Jag Venugopal's Blog

November 17, 2010

Jag’s Recent Programming Book Purchases

Filed under: Information Technology — Jag @ 11:16 pm

Why, may one ask, does a Project Manager and Business Analyst buy programming books, and that too for obscure (to the average cubicle slave) programming languages? Because its fun, that’s why. Some people like to curl up in front of a fireplace with a novel. For me, computer programming books are “fireplace reading”. And if I do it on my own time, for the love of computing, I will learn only those languages for which excellent open-source implementations exist.

Head First Python is a “right-brained” introduction to Python that I’ve just started reading. I’ve written Python programs off and on for the past few years, and it is now my primary programming language. Hopefully I’ll learn something new, but even if its a recap of stuff I already know, it’s still worthwhile. 

I’ve purchased two Lisp books to finally become proficient in the language. When I was studying for my Master’s in Computer Science at Northeastern, they made us use Scheme. To someone that cut his teeth on K&R C, Scheme was absolutely the most miserable language to write programs in. And to someone schooled in imperative programming, the functional style was a nightmare. However the intervening years and some gray hairs have caused a reassessment of the relative merits of Lisp and C. And so it is that I’ve purchased Practical Common Lisp and Land of Lisp. I’m reading both concurrently, trying to transfer a previous familiarity with Scheme into proper knowledge of Common Lisp. Not quite sure what use I will put this knowledge to, but we’ll figure that one out when I get there.

I purchased all three books in PDF form to read on the iPad. I like reading books on the iPad because:

  • One avoids cluttering up one’s basement with paper copies. I already have three full bookshelves.
  • Unlike the Kindle, the iPad’s screen responds instantaneously. Most importantly, one can read PDFs and full-page documents without losing the original formatting.
  • Ebooks are often available at significant discounts to print books. And when you buy ebooks, never forget to check retailmenot.com to see if coupons are available. I purchased all three books mentioned above at 50% off list.

November 15, 2010

Ethics of downloading books

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:36 am

The easy availability of bootlegged copies of digital books on the Internet has raised some ethical questions and temptations to many a downloader. Why buy that book for $25-50 when one can download it from Rapidshare for free? When you buy a book on, say, the Kindle, is it legal to remove the DRM on it? Is it legal to share it?

I’ve given some thought to these issues, and here are the solutions I’ve come up with, based on my sense of what’s right and wrong. Just so I don’t get the lawyers sent after me, keep in mind that I am not advocating any of the practices below and neither am I affirmatively claiming to perform the actions mentioned below, but merely stating what I find ethical and not. Even if you agree with my ethics, you may fall foul of the laws (especially the DMCA) so please don’t do as I say or do other than at your own risk.

Guiding Principle

My overall guiding principle for the use of books is that if I derive benefit from it (either work related, or enjoyment), then the author and publisher need to be compensated at market rates. A good proxy for market rates is what the paper book sells for on Amazon.com.

Order of Preferences for Ebook Buying

When I am in the market for a title on a subject, my preferences are as follows:

  1. Buy a non-DRM’ed ebook: Publishers such as O’Reilly, Microsoft Press, No Starch Press, and Pragmatic Bookshelf sell ebooks without DRM, and in multiple formats. The more people buy non-DRM’ed ebooks, the stronger the signals sent to publishers that the market prefers ebooks without artificial restrictions on how they may be read. This recapitulates the same cycle that occurred with digital music. Initially, the DRM restrictions were onerous and gradually, all publishers saw the light and started selling MP3s that were not encumbered by DRM.
  2. Buy a Kindle book: I do not see anything ethically wrong (at the cost of running afoul of the DMCA law) with someone removing the DRM on an ebook to make it work with whatever book reader they happen to be using. After all they have paid for the book, fair and square, and have a right to put it to its intended use (which is, to read it). I do not condone removing DRM and sharing a book. In that scenario, I would be facilitating the use of the book by others, without the author and publisher receiving a dime. While a paper copy of a book can be easily lent, I would not advocate the lending of an ebook because it could then be copied and spread over the Internet.
  3. Buy a paper copy, consign it to one’s bookshelf and read a downloaded ebook: If a book is not legitimately available in eBook form, but is available for download as a bootleg copy, I think that the publisher and author ought to be compensated. In that case, an appropriate option for an interested individual might be to purchase a first-hand paper copy, consign it to a remote section of one’s bookshelf and then use the downloaded PDF for daily reading. Consistent with my guiding principles, I will neither advocate the use, lending or sale of the paper copy (because the reader is using the ebook). In this scenario, buying the book second-hand and then using the PDF is unfair because neither the publisher nor the author receive any compensation from these second-hand sales.

