Messaging Applications and Going Back to the Basics

Another day another backdoor in a messaging application. It seems like the more you care about your privacy the easier it gets for state actors to snoop upon your communications.

I believe it is time that we bring back the old instant messaging paradigm. If you recall from your early Yahoo! Messenger/AIM days, instant messaging was always synchronous. The services provided ways to send messages between users, but their main implementation was akin to a directory service. While you could look up if a contact was offline, you could only send them a message if they were online and available.

As these IM networks became more advanced and popular, services began offering the capability to send ‘offline’ messages. These messages, by their nature, would be stored on the company’s server until the recipient went online and was able to download them. This was a diversion from the quasi-synchronous behavior to one that was more a store-and-forward system, just like email. I believe that one of the reasons for this change was that as more people started obtaining always-on broadband connections, it became harder for messaging software to directly connect with other computers. This is because due to IPv4 design challenges, computers sharing an Internet IP address had to be put behind address translators and that made it necessary to employ an intermediary service that the clients could connect to. This solved the connectivity issue while also affording the capability to send offline messages.

Of course, any time you introduce a store-and-forward system into your communications, you are opening it up for easier surveillance. I say easy because the listener/hacker does not have to be listening in real-time. They could just get access to the store system and read the communication asynchronously.

This was also a time when security and privacy was something no one even thought of.

With the current privacy climate, I think it is time to get back to the basics. Messaging should be like making a phone call. If the other person is offline or not available, the messages need to either be dropped or be unable to be sent. This is the best way to protect privacy.

Now that IPv6 is gaining traction and helps alleviate the address translation issues with the ‘old Internet’, it is all the while easier to build such a chat system without much effort. Forget secure messaging services; the best security is one that you control.

So how would this work?


Open source, based on an open directory standard that would allow people to indicate availability by virtue of a unique identifier. What this identifier can be is an implementation detail, but a phone number or email sounds like a good idea.

When clients connect to the directory server, they can query a particular contact’s availability status. Additionally, they will be able to advertise their network address so that other clients could establish a connection directly for messaging. No store-and-forward.


Open source, based on open connectivity standards. The client would tell the directory server that a contact with the specified identifier is online and ready to receive messages/voice/video at their particular address.

In order to send or receive messages, the usual encryption techniques would be followed. I envision an extension to the existing public key infrastructure, but for people.

This is my general idea and I am sure that I am not the only person who would love to see something like this.

A lot of people that use today’s messaging platforms have never seen the glory days of instant messaging past. We still had bots in the early 00’s. We had voice and video as well. We had everything! What we did not have back then was secret backdoors. Or maybe they were pretty good secrets!

As phones and computers get more powerful and the Internet more advanced, it only makes sense to cut out the middleman.

Blogging and the Spread of Truth in the Age of Platforms

A lot of people have proclaimed that blogging is dead, that it doesn’t generate any traffic, and that no one reads blogs anymore. Personally, I don’t know the last time I kept up with a blog on a regular basis like a few years ago. The problem is not the lack of people who share their ideas. Rather, as more people take to ‘social media’ and instant messaging, there remains very little incentive to write out a well thought-out post to be shared. This means that people now spend less time on long-form writing than they do on just sharing snippets.

Indeed, if you search for something of interest, you are more likely to find SEO-fied links on the first 2 result pages about products or advertising than any relevant read. As more and more advertising money flows into search advertising, there is an SEO economy being created where the only winners are websites with a huge advertising and/or SEO budget.

At the same time, a lot of platforms are being created to help people express themselves. Facebook being in the forefront, trailed by companies like Medium. There is no dearth of hosted blog providers who have adopted the Twitter approach of follows and likes to float more popular posts towards the top. A lot of companies boast of using ‘AI’ to figure out what content would prove to be sticker and hence generate more clicks for the authors.

People don’t even read newspapers anymore. On a recent Facebook exchange, I was reminded by a ‘mainstream media’ sceptic that newspapers, or dead-tree publications, as he likened them to, are not the only way to procure your dose of daily news. Indeed, what was once seen as blogging is now increasingly also the format used to report news. It’s the ease of sharing and embedding advertising that makes online blogging a wonderful substitute to subscribing to a printed/electronic newspaper.

