Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Guest Lectures and an old Geezer

My series of guest lectures came to an abrupt halt thanks to the audience being most unresponsive. I know stuff can be boring, but with every effort to make it interesting with pictures and illustrations and with new stuff for the kids I hoped they'd find it interesting. They found it over the head and I did my best to reach them and make them ask doubts, talk to me, respond to queries, opine, suggest, whatever.

Nothing useful came out and I decided that I was being taken for an old geezer. I spent at least 6 waking hours (considering I've been sleepy all the while strangely) preparing the presentations. Consecutive guest lectures are a bad idea if the audience isn't appreciative of the effort taken to prepare a presentation or lecture for them. The one I'm referring to was on Memory Management and was comprehensive, utterly simple and only a sleepy absent audience could ignore it and they did.

"Who in their right mind would ever need more than 640K of RAM!?" Bill Gates, 1981. That's exactly what these kids are thinking right now. Down with MMUs and Virtual Memory.

My next one was to be on algorithmic complexity analysis. I doubt they can take much math and it takes time to prepare slides on math, easier to write down on a board with chalk. So what the heck, indefinitely postpone the presentation - that's the best thing. Let them finish their course and I can then find out if they really know algorithmic complexity. Guys are shy to talk because they'd be labeled nerds. Girls don't want to be non-girly. Barf!! What is the point of lecturing people who don't think it's useful? Lose-Lose for both sides, best solution - avoid it.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Nature triggers a Comedy of Errors

Today I set out to buy a mobile phone, a bluetooth headset and a battery for my old phone. The former were to be gifts for Christmas. I joined Mom and my Sis in their shopping routine. As my planning went I had in mind "Univercell" who advertise quite frequently as the best-price providers in the state. When I reached there I found the place devoid of customers and of the Nokia 5800 model I was looking for. I was told that this model would be available by 4pm in the evening and the sales staff happily took down my number. I never received a call from this person even 3 hours after 4pm.

I got to the Nokia authorized mobile shop by almost 1:15pm. One of the chaps in charge asked me to wait while he checked on the model and told me that this Nokia 5800 was available. The price quoted was lower than "Univercell's" markup price. He told me it was in a nearby warehouse and he just had to pick it up. He then started making several calls to someone presumably in the warehouse. After half an hour, I was told that the mobile will be available only by 3:30pm. I had ordered for the Nokia battery for my older phone by this time. I left the order unpaid and told him that I would come by 3:00pm or later and get the phone.

I had already planned to refuel my car and check my tyre pressure in the afternoon and this would be no tall order. In the afternoon I set off after receiving a call from the salesman of the Nokia shop. Rain had started pouring heavily. Unknown to me the rain had set off disconnecting phone lines that connected ATMs and Credit Card machines around town. I reached the shop after fueling my car (paying cash, no curse, I had planned for this at least) and checking tyre pressure. I went to the Nokia shop, ordered an extra pouch for the phone I was buying as a gift.

Then started the comedy of errors. I have three cards, none of which were accepted. On calling the bank executive I found that my accounts were in order. Then the shopkeeper checked his line with his own card and found that his machine wasn't connecting and ended up with an error message "server busy." This was a HDFC bank POS machine. The shopkeeper called up his customer care line and they told him that this error can be fixed only by their service staff who are not available. Then the shopkeeper told me that from yesterday morning this machine seemed to be out of service. I was beginning to get impatient which was only natural.

I decided to go to the nearest ATM which was at walking distance. Another service person in the shop told me that the nearest ATM had been out-of-order for at least the past two days. But the shop-keeper affirmed that it was fixed in the morning and it was working fine. It was heavy rain. I braved the rain with an umbrella, reached the ATM to find that it was "Out of Service." This was an "Indian Bank" ATM. The bank security staff in charge of the ATM told me that this ATM was out of order from the morning.

I took leave of the shopkeeper temporarily and tried the next nearest ATM which was about a kilometer away. The downpour was heavier by now and it was good I wasn't knocking off anyone on the road as visibility was really poor. There was a big pool of water in front of the ATM and I had to get my feet wet to just get to the ATM. This too was out of service. The guard in charge of the ATM finally told me that I could try as the "online" message started flashing back again. As I started my transaction the ATM hung up abruptly. I was only thankful that the software ejected the card on a hang-up.

