Category Archives: Technology

The Internet’s Own Boy

Ever since I read about the making of this movie “The Internet’s Own Boy”, I have been wanting to watch it. It is about the sad story of early demise of Aaron Swartz, the whiz kid of Internet who did pioneering work in RSS and galvanized the US public against SOPA.

The-Internets-own-boy

Last week when the movie was released it was available only as a Pay per view from Vimeo and geographically restricted to US only (later they had a different link for rest of world). It was an irony that both the restrictions (pay-wall and geography lock) was against the ethos that Aaron stood for and died for. On the other hand it raises the question of how do the producers of the movie earn their investment and livelihood, after all the $93000 raised through Kickstarter would have met only a portion of the cost. This dichotomy is not surprising as it has been the defining theme of Aaron’s life.

Fortunately the movie is now available for free from Internet Archive.

The documentary film includes original clips of Aaron Swartz at the age of 12 or 13 talking in Industry working groups on upcoming Internet standards. I have been a passive watcher in W3C lists and active member in Tamil IT standards body and first-hand I am aware on how intensive these can discussions can be. Intensive both in terms of depth of technology and the politics. Watching this kid of 12 or 13 doing that with ease was unbelievable, at the same doubles our sadness on losing him on an issue which could have been negotiated.

Aaron took his life after he was hounded by US Government (and its security agencies) with a felony carrying 75 years imprisonment and millions of dollars fine over an act of illegal download of millions of scientific papers from JSTOR (academic journal firm) archives through MIT computers. When I first read about this tragic incident early last year (January 2013) I couldn’t understand on why the US Government went all-out nuclear towards a whiz-kid who was never known to be a threat to their national security and who had potential to contribute enormous value to US economy and technology leadership. I hoped the movie will answer the question, but listening to the interview by Aaron’s father and brothers throw up more questions. They keep repeating that US Government’s actions indicated that they were hell bound to make an example of Aaron, but why?, that remains unanswered and buried along with Aaron.

For all the adulation the developing world has towards USA Justice system for its citizens, Aaron Swartz case is a proof that all around the world Law Enforcement are capable of abuse and USA is no different. Its duty of the parliament (congress) to be ever more watchful, put checks and balances adequately.

The below eulogy posted in W3C forum by Tim Berners-Lee (Father of Web) captures the essence of Aaron’s life. Period!

From: Tim Berners-Lee <timbl@w3.org>
Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2013 12:06:05 –0500

 

Aaron is dead. Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down, we have lost one of our own. Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders, parents all, we have lost a child. Let us all weep.

Comfy headset for my Desktop PC

My usage at work of a headset is to listen to music, see TED videos, Microsoft/Apple keynotes without disturbing meetings in next room.  And also to do Skype calls so that microphone quality is important.   For a year or two now I was using a Microsoft Lifechat LX 3000 which comes with a USB connector, this headset was good especially the microphone. My only complaint with it was that I couldn’t wear it for more than 20-30 minutes, after which my earlobes start to pain and the noise cancelling gave me a vacuum like feeling in the ear. I was shopping for a good quality headset especially one which has better frequency range and fidelity.

On a friends recommendation I bought Sony MDR-10RBT Bluetooth headphone. I was hesitant initially to buy it as it was wireless so and it was expensive, around Rs.12,000 (USD 200) in India. I tend to prefer Wired Keyboard/Mouse/Headsets over wireless, as I feel wireless tends to be slower and spotty due to interferences.  The headphone has a 3.5mm headphone port which means I can connect a cable to my PC and listen music if Bluetooth has a problem. The headphone charges using standard MicroUSB port (which means I can reuse my Nokia Lumia 925 charger).  Reading the online reviews for this headphone I got convinced and went for it from Flipkart for Rs.11720.

sony-mdr-10rbt

I had to use this in my Desktop PC which didn’t have Bluetooth inbuilt. So I purchased a small  Bluetooth 3.0 USB adapter by Kinivo (BTD 300) from Amazon India for Rs.760 (USD 12).

kinivo-bluetooth

The headset & Bluetooth adapter worked OOB flawlessly and I am pleased. The headphone paired with my Nokia Lumia 925 phone as well effortlessly as both supports NFC. The headset is comfortable on my earlobes (its not perfect but the best I have used), it is not noise-cancelling which makes it pleasing for me. Sony ships a small cloth cover to store the headphone when not in use, quite handy. The Bluetooth adapter when connected it blinks in blue colour indicating successful setup and pairing. In Windows 8 the headphone automatically configures as default communications device & default device as appropriate under Playback & Recording devices.

bluetooth-windows8-sony-mdr10rbt

Few tips that I learned while I was getting this working with my PC:

  • Before I got the Kinivo Bluetooth adapter I tried with an old unbranded adapter, the audio was choppy and the device detection was sporadic in Windows 8. With Kinivo adapter I had no trouble. If you are using the headphone with a laptop or a smartphone with built-in Bluetooth you have nothing to worry
  • In Windows 8 ensure you have the 3 Bluetooth services set to “Automatic” start-up in Windows Services applet
  • If you have a Wireless Keyboard or Mouse like Microsoft Wireless Mouse 5000 that I have, they come with their own Bluetooth USB dongle. Ensure you plug this USB dongle and your Kinivo Bluetooth adapter to USB ports in your PC that are far apart, I used a USB hub for one of them to ensure there are no interference

Laptop for a commerce student

Today my uncle asked me to help him shop for a laptop for his daughter who is studying her graduate course from CA institute.  Requirement was a Windows PC (trust me I asked her about Google Chromebook  she didn’t want one and Apple Macbook was way out of budget), Microsoft Office and Tally accounting software (which is free for download from their website for education purposes). My uncle’s budget was Rs.30,000 (USD 500). I did some research online on models available and average pricing, then took him to Croma electronic store in Phoenix Mall, Velachery. I should have known better, going on a Sunday evening to this mall was a bad idea, the car parking entry was clogged for miles.

Laptop

In the store I selected HP 15 R036TU laptop which was selling at a discounted price of Rs.22999. I ruled out any of the higher end models which were around Rs.30000 which will no money for buying MS Office, Mouse or an Antivirus.

HP-15-R036TU

HP 15 R036TU specs (below) was ideal for what as a commerce student my cousin sister will be needing:

  • Intel Pentium (4th Gen) Quad Core (though not i3 or i5 enough for the purpose)
  • Good Display at 15.6 Inches, 1366 x 768 LED Blacklit
  • Sufficient memory at 4GB, 500GB HDD (most other models even those at Rs.30000 came with only 2GB which is inadequate for Windows8)
  • 3 USB Ports, 1 HDMI port to connect to TV/Projector, Ethernet Port, 3.5 mm headphone port
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • DVD Drive for using learning DVDs & occasional movie watching
  • SD media card reader for copying photos from their digital camera
  • Dual speakers which were loud enough for normal music & movie viewing
  • Lastly at 2.25 Kgs quite easy to carry with them daily to college
  • A shoulder carrying bag for the laptop that was sporty

Software & Accessories

Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 was retailing at Rs.5499 at Croma.  I spotted the same was selling Rs.1000 less in Snapdeal and Flipkart. Noticing this Croma manager offered to match the price and I got it for Rs.4400 from Croma itself. I didn’t go with Office 365 subscription as I don’t see them needing any of its features for next 3 years till they graduate.

Next item was a Logitech wireless mouse at Rs.700. Croma gave an “Enter” accessories kit (USB light, Mouse, Headset, etc) as complimentary with the laptop. The kit included a small mouse but I was not comfortable with it.

AccessoriesKit

Last in my list was Antivirus, for which I went with a brand I trust. I got K7 Computing’s Antivirus Premium 1 PC/3 Years for Rs.1199. This edition of K7 was the right mix of features and protection that was adequate for this need. Buying subscription for 3 years meant for the expected lifetime of this laptop they should be covered.

k7computing-antivirus-premium

Now the total spend for my uncle was Rs.29298, a good Rs.700 below his budget. I felt good !!!

Installation

The setup was straight forward except for two irritants. One was that I had to spend two hours in burning the 5 Recovery DVDs manually, I would have been happy to pay USD 10 more to HP for shipping this out of box.  Second was installing all the Microsoft Updates (which happens in all platforms now whether its Apple or Google) and uninstalling of HP Crapware (like some games,  3rd party tools and mcAfee Antivirus

I was pleasantly surprised to find the Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 including for free “Hindi Language Pack for Office 2013” which separately retails for Rs.1299. The Hindi language pack includes features for spell checking & grammar which are needed for all other Indian Languages like Tamil as well.

The year without pants

Before you think the book is about something sleazy, it is about Software Project Management with a fancy title.

Scott Berkun was a former Microsoft manager, in charge of first five releases of Internet Explorer. After which he turned to full time writing. His earlier books on The Art of Project Management and Myths of Innovation are famous titles. WordPress is the Open Source blogging software that’s powering this very blog of mine. Its used by 60 Million other websites and is used by 22% of top 10 million websites. So when I saw a book by Scott Berkun writing about his experience working for a year+ as a team lead/product manager at “Automattic” which powers WordPress.com, I immediately bought it to my Kindle.

Scott was hired by founder of WordPress Matt MullenweG in August 2010 as employee #58 at Automattic.  Automattic is a commercial firm also founded by Matt Mullenweg uses WordPress open source software to provide an online cloud hosted service of WordPress at WordPress.com with enhancements and additional services.

This is Scott’s first full time employment after resigning from Microsoft nearly a decade ago and working as a writer/consultant. Scott says his objective to take up the assignment was to experience a “new” age firm’s culture, contrast it with Microsoft’s and to see whether he can follow the advice himself that as a freelance consultant he was giving to his clients. Scott works in Automattic for next 18 months and this book is a first person narration of that. I like these first person narrations and biographies on management and technology, as you get to see how others are doing it,  get exposed to alternate ideas and viewpoints. The last few books I read on this genre was The Maruti Story and I am feeling Lucky (Google Employee 59). 

