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.

The Art of Bad Examples

After a prolonged absence, I am back! I had initially intended to publish at least once a month. However, with August rolling by and September too failing to motivate me to write, I decided to finally do something about it in October.

How often has it happened that while you are having a debate with someone, your opponent gives you a rank bad example to make his / her point? I was trying to recollect various instances in which this has happened and not so surprisingly, I found three such cases in the past 6 months. The first two, incidentally, happened on the same day, with the same person (which perhaps goes to speak volumes about his having a completely wrong hold of things).

I am notorious as a person with a strong dislike for Bombay. Readers might jump at me for not using the politically correct Mumbai, but then I say Madras and not Chennai and Calcutta and not Kolkata. To hell with political correctness. While I do agree that Bombay has a lot of merits that help it sustain a burgeoning population, I believe that most of these merits stem from a typical Bombayite’s (or Mumbaikar’s) immense patience and inherent sense of discipline or order within chaos. The city itself is chaotic:

  • The weather is quite lousy
  • It takes an incredibly long time to get from one point in the city to another, thanks to traffic
  • The public transport system, though good, is grossly inadequate. Dissenters simply need to look at a local train station there during the peak hours.
  • Real estate prices are sky-high, without much justification. Yes, people will claim that there are more opportunities there, but the ratio of opportunities is disproportionate to the rents that people have to pay to live there. New companies shy away from setting up centres there (this includes companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo – all IT companies, as the doubting Thomases will agree)
  • Roads are no great shakes in most parts of the city. If a road is being repaired, it stays that way for months together
  • The political environment is quite horrible – there were talks of banning non-Bombayites from purchasing real-estate there and of mandating a “Bombay visa” for people to get into Bombay.

But the people are good and friendly and the food is perhaps the best among all places in India. Anyway, liking or disliking a city is more a consequence of a man’s personality rather than anything else. I prefer quieter areas, so Bombay grates on me. I like to call it the largest village in the world, much to the chagrin of my acquaintances from there. I agree that I am being quite uncharitable there, but the fact that the largest slum of Asia, Dharavi is in Bombay only strengthens my case.

But I digress. One fine morning I had a lively discussion with two Bombayites who claimed that their city was the best place to live in. Not to be outdone I put forth my arguments, which, needless to say, didn’t gel well with them. I argued that Delhi is a much better place, thanks to excellent infrastructure (it is remarkable how Delhi went from being the most polluted city in India to becoming a very clean city – a feat that other cities will find hard to match). On the topic of real estate being very expensive there this was a discussion that ensued:

Opp: Let me give you an example. Have you ever been to a casino?
Me: Yes, quite a few times
Opp: If there are two tables, one where you bet $1 and the other where you bet $100, which one will have a higher return?
Me: If you win, then obviously the one with $100
Opp: Then you have answered your question yourself
Me: Really? Then let me ask you – where are you going to lose more if you lose?
Opp: The one with $100
Me: Then you have contradicted yourself.
Me: In a casino you are gambling – not investing based on sound principles. There you have a greater chance of losing, since the house always wins. And when you lose at a big table, you really lose there. On a $1 table even if you lose frequently you will not feel it much.
Opp: You are taking my example too literally.
Me: That’s because it is not the right example to give. Real estate investments are more a study of trends rather than gambles. In most cases if you have done your homework well you will leave with a profit.

There was some rubbish that I had doled out too, but luckily his example was too off-centre for him to come up with a counterpoint.

The same afternoon this gentleman and a few other colleagues of mine were having another discussion. This time the topic was companies using an outsourcing model. The company I work for is a pretty big consultancy firm with well over 100,000 employees worldwide. It does have a couple of big centres in India too. This gentleman was singing paeans of people in the US centres, saying that they are much better employees, since they have equal technical skills and much better presentation skills. While I agree with the presentation part, the technical skills, I believe are a whole different ballgame. But that is a subjective issue and is best not discussed here, lest it gives rise to some unhealthy “us vs. them” debate.

According to him if he had a person working under him and that person couldn’t present his point, then that person had no business working for us. Not a bad point to make, though that would make our organization a bad place for people who are off the charts in technical brilliance but are quite lousy in presentation skills. It would also reflect poorly on the organization’s ability to mentor such a person and would undermine the value of teamwork – the panacea of disparity in a firm. The organization might actually let an uncut diamond slip through its hands if all its managers take this attitude.

