Saturday, July 26, 2008

Horizontally mobile

I believe in progress, because it opens up new opportunities. Since I am a supporter of progress and opportunities, I suppose that makes me progressive and opportunist. I wonder why some people take exception to being described as opportunists, when there are people who feel no stigma on being called "backward" and in fact they agitate for inclusion among the ranks of "backwards".

Similarly, a therapist should not mind being called therapist. Problem arises when it becomes "the rapist" due to a typo. But then that is an occupational hazard for a profession where you designate yourself in this way. A librarian too runs the risk of being called a bookie instead of a book keeper. But I have no sympathy for librarians considering how I saw a librarian stocking books on radioactivity on the shelf marked "Radio and TV". I have not seen a bookshelf where books on sussex,middlesex and essex have been put on the shelf marked sexual literature, but it is always a possibility with such bookies, err librarians, don't you think ?

But I am digressing. Where was I ? Yes, I was on to progress and opportunities. And we have certainly seen lots of progress in the fields of telecommunication. The fact that every Tom, Dick and Hari can now afford a mobile phone is nothing short of miraculous. It was just one generation ago that we needed to have a long waiting list if we wanted to have a landline connection. Of course, the technology for mobile phone itself was non existent.

I recall what happened when the mobile phones first arrived in India. It was too expensive, where you had to pay through your nose not only to make a call, but also to receive a call. And what did the people talk? The caller only talked about the fact that he had a mobile phone, and how nice it was to have a mobile phone costing a fortune, and about the pros ( no cons) of having a mobile phone. All this conversation was in a loud enough voice to ensure that everyone knew you had a mobile phone, and felt suitably jealous of you, and yet admired you too, for your prized possession. Some people carried pagers, and many people who did not know the difference between the two, actually thought pagers and mobile phones to be the same.

Mobile phones, which were the size of a brick when they first came up ( and laptop computers were the size of VIP suitcase) soon became smaller and in fact mobile phone ads would advertise this fact as a feature. There was one ad some ten years ago in which a lady ( Kavita Kapoor) is talking sweet nothings and the bearer thinks she is addressing him. When he approches her, he is mortified to see that she gives an order for some refreshments("one black coffee, please"), and her sweet nothings were being talked into a mobile phone that was too small to be visible outside her palm.

I recall the days before mobile phones when I was undergoing training. As a trainee you are obviously supposed to have a diary/ notebook where you would note down whatever you learnt, and then produce this diary as a proof to show what you learnt. Now everyone had notebooks of the size of a tile ( 5" X 7" or so with 250 pages). I had a notebook/ diary which was 2" x 1" with 100 pages, neatly leatherbound. One of the fellow trainee became so impressed with my notebook that he suggested me how to present the notebook for inspection. Keep the diary in the right palm, and shake the hand of the person saying- "Good morning Sir, I am Atul", and then rotate the wrist clockwise 90 degrees, open the palm to reveal the notebook and say "And here is my notebook,Sir".

In fact, that is how secrets were exchanged by spies in old movies. In James Bond movies,secret microfilm would be transferred by the lady spy through her mouth to James Bond's mouth while ostensively kissing him. One can try the idea of exchanging 2" X 1 " diary containing the names of villain's contacts ( like it was in Don) through a handshake even in Bollywood movies. Of course, do not forget to credit me for this idea.

In earlier days of mobile, mobile phones were unaffordable for common people, so only people with deep pockets owned them. Now that even those with holes in their pockets have mobile phones, we have seen the tendency to save even the last paisa. People would give you a missed call and expect that you would ring them back. It is all right if you know the person, but what about strangers giving you a missed call and expecting you to call them back ? What about wrong calls ? They were there on landlines too, but there at least you have no caller ID in most phones, but on mobile phone you can very well see what number you are dialling and what number you are receiving.

On mobile phone I would receive wrong numbers. As I attend the phone, the person would ask- "Kaun (who)?." Well, it is I who should ask this question. The person calling me should know whom he/she is calling. Ringing without checking the number and then checking from me who is it at that number reeks of poor etiquette.

