Tech and Culture

Using trees to power our cars – Is it a good idea ?

Just read on Yahoo! News that a research group at the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho is working on replacing oil with wood as a primary fuel.

Now, the news report lacks substantial technical information, but my guess is that these guys are using Pyrolysis to generate bio-oil from wood. Of course, I would try to gather some more information from their webpages/publications, but for now, going by the article, pyrolysis seems to be the only way this is possible.

This makes me wonder. What is the purpose of even doing this type of research? I can understand using waste bio material to generate fuel, but cutting trees to generate oil, or as the news report puts it, quicken the natural process of crude oil formation seems a little irresponsible to me. Deforestation is a serious issue, and I doubt that using trees to power our SUVs is going to help solve anything.

I wish that more research was done from a practical viewpoint rather than just to get published.

India Life and Personal

When newspapers lose their mind …

The Times of India has been under a lot of fire from bloggers recently for making a “pseudo-mockery” of the Mumbai floods by posting sound-bytes from their star readers about not being able to read their favorite newspaper in the morning. The first blog post that I came across about this was at Indianwriting.

Marooned without Times of India, Mumbai edition

I do not expect this from a newspaper like The Times of India that takes pride in being the 24th largest newspaper in the world with a circulation of 1,680,000. Gimmicks like this do not set up a good precedent for the print media. I wonder why a reputed newspaper like TOI would sink down to such a depth when I doubt it is going to bolster their readership/circulation.

While I am at this, I would like to point out that the same blog ridicules TOI for touting DNA as a unique newspaper, when in fact it is nothing but a copy of other good dailies in Mumbai.

Seems like TOI needs to get their act straight.


India Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Mobile text messaging as a means of broadcasting information in times of disaster

Mobile cell phone usage is burgeoning in urban India. No matter how much we criticize the lack of disaster recovery systems in our expansive country, it is still noteworthy that inspite of record breaking rainfall and the accompanying destruction, communication services went down for a very limited time in Mumbai. People still had Internet access, as is evident from the “live” blog reports available on the Internet. Apparently, the following SMS message was sent at the behest of the Police Commissioner of Mumbai:

Due to heavy rains, water logging likely in city n suburbs. Pls donot travel unless absolutely essential. Police Commissioner, Mumbai

This made me wonder about the importance of a cellular communication network in times like this. It is much more easier and reliable to broadcast SMS messages than to sound warning alarms across the city. The pervasiveness of cellphones means that a lot more people are likely to read an SMS message than to watch the TV for breaking news.


How to conduct an error-free shuttle launch …

NASA launch


Death toll reaches 696 in Maharashtra floods

The death toll is still rising and stands at 696 as of today. This is a really sad natural calamity that begun on July 26th and was unlike any other monsoon rainfall experienced in India. 944 mm of rainfall was received on the first day itself in the Mumbai metropolis!

Luckily, my family had planned to be away from Mumbai much before this rain and did not have to face any difficulties. One of my cousins did, however, have to get to Mumbai on the 26th for a medical exam/interview and was lucky enough not to be stranded at the airport as it was still functional on the first day of heavy rains.

Flickr has many photo galleries covering the floods.

I can only imagine the plight of the poor and the lower middle class in coping with this unwarranted natural disaster. I extend my prayers in support of everyone hit by these rains, and hope that everything returns to normal again.

Addendum: Wikipedia has excellent coverage of the floods.

AP is reporting that the official death toll is at 910.

Life and Personal

Why are some people the way they are ?

I have had numerous roommates during my tenure at NC State University as a grad student. They have been from all parts of India too, and after some time I am beginning to realize certain “stereotypes”, if you will, about Indians based on where they come from. Sure, I might fall under a bad stereotype too, but it is always almost impossible to deduce something negative about yourself.

I am not going to name people here. I went to India this summer with the premise that I might not come back immediately to the US. Hence, I sold all my basic stuff, like furniture, electronics etc. before going on the vacation. I had an Asian roommate and an Indian roommate, who had plans to move out at the beginning of summer, and had hence expressed interest in buying my furniture. Long story short, when I come back I realize that the apartment is in a mess, there are condiments just fallen to the floor in the kitchen, the stove is messy, and the bedroom he vacated is in a mess. And on top of it, all my stuff that I hadn’t even sold was missing ! I tried to get in touch with him a couple times, but it was futile. One of these days I am going to get all my basic stuff back from him though.

What irks me most is that I was responsible enough to transfer the utilities and take care of everything before going away, whereas this person just cancels everything even though he knew I was coming back, or that people would still be living here even if I didn’t come back immediately. This is very irresponsible in my opinion. All it takes is one email to let people know about your intentions. Luckily, I knew something like this was going to happen (stereotypes) so I got an electricity connection in my name pro-actively.

I do not really mind if a person assumes that I am not coming back and takes away even things like the $3 trashcan or the $2 mop, but it would be great to get an email about this, and possibly some sort of permission. Besides, the premise for any such transaction is the understanding that the person vacating would spruce up atleast his bedroom in lieu of all this. I do not expect a person to hide or come back to the apartment to get his remaining stuff, but not show his face.

At the same time, I really like my Asian roommate. He isn’t even in the US, but I get his rent checks before the due date. His sisters are very courteous and considerate, and make it a point to send me the checks in time. He will have been living with me for more than a year now.

I just wish people realized that small actions sometimes go a long way in life …

Life and Personal

We need a “War on Climate”

The east coast is facing a heat wave right now with temperatures soaring to triple digits. Wednesday and Thursday saw the maximum temperature exceed 101 degrees and the heat index reach 110 degrees at Raleigh. The ozone levels have been really alarming, and the heat has taken its toll on homeless people. The local Govt. has set up “heat shelters” where people could enjoy some air conditioned space. Amazingly, the heat wave has spawned an unusual crime wave too !

In India, Bombay was recently hit with one of the worst monsoons in its history. Airports, railway stations, businesses…everything was shut down due to floods and people were marooned in their homes.

Earlier this year, we had snowfall in the UAE.

Makes you wonder what’s going on …

Life and Personal

The GM Diet

One interesting experience I had on my visit to India this summer was seeing the popularity of a weight loss diet program called “The GM Diet“. Almost everyone I know had tried this diet atleast once and seen great results in a week.

I, personally, am not a fan of diets (could also have to do with my lazy lifestyle), but I did try to find more information about this scheme, and was amazed to find very little information online. In fact, the link above is the only comprehensive webpage I was able to find that explained the origins as well as procedure for adapting this diet.

On the outset, the diet looks pretty good, and is different from other low carb diets. It is more “Indian diet friendly” as it includes a lot of fruits and vegetables that Indians eat anyway. From what I have been told, the beef could be easily substitued with any other high protein substance like tofu.

Maybe it is time for me to give it a shot …

Life and Personal Tech and Culture

My thoughts about my website

The proliferation of the Internet and the many businesses centered around it has meant that it is easy for anyone to get a piece of this expansive “virtual real estate” with little investment. One of the main things that fascinates me about the Internet is how easy it is to draw a corollary in the Internet realm from a law/event in the real world. The only difference being that the Internet is, by and large, an anarchy of sorts. You have clusters of peaceful co-existence, and then you have the dark side and the violent side. I would rather not provide hyperlinks to examples 😛

I guess that this peaceful co-existence of good and the bad also provides some philosophical insight to us about why such a co-existence is impossible in the real physical world we get our nutrition from.

As I write this, I am wondering about what having a home on the Internet has done for me. I have had a domain for more than 2 years now. Of course, I was lucky to get a 5 letter .com domain when all the permutations and combinations seem to be running out. I now run two different types of content management systems, a weblog, two different picture galleries, and two FTP accounts for personal purposes. The way I look at it, a domain gives you a definitive address for your home (your http site) on the Internet. The galleries, the weblogs, and the website interface are akin to having an actual home at the address. The FTP accounts and the email addresses are doors and windows to your home. Like the real world, it takes a lot of many things to make your home a sweet home.

I think that my website still does not offer something unique to the community. Like in the real world, on the Internet you gain publicity and/or recognition only when you provide something extraordinary or unique to others. This could be in the form of services, ideas, notoriety etc. In my case, seeing that I do not intend to make money off of my website (I do not even use the Google AdSense program), I have to provide something that is merely interesting. I am not here to change the world or re-invent anything. I am here just to have an identity and to participate in this anarchy by exchange of ideas and experiences that are transformed from the real world into the virtual world.

With this in mind, I think it is time for me to use my website as an outlet for my emotions (this weblog), my experiences (the static pages on my website and even this weblog), my aspirations, my achievements, and my knowledge. I also intend to use this website and the associated address to advertise myself, to communicate and share with friends and family, and to motivate myself.

Hence, my next endeavor is going to be making available all academic material I have assimilated over the years on this website. I also intend to start writing more on topics that I have an expertise in. Isn’t that the purpose of a website anyway ?

Here’s to hoping that I would be able to make these changes very very soon …


Relevance of the H1-B visa to offshoring …

I spent a good amount of time at Vel‘s place last evening drinking a couple beers and talking about the economy, university life, and other general stuff. During the course of our fun conversation, and after I had had 2 beers, the topic of the H1-B Visa provisions was brought up.

I believe that the H1-B Visa program, if implemented well, could actually curb the offshoring of jobs to a great extent. Ofcourse, like Vel said, an H1-B employee is akin to a regular employee for all practical purposes. Offshoring is inevitable, and the low end jobs are always going to be offshored to a cheaper country/location. We have seen this everywhere including India.

Before I explain my thesis, we must realize that one of the factors fuelling offshoring is the lack of a good primary education system in America. It is increasingly becoming harder for technology companies to find skilled and qualified people within this country. At the same time, it is crucial for these companies to maintain “primary” presence in the US on account of a good judicial system, mature company laws, and availability of global marketing resources. For example, Intel has 60% of its business outside America today. This is a common scenario across technology companies as the developing world plays catch-up and comes up as a big market for American products.

As a lot of people have pointed out, H1-Bs work with their American peers in America to further enhance the economy by paying taxes, buying billions of dollars worth of goods and services etc. This also means that they are being paid at par with the current wages prevalent in their industry. So, how exactly is this better than just offshoring the entire group to a cheaper place for the parent company?

You have to understand that it is not always cheaper to set up new operations in a cheaper country. We touched upon this last evening, and one argument against this was that it is always going to be cheaper in the long run. Well, when you offshore, you also have to factor in the quality of labor, and the value of such an investment. Value is derived from project turn-around times and other factors. These factors include local government policies etc. It is cheaper to offshore mundane tasks like call centers, basic IT development, and even telemarketing. At the same time, it is very difficult to offshore anything strategic. It is cheaper in other countries because of the availability of a large quantity of “mundane” labor. The very best is still in the developed world, and especially the US because of the quality of life and the higher institutes of learning that ensure that the very best stays in the US.

Sure, we are seeing the offshoring of research as well as product development now, but this is because of the growth of the developing world’s economies as a whole. USA is unable to keep development on its shore at such a high pace, and a lot of it has to do with politics, Govt. policies, and again, lack of etremely qualified and diversified people here.

Now, imagine if companies like Microsoft had their way, and the H1-B scheme was liberalized. The local companies would be able to hire the top talent from the world and stop other countries from getting forward. Sure, offshoring would still continue abated, but it would be more strategic than not. Surely, there is a reason why companies want to hire foreigners when they could just as well go with cost. I have been a firm supporter of the belief that costs catalyse offshoring, not fuel it. If costs were the only factor, then there would be no software companies in the Western Hemisphere. The McKinsey Global Institute has links to some very good articles and a panel discussion that touches on the need for a more liberal H1-B program.

If the H1-B caps are maintained at their current levels, at a time when the US economy needs more specialised workers than ever, it could prove catastrophic in the long run. I see offshoring as a short term solution. Other countries are not at all in a position politically, economically, or even socially to be havens for a global business. A car made by Ford in Mexico could cost the same as a car made by Toyota in the US. What matters is that Ford is still an American company and Toyota is a Japanese company having a bigger American business unit than a Japanese one.

I hope that the US policy makers realize this sooner than later.

Addendum: Interesting read – Immigration and Offshoring: The Graying of America