Sunday, October 18, 2009

Few Thoughts on Google Wave

I have been using Google Wave (henceforth "Wave") for about four days now, and think I have a decent idea of what Wave is and what it is not. This is not a review, so I won't be discussing features or enumerating cool things that can be done with it. But if you want to know what makes Wave such an exciting product or the philosophy behind it, you may want to hang on till the end of this post.

The first thing I have found myself shouting to nearly everyone is that Wave is primarily a substitute to email. It is not meant to be (or ever, in my knowledge, advertised to be) a substitute to Facebook, Twitter, or sliced bread. What this means is that it is only as good as you collectively make it. If you have an email address that no one knows of, you know how lifeless and empty it can get. The real advantage of Wave cannot be felt unless a significant majority of your contacts use it proactively for communication and collaboration.

"Communication and collaboration": These are precisely the two words which are the driving philosophy of Wave. The Wave Development Team started to improve upon email, and while they were at it, found it easy to squeeze in instant messaging and document collaboration in the existing framework. The team working on Wave must have been quite understandably frustrated with the limitations of email. It is not that email can't be improved. But since it is a de-facto standard of communication with same rules, any unilateral change will not work very well. People will be vary of using the new features that will not work everywhere and the massive inertia of people would likely make the product a failure. This is the reason wave had be launched as a totally new product.

They haven't categorically mentioned it, but I feel a major driving force behind development of Wave was managing disk space on server. Whenever an email is sent to a list of recipients, the server has to store separate copies of that email for each one of the recipients. These copies are identical and offer no significant benefit other than making the system decoupled. A change in one does not alter the other. While this may offer some advantages, there are often cases when we want the changes to be visible to any interested party in a multiparty conversation. It is not without reason that the Reply All button is the most worn out button in an email dashboard. Wave makes it possible to have a single conversation hosted in the server that everyone can access simultaneously and independently. If you are no longer interested in a conversation, you can either mute it (still visible to you but no updates will bother you) or delete it altogether. The wave will remain on the server till the last user deletes it. So now the servers don't have to pass around volumes of email that you may not even read, and will only serve them when you request it. Also, just because you are a party to a conversation with huge attachments, it won't clog your mailbox. The Wave Team hasn't yet made it public if they plan to associate the space requirement of wave with a user (or a group of users). Probably just the fact that they have solved the problem of disk space management affords them the luxury to allow people to use and abuse it for some time before they can come up with a policy on it. Of course, the option to reply privately exists so that users of email will not miss something they have been used to.

But there are other issues that will require people to learn a lot of etiquette. Case in point is the Forward Email feature. While it is most intuitive to just add a group of people to a wave (which you mean to forward), the person who sent it to you isn't exactly interested in the LOLs blurted out by your friends. Never, ever mix friends from different groups. The Best Practice is to copy the wave and start a new thread yourself. Another issue that I believe that the Wave Team should address is the CC Recipients. As in traditional email, wave might allow in future to have separate class of people who have been added just with the intent of observers. Unlike traditional email where people get a new mail message irrespective of the fact whether they are active participants or CCed in (and have to actually open the mail to check), Wave users will often find themselves muting conversations that are not of their interest and Wave must provide a means to ping people back into wave even if they have muted it. It won't be Google's fault that they misuse the mute feature, but they have made it so easy that people are bound to misuse it.

Message playback is another feature that Wave counts as a strength, but frankly the thing I am most thankful to them is remove those pesky headers and legal disclaimer signatures. All that remains is just the contextual association of a blip (or a blurb) of text with a user. Since Wave stores just the changes made, Wiki style, it didn't take them much effort to incorporate the playback feature.

This brings us to the most visible thing people see when they first use Wave: The real-time relaying of messages as they are typed. Many people feel they have been betrayed into using Wave when all they got in return was real-time messages. It isn't cool enough to convince them to switch. Unfortunately they have misunderstood Wave because the trivial happens to be the most visible. In fact, the real-time relaying is a feature that most people want to be able to opt out of. They want a Draft Mode. This is not to say that this feature is trivial by itself, or otherwise unimportant. It certainly didn't call for reinventing the email and could have been incorporated into existing IM systems. I call it trivial in comparison to all other features that make Wave so powerful. If all you want to do is pure IMing, you may even find Wave clumsy, having to press Shift+Enter (or clicking Done) to sent the message for good. But if you want the freedom to do many things within the same framework without making it a mess, Wave is your best bet around. PS: If you find the real time message relaying cool, try Fuzzmail. Warning: Fuzzmail mails are public, so be careful with what you type.

