Tuesday, February 28, 2006

G o d O n R a d i o

Once I believed in friends
And love and hope and wonder
Once I believed in dreams
Of magic sea and thunder

Until I met ennui
Until I knew The Vacant
There's nothing - It's just me
There's no one - I'm just me

Off to your clanking glasses
Off to your jarring laughs
Off you fleeting apparitions
You never will save me

And talking is a transaction
It's stupid to keep on trying
And life is but a game
But I don't feel like playing

There's a rhythm on the radio
Soft and old, undying
Yes, life is just this beat
You let it keep on playing

I come here to my wintry forest
Where death smiles and lies waiting
I see the ice, I see dark barrens
But the tune in my ear keeps ringing

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A n i m a t e d I n I n d i a

Rajan has tempted me to blog about this contentsutra post.

... From outsourced sweat shops to co-production deals, that's the way to go for Indian animation companies. India's animation talent cannot be underestimated. For instance, Walt Disney’s 2005 blockbuster Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was done out of India. It was executed by a 700-strong team in the Los Angeles and Mumbai offices of animation and visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues. ...

I am a computer graphics researcher and am very interested in the entertainment industry. I would even like to take a job in India but I haven't done so ! The reason ? I disagree to the fact that Indian animation industry has come of age.

This is a problem not just with the animation industry, but with the Indian industry in general. Most of the revenue that India earns through software is by offering services. In fact, major companies such as Infosys, TCS, Wipro etc. have hardly developed any products !

Sometime last year, I had the opportunity to ask a question to the very vice-presidents of TCS, Infosys, Satyam and Wipro themselves. This was during a seminar in ISB on the expected rates of growth for the Indian software industry.

"Sir, inspite of making huge dollar profits, your company doesn't develop any products. Why ? What problems do you face in building an image and marketing the product ? Why doesn't your company see this as a good source of earning revenue ?"

This question made them all uneasy. The VPs of Infosys and TCS mentioned the names of a few products that their companies built.

"But what is the percentage of revenue that these products are earning for your company ? What is the corresponding ratio for companies of similar size in the Silicon Valley ? "

At this point, the VP of Satyam was visibly angry. He beckoned me and said, "The conditions in Hyderabad and in the Silicon Valley are very different. They have good universities up there and they have a totally different mode of thinking."

Then I replied, "Sir, I belong to IIIT which is just next door. Our university is research oriented and we have good developers in our student community."

Then he said, "Yes, I know. Why don't you meet me in person and we can talk this over during lunch ?"

But I didn't/couldn't meet him during lunch :)

Even though none of the VPs admitted the reason to me, I knew it already. Indian companies are notorious for averting risks ! Developing a product has several inherent risks and invites ferocious competition on the global scale. Indian companies want to play it safe. In other words, they are chickened out ! I am not saying that chickening out is a bad thing, it surely has some merit from the perspective of the chicken. :))

So where am I ? Yeah, this is the same reason why I don't expect Indian animation companies to do anything wonderful on the global scale. These companies are too scared to take any risks and to develop any products (in this case, a movie or a videogame). During the inception and the development phases, they are wont do cut down costs, overwork the employees, use terrible/incapable managers and miss deadlines. No client is waiting for the work to get done, and thus nobody becomes accountable for the product ! After all, nobody has believed in the first place that the product would be any good anyway !

The first 3D animation movie to come out of India "Pandavas" was so bad - not only in artistic detail but also in script and animatics ! Though relesed years later (in terms of graphics, years = ages), this movie pales in comparison to the first 3D movie ever produced "Toy Story". Can we ever expect the magic of Disney such as "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs" to come out of India ? Would anybody ever conceptualize a sequence such as the birds chirping and dancing, as snowwhite draws water from the well ?

In India, animation houses are equivalents of BPOs and sweatshops. They grow laterally rather than vertically. They accept too many work-assignments, and they overwork their employees. And their workplaces are too crampy with very little space per employee. (Not that it is a bad thing, they are solving the unemployment problem after all)

I have recently visited an animation house which also offers training to novices who want to get into the business. "Why don't you encourage short-movies from your employees/students so that they can send them to SIGGRAPH ? This will show good on their portfolio and will be good for your publicity." To this, the HR has replied "What is SIGGRAPH ?"

