August 31, 2010

Dinosaur Comics

Continuing with the posts about good webcomics, here is a different type of comic - called Dinosaur Comics. What, you ask, is so different about this comic? Well, for starters every strip looks exactly the same. That's right, the exact same panels in every single strip. The only different is the dialogue taking place between the characters. Imagine that, every story looks exactly the same, but tells a completely different story. I looked it up, this type of comic writing is called a constrained comic.

There are three main characters in the strip, starting with T-Rex. T-Rex is generally a fun guy, in a goofy self-centered sort of way. Utahraptor, is T-Rex's friend and sometimes the voice of reason in the strip, and sometimes the foil to T-Rex's designs. As confirmed by the comic's creator, Utahraptor is also gay. And finally there is the Dromiceiomimus. Dromiceiomimus was a one-time love interest of T-Rex, and that brings about an interesting love-hate relationship between the two.

Every strip looks like the above. Sometimes T-Rex is funny, sometimes he is deep, he communes with the God, sometimes with the Devil. Here are a couple (after the break) to get you started.

August 28, 2010



Continuing with today's trend of posting about useful sites, here is another that I just stumbled upon - TypeRacer.

TypeRacer is a website where you basically race against others, by pitting your typing speed and accuracy against theirs. Every race starts off with a random excerpt, about a paragraph long and some randomly chosen opponents. The excerpts are selected from books, poems or even song lyrics.

One word at a time is highlighted in the excerpt, allowing you to type it correctly in a text box. If you make a mistake, you cannot proceed till you correct it. Once you type in the correct word, it disappears from your text box, the next word in the excerpt is highlighted. The first one to complete typing the excerpt wins.

The site, randomly pits you against opponents who are in the same typing speed range as you to keep things interesting. You can instead choose to practice yourself, or race against specific people.

As it turns out, I apparently type in the 88.5 percentile range. So the question is am I going to practice long enough to start making an appreciable difference in the type racing rating of mine.

Finetune Pandora on Wii

Meant to put this on the blog for some time. If you have a Wii at home and want to use it to connect to Pandora, you are mostly out of luck. While Pandora has ostensibly embarked upon the path to make Pandora accessible from anywhere, Wii has yet to feel the love.

The Finetune Wii interface

But there is a way out - enter Finetune. Finetune's Wii interface, allows the bundled Opera browser to display a stripped down version of the Finetune interface and play both standard & custom playlists.

August 23, 2010

Uncanny Valley

Hiroshi Ishiguro is an interesting man. He is a Japanese roboticist who works on trying to create extremely life-like humanoid robots. And in doing so, he is bravely testing the depths of the uncanny valley.

Which begs the question - what is the uncanny valley. This is an idea, proposed back in 1970, that states that the more realistic a robot is, the more empathetic a response it evokes in humans. At some point, when a robot begins strongly resembling a human, this empathy changes into sharp revulsion. The empathy returns as the robot becomes indistinguishably human. This is the reason why the kid in the movie Up looked cute and Jolie in Beowulf was creepy.

Which begs the question, why bother trying to leap over it? And that is where, I think, a lot of the promise of robotics seemed to have been frittered away. There seems to be an inordinate amount of effort spent to replicate the human anatomy, when it may not necessarily be the best suited for “robotification”. If form follows function, there are very few functions where the human form is best suited to perform optimally. The human form is built for versatility not optimum capability. For any specific action that needs to be performed, there probably is a non-human form better suited to act. Why them spend the time re-creating the “jack-of-all-trades” human form?

Then there is the human face - a really versatile communication mechanism - that Hiroshi Ishiguro wants to recreate as a robot. For that purpose, he created the Telenoid R1. Now the idea of this robot is to have an overgrown embryo in your hands, that would re-create the expressions of a person far away. In effect a telephone that displays the expressions of someone far away. But did you look at it? Is that something you want to hold in your hands while talking to a loved one? And what is wrong with a video call?

Coming back to the reason for the post, there are some valleys that need to be crossed. There are others that need to to stay put, so that they can act as a moat between robots and humans.

August 21, 2010

The Order of the Stick

While xkcd and Cyanide are self-contained strips, other webcomics have taken taken the route of epic fantasy - literally. My favorite example of such serialized goodness is The Order of the Stick - a.k.a. OOTS.

The Order of the Stick, follows the adventures of a team of warriors who are battling the great evil of Xykon. And while they are on this quest, they are constantly fighting monsters, dealing with silly detours, gaining XP points, leveling up all while making wise-cracks about the nature of role playing games (Dungeons & Dragons in particular).

The OOTS is led by Roy Greenhilt, an uptight warrior with an enormous sense of duty in fulfilling his father's last wish. Much of the comic is dedicated to the growth of Roy as the leader of the rag-tag band. Supporting as second in command is Haley Starshine, who excels as a scout because of her skill in deception.

