"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance, in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common."

--Albert Einstein

{The blog of a random PP21 traveller in Chennai, India}
Monday, June 21, 2004
Why software that is gratis but not free (as in freedom) is bad

Ok...rather than make some vague remarks, I'll narrate the experience...

For getting a US visa, there are some forms...available as fillable Adobe PDF documents...

Now, due to my outstandingly bad handwriting and good typing skills, I decided to fill these up, save 'em and print 'em, so I am done once I print. (I don't have a printer... I usually take stuff in floppies and print in a print shop)

The catch was that the gratis Acrobat Reader, I had installed on my computer, could be used to fill up the forms, but *not* save them. You could give a print command after filling up, but u couldnt save the filled up form in a file. I later found out, much to my consternation, that a non-gratis version of Adobe Acrobat had this feature... I didnt find any free (as in freedom) or even gratis software that could do this.

As a self-respecting student of computer science, I found this difficult to digest... I began looking for ways to get around this problem.

One way was to print to a PostScript file (this is a trick...the computer thinks you are printing, but you are actually redirecting PostScript output to a file)... Print shops dont usually have PostScript viewers, because it isnt that popular a format... It is usually trivial to convert PS to PDF... But, to my horror I found out errors in the conversion process... Looks like Adobe engineers had thought of this and put some junk code in the PS file, so it won't convert to PDF. Next, I opened a PS file from a PS viewer and printed it again to a PDF file, using a PDF printer PrimoPDF which is gratis. So, I got a filled up form in a PDF form, finally... But there was a twist...the resulting PDF file was *huge* - approx 3 MB. My circa-1997 computer did not have USB ports (which werent avaliable back then), nor did I have a CD writer...

So, though technically I won, in reality I had to take the trouble of filling-up all the forms from scratch, again, at the print shop.

I spent 2 days trying all of this... in vain... Adobe PDF was touted as a truly open format... Adobe isn't really a saint... The free PDF reader is just a bait to get you hooked.

More importantly, what does someone who needs this not-so-unreasonable facility do? I am a computer enthusiast, who found a way (though not useful in the end...). The answer is simple. He doesn't get it. He becomes a victim of the digital divide.

You might say, "Well, Adobe is not a charitable company... They are out to make money, so what is wrong... In real life u don't get cars for free dont u?". But there is a difference... to make an exact replica of a car requires money... to make a copy of software doesn't. So, someone like me who will *never* pay Adobe (because I cannot afford to), is left out, even though I could have been benefited, at no extra cost to Adobe. This makes me frustrated and less likely to feel altruistic towards others.. Thus society becomes selfish on the whole, whcih is bad and avaoidable, in this case.
(The last part of this reasoning is similar to Richard Stallman's)

This is why software that is gratis but not free (as in freedom) is awfully bad.

I am sure India will, at some point in time, decide to use electronic forms. Adobe PDF seems to be an attractive contender, in large part due to the free reader... But without free software that gives all facilities available in commercial Adobe Acrobat, this will only serve to intensify the digital divide... I hope the policymakers are farsighted enough to see this...

So, what can u and I do to get over this...

If you are not a computer geek, recognize that this is a serious issue, and try to tell others...

If you are a Computer enthusiast, you could consider writing free software that achieves the same functionality... I wonder why there isn't alredy some such thing... It is possible that Adobe has some software patents governing all this... I am not sure...

Oh...and by the way, I did get the visa :-)

Been almost 2 months, since I have blogged.... A lot has happened...

I got my US visa :-D

So, I guess I am in almost no danger of becoming a "Software Professional", but I'll retain the old blog description for old-time's sake... Also the PP21 appellation loses relevance...anyway...