So, why were blogs such a wonderful thing?

You could always count on a multitude of blogs positing different approaches to solving a particular problem or educating you about a topic from all perspectives. Stuck trying to figure out how your country’s foreign policy works? Just read up a few posts by passionate bloggers who breathe foreign policy and are eager to share their opinions and understanding.

Newspapers are feeling the heat, too. While a lot of them have established credible online and digital distribution systems, right down to monetization, they simply cannot compete with the phenomenon of click driven ‘fake news’. Whereas in the past people were careful to not treat a certain blogger or website as the face of truth, now that social media has made blogging a more mainstream way to distribute facts, now this area is getting murky. A lot of these websites are primarily content aggregators that they incredulously ingest from other similar websites or persons. What generates clicks are headlines. What’s the incentive to even hire and perform true journalism any more if truth is difficult to swallow and also does not sell well?

Using social media and these blogging platforms is much easier than ever because you don’t have to worry about the technical nitty-gritty like security and maintenance. At the same time, most of these platforms are free to publish on as they make money through advertising. Their currency is likes and followers. You, as an author, feel you’re getting enhanced reach.

Yesterday, I even watched live an incoming president of a developed country dismiss a credible and historic news channel as the purveyor of ‘fake news’.

There is a huge problem inherent with the ‘platformization’ of the web – censorship. While I have not had the pleasure of living in an authoritarian state, a lot of people have that misfortune. Platforms have to follow local laws, which change abruptly based on who is controlling the government. If they don’t follow these laws, they lose the market and hence the money. There are rumors that Facebook is working on a special censorship tool for the Chinese market that would allow them to enter it and hence make a ton of money from the world’s most populous market. Recently, they also started censoring posts and notes that were written unfavorably towards the government in The Philippines.

Apart from censorship, since you don’t control the platform and the laws change abruptly, you can never be sure that your news/content would outlive the platform or would not suddenly be deleted one day.

Solution – let’s get back to the basics. Have a friend set up your blog for you. Because if you control your platform you control your freedom of speech. If your hosting provider tries to censor you, there are others that would offer you refuge. The web was built to be run that way.

Here is something I shared on Facebook when the platform was accused of spreading fake news:

To say that the problem is just ‘fake news’ would be trivializing it. To say that the problem of ‘fake news’ could be solved technologically would be fooling everyone.

There are multiple issues – one of them being conflict of interest. Facebook makes money based on clicks. Fake and sensational information generates more clicks. Any technological solution would be at odds with the objective of maximizing clicks and visits.

AI is another example of Silicon Valley’s bubble. By nature, AI and henceFacebook‘s approach of creating algorithms, would always lag behind trends in society/pop culture. AI is a cute term for big data collection. This makes it implicit that any intelligence is created after the trends go mainstream. AI is the reason why everyone’s news feed is messed up and also why FB insists upon not showing posts chronologically. That impacts click-throughs. When FB talks about AI, translate it to – process of prioritizing paid posts and external links over user-generated content in a way that it’s less obvious and annoys you just a tad less than to the extent of making you quit. 

The best way to use FB is to use it like a repository or a blog. That way chronological order wouldn’t matter much. Stop using the feed. Organically search for posts and pictures. Facebook makes it near impossible, but switch your feed to show posts in their chronological order.

Most importantly, don’t make it the only place you seek out information. The web is huge.

If you have to share something, first consider the possibility of adding something more or even saying it in your own words. The less time and effort you put into what you share with friends and family, the easier it gets for any AI to win over humanity and to further the gap between the elites and the ‘losers’.

AI’s currency is your lack of time and effort. Make it clear that you’re the boss of your profile 

Now, more than ever, it is important to start reading credible news sources. If you can’t afford a newspaper subscription, find out the nearest library that has one. If you read something online, make sure you can verify its authenticity by checking other sources. If you’re still unsure, ask someone else.

