Sunday, February 27, 2005

Adam Penenberg writes in Wired about how he feels that the WSJ is in danger of losing relevance online. Actually, this is a conundrum that I'm sure many respected paper publications face right now. The Wall Street Journal charges for everything. The NYT grants you access to the latest stuff with a free login, but archives more than a week old cost you money.

In the case of news, isn't the value chain exactly the reverse? The latest news is the most valuable, while the not-so-latest news is possibly not. Wouldn't it make more economic sense to actually charge for latest, to-the-minute access, and gradually make it free for everyone to access?

Not everyone can afford the prices these papers charge for online access, and that puts them in a bit of a spot. And as the article states, the blog ecosystem has no place for paid access, and a shift of power to increasingly influential bloggers means that these publications are losing out on potential customers.

Also, in this age with the markets being so wired, the potential customer for the WSJ or the NYT is not just in New York or the suburbs. He may be anywhere in the world.

The way forward for them would be to use ads, and the print edition to somehow creatively monetize their content to make money off it, and open access to older content. Maybe newer content (say: breaking news, today's edition) could be available for paid customers.

There may be better, more value-added things that they may provide for paid access. The Internet was meant to be a disintermediary - something that would remove the middleman. With the information glut we have now, we need intermediaries to process information again. (Look at the number of subscribers has, when you can get a lot of the same information in raw form on EDGAR . Ditto for all the travel sites).

The WSJ of all publications is in the best possible position to be an intermediary to people negotiating the minefield that is business today. The NYT may not be as well positioned in this regard, but I'm sure they'll have some ideas.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Strike 1 for candor

The Indian at the Oscars has this to say about Bollywood:

"I think we should all accept that Bollywood just doesn't work there. There's all this talk of crossover films. Lagaan came close to being a crossover, but really, we've come nowhere on the scale of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. That was a huge commercial success, but we aren't even close to critical praise, with films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, or Amores Perros."

Attaboy. If all our papers and our media stopped the fawning publicity, we'd *maybe* get to a point where we are realistic about this. Let's accept the fact that mainstream Bollywood fare is a niche audience, and will appeal mainly to Indians, either at home or abroad. Ramanand also made a good point about how Indian(read: hindi) cinema is changing, but it's change from the outside by people who are considered outsiders. While SLB making Black without songs is a big deal for many people, wasn't it over 5 years ago that RGV made Kaun without songs?

And the killer:

"(Chadha's Bend It Like) Beckham was a British film, with some characters of Indian origin. It's not an Indian film. Why must we always appropriate? Why do we suddenly start claiming (M Night) Shyamalan as one of ours (laughs) when the poor man hasn't had anything to do with India for most of his life? Why do we want to bask in their glory?"

Tell it like it is, Ashvin Kumar. We need more of your type in the industry, to make some real hatke films.

Take it Easy

An observation about ads in the US: they seem to make everything so easy. The whole concept of "buyer beware" takes a new dimension in the US, because believing the ads means you better be extremely gullible.

Want to lose weight? Just take three pills of this at night before sleeping, and you'll lose weight. Work out using the new gizmo designed by the Baywatch lifeguard-lookalike babe and her hunky companion, and you'll be looking like one of them too. Just 15 minutes a day! As seen on TV! Of course there's the nutritional law-defying Atkins diet. Eat no carbohydrates -only proteins, and lose weight. Carb-counting made it seem like it would finally make the Americans excel at math again.

And, is there a limit to leveraging? Or do individuals with a debt-equity ratio of 5:1 at usurious rates simply emulate the government that taxes less and spends more? You've heard of a home loan(a mortgage, as it is more commonly known in the US) , but how about a home equity loan? You take another loan with your home as collateral, ostensibly to improve it, or to pay off credit card bills or simply to take that vacation you've always dreamed of! In India, having to put your house up as collateral is heresy( family izzat at stake and all that), but it seems to work here.

Need to buy furniture? Pay NOTHING for the whole of 2005! *

*Fine print: Pay 25% interest over the next 3 years after 2005. If you can't, nasty-sounding men will send you threatening letters asking you to pay up. Then if you still can't pay, nasty-looking men in overalls will come and take your furniture away.

Yeah, life in the US is easy.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Technology, plus markets

Reams (or is it megabytes? ) have been written on the drop in quality of content on the TOI, and it is impressively tiresome for me to go and dig up links for these again. If you landed on my blog accidentally, sorry. If you haven't, you in all likelihood have seen the 'raging' debate on the issue. At a micro level, I couldn't care less, honestly. I don't read the TOI, and they can shove their yellow rag exactly where you think I mean.

