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September 25, 2003

 
groups.yahoo.com is now once again accessible through my Indian ISP (VSNL). But, visit an arbitary URI and my browser returns:
Forbidden
You were denied access because:
Access denied by access control list.
I smell an application layer proxy.

I hear the gentle sounds of Article 19.1.a being ripped apart in the background.

I see the Internet in India as restricted as Dubai, China or Iran in one year. I pray that I am wrong.

The worst part is, now that access to Yahoo Groups is (mostly) restored, this issue will die. If readers' opinion in the Times of India is anything to go by, no one in this country cares a rat's arse about liberty. And not-so-oddly enough, in this democratic society, their government doesn't either.

 

September 24, 2003

 
groups.yahoo.com has been blocked by government diktat for the second day running now. Please write to your nearest Indian embassy (or NRI/PIO ambassador, if you happen to be of Indian origin) to let them know what you think of India turning into the next China or Iran.

If you live in India, I'm not sure what you can do. Unfortunately the time-honoured method of writing to one's MP does not work in India. Ideas appreciated.

 

 
TechEd India Day One went great. High points: Office 2003/InfoPath sessions from Raj Chaudhari and Deepak Gulati (excellent speakers, both of them). The Longhorn video was great too, hope to see more in October and November!

The demos just confirmed what I felt after playing with the betas: with InfoPath's and Word's writing out data to user-defined schemas, and Word's ability to mark up documents as XML after-the-fact, Microsoft has the strongest and friendliest XML processing toolkit on the market today. (Of course, they weren't the first -- anyone remember SoftQuad's XMetal Pro?)

Biggest boo-boo: A certain *cough* speaker at the keynote, claiming SPOT was based on Wi-Fi :-p.

No I was wrong about the biggest boo-boo: this is the bigger boo-boo. This is what I still get when I try to log into MyTechEd online (as of Sep 24 9.30pm):

http://server1.msn.co.in/sp03/teched/register.asp :
Active Server Pages error 'ASP 0126'
Include file not found
/sp03/teched/register.asp, line 67
The include file '/navigation/header/tech_edtop.asp' was not found.

This is after two Microsoft event management partners and one Microsoft employee assured me all possible wrinkles have been worked out on Sep 23.

 

September 23, 2003

 
Indian businesses often tout India's "Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence" as one of its key competitive advantages over China. Re this groups.yahoo.com censorship mess, I wonder how many folk coming to do business in India will notice how ad-hoc India's rulemaking really is. (Of course, anyone who has invested in India in anything but IT can tell you horror stories anyway, and will also tell you that IT or no, leopards don't change their spots.)

 

 
This story in The Pioneer says
The IT Act 2000 has no explicit provisions to block websites, unless they promte pornography, slander, racism, gambling, terrorism or violence, which cannot be challenged under laws governing freedom of expression.
Can you imagine a government agency trying to block every one of the gambling sites on the web? (This is in a country where various states have their own lotteries!) But of course, like any Indian will tell you, in India, selective enforcement is not the exception: it is the rule. Laws are not made with enforceability in mind, they are made because they "look good on the books".

 

 
Well, now VSNL has gone and done it too -- groups.yahoo.com is now inaccessible. From what I understand from this informative culling by Fred Noronha, most other ISPs have complied too. Ironically, all this attention caused the group in question ("kynhu") to exceed its download quota and is now effectively inaccessible.

Make no mistake, this is a black day for the Net in India.

 

September 20, 2003

 
The IAB nails it wrt DNS wildcards (re Verisign and the SiteFinder fiasco). Long, but a worthwhile read.

 

 
Here's a clue for career bureaucrats who fail to understand the Internet. The Internet is like a mirror, it reflects the real world. Banning a little nook of the Internet is not only futile, it makes about as much sense as smashing the mirror because you don't like the mole on your face.

If -- if -- the kynhu Yahoo Group was a forum for illegal activities, talk to Yahoo and bust 'em for violating Yahoo's terms of service (which includes illegal activities such as violent crime and terrorism). Or track the member lists (the GoI already eavesdrops on large portions of India's Internet traffic) and arrest list members in India. But for Cthulhu's sake stop showing yourself off as a retard by censoring the Internet. All it does is attract more attention to whatever it is you were trying to suppress.

