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On Recent Attacks on Indian Students in Australia

May 31, 2009 Leave a comment

Going by media reports, there seems to have been a series of attacks on Indian students in Australia in recent times. In all probability, this is something that has been going on for a while, but hasn’t received high-profile coverage till now.

Racism, of course, is nothing new. Indians being targets of racism isn’t new either (and they aren’t the only targets, even in the current news cycle). So, yes, there is an element of media hysteria to it. Not that such hysteria itself is new. When news becomes a commodity that has to be sold, it is quite natural for marketing departments to take precedence over jounalism.

However, just because it isn’t new or because media is hyping something up, it doesn’t mean that such incidents have to be ignored. On the contrary, every such incident needs to be taken up with the authorities, and the Government of India must pressurize the Government of Australia to ensure that investigations are seriously pursued. Amitabh Bachchan’s private protest, of course, is entirely his own business.

Such attacks, if allowed to continue without consequences, have the potential for causing long-term damage to the safety and security of Indian community abroad. It not only damages the business interests of Australia, but also has an adverse impact on Indians who are either currently studying/working in Australia, or planning to do so in future.

The fact that Indian students are perhaps less safe in India itself (as Gaurav Sabnis points out) has no bearing whatsoever on such cases. Government of India doesn’t have to “first ensure that students don’t get abused or murdered at home” before taking up these issues with foreign governments. It should do both, but they are different issues and should not be mixed.

Ignore the Idiots, Focus on the Fanatics

May 27, 2009 Leave a comment

The fanatics first.

There has been yet another terrorist attack in Lahore today. While discussing the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, I had surmised that Pakistan had ceased to exist as a sovereign state. Every new attack serves to reinforce my opinion. In between these two, there was another terrorist attack at a police training centre in Lahore itself.

During the last attack, the coverage on Geo TV was peppered with comments about the attackers not being “real” Pakistanis. Nothing has changed since then. Not that any change was expected:

RAW agents in Taliban guise
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

This is with reference to Mrs Nasreen Khalid’s letter (May 22). For her kind information the Taliban were not the cause of these bomb blasts. The Taliban are true Muslims and a Muslim can never dare to do something like this. Actually our enemies and RAW agents in the guise of the Taliban are doing all these things because they want to snatch our beloved country from us.

Maria Javed Chaudhry
Vehari
[The News]

The threat to world peace and stability from Pakistan-based terrorists warrants decisive action. The US must call Pakistan’s bluff about using the fear of an Indian attack as an excuse to not relocate Pakistani forces away from its Eastern border to the task of fighting the terrorists.

So long as the US continues to sit on the fence regarding the issue of forcing Pakistan to dismantle the terror infrastructure on its soil, Pakistan will continue to move on a path to eventual dismemberment. This is not a hypothetical scenario, but a real possibility that the world might one day (in near future) wake up to. And then, it will be too late.

And now, the idiots.

North Korea has embarked on a missile and nuke testing spree in recent days. It should be quite obvious that North Korea is not really asking to be attacked. Had they wanted to start a war, they would have done so without issuing warnings. Why? Because they know quite well that the US is unlikely to engage itself in another war while it is committed over the medium to long term in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other permanent members of UNSC are also unlikely to intervene militarily. The only two countries that North Korea would end up fighting against in such a war are South Korea and, possibly, Japan. If North Korea had the capability to fight a war against these two, it would have done so already.

But if North Korea doesn’t want war, what does it want? If you ask me, the answer is simple: more concessions. Years of more or less self-imposed isolation have resulted in pushing North Korea to the brink of starvation and complete breakdown (plenty of parallels with USSR on these counts, except with ethnically uniform people). These tests are desperate acts of a desperate regime.

Ignore it, and North Korea would be forced to come back to the negotiating table in due course of time. And then, it will perhaps be forced to stay. Meanwhile, it may not be a bad idea to get the UNSC to issue a “strong condemnation” and get countries to impose more sanctions. Not doing so will risk signalling that such acts do not have consequences, but starting a war is not a good idea either because it will lead to avoidable (in my view) destabilization of the region.