What is more interesting is the solution to this problem. The free-market-apologists say the market sorts itself out. Yes, it does, but quality suffers anyway. PBS isn't doing all that great in the US, and is in danger of being squeezed out of existence. The trigger being a dowdy-looking lesbian couple with a kid in Vermont on a show with an animated rabbit. But I digress. Fox News, of course,is going from strength to strength.

As a geek, I present the solution: the Internet! Voila! I, unlike Al Gore (sounds like an Kokanastha Brahmin Middle Eastern Terrorist outfit doesn't it? Al Gore, Al Kale... sorry) do not claim to have invented anything new. But the Internet gives a new medium for all of us to publish. Some of it is utter drivel, like this blog, and a few million other blogs which populate the blogosphere. Some of them are good. They even make money, via their Ad Sense, their Amazon referral codes in links, maybe even a PayPal account. I'll set up one. You pay me enough, I'll stop writing. I'll tell you how much is enough when we get there. Till that happens, keep the money flowing... I digress again. Sorry

An Indian short film at the Oscars. The Little Terrorist. You can watch it on WahIndia. Just under $2 to rent, under $5 to buy. Will this not at least make a bit of money for the film-maker, where earlier he would have had his documentary shown on DD on Saturday afternoon, with precisely 2.4 people to see it, and all interested people being unable to do so?

That should make us geeks and free-marketeers happy as can be. Interesting content, and no bowing to shareholders or LCDs. The HCF of "money for intelligence". Technology ensures a win-win. Again.

More information on long tail distribution (my favorite nightmare from network theory classes. Never thought it'd be so interesting in a real world, non-networking application)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Will the Engineer step into the light?

Finally, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn win the Turing Award.

For those who come in late, the Turing Award is the equivalent of the Nobel prize in Computer Science. It is the accolade for a computer scientist to win.

Cerf and Kahn are well-known in networking circles for having been the inventors of the TCP and IP protocols, the plumbing on which this Internet of today runs. What is most remarkable is that the underlying design of the protocols is still the same, almost 25 years later. No major changes in the protocols have been needed to make them work for an ever-increasing number of systems. Of course, it has undergone changes ( look at TCP Tahoe, Reno, or New Reno on Google or CiteSeer or somewhere), but the underlying design is still the same.

The Turing award has historically had a bias towards theory and algorithms (though the inventors of Unix and the RSA algorithm have been among winners). It's great to see some real-world engineering get recognition. As this NYT article says, the Internet does have many fathers, but IMO, these are a pair that deserve all the accolades they get. Try writing something technical that's still useful for a billion people after over 20 years.

For the uber-geek, RFC 791 and 793 .

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Yesterday is a wrinkle on your forehead
Yesterday is a promise that you've broken
Don't close your eyes, don't close your eyes
This is your life and today is all you've got now
Yeah, and today is all you'll ever have
This is your life, are you who you want to be ?

- Switchfoot, This is your life

Are you living your dream? If yes, this isn't for you. If not, step back for a minute. Is there a reason why not? What compromise did a pragmatic mind take at some point in your life, which lead you here? Are you who you want to be? Or do you read the lines above, and wistfully think of what could have been?

What is the appeal of all those high school football and basketball movies? Of American Graffiti ? Of Remember the Titans?

The fact that the world in those movies seems alive. The stars still seem within your grasp. That elusive dream is just a leap of faith away. As time passes by, have we grown too cynical? Do responsibilities bind us down so much that a leap of faith now seems well nigh impossible? And, is being so practical really fun? Is life fun? Do you get up in the morning and still look forward to going to work/school/whatever it is that you do? Or are you a slave, a drone in a world of drones, no. E-133461 , not a name anymore, just a service ticket waiting in line to be resolved?

Is it really like Linkin Park says (albeit in a different context):

But in the end,
It doesn't even matter?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Grammy peeves

Is it me, or do the Grammys this year really suck? I don't know my R from my B, but did Ray Charles win because he died this year, or because his album was really good? Is Norah Jones' Sunrise really the best female vocal performance this year? Was Los Lonely Boys' Heaven really the best song by a duo or group?

