The Urban Legend of Process Improvement by Flies

I once received an email about how men’s urinals at the Amsterdam Schipol airport have pictures of a fly on them. Apparently having such a picture causes some subconscious compulsion in men to aim better, resulting in lower costs of cleaning. I had a hard time believing, though, that such pictures were indeed present. That was till my most recent trip to India via Singapore’s Changi Airport.

While making a trip to a restroom in the recently completed Terminal 3 (it was opened to the public on 9th January, 2008), I noticed that there was indeed a fly painted on the urinals.

Do you see it?
Do you see it?

Do you see it now?
Do you see it now?

I checked a few other restrooms in the terminal – all had this feature. Quick research using the (free) internet available at the airport told me that some terminals at the JFK International Airport in New York too have this feature.

I didn’t try to visit the older terminals to see if they had this design. As it is I received some what-a-weirdo stares from the janitors when I tried to take these pictures with my phone.

Atop Ballmer Peak

Going through some older issues of xkcd, I found this gem:

Ballmer Peak - The High of Excellence
Ballmer Peak - The High of Excellence

This reminded me of some binge-induced activities that I performed with astonishing clarity and devastating efficiency:

  1. The first time I drank was in 1999, during the first semester of my fourth year at IIT. Those days I was preparing for the GRE. The GRE, as you might know, has a vocabulary section that tends to get ludicrously tough. I had this book called Barron’s GRE, as did everyone else. This book had precisely 50 word lists, which most of us tried to cram. I normally had better luck than others and my typical tally was 3-4 lists a day at 80% accuracy at my first attempt.

    One evening someone had brought a bottle of vodka into our hostel wing. While other folks in my wing had already sampled spirits earlier, I was new to it. I went ahead and gave it a shot. What I drank was quite little and by no means got me on a high. For sure my BAC wasn’t in the Ballmer Peak range. However, a miracle occurred that evening.

    I went through 7 word lists that day and remembered more than 95% of the words accurately. I was never been able to repeat that feat.

  2. The second such instance was in 2000, at a WebTek party. This was the first time I had scotch and I really liked it. In fact I liked it enough to have 2 large on-the-rocks and a couple of Bloody Marys for good measure. After returning home I went about finishing some work. By around 3:00 am I had created a rather nice looking web-site for BTech96.
  3. The third instance was a few years later. This was an instance that would really qualify as a binge. On 1st March 2003 India faced Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup. This was a great match, made so by Tendulkar’s innings of 98, particularly hammering Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram. This also happened to be a day when Deloitte had one of its All Hands Meets at the Kakatiya Sheraton in Hyderabad. Now I am extremely superstitious when it comes to India and cricket. So when Tendulkar was blasting away, I stayed put at home watching the match. Once Tendulkar got out, though with around 100 runs remaining to be made, I decided to go to the party.

    The excitement was too much. In a span of 55 minutes I gulped down five large Scotches on the rocks and 4 Bloody Marys. Not only did I continue standing upright, I also very convincingly debated why Hyderabad was culturally more advanced than Bangalore, but Bangalore was more socially advanced. I then returned home and stayed up until 4:00 AM, finishing a very complicated module of code (essentially a workflow tool), which I was having a lot of difficulty doing otherwise.

    The next morning I had a ghastly hangover, but given my stupendous coding feat from the night before, I didn’t particularly mind it.

I still haven’t figured out the exact BAC for Ballmer Peak, but I am sure several people have had inexplicable bursts of brilliance after finishing 63% of a bottle of scotch of 44.6% alcohol concentration, followed by 57% of a bottle of vodka of 40.1% alcohol concentration. Just that none of them was on the team of Windows ME.

I am a Frying Pan

Back in the day when I was doing my technology baccalaureate (Okay, I am showing off – I mean BTech) there was a team among my batchmates that was working on developing a text to speech generator in 1998. The concept certainly sounded both good and novel, till I graduated and was introduced to BonziBUDDY in 2000. At that point my friends’ idea only felt good, not novel. Also fascinating were concepts like voice recognition software and speech processors, which essentially worked the opposite route.