All your waves are belong to usWe now come to the topic that makes waves so strong: its customizable gadgets and bots. No review of Wave can be complete because there is so much in developers hands to make out of it. What truly constitutes a Wave experience is the limitless customization that can be done by making a gadget or a robots for it, making Wave a platform like Windows or Linux rather than an application software. You want a collaborative drawing broad? You got it. Wanna play chess? You got it. Want to have a multi-party video chat from inside Wave? You got it. A straw poll? You-Got-It. This makes it very similar to iPhone...if you can think of it, there's an app for that! In just the little time Wave has been out, I have come across over three dozen useful gadgets and bots. For the uninitiated, a gadget is a software code that will add a new kind of content to a wave, visible to all participants. This can be a drawing board, a voting module, or even a game board. A robot on the other hand is kind of automated participant that typically adds/modifies content. It can be as simple as shortening the bare URLs or even looking up definition on the web. The robots can also run back-end gadgets, adding content to the wave.

Based on what I have seen of Wave, I am confident that it will be successful in its niche. But I don't see email going anywhere anytime soon. There is a lot of inertia against change and people who have grown up used to the email-style conversations may even hate Wave. What eventually happens, only time will tell.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review of Bhuvan

Bhuvan, the purported Google Earth killer, is out. But far from being a killer, as of now, it hardly has any legs to stand on its own.

A quick, dirty look at a familiar place was more than sufficient for me to convince myself on which mapper to use the next time I need to look up some India-related map. Below is the screenshot of Oasis Mall in Bangalore from the two mappers (I used Google Maps for comparison, which is the web-app version of Google Earth):

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

As can be seen Google Maps wins hands down. I know that some people will say that this is the early release and future versions will have even higher resolution images. I know that's true to an extent, but I am not very hopeful. ISRO already has the highest resolution data available with itself and doesn't need any funds to purchase it from others. If they indeed had hi-res versions of the images, they could have already put them online. The fact that they didn't makes me wonder if that's the best they could come up with. Surely the geographical surveying technology of ISRO will improve over time, but I don't expect big changes anytime soon. While it is still possible that Bhuvan has the hi-res images with itself, but doesn't share them with general public for reasons of national security, it hardly matters to the end consumer like me.

This brings us to the topic of national security. Apparently Bhuvan censors many military, government and aviation centres for reasons of national security. I find it laughable because Google provides those very things freely available. Google has also, of late, restricted hi-res images of some government/military establishments on request of Govt. of India, but even that is cosmetic. These images are still available at the public data sources from whom Google bought them. And banning them in India also won't be sufficient because the biggest terrorist threat India faces are from across the border.

The search functionality of Bhuvan also leaves a lot to be desired. In order to find a city, you should ONLY enter the city name, and can't provide additional details as qualifiers. For example, search for "Bangalore, India" and "Bangalore, Karnataka" all lead to 0 (zero) results. I hope they fix this issue soon.

The actual navigation window (I am pretty sure there is a technical word for it) is delightfully responsive and refined. Did I mention that Bhuvan uses licensed version of TerraExplorer (a commercial software) for it. Unfortunately it works in only IE6+. For a regular website, I would have expected a faster roll-out of browser support, but again, this being a government website, I am not too hopeful of early roll-outs. There is a tricoloured globe on the top left corner of the navigation window, which is kind-of neat, but clicking it makes the earth fall off the screen!

The registration process is also painful as they require to fill up a big form up-front with all fields mandatory, including your postal address, designation and company you work for. They don't require phone-number now, but going by their privacy policy, they have it covered just in case they start requiring it in future. And did I mention that neither their registration form nor login form is secure (https). They know it well and acknowledge in their privacy policy that such information may "pass through other countries". They do say that "DOS/ISRO/NRSC will take reasonable and prudent precautions to ensure that your personally identifiable data is protected against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure." Isn't providing secure access 'reasonable'?

And just in case you are not comfortable with any of it, you can mail them directly at Unfortunately they haven't mentioned what they can do with the personally identifiable information you provide them by email (just that they will 'store' it). They do use cookies, just like most sites, and suggest that "For more information on cookies, you can point your browser to" (Yes, they think that by writing in white on white background, they have achieved something smart). And just in case you want to provide feedback to them, you have to provide it for Website Design, services, Performances, Database (Quality, Content, Volume, etc.) -- All field mandatory!

The patriotic organization they are, they also have a Hindi version of the site. The Flash introduction is in English, and shows a Mercator projection of world map zooming past the surface of a globe which we are supposed to assume is the Earth! Even if you do count the English version flash as a working feature, apart from it, nothing works. Absolutely nothing! There are no links, and even the login form is dummy. Oh sorry, one link works: The one that takes you back to the English version of the site. Thanks-a-lot!

