Originally posted on Unhandled Exception:

I did not know Aaron Swartz, unless you count having copies of a person’s entire digital life on your forensics server as knowing him. I did once meet his father, an intelligent and dedicated man who was clearly pouring his life into defending his son. My deepest condolences go out to him and the rest of Aaron’s family during what must be the hardest time of their lives.

If the good that men do is oft interred with their bones, so be it, but in the meantime I feel a responsibility to correct some of the erroneous information being posted as comments to otherwise informative discussions at Reddit, Hacker News and Boing Boing. Apparently some people feel the need to self-aggrandize by opining on the guilt of the recently departed, and I wanted to take this chance to speak on behalf of a man who can no…

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State of Indian Startup ecosystem

In past of couple of months, I attended quite a  few industry events/meetups. Apparently the development of startup ecosystem in India has gone a long way. Bangalore remains the epicenter of Indian startups. The number of startup related groups has increased, although few remain relevant.  The strength of many of these groups has increased manyfold as new entrepreneurs are born and added to the fleet.

The other major change that has happened over last year or two is on the investment side. There  has been a flood of not just (so-called) early stage investment firms but also incubators and accelerators. Some of the newly born Seed/Angel funds that I have met/come across – Ventrue nursery, GSF accelerator, TLabs. Vinod Khosla seems tempted by Indian growth story and seems now mulling investments beyond the silicon valley. Khosla labs has already setup a lab in India although no word on investing in India yet but I would expect that pretty soon. One of the most promising incubators that I’m looking forward to is the Startup village, Kochi. It is quite an ambitious project  with a 100,000 sq.ft. campus. Kris Gopalakrishnan is the chief mentor at the 100 crore public-private project. Microsoft started its first batch of accelerator program in India this year. Microsoft does not invest any money in companies and neither takes any equity stake. The program is medium of promoting its Azure cloud platform and other products. One of the most significant developments in investments is the entry of 500 startups in India- a US based early stage seed fund. In the first year of its existence in India, it has already invested in about whopping 10 companies.  That just goes to show the promise that India holds. In one of his presenations, Paul Singh of 500 startups emphasizes just this point.

Apparently the rise of incubators and accelerators is not restricted to India but happening all over the world. Interestingly, I met several foreign nationals  who have landed up in India (including Valerie of ZipDial, one of the companies which got funded by 500 startups) to setup businesses. So not just the investors but the founders too seem tremendously bullish on the scale that India offers. It just remains to be seen how best Indians themselves are able to exploit the opportunity of the homeland. On the non-IT side, Tata Elxsi has launched an incubator this year. That is a very bold move and I’d say, first of its kind in India but exactly the need of the hour.

A significant departure with respect to previous decade or so that seems to have happened is the rise of technology product companies. This is not just the result of the availability of investments and resources. This can be attributed to a whole new generation of entrepreneurs trying to replicate the success of the valley.  The success of dozens of startups who have been able to build truly global product companies from India have boosted the growth. I came across several such startups and it is just phenomenal what they have been able to achieve in just over a couple of years. It would be unfair to name just a few. Although services remain a significant bulk of Indian software industry. This, in addition to the fact that many of the early stage investors including 500 startups invest only in product companies.

Although the point that is emphasized again and again is that now money is chasing the startups and  its the investors who need to find and chase promising founders, the fact remains that early stage funding is no easy task especially in India. From all of this buzz, it is important to understand that it is not the investments and incubations that make this scene exciting, it the scale and opportunities. And founders would be better-off focusing on that.

Whatever happened to innovation?

A while back, I wrote a post about Instagram’s acquisition by Facebook. I am not sure if I was able to convey my exact feelings effectively enough. There was hardly anything special about the occasion- a giant tech company buying a 2 year old startup whose single product went viral. Something that happens twice a day in the valley. Well, except for the money involved in the transaction which raised quite a few eyebrows. But I am dumbstruck that strangely this did not raise enough questions in the tech world about what we’ve come to define as “technology innovation”. Maybe because the tech-world-intelligentsia are too busy in the headless-chicken frenzy. It feels like the tech world is in a state of fast-decay.

If it seems unfair that I keep referring to Instagram, let me clarify that it is only for the sake of naming something. I can name a dozen other. Besides, Instagram set a dazzling example of the current state-of-affairs. I spend quite a lot of time every day reading tech magazines and blogs and frankly, sometimes I just feel repulsed by what I get to read.