And then there was this wrong number that I was receiving for a long time. But the caller wanted to save call charges too, so she would not allow me to reply and ensured that the phone stopped ringing by the time I reached it. If you are that desperate to talk to me, then atleast make sure that you are not stingy about paying for one call. Fed up, finally I rang back, and what do I hear- "Kaun (who)". What should I have said-"Silly woman, you are repeatedly giving me missed calls, and you are not aware whom you are calling?". Of course, I do not talk like that to anyone. I just told her curtly to check the number she was dialling.

People have time for idle chitchat on phone, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are those cases, when you want to make urgent calls, but the person refuses to receive the call. It is strange that people will not attend calls on official hours, and during unofficial hours, they will tell you- "but now the office is closed. You should have phoned me during working hours.". Technology may have changed and advanced, but the tendency to pass the buck and shirk work remains intact.

You find that people do not attend your calls? I have an idea. Phone them when they are driving a two wheeler or a four wheeler. People who have no time to talk on mobile while in office would readily take out their mobiles and talk while driving. Four wheeler driver will have his mobile in left hand and steering wheel on right hand. And he would not stop by the side. He would continue to drive and talk. And two wheeler guy will contort his head and shoulder in a weird position, with the mobile precariously nestled between the two, the eyes pointing dreamily towards the heaven, and he will have no clue where he is going on his two wheeler. The worst part is, these people are not even aware how unsafe this is. These people do not know/ follow basic driving rules, and the fact that talking on mobile makes a driver more at risk than a drunk driver is not even known to these people. And if there has been any effort to educate them on traffic rules, chances are that the educators themselves are not very well educated in these matters.

There is this saying that a fool and his money are soon parted.Most people would seriously mind being called a fool, but it is an old saying that continues to be proved right. And interestingly enough, the ways to fool people have become more and more sophisticated. It will take many many lengthy posts to explain how people are taken for a ride ( euphemism for being fooled) in day to day life. Here, let me confine myself just to mobile.

Calling on the mobile is the basic use of this device, and you can also use it as a phone book. But there are so many features on a mobile phone. There are so many features in a computer as well, but no one is after you to use all these features. But when it comes to mobile phones, people like service poviders, TV channels, banks, insureres etc want you to make use of all the features that your mobile phone may have. You are repeatedly asked to download the latest ring tones. TV channels with their competitions encourage you to vote for your favourite participants as many times as you want.Even I keep myself updated with cricket scores by SMS.Mind you, all these sevices cost money to you- something like Rs 5 to Rs 8 per SMS or so.These small looking expenses mount up. One individual may not think much of his three figures bills, but there are millions like him/her doing the same, and that results in 9 figures (100s of croresof rupees) revenue for the mobile companies.If anyone does these maths, the mobile service providers have reasons to laugh louder on their way to the bank, all that by taking you for a ride, which you may not have intended to take in the first place.

Making you buy things which you do not need is a standard practice used by salesmen and mobile service providers are no different. The fact that people lose their ability to think independently, thanks to their repeated exposure to TV contributes in a big way. Radio was different, there you had to make some effort to follow the broadcast that exercised your mind. On TV, you do not even have to do so, and the TV channels find millions of sitting ducks, all vulnerable to any kind of addiction that these channels may serve up- cartoons, cricket, soap opera. If you do not realise them as addictions, then chances are, you are addicted. Personally, I admit that I was addicted to cricket, but seeing how BCCI was taking the Indian public for a ride, I am trying to get myself deaddicted from cricket.

I loved finding about all the features of computers and even tweaking any software and hardware features of my computers.But even I cannot keep myself abreast of the advances being made in mobile technology. And honestly, I do not feel that I need to use all these features. For instance, why do I need to use a mobile like a camera, like a radio, or like a MP3 player,to play games, or to watch movies. Using a mobile to listen to music is a waste of your battery power, if you are on a journey and you do not have charging facility.Why not use a dedicated MP3 player instead ? And why watch movies on a puny 2" x 2" screen ? Have a dedicated equipment custom built for that purpose, if you must watch movies or must play games.

