Saturday, December 01, 2007

A new penguin in the coffee bar

The mobile devices grapevine has been abuzz with rumors about the Google phone for more than a few months now. And Google’s has shown serious interests in the mobile space over the last one year. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium that includes Google and Motorola, announced the Linux based Android platform for mobile devices a few weeks back. (Motorola is a pioneer in mobile Linux platforms and many of Motorola’s high end phones have Linux under the hood.)

Some critics have dismissed it as just another mobile Linux platform, which is technically true. The difference though is that it is backed by some of the biggest mobile manufactures, telecom operators and content providers. Which is more than one can say about any other mobile platform out there today. If Android does manage to establish itself, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t, we could expect to see some standardization in the mobile platforms space.

The catch though is that the penguin isn’t coming out of the coffee bar any time soon. Like Motorola’s Linux phones, the Android platform is also Linux-Java, which means that third party developers can only develop J2ME applications for Android. That’s right, no native Linux applications if you are a third party developer. It is ‘Open’ only to manufacturers and ODMs. That isn’t as bad as it sounds though. I expect Android to make up for it with a really cool JVM that can give third party apps the same performance, power and usability as any native app. When the first Android phone rolls out next year, the litmus test for the platform is going to be this – Will the lay user be able to distinguish between native Linux applications and third party Java apps designed for Android?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Idea Salesman

A recent issue of Knowledge@Wharton had a review of The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas by Wharton professors Richard Shell and Mario Moussa. The authors describe a simple 4-step approach to selling your ideas – 1.Survey the situation, 2.Confront Barriers, 3.Make your Pitch, 4.Follow-up on Commitments.

What attracted my attention and helped me relate to what the authors had to say was that these four steps are not very different from another (almost) 4-step process that I use everyday, the Software Development Lifecycle – Analyze, Design, Implement, and Maintain. The similarity seems to point to the possibility that, like building complex software, idea-selling or influence is an art that can be mastered by following a simple process.

The study, think, act, follow-up process is one of those abstract universal patterns. You can use this process to achieve just about any goal, provided you know the specifics of the particular goal that you wish to achieve. ‘The Art of Woo’ seems to get right to the specifics – the 6 channels, 5 barriers, 4 styles, 3 mistakes.

The first chapter of the book is available online. I'll have to wait till the next purchase cycle at the library to get a hardcopy though. Meanwhile, I came across this BW article - The Art of the Ask - that deals with the closely related topic of how to get people to put their money into your idea.

PS,Further reading:
Seven Hints for Selling Ideas

Friday, November 23, 2007

He he he, Namskara!

I am in a meeting. Phone rings. Unknown number. I had just taken a new connection a couple of days back and the only my immediate family and friends knew the number. So I assume it must be important, excuse myself from the meeting room and answer the call. The voice on the line goes, "He he he, Namskara ..." Sounds like someone called the wrong number so I politely try to explain. But the voice on the line does not seem to care. That is when it occurred to me that it must be a recorded voice ad from my mobile operator.

After the meeting, I try to call up the customer care centre but all their executives are busy. So I try again and then again. But even after an almost a hundred attempts, all the customer care executives are still busy and I'm the only one having nothing better to do. That’s when I heard about the national do-not-call registry. After some searching, I finally find my mobile operator's do-not-call web page, filled it and click the submit button. That was two months ago.

I still get an average of three calls per day. If I don't answer it, they immediately follow up with an SMS. Very prompt. But then again, all is not as hopeless as it seems. I heard from a friend that he gets similar calls on his landline from a competing operator. Imagine dropping whatever you are doing and running to answer the phone only to discover that your mobile operator has a new ringtone for download. If that isn't bad enough, there is this other guy I talked to, and he actually got a call from one of those busy customer care executives offering to block unsolicited calls for only 99 rupees per month. Now that is the definition of the word - hopeless.

However, this experience has served to broaden my perspective. I now understand that people don't always think alike. My friends and I may not like receiving those calls. We may find it annoying. We may even consider it downright harassment. But there must also be more than one marketing executive and his manager who think that this is a great idea. Come to think of it, if it serves to broaden people’s perspectives, then certainly it must be a good thing. In fact, it is entirely possible that these telephone operators are trying hard to broaden people’s perspectives out of as sense of corporate social responsibility. And customers like me who have had their perspectives broadened should be thankful for that.

PS: Figured out a way to reach one of those busy customer care executives. Called the customer care number from my office phone. Talk about differentiated service!

Monday, November 12, 2007


It has been almost a month and a half since my last posting. It wasn't because I didn’t have anything to write. For a change, it was because I was actually busy with something else. Busy, jumping through hoops and totally stressed out. (But that is a different story and I hope to write about it some other time.)