 

 
Dear Government of India, if you must censor the Internet, can you please do with a bit more style and technical savvy? Maybe by spending a bit of money asking Cisco to build you a decent firewall? Hamhanded efforts like these to censor Internet access kinda kill India's rep as a "software superpower". Maybe you can get cybersavvy folk like SM Krishna or Chandrababu Naidu to consult before writing dumb memos like these? Yours very sincerely, a scandalized Indian Internet User.

Some background: Essentially, the government of India directs Indian ISP Dishnet to block one group in Yahoogroups. Dishnet, displaying that it can bend over and take it better than anyone else, blocks the whole of Yahoo Groups. It is not known if other ISPs like VSNL were similarly directed -- they seem to be allowing that URL just fine. Posts on india-gii have pointed out that Dishnet could have blocked only that URL, but at the cost of increasing the strain on their own routers, so that was probably why the blanket block approach was chosen, freedom of expression for the rest of their customers be damned.

The blocked group seems to be (according to this post by Suresh Subramaniam on the india-gii list) a mailing list started by an ethnic minority outfit in Meghalaya, and cribs about how corrupt the Indian government is, how public money is swallowed up, etc. All I can say is if issues like these have to be censored by the Indian government, then the Indian press had better watch out, it is headed for the gulag in short order.

Another interesting point is contents of the fax itself -- Mr J Random Bureaucrat is "directed to convey the approval of competent authority" that the group be blocked. Who is this competent authority? What process did they follow while deciding that this group be blocked? Was Due Process™ with respect to Article 19(1)(a) observed? Were constitutional experts consulted? Such questions are Best Not Asked in the world's largest democracy. What also surprised me was the outrage, or rather the lack of it, in groups such as the india-gii. There almost seems to be relief that the mai-baap sarkar has decided to block only one group, and not the whole site. I'm not going to get into slippery-slope arguments here, but will point out that things like these set a precedent, and if it's going to be a little ethnic minority in Meghalaya today, it can be google.com tomorrow.

 

 
Did you know that Google Syndication also serves ads as XML?

 

 
Where's a good trademark lawyer when you need one? I got this email (screenshot) that for many users would be a dead ringer for an official MS email (exhortations that Microsoft doesn't distribute software by email notwithstanding). Virus writers do seem to be getting smarter, don't they?

Update: I believe this worm is W.32/Swen. Be careful while downloading attachments!

 

September 16, 2003

 
Digital Bugles:
The music sounded fainter and less crisp than a live instrument. But it had a haunting, far-away quality. And as the final, tremulous note faded in an extended diminuendo, a woman dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief before leaning her head on a companion's shoulder.
Of course, The digital bugle has no smarts, but in an age where the ability to play a musical instrument is diminishing fast, I'm a big believer in smarter instruments that create innovative ways for even novices to create music, like the Future Music Blender.

 

 
The Intarweb (sic) is a small in-joke among the geek set. It's a dig at the web-is-the-internet attittude prevalent among large numbers of newbie net-users. Today, however, the Intarweb is one step closer to reality, thanks to one of the companies charged with one of the crucial pieces of the Net's infrastructure -- and ICANN, the organization responsible for Internet names, is asleep at the wheel as usual.

Starting today, all nonexistent entries in the .com and .net top-level-domains will resolve to a Verisign server called sitefinder. From an viewpoint of an interactive ("Intarweb") user, this may seem harmless enough, but this makes life much more difficult for the anti-spam community, network operators and ISPs, not to mention hapless developers who now have to add && !(isWildcardAddress()) snippets all over their host lookup code.

Technically, if implemented right (which it isn't -- sitefinder's Mail Reject Daemon seems to be a flawed SMTP implementation), Verisign will not "break standards". DNS does allow for top-level wildcards, but this move is bad for users from many practical standpoints, including privacy and flexibility. Verisign's best practices document (PDF) notes that several other TLD operators provide such a service as well, for example the .nu domain takes you to a generic page for sites which don't exist. Which is fine, except that vanity domains like .nu don't get used anywhere as much as the staples of .com and .net, and does not change the fact that wildcards are not a good idea at any gTLD level anyway.

