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Friday, October 27, 2006

Innovative Solutions for preventing Piracy

A few days ago, I was able to download all tracks from Pakistani band Call's debut album Jilawatan, and have been listening to these over and over again since then. I like some of these more than the others and, obviously, listen to my favourite tracks even more often.

The last time I was so enthused by a musical, was when I listened to Rabbi Shergill's eponymous debut album (titled: Rabbi), after a friend had very kindly led me to a website where I could download the relevant mp3 files. Besides, I have been collecting Qawwalis by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for some time now and my Rock collection prominently features the Irish band U2.

In fact, apart from the 'Tibetan Incantations' compact disc I picked up on a recent trip to Nepal, I can not seem to remember the last time when I purchased a music cassette or a CD. I believe it has been at least 5 years, if not more. God bless the folks that invented the mp3 and similar digital formats and those who provide the files online, for me and the rest of the world to download!

There are brief interruptions, of course, when a Napster or a Kazaa becomes a paid service, but alternatives are available soon enough and one can always find a way to download, without having to pay anything in addition to the cost of internet access, music albums or movies of one's choice.

Like in the case of Rabbi and 'Call', sometimes I do feel the urge to purchase a music album, just because I like the artistes' work so much that I want to support and encourage them. However, meditation has helped me learn to exercise self-control and self-restraint. So, I am mostly able to overcome the urge, unless it appears too difficult to be able to locate and download the music for free off the internet, which, as mentioned before, has happened only once in the past five years.

I am sure there are many others like me in the whole ding-dong world.

It is not as if a good artiste/band will not be successful on account of this, as is evident from the album sales of those that I have mentioned, but they definitely do end up losing a lot in terms of potential revenues.

The orthodox or conventional approach has been to locate websites that offer free downloads, file copyright violation suites against them and to force them to pay up. This leads them to being faced with two options, either to close down the service or to offer downloads, but not for free. Most service providers, when caught in such a bind, choose the latter option.

The way the internet has evolved though, new P2P (Peer-to-Peer) networks offering free downloads always spring up when existing ones are caught out.

I believe the artistes and the music companies should look for some out-of-the-box solutions rather than means to herald the end of the free-download era.

For instance, they could offer high-quality downloads, for free, on their own websites. Revenues could be generated by inserting 10-second long advertisement-jingles in the mp3's (or files of a similar digital format) before or after the piece of music that a user wishes to download, in addition to the advertisements displayed on the site.

I am sure they could earn a lot more in this manner, rather than selling music downloads online.

Similarly, movie files offered for download on the producers' own websites could contain full-length commercials.

If you can not beat them, as they say, join them!

Friday, October 20, 2006

A few stray thoughts, on the eve of Diwali...

Yesterday morning, I noticed that the front page of The Tribune carried a photograph of the Prime Minister (who also happens to be the Chairperson of the National Planning Commission) along with the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and the accompanying news item mentioned that the next five-year plan is to aim at achieving 10% annual growth for the Indian economy. According to it, the growth should bring in its wake a whole lot of new employment opportunities.

Well, the learned men that they are, they must know what they are talking about, I thought.

Later in the day, however, as I watched a news channel on television, a couple of stories presented an interesting set of facts. The first was about the ostentation that those with money to spare indulge in, during festivals, while 69% of India's population still lives under the Poverty Line and the second detailed the conditions prevailing in the Vidharba region of the state of Maharastra, where impoverished farmers continue to resort to suicide, as crops continue to fail for the third year in succession. What the erudite staff of the news channel did not mention and what I am yet to find out are the reasons on account of which crop-failure has been occuring consistently for so long. They did mention that there were floods in region, in the past year, but provided no useful information regarding conditions prevailing in the preceding two years. In any case, that is besides the point.

What I do not understand is whether the so-called 'rapid economic growth' will provide succour to any of these citizens who comprise 69% of the populace or whether the benefits will largely go to those employed in or those who have invested in the Information Technology (IT) and IT Enabled Services industries, besides others like Retail, Pharmaceuticals, Automobiles and those producing goods of conspicuous consumption perhaps.

As far as I know, the economy is said to be undergoing 'explosive growth' even at present and yet, people continue to struggle to make both ends meet.

By the way, is India actually going to achieve a 10% annual rate of economic growth anytime in the near future and if it does, is that going to be sustainable for a reasonable length of time?

I believe the recent increases in the growth rate have been fueled mainly by the services sector. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, except that healthy economies generally have a well developed manufacturing sector and therefore good basic infrastructure, before that happens. However, the Indian economy, which used to be mainly agrarian until not so long ago, witnessed only a few years of increased contributions by manufacturing before services took over. So, it almost 'jumped' from being an agrarian economy to one with services being the largest contributor to its growth.