So in the midst of all this, I asked myself the big question. Why? Why am I doing all this? Does it really matter in the end? What really is the purpose of this life? I was at my wits end and nearing burnout, so I was in an unusually religious frame of mind.

The answer was obvious - the purpose of this life is to do God's will. But then, what is God's will? I am yet to see any burning bushes. So how do I know what is God's will? What does God require of me? As it turns out, I was not the first person to ask this question. And so I did not have to search far and wide for the answer.

Someone had once asked Jesus a similar question, "What is the greatest commandment?" It was meant to be a trick question. But then again, being God, Jesus was pretty clear about what he wanted from people. Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It is as simple as that. Love God, love yourself and love the people in your life. That is all that God requires. He doesn’t expect me to change the world, get a promotion every year, make a lot of money, achieve the impossible or any of those things. In the end, it only matters how well you scored on this love thing.

And somehow, knowing that made all the difference.

Friday, September 28, 2007

WiMax goes mobile!

We were sitting on the terrace of our house in Bangalore engaged in some hostel room style debate on the city's infrastructure woes. It was three years ago, on a clear moonlight night with lots of mosquitoes. We were on the terrace because a of power outage in our part of the city. Hence the talk about infrastructure.

And then I suggested that instead of just building more roads and offices, the government should build Wireless Broadband networks so that people can work during the commute or from their home in some obscure village. This would significantly reduce the strain on urban infrastructure. I wasn't talking about private companies providing wireless broadband to the rich. This was about the government providing it as part of public infrastructure; like roads, bridges, buses, water and electricity. After all, India is supposed to be a socialist country. Naturally, my friends thought I was just trying to be funny or something.

Today, governments around the world are turning to WiMax to connect the unconnected. And Motorola has taken it to the next level with its live Mobile WiMax demo in Chicago as part of the WiMAX World show. Can't wait to get my own WiMax mobile, hopefully before the end of next year.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Book Summary: Michael Dertouzos – The Unfinished Revolution

Some time back, I went to the office library looking for a good book on HCI (Human Computer Interaction). I found just two books on the subject. (Guess that sort of explains a lot of things). One was a dated guide to desktop GUI design. The other was 'The Unfinished Revolution : How to Make Technology Work for Us--Instead of the Other Way Around' by Michael Dertouzos. Considering the author’s background and the big names on the jacket, I figured it would be worth a read.

Dertouzos starts by identifying the problem with today’s computers, the fact that they don’t often help ordinary people achieve more by doing less. He then presents a 5-point solution – Natural Interaction, Automation, Individualized Information Access, Collaboration and Customization – to realize the dream of human Centered Computing; while dismissing two of most popular themes of computer fiction - AI and Bionics - as being unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The author presents a compelling vision of how these five technologies can realistically change the way we use computers. The last chapter gets philosophical, considers the implications of Human Centered Computing and how it could change society.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Asparagus Pepper Fry

The other day I found some Asparagus at the local Safal outlet for a reasonable 19 rupees a kilo. Not something you usually find in this part of the world. So it had to be Asparagus Pepper Fry for dinner. Here is how it goes.

Wash 500g Asparagus. Chop into one inch pieces leaving the bulbs intact. Heat two tablespoons of butter in a frying pan, wok, cheenachatti, whatever. Add chopped Asparagus. Stir. Add a tablespoon of black pepper and salt to taste. Stir. Add half a glass of water. Stir and then cook covered for 5-7 minutes or till fragrant. If there is any water left, keep stirring till it evaporates. Serve immediately.

Now that’s what I call minimalist cooking.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Puttu it down!

The cheapest restaurant in JB Nagar charges Rs.10 for a kutti of puttu. Rice flour is Rs.22/kg. 1kg makes 6 kutti puttu. So that’s a running expense of 3 rupees 60 paise per day, ignoring the cost of cooking gas, salt and the 5 minutes it takes to cook and clean. I have a modest but functional kitchen. So a puttu kutti, which comes at Rs.170, would be the only initial investment. That means I can break even in under a month. Not a bad investment. So I went out and bought myself a puttu kutti. My roommate’s response was something along the lines of, “Hope you don’t try to fry fish in it.”

I haven’t gotten that far, yet. But being me, I couldn’t resist the temptation to improvise and experiment a little. Getting coconut scrapes was a bit of a problem, so I made puttu without coconut. Not too bad. Even tried to replace the coconut scrapes with sprouted green gram, a sort of puttu biryani. I found packaged puttu podi to be unreasonably priced, so I shifted to regular rice flour. Then came ragi puttu, wheat puttu, rava puttu, johar puttu, bajra putu, corn puttu. Checked out almost every kind of flour available in the market and various combinations. Surprisingly enough, johar turned out to be rather good for puttu. Bajra and corn didn’t come out so well, but corn did have a promising cheesy flavor to it. As for wheat, it seems a lot depends on the kind of the flour. Too much gluten and you could end up with gothampunda instead of puttu. Then I discovered bran. A 7:3 mixture of rice flour and wheat bran turned out to be pretty neat, so I’ve stuck to it for some time now. Unfortunately, couldn’t find rice bran anywhere. If anyone out there knows where to get rice bran in Banaglore, please do lemme know.

