Sunday, March 30, 2014

Newspaper seen as credible source of information

Those days there were no apps, mobiles, computers, internet or 24x7 news coverage on a dozen television channels. After getting to know very briefly about news developments on All India Radio or Doordarshan, we had to wait for the next day's newspaper to know the details.

Cut to the present. The widespread belief is that fewer and fewer people, especially teenagers and youth, are interested in reading the newspaper. They, instead, turn to websites of their choice or apps on mobile phones or tablets.

The number of newspapers might dwindle, even substantially, over a period of time. But it may be too early to write their obituary.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend an open house of some readers of the newspaper I work for. And, in many ways it was an eye-opener. Some of the points I gleaned from the interaction were:
  • Newspaper, especially the broadsheet format, is considered as the most credible source of information
  • Children are not put off by the language. In fact, they look up to newspapers to learn new expressions and usages.
  • Youngsters love to see colour and illustrations in newspapers.
  • Few people think that newspapers should minimize or abandon their predominant serious role of informing and educating people, in favour of trivia and entertainment
  • It's very difficult to understand what exactly readers want since they are interested in everything from local civic issues to international political developments.
  • Web editions are mainly to check out the latest news developments. But there is huge demand for the e-paper format, the digital version of the physical paper. Because people want to see different sections and page numbers.
Even though lot of news is disseminated via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Reddit etc, most people turn to news organizations for confirmation. The web formats may be catching on, but for the average reader, the printed word on paper seems to still comes across with a stamp of authenticity. Just as movie houses have thrived, though in fewer numbers, in spite of DVDs and online, many years down the line, we would still see physical newspapers coexisting with the web and e-paper formats.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MH370 tragedy: questions for which we may not have answers

Ever since the Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew members vanished about an hour into its flight on March 8, conventional wisdom all along, though not explicitly stated, was that it had crashed. Only runaway, bizarre conspiracy theories spoke of possibilities ranging from abduction by aliens to hijack by terror groups.

It was always hard for the kith and kin of the missing travellers to believe the obvious. The vacuum of information was filled only by the belief that all the 239 would be alive somewhere on earth and would one day emerge to tell the tale.

Since there were no sightings of MH370, the suspicion was that it had come down either over sea or over some remote forested land. Satellite images turned the focus area first to Strait of Malacca, then to South China Sea and then to Southern Indian Ocean.

New analytic method

After 16 days, yesterday, the time had come to face the inevitable. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said, "... with deep sadness and regret ... I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean."

The new data he was referring to was an analytic method, "never before used in an investigation of this sort".

Full text of Razak's statement here and the video here

Two agencies -- the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch and British satellite communication agency, Inmarsat -- were involved in the research. They used a mathematical model which was described by Inmarsat Senior Vice President Chris McLaughlin as ground breaking, to determine which way the plane flew and the point of last contact.

McLaughlin explained to CNN how they came to the conclusion. Read here.

In short, scientists analysed the pings the aircraft emitted and picked up by the satellite, to determine the direction the plane flew and and the approximate location of last contact, not long after which the plane would have gone down.

Bigger mystery

What we now know is only an area where the plane may have crashed. But it's no consolation to the kith and kin, who are demanding evidence, either wreckage or bodies. Going by the efforts being made, surely the wreckage would be found, may be after many months, or even many years.

But questions still remain, which are quite unlikely to be answered.

  • How and why did the internal communication systems get turned off? 
  • Why did the plane turn back from its normal flight path?
  • If the pilots wanted to make an emergency landing, because of a mechanical fault, the plane should have headed to a land mass. Why did it fly to the remotest part our planet over sea, thousands of kilometers away from land mass? Unless something catastrophic happened too soon for the pilots to attempt a crash land, and the plane flew on auto-pilot.
  • Was it a mindless deadly fantasy trip of someone on board?
  • Was it a flight adventure of one of the pilots that went horribly wrong?
  • Was it a hijack attempt that went wrong? Even if the pilots or crew wanted to thwart the hijack, the pilots would have guided the plane to land mass. 

The black box, when found, will yield a number clues. But we may still not know what went on in the minds of the pilots, crew and the passengers.

The Kairali ship mystery

The MH370 tragedy reminded me of the disappearance of Kairali, a ship owned by Kerala Shipping Corporation. It had sailed from Mar Goa to Rostok, Germany, via Djibouti, Africa, on June 30, 1979 with 53 people and 20,000 tonnes of iron ore. It vanished in Arabian Sea. That was a big story during my school days, and we used to spend time spinning conspiracy theories.

There is technology to locate the debris. The Kerala government periodically reiterates its determination to find an answer, but nothing really happens. Probably because the technology is very expensive. It was and might still remain a mystery.

Need for continuous tracking

How paradoxical that we can track both spacecraft that travel to outer space as well as a palm-sized mobile phone, but planes and ships vanish without a trace. Did technology fail us, or we failed technology? May be both.

