Saturday, March 31, 2007

Counting chickens

I'm late to realise this, I admit. But this article from rediff, dated March 5, just passed on to me by my brother, makes hilarious reading.

Apparently, when the ICC's world cup schedule said "B2 plays D1 on April 15", this did not mean anything as naive as "the second-placed team in group B plays the top-placed team in group D". Instead, it meant -- or was supposed to mean -- "India plays Pakistan". No matter in what order they finished the group games.

You see, the ICC (did I just recently call them sordid and money-grubbing, even before I knew about this particular scheme of genius?) realised that it would be so much better for TV audiences to schedule that match on a Sunday. (Similarly, to schedule India-Australia and India-SA for Saturdays.) So they came up with the following bright idea: B2 is not the team that finishes second in group 2, but the team in group 2 that, of the two qualifying teams, was ranked lower before the tournament started. Makes sense, right?

To quote that rediff article: "Neat. This way, no way will a surprise result upset the television applecart."

Almost no way.

But now that the applecart has been (multiply) upset, it appears that the ICC has abandoned this idea of D1 being the "pre-tournament higher-ranked team": D1 is now Ireland, and the sellout match on April 15 is Bangladesh-Ireland. At least the ICC does its bit to encourage the minnows.

Monday, March 26, 2007

ICC and YouTube

If there is one organisation more sordid and money-grubbing than the BCCI, it's the ICC. Today's news is that they are ordering YouTube to take down clips of the cricket world cup. YouTube is complying: under US law (specifically, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) they are bound to.

The DMCA is one of the most loathed pieces of legislation in recent years. It is why I cannot legally play a legally-purchased DVD on my Linux computer in the US, and why a manufacturer cannot legally sell me a "region-free" DVD player in the US, capable of playing movies bought in Europe or Asia.

But in this case, it has a flip side. Recognising that content-hosting companies like YouTube cannot be held responsible for every piece of material users post on them, it does not hold them liable for infringement in pirated clips -- as long as they promptly honour requests to take such clips down.

But what if the clips aren't really infringing -- for example, what if they are "fair use"? In that case, the DMCA stipulates that the person who posted the clip may file a counter-notification stating that it is fair use. Then YouTube is free to put the clip back up, and any further litigation must be between the copyright owner and the user who put the clip up.

Moreover, misrepresentation by a copyright owner of the status of such content is liable for damages. Recently Viacom (the parent company of Comedy Central, MTV and others), who have sent many take-down notices and have even sued YouTube/Google, have themselves been sued under the misrepresentation provision by, over parody clips that they demanded taken down. MoveOn claims that Viacom "should have known" that these were fair use, and thus misrepresented their copyright status.

Back to the ICC case. (WARNING - I am not a lawyer and not based in the US. If you want to do anything along the following lines, consult a lawyer.) It seems to me that posting long excerpts of matches would be a copyright violation, but posting short clips (such as a single delivery) ought to be "fair use". So, if someone who posted a clip cares, they can file a counter-notification, which costs nothing unless the ICC decides to take it up. And if someone really cares, and believes that the ICC "should have known" that short clips are fair use, they can follow MoveOn's lead in suing the ICC.

I don't suppose anyone will think it's worth the trouble though. What's happening, and is likely to continue happening (as with Viacom), is that new clips are being put up faster than the old ones are being taken down. The ICC will just have to spend a lot of time sending takedown notices.

Google, don't be evil; leave that to blogger

This comment on dcubed, by someone apparently replying to himself, flummoxed me momentarily: "Can you please stop using my id. I thought you had stopped after my last appeal, but you have showed up agin."

Had this poster given out his password to an unpleasant character? Why didn't he just change it? Or is blogger trivially crackable? Can I log in as anyone I like?

Then I realised that while I can't do that, I can impersonate anyone I like, and the results are indistinguishable from genuine comments. (I'm not telling how, but it's trivial.) While one can forge email headers, the results can be detected by the savvy; here, there seems no way to do so, unless one has access to Google's internal logs. There seems, also, no way to disable this "feature", short of disabling anonymous comments totally.