I have also recently visited a very good art school - the JNTU school of fine arts. I was trying to build a partnership with the art-students for my students in the computer graphics course. Such partnerships are commonplace in the USA but are virtually unheard of in India. The art students were super-cool and they were pretty interested in our ideas. But they were also clueless - "What is SIGGRAPH ? "

The major complaint that is heard from animation houses is that there is a lack of technical talent / motivation etc. in India. This sounds suspiciously close to what I heard from the VPs of Satyam, Infosys etc.

Rhythm & Hues is an exception to the rule. Firstly, their Los Angeles unit is extremely good. I have visited their LA quarters when I've been to SIGGRAPH in 2005.

I have observed some work-in-progress for "The Chronicles of Narnia" too ! R&H has a breezy workspace and an ultra-cool work culture. This will prove to be in stark contrast to my later experiences with Indian animation houses. Secondly, they truly trust their unit in Mumbai and are cheerleading it very much. Indeed, I am very happy that the Mumbai unit has participated in the production of the "Narnia". But personaly, the Narnia movie didn't please me much. I would be surprised if it wins the Academy award. The biggest killer in the movie is the sloppy editing - the VFX are pretty cool, though there are some lighting mismatches (bad cinematography). And also, the credits for this movie include ILM and Sony Imageworks along with R&H.

Some MNCs (such as Google, Oracle, Adobe and Microsoft) are doing product development in software at their Bangalore offices. But this is mostly in conjuction with the main team in the USA, similar to how R&H has executed the Narnia movie.

Do I see a time when an entire movie/videogame is conceptualized in India for a major production house and then receives world-wide acclaim ? Do I see a time when the art-schools incorporate a radically-upto-date syllabus ? Do I see a time when short-movies from India get accepted to the SIGGRAPH animation festival (France had 6 movies last year, and India had zero. Sounds like the Olympics ?) Do I see a time when Indian animation houses tend to attract & to keep really talented people ?

The answers to all the above questions are "No, not in the near future."

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I n d i a n L a n g u a g e T r a n s l a t i o n

During my undergraduate days, I have worked in a state-of-the-art research lab on machine translation from English to Indian languages. One of the main motivations for our work was that we would be bringing the WWW to the 90% of the Indian population which is illiterate in English. Owing to this experience, I obtained a fair knowledge of the key problems in this area and the main technical hurdles to be overcome.

But I believe many of the R & D teams that are working on this are missing the holistic view.

Most of the people in India are illiterate, but they can speak native languages such as Telugu and Hindi. Further, many of the people who are literate are not computer literate. And amongst the computer literate people, most of them are already comfortable with English.

Keeping this in view, of what effectiveness would be a new Desktop Manager with arcane Telugu words for terms such as "Start", "My Computer" and "Control Panel" ?

In places such as China and Japan, communication in English is purely impossible. In other places such as France and Germany, there is a strong linguistic pride and awareness. But in India, both of these are absent. Still I believe there is a target audience in India, albeit of a different variety.

In order to clarify this, let me narrate an experience of mine.

Once during my UG days, I had another strange and unique opportunity. My father, a teacher, has invited me to give a few lectures on Modern Physics and Atomic Theory to the outgoing students of the high school. The medium of instruction was Telugu, not English, as had been mine during my school days. I had great fun teaching, and the students liked me very much as an instructor. Also, I had to put some effort in studying the equivalent Telugu words for the scientific terms. But this experience of teaching in the native language had been very benificial for me - in understanding the subject much clearer.

The fact remains that several of the students in Indian high schools are not literate/comfortable in the English language. This is a major hurdle for them to pick up and read the vast majority of the available literature. Even if they are fairly conversant in the rudimentary English language, they are not accustomed to reading large books in English. This section of people includes, surprisingly, both of my own parents - who are much more comfortable in reading books in Telugu.

But ofcourse, the most informative literature is currently available only in English. A sizeable portion of this is present on the web, and the rest is available in print. The key factors are the relevance and the importance of the information that is available.

A good example for such informative texts are the essays from the Edge Foundation.

The state of the art in machine translation research is well behind producing a reasonable output for real texts such as these. But this output can very well be a good starting point for a human translator.

Ideally, such information should be available in differnt formats (audio, images. video, summarized audio, detailed translated text ..) to cater to the needs of the varied audience. The important thing to note is that the needs of the audience are very different.