The MH370 tragedy surely drives home the need to summon all the technological resources to put in place a system that will ensure continuous real-time tracking of aircraft and ships. It may be expensive, but might just be worth it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A political rally with a difference

Political party rallies aren't very different from one another, barring the party that organizes them. There are huge crowds; and an implicit assumption is that they have been hired, brought by the volunteers from neighbourhood villages and towns for a price. Speakers portray themselves as saviours of the poor and downtrodden while tearing into their opponents. Speeches dissolve into bland political rhetoric, notwithstanding the speakers' high vocal pitch and oratorical theatrics; finally everything sounding like pots calling the kettles black.

Today, I went for the Aam Aadmi Party's public meeting at Freedom Park, Bangalore. It was a political rally with a number of differences.

I reached the venue at 3 pm. There was a fairly a good crowd. At a booth near the entrance, one could pick up the AAP caps. They were for free, but the organizers expected a contribution -- of any amount -- towards the party. One could also register as a volunteer or even formally join the party. I made my way towards the podium, through the crowd, with some difficulty. I noticed that there was a barricade separating the audience -- women who had come alone or along with men, and senior citizens on one side; and men on the other side.

The composition of the crowd stood out. They were definitely not brought to the town from neighbourhood villages. No one paid them. But on the contrary, the members of the audience had offered whatever they could to the party's kitty. The audience comprised middle class and upper middle class people in the 25 to 40 age group. But there was a significant number of elderly people as well. Definitely not the ones who would normally go to such rallies, they were the new breed political followers who were evidently attracted by the pitch of the greenhorn party.

The huge crowd of young middle class and upper middle class people who had come to the AAP rally in Bangalore 
The atmosphere was festive. It made me feel as if I was at some college reunion or some youth festival. On the stage were youngsters with musical instruments like drums, keyboard and violin, playing well-known patriotic songs and a few ones composed by the party's lyricists mocking the current political culture. The rhythmic numbers and the young lady moderator's exhortations steadily electrified the atmosphere, with the crowd continually breaking into handclap and loud cheers. There was also a performance of "broom dance": a few young men and women doing an amateurish jig with brooms in their hands, and a song resonating with AAP theme playing in the background.

The podium wasn't covered. Obviously, since the party doesn't have the money to get an ornamental pandal and decorations. Everyone was sitting in hot (by Bangalore standards) sun.

At 4.10 pm, Arvind Kejriwal arrived to a thunderous applause and cheers of the crowd that had swollen to huge numbers by then. The AAP candidates were introduced to the crowd and there were speeches by a number of people, including a 96-year old person, Doraiswamy, if I remember the name right. He spoke so vociferously and passionately on the state of the nation lamenting the lack of progress even after decades of independence from the British. A former career diplomat, who resigned after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, too spoke, singing paeans to Kejriwal's dream of a new India.

Around 4.45 pm Kejriwal began speaking. It was the usual tirade against Congress, BJP, Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and many others of both the national parties, besides Mukesh Ambani. Most of the attack was targeted against Modi, since he is tipped to the next prime minister going by multiple opinion polls. He read out names of many politicians of the BJP and the Congress who were allegedly involved in corrupt deals. He kept asking why Modi had to have people involved in dubious backgrounds in his ministry or in the party.

Arvind Kejriwal addressing AAP's Bangalore rally
He said he would consider himself fortunate if he had to lay down his life for the country. Mocking Modi for looking for a safe seat, he said if the party decides, he would contest against Modi in Varanasi. The speech went on for close to an hour. There were constant cheers on the lines of "Kejriwal, we are with you!".

This was definitely a political rally with a difference; at least for the following reasons:
  • The type of crowd, comprising young, educated middle class and upper middle class people. 
  • The lack of any decorations at the venue. There was no shade or even chairs on the the podium.
  • The festive atmosphere, with music, songs and dance.
  • The determination of speakers to plough a new and different track in India's political discourse. 
  • Speeches free of old rhetoric of freeing the country from poverty, a staple of usual political speeches; 
  • Projection of common man's problems as the most pertinent political theme. 
AAP's ideals sound noble. They reflect the frustration and disappointments of common people. Kejriwal seems to be a good leader, is a good speaker and knows how to steer political agendas. He has positioned himself as a politician with a difference; and AAP as a political party with a difference.

But the challenges before Kejriwal and AAP are huge. Because they are not fighting an issue or two. They are taking on an entire system which has run the country all these years, and to which we all have got used to.

Not many realise that this is a challenge not just for Kejriwal and AAP but for all the common people too, since they all will have to get used to a new system crafted by Kejriwal and AAP. Fired-up party leaders may be ready for the required sacrifice, but are the common people ready for that sacrifice?

Only time will tell, but surely, a beginning has been made -- a beginning that will, for sure, have a bearing on the results of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.