When more people blog and share their ideas, rather than mere snippets or forwards, the whole country moves forward. Free exchange of ideas enables the society to move forward and to settle differences through intellectual exchange. More opinions enable better policies.

The least we can expect from a developed civilization is the facilitation of free and uncensored exchange of ideas.

Should you attend the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference?

If you are an Apple ecosystem developer you must be already aware that WWDC 16 has been announced. You have less than a week to decide about your attendance and sign up for the lottery – yes, a lottery to pay up money to attend a tech conference in a different country notorious for its visa rejections.

Geopolitical considerations aside, the question on every mind is – should I really commit to attending the conference? Tickets used to get sold out within months, then weeks, then a couple days, and the last time there wasn’t a lottery (2013), they sold out within about 3 minutes. I have been an attendee twice, once in 2011, and then the last time in 2012. Ever since then, I have tried and ultimately failed to procure a ticket to the annual pilgrimage. It hurt in 2013; felt bad in 2014; felt like a bad bet in 2015, and finally, this year, for the first time since I moved to Amsterdam, I am actually wondering if I should even sign up.


Why I support the Border Security Bill

Much has been said about the newly enacted Border Security Bill in the US (HR 6080 – PDF). At its core, the purpose of the bill (now law) is to provide monies for funding existing and upcoming objectives of the DHS (including USCIS), DOJ, and the Judicial system pertaining to the southwestern border of the United States.

It sounds really simple in intention, except that it really isn’t. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat NY) states that it is beneficial to the country because it ‘Would Hike Fees On Personnel Companies That Exploit U.S. Visa Laws’. Wait, what?

Before I state my reasons for supporting this bill, I would like the discuss the exploitation Schumer talks about. The H1-B/L1 visa categories are particularly controversial, in part because they are both what are known as ‘dual intent’ visas. This means that any H1-B/L1 visa holder is allowed under US immigration law to seek a path towards permanent residency in the country. Why this complicates the entire debate – they are both mandated to ‘temporarily employ foreign workers’ in specialty occupations. According to Schumer, ‘It will also avoid adding to the deficit by raising fees on a handful of foreign corporations that abuse U.S. visa programs to import workers from India.’ So, it is clear – the bill’s primary target is Indian IT companies, namely Infosys, Wipro, TCS, and Mahindra Satyam. All these companies are also responsible for the majority of American offshored work as well. So, where is the exploitation? It is clear that the companies bring foreign workers to the US temporarily for a specific work project and for a specific client. Of course, owing to the aforementioned dual intent provision, these temporary workers are free to obtain permanent residency in the US, too, but few do. I bet this mostly due to the contractual nature of such an engagement.

The exploitation Schumer refers to could be the fact that these Indian companies are what are called ‘H1-B dependent’ companies. Simply stated, these are companies with 15% or more employees on an H1-B. These companies pay extra for this ‘privilege’ come time to apply for an H1-B. They also have to provide an attestation that they made ‘good faith’ efforts to hire Americans and that no American jobs would be lost as a result. But wait, there’s a rider. If the company hires workers with a master’s degree or pays them above a threshold salary, they aren’t required to attest anything, not that it’s genuinely easy to find qualified software engineers in the US.

So, please don’t give these companies a bad name. They are not exploiting any visa laws. At best, they are exploiting America’s global push for open markets at open labor rates.

Now, onto why I support this controversial bill, irrespective of the absurdity surrounding penalizing legal immigrants to keep illegal immigration in check. These are my points:

1. This is a good reminder that there are great opportunities elsewhere. USA is the world’s biggest importer, but there are tremendous opportunities in other parts of the world. Infosys, please start bidding on Indian projects as well.

2. This bill is no doubt the harbinger of a greater push towards immigration reform during this presidential term. Schumer has long been a proponent of meaningful immigration leading to a speedy path towards permanent residency. This bill lays the groundwork for such reform. It’s time to tell the world that America would rather import talent permanently than send it back.