Blogger sucks. It sucks in many, many ways (one of these days I shall count the ways), but this one is the most egregious I've seen so far.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Translation with a clamp on its jaws

Here's an interesting article (spotted on kitabkhana) on Vladimir Nabokov as a translator. Nabokov, of course, was a rare example of an eminent writer in two languages, Russian and English (and achieved greater fame in English, which was not his native tongue), and translated several of his own works. There are two schools of translation, the literal style and the free style. A literal translation often sounds absurd, because the nuances of each language are different. A free translation, that seeks to convey nuances rather than literal meanings, is criticised for not being what the original author intended. The article discusses Nabokov's efforts in both styles: he translated "Alice in Wonderland" freely, his motive being to convey to a Russian child the same sort of light-hearted absurdity that an English child would read in the original, while he translated "Eugene Onegin" literally, sacrificing metre and structure in the verse for literal meaning (which was liberally footnoted for the benefit of non-Russians who would not get the nuances).

With "Alice", a major difficulty is translating the wordplay and verbal humour. Nabokov didn't even try, for the most part -- he replaced the parodic poems ("Father William", "'Tis the voice of the sluggard", etc) with his own parodies of Russian poems. (Incidentally, the original versions of these preachy English poems have long since been forgotten in favour of Carroll's versions -- so an English-speaking child today does not get the same flavour of the book that Carroll's original audience got. Much of the wordplay, too, may be lost on the non-English: Martin Gardner's "The Annotated Alice" is a useful guide to many hidden gems in the book.) In contrast, with "Eugene Onegin", Nabokov was probably writing for scholars (according to the article), and preferred a literalist translation.

The description of Nabokov's "Alice" reminds me of a translation I'm much more familiar with: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge's English versions of Goscinny and Uderzo's "Asterix". I read the English versions extensively as a child, but read some of the French originals only as an adult. (My French is certainly not good enough to "get" everything, but this site was a big help.) It is interesting how the translations differ from the originals: again, individual jokes, and sometimes entire themes (like the jokes on the Arvernian/Auvergnian accent in "The Chieftain's Shield") are replaced in translation. This article by Bell goes into more details. The most striking example is "Asterix in Britain", where she and Hockridge discussed the matter with Goscinny (who spoke excellent English); he paid them the ultimate compliment of saying he wished he'd thought of some of their jokes himself.

But what about "serious" literature? A literal translation may have unintended consequences: turns of phrase that seem natural in one language seem odd in the other. When I read translations of Jorge Luis Borges, for example, I wonder whether a phrase like "innumerable contrition" or "the unanimous night" is an odd-sounding literal translation of something natural-sounding in Spanish, or a literal translation that sounds just as strange in Spanish, or a free translation that evokes the flavour of the original.

Stanislaw Lem's "Cyberiad", translated by Michael Kandel, contains some astonishing poems such as "Love and Tensor Algebra" ("Cancel me not - for what then shall remain? / Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes, / A root or two, a torus and a node: / The inverse of my verse, a null domain.")
Surely these can't be literal translations.

For the most part, I prefer free translations, especially with poetry but also with prose. It seems to me that literal translations require scholarliness, while free translations require artistry; and the artistry pays off.

Here is one example where, knowing the free translation, I went looking for a literal one and was severely disappointed. The poem is Federico Garcia Lorca's "Little Viennese Waltz", a literal translation by Greg Simon and Steven White is here, and a free translation by Leonard Cohen here. Here are the first stanzas.

Literal (Simon and White):
In Vienna there are ten little girls,
a shoulder for death to cry on,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of tomorrow
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.
Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this close-mouthed waltz.

Free (Cohen):
Now in Vienna there's ten pretty women
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

The literal translation says nothing to me. However, clearly the Spanish original spoke to Cohen, and Cohen's version speaks to me (sort of -- I still don't really understand it but I like the imagery). So Cohen did his job correctly, as far as I'm concerned. He recorded it in 1988 on his album "I'm your man"; an audio excerpt is in the link above and also on Amazon's page.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


In a Dorothy L. Sayers novel that I re-read recently, "Murder must advertise", a spectator at a cricket match is all excited about an opposing batsman (whom he recognises, from his "exceedingly characteristic late-cut" that he remembers from twenty years earlier, as Lord Peter Wimsey of Balliol College). When someone commiserates with the spectator about his team losing, he is dismissive about his own team, saying (I quote from memory): "I want to see cricket played, not tiddlywinks."

