Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rapists have nothing to fear

What we are seeing in Delhi is much more than a protest against the brutal crime against a woman in a bus, and the inability of the government machinery to ensure citizens’ safety. It’s also an overwhelming outpouring of our frustration with the system. This unprecedented surge in emotion that took the agitators to the very heart of the power centre in Delhi, is also riding on the momentum set by the series of similar popular upheavals against systemic inadequacies.

The fact that people in such large numbers, especially young women, have been forced to take their protest to the hallowed precincts of our capital, like Raisina Hill and Rajpath, in an unprecedented manner, is a reaction to the rapidly plummeting standards in the state of the nation. It is also a reminder to the government that, inspite of all the talk of determination to set things right, nothing much has changed on the ground.

While dissecting the immediate provocation, let us also not lose sight of the depressing overall social milieu we are living in. Our state machinery is unimaginably weak. The lack of state authority virtually comes across as an encouragement for hooligans to indulge in the worst forms of violence with the full confidence that they can get away scot-free. The majority of law-abiding citizens are held to ransom by the small minority of people who seem to enjoy a carte blanche.

Pause and take a look at what is going on around us. Men have the full freedom to stand in public places, expose their private parts and relieve themselves. One, he has no shame. Two, he has no respect for the society he lives in. Three, he has no fear of the law. He knows very well that no one will come asking for a fine of not even Rs 10, forget being hauled to the police station and prosecuted.

My friend recently told me how he doesn’t feel safe to use his motorbike after 11 pm because he feels he might be mugged and in the process beaten up. There’s nothing to deter the miscreants and give us a sense of security.

A scooter mechanic in my neighbourhood has extended his garage on to the recently built, good, broad pavement; as a result, now pedestrians have to get off the footpath onto the busy road. The mechanic knows pretty well that no one will haul him up; and if at all anyone did, he is confident of circumventing the arm of law.

Our roads, and junctions in particular, present appalling scenes of insensitivity as drivers violate all decency and laws of the land.

Not just women, every sense of human values, and laws are raped.

Sad, our rich cultural and religious heritage is not good enough to infuse a sense of morals in some of us. At least they should have a fear of the law of the land. A weak government machinery has ensured that people needn’t be scared of the law either.

When we can’t fix little things going wrong in our society, I don’t know how we can fix complicated matters like cases of rape that often get entwined in legal and forensic issues. It’s a depressing scenario.

Hope we have reached the tipping point, at least now. Hope the girl’s trauma and suffering will pay off. Hope there will be not only some serious introspection but a series of inviolable steps put in place and activated so that we can all live our lives peacefully without being scared of miscreants, hooligans, thieves, rapists and murderers.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Connecticut shooting: Need for introspection

Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, is the worst of such tragedies in recent times. Twenty little angels, aged 6 and 7, fell to a barrage of bullets. Six elders too died. What makes this horrendous and numbing is the way the violence was perpetrated.

A 20-year old man, Adam Lanza, kills his mother, Nancy, using her heavy firearms, then he proceeds with all those weapons in her car to the school where she teaches, breaks through the security, and opens fire all around on tiny tots. He is said to be an intelligent but introverted person. His mother is described by neighbours as a normal, quiet housewife.

With Adam and his mother dead, there is only his immediate relatives and friends, who can give some clues to what possibly must have led to this tragedy. Answers to whether the hard times in Lanza family had brought emotional trauma to the teenager, and why his single mom felt compelled to buy those heavy firearms, are only in the realms of conjecture.

As with any such tragedy, the one question being asked is could this have been prevented? Did Adam show any deviant behaviour? Did anyone notice him disturbed? Did anyone bother to provide him help? He is said to have been an introvert, who wouldn't reply to questions. Most people have said that he didn't behave extraordinarily different from how any normal teenager would.

Katherine Newman, who has researched and written a book, "Rampage: Social Roots of School Shootings" says that in most cases someone had noticed something wrong in the person who later turned out to be the shooter, but failed to inform people who could provide some help. The Connecticut case may or may not fall in this category.

The incident prompts us this question: If we ever suspect anything disturbing or potentially dangerous in anyone whom we know, should we intervene or just leave that person to his or her privacy? I can well imagine, if someone had even remotely suspected something wrong in Adam, he would have preferred to respect the Lanza family's privacy rather than raise questions about the young man's personality giving an impression of intruding into their personal matters. This is all the more likely given the western social custom of keeping a reasonable distance from each other to ensure personal space.

The Newton shooting is not an isolated one. Such incidents have happened elsewhere in the world, regardless of affluence or social mores. Only the scale or method have been different. Often such tragedies have belied the calm these societies have been known for. Antagonists, single or in a group, would have been under deep stress; and the violence was an outlet to prove a point or grab attention to issues which had hitherto gone unnoticed or unresolved.

There are people among us who are troubled. Hard feelings, caused mostly by insensitivity of others, often go unnoticed as everyone else is busy trying to outdo one another, in a ceaseless race to reach some goal which like a mirage is never achieved. These unattended, unhealed wounds fester over  a period of time and manifest in some form of violence, minor or major. How much ever we try, all problems aren't solved, all wounds aren't healed; but at least we shouldn't regret we never made an attempt to set things right.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Simple tips to be trim and healthy

Obesity is a major problem. People put on weight for various reasons -- mostly due to two factors: one, excessive and irregular eating habits, mainly fatty food; and two, lack of exercises. There are also cases where neither of the two are responsible; it could be because of the peculiar body constitution, in which nothing much can easily be done.

Food gives us nutrition for the body to grow; and it gives us energy to work and play. But it can also wreak havoc, if you don't keep a watch on what you eat.

Food dipping in ghee, butter and oil are good for children. So too meat, even red meat, for those who don't mind eating them. Fatty food pack lot of energy in them, and they get expended while the children play and work. But that's not the case for grown-up people, especially those above 30 years of age. At that age, the body also loses its capacity to burn the fat.

As we grow older, there should be increasing regulation of the food that we eat. Avoid meat, especially red meat. Fish is good, but avoid the fried form. That should take care of most health issues. It's not easy as it sounds.We are talking of nearly monastic diet; food that has minimum content of fat, salt, sugar and oil.

If one tries this out, with some determination, the effect on health can easily and immediately be seen. What works best is not complete ban on these villainous food additives, but regulation. Avoid them most of the time, but indulge once in a while. It'sn't easy; but with some steely resolve it's possible.

To be healthy, there is no need to go to a gym and employ a physical trainer. Just make sure you do enough of physical activity - anything from getting up from chair and walking around, to climbing stairs, to washing clothes to mopping the floor, to going on a long walk. Additionally, do some 20 minutes of breathing and stretching exercises daily. Rather than vigorously exercising for long hours once in a while, it's better to exercise in short spells more frequently.

Here's an article from New Scientist that says in order to lose weight one mustn't skip food, but cut down on fat.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tiger on the prowl in Wayanad shot dead

Quite shocking. Not just because an animal has been killed, but because we didn't have an alternative to keep it alive.

Over the past 17 days, a wild tiger had been straying into living areas of Wayanad and attacking and killing many domestic animals and pets. This caused considerable dismay among the people, who were  pressing the authorities to do something to rein in the wild animal. A couple of days back residents blocked the main road and said they would lift the blockade only if their safety was ensured.

