Thursday, December 27, 2007

Piracy is not fair, Neither is Monopoly

Microsoft recently went on an Anti-Piracy drive in Kerala. They have been following a multifaceted policy of learned ignorance, passive warnings and timed & throttled acts of aggression to tackle piracy and to push sales of licenses. I don't condone piracy, neither do I approve monopoly. I would like to explore more on the legality/fairness issues of piracy, monopoly and the relevance of FLOSS in this context.

Let me explain the adjectives used above; Learned ignorance - by allowing piracy to grow in the home user segment and thus use it to open and grow new markets; Passive warnings - by showing funny messages during upgradation or service pack installation; Timed - at reasonably predictable intervals; Throttled - they don't catch everybody.

Developing software is a business. The people employed in the business will have to be paid their due rewards. So software has to be sold and revenues generated from the sales. From this revenue, a share has to be used to pay the salaries, and the rest is rightfully for the owners take. Anybody using a software and not paying for it is effectively denying the right of the producer (the company and its employees) to get a return on their investment(of money and labor). So piracy is not fair. As simple as that.

Piracy is illegal by law in almost all countries. Piracy is equivalent to stealing software and is no different from stealing a bread from a store. Neither can be justified on the basis of the need of the situation. Not only is piracy unfair as discussed above, it is illegal and is not justifiable.

Although I agree theoretically with what is said on simplymalayalees forum, I have reservations about the way the argument is put forward. I run a software company and I agree that people will have to pay for the work done in creating the software. In a normal market when the traded volume of a given product goes up the cost of the product has to come down. It has not happened with Microsoft Windows. The cost has been recovered several times over. What we see here is the effects of the Monopoly Microsoft is enjoying in the market.

Again my opinion is not to legally fight the monopoly or to deny Microsoft the opportunity to make the profit but rather, concerned people should take necessary steps to invigorate the market by introducing alternative options. This is where alternative operating systems like GNU Linux and FreeBSD comes into the picture, and this is precisely what the Linux community is doing.

Microsoft has every right to make a business decision to not reduce the cost of their operating systems below what they are going for currently. If they had perfect competition (in fact any serious competition at all) there wouldn't have been a scenario where they wouldn't have to lower their prices at all. Prices would have been regulated on their own by the free market.

So that must mean that they enjoy some level of monopoly in the market. Microsoft has successfully managed to build their business. They built it so fast and so big that they effectively swamped out all, if any real competition existed, of their competition. Shouldn't they be allowed to reap the rewards of their efforts? Yes. But they should be punished if they had broken any laws of the land along the way.

But monopoly is never good for the market even though it might be very good for the monopolistic company. Monopoly gives the company total control over the prices without any bargaining power for the market. So what should the market do? Demand the monopolistic company to yield to their demands? The market has a much stronger weapon but it has not realized that till now. It is the power of demand. The market has been meekly yielding to the monopoly through cowardly acts of piracy where they promote the monopoly and effectively preventing any kind of competition building up in the market.

So if you feel that Microsoft is manipulating the market and exploiting it using monopoly then rather than complaining, and pirating, you should start using alternative options. As demand builds up for alternatives, companies will spring up to meet this demand and a more vibrant market scenario will appear. Already Linux companies are geared up to take up this challenge, but is the market willing to take the leap?

Gandhiji fought the British East India Company not by raiding their factories or stealing their coffers but by boycotting their products. This is the same strategy that people have to use to revitalize the Operating System market. As a concluding note, if you have the money and you would rather not bear the cost of uncertainty (in the time you have to wait until competition builds up) then you are totally free to go buy your Windows Operating System. Such an act would not be considered an act of cowardice or unfairness

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Monday, December 24, 2007

What is the purpose of your life?

Through the ages man has changed from a hunter-gatherer to the modern day specialized employee. In this process he has upgraded his needs and desires from the bare minimum necessities of prehistoric times to the ultramodern luxuries and fancies of the 21st century. You and me being part of this mad race have been doing this same thing and are destined to do this unless we stop and think. What am I really after? What is the purpose of my life?

A typical human life goes as follows - birth, childhood, schooling, college education, job, marriage, kids', rearing children, children's education, retirement, children's marriages, their kids, rearing grandchildren, death. This is a cycle that has been going on since the birth of mankind. But am I bound to do these things? What is it that I am after? Why should I follow this routine? What is the ultimate purpose of life around which these activities are intertwined?

Most people do not get time to think about these questions, being busy as they are in the various activities mentioned above or planning the various events mentioned above. Generally these activities and events themselves becomes the main objectives of their lives. Once that happens the relevance of the above questions vanishes for such a person.