  • Some people might need to know the latest weather forecasts / stock prices / news headlines in summarized Telugu text.
  • Some people might need to know about the latest agricultural techniques in video format.
  • Some people might need to report/publish websites or blogs using simplistic Telugu interface and video.
  • Students in several schools might need to communicate on their class projects using audio and images.
  • Some students (or elders) might need to read books such as "Selfish Gene" and "The End of Poverty" (two personal favorites of mine) in clear Telugu language. Or they might need video and images in an accompanying website.

In my point of view, these are the issues that are really pertinent for the emancipation of education in the Indian scenario.

Issues such as these should be tackled individually and with special care. There are no magic bullets, such as Indian language GUIs, for solving all these problems in one shot.

These problems will be solved, both by building good computer systems and by massive human effort. These twin efforts should go hand in hand.

Particularly, I want to highlight one issue - that of translation of some informative books (such as The Selfish Gene, The End of Poverty etc) which are written by highly skilled scientists for a general audience. This is the kind of information that needs to be available for high school students. But unfortunately, neither of these books are translated into Telugu, so far, to my knowledge.

This kind of information is currently being published at a rapid pace, both on and off the world wide web. In order to make this available for the general Indian audience, I think it should be encouraged in universities for UG/PG students to translate these literature into regional languages, and course-credit assigned for such efforts. (For example, a group of economics students might translate The End of Poverty)

And by translation, the output need not be a book in Telugu. It can be a website or a series of lectures in images and audio. From my experience (of teaching modern physics in my dad's school), I can say that this will be truly rewarding for the translator too.

Interested people might even maintain weblogs where they post the translated text of specific domains (sometimes translate it as an audio file through speech). Should we call them transblogs ?

These will provide a true breakthrough in bridging the information divide in India.

Friday, February 24, 2006

C o m p u t e r s I n M y M o m ' s S c h o o l

I have a unique background. Both my parents have been teachers in government-run high schools. Currently, both of them are working as principals (head teachers) in their schools.

I have a bachelors degree in Computer Science and have plans of doing a PhD. For a few months, I had the amazing opportunity of working under Dr. Raj Reddy - a scientist par excellence and a visionary. One day, he has asked me a question, "Kiran, if I want to give a laptop to every student in the primary schools in India, how much would it cost me ?"

I am grateful for that question and for the few opportunities when I had the fortune of talking to him.

This association got me to think of several things, amongst which is the importance of education for the development of an economy. And the role that computers and computer scientists (including me) needed to play in this.

The last month, I went home on a holiday. My mom asked me to come and see her school. A set of 4 computers have arrived through a government sanctioned funding (there were no computers till then), and she wanted me to study their configuration.

I have spent about 1 hour in the school compound. There was a prayer ceremony where the school children recited a prayer, said the national pledge and the news of the day was read aloud. Later I looked at the school library (a collection of 500 books in a dusty almirah), laboratory equipment (simple balances, conical flasks etc - all stacked up in another almirah) and the staff room. My mind was spinning rapidly throughout the time. My mom looked at me and asked "Why are you looking so lost ? Do you want to go back home ? " No, I wanted to stay. I was looking at so many things, thinking of so many things and the ideas were coming to me in a violent storm !

The 4 computers that have arrived were in sealed cardboard boxes. "Can I open the boxes, amma ?", I asked. No there were not meant to be touched till the government sends a person to install them. That goverment person has been awaited for 3 weeks then, he did not turn up yet. "Sorry amma, I cannot say anything about the configuration without looking inside."

How I wish I can go back home - to this town called Ramachandrapuram in the East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh ! How I wish I can spend time with my parents - and understand their problems as teachers-in-charge for these schools ! How I wish I can help them to improve the schools, to introduce the new world of internet, wikipedia, e-mail, blogging ...

But here I am in Hyderabad - totally divorced from my life and my home. In a few months, I'd be going to Europe for pursuing a PhD. Forget the students of my mom's school. Even, my mom - a highly gifted teacher, does not know a thing about internet or about computers. Both her sons are computer engineers, one of them pursuing a research career. When I say that life sucks, I mean it !

"Amma, why don't you keep the library books on a table and ask the students to browse through them in the evenings ? No, the students will be too afraid to come into the staff room and look in this almirah ! "

"Amma, there is this very good software that gives economics and development data for all the countries. You should install it in the computers."