But hey, I might have missed out on the 'true' purpose of the website. It provides a vast amount of data on temperature/rainfall/wasteland/watershed/soil/etc. I tried about half a dozen weather stations for temperature/rainfall data, and they resulted in no available data. I had better luck with wasteland and waterbody data where each reporting centre threw up a dozen or so numbers relating to statistical analysis of the land/water body. Soil erosion too threw up half a dozen numbers. One advice: Don't turn on Soil Erosion Layer if you ever intend to do anything other than check for soil quality. Apparently they have so much data that every pixel results in some soil data often shadowing other things you might have been interested in. The other layers (state/city/roads) have been pretty average but show potential for improvement. And while Bhuvan starts with the whole globe, there is hardly any data for non-Indian locations. This might have been intentional. They don't want anyone to use Indian government resources to learn about other countries. That said, they have gone extra length to provide artificially blurred images for non-Indian locations. Image quality would have been better from a handheld digital camera taking pictures from moon. I am waiting for their project manager to find out that Bhuvan engineer(s) wasted precious working hours blurring images about countries nobody cares about. They are sure to lose their seniority when the promotion-season comes!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Is iPhone a Music Phone?

The iPhone is a fancy Cellphone with a fancy MP3 player (iPod). But is it truly a music phone? Let's find out by checking it against the features of music phones. Note that I have deliberately left out Cellphone features (Speed Dial, Ring tones, Profiles, etc.) and Music Player features (Playlists, Sync, Storage, etc.), concentrating solely on Music Phone features (as I see them).

1) Dedicated "Music" button. Hmm...a difficult call for iPhone. It has an iPod icon on the main screen, but it is not exactly a dedicated button. The icon is accessible whenever the phone is in ready mode, but inaccessible from inside other applications. Other touchscreen phones have a physical button, but iPhone skipped the feature for elegance. If I were to vote on it, I would say the iPhone barely misses out on this criteria.

2) Earphones/headphones have dedicated music controls. The iPhone uses the standard 3.5mm jacks and does not have a controller with music keys.

3) Remote Music Access. That is, while on call using earphone, if the phone user starts the music player, the person on the other end also hears the audio being played (in addition to the voice). The iPhone fails this one too.

Unfortunately failing all the three criteria, I come to this conclusion that iPhone is just a Cellphone with MP3 player, and not a true Music Phone. And I totally understand iPhone lovers commenting that nobody cares about technicalities when everyone knows that iPhone is the best Music Phone ever, and you can actually 'touch' the music, and whatever. Either way, I am amused that the most talked about 'Music Phone' is technically not a Music Phone.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Elements of Logical Comprehension

We are all aware of the often-used literary technique in which the author shows interaction between the protagonist and a stranger. The stranger ends up being the villain of the story, doing things only expected of a mad man. Only by the very end, the author pulls off a shocker, telling us something that wasn't known before. It changes the whole meaning of the story, and we suddenly start sympathizing with the stranger. One famous story that comes to mind is "Broken Routine" by Jeffrey Archer. This technique works because we, as readers, place full faith in the author in telling us the complete account of events, both seen and unseen. Indeed, intentional gullibility is often the best way to enjoy classical literature. But this shouldn't stop us from understanding the essential principles to be followed to have a complete understanding of any event. What follows is my understanding of the elements that should be used in any attempt to understand events in a logical manner.

Any piece of information, by itself carries little meaning. If you hear someone saying "Yes", you can't expect yourself to form full picture of what was going on. However, it is common human nature to synthesize stories (or theories) around facts where none exist or are not immediately clear. This has the potential to create confusion, but often helps us guide through decisions based on incomplete information. It is not without reason that many people believe humans are much more suited for the real world than computers, who tend to wait for enough data before taking any action.

Any event comprises of three components: Context, Perspective and Expression. Take away one, and you create the potential of confusion.

Context is the most visible part. Context refers to the situation that exists when and where the event takes place, the metaphorical page everyone has to be on at the start of a conversation. Context can be defined as something that is easily visible to anyone present where the event occurs. Since physical presence is not the only way to be present, presence can broadly be described as ability to sense the essence. In a public speech, it is knowing and seeing (at least) the speaker and the crowd. In a teleconference it would be knowing the speakers, the agenda, and the mood. Gossip columns thrive best by quoting celebrities out-of-context, which is often the easiest way to tell half-truths.

Perspective is about knowing the background. It is seeing the unseen. The story I referred to in the first paragraph is an example of one with missing perspective. A missing perspective is easily left unnoticed. You can't know so easily if the labor union leader who betrayed his fellow workers was just greedy, or had received death threats. Whenever possible, we should try to establish a working communication with the person in question before forming an opinion, giving enough time to clarify his reasons and beliefs. But again, this is not possible every time. In such cases, the best we can do is asking question "Do I know enough to form an unbiased opinion?"