And did I mention, I made it to the 97th percentile in GATE (this came out quite a long time ago)...not bad for some1 who went without any preparation... but on the contrary (as my dad says), with some preparation I could have cracked it bigtime... :-|

I started this blog, primarily to voice my views on topics, mostly metaphysical abstractions of real-life issues, sometimes real-life cribbings... Most of these thoughts are motivated by my perceptions of real-life events and what I learned from them... I dont care of anyone reads 'em at all... It is just like a diary... In a nutshell, something I might want to show to my grandchildren :-)

There have also been some issues that I have been thinking about... which I'll probably post in the next few days...
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Ha...! What a week it has been...

I finally made admit for Ph.D. with an assistantship, at a reasonably decent US university (ranked in 30s). The visa hurdle is still left, but I am told that will not be so much of a hurdle.

So I am in lesser danger of becoming a "Software Professional" now.

Sunday, April 11, 2004
Blogging after a long time...can possibly be attributed to the exams (more on that later...)

I have thought about the recognition issue a little more deeply and here are some more thoughts

Why Recognition is important

We live in a world governed by money. In Utopia, recognition would probably not be necessary. But recognition begets money and money is needed to carry on the work. You cannot expect people to starve and still work on what they love. This is the sad reality.

Another (more pleasant) reason is that recognition, makes people sit up and notice your work. This forces them to consider using your ideas/product, if they have to. This is good, because your work might have a better chance of benefiting others. Isn't that why you are working in the first place? (love of work apart...)

(Un)fortunately, I still live in an ideal Utopian world and my ideas come from there too. :-)

Sunday, March 14, 2004
Work and Recognition

I have been working hard on my project for the past year. So has a friend of mine. Now it appears, that a less deserving project might win the best project award. My friend was quite pissed off, to say the least, after hearing this. I was also quite upset, initially.

Then I thought about it. I had done the project for the love of Computer Science, not primarily to win any award. When you aim for material goals, the love of the job is gone. This project, atleast for me, wasn't "work" in the conventional sense. It was more like fun. Fun that I thought would answer some interesting questions. Fun that I hoped others might find useful. Recognition was not the main aim. Oh yes, it is always nice to be recognized for the good work that you do. But not being recognized does not take away the pride that I take in my work, and the high standards I set for myself. I don't work for recognition, I work for the love of work that I think is worthwhile.
Saturday, March 13, 2004
Today was a jolly good day.

First, I got a letter from my University, which was the result of my re-evaluation application for a Math related subject. I had done very well in the exam but got only 73% earlier. By re-evaluation, I was awarded 100% !!! This finally restored some of my faith in the system...There are atleast a few good, sincere people left...

The second thing was the thrilling win for India in the India-Pakistan match. I watched the start of India's innings and the end of the Pkaistani innings, particularly the nail-biting finish. Was scared that it may have the last-ball-sixer ending, similar to the Sharjah one...but Nehra bowled the last over nicely. The crowd seemed quite nice and sportive. I do believe that people everywhere, including Pakistan are generally nice and friendly. It is these artificial barriers created by a few people, esp. politicians that divide us and make us suspicious of each other. Another thing I noticed was that this match, particularly its live telecast brought in happiness to a lot of people's hearts. Now there was this raging controversy with TEN Sports almost refusing to give telecast rights to DD, and Supreme Court asking it to for this match. I think it is important that such events be freely telecast on National television. You cannot take away national pride and happiness for monetary benefit....I think India must enact a law to make this happen.

Also visited MK Saravanan's homepage...had some nice HOWTOs, read his blog. Also read the the transcript of the RMS speech in Chennai. I have read that before...it never fails to inspire...If you are reading this blog, I wholeheartedly recommend it. You will never think of software the same way again.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004
It's been a long time since I blogged.

Yesterday was a rather lousy day with almost nothing working right. Had a tiff with my father in the morning. The issue was mostly philosophical. I want to work on something I enjoy doing, as against something that is likely to fetch a lot of money. Something that fetches a lot of money is usually boring, otherwise more people would like to do it. This would reduce the pay (the usual demand-supply reasoning). He felt work, by definition, could not be enjoyable and asked me to go to a movie, if I was looking for enjoyment. He also suggested, sarcastically, that I must become a saint, go to the Himalayas and meditate there. Actually, that is not a bad idea, really.