3. This is the biggest reason – the bill inherently kills the ‘desi consultant’ business inside the US. These are the real culprits. Basically, these are small time body shops that work at the third or even fourth tier of the consulting business, are almost always owned by first generation Indian permanent residents with another primary source of income, have no business plan, are really H1-B dependent, and have no code of ethics. There are various reasons why someone would join such a company. For most, it’s the easiest path to getting an H1-B (and subsequently legal residence) after completing education in the US. With this new law, such companies would have to shell out extra for every new H1-B petition. This eats into the already meager margins at which these shady companies do business. But, the topic of small consulting companies deserves another blog post of its own.

4. Speaking as someone who earned two graduate degrees from a top American university, I wholeheartedly support any measure that provides confidence to American students that engineering degrees are good and that there is going to a be a job available for them when they graduate. This leads to the much greater issue in my opinion, that of regulating US Inc. such that while global talent and liberal immigration is welcome, steps ought to be taken to ensure a level playing field for people born in the country. It’s not their fault that everything is cheaper abroad. Almost every developed country has such protective measures in place. America should, too. Too bad it would need political might to rein in capitalism.

America is lucky to have a very active immigration debate in this day and age when every other country is on its toes to recruit talent globally. People want to move to America for a better life, better future, and for freedom to take risks that they couldn’t back home. I can only hope that something good comes out of bills like HR 6080. In the interim, I am confident that these steps would lay a strong groundwork towards making comprehensive immigration reform a more welcome agenda in the minds of Americans and would-be immigrants alike.


Why the Founders Visa could suck

If you have been following blogs of people associated with the technology and entrepreneurship industry (yes, entrepreneurship is also an industry) with any level of intent, you MUST have heard of the Founders Visa movement. Predictably, the ‘grassroots’ effort has been gaining a lot of momentum thanks to Twitter.

The premise is that if you’re a budding entrepreneur with viable investment money on hand, you should be able to freely come to the US as a nonimmigrant to start your business. Hitherto, the only ways to come to the US without having been born here have been through a buffet of non-immigrant visas or being able to secure work in the country. The latter has always been classified as a dual-intent visa that allows you to also apply for permanent residency through employment based green cards. Notice the importance of intent. If you’re a student and you give the guy at the consulate the impression that you’re going to find a job after graduating, there are grounds to reject your non-immigrant visa.

This becomes an important issue to consider when you realize that MOST of the successful companies in the US were started by people who first came to the US on these student or other non-immigrant visas. Statistically, most successful startups are also conceptualized and governed by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Also, quite a few, if not all, entrepreneurs work for a while IN THE USA before they think, ‘Hmmm, I should start a business doing this’.

MISTAKE 1: Emphasis on intent

Now, once you’re in the USA, you complete your education from one of the top schools in the world. Even though you hardly have any American students in your Algorithms class, you are optimistic, and you get that degree. But wait, you get one more just because you love being in school. And here you are, one of the brightest people around, have a potential career, have a strong head on your shoulders, are optimistic, etc. What next? You apply for a job! Yey, right? No. Because…you’re now a potential immigrant, are suddenly a bad guy because you’re trying to reduce wages, and worst of all, you aren’t American. You are in line for a work permit.

MISTAKE 2: Treating international graduates like first time immigrants

But, before you get a work permit, you have to be worthy enough for a company to spend more than $3k on lawyer and application fees for you. On top of that, thanks to the xenophobia and immigration backlash, they have to contend with the fact that the other employees might link your getting hired to their kin losing jobs. I know it’s ass backwards, but bear with me. In the quest to get a work permit, who wins? Half of that $3k figure is actually lawyer costs. In a country where the insurance company makes more than the doctor this doesn’t surprise me one bit. Compare this to Canada, where just like healthcare, you don’t need a middleman to file your paperwork.

MISTAKE 3: Making it hard to actually get a visa

Now you have a visa, a job, and are making some money. You’re being a good non-citizen – paying more taxes than citizens (you can never avail a lot of benefits reserved for citizens), contributing to the society, making kind donations for the needy, obeying the civic laws, etc. Then, you realize that you’re actually good at what you do, and there’s a lot of sense in starting a business. Well, welcome to America! You can start a business but you cannot work for it! We like passive investment, but you cannot do anything more than putting in money. Which means, you’d have to have a full time job, worry about keeping it, all the while as you struggle to start your company and make it profitable. You have a choice – move to Canada or Chile while you’re still young or live the American H1B dream.

