Monday, 26 January 2015

How Noble is your Patriotism?

Today, the 26th of January, is celebrated as the Republic Day in India. My social network streams are flooded with posts that involve patriotism and love for the nation, TV channels broadcast the parade live from Rajpath followed by movies and programmes based on the same theme, children on the road have a tiny national flag pinned to their school uniform, and messages from friends congratulate our nation on the anniversary of adoption of its constitution. This is one of those days on which many Indians become conscious of their national identity and feel proud about it. What better day than this to do a critical analysis of patriotism? 
Patriotism is generally defined as devoted love and loyalty towards one's nation, and is often compared with the love for one's mother. In this aspect, I consider this as one of the highest emotions that a man can have, and has inspired countless humans to dedicate their lives for the protection and betterment of their fellowmen. However, it is also in the name of patriotism that numerous men have turned conquerors, colonialists and mass murders. Is it the same emotion, feeling, or ideal that leads men, on one hand, to noble deeds of selfless service and, on the other, to acts of monstrous cruelty?

The flavour of patriotism that justifies and encourages people to subdue and kill others is based not in love for one's nation, but in a national identity that builds an insurmountable wall between those who share their nationality and those that don't. This is similar to how fanatics of some genuine religions worry less about following the path to knowledge laid down in their religion and are more concerned with punishing and cursing non-believers and "blasphemers".  They're the kind of sons who are too busy making proud statements of their ancestry and slandering others that they don't bother to take care of their aged parents.

In all these cases of twisted loyalty, the key element is dislike, hatred and mistrust of those who do not share a particular identity. True patriotism, religious allegiance or filial love should be rooted in a sense of duty towards our nation, religion or parents. It should serve to unite citizens of a nation, followers of a religion, or siblings towards a common cause. When gone wrong, all of these can only share to divide people along lines of nationality, religion or family. There is nothing wrong with loving your own, trouble starts only when it is rooted in ill-will towards others.

In modern nations, attachments to identities that are narrower (or even broader) than national are usually denounced in the interest of national integration; so much, that the terms referring to these feelings - such as regionalism - have a negative connotation. Patriotism, on the other hand, is encouraged and so glorified that it becomes difficult for people to think beyond its boundaries. What is a nation today comprised of many princely states a few decades ago. Attachment or loyalty to those kingdoms of yore will now be looked down upon as parochialism. An example in point is how Sir Ramaswami Iyer, Dewan of the erstwhile state of Travancore at the time of Indian independence and an able administrator who has made great contribution to the growth of southern Kerala,  is referred to by many as a traitor, only because he loyally stood by the Maharaja of Travancore in his wish to remain independent from the Indian Union.

So, what is a general thumb rule in deciding whether patriotism, or a particular level of loyalty is good or not? While I cannot claim to give a universally applicable rule, I think the general principle is that anything that unites us and broadens our consciousness is good, whereas anything that divides us and makes our thinking narrow is bad. Love for family is definitely great, and it should serve to replace the selfishness in us. Love for our village or province should be even stronger. For example, if one needs to give away part of his property to an infrastructure project that will benefit a larger population, one should gladly do that. The broader love for nation should take precedence over love for one's province, and even this feeling of patriotism should not come in the way of one's love for the world and all its inhabitants. Finally, even the world should be sacrificed for the sake of God (our real self) which is all-encompassing and is the broadest ideal that is.

This principle is outlined by Vidura in Mahabharatha (Vidura Neethi):
त्यजेत् कुलार्थे पुरुषं ग्रामस्यार्थे कुलं त्यजेत् |
ग्रामं जनपदस्यार्थे आत्मार्थे पृथिवीं त्यजेत् ||
A person shall be sacrificed for the sake of the family; family for the sake of village; village for the sake of country, and even the earth shall be sacrificed for the sake of self

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Layoffs and Unionization Threat

In the last few days, those in India's technology industry would have come across reports of a massive layoff in India's largest IT services company, namely, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). While several of these reports were unconfirmed and unverified, many in the field have already expressed their support for the "victims" of this layoff. Interestingly, there are some organizations like the Chennai-based Forum for IT Employees (FITE) that are organizing a resistance to the retrenchment at TCS. Some of my friends, in fact, have invited me to like the Facebook page of this forum, and updated their status and profile pictures with a call to stop TCS layoff (like the one shown in the image below). I wonder if they have really taken an effort to understand the situation before being alarmed by it. If these developments can be attributed to the empathy of IT employees at large, and an attempt of isolated individuals to fish in troubled waters, a more real threat to the industry is that larger trade unions that are affiliated to political parties and have a reputation of orchestrating the downfall of many an organization are also trying to use this as an opportunity to gain a foothold in this sector that has hitherto been off-bounds for them. I have always been against unionization - in almost all industries, and more so in IT - and this post is an effort in explaining that position and encouraging fence-sitters to jump to this side of the great divide.  