The trouble with speech processors is that they have a fairly complex problem to solve. Even for a single language like English there are so many different pronunciations and accents that they can drive you crazy. I have already documented “schedule” being pronounced as “shedyule” and “skejyule”. In addition I learnt the hard way that the Brit / Indian pronunciation of geyser is actually offensive in the US. Firstly you are supposed to say “hot water spring”, and if you say “geyser” you are not supposed to pronounce it as “geezer”, but “guyzer”. Forget the difference in British and American pronunciations – each country where English is spoken you have multiple pronunciations and accents. Followers of cricket will chuckle at the recollection of Geoffrey Boycott, a staunch Brit saying rubbish (“roobish”), cricket (“crickit”) and wicket (“wickit”). And when you go to a country like India the pronunciations and accents can have you in splits. Just imagine a simple line, “Will you have some food?” being said by a stereotypical Bengali, South Indian and North Indian:

Bengali: Ooill you hab some phood?
South Indian: Vill you haoow some foodda?
North Indian: (Forget it – they would bypass English and ask you the same question in Hindi)

(Apologies if the above offends you, but I know of several people in each of the buckets above who speak in this manner)

Which is why I find it really amusing to see the ubiquity of automated voice based response systems provided by different companies. There are so many reasons why it is not a good idea to let loose a half-baked speech processing software on an unsuspecting audience that it makes you wonder about the people in charge. One of the funniest commercials highlighting this was an ad for a Kyocera phone:

Another is the more recent Mac vs. PC ad from Apple:

Some speech recognition software is heuristic in nature, however, and that helps improve the process. But whatever be the case, my luck with automated speech processing has been disastrous to say the least. Most of the time I end up hating an automated speech processing-based response system within 30 seconds of my encounter. Here are some snapshots from different telephone calls. A lot of these come down to the fact that I have a tough time doing the American accent sub-consciously and I avoid doing it consciously.

System: Please say what you would like to do?
Me: Talk to a representative
System: Okay, so you want to go to a mail order pharmacy. Is that correct?


I have a subscription for Vonage Visual Voicemail. It tries to transcribe a voice message to text and sends me an email. In some cases it butchers a message left by an American, but that is nothing compared to the hideous mockery that takes place with some messages left by Tanuka’s Indian friends. The messages are in English and have the sporadic Indian interjections:

  • A devastating massacre:
    Date : May 19 2009 03:41:12 PM
    From : 1408xxxxxxx
    To : Sayontan Sinha (1408yyyyyyy)
    "Hey, hi Tanuka. This is (??) here. We are leaving in another 10 minutes because (Mojin Paki Pasbi?) and Toni Pasbi will go to library and return it. I just wanted to... that mushroom dried scar is simply rich of that side(??) get the door speaker I wanted badly. Okay when you return just give a call. Bye. "
    --- Brought to you by Vonage ---
  • Or an abject surrender:
    Date : May 07 2009 10:49:32 AM
    From : 1408xxxxxxx
    To : Sayontan Sinha (1408yyyyyyy)
    We're sorry. We were unable to transcribe this message. You will not be charged for this message. Please listen to your voicemail.
    --- Brought to you by Vonage ---


And the piece de resistance:

System: Before we start, can you please say your first name?
Me: Sayontan
System: You said Frying Pan. Is that correct?

That Really Stung!

I had bought a motorbike in Bangalore in mid-2000. If you are familiar with the lay of Bangalore, you will know that Brigade Road is one-way in its most glamorous section and two-way in a section that few people know even exists – the place in front of All Saints Bakery / Sparks / Urban Edge. My office happened to be in Raheja Chancery, the building opposite All Saints. To get there you would have to pass All Saints, take a U-turn and go about 50m. Or you could cheat and go about 10m on the wrong side of the road, thereby saving yourself around 100m of driving distance. So, with a new bike and nary a care, I cheated. And then a traffic cop stopped me. A lot of Indian traffic cops are out to make a quick buck and would not hesitate to fine you (or take a bribe) even if you have done no wrong. I was a clear offender, so I knew I had it coming. What ensued next was the most interesting conversation

Cop: What were you doing?
Me: I was in a hurry
Cop: So?
Me: So I thought that I maybe I could take the short cut…
Cop: And?
Me: Well, there was no traffic coming in this direction and it was only around 10m
Cop: Are you educated or uneducated?

