Indian zeitgeist interpreted

Google released their annual zeitgeist, including country-wise insights. The Indian zeitgeist, for me, holds special relevance - fortunately or unfortunately, Google is one of the most important ways that I stay in touch with India. And here is what I deciphered from the results this year.

Bollywood and cricket still rule: Just look at the list of fastest rising people searches, all you have is either heroines and cricketing personalities. Out of the 10 most popular movies - only 2 are Hollywood movies.

Value is most valued: The brands that are successful are the ones provide most value - nokia, micromax, samsung, maruti. And value isn't just price - IRCTC has an incredible proposition (railway tickets online), something that caused it to top the charts in 2009 as well.

Entrepreneurship is alive and kicking: The youngsters want to impress girls, kiss, tie ties, improve their English, build websites and make money. Some are stressed and want to meditate, but thankfully not as much as last year. All pointing to a young populace itching to get out there.

There is a certain sense of brand loyalty: Yahoo mail still beats gmail, Nokia is up at the top, quite unlike their destinies elsewhere in the world. Same with Dell. When brands spend the time, they get rewarded.

Yet people are adopting the latest: I know this is contradictory, in a sense, to the earlier point, but that is India. Facebook, Twitter, Lady Gaga, Twilight are all what we searched for (thankfully, no Justin Beiber).

There is only so much that can be interpreted from six top 10 lists. And I am sure there is enough and more confirmatory bias. But looking at the amount of contradiction I have in one post, makes the gut feel it is just right.

December 31, 2010

Cross-processing using GIMP

Downloaded FxCamera for our trip over to Chicago over the holiday weekend. The app has a mode called Toy camera, that produces a cross-processed look to the photographs in the phone itself. Unfortunately, the final images are resized, and applying an in-phone effect to a phone camera shot results in an irrecoverable loss of fidelity, leaving no room for anything else. According to the author, the effect is produced by manipulating the color curves of the image - something that GIMP does a rather good job of.

Cross-processing has its roots in film photography, where a film is deliberately developed in a chemical solution intended for a different film. Cross processing results in color casts, high contrast and a sort of blown highlights and color casts in blacks.

Cross-processing technique

To cross-process in GIMP, the idea is to open the picture; auto-correct the colors or get the picture to look well exposed; apply the curves; then potentially adjust contrast.

The focus of this post is the trickiest part step from the above - to apply custom curves for the cross-processed look. The screenshot below shows how the curves should look. Save these as a preset and use as a starting point. As you can see, the red highlights get toned down and shadows get stretched, the green highlights get stretched, and blue is clipped at the ends.

Redscale technique

Similar to the cross-processed technique is the redscale technique, that originated with film cameras using the film in reverse. This causes the photograph to have an overtly red cast, while suppressing greens and blues.

The curves similarly follow, by focusing on boosting the higlights and midtones of the reds, while actively damping greens and blues. The curves below are what work best when trying to apply the redscale technique in post processing.

The advantage of doing this outside the phone is of course the additional control, but in addition you can leave the poor phone camera to do what it can to get a decent photograph with its itsy bitsy sensor, without worrying about having to post process it as well.

Of course, after using either technique, a good followup is to do a quick contrast boost make sure the resulting photograph is not too flat, and do the usual crop, resize, unsharp mask prior to saving as a png. Boosting contrast is achieved by using the classic "S-curve" on the composite channel. The curve can be stronger or flatter depending on the original photograph and the final desired effect. Know that you will lose a bit of detail at the higher and lower ends of the histogram using either technique and you shouldn't necessarily try to get it back with contrast correction.

External links: lilahpops.com & epicedits.com

December 27, 2010

FCC - Open Internet Rules

It was just a matter of time after the last cave-in by Google, that the FCC was going to make it all official. Today in a rather curiously timed vote, the Federal Communications Commission passed a set of rules that ostensibly seek to establish a framework for net-neutrality but in effect sets the idea of network neutrality down the path of exceptions which can only end in one day becoming as mind-boggling as the tax code. The illustrations are screen captures from the live hearing the FCC held for this event.

Network neutrality is a simple concept. Network providers, that is your ISP that links you to the Internet, should have no say in the way the network is being used. In other words, as a service provider, their job is to link customers up, not limit or influence what the customers do with the link. This is important because the current innovation on the web required a significantly low barrier to entry. The bandwidth hungry YouTube of today would not have existed if the network deemed it to be less desirable compared to the much lighter Twitter.

The business argument against network neutrality is that investment in network infrastructure depends on the amount and type of usage. And not having a seat at that table will result in a worse experience for everyone. Till date there was not explicit rule guaranteeing the protection of network neutrality. All that changed with the latest hearings by the FCC. We have rules now, but they are the strangest set of rules for the weirdest of reasons. And toothless to boot.

Starting with the images at the top, the current FCC proposal includes three rules - Transparency; No Blocking; and No Unreasonable Discrimination. First off the good - the principles themselves are robust enough. There is always going to be someone that seeks to circumvent the spirit for the letter, but in a broad sense these could well be the pillars of the definition of an open Internet. The fun is however lies in the details.