Photo courtesy: Mathrubhumi
So, forest officials from Kerala and Karnataka were called. They apparently tried their best to trap the tiger. But it failed since it was constantly moving from place to place. Then a decision to taken to fire tranquilizers. A few were fired. But the tiger wasn't tamed, and, according to officials, it had turned its ire towards people. Sensing danger to human beings, the officials decided to shoot the tiger dead.

Wildlife activists have said they would approach the court against the unlawful killing.

The issue brings to fore our inability to tackle such crises in a more even-handed manner. Indeed, safety of human beings -- from other human beings and animals -- is of paramount concern. But, it is a  bit hard to believe that the tiger couldn't be tamed with tranquilizer shots. Probably the dosage wasn't properly estimated or the shots were not properly fired.

I doubt if even the villagers would have wanted the tiger killed. They only wanted protection for themselves and their domestic pets.

Probably, the forest officials had come under too much pressure to resolve the situation. But, it's sad that a better solution couldn't found in all those two weeks.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Freedom of choice -- to igonre

Controversies over tweets and Facebook posts are nothing new. It’s been there for over a decade, ever since the advent of web 2.0 that gave us tools to publish, broadcast and telecast whatever we wanted to tell the world. Earlier, controversies were around blog posts. There have been numerous cases of netizens losing jobs, being served legal notice for defamation, threatened, forced to take down posts etc.

Information -- an objective statement of fact or a biased personal view -- exists either in the private or public domain. When only known number of people are aware of what is said or discussed, then that is in the private domain. For example, letters, phone calls, emails, SMSs etc between two people or amongst a group of people. But, when communication happens amongst countless number of people, it is in the public domain. And that's where all the problems lie.

Earlier, defamation and libel cases were only related to what was published in books, magazines or newspapers or what was broadcast on radio or telecast on television. Most of the communication then was in the private domain. But today, arguably, we spend a lot of time talking to the world at large -- uploading status messages and comments, besides pictures and videos. Perhaps what is forgotten in the process is, there is a huge number of people -- most of them strangers, unlike in the private domain -- reading and listening to what is being said.

There is an old adage: "My freedom ends where your freedom begins". This makes eminent sense when two people communicate with each other, or in such private-domain interactions, where "I" and "you" are known entities. But does this adage hold good in today's changed communication paradigm?

Facebook has come to symbolize the new communication structure -- a lot of supposedly private and personal information and views are broadcast, knowingly or unknowingly, to the whole world in the public domain. The virtually unbridled freedom of expression that everyone has to express their views has forced us to adopt a new way to tackle the torrent of comments.

Facebook is also about a new freedom of choice -- where you choose to ignore. When friend requests from people  you aren't quite bothered about come, ignore. If for some reason, you are compelled to add them, then make list of people you want to follow, and ignore the rest. There is the 'hide' option, where you can choose not to see the types of posts you don't like. You can customize the news feed option: choose to ignore what you don't like.

Where is the compulsion to read and react to everything in the public domain? Ignore. Just as I may not make favourable comments always, why should I make unfavourable comments whenever I see something I don't like? Ignore.

Inundated with so much information in the public domain, the freedom of choice that I seem to exercise nowadays is to ignore. There may be limits to freedom to my expression; but thankfully, no one has curtailed my freedom to ignore. That's an absolute freedom I enjoy.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Be safe, your favourite app might be infected

Apps drive mobile devices. There’s one for everything, including one to detect a bomb! Apps are tricky in a sense, because they need access to your personal data in the device.

All apps ask for permission while downloading. Some are: access data network, call records, GPS coordinates, rights to modify contents of SD card, to start on reboot etc. On the face of it, they look harmless, and ordinarily most of us grant the permission. But problems crop when the apps have Trojans (a form of virus) hiding in them. With proliferation of apps, they are becoming a popular vehicle for viruses.

Earlier this year, Sophos security firm detected a trojanized version of the Angry Birds game. These are infected apps that resemble the original one, misleading people.

Having such apps is a risk. "Trojans can come disguised as wallpaper applications. They contain the malicious package within it and may be hard to uninstall," says Ruchna Nigam, Security Researcher, Fortiguard Lab.

"Zitmo is a well-known banking Trojan (it has Symbian, Android and Blackberry versions) that can receive commands from the attacker to intercept SMS second-factor authentication banking tokens and forward them to the attacker, thereby exposing users to banking fraud," she says.

Some apps, malicious ones particularly, seek permission for activities unrelated to their function. When a music app seeks access to call records, you must wonder why, and check the credentials of the developer. For all that you know, it might be safe app. But it’s a call worth taking.

Juniper Networks’ Mobile Threat Center analyzed over 1.7 million apps on the Google Play from March 2011 to September 2012. It found that in the cards and casino games category, 94% of free apps that could make outbound calls didn't describe why they would use this capability. Similarly, 84.51% of free apps that could send SMS didn't specify why they should do so.

In the racing games section, 99% of paid apps and 92.42% of free apps had rights to send SMS, while 50% could use camera and 94.54% could initiate outgoing calls -- without any explanation as to why they needed to do that, says Ravi Chauhan, managing director, Juniper Networks.

The survey found free apps were 401% more likely to track location and 314% more likely to access contacts than their paid counterparts. Among location-tracking apps, 24.14% were free, while only 6.01% were paid.

This gives an impression that free apps access info to target ads. But out of the 683,238 apps examined, the share those with top five ad networks was much less than the total number tracking location (24.14 percent). “This leads us to believe there are apps collecting data for reasons less apparent than advertising,” says Chauhan.

How to be safe
1. Avoid free, unsecured wi-fi. Strangers can peep into what you are sending.
2. Download from official app stores like Google Play or iOS.
3. Check if access permissions sought are needed. Trojanized apps seek more permissions than are required.
4. Check who the developer is.
5. Install mobile security app from known brands like Kaspersky, Norton, McAfee or Avast.

(This article was published in The Times of India, Bangalore, today).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How to access internet via text messages

It’s not necessary to have internet connection on your phone to access the web. A mere text message sent to a particular number can get you basic data from sites like Google and Wikipedia. Text-based applications also provide information like live update of cricket scores.

Companies like txtWeb, Google and Innoz Technologies have such services.

At the heart of the technology is adoption of a different method to access the internet. These services are popular because of three reasons: one, majority of mobile phones in India are low-end ones with just ‘talk-and-text’ features; two, many people who have smartphones don't have a data plan; and three, those who have data plan, use it sparingly considering poor bandwidth and high cost.

In txtWeb, the keywords have to be sent to 9243342000. For example, to see the Wikipedia entry on Diwali SMS ‘@Wikipedia Diwali’. @cricket gives you the latest scores of cricket matches.

You can get the autorickshaw fare between two locations in a city -- for example, send ‘@auto fare Bangalore, Koramangala, M G Road’. Users can text ‘help’ or ‘txtweb’, to get a list of top apps, featured apps etc. The response sent to the user also contains many tips on how to make better use of the platform, says Manish Maheshwari, director, txtWeb.

Randomly sending a keyword also provides a list of applications related to that subject. Besides, a complete list of all the apps is available at ‘ apps’.

Google has ‘SMS applications’, wherein simple queries can be answered by sending an SMS to 9773300000. For example, to know how much is one dollar in rupee, text "1 dollar in INR". Similarly, by texting "Bangalore weather", you get information like temperature, humidity, windspeed, sunrise time etc.

If you want the definition of a word, say, inflation, send an SMS ‘what is inflation’. Flight status and list of trains running between two stations too can be obtained by this service.