Are Indians actually cricket lovers, or tiddlywinks lovers? We like to see India win, that's all. There is no particular interest in seeing good performances in neutral games, let alone in the opposition against India. I predict that the viewership for the cricket world cup in India will now be less than for last year's football world cup. (Always assuming that Bangladesh don't contrive to lose to Bermuda and allow India to sneak through.) And there is not even the slightest interest in domestic tournaments like the Ranji Trophy. So the supposed passion for cricket, and the associated marketing power and financial clout, are all a sham. The masses have been brainwashed by the advertisers, playing on misplaced instincts of patriotism.

Sambit Bal wrote a few days ago that "Cricket needs a reality check. It has an unhealthy, and unsustainable, business model that relies primarily on an increasingly delusional and one-dimensional fan-base. The bubble has to burst for a semblance of sanity to be restored." Welcome to the reality check.

I'm cynical about professional sports in general. I grew up watching the Soviet bloc (particularly the East Germans) sweep the Olympic medals; it turns out they all did it on performance-enhancing drugs. (For a long time the Olympics pretended to be amateur, but they gave up that charade a while ago.) The western countries do it too: The Tour de France has been mired in scandal. And even players who don't abuse their bodies with drugs suffer lifelong stress injuries. Our top tennis player, Sania Mirza, seems to be injured all the time. What is sport about? Achievement and human spirit? No, professional sport is about the money, and screw one's own long-term health and fitness, never mind such minor considerations as ethics and morality.

And -- to get back to cricket -- the money-driven nature of the game has a very ugly side that we have all preferred to ignore: even after the match-fixing scandal we pretended that the problem was solved with Cronje, Malik and Azharuddin out of the game. The murder of a coach means we can't ignore it anymore. Hopefully the early world cup exit of the money-making powerhouse will restore some sanity to the whole thing.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Not cricket

While I'm still not excited about the cricket, the aftermath of the Pakistan-Ireland match I mentioned in my last post was beyond anything one could have imagined. Poor Bob. Sympathies to his family. Hopefully it was random Jamaica violence and not cricket-related, but that would seem too odd a coincidence. I wonder who will next volunteer to coach Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Gavaskar finally apologised this week for speaking ill of a dead man. Will that stop him shooting his mouth off again? The spat also earned him a veiled swipe from Sobers, who is presumably one of the gentlemanly West Indians that he was talking about.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


As I type, India is 162/9 against Bangladesh, and Pakistan is 100/6 against Ireland. And I don't care.

I always thought I was a cricket fan and not a football fan, but I enjoyed last year's football World Cup and I find it difficult to give a toss about the ongoing cricket cup. It doesn't help that my two least favourite teams are the top two seeds and ranked far ahead of everyone else.

If they do meet in the final, I hope Ricky Ponting head-butts Andre Nel at a crucial stage because Nel insulted Ponting's sister. That may redeem things a bit.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A cheaper blackberry

BlackBerries seem everywhere now. They're an oversized mobile phone, that AirTel introduced some time back, and Hutch is now advertising them too. Rediff is currently singing their praises. Their main selling point seems to be that they let you access your email and the web. Your email provider needs to support it, or you need to use the email service of your phone provider. And the machine is unwieldy and expensive.

Lately I've been using a much cheaper solution, which only requires that your provider supplies GPRS (Airtel does, at Rs 20/day or 375/month, unlimited use) and that your phone supports GPRS and Java (many phones under Rs 5000 now do). For web browsing, I use Opera Mini. It's a really clever solution to the problem of browsing standard webpages on a small phone: it pipes your requests via Opera's dedicated servers, which reformat and compress the webpage to make it mobile-friendly, and shrink the images. For email, I forward my mail to a gmail account and use Google's GMail app (point your phone to -- for some reason with a computer-based browser it doesn't show the same page). You could also use any other webmail via Opera Mini, but that's a bit unwieldy, and the GMail app is as easy as SMS. Really.

And as a bonus, I can even dial-up from my laptop, via bluetooth, if I want to. So basically I can get my laptop online, wherever there's a cell phone signal, for Rs 20 a day. Typically I get 30-40 kilobits/s (4-5 kilobytes/sec), comparable to dial-up: not great but gets the job done when I'm travelling. (For web browsing, Opera Mini generally feels faster, because of the compression. For email the GMail app feels faster, probably because it's stripped down. But in both cases the laptop's big screen and keyboard are nicer, plus I can do other things, like ssh to my work machine.)

