Mind the Gap

Screenshot 2017-11-27 08.39.00

Gleaner column of 25 October 2017

En route to London a couple of weeks ago I checked the limited offerings on British Airways’s entertainment portal and decided to watch a documentary on Bitcoin, the electronic cash system or digital currency that is currently rocking the foundations of the financial world. It was high time I educated myself on this so-called cryptocurrency I thought, since it’s a word that crops up frequently nowadays.

According to the documentary, as economies all over the world flounder, one currency has been rising—Bitcoin. What is unique about this currency is that it has no links to any bank or banking system and is unregulated by any institution. There are no fees for using it or for buying and selling it. Bitcoins are bought at digital exchanges with real money. The virtual currency is a long string of unique digits, stored in a digital wallet, on your computer or phone.

The rise of Bitcoin can be linked to the decline of economies like Cyprus, whose currency is restricted, or Argentina whose currency is devaluing. In both countries people have turned to Bitcoin as a more reliable financial instrument although its value fluctuates wildly, soaring when Cypriots started exchanging their Euros for Bitcoin and plunging after a cyberattack attempted to interfere with it. “Bitcoins in Argentina” is a documentary “about independence from government-issued currencies, and how bitcoin turns that dream into reality.” No one and no institution controls the value of Bitcoin, it is completely decentralized and moves up and down in direct relation to the demand for it. There are no middlemen and it’s the perfect currency for the unbanked and micro and small businesses.

Created in 2009 Bitcoin bears all the markers of what we now agree is the classic model of a disruptive technology. It is gaining ground rapidly and earning huge profits for those who took the risk of investing in it. There is nothing illegal or shady about it unlike pyramid schemes and other get-rich-quick con games although plenty of shady folk find it a useful way to story their ill-gotten gains. Bitcoin was created using open source software and all agree that its math and cryptography are very sound. In fact not only is it a virtual currency, it is seen by some as the ultimate virtuous currency, unhinged as it is from the architecture of consumer capitalism and foreshadowing the death of money as we know it today.

Right now the exchange rate for a bitcoin is almost US$6000, an all-time high for the world’s first digital currency. This is a steep and sudden rise for in July you could have bought Bitcoin for as little as US$3000. It remains however a risky investment, as the only way to store it is in a digital wallet, which like all things digital is susceptible to being hacked.

It turned out this was an appropriate frame of mind in which to arrive in London. VR or virtual reality is rapidly transforming life in this metropolis. At my host’s house a tantalizing package sat on the table along with a booklet. It was from the Guardian newspaper and it said, “There’s a new world of journalism inside this box,” “while the booklet announced itself as “Your guide to virtual reality.” Inside the box was a pair of cardboard Google glasses that had to be assembled. When finished it looked like those viewfinders of yore through which you could rotate photographic stills and cartoons. “Step inside the story—download our app, assemble the headset and experience Guardian VR,” said the instructions on the box. The newspaper had distributed a number of free headsets to subscribers on October 7.

“Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”

Quoting American Sci Fi writer Stanley Weinbaum’s story Pygmalion’s Spectacles, the booklet explained the premise of the new technology. “With Guardian VR, the reader is inside the story, exploring it from a different perspective, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Unlike many other VR experiments, these pieces are visceral, experiential and impactful.”

So what were some of the VR stories featured? Interestingly, with the story of Agana Barrett and others who died of suffocation in a Constant Spring cell occupying the news again, one feature is called 6 x 9 and allows the viewer to experience the effects of long-time solitary confinement. A story called Limbo allows you to put yourself in the shoes of an asylum seeker arriving in the UK and Arctic 360 offers the viewer an immersive tour of icebergs. The Party takes you into the world of autism via a teenager confronted with a surprise party, “You’ll hear her inner thoughts and experience the sensory overload that leads to a meltdown.”

Between the Guardian VR app and apps like Bus Guru which allowed me to find out exactly when the next bus was due along any road I happened to be on, the visit to London felt like a trip to the future. Will we ever be able to catch up? Oh well, in the meantime, let me at least buy some Bitcoin.

India’s Mission to Mars…

India launches its Mission to Mars amidst excited tweets and the usual criticism.

Agence France-Presse @AFP
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which successfully launched today #infographic pic.twitter.com/3eH0He53m8

Waking up this morning at 5-5.30 am, i checked in with Twitter, as i usually do, to see what the folks on my Indian timeline were talking about. It turned out to be something quite spectacular. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) at Thumba in Kerala (the state I happen to come from :)) had just launched India’s Mission to Mars and all or most of my Indian peeps were still tingling from the excitement of having just watched the liftoff live on their smartphones, tablets and TVs. Of course the occasional naysayer could be heard here and there as well, eg:

Anusha Yadav@anushayadav
Sending a mission to Mars to pretend we are all so first world is like making a swimming pool on slum land and calling it a 5 star hotel.

