Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jobs, Zuckerberg and biopics

Mark Zuckerberg might have felt aggrieved after watching The Social Network, tipped to win a few Oscars tomorrow, but he should consider himself lucky he didn't get the treatment meted out to Steve Jobs in the made for TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg comes across as a creep in a few scenes of The Social Network, but he's always shown to have a vision for big things. The people he works with -- the Winkelvoss twins, Edward Saverin, and Sean Parker -- all help up to a point after which Zuckerberg outgrows them. He might betray or demean these people, but there's never any doubt that he's doing so at a point when they have become a hindrance to Facebook's growth.
Noah Wylie's Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is not only much nastier than Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg, he shows little trace of the visionary we all know Jobs to be. He refuses to acknowledge parentage of his daughter Lisa, allowing her to be raised in poverty while he makes millions from the Apple IPO. He takes LSD and dances and chants with the local Hare Krishnas. He insults a prospective employee by placing his bare feet on the table while conducting an interview and asking him insulting questions about his sexual history.
Jobs and Bill Gates are the pirates of the movie's title. Jobs steals the mouse and graphical user interface from Xerox; Gates buys DOS cheap from a programmer and sells it to IBM as his own work; he then steals the Mac operating system and makes it the basis of Windows. Jobs is so focussed on IBM as Big Brother, that he fails to see the emerging threat from Microsoft, the Big Brother of the future. The only guy portrayed with any sympathy in the movie, the only protagonist who actually builds anything, is Apple's co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Soon after the movie was broadcast, Jobs invited Wylie to a Mac event, trying to draw some of the sting from the movie's critique.

Zuckerberg followed in this tradition, appearing with Eisenberg on an episode of Saturday Night Live.

Steve Wozniak has an entire section of his website devoted to answering questions about Pirates of Silicon Valley. One of the points he makes interests me because it seems to reveal why Steve Jobs returned to make Apple a success once more, while Wozniak did little beyond his amazing early achievements. Asked about why Microsoft was given access to the Mac system, he explains that Microsoft made the best application software, and then goes on:
We did all realize by this time that the difference in computers, the thing that made some more special, was the software. Macintoshes and PC's had similarly capable hardware. But the Macintosh had the special OS and apps that worked that way. That was the reason why people bought Macintoshes. But, even though we openly said this, we ran Apple as a hardware company, because that's where the big revenues were. We were a software company pretending we were a hardware company.
We built factories and ordered parts and hired sales teams and set up distribution and sold our products. We had to handle surplusses that weren't sellable as well. We put out a huge investment. Let's say that the annual profits were $1B. Pretend that we spent $4B and brought in $5B. Not bad for a computer company. But you can look back and see that these profits were all due to people wanting the Mac OS. The way that screen looked and worked, with you instead of against you. You could just look and see how to do things, rather than remember it all (this was back a ways in time!). The only way people could buy this OS was to buy our hardware. So it was easy on paper to tell a convincing story that we were a great hardware company. And our $5B revenues put us well up on the Fortune 500 list of companies. It guaranteed Apple very high respect in big business circles.
But what if we'd just sold the OS to anybody who wanted to make hardware to run it. What if we'd even given up our hardware business. Let's say we licensed our OS. Assume that we'd have brought in the $1B it was worth (you could argue less but you could also argue more) every year. We'd only be a $1B company instead of a $5B company. Not as worthy, right? I'd like to suggest that this would have been better for our shareholders. The company wouldn't have had to take the huge investment risk, wouldn't have to set up factories that might be disposed of when things turned on us, wouldn't have had to melt down tons of unsellable hardware, wouldn't have been caught with lots of unused parts, wouldn't have had to hire and manage so many employees. We just could have sat back with a good programming team and collected on the Macintosh OS. We'd have been more like Microsoft. But this wouldn't have made us as big a company as selling hardware.
It seems that if we'd looked ahead at the importance of software, we'd have seen the mistake in this.

