Fire, Drones, and 3-D Printing: Maker Faire, SF Bay Area

I’d never been to the Maker Faire before, though it’s held annually and I’ve been hearing about it. It’s a fair for people who make things, whether from Legos or junk or fabric or wood or electronic parts. It sounded intriguing, and I thought my still-an-engineer-at-heart husband would find it interesting too. So we went.

It was huge, occupying all of the San Mateo Event Center. It was awesome.

This tower of flames is a strength machine. You hit a lever with all your strength, and depending on your strength, you get 2, 4, 6 or 8 bursts of fire. The small kids were getting 2-4, the 10-12 year-olds usually managed 6, and the teenagers easily achieved 8 flares. Like this picture.

strength machine flames


I’ve been reading about 3-D printing for a while now, but this was my first chance to actually see it in action. I lost count of how many booths there were with 3-D printers, mostly making small plastic objects. One was working with organic materials; 3-D printing is being developed as a possible way of making human organs.


The other big theme was drones – flying objects that have multiple propellers and a lot more capability than remote-controlled toy planes. Some have cameras. One booth had a drone fitted with a 3-D camera, with the idea that it could record and then 3-D print people’s faces. He couldn’t demo it because his remote control used infrared, and the outdoors area was too bright.

Inside the pavilion, there was a Drone Wars area. We didn’t stay for the main heats, but we did get a chance to watch several kinds of drones flying inside the netted arena. They seemed a bit delicate. One crashed, slightly damaged, and looked for all the world like an injured dragonfly trying to get off the ground again.

This thing is really taking off (no pun intended). Only, regulations haven’t kept pace and right now, no one knows what exactly is legal or not. In the US, commercial use of drones requires permission – but people are already using them for aerial photography. In fact, there’s a 2-minute clip of the Maker Faire, taken by a drone. It’s called “A Drone’s Day at Maker Faire.”


Some of it was sheer spectacle. They had kinetic sculptures, moving monsters made of recycled metal junk. They were powered by batteries, presumably lithium ion, or propane. Some emitted gouts of flame. This one is called El Pulpo Mechanico (and the video linked above shows it flaming from its tentacles).

el pulpo mecanicoThis dragon breathed fire – and so did the umbrella-shaped flower beside it!

flaming dragonI’d love to see this water-dragon on a lake; it looks like it would work. But that day, it was marooned on a parking lot.

sea monster with floatsThis is the Titanoboa, a mechanical representation of a now-extinct snake.


Not too sure what this was, but it looked like a metal fish monster and people were lining up to go aboard.

metal fish monster


They had a whole bunch of creative conveyances. This buggy was I think pedal-powered.
There were two of these mobile serpents racing around the grounds. The black one was more impressive, with fins on every segment and scales, but I didn’t get a good photo of it. Here’s the white one.
drum serpent
This mobile rocking horse worked with person power, only the rider had to post like he was actually riding, rather than pedaling in a circular motion. It looked exhausting. But the horse was cute and got a lot of attention.

mobile rocking horseThese two are “creature quads” – pedal-powered four-wheelers “drawn” by fuzzy monsters. This is Hawk (who can unfurl his wings), and Miss Tickle is in the background. These had an even higher cute factor, and visitors kept stopping them to pet them.
monster cart


It wasn’t all machines and monsters. The faire had a substantial fabric arts section, too. This was my favorite: Sweaty Taxidermy. She does taxidermy without actually using animal skins. Instead, she uses sweaters. The effect is arresting.

sweaty taxidermyThere were more traditional things, too, like clothes and jewelry, a lot of it with a steampunk motif.


There were all kinds of robots. This one was humanoid, and looked like we imagine robots to be. It looked more decorative than functional, though.

humanoid robotThese two were a bit different. They had to be contained behind a chain-link fence; this tall one raced around swinging a ball of fire.

fire robotIts companion was a demolition robot on caterpillar treads, crashing into metal objects provided for it to destroy.

demolition robotAnd then there was this Dalek (a Dr. Who villain). It said “Exterminate” a number of times, but it didn’t follow through. Fortunately.

recycled materials dalek

 [Note: I updated this post with more pictures from my iPhone – if I find more I like, I’ll add them in too.]

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Pinnacle Conference 2014 – IIM Alumni

Every year, IIM Americas, the alumni organization for the 13 Indian Institutes of Management, holds an annual conference.  My husband Ambi and I generally try to go. (We were classmates; he’s an alum too.)

