Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't tell anyone

One of my bugbears these days, and really since the beginning of my life, is secrecy. I don't trust people who keep secrets. Of course, if they keep secrets then they don't trust me either. So it's mutual.

Secrecy is not the same as confidentiality. When something is to be kept confidential, it's pretty clear what the harm would be if the information came out. In my professional life, it could be a reference letter in which a scientist evaluates the work of another. In personal matters it could be someone's love life. There is in fact a right to privacy and it needs to be respected.

But secrecy is a way for the powerful to remain powerful, and to protect abuse of power. Secrecy of this kind is for some people a way of life, a culture, a cult. Those who subscribe to it know exactly when to keep their mouths shut, and follow their instinct firmly even when their actions are both morally repugnant and risky. Some of the plainest examples are of priests in the Catholic church who were known to have sexually abused children. On all too many occasions, the first impulse of their seniors in the church was to cover up. The list of such cases is incredibly long and without cover-ups it would have been a lot shorter.

Outside the church, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno covered up repeated acts of molestation by his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. In the end the latter was caught and punished, and the former disgraced in consequence. As the Wikipedia entry points out, "while Paterno did not violate any laws, anyone with knowledge of possible sexual abuse against minors had a "moral responsibility" to notify police. Despite the gravity of allegations against Sandusky, Paterno did not notify state police." And here's the key point: Paterno was not himself a molester. He would have lost nothing, and gained a lot of glory, besides doing the morally correct thing, had he blown the whistle on his assistant as soon as he came to know about it. From this perspective, his action (or rather lack of it) is more inexplicable than that of Sandusky.

At work, I've found myself constantly at war with the culture of secrecy. In the 1980's, as a very junior faculty member in TIFR I was in charge of coordinating graduate courses. But decisions, including those affecting these courses, were taken by the faculty of which I was not a member - because until 2004 (yes that recently!) junior faculty at TIFR could not be called "faculty" or attend faculty meetings. What terrible state secrets would they have stumbled on, one wonders? The result was that as course coordinator I had no input into faculty decisions, and whenever they made a decision that affected my functioning they didn't even have the decency to inform me. This is not a formula for creating a healthy working system, so the system remained dysfunctional for a long time. That however did not seem to bother anyone. The important thing in this case, as in so many others, was that secrecy was more important than a functioning system.

In the good old days Indian Airlines would carefully hide information from passengers. The departure time of a flight might have long passed but the notice board would stubbornly show "on time". No one was ever told what to expect next. Things are not that much better today, since some genius invented the winning line "the flight is delayed due to late arrival of the incoming aircraft" as though that explains anything at all.

Even within my extended family, secrecy has taken on a primary role these days. Not wanting to reveal family secrets to the public (oh now I'm doing it!) I can only mention that senior people are refusing to part with a simple piece of information even though releasing it would spare themselves from accusations of wrongdoing. The natural presumption in such a situation is that the concerned persons are covering up something. And while they might well be, it's also possible that they're not. Perhaps the reason they won't release information is that they are devout followers of the secrecy cult and they understand that once you start revealing things then, really, there's no end, is there? A guilty conscience is more powerful than actual guilt.

When the Right to Information act was passed in India a mere seven years ago, I was very happy about it and I still feel that way. Despite the comments I hear all the time about its potential for abuse, it is brilliant because it offers every Indian citizen the right to know what public institutions are up to. This has struck deep into the culture of abuse of power in our country. If that culture is not yet dead it's only because it's a monster with many heads and Terminator-like powers of regeneration. So secrecy remains the default. I'm reminded of a joke told about a leading organisation of the Indian government: the head of the institution calls his assistant and whispers "I've received an Office Order from the Central Vigilance Commission that we are required to have a Transparency Officer. But don't tell anyone!"

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Paper is for sad souls

In the early 1990's, I took a bet with the Chairman of my department that by the year 2000, printing on paper would become obsolete and people would take to reading on their computer screens. I lost the bet, but was merely a little ahead of my time. Yesterday it was announced that in the UK, sales of Kindle e-books have overtaken print books: 114 of the former were sold for every 100 of the latter.

Now Kindle is not the only way to read e-books. One can download over 40,000 e-books for free, in pretty much any format you like, from the Project Gutenberg website. For those sad souls (and I know quite a few) who think everything downloaded for free is illegal, these books are all completely legal and are free simply because their copyright has expired. The website maintains a list of the most popular downloads on a daily basis, and my readers will be delighted to know that number four on the list is the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, where one can pick up fascinating recommendations such as: "At all times when kissing and such like things are begun, the woman should give a reply with a hissing sound."

If you are done with ROTFL, let's go back to Kindle. A lot of people think this is a device you need to buy and carry around, and indeed there's a whole range of these e-readers. They have particularly good screen resolutions so you may want to try one of them if you feel computer screens don't do it for you. I prefer to download and install the free Kindle software on my Macbook Air, my iPad and my Android phone.

Once you're done with that, a wonderful new life awaits you. Assuming you have a free account (and are not one of those sad souls who refuses to use their credit card over the internet) you can register your credit card once and turn on "1-click ordering". Thereafter you browse the online Kindle store, locate a book you want, order it with - as promised - one click, and immediately download it to your device. Kindle books are reasonably priced, I haven't spent more than ten dollars on one so far. What's more, the next time you start up another of your devices you can download the same book there at no extra cost. And now you can do a whole bunch of things that you couldn't even dream of with paper books.

If you're reading a book on an iPad or other tablet, and open the same book later on your phone, it will automatically offer to scroll to the last page you reached on your previous device. So you can seamlessly switch devices. This enables you to continue your reading in a dentist's waiting room instead of browsing his latest issue of "Root Canal Digest". Of course, for all this your Android phone should have an internet connection, a very minimal GPRS that costs 99 rupees a month is more than enough. You can also read your Kindle books on someone else's device or a computer that runs Linux (for which Kindle software is unavailable) by the simple expedient of pointing your browser to the Kindle Cloud and logging in using your details. There are all your books, waiting eagerly to be read. You can carry a hundred or ten thousand books with you on your next trip without worrying about the baggage allowance. Your device will remember how far you got with each book, so no need for bookmarks.

And there's more. If you forget where in your novel a certain character originally appeared, just type the name into the search window and you will be directed to all their previous appearances. If you don't know what a word means, just hold your finger over it and a dictionary definition will pop up. If you don't like small print, increase the size of your font. Kindle re-organises your pages automatically so that each page precisely fills the screen of your device whatever the font size. You can make notes on your book and even (this is weird and I disabled it) view comments made by other readers of the same book. 

Of course you might be one of those ever-present sad souls who says (i) I like the feel of a real book in my hands, (ii) I can't possibly read a book on the small screen of a mobile phone, (iii) I don't have an internet connection, or (iv) I don't want to read books on a "device", the word "device" makes me throw up.

If "such like things" are the case with you then all I can say is, you deserve "a reply with a hissing sound".