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Archive for September, 2010

403 Error – Hijacked websites

September 30, 2010 9 comments

I have been getting a peculiar error for a while now — some of the most popular sites return a “403 Error — Forbidden” in boldface. At first sight it might seem that this is a result of too many requests from my network (ISP) to these sites. But occasionally I get the view of a hijacked website as well, like the following:

And if I look carefully, I see that the browser connects to smartname.com and also tries to connect to some address 192.168.243.77, which is not an address on my own network (and which it does not find). This picture also shows the browser connecting to domdex.com, which I have no clue about. The browser can still find secure websites. But this is clearly the work of some malware, probably not on my machines which run Kaspersky anti-virus 2010, but on the nameserver/proxy server of my ISP. And since the said ISP is BSNL, it is impossible to find any way of lodging a complaint beyond the simplest ones like `no connection’. I have had this problem earlier, but thought it was a result of the google and yahoo!/youtube sites being hacked. Now I think this is the result of a more local hacking.

In another incident, not sure if it is related, I found that the homepage of both my browsers had been set to mywebsearch.com.

Update: Searching for this IP address on the net gives this post and not much else. Searching about hijacked google I could find several suggestions, and I am trying out some of them, like running malwarebytes and an anti-virus (Kaspersky). Nothing so far. Of course I have already tried clearing the cache and deleting cookies. I still don’t know if it’s my machine that is affected, or the network/ISP.

Update: The problem may have been on my computer. I ran Malwarebytes after reading some advice on the internet, and it found several files, including many in the registry, infected with trojans. I have not had the problem since cleaning the infected files. Malwarebytes is available at cnet.com, but if your computer has been infected, you have to find another computer to download it. The funny thing is, I am running Kaspersky anti-virus, and it didn’t stop this trojan.

Update: It happened again yesterday, and this time nothing showed up on the virus scans, either by malwarebytes or kaspersky. So I set my DNS to the google public DNS, and it seemed to solve the problem. See here for the procedure.

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Not Physics

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Some years ago, in a discussion about physics (in India, but it could be generalised easily) I described the work of some physicists as “they check the consistency of conjectured properties of non-existent objects.” I was talking about some very well-known physicists working in string theory and related fields.

This paper is somehow worse, as the authors turn a non-existent non-object (a cutoff) into something physical, and then use what appears to be very poor logic to claim results out of this.

For more discussion, see here or here.

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All are culpable

September 27, 2010 1 comment

Shobhaa De writes in a piece in the Asian Age what everyone must be thinking. India has been shamed by the corruption, the daylight robbery, in the Commonwealth Games. And the only way to make up is to quickly identify the guilty, and punish them. While she says that Kalmadi was not working alone and `everybody knows who the looters are’, she does not hint who they may be. And she absolves both Manmohan Singh and Sheila Dixit of culpability, saying only that they should have known what was  going on.

I think there should be a investigation as quickly as possible, as that is the only way to absolve Mr. Singh and Ms. Dixit of suspicion of graft. And arresting the CEOs and owners of all the companies which produced substandard buildings, bridges, and furniture should bring out the path taken by the stolen money.

BT Brinjal: safe to eat?

September 24, 2010 1 comment

It seems that six Indian academies have declared bt brinjal safe. It is not at all clear if they have done so by making any kind of experiment on the seeds or the plant — my guess would be that they have not. More accurately, my guess is that none of the members of any of these academies have actually done a thorough testing of the seeds and the plants of bt brinjal in their laboratories. They may have asked their students or post-docs to run a series of tests, but I would be doubtful of even that.

More importantly, they have only said, apart from some babble about how “all genetically modified (GM) items pose a risk if the science behind them is flawed” which serves only to protet their own backsides, that they have “found no evidence that the protein used in creating Bt brinjal, Cry1Ac, is unsafe”.

That is not the issue! The genetically modified (GM) crop carry a special gene called a terminator gene, included in crops developed by Monsanto, like this one. The terminator gene ensures that the plant grown from the GM seeds will not be fertile themselves, and the seeds they produce cannot be used to produce the next generation of crops. This infertility is built into the genes, and these genes can migrate to nearby plants, rendering them infertile. It would seem that any gene that makes a plant infertile is not likely to propagate very far. But a new gene does not necessarily manifest itself in one generation. What if the genes transmitted through cross-pollination show up a few generations later? when it may be too late to do anything? And could such genes affect the fertility of animals who eat the plant or its seeds?

The academies do not seem to have said anything about these. I suspect they have no idea about these issues either. In fact I would be very surprised, based on the extrapolation of behaviour of my colleagues, if more than a handful of the scientists who comprise our academies ever think, except in terms of getting more funding, about the relevance of their research to society.

The least the academies can do is to put up the report as a pdf file somewhere, and let the people decide if bt brinjal should be allowed in.