Ashima Jain at Pinnacle 2014The organization’s come a long way since its founding less than ten years ago, as President Ashima Jain pointed out in her address, “Exciting Times.”  The name has been changed from IIM USA to IIM Americas to recognize our Toronto chapter. We’ve 13 chapters in America, and ties to overseas alumni organizations – including one in Singapore that I remember fondly. Ashima deserves a lot of the credit – despite working full time for Price Waterhouse Coopers, her energy and vision have made this organization flourish.

Exciting times for IIM AmericasUnlike the institutes themselves, whose value comes in part from their exclusiveness, IIM Americas tries to be inclusive. India now has 13 IIMs – up from three when I graduated! Most IIM alumni organizations tend to be institute-specific, and remain small.  Even IIM Kolkata, the oldest of these institutes, has a small graduating class; and the newest ones have very few alumni, because they’re new. Having a pan-IIM alumni association made all the difference – it now has 7,500 alumni as members, from all of the IIMs, old and new.

At Pinnacle, we missed the breakfast meeting on mergers and acquisitions – too early and too far for me, particularly since my interest in the topic is largely academic. The conference was at the Googleplex in Mountain View, a good hour’s drive from home.


Ro Khanna, who’s running for Congress in California’s 17th Congressional District, spoke about the need for an honest and nuanced conversation about jobs and the global economy. People don’t want jobs going overseas, but also want the lower prices from “Made in China.” A US-made smart phone, for instance, would cost around $2300. Also, technological change is a much larger reason for job loss on globalization, displacing low- and middle-skilled workers.

Attending a last-minute meeting in New York, Radha Ramaswami Basu, CEO of iMerit Technologies, gave her talk by video-conference. She was in India with Hewlett Packard years ago, and we were interested to know what she’s working on now. After her 20-year career at Hewlett Packard, she and her husband started a social enterprise called Anudip Foundation to train impoverished young men and women in Kolkata, India, in information technology and micro-entrepreneurship. Then she started iMerit to sell remote IT service to US companies, thus providing jobs to Anudip graduates.


Two interesting panel discussions focused on data privacy and on entrepreneurship.

Who has our data, and does it matter? Panelists Ankit Jain, (formerly of Google and founder of Quettra Inc),  Rachna Choudhry, (founder of, a start-up that helps individuals locate and understand bills before Congress), Lil Mohan, (entrepreneur and technologist); and Ro Khanna all agreed that large web companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo collected huge amounts of information on everyone who used the internet. After the Snowden revelations, we all know the US government also does. But: so what?

There were two interesting and opposed viewpoints. It’s companies gathering data that’s the real problem; they don’t use it for the common good but for marketing, while the government would generally use it to make us safer Vs:  It’s legitimate for companies to gather data about their clients as they’ve always done; but the size and power of the government that makes possible misuse of data both tempting and downright dangerous.

“People are willing to sacrifice data privacy for security,” commented the person sitting beside me.

But my experience is that it doesn’t even take that. People are willing to sacrifice data privacy for convenience. Everyone on the panel favored more transparency about what data was being collected, by whom, and how it was being used. But even if all that information were available, I suspect most people won’t bother checking.

What makes an entrepreneur succeed? Dr Ram Nidumolu (entrepreneur, author and academic), Mehul Nariyawala, (“Serial entrepreneur” and now at Google after his company got acquired), and Doc Vaidyanathan, (VP at CA Technologies) talked about what qualities an entrepreneur needs. A willingness to take risk is the most important, and one suggestion was to start something early before you’re embedded in a cushy job, with a family and a mortgage. Flexibility was essential, because no plan survived contact with reality. Determination, because ventures can and do fail; the key is to see it as a learning experience. (“Ventures fail, entrepreneurs do not.”) And luck, of course.

One of the pleasures of these gatherings is meeting old friends. I ran into S. Vittal, my IIM/A classmate who I hadn’t seen since we left the institute. Vittal, Ambi and I were among the most senior alums present — though there was one alumnus who had us beat by nearly a decade!

Outdoor lunch area at Googleplex




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Product “Improvement”

This is not a grumble about the ever-growing complications of home electronics devices, where the key to success appears to be in ignoring 90% of the buttons. Nor is it about the annoyances of continual software upgrades that leave a trail of incompatibilities in their wake. Or about high-tech running shoes that have replaced the then-ubiquitous simple plimsolls that were part of our school uniform.

old sauce panThis is about a saucepan.