I was drawn back to the stream of thoughts by an article I read today. It was good to see atleast one sensible person to speak my mind. Google is indeed sitting on a huge cash pile and doesn’t have much clue where it is going to invest it. And that’s true of others of the league. I’m overlooking a lot of exceptions to the theory and painting too black a picture here but the bottomline is that innovation has largely stunted. Interestingly, the conference at which Peter Theil made above comments was about discussing whether technology has improved our lives over the past 30 years.

It is disturbing to know how much the paradigms of technology innovation and being a genius inventor have changed over a few decades. I am about to finish reading a book I should have read in high school, may before that – “SURELY YOU’RE JOKING MR. FEYNMAN!”.  The book has enlightened me of my dumb ideas about technology and innovation beyond words. It was refreshing to remember what true genius means and what does invention mean. The way the mind of a scientist works just blew me away. His ability to think in a peculiar way and the things that he is adept at seems to be a born-talent.

I used to feel lucky to be born in the age of information. But I think I would be rather happier if I was to be born five decades ago. There is nothing to beat if you were fortunate enough to see Einstein himself in flesh and blood. To live in the times when William Shockley invented the first transistor – the very building block on which today’s supercomputers are built. To witness Max Planck and Niels Bohr, the Gods of quantum mechanics, unravel the mysteries of atomic structure. It was Renaissance.  Mark Zuckerberg is smart alright, but he’s no genuis. It doesn’t take a genius to build a facebook. You don’t need a Ph.D. in a niche subject and years of experimenting and understanding to put up a website or an app to share photos or videos or tweets.

And with this, I also realize a fact. The true genius usually aren’t really those who you hear about in news or whose photos you see in the journals. The true genius sit quietly in the dark corners of their labs/basements working hard, largely oblivious to the outside world.

When I let my mind play with the ideas of starting up, these absolute dumb things unfolding in the tech world did have their  (un)desired effect on me and I tried hard to think of yet-another-stupid-app that I can launch my startup with. And who can blame ? It’s all about build-fast, get-huge-PR-fast, get-acquired-fast. Mainly the second. Real fast money. A real-world-problem to solve? Product? business model? REVENUE? Never mind that. But eventually I did come to my senses and decided not to follow just a mindless bandwagon, no matter how big is the promise of riches and how easily replicable the path. It just doesn’t make sense. I set out to make a difference, as Jobs put it -to make a dent in the universe, and that’s what I will do. I hope the tech-world and the so-called tech-giants of the world get to their senses in the earnest as well. Else very soon we will have to start giving away Noble prizes for making cool games app.

To the crazy ones

I always wondered what was it like to quit a lucrative, much-coveted, jazzy corporate job for some moronic infatuation of following your dream and go on to become a destitute with the meekest prospects of being able to manage your basic needs in foreseeable future. Hmm Now I Know.

That’s right. I’ve quit my job (once again) and this time I’m not heading for a new one (Well, but I’m not becoming a destitute anytime soon). So what do I plan to do? Well, for starters, I’m going to savor the sweet sweet taste of freedom (It doesn’t last long, since its just an illusion). I always wondered if I could ever break out of  a life whose routine was written as a set of commandments by Moses and handed over to me directly. It was like finding yourself in a place you hardly remember how you landed up into. But you don’t question such things. You’re only allowed to shrug. I think standing in the pantry several times, I imagined myself breaking the glass, jumping out of the window, running across the street, tearing my clothes apart, screaming my throat out. I’m not sure what does that psychological fantasy signify but I’m sure even that act would give immense sense of freedom….maybe later.

Meanwhile, there are some ideas rusting on my shelf, I’ve always wanted to test out so I’m gonna finally give them a shot. Give more time to myself for thinking (not that I gave less before). Indulge in lots of reading. Putting my physique in shape will finally take preference over my work.

I can attest that quitting your job to become unemployed is not something to be attempted by the faint-hearted. Many think of doing it everyday but courage fails. Compromises made, dreams rest in peace, life goes on. But a lot of factors need be in your favor before you even think of something like that. Although age is not always a barrier but your chances of doing something crazy and outlandish diminish with your age. More so when you’re earning fat paycheck, are used to a particular lifestyle and have EMI clinging on your back. You can afford to be a little more whimsical when you’re young. In India, there exists a complex correlation between your perceived social stature and your job. So it doesn’t matter if you’re doing fine working as a part of a music band, but since you don’t have a proper ‘naukri’, probably your parents consider you  useless. You carry a stamp of  ‘berozgar’ and no parents, in their sane minds are going to offer ‘apni beti ka haath’ to you. Ahh.. the humanity!

