Archive for the 'India' Category

The Balloon Man of Kovallam on copyright

Ten years ago (wow) I published some pictures of the Balloon Man of Kovalam that caused an amazing comment thread in which families and old friends were reunited and I learned a little of the life and death of Buck Wray, the Balloon Man.

I was digging though a couple of his books – he gave me a copy of Book #3. Here are the dedication and copyright pages.

31 December 1994
Copy #84
Ask .. Receive!
You did … so … you will!
Too easy, huh?
Go Bruce Go!
Best – loving + Lightning
by buck

You may: Xerox, photocopy, print, Re-publish, distribute “FREELY”


Notice: This book has absolutely positively NO copywrites. All materials, ideas, concepts expressions, words are stolen, from the source of ALL THAT IS. If any one claims to be the creator of originals of any of tese items listed above (with the exception of the THE WORD “lunagloriusmaxipiss”, which actually is a totally 100% New Word – However – inspired by another Source, the only Source, and I claim no exclusivity of this newly created word, since my “i” merely channeled this new big powerful word into the 3rd Dimension of Earth School for use Today), they are total fucking jerks and self-deluded liars. They did not. Could not. Can not, Did not. Copywrite laws are Bullshit, if what is created or written or created actually express Truth. If, it is Truth, it should be SHARED – FREELY. You many SHARE the contents of this book and all other books Freely with ALL THAT IS.

Enjoy, learn, have fun, SHARE Shit.

change agent
by buck

“Enjoy, learn, have fun, SHARE Shit.” Words to live by.

Souvenir of the Year: automatic mantra-chanter

Last year, my souvenir of the year was a beautiful batik picture I bought at the Sultan’s palace in Jogjakarta, Indonesia.

This year, I was given a lovely model ship from Stikom, Surabaya when I returned to Indonesia, and the gift of a wonderful day out from John Foliot when I visited San Jose for OSCON.

But souvenir of the year has to be something I purchased myself, and this year I bought it in a market at Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India. It cost 120 Rupees (about £2) and it’s an automatic mantra chanter.

When plugged in, the portrait of the Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh is bejewelled with flashing lights while and a recorded voice sings a devotional chant. Pressing the button changes the chant; there are twenty different songs.

You may experience its glory through the power of YouTube.

BADD 2009: Accessibility and what India can teach us

BADD 2009 = Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009.

If you asked most people outside India for their ideas about the country, they’d probably say “fabulous history, ancient glorious culture, techologically third world”.

But here’s two technological things I saw during my recent university tour that we could learn immediately from India. The first is the complete abolition of plastic bags in the capital, Delhi:

Sign in shop window in Delhi: Platic bags are banned. You are invited to bring your own bags.

The second is this full-page magazine advert that reads is now accessible to visually challenged. Yet another step to make the national portal citizen-centric in its true sense. Physically challenged friendly, mobile devides friendly, senior citizen friendly, assistive technology friendly.

magazine advert

I’m not a screenreader expert, so haven’t verified its usability with assistive technology, but I would be delighted to see such publicly-expressed commitment from my “first-world” government for user-centric inclusive design. Compare this with the Department of Trade and Industry fiasco, for example.

India travel tips

My over-arching travel tip is: travel with Shwetank. He’s very knowledgeable about Indian history and customs, polite enough not to roll his eyes at the thousandth stupid question of the day, and a Hindi speaker. His father is a microbiologist so he’s paranoid about eating safely, which helps enormously. At every monument, temple or government building, he encouragingly tells you that “two or three years ago there was a bomb blast here”.

However, if Shwetank’s excellent guiding skills are unavailable to you, here are some tips combining his wisdom and my experience.