The services sector has prospered mainly because of the outsourcing of services from Europe (primarily the UK) and North America, where India has an advantage on account of a vast pool of workers who have reasonably good English comprehension skills and who are willing to work for a fraction of the wages that workers charge in the West.

The basic infrastrucure is still rather poor and the manufacturing sector, as mentioned before, has not developed to the extent that it should have, in order to attain a stable rate of economic growth. This, in turn, leaves the economy far more vulnerable to global economic cycles than it otherwise would have been.

Besides, I am not sure if those who draw projections of growth based on the present scenario consider the effect that competition from countries such as China is likely to have on the outsourcing business, in the coming five to ten years. I hear China has been concentrating big-time on building up an English-speaking work-force on a scale that is unimaginable for those who do not know much about any of this. Once that happens, I doubt if India could ever match the kind of costs and the quality of work-force offered by China. Incidentally, this is also likely to apply to the 'Knowledge Process Outsourcing' industry, which, presently, is being touted as "The next big thing!". If the 'basic-graduate' manning the Chinese call centre will speak English, then so will the Chinese engineer, the doctor, the programmer, the financial analyst, the equity analyst and the market analyst!

Not to be underestimated either are the countries like the Philippines, Pakistan and the African countries where English is taught at school and college. These are, in fact, already making substantial progress in the outsourcing arena.

To top it all, the government is now 'committed' to increasing the quantum of reservations for 'backward castes', even in admissions to highly technical courses of study. This is more than likely to play havoc with the level of competence of the work-force.

I do not know what big-shots in the government and in industry are going to do about any of this. I can not, however, seem to put out of my mind the images of two young sons of a farmer in Vidarbha, whom the farmer now uses to plough his fields, after the death of his oxen.

Well, perhaps there still is hope. Growth of industries like Automobiles should enhance the demand for raw material like Iron and Steel and two large-scale Steel projects involving global majors have already been announced in the recent past. Hopefully, progress in basic industries like these should promote the development of basic infrastructure and, therefore, sustainable economic development.

As the lyrics of a song by the popular Indian band 'Euphoria' go:

Chhota jee na kareeN...aiNwaiN tu na dareeN...Sohnya!

(It is difficult for me to attempt a precise translation, but it is something to the effect of "Don't worry, be happy!")

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Arms and the Man

It has been nearly three years now.

I received an email from Ra (An abbreviated form of the name 'Rahul' and no relation whatsoever to the Egyptian Sun-God, who goes by the same name) on Monday, the 22nd of December, 2003, inviting me to spend the next week in 'a pollution-less valley' watching/participating in a National Shooting Competition (which turned out to be a 'North India Shooting Competition'), besides lazing about, in general.

The pollution-free valley that he mentioned is the Doon-valley and the competition was to be held at a shooting-range owned by a former international-level pistol shooting champion, at a village called Pondha (near Dehradun, which is the capital of the state of Uttaranchal).

Hiking and camping were also mentioned but, as we were to discover later, there was no hiking trip being organised and friends arranged accomodation for us that was much preferrable to the camping facilities being provided near the range.

Since I was unemployed at that time (as I am now, though there has been a rather longish interlude of employment, in between) and had some cash in the bank, I decided to accept the invitation as I thought it would be a good change from sleeping and eating and not doing anything more exciting than getting on my Ma's nerves at home. Well, what to do? I keep flitting in and out of the state of being employed, since I left the last institution (educational, of course, what did you think?). However, that is besides the point.

Anyway, off I went to Ra's place in Delhi and even had the honour of being received by the great man (he weighed more than 90 kilos at that point of time!) at the bus-stop. It was also the first opportunity I had of physically examining Ra's Beretta 418. Quite a nifty little piece of work it is, I must say.

Then, we travelled together to Chandigarh, where his parents were based. A couple of days were spent there with me doing little except watching Ra playing video games and consuming alchohol along side (He is a very 'spirited' player, you see!). However, it was a pleasure meeting his family members, especially his parents and the black labrador named Badshah (emperor), besides digging into the sumptuous fare that Ra's cook rustled up for us. Interestingly enough, Badshah almost instantly took a liking to me, though we had met for the first time ('Opposites attract' or 'Two of a kind', well, it is diffcult for me to say...).

From there we moved on to Saharanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where we were at the receiving end of loads of hospitality and affection from Ra's old friend Sahil and his parents, at whose place we stayed the night. I was also introduced to other friends of Ra's and Sahil's and had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the mehmaan-nawaazi (the traditional North-Indian concept of hospitality) that has, by and large, disappeared in the materialistic world of today. For instance, when I took out my wallet to pay for the seekh-kabaabs that Ra and I had consumed that evening, at a stall near the residence of some relatives of one of the friends i.e. Mohsin bhai, the vendor took offence and told me to put the wallet back in my pocket. He could not accept payment from a mehmaan (guest)!