"Amma, there is this software that gives a virtual sky where you can teach the students about astronomy and the planetary systems"

"Amma, there is this new computer graphics tool that will simulate rigid body dynamics, and you can use it for teaching mechanics"

"Amma, there is this tool for observing chemical bonding between elements"

"Amma, in the internet, ...."

And my mind is spinning.. And my mind is spinning..

What do you think I should do ?

H o w T o E n d P o v e r t y

Owing to sheer luck, I picked up a book from the book-store yesterday "The end of poverty : How we can make it in our lifetime". I do not regret the Rs.380 that I have spent on it. First, I got into the book-store because there was a pretty girl inside, but the pretty girl started talking on the phone with somebody who I understood was her fiance, so I turned my attention to the book aisle.

The book is extremely well-written with good analyses and graphs, and is beautiful in its insights. It highlights the impact of geographical location (sea-coast and navigable rivers), geopolitics (economic barriers and trade sanctions) and female literacy, among other things, in affecting the drive towards economic development. Jeffrey Sachs is a Professor at Columbia University and an economist of great appeal. He has done good work in identifying the key problems hampering the economical development in Africa - in the form of endemic diseases HIV and Malaria, and not so much in government failures as others have often done. Along with several other people, he has been very instrumental in selling this idea to the world. He was also key in framing the Millenium Development Goals for the United Nations. He also serves as an economic advisor for several third world countries including India.

It is also good to see this book being criticized, most notably by Amir Attaran and Vandana Shiva. Ms. Vandana has, infact, spoken out on my own fears as I have expressed in the previous post.

Thank you Mr. Jeffrey Sachs for a very good reading. (I am still reading the book) Highly recommended for everyone. Things like these should be included in the compulsory curricula of high schools and technical schools.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Z e r o S u m G a m e

There is a big mystery that has been puzzling me since childhood. It is the persistent economical poverty of some nations in spite of the dazzling technological advances of our age.

How come two-thirds of the world population still live in poverty - their standard of life not any different from that of medieval Europe (15th century AD) before the industrial revolution happened ? How come the benifits of the modern industrial / communication revolutions do not reach them ? What is keeping them behind ?

Neither do these answers come intuitively to me nor am I a student of economics. But I hope to discover these answers somehow. Today's post is one of my attempts to start a debate which has been brewing in my mind for sometime.

Is it inevitable - that some societies remain economically backward - for technological progress to happen ?

Many economists argue that economical progress is not a zero-sum game. In the sense that, trade is beneficial to both the parties. I reckon that a complex mathematical theory exists for studying the rules that govern this relationship. My knowledge regarding this topic is very dim.

But I want to raise a new and parallel question - how about technological progress ?

During the ancient and medieval ages (in fact ever since the days of river-valley civilizations) the societies which engaged in trade gradually grew rich and prosperous. More so were the societies which controlled the trade-routes.

But with the industrial revolution, the situation turns a bit more complex.

The new thing with the industrial revolution is that many people who are previously employed as skilled labour lose their jobs. During the previous ages, this did not happen in such massive scales. Further, this newly unemployed people cannot be readily accomodated - even as unskilled labour. Gradually, in the course of time (approximately 25 years - the time of one generation of people) the society gets adjusted to the new scenario. People get trained in operating the new machines and new jobs get generated. But it is important to note that this process is not smooth - it is not instantaneous. Skilled labour demands education, and this education demands several sacrifices and changes in the lifestyle of people. It is not easy, it is easier to educate children (That may be one reason why the time of 25 years)

During industrial revolution, most of the means of production become machinized. Due to this, the productivity increases thousandfold and there would be a rapidly accumulating heap of surplus. The economic cycle of the society has to run faster and faster to catch up with this abundance of surplus. Now this presents an interesting chicken-and-egg problem.

With several people becoming unemployed, who would purchase this surplus ??

If we look at history, this question has been addressed differently in different societies.

Western Europe (Britian, France, Spain, Portugal and the neighbouring countries) quickly started to build colonies in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. This colonization has been greatly facilitated due to the vacuum that was temporarily created due to the absence of major powers in Asia and Africa. This was one of the major turning points in world-history (Possibly, the biggest turning point)

The colonies have presented avenues of cheap labour and raw material, but more importantly, they presented a huge market for the fruits of the industrial revolution. Further, the demands of maintaining an imperial army consumed huge amounts of economical energy. Together, they have set a rapid momentum to the wheel of economical cycle.

This has greatly facilitated a smooth transition to the industrial age without major famines or bloodshed or revolution.