  • Eat well—it’s the secret to gastro-intestinal happiness and security, which can make or break a trip. Whatever you eat, make sure it’s hot. Daal is always freshly made, as are Dosas in South India. Vegetarian food is more likely to be safe (and all that’s available in many places). Make sure you get an unopened mineral water, and crush the used bottle so it can’t be refilled from a tap. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating. Avoid salad or anything raw, unless it’s peelable such as banana. Spend a little bit more and eat in a mall or a hotel. There’s a reason that middle-class Indians don’t eat in those hole-in-the-wall places: they don’t want to shit themselves in a business meeting. Trust me, crapping yourself in public isn’t much fun.
  • Junk food: avoid pizza. The only times that we got slightly sick was after we both ate Domino’s and Pizza Hut. If you’re feeling a little delicate and need some stodge, MacDonald’s is surprisingly good. There’s no beef or pork, and plenty of veggie burgers to be had.
  • Don’t haggle too much. Accept that you will always pay more. In museums, that’s formalised; Indians pay 10 Rupees, foreigners pay 100, and that’s fair enough: the museums are built and maintained with Indian tax payers’ money. The disparity between your income and that of a rickshaw-wallah is so great that it’s discourteous, churlish and frankly ugly to get worked up about 5 or 10 Rupees.
  • Caucasian ladies might want to consider wearing salwar-kameez and a scarf so they don’t stand out too much. A cheap "wedding" ring will deter the more half-hearted subcontinental Romeo.
  • If you hire a car for the day, get the driver’s mobile number. Phone (or pretend to phone) someone and tell them that number and the car registration plate. That way, the driver knows that someone else knows who you’re travelling with. It also means that if he drops you somewhere, you can call him after you’ve eaten/ looked around so he can pick you up again.
  • Keep your money in a money belt as pickpocketing is rife, particularly in stations and markets. Have change (<100 Rupee notes) distributed amongst several pockets so that you’re not leafing through wads of dosh to pay people. Rickshaw-wallahs or roadside vendors will appreciate smaller bills rather than 100 Rupee notes as they may not have change.
  • In some cities, beggar children are controlled by gangs and never get to keep the money you give them. If you feel sorry for kid who say’s she’s hungry, buy her some daal, rice, chapati and fruit. The gangboss can’t take that off her.
  • Don’t photograph cremations, veiled muslim ladies or the cops (they’re justifiably paranoid about terrorism).
  • Have fun – it’s a wonderful country!

Reasons to love South India

Apart from the general chilled-out nature of the place, why do I love South India so much?

The food

A South Indian veg thali costs about £1 and is a banana leaf as a plate, with dosa (a wafer-thin pancake wrapped around spicy potato and veg), idli, papads with dips made from coconut and beans, some curd, and rice. Many venues top up for free.

South Indian vegetarian thali meal

Who needs meat, when there is vegetarian food this good? Then there is the strong black Indian coffee.

The temples

Southern Indian temples have tall structures above the gate, convered with statues of the gods and painted in bright colours.


(Check out the super hi-res version.)

The women

Women here are so beautiful because they have almond eyes, dark dark skin, and they look proud and walk tall.


Kerala, for example, is the state with the highest rate of female literacy in India and has a proper level of female births, as female infanticide and aborting female foetuses is less common in the south.

Many women plait intensely aromatic Jasmine in their hair, which smells gorgeous when they walk by.


The poetry

Akka Mahadevi (or Mahadeviyakka as I first encountered her in Speaking Of Shiva, which I bought in 10 years ago Nepal) was a 12th century female mystic who wrote of an intensely personal relationship with god. She renounced the world and wrote her songs to Shiva whom she calls Chenna Mallikarjuna (“Lord of White Jasmine”) which are almost modernist in their approach:

I don’t know anything about meter/ I don’t know anything of rhyme/ As nothing will hurt you, My Lord Siva, I’ll sing as I love…

For hunger,/ there is the town’s rice in the/ begging bowl.
For thirst, / there are tanks, streams, wells.
For sleep,/ there are the ruins of temples.
For soul’s company/ I have you, O lord/ white as jasmine.

(More Mahadeviyakka poetry)

She’s a household name in the Southern state of Karnataka, although time didn’t allow me to visit her birthplace.

See Chennai photos, Hyderabad photos.

Up the Ganges in Varanasi

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some fantasic historic places, such as Stonehenge at the summer solstice, Ayutthaya in Thailand, Ephesus in Turkey, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borabadur in Indonesia (Borabadur photos), Saranth in India where Buddha preached his first sermon, but the most jaw-dropping must be Varanasi on the Gangees, the holiest site for Hindus. It was brilliant to return here for my first weekend off, and, unlike everywhere else I’ve been, it hasn’t changed since I came here 14 years ago. In fact, it probably hasn’t changed much for a thousand years.

It’s a long succession of ghats, river-front temples with steps leading into the river, and it’s full of pilgrims from all over India, boys playing cricket or swimming, saffron-robed sadhus (holy men), courting couples, beggars, ice-cream sellers and conmen. (See Varanasi photos.)

