The $9.8 Billion Debacle

You are a middle class schoolteacher from a small town in the eastern part of India. Your monthly income is a mediocre Rs. 35,000 ($700). As part of your weekly routine, you log in to your bank account on a sedate Sunday evening expecting to find a balance of not more than Rs. 10000 ($200). Imagine your bafflement then upon seeing an additional sum of $9.8 billion (Rs. 496 billion) credited into your account, an astronomical amount even by the standards of the rich.

This is exactly the predicament that Mr. Parijat Saha, a resident of the town of Balurghat in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal, found himself in on the evening of 15th January, 2012. Stupefied and flabbergasted, he immediately reported the anomaly to the guilty party – the State Bank of India (SBI). Officials at the bank were initially prevented from commenting on or discussing the issue with the media, but well placed sources said the funds were “uncleared” and couldn’t have been used by Mr. Saha.

However, Mr. Tapan Mitra, the bank’s assistant general manager was quoted on hindustantimes.com as saying, “The amount was merely a transaction that was shown to have been made from his (Saha) account. The amount was never credited to his account. Such an occurrence is normal and usually happens because of fault of the internet service provider.” In addition, he said, “The bank internet system has various layers of firewall security to prevent such mistakes.

That is why the amount was not credited to his account, it merely appeared as a transaction and the account balance was not affected.” The bank – motto “Safe Banking with SBI” – had alerted both its regional headquarters in Calcutta and the national headquarters in Mumbai and an official probe has now been instituted in order to identify what actually went wrong and take necessary action. In the meantime, Mr. Saha withdrew the Rs. 10000 belonging to him leaving the uncleared billions for the bank to take back.

Through it all, it’s not the bank’s ineptness that’s shocking here, it’s the teacher’s honesty that’s the true news for me. While others would undertake the sorts of scams most of us can’t even begin to imagine, here’s a man who made an honest effort to return the money and take only what truly belonged to him. How many such people can you come across in India? In light of all the corruption scandals of recent times, this piece of news is like a breath of fresh air and reinforces our belief in the basic goodness of people and humanity. Hell, the guy deserves the entire $9.8 billion as a reward for his honesty. Let him keep it, I say.

The Ever-Changing Facebook

The only thing constant in this world is change or so goes the maxim. As recent events would indicate, there is no more ardent a follower of this maxim than Mr. Zuckerberg and his baby, Facebook. Beginning sometime in September of this year, Facebook has inundated its users with a deluge of changes, most of which are as welcome as cockroaches in your kitchen. Infact, I’ve yet to come across a single user who has had one good complimentary thing to say about them. Be it bloggers or journalists or my friends, they’re all equally resistant to these constant amendments. Zuckerberg’s mantra is that people ought to share more and more with their friends. As he himself says, “The amount of information people share online is increasing on an exponential curve, like a social version of Moore’s Law.” (Newman 2011)

Keeping in line with this mantra, Facebook has, in the past couple of months or so, introduced the News ticker which provides you second to second update about each and every activity of each and everyone of your friends, irrespective of your need to know. Infact, the ticker effectively makes a mockery of the concept of privacy. Every link or page you like, every conversation you’ve, every comment you make, every article you read, every song you listen to, there’s nothing that’s not in the public domain. Whether you like it or not, all your friends absolutely have to know every activity you indulge in. My question is: what if there’s a comment I wish to leave on a friend’s post that has nothing to do with our non-mutual friends or something I like that I don’t wish to advertise? Is Facebook telling me that the only way I can have a private conversation is through its messaging service?

Oh yeah, the messaging service. Ever since the incessant changes began, Facebook’s messenger has increasingly become a sham. Your friends can often be online but you can’t see them. They can be messaging you but you won’t be receiving their messages. Infact, you’re often subjected to a default message from Facebook: “Facebook chat is experiencing technical difficulties.” I suppose I’m glad that atleast they realize it. Then there’s the obscure “Other” folder. Introduced in November, 2010 as part of their “Social Inbox” feature, its aim is to filter friends’ messages from those of strangers’. However, in typical Facebook fashion, it’s users weren’t even made aware of its existence. Infact, in an article I happened to come along on www.slate.com, Elizabeth Weingarten elucidates how she suffered at the hands of Facebook’s vagaries when she forgot her laptop in a New York City cab. (Weingarten 2011) The gentleman who found her laptop had sent her 4 messages regarding her laptop but because the poor lady didn’t know of the existence of the aforementioned folder, she missed those very important messages and ended up buying a new laptop. For those of you interested in the article, the link is provided as a footnote below.

