Bombay is Still Burning

The attacks on Mumbai are unbelievably gruesome and at this point hard to comprehend. I am not there right now, and am writing from faraway. I was quickly able to (recursively) account for all my friends and family with a single message “are you safe?” sent to all my loved ones in Mumbai. Everyone is. Thank you, all, for asking.

The nature of this attack is globally unprecedented. This is not even like 9/11 — it has lasted three days,11/26-11/28, and is still not over. The first news I heard on Wednesday afternoon, was of gunmen opening fire with automatic weapons and throwing grenades in Victoria Terminus at rush hour. This immediately reminded me The last time something like this happened was July 11 2006, or 7/11, when I was on the railway platform in rush hour at Dadar, and the overhead electric lines suddenly popped and the station went dark. After learning of bomb blasts up the line at Matunga Road, I walked home amidsty an enormous jam of vehicles, as all the train commuters emerged onto the streets. It was only when I came home that I learned what had happened. Bombs had gone off all over the line, killing and injuring hundreds of train commuters.

The signature of 7/11 and terrorism in Mumbai were their attacks on the city’s vital arteries, its train and bus network, where most Mumbaikars spend hours everyday together.The nature of the targets is very different from previous terrorism such as 7/11 or the bus bombs, or at least the news coverage here would have us believe. While its sister station in India, Channel 7-IBN, is leading in their coverage in Mumbai, CNN here has focussed largely on the shootout and hostage situations Taj and Oberoi hotels. The dramatic photos of the Taj Hotel dome draped in smoke and flames on today’s New York Times front page has already become the signature image of the Mumbai attacks.

There are other ways in which these attacks are remarkable, and different. The attackers apparently arrived by sea, landing in the very heart of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command in Colaba, in the Sassoon Docks, where a busy traffic of fishing boats, country craft, and small vessels land everyday from Bombay Harbour. There’s been a lot of news recently about piracy in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, where the Indian Navy allegedly sunk a pirate “mother ship” last week. In signs of the hyperbolic tendencies of Indian journalists, there were reports yesterday of a terrorist “mother ship” detained off Gujarat, a Pakistani merchant vessel.

While images of mother ships in the high seas of the western Indian Ocean might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that strategically, an arc of coastal states from Aden to Muscat, Dubai and Karachi are key nodes in a region where Bombay has been the largest coastal city. The Taj and Oberoi hotels are perched at the very southern tip of Mumbai’s Island City. And while these hotels — and Nariman House — are located in one of Mumbai’s most posh central business districts, at their feet and edges cling crowded colonies of fisherfolk and slum-dwellers who regularly venture out to the seas. These attacks were a brazen assault on some of the key symbols of the financial, military and commercial architecture of Mumbai, and its role as a regional and global capital. But anyone who has walked the streets of Colaba or Cuffe Parade can tell you that this regional command and control centre has feet of clay

Here in the US, the attack has coincided with the Thanksgiving holidays, when many families are at home glued to their many plasmas, tubes, and flat screens. The coverage here is banal at best, parachute correspondents or terrorism experts who know little about India, using the famous backdrop of the Taj Mahal hotel — now exploding, now on fire, now duck they’re shooting. For once I wish I could watch Rajdeep Sardesai shouting his way through the crowds, or even my buddy Sreenivasan Jain on NDTV. While I am not in Mumbai today, all Mumbaikars are part of a real-time news space that is following events as they unfold. Some of the more amazing moments so far have been the top cops shot as they let down their guard outside Metro Cinema, NSG commandos landing by chopper at Nariman House and storming their way in. Stay safe friends, and pray it is all over very soon.

EndNote sues Zotero

The most dramatic thing I almost missed due to my back problem at the start of this semester was EndNote suing Zotero. Well, actually, it was Thomson Scientific suing George Mason University (GMU), home of the Center for History and New Media — for whom I worked as an evangelist and project associate from 2007-2008 with Zotero. It’s been more than two months now since the assembled forces of darkness attacked Zotero, a free add-on for Mozilla Firefox to capture and manage citations, produce bibliographies, and navigate the research web.

While the web has dramatically transformed our access, the primary currency of academic knowledge production remains citations to other works. Prolific footnotes and generous bibliographies are the bread crumbs through which we can account for our own thoughts as researchers. In many ways, the web betrays its academic origins through the same logic of citation, which was buit into the basic structure of the web through its logic of links between pages and sites. Unlike EndNote, a fat desktop application, Zotero works inside the browser as an aid for storing, mixing and sharing citations to books, journals, web pages and media for reference, much like index cards, comments scrawled in margins, and lists and notes worked for an earlier generation researchers (and plenty of people today).