Firstly, creating a rule that includes the word "lawful", includes just enough leverage to establish a monitoring and inspection regime to prevent illegal activity. The two biggest excuses - security and copyright protection. This has got to be one of the myriad goals of these rules.

Second, apparently the Internet is different when you are walking on the street as opposed to sitting at home (see fourth slide). Google said so. This doesn't make much sense until you realize it is all about the apps. The apps have already created a form of stratified, non-interoperable web on the smartphone. And what is more, your telecom provider can unreasonably discriminate between the apps. Would you then be surprised if YouTube on your telecom's $1.99 app played better than on Google's app?

Thirdly there is no real enforcement. During the hearing, the counsel mumbled something about self-regulation. Though you do get to submit informal complaints to the FCC, for free!

So in effect net neutrality gets more reports, and a promise for no unreasonable discrimination in traffic as long as you are sitting down. All bets are off if you use apps on your phone. And if things go south, there isn't much redress beyond what we have today - start a twitter campaign and pray.

December 21, 2010

Eigenharp

One month, four (or six) seasons, 75 episodes later, Battlestar Galactica is finally all done. Today we watched the final three episodes, Daybreak parts 1, 2 and 3. And true to its nature the ending was no disappointment. BSG stands up there with the best science fiction series of all time.

In honor of the completion of the series, here is a farewell to the haunting Cylon theme played on a geeky instrument called the eigenharp.

December 19, 2010

Un-delicious

Yahoo bought and is now closing delicious. Del.icio.us as it was known at inception, is one of the best tools to save bookmarks online. Yahoo has done quite a number of stupid things over the years, but this is right up there. And making it worse is that they are vocally not happy that this leaked out. Nevertheless this means I am looking for a replacement, and rethinking my assumptions when it comes to web-only tools.

All eggs & one basket: There are certain items that I prefer to store online - bookmarks being a great example. Offline bookmarks make no sense beyond backups. Their value comes out of being online, available, portable (not just synced) and accessible (without installing stuff or logging in). Which is a big reason why online bookmarking has taken off rather quickly.

But the dilemma about web services is their availability - they suffer outages, and they run the risk of being shut down. So the question is, should one limit risk by putting all their eggs into one basket at the cost of losing out on innovation? Choosing a Google would, for all intents and purposes, ensure service. But one will probably never get to the see all the new and nifty that happens only in a basement. Which brings me to the second characteristic of the cloud.

Egg mobility: Continuing the ovular metaphor, unless one is able to move their eggs around, having accessible services has no meaning. Free services have an incentive to getting data in, but do not always have to be friendly with getting data out. Some like Facebook, are brazen about the one-way nature of their data pipes.

Having data portability is the true mark of a good web-only tool. The ability to back up data offline is a start, but adhering to standards where available or defaulting to a simple extract should be necessary for all cloud services.

Diigo seems to fit the bill. The exodus from delicious.com seems to be ending up in two locations - Diigo and Pinboard.in. Unfortunately Pinboard does not have a Firefox plugin (while they seemed to have hiked up their sign-up cost). And Diigo has a good list of export formats.

Thank you Del.icio.us. Go Diigo.

Update: Delicious insists it is only being sold, not shut down. Diigo has been importing my bookmarks for a few hours now without luck. Maintain status quo!

December 17, 2010

Statistics are sexy

Professor Hans Rosling, is the co-founder of a very interesting website called Gapminder. The website is dedicated to using graphics, animation and interactive charts to display and interpret global data. The tools initially developed by the site, now lives as the Motion Chart gadget within Google docs.

The technology, while not cutting edge, is nifty. Information of up to four dimensions plus time is displayed beautifully in an interactive way. There is no dearth of data around, but having a way to view, interpret, understand and communicate the knowledge hidden within all that data is what makes the data usable.

This is a perfect example where technology meets society in ways deeper than Facebook and Twitter can. Where technology directly faces societies' challenges and is able to directly make a difference. Something like the Random hacks of kindness, a story I heard on NPR a couple of weeks ago (embedded below).

Back to Prof Hans. He hosts a BBC program that makes statistics sexy and enjoyable. After the break is a wonderful visualization of the progress made by humanity in the last two hundred years. A simple, yet powerful, metric of life as we know it.

December 14, 2010

Angry birds, clueless pigs

The game Angry Birds, seems to be all the rage now. It is the top selling game on iTunes, and one of the most successful free games on the Android platform. It has apparently been downloaded 50 million times, and is responsible for 200 million fewer minutes of productive human existence each day. The game style itself is not new, but of course the execution of the game is snappy, beautiful and addictive. Yet, how many of us have paused to consider what we are really playing?

Apparently someone has, and made this video as proof.

December 13, 2010

WMAP and CMB

Stumbling onto NASA is such a time-suck. The latest foray was the image above, that piqued my curiosity, and I came upon the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), a satellite based mission that for the first time helped detect and map Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation in great detail. The probe helped establish not only the the census of atoms in the universe, but also helped reconstruct events leading up to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Information gleaned from this program helped build the picture above, which is a timeline of our universe's expansion.