This saucepan, in particular, a simple 11″ T-fal  with a glass lid. It seemed to fit right in with our cooking styles, and in the 2 or 3 years we’d owned it, we had used it again and again and again.  You can’t see it in this photograph, but the Teflon coating had started to wear out and look gray and patchy.

new saucepanIt was time for a new saucepan. We went back to the same store, and were delighted to find the same T-fal saucepan in the same size at more or less the same price, too. So we brought it, broke it out of the packing, tempered it and started cooking.

Something was wrong. While the old saucepan had sat stolidly on the stove while I stirred its contents, this one moved on the stove like skates on ice. I had to hold the handle when I wanted to stir it.

I couldn’t figure out what it was. The new pan was identical to the old one. I’m not much of a cook, and I figured maybe there was something I was doing wrong.  But the next day, my husband used it and found the same thing.

It wasn’t me, he pointed out. He waved the pan at me, upside down. This is what the bottom of the New Pan looked like.

bottom of new saucepanRather elegant and dramatic in its design, I thought. It wouldn’t look like that after a month or two, but right now it was a handsome thing.

Nope, he said. Those black rings aren’t paint or enamel. They’re Teflon. [Edited to add: Maybe they actually are enamel, but very slick enamel.]

Oh. But the previous pan was identical, right?

bottom of old saucepanNot quite It had the concentric rings, but no Teflon on the outer ones. The Teflon on the inner circles didn’t matter. The way our stove was designed, it was the outer part of the pan that rested on the burner.

So that explained it. What we couldn’t understand was, Why? His theory is that someone dropped one operation in its manufacture – scraping off the Teflon from the outer rings. Mine is that someone looked at the new design, as I did, and said That looks so good! And didn’t test it, because after all it’s a minor difference.

So now for a decision: Return the pan?  Or scrape off the Teflon, either deliberately or as time wears on and we keep cooking.

I think I’ll keep the pan, hold the handle when I stir, and be pleased that at least it’s not a computer upgraded to futility!

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No More Polio in India

Possibly the most hopeful piece of news I’ve seen out of India today is that poliomyelitis may be a thing of the past there. They’ve had no cases for three years.

polio vaccine babyThis is excellent. When I was a child, the polio vaccine was given as an injection. I remember being taken for these shots, and didn’t quite get why my otherwise indulgent Mum and Dad were so adamant about immunizations.

Years later, I fully understand. My parents knew what these diseases did, they’d seen the effects. They’d lost relatives to typhoid and cholera. They’d seen kids die. They were grateful that the vaccines had become available.

Years before I was born, one of my my older cousins got polio. She survived, but her mother believed it spoiled her life. It left her then with a bad limp; and now, in her old age, with very limited mobility.

A friend of ours seemed to have overcome the effects of childhood polio. Her barely noticeable limp didn’t stand in the way of an exciting career and a lovely family. But then post-polio syndrome came roaring in, and again, it limits her mobility.

Polio was so widespread that it wasn’t unusual to see children in calipers to help them walk. It was a sight as familiar as crutches in my (US) college cafeteria, where skiing or football accidents usually hit some percentage of the healthy young population at any time. (This is one reason why I’m skeptical when parents decide not to immunize their kids. They haven’t seen the non -vaccinated world.)

And yet, by the time I was in school, no one I knew actually got polio. They’d been vaccinated.

It’s wonderful that this is now true in a population that’s three times the size it was then – and in villages as well as in cities.

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Corruption Perceptions

Transparency International‘s (TI) anually updated Corruption Perceptions Index covers 180 countries, give or take a few. In 2012, it ranked 176 countries. In the last few years, I’ve been following its scoring for India, and more particularly, whether perceived corruption has been increasing or decreasing. (Those posts are HERE and HERE.)

corruption perceptions map 2012

scale for corruption perceptions mapTI doesn’t measure corruption directly; instead, it uses surveys of various groups to get their perception of corruption in that country. From this, it derives a score (earlier, on a 0-10 scale, but from 2012 that’s been converted to a 0-100 scale, and higher is better). The score is then used to determine the country’s rank.

The map above, taken from TI’s website, shows the score by country on a color scale with yellow as the least and dark red as the most corrupt countries. (On their website, it’s interactive, and you can get each country’s score and rank. Click on the map above to go to TI’s interactive one.)

The scores actually tend to be quite stable over time. TI has results going back many years; I pulled scores for four countries back to the year 2000, compiled them, and graphed them. (I only found Myanmar from 2003 onward.)

