Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Gay N' Straight

Bless them all, gay & straight

From The Statesman
ND Batra

‘We must recognise that many gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey are in committed relationships and deserve the same benefits and rights as every other family in this state,” said Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey at last week’s Bill-signing ceremony that legalises civil unions between same-sex couples.
Last October, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a directive that gay couples be given the same rights as hetrosexual married couples, whatever the lawmakers might call such a coupling, civil union or marriage.
The biblically minded Americans believe that their children should never crouch toward Sodom and Gomorrah. And contrary to scientific evidence, many Americans consider homosexuality to be a cultivated lifestyle and wistfully think that one could be weaned away or deprogrammed out of it.Every year, schools witness fierce battles between parents and teachers as to what kind of books children should read, which sometime triggers the banning of books related to homosexuality.
Homophobia has led to violence and killing of the innocent, though in public discourse it is politically incorrect to talk about gays in derogatory terms. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed its earlier decision in February, 2004 that gays have the legal right to say “I do, I do… for richer or poorer… till death do us part,” many Bostonians went crazy. And when the Massachusetts legislators met in a constitutional convention to consider how best to nullify the divisive ruling of the highest court, hundreds of people milled around the Statehouse in Boston, some carrying placards, others shouting slogans and chanting: “Hey, hey, ho, ho/Homophobia got to go; Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve; One Man, One Woman; Equality Now.” It sounded like the beginning of another civil war.
Nothing has divided the American people so painfully since the question of slavery as the issue of what to do with “the queer” amongst them, gays and lesbians, who have been outing themselves in hordes and getting into their faces everywhere, in television sitcoms, school textbooks, magazine covers, dance floors and legislatures. Although Americans by and large oppose gay marriages, they are inclined to accept civil unions for same sex couples that would grant them the same rights as heterosexuals have.
My home state, Vermont, was the first state to recognise civil unions for same sex couples but only after the state’s highest court ruled that gays were being deprived of the constitutionally guaranteed equal rights, and directed the state legislature to eliminate the discrimination against gays.
The Vermont highest court did not rule on marriage; rather it ruled on equal rights for all citizens, which included healthcare benefits, inheritance, separation, and other rights that go with marriage.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went to the extreme and challenged the very definition of marriage: If marriage is essentially a union of hearts, commitment between a couple, it could be between Evelyn and Steven or Even and Steven; therefore, the concomitant rights and obligation of such a commitment must be respected.
But that’s not what the Bible says. That’s what the Constitution says.
It is only in the mass media that you see the USA as a homogeneous country.
In reality, the USA is one nation divided by diverse cultures, creeds, colour and lifestyles. Massachusetts’ legislators failed in passing an amendment that would have banned gay marriages. Fearing the tide of gay unions, 38 states have passed laws that recognise only heterosexual marriages. So what would happen to a Massachusetts gay, married couple, let’s say with adopted children, when they move to a no-gay marriage state?
The state of union today is no different from what was before the civil war when in some states slavery was legal and in other states, illegal. No politician who seeks a public office can duck the question of gay marriage. Many favour the civil union route to solve the thorny problem. President George W Bush, a devout Christian, has said unequivocally that marriage is between a man and woman but he got no support for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.Nonetheless, a 1996 federal law defines marriage between a man and a woman, which means that a gay partner won’t be able to collect social security benefits from the federal government after the death of the partner.
The best solution may be to eliminate the word marriage from the American lingua franca and replace it with civil union for all whether gay or straight. Eliminate husband and wife and replace them with spouse. The priest should say: Now I pronounce you spouse and spouse. Now you may kiss the spouse, blah, blah. Words have unstable meanings in the digital age. They change, they die, and they are born again.
Occasionally, I see advertisements in my local newspaper that run like this: A husband (handyman) for a day at a reasonable hourly rate. Wife (sewing woman) wanted, good salary and benefits. Living together and having children out of wedlock used to be considered an unpardonable sin (Consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) but it is now so commonplace that wife and girlfriend or husband and boyfriend have become interchangeable.A recent survey said that 85 per cent Americans, both men and women, admit to having pre-marital sex.
The USA is indeed a melting pot; but of what? Confusion worst confounded. Nonetheless, I would say, this is the best country to live in, the shining city on the hill.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Think digitally, act globally

From The Statesman
ND Batra

For most businesses, the best digital strategy is to look for an innovative technology, an idea or a business method that creates something new, a cyber-niche that never existed before, and establish market dominance, as long as possible or until another one appears and makes it obsolete.
But a company doesn’t have to be innovative all the time; instead it could troll the digital world and adopt innovations. This is one of the reasons that US companies are offshoring their businesses abroad because offshoring captures unutilised brainpower.Remember: brainpower has no nationality in the borderless world.

