All posts by Prasenjeet

Resolution Matters

Bill Hill, creator of Cleartype:

The 3rd Generation iPad has a display resolution of 264ppi. And still retains a ten-hour battery life (9 hours with wireless on). Make no mistake. That much resolution is stunning. To see it on a mainstream device like the iPad – rather than a $13,000 exotic monitor – is truly amazing, and something I’ve been waiting more than a decade to see. … It will set a bar for future resolution that every other manufacturer of devices and PCs will have to jump.

I remember thinking, when I was buying a laptop last year, that the most common laptop resolution of 1366×768 sucked. I’m glad the iPad 3′s display is likely to give laptop manufacturers something to look forward to.

(Via Coding Horror)

PC Crapware: Intel’s “Screen Rotation” feature

The software added by OEMs (promotional software, search toolbars, even drivers) tend to be some of the worst parts of the Windows PC experience, and it’s sad to see that even in 2011, the companies that produce PCs haven’t learnt their lesson. Here’s a data point.

Most new Windows PCs have Intel’s display drivers pre-installed, and this includes some “helpful” software to rotate your display. Now, rotating one’s display is very useful with multi-monitor setups — it allows one to set up a widescreen monitor in potrait mode to get a lovely “tall” display.

However once you set this up, it’s done. Not the sort of thing you’d mess around with on a regular basis. So why they decided to have keyboard shortcuts enabled by default for this feature escapes me.

Intel Graphics Control Panel applet - shortcut keys

This is just asking for trouble. One of the shortcuts is Control-Alt-cursor keys. If you ever play a game on your PC, boy, will you be in for a surprise as your screen goes haywire. Even word-processing power users (or Emacs users on Windows) will get bitten.

Granted, changing this setting is simple enough. (My experience of trying to change this setting when running as a non-admin user on Windows 7 was definitely not simple, mainly because the Control Panel applet that exposed the setting had issues running as non-admin.) However, even if it was simplicity itself, should one have to? Add this to a laundry-list of reasons why Apple is ripping the PC business a new one.

Attack of the Penny Dreadfuls

Indian writing in English was once dominated by the Salman Rushdies and Amitava Ghoshes, occasionally leavened by the simple pleasures of RK Narayan*. The writing was usually excellent (if sometimes pretentious) but definitely not mainstream.

Thankfully, enterprising authors are coming to the rescue. As far as I know, Chetan Bhagat set the ball rolling with his formulaic potboilers (“Combine subjects close to India’s youth — like cricket, romance, the ennui of unsatisfying jobs, IITs. Sprinkle a dash of sex — but don’t take it too far. Serve up the inevitable and utterly foreseeable conflict. Roll in the moolah.”) But now there’s a new author in town.

Amish Tripathi is an ex IIM-Calcutta banker (brand: check) who turned to writing. And he’s written book called the Immortals of Meluha (part one of a planned trilogy) about the god Shiva, set about two thousand years ago when he was still a man, leading his rather primitive tribe to the relative comfort and safety of Meluha, a city that appears to be part of the Indus Valley civilisation.

I believe this is a great idea — there’s lots of amazing stories in India’s mythology and legends, and the world would be a better place if these stories were told, or even retold with a modern spin.

So I eagerly googled the book and lo and behold: the first chapter is available to read on the web. So I dug in. And promptly winced. After reading this passage, I really didn’t feel like reading any more:

Nandi requested Shiva to wait outside as he went into the office. He soon returned, accompanied by a young official. The official gave a practised smile and folded his hands in a formal namaste. ‘Welcome to Meluha. I am Chitraangadh. I will be your Orientation Executive. Think of me as your single point of contact for all issues whilst you are here. I believe your leader’s name is Shiva. Will he step up please?’

Shiva took a step forward. ‘I am Shiva.’

‘Excellent,’ said Chitraangadh. ‘Would you be so kind as to follow me to the registration desk please? You will be registered as the caretaker of your tribe. Any communication that concerns them will go through you. Since you are the designated leader, the implementation of all directives within your tribe would be your responsibility.’

Yikes! If everyone here spoke like this, it’s clear Amish Tripathi has discovered what killed the Indus Valley civilisation: too much bureaucracy and a glut of corporatese. Don’t invent an “Orientation Executive” before you invent electricity, kids!

To be fair, I have only read one chapter. The rest of the book may be much better (although I have lost what little appetite I had to read it). But the point of this post is not to rag on Meluha’s pedestrian prose. The point is — people are reading this!

Yes, I hear you sneer, people read dreck of all sorts — to wit: James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer and half the books in the WH Smith chart. But I firmly believe that reading trash is better than reading nothing at all.

We’ve been here before. Some of the penny dreadfuls of the 1920s were truly dreadful, but they did pave the way for a lot of good genre fiction, including science-fiction. And, importantly, it made reading accessible to the masses.

