Tuesday, March 29, 2005

State of Fear, or clever marketing ploy?

Michael Crichton's book "State of Fear" has generated its share of controversy. I know there are people out there who believe global warming is a bunch of hokum, and the book plays into their hands. I haven' t read the book yet, but the armchair critic that I am, it makes for some compelling observations.

Firstly, the vast majority (almost all of them agree on climate change, in fact) of climate theorists cannot be in a vast conspiracy to keep their jobs. Researchers tend to get into it for the love of the hunt (for knowledge) and not for world domination or whatever he claims is going on there. Secondly, there is of course the whole credibility issue. I happened to chance upon an article by someone whom Crichton interviewed while 'research'ing his book, and I didn't like reading his account of it. Crichton seems too ready to selectively quote from literature and interviews to fit his point of view better. Another interesting article referenced here.

A good counterpoint is here, to give a balanced perspective on the issue.

After reading "Prey", I am slightly skeptical of Mr. Crichton. It raised enough of a hoo-ha over nanotech for no reason. Climate change, the Kyoto Protocol and such matters of importance shouldn't be left to bestselling authors to trivialize.

What's cool

What's cool on TV this week:

Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" ( rock song of 2004, IMO) selling Sony's PSP. The PSP looks like a winner to me right now. The new iPod in the making? It has all the marks of one. It has proprietary media formats (the UMD, and a Sony proprietary memory stick). That's a gamble that'll pay big bucks if it works. If it doesn't, bummer.

Graphic novel meets big screen in Sin City. The previews look very interesting, and the star cast (Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Brittany Murphy, Jessica Alba....) is as big as it can reasonably get.

Seattle on TV in new medical drama "Gray's Anatomy". Obligatory Space Needle shot and Seattle skyline shot. Intense medical graduate school drama. I see no dramas on engineers yet while medicine gets ER, Jordan's crossing and now this one.

When engineers work, lives don't hang in the balance. And admit it, math formulas don't have heart-in-mouth moments like a vial of intravenous fluids and grand mal seizures do. Which might be why Numb3rs isn't half as compelling as ER is.

Not cool this week:

India lose. Again.Breaks the heart when the team plays this way. And could people get off Ganguly's back? He's going through a bad patch. Sachin gets so much support when he's doing badly. Ganguly gets booed. Give him a break. He's not on a decline. He's just hit a trough and will bounce back. If he gets a chance, that is.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Last night in the Garden State. Onwards to the Evergreen State, where new challenges beckon, and a new life awaits. Can't say am unhappy leaving here and moving on. But more than that, I am looking forward to going to the North-West. It is the most breath-takingly beautiful area I've seen in the US. Evergreen means that it doesn't lose its beauty in winter, unlike here, where the trees have all gone dry. Some more observations here.

Things I'll miss? The vicinity of the Big Apple for sure. I never went there as often as I should have and a million things about the city have been left unexplored.Little Italy, Chinatown. Greenwich village. Didn't watch a single Broadway musical in my time here, and I haven't yet been to the Statue of Liberty (I did take the tour on the ferry and saw it from up close in the water).

Other things I'll miss - the famed Oak Tree Road locality in Edison/Iselin - a feast for Indian food lovers. Specialty Punjabi, South Indian, Chaat and (believe it or not) Gujarati food in a 2 mile radius. All this 15 minutes from my house.

Things I did do here? The Times Square on New Year's Day (I saw the ball drop from two blocks away). The top of the Empire State Building. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And stuff.

5 hours. 3 time zones. A new world awaits.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Modi-fied Policy?

Disclosure: I hate the guts of the man.

However, this article makes a good point about the fact that the US is being hypocritical and using a different set of policies by denying him a visa while people with equivalent or worse misdemeanors to their name come and go as they please. In fact, Larry Pressler makes a similar point in the NYT when he states that the US foreign policy has it all wrong- it is courting religious dictators (of the benevolent and malevolent kind) and not giving a religion-neutral('secular 'is so cliched) elected democracy with one-sixth of the world's population the respect it deserves. (I can almost see the twin jellyfish in Shark Tale going "Respect!").

I disagree with the article partially though. It doesn't state up-front that Modi is guilty. (The judicial enquiry is one thing - the rhetoric of the man itself tells us enough). And there is another problem. Just because most guilty people go scot-free and that the US visa issuing system is being selective in its enforcement of rules, doesn't mean anything. If he was in breach of a US rule or law, he better shut his trap and get a life. There are other diaspora to please. The pot can call the kettle black. Especially when the pot is the one issuing the visa, and the kettle is interested in the pot's dollars in FDI.

Apparently, the Indian radio station (1680 AM in Central New Jersey for those who are interested) in the area was fielding calls on the issue. Most calls were in support of Mr. Modi. When one man called up in support of the denial, his call was cut short. "We lost him" was all they had to say. How convenient.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Scratch n' loop

Hip-hop and rap, unlike other genres of popular music, are quite heavily dependent on a producer's skill. While a good (my emphasis on good, not the Spears and Simpsons of the world) pop-rock singer/group can generally get by with instruments without any electronics, (except the instruments themselves), hip-hop with its use of samples and loops of sounds from various sources lends itself to the skill of a completely different beast - one who is comfortable with computers and complex equipment with a bewildering range of knobs and weird lights. I'd go so far as to say that the genre doesn't exist without the producer.

However, that's not entirely true. Hip-hop started out on the streets, and it is the crass commercialization of today that has reduced it to merely being commercially successful with lyrical gems like "It's getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes".Bleh.

Eminem and Jay-Z are notable exceptions (I really like a lot of Eminem's work, and I haven't heard the Grammy-award winner Kanye West), and there are great singles out occasionally that get your attention, but the rap genre is a great dance-floor (and album sale) mover with nothing much to say. Rock may be dead, but I still take some of today's rock bands over rap.