Of course, these are my views and my rants. I do not expect others to do and think like me. After all, the mobile companies,TV channels,BCCI, private banks etc need to make profits, don't they ?
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Akashwani news and Indian satellites

On a fine day in 1975, we were informed with big fanfare on Akashwani that India had become only the 5th or 6th nation to have its artificial satellite. This satellite, launched from Soviet Union, was called Aryabhatta. It was a big news, and Indians rejoiced just as much as they had done the last year.

These two news items ( 1974 Pokharan and this 1975 Aryabhatta satellite) meant that I, who was interesting in Bollywood music and sports, became interested in Indian achievement in various fields in general and in scientific achievements in particular.

In 1979, India had another satellite called Bhaskara launched from Soviet Union.

Same year, Indians grew more ambitious and decided to launch satellites from home in what was called SLV (satellite launch vehicle), but the first such attempt of SLV launching a satellite called Rohini failed. Later in 1980,SLV successfully launched another satellite called Rohini-I and Akashwani again informed us something like India becoming only the fifth or so country in the world to have this capability. And I was suitably proud of this achievement. then an experiment communication satellite called APPLE was successfully launched in 1981( which led to spoof in humour magazine "Madhu Muskaan" showing Popat- Chaupat, the main cartoon characters of the magazine going to space in BANANA satellite). It was launched from Kourou, French Guyana on Ariane rocket.In the same year, Bhaskar-II was launched successfully.

In each case, the Akashwani news would cover the launch of the satellite, then the hourly health of the satellite for a few days- now the satellite has been launched, now the satellite has established contact with the master control facility as Hassan, now the satellite has been put into an intermediate orbit etc. In the coming days, the satellite would be gradually brought up to its final orbit and interested audience like me would await the outcome with bated breath.

The purpose for the satellites was also mentioned in detail in news bulletins, as was the expected duration for which it was supposed to stay in space. In fact, how much fuel it contained and its booster motors were also discussed in the news items. As it was, the satellites were supposed to usher in the dawn of a new era in telecommunications in India.

satellites had begun to be used for telecommunications in those days. Countries like USA, Soviet Union and European Union were the pioneers in the field. Other countries would lease transponders on their satellites or get their own satellites launched from their launching facilities.

India had leased some transponders on INTELSAT satellite, a satellite owned by US, and India got these on lease so that they could telecast educational programmes for their rural folks. And that was used by Indian TV Doordarshan to telecast its programmes to some selected parts of India- and in true Govt of India fashion, the programmes were dull and boring.

India decided that they needed to have their own telecommunication satellites.
And the first telecommunication satellite in this connection was called INSAT-1A. (Brief for India satellite-1A, 1A showing that it was the first satellite in the series of satellites planned, subsequent satellites were to be called INSAT-1B, INSAT-1C etc).This was to be launched by NASA at Cape Canvarel aboard Delta rocket in 1982.

Everyone, at least people like me,eagerly looked forward to the launch of INSAT-1A, which was supposed to serve Indian telecommunication needs for 5 years, and would herald telecommunication facilities that were stuff of science fiction for Indians. We were informed that the Indians would be able to watch TV all over the country, like they were able to listen to All India radio. Even the radio coverage was likely to improve. Moreover, telephone facilities were supposed to become much better than even before.

The launch was successful, and how the satellite had established contact with the master control facility as Hassan etc were given good coverage by Akashwani.Then the process of manoevering it to its final orbit via intermediate orbits began.But the enthusiasm soon gave way to despair and later it was informed that the satellite had used up too much energy in the process of reaching its geostationary orbit. It lasted only three months against a projected life of five years. I was very disappointed.

Next satellite in the series INSAT-1B was launched from Cape Canavaral and this time it was launched in 1983 by a space shuttle Challenger. It was successfully and it ushered in the promised telecommunication revolution in India.

If we recall, the era of TV and improved telecom facilities began thereafter.

