August 24, 2002

Dasher

Just discovered this very cool input technique called Dasher that has been adapted to work on PocketPC handhelds (and some mainstream OSs) as of now.

Basically it learns word patterns and constructions from a starter dictionary and then generates a moving stream of alphabets; the user just points towards an alphabet to select it, and subsequent alphabets are whittled down to only the plausible ones (based on the contents of the dictionary). For example, if you picked 'q', the set of available alphabets that you can pick will probably be just the one letter 'u'. I recommend looking at some of the demos to see what I mean...

I think in its current form, it is a cool method to enter names for a high score table in video games :-) However, the PocketPC version looks pretty amazing and promising. Now someone has got to replace that graffiti section on the Palm Pilots with something like this...

Posted by beemboy at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)

August 13, 2002

Diamonds are forever... a scam?

I just came across a posting on one of my favorite geek news forums (Slashdot). The author is about to be engaged, and is debating whether to buy his fiancee a diamond ring; he wonders whether to invest "two months' salary" in a diamond ring and succumb to the "diamonds are forever" line promoted by DeBeers, the company that most profits from the sale of diamond rings.

There are some interesting links to sites about the atrocities associated with the diamond business, especially this eye-opener on "The top ten reasons to not accept a diamond ring...", and this fascinating one on the DeBeers diamond cartel. A quote from the latter article:

The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance.

And here's one of my favorites:

Through a series of "projective" psychological questions, meant "to draw out a respondent's innermost feelings about diamond jewelry," the study attempted to examine further the semi-passive role played by women in receiving diamonds. The male-female roles seemed to resemble closely the sex relations in a Victorian novel. "Man plays the dominant, active role in the gift process. Woman's role is more subtle, more oblique, more enigmatic...." The woman seemed to believe there was something improper about receiving a diamond gift. Women spoke in interviews about large diamonds as "flashy, gaudy, overdone" and otherwise inappropriate. Yet the study found that "Buried in the negative attitudes ... lies what is probably the primary driving force for acquiring them. Diamonds are a traditional and conspicuous signal of achievement, status and success." It noted, for example, "A woman can easily feel that diamonds are 'vulgar' and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry." The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both her innocence -- and the diamond.

Basically, the (possibly true) allegation is that the DeBeers corporation has, since its inception, tried to maintain a global monopoly on the procurement and sale of diamonds. By engineering and employing a series of takeovers and pressure tactics, the company has ensured that the aura and "value" of diamonds as symbols of luxury, power and romance has been maintained ever since. The story makes some very good reading and I recommend that you check it out. This story is most definitely along the lines of those about silk production and the exploitation of child-workers in India.

To me this is representative of the way monopolies work. It is all about painting scenarios that consumers hopefully absorb, the upshot being that the diktats of such corporations cause even changes in behavioral patterns of a society. It also puts the spotlight on the role of advertising in shaping society itself, considering the key contributions made by DeBeers' advertising agency towards altering the public mindset and implanting in their heads the now popular association of romance and perennial relationships with gems.

Anyway, this finally brings me to the million dollar question (with the said million dollars going into DeBeers' pockets): Are wedding rings necessary to prove one's love for another? Are diamonds really forever? It is my humble opinion that most TV sitcom series seem to last longer than the average American marriage today, so what is the relevance of a diamond ring in the whole scheme of things? If a diamond is forever, the hope is it is indicative of the relationship itself. And anyway, why should an expensive isotope of Carbon be accorded such a level of importance in deciding what is essentially a decision to be made independent of material aspects (ignoring such cases as Anna Nicole Smith of course)? Why is it that if Mary gets a $1000 diamond ring and Julie gets a $10,000 diamond ring, Julie's husband supposedly loves her more than Mary's husband loves Mary?

If you ask me, I'd say take the $10,000 and splurge it on an unforgettable world tour, or start a charity fund in your wife's name, or give it away to someone personally, or simply save it up for a rainy day. I would totally want to spend the $10,000 on my wife, but not on an object that simply goes into the pockets of a monopolistic corporation that exploits people in poorer nations who could instead benefit from those very same dollars.

Diamonds are forever a scam.