Another company working in this field is Innoz Technologies. It has developed an innovative operating system for mobiles that enables access to internet through SMS. All that users have to do is to send the keyword to 55444 to get the answer. The company is in talks with mobile phone manufacturers to have the Innoz OS preinstalled in basic phone models.

(This is article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on Nov 20)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Personal computers are not dying

Desktops may be on their deathbed but definitely not any other personal computing device.

The original definition of PC referred to desktops, the complete set of CPU, monitor, keyboard, speakers, modem and voltage stabilizer. Now desktops have shrunk to laptops and netbooks (notebooks). PCs are seen different from smartphones and tablet; though mobile devices are highly personal and effective computing devices.  
The talk of imminent death of PCs is evidently prompted by the ever-growing popularity of mobile phones. Many people have two phones, or a phone and a tablet. But it’s no argument that personal computers, to mean laptops and netbooks, are dying.
In spite of all the advantages, mobile devices have their flip side. One, small user interface, because of the screen size. A 14- or 16-inch monitor of a laptop is definitely not the same as a 4-inch mobile screen. Higher dimensions of 5, 7 and 10 inch screens are a shade better. Besides, wider screens are easy on the eye.
Two, mobile devices generally work well for quick work on the go; a multitasking device that lets you talk, text, check mails and Facebook, send a one-line reply, do a web search, etc. But if you want to watch a 3-hour movie or live streaming of a sports event, or read or type a long document, the wider screen and broad keyboard of a laptop is more comfortable.
Three, screen navigation is easier when it comes to keyboard and mouse. Be it opening multiple tabs or copy-pasting text or working on photos or playing games, the superior user experience of a laptop is undeniable.
PC shipments in India grew by 4.9 per cent to 2.99 million units in July-September period of the current year over the previous quarter, according to global market intelligence and advisory services provider IDC. Even the netbook with 10-inch screen and much lower processing capacity compared to the laptop, was supposed to have flopped but that’s not the case. Many people possess both netbook and laptop, and use each for different purposes.
But it is a fact that PC shipments have slowed over the past few years. One, most people have a laptop. So the boom-time, first-acquisition numbers have tapered. Two, with tablets and other options, use of laptops have reduced, making them last longer. So, the replacement-buy is delayed.
Personal computers will be around for some time. Multiple devices is the norm -- each being used for a specific purpose. Nevertheless, a time may come when the nascent convertibles, a cross between mobile phones and laptops with detachable keyboards, would replace laptops. But that is quite some time away. At least now, it’s too premature to say PCs are dying.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Misplaced good intentions on Diwali

There are good autorickshaw drivers. Only that it's like finding a needle in a haystack. Very difficult. Few people have any kind words about them. Instead, everyone has plenty of anecdotes to describe his or her horrible experiences.

They are rude, is one unanimous opinion everyone has. Other complaints include: refusal to ply, running tampered meters and overcharging.

Here is the experience of a friend who had to travel a little over one km today, Diwali day. The normal fare is just the minimum -- Rs 20. But drivers ask for Rs 30. My friend always insists that she will give only Rs 20.

Today, as usual, the driver said Rs 30. My friend said Rs 20. When he agreed she boarded it. While travelling, my friend thought, since it was Diwali she would tip the driver Rs 5, and pay Rs 25. After all, he is working on a festival day
because financial situation at his home must have forced him to.  

But to my friend's horror, after three-fourth the distance, the driver stopped the autorickshaw and told her that for Rs 20 she could travel only that far!
Feeling totally cheated, she barely managed to control her anger. But, not to be outdone, she handed the driver Rs 15 and walked away. She wondered if there was any one driver who deserved a good deed.

I too have faced many such situations.

When I ask the drivers why they behave rudely, they say they get angry only when the passenger behaves rudely!

When I ask why they tamper with the meter, they say it's a machine after all and it goes bad once in a while!

When I ask why they overcharge, they say cost of living has gone up so much that they have no option but to charge more!

When I ask why they spoil the good image of Bangalore, they hurl a counter-question: how on earth are they spoiling the good image!

Well, I think we should just leave it at that.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Connecting Kinect and Android

Nothing like an app developers' congregation to see young brains at their creative best, pushing frontiers to make out-of-box ideas work. Droidcon 2012 at MLR Convention Centre on Nov 2 and 3 was no exception.

Droidcon is an international meetup on everything related to the Android operating system; and the first such gathering was in Berlin in 2009. India hosted its first Droidcon last year in Bangalore. The 2nd edition, organised by HasGeek, brought together a galaxy of app developers, visual and interaction designers, software startups, enterprise software companies, robotics and arduino wizards, kernel and ROM hackers, OEMs and platform providers, besides of course the technology enthusiasts.

Aravind Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Levitum and Program Chair, Droidcon, said the objective of the conference was to provide a platform for people to meet each other, brainstorm ideas and share knowledge. "We, in fact, encourage participants to skip sessions, so that they can meet other participants and exchange ideas. It is all about learning new things while having fun."

Allen Thomas, a young software professional working with the Innovation Lab at UST, TechnoPark, Thiruvananthapuram, was one of the participants. He spoke on how Microsoft Kinect and an Android device could be used to help two people interact with each other (pictured below). His premise was that the gesture-recognition features of Kinect could be made use of to develop applications that give more value to interactions among different users.


To demonstrate this, he devised a captivating game of swatting a fly. The movement of the fly is controlled by one of the players using an Android device. The other player, who is tracked by Kinect, will have to swat the fly using his hand. With more Android devices, more flies could be added to the game. Thomas said the big challenge was to ensure that there wasn't data transfer loss between the two systems.

There are many user-end applications for Kinect, one of them being the virtual dressing room. You would no longer have to undress many times to try on new clothes. By standing in front of a Kinect sensor and by waving your hand, you can virtually try out new outfits. Kinect has also proved to be a great education tool in classrooms. Teachers could engage their students better this way than with the chalk-and-board approach. Some of the other daily-life applications of Kinect-based systems are for physiotherapy and and market research in department stores.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Merely chasing the corrupt won't do any good

( Crossposted from Kaleidoscope )

Salman Khurshid, the latest entrant to the Arvind Kejriwal stage, has raised the tone of the slanging match to a new high. Anti-corruption activists say that more players would be dragged into media conferences, presumably for people to take the final call on redefining political morality in India. Politicians -- willy-nilly declared corrupt, and therefore guilty -- have their backs to the wall, fighting back to retrieve their remaining reputation.

As new acts unfold on the political theatre, we are left with more questions than answers. What is the stake for us, the common people? Are we mere spectators? In what way do we benefit? Will Kejriwal's campaign translate into votes? Or, are we staring at a mirage, where the political slate has been wiped clean of all dirt?

It's quite a long time since the public campaign began with Anna Hazare's exhortations, rallies and fasts. Down the road, the movement lost sight of the end, bickered over the means and now stands divided. Hazare has virtually given up, declaring that the existing political system itself is beyond redemption. Kejriwal has, on the contrary, entered the system in a bid to clean it. How much he will succeed, remains to be seen.

Nothing has changed

We are supposedly better informed about the evil called corruption and the corrosive effect it has on the nation. But, has anything changed on the ground in the past one year? No. Examples are aplenty.