The very first point that I want to put forward for the consideration of those who are thinking of an "organized resistance to layoff" based on reports (or rumours, to be precise) of as many as 25000 employees being laid off by TCS is the (lack of) veracity of these reports. Since the officially confirmed number given by TCS is only at three to four thousand, which is as low as one percent of its 3.5 lakh workforce, it needs to be pondered as to who is benefiting by misrepresenting the figures, thereby creating feelings of fear and insecurity among employees of TCS as well as other companies. In my opinion, these malicious elements and the fear they have already succeeded in creating are the real enemies of IT fraternity. So, at the very least, I would urge that before we swing our sword at what we have been told is a poisonous snake, it will be good to confirm that the object of our strike is not the rope that restrains a ferocious beast that is even more dangerous than the hypothetical snake!

The next consideration would be the legality of layoff. Most companies specify, along with the terms of employment, the rules for employee termination. This is part of the contract that the employee makes with his employer and is usually bi-directional. Typically, it would state that either the employee or the employer can give the other party a month's notice to part ways. As long as the employee uses this provision to his advantage, to find and move to jobs that pay better and advance their career further, nobody complains. Why then, should we make a hue when the company uses this provision to replace employees who are not bringing in sufficient value with new ones who might be able to contribute better? Moreover, for every employee retrenched, the company would be hiring another more deserving candidate or, in some cases, multiple candidates with lesser experience. So this move makes way for giving opportunity to more number of more deserving professionals. I don't think it is unethical, much less illegal, for a company to restructure its workforce in this way.

The IT industry in India, in striking contrast to its public sector where caste or community (institutionalized through reservations) is a major factor in recruitment and promotions, has so far been merit and performance oriented. The top performers are usually rewarded with better pay and greater responsibilities, enabling them to take up roles that make best use of their experience as well as bring in sufficient value to justify their paycheck. Under-performers, on the other hand, stagnate at junior roles but, nevertheless, improve their salary over time (either via regular yearly increments or by switching jobs) to a point where it is easy to replace them with a person of much lesser experience at a fraction of the cost. If they are not thus replaced, the cost of keeping them in the company has to be borne by those who are working hard and smart to ensure a net positive revenue, which I think is an unfair expectation. Worse still, if the company's performance is affected as a result of preventing it from making itself more efficient, or if the company decides to move its operations to more business-friendly locations, then all employees will have to bear the brunt. The trade unions, of course, have nothing to lose, when their most bragged about victories are in closing down organizations that they dub "anti-employee", rendering hundreds or thousands or people jobless! It would be wise for the educated and well-informed members of IT fraternity to resist falling into this trap as it has been doing so far. 

My intention here is not to insult or laugh at the tragedy of the those who have lost their jobs. I understand that they are passing through a difficult phase and need support. With the right effort, I hope they will be able to find a position in which they can make themselves useful. My effort is only to point out the foolishness of the way in which some are responding to this unfortunate reality. I also agree that not all who lose their job deserved it through their lack of effort or ability; there are also those victims of circumstances, of the constantly changing needs of the technology industry, and of other factors. But, in general, I believe that if one cannot earn his place in a knowledge economy by merit, and has to resort to strong-arm tactics, he probably doesn't deserve to be there. The best way to defend against layoff, in my opinion, is not the crooked way of intimidation (the way of trade unions), but the straight-forward way of making oneself valuable and irreplaceable. As Joe tells Pip in Great Expectations, "If you can't get to be oncommon through going straight, you'll never get to do it through going crooked". The same holds for keeping your job. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Compulsory Voting - Democracy at its Atrocious Worst

An ardent supporter as I am of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and strong as my faith is that his government can take India to greater heights, I must, in most emphatic terms, record my disagreement with the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill of 2009 that was first introduced and passed in Gujarat assembly during Mr Modi's tenure as the Chief Minister. Having been returned earlier for reconsideration, this bill has been signed by the Governor last week, and can  now be implemented. It is surprising that there has been very few discussions or debates on a bill that has profound impact on our democracy - especially considering that this may set a precedent for the same principles being applied with a wider scope. It is my considered opinion that this law is contrary to the essence of democracy in general (which I don't really care about) and the spirit of Indian constitution. But even more importantly, I think its basic premise goes against fundamental logic

There are two important changes proposed in this bill, and both of them have great potential to damage our vibrant democracy if implemented on a sufficiently large scale. The first of these is to enforce compulsory voting for local body elections in Gujarat, and the second seeks to bring 50% reservation for women in local bodies. This post is primarily about the first proposal, though I am equally against the second one.