Looking at sales and profit charts (scroll to bottom of linked page) for Apple, we see an astonishing pattern: revenues went up steadily between 1981 to 1995, from a mere 335 million to a massive 11 billion. This indicates Apple had a great run for a decade after Steve Jobs was sacked in 1985. After 1995, though revenues declined precipitously, no doubt affected by the success of Windows 95. Again, this would seem to bear out Wozniak's analysis of Apple as a software company pretending to be a hardware firm. When Steve Jobs returned as CEO in 1997, sales were at 7 billion. Despite the success of the iMac, they kept going down till 2002, at which point they were at 5 billion annually. That's when an incredible resurgence began, helped by the Mac OS X, iPod, Apple Stores, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. Still, they only crossed the previous high sales mark in 2005, with sales of 13 billion. The chart then goes like this: 2006, 19 billion; 2007, 24 billion; 2008, 37 billion; 2009, 42 billion; and 2010, an incredible 65 billion dollars.
It was like something being torn down almost completely and rebuilt. The rebuilding was based on Apple's famed combination of well-designed hardware and intuitive software, which was finally affordable to a mass client base. Instead of Apple becoming more like Microsoft, Microsoft was left scrambling to become more like Apple. I don't know when Steve Wozniak wrote that comment about Apple essentially being a software company, but it must be evident to him now that a software company would never have been able to produce the devices that have made Apple the largest tech company in the world. Great engineer though he may be, it's clear Wozniak is no visionary. I wish Pirates of Silicon Valley had given some play to the creative side of Steve Jobs; the film would've been much better for it, and in some ways preempted The Social Network.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Investigating vegans

I came to this article from Time Out a bit late in the day. It's about a meat eater turning vegan for a week in the interests of investigative journalism. There's precious little investigation done, however; as is normal in the Indian media, anything anti-meat gets a free pass. In all these years of reading Indian newspapers and magazines, I cannot recall coming across a single prominent, coherent defence of non-vegetarianism. What do I mean by 'coherent defence'? Well, something well reasoned and backed by facts, like this great article about foie gras. Since foie gras involves force feeding ducks or geese, it's pretty much the worst thing a human can eat from a moral vegetarian point of view. Among the things Kenji Lopez-Alt reveals in his essay is that geese and ducks do not have a gag reflex; therefore, having a tube stuck down their throat does not traumatise them as it would a human being.
Vegetarianism I can handle, at least of the non-proselytising variety; it offers plenty of healthy eating options for those inclined to eschew meat, and it possesses a strong supporting moral framework. But vegans are like Jehovah's Witnesses: not only do they follow an idiotic, fanatical philosophy, they obsessively try to convert all and sundry to it.
I thought I'd annotate part of Neha Sumitran's vegan-for-a-week article, because I'm annoyed at the silly ideas of a vegan preacher being given so much free play in an excellent publication. Sumitran's words are in itals, mine in normal font.

Now for the snacks. Careful scrutiny of the miniscule list of ingredients on the labels revealed that most of Parle’s biscuits (Magix, Monaco, Nimkin and Hide and Seek) are all vegan, as is Bourneville chocolate (no milk, just cocoa butter) and Pickwick cream wafers.

I've noticed a number of good writers spell 'minuscule' as 'miniscule'. They are so confident of the 'mini' bit they don't bother spell-checking it. But the use of 'mini' as a root is recent, and back-dated in our minds to connect with words like 'miniature'. 'Miniature' has nothing to do with size, however; it is derived from 'miniate', meaning 'to paint or tinge with red'.

The list of ingredients on a bar of chocolate or pack of biscuits is not only minuscule, it is incomplete. A company is only obliged to list non-additive ingredients if they constitute more than a certain percentage of the product by weight. That percentage varies between 5 and 25% depending on the product and the nation. What this means is there's no way of telling a product is vegan by looking at the ingredients' list. In the list Sumitran provides, I suspect not a single entry is entirely free of animal products. Bournville (not Bourneville) chocolate certainly uses milk powder or condensed milk. Ther's no way of making chocolate without dairy products, unless one uses soy as a substitute or else raises the cocoa percentage to something like 70%. The writer's vegan week was, it turns out, pretty unvegan.