The conductor of BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation) bus is reluctant to return the Rs 2 change. After many reminders he relents, but only when it's time for you to get down from the bus. He gives the change but takes the ticket back. When you ask for the ticket, he gestures you to get down and pretends he is busy and moves into the crowd of passengers to give them tickets. Ticket is recycled, and the fare you gave has gone into the conductor's pocket. Or else, why should he take the ticket back?

Another tactic employed by the conductor is a "win-win" one: if the fare is Rs 8, and you give a Rs 10 note, he gives you back a Rs 5 coin, and moves on without giving you the ticket. The conductor has gained Rs 5, and you have gained Rs 3.

Has common man's life become easier? Do files move  faster now? Have public servants become more courteous and helpful? Do we have better transportation facilities in villages, towns and cities? Do we have more electricity for our daily needs? Do we have better and easier access to clean drinking water? Have our elected representatives become more accountable? The list goes on; and you need to have an unrealistic degree of optimism to answer yes.

Need for positiveness

If Kejriwal and IAC members can usher in a new tomorrow, nothing like it. The whole nation will forever be grateful. But there is not even a flicker of hope at the end of the tunnel. Instead, we get an impression that there are now two battles being fought -- one, the common man's struggle with daily tribulations; and two, the war of charges and countercharges. The collateral damages are further erosion of faith in the system and deeper cynicism.

The negativeness is all too pervasive and it's only getting worse. More people are asking: why should we vote? Showcasing the corrupt and pronouncing them guilty in public will do little good; it primarily serves as retribution. If any good has to come out of this campaign, there has to be a huge infusion of positiveness. Instead of stalling everything, the campaign has to look at means to get the system moving in the right direction.

There has to be a parallel, and more powerful, movement at the grassroots to identify the good people in the system and encourage them. It may be a good idea for Kejriwal and IAC to publish a list of clean and efficient public servants, especially at village and ward levels. It is more important to bring them onto the stage and let the world know the enormous amount good they have done to the society.

Or else, Kejriwal risks being branded -- if not already -- as another politician who has his own axe to grind.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sorry, you are over 80

India has between 11,000 and 20,000 centenarians, says a UN report. The number will go up, and before long, there will be more older people than children below 15. Not surprising, considering healthier lifestyle habits, easier access to good hospitals and availability of effective medicines.

That is the only good part -- people are living longer. But how well they are living, is the worrying point. The agony and struggle of one of my relatives, who recently turned 80, is depressing. Here's his story.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Way to go, Dr Singh!

In spite of the Prime Minister’s lackadaisical body language, his televised national address last night, carried some weight and conviction. I liked the “Money doesn’t grow on trees” part. There was the unmistakable avuncular ring about it, reminding one of elders who try to teach money management to children.

Read on at Kaleidoscope

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Unplanned outing to Chikballapur

Till early morning 1 am, we hadn't decided where to go today -- a holiday for us journalists on account of Ganesha Chaturthi. After considering many getaways around 100 km from Bangalore, and rejecting many, we decided to go to Skandagiri, which we were told, is a popular trekking spot, near Nandi Hills on the Bellary Road, ahead of Bangalore International Airport. It is about 70 km from Bangalore. We had no intension to trek, but decided to head to that place with some basic knowledge gained from websites.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mobile TV apps

Mobile TV Applications let you watch live scores of TV channels like NDTV and BBC to Asianet and Cartoon Network on your mobile phones. For some apps, you don't even need the much-hyped 3G connection. It works well on 2G.

It's amazing how you can now watch the serials and news while travelling in car or while lying on the bed!

Here is the link to my article in The Times of India

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Netbanking now includes wealth management too

The milling crowds at some bank counters might give us a feeling that netbanking hasn't really caught on in India. But that isn't true. Multiple surveys have indicated that the number of people making use of the internet for financial transactions has been increasing. For example, McKinsey India's Personal Financial Services Survey of 2011 says branch banking has come down by 15 percent points.

Gaming company Zynga aims high on mobile phones

From playing alone, to playing against a computerized opponent, to now playing against real people, be they friends or strangers: it's a whole new genre of social games. The biggest boost it got in recent times was arguably the epidemic spread of Farmville over Facebook. And Zynga can claim some credit, for it was their creation.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Are you safe from Flame virus?

There will be few among us whose computers weren’t infected by a virus. We wouldn’t know if any data was ever stolen by a stranger sitting, say in Estonia. But, what we do recollect is how our laptops wouldn’t start; and we had to get the operating system reinstalled; and in the process, lose photos and videos we hadn’t backed up.

 The buzz in cyberspace now is about the biggest, the most powerful, and the most complex  computer virus ever discovered — variously called Flame, Flamer or Skywiper. It has sent alarm bells ringing, and has reminded us, for the umpteenth time, how even the best-protected network can be broken into. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Living with multiple identities

Recently I got a Facebook request from Roby S, my schoolmate. I was surprised, because he is already my friend. Why was adding me again? The profile photo was similar. The ‘About’ column too matched. Was it someone else who had stolen Roby’s identity and playing mischief?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mobile phone radiation alert

We have praised the ubiquitous mobile phone enough for its innumerable benefits. But how much have we thought about the danger it poses to our health by way of radiation? Are we safe while talking on the cellphone?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Handhold kids online

Children are savvy with gadgets and technology. The way they play around with hand-held devices, wearing a geek-like air around themselves, giving one an impression that they have already set eyes on Silicon Valley, is oftentimes awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Build your family tree on web

Online networking platforms, like Facebook and Google Plus, have expanded not only our friends’ circle; but also our family circle. There have been instances when the friend request was actually from a long-lost distant cousin, with whom you had indulged in many a childhood prank during your summer-holiday visits to his house!

Knowing 50 family members is not the same as knowing 50 friends, because, unlike the latter, we also need to know how they are related to us. And that’s no easy task: one, because of the large number of relatives we have got to know through networking sites, and two, it’s simply impossible to remember how someone is related, especially if it goes something like: “she is my father’s brother’s son’s wife’s mother’s sister’s daughter”!

The web, as always, has the solution. Make a family tree, of not just 50 members but even 200 or more. It was in late 1990s that attempts were first made to draw on the power of internet to help people trace their family lineage., which owns many related sites, is said to be the world’s largest genealogy company in the world. It’s a paid site.

However, there are now many free online family tree websites that are very user-friendly.,, and are a few. Some of them become paid if you have to add beyond a specific number of members.

Most of these have similar features. Begin by opening an account either with a dedicated login and password or by using your Facebook account. Enter names of your parents, siblings, spouse, and keep adding to make the tree bigger and bigger.

There are many attractive features that make these sites interesting to work on. You can add photos and personal details like date of birth, wedding date, email ID etc. You can create a family newsletter so that everyone is updated about all the family events. You can indicate if the person is alive or deceased.

You can invite family members to open their own account and you can merge their trees with your tree. When trees are merged, there could be “conflicts”, meaning, the same person could be referred to by different names or have different spellings. In such cases, the software will identify and suggest you to resolve the conflict by picking one name that you like.

You can search people in your family tree; and the best part is, the software figures out how you two are related, and shows the names and relationship of everyone who is in the chain. For example, your relationship with E will be shown as: “You →  A your father →  B his mother →  C her sister →  D her daughter → E her daughter.”

Such sites are useful in these times, when families are nuclear and scattered; and the newer generations have lesser and lesser knowledge about family lineage and relationships.