My biggest gripe at present is my friends’ list. I know for a fact that as of this moment I’ve a total of 221 friends. Yet for reasons known only to Facebook the total number of friends is always exactly one less than my actual number of friends. Infact a couple of days ago there were the number was 2 less friends which then rectified to the actual number of friends and is now back to being one less. And yet when I navigate through my friends’ list I happen to see all of them there. Where does the discrepancy arise from then? I guess it’s futile to question Facebook about it. Also, since the changes have begun there’s often a definite delay as to when we receive notifications. A friend could like my post right now but I won’t know about it till later, sometimes for as long as an hour. Delays also often occur while updating your status. I’ve faced numerous instances of updating my status but it not being visible either on my profile or on the news feed or both until hours later. Quite a few of my friends have experienced it too.

And it’s even more pronounced with Facebook’s new feature, Timeline. Introduced in September, Zuckerberg described it as “the new Facebook feature as all your stories, all your apps and a new way to express who you are.” (Gayomali 2011) Initially introduced as an optional feature, it’s now been officially introduced to all Facebook users beginning 15th December, 2011. We can switch over to it right away or wait for some sort of an announcement to appear on our profile some time soon. One can also refuse to switch to Timeline until it’s inevitably and automatically done by Facebook with you having little say in the matter. If upgraded to now, one is given a 7 day window within which to preview the new format and make any necessary changes, including tweaking your privacy settings if need be.

This is how Facebook describes it in its blog: “When you upgrade to timeline, you’ll have seven days to review everything that appears on your timeline before anyone else can see it. You can also choose to publish your timeline at any time during the review period. If you decide to wait, your timeline will go live automatically after seven days. Your new timeline will replace your profile, but all your stories and photos will still be there. If you want to see how your timeline appears to other people, click the gear menu at the top of your timeline, and select “View As.” You can choose to see how your timeline appears to a specific friend or the public.” (Aamoth 2011)

While timeline intends to be cooler and easier to navigate through, the intial reviews have been exactly the opposite. Two of my friends who had switched over to it right at its inception in September, have variously termed it as “another over-hyped Facebook feature” or complained about the fact that navigation is actually tougher now than before. How ironic considering Facebook’s apparent intention is the exact opposite. As stated above, there are problems with status updates often being delayed as well. I only switched over to it yesterday and contrary to Facebook’s expectation, I’m hardly impressed with it. I’m yet to figure out what the big deal about it is and as to what was wrong with the earlier beta version to necessitate such a massive change. And what’s more I’ve already faced a problem with a status update within just 24 hours of switching over. I posted a BBC news item and while it’s visible on the news feed and also as part of the recent activity log, but I’m yet to see it on my Timeline. Of course, it could be some perverse Facebook logic that prevents such updates from appearing on your Timeline. As we well know by now, anything is possible with Facebook.

At the end of the day, while changes are a good thing, changing something that seems to work absolutely fine can often be a putting off experience. All these constant changes and the attendant navigation and functional problems associated with them can actually turn even the most ardent addicts away. Already there are enough reports of decreased Facebook usage because most people seemed to have reached a saturation point. Does Mark Zuckerberg really wish to lose them all? Yes, we all have established networks on Facebook and are reluctant not only to switch over to new social networks but also to completely stop using Facebook. But as we well know taking your users and their interests for granted is often a dangerous and self-defeating business strategy. Does Zuckerberg really want to risk it all?

References

  • Aamoth, D. Facebook Makes New ‘Timeline’ Design Available to Everyone. Dec 15, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/12/15/facebook-makes-new-timeline-design-available-to-everyone/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
  • Gayomali, C. Facebook Introduces ‘Timeline’: The ‘Story’ of Your Life. Sep 22, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/09/22/facebook-introduces-timeline-the-story-of-your-life/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
  • Ho, E. Screenshot Tour of Facebook’s New ‘Timeline’ Interface. Sep 23, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/09/23/screenshot-tour-of-facebooks-new-timeline-interface/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
  • Newman, J. Reveal More, Consume More: Facebook’s Big Changes. Sep 22, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/09/22/reveal-more-consume-more-facebooks-big-changes/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
  • Wagstaff, K. Are You Ready for Facebook Timeline? Nov 18, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/11/18/are-you-ready-for-facebook-timeline/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
  • Weingarten, E. Furious at Facebook Again! Dec 9, 2011. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2011/12/facebook_s_other_messages_mail_you_are_probably_missing.html (accessed Dec 13, 2011).