On the topic of outsourcing itself, we were remarking how the quality of work coming in from places like TCS and Satyam in India is at 70-80% that of homegrown consultants from our firm, but the price is probably just about 20-40%. In this aspect this gentleman decided to throw in another of his brilliant examples:

My friend: What I don’t understand is when other companies in India like TCS or Satyam or Patni provide almost the same quality as our firm but at a much lower rate, how does our firm expect to survive?
Opp: Let me give you an example. If you have to buy a shirt from Macy’s or Walmart, which one would you choose?
Us: Obviously Walmart (unanimously)

Obviously he expected us to say “Macy’s” (unanimousl
y), but this was an outright horrible example: a much better example might have been a choice between Walmart and a factory outlet of a named brand.

Anyway, this discussion concluded with another set of contentious statements:

Opp: Can the Indian offices of our firm survive without the US offices? No. Can the US offices of our firm survive without the Indian ones? Definitely.
Me: That is rubbish. Without the Indian offices you would be so undercut by Indian firms that you might end up getting no business. In fact a couple of years ago the CEO of the firm had said, “There are four new threats to our company. They are Infosys, TCS, Wipro and Satyam”.
Opp: Again, you are taking my examples too literally.
Me: Well, you are behaving like a child. You start of by trying to give an example and when it turns out to be a bad example you protest if anyone points it out.

The fact is that people providing bad examples simply don’t know how bad their examples are (I am pretty sure I have used a fair number of them in my blog). Very often you have people who try to use a word that they have just read or heard, thinking that they are being very erudite in doing so. I once had a person who had heard the term “comparing apples and oranges” being used quite frequently against him. When two competetive methodologies were being discussed, he said, “That is like comparing apples with oranges”. Luckily for him he got away without much being said.

End of rant.

Consumption of Income

My dear friend Vivek Haldar has often talked to me about how a country should have a consumption tax instead of an income tax, arguing about the merits of the former. His contention is simple – why be taxed for something that you have earned? Taxes, he argues, should be levied upon people when they are trying to purchase something. Or when they are using a means of transport like a road. That way people earning more will not feel shortchanged by income tax. Also, people with moral objections to supporting unknown people via schemes like social security will have reason to be happy about.

Savvy? Not so. Well-intentioned though the plan may be, it is fraught with difficulties. How will a country pay for things like defence if there is no income tax? Ok. So we can have a flat tax for defence. And how will people whose job doesn’t involve generating any profits (like the President?) get paid? Well, there could be another flat tax for all administrative and judiciary management, which will cover things like law and order etc.

Then there is a question of quantisation. Are these flat taxes we are talking about going to be fixed values or percentages of income? A fixed value tax might completely wipe out the income of a person earning little and the tax will be for things that probably concern him very little. And a percentage of income tax essentially means going back to square 1 – you are looking at the capability of a person to pay and then you are making that person pay accordingly.

Can a compromise be struck? The more I think about it the more sense it makes to have the plain old income tax as opposed to a consumption tax, simply because the number of things where it is difficult to define consumption is simply overwhelming. Here are examples:

  • Space research, or for that matter, any kind of research that is funded by the government. None of us is a consumer of research, but we all agree that we are benefited by it in some way or the other.
  • Use of intangible resources. It is possible to track how much of the country’s roads we are using by simply tracking the mileage on our vehicles and taxing us accordingly. But what about cases like using manpower for work. Let’s say you own a company and employ a fairly large number of people. You are, by virtue of using these people to attain your profits, using resources of the country. But how are you going to pay taxes for them? And to whom?

A lot of similar examples can be advanced in this regard.

Now let us approach the problem from a different angle. Let us assume that we have handled the complex issues of defining consumption and thereby put together a taxation structure in place. Now let us look at some numbers. An average single person in the US pays a certain amount of tax each year. If we were to get rid of income tax and make the entire system consumption based, then extracting the same amount of money in taxes could result in a phenomenal amount of taxation on what you consume. You might be paying 3 times the cost of fuel in taxes for the distance you travel.

One of the contentions of taxpayers is, why pay taxes for social security benefits when all you are doing is creating a safety net for yourself and paying for other people of your age to get along in life. Point taken, but again, with a pinch of salt. The fact is that if unemployed or homeless people aren’t given a helping hand they soon resort to catastrophic means with disastrous consequences.

Of course. Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens, such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.

Ra’s Al Ghul to Batman in Batman Begins

The upshot – while income tax is not the nicest way to spend one’s hard-earned money it is a tried and tested method of moving a society forward. Unless we come up with answers to the various issues that plague the assessment of consumption and how to tax it, we are better off with income tax.