Friday, September 29, 2006

Google Reader, Phlat and rants on software

I am a product of the web 2.0 generation - I want to not only choose what I consume but I also want to choose the manner in which I consume it. RSS is a big part of my day and I really don't respect any website/service that does not let me syndicate material. Take for example, an RSS enabled website say, a camera review website. They have loads of categories but I am interested only in one/some of them. But the dingbats have only RSS feed to every headline that ever makes it to their website. It leaves me to sort out (from amongst a vast sea of other websites doing the same thing) the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes thats all I do, throw the trash out and mark the posts that interest me but I don't have any time left over and these posts backup. Soon, they loose significance and I may as well delete them. I just wish that every website that categorizes their material has customizable RSS feeds for visitors to subscribe to. Just imagine if you could take a look at the categories I had on this blog (hypothetically speaking of course, since this is blogger and it doesn't have ANY such feature) and specify the categories you would like to read (assuming that you want read any at all) and your syndicator just picks up only those feeds. Take it one step further, the reader specifies tags and ONLY those posts tagged with the user's choice of tags get syndicated. Technorati tags are a start. Wouldn't this be nice to have? I would be thrilled!

Google announced its reader and I imported my opml into it in a flash to try it out. On Scoble's advice they actually made a video and had one of their engineers do the talking. Lamest video ever! Between deciding to focus on the engineer or on the computer screen, the script falls apart. Even if he didn't have a script, the whole point of making a video is to showcase the reader's USP features. Instead, it just wastes my time. That apart, the reader itself is excruciatingly slow in displaying posts from feeds and if you want to try changing the views around, your hair might even gray a bit! Another gripe is that they have all these buttons for the various operations I might want to do with each post right at the end. If I happen to be reading a very long post I would have to scroll ALL the way to the bottom and then click to share, tag etc. Why can't they just put these things at the top too? Its the same with their gmail - the reply, forward etc are right the end. Even the delete was at the bottom before someone had the sence to put a button right up on top. But, what I do love - tags (this is my new mantra), discoverability via their "share" feature and simple UI (its Google!). I haven't figured out this one yet, only some of my feeds are able to retrieve posts from the target site for as long as I kept scrolling down - a sort of infinite scroll bar. This is an awesome feature. I totally loved the scrolling and tags. The infinite scroll bar was a HUGE success for Microsoft (yes, I am afraid they were the first to do it. They do innovate there you know) on their live search.

Coming back to tags, wouldn't you like to tag (if you choose to, of course) the things that you want to visit later on your hard drive(s)? You remember them the way you want to and search for them using your own semantics. You have been unencumbered from remembering on which drive, under which folder your documents, music, videos sit awaiting your exalted return. Fixed, organized directories are a thing of the past! Tags are in, rigid categories/directories are out. Introducing Phlat, it turns your hard drive into a relational database. You specify your tags for how you want to remember anything on your drive. Key in your tags in the search box and voila! Of course, since its from Microsoft it runs on Microsoft desktop search (MDS). For another time - another rant on the lack of inter-operability and the division of the market by walled garden policies. But MDS is a pretty good product so one generally need not be too averse to installing it. I found it totally awesome - I have 300GB of songs/documents/emails/rss feeds/movies. I cannot manually look for anything, in fact I refuse to! Do try it out, I totally loved it. [download link]

I think I am going to start a new series on how stupid and frustrating the software we use today are. Let me start with Blogger - it is riddled with spammers and to take care of spam, the wise ones over at the plex decided to have word verification to prevent bots from trolling. They flipped the switch and all was well with the world once again. But, hang on, whats this? even the owner(s) of the blog HAVE to go through this word verification to reply to comments on their blog even when they are already signed in.

Dumpkoff! can't you see they might spam their own blog.
Yes, that must be it then.

More on its way.

Update [10/02/06]: Google reader has an infinite scroll bar for all my feeds and not just for a few as I had previously noted. I really love this feature, now I can scroll as far back as I like to retrieve much older posts without having to go to the target website and search through their archives.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lights! Action! Camera!