Future plans include ambitious research into things like puttu pulav, rainbow puttu, keema puttu and flavoured puttu along the lines of soy sauce, Maggie cubes, vanilla etc. Meanwhile, I’m also considering the possibility of using the puttu kutti to steam some sweet corn. Maybe I’ll try that out this weekend. And if it works, I might consider steaming a few sardines too.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Algorithms of Tom Sawyer

Remember Mark Twain's story about how Tom Sawyer got his friends to paint Aunt Polly's fence for him and even got them to pay for the privilege. It’s a good thing they still teach it in school.

Now imagine if Tom were a computer. A machine could use similar techniques to get people to do its work for it. If that sounds hard to believe, consider Luis von Ahn's ESP Game. It is an online game in which two randomly selected players are simultaneously shown an image and asked to list words that describe the image. The two players do not know each other and cannot communicate. For each word that the two users agree on, they gain points. Von Ahn later licensed the game to Google and Google uses it to improve the accuracy of Google Image Search. Like Tom Sawyer's fence painting, the ESP game is fun and players don’t mind that Luis and Google get to keep all the truck loads of money they make from the resulting intellectual property.

What should be noted here is that while Google's machines are very good at storing and processing more data than most people can even begin to imagine, they are not very good at understanding what is in a picture. So the machines get humans to do this work for them. Like von Ahn says in this talk at Google, it gives a much better reason for the machines in the Matrix to keep us humans around, unlike the machines in Terminator 3 who would rather just get rid of us.

For now though, it is a symbiotic relationship. Both parties benefit by bringing their relative strengths to the table. Humans are not just using machines anymore. It is nothing new really. We humans as a species have evolved to have a symbiotic relationship with machines much like any other symbiotic relationship in the natural world. Image, if one fine day, all the machines in the world disappeared into thin air. Again, not a pretty thought.

Although the relationship has been symbiotic for quite some time, it’s only now that we are beginning to come to terms with it. Thinking of humans a component of the system, rather than something above it, forms the basis of an emerging paradigm called Human-Based Computing. The key to designing a successful human based system is to figure out innovative ways to make people want to do something that they would otherwise consider a chore. And we have a lot to learn from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sambar for Techies

After my roommate who used to do all the cooking moved to his new flat last month, I decided to try my hand at cooking. It wasn't entirely out of necessity. I just didn't want to give up the opportunity to test my cooking skills on the remaining guys. I‘m not much of a vegetarian, so I had never cooked sambar before. So after checking out a few websites and blogs to get an idea of how it’s done, I finally went out and bought some sambar powder and vegetables. At first try, I put in too much sambar powder. Second time around, I forgot to precook the Muringaka and ended up burning the sambar while waiting for it to get cooked. As with software development, the best way to learn cooking is by trial and error. I had just learned two ways of how not to make sambar. Don't put in too much powder, you can always add more later if needed. Same goes for salt. And precook the tough vegetables in a pressure cooker along with the lentils. Having learnt these two lessons, I managed to get it right the third time.

So here is how I make sambar. Chop all the vegetables. Use whatever vegetables you can find. Cook the tough vegetables (basically everything except tomatoes and ladies finger) in a pressure cooker with a cup of lentils and sufficient water till the whistle blows once. Adjust the quantity of lentils depending on how thick you like your sambar. More lentils, thicker sambar. After that’s done, pour a few spoons of oil into a sufficiently sized cooking utensil. Crackle half a teaspoon of mustards. After the mustards stop crackling add the chopped tomatoes and ladies finger. Sauté over a low/medium flame till they start to turn soft. Add a few spoons of sambar powder. (Get a pack of sambar powder, no point trying to reinvent the wheel.) Add the precooked lentils and vegetables. Add tamarind paste and salt to taste. Mix everything together. Then taste to see if you need more salt or sambar powder. Finally add some curry leaves and let it simmer for a few minutes. The results shouldn’t be too bad.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

From Sthreesamajam to Podhuyogam

After the Qurbana today, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Bava thiumeni's Kalpana(decree) allowing (if I understand it correctly) women to attend the Podhuyogam (administrative general body meeting of a local church), albeit without voting rights. Its a small step, but definitely one in the right direction. Well, actually, its a big step considering how difficult it is to introduce this sort of reform in a traditionalist community such as ours. For far too long, people have misquoted St.Paul and the Bible and Tradition to keep half the church from having any say in administrative matters. And the church has been deprived of the services of many capable individuals, just because they happened to be women.

