The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Prejudice lurks in dark corners

In "Women in computing: first, get the problem right", ESR explains that everyone else just misunderstood the problems that keep women away from computing and other technical fields; and that although achieving equality is precluded by the difference in dispersion of the IQ curves, his insights can help to establish the large, happy female minority that is the best we can hope for in its stead.

Talking about prejudice in this context is lazy, stupid, [and] wrong, and the real reason women bail out of computing is that they have short fertile periods, and their biological instincts tell them not to waste time on the warrior-ethic ways of programming.

By these and other bold observations, ESR demonstrates the honesty and willingness to speak uncomfortable truths that are prerequisite to addressing the problem. For example:

I don't mean to deny that there is still prejudice against women lurking in dark corners of the field.

Prejudice. Lurking in dark corners. Who would have thought it?

I'll file this article away right next to his equally-insightful “Sex tips for geeks”.

A new symbol for the Indian Rupee

Having a custom symbol for the Indian Rupee apparently allows us to join an “exclusive club” of countries whose currencies have a “distinct identity”. Bah!

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Art, taxes, and fashion

Seen a few days ago in the Hindu:

Mumbai: The Bombay High Court on Monday upheld fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani's case that he is an artist for the purpose of claiming exemption under the Income Tax Act.

How very well put. He's an artist for the purpose of claiming tax exemptions.

Goriganga: safe, but for how long?

Yesterday brought the heartening news that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has rejected NTPC's proposal to build the 261MW Rupsiyabagar-Khasiyabara power plant on the Gori river near Munsiari in Uttarakhand, because of the profound damage it would cause to the fragile and ecologically important area (which is to say nothing about how it would affect the people in the fifty-odd villages along the river that would dry up due to the diversion of water).

I've been following this project for a while, because I have a special interest in the area. I have visited a number of times for bird surveys (and I plan to do more work there in future), and my friends there have been tirelessly involved in local conservation efforts for many years; so I can claim to know a little about its ecology. It seems obvious to me that constructing a large dam there would be a disaster—no doubt it is obvious to NTPC as well, because they have been spreading misinformation about it from the very start.

To begin with, the environmental impact assessment prepared for them by WAPCOS (Water and Power Consultancy Services) is nonsense. To pick on just one section where I am qualified to comment, the biodiversity estimates are wildly inaccurate. Where they list fewer than a hundred species of plants and trees, a few thousand are documented from the area, many of which occur nowhere else. They mention only ten species of mammals and eight species of birds from an area whose checklist runs to about 300, and where I saw more than a hundred species in three days (and even an eight-year-old Ammu must have seen a few dozen on her first morning walk). Then they blithely conclude that the impact on wildlife would be minimal:

Disturbance to wildlife

During construction phase, large number of machinery and construction labour will have to be mobilized. The operation of various construction equipment, and blasting is likely to generate noise. These activities can lead to some disturbance to wildlife population. Likewise, siting of construction equipment, godowns, stores, labour camps, etc. can lead to adverse impacts on fauna, in the area. From the available data, the area does not have significant wildlife population. Likewise, area does not appear to be on the migratory routes of animals and therefore the construction of the project will not affect the animals.

Anyone who has visited the area and knows anything about wildlife would be able to see how ridiculous these claims are. The rest of the report follows in the same vein (for example, it talks about the advantages of importing migrant labour amounting to some 77% of the local population in terms of the "exchange of ideas and cultures between various groups of people which would not have been possible otherwise").

NTPC has also been hard at work in the area to make sure opposition to the project is ignored, downplayed, or eliminated. They have used force to intimidate people who questioned the project, bribed public officials (and admitted to doing so), and colluded with them to interfere in local Van Panchayat elections to disallow candidates who opposed the project. They have held "public hearings" when people from affected villages were not able to attend (because they were on an annual excursion to collect medicinal plants at higher altitudes), and refused to acknowledge and record critical questions at such hearings.

There are many people in the area who support the project because NTPC is bringing money and promises of development to a poor and remote area; and because they have no access to information about the environmental and social record of big dams in India to evaluate the promises, and no way to estimate the long-term costs to the area and their livelihoods to compare against the paltry compensation being offered for their lands today.

Now they might give me compensation…
That's not what I'm chasing. I was a rich man before yesterday.
Now all I have got is a cheque and a pickup truck, and
I left my farm under the freeway.
— Jethro Tull, “Farm on the Freeway

It remains to be seen if the MoEF's rejection is binding, or if the NTPC (which has already invested heavily in land acquisition and construction in the area), and the other people who stand to gain from the project at the expense of local inhabitants, will find some way to work around it.

How long can the Gori valley survive such determined opposition?

CSS3 font selection

I've used Verdana as the preferred font on this web site for years. I don't particularly like it, but it works well enough and is widely available. But is there a better choice?

