Do as I say, not as I do

August 29th, 2007

I thought I liked John Edwards until I just read this story on CNN. Here he is, talking about Americans being 4% of the population and generating 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases; advocating we not drive SUVs and so on. Turns out the dude lives in a 28,000 sq ft home! Talk about over consumption by any stretch of the imagination for a family of 5 people. When someone asked him about this – his defense is basically that he earned it – what a bloody hypocrite!

That does it for me – definitely not someone I’m wasting my time listening to …

Finally, CSS Demystified

August 28th, 2007

If you’re a programmer type like me and have tried your hand at CSS, it’s very likely you’ve struggled like I have to understand how CSS really works. As I programmer, I’m used to writing code while visualizing in my head what the outcome of running the code is going to be (ignoring all those nasty bugs of course :-) ). However, with CSS, I was never able to get the feeling that I knew exactly what was going to happen when a page rendered. All the books I read until recently did not really help me – it seemed like the authors of the books were also as confused as I was as to how things exactly worked. The tone of the books was – “if you are looking for X, here is the CSS that does it”; well if you are not looking for X, tough luck :-(

All in all, CSS was a bit of a dark art until I recently read CSS : The Missing Manual.

This is an outstanding CSS book! It really explains how things really work with CSS. After reading the book, I’ve actually been able to write CSS and have the page turn out as I visualized in my head. The book is well worth the money just for the chapter on page layouts – very well explained. Now if only I could pick some decent colors and fonts to go with all those cool layouts …

Back from the land of opportunity

August 20th, 2007

Been missing from action the past couple of months due to increased responsibilities at work and my dysfunctional organization skills :-)

Hopefully I’ve gotten my act together now and can spend more time on my blog …

I’m just back from spending over a month in Bangalore, India working with my colleagues based there. It has been a very long time since I spent this much time in India and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to really observe and understand what is going on with the Indian economy. I will try to capture some of my key observations in posts over the next few weeks.

Overall, I must say that I am totally amazed at the level of activity and energy I saw – India is definitely a happenin’ place. Very different from the India I left over 16 years ago.

Indians in their twenties who have either recently graduated or are about to graduate from college are the most confident bunch of people I have seen in a long time. They really feel like the world is theirs for the taking and are not shy of putting in the effort to take it. What is very interesting to observe is that some of the older folks in the work force – those that have been working for over a decade in the Indian industry and are doing extremely well economically are also the least risk taking. On the other hand,  folks fresh out of college are jumping straight into launching their own ventures!!

All is not quite so rosy – the infrastructure in India is pretty poor. The roads in all major cities are totally clogged, there are issues with the water supply and frequent power cuts. Pretty much anyone who can afford it spends the money to insulate themselves from these problems. It may take time and energy to navigate the crowded streets, but one’s personal chauffeur takes on the stress while they kickback and chill in their air conditioned car. Clean water may be a un-affordable luxury for common folks but for those who can pay, it can be delivered home in sterile bottles.  Sultry days and nights without power are only for those who cannot afford a generator or an UPS system to ride out the power cuts. Of course, lot of these workarounds add more problems like pollution, smog and traffic – but not many people are thinking about these long term consequences – they’re just enjoying their newfound wealth and status …

Microsoft’s economic drag

June 2nd, 2007

If you’re like me and most other technology/professional workers, you’ve been using some version of Microsoft Windows for some time now. And it is also likely you’ve experienced countless blue screens, freezes and reboots courtesy Microsoft through this period.

Last night, while waiting for a reboot to complete after my screen froze for the millionth time, I decided to do some calculations on the economic loss being caused by Microsoft. Here is what I came up with:

  • 4 crashes/week @ 15 minutes lost/crash (reboot, recovery of context, lost data) = 1 hour lost/week
  • 12 years of using Windows results in 624 hours lost (I was fortunately in grad school using Unix before then)
  • Using an average wage of $60 per hour results in $37,440 lost

I’m purposely being very conservative above with all the numbers – besides the system crashes, there are the umpteen update related reboots and instabilities – security patch du jour, network on the blink, program suddenly stops working, etc.. Furthermore, I have suffered through 3-4 major system crashes (registry corrupted, etc.) over this period. Let’s say all this contributed another 125 hours or $7,500 lost. This gives us a grand total of about $45,000 lost over 12 years or about $4,000 per year. Wow!

