May 26, 2012

Energy Energy Everywhere yet I cry for a car full of free fuel ready to wear

This week the fuel (petrol) prices in India were increased by about 15%. As expected there were a huge number of protests. The social networking sites were full of messages on how the government has failed it people and failed in its promises. I agree with them in protesting against failed promises but I differ on the their suggestions to the government. Fuel prices will increase and continue to increase so long as we increase our demand. Each car and each motorcycle added increases the amount of money the country will spending in importing fuel. Each cycle bought or each bus/train ticket bought shall reduce the amount of money leaving the country because of imports. Rather than diving into the spiral of perpetual debt and double digit inflation, the solution lies is efficient modes of transport that can potentially reduce the import bill.

What worries me the most is that since independence the policy has been to subsidize fuel rather than subsidizing alternative and potentially cheaper forms of energy. We have been subsidizing kerosene in the name of the poor but have not subsidized solar heaters and solar lighting (for example, solar laterns). Bio-gas subsidies and subsidies for solar cooking are non-existent in comparison to the amount of money spent on kerosene and LPG.

For energy required for cooking, we have potentially really large sources of energy in the form of sun-light, heat, along with an abundance of human waste for bio gas. Yet we are way behind the west in utilizing this energy. You will never find a protester from a political party protesting to increase the subsidies for renewable energy. However, you will find idiots crying for cheaper petrol so that they can use the vehicles for making mating calls.

With respect to transport, Pune, my city, was once the city of bicycles. Over time cycles were replaced by motorcycles and now motorcycles are being replaced by cars. The rate of increase of the population overshadows the rate of increase of public transport buses by astronomical (or economical considering the debt of each nation) scales. Yet you will not find people protesting for better buses in numbers that can be seen protesting for cheaper fuel.

I was interested in finding out if places in India have looked at alternative energy in a large scale. I found a couple of instances however they are small comparing to the large off-shore wind farms seen in the north european countries and the bicycle share systems and amazing public transport that can be seen in most cities of Europe. I just wish that some day rather than whining and trying to address the symptoms of the problems the people start looking at the root of the problems and work towards addressing them. 

May 18, 2012

Recommended Firefox plugins/add-ons for improved Privacy

Here is a list of Firefox plugins that I regularly use. I strongly recommend each of these add-ons. I use these to keep a check on the websites that can track me. Most of us might be of the impression is that "I do not have anything to hide, so I should not be worried about privacy." But the question here is not about hiding something, the question is "Why should anyone be interested in what you do?" Have a look at this cartoon strip from Abstruse Goose; it should give you an idea as to why privacy is important.
The list of add-ons I use to track (to some extent) my privacy are as follows.
  1. ShareMeNot: This is a very useful plugin that ensures that sites like Facebook and Google are not able to track the pages you visit even if you are currently logged into sites like Facebook and Google.
  2. Sqlite Manager: It is a nice firefox add-on that provides a GUI for SQLite databases like the ones used by Firefox. It shows all the data that is saved by Firefox. 
  3. Collusion: This add-on provides the list of sites sharing your information and the list of sites that are accessing your information from these sites. It can be a bit scarry if you do not close Firefox for a long time as this graph builds on with time. 
  4. Firebug: This is a really nice add-on that helps me inspect the page elements. I use it to see from which websites I am receiving data and pushing data. It is also really helpful when creating webpages and checking if the page you created is W3C compliance. I used this while creating my homepage at INRIA.
I do not use and I would not recommend add-ons like Adblock-plus because advertisements are the source of revenue for the sites providing their services for free.  For example, there are a couple of newspapers, bloggers, comic strips, and other artists that rely on revenue from ads.