If you are wondering, the small font is not a formatting error. It is just that my deep baritone voice had become more mouse-like than I thought humanly possible. And after the last question I had no voice left. I have been called a lot of things in my life, but somehow this was worse than everything else put together. I could only look on sheepishly as the cop let me off without even a fine. After that incident I haven’t ever driven on the wrong side of the road – even if there is nobody watching.

At IIT-D we used to have a concept called “Socials”, which, to the uninitiated will appear extremely weird.It involved girls of some college in Delhi visiting a boys hostel for an evening of socializing. Several among us thought of it as a rite of passage. Several among us looked at it as an evening of unbridled ogling. And several of us simply felt it was a waste of time. Typically a person would have belonged to all three categories in the course of 4 years. I did participate in the socials once – during my fourth semester, when the visiting college was Indraprastha. I did manage to befriend someone and called her up the following weekend.

The socials happened the weekend before 14th Feb and we had exams from 12th to 14th Feb. So I happened to be calling her on the day right after Valentine’s Day. We talked for a while, then came the topic of what we did on our respective Valentine’s Days. I complained about being stuck in an exam. And then:

She: Oh, I did not do anything. I am not … Valentine
Me: Yeah, precisely.
She: (a long pause)
Me (thinking): Oh S***!! Did I really say that?

The “…” is because I could not understand what she had said at that point. This is often the case with old payphones in India – the slightest disturbance in the phone’s machinery can result in an onslaught of static. I responded with what seemed like an absolutely reasonable response. It is only during her pause that I figured out what was said in the ellipsis. She had said, “I am not anybody’s idea of a perfect Valentine”. It goes without saying that we didn’t have any further conversations after that.

Maria Sharapova once remarked regarding her clay-court play: “I am like a cow on ice”. You could probably apply the same analogy to my dancing. During a Deloitte party in Hyderabad I was asked by a lady to dance with her. In spite of my protestations regarding my complete lack of grace in this department, she dragged me on to the dance floor. Compounding the situation was the fact that I was wearing a kurta-pyjama and chappals. A little while later she burst out laughing at my discomfort and kindly accompanied me off the floor. Since she was a friend of mine I didn’t have to endure any embarrassing remarks from her.

Somehow the instinct that makes you want to dance is completely absent in me. As a result I have had to learn some typical dance moves that help me live to die of shame some other day. Folks might be familiar with the roti belna (where you pretend you are using a rolling pin to flatten out dough, then pretend to toss the flattened dough from one hand to the other), kite flying (where you imagine that you are holding the twine for flying a kite and tug at it over your head first on the right side and then on the left), toweling dry (where you think that you are holding a towel in both your hands and wiping your back dry) and some other such moves.

I was, however, certified a disaster on the dance floor long before I learnt the face-saving moves. During my first Rendezvous in 1996 I was generally impressed with the droves of young ladies paying a visit to the IIT-D cultural festival. My friends and I would hear some guy bragging about how well he it it off with some visitor and would privately wish that guy a slow, painful and girl-free death. Come the last day of Rendezvous, it was time for some drastic measures. My friend Ahuja and I were dancing at the podium, hoping to spot some unsuspecting girls whom we could subject to our torturous dancing. We did manage to find one such pair and danced for about 10 minutes, after which they excused themselves. We high-fived our way back to the hostel, finally having something to brag about.

The next day I bicycled to class, while Ahuja took the bus. Lo and behold! Who should he see there, but the two people who we danced with! One of the girls happened to spot Ahuja and immediately started talking loudly enough for him to hear:

You know ya? We were at the podium last night and these two guys came up to us and asked for a dance. Those two had no clue about what they were doing and were clapping their hands and pumping their fists as though they were happy to see us dance. Those dumbos didn’t know how to dance at all.

Naturally I heard this by proxy, but it was embarrassing enough to be told to the whole hostel. I remain a dumbo to this day – Tanuka will vouch for that.

Using Fountain Pens – The Lost Art

Back in 1988 we were making our entry into the fifth standard (fifth grade for Yanks). This was of special significance to students in India, for we were graduating from using pencils for writing to using pens. At that point the choice was between fountain pens and ballpoint pens.

Given the fact that most of us were from a middle class upbringing, the best fountain pens those days used to be the black-body gold-cap “Hero” and “Wing Sung” pens that came with the inscription, “MADE IN CHINA”. In the days prior to the market liberalization it seemed a privilege to possess one of these, which, even today would rival several others in terms of the quality and ease of writing.