Belkar Bitterleaf is a dwarfish, selfish, oafish and dangerous halfling. In addition to being extremely bad in his skills, he keeps the rest of the order on its toes by being highly unreliable.

Durkon Thundershield is the healer of the team. And the ponderous, capable dwarf who is just as likely to address ye olde self, as bring down the lightning of Thor.

Elan and Vaarsuvius are the single-word named duo, forming the rest of the team. Elan is a simpleton. Able to infuriate with his puns and songs than actual fighting, while Vaarsuvious is a self-centered, arrogant and condescending gender-ambiguous wizard.

If you like role playing games (RPG), you probably have already heard of this comic. Even if you have not heard of RPGs, the comic more than stands for itself beyond the arcane lingo of skills, checks and levels. Ignore it, and in no time you will start to realize what those terms really mean.

At the time of writing this, there are a total of 743 episodes available. Everything you need for hours of role-playing, comic fun.


If you Google “webcomics” the first result is xkcd. And deservedly so.

Published by Randall Munroe, xkcd describes itself as a “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” The comic displays and celebrates a distinctly geeky view of the world, and is comfortable tackling subjects like raptor attacks, sex, computer jokes, celebrities and responding to and creating memes. While most of the comic is line drawings of stick figures, sometimes things do get more artistic. For all its fame, some of xkcd's jokes are unapologetically inaccessible.

That is what makes is such a fun read. Geeky, intelligent and funny. Here are a couple of examples to help you get started.

Cyanide and Happiness

One of the best examples of the democratization power of the Internet, in my mind, is the explosion of webcomics. Comics or funnies, had few outlets beyond a section in the newspaper or a major comic publisher. Particularly the comic strip suffered from a severe shortage of real-estate, hindering any meaningful exploration of the genre.

The Internet changed all that. Now we have a wide variety of comics from the beautifully illustrated to the stick figures, all with a story to tell.

I realize, I want to post about a few of my favorites.

Up first, Cyanide and Happiness, is just that - poking fun at stuff you probably should not be. Topics are almost always dark or cynical and, more often than not, offensive. It is a bit like Southpark, but with real adults and no preachy ending. Also, before I forget to mention, extremely funny. The strip below is a great example, and had me guffawing.

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic

Tells you something about my sense of humor now, doesn't it? And the site has a random option, that allows you to browse around for hours.

August 18, 2010

18 rules for living

Apparently at the start of the millennium, the Dalai Lama issued 18 rules for living. Very very useful.

  1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
  2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
  3. Follow the three Rs:
    1. Respect for self
    2. Respect for others
    3. Responsibility for all your actions.
  4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
  5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
  6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
  7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
  8. Spend some time alone every day.
  9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
  10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
  11. Live a good, honourable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.
  12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
  13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.
  14. Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.
  15. Be gentle with the earth.
  16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
  17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
  18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

August 12, 2010

Artificial Neutral Networks

Net Neutrality means many things to many people. For some it means the network is indifferent to the packets that flow through. For others it represents the freedom for the little guy to take on the big corporate - and have a chance. Others view it as an unwelcome encroachment of the Government into yet another business. Still others see it as an archaic concept representing the early dawn of the Internet, ready for retirement as IPv4.

Net Neutrality is all that and more, depending on who you ask. Events over the last few weeks, in my mind, are watershed. Irrespective of the outcome, the arguments made now will define the nature of discussion going forward.

First the basics - Net Neutrality means that the networks are agnostic to their traffic. Drawing a rough parallel, it is like the highway system is agnostic to the type of vehicle. You could drive a Lamborghini or a commercial 18-wheeler, the rules of the road apply the same. Similarly, proponents of Net Neutrality want the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to keep their hands off all traffic, arguing that the democracy on the web was the key for innovation over the past few decades.

On the other hand, opponents characterize it as an impediment to the natural evolution of the Net, where unnecessary oversight (by the FCC) will reduce competition and eliminate choice.

The graphic is what advocates promise will happen without neutrality, and opponents ridicule as being far fetched.

Personally, I love the idea of Net Neutrality. Like Open Source, it represents an idea of single-minded meritocracy - the best idea wins. But realistically, I think the idea is always going to be little more than an aspirational goal. But as a law, there is little that network neutrality can deliver. Paradoxically, any legislation that enforces neutrality automatically puts someone else in charge of the network.

Why is this relevant now? Google and Verizon came up with a policy proposal a few days ago, outlining a set of seven framework ideas as a basis for a future for network neutrality. There was a swift response from news sites and blogosphere, mainly critical, including accusations of a Google sellout. ATT called it reasonable - and the battle lines are drawn. Google did come up with an explanation of sorts, but only helped paint a stark picture of how this debate is only going to get clearer than mud in the months ahead.