What I really want, is to do a Ph.D. I already have a decent offer from a software company for the job of a "Software Professional". The obvious question is why give that up for four (possibly more) years of slogging for a Ph.D. Two reasons. The first reason is the one about enjoying my work that I described. The second and more important one is the following. I feel I can better contribute to human progress by becoming a researcher, rather than a "Software Professional". As a software professional, I would be implementing software using "technologies" that pointy haired managers think are "in". This software would probably be thrown out in a year, to be reimplemented in the latest new "technology". I really have heard horror stories like these from my sister. I just spoke to a friend, who works for TCS (Tata Consultancy Services). He was quite anti-Ph.D. before joining. Now he says a Ph.D. could have been a better option than his current job. Further empirical evidence may be seen in this blog. Read the last blog entry (written sometime on Nov. 2003, I think).

You might think, this "human progress" thing is a joke. I have arrived at this conclusion after considerable thought. This involves questions like, "What is the purpose of life?" and so on. Well, there doesn't really seem to be any well-defined, justified purpose (unless you appeal to some religious literature). We all seem to be rungs of the eternal ladder of progress. This is where, I think Einstein nicely sums up things (his quote appears at the beginning of my blog). I don't believe, I would be contributing enough being a "software professional"

Of course, being a programmer, is an altogether different issue. More about that later...

Sunday, February 08, 2004
Read two articles written by female columnists in The Hindu magazine section today. I notice, more so after reading the Paul Graham article, that female authors (atleast the Indian columnists that I have read) seem to have this sneering attitude towards men, especially when a male makes some unflattering remark about some issue pertaining to women. Seldom is the logic or truth of the statement analysed objectively. The statement itself more often than not is an honest observation, but the male is immediately condemned in no ambiguous terms and often labeled an MCP. Making unfavorable statements these days about women or other "oppressed" groups is seen as politically incorrect, irrespective of the veracity of the statement.

One article was about Kalpana Chawla, the Indian-American astronaut who died in the Columbia crash. The adulation she receives seems, most part, because she was a woman. Not because she was a competant astronaut. Not because she did her job well, but because she was a *female* astronaut. She also gets a lot of media attention, tributes, awards instituted in her honor and so on. Now I have no problem with this, though I very much doubt whether the other equally competant people who died in that unfortunate accident receive half as much glorification. This raises two important issues. First, given a choice, would Kalpana Chawla have liked to be remembered as a good astronaut who contributed to our understanding of nature (by carrying out experiments in space) and to space exploration. Or would she have liked to be remembered as the first Indian woman to became an astronaut. I very much suspect it would be the former. I dont think she liked to cling to the distinction of being an Indian woman to be respected. She earned the respect because she was competant. Sometime ago, I read somewhere that Lucy Liu (the Chinese American actress in the serial "The Practice") refused an award by the Chinese American community for being a Chinese-American achiever, because she believed that she was a good actress and didnt need the Chinese-American tag for appreciation. The second issue is that men are somehow perceived to have it easy. I am sure the other men in Columbia that fateful day had worked equally hard, had equally ambitious dreams and were equally qualified. But not a mention of them in the article. The author, a member of the fairer sex, probably didnt deem it fit to say anything about these *male* astronauts. "Female Chauvinism" could probably be an apt reason.

After my long rant, I am at a real risk of being labeled an MCP myself. If you are one of those, I would suggest that you read the article once more, this time with a more objective view...

GATE didn't really turn out to be the bloodbath that I had expected. Attempted all but 16 questions (out of 90); didn't have time for the rest (I doubt whether it would have made a difference). With a week of vigorous mugging, I could have probably made it... But then hindsight is 20:20.

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