Corruption perceptions comparisonBesides India, I looked at China because it’s the country most often used in such comparisons. It’s consistently scored higher than India – but not by much. On the map, both countries show as the same shade of medium red.  Myanmar – which is the country of my current project – is near the bottom of the range. Corruption perceptions there are dire. And the US – though not the top of the range by any means (that honor goes to Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, which each scored 90 points) – is a standard by virtue of its dominance in the world economy.

In general, the rankings are not as consistent as the scores.  Since the number of countries covered changed from year to year, I’ve normalized them on a scale of 0-100. (The actual rankings, which run from 1 to 174 in 2012, are available on TI’s website.) So here’s the graph of the normalized ranks. I inverted the axis this time to show the rankings visually. Again, I haven’t graphed the real winners: Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, which tied for first place, or Sweden and Singapore, which followed.

corruption perception scores comparison INDIA had been on a declining trend since 2008, with both scores and rank falling. It managed to reverse that in 2012. Its score ticked upward from 31 in 2011 to 36 in 2012, but it didn’t improve its rank; other countries, on the average, improved their scores more than India did. So India’s rank fell to 53, slightly below average.

India corruption perceptions time seriesCHINA, on the other hand, has been consistently above average in its ranking since 2004, as corruption perceptions have gradually improved since a low of 32 in 2005.

china corruption perceptions time seriesMYANMAR has a long way to go. Perceptions of corruption there are very bad indeed; its score of 15 gives it a rank of 98. It’s lumped with countries like Sudan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Only North Korea, Afghanistan, and Somalia are worse (they have scores of 8, which would have given them a normalized rank of 99).

Myanmar corruption perceptions time seriesHow about the USA? It’s been pretty stable from 2004, not quite in the top 10% of the countries in terms of normalized rankings,  but close. Perhaps it could emulate its neighbor Canada, which had a score of 84 – and a normalized ranking in the top 5% of countries.

USA corruption perceptions time series

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Airtel Me No More Lies

I’m staying in a family apartment in Bangalore, where we use Airtel for everything – our landline, our phone instrument, the Broadband connection.


The first sign of trouble was an email from Airtel, warning us we’d blown through the monthly gigabyte download limit on our internet plan in 4 days. This wasn’t surprising. The internet’s used very sparingly here, so we’re on a low plan. But I’m a very heavy net-user, and – this was the US Election night. “If you have any queries, please feel free to contact us at 121 from your airtel fixedline,” it ended.

It would be nice to know just how much this 24/7 connectivity was going to cost me, so I called them. And found myself in possibly the worst-designed phone menu in the known universe.

It started off well, wishing me a warm welcome, and asking me to press 1 for English and 2 for Hindi. It went downhill fast. It asked me to press more buttons, but if I didn’t press at just the right time, it said it wasn’t a valid response and dumped me out. Eventually, on about the fifth try, I got to the point where it asked for my ten-digit User ID. Except, my user ID – according to the email – wasn’t ten digits. It was 11 digits, an underscore, and two lower-case letters, forcing me to try various permutations.

Each time, if I didn’t enter it at just the right moment, it would cut out. More irritatingly, it would accept the number, ask me to verify it, then say it was not a correct number, and gleefully announce “Oops! That was your last try. Goodbye!” Pressing 0 continuously didn’t yield an operator. A live chat line promised in the original bill reached a dead address. I never did manage to reach anyone, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if this month’s internet bill looks like the national debt.

Thanks, Airtel.


And that’s not all. In parallel, I was trying to acquire a local cellphone. I’ve done this before, seamlessly; I wrote about that here: A US Cellphone in India.

Expecting something similar,  I stopped in at the local mobile phone outlet and bought a phone (my old one had died) and an Airtel SIM card. They needed a proof of identity, for which I gave them a copy of my passport, and a photograph. No problem, I always carry a sheaf of passport-size photos. They assured me it would be activated the same night.

It wasn’t.

I went back the next day. Oh, they said, the photo you gave us was black and white. They need a color photo. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. So they filled in a new form and attached a color photo. It would be activated, they said, the next day by 11 a.m.

It wasn’t.

I went back that evening and complained. It’s a problem, the man said, but it will be activated tomorrow by 1 p.m., 100% positive.

It wasn’t.

I called them. In half an hour, they assured me. Definite. One hour later…

It wasn’t.

I called them again. “We’ll call you back in ten minutes,” they said.

That was an hour ago. My phone still looks like the picture above.

Thanks, Airtel.


On the cellphone:   I went back to the shop. They gave me an “emergency Vodafone SIM card” which is indeed live. My Airtel card, they assured me, would get activated. Eventually.