PS. chaoszone is a dot-org, the registry of which is maintained by ISOC, not Verisign. Misspelt dot-orgs are not likely to get you misleading pages anytime soon.

 

September 15, 2003

 
Read this a while ago, but forgot to comment: Ray Ozzie's possible prior art for plugins doesn't surprise me. As someone who has worked a bit on Lotus Notes and Domino (and whose workplace has some serious Notes gods), I went through a phase of continual surprise at the richness and sophistication of Notes' workflow model (truth be told, it was combined with disgust at its UI excesses). Microsoft could do worse than make Ray Ozzie their new best friend and centerpiece of their appeals claim.

PS. It's an article of faith with the Notes devs at work that "this new-fangled web thing" is nothing special, Notes Had It First™ anyway. It's also an article of good natured jest among everyone else that Notes may have had it first, but it was so damned hard to use that you had to take Certified Lotus End-User Training just to comprehend the majesty of it, and end up not using it anyway :-).

 

September 14, 2003

 
Via Shanti: Major anthropology find reported in India:
Scientists report they have found evidence of the oldest human habitation in India, dating to 2 million years, on the banks of the Subarnarekha River... The 30-mile stretch between Ghatshila in the province of Jharkhand and Mayurbhanj in Orissa has reportedly yielded tools that suggest the site could be unique in the world, with evidence of human habitation without a break from 2 million years ago to 5,000 B.C.

 

September 11, 2003

 
On this weblog, two years ago:
Sixty years ago, a sleeping giant was awakened, and though we do not have a president of FDR's calibre at the helm today, if the giant even half-awakens today, something good will have come out of the all the mayhem and destruction of yesterday.
The Phantom Towers: Original photograph by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times. Digital manipulation by The New York Times.

 

 
Set-top box activated (on Tuesday, 48 hours after signing up). The most helpful feature of this is the Electronic Program Guide, which means I no longer have to wait for ages to find out what movie is playing when I tune in mid-way.

 

 
Clay Shirky on the NEC list: don't take products with vanishingly small marginal cost and make them too expensive for your target audience to want to use.

In other news, as I wrote on Sep 5, starting Sep 10, inter-city SMSes will now cost Rs 2 a pop, up 2x the previous price of Rs 1. I wonder what the GSM marketers had in mind: India's price-sensitive teens/college student market -- the biggest users of SMSes -- can't be very happy about this.

 

September 08, 2003

 
Set top box update (boy, that's sure a lot of posts for something I won't be watching most of the time): not yet activated. Apparently Hathway will process the OCR-friendly form I filled up and then activate my set-top box, this is expected to complete by Monday afternoon. Sucks -- SCV, a competing operator, has apparently already activated its customers.

Notes on the technology used by Hathway -- their set-top box is a Humax box running News Corp's NDS (of chequered history) VideoGuard. Interactivity is possible, although the manual says "this feature is not currently available". Pay-per-view is possible, again, not implemented. Overall, not quite up-to-the-minute, but very decent technology: it brings India's cable tv business out of the technological dark ages and frees the viewer from the whims of the neighborhood cable op. Of course, the unfortunate bit is that most Indians would gladly pay a pittance (Rs 100) and watch the all (free+pay) channels on offer, a sleight of hand possible in connivance with their cable op, which under-reports viewer stats to upstream cable ops.

While writing this post, called up Hathway and cribbed about the activation lag, and a couple of other issues (Here's one of them: the audio gain on NDTV 24x7 seems to be set too high, sibilants are cracking as a result. This isn't a TV set problem -- NDTV Hindi and other channels are fine). My impression: for a cable op that's set to get into a direct billing relationship with households in some of the world's biggest cities, they have a lot of work to do on customer support helplines. They do have a customer helpline (96220 01122 in Chennai) but the support folk seem confused and only too ready to pass on the buck to the local cable op, and only after much pushing on a string did they even listen to the issues I have. Unlike Airtel (which has a decent helpdesk) or HSBC (which in India has a kick-ass helpdesk in my experience), this one is new and raw, and its rawness is compounded by what I believe is a failure to make up its mind about whether it is a wholesaler or a retailer.