My guess is that the churches in the diaspora that will be the first to welcome this move. I doubt if it really means much to the churches back home in Kerala. But the message is loud and clear. We, as Orthodox Christians, cannot condone discrimination. Eventually, I hope to see a day when women have full voting rights and actively participate in the management of churches and church institutions.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Je Twitter, donc je suis.

"Je pense, donc je suis", wrote René Descartes. In Latin, that would be "Cogito, ergo sum". In English, it translates to the famous quote "I think, therefore I am". (PS: Just trying to appear intelligent:) If only it were that simple.

What is more important though, is that others think of me. It would be nice if they thought good things about me, but far more imperative to my existence is that they think of me at all. Like the old saying goes, "Above all, one wishes to be loved. If not loved, then respected. If not respected, then feared. And if not feared, then atleast hated. But never to be forgotten". It’s no fun being the invisible boy.

This is where Twitter comes in. I’m not referring here to the particular service but to the phenomenon that it has spawned. People like to snack on info. And people need people. Put those two together and we what you get is something a lot like Twitter.

I don’t expect it to be the next killer app or anything like that, but it’s definitely not a passing fad. In fact, this article in Wired seems to suggest that Twitter could perhaps be a sneak preview of something totally new – a world where computers become an extension of the human mind – Augmented Cognition.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Seeyon Sanchari on the Autobahn

Imagine you are one of those NRIs driving down the Autobahn in your second hand Mercedes and all of a sudden you feel home sick. You need something that makes you feel like you're back home, on the sands of the Pampa accompanying grandma to the Maramon convention. So you say, "Edi, do you have any Maramon convention songs." Your Personal Computer, actually a software agent residing in what looks like a mobile phone, understands that you are talking to it because there is no body else in the car. The phone searches through your music collection but finds nothing because that’s not the kind of music you usually listen to. So it does a search of Internet radio stations and finds one that’s playing a song from last year's Maramon album. You are not wearing your wireless stereo headphones, so the phone routes the music to the car's music system instead. “Thanks”, you whisper. The phone feels happy.

Phones with feelings are a bit farfetched for now. The rest of it is on the drawing board and may happen in the foreseeable future. But you won't have to wait too long for Internet radio on the mobile. Infact, the technology is already here but adoption has been limited due to the high cost of mobile internet access in most parts of the world. Think about it. Listening to the radio is the most natural thing to do with a mobile device. Not reading the newspaper. Not even watching the latest video posted on YouTube. Audio is what the mobile phone was made for. And as mobile broadband technologies mature in the next few years, this is where a lot of the action is going to be.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A bit of satire and very little else

I was just going through my previous posts and realized that some people might possibly, probably, just maybe, find my blog too serious and boring. So here is a small story. It is meant to be funny.

Disclaimer: The following story is a work of fiction, et cetera.

Once upon a time, there lived a maharaja who had five elephants and a mahout to manage them. Then one day, after much deliberation and contemplation, this mahout decided to pursue opportunities outside the country. So the maharaja had to hire a new mahout. He called together the finest head hunters and sent them out on a mission to find a replacement. After searching far and wide, sifting through numerous applications and going through endless rounds of interviews, they offered the job to a candidate who had more than ten years of experience managing a much larger team consisting of fifty goats and thirty cows. The king was pleased, the head hunters were praised and the newly appointed mahout couldn't wait to start on his new job.

The new mahout started by briefing the elephants about his extensive experience, and how he planned to draw on it to bring in new processes to fix quality problems. To reduce costs, he moved the elephants to a cow shed and changed their diet to dry grass. Based on his previous experience he set up a biogas plant to convert the elephant dung to biofuel. He exhorted the elephants to take ownership of the project and produce more dung. The maharaja was pleased with the new process and honored the mahout for his achievements. But when it was time for the annual appraisal, the mahout gave the elephants a bad rating ostensibly because they did not produce any milk. To add insult to injury, he accused them of being too fat. Eventually, the elephants also decided to pursue opportunities outside the country

But the mahout wasn’t the least bit perturbed. He successfully managed attrition by hiring a few cows and goats. When it was time for the maharaja’s annual procession through the city, the mahout brought the meekest of the goats to the maharaja and managed to convince him that it was an elephant. The maharaja believed the mahout. After all, the mahout was supposed to be the expert on elephants and he should know. No one dared to tell the maharaja that he was being taken for a ride. A little boy tried but he was promptly exiled for his efforts. Halfway through the procession, the goat could not bear the weight any longer and collapsed. The maharaja fell down and broke his crown. And all the maharaja’s men couldn’t put it back together.