The WMAP probe turned out to be a handy little busybody. Launched in 2001, the satellite was supposed to travel to an orbit beyond Earth called L2 in about three months and spend another 2 years collecting data. But the probe continued to send data through August 19, 2010. And the data turned out to be a gold mine.

Findings from the WMAP mission are impressive. Many recent changes about our understanding of the Universe and its origins seem to be linked to data from this probe. Among those I found the most fascinating, was this pie-chart that classified stuff in the Universe. Turns out only 4% is everything that we see - stars, planets, nebulae and dark holes. An overwhelming chunk is stuff that is causing more than expected attractive force in the Universe (dark matter) and way more than expected repelling force (dark energy). While I had read this before, spending time with the WMAP site, helped put a lot of it in perspective.

And yeah, I learned about Lagrange points, with pictures.

All pictures courtesy NASA/WMAP Science Team.

December 11, 2010

Snow from a distance

Growing up the tropics there are certain earthly processes that have been alien to me. Like have four distinct seasons, as opposed to the rainy hot and the regular hot. Or like living with snow. Everything I knew about snow was thanks to the propensity of Bollywood to choreograph elaborate dance scenes in exotic locales, and have the hero and his romantic interest roll around in the snow. Here are some things I never knew till I came to live in Wisconsin.

Snow can get really dirty. Yes the first snow is indeed pure and white. But once on the roads and the parking lots, it quickly gathers grime. And shows it. What remains a couple of days after the snow showers is a grimy cold mix of mud, ice and grease. Very unlike the postcards of the pure white.

Snow is, uncomfortably, wet. Everyone has seen the image of the girl catching the first snowflake and blowing it free. What happens in reality is that the moment a snow flake hits your skin it melts. Leaving you damp, cold and miserable.

Snow is heavy. It isn't ethereal powdery stuff waiting for the first breeze to float by. Instead scraping a 4-inch deposit off your car makes you wish you had spent more time at the gym.

Snow can get really hard and slippery. As feet pound the powdery stuff and sunlight melts it a little, everything freezes back like an impromptu skating rink. Inviting unsuspecting passers by to make fools of themselves, just like in the regular skating rink.

Snow never really occurs looking like those beautiful hexagonal crystals. Well, it probably does, but the crystals are always too small to see. And if you try to catch one, see above, all you end up with is a little wetter and a little colder.

For me, the first snowfall was definitely a wonderful occasion. So was the second. and maybe the third. But very soon, the slushy roads, the slippery sidewalks and the scraping of the car made me realize the truth. Snow is just like rain, but colder, sticks around for a awful lot longer and makes you wish you had just seen it from a distance.

December 05, 2010

Cheap Terabyte RAID on Network

Background: We need storage space. And we are not that good with keeping backups. And it is always a good idea to be a little cheap. I knew I was never going to afford a RAID 5, but I figured it was just a matter before RAID 1 became more accessible.

Ingredients:

  • 1x Cavalry Dual Bay Hard Drive Dock (EN-CAHDD2B-D)
  • 2x WD Caviar Black 1TB SATA Drives with 32MB Cache at 7200 RPM (WD10000LSRTL)

Buying instructions: Buy the Cavalry Dock for $19.99 (including $10 mail-in rebate) from Buy.com. Get the two terabyte drives from Best Buy during their Black Friday sale for $59.99 a piece.

Assembly and physical setup: Tear open boxes and covers. Try not to make much of a mess. Setup the jumper configuration into 0-1-0 per provided instructions. Slide the two Terabyte drives into the two slots provided on the Cavalry Dock Bay.

Configure and Format: The Cavalry drive is a classic plug, crash and play USB device. In the RAID 1 configuration, the device shows up under Windows XP as a JMB352 RAID-1 USB device. The two drives are not shipped formatted, so while you can see the plugged in USB hardware, it will not show up as a drive. So you will need to create a partition and format the drive.

Go to Start > Run, type diskmgmt.msc and hit enter. Here is what I saw.

Disk 1 is what I added, and it had not been initialized yet (in other words the space has not been allocated to a drive yet). Right click, select New Partition, and go through the defaults. Assuming you want to keep the Terabyte to just a single drive, you want to format a Primary partition. And I chose to not do the Quick Format, as I had other designs for the drive and wanted to make sure it was really good to go.

Network it: This was going to be the trickiest part. My router is a Netgear WNR3500L Wireless Router.

The great thing about this router, among many others, is that it provides a USB port that you can use to plug a USB drive in and have it visible on the wireless network. The tricky part was going to be compatibility - I wasn't sure if the USB chipset was going to play nice with the router. Fortunately, they did decide to play well with each other and as a result I now have a network accessible RAID 1 storage of a Terabyte at an additional cost of about $139.97 (plus tax).

December 03, 2010

Nokia 5800 v52.0.007

Almost on a whim, I checked for updates on my 5800 yesterday, turns out Nokia continues to be very generous (and partial) to its first ever phone on the v5 platform. The latest update gets the version up to 52.

The partiality of course comes from the fact that not all Product codes, even though they are otherwise identical, seem to get the love. If I had not changed my product code, I would probably still be stuck in the v30s myself.

A changelog from Nokia, as usual, is missing. However, it does feel quick and responsive to the touch and during rotation. Cannot confirm the other unofficial claims of better photos and video - they pretty much feel the same.

The question of course is this - how long will this last? Is Nokia 5800 the Nexus One of Symbian v5? Or is this just the test bed that gets updates more often because Nokia needs feedback on them in the wild before they get professionally rolled up into its ^3 devices? And, does it even matter?

December 01, 2010

Researching a seller online

New York times has a long expose on a particularly blatant case of online fraud, involving an unscrupulous seller who subscribes firmly to the adage that no publicity is bad publicity. He was able to use customer's blind reliance on Google to defraud them while continuing to raise sales. The case is clearly extreme, but raises an important question - how does one protect oneself from fraudulent online sellers. Instead of relying on everyone's favorite search engine to come up with a solution, I believe the answer is in thoroughly researching a seller online before committing to a sale.

Researching sellers online is a bit of an art and science. This post hopefully presents a bit of both. To begin, make sure you distance yourself from whatever deal that got you to the seller in the first place. The only question you have to answer with a simple yes/no is: "Should I buy from this seller". Nothing else.

The obvious first, prefer the big sellers - Amazon, Buy.com etc. Yes you are dealing with the big bad businesses, but the odds are in your favor that you will get what you bargained for. At the same time, understand that Amazon, and online marketplaces like eBay, act as storefronts for other sellers. Be aware of who you are really buying from. If it is not the big chain, you still have to assess the seller.

The second obvious point, prefer a seller using a payment intermediary - PayPal, Google Checkout etc. This does not mean you don't research the seller, you just can push it knowing there is a layer of protection there. And if you have to use a credit card, see if your bank offers disposable virtual cards.

Google the name of the seller - by itself without the product you are looking to buy. Go at least two pages deep, remembering that a majority of the first page may just be links from the seller's site. Even if the seller is on eBay, you can still Google them.

The overall rating is the first indication. No one gets a 100% or 5 stars, but closer the better. If you are looking at a 1 star or 10% positive feedback, close the window and walk away. Assuming the seller is not an obvious psychopath, start reading through the negative comments. The idea is to try and look for trends, and get to the truth behind the comments. Here are some comments you will possibly see:

  • "The product I bought from this seller sucks" - you will see a few of these, and you can safely ignore them. These are product reviews, not seller reviews.
  • "Product is different from what was advertised" - this is a bit of a red flag. It could just be a miss on the part of the buyer, or deliberate misleading by the seller. Look for multiple comments saying the same thing before deciding to can the seller.
  • "The product is fake" - now this is a big red flag. Rarely is this going to be a misunderstanding; better stay away.
  • "Seller charged incorrect amount" - this is definitely a red flag. True there are mistakes, but this is one of the most important things a seller does. Not getting it right is at best sloppy, at worst fraud.
  • "Something went wrong, and the seller charged for replacement shipping" - if that was in the small print to begin with, there is nothing odious about it. Bad? Yes. But fraudulent? Probably not.
  • "Their customer service is really bad" - This is a yellow, does not always mean something is wrong. The customer, unfortunately, is not always right. And everyone has their buttons. Consider the specifics of the comments carefully and look for repeats.
  • "The seller is aggressive or otherwise abusive" - drop the seller. No deal is worth it.
  • "The goods got damaged during shipping" - not much a seller can do about shipping, but just watch out for a trend.
  • "The shipping was delayed" - if the seller is missing a 3-day shipping for a 5-day delivery as a trend, they are probably just cutting corners and you probably don't want to pay extra for quick shipping. If delays are a constant features, then there is something not quite right. Consider walking away.

Looking back at the article all three red flags above happened in this case. I am sure the lady meant well, but a bit of 'Google before your click' could have saved her a lot of trouble. These are just guidelines, but reading through some details of what the customers are saying about a seller, could swing the odds of a successful purchase squarely in your favor.

Update: Google seems to have figured out a technical solution beyond the obvious and has already implemented it.

November 29, 2010

Anthropomorphic realities

Screenshot from Brian Greene's TED talk

There is nothing like string theory and coffee to wake you up on a Sunday morning. I have been wanting to post this for a while, but never quite got the right angle to talk about. Until this morning, when I read this.

The article is a classic compilation of the anthropomorphic arguments for the structure of the universe. Notwithstanding the scary look of the word, the argument basically is that our world is the way it is, because we are in it. In other words, we are not living in a unique world, the world is unique because we evolved at the end of it.

The article from io9 essentially tackles the idea that any combination other than the 3+1 dimensions (three space dimensions and one time dimension) would be illogical. Having only two space dimensions would, for example, would result in the alimentary canal splitting your body into two. Having four dimensions would cause the laws of physics to produce an unstable world with electrons collapsing into the nucleus and the planets into stars. Similarly having a two-dimensions time would make it absolutely painful to meet anyone - even being in the same place you could be in completely different times and never manage to keep a date.

Anthropomorphic arguments are inherently persuasive, but dangerous. They tend to limit choices and directly impact analytical rigor. For the most part, I tend to stay away from them, unless it came to the interpretation of mathematical constructs. And in that, these argument present a layer of abstraction that has the power to raise fundamental psychological questions about ourselves and our universe.

Consider the perception of time for example. Persistence of vision dictates that the image we see persists for about 1/25th of a second. In a world without high-speed cameras, this would mean that all phenomena that occurred quicker than this limit would essentially be invisible to us. If you asked the question - why is the limit for persistence of vision that number, you are thinking about it incorrectly. Instead the anthropomorphic answer is more logical. We developed in a world where anything quicker than the persistence of vision would essentially be inconsequential to us, and therefore "invisible".

How better to close a discussion around physics and dimensions than to embed a TED talk on the subject by Brian Greene. After the break.

November 28, 2010

The accent of crowds

One of the most fascinating past of Web 2.0 for me, is the way it paints a study in crowd behavior. When I think about 2.0 sites, one of the biggest differentiating factors is their dynamic nature - where the readers contribute as much if not more than the site itself. And the tone of this contribution is distinct, an accent if you will, of these sites. Consider the following examples:

Slashdot, as the site proclaims, is a site that provides news for nerds and stuff that matters. The site for long has defined a sort of intellectual nerdy sub-culture on the Internet. Before the 2.0 moniker became the fad it is, Slashdot derived more from the comments everyone posted on "nerdy" news stories, than the stories themselves. And the tone on the comments has always been something that defined the site - nerdy, important, focused on being right and mostly brutal and unforgiving.

Woot is a hoot. For an e-commerce site that sells one - just one - item each day at a ridiculously low price, Woot has developed a strong following of users who go out of the way to research each deal. The tone starts with the description that is posted with each deal. Rarely focusing on the subject of the sale, the description is funny, satirical and whimsical. A tone that follows throughout the site into the comments. In stark contrast to Slashdot, your head is now chewed off if you are wrong. User posts are creative, sardonic and dare I say, useful.

Linking to 4chan, if you don't know what it is, is dangerous - so I won't. But the site is basically an image board, where all content is user generated, and no one needs to log in. Reflecting the permissive nature of the site, comments range from the downright obnoxious to the hilarious. There is an underlying element of mischief and theatrical excess. Then there are the memes, in all their wild and unrestrained creative glory. And yes, if you only know of 4chan through traditional media, there is an abundance of adult content, limited to a minority of the boards. Try filtering the boards to "work safe" to get some real value out of the site.

To the original point of this post. Sites like the three above, probably share a large chunk of the same users (no citation for that claim). But each site brings out a different aspect of its users. This accent of the sites, is something that is self propagated over time, but is also seeded by the site itself. A site proclaiming itself to be for the nerds, brings out the nerds. Another name woot, can never let anyone take themselves too seriously. The world wide web, is not so much a fragmentation of users, as it is a fragmentation of accents. And the tone you get in your users is, in all probability, the tone you portray in your site to begin with.

November 25, 2010

Mental helpdesk number

Much has been written about our ability (or rather inability) to truly multitask. Arguments range from the increased overhead in task switching to our inability to focus fully on one more than one task at a time. Here is a new to the mix - bandwidth crunches in our mental router.

Apparently, the underlying phenomenon is well known. When we need to decide a couple of tasks in quick succession, there is a measurable delay if the second task starts too close to the first. In other words, tasks get processed in our brain, one after the other. This is called Psychological Refractory Period. Researchers have recently discovered that there is a part of our brain, that acts like a router, and when there is too much traffic, there can be a delay while the outstanding requests are cleared out. In other words, questions go to one location, setup as the first level helpdesk number. These are then processed and handed over to more specialized parts of the brain that can then complete the requested activity. Guess the old adage was correct:

One thing at a time,
And that done well,
Is a very good thing,
As many can tell

From an evolutionary point of view, this is such a sweet example of functional specialization in the brain. A simple architecture, but that is as scalable as possible. Rather than have each part of the brain understand everything, everything is done in specialized pockets, including the generalized functions that specialize in nothing more than pushing paper. Examples of this specialization abound, including this one that identifies the brain center that tracks time.

Back to the original point. Not only is multi-tasking unsustainable from a macro point of view, the brain processing itself is set up to be incompatible with doing more than one things at the same time. If you are talking and driving at the same time, the fact that your driving decisions are queued up awaiting the finalization of your retort to the angry spouse is not only scary, but a sure shot recipe for disaster.

November 22, 2010

Why Gold

With Gold price scaling new heights during the current recession, there has been a justifiable explosion of interest in the shiny, yellow, inert metal. But the question it begs is - why Gold? What is it that make the metal Aurum, with 79 protons so special.

Turns out there is an explanation - a chemical explanation. NPR and Planet money tackled this recently, and requirements for an element to be a form of currency are these:

  • Not a gas
  • Doesn’t corrode or burst into flames
  • Doesn’t kill you
  • Relatively rare, but not too rare
  • Available during ancient times
  • Does not tarnish
  • Has a reasonably low melting point

There is only one element that fits the bill - Gold. The question of course is why do we need to restrict ourselves to elements and not include things like alloys. Not sure if chemistry may have an answer for that question.

The audio of the story from NPR embedded below. Turns out NPR is no longer providing embed code, so had to use a CC shared flash player from Dewplayer to embed the MP3 file from NPR. Thanks NPR, Dewplayer and Creative Commons.

November 21, 2010

Technophobe John

John apparently is a technophobe. And so his phone is as bare-bones as it gets. Unfortunately, John is only a moniker. Fortunately, it is also a company that makes the most simplest of cell phones - no camera, no operating system, no apps, not even text messaging. In fact the only thing you can do with the phone is power it up, make calls, hang-up, and (if it tickles your fancy) set the ringer volume level.

The phone clocks in with impressive specifications. It comes quad-band unlocked, includes a screen at the top edge to display inbound and outbound calls. The 1200 mAh battery stays on standby for about three weeks. The best part is that the phone comes in with two ways to store numbers - either linked to speed dial or noted on a paper phone-book embedded at the back of the phone (slot available, paper and pen sold separately at 3x for €9.95). Thankfully, it uses a micro-USB cable for charging, reducing your charger clutter. The question of course is, if you were technophobe John, why would you have a charger clutter.

By first impressions this seems to be a phone designed for John and Jane, the technophobes. But there is potentially a bigger market out there. Standard issue for sensitive workplaces - like the army or defense installations. A daily-swap program for contractors having access to classified information. An unbreakable version for every kid. And the list goes on.

But that is not going to happen at €69.95 (euros). Here to a solid demand that drives the price of this puppy down. And just maybe, John will need to buy a blackberry to keep up with the explosion of demand.

November 18, 2010

Emergence and Democracy

Emergence is the idea that given sufficient numbers of simple interactions, a relatively complex outcome may result, that cannot be trivially traced back to the simple interactions. Wikipedia, which is itself a great example of emergent behavior, defines emergence as:

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

It struck me, in listening to coverage of the recent election season, that it should be possible to see voting as the building blocks of simple interactions, which should result in complex emergent behavior when it comes to the results of such elections. Having listened to pundits rave and rant on election results across the two largest democracies, there seems to be very little of this spontaneous complexity. Yes, parties win and lose, but over the generations of going through this process has not, in my opinion, produced a directed long-term behavior transcending local variations. To me that means that we are either asking the wrong questions of elections (and consequently democracy), or lack the tools to recognize emergence, or have democracy set up in a way to never achieve emergence.

The final thought is scary. Especially if you consider that most of humanity (caveats include China of course, but with the understanding that their adoption of democracy is only a matter a time) have hitched their future to this bandwagon. It appears, at least according to the superficial analysis above, that the current form of democracy is not set up to deliver on the promise of a future for humanity. The questions, therefore, are: why is today's democratic setup unable to produce emergent behavior, and what can we do about it.

When I initially thought about this, I had imagined this to be a problem with the lack of bounds for democratic emergence. Because there are so many parameters that modern democracies have to deal with, I figured the setup was not scaling in breadth. But the more I think, emergence has nothing to do with bounds. Emergent behavior changes with the change in bounds, but the behavior should nonetheless exist. Instead, I imagine the following three ideas may describe the reason for non-emergence in today's democracies.

Delayed feedback - emergent systems typically have a feedback loop as part of the simple interactions driving it. Democracy is time-delayed. Instead votes determining government actions occur every X years, while the actions themselves are continuous. This biases voting actions to the most recent governmental actions making the simple actions for emergence flawed.

Representative vs. Direct democracy - most democratic systems involve choosing of representatives who in turn make legislation. This one-removed nature of legislation eats into the continuity of feedback. There are no simple actions that vote on simple outcomes. Instead simple actions now are voting on complex outcomes themselves.

Non-uniform participants - emergent behavior requires all non-directed actions to be completed by similar participants. In other words, all voters ought to be equal. Unfortunately, this is not always so. With the Junta in Myanmar at one extreme of this example and the special interest groups in the US at another, participants in a democracy are never practically the same. This also means, the goal of pure emergence is that much tougher to attain.

This post is by no means the first look at such an idea. Joichi Ito, a Japanese journalist, talked about the idea of Emergent Democracy in 2001, and how blogs were/are going to be the engine towards making it happen. Wikipedia lists a book by Clay Shirky, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In both cases, the organization itself is proposed to be emergent as a result of the Internet.

While it is intriguing (and rather far-fetched) to give up the current democratic setup for the promise of anarchistic self organization of societies - there may be a case for a moderately direct form of democracy leveraging the Internet. And just may be establish a true form of emergent democracy that is actually able to propel human society forward.

November 14, 2010

Grand grand Canyon

The first time Grand Canyon took my breath away was when I saw this on Google Maps while I was researching our trip to the place. In what was otherwise a massively flat landscape, there was this sudden explosion of geography, like a massive fractal generator gone rogue. The scale of the natural wonder does not sink in, until I realized that the loop of road, from mid bottom to the bottom right corner, is about 20 miles long and takes half an hour.

Our trip to the Grand Canyon, was a day trip with no time to hike. That meant we were mostly interested in lookout points that provided great views. Curiously enough, for all the information there is about this natural wonder, we couldn't find many sites that definitely talked about key details of lookout points. Hence this post. In no way is this complete, but hopefully some of you may find it useful.

There are two rims to viewing the Grand Canyon, the quieter (and difficult to reach) North Rim and the more touristy (but equally grand) South Rim. If this is your first trip, go to the South Rim and keep it simple. The main route to the park is Arizona highway 64, that goes into the park itself through a checkpoint (where you can buy entry tickets). Continuing on the highway gets you to the visitor center and the first view point called Mather Point. As you can imagine, this is one of the most visited points. Off the highway to the left is the Grand Canyon Village, where you can find lodging and boarding if you so desire. Continuing on AZ-64 takes you onto East Rim Dr., that goes along the South Rim, passing a number of view points ending at the Desert View about 20 miles away.

All the points below are between the Mather Point and Desert View. There are a number of other points along the south rim that you could take a shot at, but these were the ones that worked best for us.

Mather Point: This is the first view point that comes up while driving north on AZ-64, and is linked to the visitor and learning centers. There are three parking lots, each of which connects to the main visitor area. The overlook with guardrails is located about a five to seven minute walk from the visitor center. The patch is mostly flat, well paved and accessible. The place is always busy, but the overlook is big enough to accommodate.

Yaki Point: This is the next viewpoint to the east of Mather Point. There are two ways to get to it - take the free shuttle from Mather Point, or park by the highway and walk the 1.2 mile connector road to the overlook. The connector road is not open to the public, only to the shuttle. There is also no parking by the road - there is a picnic spot by the connector where you can leave your vehicle instead. The shuttle starts early in the day, so this is a good alternative to Mather point for a sunrise experience.

Grandview Point: Grandview Point has a lot of historical significance, being among the first overlooks to be discovered. The views from here are spectacular with the Hance rapids visible from here. The view is accessible after a short drive through a connecting road ending in a loop that has some parking. The overlook is just beyond the parking.

Lipan Point: This overlook is accessible after a short connector road, just like Grandview point, with a loop at the end having some parking available. A pretty good view, but nothing you would not see from the next location.

Desert view: The Desert View is the eastern most point on East Rim drive, and it is a treat. There is a large parking just off the AZ-64, and walking about 5 minutes from the parking brings you to the historic watchtower. Not only are the views fantastic, but the watchtower itself is a treat. The river is visible from here and will probably be a great place to watch the sunrise from.

If you go to the Grand Canyon, you should probably spend some time and hike around the place. If you are unwilling or unable, and want to just want some views the places above may be a good place to start.

Update: Here is a photo-gallery of our trip to the Grand Canyon.

November 13, 2010

Stuff It

The Story of Stuff - is a cute and conscientious effort at promoting a more responsible and sustainable way of living. Narrated by a breathless Annie Leonard, the main video (embedded below) is an exploration of our current consumption-based economy and how unsustainable it really is. Interspersed with cute stick cartoons, Annie describes the linear nature of western economies, with particular focus on America - starting from extraction through to disposal of various material goods.

The core idea is not revolutionary - be sustainable because our current way of life is most certainly not. But the presentation seeks to gain a leg up via two different approaches, cartoon factoids and conspiracy theories. All through the video, you find instances of figures and ratios written up on virtual blackboards. They may all be true, or they may just represent the worst case scenario - one would never know from how neatly they are packaged. And then there are the conspiracy theories, right from the government - big business nexus to the secret cabal of post war economists and marketing directors. By no means is all of it false, and indeed expecting to get anything more than that in 20 minutes is rather naive. But by the same token, I would be hard pressed to imagine that all of today's economy is nothing more than a carefully packaged, herd the sheep, dog and pony show (talk about animated analogies).

With the facetious itch out of the way, let's get a tad more serious. The problem with sustainability in my mind, is that it has facets of the prisoners dilemma. In effect if all of us try to live sustainably, then it is a huge payoff for everyone. But if some of us do it and the others do not, then it leaves those of us acting in a sustainable manner worse off than those who are not. That is the way the dice of today's economy is loaded. When Annie talks about external costs she is not joking. Living off by your own self is not only more expensive, but it is not supported by the way society is set up today. That is what makes sustainable living a catch-22 situation.

Who then do we turn to? The same government that we blame for secretly getting us into this mess in the first place? The big business who care only about profits above all else? Or is the answer a more inclusive - all of the above? And that is the big issue I have with the tone of the message. The big question isn't how can we live more sustainably, but how do we make sustainability a social & economic imperative? Not one or the other. I have not heard a great answer yet.