So the process can be rewritten as follows. Going through childhood is not optional and I have to go through it. I have to have a good education because I have to have a good job. I have to have a good job to be able to support a family. I have to marry because I have to have a family. I have to have kids as that is what is expected when having a family. Then I have to prepare my kids to follow the same cycle I went through. In the meanwhile I have to progress in my career parallelly to take care of growing needs. Finally I retire from my job. Along the way my kids will have married and would have had kids of their own. I play my role in bringing them up. In the end I die.

Did I miss anything here? I am sorry, but I heard that man is different from animals. I don't really see how different we are from animals who follow almost the same general routine as above in their own ways. So what is the point? Isn't everything fine the way it is, as it is now? Why do you really want to have any other purpose other than the process discussed above?

Yes you are right you really don't need to have any other purpose but you should decide on your own that the above process is your purpose. People follow the above process not because they have embraced it as their ultimate purpose but because they have been taught to do so by generations of practice and has been embedded into the society as the default expected behavior.

People should at least think about what they want to do with their lives. Not everybody has to go outside the set boundaries, but those who think they can, and those who think they should, should. People bold enough to tread uncharted territories should. It is the efforts of such adventurers that have taken the world to what it is now. If people had just followed routines I would not be sitting here typing on my laptop but instead would have been hunting for my grubs in the wild.

Going outside the orthodox routines does not just mean breaking the conventional routines. It is about thinking and deciding about your course of action on your own rather than following a set pattern of actions. It would mean identifying and following your passion. It would mean setting and embracing your ideals. It would mean taking control over your life. It would mean defining your future.

So if you are still living a life defined and dictated by others, stop, think, decide, take control and march ahead. Your life would be happier, more meaningful and ultimately purposeful.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

An year since I turned vegetarian

It was exactly an year before today that I switched to vegetarianism. People who knew me were not entirely surprised given my liking for Gandhian principles but they kept on asking me as to why I did that. They put forth several possible reasons why I took that decision. I didn't say yes, neither did I say no. So why did I take that decision?

There are several reasons one can come out with for supporting vegetarianism. I can cite a few here. One plain and proven fact is that vegetarian foods are healthier than non-vegetarian foods. Vegetarian food is also much lighter on the digestive system and leads to much smoother digestive processes. It has been said that humans are more adapted to eat vegetarian food than non-vegetarian food. Interestingly vegetarian food is also much cheaper than non-vegetarian food.

There is also one not-so-obvious benefit to vegetarianism. Vegetarian foods exert much lesser pressure on the environment than non-vegetarian food. Pound for pound, calorie for calorie, vegetarian foods require much lesser area of cultivation, much lesser environmental resources than non-vegetarian food. The per acre output of vegetarian foods are much higher than that for non-vegetarian foods.

The pressure exerted by non-vegetarianism is not limited to land but also to aquatic ecosystems too. A news report that came out recently in the news papers indicated that human pressure on the biodiversity in the oceans through excessive fishing has brought several species of fish to irrecoverable levels.

Given a choice I would stick to this environmental pressure advantage of vegetarian foods as my favorite. But none of these were the real reason why I shifted to vegetarianism. Not that these did not affect my decision making. They did, but the one main reason was my abhorrence to smoking and drinking (alcohol).

Some of my friends have had taken to the habit of consuming alcohol, and some others smoking, some to pan, and some to combinations of these. I have always been a big opponent of both these habits. I have always fought against these habits because of the obvious reason of them being unhealthy and the not so obvious reason for my loathe to these because of the way these substances affect human psyche.

Alcohol consumption results in a decrease in a persons control over his rational self. Smoking results in a uncontrollable dependence on tobacco to maintain normal life and additionally to control the persons psychological sensations of sadness, happiness, fear etc. I feel that both these are acts of surrender of ones rational self. This is the aspect that I totally dislike about these habits.

Of course these habits also increases the probability of an earlier death to a person addicted or used to these habits. Earlier than it otherwise would have been if they had not been used to these habits. I have seen highly educated people take to these habits in spite of knowing this danger. I guess it is like mountaineering for these people. Mountaineering, like smoking and drinking, increases the probability of an earlier death, for the people engaged in that. Only difference would be that the moment you stop the hobby the probability vanishes while it doesn't for these habits.

It was during last December that I had another set of heated discussions with a few of my friends to persuade them to stop these habits. As usual I couldn't make them change their decisions. I realized then that, I probably did not really feel how these guys felt, having to stop something that they like, and, having no real reason to stop, other than the risk factor I mentioned before, which they had probably decided to accept.