Book writing is a tough business. Many authors receive only 5-10% of their book’s sale price as royalties. It is only fair that the author be appropriately compensated when we make use of their product. A similar consideration is due all the other trades involved in book production (typesetting, proofing, editing, etc), and even the much reviled publishers.

November 8, 2010

The Economist On Obama’s India Visit

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 11:00 pm

A nice column by “Schumpeter”: http://www.economist.com/node/17414206/print. I don’t see things as rosily as he sees them (there’s a lot more work to be done; India hasn’t “arrived” but may do so in another decade provided they stick with reforms and keep politicians’ grubby hands off the economy), but am in general agreement with what he says.

A second article discusses President Obama’s non-visit: http://www.economist.com/blogs/asiaview/2010/11/obama_india. The first paragraph is a gem: “TRUE friends are welcome to pop around, even when they have little of substance to talk about. So good is the India-America relationship these days that Barack Obama has been warmly welcomed even when he comes with precious little to say.”

Obama, India, and the United Nations Security Council

Filed under: India — Jag @ 12:34 am

News out of New Delhi is that President Obama has backed India for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Doubtless, there will be a lot of self-congratulating in New Delhi, especially among the punditocracy in the press and on the television channels. But what does permanent membership of the Security Council mean, and what concrete gains does it bring India?

The United Nations Security Council is an anachronism. It gives five permanent members the power to veto any decisions made by the council. In an egalitarian world, having five members more equal than all others is a relic of the bygone days of imperialism, when the British and French ruled vast swathes of the world. To somehow imply that these five nations are imbued with greater wisdom than all others is nonsensical. Among countries that are not permanent members of the Security Council are Asian Tigers such as Japan and Korea. Then there is Brazil. Are these countries in any way inferior to the “veto five?”. And, quite frankly, the standing of Britain and France has changed since the days of WW-II. While no one would doubt that they are advanced countries with a high standard of living, so are Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Italy, Australia, Austria, and the list goes on.

Additionally, the veto right exercised by the five members does not mean much in practice. It did not stop Burma from becoming and remaining a dictatorship, and neither did it put the reins on Iran, Iraq and North Korea from pursuing various policies targeted at their neighbors. A veto from the Security Council will not see Kim Jong Il (or his apparently well fed son) becoming less of a despot. Neither will it see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad become less of a crackpot. The Security Council has also been singularly impotent in Pakistan’s transformation into a terror-jihad factory. Which raises the question — what does the Security Council secure?

Closer home, in India, permanent membership to the Security Council will not turn Indian politicians and ruling elite honest overnight. Neither will it bring good education, clean water, access to nutrition and health to India’s teeming masses (read: those not in the rich enclaves in big cities). And finally, it will certainly not imbue Indian oligarchs with a sense of architectural taste.

So — once the sugar rush has subsided, India would do well to focus on public probity, continuing to improve its economy (10% PA growth), and providing its citizens a path to a better life. My vision of India is that of a market economy, with good governance and genuine rule of law, where it is possible for people to advance through education and hard work, where sufficient amounts of food, clean water and air are available for its citizens, and where its multiple religions and communities and groups are at peace with each other. Now that would be something worth striving for and feeling proud about!

November 4, 2010

Why I will not give money to charity through a corporation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jag @ 11:25 pm

Not a day passes when I don’t walk into a store, conduct my purchase, and the sales person asks me if I wish to donate a dollar to this, that or the other charity. It seems as though one is constantly bombarded with solicitations for small amounts that are hard to resist, yet add up in the aggregate.

