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

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