It could be, however, that North Korea has simply been waiting to develop a credible nuclear weapon and delivery mechanism before starting a war. I do not doubt that they are trying, but I doubt that they are anywhere close to achieving a credible deterrent. Stricter sanctions should help delay such an eventuality, while the world deals with other, more imminent, threats. And if North Korea starts a war, with or without a credible nuclear deterrent, then the international communicty would do well to help and support South Korea in every manner possible.

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Categories: Random Thoughts Tags: ,

Later This Year

May 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Last Tweet

You might want to see the complete slideshow as well. This is the only twitter-related cartoon though.

Feel free to twitter about this.

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Categories: Humour Tags: ,

The Indian Electronic Voting Machines

May 19, 2009 30 comments

It looks like my broadcast on Indian EVMs wasn’t enough. Via The Acorn’s twitter feed, I discovered that Rajeev Srinivasan has made the integrity of EVMs an issue. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

There is, of course, the possibility that the average voter did not in fact fall for the UPA’s charms, and that this election was subject to massive fraud. I am talking about Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Having spent many years in the high-tech world, I do not trust computers, especially embedded systems. Researchers in the US have shown how easy it is to break into EVMs, which is why they have not adopted them. They have realised how important it is to have a paper audit trail, hanging chads and all.

It would not be extraordinarily difficult to install a programme with a Trojan Horse in it. To outward appearances and to ordinary testing, the programme would appear normal. However, when it is fed a sequence of keystrokes by the agent of the party committing the fraud, the Trojan Horse wakes up, and then, regardless of what buttons the voter actually presses, it can assign a certain (non-suspicious-looking) percentage (not 90% but, say 45%) to the preferred party. The Trojan Horse can even be programmed to quietly delete itself when the voting is over. Nobody would know any better, as there is no paper trail.

Let me emphasise that I do not have any evidence that this happened in 2009, but it is worth investigating. There were too many surprising — almost miraculous — victories by certain candidates whom the casual observer would have written off. By Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is fraud. I would like to note in passing that in 2004, expecting the NDA to commit fraud, an Indian Communist in the US had prepared a suit alleging EVM fraud. Therefore it is clear that the thought has occurred to various people that there could be EVM fraud. [Rediff]

Firstly, let us do away with the stuff about Occam’s Razor and that the “thought has occurred to various people” and that some NRIs had “prepared a suit”. None of these things are relevant. Occam’s Razor is not an infallible law (just read at its Wikipedia entry, okay). There are plenty of phenomena where the simplest explanation is just plain bullshit. There are plenty of thoughts that occur to plenty of people, and those are also crap (OMG! NASA faked the moon landing). And for the very same reason, someone “preparing” a legal suit (leave alone actually filing it) is also no proof of the legitimacy of a claim (e.g. legal challenges to the Large Hadron Collider).

Now, we can come to the meat of the issue. Before I discuss it any further, I want you to read up a bit. The links were all cited in my previous post on the “issue”, but here they are again to get you up to speed on technical and other issues involved:

Please note that some degree of comfort with technology is essential to understand this topic. Else, you’ll just fall for crappy logic like “it is electronic, so it must be hackable”. I am not going to rehash everything written in those articles and documents, but will restrict myself to answering some common questions that have been raised (will update this post, if required).

Researchers in the US have shown how easy it is to break into EVMs, which is why they have not adopted them. They have realised how important it is to have a paper audit trail, hanging chads and all.

This has already been answered in my previous post, and the links cited above should take care of this. If not, you should read this fairly detailed comparison of Indian EVMs against the American ones. There is no real parallel between the two situations, and it pains me to see a widely-read columnist raise this false flag.

As an aside, a “paper audit trail” for individual votes in India will, ironically, make the election less free and fair. Why? As of now, many voters screw several parties by accepting their freebies and then voting for whoever they want. So, paying someone 500 bucks does not guarantee that he will vote for you. But with an American-style paper-based confirmation of who you’ve voted for, the political “vote marshals” will simply ask the voter to show them his “receipt” before shelling out whatever price they are paying for his vote.