End of satirical rant.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


This is about a little experiment that could change the meaning of the word 'wireless'. Even the coolest mobile device today is not truly wireless. Every once in a while, you have to plug it into a wall. And thats the end of mobility. Fortunately, someone decided to do something about it.

Late one night, Marin Soljacic, found himself standing by the kitchen counter in his pyjamas staring at a mobile phone. As he recalls, this was probably the sixth time in that month that he was awakened by his cell phone beeping to let him know that he had forgotten to charge it. And he wondered what a better world it would be if the thing could just take care of its own charging.

After much research, his team at MIT have set up an experiment to show that magnetically coupled resonators, basically just copper coils, can be used to wirelessly light a bulb over a distance of a few meters. Now, why didn't anybody think of that before?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Traveler's Dilemma

Recently happened to read this article on the Traveler's Dilemma by its inventor Kaushik Basu. My take on the game is that it is important to appreciate that fact that one traveler does not know if the other will behave rationally and choose the Nash equilibrium. In the absence of this information, it is possible to abstract it out and say that the other person will act randomly. Now if the other traveler chooses a purely random number, it becomes possible for the first player to choose a number that will give her the highest mathematical probability of gain.

If one has to choose a number between 2 and 100 with +/-2 being the reward/penalty, one gets the highest probability of gain by choosing 100. On the other hand, if one has to choose a number between 90 and 100 with +/-90 being the reward/penalty, one gets the highest probability of gain by choosing 90. In both cases, these numbers would be the first emotional response as well.

PS: In game theory, agents are assumed to be rational (AFAIK).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Global Warming and I

Why do I care about global warming? Because my house is going to get flooded if the sea level keeps rising like this. Thats why!

Kerala does not contribute much to the problem except for some occasional elephant fart. Which is what makes it all the more frustrating. All those industrialized countries caused the problem by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and it is us poor keralites who have to live with the consequences.

But to be fair, its those same countries that have now taken the lead in trying to control global warming. They have put in lot of effort into studying climate change. And the EU has made significant progress towards emissions trading.

Our petty politicians and NGOs still haven't gotten over the pesticides in their Coke. (The pesticides got in the Coke because Coke uses the same ground water that we drink everyday, but nobody seems to care about groundwater pollution!) Guess we'll have to wait till they figure out how take bribes in carbon-credit.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Motorola has finally announced the RAZR2. When the original RAZR V3 first came on the scene three years ago, it was something radically new. The RAZR2 V9 however is more of an evolutionary improvement over the original. It feels more solid, has an even better finish and a faster processor that runs at 500MHz.

I still remember the time when I first saw a prototype of the V9. Unlike the KRZR design, which I must admit is more of an acquired taste, this was love at first sight. It exudes sophistication just as the V3 did back in 2004. A beautiful piece of engineering. I just hope we do an equally good job with the marketing.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blade goes online

Back home in God's own country, 'Blade' is a term used to refer to microcredit because of the cutthroat interest rates. Private lenders lend money to individuals who would not be able to get a loan from a bank. Naturally, the interest rates are higher. And local gangsters moonlighting as recovery agents don't have to try too hard to give the industry a bad name.

Socially responsible microcredit ventures like the Nobel prize wining Grameen bank have changed all that to some extend. But Grameen and other ventures like it are focused on developing economies.

So who does the regular American, with a less than perfect credit rating, turn to when she needs a few extra bucks? She goes online. Sites like bring the latest in online social networking to the old world business of microcredit. Prosper is very similar to online auction sites like e-Bay. The only difference is that instead of sellers and buyers, we have lenders and borrowers. And the site provides the framework for the transaction, verifies the credit worthiness of potential borrowers and takes care of recovery.

Online selling has been around for quite some time. So what took online lending so long even though the underlying technology is almost exactly the same? Not sure. But what this example does indicate is that there are patterns out there. Technology offers new business patterns, not just unique opportunities.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Kumbanadan model of economics.

A popular question on campus during recruitment season used to be - " Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond and why?" I have never been asked this question but I did have a prepared answer just in case. My answer went something like - "I'd rather not be a fish."

Economists have a similar trick question - "Would you rather be a rich person in a poor country or a poor person in a rich country?" Unlike the previous question however, this one has a definite answer based on hard data. To see if your answer is correct check out the explanation on Harvard economist Dani Rodrik's blog. ( Hint: Visit Kumbanad.)

Kozhikatta - How To

Easter and Vishu are both spring festivals. So I was searching for some info on Vishu while researching for my previous post and I came across this wonderful blog called Ammupatti's Thoughts by a Malayalee lady settled in the US. It turned out to be a treasure trove of traditional recipes and cooking tips with improvisations for bachelor life (she has two sons working away from home). There is everything from Kozhikatta to Aviyal. Definitely worth checking out especially if you want to impress your aunts and grandmas back home.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Computus Paschalis

Ever wondered how the date of Easter is calculated? I have, ever since I was a kid. The grownups didn’t seem to know and I couldn’t find it in any book. But now that I have the enormous power of the internet at my disposal, I did some ‘research’ on Google and finally found the answer.