Posted by beemboy at 10:53 PM | Comments (5)

August 11, 2002

The Matrix has you

I am compelled to comment on a recent article that was sent to me by my sister. Specifically, this is an instance of the "Slice of Life" column by V.Gangadhar titled "Down with the Visa system" that appeared on The Hindu, arguably the best Indian newspaper.

The gist of the article is that Mr. Gangadhar and his wife are eagerly counting down the days to their daughter's visit home (in India) from the USA. As with most Indian families with offspring abroad, such visits are rare owing to several factors. The bottom line is that the daughter is unable to board the flight because she did not have a transit visa for France (she was earlier told by officials that she would not need one). This results in her cancelling the trip, and the article is basically one long dramatic complaint by her father, culminating in his wanting to dissolve the visa system.

At the outset, let me say that I completely understand the situation VG is in. Having seen his daughter only twice in the past 5 years, a visit is most definitely worth looking forward to, and all the preparations he made (described in the article) were definitely indicative of their love for the daughter and totally justified. I am more uncomfortable with his daughter's reason for cancellation of the entire trip. If visiting India were such an important thing, a small visa hiccup should not have to topple her plans. Hiccups happen, and there has to be a plan B. Agreed, not everyone has a plan B all the time (especially this is a weird last minute twist that foiled the trip). But how difficult would it be to schedule another trip the following month, or to move the trip dates by an extra week? Why did that have to warrant postponement of the trip to the following year??? And finally, why blame the visa system for something like this? The visa system is a well-established system that has worked for a long time; with no visas, everyone would freely move to other countries and the world as we know it today would be a shambles. No, don't even mention 9/11 please.

Which all brings me to explain why "the Matrix has you". To anyone who has seen the movie, the prognostication is that our minds and thoughts are influenced and essentially controlled by an external entity, and we simply live out our lives following pre-programmed algorithms. The thought of that is definitely scary. But I feel a lot of us lead lives in that fashion. Take the life of a typical middle class Indian person as an example. This might be the algorithm:


1. Get born
2. Complete elementary+high-school education
3. Complete undergraduate degree in (computer) engineering
4. Move to United States for a Masters
5. Find a job.
6. Get married.
7. Work, work, work.
8. Have >= 1 baby.
9. Work, work, work more to support child, sacrificing personal life.
10. Die.

No -- don't get me wrong -- I'm not being cynical. I'm just trying to say that somehow such an algorithm seems to get applied onto a large group of people and aberrations are either viewed suspiciously, or denounced.

What does any of this have to do with this article? Well, my feeling is that algorithm has possibly obtained a vice-grip on the lives of people such as VG's daughter. I am sufficiently convinced that her reason for cancellation has to do with the fact that international travel can only take place in a certain time of the year (like summer), vacation time at work can never be moved over to another time of the year (possibly because kids must go to school), etc. etc. Life ends up becoming one huge compromise. No one has time to do what they really love to do, to meet the people they really love and who love them back the same way, to enjoy nature and life the way people probably used to do several centuries ago.

The Matrix has you.

Posted by beemboy at 10:06 AM | Comments (14)

August 09, 2002

Touring Machine

To be honest, this is a shameless posting to indicate that my blog has not suffered the same fate as the subject of this writeup.

Edsger W. Dijkstra is dead. Of cancer. 'Who is he?', you say. Well, I would say he's arguably the father of modern computer systems theory and the father of programming. Ok, maybe the brother or cousin if not the father, but you get the idea. There cannot be a computer scientist who does not know Edsger. According to an obituary on News.com, he has published "some 1300 papers", a few of which I have actually read (and even fewer understood :-). He has several algorithms or techniques named after him, and has propounded some of the most fundamental ideas in operating systems, multi-programming, etc.

I had the good fortune of attending the school he taught in; this gave me opportunities to listen to some of his talks. He was eccentric, of course, but a very articulate speaker. And when he spoke, people always listened. I remember the time he rode on a speaker from the University of Arizona for using multiple colors for words on his slides without any clear semantic differentiation -- pretty hilarious.

One can only hope that his tribe will increase.

Anyway, if you're wondering about the title of this blog, here's another excerpt from the News.com article:


Dijkstra and his wife also enjoyed exploring U.S. state and national parks in their Volkswagen camper van, called the Touring Machine.

Trust Djisktra to come up with that one.

Posted by beemboy at 07:00 PM | Comments (0)