[Updated to add: Please see comment by Amit below for a clarification on the American process. I misinterpreted the paper audit trail system of US. It would, however, still be a less reliable system because of “hanging chads” and the headache of storing the receipts securely for a period of time till the possibility of recount is eliminated. Whatever else the US might have, the Indian voting system (not the entire electoral process, just the voting system) appears far more robust in comparison.]

It would not be extraordinarily difficult to install a programme with a Trojan Horse in it.

Actually, it will be extraordinarily difficult. The EVMs are not networked in any way. They are locked physically. To break open the physical seal, then break open the rest of the machine to access the chip, and then to do something with the chip will require an extraordinary amount of time. This not a trivial thing, because there are hundreds of thousands of EVMs. And they are not left outside without supervision. To allege that they can be easily tampered with, despite monitoring by a good number of security personnel and agents of various political parties, is to indulge in a conspiracy theory of the looniest sort.

Oh, almost forgot, the chip is actually hardcoded with the voting program. If you try to modify the program or install anything on it, the chip will get damaged and the EVM will not function anyway.

To outward appearances and to ordinary testing, the programme would appear normal. However, when it is fed a sequence of keystrokes by the agent of the party committing the fraud, the Trojan Horse wakes up, and then, regardless of what buttons the voter actually presses, it can assign a certain (non-suspicious-looking) percentage (not 90% but, say 45%) to the preferred party. The Trojan Horse can even be programmed to quietly delete itself when the voting is over.

So, what if the chip is manipulated at the manufacturing plant itself? How do you prevent “fraud” then? First of all, most voting machines are reused. Which means that most of them have been produced several years ago. In fact, many of them must have been produced while the NDA was in power as well. How can anyone ensure “reliable” fraud in such a scenario?

But leave such practical considerations aside, let us just assume that a chip has been altered at the manufacturing plant to do the kind of thing Rajeev is insinuating. Well, if you’ve read the articles and documents cited above, by now you know that the EVMs are not hardcoded with the names of political parties. They are merely hardcoded with the voting slot numbers. Which party will be assigned which number, is not something that is uniform across India either. It varies from one constituency to another, and of course, from one election to another. Further, the assignment itself is not electronically coded in the machine. The election officials do it manually. This is important: there is no electronic connection between a party’s slot assignment and the machine’s vote registration mechanism. The machine only knows that a vote has been cast for Slot No. 2 (for example). It has no clue as to the Party for which this vote has been cast.

[Updated to add: The slot assignment, AFAIK, is done at constituency level and the numbers are in alphabetical order of candidates’ names. This is essentially the same as the ballot papers were done under the paper-based system earlier. If you think about it, if it was done in the parties’ names, there will be a huge fight over who will get Slot No. 1 or some other “lucky” number etc. so this is a fair system.]

So, even if there was the world’s largest conspiracy ever and a political party managed to get a malicious piece of code into the EVMs, it will still not be able to ensure that it benefits from the malicious code more than other parties.

That takes care of Rajeev’s flights of fancy. I wanted to highlight one valid point, which was made by Gautam John over Twitter:

But you’re still assuming the source code is clean. Why would I make that assumption? [Twitter]

Two issues. In field gaming and pre-field gaming. In field is very hard to do. Pre-field, who knows? Open code for everyone! [Twitter]

I have, of course, not assumed that the source code is clean. I have merely concluded that even if a political party were to be successful in manipulating the code at the time of chip production, it would still not be able to reap the benefits.

However, the valid point, which he doesn’t explicitly state is this: if the source code is not clean, the machine could malfunction. In practice, this is taken care of (partially) by tallying the number of votes cast at a polling booth (which is counted on paper-based electoral rolls) and the number of votes counted by the EVMs (which is an electronic count). If these numbers tally, it means that the EVMs have neither missed out a vote, nor inflated the vote count in any way.

However, this does not ensure that the machine has counted the votes correctly. For example, assume that 1000 votes were cast at a polling booth and the paper count tallies with the EVM count. Does this mean that the EVM could not have counted – by some technical mistake – 100 Congress votes for BJP? Such mistakes can arise for a variety of reasons: temperature or humidity fluctuations could affect the chip, or some bug in the code could cause it to mis-assign the vote etc. True, since it is virtually impossible for the political parties to wilfully manipulate the EVMs, such technical errors will probably even out on average. Nonetheless, such inaccuracy is indeed theoretically possible and undesirable for the health of a democracy.