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cloud gets a new Drive

The much-talked about Google Drive is here. If you have a Gmail account, you can request your Drive to be activated by going to It’s roughly the same as Dropbox, as a storage platform. But Drive has, obviously, many Google features embedded in it.

Drive is one place where you can create, share, collaborate and store documents, worksheets, presentations, tables, etc. That’s pretty much like Google Doc. It has all the features of Microsoft Office as well. So, whether it’s an official team project, or planning out a vacation with friends, Drive comes handy.

All files like videos, photos, music, Google Docs and PDFs can be uploaded to Drive and stored. You can instal Drive on desktops and mobile devices, and all can be synced. This means, the contents of the Drive are accessible anywhere, at any time. If you change a file on one device, it gets changed on all devices.

There are some clear advantages, like you don’t need to send attachments: a video can be put on Drive shared with others. Another is that Search works for scanned documents as well. For example, if you scan a hotel menu and put it up in the Drive, you can retrieve it later by searching for one of the items in the menu. Google is also working on enabling image recognition for search, so that you can, for example, retrieve a photos of Taj Mahal, even though the photo isn’t named so.

Sharing options can be controlled by the owner of the account. For increased security, there’s an option for 2-step verification. Once enabled, the account holder will have to not only key in the password but also a code that’s sent to his or her mobile phone. There’s some talk about privacy and IP issues, but the debate goes on.

Up to 5GB storage is free, which Google says is “enough to store the high-res photos of your trip to the Mt. Everest, scanned copies of your grandparents’ love letters or a career’s worth of business proposals, and still have space for the novel you’re working on”.

Interestingly there’s an India link to Drive -- the management tools, security features and billing systems were conceptualized and built by Google's engineering team in Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Is Google Drive the first of its kind? Well the concept is nothing new. It has existed for many years. Microsoft has a good a platform called Skydrive that’s quite similar to the Google product. Dropbox is a hugely popular one. For Apple fans, there is iCloud. In fact, Google Drive has entered a segment that is crowded. The advantage is its seamless integration of all Google products.

But then, storage is never a problem in India. With our poor broadband connectivity and very few public wi-fi hotspots, success of all cloud-based platforms depends solely on easy accessibility.

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Measure your cyber-fame

There are no introverts online. A few comments, a few likes, a few followers -- you gain a strange sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. Yet, some remain cocooned in cyberspace, using it as an eternal refuge from real-life claustrophobia. For others, it’s a launch pad for many a real-life venture.

Most cyber-beings are bitten by the self-promotion bug at one point or another. It manifests in various ways (filling up an elaborate profile, putting up photos of oneself and family) and for various reasons (letting oneself known to others, making friends or for business promotion). Cyber-fame is key to leveraging the full potential of one’s online existence, be it on blogs or networking sites.

You need to work your way to it, though arguably it’s easier than in real-life.
One, make sure you blog on topical issues; two, regularly post updates; three, network by visiting blogs, liking updates, and leaving comments; four, link your blog to networking sites so that each time you have fresh post, your friends see it on their timeline; and five, revive contacts by messaging.

No of hits, friends and comments fair indicators of your online popularity. Blogger, Wordpress, YouTube etc have an in-built device to let you know the number of visitors. Or else, you can let sites like Blog Counter or Sitemeter do that by signing up and placing an HTML code on your blog.

The credibility of the number of comments depends on the nature of comments, because not all could be relevant, and there could be spams.

Now, you have sites that combine your presence, activity and contacts on various platforms and calculate your influence. One of the popular sites is Klout. Another one is Peer Index. Both work on similar lines, though Klout assesses your influence on a broader scale. Sign in with your Twitter or Facebook login and password; and add to it all your networking sites.

Klout Score measures your influence on a scale of 1 to 100, and takes into consideration Comments, Wall Posts, Likes, Mentions, Reshares etc. It measures your Reach (number of people you influence within your network and across extended networks), Amplification (how likely your audience will respond to your actions) and Impact (the influence of your audience).

Klout also will tell your style from among 16 possibilities -- a Conversationalist, Networker, Observer, Pundit etc. The score can be tweeted and shared on networks to publicize your fame and influence.

The authenticity and credibility of such online indices are debatable, but recently, a matchmaking site Tawkify announced that it would consider members’ Klout score when pairing them with each other for dates.

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rise of right wing in France

Not in the recent past has a French election commanded so much attention as yesterday's poll. It could be because of Nicolas Sarkozy. Not surprisingly he came second, first time in many years that an incumbent President has failed to come on top of the poll. He looked more busy on matters other than governance.

But the rise of far right wing Marine Le Pen is the real news of the first round. She came 3rd. It poses questions about sustenance of multicultural societies. With globalization and democratization of media, the world has become more and more pluralistic.

But are we getting more intolerant of diversity? This is the pertinent question that many events of our recent history, big and small, raise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dive underwater to explore Great Barrier Reef

Google’s Streetview -- which gives a 360 degree panoramic view of landmarks and such prominent places -- isn’t available for India, though it is in many countries enabling us to virtually walk through cities and villages of the world; and also see, for example, Swiss Alps, Amazon River and London’s National Gallery.

Soon, we will have an oceanic variant, called Seaview. Thanks to technology, we will be able to dive underwater and get a breathtaking view of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Google in collaboration with the Catlin Seaview Project will help us explore the Great Barrier Reef -- the world’s largest coral reef system located in Coral Sea off Queensland in the northeast of Australia.

Coral reefs -- the rainforests of the sea -- are underwater structures consisting mainly of calcium carbonate secreted by corals, a type of marine animals. They have many ecological benefits: serving as habitats to aquatic organisms, besides protecting small islands from being gobbled up sea. It’s estimated that 50% of coral reefs have been destroyed due to pollution and global warming.

Catlin Seaview Project is a scientific expedition aimed at carrying out the first comprehensive study to document and reveal the composition and health of coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef across a depth of up to 100 metres. Ten Australian scientists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University are at work on the project. The pilot studies start next month, and the main expedition will be from September to December 2012 with some follow-up expeditions late in 2013.

During a recent Google Hangout -- a live audio-video link from underwater on the Great Barrier Reef -- Richard Vevers, founder of the Underwater Earth and Seaview Project, explained the objectives and challenges of the scientific expedition. Due to limitation of time, some of the questions from this correspondent were answered via email:


How different is Seaview be from Streetview?The survey team will travel at approximately 3-4 km per hour on underwater scooters taking images continuously every few seconds which will then be stitched together. The length of the dives are limited to 1 to 1.5 hours due to battery life. There is only one visual team working on the Great Barrier Reef; however the plan is to roll the project out globally using multiple teams surveying locations all around the world. The roll-out model is similar to that of Streetview mapping.

What details will the mapping cover?

The expedition has 3 elements -- a shallow reef survey, a deep reef survey and a megafauna survey. The shallow reef survey will focus on creating a broad-scale visual baseline study of the reef using a scooter mounted 360 camera rig. The deep reef survey will be a detailed scientific study looking into the health and biodiversity of this little-known ecosystem. The megafauna survey will look into the movement of megafauna in relation to factors such as ocean surface temperature.  

How much surface will be covered by the survey?

The shallow reef survey will cover the largest area -- 20 locations along the 2,300 km reef with 4 x 4 km surveys carried out at each location on average. We hope to reveal about 300 km of the reef that people will then be able to explore. 