This is such a predictable wet blanket, one i don’t subscribe to at all. In the first decade after independence in India national leaders decided to set up five Indian Institutes of Technology, state of the art institutions delivering cutting edge technological education. At the time there were many opponents to the new ventures who cited similar reasons for not undertaking such expensive investments. India was poor they claimed, too poor to afford elite educational establishments using such high-powered technologies. Fortunately the naysayers were outnumbered and the IITs became institutions to reckon with, directly spawning what would eventually produce the IT revolution that galvanized the Indian economy30-40 years later. So more power to the Indian scientists who made Mangalyaan, the popular name for the Mars bound spaceship, possible.

The following selection of tweets culled from this morning’s stream reflects the tug-of-war between enthusiasts and naysayers. Fascinatingly it also exposes another schism, that between North and South India. As I mentioned earlier the spaceship was launched from the deep South so to speak–my home state of Kerala–also the most literate state. One person even went so far as to ask if this launch would have taken place had the scientists involved been North Indian. Culturally there are deep differences between North and South with North Indians generally looking down on South Indians (and making fun of their accents) who counter this by flaunting their superior intellectual traditions.

Others focused on the relatively low budget India had managed to pull off this great achievement with. Basically for the cost of four blockbuster Bollywood films we had managed to put a spaceship in orbit. Early indicators are that China is green with envy. Enjoy the tweets below and the article after that giving details about India’s exciting new space initiative.

Ashok @krishashok
I just saw India launch a rocket to Mars on my phone over 3G. I know we have problems to fix but we have sure come a long way

Shivam Vij @DilliDurAst
Hmm. “@rupasubramanya: The successful launch to Mars today is a great moment for South Indians. We should be proud.”

Mihir Sharma @mihirssharma
No photographic angle available that includes cow in foreground, rocket launch in background? #GrauniadIsDisappointed

Saugato Datta @sd268
@mihirssharma Ideally, cow chewing garbage next to defecating child in front of ancient monument. #HavingItAll

Manreet S Someshwar @manreetss
For all the naysayers on #Mangalyaan, here’s Wilde for you: We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Sidin Studukut @sidin
Good morning. Any major achievements today by non-Malayalis?

Nitin Pai @acorn
Pavan Srinath wrote this post about ISRO a few months ago. http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/2013/07/not-quite-over-the-moon/

Vimal Sapiens @vimalg2
I’m a big fan of creative people doing amazing things with frugal infrastructure. #ISRO  #jugaad #givesYouWings

aby @abytharakan
RT @srini091: An ISRO Scientist transporting a nose cone of a rocket on a cycle. Thumba, Kerala, 1968. pic.twitter.com/VuClBM1KPC

Sonia Faleiro @soniafaleiro
The Chinese seem rather put out by India’s #MarsMission: globaltimes.cn/content/822493… Via @akannampilly

Surekha Pillai @surekhapillai
osum. RT @smitaprakash: Only South Indian accents so far…at Mission Control Room ISRO. 🙂 (yes yes you can send me hate tweets for this)

Surekha Pillai @surekhapillai
i’m a bit of both. worship me. MT @samar11 Q: Would there be a credible Indian Space programme without all those Tamilians and Keralites? 😉

Mahendra Palsule @Palsule
Folks watching launch live on phones/tablets/webcasts, sharing excitement on Twitter…who would’ve thought of this 5-10 yrs back?!

Gautam John @gkjohn
Space fight! RT @sumenrai79: #Mangalyaan will reach Mars in September 2014, around the same time as #NASA’s #MAVEN.

Firstpost @firstpostin
Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan crosses 3,000 km Live updates: bit.ly/1dJRz23

Overrated Outcast @over_rated
At the cost of four and a half Salman Khan movies, ISRO sent a rocket into the orbit of Mars.

Chetan Bhagat @chetan_bhagat
You know how they say in offices when someone doesn’t get it “It’s not rocket science you know.” Wonder what they say in ISRO.

For more details read this NDTV article:

Mangalyaan, which means “Mars craft” in Hindi, is the size of a small car. It is golden in colour and will be carried by a rocket much smaller than American or Russian equivalents.

About 1000 scientists spent Diwali at work and also did not sleep last night, many of them performing last-minute health checks on the rocket that is now fully-fuelled and ready to go.

Lacking the power to fly directly, the 350-tonne launch vehicle will orbit Earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from our planet’s gravitational pull.

Only then will it begin the second stage of its nine-month journey which will test India’s scientists to the full, five years after they sent a probe called Chandrayaan to the moon.

More than half of all Mars projects have failed, including China’s in 2011 and Japan’s in 2003. Only the United States, Russia and the European Union have successfully reached there.

The total cost of the project is 450 crores, one sixth of the cost of a Mars probe set to be launched by NASA in 13 days. (India’s mission to Mars: 10 facts)

The 1,350-kilogram unmanned orbiter must travel 485 million miles over 300 days to reach the red planet next September.

“This is a technology demonstration project, a mission that will announce to the world India has the capability to reach as far away as Mars,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space and Research Organization.

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