Caesar’s wife

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment

The Supreme Court is the highest authority on law in the land, and the highest arbiter of any legal dispute. So it is absolutely imperative that those who are part of that authority, the judges who sit in the Supreme Court, are above reproach. Like Caesar’s wife, not only must they not be involved in anything wrong, they must not be suspected of doing anything wrong, either.

Reality is far from this ideal. We the people have no idea if the justices of our Supreme Court are involved in any wrongdoing, but any doubt about their integrity, or any suspicion about their conflicts of interest, are quelled immediately by the court by way of a contempt notice. The latest to draw the court’s ire is Prashant Bhushan, for his interview with Tehelka, titled ‘Half Of The Last 16 Chief Justices Were Corrupt’. (I first learned about the issues here, here and here.)

Now Shanti Bhushan, former Law minister and Prashant Bhushan’s father, has submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, repeating the statement that eight of the last 16 supreme court justices were definitely corrupt (other reports here, here, here).

This is a cause I support wholeheartedly. The contempt law has completely stifled all criticism of the legal system, and provides a precedence for rules and regulations blocking criticism of the government. If the Supreme Court agrees that the public at large has the right to criticise it, at least on the grounds of freedom of speech, and that contempt  of court should refer only to acts which prevent the functioning of the court.

I thought this report this morning was rather ironic in this context.

Update: Prashant Bhushan has filed another affidavit with the Supreme Court on Saturday listing alleged instances of `corruption’ of six past CJIs.

Grading Indian education

September 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Some sort of a global ranking of universities has come out, and it seems that Indian universities have done rather badly. The highest ranked Indian institution is Bombay IIT at 187th in the list and IIT Delhi at the 202nd place.

Among Asian universities alone, the picture is not much better — IIT Bombay is at the 36th place, followed by the IITs. The regular universities are further behind — the University of Calcutta coming at the 99th place.

To those of us making a living out of education, this does not come as a surprise. Politicians have long controlled all aspects of higher education, with mainly two goals in mind. One is the goal of creating influence, which is perhaps the primary goal of politicians. Universities provide a fertile breeding ground for their lieutenants — colleges provide the foot soldiers. So the students’ union elections get the big parties involved. Often government machinery, including the police, is brought out to influence the students’ election.The university administration, appointed by the government, often takes sides in these elections. The result is an atmosphere of distrust and fear,  and a sense in the campus that the administration exists only for a part of the university population.

The goal of creating influence and following is also behind various laws regarding reservations in the student and faculty populations. Reservations ensure that a large section of the students often do not meet the same criteria for admission as others. And perhaps more importantly, many of the faculty are downright incompetent. This last is not only a result of official reservation policies, but also because `unofficial quotas’ lead to hiring/promotion of incompetent people simply because they are close to some politician, either by birth, or by stated political affiliation.

The other goal for the politicians is of course money. Education has a lot of money in it,  both government and private. Nearly all private colleges and universities, mushrooming around the country, have the sole aim of making money for their `owners’ who usually double as principals or rectors. The promise of a degree, usually not much better than a vocational diploma, nets a huge `capitation fee’ in addition to the usual admission and tuition fees. Since the supreme court put a cap on such fees, these are taken in cash, usually without a receipt. This leads to several million rupees of unaccounted money for a small college, to much more for the `universities’. The big owners are themselves politicians, but many more colleges simply provide a cut to the politician who arranged for the land and necessary permits. This of course does not directly affect the IITs or the government  universities, unlike the other kind of interference, but this does create an overall atmosphere of corruption and a lack of faith in the education system. Anyone with a lot of money can  get into one of those private colleges even if they qualify for the government colleges, and once they are in, they must be granted a degree, since the colleges have taken much more money for their admission than they are legally allowed to take, and much more than is really required for a good education.

Everyone suffers as a result, as we can see from the university rankings.Is there a way out? Sure, but it requires political will, judicial action (or perhaps judicial activism) and perhaps a lot more activism from the people.

Perhaps I will compile a short list of people in the faculty of various universities who have close relationships with political parties or politicians. Interested readers can then supply more names and/or submit RTI queries to the universities in question regarding educational qualifications of such people. And of course there are other reasons for the decline of education in India, in particular in the IITs, some of which I can also discuss. All in another post.

Complaints about Calcutta Telephones

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

For various reasons, I needed to look up a way of filing a complaint with Calcutta Telephones. Their telephone helpline gave up after a while and told me that any further complaint would have to be forwarded to `the concerned department’.So I went to their website looking for an email address or pone number of the department I was interested in.

What I found is that they have a `public grievance’ webpage, but the information given is all wrong. The phone numbers for the nodal officer (for the Calcutta telephone District) are not valid numbers, and the email address (or phone numbers) for the appellate authority are not valid either.

Looks like a good way to keep the complaints down.