A Tribute To Dharam Dev Anand

Image of Dev Anand

Entitled Bollywood’s Peter Pan, Dev Anand was the quintessential yet the most inimitable actors of the Indian film industry. Revered and fondly known as Dev Sahab the nation over, the endearing actor passed away at the age of 88 on 3rd December, 2011 at the Washington Mayfair Hotel in London following a cardiac arrest. Born on 26th September, 1923 in the Gurdaspur district of pre-partition Punjab, he was the third of four brothers and had a younger sister. He began his illustrious acting career, spanning almost 6 decades, in 1946 with Prabhat Films’ Hum Ek Hain. It’s on the sets of this film, that he began his life long friendship with Guru Dutt. In 1949 he opened his own production company, Navketan Films, which would go on to produce and contribute many gems to the Indian film industry, such as Baazi, which was its inaugural film, to ground-breaking films such as Kaala Paani (1958), Hum Dono (1960), Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963) and Guide (1964). His films were regularly nominated for Filmfare Awards and he himself won the Best Actor award twice for Kaala Paani and Guide. In addition he was also honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke award, which is India’s highest award for cinematic excellence in 2002 and had been awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2001.

Frequently compared to Gregory Peck, Dev Anand held his own in an era of constant competition from the likes of the immensely talented Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. Infact he developed an exclusive niche for himself, and there was no one in Bollywood who could quite emulate his unique mannerisms or the depth of his acting. Women adored and loved him for his grandiosity, while men wanted to be like him. To quote Shekhar Gupta, the editor of Indian Express, “We all also know that he romanced three generations of Indian women. My mother loved him, and my daughter adored him. And women of my generation, well!”

His most famous liaison was with singer-actress Suraiya who he met in 1948 when he was paired opposite her in the film Vidya. However, they were unable to consummate their relationship due to religious differences and Suraiya’s family being orthodox and conservative. He eventually married Kalpana Kartik (aka Mona Singh) who made her debut in Navketan’s first venture Baazi. However, it was during the shooting of Taxi Driver in 1954, that the couple fell in love and then subsequently married in a quiet ceremony. They bore a son, Suneil Anand in 1956 and then a daughter, Devina.

Image of Dev Anand with Madhubala

He is perhaps the sole actor credited with launching and establishing the careers of most of his leading ladies from Kalpana Kartik to Zeenat Aman. In addition, actresses like Waheeda Rehman and Hema Malini owe it to him for pushing their careers to the stratospheric levels that they eventually achieved. In the 1970s his directorial ambitions took flight even though his first directorial venture Prem Pujari was a flop. However, Hare Rama Hare Krishna in 1971 turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the Indian film industry and made an overnight sensation out of Zeenat Aman. He later also launched Tina Munim’s career in the 1978 film Des Pardes. He directed a total of 19 films with his last film Chargesheet having been released as recently as September of this year, out of which 7 were commercially successful. Despite being credited with launching the careers of many a star, Dev Anand and his work has been widely lauded by critics with most of them describing his directorial ventures as well ahead of their time. His movies were also revered for their melodious, titillating music. In September, 2007 he also released his autobiography “Romancing with Life”.

Having been variously termed as evergreen, flamboyant, debonair, energetic and romantic, Dev Anand’s demise has left a gaping hole in the Indian film industry and in the hearts of millions of his followers. He was one of the first actors of Bollywood to embody a sex appeal and mystique that made him the heartthrob of women of all generations, a rare feat in that time and age. As he himself told Shekhar Gupta, “A star is always a star, Shekhar, and a star has to be always predictable. You are too simple to understand this. Once you become a star, you have to lead a star’s life forever. Stardom is like your skin. You either lose it, or die in it.”

