer manner than the first time when all you did was confuse your listener. But, overused and improperly application have reduced its efficacy and is seen as noting more than an irritating filler.

4. actually
I guess this is used to resolve some ambiguity but....

5. "you know" or "you know what I mean?"
this is most often used when the speaker, halfway thorough making his point, decides that he has said enough and prompts the listener to get the point quickly. This too is over used to over simplify speech.

Most of these words and their kind are intended to simplify speech and are used to connect sentences in a manner of preserving continuity of thought and speech but all they do, when overused and improperly applied, is to make speech and an intelligent exchange of ideas more difficult and aggravating.

I will add more as I come across them. Intelligent readers, please add more in the comments. I shall put them in the main post with due credit.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Tiger in Action! Notice the length of the 88mm gun. I think this was taken in Normandy.

The Cinderella Man

Just back from watching the latest Russell Crowe movie - The Cinderella Man. I am a fan of most movies directed by Ron Howard and this movie isn't very far away from his usual style - a feel good movie that celebrates undying spirit and courage and where the journey is in the means and not in the end. A few of his movies are - A Beautiful mind, Apollo 13, The Alamo, The Missing etc. Look up IMDB for more info.

I'll be back with a more detailed review a little later.

I looked up some reviews on Yahoo! Movies and found that I was in concurrence with most reviewers and critics that this movie was moving and like most feel good movies that celebrate undying human spirit reassures you that good still prevails in the face of adversity. Some of them have said that it is an overdose and 'Howard's relentless and flatfooted attack on our sympathies slips into monotony'. I tend to disagree here, I definitely think that despite being a movie doused in all things good and beautiful, it largely stays away from being saccharine and overly optimistic.

Lets take a closer look at what I mean by Howard's movies are those in which the journey is in the means and not in the end. Let us look at the storyline in a very generic way - the story is about an underdog who, keeping in line with the feel good part of the story, comes back from behind and proves himself to the world by beating the current champion. But the story is not about winning right at the end, its about his trials and tribulations as he tries to come out of the hole he is in, all the time giving hope to those who are down in the dumps too that they too can overcome the circumstances if they tried. It is as though all those people were winning over their problems through him, he gives them hope to fight. I will admit a slight degree of sentimentality on the part of Howard during this process but it does fade away in the 'big picture'. The vehicle our hero chooses to do all these wonderful things is boxing.

We are introduced to James J. Braddock, a tough boxer who fights with honesty and where the opponent can see his (Braddock's) fists coming. The once successful Braddock slips into poverty along with most of America during the great depression. This is the setting for Howard's attempt to emphasize all things good and beautiful - the depression and all the people it pushed into poverty and crime. In the midst of this 'every man for himself' world, we have Braddock fighting for himself and his family. The journey starts here. So, we are taken through a world falling apart and how Braddock tries to mend all the holes in the fabric of life that keeps his family together. Here, Howard celebrates America too - how the country rallied together and pulled itself out of the depression. During the course of events, Braddock is offered a second chance at redeeming himself and the later part of the movie follows him as he digs himself out of adversity along with his family and prove himself in the ring, all the while giving hope to all those who were with him in that hole. Now, all of us - the intelligent movie goers - know that he definitely is going to come out on top (the good guy always wins right?). Its just how he does it that makes this movie worthwhile. As I said before, Howard does get a little sentimetal at places. The action scenes are simply brilliant and Howard does a great job in keeping up the pace and in Braddock's own words - this time he knows what he is fighting for.

This movie was worth both my time and my money. I enjoyed watching it. I hope you do to.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Ultimate Phones for Ultimate Ears?

How much would you pay for a pair of earphones/headphones that will offer you crystal quality in most environments (including open air, flight, noisy station etc)?


No? then try $900 for size. Yes! thats what the Ultimate Ears UE10 costs.

I must point you to these sources for more information - A post on Ken Levy's blog and of course, to Robert Scoble's blog too.

Also visit this site Ultimate Ears. I don't know about you but they have a few models for mere mortals like me that cost between $150 - $250 (WoW)

As far as I see on the net, there are two kinds of technologies available for high quality audio irrespective of the surrounding decibel level - isolation earphones (like the Ultimate Ears) and active noise cancellation earphones (like the Bose).

Isolation earphones come in either custom built or off the shelf models. If you want a custom built piece then you'll have to visit an audiologist who will make an impression of your ear canal and earphones are specially manufactured based on the shape of your ear canal. Off the shelf pieces are slightly generic in shape but are similar in spirit to the custom built ones. There are no noise cancellation circuits and they achieve their level of isolation by completely blocking your ear canal and deliver crystal quality sound right into the heart of your inner ear. If you have worn ear plugs at a loud concert, just imagine the same except that the ear plugs are actually phones that deliver sound. Since there are no noise cancelling electronics etc, they are really compact and some models can even be worn under a helmet.

Being a proud owner of the Bose Quiet Comfort 2, I can definitely say that the Bose is amazing at getting rid of extraneous noise. Of course, it helps if you have heavy metal thundering inside the cups :-). But all these technologies fall a little short when you compare them with phones that 'block' your ear canal allowing literally no room for external sound to reach your ear. But am I willing to pay a burning $900 for it? No, I'd rather pass. Having said that, there are cheaper models ($150-%250) that I might consider purchasing a lot later to try out.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Building Character Yet?

A series of Calvin and Hobbes strips in which dad tries to get Calvin to build his character. Lets kick the series off with this hilarious one -

Instant gratification is today's mantra anyway - Calvin is always with the times.

team play builds character

Grown ups play by justifying it as exercise and keep tabs by quantifying performance

A cold character

Fun for fun's sake!