More often people are not confident enough of doing something on their own. I think if only, people tried to push their limits and tested themselves on the edge, they’d be surprised to find what they’re capable of. I believe if I am not confident of my capability to earn my bread, then I ought to starve. If I can’t garner the skill of making money, I ought to go broke. Let the fittest survive.

If you’re one of those who has the odds in his favor and waiting for the right time, this  might help you. After all, you have only one life and you can be forgiven for wanting to do something crazy. As Isabel Allende tells, nice people with common-sense do not make interesting characters.

What I learnt from my corporate experience

My relatively small stint with the corporate world has been long enough to learn a lot about almost every aspect of how corporations work.

  • Working so far for large corporations, I have missed and yearned the opportunity to work at a startup. Although you learn well established industry practices, big corporations, by definition, have some inherent weaknesses.  The larger the company, the slower it becomes – both in adapting technology and organisation. Since, a small change in one part affects hundred others due to complex dependencies. Don’t miss an opportunity to work at a startup. You’ll enjoy it.
  • Although this is a personal choice, for me, its important to be passionate about whatever I am doing and the people around me are motivated all the same. If you’re are not excited about what you’re doing, you should probably reconsider what you’re doing.
  • People come first. Everything else is second. Learn to smile and talk nicely and you’ll find you can get things done faster. (Disclaimer: I am not good at this either)
  • Its important to have friends at work, whose company you enjoy. Its a must.
  • Changing long held practices/processes is difficult. If you see some things around you that need to be set right, get up and get working. Convince people. Fight, if you have to. Do not shrug and sit down.
  • Despite being a geek, I’ve surprisingly come to acknowledge the fact that technology never dictates the market, its always vice-versa. I cannot elaborate it here but this fact helps you big-time when you sit down to design solutions and products.

A few other things I’v learnt, Alex Gaynor  nails in his  post,-

Never be threatened: When people are threatened or scared, it affects their decision making. My solution to this has been to try to make myself unthreatenable. For example, I got through school by knowing that I was good enough at what I did that I could get a job without it, I avoid being threatened financially by saving effectively. I’ve found that this is more or less a necessary condition to being happy.

Be willing to walk away: This is probably an extension of the first one, but if you’re anything like me you make mistakes, a lot of them, with varying degrees of badness. The only way not to get bogged down by them is to be willing to walk away from them. This is not to advocate abandoning something or someone, but rather that there is no hole too deep, no sunk cost too great, to not be worth leaving.

The people are all that matter: I remember after a school trip a friend once told me that that he’d really loved where we’d been, and that he couldn’t wait to go back. And I remember telling him, “No, this place was boring as hell, but we went with our entire class, all our really good friends, of course it was awesome”. Just about everything worth doing is defined by the people you do it with, pick good ones.

The future

This is tricky. Being foolhardy doesn’t automatically guarantee success. But losers are not those who fought and lost but those who never fought for the fear of losing. I will continue to experiment. Keep throwing away things I built and start from scratch just to test that I am still capable of building something. If I had fun trying to solve interesting problems, worked with awesomest people, travelled the world and did everything I wanted to, I will consider myself successful even if I end up broke.

That was really long. Lets end this rant with one of my favourites -Raga Tilak Kamod

Boom, bubble and Cheap money

“Hey Yo!! hows it going dude? Gee!!! don’t you ever stop playing  with that….. thing of your’s??”

“Its not a THING. Its called iPhone. And No! I never stop playing with it. coz its so cool man!! But what the heck you know Mr. old-school?”

“Ya sure. So what are you doing?”

“Uploading some pics on Instagram.”

“Instant……. What?”

“You gotta be kidding me! You haven’t heard about Instagram?”

“Nope. What’s that?”

“Its this cool company man……. that’s been making so much buzz…… and everyone is talking about it……and Facebook just bought it for frigging one billion dollars maaan!!!  Isn’t it cool?”

“Hmm…..I see. What do they make?”

“They don’t make anything.”

“……OK. What do they sell?”

“They don’t sell anything.”

“…..OK. So how do they make money?”

“They don’t make money.”

“……….OK………. So what do they do?”

