• On creativity: improvisation and memorisation in epic poetry

    One of the conundrums of ancient epic poetry, both the Indian and the Greek varieties, is the question of how they came to assume their canonical form in the first millennium BCE. Not only literary criticism is at stake: a great deal of nationalist rhetoric depends on the origin of the great epics and the language used to compose them. Both the Greek and Indian epic poems were both originally orally transmitted, since at the time of their composition there was no writing system in use1. The oral transmission of the epics creates a problem because we have no record of the development of the text. So instead, scholars turned to linguistic analysis and the archaeological record to try and separate the original core of the epics from later accretions. However neither of these methods proved effective.

  • Avatar

    Having finally finished my book (due out August 2010), I treated myself to a "fat cat" weekend in Bangalore and went to see Avatar 3D. At the airport on my way back to London, I picked up my two favourite Indian news magazines: Tehelka and Frontline. Both current issues focus on illegal mining. Avatar isn't science fiction: it's happening right now (see the picture and caption on the left).

    UPDATE: India's environment ministry has rejected Vedanta's application to mine aluminium ore in the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa (the site shown in the picture on the left). Vedanta can appeal, so this particular battle is far from over, but it shows that resistance is not futile.

  • IT in India and China

    Since The Economist is publishing a special report on technology in India and China this week, I thought it was about time I wrote something on the subject. That way when I read the special report I can either congratulate myself on my deep insight or slag off the hacks for getting it so obviously wrong. Since I spent last year working in Bangalore and the best part of this year in Xi'an and Beijing, I think my credentials are as good as anyone's. There's nothing controversial here for people who are familiar with the Indian and Chinese markets, but anybody whose only source of news is the Northern press might find it interesting.

  • War: what is it good for? Or: the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina

    While on our trip from Mumbai to London, we spent three weeks passing through the states that used to comprise Yugoslavia: Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia (unfortunately we didn't make it to Macedonia). Encircled by European Union states1, they feel totally European -- great public transport, drinkable tap water, lots of consumer goods on display, relatively little poverty, and a great café culture. However only twelve years ago these republics were at war.

  • Line management

    When I became a manager, there were a bunch of things I knew I would have to get used to. Lots of time in Mingle, Excel and PowerPoint creating finger charts and project status reports, being responsible for the process of the team, spewing forth a welter of emails, learning to use the "follow up" flag on Notes, keeping a holiday calendar, kissing goodbye to Linux. However it turns out that I am also now a line manager - responsible for the well-being of the members of my team (thanks to my wife, Rani, for explaining to me what a line manager is). Since I believe that a happy team is a productive team, I thought I had better do some research on what makes a good line manager.

  • Kurt Vonnegut

    Hearing that Kurt Vonnegut has died made me very sad. Since I'm on the move I don't have any of his books to hand to quote from, which has made me late to his wake. However yesterday I read a passage in an essay by another great American writer which sums up far more eloquently than I am able to the significance of people like Kurt Vonnegut. In "Down at the Cross", James Baldwin says: "Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death - ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us." (The Fire Next Time, p123).

  • The Caucasus

    Our journey from Tehran to Kars has been exhausting. An overnight train from Tehran to Tabriz, a taxi, a bus, another taxi and an execrable border crossing to Turkey followed by three more buses has left us in need of a few days on the beach to unwind. We are now, however, in the Caucasus, which has almost nothing in common with a beach. For a start, it's snowing.

  • Iran

    Despite media portrayals of Iran as violent, fundamentalist nation, it is really a wonderful place to visit. Firstly there is of course a wealth of stunningly beautiful monuments, art-work, and cool stuff to buy. More importantly though, there are the people. Iranians are all too aware of the shortcomings of their totalitarian political system, and will often complain to you about it mere seconds after meeting you for the first time. However in terms of everyday life, it is certainly not nearly as repressive as most of the Gulf countries, or even in (compared to the Gulf) relatively liberal Islamic republics such as Morocco or Pakistan.

  • From India to Iran

    The trip that Rani and I are taking has gone through several incarnations. My first plan, which led to Rani dropping to her knees in tears and begging me to stop, was to drive my silver Bullet (motorbike: a thousand quid; software delivery: priceless) back through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Europe. Having just met a couple who cycled from London to Delhi, and given that we are at present sharing a hotel in Iran with three Germans who are motorbiking from Australia to England, I now feel my original plan was perfectly reasonable. Indeed, our hotelier tells me that Iran has an overland cycling season. However since everybody else thought I was completely insane and my mother and fiancee would have disowned me, I was forced to reconsider.