Friday, March 18, 2005


Quote of the Day (or month or year):

" Most of the time you are neither as good nor as bad as people write and say you are"
- Rahul Dravid

Warning...fragile mind

A wonderful article at Cricinfo about one of Australia's most exciting batsmen at the time, Michael Slater.

The mind is notoriously fragile. Slater isn't the first genius to be bedeviled by an illness of the mind, and he certainly won't be the last. Genius seems to breed this, almost as if a great mind cannot bear the burden it places on itself (or the burden of expectations of others). What people (whether geniuses or not) need is genuine care and understanding. It is not easy for the normal person to understand completely the goings-on in an ill mind, but making fun is definitely not the way out.

What surprised me more was the fact that Slater's Australian team-mates had such an unsympathetic attitude towards him. Maybe it was just that they were uncomfortable with Slater's behavior, but you'd expect more from team-mates.

Indian society has traditionally taken a much dimmer view of mental illnesses, and a trip to the shrink, not that uncommon in western society is almost unheard of in India( maybe people do go, but we never hear of it). We need some of those blinders to come off.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Go West!

'tis time. This long hiatus is attributed to my trip out west (north-west, actually) to the famed land of Redmond, WA where the world's largest software company resides. An interesting time - a few observations:

Washington state is beautiful. Forget the rain, and the general cloudy-gloominess that seems to infest the air. The mountains that graze the skyline and the evergreens lend the area a character that is entirely its own.

Microsoft is big. Quite like a Tata Steel would have defined the ecosystem of a place like Tatanagar in Jamshedpur, the company defines an ecosystem for the area it surrounds, albeit on a smaller scale.

The company knows its employees are important and takes care of them. It is easy to see that geeks started the company and run it to the greatest extent. The only suits who are part of it are those who talk to the clients.

It is a company I've always grudgingly respected. The 'respected' part got a big fillip after meeting people there. Smart and committed. Willing to accept that they need to work harder to put out better products.

This is possibly the last I'll be talking about that on this blog. No work chatter here.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

City woes

Dilip D'Souza is a fine writer. I don't always agree with what he says, but he is rarely uninteresting. In the past few months, he has written extensively on the slum demolitions in Mumbai, ostensibly to beautify the city and make it the new Shanghai.

Why Mumbai would want to be like a pretty-looking city in a repressive communist regime is beyond me. However, this post is one of his best so far. In addition to detailing what has been wrong in the urban planning in the past, it details some really nice ideas of what is important in the future for the development of the city. A point lost on our dear civil servants. Looking at the way New York City is evolving, and where Mumbai has stood over the past n years with respect to a lot of things, the potential for Mumbai to be better is breathtaking. If only someone were to do something about it.

A Google Approach to Email

The funny thing about great products (be it hardware or software) is that you never really get to appreciate them until you start using them more and more. It is power users who appreciate the finer points of software, rather than the regular Joe, for whom most of the functions will be similar in competing products.

Take GMail for instance. I shifted a lot of my mailing lists to it to start using and testing it(My family emails are still off it). As I started using it, I didn't like the paradigm of labels, since I make use of folders for record-keeping. I am also of a delete-dispose mentality, and I delete emails I don't feel the need to keep.

However, as time passes by, I find Gmail more and more useful. The conversation threading feature is of course a killer. As is the auto-fill for email addresses. I've gotten used to labels over folders, and funnily, it is even more useful. For instance, I have a category of emails, say X. Now, the category is important, but has grown big, and what is also important to me are emails from people of company Y. All of the emails from Y may/may not be in category X, and are all from different people within company Y. Of course, searching makes things easy, but if you categorize the emails with labels, you achieve an amazing amount of flexibility. Folders are hierarchical, labels are semantic, and the difference in ease-of-use is phenomenal.

Another such application is Firefox. While tabbed browsing is an obvious advantage, the search box with built-in Google search (I've added IMDB and CDDB to the list myself) adds ease of use that is visible only on repeated and highly intensive use. That I believe is great UI design. Achieving it is so hard, that when things work the way you'd instinctively want them to, it is almost magical.

As Arthur C. Clarke said - "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Snow is white. Blinding white. It is #0xFFFFFF. All the colors of the rainbow, put together and powdered into crystals, all of them unique. It rains down on a whim, rendering the area around it completely white and reflective. Going out on a day like this, with snow around and bright sunlight, means that you are wearing warm clothing and sunglasses. I, raised in the land of gulabi thandi - literally " the cold that makes your cheeks rosy" and mellow winter mornings (with the sun only making a friendly guest appearance), find it extremely ironic.

Winter days, drifting away, but, oh, those winter nights*. Sodium vapor streetlamps and yellow bulbs on doorways reflecting off snow make for the eeriest sight ever. The light is ghostly and surreal. Half-light with the promise of adventure. Adventure that should be manifested in the snowball fights of the carefree kids from the colony. Only, I don't see any. It isn't even a weekday. The tyranny of homework. Has anyone ever escaped it?

*shamelessly paraphrasing Grease

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Time for a change

I've read some interesting books in the last few months, including Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, two of Lawrence Lessig's books on technology and law (Free Culture and The Future of Ideas) and a graphic novel (The Road to Perdition, the one on which the movie was based).

A genre of books left undiscovered so far is the modern science fiction genre better known as cyberpunk. While a couple of books I've heard a lot about (Neuromancer, Snow Patrol) weren't easily available in the library, Cryptonomicon was. The jacket decription looked interesting enough, so down the rabbit hole we go.

Note: Technically, Neal Stephenson is postcyberpunk. And talking of rabbit holes, Alice in Wonderland is a trip unlike any I've ever had. I'd love to know what Lewis Carroll was smoking when he wrote that book.