The next morning we travelled to Dehradun in a couple of Maruti Gypsy King 4x4s owned by two of Sahil's friends, Akmal and Sanjeev. The travelling party also included two of Akmal bhai's cousins, Talha and Salman, as well as a nephew of Sanjeev bhai's. By the by, I came to know and like all of them. They were all there to participate in the competition, of course, being well-accomplished shooters.

The trip took on a special meaning for me, however, when I had the chance to use a firearm for the first time in my life.

No, I did not participate in the competition, but Sahil bhai somehow managed to arrange for me to fire a few practice shots with a double-barelled, 12-gauge shotgun, borrowed from a friend. I was to fire a couple of shots at each clay-bird, with the gun that had an over/under configuration i.e. one barrel under the other, like most sporting shotguns in use nowadays. Ra procured five 'birds' and the ten cartridges that I would need to fire at the clay discs.

Now, I had held my maternal grandfather's revolver (.36 bore, I believe) and my paternal grandfather's 12-gauge shotgun in my hands several times, but never had the chance to discharge either of these weapons. Firing with the gun pointing straight upwards is not my idea of fun and memberships of shooting-ranges, most of which are still controlled by the government, are hard to come by.

Also, I had been too lazy to attend marching practice that being a part of the National Cadet Corps would have entailed, at college.

The only prior experience I could draw upon was that of shooting from a friend's .22 air-rifle. In any case, I was determined not to look like a first-timer and a dislocated shoulder would have been a dead giveaway. So, I confidently put one foot in front of the other and held the loaded gun that the instructor handed me, tightly against my shoulder. When I was ready and shouted "Pull!", the fellow sitting in a bunker about 10-15 metres ahead of where I stood, released a bird from one of the three machines that are meant to send the bird flying at different angles, as per the rules of 'trap shooting'.

I kept following the flight path of the bird with one of my eyes (having closed the other one) and moved the gun along my line of sight, as I continued to squeeze the trigger ('Pulling' the trigger would, in fact, make it more difficult to hit the target, even though the popular form of expression remains 'to pull the trigger'.).

Then, it happened. KA-BOOM!

As the first shot was fired and as I continued to peer over the barrel, the tip rose a few inches on account of the recoil and, as my entire body became a part of the same 'system' as the gun and acted as a spring, returned to its original position within a second or two. I continued trying to follow the bird's flight path and squeezing the trigger and soon the second barrel went off as well.

The photograph above was taken by Ra and shows the instructor and I, soon after I had fired the first two shots and had lowered the gun. The old man was telling me that I was firing along the correct line, but needed a lot more of practice.

I hardly managed to clip the wings of one or two of the birds that I shot at, but the whole experience, including the smell of the cordite, was a very heady one indeed!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

'Call'-ing Rock Fans...

The television set has conked out. My brother turned it off when he saw me dozing off, while watching it last night and now I can not seem to turn it on at all. If this does not get sorted out through repairs or replacements that are covered by the warranty, which has fortunately not run out as yet, I am going to be back to the pre-television era for an indefinite period (i.e. until I find a source of employment).

While I ruminate on all this and even as a return to the dark ages appears imminent, I reminisce about the sights and sounds that have reached me through what some refer to as the 'idiot box' and what has been my window to the world on long insomnia-filled nights over the past few months.

Even though I have been flipping through a lot of channels to escape the omni-channel-present commercial breaks, I have been watching quite a lot of music videos on MTV India. It is quite a treat to watch these at night as my tastes seem to vary quite a bit from the general public in India, on whose demand more of songs from the latest Hindi movies are aired than anything else, during the day time, on this channel.

Among the new arrivals on the musical scene in the sub-continent, two have been of particular interest to me. One is the Pakistani rock-band that call themselves, well, 'Call', and the other is an Indian artiste called Sidharth.

The Indian artiste's single called 'Panch Tatva' (the five elements) that is often on air has beautiful lyrics that say something to the effect that all human beings are made of the five elements and therefore, there should be no cause for strife amongst them. The video is also rather nice and shows the artiste walking on a beach, while singing the song. I am glad that some among Indian Rock- and Pop-stars still have the confidence to create a music video that does not have any semi-nude female models gyrating in the back-ground.

As for 'Call', they make good rock-music and can even conjure up some passionate songs in the galaa-phaad style (singing as if they aim to cause their throats to be torn apart!), a la Bon Jovi and Aerosmith or perhaps even AC/DC. Out of the three odd music videos from their album Jilawatan that are on air these days, Shayad is the one I like the most. It is a lovely song and has a strong social message as well.

What I do not comprehend though is the reason for choosing the name that the band-members have chosen for the band. I am sure they could have come up with a better one that would be more apt and do more justice to their talent.

They said in an interview that they chose it because 'Call' is the English translation of the Urdu word Pukaar. I would vote for the Urdu version any day!