My opposition to such corporate charity endeavors is simple. Each corporation (whether it is Stop and Shop, Radio Shack, or anyone else) is not soliciting charity dollars out of altruism. There is a very significant benefit that accrues to the company running the charity drive: free publicity and free publicity. RadioShack or Stop and Shop can claim that its customers and employees donated X hundred thousand for Y worthy cause. In conducting this drive, neither company spent a dime… it was all customer money.

I do not want my money providing free publicity to a corporation, or providing it fodder for a press release.

A corporation has one, and exactly one purpose: to deliver maximum profits to its shareholders while working in a lawful manner. Non-profits have exactly one purpose, too: to deliver on their mission, at lowest cost to whoever is providing them funding. When companies get into funnelling charitable dollars, they take freedom away from their stakeholders (shareholders, customers, employees) in determining how to utilize the proceeds. Some stakeholders may be Catholic and want to give exclusively to charities of their faith. Others may be Jewish, Evangelical, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist, and have their own particular preferences as to who gets their money. Certain stakeholders may want to give to pro-life organizations, while others want to give to pro-choice charities. When an individual does not have control of their charitable giving, they lose the right to direct the money to their favored cause.

 Indeed, those of us that have been blessed have a duty and responsibility to share those who are of more limited means. Each individual has a moral obligation to give, consistent with their own principles, the dictates of their faith, and their abillity to give. Matthew 6:2 sums up beautifully how one ought to give: privately, and without seeking recognition or honor.

PS: With all this said, there is one instance where I will give through an employer. When the company matches donations, and has a broad, unrestricted list of potential recipients. If my donation is multiplied with a corporate match (single, double or triple), then I will take advantage of it. Sure, the shareholders of the company have cause to take issue with such a policy (see above), but I, as an employee, do not object.

I wish I’ll be this generous if I win

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:21 am


November 3, 2010

American President seen threatened by falling coconuts

Filed under: India — Jag @ 12:25 pm


India’s greatest area of competence: corruption

Filed under: India — Jag @ 12:26 am

All those Indians who jingoistically proclaim that their nation is supreme have cause to rejoice. India is seeing a corruption scandal like none other — one involving the highest echelons of the military and the polity. Yes — we have China and the USA beat in our propensity for public dishonesty.

It all started when someone came up with the idea of building housing for the widows of the Kargil war. For my American readers, the Kargil war was a border conflagration where India had to chase out tens of thousands of Pakistany armymen who had seized the snow bound mountains on the Indian side of the border in an area called Kargil, in Kashmir. Now, it is not clear why widows of the Kargil war were to be allotted flats in a posh Mumbai location. Many of these Kargil war widows live in far off places, in the countryside. What good would a Mumbai apartment do them? if the country wanted to show its gratitude, would not an equivalent amount of cash have been a far better alternative?

Once the land was appropriated from either the state government or the navy (no one knows for sure), the building of the apartments started in right earnest. And was it popular ever! No less than three retired service chiefs and many serving generals fought their way to the allotment of a flat. The retired Navy chief is on record as having said that he had no idea that the flats were meant for widows of Kargil martyrs. A more obvious lie has perhaps never been uttered in the sixty-three years of Indian independence.

India’s political and bureaucratic classes got in on the act as well. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law of the serving Chief Minister of Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai is the capital) also managed to finagle allotments of flats. Not to be outdone, at least two other past Chief Ministers are alleged to hold flats in benami names. This favorite trick of the Indian political class has the politician owing the flats in someone else’s name to provide a legal fig leaf. The other individual, though the owner for legal purposes, is merely a front for the putative owner.

It is shameful how the ruling classes (and now the military bosses) sold their souls in exchange for a condominium. They took what was meant to be given to widows of martyrs who laid down their lives for the country, underprepared and ill-equipped, in some of the coldest areas in the Himalayas. It is because of the sacrifices of these unsung, unknown, and uncared-for heros that India returned from the Kargil incident with her head held high and her prestige intact. The right way to make amends would perhaps be to build the three avaricious generals the flats that they so covet… but in the Kargil area, and that too without any heat. And once they have entered their flats, perhaps we could get a war veteran to lock them up and toss the keys from the heights of Kargil’s Tiger Hill.

Blog at WordPress.com.