Why is it, that every song that makes me change the radio station, or at worst makes me cringe go on to be great on Grammy night? John Mayer's done better than Daughters on his latest album. But the sappy song wins song of the year (erm..did the judges listen to Bigger Than My Body or to Clarity?) Maybe I'll understand when I have kids...but I don't think I care anymore

Or is it that songs with know balls are only nominated in the rock and hip-hop/rap category? Maybe Eminem is the only one who can be politically incorrect, yet win by the truckloads?

Me i.e. the jury still out on Green Day - listening to American Idiot just now. I love U2 and all that, but Vertigo is no Where the Streets Have No Name. Maybe the judges got carried away in the iPod craze too.

And yes, the new artist of the year - Maroon5. I kind of like a lot of their songs. But I feel there has to be a law about radio stations playing a song repeatedly for more than a month or so. There's only so much one can listen to "She will be loved" before the hands starts itching to break something.

And yes, lower your head for the non-acknowledgement of anything from across the pond. No Joss Stone, no Keane, no Franz Ferdinand.

Monday, February 14, 2005

To the Seven Islands

Of course everyone knows that New York City has five boroughs. For those who don't, they are:
Manhattan( the most well known and yet the smallest) , Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Staten Island.

But, but, but, did you know the seven islands that comprised Mumbai? (aka Bombay, aka Bambai, Bombai ...). There are different versions, but this is one that states the answer with enough authority.

Of course, acknowledgements are due. I owe this sudden intellectual curiosity as regards the history of one of my favorite cities to Salman Rushdie's seminal Midnight's Children. The mention of the seven islands there set me off. Blimey, I know the five boroughs of NYC off the tip of my tongue, but what about the seven islands ? So, I engage in trivial pursuit, in this case a trivial firing off of a Google query.

So, to Colaba, Old (Wo)Man's Island, Bombay, Mazagaon, Worli,Parel and Mahim. To all the islands that were added later. To the City of Dreams. To Bombay (or Mumbai, or whatever they call it now...)

Satire rulez!

I mean...the rules of satire:

Rule #1 : The only rule that really matters. Know your subject really, really well. If you do, whether it (the satire) works or not is strictly a function of your skill.

America, The Book succeeds at many levels on that front. The book by media's favorite liberal (no, not Michael Moore) and his cohorts over at The Daily Show is the classic coffee table book, the kind I'd never spend money on (this came from the library). Organized as a high school civics textbook complete with graphs and diagrams and class exercises, which include gems like "Disenfranchise a black voter in your class", this is classic comic relief for these troubled times. And, the writers know their American democracy from their apple pie and recounts.

The book's humor ranges from sharp and sarcastic to completely immature and sophomoric "South Park" type jokes (NAMBLA makes an appearance too). No Republicans or Democrats are spared, and a couple of pages take care of the third parties through the ages. One of my favorite cartoons shows the graves of all the third parties,with brief timelines and one-liners on the headstones. The one on the libertarian party's headstone says "Ahhh... we should've worn our seatbelts". Ouch.(I'm not a libertarian, but many blogs I am reading seem to go that way)

What amazes me about the US is how seriously people here take the freedom of speech thing. Any book with this many jokes about India's founding fathers and leaders would have been burnt on the streets by both the Congress and the saffron brigade. Now that would have been an achievement.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Great software options

I just tried AbiWord on my desktop PC as an option to Microsoft Word. It was functioning as a web browser/music PC without Office forever, and I kind of preferred not to put MS Office on it. It (AbiWord) rocks. No questions. The .doc format is not the easiest to reverse engineer, but AbiWord does a great job of it. It opened a particularly messy document (lots of font size changes, hand-formatted bullets) without breaking a sweat. I haven't tried editing any fancy table stuff yet, but the portents are good.

Next on the agenda: OpenOffice.

Friday, February 11, 2005

No Objective history?

A very interesting interview with historian Romila Thapar. There are three parts to this interview, with the third one yet to be published. But an insightful view on what drives the teaching of history. A lesson lies there in how our sense of history is shaped by those in power.

In the US of course, even science is not being spared.

Talking of ideologues, MSNBC won' t render a page correctly in Firefox. Copy-pasting the same URL in IE works perfectly. Not done, Bill. Well, we've been saying that for years. Fat lot of help it's been.

From the Archives

I wrote this sometime in 2002, when I was still in Pune, and the US of A was a million miles away. I somehow stumbled on this (I've misplaced a lot of my writing from my pre-Blogger days). Thought it makes for interesting reading, especially because of the last line. There was a column called "Good Morning Pune" in the Pune TOI then. This was of course before its extreme makeover.