MISTAKE 4: Wanting the best but doing nothing to keep them here

So you eschew the idea of starting a new enterprise until you are a legal permanent residence and don’t have to worry about being employed all the time. Well, there’s an app…err I mean paperwork for that. And, if you are a citizen of China or India, you are looking at almost 6-7 years of patiently waiting before getting anything back out of that paperwork and large amounts of attorney fees. Depending on when you file for your permanent residency, you could all but forget about marrying that girl you knew back home, because she could marry you but not come back with you. Splendid.

MISTAKE 5: Making timely legal immigration some sort of a pipe dream

Once you get that ever so elusive green card, you’re fed up, tired, old, and the torture you faced has made you an immigrant hater yourself. Then, there’s the added pressure of hearing about all those successful peers that went home when there was time and made big bucks. So, what do you do with that green card? Well, you use it to help your retired parents spend the rest of their life with you here in America where you nearly got everything you wanted when you wanted.

There was a time when people actually went through all this effort, because frankly, there was no better place to work than in America. Things have changed A LOT since then. There’s a mass exodus of young non-immigrants from the US to other countries. These people came here, got educated, loved working hard, met great people, but they don’t want to toil away for a piece of paper that still wouldn’t release them from the xenophobia that they so wanted to overcome.

So, where does the Founders Visa fit in? Some say it should be an entirely new visa that looks at you as a capable entrepreneur, gives you a few years to prove it, and requires some amount of backing by established investors. If you fail, you leave the country.

Are you fricking serious? I am sure that’s so enticing.

Some argue that it should be an extension of the EB5 permanent residency category. The category that lets you come to the US, no holds barred, for a mere amount of $1,000,000 ($500,000 through a rural investment). That’s really it. Invest that amount of money and you’re guaranteed a happy retirement in the United States of America! All it takes is 2 months of paperwork and lawyer fees. Splendid again.

You know why the Founders Visa proposal sucks?


You are not inviting any talented people to the country by making such an entry conditional on their being successful. Are you serious? Do you ever go out during the day? Do you have a social life? How do you explain the pressure on these entrepreneurs who have to compete with undocumented immigrants (who, by the way have it way way easier)?

How many entrepreneurs would come to the US just to take a risk when Canada would simply look at their education and give them a permanent resident status? Do you think they would leave their families behind?

More importantly – How do you define success?

The Founders Visa suffers from all the mistakes mentioned above. Congratulations, you didn’t provide any solution.


Addendum: I realized later that my post might come across as starting off with the mistakes in the new proposal. That is not true. The main reason I list the problems with the current policies is that I believe they should be addressed before we start baking a second layer of our cake. Also, I believe that if the intent of the visa is to attract people who have never been to the US before, the facts that it is still a temporary permit and that it banks heavily on the beneficiary being successful are also the flaws of the proposal.

If the intent is to keep the bright people from leaving, then the mistakes listed need to be addressed. There’s just too much hard work involved in being successful, and the headache of worrying about a stable US presence just makes the proposal not worth it.

Dad’s Interview on BBC World

My dad’s very brief interview on the competency of the State owned BSNL in the face of increasing competition from newer private telecom operators was featured on BBC World’s weekly ‘India Business Report’ program.

Fast forward to the 40 second marker for the actual interview.

Of course, since it was meant to be only a segment in the 30 minute program, the entire half an hour long interview could not be included, but was used as a build-up for the story.

Next goal – Me on CNN Business!

Age and Competition

It’s not uncommon to run into a blog belonging to a very young software whizz these days and just not being amazed at how kids these days are able to get up to speed with what took us ages. Of course, this sort of generational gap is always going to exist. As we advance our knowledge of science and technology, the baseline for mere awareness is only going to keep rising. For example, a few decades ago, calculus was an advanced topic, but now it is a staple ingredient in the Mathematics curriculum of an average middle school student.