Scott Adams boasted the other day of how he one-upped a friend who insisted that drains swirl the other way in the summer hemisphere, allegedly because of the Coriolis force: he whipped out his BlackBerry and looked it up on Just for fun, I tried opening Opera Mini and typing "coriolis snopes" into the Yahoo searchbar, and got the page in seconds.

Unlimited data transfer costs Rs 900 a month on the BlackBerry (according to the above rediff article) and Rs 375 on Airtel GPRS. I would hope the BlackBerry offers a better speed (EDGE?) for the money. On the other hand, I've been unable to find out whether you can use one as a modem and connect your computer, as I can with GPRS.

With all this, and with the small form factor of my current phone, I wonder why I would pay four times more for a BlackBerry. Any BlackBerry fans out there to enlighten me?

Another Millennium problem down?

After Grigori Perelman's proof of the Poincaré conjecture and Penny Smith's failed attempt at the Navier-Stokes equation comes another claim that a Millennium problem of the Clay Mathematics Institute has been solved. This time it's the Riemann hypothesis -- and it's a disproof.

Here is the arxiv submission by Tribikram Pati, a respected mathematician from Allahabad. I certainly can't evaluate the paper, but from what I have heard of the author, this must be at least a very serious attempt. According to the Clay Institute rules, even if Prof Pati's attempt is correct, it will need to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and then evaluated by the community over two years (so Perelman, too, needs to wait -- if he's interested at all.)

The Riemann hypothesis was also one of David Hilbert's problems for the twentieth century, and the only one to appear both on his list and on the Clay Institute's.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lock him away in agony

Here's the latest from the Florida Supreme Court. Not Bush-vs-Gore stuff, just a matter of humanity.

Florida's Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from Richard Paey, a wheelchair-using father of three who is currently serving a 25-year mandatory prison sentence for taking his own pain medication... Richard Paey-- who suffers both multiple sclerosis and from the aftermath of a disastrous and barbaric back surgery that resulted in multiple major malpractice judgments--now receives virtually twice as much morphine in prison than the equivalent in opioid medications for which he was convicted of forging prescriptions. He had previously been given legitimate prescriptions for the same doses of pain medicine-- but made the mistake of moving to Florida from New Jersey, where he could not find a physician to treat his pain adequately. Each of his medical conditions alone can produce agony. Paey has described his pain as constantly feeling like his legs had been "dipped into a furnace."

The Ivy-league educated attorney has no prior criminal convictions and weeks of surveillance by narcotics agents did not find him selling the medications....

In a jeremiad of a dissent, Judge James Seals called the sentence "illogical, absurd, unjust and unconstitutional," noting that Paey "could conceivably go to prison for a longer stretch for peacefully but unlawfully purchasing 100 oxycodone pills from a pharmacist than had he robbed the pharmacist at knife point, stolen fifty oxycodone pills which he intended to sell to children waiting outside, and then stabbed the pharmacist." But the Florida Supreme Court disagreed...

(I previously posted about US incarceration rates here.)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Tata, bye bye?

The BBC recently had an article on the Tatas and how they are a "model of good behaviour". Sudha Murthy has told the story of how she got a Tata job. Labour unions respected the Tatas: Naval Tata was nominated to represent India's textile industry at the ILO, and later joined the governing body. Many others have sung the praises of Tata. Indeed, it is hard to think of a firm anywhere in the world that is so pervasive and yet so respected. They were the original "don't be evil" company, long before Google. But are they losing it now?

One of the widely praised things Ratan Tata did after taking over the company was to concentrate on its core efforts, getting rid of many unimportant units of the company such as soap, electronics and so on. But I wonder how successful their forays in their "core" businesses really are, and more importantly, where it leaves their image.