Now dejected, I called my local bank executive and asked him whether I could withdraw cash. He answered in the affirmative. So I went, withdrew money from my account the old-fashioned way with a withdrawal slip and came back. I was still short of some cash as the Nokia shopkeeper had calculated it wrong. I then went back home to get the balance from my draw and then went back to the shop. I was a bit vexed by now. The downpour was on and off. Finally I managed to get all the three items, the gift, the battery I intended to get and the headset. I forgot all about the pouch as I drove back home. That was the difference for which I had already visited home.

I finally asked the shopkeeper to do me a favor by dropping the pouch at my house as I hadn't availed a single discount. I am yet to receive this item. But one heavy rainfall cutting off ATM lines can change your plans drastically. This is what I learnt through my long (relative to the day) ordeal. Imagine a full natural catastrophe. It can send all our plans berserk because of our heavy reliance on technology. All technology is not failsafe and one possibly cannot make technology that is entirely failsafe. Even the old timely tested processes and methods rely on some sort of technology and are not failsafe. Humanity's great progress can be halted by one lash of nature. This is not the time of the year it rains in my town, at least not regularly. While this may not be indicative of climate change, it beckons us to learn and understand nature better before we build processes and technology to ease our daily lives.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Fake Medicines in India, a Personal Experience

I just experienced the fact of fake medicines recently as I was taking a particular prescription drug. I had tried out the same drug as a "Physician's Sample" (My Dad being my Physician.) The drug worked incredibly well and was most effective. I decided to have a regular regimen of the drug for the prescribed duration and bought the drug from a medical shop. I had bought the drug of the same manufacturer. The result was no effect from the drug. The problem I experience is lack of sleep to which this drug was great help. It was most frustrating to find the same drug with the same pharmaceutical ingredients listed not working as the samples worked. No who said "demos are better than the actual software application" is true only for the Software Industry. The Pharmaceutical industry isn't far behind.

I later found an article from Indian Express: link to article which illustrates the problem of fake or adulterated drugs. It is generally accepted that 20-25% of the drugs with the label "made in India" are fake. The first article on this was run on medindia about seizure of fake medicines in Europe in 2005. This news item appeared in 2006. There are no effective enforcement agencies within India to ensure that fake medicines are identified early and the respective manufacturers penalized. Most drug inspectors either succumb to the loss of adequate time for inspection or to the vicissitudes of corruption that denies them from being able to execute their duty.

The worst part I found about fake medicines is that they extend from popular drugs, over-the-counter drugs and now to life-saving drugs. Unless citizens take a wake-up call and fight against such medication, there is absolutely no hope for getting rid of this problem. The companies blame it on agencies in their supply chain rather than taking responsibility themselves which could impact their brand name heavily. Further there is sporadic news about China introducing medication with a "made in India" label. While this is plausible, this may be only a follow-up to the fact that fake medication is unmonitored and tolerated in India.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Formula One in 2010

Everyone is watching the F1 Sport open up through 2009. The good news is the attempt to reduce expenses and create fuel efficient solutions and wear efficient solutions for Race cars. The Automobile industry players (Manufacturers) have been of mixed opinion on Bernie Ecclestone's (a.k.a FIA) changes to the FIA rules which do not favor teams with $$$. This is the 5th year in succession that the rule-book has been redone, which is good to know. You hardly think there is any plan to it though. This is no Peeling the Onion by Larry Wall (for Perl fans.)

The second goal was to make racing look like racing with almost anyone in the field being able to challenge for the lead. You're probably laughing - Yes, F1 racing hasn't seen much racing except in pit garages for quite some time. It has been a case in the past and even on most circuits today that F1 races look like parade laps for sports cars with very little overtaking and real racing happening through an entire hour. You can watch the First corner for some early racing and the top 8 positions being fought for during the endgame. (That's the first 5 and the last 5 minutes.)

This has to change to bring in the true feel of racing. Everyone participating has to agree to race lap after lap. The A1 format has nice multi-tier races that are good to watch. They might even include in-team Dead Heat rounds if you had two cars in a team (A1 has one car a team.)

This is the time, F1 needs to take a few cues from Champ Car racing or the Indy 500. The field must be close with cars "Racing". Winners and Loses must not be decided purely on strategic chess games. Driving, Pit Crews, Race Engineers, Team Managers during the race weekend must be the deciding factor. Major Aerodynamics, Engine, Chassis innovations, if allowed must be coming fully tested or not allowed at all. Banning interim testing, but allowing massive changes to help teams who cannot run cars for testing is not the best way around.