There were the rest of the folks who would use ballpoint pens – Reynolds (“Fine Carbure”) was a rage those days. Most people would agree that penmanship was undoubtedly better with a fountain pen, but then would actually use a ballpoint simply because it was easier to use. You never had the problem of a leaky pen and you didn’t have to cope with the growing pains of broken nibs.

But somehow I always liked fountain pens. Never mind the fact that the ones we had were often of poor quality, which more often than not resulted in a mess. Once you got used to them, however, you could actually notice a significant difference in your handwriting. Fountain pens gave you a lot of control while writing, and moreover, since you were always concerned about them leaking, you paid that little extra bit of attention to them. I do recall, though, alternating between fountain pens and ballpoints, depending on what I felt like at that point. Somehow in exams critical to me I always ended up using a ballpoint – the board exams of Class X, the board exams of Class XII, IIT-JEE and all other entrance exams. The reasons are not hard to fathom:

  1. Ballpoints ran smoother on paper, so in exams where time is of paramount importance they give you that edge which can make a difference.
  2. You avoided the undesirable risk of having a malfunctioning pen at crunch-time.

Fast-forward to my professional career – almost. I did purchase a “Hero” during my summer internship at TCS/TRDDC Pune in 1999. This was my only “indulgence” in a summer of frugality. It was the first time I was being paid for work and out of my total earnings of Rs. 5,900/- for the entire 2 months, I was able to pay rent, buy train tickets for the journey back home, purchase breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, manage bus tickets for a daily commute, buy a waterproof jacket to shelter myself from the rain, buy a “Hero” pen and save Rs. 50/-!! I somehow never ended up using the pen too much.

Then came 2004. My project team decided to gift me a Parker. I was so touched by the gesture that I decided to start using the pen right away. I did use this quite extensively for the next year or so. I do remember conversations in this vein:

Somebody: Can I borrow a pen?
Me: Sure, here you are
Somebody: What the…? What kind of a pen is this? You use a fountain pen??!!
Me: Yes, that way if you inadvertently walk away with the pen you know later who you took it from!

This works. Everytime. My romance with the Parker came to an end when the cap and the body developed a crack. So I was on the hunt again and got a really expensive “Senator”. I was really happy with this one, till the mechanism I used for refills clogged. And then I got myself a Lamy, which I have been quite content using for the last year or so.

However, it is a sign of another malaise that in my one year with this pen I have had to refill it only once. Naturally I was quite annoyed with myself when I saw that I was out of ink when I desperately needed to complete the Sudoku on my flight from Austin to San Jose last evening. This, and a host of other incidents on my trip to Austin prompted me to write this.

In this age of the internet, laptops and PDAs, we really have no time for the old-fashioned letter to friends and relatives. If we don’t have someone’s email address we lose all contact with him / her, never mind the fact that we know where exactly this person lives. All it would take, though was to simply put pen to paper. My dear friend Ahuja, on my just concluded trip to Austin gave me copies of two letters that I had written to him back in the days of IIT. The originals were printouts of what I had typed out and sent to him by snail-mail. You see, we had computers those days, but not internet. The printouts sent me on another train of thought. There was a time when I used to write at least two letters by hand each week. Two letters each week! I was regular, I had good style and most importantly I had a great handwriting. At present I probably write one letter every two years. My emails are by no means regular. And my style of writing has deteriorated to an alarming extent.

Has technology pushed us so far back? I recently wrote in a post that children today are missing out on the undiluted thrill of turning the pages of a book. I would like to take it a step further and state that adults today are missing out on the good and effective means of keeping in touch in trying to keep up with their work. Perhaps that is why the sound of the scratch of the nib of a fountain on a sheet of paper seems so nostalgic to me.

An Apple a Day Keeps the Insurers Away

No, you read it right. If there is anything I loathe about the US it is the healthcare system. For a country that is advanced in almost every sense, it is surprising how they have let the healthcare structure run amok like a rabid dog.