Democracy has many faults, and one of the foremost is that it places decision making in the hands of many including those who are absolutely incapable of it. If now at least some of those who lack competence are staying away from elections, this law will forcefully require them to mark their decision about something they have no idea about or no interest in. If such people are made to vote against their will, they're likely to vote for the candidate with most populist promises. It is an undemocratic as well as an unwise choice to force people to take important decisions in which they don't want to have a say. In this respect, this law will serve to magnify one of the drawbacks that democracy already has. 

It is also a violation of people's fundamental freedom. To have a say in governance is my right and privilege, but it is also my right to choose whether to exercise this right or not. Compulsory voting takes away this latter right. Further, to cast one's vote is not on the list of fundamental duties added to the constitution by the 42nd Amendment in 1976 and expanded since.  If  to vote in all elections is to be considered a duty that is constitutionally required of all citizens, it will need to come as a constitutional amendment and no less. A regular bill in a state assembly cannot override what is unambiguously laid down in the Constitution.
Leaving all political and legal considerations apart, a fundamental logical flaw in the premise of this law relates to how a system that cannot trust people with deciding whether to cast their vote or not can trust the same people to cast their vote for the right candidate! If these voters are really capable of making an appropriate decision and their vote is valuable, then their decision to not vote should also be honoured as an informed choice. On the other hand, if they are not good enough to make this simple choice, what good will come of involving them in deciding the nation's future?

The law also assumes that people's decision to not vote is due to their laziness or lack of a sense of responsibility. It ignores that the primary reason for people's disenchantment with the electoral process is the lack of faith they have in politics and politicians. Forcing these people to vote without addressing these concerns is like covering the symptom of a disease without doing anything to treat the underlying condition. 

A partial solution for this is proposed as an option to vote for none of the candidates, commonly referred to as NOTA - short for None Of The Above. However, there is still no clarity or consensus on what the fate of the election will be if NOTA gathers more votes than any of the candidates. If the election is to be held again, then for how many times can this go on? If the candidate with more votes than all other candidates is declared the winner, then how is NOTA different from an invalid vote or a no vote.  And, why can't a no vote be taken as an exercise of the NOTA option?  If I don't care to vote for any of the candidates in an election, wouldn't I just sit at home rather than spend money in travelling to the election booth and hit the NOTA button? I don't think it is necessary to crowd our polling booths by making all the NOTA-supporters go there.

There are surely more reasons to not implement this law, but I believe this should suffice to convince the advocates of this law of the need for more debate and deliberation before implementing it.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Getting Out of a Problem

I left office a little early today, and took one of the two main routes I can take to reach home - the one that had to cross an intersection of 5 roads into a small circle. As happens at times, I got caught in a traffic tangle at this junction and had to put my luck and cunning to good use to free myself from it. While I was at this task, I felt that traffic management at that junction was a problem. Or, rather, the intersection, which was not a result of poor design but that of an absolute lack of any design, was itself a problem that would inevitably lead to such situations. Or perhaps the attitude of the drivers who make it difficult for all by thinking only of themselves and ending up in a "dominant strategy equilibrium" that is unfavourable to all is the real problem. The fact that there were so many cars, because nobody cared to use public transport, also added to the problem, I thought.

Having thus compounded the web of traffic with a more intricate web of thoughts in my own mind, when I finally got out of that situation, I realized something. The narrow roads and the intersection remained; the junction still did not have a signal or a policeman to guide the high traffic that was still pouring in. The attitude of the drivers, the number of cars, or the disposition of people towards public transport had hardly changed. But the problem ceased to exist (for me), because I was no longer in it. So the real problem was not any of the facts that I had enumerated, but the single fact that I was a part of the situation. And when I am not a part of it any more, the problem is solved. 

Now, you could say I am just being selfish because I don't care about others who are stuck in traffic, but only want to save myself. What's more, you might think that it is this attitude of people that causes most problems in this world. But believe me, this attitude is not something that I invented - it is there in each of us (perhaps to varying degrees depending on what we identify with/as our self). After all, none of us care about the traffic problems of a far away city that we'll never have to visit. We worry about the traffic problems of our own city because it affects our lives. We're saddened by the plight of others because deep within we have a fear that we may ourselves be similarly affected. All that we see in this world affects us through the medium of our identification with it - and the things that we identify less with affect us to a lesser extent. 