Of course, some people will likely make the argument that Windows has enabled a plethora of technology over the years that have all greatly enhanced productivity; however, I will not buy this argument for even one second, these new technologies would have been created anyway and if anything, Microsoft has probably slowed down the rate and pace of innovation with its monopolistic and predatory practices.

I wonder if corporations have done this type of math – a large corporation with tens of thousands of employees is looking at tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity. If one sums up the effect across global corporations, it probably adds up to tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars – a size-able chunk of the global economy.

Amazing what an effect having a stable alternative to Windows could have on the global economy. Desktop Linux – where art thou ?

Google Developer Day Report

May 31st, 2007

Spent the morning and part of the afternoon at Google Developer Day.

Google sure knows how to throw a party! Plenty of free food and drinks, a pool table, bean bags – you get the picture :-)

On a more serious note, they made several new product announcements – Google Gears, Google Mashup Editor and a new version of Google Web Toolkit.

Gears is an open source project (BSD license) done in partnership with Adobe’s Apollo. Gears has three components to it – a database (SQLite)  for offline data storage/access, a local server for storing and serving pages/scripts while offline and a utility to create worker thread pools (for any heavy computes on the client – not sure a lot of people are going to need this unless they are doing serious analytics – I’m sure Google is planning some use for it). Google Reader is the first Google app to be Gears enabled – the guy demoing the app wanted to show how it works when disconnected and had a lot of trouble getting off the network! (he unplugged his network cable and his wireless came on). I think this is really a sign of things to come. I personally believe that putting a lot of effort in to support disconnected access is a temporary thing and a likely waste of resources. I believe that thinking of interesting possibilities in a continuously connected world is more worthwhile …

Google Mashup Editor was not so impressive – at least with the short demo I saw. To be fair, I should check it out before spouting, but hey, that hasn’t stopped me before :-)  Seemed like a bunch of HTML/XML hacking required – lots of sleight of hand involved in the demo to make it look easy – the guy clicked on links titled step 1/2/3 and voila! more HTML/XML appeared in the editor pane …

I’ve never been a real fan of Google Web Toolkit. I tried it sometime last year and it sucked! There was a lot of stupidity with carefully naming interfaces/classes/methods a certain way to make sure everything linedup right. The programming model mimicked the classic GUI development model which is pretty outdated – I like using markup for describing UIs – to me its the single best thing about XML. Looks like a million people checked it out over the past year -  no mention of actual uses …

In the afternoon, there was a very interesting talk about Google’s compute infrastructure. Google apparently uses the cheapest hardware it can lay its hands on and uses lots and lots of it. They have several layers of abstraction to make it easy for their programmers to create applications over this massive hardware infrastructure. They seem to have optimized for a class of computing problems – very large scale query/analysis on entities that are essentially bags of attributes. GFS is their lowest level distributed storage engine. BigTable provides a SQL-like abstraction over GFS. MapReduce allows programmers to collect attributes of interest from a collection of entities in the first phase (Map) and then do analysis on the values of the attributes in a second phase (Reduce).

Attendance was quite heavy – 1500 at the San Jose Convention Center venue and 5000 worldwide. I bailed early, the event was scheduled to go on until late in the evening, ending with a dinner at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. I’m sure the event will be bigger next year with invited talks as well (this year was Google only). Looking forward to it …

Personalized supply chain

May 28th, 2007

The other day, I was ordering some diapers from Amazon for my son and I was asked if I wanted to “subscribe and save”. Found out if I set up a repeating schedule for the delivery of diapers, I get a 15% discount. Seemed like a really good deal – besides a price cut, I don’t have to deal with remembering to order every ever so often and Amazon gets all my diaper business.

When talking to my brother about it, he brought up a really good point – what Amazon has done here is to extend the supply chain all the way to me, the end-customer. They’ve gotten to the ultimate level in efficiency! I guess we will be seeing more and more of this type of personalized supply chain in a Web 2.0 world. Be pretty cool if this happened with other aspects of our household consumption – especially with groceries like Milk, Bread and stuff – I definitely do not enjoy making those late night trips to the store …

The future of education

May 26th, 2007

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to observe firsthand what I believe to be the future of education.

I had accompanied my daughter and her class of fifth graders on a day long field trip to the Chabot Space & Science center. The kids had a fairly packed agenda, but the centerpiece of attention was a 2 1/2 hour session titled “Mars Mission”. The “Mars Mission” turned out to be a simulated exercise set in the year 2076 where the kids had to land a spacecraft on Mars and do a crew exchange (get a fresh crew to man the Mars control center and get the current crew back to Earth).