My first experience with the healthcare system was when I developed a carbuncle on my jaw, that made things so painful that I couldn’t open my mouth. I had driven to Orange County from the bay area and the pain kept progressively growing by the time I got to the destination. I tried the different home-grown remedies, all of which would gross out readers with fine sensibilities, so I will not describe them here. My friends felt sorry for me and suggested that I go to the ER to get it treated. So we went there. On the way I enquired from my friends about the typical cost of getting treated. This was the response:

With insurance it takes about $20-40. In the ER it will probably be around $80-100. Without insurance it would probably come to around $200.

I had travel insurance, but my employer had a funny way of working in these matters, so I actually did not have the insurance information at hand. Fair enough – $200 is something that I could afford and later get reimbursed. I kept thinking on the way that if this was India, I wouldn’t have to go to the ER. Almost every hospital has a doctor on call almost all the time. And it would not cost more than Rs. 200/- to get this treated. But I guess this is the price you pay for living in the richest country. We got to the hospital and met the doctor. He essentially tried the same home-grown treatments that I had used a lot more effectively than him, then gave me some Vicodine and sent me off saying that there was nothing he could do. So I went out to make the payment. The receptionist asked me if I had insurance, to which I replied in the negative. So she ran through some numbers and very graciously said:

OK, so I applied a 40% discount and this is your invoice.

$1,350.00. I am usually a calm and collected individual. So my first instinct was to take my glasses off, wipe them clean and put them back on. No, it was still $1,350.00. After a 40% discount. For those feeling too lazy to do the arithmetic, the original amount was $2,100.00. Again, displaying every inch of my calm and collected personality I took out my corporate card and paid the bill. After all, I was on a tour and my employer had failed to provide me the insurance information. To my credit I avoided freaking out. As soon as I got internet access I wrote an email to my employer outlining what had happened. I was given an assurance that this wouldn’t be a problem so the issue was taken care of. About a month after I had returned to India I received a letter saying that I owed the doctor for his services – another $695.00. So to fail to treat a carbuncle it takes $2,045.00. I could have flown to India and back, gotten much better treatment, rented a car for a few weeks and taken all my friends out to a lavish dinner and still have money to spare.

My second experience was in Chicago, again during a weekend, but arguably more painful. I had developed extreme discomfort and a sharp pain in my stomach which prevented me from sitting, standing, eating and sleeping. Essentially it had rendered me useless. This time, though, I made sure that I had my insurance information. I also tried to first get a regular appointment, but it was just after the offices had closed, so I again had to go to the ER. Suffice to say that after around 7 hours of mucking around with CT scans, Ultrasounds etc. the best they came up with was – yes, Vicodine. Never mind the fact that I tried to explain to them that this was probably an ulcer, given that the first occurrence of the discomfort was when I ate something. No recommendations about how this could get better. And then came the other shocker. They could not locate my insurance benefits. Luckily they said that I would have to call them in a few days about theĀ  invoice. I did, and figured out that using my SSN they had managed to bill my insurance company. They weren’t able to do it earlier because my SSN and insurance were both pretty new. Later I got my Explanation of Benefits from the insurer and found that my 7 hours in ER had a total cost of around $9,000.00. I would also have had to be treated for cardiac arrest at the time of treatment if I had known of this amount.

The third experience was with a doctor in the bay area. Fortunately this trip was not within miles of an ER. But the doctor was a quack masquerading as a hypochondriac. This was the gist of my conversation with him:

Quack: Your blood pressure is off the charts. You have the BP of a 60-year old
Me: OK
Quack: Does anyone in your family have a high BP?
Me: Well, my father developed it recently, but he is past 60.
Quack: Oh, but being 60 shouldn’t affect pressure – so it is hereditary in your case.
Me: What the hell are you talking about??!!

Well, I didn’t really say that last bit aloud, because my calm and collected personality intervened. This quack has put me on hypertension meds and cholestrol meds and claims that I am borderline diabetic. Weird, since the tests show all results as normal. Yes, my BP was high, but that was directly correlated to my stress levels those days. Of course, this may simply be a problem with this doctor, but the trend is disturbing. All doctors I have been treated by seemed way below standard. Agreed that the ER doctors specialize in trauma, but I would expect at least some basic knowledge of other branches of medicine. In the case of my stomach ailment they couldn’t even suggest that I go to a gastroenterologist or get an endoscopy later.