The Jewish Passover is celebrated starting on the 14th of Nisan. So the Last Supper was on 14th Nisan, the Crucifixion was on 15th and the Resurrection on the 17th. Since the Resurrection was on a Sunday, Jewish Christians celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. But the Jewish calendar did not fit well with the Julian calendar used in much of the Roman Empire.

In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea in decreed that Roman calendar shall be followed and formulated a set of tables to calculate the date. These tables have been revised over the centuries eventually resulting in the tables constructed by Dionysis Exiguus, the 6th century Abbot of Scythia. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII of the Roman Catholic Church introduced the current Gregorian calendar and revised the tables accordingly.

The date of Easter is the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon on or after March 21st. The ecclesiastical full moon is calculated from the tables mentioned earlier and not necessarily the same as the astronomical full moon. This means that Easter falls between March 22 and April 25.

Unlike us here in India, most Orthodox Christians continue to use the Julian calendar and determine the date accordingly. Fortunately, this year both dates coincided and everybody celebrated Easter on April 8th. But often the two dates are a week apart.

The Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac provides a simple algorithm (attributed to J.M. Oudin, 1940) to compute the date of Easter according to the Gregorian calendar.
c = y / 100
n = y - 19 * ( y / 19 )
k = ( c - 17 ) / 25
i = c - c / 4 - ( c - k ) / 3 + 19 * n + 15
i = i - 30 * ( i / 30 )
i = i - ( i / 28 ) * ( 1 - ( i / 28 ) * ( 29 / ( i + 1 ) ) * ( ( 21 - n ) / 11 ) )
j = y + y / 4 + i + 2 - c + c / 4
j = j - 7 * ( j / 7 )
l = i - j
m = 3 + ( l + 40 ) / 44
d = l + 28 - 31 * ( m / 4
Where the input is y=year and the outputs are m=month and d=date, all variables being integers. Go code!


Channel surfing on lonely afternoon I chanced upon Titus, a surreal adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus staring Anthony Hopkins as the unfortunate Roman general. The storyline does not deviate much from the original. But Julie Taymor, better known for her biographical Frida, has taken more than a few anachronistic liberties with the sets and costumes. Swords, crossbows, 18th century pistols and modern machine guns work together to bring about some of the violence. The military uniforms are like something left over from a World War II movie. The emperor and senators look like they’ve stepped out of Star Trek. The humor is dark with a generous helping of irony and cynicism. Titus is a refreshingly different twist to an old tale and definitely worth watching.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Which MBA?

A few months back, I was sitting in my office and for some reason I cannot recall at a this moment, it occurred to me that I should go for an MBA. The realization came as a bit of a surprise because until then I had never seriously considered myself to be the management type. But then again, an MBA is more than just about management. Its about other things too. Leadership, for example, and brand and a well connected alumni network. But more about that later.

So I set out to survey what was out there. In India we have the 2-yr MBA at the IIMs, the 1-yr ISB, and then there is the two and a half year weekend MBA at IIM-B. On the international front, there are all the 2-yr US MBAs and 1-yr European and Asian degrees. Since my post-MBA objective is an international career, an international MBA is the obvious winner although a good number of IIM/ISB students do manage to get international placements. So I went hunting for international rankings. Because although finding the right fit is what matters, rankings tell you where to start looking. And this is what I found:

Financial Times
The Wall Street Journal
US News

For one, I realized an international MBA would be a very expensive proposition. And not just in terms of money. Post-MBA salaries weren't significantly higher than what you could get with a graduate degree in technology. But then again, the good news is that the returns are also not just in terms of money.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Book Summary: Family Happiness

There is something special about sitting outdoors in the shade on a hot summer afternoon. Perhaps only because it brings backs childhood memories of long summer vacations and the bliss of having absolutely nothing to do for the next two months. If that be the reason, so be it. What matters is that it feels good. And with an interesting book to read, it is even better. Makes one want to reconsider going back to spending the afternoon in an air conditioned cubicle.

The book, in this instance, was a collection of short novels by Leo Tolstoy. Its starts with Family Happiness, the story of Masha and Sergei. How they fall in love and get married. And after some time the magic wears off providing space for ego clashes and distrust. And how they fall in love once again, 'a different kind of love' as Sergei puts it.

Tolstoy's mastery over the description of human emotion is plainly evident. And being inspired by his own experience, the story is both very intense and very real and yet universal in its appeal.