  • On holiday

    Rani and I start our holiday today. Over the next 10 weeks we'll be working our way back from India to the UK by land and sea. We start off on a freighter ship from Mumbai to Dubai (assuming we make it in time - I'm currently sitting in Beijing, and we have three connections to make in order to get to Mumbai with a few hours spare before we have to board). Then from Dubai we go (inshallah) to Iran, and then via Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia (hi Maja), Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France back to London. There's a map at Rani's blog. Since things like this don't happen every day, I've bought my first ever camera, a Nikon D40, and I'll be putting pictures up on our flickr account. Don't worry though - I won't be spamming ThoughtBlogs with them. This is the last you'll hear from me until I get back.

  • Book review: Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars by Vaasanthi

    Tamil Nadu has always been a bit of a mystery to me. It has its own unique identity and cultural history quite separate from that of the rest of India. The Tamil language has a recorded history spanning over two millenia, and belongs to the Dravidian language group whose characteristics are quite distinct from those of the Indo-European Sanskrit-descended languages spoken by North Indians. The Dravidian people also have their own classical music (karnatak sangeet) and classical dance tradition (bharatnatyam). In the same way, politics in Tamil Nadu has its own unique and (to an outsider like me) bewildering history, resulting in regional Tamil parties having held power in the state since 1967. Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars promises to describe and explain the world of Tamil politics, including the stories of its larger-than-life leaders.

  • Trade talks and the aid scam

    Although the Doha round of trade talks was suspended last year, there is still a possibility that an agreement could be reached. President Bush has until 30 June this year to negotiate a deal with the Europeans, following which his authority to negotiate directly will lapse. The Doha round collapsed following the failure of Europe and the USA to cut tariffs on agricultural imports and farming subsidies (respectively) enough to satisfy countries like India and Brazil. Cuts on agricultural subsidies won't just mean that the poorer countries will be able to export goods to the USA - it will have a direct impact on how rich countries provide aid to poorer ones. A couple of years ago, I did some consultancy work for an NGO in Ghana. While there, I got into a discussion with one of the local employees of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). What he told me was a real eye-opener.

  • The nature of transparency

    I recently discovered Mark Dominus' blog, which I subsequently lost spent a whole evening reading. It has lots of good stuff on physics, maths and history in addition to some more traditional techie fare. One of his earlier posts asked the question: how can solid and liquid materials be transparent? I think I know the answer.

  • Usability design

    I attended a talk today given by Sarah Bloomer, a usability design consultant with 20 years experience who has come to Bangalore to attend Easy7. She talked us through the anatomy of a typical three to six week engagement, which turned out to have a lot in common with how we start off projects at ThoughtWorks.

  • How to write a good service layer and avoid testing hell

    I've learned some important things from my most recent project, a (rich) client - server application written in C# / .NET 2.0 that stores data in SQL server. Probably the most crucial thing is how important it is to get your service layer right. As described in a previous post, we initially sent domain objects over the wire, using what was basically RPC (the .NET WebService attribute). We fixed the problem of circular references in our graph by using a modified version of XStream. We then addressed the proliferation of web services by moving to a single web service which passed across a document-style message containing the names of the class and method to call (instantiated using introspection) and the object graph. The issue of updates from one screen not propagating to others was resolved by having a dictionary of all objects on the client side so that when an object was updated, it was visible to the other parts of the client. We fixed the poor performance of sending huge graphs across by using this dictionary as a cache. However the "services" are still very fine-grained RPC and basically useless to anyone else - although still a good solution for the problem they solve.

  • Anita goes home

    So last Tuesday we went to see Anita for the last time before she got on the train home. We've been visiting her most weekends at APSA, the local charity for street kids where she was moved to. She's been brilliant to hang out with - although like any nine year old she has her sulky moments, most of the time she's a wildly hilarious drama queen who is always cracking us up and entertaining the other kids. She's picked up some of the local language, Kannada, and impressed the staff with how fast she learns.