When you fall ill there are several hurdles that you have to think through

  • The first thing that needs to be done is to find a doctor within your plan.
  • Then, doctors are not available for visits on weekends or on weekdays after 6:00 pm.
  • If you fall ill while traveling then good luck, because of all the riders that come with Primary Care Physicians.
  • If you have poor ergonomics at your workplace your insurance will not cover your treatment because you should be covered by workers’ compensation.
  • Eyecare is so expensive that getting a pair of glasses for myopia could cost at least $300.00
  • Dental insurance has its own quirks
  • Even with all the money you pay there is no guarantee that you will be satisfied at the end of the day

Why does the whole process of getting treated have to be so convoluted? When I was in the UK I had to go to a hospital for treatment. The process was slow, but that was to be expected since I had gone after hours. But what I really liked is that the person treating me knew her stuff inside out. She laid out all the options in front of me in a clear and succinct manner. And it didn’t cost me a thing. But the cost is not a big factor. I am a firm believer in paying a person commensurate to the services / goods received. But nothing in the US healthcare system inspires that kind of a wish. Truth be said, things are not always bad in terms of the doctors. I have seen doctors much more proficient at work here. But given the amount of money that they make, I would hope that the average standard would be a lot higher. I have had much better care at Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital in Hyderabad, which is a government-run hospital, than I have had in the U.S. of A. Since the healthcare industry in this country is effectively run by insurers, you had better start your daily apple to avoid the insurers.

Starting Aquoid

After my anguished lament in my last post regarding not having enough time to blog, I had an epiphany. I felt deadlines should be worried about, but that shouldn’t really stifle other creative urges.

Why are you worrying about You-Know Who?
You should be worrying about U-No-Poo – the Constipation Sensation that’s gripping the nation!

– Advertisement for Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling.

I had been wrestling with ideas about releasing my page layout as a WP theme. Then Koke doused my aspirations with cold water, pointing out how this theme was nowhere close to acceptability. So I thought. And then I thought some more. And then I saw this really well crafted WP theme based on Vista called Inanis Glass. And then it hit me – what if I make a theme just like that for the Aqua interface, but with different flavours – Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger and Leopard? And that started Aquoid. In due course of time I hope to have themes for all and sundry, starting with:

There are several challenges involved, like testing this out on all browsers, testing over various connection speeds and bad machines and so on. But for now, it is back to my daily job.

And yes, check out Aquoid.

Buckling Under the Load

The last few weeks have been really strenuous. Case in point – I could not play Holi because I had to be on call. And the sad thing is that the weeks up to 17th April are going to be just as bad if not worse. For one, I am working 7 days a week. Officially. That means no tennis on Saturdays and no badminton on Sundays. And no experimental cooking for Tanuka in my free time. And no playing or watching movies with Aikataan on most days :-(. That really hurts. And I have to put my tribute series to cricketers on hold. Again. Just when I was getting warmed up. But I guess I will be back soon. And maybe I will sneak something in at times – like I am doing here, waiting for some folks to return from their lunch break. After all I already have the material – the dressing up of the content is what is taking time.

The Apple of My Eye

Overcome by curiosity at the fawning of thousands of bloggers over Apple in general and the Mac OS X operating system in particular, I bit the bullet and purchased an Apple MacBook. The nice-looking black one. In November 2006. Having used it for more than 2 years now I have mixed feelings.

Before I go into my rant, let me provide a background about myself. My foray into computers began with dumb terminals working off a mainframe. I then had an extended affair with Linux – RedHat and Slackware. I also used HP-UX, SGI Irix and Solaris quite a lot, based on which course I was doing my assignments for. After that I got into a job, which meant predominantly using Windows, first NT, then 2000, then XP and now Vista. Of course, I continued to have Linux installed on my machines on a dual-boot and I did help in the administration of Linux quite a bit.

During my formative years I had the option of choosing from vi and Emacs for editing. I stuck to Emacs, mainly because it seemed supremely configurable. When I moved into the professional world I shunned commercial software like Visual Java for JDEE on Emacs, mainly because it kept my machine spiffy and because I had a very good understanding of Emacs. Of course, once I got a taste of IntelliJ IDEA, I dropped Emacs. I started using vi (actually GVIM) at that point, just like a lot of people use TextPad or EditPlus for quick and dirty editing. It was just that Emacs was an overkill for such activities and vi was much better than any of the pure Windows alternatives. The only time I use TextPad is when I want to do a “block select” on text.