Next satellite was INSAT-1C launched from Kourou aboard Ariane in 1988 to replace INSAT-1B which was completing its life soon. But this launch, though described as a success initially, soon ran into trouble. The satellite failed to operate to its full capacity as one of its solar panel failed to open ( if I recall correctly). After struggling for about one year, this satellite finally was abandoned as failed. Indian agencies, which had pinned their hopes on this satellite had to hire facilities on foreign satellites as a temporary measure, hoping that the next launch would be successful.

Next satelite, INSAT-ID ( last in the INSAT I series), launched from Cape Canavaral aboard Delta rocket was successful. It was the first time that an Indian satellite aboard a rocket was successfully launched. Also, quite coincidentally, the two successful Indian satellites were both launched by NASA,USA. This communication satellite finally took into to the new era of telecommunication age, from which India has not looked back since.

After that, so many INSAT series satellites have been launched, and majority of them ( 12 out of 14) have been successful. I have lost track of these launches and these satellites. Their successful launch has become a non event, no one even thinks about them any longer. In fact, the last such satellite, INSAT-4CR was launched from Shri Harikota, India itself aboard GSLV, and it was successful.(Their earlier launch, that of INSAT-4C, was a failure). These days it does not attract much attention. Even I, who was so clued in on such news during my younger days, did not pay too much attention to this event, when it took place on september 2007.I was more busy thinking about Indian cricket team's chances in the inaugural Twenty20 world cup.

The fact that Indian PSLV launchers had been launching smaller satellites for many countries such as Italy,Israel, Indonesia, Argentina,Canada etc has failed to make news. In January 2008,PSLV launched 4 satellites simultaneously. Later PSLV launch in April 2008 saw as many as 10 satellites launched simultaneously ( 8 of them for foreign countries), and no one even took notice. The world record is 13 satellites in one launch by Russia the same year, but theRussian satellites only weighed 295 kg in all, against total weight of over 1000 Kg aboard PSLV).

One has to admit that the Indian satellite efforts had come a long way from those days in 1970s and 1980s if such news items no longer get any coverage in the Indian media.

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Akashwani news in early 1970s

I have mentioned that Bollywood music and sports were the main items of interest for me on radio broadcasts. Then there were news. Not all news interested me. I was interested in sports news on the regular news bulletin. In a regular news bulletin in Akashwani lasting 10 or 15 minutes, we first had the headlines, followed by the news in detail. In the end, the headlines were repeated again.

I especially looked forward to the sports news, which came towards the end of the bulletin and received step motherly treatment. Sports news were not regarded as important enough to merit a mention in the headlines. In some rare cases, sports news actually made the headline, and then I would eagerly look forward to the details of the news, only to find that the same one line that was read in the headlines, were read again, and that was all. To add insult to injury, the same one line would again be read out towards the end of the bulletin when the announcer read the headlines again. So in effect one single line was repeated thrice in a news item, and that was supposed to take care of sports news in a normal Akashwani news bulletin.

In case India managed to win a test match, or won a hockey tournament, the regular bulletin, though, would mention this news as the first headline. This was the only time when one could hope to hear more than one line of sports news in the regular news bulletin. The players responsible in the win were given some coverage.Rest on the coverage on this win included the congratulatory messages to the team from dignitories like the President of India,Prime Minister of India, Sports Minister, Speaker of Lok sabha, Chairman of rajya sabha,etc, etc.

The origin of most news was Delhi, and the originator of most news was the Government of India. Every news bulletin typicaly began with what the Prime Minister said or did, followed by what other ministers said or did. One minute or two was also devoted to what the Chief Ministers of congress ruled states said or did, when they came to New Delhi to meet the high command. With this kind of news, which conveyed the impression of Delhi and Bharat sarkar being an all powerful entity, people were in awe of Bharat sarkar. and often, Chief ministers of states would be dismissed on a whim, or president's rule would be imposed in some states, and it hardly made much news,unlike what we see today even for much trivial matters.

As a kid, I thought that the Government of India must be a very impressive behemoth, and its officials must surely have more than two limbs,more than one head ( each head being equipped with horns),etc.