Thomson’s main complaint that Zotero “reverse-engineered” EndNote’s proprietary .ens format in a beta version, and are therefore in breach of their site license for EndNote. They are claiming damages of ten million dollars for the allegedly unauthorized distribution of this bit of EndNote inside Zotero. The Citizen Media Law Project run by Sam at the Berkman has the best single page on the EndNote Zotero suit, from their legal threats database, with a round-up of the key news items and blog posts on the lawsuit. See in particular Thomson Reuter’s original complaint filed in the Virginia State Court, the response by George Mason University in defense of interoperability.

This blog post summarizes and satirizes the legal claims, and this one analyzes the license violation in light of earlier state rulings. They are seeking damages from Zotero on the basis of a violation of GMU’s user license, and not on the basis of copyright, and the claim is peculiar. Those familiar with sharing citation styles knows that there is not much that needs reverse-engineering. Until very recently, we lacked even a basic markup language for sharing bibliographic data on the web. Then there was CSL, a creation of geographer and frustrated EndNote user Bruce D’Arcus whose simple scheme rapidly proliferated hundreds of citation styles in a matter of a few months, and which became Zotero’s native format for expressing citation styles. This was not reverse engineering, but rather open source development, where one person’s scratch can relieve thousands of itches.

GMU is a public institution supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and EndNote’s vendor, Thomson Scientific, is owned by Reuters. With such big names about to go to court the stakes are quite high for all casual and professional users of the web for any kind of systematic research. As an alumni of the Zotero team and doctoral student at MIT, it was gratifying to have friends in the free software community respond to the lawsuit. Mako was an early supporter (see the talk on Zotero he gave in my place at Wikimania). MacKenzie Smith at MIT Libraries summarizes the issues and gives an endorsement of Zotero in her blog post and her podcast. Also see legal expert Danny Weitzner‘s blog post, where he describes the suit as a legal strategy by a large software firm to restrict data interoperability on the web.

With a little help from these friends, as well as Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center now representing GMU pro-bono in the state court, the outcome will be interesting. Free software and open standards are quickly kicking the stools out from underneath the mess of clunky and expensive proprietary tools which made up the researcher’s basic software stack, though we have a long way to go. With integrated tools like Zotero, Firefox, and OpenOffice, the circle has already been completed between the research web and the writer’s desktop.

Obama’s Desi Geek

The Obama transition team this week announced that Sonal Shah has been selected to work on technology policy for the new administration (CNet News). Shah, an investment banker and public policy professional, is prominent within the Indian-American community not only for her work in Goldman-Sachs and the Google Foundation, but as a fund-raiser and community organizer for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, a well-known Hindu Right hate group in India which propagates violent pogroms and genocide against minority communities in India.

See these pieces raising alarm bells in the past few weeks in the Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu.

As an Indian-American who has worked with social movements “back home” and against the organised disinformation of the Hindu Right within the diaspora, this is highly alarming, and another huge goof for Obama, whom I voted for as I bought the line that he was a fellow desi. Homeboy, this ain’t right. For a deep exploration of Shah’s many faces in her role as Obama’s Indian, read Vijay Prashad’s piece in Counterpunch. You may also want to see and sign this petition by Progressive Women of Color to give Sonal Shah’s job to someone with stronger democratic and humanitarian commitments back in the old country.

Beyond Colonial Urbanism: Cities in South Asia

Panel organised at the Urban History Association 4th Biennial Conference on “Shock Cities”: Urban Form in Historical Perspective, Houston, Texas, 6 November 2008, 10.45 a.m,. to 12.15 p.m.

Until recently, the historical study of cities in South Asia has had to contend with an anti-urban bias. If, as nationalists often asserted, “the real India” lived in its villages, the countryside was more deserving of scholarly inquiry than cities. When forced to confront rapid urbanization in recent decades, postcolonial planners viewed the city less as a ocial form than as a set of problems, an ahistorical object of state intervention and control. These biases have shaped modern scholarship on South Asia, where urban change has been submerged within the narrative frameworks of colonial power, resistance and identity – concerns which have dominated nationalist historiography and postwar area studies.

Recent urban “shocks” in South Asia – from communal violence and religious extremism to ecological crises and infrastructure collapse – have renewed the debate on the significance of urban form and governance in India and cities of the postcolonial world. New urban histories of South Asia have demonstrated that its cities were a key arena for the circulation of transnational ideas and technologies of sanitation, mass housing and town planning, as well as a site for the articulation of novel forms of modernity whose history is neither “colonial” nor “national”, but are part of global urban history.

Our panel includes historians of Bombay, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Lahore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in an attempt to rethink urban change in colonial India beyond the nationalist framework of “impact” and “response”, and the dualism which structures most studies of colonial urbanism. While the great port cities and princely capitals of the subcontinent gave expression to the British Empire as paramount power in India, the colonial state was often most insecure in its urban seats of command and control. Rapid urbanization rendered the boundaries between colonial cantonments and native towns contested and porous, as Indian elites and masses confronted and appropriated “shocks” to the time, space, and built environment of the colonial city. Continue reading Beyond Colonial Urbanism: Cities in South Asia