Understanding this makes it simple for us to make all the problems in this world vanish - simply by realizing that they we are in no way involved with any of them. This body might be involved - but the real I, has no real connection with this body or this mind. So anything that affects this body does not affect me. I don't have to solve all the problems in this world - I just have to understand that they I am beyond all of them, and they have no way to get to me - just as in the case of a traffic problem in a distant city. This realization, hard as it is to attain, is the panacea for all the problems in this world!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Hacking By Social Engineering - A Target's Dilemma

Yesterday night marked the beginning of a series of interesting events that gives us an opportunity for reflection (or avalokanam, as we call it). My wife received a few text messages on her phone number that has been her for only a couple of weeks. These messages were from Facebook, and had a code and a link which could be used to reset her password. At first she ignored these messages, and then we began to suspect that it was the result of an attempt to hack her Facebook account. She was a bit worried, but more surprised that somebody would actually go through the trouble of doing this. After all, of what use would her account be to them? Partly out of what I have heard and read, and in part due to my own crooked thinking, I tried to explain the different ways in which they could use her account to get access to more useful personal information of those in her friends circle. Nevertheless, I was pretty confident of the security systems Facebook will have in place, and told her there was nothing to worry as long as she didn't do anything reckless. 

Today morning, at about 11:00 AM, when I would usually have been out at work but was incidentally at home owing to a persistent bout of cold, my wife received a call and I listened to her side of the conversation: "Hello?". "What?". "Ok". "Facebook?". "I see". "Got it". "No problem". "All right". As I came to know from her soon after, it was exactly what I suspected it to be. There was a lady on the line who addressed my wife by her name and claimed to have been using her new number till some time back, had forgotten the password to her Facebook account which she could reclaim only by sending a verification SMS to this number, and thus requested that the text messages received yesterday be forwarded to her. My wife, with her trusting and helpful disposition, had gladly agreed to oblige. Myself, being more suspicious and incredulous by nature, was not happy with that. 

The first question that came to my mind was how the caller got to know my wife's name. Looks like she claimed it was from customer care, but I found that even more ridiculous. Why would customer care folks ever divulge confidential customer information to some curious caller? That would be a clear violation of their user data privacy requirements. And even assuming that she somehow managed to get that information, was this the only way to recover her account? Wouldn't there be an email recovery option? It would take roughly 6 months for an operator to recycle a phone number (well, that's what I believe) - why did she not care about reclaiming her account till now? Or did she suddenly lose her password within 2 weeks of a new user claiming her old number? That would require a greater degree of coincidence than we usually see in the world around us. I was convinced that this phone call was also part of a plan to hack my wife's Facebook account, and advised her not to share the password reset code as the caller had requested. At first, she wasn't happy about not sending the code after having initially agreed to, but on explaining the risks she appreciated the basis of this recommendation. 

In about an hour, the mysterious lady called again, and was complaining about not having received the code yet. I asked to put the phone on speaker and began to listen to the conversation as some fundamental questions were being posed to the caller. The way she answered those questions showed that she was either genuine, or highly trained. The number was being used by her sister who went to Kuwait about a year back and the SIM had gone inactive, as per her account. She had important photos and contact information in her account and the only way to recover it was for us to help her. At some point, I decided to join the conversation. We had no way of telling whether the reset code was for her account or for my wife's account, we explained. And even if this reset code was for the previous user of this phone number, we had no way to ascertain that this caller was the rightful owner. By sharing the code, we could be compromising my wife's account or that of somebody else who isn't even aware of this attempt. We took a lot of effort to clarify that we were not implying that the caller was trying to cheat us, but were only explaining our inability to tell a genuine case from a hacker. Firmly, but politely, we refused her request and she agreed to call Facebook customer care to find an alternate solution. 

After disconnecting the call, we discussed and thought about the episode. We were not sure if we just refused help to someone who had sincerely approached us, or if we had successfully thwarted a clever social engineering attempt. We may never know an answer to this question but, looking back, I think we did the most appropriate thing we could at the moment. If she was genuine and happens to be reading this post, my apologies to her for not being able to help and hope that by now she has managed to reclaim her account and also fully understands our situation.   

There are three lessons which we perhaps knew already, but can appreciate more in the light of this incident. First and foremost we must have at least two recovery options for our account (say, an email and a phone number), and always keep them updated lest we land in a difficult situation like the caller claimed to be in. Second, if you suspect an attack on your account (as you must, if you get password reset options without requesting for it), it is always better to play safe and never share your account information or secret codes with any unverified (or even verified) caller under any circumstance whatsoever. (This might seem obvious, but that is where social engineering is really effective - in gaining your trust posing as someone you know or by downplaying the actual impact of sharing that information). Finally, these types of attacks are common and any of us may fall for these at times - not because we are not intelligent enough, but because there is good in each one of us and it is this good that is often exploited. So, if we find any suspicious behavior in our friends' accounts (like a friend asking you via Facebook to send a few dollars to his bank account because he is stranded in a strange place with is belongings stolen), we must urgently advise our friend rather than ignore the hint. If any one of our accounts is compromised, it undermines the security of all connected accounts as well. It is on each one of us to exercise due caution so that we all stay secure. This, perhaps, is one of those rare cases where it is okay to be a little paranoid!