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Archive for September 2008

Google Android is here!

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Google and T-Mobile have this week announced the launch of the G1, the first Android based phone. Technical review has a review of the G1 in comparison with the iPhone, it’s most famous, if not closest competitor.

It is interesting to contrast the two styles at work here. Apple undoubtedly makes pretty products, not always cutting edge technology, but pretty to look at with the flashy icons and the nifty animations schemes like having some fireworks whenever a window is closed etc. What I absolutely abhor about Apple is how it tries to force it’s own choices on it’s customers. Apple knows best and so will choose the one single network carrier with whom customers can use the iPhone. Apple also knows best and therefore all apps which people write for the iPhone need to get an approval from Apple to even think of being on the iPhone. In fact, Apple and the iPhone are pretty much the same as Microsoft and Windows, except that Microsoft gets booed everywhere it goes and Apple has people queuing outside their stores at 4 am on cold mornings to get their hands on the “first” iPhone. That is a marketing coup that is, but to me it still reeks of a domineering, “I know better than you” attitude.

Google’s approach is much simpler and is one which has given great results in a wide variety of situations, not just technology. The idea is simple, Google’s job begins and ends with providing a robust and open operating system(OS) along with tools and documentation that enables third party developers to make use of it. Not an inch more and not an inch less. There are two major advantages to this method. Firstly, Google can focus on maintaining a high quality OS, app developers can focus on high quality apps and handset makers can focus on high quality handsets. Everyone specialises and where required work together to build a fantastic product. Secondly, being an open source OS, third party app developers and handset manufacturers can tweak the system as they like. The tweaking may result in a direct improvement to Google’s Android, or it may result is a different “distribution” based on Android (as has happened to the various Linux distros) or a tweak may just be used in specific phones. Either way, the structure sets up a vibrant community, with the freedom to do almost anything and which in some way will benefit the original OS, either through technical development or through an extended reach. Google’s decision to stay away from the Android apps market would also put the user community, and not the parent company, at the centre of deciding which apps are worthwhile and which are not, which is how it should be. To be convinced that such an approach really works, one simply has to look at examples such as the internet, Linux, Project Gutenberg and MIT open courseware. Providing a strong platform on which individual creativity can thrive has always had and will always have a pretty darn good chance of succeeding.

Such an unregulated structure could cause problems for security/stability etc, but those will soon be removed because most of the operating system is open source and quite possibly some of the apps will be too. If there does not exist a suitable app for a certain purpose, it will get written. If an existing app causes a stability problem or has a security threat, it will be replaced by one that does not. Alternatively, if the instability was a fault with Android, the app writer can debug the Android code and submit a patch that will improve the OS. The reason he would do so is simply because he wants his app to sell and if he is convinced of his application design/implementation, he will be prepared to take the plunge and debug the OS. The net result will be that the OS gets stronger, the apps multiply and compete till the best remain and the handset manufacturers and networks will be able to pick and choose the apps they like, maybe even customising the OS for their own specifc phones.

Unfortunately, a good product is not a guarantee for success, so we cannot be sure if Android will be a success. I am also not highly infatuated with mobile connectivity and I am not a big user of mobile phones. But if I have to choose between the iPhone or an Android based phone, I will take the Android one and Apple can keep its domineering attitude to itself.

Written by clueso

September 28, 2008 at 11:32 pm

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“The final Solution” on the Gujarat riots.

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This Saturday afternoon was spent in watching the movie documentary “The final solution” by Rakesh Sharma, which I obtained from a blog titled Kalabaaz. It was not the most pleasant way to spend part of the weekend, but it definitely was thought provoking.

I will not claim that the movie tells us what “really” happened in Godhra and Gujarat, as the whole matter is a bit too complicated for me to decide what reality was from some newspaper articles and a documentary. It has interviews of people who were affected by the riots, some recording of hate filled speeches and rallies by the VHP and other goons and some more interviews of people who lost their family members in the burning of coach S/6 of Sabarmati express in Godhra. What the movie does accomplish is to expose the scary face of Hindu fundamentalism, which I find as revolting and dangerous as its Islamic, Christian or any other religious fundamentalism there is around.