A few days before going on the trip, the kids had all applied for various jobs on the mission (Navigator, Data Specialist, Communications Specialist, Medical Specialist, Isolation Specialist, etc) and had all received some preliminary training related to their assigned jobs.  They had also been split into two teams (one team going into Mars and the other leaving Mars).

When they got to the center, they were all taken to a briefing room and given instructions about the mission. Then each team got into a separate room – the kids going into Mars were put in the Spacecraft room and the kids leaving Mars were in the Mars Control room. Each room was fully equipped with specialized stations for each of the teams. They had keyboards/monitors, headsets, robots, control panels, etc – very realistic (BTW, the whole thing ran on a network of Macs which explains why nothing crashed …). For the first hour, they worked through the drill of landing a spacecraft on Mars and for the second hour, the kids switched rooms/roles and worked on getting the spacecraft off Mars. Throughout, kids sitting in the control room gave instructions while the kids in the spacecraft carried them out. They worked as a team while focusing on individual assignments. There were lots of emergency drills (to be expected of course) which the kids had to work through.  All in all, it the kids were put into a lifelike setting and asked to go through a set of practical exercises which taught them lots of valuable lessons.

In a global economy that is going to increasingly value creativity and need team skills for execution, I believe that this exercise was invaluable for the kids. If only they could do much more of this type of activity instead of continuing to plod on with antiquated methods of education …

AJAX/RIA : No Clear Choice

May 21st, 2007

It seems pretty clear that AJAX/RIA as a concept is here to stay.

It represents the next natural step in the evolution of application architecture. We started with a thin client talking to a single server in the Mainframe era. We then moved to a thick client talking to a single server in the Client-Server era. With the advent of the web, we had a universal thin client (the browser) that could talk to multiple servers. Now, with AJAX/RIA, we are moving towards having thick clients hosted within a universal framework that can talk to multiple servers.

Now, if only we could all agree on what the universal framework is going to be :-)

There are really three major camps I can see:

  •  Just the modern day browser – thick clients all use JavaScript/XHTML/CSS
  • Browser augmented with Adobe’s Apollo runtime – thick clients can use JavaScript/XHTML/CSS or use MXML/ActionScript/CSS
  • Browser augmented with Microsoft’s Silverlight runtime – thick clients can use JavaScript/XHTML/CSS or use XAML/CLR/CSS

At first glance, it seems like JavaScript/XHTML/CSS would be a logical choice for anyone implementing a thick client because it is the lowest common denominator. However, there are strong motivations to use Apollo or Silverlight – the current browser is not a great environment for hosting thick clients. Security is probably the biggest hole.  Now the confusion sets in – one essentially has to bet on either Adobe or Microsoft. Be nice if there was some consensus built on how the browser as a platform needs to evolve to support running thick clients instead of having everyone pick sides …

Genius at work

May 20th, 2007

I highly recommend checking this video out. It is about Akrit Jaswal, a twelve year old Indian boy who routinely performs surgery based on knowledge acquired from reading reams of medical books and journals!

I’m sure everyone has read historical anecdotes about geniuses and the troubles they undergo through to get their message through. What is fascinating is that we now have a live example of such a story unfolding amongst us. From the video it is clear that Akrit is really confident and knows what the heck he wants to do and the establishment does not know how to deal with him; so it decides to undermine his confidence and slow him down. I think that simply sucks!

I think in this Web 2.0 world that we live in, we have a really unique opportunity to collectively support Akrit in his quest. Stay tuned for more details. If you would like to be involved, please drop me a comment.

Getting rid of junk mail

May 18th, 2007

A friend recently told me about a for-fee service offered by GreenDimes to get rid of junk mail. GreenDimes charges $36 a year and promises to get rid of junk mail and plant a tree each month.

Did a bit of digging around and discovered what seem to be a couple of relatively simple and low cost steps that promise to do the trick as well:

  • The Direct Marketing Association appears to offer consumers a service for a $1 fee that prevents mail from DMA members for a period of 5 years.
  • The major credit reporting agencies have a site for consumers to stop receiving credit card offers (we seem to get about one every day on the average).

I tried to figure out what additional features were offered by the GreenDimes service – they appear to hint at covering a proprietary list of junk mail sources in addition to the ones above and also seem to offer a level of customization in terms of being able to receive certain types of junk mail if desired. For now, I think I’m going to stick to the cheaper DIY method and see how well it works before I fork out more money …