The reason that it’s so incredible is that people have been performing the same rites here since literally time immemorial—puja (offering), cremations on the river bank and, every night at 7pm is the ritual of Aarti.

It’s not easy to describe the ghats or the aarti, so come with me, Shwetank and Shwetank’s uncle for an eight minute journey up the Gangees from Assi Ghat to Dasashwamedh Ghat to watch the Aarti performed.

Indian English

It’s often said that English is the second langage in India, and cetainly that’s true when Hindi speakers from the North are doing business with their colleagues from the South, who speak the Dravidian languages of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu or Kannada. Some say English is the glue that has held India together, although the extensive railway has a comparable claim, while my travelling companion Shwetank believes that the Civil Service is the historical reason. (Whatever it was, it seems to me as an outsider during the Indian general elections that belief in democracy is what holds India together now. That and cricket: "Ek desh ek junoon"—one nation, one obsession—the TV ads for the Indian Premier League say.)

But it’s also equally accurate to describe English as an alternative language which educated speakers of the same language will employ if they determine that it’s the better language to express a particular idea, switching unconsciously between their own language and English, sometimes mid-sentence.

It makes watching Bollywood masala movies much easier for the Hindi-challenged like me. There will be a stream of Hindi and—in the middle—"Wow wow wow, I love you" to help me understand what’s going on. (Not that masala movies are particularly complicated, anyway; they’re pretty light on plot, relying instead on gorgeous scenery, costumes and lots of songs. Top Bollywood tip: a male with too much gold jewellry, a moustache or who smokes is invariably the baddie.)

Indian English can often seem either elaborately formal ("Excuse me good sir, may I impertinently enquire as to your occupation in your country of origin?" I was asked) or somewhat quaint, almost Enid Blyton-esque—I assume that many idioms are frozen in the late 1940s when the British left. So, when police arrested a gang who were stealing gas from cylinders they sold as full, it was reported in my morning paper that "sleuths nabbed neer-do-wells". A man who dressed in a burka in order to visit his girlfriend was "bashed up" when discovered.

There are also a few perculiarly Indian formations. The back of a building or rear of an aeroplane is usually referred to as "the backside" ("Is a backside seat acceptable, Mr Lawson?", to which the answer can anatomically only be "yes"). Near my hotel is a shop offering "gentlemens’ suitings and shirtings". The word "even" has been commandeered as a synonym for "also" as in "Even I need to go to the bank" for "I need to go to be bank, too". Even I’ve found myself saying this, it’s so common.

Not all Indian English is as charming: sexual harrassment is linguisticaly trivialised as "eve-teasing". Perhaps the local ladies might carry some scissors for retaliation, adding reciprocal insult-by-euphemism to the injury by calling it "sausage-snipping"?

Cultural differences

An Indian gentleman corrected my mistake that Mumbai is the capital of India, by explaining that India has three capitals: the political capital is New Delhi, the centre of modern culture is Mumbai and the spiritual capital is Varanasi.

America, this one-time Chicago resident continued, also has three capitals: Washington DC as political capital, New York as cultural, and its spiritual capital is Las Vegas.

Unkind and unfair, but it made me laugh.


Mumbai is city that’s going places, both literally and metaphorically. Everyone is moving, all the time. Seemingly every building is under construction or being demolished. I haven’t felt this sort of dynamism since I lived in Bangkok in the late 90s. (And where the traffic is far worse than Mumbai).

We visited Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, where we were shown around before the our lecture. It’s charming old place, built in the mid 19th century to study textile technology, so it’s only appropriate that it’s stayed on the cutting edge of applied technology by becoming a centre of excellence for high-voltage research and computer science. (Photos)

The talks went very well; Shwetank and I got a real buzz from the audience who numbered 300 (we expected around 50).

The organiser, Aditya Sengupta, wrote the next day

Many of my friends, acquaintances and complete strangers came up to me and expressed their happiness for having attended the lecture. The insights you provided were both eye-opening and immensely useful. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We had far more attendees than we had expected or hoped for. It is extremely rare indeed that the auditorium gets filled to capacity – for anything.

When you’re far from home and missing the wife and kids, it lifts the spirits to know that what you’ve done has been appreciated.