Wish-list of potential candidates for the Presidential race

The irony and  misfortune of India is that the worst rubber stamp was put forward as a symbol of female empowerment. It was really shameful to see one of the best presidents, Abdul Kalam, being replaced by one of the worst presidents India ever had. I am so upset by her performance that I do not want to type he name. Now for the current elections my wish-list of potential presidents is as follows. 
  1. AK Antony: I have put him in the top of the list because he has been in politics for a long time. Despite his long tenure he has a saintly clean figure. His positive points are that he knows how to run governments and how governments run. He is also a master of how to keep people at bay. I really admire him because he has done a really nice job in cleaning some of the mess in the armed forces. Also he is one the few Indian MPs  who take oath by affirmation. His biggest strength is that he is largely powerless. However I believe in times of calamity it is time for Saint Antony to pick up the sword. I hope he awakens from his slumber because the country needs people like him to wake up!
  2. General VK Singh: After a very long time we have a commander who is clean and who has the conviction to keep the armed forces clean. Any soldier would be proud to be given a medal from him as the President.  He has done a magnificent job in cleaning the mess in the armed forces and he needs to be elevated to the to the task of cleaning all the other departments of the country. 
  3. P Sainath. He does not need any introduction has seen the villages. He knows the the true strengths and weaknesses of this country. He can see the impact of policies. He knows the impact and the power of the knowledge and what it takes to take knowledge to the grass roots of the country. He is well versed with the true picture of the problems faced by the majority of the population.
  4. CNR Rao: A man of science who has a clean image. He is the current scientific advisor and is worthy of being elevated to the post of the President.
  5. Sudha Murthy: If India needed a female president then it would have been really nice if she had become the first female president. She is the one who provide the seed funding for one of the largest corporations in the world. She has travelled the corners of the country and knows the the complete divide and the hardships faced by the people.  Sadly rather than a person like her we had the dishonour of having one of the most controversial persons as the president. 
Some might say Anna Hazare, however the problem with people like Anna Hazare is that they prefer to be outside the system and criticize it rather than cleaning it from the inside like Gen. V. K. Singh. This  is the reason why I have Gen. V.K. Singh and C.N.R Rao in this list and not Anna Hazare. I was a fan of Kiran Bedi however her theatrics have undone a lot of the respect she had gained. I hope that is she is able to regain the trust and respect she had before the Anti Corruption Movement began.

In any case I see that in the end some unworthy spineless human will be elected as the President of India. For the sake of my country I only hope that this is not true.

May 8, 2012

Hypocrisy and the State of Denial on Gender Inequality and Female Infanticide

In the last few days there was a lot of hype about a new TV show with Aamir Khan, one of my favourite artist, in the lead. I really liked the title song for this TV show called Satyamev Jayate. The main reason why I was looking forward to see this show was because Aamir is known not only to put his 100% in whatever he does but also creating an air of mystery before revealing his works.

The first episode of this show revolved around the concept of female infanticide and to what extent this practise is rampant all over India. What surprised me the most was not the gory depths  to which people fall for a male child, but the complete ignorance of the general public about this practise. What this show validated was the level of ignorance of the people of India. More than ignorance it quantified to a large extent the state of denial among the people. All the statistics are available in publicly available datasets such as the census of India. Newspapers such as the Hindu have over time published a large number of articles on this issue. One just needs to do a search on female infanticide on any search engine to see the gory details of this madness.

The most surprisingly section of this episode was when two journalists were invited to speak on their sting operation that was carried out in Rajasthan. The journalists whose works were presented in most news-channels say that "राजस्थान मैं ही नहीं पुरे देश मैं हल्ला मचा!".There are two points I want to make on this statement.
  1. अगर सच मैं हल्ला मचा होता तो अभी तक कुछ हुआ क्यूँ नहीं? Why has nothing yet been done? This operation took place years before this show has been telecast and yet nothing took place. There have been elections after this matter was exposed and yet nothing was done by the political class and the voters. Who is responsible for the lack of action then?
  2. Why are the people who saw this episode being surprised now? It only means that either this message despite being broadcast on most of the news channels did not reach them or they chose to ignore it then. The later is the most likely explanation of what actually happened.
Both these two points highlight the level of ignorance and the state of denial among a large section of the Indian population. The state of denial was the most important thing that this episode actually showed. The last census clearly showed that female infanticide is common among the literate people (I do not want to call them educated as there is a difference between literacy and education). There has been a lot of work done by the UK government that showed that the sex ratio was terribly skewed among the families that come from the Indian sub-continent. For example have a look at this article titled UK Indian women aborting girls []. Despite this information being publicly available the people watching this show were amazed when Aamir presented these facts. This just shows the ignorance of the people. This ignorance has its roots in the state of denial that everything is fine in my neighbourhood and the problem lies elsewhere. But rather than being in the state of acceptance (which is 3 stages away from denial according to Kubler-Ross) we continue to cling on to the state of denial by choosing to be ignorant. It is time we accept the facts and use them to see where we actually stand. It is time we realize that the problem of female infanticide has its roots on the issue of gender inequality which is a much more larger problem. 