Expression refers to the active part of the event. In its most general form, it is a sentence (or sentences) in a natural language, though it can also be a facial expression or body language. Unadulterated understanding of the expression (cognition) is key to forming an unbiased opinion. Language and cultural barriers are the biggest hindrance in assimilating the expression. While lacking a funny bone is a case of missing perspective, having a poor understanding of the language is an example of inaccurate cognition.

I have tried my best to come up with all possible elements that make up logical comprehension, but there may be more that I missed. I will be glad to include any suggestions, which can be left in comments.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Net Productivity

I just came across this study from a group of researchers in University of Melbourne. In brief, it claims that those workers who use internet at work for personal leisure activities (in moderation) are on an average 9% more productive than the rest.

Although I haven't read the actual study yet, this post is based on assumption that the University of Melbourne is reporting the study accurately. If so, I have serious concerns over the way researchers used the data to fit their theories. Using the same data, which I believe is a questionnaire filled out by many professionals when asked by the researchers, I can draw many more independent conclusions:
  • People who are more productive at work are more comfortable using the internet at work for personal use.
  • People who are more productive at work are more comfortable accepting the fact that they use internet for personal use in a (supposedly) anonymous survey.
  • The more computer savvy people in workplace are more productive. (This is different from what the study concluded. The study did not take into account whether the same people also use computer more effectively for official purposes.)
As you can see, it is easy to fit many theories on to same facts. Unless they do controlled experiments, such studies should be taken with a pinches of salt. A controlled experiment here would have been monitoring people who didn't use internet at work start using it without letting them know they are being watched. That is, monitoring employee productivity in organizations that previously didn't have internet access (or had draconian laws punishing people caught surfing for private work) start having liberal attitude towards the issue. Keeping workers in dark is essential because if they knew they are being monitored, they naturally start performing their very best.

Without these control measures in place, it looks like an attempt to pass off correlation as causation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Finish Your Plate

I don't understand people who force themselves to eat the excess food in their plate reminding themselves of the hungry kids in <insert backward African country name>, who hardly manage one square meal a day. I find this logic flawed at many levels.

Firstly, eating more isn't magically going to make food appear in front of the poor kids. The common argument against this logic is that the main intention behind this act is to punish oneself for taking too much to eat. I am not convinced. This approach attempts to correct one wrong by committing another. Far more people die in the world due to obesity related diseases than malnutrition. Forcing yourself to die early is a crime in itself, and a very poor choice of penance.

Secondly, if you really want to punish yourself, it is far better to see how much food you have wasted, and eat that much less in next meal. If there is a magical hand that makes extra food appear in front of needy kids, this has far better chance of success as against the eat-till-you-can't-swallow strategy. Again, I do not recommend it wholeheartedly. Reducing waste is a noble idea, and should be practiced by everyone. If your heart feels the pain and you take care not to consciously waste food, you don't need any penance.

This brings us to my experience which actually prompted me to write this post. The other day, I was eating with a few colleagues, and everyone ordered their food individually. This is a common practice in US and I have rarely seen people order common items for the group, which is usual in India. A lady ordered sea-food dish for herself, only to find that the quantity was too much for her to consume. The waitress had earlier indicated that the dish serves one person, so I can't blame her for the bad decision. As we finished our dishes, we saw her painstakingly trying to eat whatever she has taken in her plate. She eventually ate about 80% of the food and had to leave the rest. To-Go boxes were not an option as we were living in a hotel with no means to reheat the food later. I also had a similar story, but I ate all I could normally (without overeating) and left the rest. I felt sorry seeing her turn sick due to overeating. What struck me most was that she was punishing her for something that was no fault of hers. Making herself repent wasn't going to improve anything as there was no lesson to be learned. With the waitress lying to make sure people order more than they can consume, there was nothing she could have done before (or can do from now on) that will reduce the waste. I felt compelled to share my views, but eventually decided otherwise.

Unfortunately, eating in a buffet is hardly better than the condition described above because the very concept of buffet makes people overeat. If you paid 10 bucks for a meal, wouldn't you want to maximize the return on your investment? It takes a lot of discipline to have a balanced diet in a buffet. Also, while buffet makes it possible for people to be judicious about the quantity of food they take, it also creates a whole new class of people who have no clue of the amount of food they can consume and waste mountain-fulls. Not only buffets, eating in large groups also leads to gluttonous behavior.

I personally have always maintained the sanctity of my body and over-eating tends to remind me of using it as a dustbin. I try my best to avoid wasting food, but I don't punish myself if I fail.

I don't intend to use this post as a collection of dos-n-dont's of good eating behavior, so if you are interested I suggest Googling.