Dev Sahab did it like no one else. His swagger, mannerisms, awkward dance moves, hairstyle, had the whole nation enthralled. From the innocent, charismatic architect in Tere Ghar Ke Samne to the tortured Raju in Guide, he had us all experience the spectrum of emotions he went through. There has never been another one like him and never will be. He is an irreplaceable legend, someone to look upto with utter and absolute reverence. The world will miss Dev Sahab and will always love him!

Deflecting an asteroid impact – The Technical Feasibility

Asteroid Deflection Strategy

Asteroid deflection strategies have been a topic of interest for those enamoured with space studies for ages galore. From NASA scientists to ordinary people they’ve garnered everyone’s attention. Simply defined, asteroid deflection strategies are the “planetary defense” methods[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref] using which these near-earth objects (NEOs) are diverted thereby preventing catastrophic occurrences on earth, ranging from tsunamis to impact winters (by placing large quantities of dust into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight)[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref]. While the probability of such an event occurring any time soon is deemed scant, certain recent events such as Shoemaker-Levy 9 have created enough headlines to get people wondering.

Spotting an incoming asteroid

About 90% of NEOs greater than 1 kilometer in diameter have been surveyed by NASA. On a scale of 1 to 10, a 1 kilometer diameter asteroid is deemed to be the least destructive while a 10 kilometer diameter asteroid is considered catastrophic enough to extinguish all life on earth. These survey programs funded by the NASA have been christened “Spaceguard”. Their aim is to attempt to detect and document all asteroids including and exceeding 140 meters in diameter by 2028.

Deflection strategies

Nuclear attack

Asteroid Nuclear Deflection

This is often considered the easiest and quickest method. This can be done in one of two ways. A nuclear explosion can be instituted around, on or beneath the surface of an asteroid with the resulting blast evaporating part of the object and throwing it off course. This is a form of nuclear pulse propulsion[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref]. However, one can never be certain whether the NEO has been broken into small enough pieces to completely avoid harm. Fracturing a 10 kilometer asteroid into a six kilometer and four kilometer asteroid is great, but they might still be on target for our lovely little planet and carry worldwide devastation in tow[ref]http://io9.com/5861790/how-to-deflect-an-asteroid-attack[/ref]. An alternative method is to have a series of small bombs explode alongside the asteroid but at a distance enough to not fracture the object. The relatively small forces from any number of nuclear blasts could be enough to alter the object’s trajectory enough to avoid an impact[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref]. A key factor however is to do so well in advance so as to have the maximum impact.

Kinetic energy effect

Asteroid Deflection Kinetic Energy

This works through the impact of a gigantic, non-explosive object, such as a spacecraft or another NEO, a collision with which to alter the course of the asteroid. This strategy is being pioneered by the European Space Agency using a carrier craft and an impactor that can be released on command.

Using a gravitational tractor

Asteroid Deflection Gravitational Tractor

Proposed by Edward T. Lu and Stanely G. Love, this method involves altering the natural course of an asteroid slowly over a period of time sometimes spanning years. The idea is to have a gigantic heavy unmanned spacecraft hover over an asteroid and divert it from its orbit through the simple mechanics of gravitational attraction. The spacecraft would attract the asteroid towards itself and thus deflect it from its original path. While slow, this method has the advantage of working irrespective of the asteroid composition or spin rate – rubble pile asteroids would be difficult or impossible to deflect by means of nuclear detonations while a pushing device would be hard or inefficient to mount on a fast rotating asteroid[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref].

Attach a rocket

Based upon a proposal of theoreticians at Johns Hopkins University, attaching a rocket to an asteroid would propel it off of its path enough to avoid an impact with earth. Another method is termed the Madmen approach, in which a series of disassembles are docked on to the asteroid which then use the asteroid to create small pebbles which are ejected away from the asteroid. The presumed advantage is that it would take only weeks or months to reduce asteroid mass and velocity using this method and it would act as a safe alternative to chemical and nuclear explosives.

Conclusion

It would be safe to say that it would be in humanity’s interest for several countries to have contingency plans and alternative methods ready in the unlikely event of an asteroid attack occurring anytime soon. Russia has some nascent plans in store while the European Space Agency plans to test its kinetic energy method on a non-threatening asteroid in 2015. In addition, NASA’s constant documenting of NEOs along with the search for effective deflection strategies should let us sleep easy at night.