The point of this post is to mull over how age and experience really play a role in how you look at these things. For example, I saw this site today. It belongs to a passionate 18 year old open source software developer who is most probably a college student. From a technical standpoint, he is definitely more than qualified to do the jobs of some very experienced people I have met. He is on the cutting edge of his technical spectrum, so to speak. When I was growing up and in college, I was like that, too. I used to work on websites as a hobby, write interesting C programs in my summers, and just generally mess around with a lot of software code. With the rise of the Internet, though, it has become all too easy, and sometimes expected of you, to showcase your passion and talent for the rest of the world. This is an example of the raised threshold/baseline I mentioned earlier. So, is the kid exceptional? In comparison to some other peers in college, sure, but being on the cutting edge and passionate is expected from you. When you are grown up, this is how you look at it.

When you’re 18 years old, you just want to do things because they’re fun, and not because you realize that being passionate is ultimately going to help your overall perception of your future career. Youngsters these days have this wonderful opportunity to be taken seriously, to be able to start open source projects that have the potential to be used by a lot of people, to be able to contribute in the same vein as other more experienced people, thanks to the Internet. So, for someone like me, while it was considered exceptional to just be passionate about programming languages or writing hobby programs, I think the bar has been raised quite a bit in the last two decades.

So, do you compete with these youngsters? Feel threatened? No.

These are just signs that the technology landscape is changing so quickly, and that is very good. What we could do, though, is align our passion with theirs and create synergies that would ultimately advance future technologies.

The Apple Hype Machine™

Today, Apple introduced the next version of the iPhone, labeled ‘iPhone 3G’. As always, the fanboys were intrepidly forecasting the new set of features and capabilities that this new gadget would include. For the most part, they got what they wanted, and coming from Apple, I think it is a good deal.

A list of what’s ‘new’ – 3G support, cheaper, built in assisted GPS.

Every other new feature is a software feature that would be provided free of cost to the people who already bought the first version a year ago. I am currently beta testing the new firmware, and it is a step up, definitely.

What amazes me though, is the blind trust some people have for Apple. Steve Jobs compared the browser on the iPhone with browsers on phones that were at least 2 years old. He completely side-stepped the modern browsers on Windows Mobile, or even BlackBerry devices. For the intelligent consumer, it doesn’t mean a thing, but for the average dumb/brainwashed consumer, Jobs’ word is gospel. The Safari browser on the iPhone is NOT at all the fastest mobile browser.

Another example – as is the case with all things Apple, there were rumors floating around just before the keynote about the new model having various features like MMS (which has been a staple feature of all phones since the early 2000’s), video conferencing, higher resolution camera, better Bluetooth support, etc. But, ultimately, nothing of that sort came even close to being announced. People are happy, nonetheless, or rather the fanboys are.

On top of this ludicrousness, ATT thought it would be a good time to bump the rate of the data plan from $20 a month to $30 a month. This makes an entry level plan for the iPhone cost approximately $70 a month before taxes. And I thought that communications was getting cheaper everyday.

I love Apple’s products just because they tend to be minimalist, but I have a major grudge against their false, unethical, inaccurate marketing. I also abhor fanboys who have every possible justification for skipped basic functionality.

That said, I am going to create an interesting app one day for the iPhone 🙂

Google Summer of Code

I have nothing but praise for Google’s Summer of Code initiative. This has been going on for a few years now. Basically, Google supports various open source projects by giving them a miniscule financial assistance, but paid developers for about two months in the summer. Everyone benefits. The mentors get project recognition and talent; the students get a well paid ($4500 currently) summer job and Google’s seal of approval for their skills.

I wish something like this existed when I was a financially struggling graduate student at a time when the economy was near its worst in the not-so-distant past. That would have saved me from slaving for unappreciative educators in the university system who take pride in misguiding their students with fake promises of an assistantship in the next semester. I could have used those summers, instead, to do what I love doing – write code, and get paid doing it.

Check out this year’s wonderful projects at Google Code.