Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Oh, crumbs!

Recent events have brought back very fond memories of one the eighties famous characters, DangerMouse and his faithful hamster sidekick Penfold (Codename: Jigsaw, as he is often known to "go to pieces").

I was quite amused to find out that the black eye-patch that he wore throughout this series, wasn't really needed - he didn't have a bad eye. As he himself pointed out - it is worn "because it's part of the suit".

Through its wonderfully humorous, exciting, surreal adventures and the continuing fight against the evil forces of this world, this little mouse never failed to save the day.

One of my memorable quotes from this series can perhaps go to show how we can sometimes accurately analyse our surroundings to make a necessary point, and then proceed to completely miss the point, when Dudley Poyson, one of the characters from the series, shouts...

"I'll call myself a cab right away! I'm a cab, I'm a cab!"

VFS plugs security hole

This is an update to my earlier posting on the VFS security breach on the 10th of May.

I am pleased to write that this security breach on the VFS UK India website has now been rectified, thanks to the timely action taken by Davey Winder, and the co-operation of the VFS India IT department. He has published an article on this yesterday which describes the sequence of events that led to the resolution of this serious issue.

Having run out of avenues to turn to in an attempt to get someone to take notice, Davey Winder was my obvious last resort. I am quite thankful to Davey for approaching this in a very responsible and proactive way, and for his genuine concern and understanding about the implications this could possibly have.

At the moment, I can only reveal that I am in touch with UK government officials to aid in their investigations so that such breaches are not repeated in the future.

Update 17 th May: Statement by Lord Triesman, UK Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Announces an independent government investigation into this breach.

Update 14th August: Results of the investgation are out. More details on this post.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Please stay Doctor

In conversation with an honest city doctor, recently transferred here from New Delhi:

"Bangalore is only good for engineers. This is not the place for doctors at all. Where I came from (Delhi), there are serious illnesses like Dengue, Cholera, Tuberculosis and so many others. Here, there's only a little bit of Arthritis, that's all. Nothing really good to help us doctors - I suppose its all to do with the wonderfully comfortable weather here."

[Note that sufficient liberty has been taken to alter the above quote by way of filling in missing articles and prepositions. Upon request, a raw version of this quote can be provided for purists]

This statement finally explained to me why I've been subjected to gradually declining medical standards in Bangalore. In spite of the lure of big-spending, non-bill-verifying, couldn't-care-less-because-my-company-pays IT professionals in the city, we're losing all our doctors to the competition!

The views expressed here do not necessarily mean that the medical fraternity and standards in Bangalore is in a deplorable state right now. Bangalore, and southern India in general are still prominent on the cure-map for the most of the country. So we're not there yet.

But, the next time you feel healthy about yourself, remember to spare a thought because you could be unknowingly contributing to the city's doctor-drain.

1961 Volkswagen Beetle: Air cooled, not water

"In the past, a few VW owners have been amused to find a perplexed gas station attendant with a bucket of water and no place to put it.

But we've taken care of that in our '61 model. This year a windshield washer is standard equipment"

Incidentally, its interesting to note that the design of this popular "peoples car" was inspired by none other than Adolf Hitler himself in 1932. His initial sketch can be found here.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Bangalore: All in a name

Perhaps a lot of debate has already taken place over the string of new pre-colonial names that have been conferred to our cities. If I remember right, it all started off in 1995 with Bombay (Mumbai), then soon followed by Madras (Chennai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and now Bangalore (Bengaluru).

"Dad, but what does the word Bangalore mean?"
"Well son, it all begins during the Ganga Dynasty in the 9th century when the city got its name as the City of Guards...
...and finally when the name was anglicized during the 18th and 19th centuries by the East India company and the British Raj."

As we await the Central Governments approval on Bangalore's new name, I cannot help but wonder at what we might stand to lose from this march to assert local pronunciation over what we deem as foreign.

Indian author and diplomat, Shashi Tharoor, remarked "Are we Indians so insecure in our independence that we still need to prove to ourselves that we are free?"

I don't believe that this trend is entirely about our insecurity, but more of identity. And its true the we must assert our identity. Yet by attempting to erase our colonial past in this way, generations after us will be deprived of having lessons in our history crystallized so naturally within the name of our cities.

"Dad, but what does the word Bengaluru mean?"
"Well son, it was during the Ganga Dynasty in the 9th century when this city got its name as the City of Guards."

Friday, 11 May 2007

A cure for your ails

American philosopher and author, Eric Hoffer remarked "We all have private ails. The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails"

Thursday, 10 May 2007

25 Years of the ZX Spectrum

Last month, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer turned 25. The Guardian had a special tribute to this classic little home computer that "made a generation of younger people - and some of their parents - computer literate, and for a while instilled a genuine affection between man and machine". The BBC also has an excellent article here.

I managed to get my hands on a Speccy somewhere in January 1985, when my dad bought one for the family. This was the 48K Spectrum+, released in October 1984. The Spectrum+ introduced no changes to the basic Spectrum hardware but provided a "professional keyboard" replacing its much talked about yet violently disliked dead-flesh-feel rubber keys. In India, a company called Decibel marketed this under the name 'dB Spectrum+', and become reasonably popular in the sub-continent during the 1986-1989 period. Some of us, like me, had the original, smuggled into the country guised as a sleek typewriter. But you needn't explicitly declare to customs control that it was a typewriter. In those days, the customs officials at Indian airports would let you off on grounds of insanity if you tried to convince them that you had a computer tucked away in your hand baggage. Having said that, letting them make their own conclusions was always safer.