It cannot be denied that Islamic rulers have in the past targeted people of other religions because they did not follow Islam. It is also undeniable that the current mood of fighting fire with fire and launching a campaign of hate against Muslims is not the right way to go. If people set about avenging every act of violence in history, we would probably still be gassing the Germans, shooting the Japanese, colonising the British and the French and nuking the US. We will have the ex-lower castes warring with the higher ones and the women warring against the men, in short, we would be in a huge mess. It may sound flippant of me to sit around and ask people to forgive and forget when I have not undergone the horrors they have, but nevertheless, I feel it is necessary to have more directed action towards curbing violence than having a bunch of armed people running around like headless chickens slaughtering anyone who comes in their path. Islamic terrorism must be countered by hitting the terrorists and hitting them hard, but not while targeting the Muslim corner shop owner who probably does not care two hoots about religious conversion and would just want to go about his business. The ideal would be a nation built with laws that do not favour any particular religion and people should either follow the laws or if they do not like them, then they should be free to leave and go wherever they want.

This new brand of Hindu fundamentalism is scary because it is a bunch of people with swords and more testosterone than brains. The people who have the brains sit in the political office and make speeches inciting the rest of the testosterone filled crowd to go and do their bidding. The result is that we have the 9/11 attacks, incidents in Godhra and when religion no longer provides enough mileage, the MNS “standing up” for the Marathi speaking people in Mumbai. Hindu fundamentalism is scary because for Hinduism there is no concept of conversion. Caught in an authoritarian Hindu state, you are either a Hindu or you are in trouble, with no choice of conversion to save oneself.

The film has a short section in which Hindu and Muslim men have a go at each other (verbally of course) on what ails each other’s communities and what should be done about it. The discussion shows that there are issues with both parties and it is impossible to say that only one of them is to blame. The civilised way would be that the leaders of the two communities to take an active role in finding the bones of contention and trying to resolve the differences, by improving their own communities and by cooperating with the other party to remove prejudices. They would encourage people to get educated, or push for education facilities where they are not available. They should encourage people to think for themselves instead of blindly following the hate mongers. They should also play down parts of the scriptures that promote violence and subjugation and put in in perspective that maybe that enthusiasm was acceptable in the dark ages but not now. That is the only way I see this whole problem going away. Unfortunately, the leaders in question are probably themselves filled with hatred and they merely transfer the hatred to the testosterone filled idiots who then go around waving saffron/green flags and feeling important. They play up the differences instead of erasing them and fracture the electorate, enabling them to hold on to power. Uptil sixty years ago, the British had the same divide and rule policy and it is quite a shame to see it still being used with such success. Religion and casteism has been such a huge success for dividing the Indian people that the thought does creep into one’s mind that maybe the policy of the early Chinese communist government of banning religion is a smart way to go. But then, can’t expect the politicians to give up their cash cow so easily can we?

The scariest part of the movie was the short interview with a young boy in the Shah Alam refugee camp who witnessed his relatives being murdered during the riots. This boy wants to be a soldier when he grows up, so that he can avenge his family by killing the Hindus. He is ripe for picking as a future Jihadi and one can almost feel the glee of the recruiters for Islamic terrorism when they watch this boy speak. If this boy does grow up to become a terrorist(which I hope he doesn’t), he will not be a product of Islamic aspirations of world domination, but the product of Hindu fundamentalism.

As the movie ends…”In the hope that such madness never recurs”. Also in the hope that the fanatical Hindu zealots never get to run amok again.

p.s For all those interested, the movie can be downloaded from here or can be watched from the Kalabaaz site. In my opinion, it is worth the time downloading this movie, even over multiple sessions if you have a slower net connection. Following a ban from the then BJP government, the Film director Rakesh Sharma had to follow a “pirate and circulate” policy for the film. So point any of your friends to this link, just so that they may get thinking about this whole issue.