For some reason, as I wrote this piece, ending it in a way similar to the way did made eminent sense. I don't know anymore, since I am hardly ever objective about my writing. Anyway, here goes:

Have you ever felt you were part of a big chess game? I mean, that there are too many things happening that you are not in control of, factors beyond your control, unexplainable things that take away your very sense of security nay your sense of well-being or even your sense of being by itself? I do. All the time. I have reached a stage in life where I feel that for every move I make, there are a thousand ramifications and implications that I am barely aware of( forget
comprehending them). Richard Bach's "One" makes sense in more ways than one. The hazaar possibilities and "what If?" s that cross my mind, are all too confusing for me to make out.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when I thought that my life is influenced solely by my actions. I mean I believed in God and all that. But it was more of a inherited thing (my parents are very religious, God bless them) than due to my own self-belief. But adversity and a long tortuous process of self-discovery (which included a brief period of atheism) has brought me here, a middle path where you claim control of your whole life without discounting for external factors. I find some people's beliefs that they control the strings of their destiny (favorite quote - "I make my own luck") to be a bit ludicrous. Maybe they can even predict that they wont be run over by a truck the next time they cross the road (after all, it doesn't fit in with their plans) .

The Truth (as I see it) , is that you can at least control your reactions to the circumstances around you. Account for the fact that things may not work out the way you want them to. God forbid, if they don't, you can take a decision to take life's hard punches on the chin and move on. Or maybe wallow in self-pity - although it will take you nowhere. In this age of layoffs and uncertainty though, the best thing one can do is have a back-up plan (maybe two) for the future in case one goes wrong. Because, as has been famously quoted, "Shit Happens".

Good Morning, Pune (or now, should I say "Piscataway"?) . All I say is, hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.

PS - I hope there is no copyright on the phrase "Good Morning, Pune". If there is, I acknowledge it.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Waxing Nostalgic

It is incredibly peaceful to be up at night with you being the only one up for a long distance around. An occurrence common during P.L.s in India. The TV on low volume, set to one of the two western music channels serving as background music, propping my feet on the sofa, I'd be up trying to understand the inner working of the transistor (a two-semester torment), or some nifty Fourier transform fu. Fourier, of course, being a favorite of the time-frequency warp came back to haunt us quite often in both continuous and discrete forms quite frequently (pun very strictly unintended, though Alhad would be proud).

Times have changed. I am still sitting with my feet propped up, albeit with a laptop. The music channel still runs in the background. A bit older, a bit less worried about subjecting myself to the vagaries of the University exam. A bit more mature, knowing that this, too , shall pass. That maybe the best is around the corner. Maybe it isn't, but I'll believe it is. After all, what is life, but your perception of it?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Indian sports roundup

BCCI says "We are in it for the money". We agreed all along.

"The ICC is toothless" says rediff. ICC agrees.

After trying her hand at editing the TOI, Sania Mirza sings on rediff radio.

What next, Hrithik cavorts with Sania, singing "you are my Sania"?

And yes, a spot of cheer in the midst of this media circus - the fastest Indian gets his spot in the sun against the world's fastest.

Un-f'ing-believable. The Tata logo on a F1 car? The Indian tricolor at Indy this year? Gotta make it there baby.Never thought I'd ever root for Jordan.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


COEP is back.

Ramanand reports from the trenches.

AwAz kuNAchA ? COEP chA

Correction thanks to Ramanand again

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Apple, Google and a few million 'jobless' techies

I use 'jobless' here in the typical way most people from Bangalore or thereabouts use it - someone who is 'vela' or has nothing better to do.

Tech forums like Slashdot, and respected tech columnists from all major news portals have nothing better to do, but follow Google and Apple like fanatics.

Google recruiting fiber/backbone specialists? Maybe they are entering VoIP. Apple will enter the Video-On-Demand business next, since the Mini is their answer to the Media Center PC. The iPod Video is definitely next on the agenda. Google hired Firefox's leading developer? Get ready for GBrowser. Google hired Rob Pike, one of the original UNIX team from AT&T? Get ready for the Google OS.

Give me a break. Apple is secretive enough to shame the CIA. The only speculation from last year that worked was the flash-based iPod shuffle. This was based on real information that Apple was lapping up flash memory in semiconductor markets in Taiwan and elsewhere. The Mini of course was subject to a leak, and no smart guessing helped with that.