  • The long and continuing journey of Anita, aged nine

    Living in a decently-sized middle class apartment block in Murugeshpalya, Bangalore, we get to hear a lot of gossip (mostly conducted in Hindi, which is good practice for me). However a couple of weeks ago we got to create some of our own. On the floor below us lives a woman, Mrs Paul, and her two children. We noticed about a month ago that there was a young girl, shabbily dressed and dirty, living in the apartment with them. We assumed, correctly as it turned out, that this girl was employed as their servant. This is not an uncommon situation in India, where many children are orphans or from very poor families who cannot provide for them. Service in a good home is far superior to begging in the streets or manual labour and is generally considered acceptable so long as the children are taken care of and sent to school, although it is more usual for adults or whole families to be employed as servants.

  • Tolstoy on history meets Nietzsche on consciousness and will

    I've just finished War and Peace, which has happily occupied my weekends and travels over the last three months. For me, some of the most interesting themes have been Tolstoy's discussions around spirituality, which I'll discuss in a later post, and his critique of historical analysis. It turns out Tolstoy had been interested for some time prior to writing War and Peace in "writing a historical novel which would contrast the real texture of historical experience, as lived by individuals and communities, with the distorted image of the past presented by historians" (Afterword by Orlando Figes). This agenda is especially clear in the second half of the book, in which five of the seven parts begin with a philosophical discussion of historical analysis with particular application to Napoleon's 1812 campaign. What is especially fascinating to me though is the clear resonances between his discussion and contemporary philosophical thought on psychology and action.

  • Hold on to your hats folks, it's risk management and process assurance!

    For one reason or another, software development over the years has taken inspiration from the construction industry, whether in the form of design patterns or the Gantt chart. Nevertheless, there are obvious differences such as the fact that suspension bridges cannot easily be refactored, and are hard to reboot when they crash.

  • India's water crisis and the politics of food

    One of the biggest political debates in India over the last two decades or so has concerned the construction of the Narmada dam project. This huge and controversial series of dams, conceived by Nehru in the 1940s, is supposed to supply electricity to India's national grid, and water to the drought-prone areas of Saurashtra and Kutchch in Gujarat. However its construction entails the relocation of tens of millions of people.

  • Article on Indian classical music

    Fly, an online magazine devoted to world music, has asked me to write a series of articles on Indian classical music (I studied it for my master's degree in ethnomusicology). The first one, dealing with its history and context, has just been published.

  • Web services, serialization and persistence

    I'm currently working on a client-server application with a .NET 2.0 WinForms GUI. We're using the standard WebMethod RPC stuff to bounce things back and forward between the server and client, with .NET taking care of serializing everything into XML and back again and NHibernate handling persistence. So in theory, the only work should be designing our domain and our forms, binding the domain objects to the forms, defining some services, writing some Hibernate mapping files, and the occasional bit of business logic when things get dull.

  • Our house on the middle of our roof

    Rani and I have moved into our new place in India. It's on the roof of an apartment block, with nothing between us and the airport. At the weekend we sit on the roof on charpais (low-budget beds) planespotting, getting rained on, and stargazing at night. The place costs us Rs 10,000 per month, with a Rs 60,000 deposit - quite reasonable considering 11 months in advance is the usual deposit here. We paid the agent who found us the place one month's rent as her fee. The place came unfurnished, with only wardrobes provided. We're renting a fridge and a TV, and have bought everything else.

  • Reservations, caste and names.

    One of the main issues occupying the news here in India in the last couple of months is a new law under consideration that would require India's private educational establishments, including the elite management and technology institutes (IIMs and IITs respectively) to reserve places for members of lower castes. Such rules already apply to public institutions such as colleges and many other areas such as the Indian Administrative Service (civil service), the Lok Sabha (lower house) and public sector jobs.

  • Agile India 2006 - Craig Larman's keynote

    I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at Agile India 2006 on the deployment production line, so I popped along today to check out the opening talks. Craig Larman, Cheif Scientist at Valtech, gave an entertaining, well-researched talk on agile vs waterfall, covering the history of both and the evidence in favour of agile. For me, the most compelling argument he presented was the long list of historical figures who promoted agile practice.

  • Nullable Types in C#

    One of the "late-breaking features" of C# 2.0 was nullable types. They are supposed to make object-relational mapping easier, being effectively nullable primitives which behave more closely like the types in SQL. However I have just spent an hour debugging a problem which demonstrates very clearly how language features such as this simply make life more difficult for developers.

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