There has been a technical evaluation of the EVMs by a committee chaired by Prof. Indiresan (the report has been linked above, and you have read it, right?), so I am not unduly worried about such possibilities. I would, however, be a bit more comfortable if the source code was in public domain.

To conclude, as a simple analogy, consider that you have to make an uncomplicated calculation (which is pretty much what Indian EVMs do). You can do it over a non-programmable cheap calculator, or in Microsoft Excel on a networked computer. Which one do you think is easier to manipulate by outside agents? Which one do you think is more prone to hackers?

Low-tech solutions may have fewer features, but it is easier to make them quite sturdy. That’s one of the reasons why my family’s 25+ year old Kelvinator fridge is still going strong, and so is the EC-TV (it is lying in the basement, but it still works) purchased when Ramayana started on Doordarshan, while our later purchases have not been so long-lasting.

It is nobody’s case that Indian EVMs, by themselves, can ensure a free and fair election (old-style booth capturing can still be done, though at a much higher risk and a much lower reward). But, those who come up with all kinds of conspiracy theories should have some shred of proof or technological feasibility to support their case before casting aspersions over the legitimacy of Indian elections.

Note: This post has been typed in a hurry. Sorry for the typos, and if I missed out on some issue.

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Overlord Broadcast #2

May 18, 2009 3 comments

Dear BJP,

While you recover from a crushing defeat and go into introspective mode, try to stay away from blogs written by supposedly pro-BJP bloggers. They are full of advice, and god-damn it, they’ll give it to you.

With a handful of notable exceptions (you might still want to read Offstumped, but avoid his comment feed), most of these bloggers have no clue whatsoever about the elections, campaigning, and ground realities.

With hardly any exception, they were euphoric till about 8:52 AM IST on May 16 (mainstream media changed tune a few minutes before that). Seriously, of all kinds of political analysts, bloggers were the last to get the memo on this election’s results.

In fact, here is a rule of thumb: If a post mentions any of the following words, just close the browser and take a short walk outside:

  • Obama
  • Internet
  • Social Media
  • Twitter
  • Blogs/Bloggers
  • Website
  • Congress
  • Sonia/Rahul Gandhi

That’s just a sample and it is not an absolute rule, but I can’t do the heavy lifting for you. God helps those who help themselves, etc. Just avoid blogs, and listen to your MPs and your cadre instead.

Yours truly,

Overlord

PS: I know that I am giving you advice via a blog too, but I am hoping that you’ll stop reading from NOW!

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Categories: Rant Tags: , ,

Overlord Broadcast #1

May 17, 2009 2 comments

Dear Conspiracy Theorist NRIs,

The Indian Electronic Voting Machines are different from American EVMs in many, many ways. It is my sincere hope that you’ll keep that in mind in future and refrain from making statements to the effect of “OMG, they are both electronic and hence both can be hacked” or “OMG, the party I support in internet forums has lost, so the electronic voting machines must have been hacked – just like in the USA, where I live”.

Regardless of whether the Indian EVMs were, or can be, hacked, there are no relevant parallels between the two situations.

Seriously, it is fucking irritating.

Yours truly,

Overlord

Further reading:

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Early Lessons from the 2009 Indian Elections

May 16, 2009 13 comments

A few hours ago, The Acorn twittered:

The good news about elections is that they teach everyone a lesson: politicians, pundits, psephologists and pollsters. [Twitter]

That set me thinking: what lessons has this election taught everyone? Here are a few ideas that came to me (feel free to add your own):

The Internet was wrong. Well, at least the part of it that was interested in Indian elections. This is what Rediff‘s final people-powered election prediction map looked like:

Everyone on Internet is Wrong

Everyone on Internet was Wrong

Seriously, everything that the Internet could get wrong, it did. If you browsed through the Indian blogosphere, the bloggers were either calling this election for BJP, or for a hung Parliament. As the elections progressed, the  Indian blogosphere seemed to put its money on a hung verdict. I am not providing any links to such blogs because the intention is not to single anyone out. In fact, I’ll frankly admit that I was wrong too. I was quite sure that there would be a hung Parliament, and wondered whether Ms. Mayawati would be the next Prime Minister. Ha!