[Nandita] Shah’s name popped up many times over the course of the vegan week. The founder of Sharan or Sanctuary for Health & Reconnection to Animals & Nature, is from Auroville, near Pondicherry, but travels across the country to convince people that dietary and lifestyle changes can result in better health. Shah’s most popular lecture, Peas vs. Pills, has been conducted in India, Europe and the US. As I sipped on hot herbal tea at her workshop in Lower Parel later in the week, I learnt that vegans rack up karma points for more than being kind to animals. A 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says our omnivorous diets generate more greenhouse gases than all the cars in the world. It blamed meat production for contributing 14 to 22 per cent of this toxic smog. It turns out that vegans, with their soy-lattes, Pickwick wafers and aloo-tikki subs, are actually saving the world.

It ought to be illegal to put soy lattes, Pickwick wafers and aloo tikki subway sandwiches in the same sentence on grounds of good taste. Why doesn't the article talk about all the great vegan food we eat in the normal course of things in India, roti sabzi, daal chawal, idli sambhar, that kind of wholesome, appetising food, rather than these mutant inventions?

The 2006 FAO report referred not to meat production but to the livestock sector as a whole. It is true these animals are raised for meat in places like the US, but that's not the case in poor countries like India, where male cattle are used mainly as draft animals to produce... the grain and veggies vegans love.

Meat production does strain the environment, particularly in its factory farming mode. But the real threat to the environment began with the invention of agriculture. The most environmentally friendly societies, which regulate their own populations carefully, are tribes of hunter gatherers. And they're all meat eaters. Women in hunter gatherer societies usually suckle their infants for extended periods as a birth control technique; that's because the lifestyle can only support a population of something like 1 human per square kilometer of earth. Agriculture allows a far more intensive exploitation of resources, and therefore permits a massive increase in population density. The huge surge in human numbers that's the ultimate cause of environmental degradation began with farms taking over forest land.

But many vegans in Mumbai haven’t give up animal-derived products just because it is a dearly-held cause. They do it because they believe a vegan diet is healthier and to help them lose weight. Shah’s 50-person workshop was filled with people who would never hoard Pickwick wafers in their bags, as I had. Groups of middle-aged women exchanged vegan recipes and talked about their weight loss, the energy they’d gained and how their skin and hair was glowing more than ever. Shah, a doctor of homoeopathy, has been vegan for over two decades herself. She claims that a healthy vegan diet (one that even eliminates vegetable oil) will not only control but reverse diabetes, hypertension, obesity and auto-immune diseases.
“Who is a mother dog’s milk meant for?” she asked at the start of her workshop. “A puppy. Even a kindergarten kid can answer that. So why are cows any different?” One might ask, what about the vitamins and calcium and protein we get from dairy? According to Shah, a cup of kale or spinach leaves, or two tablespoons of sesame seeds, has double the calcium in a glass of milk. The only essential vitamin that vegans can’t get from food, she claimed, is B12. The debate over whether we should be dietary hunters or gatherers is the religion vs science argument of the food world, and it was clear which side Shah and her crew were on.

I'm waiting for the PETA video showing cattle mistreated in the production of grain. If one is concerned about animal rights above all else, I don't see how one can eat anything in India; not just milk, everything's produced by exploiting animals.

For those who claim veganism is the natural state of humans, there is one insurmountable stumbling block: Vitamin B12. It can only be derived from animal products. Mammals that do not eat other animals get it by one of two means. Many regurgitate food, and the semi-digested cud brings with it B12-rich bacteria that grow in the stomach. Non-ruminants get their B12 by eating faeces. Since humans are not ruminants, and don't in general love ingesting shit, they can only get B12 by eating animals or animal products. An absence of B12 in the diet will cause anaemia and a degeneration of the nervous system leading eventually to death. So how do vegans get their B12? Through vitamin supplements. Since our forefathers had no pills to pop, no fortified cereal to munch, it's safe to say they'd have gone extinct had they not been omnivores. It's disappointing that a supposedly investigative piece fails to question a vegan propagandist more closely on this obvious Achilles heel. But that's the sort of free ride I've come to expect.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hitting Refresh

I spent over an hour before and after lunch hitting refresh on a webpage. The Board of Control for Cricket in India had decided finally to make available tickets for the cricket World Cup final, which is being held in Bombay for the first time. The stadium holds some 50,000, of which a grand total of 3000 tickets were offered for sale on the open market, of which 1000 were to be sold online starting 1pm. I knew the site was going to be overloaded, but I did what I could, as doubtless did like tens of thousands of others.
At one point I managed to get to the relevant page, a list of all matches to which tickets were available, but the final wasn't among them. I don't know if all 1000 passes had been bought up by then (it was about 4 minutes past 13.00 hours IST) or whether the BCCI and its partner the ecommerce site Kyazoonga hadn't managed to load the relevant page. When I hit refresh to see if an extended list popped up, the page refused to load, and remained offline till I gave up an hour later.
I just checked and the site is still down. I guess I'm going to watch the World Cup Final on TV as always.

UPDATE, 24 February: The website crashed and apparently not a single ticket was sold. So now they're going to redo the whole thing as a lottery. Meanwhile, in the brick and mortar world, there are riots and lathi charges at venues, with thousands queueing up for the few available tickets. Appalling mismanagement, considering the BCCI is among the richest sports bodies in the world.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thin (and flimsy) is in

Have you ever had a cup of coffee served by the roadside in a plastic glass? The material is too thin to provide insulation, so you grip the glass at the rim. But now it threatens to slip out of your hand because of the weight of the beverage. You tighten your grip to prevent slippage, but find the rim caving in from the pressure, and the hot coffee splashing onto your fingers and hand.
You berate the vendor for not providing more sturdy containers, and he replies this is the best he can offer for ten rupees.
The fountain Pepsi at PVR and other multiplexes, though, costs something like 85 rupees. Yet, the straws provided with the drink get thinner every year. There's a little circle at the centre of the lid, perforated so the straw can penetrate it with a measured thrust. Well, apparently 85 rupees no longer buys a straw thick enough to achieve that penetration. I complain to the guy at the counter, who snickers at says, "Sir, that's not the way". He reaches out, sticks a thumb through the lid's centre, retracts it and licks off the little cola that's adhered to the finger during the operation.
The take-away spoons at Oven Fresh and Theobroma have adopted the same supermodel diet as the straws at PVR. They're too delicate to make a dent in the softest, moistest Dutch truffle pastry. By the time you give up and use your fingers instead, the spoons look like Uri Geller's had a go at them. The people at the counter are very generous with these cut-rate implements, throwing five or six into the bag with your order, when just a single proper spoon would be more useful.
It's the Panipat-Plassey Principle, which Indians never fully learned: a lone well-armed, professional soldier is worth over a dozen farmers carrying spears.
The flimsiness consequent to cost-cutting isn't restricted to food and drink; those who fly regularly must have noticed how fragile bag tags have become. The metal ring that used to fortify the paper has disappeared, and the elastic string is now a thread. This has happened at a time when security drills are ever more complicated. As you walk away from the pat-down, checking your boarding pass, keys and cellphone, and putting your laptop back in its case, the last thing you're going to notice is a band snapping, or paper being torn off as it brushes past a sharp corner. It won't be till you're at the gate waiting to board that a guard will point to the missing tag and send you back to the X-ray machine, potentially delaying the entire flight.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

There's plenty going on at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, with programmes covering music, dance, books, kids workshops, films and heritage walks. Although loudspeakers have been forbidden this year, the list of events is still substantial. Notwithstanding the impressive and dedicated work the organisers have done, a few questions have arisen in my mind about the festival's future.
When the KGAF was first mooted, it was built on the idea of an arts precinct in South Bombay; and that idea, in turn, based itself on the many art galleries in the area. The KGAF was, in other words, primarily a visual arts initiative at its inception, and was meant to be an intensive, seven day immersion in the sorts of events that took place in the area as a matter of course. Its other purpose was to raise awareness of the built heritage of the district. The first couple of attempts missed the 'festival' bit in 'Kala Ghoda Arts Festival'. In succeeding years the organisers did a fantastic job of fostering a festive atmosphere, but now I've begun to wonder if the 'Arts' part of KGAF is lagging.
Part of the reason is that the idea of Kala Ghoda as an art precinct is dead. Gallery Chemould has moved out from the Jehangir Art Gallery; Bodhi opened and closed after sponsoring some impressive KGAF installations while it flourished; and the NGMA is somnolent. Colaba is now the centre of Bombay's visual arts world, with The Guild, Chatterjee & Lal, Volte and Lakeeren, clustered together and Gallery Maskara, Project 88, Sakshi, Mirchandani + Steinruecke and Art Musings not far away. Without the participation of top galleries, the visual arts component of KGAF has suffered badly. It's worthwhile giving relative unknowns an opportunity to make a mark, but the quality of this year's public installations is pretty mediocre. They all have a similar didactic and symbolic intent. A few years ago two artists made a fun machine they called a Helicoptook, a cross between an autorickshaw and a helicopter. Since then, mutant machines have become a staple feature of the festival, and none has been as successful as the Helicoptook. Another artist (I'll get names soon, just putting down this first draft) used to mould giant feet at the base of the trees on Rampart Row, making the tree trunks seem like enormous legs; it was an excellent example of what street art can be; not trying to drum some lesson into passersby, but simple and visually compelling, just like the Helicoptook. Now we have trees draped in all sorts of material to create awareness of the environment and stuff like that. It all looks like a godawful mess, frankly.
The film festival has a Basu Chatterjee retrospective, but this is mixed in with a selection of films one can watch on the telly any given day, or movies that have just finished a theatrical run. I can't understand the point of a festival dominated by these sorts of films, except as a publicity vehicle for UTV. Of course, there are people who go and watch them, but that's to be expected; any popular, free films will always find willing viewers. The question is whether it furthers the cause of an arts festival to screen stuff like The Social Network or Tere Bin Laden. It might make more sense to show movies which the KGAF-going public would be unlikely to view in the normal run of things, say a selection of regional films for example. Or to weave a specific theme into the selection and bolster it with discussions.
The literature section also appears a bit tired this year, not for the first time. There are plenty of discussions I'd like to attend, of course, but the names involved are very familiar. If I recall correctly, there was a panel on food writing last year. Another one has cropped up this year. A couple of the participants have featured in every single festival going back as far as I can remember. Again, it might make sense to create a more close-knit, well-thought out, formal programme, even if it means a smaller set of events.
The main Rampart Row stretch and the traffic island of Kala Ghoda is far too commercial for my taste. Unilever and the Times of India, plus subsidiary sponsors, have plastered every possible surface with branding. I know Indian sponsors demand the maximum bang for their buck, but the Surf Excel shamianas are way over the top. The road itself is a bazaar full of stalls. A careful vetting process is followed so only people who are furthering conservation of some kind, whether of wildlife or craft traditions, get to sell their wares. It's fun and makes for an evening well spent despite the crowd, but this year the commercialism of it all made me uncomfortable.
KGAF does take over a very busy road in the city's business district, plus an important parking lot, for a full nine days. I wonder if it might be time for the festival to become less of a mela and more of a serious arts event, held mainly indoors, spread out in more locations. After all, with the heritage buildings of Kala Ghoda having been restored one by one, the Kala Ghoda Association has already achieved its primary purpose. There is such a thing as being trapped in your own success and, judging by this year's event, the KGAF is running that risk.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mangled Anthems

Christina Aguilera's been singing the Star Spangled Banner at public functions since she was a kid, but evidently hasn't learned the words yet. She flubbed the fourth line of the national anthem sung at the start of the Super Bowl. Should a singer do something like that to the Indian national anthem, she would have a dozen criminal cases filed against her in far flung courts ruled by attention-seeking magistrates.
We take our national symbols seriously. Three years ago, Sania Mirza was accused of insulting the national flag because she put her bare feet up while resting after a Hopman Cup match, and a photographer clicked a low angle shot that suggested the feet were in close proximity to an Indian flag placed on an adjoining table. This was enough for a criminal charge.