Written by clueso

September 22, 2008 at 12:35 pm

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Make typos, increase blog hits.

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Yesterday I wrote a post with the title “Lemon brothers”. This was NOT a typo and was intended to be a pun (I enjoy this kind of stuff) on the latest financial situation of the bank. That title had an interesting consequence though.

When I wandered over to my blog after about a couple of hours, I realised that this punny title had brought me a truckload of hits simply based on search engine terms. Spurred on to do an experiment, I tried creating another dummy post with the title “Layman brothers” to see if that gets any hits as well. After giving the two posts a day to run their course, here are the final results…

Search Terms Hit(s)
lemon brothers bank 15
lemon brother bank 6
lemon brothers 10
lemons brothers bank 3
layman brothers 1
lehmann brothers fate 1
lehmann brothers 1
lemon brothers usa bank 1
bank lemon brothers 1
lemon brother september 2008 1

Including the name of the person/celebrity/firm that is currently hot news is a sure fire way of getting blog hits from search engines, as I first realised when I wrote about a certain footballer’s wedding with his name in the title and watched the post catapult to the “most read” status in a matter of days. In case I ever decide to try and make money out of blogging, I for sure am going to put loads of celeb names in titles, maybe even use a title like “nude celeb pics” and then hope that out of the millions who follow the link, at least a few will read what else I have to say on the more mundane issues of life. But this blog is not a commercial one so let me not digress any further on the topic.

What came as a surprise from this post though is the amount of traffic that can be had by using wrong spellings of the currently hot news person/firm. A google search for “lehman brothers” will probably put my blog on the millionth page or so, but a search for “lemon brothers” has it first one (go on. give it a try. While you are there click on my blog’s link 🙂 ). Obviously, I am missing out on a huge section of people who spell the word right, but then I still have access to the sizeable number who spelt it wrong and I have a higher chance of being seen because most other sites may stick to the proper spelling. If your writing is interesting, then you may still hold on to a lot of the people who come over.

So here is wisdom…if you are looking to increase blog hits from search engines, then knowing common typos can be helpful 🙂

p.s for those who got here by searching for “lemon brothers”, its spelt “lehman brothers”, but thanks for visiting anyway and hopefully you will be back.

Written by clueso

September 17, 2008 at 4:21 pm

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Layman brothers…

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There is a reason for this post which holds absolutely no substance whatsoever except for a title that sounds suspiciously like my last post.

Maybe by this evening or so, all will be made clear…

Written by clueso

September 16, 2008 at 3:03 pm

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Lemon brothers…

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The newspapers, the BBC and pretty much any other media I have happened to glance at in the last 48 hours are full of stories about the meltdown in financial circles. I guess people did not really expect that Lehman Brothers will be allowed to go bust or the Merill Lynch will go up for sale but the coverage has been amazing.

For a long time my relationship with the banking industry has been confined to me, my chequebook, my debit card in later years and the occassional visit to deposit/withdraw money. Only recently have I been trying to learn a bit more about what goes on in these circles and very often I find myself in awe at how the system works. It’s the ultimate in value addition and trading. It is the kind of thing that takes a sheet of paper normally worth a few pennies(or less) and makes it worth hundreds, thousands or even millions simply by printing a share certificate of the right company at the right time. This humble sheet of paper, now worth such a bloody lot can probably be used as security to get a loan to buy a house and the person who gave the loan can then “sell” the loan (I never even imagined such a thing could be possible) to someone else.

The problem of course arises when the humble sheet of paper turns out to be of a company which has a Lehman brothers style fate and goes back to being worth a few pennies. Unfortunately someone has risked a loan on this piece of paper, and if things like this happen on a large enough scale, we get what is being reported in the media nowadays.

The amount of “notional” value attached to anything in the financial industry is mind boggling. So it the flexibility that comes from being so dependent on notional values. I can’t imagine any other industry where people can sell what they do not own(as some short selling Hedge funds may do), or try to buy things that are not produced(people speculating on next years rice harvest). Everything is a number, once it was in a book, nowadays its probably on a screen.