Monday, April 02, 2007


Palm Sunday is probably the only chance you’ll ever have of seeing people smile during an Orthodox service. Children of course have a great time throwing flowers petals in the air and waving palm leaves. Sometimes using a carefully aimed marigold to settle an old score. Most grown-ups manage to keep their usual solemn composure. A few, like me, have to struggle with an uninvited smile.

In Orthodoxy, the Church encompasses all of creation, both animate and inanimate, the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that we do not see. The palm leaves and the donkey remind us of our relationship with the creatures who share this planet with us. They are joined by the stones along the roadside, waiting to shout out aloud, should someone cause the children to to stop. And together with the angels in heaven and the prophets of the Old Testament we sing, “Hoshannah to the Son of David”, as Jerusalem welcomes her king.

Bright red bougainvillea petals and the scent of freshly cut palm leaves mix with incense and music as the procession goes around the church. And for only a moment before it is reined in, a little smile manages to show itself.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Meet the Polgárs

Some people are born geniuses. Or so we would like to believe. Not just in terms of intellect, but in every field of human endeavor, we find a few extraordinarily talented people who seem to have been born with that special gift.

László Polgár would not agree. He knows that experts are made more than born. László, a chess teacher, home schooled his three daughters - Zsuzsa, Zsófia, and Judit. Zsófia went on to be an international master. Zsuzsa and Judit went on to become grandmasters.

What we learn form the Polgár experiment and numerous other studies is that motivation plays a key role in learning. And the key to motivation is what is called ‘Effortful Study’, a process of continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond ones competence. This, it turns out, is the secret to genius.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Stray city

Not long after my first post on Bangalore’s stray dogs, an eight year old was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs. Last week another child, a four year old, was killed while playing outside his house in a neighborhood not far my office in CV Raman Nagar. One would imagine that two such incidents in as many months would cause a rethink among the so called animal rights groups in the city. But that was not to be.

Instead they stick to their position that neutering is the only humane solution ignoring all evidence to the contrary. In spite of years of animal birth control efforts by government funded NGOs, Bangalore today has a street dog population of 76,000. And then they go on to put the blame on inefficient garbage disposal and ‘illegal’ meat shops. While proper garbage disposal is in itself a pressing concern, it’s definitely not the right solution to this problem. Deprived of the garbage which is their main source of food, the hungry dogs would resort to attacking people before finally starving to death. As for the reference to illegal mutton shops, the intention is clear to anyone who would bother to think for a moment.

It is fair to say that the methods earlier used to put strays to sleep where indeed cruel, but a stubborn instance on keeping the dogs on the streets makes no sense. The only solution is to put all the stray dogs to sleep in a manner that will not cause then undue suffering. One can only hope that another child does not have to die before the government decides to amend those provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act which prevent the culling of stray animals.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Salamander legs, mouse ears and pig powder.

Almost a decade ago, Ellen Heber-Katz observed something strange while performing experiments on a strain of mice known as MRL. She was studying autoimmune diseases and her team had punched holes into the subject’s ears for identification. Three weeks later, the holes were gone. Further studies revealed that these mice could also heal damage to their hearts. The secret lay in its ability to form something called a blastema. Regular mice, and humans, would just form a scar instead. A blastema is a mass of undifferentiated cells. It is what enables lower vertebrates, salamanders for example, to regrow lost limbs.

While we are still a long way off from regrowing whole limbs in people, a company called ACell Inc. founded by a former Harvard surgeon Dr. Alan Spievack, has developed an extract of pig bladder for promoting tissue regeneration. The pig powder is currently used to promote healing in certain medical procedures and it is considered to be capable of regrowing a severed fingertip.

PS: And Electricity...
While the effects of electricity on development have been known for over a century, it is only now that scientists are beginning to understand the mechanisms involved at the cellular level. A recent study has revealed the electrical mechanism which allows tadpoles to regrow a severed tail. Researchers believe that gene therapy could one day enable humans to heal injuries by exploiting the same mechanism.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


I sometimes find the ads on TV more entertaining than the actual programs. This is especially true on days when I’m not the ‘Lord of the Remote’ in the house. In a way, it’s interesting to dissect a spot and see what it is actually trying to say, to whom and how.

Indian ads, like Indian cinema and television, rely on dialog, punch lines and personal charisma to reach out to the viewer. So it’s not hard to imagine what would happen when Hindi ads are dubbed into Malayalam and other south Indian languages. Taken out of their original cultural context, the dialogues seem artificial and punch lines don’t make any sense. The south Indian viewer may not give a damn about your hot new Bollywood star. Add to this fake accents and translations with little regard for style or usage.

A recent spot translated “Tax Bachao” to “Tax Rakshikku” in Malayalam. That’s not bad translation. It’s criminal negligence! I can’t imagine how anybody with even a basic knowledge of Malayalam vocabulary can make such a blunder. Off the shelf translation software would have done a better job.