“They don’t…… Ugggh!! Gosh, you’re so old-fashioned and  soooo out of touch with the tech world !! Dude, you don’t have to sell anything to be cool.”

“……..I see…….. So what do they do?”

“Its a…….its an app. Its an iPhone app. You know, you can take pictures with your phone and  then …. make them look fancy and all …. and then you share it with everyone!! Isn’t it cool?”

“Sounds like I’ve heard that somewhere before………… Sounds like I’ve heard that ten times before.”

“Isn’t it cool?”

“That, I’ve heard ten times before. What was it? A billion dollars did you say?”

“Yeah!!! Frigging awesome rit?”

“So let me get this straight……Someone just bought a ……company….app…. which lets you share photos, for a billion dollars??”

“Dude your brain is sinking down your coffee. That’s exactly what I just told you!! And its not just someone who bought it. Its FACEBOOK who bought it!!”

“Facebook? the website where you watch pretty cat pictures and funny videos, rit?”

“Its not…. Ugh… forget it!”

“and thats the latest buzz in the tech world huh?”

“Yeah!!”

“I see….For a billion dollars, I just imagined they found a cure for cancer or something……or found another inhabitable planet to make some space over here or something………or found a cheap way to convert solar power to electricity or something……”

“But you can share photos with it. Isn’t it cool?”

“I don’t know if its cool but if you say that one more time, you’ll find a strange red mark on your face which will hurt badly. Anyways, I’m thrilled to know that the most cutting edge stuff happening in tech world today is ….. sharing photos.”

“Isn’t it……Ahem. You know, you should also read their blog of how these two guys had to struggle so much to build this amazing app. You know, it took them a whole two years of slogging and a whole bunch of 13 people to build that billion dollar company.”

“The last time I heard, it took decades of slogging to build a billion dollar company. Hmm…. but I imagine it wouldn’t take decades to write a stu..  amazing … phone app. Its like a………You started playing with it again.”

“I’m searching for some cool apps at the Appstore man. Hey look, this new app warns you when you’re about to fart in public. Isn’t it cool? I’m downloading it.”

“………..I’m gonna take a leak.”

The Goddess of small things

Recently, I watched a very obscure, old cult film. A weird nostalgic feeling creeped through me, although the film was from time when I was just 4. It was particularly interesting because the screenplay was written by Arundhati Roy and the 29-year-old herself  had acted in the film. Also featured was a very small appearance of the yet-unborn-king, Shahrukh Khan.

I was in junior college when I first read her popular novel “The God of small things”. I think I was too young back then to understand it completely. I have not been a huge fan of Arundhati Roy. Very few are. Her controversial statements and writings have not helped her popularity either. Listening to her interviews, one might get an impression that the lady has had to face multiple crisis in her personal life, which have had such profound effect on her psychology that she finds it utterly difficult to integrate herself with the mainstream society and make her peace with the world. Maybe not in the usual sense of the term, but some might even call her “anti-social”.

Her love of the Maoists and Naxalites, her resentment of the concept of Indian democracy, her abhorrence of the middle class, even her questioning of the Anna-Hazare movement; all seem very strange and she seems to be intent on getting herself on the wrong foot on every matter.

Not that I have not sympathized with her on any of the issues in the past, but after watching the film, I think I have a better understanding of her and where is she coming from when she says all those weird things. The film was inspired by her real life experiences during her time at the Architectural College, Delhi. She portrays a typical rebel adolescent, carrying a head full of radical thoughts, ready to change the world . It is as good as actually watching her when she was in college. Reckless and bizarre, young and radical, had I met her in college 30 years back, I think I would have probably married her. Her radical thoughts then, I must confess, are not much different from the way I think now. She seemed pained and moved by the prevalent social order, horrifying economic disparities and the cost paid by a large section of the underprivileged to make a comfortable lifestyle affordable for a fortunate few.

Its easy to think radically when you’re young. But there are very few who actually pursue their ideas, try to do their bit to change the world. And those are the ones I respect and admire. After her college, Arundhati never pursued her career in architecture. She gave it up to become a writer instead. The sad part is, in my opinion, over three decades she did little to change the situation, which had touched her so much, other than writing about it. By supporting open contempt for the middle class, she only served to widen the gap between the isolated sections and the society, instead of bridging it. By rejecting the current Indian democratic system completely instead of proposing to rectify its fallacies, she has failed to answer it with any alternate political order. She has turned herself into a fanatic and extremist. A fanatic cannot see clearly because he cannot think clearly. I have not heard her say it, but I think she certainly would favor a Proletariat dictatorship given her contempt for all the bourgeoisie of the world.