This is where Gandhiji's principle of Satyagraha influenced my decision making. Gandhiji always took to renouncing things that he liked as a way of coercing his opponents into agreeing to his terms or as a way of teaching people around him the values and principles like his fast at the Tolstoy farm as a penance for the children's mistake. There is another of Gandhiji's findings that I would like to cite as an influencing factor for my decision. It is his conclusion that control over food is the first step to control over will.

So I had to give up something that I liked and something that I would have to struggle to give up. That is where I came up with this idea about giving up non-vegetarianism. So en-route to a hotel to have a massive non-vegetarian dinner I announced my decision to my friends without citing the reason. I had to eat non-vegetarian food that night as my cousin with whom I was staying was caught unawares but since then I have stayed clean.

I did not announce the reason why I took the decision because I did not know how long I would be able to stick to the decision. Like my other experiments with my life this is a work in progress as I am never sure when I will fail in this pursuit or when I will change my decision. For an year I have held on to this decision. I had a tough time initially resisting the temptation but now I think I have got used to it. The smell of fish is probably the only thing that still tempts me.

Interestingly two other people in my family have taken to vegetarianism recently for their own reasons. One is my sister who took to it around 3 years back and another is my cousin Thomas(Appu) who took to it a few days before I did.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Life without throw-away plastic bags

Government of Kerala has banned the use of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns in the state. From what I see around me the ban is still a 'work in progress'. The simple reason why retail stores do not want to move on to thicker plastic bags is that they do not want to spend more money on the plastic bags.

The incremental increase in cost per bag might be low but the total incremental expense incurred in going for the thicker bags is not. Additionally since shop keepers normally buy their plastic bags in bulk they will have to bear total incremental cost upfront and this makes them reluctant to make the shift. Moreover this additional cost has to come out of the retailer's profit as they will not be able to transfer this to the cost of the products they sell as the per bag cost increment is low and any price rise will not be justifiable.

Alternative options like paper bags, jute bags are expensive and would not be viable for any products that do not sell at high margins. They might work out fine in textile showrooms, luxury products stores, gift showrooms etc but not in a grocery store or a vegetable stall or a milk stall. So how do you make the shift? Implementing the govt rule might be very expensive in the short run. Is just a shift to thicker bags enough?

The idea behind moving to thicker plastic bags is that the thicker bags can be recycled as opposed to the thinner ones. But they have to be recycled for the ban to make any sense. Throwing the bag along with the household garbage does in fact cause more problems than throwing away the older thinner bags.Plastic is non bio-degradable and remains in the environment and cause different kinds of problems ranging from clogged drainages to creation of potent carcinogens when burnt.

Unless people seriously understand the reason why the thinner bags were banned and realize the importance of reusing or recycling plastic bags the ban would just be a waste of public money by enforcements and private money by loss of profit. In addition to enforcing the ban government should also focus on conveying to the general public the reasons behind the ban and importance of recycling and other good environmental practices.

Once consumers decide to cut down on their use of plastic bags the demand curve will fall drastically and this can lead to the desired effects of the ban. Ever since I started living on my own, i.e. since April 2006, I have been successfully following a no-plastic-bag policy in my house. I simply stopped getting plastic bags when I buy anything. Instead I carry durable, reusable, heavy duty bags when I go shopping. The bags I have are made of plastic and have lasted for the last 1 1/2 years. If I forget to take the bag I carry the goods back to the car or back home (if from a nearby store) in my arms as a punishment for forgetting the bags :).

Remember - plastic is bad for several reasons - environmental problems, health problems, civic problems. So avoid plastic as much as possible, reuse if unavoidable and recycle if not reusable. And yes - it is possible to avoid it almost completely as I have successfully demonstrated with the small experiment with my life since April 2006.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Global warming - A reality

Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace prize for their efforts in fighting global warming. This was a bold move by the Nobel committee and has highlighted with enough significance the importance of tackling this anthropogenic problem. Up till now this issue was floating around in different round table meets, different international conventions. Nothing major has happened with US and China - the two biggest contributors to global warming - not taking any serious decisions or efforts to reduce their emissions.

But is this an issue where decisions/actions have to be taken only by the heads of countries or international organizations. No it is not. On the contrary, this issue calls for the concerted efforts of all the citizens of planet earth. One might ask how he/she can make the Chinese Premier take a positive stand regarding this. No you might not and you need not. All you have to do is play your part in fighting this problem.

Now what are the ways in which you could be contributing to CO2 emissions?. Simply put, every action you perform and every resource you consume costs the environment in terms of the amount of CO2 emitted due to your action or emitted during the production of that resource. There are two ways in which people contribute to CO2 emissions. By increasing the amount of CO2 emitted(positive CO2 emissions) - say for example by burning fossil fuels. The second way is by reducing CO2 absorptions - for example when you cut down a tree you reduce the total CO2 absorption capacity by as much as what a tree can absorb.