Photokina 2006 is on and all the beauties have been revealed! I have been wanting to buy a DSLR for ever and this year feels right. The usual contenders are Canon (traditional favorite), Nikon (another traditionalist and favorite), Sony (this year's wildcard), Olympus (very strong contender) and finally, Sigma (another favorite).

The rumor mills have been chugging away the past couple of months. Canon, Nikon and Sony threw out their offerings before Photokina itself. I just had to see what Sigma was going to throw up and boy did they kick up a dust storm!

Canon EOS 400D/Digital Rebel XTi
reviews: DPReview, LetsGoDigital (EOS 350D, EOS 400D), Imaging-Resource, CameraLabs

Nikon D80
reviews: DPReview, LetsGoDigital, Imaging-Resource, CameraLabs

Sony Alpha 100
reviews: DPReview, LetsGoDigital, Imaging-Resource, CameraLabs

Sigma SD14 (just released, no reviews yet just specs)
reviews: Photokina Report, Official website, DPReview, LetsGoDigital

And for the sake of completeness,

Olympus E400 DSLR
reviews: LetsGoDigital, DPReview, Imaging-Resource (E330, E500), CameraLabs (E500, E400)

If someone wants to yell Panasonic! I suggest you poke around these wonderful sites and you will find reviews for them too.

These are my contenders. I am drooling over the Sigma but the price isn't out yet and I do not want to refinance my car just so that I can own one and I am not going to work any harder either. so there!

Update: the D70's kid brother (and the D50's younger brother) - the D40, is here. The D40 is an entry level DSLR that is surely up against the E400.
Reviews: LetsGoDigital, DPReview, Imaging-Resource,

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Underground Man

I am done with reading Dostoevsky's "Notes From The Underground" and it is as much a classic (contradictory as it sounds, existentially speaking of course) as Kaufman says it is. It was eye-opening - after reading Nietzsche (my favorite existentialist) not everything that comes your way impresses you. You sit back with an enlightened, heightened consciousness trying to come to terms with this, for the lack of a better word, education. After the initial excitement of reading and comprehending (atleast partly and with repeated reading) one of the seminal works in existentialism, you actually think and apply your own filters to this lode. There are some themes - of alienation, torment and hatred - which I will explore in another post. I urge those who can and want to read it.

The next existentialist in Kaufman's taxonomy is Kierkegaard. I have no immediate wish to read up on Kierkegaard's works, so I will stick to Kaufman's expose on Kierkegaard's flavor of existentialism. Watch this space for more.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Abou Ben Adhem

I was flipping through my book of poems when I chanced upon a poem I had read during my school days - its relevance to the present world scenario can hardly be ignored.

Without further ado, James Leigh Hunt's "Abou Ben Adhem"

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,,
An angel writing in a book of gold -
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the prescence in the room he said,
'What writest thou' - the vision rais'd its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answer'd, 'The names of those who love the Lord'
'And is mine one?' said Abou. 'Nay, not so,'
replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, 'I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.'
The angel wrote, and vanish'd. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And show'd the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Sunrise at the Angkor Wat

I was in Cambodia last winter and shot the sunrise at the serene and majestic Angkor Wat, I definitely thought that many of the smaller and lesser known temples far exceeded the Angkor in elegance and beauty but then the Angkor was never about intricate beauty. Majesty and scale are its hallmarks.

Click on the image to see the picture in its actual size (2544 x 1696). If anyone is interested in the EXIF data, I will put that up too.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Word Play

Chris Anderson, author of "The Long Tail", in his blog introduces a fascinating (atleast to me) idea of the interplay of words, their frequency of occurance as opposed to their length, their contextual meaning and juxtaposition.

To quickly summarize his thesis, Chris cites Zipf's Law which states that the frequency distribution of words as a function of their length has an exponential distribution and the rank of these words shares a power law relationship with their frequency of occurance/usage. This was based on analyzing James Joyce's opus Ulysses and was stated, at the time, to hold true for the english language. Chris then cites Wentian Li who proves that this is the case for all languages including imaginary ones that constitute words banged out on keyboards by monkeys. Chris then concludes that Zipf's Law is more of a mathematical law in total rather than one governing and explaining linguistic features of a particular, or for that matter any, language.