There were international news as well, in which the Indian prime minister was shown to be active as a major player- mainly as an active participant in NAM ( non Aligned Movement) and in the organisation of British Commonwealth. Some international news was also about the aid that India received from other foreign countries.

As individuals, taking loans and becoming a debtor was considered such a stigma for individuals, but the government of India taking loans from foreign countries was almost glorified, which I could never understand. Worse,India was not even sufficient in foodstuff till late 1970s, and India would import foodstuff from US, which would send wheat deemed unsuitable for US cattle, for Indians to eat. Hopefully, things began to look up on the food front. Akashwani and other government organisations, mainly DAVP and NFDC, started to inform the public through radio,print media and movies, respectivel, that India had become self sufficient in food stuff. It was one major news for the Indians to feel proud about.Also, I never heard a news item that mentioned India having repaid any of these loans fully.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, I really admire the guts of the then India PM, who could rub USA ( the mightiest nation in the world even then) the rough way and still get away with it.It was truly a case of super power vs super poor and the super poor nation, which could not even afford to grow enough food for its population and depended on foreign financial aid to survive, would often harangue some of its own aid donating countries on many international issues. It was true cartoon network stuff where Jerry the mouse would regularly thump Tom the cat and would still get away.

Whenever India managed to do something improbable, Akashwani would broadcast it in the news and would also mention that India had become only the nth country to do that.

In 1974, we were informed that India had exploded a "peaceful" nuclear bomb, and that India was only the fifth country in the world to do so. USA and other coutries protested a lot and imposed many sanctions, but that was like trying to disrobe a person who was already naked. It hardly made any difference to India or Indians.

One good thing that Akashwani did was to have a separate 5 minute Khel samachar in Hindi( 7 PM to 7:05 PM) and Sports news in English (8:00 PM to 8:05 PM). This was a great improvement on the earlier arrangement of repeating one line of sports news thrice in the regular news bulletin.

A few months later, Akashwani came up with another brainwave. They started a sanskrit news also. And cartoonists had a field day, showing old women devotedly sitting infront of the radio listening to Akashwani, regarding the news as voice from the Gods.Incidentally, that is how Gods from the sky used to address human beings in Indian mythology, in Sanskrit, and it was also called Akashwani.

I was not like the old Indian women of these cartoons, but I would do something similar while listening to Akashwani news in later years, that I am going to discuss next.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

BBC World Service (English) in 1970s

I have discussed a few radio stations, viz Akashwani (All India Radio),Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon (later Sri Lanka Broadcasting corporation) in detail. In fact, I have even discussed Jhumri Tilaiyya, the small town with a penchant for sending farmaishes (requests)to radio stations for playing Bollywood film songs.

But there were other popular radio stations too,that had their own loyal audience. One such radio station was BBC.

When a typical Indian radio listener of 1970s said BBC, he/ she did not necessarily mean the world service of BBC that was broadcast in English. Of course, I was a loyal listener of this English service too. But for many Indian listeners, BBC meant its programmes in languages such as Hindi and Urdu.

Let me first discuss the English language world service. I used to listen to it on shortwave 31meter band, and my favourite BBC programme was the sports round up, a 15 minutes programme that discussed sports news. I would wait for this programme at 6:15 PM in the evening IST as well as at 11:15 PM, even if the latter time was regarded as too late in those days.

Another programme was obviously the BBC TMS ( test match special) where running commentary of test matches ( called ball by ball coverage) was broadcast. In those days, when there was no TV in India, Indians of all generations, including my generation grew up following BBC TMS. Listening to the voices of great names like Jim Swanton and John Arlott was as pleasing to one's ears as was listening to Ameen Sayani presenting Binaca geetmala ( obviously on a diferent topic on a different radio in a different language). Both of these commentators retired from commentary in 1970s, and their retirements were big news. For instance, I recall that it was covered in sportsweek magazine ( India's only English language sports magazine).