The appalling conditions of the underprivileged continue to remain as they were many decades ago. So do the horrifying economic and social disparities of the country. The isolated factions are very different and delicate problem. I plan to do my bit to change the world. Transform my ideas for the better. A writer I may become. But a fanatic? Probably not.

Free software Vs. Open software

For a long time, I believed that I understood what Free and open software meant. For many open source enthusiasts like me, they mean the same thing. I have attended numerous FOSS conferences and none has tried to draw any distinction between the two. Open source software is also commonly abbreviated as FOSS (Free and Open source software) which implies Free software == Open software. (Free here, of-course does not include “free-of-cost” software or Freeware, which are not-necessarily open)

It was only recently that I became aware of the differences between the Free software movement and the Open Source movement.  More startling discovery was the differences in philosophies of Richard Stallman (popularly called RMS) and Linus Torvalds. Stallman is undoubtedly the pioneer of the Free Software movement, which he started with the GNU project in 1983, and that was long before Linus thought of creating Linux in 1991. According to Stallman, the Linux project is largely misunderstood as the starting point of the free software movement and the folks associated are credited disproportionately compared to their contribution. It is quite true that the Linux project is considered the ultimate champion of the FOSS movement. It is also quite true that the GNU folks have not been given the credit that they deserve for their critical contribution; without which Linux would not have seen the light of the day.

Stallman explains his philosophy of free software with four essential freedom that  any software should offer

  • Freedom to run the program as you wish
  • Freedom to study the source code and change it
  • Freedom to copy and distribute the software
  • Freedom to copy and distribute the modified software

Stallman insists the Linux operating system should be called GNU/Linux. This is because GNU was the original project started with the aim of creating a free operating system and later merged with Linux since the only thing it lacked was a kernel; the gap was fulfilled by Linux. According to Stallman, the Torvalds camp has a more  liberal approach to the use of proprietary software and they do not consider the issue at a moral level.

I highly admire Stallman for his contributions to the world. But indeed, I think his philosophies are radical and extreme. On the death of Steve Jobs, Stallman said that he was happy for the occasion. For all the differences of philosophies that Jobs and Stallman had, that statement was a bit over the edge.

Finally, according to Stallman, free software doesn’t have to be free in the monetary sense of the term. It means it is fine if you have to pay for a copy of the software. Hmmm…. interesting.

So, what does all this mean anyway? Honestly I don’t understand Stallman’s idea of freedom and how is it any different from the Linux camp. But lets give it a try.

All the four freedoms enumerated by Stallman, are embodied in GPL. He carefully drafted the GPL to reflect them. Thus every GPL software, including Linux, should be no different from Stallman’s definition of free software. Stallman is fine if you have to pay for a copy of the software. So free software doesn’t actually have to be free. So how is it any different from proprietary software? Perhaps because you have access to source code. The next logical question is what happens when you modify the source code.  Freedom no. 4 in the list allows you distribute copies of the modified code. That statement is actually misleading because its not so much of a freedom but rather an obligation that you have to fulfill if you were to comply with GPL. It stems from Freedom no. 2 that all software should be available with the source code. That doesn’t sound much of a freedom. [Note: Lesser GPL (LGPL) allows you keep your modification to the source proprietary]

I am aware that some companies have indeed used evil means of locking up users in digital handcuffs in the past or are still using, including Apple and Microsoft. There was a furor about some features of iPhone which tracked the user location. It is definitely a concern and one can only wonder what other user information could Apple access with the iPhone. This is the moral aspect of using proprietary software that Stallman talks about and is indeed a valid argument.

I don’t even want to analyse the economic implications of having to pay for a copy of FOSS software. I am not aware of the existence of any software which is licensed under GPL, for which you have to pay.

This is what I firmly believe - Having access to the source code and being able to contribute back to the community helps in developing great quality software. It is definitely a contribution to the betterment of humanity. Period. Those are pretty much all  the implication of FOSS. There is no reason why all the software ever written on the planet should be free or open and there is no reason why a person should not try to reap the benefits of his Intellectual property. Moral issues relating to individual privacy and freedom are to be dealt separately and viewed separately.