Nevertheless, the video is a great way to communicate the message and urgency of a more sustainable life - to quote - "Make 'em Safe, Make 'em Last, and Take 'em Back."

November 11, 2010

Free WiFi or Secure WiFi

I wasn't a big fan of free WiFi. Don't get me wrong, I love having free stuff, but when it came to WiFi, free almost always meant it was unencrypted. And that meant that my security was basically at the mercy of everyone else sharing the connection with me.

This is because, every time you browsed on an open WiFi connection (except when it was a https page), anyone could easily see what you are browsing. There are a number of powerful tools that allow you to snoop on everyone else. To make matters worse, recent news indicates that even having https was no protection. FireSheep is a Firefox plugin that makes taking over other people's connections almost trivial.

The one protection against this form of security holes is, well, having an encrypted WiFi connection. Chester Wisniewski, a Security Advisor at Sophos, has a potential solution. To encrypt all free WiFi connections using a default password - "free". That way the connection remains just as accessible, but it also puts security high up on the agenda. And maybe, people like me would not be so wary of free WiFi connections anymore.

November 10, 2010

Single use websites

I realized I had amassed over a thousand links on my delicious account, thanks in great part to StumbleUpon. Trolling through the list, I realized that there were a number of peculiar tools in that list - single use websites that basically serve one purpose (a very useful purpose at that) and do not do much else. No menus, no registration, very few linked pages and a single purpose is what identifies this list.

Online Conversion Tools

HTML-PDF converter is, as the name suggests, a useful tool to convert web pages to pdf format. Paste the URL, click the "Make PDF" button and wait for the download to appear.

VozMe is a tool that takes some text typed into a text box and creates an text-to-voice mp3 file that can be downloaded for use. Includes options of male or female voices.

Ever had the urge to keep a copy of the funny dog video, only to realize YouTube isn't friendly that way. KeepVid is the solution. Supports YouTube, Metacafe and a ton of other streaming sites.

Media Converter is an online converter of media across a number of formats - both audio and video. In addition it also allows the download of media from a number of online sources.

Zamzar is another great online tool to convert across different formats by uploading an original, or just use an online streaming site and download into a format of choice.

Email Tools

MintEmail is part of the new breed of disposable email tools that allows you to make and use a disposable email id for those annoying websites that need an email from you (you could just use the tools on this list instead). But if you need an email that works for 3 hours only - here you go.

Send Email is a simple anonymous email sender. Need to send a quick note to yourself, but do not trust a public connection - this is the answer for you. You could also choose to annoy a friend, but make sure you check the usage agreement first.

Phone Tools

I can't find my phone, is a tool for you if you have misplaced your phone (at home). Type in the number, and the site will give you a ring. Hope you do not have it on silent though.

File Sharing Tools

SendUIt is an easy to use file upload/download service that allows you to share files with anyone. The files size is limited to a 100MB, and you can set the expiration from 30 minutes to a week.

Wikisend is a similar site that allows upload and download of files up to 100MB.

Webdesign Tools

Color Scheme Designer allows you to pick colors for your website. You can choose the kind of color palette you are looking for and the tool helps you pick the individual colors.

Whats its color is a tool that helps pick the primary and secondary color of an image. Extremely useful when you want to build a color scheme around a photograph.

Web 2.0 Badges is a quick and easy way to generate those glossy badges for use on your site or blog.

Favicon.CC is an online icon editor. In addition to importing an image, the site also works as a standalone editor to create a 16x16 icon image.

Here is a clutch of other tools that generate those useful (annoying?) gif files you desperately need. Loading indicator, Stripe creator, Tabs Generator, Reflection Maker, Quick Ribbon, Glossy 2.0 Button Maker.

Roundpic, as the name suggests, takes any picture and rounds the edges to give you a fresh 2.0 look for your photographs.

Image Manipulation Tools

Resizr is a simple tool to re-size and rotate images. There isn't a lot you can do with this tool, but if all you want to do is re-size, this is the tool for you.

Pixenate is an easy to use web-only image manipulation tool. Along with the crop and re-size functions, the tool also allows basic color management and photo enhancement.

Mypictr is a photo extraction tool that allows you to easily pick out your own face from a snapshot to use on your profile.

Pixlr is pushing the boundaries of simple tools. Nevertheless, it is a one page online photo editor that is pretty powerful yet limited to one page.

Other Random Tools

Cost to Drive is a eco-conscious tool that calculates the cost to go from one city to another based on the type of vehicle you are planning to use. If not anything else, it helps prove that a Hummer is three times as expensive as a Prius.

Let me Google that for you. This is for all those people that find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than google it for themselves. Once you use it you will realize what you have been missing all along.

Namechk allows you to check if a particular name is taken at a large number of social network sites. Useful if you want to use a consistent name across a number of sites.

Finetune, though primarily for the Wii, is a great way to listen to new music based on a type of song or author, without the complexity (Flash usage) of Pandora. I've written about it before.

October 30, 2010

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