In case it rained in cricket matches, All India Radio covering the match would start playing classical instrumental music.How I hoped that they would play instumentals of recent Bollywood hit songs instead, but then All India radio bigwigs were not known for catering to lower class tastes like mine. BBC on the other hand would not do anything likethat. They would continue to discuss cricket. It was just that instead of discussing the match on hand, they would switch into the nostalgia mode and would begin discussing cricket matches and cricketers from the past.Radio listeners like me, who were so starved of cricket information, would latch on to every single word lest we miss out on some valuable nuggets of wisdom.

Of course, BBC was renowned for its impartial news. Considering how the All India radio was used as a propaganda tool by the government of India, Indian listeners relied on BBC news to find out what was going on in their own country.

Most of the news of BBC were world news, and Indian news formed very small part of it, though there were some specific times when South Asian news would be presented. And that was an eagerly looked forward to programme for those who were interested in such news.

And I was there beside my radio when India toured England to play three test matches in 1974. The way the Indians ( who regarded themselves as a top cricket team, having won three test series in a row) were made to look foolish is now known to all cricket fans. In fact, it was during this season that I discovered BBC (English as well as its Hindi/Urdu services).

Next year, Indians were back in England, this time to play in the inaugural world cup. No one, including many players had much clue about these limited overs matches. India selectors picked Venkatraghawan as the captain of the team simply because he was exposed to this brand of cricket in England. In reality, he was not a regular in the limited over team of his county Derbyshire. So the India team was being captained by a player who was not good enough to find a place in the playing XI of an English county.

Others in the team were worse,which became obvious as the world cup began. And no one showed his ineptitude more dramatically than one Sunil Gavaskar, who crawled to his infamous 36 not out in an innings lating 60 overs. And all these news came to us via BBC coverage of the event.

Another sports coverage that I looked forward to was the Wimbledon. And I was glued to my radio during men's final of 1981 when John McEnroe managed to break Bjorn Borg's Wimbledon starnglehold after a hard fought 4 sets victory. A few years later, TV era dawned in India, and we had a single TV channel called Doordarshan. First Wimbledon that I saw on TV was in 1985 when Becker made history, by winning the men's Wimbledon title at 17. He in fact , was younger than the boy's champion, Leonardo Lavalle. And I also recall a unique record about Jimmy Connors, which no one else except me noticed. Connors lost in the semifinal ( i.e played 6 matches), and his six opponents were born in six different continents.

Next year, when Becker won again, this time beating Lendl in straight sets in the final, I followed it on TV in the common room of my hostel ( like the previous year), but I did one more resourceful thing this time. I borrowed the "two-in-one" (Radio cum tape recorder) of another person, put on one blank audio tape and switched it on to record the BBC commentary of the Wimbledon men's final. After watching the telecast, I came to my room, and found a very decent quality audio recording ready in the "two-in-one".

I did the same thing a few months later during the world cup football final of 1986. While I was watching the final on TV in the TV room, the BBC commentary of the most crucial moments of the match between Argentina and Germany, including the spree of goals in the last few minutes of the match were getting recorded in my room. The recording once again came out very well.

I would often play these two recordings in my room to relive those magic moments. One of my hostel mates spread the information that I religiously listened to these recordings two times a day every day. A good laugh it may have been for all, but he was not too far off the mark.

Of course BBC had many quality programmes up their sleeves apart from news and the seasonal sports coverage such as TMS specials and Wimbledon.Every programme had its own signature tune, and one could know by the tune which programme was being aired. I took these signature tunes for granted, before I listened to one special programme, where we were informed that BBC had their own inhouse section where these theme tunes were created.

BBC also had music programmes, but most of it went over my head. However hard I listened to it, I could not make much of it. Brought up on Bollywood music that I was, I tried to look for similarities between the two kinds of music, but I could find none, and as a result I could never become a fan of that kind of music.

In addition to BBC English service, they had services in other languages tailor made for many countries. For South Asia, for instance, they had programmes in Hindi, Urdu,Bangla,etc and they were very popular. I will discuss Hindi and Urdu service of BBC in my next article.

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