The heavy dependence on the notional is probably what makes financial firms so vulnerable to common rumours. The CEO of a company that actually manufactures something has it easy, if he hears any rumours that his firm is on the verge of collapse, he could probably show his shareholders that the factory is busy, the order book is full, the sales to retailers are healthy and a tour of some supermarkets shows the companies products being sold well. Once he does this, most people would be convinced and keep their investment in place. The CEO of a bank on the other hand would simply have to throw up his hands and say “trust me”. I don’t even think a bank could open a vault somewhere and show people a stack of cash, most of their deposits are probably given to someone to buy a loan on a house leased from someone else who bought it by taking a loan using his wife’s jewels as security or something. He could show his shareholders the number on the screen, but they would just say “yeah right” and ask for their money back. The more people withdraw their money, the stronger the rumour becomes, even more people turn up demanding their cash and down goes the back.

Its an interesting world and I look forward to following the developments. Just hope that my bank is safe…

Written by clueso

September 16, 2008 at 12:11 pm

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Musings on science…

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In the last few years, life has taken a direction which, when I left university after my undergraduate degree, I never really thought it would take. At that time, I pictured myself working as a software engineer, probably going on to management etc the usual way. Now I find myself doing a PhD seriously considering a career in scientific research. Obviously my perspective on science has changed and listed here are the most important changes.

“What’s the use?” – Wrong question
Back in my undergraduate days, we used to swagger around pretending to be the practical business oriented types who thought that whatever the PhD guys did was really useless. It was quite routine whenever we met a PhD student that they used to start off telling us about how they studied effect of different coloured light on metallic thin films or something and we used to ask, with a smirk, “what’s the use of this?” and then smirk some more at how they had to think a lot to come up with some good answers.

All these years later, and partly into a PhD programme myself, I realise the folly of my ways back then. That is because most research is not done with a specific applications in mind. There is just a general sense of direction, but not always a specific goal. There is no better example than that of the research by Friedrich Reinitzer on examining the physico-chemical properties of derivatives of cholesterol extracted from carrots. Reinitzer discovered that the compounds exhibited two melting points and has curious properties like ability to reflect circularly polarised light and to rotate the polarisation of light. He called these materials “Liquid Crystals” and after a case of one thing leading to another, I am today sitting here writing this on a laptop which has a display made from liquid crystals. If anyone had asked Reinitzer what applications his research had, I wonder if he has said that we could make displays from them.

Moral:In science, first attempts are made to understand and control phenomena around us. Once we have understanding and control, THEN we find the applications.

The means and not the ends

A typical scene at the start of a PhD is the new student sitting expectantly in front of his supervisor. the supervisor then proceeds to describe the project as he sees it. The description has a lot of impressive sounding jargon, though it isn’t really a sales pitch. Now the jargon motivated student goes away, breaks down the project aim into manageable bits, solves the first one and then goes back to his supervisor feeling pleased with himself and then learns the second lesson…

In science it is not enough to “solve” a problem once, it is necessary to demonstrate that it can be repeated and a bigger plus is if a mechanism for controlling it can be illustrated. Saying something like “I got red coloured liquid crystals” could mean that you achieved that through systematic work, or you achieved it because fortune was smiling on you that day. Saying “I did blah blah and got red coloured crystals, repeating the process five times yielded red liquid crystals every time” is better because now there is a specific improvement in the body of knowledge on the topic. It means someone else who needs red liquid crystals can rest assured that if he invests his time in following the process described, he will get what he wants. Achieving the goal is important is science, but what is more important is that every step along the way is systematically documented and adds value to scientific knowledge.

Science progresses in baby steps, a bit at a time. Very often the original goal set out will not be achieved, but if the process is followed meticulously, the whole endeavour is still a success.

I am not even a third of the way into the PhD and I am sure I will learn more, but at the moment, I am too sleepy to continue 🙂

Written by clueso

September 3, 2008 at 11:53 pm

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