The point of saying all of the above is that I have covered a fair spectrum of machines and operating systems and have adapted quite comfortably to each. To cite an example, I took to Vista just as easily as I took to XP, unlike several people I know.

So here is what I felt about Mac. You might have guessed by now, since I have had the black MacBook for more than 2 years, that I have used Mac OS X version 10.4 and 10.5 on an Intel platform.

  • The Good
    • Undeniably, the OS reliability. I have left the machine running for weeks without having to shutdown or restart. In fact, the only time I do a restart is when some patches need to be applied.
    • The looks. You can’t argue with this one. The outward appearance is sleek and the GUI redefines polish.
    • Boot Camp. I haven’t come across a better tool for installing an alternative OS. It was as effortless as it could be. Of course, I am still not sure if I can get it to triple-boot with Linux in addition to Vista.
    • Lots of other things, like battery life, resource usage etc. My battery lasts quite long – around 1.5-2 times as much as my office’s dinosaur, HP Compaq nc6400. The Mac hardly ever makes any noise.
    • Pricing. I know I will get a few raised eyebrows for this. But I am not kidding. If I compare the most reliable of the breed in non-Apple laptops (IBM / Lenovo and Sony), the costs are comparable for comparable configurations. And with the kind of stability that the machine has, I would say it is excellently priced. This wasn’t always the case, mind you, and the falling prices are the reason that Mac sales have picked up steam in the last few years. That and the switch to Intel, of course.
  • The Bad
    • Safari. Contrary to what the fans say, I find Safari to be a mediocre browser at best. Its page rendering is slow and the features it touts are things I don’t care too much for. Its redeeming feature is that it has full versions available for iPhone in addition to Windows and Mac. But then, so does Opera (for non-Apple Smartphones).
    • I was stunned to see Apple sounding the bugle on “Spaces”. 12 years back I used the WindowMaker window manager on RedHat and that let me define multiple desktops and assign different programs to different desktops. Of course, I had to tinker with the configuration file scripts for that, but I am sure they have a UI for it.
    • One aspect that is reminiscent of Windows of yore is the system restart after applying most patches. I can understand wanting a reboot if a critical security patch has been applied, but restarting after updating QuickTime? Safari? That is a stretch, given that these are patched quite frequently.
  • The Ugly
    • Where is my right-click? I consider it a serious design flaw that I have to keep “Control” pressed and then click to get a right click (or use an external mouse). Whose brilliant idea was it?
    • I have to actually use the command prompt for showing / hiding system files. And I thought this was supposed to be easier than Windows.
    • In Windows I can define what services I want to start automatically and what programs I want to start automatically. Imagine my surprise when I had to resort to Google when I wanted to figure out how to do the same in Mac. I looked at all the usual places first, like System Preferences » Accounts etc.
    • 5th January 2009 was a very happy day for me. Because Google made Picasa available for Mac that day. Ever since I came to know of Picasa in 2004, I have been hooked by its extreme simplicity. The fact that it was available for Windows and Linux but not for Mac always had me wondering. The last 2 years have been extremely difficult – iPhoto is just plain ugly.

Given a choice will I not own a Mac? Far from it. As I said earlier, I have seen a wide spectrum of machines and operating systems. None of the flaws that I have pointed out in a Mac are really showstoppers and the strengths are *very* good. And since adaptability is not my weak point, I would go so far as to say that I like the overall package.

I guess my main gripe is with Apple and its fans harping on the usability of the OS, when really it is quite unusable for a layperson used to other things. It is like saying that vi is more usable than TextPad, while it really is not unless you figure out its quirks. I still haven’t gotten Tanuka, someone who uses a computer for chat, mail, surfing and photo management to quite like the Mac. She finds it very alien.

Ego Trip or: How People Learned to Stop Being Shy and Embraced the Net

I remember the times when the internet was a novelty for folks in my friends’ circle. This was back in 1997/1998, when IIT-Delhi decided to introduce a 2 Mbps line for all of IIT. A lot of new avenues opened up for all of us – people scurried to create email addresses on websites that would offer them the most space. I remember creating in the bid to cash in on my nickname. Of course, given that most email providers let you have just 1 MB of space (Hotmail) or 2 MB (Mailcity / Lycos) or just a little more ( gave something like 10 MB), one had to be judicious about what they received.