How do you overcome the challenges under water?The biggest obstacles are the natural weather and water conditions -- we ideally need good sunlight at least average visibility. Another limitation is driver fatigue and we are already investigating the possibility of using remote-operated vehicles in the not-too-distant future. 

What are the threats to the reefs and how will this project help save them?We have lost approximately 50% of coral reefs in the last few decades, mainly due to pollution, overfishing (using destructive practices) and global warming. The idea behind the Catlin Seaview Survey is to reveal the environment, life and science of the reef so that people become more aware of the state of our oceans and these potential threats.

Beyond the panoramic view, what will Seaview provide online?We are looking to analyse the 50,000 images from the survey using image recognition software so that the composition of each reef location can be analysed. We are also looking into adding layers of additional content on some of the images when displayed online that will allow viewers to discover exactly what all the different forms of marine life in the images are.  

When can we expect to see the Seaview on Google Maps and Google Earth?You will be able to see Seaview images through Panoramio in Google Maps and Google Earth from September when the first pilot information will become available online. The images will also be available through the expedition website, so that people can have a full virtual dive experience online. More and more images will be uploaded over time as the surveys are completed and the data is processed.

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

There’s nothing private online

From the password you type to access email, to the texts and photos you put up on social networking sites -- they are all visible to someone other than you. Theoretically, that is. Practically, of course, there are institutionalized safeguards to prevent data from being accessed.

But, how much privacy can Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft etc ensure? After all, our data are on their server, right? And, for free, in most of cases!

We define privacy differently online. Offline, private means, only I have access to it. But online, we trust the owner of the server where our data is, and we co-opt him into our personal space. This handing over of data to a trusted guardian will become the norm as we move more and more to the cloud.

While we fret about privacy, we have no qualms about proclaiming either to the entire world via Twitter or to our “Friends” via Facebook and similar sites, our location, our travel plans, what articles we read, our political views, our religious faith etc. (By the way, in the days of yore, “Friends” were people whom we knew very closely and whom we trusted. No longer!)

The most we can secure our privacy is to not let our browser know which sites we visited, by using “Incognito window” in Chrome or “Private Browsing” in Internet Explorer and Firefox. But it isn’t as private as one may think -- it only prevents history of websites visited from being saved on the browser, and prevents cookies being placed on the computer. Even with private browsing, service provider can track websites and malicious software can get implanted.

Privacy issue has grown alongside the shift that has taken place in the way we communicate. We have moved from “person(s) to person(s)” communication to putting up data in a central place that is accessible to many people. Now, you don’t send information, instead others access your information. Earlier, email was the way you shared photos. Now, you put them up on a site (cloud), where others view it. The problem here is, not all of us are careful what information should be made accessible to whom; with the result, all info becomes visible to all people!

And people whom you may not even know may get to see the info. For example, if on Facebook I Like a photo put up by SMJ, that photo will reflect on the feed of my friends all of whom may not know who SMJ is. Why should strangers get to see SMJ’s photo, even though SMJ originally made the photo visible only to her friends?

Privacy issues are tricky. If you are too fussy about privacy, never put anything personal online!

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Virtual pinboard gets into news feed

Six months ago, very few of us had heard about a site called Pinterest. But Friday last, cyberspace was abuzz after "The 2012 Digital Marketer: Benchmark and Trend Report” reported that Pinterest was the third-most visited social networking site by people in the US, after Facebook and Twitter. The report also said that 60% of visitors to the site are females and 55% in the 25-44 age group.

Pinterest, development of which began in 2009, is a virtual pinboard (or a notice board, as the Brits would say) on which you can pin interesting items. It could be photos of animals like puppies or decorative items like wall hangings, or nature like mountains or culinary delights. To join you have to send a request or you can join by responding to an invite sent by someone on Pinterest. You can also connect Facebook and Twitter accounts.

There are three ways you can pin: “add a pin” by pasting the URL of site where you found the item or “upload a pin” from a folder in your computer. Also, you can have a ‘pin it bookmarklet’ on your browser, and each time you find an interesting website, you can pin that by clicking on the bookmarklet. Only a website with a photo on it can be pinned.

The site works like Twitter or Google Plus -- others can follow your pin; you can follow others’ pins; you can repin what you find on others’ sites; you can “like” pins of others; and you can comment on others’ pins.

But, who has time for another networking site and why is it catching on?

One, it’s a visual medium, which tends to be more popular. Two, like FB, it’s a place to publicize and discover new ideas. Three, it is a social marketing medium: if you are, say, an interior decorator, you can see the latest trends just as you can publicise your innovations. And, four, this is not a Flickr-like site where you upload your pics and share it among friends. Pinterest combines elements of Facebook and Twitter.

A random check shows that the site has some following in India; and the fact that some well-known websites already have a “Pin it” button on their pages, indicates that the site is gaining some traction here.

Will Pinterest pose a threat to Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Yahoo!? It may not, since this looks like a niche site that is to do with style, decor and such visual aspects; unlike the other four that are more broad based with many facets to them.

Still, the established giants -- even while competing among themselves -- will have to take notice of cyberbeings’ new interest to pin items.

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

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Desktops go online

Our increased dependence on internet and the need to access simultaneously data lying on multiple devices -- smartphone, tablet, netbook, laptop -- has led to the growth of cloud-based services.

Dropbox, an online storage and sharing service, is a popular one. Users can drop their files into the Dropbox folder on the desktop which gets copied in your Dropbox online account, which can be accessed from anywhere. The data also gets sync’d with other linked devices. These files can also be shared with others. There’s free 2GB storage and works on all operating systems.

Google and Microsoft too have them. On Google Doc, using the Gmail password, you can create documents, presentations, speadsheets and tables; access them from anywhere including mobiles, share them and even edit them collaboratively. Windows Live SkyDrive is very similar, having Office Web Apps, Hotmail and Bing Search integration. There are SkyDrive apps for iPhone and Windows phones.

Now, cloud-based services are moving beyond mere storage and sharing. The desktop itself is going online. One of the companies that is focused on this is Nivio, founded by Sachin Dev Duggal and Saurabh Pradeep Dhoot. Nivio works at three levels: one, nDrive that lets you store 10GB of data free for life and syncs the data with devices. Users get a unique URL “”, from where users can share data publicly or privately.

Two, nDesktop, from where users can access Windows desktop via the cloud, using any browser that supports HTML5. This means you can run Microsoft products on any device. With proliferation of iPads and other Android-based devices, this provides an easy way of taking Microsoft products along with you. Three, nApps, where you have your applications.

An interesting aspect of Nivio, which goes live in India, on April 10, is the pricing. While storage is free for life, products and apps are free for a month, beyond which you rent them on a monthly basis. As Sachin Duggal put it, “No long-term commitments, you pay as you use. If the rental period is over and you want to get the app back, it gets installed in 10 seconds flat.” For India users, Nivio has the servers in India.

The other advantage is you don’t have to upgrade the hardware. Any basic device that supports HTML5 is good enough. “You can run Windows on Akash tablet,” as Duggal says.

With our lives becoming increasingly internet-dependant, online and cloud will soon be the norm. Devices like PCs and smartphones, which will have fewer data stored in them, will have only secondary importance.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Phone have all become smart

Once upon a time, you could only make voice calls and text a message with a mobile phone; and all those phones were basic or feature phones. Around 2000, Research in Motion introduced Qwerty keypads, brought in features like emails and instant messengers, and positioned BlackBerries as good enough to do office-related work. These devices came to be called smartphones because they made office workers “smart” and increased work productivity.