I’m hoping books like Meluha can do the same in India. A vibrant publishing market can find space for all kinds of readers and all sorts of books, and it’s just not healthy for Indian writing in English to remain confined to the sorts who read Rushdie or Ghosh or Narayan. Which is why I will hold my nose at Meluha, but will wish it well.

* Yes, I realise I skipped over Shobha De’s kiss-and-tell tales and Khushwant Singh, who combines literature and bawdiness into something that’s unique to him. And for that matter, genuinely talented writers like Amit Varma who bring an authentic Indian voice into Indian English fiction. But this is a blog post, not a literature paper.

And Then There Were Three

November 2009: “Nurturing a platform is hard work.  Sure a Dell or an HP could go its own and create a platform. But it’d have to stand by and commit to its platform for the 5-7 years it takes for a platform to gain critical mass.”

Today: HP to discontinue its WebOS operations.

This leaves iOS, Android and Windows/Phone on the mobile devices battlefield. Given how much money Microsoft continues to lose on pour into search and online services, I’m not sure they’ll blink anytime soon in mobile. (Yes, QNX from RIM has a very strong core, but Blackberry’s traction with app developers is small. They really ought to license Android, but post-MotoGoogle they may just end up in the Windows Phone camp like Nokia.)

Even in this age of satellites & GPS, our feet can still surprise us:

In May 2005, Stefan Ziemendorff went for a hike in the Utcabamba valley. When he crossed into a blind ravine, though, he spied something unexpected: a towering, two-tiered cataract in the distance that hadn’t appeared on any map … he had discovered the third-tallest waterfall in the world.

Apple’s App Store Subscription Plans

Apple’s rolled out a new subscriptions platform with their usual penchant for surprise, and apparently it caught a lot of people off-guard. Some are even, shall we say, riled.

Briefly,

  • Apple will provide a subscription and purchase infrastructure, for which it’ll charge 30% per transaction. (This is the least objectionable part of the new platform.)
  • You can’t offer a lower price anywhere else on the web (Alarm bells should be going off about now)
  • You can’t link outside the app (e.g. to your website) in your app to allow “off-app purchases” (Yow!)
  • And the kicker: you have to transition to the new payments process by Summer, or get booted off the App Store. (Apple’s way … or the highway)

The obvious answer to this bit of control-freakery is to create an iOS-specific subscription plan. This way publishers can keep their iOS user base while a) not raising costs for non-iOS users and b) making very clear to iOS users that their choice of gadgetry will cost them not just at purchase time, but almost every time they pay for almost anything. And the reason for that is, well, Apple’s greed1.

Let’s consider Spotify. Note that Spotify already offers a PC-only subscription for £5/month.

  • A Spotify Everywhere will cost £10/month and will not be sold on the iTunes App Store. You will be able to buy it on their website and on other proprietary platforms if allowed. You will not be able to listen to songs on iOS devices using this plan, but you will be able to listen on the PC, Mac, Android, Blackberry, WP7, etc. This is very similar to Spotify’s current £10/month plan, which of course includes iOS devices.
  • A hypothetical “Spotify Everywhere with Apple Devices” plan will cost £13/month (£10 + Apple’s 30% cut) and will be sold on the iTunes App Store and on the Web. With this you can listen to songs on PC, Mac, Android, Blackberry, WP7, etc and iOS devices.

I believe this neatly gets around the requirement that you cannot offer a lower price elsewhere on the web. The implicit assumption here is that the lower price cannot be for a “like” product. A subscription plan that excludes iOS devices is clearly not “like” one that includes iOS devices and therefore could be cheaper.

Of course, if an app developer believes there’s enough sales from the App Store channel to justify it, they can keep their iOS-only subscription plans at the same price level (or even cheaper) than the other plans. The important thing is that content providers will have some say in the matter. Whether they actually do so and increase the number of products they offer (potentially increasing user confusion) is another story.

I’d love to hear comments and reactions to this idea. I’m very aware that increasing the number of available subscription types is a suboptimal solution, and I’d love to find out what, if any, the alternatives are.

Footnote. 1 There is no technical or user-experience reason that a link (a link!) to the content provider’s website is now verboten. As for all the Apple fans blithely commenting that they’d rather trust Apple than content providers; well, that’s sweet of you but others might not agree. For myself, I’d trust the Economist, the Guardian, the Independent et al more than Apple any day of the week.

Remember, and Let Go: Thoughts on the Lost Finale

Lost finally ended on Monday morning UK time. What a ride. It left me satisfied in a way and unsatisfied and curious in others — very fitting for such a structurally mysterious show. My only complaint would be that the island storyline seemed to get too little attention — given all the build-up about the Man in Black and the Heart of the Island the finale dispensed with those with remarkable economy. It felt like this season could have done with a few more episodes.