You can pick anyone’s brain anywhere, if you can pay for it. If we network the world’s best brains, the rate of innovation would increase dramatically.But it also means that the rate of obsolescence too would increase, leading to a prolonged state of turbulence. Turbulence could be a source of self-renewal or self-destruction.

File sharing in creative expression, for example, in music recording, has been generating turbulence that has necessitated new business models, such as iTune on iPod and so on.The Internet is challenging old thinking and old methods of doing business. Businesses, however, flourish in a stable environment. Whatever one might say about Microsoft Corp monopoly practices, its operating system, Windows and now Vista, has provided a universal standard and created operational stability.

But sometimes an innovative application could be replaced with a substitute without adverse effects or disruption. For example, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer overtook Netscape browser, Navigator, which had reached a critical mass.In the digital age, technological innovations have a short life span. Google’s innovations might dispatch Microsoft to the dustbin of history one day. China’s software companies might soon eat India’s lunch. In the digital age, Bangalore cannot afford to take a nap.

Bangalore and Microsoft must ceaselessly innovate or perish.

Global digital connectivity and the marketplace are the primary forces breeding today’s innovations. The Internet has transformed the world’s economy from an industrial to a information economy in a span of one generation. Gordon Moore predicted that every 18 months, computing power will double at constant cost and his law has surprisingly held its sway.

The same has been true of the bandwidth, which is becoming faster and cheaper, giving rise to myriad opportunities, for example, electronic trading marketplace, in which split seconds count, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported in a front page story (“Firms Seek Edge Through Speed As Computer Trading Expands”) enabling traders to make millions by the end of the day.Miniaturisation and speed have gone hand in hand with the power of networks, whose value increases dramatically with each additional node.

From automobiles to public buildings, from cardiac pacemakers to battlefields, inexpensive digitisation has begun to penetrate everything. Whatever is digitised could be networked and shared and enhanced. In theory, every human activity can be digitally designed and built with an Internet connection, which would make every entity that is network-connected both as a consumer and a supplier of information. The global supply-chain system of information would become an inexhaustible source of value-added information. Networked databases are capable of profiling potential customers as well as terrorists. Offshoring not only reduces transaction costs but also generates new ideas and applications.

Core and the ring ~ a dynamic and stable core of senior executives and a fluid and flexible ring of contractual employees, such as outsourced contractors or offshored workers ~ is the emerging shape of a modern global business. And from this point of view, a modern global corporation has become a complex system of international relationships, both cultural and diplomatic, with business partners and customers digitally spread.It is not that the brick and stone aspect is no longer important; nonetheless, it is the rule of the digital. That’s the future.Smart global corporations are always trawling for newer applications and knowhow to use them before anyone else does.That’s how they go from incremental to exponential change.

But this is not the first time that a killer application is changing the world fundamentally into a networked world, a world of collaboration.Networking first began when telegraph reached a critical mass in 1843, making possible the rise of the Associated Press, the first network of collaborative information gathering and distribution, which eventually led to US and Western domination on information, the way we see the world and ourselves. But not all killer applications have the same impact on society.

Chinese invented the moveable clay and metal type printing press in 1041 with little social consequences for the Chinese society. But when a German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg re-invented the movable type printing press in 1436-1440 and published the Bible in 1452, he couldn’t have predicted the unintended consequences.In the hands of Martin Luther, printing became a killer application, which he used with devastating effect against the Church and unleashed Protestant Reformation that led to prolonged civil strife in many European nations; and the beginning of Renaissance, and some would say, the age of the European colonisation. Printing and telegraph, from our standards, were slow.

Digitisation transforms whatever it touches at the speed of light.