I believe I can help Hathway make up its mind: their logo is plastered all over the set-top box and the set-top box remote control. When things go wrong, who do you think customers will curse? Especially when things seem to work fine for their neighbors running SCV set-top boxes? If it's your brand name and goodwill on the line, you better take ownership of customer complaints and solve them fast.

 

September 06, 2003

 
Got a set-top box from my Hathway-affiliated cable operator for Rs 999 + Rs 1 a day. Plus a Star/Sony-heavy package that lets my cable bill stay relatively constant around the 250 mark. Folks used to paying ~Rs 100 a month for cable tv, though, will get a rude shock in the CAS regime, which I'm still not convinced is going to fly.

 

September 05, 2003

 
Airtel aren't the only ones looking to drain your wallet. With the introduction of set-top boxes, a.k.a the Conditional Access System (CAS), your friendly neighborhood cable TV provider is about to as well. On midnight Sep 1, pay channels disappeared from across Chennai -- the only city in the country where this happened. CAS is being rolled out in Mumbai as well, but channel blackouts I understand haven't yet occurred. Seeing that I watch about 4 hours of television a month, I have yet to be bothered enough to call my cable TV operator about that set-top box, but I understand a kid used to Cartoon Network might see things differently. Here are the monthly package rates I got, from memory:

Star (Plus, Movies, Vijay, World, National Geographic, Gold but not News which is free-to-air) Rs 50
Zee (Hindi, Cinema, MGM, English, CNN, Cartoon Network, and some other stuff) Rs 55
Sony/One (Hindi, Max, AXN, HBO, Discovery, Animal Planet) Rs 55
Star Sports + ESPN (if taken annually) Rs 32

There is also a base fee (Rs 98 here) which fetches you 31 free-to-air channels, including NDTV, Aaj Tak, MTV, the all-important FTV and BBC World. Add Rs 30 for the local favorite, the Sun network, which I don't watch, and it seems the average family that paid ~Rs 250 for their monthly cable bill will now have to shell out ~Rs 320. Not good, considering many families grumble already about how "too much time is being taken up by the idiot box". I expect many cable operators will see reduced collections per month at these rates.

More interesting is the individual channel pricing. Mainstream channels like Sony Hindi Star Plus are at Rs 20 (Zee Hindi is overpriced at Rs 25 -- unless it's expecting its cow-belt appeal to see it through), and others cost Rs 10-15 (exception: Animal Planet is a bargain at Rs 4). Yet already, the once-niche Discovery is priced at Rs 20, no doubt mindful of the fact that it has the blessings of many Indian educators and parents.

Now that the industry is forcing audiences to put a price on their viewing pleasure per-channel, I expect to niche channel prices to rise slightly, and mainstream channels to fall, as audiences discover that the time spent with mainstream channels is not enough to be worth the money they're asking for. Besides, mainstream channels by definition have little differentiation: Zee Hindi, Sony Hindi and Star Plus are all pretty much indistinguishable (unless you're a fan of of a particular soap and would die if you didn't get to see what happened next), and in a budget crunch I expect one or two of them to be axed from a household's purchase list.

Wishlist for the CAS: I don't really need 31 free channels. Give me 10, and charge me Rs 49 as the base fee.

 

 
Airtel, along with other GSM vendors, have increased incoming roaming rates to an eyebrow-raising Rs 6.50 a minute. Plans seem to be afoot to raise inter-city SMS rates to Rs 2 a pop too. It'll be very interesting to see if the very price-sensitive Indian market reacts with decreased use. Considering that trasmitting an SMS inter-city doesn't cost all that much more over an SMS' base transmission cost, it looks like the GSM telcos have decided to get into bottom-line-fattening mode after much bleeding over the long-distance wars. And raising roaming rates is a no-brainer, considering that Reliance can't offer it yet. (I wonder how much BSNL's roaming service costs?)

 


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