If just hiring a person with great programming, design and engineering skills causes a splash, it's extremely tiring. Of course Google registered GBrowser. They don't want someone squatting and causing them a copyright headache later that they pay thousands of dollars in lawyeer fees to settle. A few dollars a year to VeriSign takes care of the domain for them. Maybe they will come out with a browser. Doesn't make sense to me, but then I thought that 1 Gig of email space was a hoax.

This quote in the NYT left me reeling.

"Yahoo says, 'Where is the mountain? Let's climb it,' " Mr. Sullivan said. "Google says, 'Maybe we want to go up the mountain and maybe we want to go surfing.' "

Like Google got to be the biggest thing in search by employing surfer dudes with a bad attitude. They've surprised the market and upped the ante once in the past year with e-mail, prompting the storage glut we have now. They recently doubled the number of pages they serve, and are probably working on a bajillion different things right now, but just keeping it quiet. They managed an extremely complicated IPO recently, and more people, not less seem to be using AdSense every day.

I'm happy Yahoo and MSN are working on search, as we need more and more innovation, and it would be great to have more and better search options. But stop hounding Google. They are too busy working hard and having fun to really care.

And yes, I am waiting for the next big thing from Google to shake up the market too. Only, I am not speculating what it would be.

Update: I wrote this yesterday, but put off posting it. Google obliged: They are now a domain registrar, and they plan to give stock as reward to their best employees. Of course, they had to announce record results too.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Felt I had to react to Gaurav's post.

I get his point about TOI changing the media landscape in India considerably. Their diversifications are pretty impressive. They have been successful at it as well.

I still feel that a drop in editorial standards need not accompany it. Everything need not be an 'either-or' compromise. The TOI has survived for over 150 years. Editorial policies change, but not as drastically as this decade has seen.

"Adapting to the times"? Do we mean to say that we as a generation are less intelligent than what we used to be? There is a concept of market segmentation, that I'm sure Gaurav knows more about that than me.

Fortune is your regular business magazine. They probably cover a lot more technology or rather New Economy stories now, but they have a separate magazine (Business 2.0) to deal with it. While dealing with the leading edge of technology there are different requirements and a different audience, and the Fortune format was not flexible enough for both. If you read both the difference in format, and the target audience is obvious.

A newspaper has the flexibility of adding glossy supplements, or additional segments to meet specific audiences. The TOI was doing this pretty well with the suburban sections in B'bay and specific sections for cities like Pune and Ahmedabad catering to different audiences. There is no reason they cannot meet the LCD (lowest common denominator) crowd's expectations with this.

In fact, on (or was it on I forget), the website wanted to monetize keywords so that they could link keywords in article text to advertiser websites. You can see annoying examples on some websites even now. Finding that it took away from the reader experience, they decided to do away with it, though it would have made them buckets of money.

If, in the TOI today, one cannot make out the difference between content and advertising, then is there a point left at all?

Isn't full disclosure something Indian publishers (read:TOI) understand? Many journalists writing about stocks actually disclose if they own stocks they are discussing in their columns. Is it unreasonable to expect that TOI disclose if an article or any publicity was paid for?

Admitted, a company's primary responsibility is its shareholders. Read my post on this issue a few months back. But don't most companies have a mission statement, which includes something about the quality of their products and customer satisfaction? By customer, I mean the intelligent reader, at one time the mainstay of the paper.

"Giving users what they want" is a slightly complicated thing when it comes to content. If a generation of readers is raised on a lower standard of journalism (as they are right now), they'll expect it to be normal. Witness Fox News' definition of news in the US. A whole lot of Fox News viewers have very interesting ideas of the Iraq War and the (non)discovery of WMD among other things.

I find the use of Ayn Rand's essay as an example frightening. 'Selfishness' and 'Greed' have been reduced to their basest expressions by other Ayn Rand readers I know too. If you are giving an excerpt from Atlas Shrugged, you better have read "The Fountainhead", (a better book IMO) especially Howard Roarke's closing argument in the end. Is the TOI today closer to the first-hander Howard Roarke, or the second-hander Peter Keating? Isn't life about finding your highest ideal (to paraphrase Richard Bach?). And, isn't good journalism a journalist's highest ideal, if not that of his moneybag boss?

In the interest of full disclosure: I don't read the TOI. Unless someone specifically links to a TOI article, I vote with my mouse.

Geek Yoda

do() || do_not(); // try();

As seen in the signature of a Slashdot user.