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A fond farewell to “narco analysis”

If you want to use Veritaserum, you know where to find Azkaban.

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Leave copyright notices alone!

Please don't bother to update copyright notices in your code to add each new year as time passes. It serves no useful purpose.

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Perforce did not suck

I've noticed that a lot of people in the open source world have a negative opinion of Perforce, whether they've used it or not. Here is one recent example:

There's also Perforce, which I don't know much about, but I gather it's a crappy proprietary centralised VCS which is worse than Subversion in pretty much every way.

This kind of offhand dismissal by people who are not familiar with Perforce is very common. When we were switching from Perforce to git for the Perl 5 source code, a lot of people assumed we wanted to do it because Perforce wasn't good enough (but it was really because the open source licensing procedure was non-trivial, and the lack of anonymous repository access was seen as inhibiting contributors; there were also objections to depending on a free-but-not-Free program).

There are other people who have used Perforce and not liked something about it. Their opinions range from reasoned critiques to poisonous rants:

[Dear Perforce… ] Fuck you, you miserable, untrustworthy, misleading, overpriced bastard. I hope your office goes up in flames along with all your off-site backups. I pray that some open source product that actually works is embraced by all the major companies and drives you out of business. I hope that no other company is duped by your salespeople into thinking you have something even remotely close in quality to the ancient and craptastic product known as CVS. Never before have I experienced so much pain in the most simplistic of version control tasks as I have since starting to work at a company that made the mistake of considering you.

I used Perforce exclusively for many years, both for large projects with many other users and small personal projects, and my experience with it was very different. I loved Perforce. I found it refreshingly simple to learn, it worked fast and unsurprisingly and well, and it had excellent support and documentation (of the kind that few open source programs of any kind have, even now). I encountered only two or three minor bugs in it after several years of use, and I never once had to fix the repository (a welcome change from CVS).

There are, of course, many valid criticisms of Perforce, and my intention is not to defend it against those. I've suffered from some of its problems myself: its (mostly justifiable) dependence on the network was at odds with my very slow dialup link, p4p (the proxy) didn't work very well for me, some administrators I know had problems configuring their server the way they wanted, and so on. I switched to git myself a few years ago, and later helped other projects (Perl, Archiveopteryx) I cared about to move away from Perforce too. I haven't regretted the change.

But Perforce certainly did not suck, and there are some things I still miss about it. As non-distributed VCSes go, I think Perforce is vastly better than the (many) other programs I've used.

An experiment in writing faster

I've always enjoyed writing, but it's only in the past year or so that I've forced myself to write regularly. The practice is paying off, the principal difference being that I consistently write much faster than I could before. I've also been able to identify and correct a number of problems with my writing that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Thanks to some bad habits I've developed, however, there's still plenty of room for improvement. For example, I tend to rewrite things to make the right margin of the paragraph line up "nicely", which is an absurd waste of time. Sometimes, I get stuck at a particular sentence or paragraph and tweak it endlessly rather than moving onwards.

Years ago, I read about a program whose minimal interface was modelled on a typewriter. It presented a blank screen, with nothing to distract from the process of writing; and it had minimal editing capabilities, to avoid the temptation of rearranging text. I can't remember what that program was called, but there is more than one like it (e.g., Writeroom and OmniWriter for OS X, and a few clones). Most of them have more features than I can remember reading about.

I spent an hour or so writing a similar Qt program. It was surprisingly easy (thanks to some advice from my Qt hacker friends Arnt and Brad): I created a QWidget, called showFullScreen() on it, gave it a QPlainTextEdit child displayed in the centre of the screen, and wrote a few lines of code to load and save files. The QPlainTextEdit class provides minimal editing capabilities, which suits me fine. I named the program wry, and I've been using it for some months now. (The source is at for the incurably curious.)

Digression: I'm very pleased that Unicode text "just works" in wry. I can display Markus Kuhn's UTF-8 demo with none of the ugly problems I've had with xterm in the past. For Unicode text input, I set up ~/.Xcompose so that I can compose any character I want, but I miss vim's :digraphs command, which would show me the available options.

Using wry was slightly frustrating at first, but once I got used to it, it worked very well. The enforced lack of distractions helped me to put down more text more quickly; and it was easier and faster to edit things later when I was looking at several paragraphs rather than one sentence. Since wry uses a proportional font and rewraps text as it likes, I could no longer waste time trying to align the right margin.

Someday, perhaps I'll be cured enough that I can write properly in vim without succumbing to the temptation of editing, but until then, wry is the perfect set of training wheels.

Do Supreme Court judges live in an alternate universe?

The Chief Justice of India asked Medha Patkar “not to have a cynical approach towards large irrigation projects” 🙄

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