Teams should Share technical information on the secret racing recipe that will be fixed for the year, but block pit conversations, strategy, fuel load information so that the whole game is played in the weekend, not in a Factory. Tough to digest for the FIA, but better for the fans, teams and drivers. That's weekend to weekend racing, nothing is decided completely in a factory - especially the doom of a team.

Right now, F1 2009 has less electronic control. It has public team/driver conversations (sounds like Indy and Champ Car?) It has a fowled up aerodynamic package by design constraints. This forces cars to rely on tyres for grip and better braking. A few teams managed to get good Aerodynamics out of the new rules. Some call them smart and some call them foul, but they're the one's scoring. Engines have to last multiple races, gear boxes at least 2 races. while many of these have reduced the variables, the FIA worked backwords by introducing a "You could use this technology if you want - KERS (pronounced Curse)" which made everybody guess what 25kg extra can do to ruin (seldom help) your race. The variable which is changeable over race weekends is no longer a variable. All cars that run KERS(curse) never make it to #1. That's a given. The technology is immature and unreliable, with most teams opting out. The FIA can dictate engine restrictions, prevent turbo and ask teams to build energy recovery systems, but leave designs to the teams contrary to how KERS(curse) was proposed.

In Earlier years, F1 teams had the luxury to change cars (gearboxes, engines and almost full packages within the rules) during the start of the race if there was a false start. I remember M.Schumacher racing from a T-Car more than once in different scenarios. Teams reworked cars after qualifying, made fuel loads impossible to guess. The Qualifying run was a strategy game and only teams with the best strategists and enough resources (more tyres, fuel, settings) got the better out of it.

Despite all efforts from the FIA, results are slow. Cars are closer in qualifying, but you could still predict who would take #1, #2, #3 with reasonable accuracy and maybe even the rest (some of which is just chaos.)

Here is the 2009 team line-up:
Brawn GP - found the hole in the interpretation of the laws and got better aerodynamic efficiency for the cars despite the strict restrictions, Top Dog Drivers, Result - Podium, Top Constructors points.
Red Bull Racing - built a better car within the strict restrictions. Result - Podium, Awesome drivers, Top Constructors points.
Toyota - hefty racing budget, good drivers, erratic performance, can win races, but tries not to.
Williams - good team, best brains in the park, top class drivers, can win races, tries really hard not to.

Ode to the earlier World Champs:
McLaren Mercedes - New Car, Good Drivers, No speed, Unable to defend a Championship. Seriously, what did the FIA think?
Scuderia Marlboro Ferrari - New Car F60, The Best Drivers, Seldom Reliable Machinery, Can Race within 20% of the fastest car (that would be a Brawn usually in 2009 or a Red Bull or a Toyota.), Race crew manages strategy by random polling, blind to all else that moves.
Renault - New Car, Good Drivers - one fiery ex-world Champ, Not enough speed, Unable to fight for championship.

Then to tag along with the yester-champs are more teams. Nothing much to be said about most of them.
BMW Racing, Toro Rosso, Force India F1 (Drink Kingfisher, but don't drive to the finish - just kidding.)

The constructors already saw it coming. A1 GP is another format which has a lot more racing, but still continues to be a parade. The only good news is with fewer variables each result is a bit unpredictable. The big mistake is having country sponsored or named teams that sorts of kills racing spirit. This ain't football or cricket.

In 2010 FIA wants to do more big brother work and cut spending of teams to EUR 40M. This will exclude only the pay package of the drivers. That's plain horrible for 200-600 odd staff that man a full racing team. It's asking all these guys to go home packing. Budget Cap, Cost Cutting - I've heard of it before. This is not the way it must happen here. FIA is suddenly turning towards socialism and wants to be backed by capitalist car manufacturers (serious!) This is not going to work, as many teams have already started to rebel.

By 2010, FIA wants to be the one body that rules 'em all; like the one ring - seriously, scary!!! The ring may never be forged, and there may be no more F1 in the manner we have seen it before. It is time for the constructors to bring in some method into this madness.