As I said, these are defining times. Ideas and decisions taken now will define the nature of the Internet and innovation in the future. All most of us can do, is wait and see.

Update: A follow-up article to the destructively accurate article over at Wired; a very pragmatic outlook.


Funny story on NPR about a guy who, one day, decided to embark upon a cross-country quest to correct typos. Jeff Deck, the founder of Typo Eradication Advancement League, and his buddy Benjamin Douglas, set out to not just identify, or photograph, but actually fix typos in public signs. It went well, until the duo were busted for “fixing” a historic marker at the Grand Canyon. Vandalism - was the term the authorities preferred instead.

They are back, with a book now, that chronicles their journey. For two and a half months they were out and about, finding 437 typos and correcting more than half of them. While they found some support for their effort, there also was a lot of apathy. Culminating in the run-in with the law.

Now here's the rub - imagine finding typos in this publication. Ah the sweet-sweet irony.

August 09, 2010

5800 firmly upgrading

Yay - this makes me feel like a kid entering a candy store - giddy with anticipation. My phone's firmware is upgrading again - to v.51.0.006. The phone is downloading the firmware as I type, that is available as an OTA release. The official changelog includes:

  • Improved Mail for Exchange
  • Improved video calls
  • Improved browser
  • Performance improvements

Does not sound like a lot, but folks have reported other minor benefits as well.

This of course would not have happened, had I not changed my product code from 0575586 (which, despite being an early adopter of the phone, does not get any love from Nokia) to 0559961. But that is the topic for another post.

August 06, 2010

Wave waves Goodbye!

That was quick. Last year, I had written about a new technology from Google, which was - as usual - going to change the world. The Google Wave. The unified replacement for email, IM and social networking with an immersive collaborative environment.

Apparently Google recently pulled the plug on it.

There are a number of reasons outlined in the post by Google, still more by pundits all over the interwebs. But something else struck me - the time-line. For a company that was comfortable keeping the beta tag on a core services for years, it took just 14 months before pulling the plug on something that didn't work. And that after opening it up to general use hardly 2 months ago. This seems to suggest a growing business savvy to the company, with an increasing ability to take hard decisions fast.

Combined with the rumors of Google going back on Net Neutrality, this seems to reinforce their increasingly pragmatic business outlook. And when hard business sense conflicts with philosophy, guess what wins.

Embed Google Fast Flip

If you use Google News, you probably have seen Fast Flip. Fast Flip basically takes screenshots of news articles from a certain set of new sites, and allows you to browse the news by flipping through images. As a result you get to see news formatted better than in a news aggregator, but still cover news from a variety of sources.

I wondered if there was a way to embed fast flip in my site. There wasn't a gadget I could find, but with a bit of copy-pasting it was not so difficult after all. The code for doing it follows after the embedded fast flip.

<iframe class="gadget-iframe-contents" frameborder="0"

Disclaimer: Did not see anything that suggested Google frowns upon using fast-flip this way, but use it at your own risk.

August 01, 2010

Gmail ID - good email ID

When Google got into the business of providing a free email service, I was first in line to get myself an account and play with it. At that time one had to be invited for a gmail account; and being early meant that I got myself a very good email id - a pretty common first name back home.

What I had not realized at the time, was the flip side to having a common email id - the pseudo-spam.

First, there is the 'mistaken' use of my email by folks for all sorts of account activities. I have updates from two bank accounts sent to my email id. There is one broadband and three mobile companies that see fit to remind me of payments due. And at least one kid can probably never get to any online sites because he keeps using my email id for parental consent (that I promptly decline).

Now I have been diligent about trying to let the bank and telecom companies know that their customer does not 'own' my email id. But if a website wants me to log into the account to unsubscribe, there is little I can do about it.

Then there is the the appropriation of my email ID for online activities. I know at least three match-making companies that believe I still need to be hitched. About four universities are waiting for me to register this fall. Some think I have cars to sell, others think I want to buy property. And then the job sites - I have offers from across globe in fields I did not even knew existed. I try to unsubscribe where I can, mark them as SPAM if possible and for the particularly annoying ones I have to go via the forgot password route to log in, change the contact id to and the password to i-am-an-idiot.

Thirdly there are the forward lists I am on. Just because someone knows someone with my first name, they think they can mail me to keep in touch with them. I get baby photos, 'must-forward' emails, jokes and reminders from one school principal that seems to think I am on her staff.

Finally the unsubscribable sites. Horoscopes, yellow page listings, naughty sites and mass-mailing sites - everywhere one does not want to use their own email id. Guess who's easy to remember email ID comes in handy. Yup, mine!

So there you go, first in line with Google, and I get 80% pseudo-spam that gets through Gmail's capable filters. Who would have imagined having a good email ID would be so much work. Maybe I should just have gone with