On the Internet: An Airtel screen showed up on my machine, and I was able to buy data downloads at Rs 50/ hour for a speed of 1 mbbps.

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My New Project: “Business in Burma/ Myanmar”

As I mentioned in my recent post, I’m just back from Myanmar and Singapore. I’m working on a book on doing business in Burma.


It’s an exciting new market, having been essentially closed to Western firms since the early 1990s, when political repression drew sanctions from the US, the UK, and a bunch of other countries. Now, with political liberalization, sanctions are being lifted or suspended, and companies are eager to go in.

I’d written about Burma for my clients back in the 1980s, when there were the first glimmerings of what proved to be a false dawn. Those days, I was at Business International, the company later acquired by and merged into The Economist. Burma was part of my South Asia responsibilities. (These days, it’s included with South East Asia, and looks more to Thailand as a model; back then, we included it with India and Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)


Besides the business connection, I have a personal one: My mother grew up in Burma in the British era. Her father was a doctor in Rangoon. Then came World War II, and the family moved to India as Japan bombed the city. For her, it was always the golden land of wonderful people and fond childhood memories, and my own childhood was full of her stories. When I went there for the first time in the early 1980s, I found her descriptions precise enough that I could locate the house they’d lived in, between the Zoo and a graveyard that her brothers visited at night on a dare…

So I was fascinated by the country on multiple levels, and very pleased to visit it again and see what had changed meanwhile. A lot and a little, I’d say. I think if my mother was around to visit it now, she’d still have known the place and found it familiar. In another ten years, that may not be true. There’s been a building boom, and another is in the offing.


I’m hoping to have the book out by year-end or so.

Meanwhile,  IMA Asia published my preliminary draft for private circulation to their clients.

After visiting Myanmar, I went to Singapore and made a presentation to around 80 of IMA Asia’s clients. It was really interesting – the companies present represented a very broad range of industries and services. Shipping and perfumery, consulting and telecoms, food and human resource management.

Some companies are already jumping in. Both Coke and Pepsi are in, Western Union is working out an arrangement with a local bank, many airlines are flying to Yangon (Rangoon) again. Others are more wary, fearing the new liberalization may not prove durable.

A few Indian companies already operate there – Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Ranbaxy, Essar. India imposed no sanctions, so they were not forced out. Likewise, China didn’t sanction Myanmar and is a major investor and trade partner.

Still, the sanctions limited Myanmar’s ability to engage with the world, and with the changes that have occurred and others that are anticipated, new opportunities are likely to open up.

(By the way: Myanmar or Burma? Like India, Burma decided to change many of its place names back to their pre-British versions. But in this case, it became a political issue, because the revised names became associated with the military dictatorship. The US still calls the country Burma; the UN calls it Myanmar. I use both. I think it’s rather nice for a country to have multiple names. Maybe I’m biased, coming from Bharat that is India.)

Cover of IMA Asia report: Myanmar Opportunities by Rupa Bose

IMA Asia report: Myanmar Opportunities by Rupa Bose

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Was I Chatting with a Bank of America Robot?

I’m just back from a trip to Burma / Myanmar and Singapore, of which more in subsequent posts. But it left me with some stuff to catch up on, including a payment to our accountant. It should have taken me about 5 minutes with online banking. Instead, I found their details deleted from my account. So I tried to re-add the recipient, but it didn’t work.

There was a handy-dandy chat link next to the error message, so I opened the Chat. I got a prompt response, and a chat that was so entirely meaningless that I suspect it might not pass the Turing Test.

You be the judge (the “you” in the transcript below is of course me):


Thank you for choosing Bank of America. You are now being connected to a Chat Specialist. For security purposes, please remember to close your chat window when completed.