The state of denial on the issue of gender inequality has its roots on the fact that girls are not considered equal to boys in India. No matter how much Indians say girls are equal to boys this is not true. I was a part of this hypocrisy up to a few years back but I am changing. Take a simple test to see where you stand. Consider that you live in a neighbourhood with three schools that have the same level of teaching; one only boys school, one only girls school, and one co-education school. If you have to select a school for your child which school will you select? Now let me make it scary. You did not ask why is there a separate boys school and a separate girls school in my neighbourhood. (This is the first question a European might ask). You are perfectly fine for having a separate school for girls and a separate school for boys and yet at the same time want to tell that girls are equal to boys. This is the hypocrisy I am talking about.  My question is why in a society which we call open minded do we still find a school only for boys and a school only for girls. If girls were equal to boys all schools shouldn't all schools be co-education schools? Now how many schools in India despite being co-education have separate class rooms for boys and girls? For the time being, forget schools, lets go to college. When I studied engineering there were six engineering colleges in Pune only for girls. Can any one tell me whose children went to these engineering colleges? Were the parents of these girls illiterate? How many sent their girls to these colleges because the education was good? How many preferred this college because it was a girls only engineering college?

In summary, the main objective of this post is not to highlight the issue of female infanticide, but to highlight two issues that are responsible for female infanticide. First is the the issue of the larger problem of gender inequality. Second is the state of denial which we use as an excuse to be ignorant and vice-versa. I want to end this by asking: Are we living in the times of Savitribai Phule who had to create a separate school for girls because girls were not considered equal to boys? If you want to send your child to a school please select a school based on the quality of education and not because it is a girls only school or a boys only school. I just wish for a time when all schools in India becomes co-education schools. My only hope is that this post creates some kind of awareness on where we actually stand on the issue of gender equality and female infanticide.

May 5, 2012

Memories of my internships at General Motors India Science Lab

I just came across this blog post by Prof. Giri that says that General Motors is shutting down its Research lab based in Bangalore. Reading it made me a bit sad. If I was not coming to France, I would have joined this lab. In fact I was very serious about joining GM-ISL before the crisis hit GM in 2007-2008. I had done two intern-ships in this lab because my advisor at IIT Delhi had joined as a researcher in this lab. The faculty at Delhi, especially Prof Saran and Prof. Maheshwari were very kind to let me continue working with my advisor and letting me spend close to 8 months of my two years here.Well my 8 months  in Bangalore (as two intern-ships from May-July 2007 and Jan-April 2008) taught me many things.

One important lesson I learned here was the lesson of life which I learned while staying in Kundanahalli as a paying guest. It was in a house with 12 people and I got a bed in a room; the room was shared with three other guys and  I paid around Rs 3000 (EUR. 50) per month for the place to sleep and the food. Wifi was not that common India in 2007-2008, and I did not have a laptop with me, so after coming back from work I used to have dinner and go to sleep. Some times I used to  watch a movie in the television  and talk with the other guys living in the apartment. It is hard to imagine that I never thought about hanging out with friends or going to the cinemas. It was here that I actually felt how completely unrealistic is India's growth story. Kundanahalli was full of engineers who lived in a house like I did, and who despite earning a modest salary (around Rs 15000) did not have room for themselves. Water was a big problem and we used to wait in the morning for the tanker to come to answer the call of nature and have a shower. If you wanted hot water, then you had to take water out in a bucket and use a coil to heat it. It might be hard to imagine 12 guys (at times 15) waiting in line to use one of the two toilets in the house. Luckily all of the guys I shared the apartment were good so time scheduling worked perfectly.  The biggest lesson learned here was humility and simplicity. Despite my parents urge I did not want an expensive room and I wanted manage in my stipend which was Rs 15000 (yes I was receiving a stipend more than some of my engineer colleagues). On weekends I used to move to my aunts house who lived in the other corner of Bangalore (Vijaynagar). The bus ride to my aunts house would at times take more than 2 hours. Well I saved a lot of money thanks to living this kind of a life and bought my first digital camera with the money I saved.

My other lesson was on approach to research. This was very important as my previous work experience was in the engineering division of a start-up. Working in a start up had its own challenges as a concept of a 5 or 10 year vision is at times wrong unrealistic. In research labs the lab head and the team head must have a vision of 5 to 10 years. The work done was expected to reach the assembly lines may be 5-6 years after the first prototype was built. People would debate and come up with new ideas and validate the feasibility of some these ideas.  It was here that I saw the actual use of mathematics as language and the pressures on the research teams from their engineering divisions who needed results and directions. At times in the coffee room I could see debates on which shade of gray is best suited to meet the required fire-resistance and so on. I got my first publications, one workshops, one conference, and a co-author for a journal, while working for this lab. What I disliked the most was the formal attire that was mandatory while working in this lab. I simply could not understand its need.

I am a bit sad on hearing this closure but honestly speaking I knew it was a matter of time for this lab to close. The financial mess of General Motors in 2007-09 was the reason as to why I decided not to join this lab. My focus was on continuing to do research and I wanted to find a PhD position soon but I was in a dilemma as my degree was delayed by the administrative procedures of IIT Delhi. In the end, after my internships at GM, I joined a start-up which later shut down and I came to France for a PhD.