Consider for example you taking the elevator. Elevator consumes energy and producing that energy would have resulted in some CO2 emissions. You might argue that the electricity came from hydro-electric power. But every unit of hydro electric power you consume takes out as many units of clean energy available for use by everybody and puts a demand of as many units of non-clean energy that resulted in CO2 emissions while being produced.

Take another example - automobiles. In this case the translation to CO2 cost is more direct as you emit CO2 directly when you drive your automobiles. As with the elevator, wherever you consume energy there is a CO2 emission associated with that. Now coming to tangible items - when you use a sheet of paper you are contributing to global warming by having created that demand for that extra sheet of paper that created the requirement to cut down a tree somewhere on earth and contributing to negative CO2 absorptions. If you argue that the paper was recycled the counter argument would be that recycling takes up energy that in turn has a CO2 emissions cost.

Like paper, any other resource you consume/use/dispose (eg: food, clothes, plastic) has a CO2 emission cost. Even if you recycle resources there is still a CO2 emission cost, although it would be much lower than the cost of creating the resource in the first place. So what is the solution? What are the ways in which a common man can play a role in fighting global warming?

Effectively every human action contributes in one way or another towards global warming. This is the problem and the solution is also in this statement. Moderation is the simple way in which anybody can fight global warming. Moderation in terms of consumption of energy and resources. Increasing efficiency of processes, reusing & recycling resources are auxiliary steps that can help in this fight. We cannot altogether stop consuming energy and resources. But we should try to limit our consumption as much as possible.

Contrary to the theory of consumerism, an application of moderation would be the most beneficial aspect to global economy as a whole. The cost of global warming will become too high to be negated by any levels of economic growth resulting from crass consumerism.

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Will I buy from reliance if they are as guilty as accused

Reliance Group of companies - combined set of companies owned by both Anil Ambani and Mukesh Ambani - is the largest corporate conglomerate in India. Even though the group has been split into two between the brothers, for coherence sake I will be referring to the combined group as Reliance in the discussion below. From a humble beginning in the late 60s it has grown into the behemoth it is currently. It is one of the few corporate success stories that have caught the attention of International Business World.

As with any big company Reliance (the group of companies) also had to face several allegations during its growth. Normally, in the case of any company, a good percentage of these accusations would be results of corporate rivalry or mere jealousy. But there has been quite too many accusations to be merely ignored as jealousy induced ones. I for one person do not know the reality behind these accusations. But I have to consider the volume and seriousness of some of these accusations before I make any kind of judgment regarding them.

My issue here is not whether Reliance is guilty or not, rather another independent problem. Suppose I come to the conclusion that Reliance is guilty based on whatever evidence I get. Now I have to answer another question. Should I avail of Reliance services or not? Simple isn't it. Not quite. If the answer is in the affirmative then I would indeed be indirectly promoting Reliance and would be promoting whatever they are doing and whatever I had judged to be as wrong.

Now why can't I just decide to not avail of Reliance services if I am convinced that Reliance is guilty of whatever they have been accused with? Here comes the ubiquitous issue of money. Reliance Services are among the lowest priced services that are available in the market. My company - zyxware is not yet a customer for reliance. Recently I have been shopping for health insurance for my employees. I have been reviewing the offerings from the different health insurance providers in India. Guess who is the cheapest - Reliance General.

If I go for any other company other than Reliance, I will inevitably end up paying at least 10,000 Rupees more than what I have to otherwise. My business self asks me to go for Reliance to get the cheaper rates. My ethical self argues that I would be promoting Reliance if I do so. My logical self has an interesting argument - if I ruin all my money on trying to defend my ethical self, I would end up having no business self to support my ethical self.

So the question under discussion is not whether Reliance is guilty or not but instead whether people can/will make financial sacrifices, or for that matter any other sacrifice like extra effort, when sticking to ethical policies. The answer cannot be given in black and white. Different people would allow their endurance to crumble at different magnitudes of the sacrifices involved. It however has to be noted that people can change this limit of endurance for the sacrifices by conscious decision making and practice. But before that they have to identify with the need to stand by their ethics and values. For that they have to have a strong value system which can be used to make their decisions. And for that they have to start thinking about such issues.