F1 has to be a sport enjoyed by engineers, race crews, drivers and fans. It might end up in memory as the Key you press to get "Online Help." 2010 will define the future of F1 Racing itself. F1 can continue if FIA becomes history, but that move has to happen sooner. The best is for the Constructors and the FIA to work together in better terms with more sensible ideas to the table. It will be tough, so Bernie Ecclestone has all to do in 2009 to save racing in 2010.

There are some who believe that F1 racing is a waste of fuel lap over lap. With parade laps it will be difficult to contradict them. There are at least 4 circuits out of 19 that permit almost no overtaking in racing conditions. (Monaco, Spain, Singapore, Bahrain) The rest can play it to weather and other variables simply because all F1 races save one (Singapore?) must happen at 1200GMT in the time-zone of the continent of the venue. Not much thought has been given here. Rain is not just unpredictable, but sometimes unsafe and can prematurely end a race. A wet track is what took Ayrton Senna out in 1994 - low air pressure, low bodies and multiple incidents before the Senna crash.

All said, Lotus, Tyrell and Super Aguri want to join in the fun by 2010 which will have space for 13 teams. That could be a move in the right direction.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Startups, Open Source and Revenue - Myth vs Truth

Many believe that if you release your software product with the source open, any customer can procure it, better it and sell it thereby eliminating you in the market outright. This is one of the frequent arguments against opening source code and therefore to "Open Source" that many businesses quote.

I believe they will need to cite a case here. Buy Product Once, Get Source and Kill; sounds too easy to be true.

Actually I have source code of some game engines released by id software, and I know gaming companies who compete who have this, yet, I don't see anyone killing "id". I also have pieces of OpenSolaris and OpenStorage from SUN. IBM shouldn't have even made that $7b bid after expressing interest in OpenStorage among other areas from Sun.

I could even do this with "proprietary software" where source is offered whenever I pay (a much smaller sum than net worth of a company.) There are tons of companies who are willing to part with source for higher costs.

Sun wouldn't have "bought out" Virtual Box and MySQL if they could just use the source instead. Buying Out is one of the available "exit strategies" for a cash-strapped startup.

Clearly someone has to prove that Redhat's profits have dropped because Canonical and almost everyone else who has taken on pieces of code has cut into a static pie of consumer market. The truth is software markets are closely linked to a lot of other markets including service markets. These markets grow or shrink dynamically. The whole pie however depends on user base which has been constantly expanding.

For OpenOffice, I think resurrection of Lotus with the OpenOffice source is proof enough that an entirely different company used this. Transgaming's Wine is open-source except for a portion of the DirectX (not all of it) libraries. You could potentially run your own company and beat them, or a "Giant" can have them without buying source. Transgaming emulates Windows libraries on Unixes (starting with Linux and now on Mac OS X.) Does an Apple certified vendor or Apple actually sell proprietary Microsoft Windows Games support? (Not to my knowledge.)

Revenues: Eric Raymond probably has a few tips. Product Engineering outfits do widget frosting, the model that's simple to understand. Some "violate" Open Source citing that they cannot make profits; on similar arguments raised here. Savings as revenue is an oft cited case. Today it is far more relevant. If your cost to create something is potentially reduced you can reduce the price a customer has to pay while you still make a profit.

My former employer did buy software for incorporating into products. My former employer is a profitable product company. However, because we could not modify one small piece of the bought-in black box (with no possibilities to acquire source at any cost) we just had a 25% increase in development life-cycle. That was "Loss." We decided never again to consume anything from "closed source" companies as it potentially created black boxes of uncertainty within our own products.

Open Source is not Free(dom) Software always nor is it Free (Beer.)

Source code (which is open,) is a more primitive formal expression of the binary format of the product which is re-usable and easier to modify than the binary format of the product.

The binary format (executable files) of many products can also be reverse engineered. (Remember Borland!? They did not advocate Open Source but where caught up with Sidekick.) This is also easy for a heavy-weight as opposed to a smaller group.

Myth: "Open Source makes a startup vulnerable to acquisition."
Truth: "Low on Cash makes anything vulnerable to acquisition."

Myth: "Open Source companies suffer a handicap while trying to make revenue."
Truth: "Companies unprepared to serve their customers suffer a handicap while trying to make revenue."

Time, the press stopped incorrect interpretation of Open Source as non Revenue Generating.

Watch this video (at youtube) for Guy Kawasaki's take on "Revenue from Open Source" and "Open Source enabling Startups."