Here’s an unpardonable, sinful and sinning, digital afterthought: God must be: Binary, Zero-One, She-He, Ying-Yang; not the One and Only One.In the binary world, there’s no clash of civilisations.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Digital Future

You can’t hide in the digital world

ND Batra
From The Statesman

It is a transparent world. You can neither hide nor run.
When jobs could be moved from one digital hub to another, one never knows where the axe might fall. Or who might run away with company secrets.
Since most office workers use the Internet and communicate via e-mail, companies are watching closely how their employees use the office electronic resources, including what they save on their laptops or access through their BlackBerrys.
Several court decisions regarding workplace privacy indicate that in the USA employees have few privacy rights over their e-mail if it is stored in the company’s system. Employers no doubt have legitimate concerns especially regarding the confidentiality of their trade secrets; on-going contractual negotiations; pornography and messages exchanged among employees that might lead to legal liabilities for the company; and whistle-blowing and other activities that may affect the reputation of the company.
These concerns are not new but the speed with which transactions are done on the Internet has created a state of perpetual paranoia. Frequently, employees also visit popular sports websites to check scores and also do online shopping and stock trading. Many of them keep chatline or instant messaging service open while doing other work.
Some multi-tasking in the workplace has always been there but the Web has created new opportunities and now it is becoming a common occurrence. With continuous restructuring and layoffs, many working people keep networking and looking for new job opportunities. Companies are watching who is applying for jobs and if anyone is trying to cross over to a competitor, he should not expect his boss to be merciful. Ironically, as offline and online worlds collide and converge, workers do not regard the office as a place of work only.
Nor is the home exclusively for the family. If a person is expected to carry his office on laptop to his home, why can’t he do his family chores in the office? The question can’t be ignored because the number of people who telecommute and have their home computers networked to their office server is increasing.
When home and office couple with each other, privacy ends for an employee. Putting employees into a digital straightjacket generates a coercive environment and might eventually adversely affect productivity. If monitoring is being done for measuring and evaluating efficiency, preventing fraud, protecting intellectual property and trade secrets, maintaining conducive workplace environment or whatever reason, the rationale must be explained to employees and the policy clearly laid out. Although courts favour employers at present, productivity depends on workers. We are slipping into a low-intensity surveillance society. Since 9/11 our sense of insecurity, both physical and economic, has increased manifold.
The American people are quietly submitting to whatever brings them a feeling of assuredness. Protests against intrusiveness by the government and businesses into our personal lives have become muted. Our computers know all about us and could tell tales.
Web bugs and other online surveillance devices are being increasingly used by businesses to track users when they surf their websites. Tracking is done unobtrusively and the user can never suspect that he is being watched; nonetheless, the practice is questionable, especially when the website does not declare in its privacy policy.
Advertisers surreptitiously place cookies, small software programs, on our hard drives to track where we surf so that they can customise the most appropriate advertising message for us to achieve target marketing, reaching the right person with right message. But web bugs are different. They can be programmed to collect whatever data is required without the knowledge of the user. For example a web bug can be programmed to look at a data file on a networked desktop without leaving a trace that data has been touched at all. When you look at your bank balance online, the web bug too could be monitoring it.
Some companies use web beacon, a single-pixel picture, to count and identify users. A web beacon can track whether a particular message, including junk mail, has been opened and acted upon or not. Any electronic image that is part of a web page, including a banner ad, can be programmed to act as a beacon and spy on the user.
Companies claim that the information enables them to personalise the surfing experience when a frequent user visits their portal, but they assure us that no personally identifiable information gathered from the beacon research is shared with the clients. Surveillance technologies are not limited to the Net. Several companies are using biometrics, face recognition, radio frequency and global positioning system (GPS) technologies, to keep a watch on their properties and track suspects. Many car rental companies in the USA use GPS to keep track of their rental cars. If a car is stolen or is involved in an accident, the company would know the exact location of the car. GPS also enables them to check the speed of a rental car.
I see the future now.
Along with our baggage, we too might have to wear radio-frequency ID tags so that we can be monitored as we move from one airport to another, from country to country via GPS. It may not enhance security, but it surely is going to be multi-billion dollar business. The security marketplace may determine how much freedom we would enjoy in the digital future.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Wal-Mart's Indian Diplomacy

Wal-Mart comes wearing Bharti sari
ND Batra
From The Statesman

I was buttonholed the other day: If China is not afraid of Wal-Mart, why should India be? Irrational fear; may be, of another East India company setting foot on India?