There was also a heightened activity in chatrooms, with people claiming to be who they weren’t just so that they could try and get a date, or for much worse motives. Cases of an upstanding gentleman from my undergraduate class being conned into wearing a red shirt with brown trousers and going out to meet one Ms Poonam Chibber are well documented. Then again, if the gentleman in question knew that Poonam was actually the guy who stayed in the adjacent room then he might not have gone through the trouble to procure the offending clothes.

People wanted to have their own websites, and as students we could afford just the free providers like Geocities, Angelfire and Tripod those days. We had to live with the banner advertisements, because, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Those days it was a craze to know how to write HTML and more importantly, JavaScript because the more you knew the better looking your pages became.

After I graduated and started working there was no longer the requirement to cut corners in terms of cost and I could look forward to buying my own domain. Eventually I ended up buying 3 – for my undergraduate batch, for my undergraduate hostel (this was paid for by several alumni, not just me), and for myself. The whole focus was to stay connected, and also to try out some skills in an area that was really not very prominent in my day job. At around the same time two things happened roughly simultaneously:

  1. Google came up with the utterly brilliant concept of GMail, which essentially made email space a non-issue by offering 1 GB of storage on 1st April 2004. People were now able to send large attachments like pictures or movies in email and so on. This concept was soon extended to its web portal and was adopted by the other players in the same space
  2. A large number of social networking sites came up. Orkut, MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Social networking was really the concept that showed explosive growth, eventually obviating the concept of a website. People getting in touch with long lost friends (or foes) were able to display how much they had progressed in the years gone by, they were able to project their thoughts out in blogs, they were able to write what they pleased in self-acclaimed encyclopaedia like Wikipedia and so on and so forth.

People shed their shy persona online and became voices of authority in various fields. It never mattered that such people were incapable of carrying a conversation in real life, as long as what they wrote (or even plagiarised) looked good online. It often did not matter if they had any credentials whatsoever to be the voice of authority, as the case of the Essjay controversy illustrates. Quoting BusinessWeek from the referenced article:

Sadly, not everyone who posts to Wikipedia is concerned with the Ten Commandments. Some are concerned with revenge. Some with self-aggrandizement. Some just have nothing better to do. We live in an age of fake IDs, fake money, fake e-mails, fake URLs, fake IP addresses, and fake votes…


Don’t get me wrong – I love Wikipedia, for the simple reason that it is a trivia treasure trove. But relying on it for serious content is folly of gargantuan proportions. I look it up for quick information on general stuff, like the plot of a book or a movie, information on non-critical things and so on.

Obviously, since I am blogging right now, I have an opinion and I like to voice it. But to say that I have an unbiased opinion would be foolish. In fact anyone who says that he (or she) is unbiased is biasing himself towards his own opinion. Check out this article at SearchIndia. Most people who claim to be unbiased spend so much energy defending their own opinions that the whole concept of objectivity is tossed out of the window.

The other aspect I have seen is that blogging sometimes promotes extremely boorish behaviour. The blogger may be a perfect gentleman in real life, maybe even hermetic and reclusive, but if someone states an opinion contrary to his own, there is a flood of abusive language that comes out on the blog. Since the blog is maintained by this individual, he holds the power of “the last word” – something that cannot be fought against. Why does this happen?

Of course, the flow is never one way – the cloak of anonymity lets most people making the comments post something offensive on a harmless blog, and then the blogger is left with Sophie’s choice to either censor the offensive comment (and be accused of censorship), or accept the offensive comment verbatim (and subject all others to the immature content), or retort with an equally crude follow-up.

Coming back to the concept of self-aggrandizement, have you looked at the site Ego Surf? It works somewhat like Google’s PageRank. Unfortunately my ego on the web is not high enough, which can is probably very obvious given that the number of posts on my blog is disproportionately higher than the number of comments. This reminds me of the anchor on the show Are You Hot?:

It doesn’t matter if you think they are hot or not. What matters is that they think they are hot.

J. D. Roberto, host on Are You Hot

At the end of the day, a few cases aside, I know that most people have benefited from social networking on the net. There is so much original humour to be found, so many informative discussions and so many nice informal articles that would have never reached us if they were to come through official channels. And I am glad that so many people have managed to find a voice through the net.