Karl Marx, in his study of the Capitalist society, has failed to realize the importance of colonization for the industrial revolution to happen. This has been accomodated very later by the work of Lenin in the 20th century.

Eastern Europe and Russia had to suffer greatly due to the lack of colonies. The industrial revolution did not proceed smoothly and resulted in a communist revolution. But the chicken-and-egg problem persisted during the reign of communism.

Stalin introduced the 5 year plans to trigger the industrial revolution. But this did not happen overnight. Russia had to suffer a series of terrifying famines during a time of 30 years. People were forced to buy surplus that was useless to them. Agriculture received a severe jolt and several people perished of hunger. All this was kept tightly under control from inside the iron curtains.

Economical progress may not be a zero sum game. But technological progress is possibly one. It may be true that the society gets adjusted to the needs in due course of time. But atleast for some period of time, I reckon that somebody has to suffer.

The first and the second world wars were essentially fought for colonies. Even though some countries (most notably Germany) lost the wars, the machinery of war consumed a lot of economical energy and set the industrial revolution rolling. After the war, during a time span of about 25 years, the German population have regained their morale and rebuilt their nation.

Second world war presented an opportunity for Russia to build a set of colonies - in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Eastern Europe (though technically they were not called colonies). This has further fuelled the Russian industrial apparatus.

The United States of America has been very lucky in possessing virgin lands and wild natural bounty. This has kept the citizens busy as they studied the Industrial Revolution in tranquil peace, during which time, hell was brewing in Europe. When the industrial apparatus in the USA started ticking, the surplus was slowly being shifted down to South America (which woke up later and due to which suffered greatly). Also, the second world war created a host of hungry consumers in Europe whose apparatus was damaged due to the war. USA was quietly making rapid money without even participating in the war. By the time Japan dragged it in, it was already an economical superpower.

A slightly similar explanation can be provided for Australia and for New Zealand.

The industrial revolution in Japan was greatly fuelled by the war apparatus of the second world war, during which time the Japanese also gained a plethora of colonies in East Asia. Even though the war badly damaged the industrial apparatus, the Japanese citizens were already educated and the society was adjusted to the demands of the industrial age. They quickly recouped in a span of 25 years.

Tiny countries in South East Asia (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong etc) woke up earlier than their neighbours in the charge towards industrialization. They benifited enormously from the fact that it is easier for leaders to rally a smaller nation. Apart from industries such as shipping and sea-trade, these countries also encouraged tourism.

The Arab nations were the luckiest of the lot. For they were sitting on top of the world's oil reserves. They moved into the industrial age painlessly (Even without educating their citizens properly to its demands).

China had to suffer more than Russia in the quest of industrialization. Several of the 5 year plans flopped and the Chinese citizens suffered some of the worst famines of the 20th century. Again, this situation was tightly controlled from behind the iron curtains. Later, globalization presented new opportunities to China and it was quick in realizing this. It invited active foreign investment and this strategy has been doing very well so far. Several ex-compatriots who have settled abroad actively invested in China. Due to cheaper labour and infrastructure costs, China was able to cut down the manufacturing costs and compete with Europe and USA. This has quickly created a protectionist sentiment amongst the European industry. Only, time will tell us if this conflict gets resolved without any tension.

India was massively exploited during the British Imperial rule. Also it could not industrialize as rapidly as China did due to it being a free democracy. But Indian citizens are slowly getting educated and trying the globalization strategy now. India holds some advantages such as a large English speaking community - which is helpful in the services industry. It still has to make major forays into the manufacturing industry.

But where would this surplus get sold ? Where would the new markets emerge ? Would the transition to an industrialized age be smooth for India and China ? Where would the old workers be accomodated in the face of unemployment ? Would the transition be harsh or smooth, or would it take 25 years ? (Presuming that the next generation of individuals get educated properly. If not, it will take even longer)

What about Africa ? Do they have any prospects of development ? Can it ever get industrialized ?

Would the earth's oil reserves and environment support a thorough industrialization in all the countries (all of them consuming massive amounts of petrol and exhuming pollution ?)

Clearly, I see an incentive for developed countries (Europe and the USA) to keep some population perennially backward. Do they have an active hidden strategy which we do not know ?

How else can you explain the reluctance of western powers from investing in the manufacturing industries in places like Africa ? Or even in places like India where they get cheaper labour ?

What's the deal ?