When small things aggregate, they bring about great changes. The world’s biggest retail giant, Wal-Mart sells almost everything and at the lowest prices, providing low and middle-class people affordable access to goods which would have been otherwise beyond their monthly budgets.

Small entrepreneurs are the backbone of the Indian economy and they need to be exposed to the challenges of globalization and organizational innovations of Reliance, the Tata group and the Aditya Birla group, Bharti-Wal-Mart, Carrefour (consider its plan for opening an environmentally-friendly green supermarket in Beijing in 2008), and others. Fortunately due to the burgeoning middle-class unafraid of using credit cards, the retail space in India is expanding rapidly and giant retail stores like Wal-Mart would partly grow from within in joint ventures and some would come with FDI in different forms and shapes.

If India’s $250-300 billion retail market grows at the same rate as India’s GDP (8-9 %) modern retailing must emerge to satisfy the demand of the growing middle class. The government allows 51 % foreign direct investment (FDI) to companies that sell goods through single-branded stores. Through its Bharti franchise, Wal-Mart has found another passage to India and opened doors for other international companies. India is not only “a huge organic growth market for Wal-Mart,” but also a fast growing outsourcing market, with expected $1.6 billion merchandise export to Wal-Mart’ stores this year. But that is nothing what Wal-Mart buys from China, ($28 billion according to some estimates), and has created myriad entrepreneurial opportunities by establishing a most modern supply chain system. That could happen in India too.

There is a genuine apprehension that small shopkeepers and intermediaries would be adversely affected by the arrival of the global retailer, as it has happened in many places in the United States where many mom-and-pop corner stores have shuttered down and others are struggling to survive. “The High Cost of Low Price,” a documentary by Robert Greenwald showed the seamy side of the retail giant, including the denial of health coverage to employees, exploitative wages for women and the elderly, ethnic and gender discrimination and many other not so legal practices, for which ultimately the taxpayer bears the burden.

The Indian Left should focus its attention on not only how Wal-Mart treats its employees but also whether India could be another outsourcing hub for the hungry global giant with 2000 worldwide stores, including 66 in China (plus another chain of 100 Trust-Mart stores it plans to buy for a $1 billion deal). The retailer is able to do so by buying massive quantities from inshore and offshore sources and hiring people at low wages, mostly women, and that may be of some concern to Left political leaders in India. In the long run such business practices of global companies may have greater impact upon the world than terrorism and natural disasters. As Nelson Liechtenstein, professor of US labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in the Globalist, “Wal-Mart rezones our cities, determines the real minimum wage, channels capital throughout the world — and conducts a kind of international diplomacy with a score of nations.”

In the United States it keeps overheads low by hiring mostly female workers at wages much less generous than it pays to its male employees. In 2001, six women sued Wal-Mart for discrimination. Six women snowballed into more than a million current and former women employees who in a class-action suit charged that Wal-Mart paid less and gave fewer promotions to women than to male employees.

In the land of presumed equality, that was a serious accusation and had become a public relations disaster. And the U.S. District Court Judge Martin J. Jenkins found that the plaintiffs did “present largely uncontested descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time, that women take longer to enter management position, and that the higher one looks in the organization, the lower the percentage of women.”

Gender and race-based discrimination is an unacceptable practice in American society; and that’s how it should be in India, whenever a foreign company is allowed to do business.

This is however not the first gender-discrimination class-action suit against corporate America. Home Depot, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Public Super Markets and many others were hit with class-action suits for discriminatory employment practices and paid millions of dollars in settlement.

Legal and humanitarian precedents set in the United States should be followed whenever Wal-Mart and other multinationals come to India, where local companies too should have no choice but to offer competitive opportunities to their female employees at par with what they offer to males, which should another benefit of globalization. These should be the terms that political leaders offer to Wal-Mart (which should be more than wearing an Indian sari and bindi on the forehead) wanting to do business in India.