Smartphones are typically expensive, since they have advanced features. They have bigger storage space, faster processors, wider screens, touchscreens, advanced browsers for surfing websites, and they can be used to download applications and run them. Apple added a popular dimension to it with its iStore from where apps could be downloaded.

Now basic phones have turned smart. There’s this typical anecdote of a basic phone user cocking a snook at a smartphone user by playing Angry Bird, sending emails and uploading photos on the go to his Facebook. The game-changer was Google’s Android operating system, mainly because of the open-source nature of Android. Samsung’s Galaxy series, LG and Indian models like Lava began bridging the divide. Android created quite a wave that has still not abated.

Nokia, the handset many Indians will easily associate with, has been a tad late to wake up; but has caught on. Instead of reinventing the wheel it went back to its good-old S40 operating system, dating back to 1999 and on which its basic phones operate. It tweaked the OS sufficiently to make applications, which usually work only on smartphones, to run on it. So, we have a series of Asha phones that Nokia hopes will give handsets that operate on Android a run for its money.

V Ramnath, Director Sales, says, "Our next billion consumers are young and urban, hyper-social and hyper-aspirational. They want the smartest phones at prices they can afford."

Not just games, the new S40 phones also come with many utility features embedded in them, like eBay, ngPay, ESPN Cricket, Bookmyshow,, BharatMatrimony and Bejan Daruwalla's Ganesha Speaks. Having such sites embedded means the average no-so-tech savvy user finds accessing them much easier.

They also come with improved Nokia browser that compresses data much like the market leader Opera Mini browser. Data compression means you pay less for internet connection.

Blurring of the smartphone-feature phone divide will mean more and more users getting online on their mobile, validating the hypothesis that the next generation will experience internet first on their mobiles rather than on PCs.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lure of the instant message

The recent report that telecom operators lost $13.9 billion in revenue to social messaging applications has got many wondering if our good-old SMS is on its death-bed. It may be early to write off SMS, but it’s a fact that IM apps like Nimbuzz, Fring, WhatsApp etc are rapidly gaining popularity.

These apps are nothing new -- they have been around for many years. But we now see a huge surge their adoption mainly because of availability and affordability of better-quality of handsets. The biggest advantage of these IM apps is that messaging and calling friends who are using the same app is free of cost. Even if the other person is not using the same app, the cost is minimal. Incidentally, Fring recently dropped the call rates.

Nimbuzz Ping, for example, helps users save on even data charges. Vikas Saxena, CEO, Nimbuzz India, told me how this works. "It allows users appear online and available to their contacts even when Nimbuzz app is closed. When contacts want to reach them, Nimbuzz Ping delivers free SMS prompting users to log in to Nimbuzz and communicate.”

There are so many things you can do with these apps. Users can also play games, compete with friends, check live cricket scores, get astrology forecasts etc. You can also video chat and chat in groups.

Figures testify the surge in usage of IM apps. WhatsApp users send more than 2 billion messages daily up from 1 billion in October. Even much smaller Pinger users sent 2 billion messages in January up from 1.7 billion in December. Some 150,000 new users register daily on Nimbuzz which has 15 million uses from India.

Other than the free-of-cost attraction, whta’s driving their adoption is the convergence factor -- you can add Google Talk, Facebook, Yahoo IM, Windows Live IM etc -- a huge convenience when your buddies are on different platforms.

For example, you may be a regular Facebook user, but your close friends are on Google Talk and Yahoo! Messenger. You can still chat with all of them via one app like Nimbuzz, even if they are not on Nimbuzz -- a one-stop shop for all communication needs of a user.

But, there are downsides too. One, many apps are heavy and if your mobile is low on space and memory, they could slow down the device. Two, since they need a data plan, IM apps are only as good the connectivity, which in turn depends on the device and the network provider. Three, keeping the app on for long time could drain the battery. And four, shared files could be infected harming the device and compromising information.

Telecom operators who are losing money aren’t just sitting back. Some of them in France, Italy, Germany and South Korea are currently testing a new messaging system called Joyn. They are targeting what they see as a drawback of current IM apps -- that these apps need to be downloaded, and to enjoy free-of-cost facility, both the parties should have the same IM installed.

The proponents of Joyn say that their messaging system will come embedded in all phones, very much like the current texting facility, but it will go step further and allow users to chat and share files. But these are early days, and Joyn is indeed a long way off.

Let us be realistic: texting wouldn’t just go away like that. But, for sure, its usage may see a gradual decline, as more and more people, especially the youth, adopt smartphones, data plans get more affordable and more free wi-fi hotspots become available.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope; and a shortened version of this appeared in my column Wireless World in today's Times of India, Bangalore)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pongala goof-up: police file cases against devotees

This is really bizarre. Police filing cases against thousands of women who were offering pooja -- not in any remote village, but in the heart of Kerala's capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Their contention: the women were violating a court order against assembly of large number of people, and blocking traffic on main roads.

Well, the background goes like this.

The annual religious festival is called Pongala, an exclusively women's event. On that particular day (this year, it was yesterday), thousands of women, line the main roads and lanes surrounding the main venue, Bhagavathi temple at Attukal, some 2 km from the more famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Thiruvananthapuram. They cook porridge made of rice, sweet brown molasses, coconut gratings, raisins etc, and offer it to Devi. 

With the number of women taking part in this ritual swelling over the years, the crowd has been spilling over to main roads and lanes at a bigger radius around the temple, bringing traffic and any normal activity to a complete halt. As the festival got more popular, the ritual is now conducted in about a dozen temples across the state.

To anyone in Kerala, this is a day when normal life comes to a standstill, in a few kilometers surrounding the Attukal temple. The crowds in other towns aren't as big as in Thiruvananthapuram, but they are growing.

There's a high court order that bans taking out processions, holding roadside meetings and obstructing traffic. The order was passed in the light of many political parties holding such snap meetings and holding up normal life.

Is Pongala, any different? Normal life obstructed, yes. But this is definitely not like bandhs or party meetings called out of the blue. The temple ritual has been happening over many, many years. The date of this festival is well-marked out in all calendars. Everyone in Kerala knows very well about this festival, and they plan their schedule accordingly. It's highly unimaginable that people's lives have been thrown out of gear, when everyone knows well in advance about this festival and the fact that main roads and lanes in that locality will be blocked on that particular day.

So, how come this year alone, two police officers filed cases? Defies logic. The only reason I can think of is the approaching Piravom by-election and an attempt by someone to paint the administration in a bad light. Soon after the cases were filed, some parties took out a procession condemning the police move. The chief minister Oommen Chandy, acting swiftly, placed police officers under suspension.

But the chain events was wholly unnecessary; and just shows how logic and commonsense are easily given a go-by to achieve some cheap brownie points.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A web on your behalf

In a scramble to stay afloat, websites are tailoring content to user preferences. Everyone is doing it in some way, but Yahoo!, which is intensely feeling the heat of the competition, is on an overdrive to harness the power of the social content. It’s trying its best to be different by pegging its vision to bring meaning, as different from relevance, to the web.

“We would like to be the trusted broker on the internet, where the user will control everything, where web will be, not on your request but, on your behalf,” says Blake Irving, Executive Vice-President and Chief Product Officer, Yahoo!. He sees “meaning” more personal and deeper than “relevance”.