Just thinking about this, one can already see that certain words (like "I") are more likely than certain others with the same length (I can't think of any right now but you are free to fill in the blanks). And this, I am sure, is a feature of the english language. There might be different relationships in different languages but there is enough evidence to suggest that all languages (real and inventented) do not follow the power law blindly. Rules of linguistic construction are the anamolies and these rules, in my opinion, were first formalized by years of talking/speaking before they were codified into a written language system. I am no linguist and certainly no expert on the evolution of languages and am shooting from the hip here but Li, in my opinion, has over generalized Zipf's Law.

Edit: A fun way to learn about the Long Tail phenomenon

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Heart Of Existentialism Pt. 1

I have been reading (yes reading. You can stop laughing now) Walter Kaufman's "Existentialism - From Dostoevsky To Sartre", a wonderful thought provoking book on the philosophy of existentialism. Why I sought out this book and what I think of it is irrelevant to this post. What is relevant, is his scholarly insight into the stalwarts of the existentialist movement, the essence of their philosophy - its evolution and impact, and unmatched clarity of thought and presentation. I have distilled some passages from the afore mentioned book for the interested reader. All text in (bold) italics constitutes passages from the book while my fillers are in plain text. I urge the reader to chew on the general philosophy, savor the ideas and themes, relish it and bask in all its glory.

Kaufman introduces Existentialism with - "Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducable to any set of tenets." He presents various passages, essays and letters from philosophers and litterateurs who, in his opinion, influenced and shaped this movement. Of these scholars, he says "The three writers who appear invariably on every list of "existentialists" - Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre - are not in agreement on the essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians...If, as is often done, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold then we must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism."

"The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism."

Though Kaufman has extensively translated, in his book, many essays from each of the philosophers he mentions, I am going to cull out, modifying the tone if the need arises and present excerpts to paint you, my interested reader, a pseudo-indivdualistic landscape of existentialism. I again urge the reader to savor and relish the myriad textures and hues of individuality that Kaufman, through the philosophy of existentialist giants, paints.

Of Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground", Kaufman opines "is the best overture for existentialism ever written. With inimitable vigor and finesse the major themes are stated here....." He goes on to say "...the drama of the mind that is sufficient to itself, yet conscious of its every weakness and determined to exploit it. What we perceive is an unheard of song of songs on individuality: not classical, not Biblical and not at all romantic. No, individuality is not re-touched, idolized or holy; it is wretched and revolting, and yet, for all its misery, the highest good." He points out an important trait of romanticism that contrasts itself sharply with core of existentialism - the celebration of the self, the individual with all its faults and shortcomings. "Romanticism is flight from the present, whether into the past, the future, or another world, dreams, or, most often, a vague fog. It is self deception. Romanticism yearns for deliverance from the cross of Here and Now; it is willing to face anything but the facts. No prize, however great, can justify an ounce of self deception or a small departure from the ugly facts. ....... Man's inner life, his moods, anxieties and decisions are moved into the center until, as it were, no scenery at all remains.... he [sic, the man whom Dostoevsky has created] believes neither in the original sin nor in God. For him, man's self will is not depravity; it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalists and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.

I am sure the astute reader already sees a pattern emerging here - celebration of the self, the overlordship of individuality, atheist in nature, lengthy self observation and understanding and above all absolutely no self deception - the dark, grimy underside of human nature is celebrated with much the same gusto as love and happiness. In any celebration of individuality, the differences are stressed, studied and exphasized over the similarities. Also, interestingly, lengthy self observation and understanding oneself without any self deception affirms psychology as another concurrent theme in existentialism. Keep in mind Kaufman's words that existentialism cannot be reduced to some tenets. I leave you to contemplate these points. Their import will sink in only, in my opinion, with some inrospection. I will return to post more nuggets from the other existentialists that highlight other themes in existentialism, hopefully, broadening and pushing the boundaries of your consciousness.