Whether the ad agencies and advertisers realize it or not, poorly dubbed ads manage to say only one thing, “We don’t care about you”. And viewers hear it loud and clear.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A transparent wrapper for my code jam sandwich.

Every year Google conducts a programming competition called Google CodeJam. Last year I registered for it. The competition was hosted by a site called TopCoder. Since then, TopCoder keeps sending me a mail once in a while announcing a new competition. So recently I visited their site to get myself unsubscribed from their mailing list. That’s when I stumbled upon a really neat article titled “Five Things You Didn't Know About C++”. It’s actually a list on ten, not five, interesting facts about C/C++. ‘Macro recursion’ as they called it was one of them, although it’s actually more to do with the C preprocessor than the language itself.

Any C programmer worth his salt knows that it is not possible to recursively call a macro. But have you ever wondered what would happen if did? What would happen if you use the name of a macro in the definition of that macro? No, it will not give you a preprocessor error. It will just be left as it is. The preprocessor will do only one round of expansion. You might then go on to get a compiler error because of an undefined symbol in the code. But what if it is not an undefined symbol? What if the macro has the same name as a valid function? Yes, it will compile successfully and the function will be called when the code is run.

This opens up an interesting possibility. You could use this technique to create a ‘transparent wrapper’. Suppose you are hitting a panic in your code. You suspect that you're inadvertently passing a zero as size to a malloc somewhere and causing a buffer overflow when you attempt to write to it. An easy way to catch this bug would be to #define malloc(x) (assert(x > 0); malloc(x);). The assert() will report the file and line number of your bug. So much for a bug’s life.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Extra mileage – Stretching the truth.

I don’t have a car. Don’t plan on buying one for as long as I’m in Bangalore. So I wouldn’t know much about what kind of petrol people out here buy. But going by the number of ads on TV, surely someone must be buying all that premium petrol thinking that it’s going to improve mileage. Not that the average Indian motorist gives a damn about energy conservation. The decision to use extra mileage petrol must be driven by monetary considerations. The logic being that the savings from extra mileage should more than compensate for the premium price. Unfortunately for us ordinary folks, things of a scientific nature are seldom so straight forward. The expert opinion on the topic is that unless your engine is designed to benefit from premium petrol, you won’t gain much in either mileage or speed, mileage and speed being the main reasons for using premium petrol. So if you do own a car, think twice before paying a premium for premium petrol.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Small Wonder

Living away from home has its disadvantages. Not least among them is having to do one's own laundry. And if one happens to be a poor software engineer in Bangalore, a washing machine is most definitely out of the question. (As if not having mom around wasn’t bad enough!) But like most unpleasant things in life, this too can be a learning experience.

For example, I learnt that a 500g packet of a popular detergent powder costs more than ten 50g sachets of the same product. But how can it be? Shouldn’t larger packs be more economical than smaller ones? Or at the least, shouldn’t smaller packs refrain from being more economical than larger ones? Else, why would anyone ever buy the larger pack?

May be this was just an exception. It could be a conscious attempt to encourage consumers to try out the product. Or perhaps, the marketing types had formulated this sinister plan as part of a larger conspiracy against the unsuspecting consumer. Yeah, a conspiracy sounds just like the thing an FMCG giant would be involved in. (Wicked grin).

Over time, I realized that my detergent sachet was not an isolated freak of marketing. Many such pricing deviations are hiding in supermarket shelves and neighborhood stores everywhere. I recently came across this popular brand of tea powder. A 500g pack costs 17% more per gram than a 100g pack. But I'm still curious to know the cause this phenomenon. And that’s one more reason to want to go to B-school. Meanwhile though, I’m happy eating the Appam instead of counting the Kuzhi. Appam and tea.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Orkut Marketing

Tring.. Tring..
Good morning sir, this is Kavya calling on behalf of GoondaLoan bank. Your friend Jatin has a GoondaLoan gold card and we know you want one too. Lifetime free sir. No monthly fee!

Sounds like the regular telemarketing call from some stranger who knows your name and bank balance. Only this time she also happens to know all your friends and the exact nature of each relationship. Welcome to the world of social network based marketing.

Our electronic communications, everything from phone records to emails and scrapbook entries, provide valuable information about who we are. By mining these records, a marketer knows who the people in our life are. She knows how close you are to each person. And she knows what the people in your life are doing, probably better than you do, because it’s her job to know. She might even know who your girlfriend was dating back in high school.

Consider this. The people in our lives have enormous influence the over us. We often see the world through their eyes. We base some of our toughest decisions on their advice. They give meaning and purpose to life itself. In short, our social interactions define who we are as individuals. Someone with access to distilled information about my social interactions can almost read my mind. And possibly change it.

Kavya is selling a credit card. She could just as well be selling a political ideology.