Apart from predictions, other Internet-based ventures were flops too. Election coverage on Twitter was as noisy as ever, except that ardent BJP supporters seemed to have disappeared once the trends started coming in. Suddenly, virtually everyone on Twitter was pro-Congress.

As with most things, it should have been obvious from the start: Internet users in India are not a representative sample of Indian electorate. Except that they’ll change their tune just like some Indian voters changes their votes depending on which candidate is doling out more free booze. Only in this case, the bloggers/twitterers get no goodie bags.

The Mainstream Media was wrong. Their exit polls were wrong. Their analysis was wrong. The individual commentary from their supposedly unbiased commentators was wrong. Everyone predicted a hung Parliament, usually with a slim edge for the Congress-led UPA. It is quite shocking that the exit polls missed out such a large undercurrent. Just goes on to show how useless these polls are. Well, unless all the hung Parliament predictions scared the voters into voting for national parties!

And spare me the pointless post-result analysis, dear Media. Everyone is wiser after the fact. You blew it, once again. I can only pat myself on the back for having stopped listening to you after the 2004 fiasco.

Goodbye, Mr. Advani. I often admired you for your leadership style, if not the substance. It would be best for you, and your party, if you now allowed someone else to take charge and faded into background.

Buckle up, BJP. It is not the end of the road for you guys. You went from having 2 MPs to more than 180 of them. Last time, you did it on the basis of short-sighted strategies and managed to do well only because you had an impeccable public face – Mr. Vajpayee. This time around, do us all a favour and go easy on jingoistic nationalism. Consider the next five years as a huge opportunity to rebuild your party, especially your organization on the ground. Usher in genuine intra-party democracy at every level of your party. Play the role of a constructive opposition. Become a genuine right-of-center political party.

Oh, and fire Varun Gandhi (and many others just like him). They aren’t helping.

Singh is King. I wonder why some people are asking for Rahul Gandhi to become Prime Minister, when Mr. Singh had been repeatedly projected as the Prime Ministerial candidate. It would be as much of a bait-and-switch as it was in 2004. The man who was dubbed as the weakest Prime Minister had already showed that he wasn’t as weak as his opponents believed, when he asked the Left Front to take a hike over the Nuclear Deal. He continues to have a clean image and a keen intellect. If his health remains fine, there is no reason why he should have to make way for Rahul Gandhi any time soon. Also, now that Congress is virtually going to dictate the terms, I hope that the pace of reforms (in all spheres of economy and governance) will pick up.

Family Magic is alive, and so is Congress. Rahul Gandhi deserves credit for reviving the fortunes of Congress in UP. He is also, lets face it, the next Congress candidate for the top job. He has done some good work with bringing in some intra-party democracy at the level of party’s youth wings. For now, he should continue to work for the party and avoid getting a ministerial berth. I’ll perhaps never be able to accept dynastic politics as legitimate, but I’ll bow to the election verdict like everyone else.

Indian Voters are Smart. For all the condescension heaped on the average Indian voter by the English-speaking elite (yours truly included, in moments of cynicism), the Indian electorate has proven time and again that it knows what it wants (even as it does a good job of hiding it from pollsters). Spin it any which way you want to, but it is clear that the electorate was either tired of parties that did not play any constructive role during the last 5 years (recall the antics of Left on many occasions, BJP on nuclear deal etc.) or, realized that hung Parliaments are not good for the country in general. Or, may be both. Or something else entirely. Nobody really knows, and don’t let any media outlet fool you into believing that they have figured it out.

Many voters have voted for one party at the State level, and another at the national level. If that’s not a discerning voter, I don’t know what is.

There is a lot more on my mind, but I tend to ramble and lose the plot in my “Random Thoughts” posts, so I’ll stop here.

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Categories: Random Thoughts Tags: