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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Web search gets personal


A search on internet is only as good as its ability to get you what you want. It’s no good, if you are looking for info on the storm that hit Puducherry last month, and you get websites of US retail group Thane. Mercifully, it’s not so bad -- engineers have vested enough intelligence on search engines so that we get results that match what we are looking for. By the way, Thane is not just in Maharashtra, it’s also in Queensland, Australia.

Earlier, search engines focused on speed. Now efforts are on to provide highly customized results. Google has been able to do this to a great extent with Social Search, and now with Search, Plus Your World.

You get customized results by searching after logging in to Google. On the left of the page, click on “More Search Tools”, under “All Results”. If you are logged in, you will see a link “Social”. Clicking that, will get you specific results from your social circles. For example, it could be sites shared on your Google Plus, or blogs you are subscribed to in Google Reader, or photos shared with you by your friends,

Matt Cutts, a specialist in search optimization in Google, elaborated on the benefits. For example, if you are looking for a particular hotel, social search will show up references to it in the websites of your social connections. Search results from your social circles are always more relevant and dependable than results thrown up at random.  

“Search, Plus Your World, takes Social Search to a new level, wherein you find more specific results from your social circles,” said Cutts. Besides updates from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc of your friends linked to your profile, you see profiles of people. Once a profile has been selected, you will see results that Google thinks may relate to the selected profile.

The customization is also done based on web history. If you have been searching for Thane city rather than cyclone, Google will throw up suitable results. Web history will also help you locate a website you saw a month back, but you forgot. At google,com/history, you can pause web history or remove individual sites, or even turn it off altogether.

Matt stressed that Google takes privacy issues very seriously, and that there is nothing scary about the new policy, “We will do nothing to erode the trust people have in us. Only content that has been made available publicly will show up in random search. When logged in, you see only data shared with you. Conversely, data you have kept private, will not show up anywhere. And, data that you have shared with specific people will be visible only to them.”

(This article appeared in the Wireless World column of The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Monday, January 30, 2012

'Whistleblowers' of Bangalore Metro



Guess, who is the most insecure person in Bangalore Metro. Definitely not the passengers; it's the private security guards, who control the crowds at the stations. It may sound as an exaggeration, but their fears are all too real. 

What the guards are constantly worried about is -- not if someone is sneaking in an explosive but -- whether someone will just fall off the platform on to the electrified rails, or if someone thinks Metro station is just like any other railway station and decides to cross over to the other platform by cutting across the rails. 

The fear is writ quite large on the guards' faces. And, it takes an annoyingly audible expression in the form of frequent blowing of the whistle to keep people away from the edge of the platform. Quite irritated, and puzzled as to why they should do it even if there are only half a dozen people on the platform, and none of them are anywhere close to the edge, I have been trying to understand the rationale behind this exercise. 

And, I have consistently got the same answer from the guards: "Sir, just imagine if one person just slips off the platform, falls on the rails and gets electrocuted... I will be held responsible. I will lose my job, and I don't know what all will follow... It's my responsibility to make sure that such a tragedy won't ever happen."

On a serious note, such responses have been an eye-opener. One, how much Metro values human lives; two, the commitment to work and the sense of accountability of people who are generally the butt of jokes and considered pushovers in the ranks of hierarchy. 

A BETTER WAY

The dangers are indeed real. But I only wish Bangalore Metro went about this important regimen of securing the safety of the passengers in a better way. The only indication now anyone has about the lurking danger is a note on the rail written in thin, small, black letters in yellow background, which doesn't send any message to our normally milling, undisciplined and chaotic people of the need to stay away from the edge of the platform. So, let there be enough number of visible, sign-boards in bold letters at strategic points warning passengers about the danger.

Two,  let the yellow line which people aren't supposed to cross, be drawn farther away, may be around 3 feet, from the edge. Now the gap is about a foot. On busy days, when the guards walk along the yellow line, pushing people back, there's the real danger of, ironically, the guard himself slipping and falling on the electrified rails. This is a fact some of them dreadfully realise. 