As Scott narrates his first experiences at we get a feeling its a company that is all counter-culture when it comes to its management style. All the (then) 50 employees were reporting to CEO or Matt directly, there were no managers in between. One of the reasons for Matt in hiring Scott was an experiment in introducing leads to the roughly 10 newly created teams. Automattic employees were mostly working remote from their homes or shared offices  or coffee shops from around the globe. This indifference to a location or an office allowed Automattic to hire the best talent out there, which follows the culture of open source development, where contribution can come from anywhere in the world. As a result the company relies heavily on online tools including Skype, IRC (yes the old platform) and for Project tracking/Group discussion a WordPress template they call “P2″. Reading about P2, I can see my firm at Vishwak Solutions trying out Microsoft Yammer for similar purposes.

Because of people working across timezones and many comfortable doing multi-tasking Automattic’s employee interactions online tend to be mostly textual (typed) and not even voice/video. For myself who is comfortable with online tools and social, a phone call or a face to face “coffee” meeting is invaluable. Scott claims the company used little of email, which was surprising to me. Even in my small office of 60 people all sitting mostly in our Chennai office, I see email being used for everything from ideas to project tracking.  I am curious to see on this as what works on a Products company may not work on a IT Services company like mine – but this will be a good experiment for me to try out.

After joining the first task Scott gets assigned is to work for a month on their customer support team “Happiness” after a 6 half-a-day training. This idea of having every new employee to work in customer support sounded similar to one that Tony Hsieh follows in his company Zappos. Automattic uses its occasional company meets not for founder speeches, strategy outlining but for individual teams to double-down to code and release a new feature, a concept similar to early days in FaceBook and its hackaton culture. Scott then narrates about how he gets his first team members. How they meet up for the first time after working for three months in a team offsite at Athens, Greece. It is in that meeting they plan to develop JetPack, one of the most popular plug-ins for WordPress. I am a big fan and user of JetPack especially its analytics features that it provides for free even for my self-hosted WordPress blog.

Scott says in Automattic culture there was no real central planning of features, individual engineers being smart work on items they see being talked in P2 by other teams or raised by customers in Happiness tickets. Being a manager myself and an entrepreneur this sounded like a dysfunctional idea and my gut feel says it can never work. Scott outlines the reasons why it works in Automattic. In 2014, Automattic has about 250 employees and I doubt whether that old federated approach still lives anywhere in the company. If in the first half Scott butt-kisses Matt for his brilliance, in the second half he goes about writing to Matt on the limitations of the online collobration tools used by Automattic. Apart from that you get lot of preaching from Scott on management best practices and quotes.

year-without-pants

The book was an easy read with sections that made you think. Apart from new online tools of collaboration, reading this book I learned  more about various tools of Automattic that might be of use in my work.

My first PC quotation from 1992

(Flashback date: 2/April/1994)

The other day I was going through my  old files (physical paper files) from 1990s. I was surprised to find a quotation from 1992 and for a purchase order from 1994.

The former was the quotation for my first PC that my father purchased for me 22 years ago. It was for an Intel 386 CPU (the fastest then), 4MB (yes you are reading it correct its Megabytes) RAM and 120MB HDD. It was so bleeding edge that time, that the seller Mr.Ranganathan Desikan (who over the years has turned to a good friend of mine)  initially was reluctant  to give a quote for this configuration, thinking there is no way a college going kid is going to buy this costly machine at Rs.90000.

The second was a purchase order for a new PC I got for my father’s office in 1994. Notice how in two years for nearly the same price of Rs.91000, the configuration has changed. This time the config is for a 486DX, 8MB RAM, 260MB HDD (nearly everything has doubled).

Old-PCs-Quote-India-1992-94

To be factual the first computer I owned was an Atari 2600 Junior (I don’t remember the exact model but the image looks familiar to what I had) gifted to me by my uncle, this should be around 1986.

Atari-2600-Jr-Console

Then in 1987 I got enrolled for a 2 month summer coaching in a near-by (Thanikachalam Road, T.Nagar) institute  for Basica (IBM Basic) in MS-DOS 3.0.  The teacher was a senior citizen who made me write each program line by line in a notebook before I got screen time, but that was common in those days. That rote probably helped me to set a strong foundation of my programming skills which helped a lot in latter years of my career. The PC I got to use first was an Zenith PC with Orange colour monochrome display & two floppy drives, it looked something like the one below from IBM.

375px-Ibm_pc_5150-zenith PC XT

One thing I vividly remember from the institute was they having 3 huge voltage stabilizers (made by Alacrity Krykard brand)  placed common for all electrical connections in the entire office.

alacrity-krykard-stabilizers