As part of a slew of improvisations, Yahoo! has rolled out a “refreshed’ homepage that has customized content -- meaning, when logged in, different users see different contents. It works on an algorithm called CORE or Content Optimization and Relevance Engine, developed by R&D team in India. “It understands the user’s reading pattern and provides a fare closer to what the user likes,” said Shouvick Mukherjee, VP & CEO Yahoo! India R&D at a demonstration of the product.

Another innovation is “Conversations”. Here you start a discussion by posting a comment to a group of friends, who get notified via email. As they join, their jottings appear on top of the article. Unlike the conventional comments at the end of the article, this is a discussion within a group; and the conversations are visible only to those who are part of it.

Blake Irving describes this as Real social networking. “The model that will survive is not broadcast social, like what Facebook is, where you don’t want to share information with 1,500 people. The model we are building is one that is around groups of people with content that you care about; where you can share, for example, an extreme political view with a group that has similar views or with people you feel comfortable having an argument with.” The premise is content will be “meaningful” when conversation is private as against with an entire friend’s list as on Facebook.

Alongside customization, Yahoo! is scaling up video quality using the Publishing Platform developed by the Bangalore R&D team. The hassle of buffering is overcome with Adaptive Streaming, Transcoding and caching that reduce congestion by factoring networking conditions and device feedback. “Though videos are hosted from Singapore, its caching servers in Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi, give users better experience,” said Suresh Hosakoppal, Vice-President, Service Engineering & Operations.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Codes that empower consumers

Stuck in a department store, unable to decide which brand of shampoo to buy? Wondering if a VCD is a geniune one? Having doubts if the latest best-seller book is worth buying and you want to read a review of it? A GPRS-activated smartphone could make your task easier.

Haven’t you noticed those black think and thin parallel lines or a rectangle of dots and designs on the back of a product? Those are barcodes and QR (quick response) codes that have in them huge amounts of data related to the product. Obviously, they are of little use if you don’t have a barcode scanner that can read and decipher the information in them. But the best part is, today you can have a code reader application on your smartphone.

These codes were originally devised with the aim of tracking product movement. In most countries it’s mandatory for all products to have the codes. Now, more and more people are using the scanners on their mobiles to read reviews, compare prices and find out where products are available for the best price.

There are any number of barcode and QR code scanning apps available for all smartphone platforms. On Android, Google has its own Goggles, which not only reads codes by also identifies well-known landmarks. Many models of Noika, like N82, E90 etc have the reader pre-installed in them. In Windows 7 mobiles like Nokia’s Lumia codes are scanned using Bing search engine. Ebay’s scanner RedLaser is one such that is available for iPhone, Windows and Android phones; and the company claims it has been downloaded over 15 million times.

All that you have to do is to hold the phone steady over the code, align the code in the box and scan. The codes have a variety of uses for the consumers. It uses web applications to check prices and search nearby stores where the product is available. It can be used also to search catalogues and locate books and CDs in libraries.

Though the app has wide potential, it has still not caught on in India, unlike in the US and European countries, mainly due to lack of available data and compatibility issues. But the day is not far off when code readers will turn into a potent tool in the hands of the consumers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dawn of smartphone era

This is what everyone has been predicting and waiting for -- dominance of the smart mobile device that will keep everyone networked all the time. Emerging figures not just validate the hypothesis but give us an idea of how information would be created, disseminated and consumed.  

Worldwide, for the first time ever, in 2011, smartphone shipment surpassed that of PCs. Canalys reports that while 488 million smartphones were shipped last year, the figure for PCs was 415 millon. Smartphone sales in the fourth quarter of 2011 made a 47.3% jump compared to the corresponding period in 2010, says Gartner. Sales figures too reflected the same pattern -- smartphone sales last year touched 472 million units, up 58% from 2010. Records are tumbling in India too. Shipments for 2011 crossed 10 million units for the first time, in November, says Cyber Media Research.

The useage too has seen a surge, The entry-level phone is no longer the low-end feature phone -- nearly 80% of smartphone users in India are first-time users, says a Google-IPSOS survey. And, youth are taking to them in a very big way: 36% penetration in the 18-29 age group and 17% penetration in the 30-49 age group, in cities.

With 97% of owners saying they are heavy users while at home, smartphone has clearly become the inalienable multipurpose device for the Indian. As many as 77% listen to music, 35% either read newspapers and magazines or watch TV, 78% use it for search, and 76% to access social networking sites.

Lalit Katragadda, India Head, Products, Google, says the surge has been driven by poor landline/ broadband connectivity, combined with the growth of the cloud technology, “There is now a huge appetite for information, especially among the youth. Everyone now knows that information is just a few clicks away. Nothing like getting it on the move, and on demand.”

Interestingly, though India has less than half of the US’s mobile users, Indians are outscoring Americans in their urge to go online. As many as 76% of Indians access social networking
sites on smartphones versus 54% of US citizens; and email access on smartphone in India is 81% while in the US it’s 73%, the survey shows. “Indians are device savvy, and it could just be a perception that Indians are not tech-savvy,” says Katragadda.

With 66% users saying they would access internet on mobile more in future, the smartphone revolution is bound to peak further.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Footnotes that talk and move

Textbooks are widely acclaimed to be boring, in spite of colourful pictures . Also, there is a limit to information textbooks can provide. Since Internet is an ocean of information, many textbooks now give URLs of websites where more data can be found.

Surajit Sen, a Bangalore engineer, has taken the integration between textbooks and multimedia to a new level. He calls it “numerically linked book”, a book that is supported by a CD. It uses a technology, developed by Sen, that provides footnotes in an audio-visual form. He says it’s the first of its kind in the world, and is awaiting patent approval. 

The working is simple and effective. On the book, instead of footnotes, you merely have numbers against words that need explanation. Insert the CD in your laptop. After the program loads, key in the footnote number. You are taken to a multimedia or internet page that provides you an elaboration on the topic. The software is compatible with Windows, and for sound and video, Adobe Flash Player is required..

To begin with Sen, who is the CEO of Bangalore-based startup Crest Technologies, has brought out a book “Birds of Bangalore”. It contains a list of birds, brief summary and numeric links to various webpages, like that of Wikipedia, Youtube, Internet Bird Collection, Birdforum, Karnataka government website on birds etc, where you can find more information about that particular bird.

Take a bird like Barn Swallow, which the book says is a common winter visitor. By keying in the corresponding number you can listen to the bird’s sound, see video clips and get lots of information about this bird.

The technology is useful in rural education. “To tackle the challenge of educating villagers, we must first get villagers interested in education. Linking multimedia to textbooks is one way,” he says.

Such books have immense scope, especially in teaching science. Says Sen, “In a chemistry textbook, for example, instead of explaining a reaction, all that’s needed is a numeric link to a video that demonstrates it. Usually a student goes to a website, gets distracted and drifts away from the book. Here, the relevant page is provided to the student, so the student never leaves the book,” says Sen.

If this technology catches on, hopefully children will love their textbooks, and mothers will have less reasons to complain.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Machines talk to each other

When you slouch on the couch, and use the remote to hop TV channels, you are unwittingly getting one machine to talk to another. This is a loose example of, what today has grown into a fledgling M2M, or machine to machine, communication industry.

The science of machine talk is telemetry -- transfer of data from one location to another. It’s been around for over 100 years. In the beginning, it was wired transmission, now it’s wireless. Collection of meteorological data using weather balloons is a good example.

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)