Three, let there be a 'Do Not Cross' warning in big, bold, red letters in Kannada, Hindi and English written along the yellow line. 

Four, and not the least, let us confer some amount of intelligence and common sense on the average Indian, who will surely follow the rules -- he only needs to be told why he should.

BODY SEARCH

Body search and screening of luggage for explosives are not commonly done on the Metro in the US, Singapore, Japan and many other countries, except when there's a security alert, or as part of a security drill. Such screenings aren't done on train or bus stations in India either. But that's not to argue against the system in Indian Metro stations. Any process that makes our lives safer should definitely be practised.

But, many of the guards seem to be poorly trained in the way they go about their job. There are a few who actually rub the detectors hard all over the body. There are a few others, who stand just at the entrance and thrust the detectors on you, out of the blue, within a few seconds of you entering the station. 

I won't blame them; they just need to be trained in non-intrusive ways of search. They also need to be trained in better body language and courtesies. The looks and gestures of some of them are as if we passengers are criminals. The security guards, who do the same job, at star hotels in Bangalore come across much better. They are far more courteous, and guests hardly even feel having been frisked. 

KUDOS

This rant is not to paint Bangalore Metro in a bad light. The trains are punctual, the environs are spotlessly clean, the announcements are audible and easy to understand, there are plenty well-positioned signboards that ensure you won't get lost; and the personnel at the ticket counter and customer care are kind and helpful. Bangalore Metro is doing an excellent job, and it deserves all support.
(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kopimism or copyright

The two proposed laws in the US against online piracy and Wikipedia’s protest got wide publicity. But what went relatively unnoticed is a Swedish law legalizing file sharing. In fact, it’s a religion there.

Church of Kopimism – founded by 20-year-old philosophy student Isak Gerson -- was recognised as a religious community in Sweden late December. Gerson said in an interview to AP that some of the church's 3,000 members meet every week to share files, an act they consider holy. He said the church opposes copyrights and encourages piracy of all types of media, including music, movies, TV shows and software.

Sweden has a political party called the Pirate Party which has representation in European Parliament, and hopes to reform copyright laws.

Author Chetan Bhagat would relate to the proposed US laws. In Dec 2011, he had got into an online controversy with this tweet: “Almost anyone who is reading my pirated books can afford the original. It hurts me a lot personally… Piracy kills publishers, esp domestic literature. Don't do it if you care for Indian creativity.” Jojo Philip, a Twitter user, who crossed words with Bhagat had this counter: “Don't blame the consumer. If he/she gets the product at a fifth of its cost, they have every right to pick it up'.

Legalities and ethics aside, technology has unleashed data. It’s difficult for creators to tether products to themselves and exact costs from everyone who wants to use or share them. It is a loss in one sense, but in another sense, it can be seen as a price for letting information travel far and wide. Striking a balance between the two is the tough part.

Besides the loss of money, what hurts a creator most is the sense of being cheated. My photography-enthusiast friend, Nagesh, refuses to start an exclusive photo blog precisely for this reason. “But I do share some pics on Facebook, Flickr and my poetry blog. I don’t mind people copying my work, but please, for heaven sake, please give me credit. Don’t use it as your creation. That’s where it hurts.”

That says it all, due acknowledgement, something Pablo Picasso realised long back. In the initial days of his career, it’s said, he never asked for money, he merely insisted that his name be carried alongside the published painting.

(This article appeared in my Wireless World column in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Google essentials

A little-known side of the world’s most-popular search engine is its philanthropic arm called Google.org. It focuses on areas where core technologies of Google can be put to social good. One of their projects is Google Earth Engine that makes available online huge amounts of data about our planet, and tools for scientists to analyse them.

Another is Google Dengue and Flu Trends. Recently, researchers at John Hopkins University found that Flu Trends is a good indicator for doctors to keep track of the disease and prepare hospitals for a surge of patients.