I have not decided on the Insurance provider yet. I have to talk with a few more people about the pro's and con's of the different providers and their services. I might even end up going for Reliance. But the issue had got me thinking about the philosophical problem involved. If people start applying their ethical and moral values to their everyday decision making, they can slowly start implementing some of the things that they believe is right. By practicing that, ultimately they would/should be able to stand by their values at any cost. I hope I can do that as I slowly evolve my system of values and framework of ethics through the experiments I run with my life.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

People really don't remember anything or is it just me

I have this problem (not really sure if it is a problem) of not remembering incidents, places, people, conversations etc. I have been like this since I can remember (which is not that much). I don't have any problem in remembering equations, dates, sentences, stories etc. I don't remember the color of the houses I have lived in but I can draw out the layout of the houses I have lived in. Funny isn't it.

People look at me with sympathy when I say I don't remember a lot from my childhood. It is as if I really did not hav a childhood. Not that I don't remember anything at all. I remember specific incidents that had left a big positive or negative impression on my mind. Then I have faint recollections of some disjoint set of events scattered through out my life.

Since this is something that I have to deal with regularly, I have been thinking a lot about this. When you say you remember a person what do you mean? For me, if I close my eyes and try to bring into my mind the picture of somebody, I can't, I really can't. It would just be blank. Now if I try to recollect something that is more regular in geometry like say a red ball. If I hold the ball in my hand and then close my eyes I won't be able to picture the ball, or even the color red for that matter.

This does not mean that I can't remember anything. Suppose I see a set(a small set) of objects and then you introduce another small set of objects which I had not seen earlier I would very easily find out the objects that I had seen initially. This means that when my mind sees the combined set, it is able to pick the ones that it had recorded initially. I would be able to successfully do this experiment with multiple sets of objects and with variations of color or size or geometry.

I can identify all my personal belongings but I wouldn't be able to bring an image of any of them to my mind at will. I remember all my friends and relatives whom I keep in touch with each other but I can't bring an image of them to my mind if I don't see them or their picture in front of me. It is as if I don't have the APIs for internal display of the stored images in my memory.

Or maybe I got this all wrong. It is not just me but that this applies for all people. When people say they remember stuff they might just be stating the fact that they will be able to identify the person or object when they see the person or object again.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "People really don't remember anything or is it just me"

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Be true to yourselves

Gandhiji's life was a pursuit of truth. He had never claimed to have reached any level of perfection. It was always an ongoing experiment, and thus he named his autobiography "A Story of My Experiments with Truth". For Gandhiji, a primary aspect of truth meant - being true to ones own convictions. This is the aspect I would like to delve on further.

By the above definition, truth doesn't have to be absolute or perfect and it could be something that moves towards perfection with each pursuit. This is interesting because it opens up the possibility of following truth without perfect knowledge. Following absolute truth is difficult as absolute knowledge is impossible. So being true to oneself would allow oneself to follow truth without waiting to acquire perfect knowledge.

The theory sounds very simple but the practical implementation of it is very difficult. Take for example the simple case of not lying. I am not sure if there is anybody who would want other people to lie to them. So people do not want others to lie to them. This would imply that they do not like lying. But when it comes to not telling lies to others, there wouldn't be too many people who would get a clean chit on that count. In fact there wouldn't even be too many people who would try their best to not lie at all. Even when they have in their minds the negative attitude about people lying to them they would still go ahead and tell lies to others. Telling lies is a simple example but, it was selected because it was one specific aspect that Gandhiji tried to maintain a clean record on.

If instead people try to be true to themselves they would not commit most of the mistakes they make in their daily lives. It must be noted that this deduction can be made even after considering the fact that nobody has perfect knowledge. It is a logical extension to the premise that people are convinced about the importance of knowledge (even if it is knowledge according to their own limited definitions). So if somebody is convinced about the requirement of knowledge he/she would try to acquire it and having acquired it, it would help in reexamining their established convictions. If there is any contradiction with their existing convictions they would find it easy to change their conviction to match the new knowledge. This last part again assumes that they will remain true to their conviction about the requirement of knowledge.

Nobody is perfect. Gandhiji was not perfect and he himself has confessed about his imperfections. This was highlighted by his statement about his convictions. He stated that he would always try to be true to his convictions. He did not claim that his convictions were always correct and he said that his statements at some point of time in the future could possibly contradict his statements at some point in his past. But irrespective of that he would be true to his convictions in the future as he was in the past. This is probably one of the best preemptive philosophical bails one can get but yes this statement conforms with his pursuit of truth.

The moral of the story is simple; whatever you do or say - examine it within the light of your established convictions and if you see a contradiction, reexamine both your conviction and your action/statement, decide which is correct based on any new knowledge that you have acquired and then try to correct your conviction or your action/statement so that you would not contradict your convictions in the future. An attempt to adhere to this simple concept could take you a long way in the pursuit of truth.

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