Angelica: Hello! Thank you for being a valued Bank of America customer. My name is Angelica. May I have your complete name?
You: Rupa Bose. Hi, Angelica, I have a problem. I’ve been paying our tax accountant  quarterly for some years now. Today I found [the accountant] was missing from my list, and when I tried to re-add  I could not.
Angelica: Hello Rupa!
You: Hello Angelica! So can you fix the problem?
Angelica: I regret to hear that you were having issues with adding a recipient for your transfers.
Angelica: Let me check this for you.
You: Can you also find out why [the accountant] was suddenly missing after years of glitch-free transfers?
Angelica: I apologize for the delay. I’ll be with you shortly.
Angelica: I do apologize for this inconvenience. However, you can do the adding a recipient for transfers in your online banking page as there are times that the system would have delete the recipients in the list and you just have to do the adding of the recipient process again.
You: Angelica, that is not an answer. What you said is that (1) The system for some unknown reason randomly deletes recipients. (2) It’s my problem, I have to re-add the recipient.
You: I would like to point out that (1) It did not delete *all* the recipients. (2) It would not allow me to re-add [the accountant].
You: An apology is not an explanation or a solution.
Angelica: Thank you for waiting. I’ll be with you in just a moment.
Angelica: I’m sorry for this matter. As I totally understand your point and situation. However, as there would be some additional technical steps involved to help solve this issue instead. That being said, I would need to refer you to our online banking specialists over the phone to be able to look into the best solution.
Angelica: Are you still with me? Please respond so I can leave this chat window open  to answer any questions for you.
You: I think we may as well close this window. It is not helping to solve my problem. Bye.
Angelica: Let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with.
You: Clearly nothing. Thanks anyway.
Angelica: Thank you for choosing Bank of America’s Chat Service! We appreciate and value your business.  Have a wonderful day!


We’re sending our accountant an old-fashioned check for now.  I hope the “online banking specialists” will be better trained than poor “Angelica” at handling this, whether she’s silicon or carbon based.

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Surprise Bhangra at San Francisco’s City Hall

Visitors to India often comment on the serendipitous surprises they encounter: an elephant in traffic, a roadside celebration with dancing and music, a clever gymnastics performance during a traffic jam. Well, recently San Francisco held its own.

I’d gone to City Hall for a meeting. For those unfamiliar with it, San Francisco’s City Hall is a beautiful beaux art domed building; inside, there’s a dramatic marble staircase beneath a three-story rotunda.

It’s where marriages are registered, and legal weddings performed. Often the young couple honor the occasion by dressing up themselves, so there’s a certain festive atmosphere to what is essentially a bureaucratic office building. There’ll almost always be a bride or two floating around in fairy-tale white gowns, often accompanied by cute kids all dressed up too.

But Friday last, it was more than happy brides. I entered the building to the sound of a tabla, looked around, and on the steps at the first landing saw a musician sitting at his instrument, drumming away.

I stood around, intrigued. The tabla stopped, and gave way to the energetic beat of a dholak. And half a dozen young women in pink and green salwar-kameez inspired costumes came bounding out to perform a bhangra.

All the bhangras I’ve seen before this were performed by men. It’s an exuberant and energetic dance, originating in the Punjab. These women definitely captured the spirit of the thing, even if they didn’t make some of the acrobatic moves I’ve seen from bhangra performers in India. The pace and energy was awesome.

(Later, while doing some research for this post, I discovered that bhangra has become an international art form, not restricted to men or Punjabis or even to Indians. Cultural globalization at its best.)

Unfortunately, that was the only dance I could watch; I had to attend my meeting. But someone kindly handed me a flyer.  It was a performance by the Duniya Dance and Drum Company, which “performs and teaches traditional and innovative performance pieces from Guinea, West Africa and Punjab, India.”

It’s one of the Rotunda Dance Series. So maybe there are other surprises in store for people who think they’re going to a government meeting.

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Computer-generated Iris Scans?

I’ve spent the last several days looking through information on India’s new Unique Identity (UID) system, which is based on biometrics: ten fingerprints, two iris scans. While there’s broad support for an identification card, there have been questions about the biometrics.

So just today I came across this article that suggested it was possible to computer-generate iris scans that could mimic a biometric reading: Your iris may soon be the target of identity thieves.

“Security researchers have successfully fooled commercial iris-recognition scans with a computer-generated replica of a human eye, raising questions as to the effectiveness of such biometric systems. Generating the fake iris only takes a few minutes, and does not require the original eye to be present.”

This is the result of research at West Virginia University (together with Universidad de Autonoma de Madrid) intended to find out how to defeat a biometric system.  Generating the fake iris needs the biometric data provided by the real iris.

“Right now the research assumes that whoever is trying to beat the iris scanner has access to the codes that scanner would generate from a real iris. (In this case, the team used codes made public for research purposes.) In reality, those would hopefully be carefully protected and encrypted, meaning it would be another security task entirely to get hold of them. But unlike a password, you can’t just scrap your eyeball and get a new one. If a single large user database was breached, this technique could render thousands, or even millions, of irises insecure in an instant.”

I don’t know how easy (or not) this is. But it does suggest vulnerabilities.

Hackers are born in the same environment as IT professionals, and India has the all the preconditions. I can see it now: World class research into hacking biometric systems, being performed in a back alley in Wadala. With practical proofs of concept.

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