Dinner was a meet-up at the Hard Rock Café where lots of Indian blogging and twitter luminaries came to sip a beer with us. I was taught some elementary Hindi (like “Tum khubsurat ho. Aati kya Khandala?” which means “Hello, how are you?” but my accent means I get some odd looks when I use it).

Then, a quick tour around the offices of local company Pin Storm and so to bed.

Strengths and weaknesses of Indian tech scene

One of the attendees, Jayesh, emailed me with the question “what do you think about the technology scene in India? What are the strong points and what are the weak points? And what are the measures for overcoming the weak points?”

Great question Jayesh, and I’m replying here rather than by email, as this is the opinion of an outsider, and I’d love to get Indian people’s views.

As I see it, India’s strong points are the skills and knowledge of its computer students and the fact that it recognised the importance of the computer industry early so began training people early.

It is weaker in shifting courses away from older technologies to the new (apparently there are still institutions where they study WAP and WML!) ; bureaucracy moves slowly while trends in IT move fast.

Although Indian students love Open Source, they haven’t yet shown the same affection for Open Standards (there are a lot of “best viewed in IE” monstrosities here). In any economy development costs increase if you have to tinker your IE-only code to take account of all the other browsers and the endless parade of new devices that come out. Using Open Web Standards means (in theory) write once and use everywhere; in practice, that means only tweaking for legacy browsers and crippled devices of which there is a dwindling number, so Open Web Standards reduce development costs as well as promoting inclusion by being available on cheaper machines or mobiles.

This is the best way for an economy like India’s, where the emphasis can’t be on being the cheapest in the world, as that is unsustainable as an economic strategy: there will always be another nation waiting in the wings to claim the dubious honour of being the primary source of super-cheap labour, but that relies on sweat-shop wages, and therefore perpetuates social inequality and misery. Everything I read before I came, all the newspapers I’m reading now, and conversations with the students I meet suggests that’s not how Indian people wish to see their nation developing further.

Some proprietary standards seem attractive, as they can be made fast – but that’s because but they are made, developed (and sometimes abandoned) with decisions made in secret, according to the needs and ambitions of companies that report to an anonymous group of shareholders that demands feeding with healthly numbers every quarter. Can you always be certain that their needs will exactly align with the needs of a nation like India? (If there is one thing that the current economic crisis has showed us, it’s that the chasing of short term profits for institutions doesn’t always translate into economic health for communities.)

Using Open Standards (and participating in their development) facilitates a sustainable economy that promotes inclusion rather than exploitation by allowing you to work smarter, not cheaper.

Health warning: I’m not an economist; this is just based on my pre-trip research and listening to students here.

What do you think?

Chandigarh, Pilani, Jaipur

I arrived in India on Holi, the day when everyone gets drunk and throws colourful powder over each other. Therefore, instead of doing the sensible thing and going to bed, I drank a shed load of beers and had a meal that the Indian Opera interns cooked—a tremendous chicken biryani created by Saif, with chop-by-chop instructions from his mum over a mobile from South India.

After a couple of jetlaggy days in the Indian office, writing my presentation with Shwetank, we took a 12 hour night train from Chandigarh to Jaipur. Once there, we took a taxi for five hours across the Rajasthan desert, seeing camels

Rajasthan Camel

and the world’s most overloaded truck:

Most overloaded truck in the world

Finally we reached our destination, BITS-Pilani where I gave a talk on the advantages of Open Web Standards in developing nations, and was regaled with a good number of really searching questions. (BITS people who asked how you can get involved with specifying HTML 5: sign up to the WHAT-WG mailing list.)

Then, back across the desert, stopping for daal and aloo parthas, to the Nana ki Havali, a beautiful old ancestral home converted into a hotel, where there was a welcome beer waiting for me. I also went out for a shave: there are few more luxurious feelings than a really close shave with a really sharp blade by someone who knows what he’s doing.

The next day was a rest day, so Shwetank and I hired the same taxi driver and toured the sights of Jaipur, the pink city: the Jal Mahal, Amber Fort:

Jaipur, India

We also visited Jantar Mantar (an old astronomical observatory), the museum and palace, where we saw the world’s largest cannon, the world’s largest sundial and the world’s largest silver water holders (which the maharajah filled with Gangees water and took to England to attend the coronation of Edward VII, as he mistrusted English water.

Today, we flew to Mumbai in preparation for speaking at VJTI tomorrow.

The things I do for Opera, eh?