Unlike many, I don’t think “lack of answers” was a problem. The answers are there for those who can accept them. In many cases the answers are metaphorical and imperfect and invite you to draw your own conclusions. If you like your answers neatly tied with a bow on top Lost is the wrong show.

Unlike Battlestar, at least, Lost did not explain away whole sections of the plot as divine intervention.  I am very thankful for that. At the same time, Lost raised complex questions about philosophy, faith and science from practically the very first season, so the ‘sudden’ segue into spiritualism was neither unexpected nor jarring. In fact, one of the key themes of Lost was that its characters were lost not only physically on an island, but also morally (a point made over and over in the flashbacks of season 1-3), because of the choices each of them had made. Bravo to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for rescuing the Losties not only physically (some of them) but also morally and spiritually. It was not perfect, but it was the perfect plucky ending to one of the most ambitious pop storytelling efforts of our time.

* * *

Christian Shephard: Nobody does it alone, Jack. You needed all of them, and they needed you.
Jack Shephard: For what?
Christian Shephard: To remember … and to let go.

–Lost, “The End”

* * *

An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church says of the anamnesis: “This memorial prayer of remembrance recalls for the worshipping community past events in their tradition of faith that are formative for their identity and self-understanding”.

* * *

In Indian religions, Moksha or Mukti, literally “release” (both from a root muc  “to let loose, let go“), is the liberation from samsara and the concomitant suffering  involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and rebirth (reincarnation).

* * *

“Remember. Let go. Move on. I will miss it more than I can ever say.” — Lost creator Damon Lindelof on Twitter, after the airing of the finale.

* * *

The Church in the Lost finale episode - "The End". This shot shows Buddhist, Christian and Hindu motifs.

The Church in the Lost finale episode - "The End". This shot shows Buddhist, Christian and Hindu motifs.

Why Lost Matters

Slate:

It’s easy to hate on Lost—the sometimes silly twists and turns, the millimeter-deep characters, the ever-increasing suspicion that the writers entered this tale with no exit strategy in mind. But show a little respect for a program that serves up quality sci-fi, on free network TV, to the great enjoyment of a large slice of America. A show that’s unapologetically expensive to make, and looks it. A show that rewards the dedicated die-hard, not the casual drop-in.This isn’t a singing contest, or a dating game, or a crime-scene procedural where one week is no different from the next. This is a serial narrative filmed on location with a huge ensemble cast. My vote is for more of that on TV—not less.

LA Times:

Somehow I am not worried; the particulars of the story have never been what “Lost” is about for me. There is something always at work beneath the surface in this show, a kind of structural poetry that embodies its themes of coincidence and fate through parallel actions and mirror images, visual and verbal echoes across space and time and, lately, worlds … These devices are the meter and rhyme of “Lost,” and — with the rhythms of the actors and the colors of the island — they’ve kept the show kind of beautiful, even when it hasn’t made much sense or has wandered into unprofitable cul de sacs.

After six years, Lost is coming to a close tomorrow. For me, the beauty of Lost was always how it encouraged its viewers to look beyond the surface. In many ways, watching any given episode was almost like receiving a clue to a cryptic crossword. Cryptic clues paired with the Internet (would Lost have succeeded the way it did before ubiquitous connectivity?) created a whole community of fan-sites that dissected scenes, analysed episodes and proposed theories. In many ways, the show had become an alternate reality game in itself.

Television is often criticized for being a great, lowest-common-denominator wasteland. However, Lost’s success shows us that viewers are smarter than they’re given credit for. They took Lost’s solidly middlebrow teleplay, which downplayed its most intriguing ideas and often hid them away as easter-egg grade flashes of books in favor of explosions and “character moments”, and weaved theories that often turned out to be better than what the showrunners ultimately put into the show. But it is to the showrunners’ credit that they recognized what fun the fans were having and encouraged it with their slow drip of wink-and-nod hints, even if it meant confounding those who were looking for resolution. It is interesting that so many episodes of Lost begin with a shot of opening eyes. The sheer number of viewers this show found, and their devotion and resourcefulness, may be the biggest eye-opener of all.

Ubuntu 10.04

I’ve been using Ubuntu 10.04 for the last few days and I have to say, it’s very good and very deserving of the “LTS” moniker. No major issues like the ones I encountered with 9.04 so far.

One minor nit: the new ‘dark’ theme works well, but if you’re using Firefox and like to drag your bookmarks bar to the top to save space, you won’t be able to see your bookmarks unless you add the following to your userChrome.css:

#bookmarksBarContent {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
.places-toolbar-items {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
#bookmarksBarContent toolbarseparator {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
#bookmarksBarContent .bookmark-item {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
.chevron {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}

Without this, you wouldn’t be able to see the words “Most Visited” and “gmail” in the picture below.

Firefox on Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" using the default theme