Take Tata Motors, formerly Telco. The Indica won praise for its good looks when it was launched, but quickly faced disappointment for its quality. Not to worry, they launched the new, improved Indica V2. But even today the Indica is earning mixed reviews. The diesel version has proved popular, because of the lack of diesel options on the market -- but with the new Maruti Swift, the relaunched Fiat Palio, and the upcoming Hyundai Getz, that could change. In particular, a lot of Indica taxis have been sold. But this could be a mixed blessing: cars that become associated with taxis -- the Ambassador in our country, the Ford Crown Victoria in the US -- tend to lose appeal among the general public. And I've encountered taxi drivers who aren't overjoyed with the machine either: it's better than the Ambassador, but much more expensive to maintain. As for the good looks -- personally I've grown a bit tired of them (perhaps the taxis are to blame). I much prefer the Fiat Palio (designed by the same Italian firm).

Now they want to launch a small car costing Rs 1 lakh, but the proposed plant in Singur, West Bengal, is mired in trouble with locals -- precisely the sort of trouble that the Tatas have never been associated with in their history.

Take their telecom division, Tata Indicom, including what used to be VSNL. Their mobile phone service doesn't seem very popular. I don't know any users, so don't know what the service is like. The lock-in associated with CDMA is unappealing, though. I use their fixed wireless service, and I have only one complaint about the phone service -- you can't dial "special" numbers, the ones that start with 1, even though I can dial them from my Airtel mobile. But the bundled modem-based internet service, that they advertise as "high speed", is usually much slower than dial-up on a land line (or GPRS on my mobile), and is extremely expensive besides. And as for their broadband service -- I haven't used it, but the forums on the net that I've seen are extremely critical.

Recently I've been seeing advertisements for Tata Indicom Broadband that say "unlimited high-speed internet for just 50p an hour". If you look at the details, what they're offering at that price is a 64 kilobit/s connection. That is not high-speed by any definition, and this sort of deceptive advertising will not earn them goodwill. Dialup often does better than that (upto 112 kilobit/s if you're lucky). TRAI has declared that services advertised as "broadband" must be at least 256 kbit/s, but apparently it's ok to call it "high-speed" and advertise it on a "broadband" site. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved to much higher speeds, at far lower prices.

Last year my wife and I purchased travel insurance, for a couple of weeks, from Tata-AIG. Our reward was an incessant flow of marketing calls, despite repeated requests, polite and rude, on the phone and by email, to take us off their list. By contrast, my car insurance company -- HDFC-Chubb -- has never called me except to remind me about renewal, which has been quick and efficient. That makes me more likely to go to them next time for other needs.

Personally, my image of the Tata group is already a lot less positive than it used to be. It's certainly not a name I can trust blindly, and wouldn't be my first-choice provider in any of the above businesses, or many others. If a significant number of other Indians think so too, the Tatas are in trouble.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Fire, by who?

In the past I have posted on Anjani and Madeleine Peyroux, who have recorded wonderful jazz interpretations of Leonard Cohen and, in Peyroux's case, other singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and others. Likewise, Cassandra Wilson has jazzified rock musicians from Neil Young to U2. And, decades ago, Ella Fitzgerald recorded The Beatles.

It seems regrettable to me that the original artists did not directly experiment with jazz forms. Joni Mitchell was an exception: she went through a jazz phase in the late 1970s, recording with Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, and others. More jazz-rock than jazz, but still. When it works, it's brilliant.

Cohen, on the other hand, avoided jazz, and liked to police his musicians against jazz intrusions... or did he?

Here's an astounding video of Cohen and Sonny Rollins playing "Who by fire" (spotted on HuffPo). It made my day. I wonder if more such exist.

Update: fixed jazz police link

Captcha peeve

Why do most blogs out there use "captchas" (the verification routine where you have to type in the letters/numbers in an image) before letting you post?

Presumably it's to stop automated spam. But I've had this blog for six months now, and while it's no DailyKos, the readership seems surprisingly large to me. I haven't enabled captchas, and I've never had automated spam comments. (On rare occasions I've had offtopic spam, but it didn't seem like they were automated, and they're hardly frequent enough to matter.) So is the captcha annoyance really necessary?

Right now, blogger's captcha seems broken -- instead of a "verification image" I get the helpful text "Visual verification", and apparently I'm supposed to guess what the image says before typing in a comment on a blog that uses captchas. So that blog owner is deprived, at the moment, not just of my profound insights, but of everyone else's as well.

And even when the captcha works, I only ever bother to type it in when it's a blog I find truly interesting. I'm sure I'm not alone.

Please, let's get rid of the captchas.