Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Intelligent design? Not exactly

Recently, I had posted about the ongoing debate about evolution and intelligent design. Today, I read an excellent article in The NYT Magazine which pretty much rips apart the idea of intelligent design by explaining with examples why the design of living creatures is not exactly intelligent.

In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Another interesting thing I learnt from this article is the emergence of a hybrid solution to the perceived problem. It proposes that intelligent design was responsible for the creation of cells that later evolved into more complicated life forms. Like I said earlier, it looks like this debate won’t end soon.

Tags – ,

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Filangy - Personalized search

Filangy searchIn the already overcrowded search engine space, Filangy is a new player which offers ‘personalized search’. What this means is that, apart from the plain old web search, Filangy also allows users to search through only the pages they have viewed. This is done with the help of a browser toolbar. Such a feature appealed to me immediately and I had to try it out as soon as I read about it. But, as of now it’s only available by invitation. Maybe they are hoping that a Gmail type viral marketing effort through invitations will bring in more users in the long run. Anyway, I gave them my e-mail address, and got an invitation after some time. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and, I have to say it’s pretty handy.

The toolbars are available for both IE and Firefox. As Maxthon isn’t supported, I’ve been trying it out on Firefox. Once the toolbar (extension in the case of Firefox) has been installed, it has to be authorised, so that the username is mapped to the toolbar. As I browse, the toolbar looks at the URL and sends it to Filangy. If at some point of time I want to go back and look at something again, then all I have to do is enter my search term in the toolbar and that’s it. When the search is through the toolbar, Filangy does a normal web search by default. A direct ‘WebCache’ search requires some extra mouse clicks. Not a big deal. The results tell me exactly which pages I had browsed through had the term I’m searching for. One irritant is that the time taken for the pages I’ve visited to be reflected in my searches is totally unpredictable. The pages would have already been indexed, and assigning the content of those pages to my account shouldn’t take too long. But, Filangy is a Nutch based search engine and it must still be undergoing a lot of development and tweaking. If the pages I visit are available to be searched in a few minutes at the most, every time, it would be great. WebMarks is another useful feature that allows users to bookmark any page when they are browsing. All those bookmarks can be accessed from anywhere later.

Privacy is obviously a big concern with such a service and Filangy seems to have taken all precautions in this regard. There is alway a risk involved in shared computers though. The pages browsed by all users could be indexed and searched through later. But, this can be prevented by using the option to pause indexing for a specified period of time. Also, only the total number of indexed pages can be seen and there is no way to look at a list of all the indexed URL’s.

Although this a useful service at present which caters to a niche, I feel Filangy in its present avatar will find it difficult to find many users. That’s because Google desktop search is all that is needed to provide the same functionality, i.e, searching through visited pages. And, del.icio.us does a much better job than ‘WebMarks’ as a online bookmark manager. The only thing going for them right now is that users can access a history of pages that they have visited from any computer. Google could easily do something similar with their toolbar, and if it is integrated with Gmail and their desktop search, well, that’ll be bye, bye Filangy. But, to be fair to them, it is still in very early stages of development and more features are bound to be added soon.

Tags – ,

Sunday, February 13, 2005

New commenting system

Blogger has finally improved the commenting system on its blogs. It was always a pain to comment without a Blogger account, or, without logging in if you had one. Now it’s much better. Anonymous commenting is no longer forced. A change of settings is required to enable the convenient pop-up window for comments. Another improvement I’d like to see is the pop-up window coming up directly from the main page, rather than requiring a second click from the permalink page of the post. An FAQ can be found here.

Much better than before though.

Tags – ,

Thursday, February 10, 2005

E-mail as a database

BBC Online has an article on how e-mail services are slowly becoming personal databases. Following Gmail, all the big players now provide huge mailboxes. This space, according to the article, is being used to store a variety of information and not just plain old text mail. With an abundance of space, people now use their mailboxes to store everything from photos, videos, documents etc. While the article looks at how the major service providers’ strengths of searching and targeted advertising are going to make them money, I was more interested in how they could extend this database concept beyond mail only.

With a Google VoIP service rumour doing the rounds, an idea on how they could integrate it with Gmail – If Google does start a internet telephony service, it could easily allow users of it’s VoIP service to use Gmail as the front end for that, and at the same time use it as a database to store call history, even record and store conversations if both parties agree. With WiFi networks and VoIP phones becoming popular, such a service could be integrated with an online database too.

Maybe a few years down the line that’s what we’ll see. Google would have taken over our internet experience. We access the web through Gbrowser, all communication, mail and voice, will also be through that interface. If bandwidth is sufficient, make Google a proxy server for our browsing and we’ll have the ultimate database. Our entire online experience in searchable format, instantly. Scary? Absolutely. But, hopefully Google will ‘do no evil’ with our trust.