There's a folded khadi flag in a cupboard in our home, which used to be flown during Independence Day and Republic Day in the idealistic days of the 1950s. Somewhere down the line, the government forbade citizens from hoisting flags because of the potential insult to the nation, should they be flown upside down. It took a petition filed by Naveen Jindal and a Supreme Court verdict to reverse the idiotic policy, but those who inadvertently put the green above the saffron can expect to be hauled off to jail.
All of which makes a Borat-like performance impossible in India. I mean, a guy could pretend to sing the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of Jana Gana Mana at a public function, but once the film was released (abroad that is, it would be banned in India) PILs, extradition demands, and death threats would inevitably follow. Luckily there are places where expression is freer, and so we have Sacha Baron Cohen's fabulous mangling of the Star Spangled Banner to laugh at. The horse rearing and falling at the end of the sequence, which can be seen here, is an unexpected bonus. Like the bird flying to the centre of the frame and diving straight down into the water at the end of Barton Fink.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's inhuman?

I'm beginning to get really annoyed with S.M.Krishna and Nirupama Rao for shooting their mouths off at the slightest provocation when it comes to NRIs in the United States.
Foreign minister Krishna labelled 'inhuman' the radio tagging of Indians caught up in an immigration racket. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, calling the men "bonafide students", said, "It's going to rankle in our minds that our young people have been treated this way". Media reports say the 'students' were duped by Tri-Valley University, but the facts suggest many were complicit in the scam. This ridiculous comment in the Hindustan Times refers to radio tags as humiliating and calls the treatment of Indian racist. Through all this nobody has explained exactly why wearing an ankle bracelet that can easily be hidden under trousers is such a dreadful punishment. Given the choice between jail and an electronic tag, I'd choose the tag in an instant. Isn't it legitimate for US authorities to believe some of these students would be a flight risk since the entire issue revolves around gaming the visa system? Impounding passports isn't a perfect solution, since people can disappear in the US and then acquire new documents easily enough.
Indians who try sneaking into the West by underhand means make getting legitimate visas that much more difficult for the rest of us. I don't understand the outpouring of sympathy for these guys, except among those who hoped to use a similar route. What irritates me even more is our government's complete silence in response to the denial of basic rights to Indians in Gulf nations. Out there, passports of labourers can be impounded by employers; workers building swish multi-billion dollar projects can be packed ten to a room in 50 degree heat and made to work long hours with no holidays; Indian citizens can be wrongly implicated in cases, jailed, and even sentenced to death en masse following a dubious judicial process; and our government remains absolutely mute, sucking up to Sheikhs who hurt our economy, while making billions for themselves, by restricting oil output through a petroleum cartel. Our ministers only wake up when some Bollywood star is detained at a US airport for an hour or two; or when tags of the kind that have been worn by well-known personalities like Lindsay Lohan and Julian Assange are prescribed to Indians.

And don't even get me started on how we treat suspects and undertrials in India.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Kiran Nadar Museum

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art opened its new premises at DLF Place, Saket, with a huge party during the India Art Summit. The move from NOIDA, where it had occupied a hall in the HCL campus, has been accompanied by an expansion of the art on display and, more importantly a shift in focus from modern to contemporary art.
The first work I encountered on entering was Bharti Kher's bindi-decorated elephant, titled The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, which sold at Sotheby's in London in June last year for 7 crore rupees (1.5 million dollars).

There was a ring of guards around it, protecting it from the wine-sipping, canape-nibbling horde. I had a vision of Kiran Nadar holding a rifle and placing her foot on the fallen beast, for it was a trophy of a kind. I soon realised the entire museum was made of trophy artworks, bought for top dollar at auction for the most part. Nadar apparently attends auctions and bids herself, which must be an auctioneer's dream. Even on the rare occasion she doesn't get what she wants, I'm sure her underbid is high enough to ensure a high winning price. Walking through the galleries I ticked off a few auction records, and I don't follow results all that closely, so I probably missed more than I caught.
Obviously a collection built in this fashion can't reveal any personal vision. The Kiran Nadar Museum display is eclectic, disparate, and ultimately less than the sum of its parts, though the parts are so exceptional that even the 'less' is substantial. Nadar appears to resemble some late 19th century and early 20th century American multimillionaire collectors who didn't have strong personal tastes, but knew they wanted the best and were willing to pay whatever it took to get it. Nothing wrong with that.