The premise is simple -- there are more flu-related searches during the flu season. But, to find out if there is any relation between the search pattern and actual incidence of the disease, Google compared two sets of data -- one, an estimation of the prevalence of the disease based on search pattern, and two, the official surveillance data on the actual incidence. And, lo and behold! they do match, to a great extent. Google Flu Trends doesn’t cover India, but Dengue Trends does.

In fact, the Search Box has wide uses in specific categories. It can be used as a dictionary or thesaurus. If you type “define: oology”, you get the meaning of the word and the pronunciation, besides links to Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster. You can get the meanings of most of words translated into 63 languages including Hindi, Urdu, Kannada, Gujarati and Bengali.

Find flight timings on Google. Type “Flight Bengaluru to Delhi” in Google search box. If you click on “Schedule of non-stop flights” you get a complete list of all flights. At the bottom of the table, click on “All flights from Bengaluru” or “All flights to Delhi” to get more options.

You can use the search box for everyday essentials. Type out the calculation you like to do into the search box. Use it for unit conversion too: type: “6 m in feet”. Use it as a world clock: type: “Time London” to know the real time in that city. Search for “Weather Bangalore” and you get the temperature, humidity, cloud condition, wind speed, and temperature prediction for three days, besides links to weather sites. Similarly, search for “sunrise” and “sunset” for cities. Some amount of public data too is available, like population of different countries.

Google Insights for Search gives data on specific regions, categories, time frames and properties; enabling better use of cyberspace for collecting and disseminating information.

(This article was published in Wireless World column in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Team Anna lost its way

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

 In Aravind Kejriwal’s article in The Times of India today there is an unmistakable lament at the movement having lost, not just the direction but, the PR battle too. There are a few reasons:

Carried away by success
When the agitation was launched, it drew unprecedented support from across the nation. For the first time, there was a mass movement against a below-par political class. Team Anna connected with the average Indian like no party ever did. For the first time, ‘people power’ dictated the schedule of Parliament. Anna Hazare became a rock star-like youth icon. There was glee all around at the plight of the all-powerful politician being held to account. But soon, Team Anna got carried away, ironically, by its own success. From being an effective pressure group, the general feeling was that it had become too arrogant to be a super-Parliament.

Political leaning
The frequency of and the force with which Team Anna attacked the Congress gave the impression that this was an anti-Congress, pro-BJP movement. Why Anna was angry with Congress is understandable, but the tone and language that was being used, gave the feeling that this was another political slugfest. Team Anna did little to focus on corruption in BJP-ruled states like Karnataka. Also, the team let itself be used and abused by the political class. The statement, “We will campaign against the Congress” was a huge blunder. Even if Team Anna didn’t mean it, that was a clear political statement.

Holier than thou attitude
The message that was going out was that everyone except members of the anti-corruption movement are corrupt; that only Team Anna has the solution; that Lokpal is the magic wand that will, one fine morning, end all corruption. Lokpal was being made out as a super-powerful authority. While the obsession with Lokpal was disconcerting, the Utopian scenario that was being made out, was too good and unrealistic to believe.

Way forward
The search for a better system to make the common people’s lives more comfortable hasn’t ended; the campaign has only paused. The search will resume once Parliament reconvenes. Hopefully, before long, we will have a new system that will not only eliminate corruption, most importantly at the lower levels, but also bring in more accountability in the system.

In the meantime, some course correction on the part of Team Anna will be in order.

1) Dispel the perception that Team Anna is anti-Congress and pro-BJP. When all are aiming for a political consensus, the impression that Team Anna itself has a political agenda is self-defeating.

2) Let there be only one spokesperson for the movement. And let that person not make political speeches.

3) Team Anna should realise that Lokpal will be another institution, in addition to many other investigative and quasi-judicial organisations that we already have to check corruption and  conduct investigations.