Tags – , , , ,

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Thanks for nothing Sony

Is Sony planning to dump products that failed in more advanced markets in India? Looks like they are, from the full page ads in magazines and huge billboards that I’ve seen in Bangalore (and most definitely in other cities too) advertising their Network Walkman. The thing is, the gizmo they’re advertising is based on technology rejected by bigger markets. The player they are mainly advertising, the NW-MS90D plays only songs encoded in their proprietary ATRAC3plus format. It does not play MP3, let alone WMA or OGG. So, I guess some software is provided to convert all our music to ATRAC3plus. Nowhere in the ad is this specified. Quite not as easy as “Connect, transfer & play” that Sony claims. It was only late last year that Sony began supporting MP3 playback on their players (walkmans?, walkmen?). Still, we privileged Indians get to buy the result of a mistake that Sony has accepted they’ve made in other markets. Engadget has chewed on Sony’s format support dilemma for quite some time now. 

And what about the cost of these players? The most expensive one, with a capacity of 512 MB costs Rs 30,000, and the cheapest player with 128 MB memory costs Rs 14,000. No wonder nobody buys such devices in India. My Iriver player with 20 GB memory and a host of other features, costs less than Sony’s cheapest offering in India (OK, I had to slip that in). The issue of bad marketing decisions and their futility has been raised before too.

Surprisingly, the lower end models have MP3 playback support. I hope this kind of ‘maybe we can get away with it’ attitude of manufacturers never pays off. If someone can afford to pay many thousands to buy these players, they must also have access to the net, and one Google search is all it takes to expose such ‘unique’ products. Of course, everybody makes their own decisions as to what they want to buy, but, lack of information should never play a role in those decisions.

Tags – , ,

Friday, February 04, 2005

Too many Gmail invites

This is just useless. Gmail just gave me 50 invites. Yes, you read right….50. Useless to me because, everybody I know has a Gmail account, and if they don’t, it’s by choice. Maybe they don’t ever plan to go out of beta. Just keep giving present users invites and at some point everyone will have an account!

Tags – , ,

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Small things to change the world

Scoble asks if small things can change the world and what those things could be. OK, I’ll take the bait. Considering the risk that it’s a thin line between things that could change the world and a boring list of feature requests, here are some small things I’d like to see from the companies/services I use –

Bloglines – There’s a ‘keep new’ feature in Bloglines that let’s me indicate which posts I want to read (again) later. These posts usually tend to be the ones that interest me and I think are worth reading in detail, or more than once too. Now, couldn’t there be a way in which Bloglines sees which posts I’m asking it to keep new, checks out the links in those posts, sees what the most popular tag for that link is on del.icio.us, and recommend similar posts? Make another feed for those recommendations and tell me who else is writing about and linking to stuff that interests me. All your users would then be exposed to many more blogs/sites on the net that they never knew existed, but would love to read. There already is a recommendation feature, based on the blogs I get the feeds for, but that isn’t too helpful.

del.icio.us – Add a ‘keep private’ feature to the links I’m adding. How difficult can that be? And no, it’s not for what you’re thinking.

Microsoft – This isn’t exactly a small thing. But, it could be if Microsoft wanted. Buy out Maxthon. There, I said it. Realise that there are a large number of people who can secure their PC’s well, thank you very much, and haven’t switched to Firefox only because it lacks some of the functionality that browsers like Maxthon provide. You might be coming out with a Firefox killer of your own with Longhorn, but do you really expect people to wait for two or three years for a new browser. Unless you plan to release a new browser before then, I’m sure Firefox would have caught up and millions of other people like me would have already switched. I know I can just continue using Maxthon, but in your hands it would mean further innovation and a better browser.

Tags – , , , ,

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The $100 PC

An article in Red Herring reports about an effort to manufacture a PC which costs $100, aimed at the developing market. The intention is to put these cheap and portable computers in the hands of millions of students in place of textbooks. While I can understand the desire to use technology to improve the quality of life, I don’t think this will ever work. The challenge in a developing country like India is getting the children into schools, let alone worrying about bridging the technology divide. I’m not saying that using technology to improve lives is unachievable in our country. It is very doable as my state Karnataka has shown with it’s Bhoomi initiative. But, aspiring to replace textbooks with computers is nothing but providing a solution to a problem that is yet to arise. Getting textbooks in students hands should be the primary focus. The disparity in economic status being as pronounced as it is in India, this plan might work within a segment, but will not address the problems of the vast majority.

Having upgraded my computer recently, and looking at the costs I have to agree with Om Malik when he says that $100 is just not achievable unless it is heavily subsidised. The article mentions that big companies like AMD, Samsung etc. have promised support. Of course they have, when the minimum size of the order that will be accepted for these $100 PC’s is one million. What will have to be seen is if the subsidy has to be provided by the governments, or by the companies also in the spirit of corporate social responsibility.

A better way of technology dissemination in India would be to follow Sam Pitroda’s PCO model. Community access to computers will serve the purpose better and be more successful.

Tags – , , ,