Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Devastating earthquake in christchurch

The Christchurch Eathquake

Absolutely unbelievable happened today. The city lies in ruins, late in the evening I do not feel like going to bed, what a terrible day! Sad to see that the spire of the Christchurch cathedral coming down, the city centre is in shambles. It will surely take a long time for recovery. The quake was a 6.3 on Richter scale but that measures nothing of the scale of disaster that it brought in it's wake. The time when it hit, the place where it hit, the epicenter all were so different from the last one that it defies any comparison. For sure, the magnitude of the destruction cannot be mapped by one number alone, there has to be another metric to capture the sense of the destruction and horror of an earthquake.

Time to say prayers, and thank all our friends who were with us in this trying time.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Two books I am going to read this year

Ian Jack wrote a compelling opinion piece in The Telegraph (Feb 13,
2011) about how books change outlooks of people. The book he was
discussing was Madhusree Mukherjee's "Churchill's Secret War ..."
(link here http://amzn.to/eml9nr). The book is about the Bengal Famine
of 1943, the other book he mentioned in this connection was "Monsoon
Morning" (URL from alibris here http://bit.ly/fc8Uq0), by Ian
Stephens, the then editor of The Statesman who first broke the news of
Bengal famine to the world. The Telegraph article I am referring to is
here, by the way http://bit.ly/gyXhqE

The books' significance go beyond famines, in fact, and has wider
import on how environmental and other issues are playing today. Note
for instance, Ian Stephens' comment on the famine, that Jack quotes,

“Death by slaughter, say in a communal riot … you of course know about
almost at once. You hear shouts, screams. Smoke from nearby buildings
on fire stings your nostrils… But famine comes quietly. Even if you’ve
been half-expecting it, there’s still no drama: nothing to hear,
almost nothing characteristic at first to see, anyway in a city like
Calcutta, notorious for its swarms of pitiable poor living in squalor
near the margins of subsistence.”

A close parallel is how there is a slow, almost insidious string of
deaths and devastation with environmental degradation (arsenic and
chromium among others, and air pollution related deaths and diseases
in the cities; just replace "famine" with "environmental pollution").
It'd be interesting to read the books in details, perhaps revisiting
Jack's commentary.

Friday, February 11, 2011

NYT's report on Egypt - The Cultural Revolution

This review provides a very interesting perspective on the cultural landscape in Egypt under Mubarak. Interestingly much of what is written here about art and culture and governments encouragement is true of what has happened in Bengal over the last thirty years, people with a specific political slant have been encouraged as culture connoiseur in Bengal, usually pro-government or pro party. It will be interesting to watch this space in Egypt as it will be to watch what happens in Bengal this year and the next.

R overtakes SAS and Matlab in programming language popularity

R has been my primary data analysis software for years. It's simple, straightforward, easy to use and it has an unbelievable support system and infinitely extendable. Good to see this.

R bloggers

Tiobe Software ranks the popularity of programming languages based on references in search engines. While the methodology might be debated in terms of the absolute rankings it produces, it is quite interesting to see how the rankings fluctuate over time: Tiobe has produced a monthly report of rankings based on this methodology since 2001.

In the Tiobe Programming Community Index for February 2011, the top three slots are held by the general-purpose languages Java, C and C++. Domain-specific languages naturally fall farther down the list: in this months report, R is ranked at #25, with Matlab at 29 and SAS at 30. What's interesting is the movement: Matlab is down from #19 a month ago (and #20 a year ago), whereas R is up from #26. But look at SAS, mentioned in the report's summary as having "lost much ground": it's down from #16 a month ago and #14 a year ago. 

Tiobe Software: TIOBE Programming Community Index for February 2011

This post was kindly contributed by Revolutions - go there to comment and to read the full post.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

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The Telegraph's contradictions

What's wrong with our newspapers?

The Telegraph today published this in their sports page

"Eden ready in its new avatar
A mesmerising filigree work of white architecture, violet lights and a
towering glass facade with pictures of heroes reminding of glories
from yesteryears prompted passers-by to capture a frame on their
mobile cameras… Welcome to the Eden Garden .."


... And this is what they had to write about Eden Gardens in their Metro page,
Eden looks unprepared on exam eve, city’s World Cup fate hangs in ICC balance
An ICC team will return to the Eden Gardens on Monday, but the stadium
looked far from its best only 24 hours before.... "

Talk about confusion!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democratic technology and unintended consequences

As usual, Tim O'Reilly asks some pithy questions- certainly points to ponder. Enjoy the post

O'Reilly Radar - Insight, analysis, and research about emerging technologies.

I was struck by this photo that appeared Sunday in the New York Times. It shows a crowd of Egyptian protesters listening to a military announcement. Try to count the number of people in the crowd who do not have a mobile device recording the action.

Expanding people's ability to communicate — from printing press to telegraph to telephone to text messaging — is always a revolutionary act. Communications technologies do not create the conditions for civic action (the unrest in Egypt is due to longstanding political repression), but they can accelerate the entire process by:

  1. Dramatically expanding the number of people directly involved in gathering, distributing and consuming information.

  • Allowing a positive feedback loop to develop where people see the effect of their actions in real-time, which simultaneously reinforces commitment and recruits more members into the cause.

  • We tend to think of these technologies as inherently democratic. But the rub in all of this is that while these technologies democratize communications, they tend to monopolize surveillance and control.

    So while more of us are capable of holding an open, peer-to-peer discussion, we are doing so with the consent and under the watchful (or subpoena-able) eye of just a handful of corporations or governments. And when citizen calls-to-action conflict with government calls for quiet, the government holds more of the cards. Vodafone has shut down cell phone communications in Egypt, the Egyptian government has effectively shut down Internet communications, and there are now calls for Ham radio operators to lend assistance as Egypt is being pushed back down the communications ladder.

    In the "rich world" our experience of technology is often Utopian and our forecasts of negative consequences are framed only through our experience of current circumstance; we simply can't imagine what it is like to live in a repressive government or believe that we will ever live under one. But the seemingly benign governments in which we reside are an historical contingency. If the past provides any lesson it is that governments will wax and wane in their concern for civil liberties and human rights. Yet our digital profile (purchase history, political and personal associations etc.) will remain. Through our participation in these technologies we are donating our data to a vast, indelible reservoir whose future utility is unknown to us.

    I am actually optimistic about the future of the Internet as a medium to promote civil liberty, free expression, better government and corporate citizenship (if one can credibly use such a phrase). However, I don't think it happens on its own. The Internet needs an architecture (legal and physical) to achieve such ends. Paradoxically I believe it requires some form of regulation to maintain its dynamic, emergent and decentralized properties so that any government or corporation has a limited ability to act in a crisis to shut things down.

    Is access to communications a fundamental human right? If so, should a corporation have the ability to abrogate that right at the request of a host government? As we watch the battle between the Egyptian government's attempts to throttle information flow (including how corporations defy or collaborate with these attempts) and the people's struggle to maintain access to communications, we are seeing the contours of a struggle that will exemplify the next decades of political and policy changes as we try to define the increasingly critical relationship between technology and civil liberties.

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