It's somewhat sad that it all came to an end, and reluctantly, I had to switch my allegiance to an IBM compatible Personal Computer. But for me, being reminded about the Speccy, is always like getting drenched in a shower of nostalgia.

After endless hours on games such as Manic Miner, Skool Daze, Daley Thompson's Decathlon, Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg and a host of others, I eventually tried my hand at learning BASIC. From then on there was no looking back, and I found myself hooked on to Z80 (that's the Zilog CPU that the Spectrum uses) assembly language programming. Right about that time, I recall having independently come up with a 12-point list of medical excuses that I could use for missing school!

It may be hard to believe for today's Intel Core Duo users, that the Speccy actually loaded its software from cassette tapes, and anyone who owned a Speccy together with a double-cassette recorder was almost always a prolific pirate! You could actually fit in a huge compilation of games and other software on a C90 tape, and loading a 40 Kilobyte game took a staggering 5 minutes during which you had to sit in front of your TV and watch colourful lights dancing to the rhythm of the bytes.

One thing that the ZX Spectrum taught me, and something that I've advised a lot of my friends and acquaintances over the years, is that its not always necessary to ensure that you have the fastest and the latest computing system. What matters is what meets your requirements, and in the end, any computer is only as good as its user.

During the time that I owned my Speccy, I'm glad that I was able to keep pushing its limits, thanks to the help of numerous books and magazines that it had spawned. Whether it was coercing pixels on the screen where you couldn't, or connecting and controlling home-brewed hardware that you really shouldn't.

The enthusiasm and energy that this machine generated really does live on till this day. It taught countless individuals across the world that you needn't accept given limitations, and a little can go a long long way. I'm getting all misty eyed now.

Happy Birthday Speccy!

Identity Leakage: Trust VFS to reveal all

The Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) in India have over the years greatly simplified any need to escape the motherland. If you're privileged enough to possess appropriately valid and verified documents, be it travel for holiday, human trafficking, business, family reunion or work, the VFS in India will see to it that you needn't do the worrying nor have to stand in long queues overnight wondering whether you've filled in that visa form correctly. According to recent reports I've been hearing, those days are almost gone.

On the VFS UK India website, you can nowadays apply online for most United Kingdom (UK) visa categories, as part of their Business Express Program and track your application too. VFS India are the British High Commission's commercial partner, and they operate application centres on behalf of the 4 visa departments in India.They have about 11 offices across Indian cities.

Last year, while I was directed to this VFS website due to an UK assignment, I stumbled upon a technical problem. After entering all my details on the online visa application form, I couldn't proceed further. All I had was this blank browser page on my computer monitor, and a 'Back' button that refused to do what it was designed to do.

Having spent a good hour typing in my details, I decided to twiddle around with the URL in my browser to see if something could be salvaged. About two minutes of twiddling with the VFS Uniform Resource Locator (URL) resulted in the following revelation: Anyone who has ever applied for a UK visa online, have their personal details exposed to everyone on the Internet. Personal details such as passport number, address, phone numbers, email, family details, work details, salary, clients, real-estate owned, countries you've visited, where you're going and when you're travelling...the list goes on. Essentially, the entire form, i.e. everything the British High Commission needs to know about you to grant you a visa is available for anyone to misuse. Security is thrown out the window.

This was naturally quite shocking. I quickly verified that what I was seeing was true: that VFS India could be responsible for large scale identity theft, for every online visa application that it receives. I sent an email to both VFS India and the British High Commission explaining this serious security issue. After about two months, I heard back from the British High Commission thanking me for the email bringing this to their notice, and promising to look into this matter. A year later nothing has happened. And this is in spite of the fact that identity theft in the UK is treated quite seriously and there is a parliamentary act that protects such information.

Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses another person's personal information to take on that person's identity. Identity theft in any form has serious consequences, and our law-makers in India should take a tougher stance. From a Wikipedia entry on Identity Theft, "The crimes include illegal immigration, terrorism and espionage, to mention a few. It may also be a means of blackmail if activities undertaken by the thief in the name of the victim would have serious consequences for the victim".

Terms & Conditions on the VFS UK India website state that "Under the Data Protection Act, we have a legal duty to protect any information we collect from you". And they go on to say "VFS shall not disclose or allow access to any personal data provided by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or acquired by VFS during the execution of the contract, other than to VFS personnel or those otherwise lawfully concerned with the execution of the contract".

Doesn't look like that to me. Whoever VFS India uses to design their website has some serious answering to do, and heads will surely roll. I'm not sure whether this security hole is visible in the United States VFS site or any other country's visa processing that VFS India handle.

In any case, I don't think I want to pay VFS for their services and then be exposed to this gaping security hole.

Excuse me while I try to find the end of this queue.

Update: Problem "sol-ved", as they say here in Bangalore! Check this post. This posting was also the basis of a Channel 4 television news report in the UK on the 17th of May, just a week after publishing on this blog.