4) The team should also realise that there’s nothing wrong with the laws or institutions that we already have. Where we have failed is in implementation. More than new laws, what we need is a conscientious effort on the part of every one to abide by the rule of law. We need a disciplined society.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Looking ahead to 2012

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)
If there’s one thing that I am looking forward to this year, it’s a change in our mindset. The world around us is rapidly evolving, thanks to science and technology. But our responses to many contemporary issues continue to be stereotyped and often warped by anachronistic values and judgements. Here are some areas where a break from the past would be welcome.

Move from symbolism to practice
We as a nation revel in symbolism. Patriotism, purity, virtuosity, morality, non-violence... the list goes on. We throw stones at dogs and make lives of animals miserable, while at the same time worship them. We litter public places with gay abandon, even while being obsessed with purity and cleanliness when it comes to religious practices. We value, respect and honour our national flag, song and anthem; though we waste public money and resources, and destroy public property. We need to realise that national symbols, our language and traditions draw their strength from the state of our nation and our people. Patriotism is not just about standing up for Jana Gana Mana, but it’s more about contributing to our national wealth.

End, not the means
If a signboard has to be put up at a public place, hardly any thought goes into whether people can read it or not. Either it will be positioned at a wrong place, or it will be in a language very few people can read. The typical stereotyped response often heard is: “Let people learn the language and then read it!” It symbolizes our attitude to many situations, where bureaucratic procedures, traditional concepts or misplaced sense of values take precedence over convenience and comfort of the common people.

Political consensus
A cliche that is merely heard, never brought about. The American equivalent is “bipartisan approach”. They don’t merely talk about it, they actively practise it. Look at the way the anti-corruption and Lokpal debate went both in Parliament and outside. We don’t have a solution to the problem everyone is so clear about. We need to change the way politics is practised in our country, all the more because in a democracy it’s the political decision-makers who are the final authority.

Separate the private and the public
A lot of public fights in our country are about personal matters and beliefs. Be it the dress we wear or the food we eat or the language we speak or the source of strength we believe in. A number of public issues are left unattended and unresolved, because there is little time or energy left after battling personal egos. The private and the public are mixed up so badly that often policy decisions are taken based on personal whims rather than on public interest.

Move on...
Here’s an often-spoken about scene that typifies our indifference -- a suited and booted nouveau riche, while travelling in his newly acquired SUV, lowers the windshield to throw the banana peel on the road. Helen Keller said, "Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all -- the apathy of human beings."

Looking forward to a brighter and enriching 2012.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hotel boy on Facebook

What I saw at a mall last week, gave me an indication of how technology could pan out this year. It has nothing do with the retail outlets nor the products displayed there. I saw a hotel boy, probably in his early 20s, who had taken some time out, checking his Facebook.

That he was on the world’s largest social networking site, was just incidental. What struck me was how pervasive internet has become. He could be making full use of all the benefits the web offers. Quite remarkable, considering that in India web penetration is very low -- 100 million users online is a small percentage compared to our population of 1.1 billion.

The web usage has grown exponentially over the years making our country the third largest, after China and the US. What I saw at the mall not only reaffirms this trend, but also smashes the myth associating internet with only professionals. The number of blue-collar workers making cyberspace their virtual home is bound to take a quantum leap.

From what I could make of the economic status of that boy, it’s unlikely that he had a data plan for his mobile phone. In all likelihood, he was making use of the free wi-fi access point in that area. A good indication of how such hot spots can help us make better use of internet.

Almost all mobile phones are wi-fi enabled; but it serves little purpose unless the hot spots in public places are freely accessible. One definite way of taking internet to the masses is to have large number of open hot spots. The benefits of its cascading effect on the economy can only be imagined.

Not surprising, Japanese soft drink manufacturer Asahi has decided to offer free wi-fi from its vending machines. Users can surf free for 30 minutes at a stretch, after which they will have to reconnect. They don’t have to buy the soft drink; revenue will come from ads.

If internet revolution in India has to become a reality then such innovative steps that would make the web universally accessible have to be taken.

(This article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)