October 2004 — Monthly Archive
…We’re so divided because of Bush that people are actually talking openly about civil war after the election. This is no good. I find myself ready to say to our friends in Europe and Asia, it’s time for you guys to plan your invasion of the US. We need a lot of help here.
(Boldface mine). With peace-loving pacifist citizens like these, the United States doesn’t really need outsiders to wish it harm.
Update: more Liberal Rage here.
Update 9 Nov 2004: Post-election, Dave seems to have got put away the partisan rage and gotten back to normal again, which is great. Now maybe the (necessary, given that it was an election year) partisan shrillness on both sides can be put aside in favour of more important issues, like making life difficult for people who make snuff videos out of beheadings.
If you use Firefox and visit Slashdot, especially as a logged in user, you may have noticed Firefox mess up the rendering on the home page and many inner pages. This is due to Bug #217527 and it seems it will not be fixed in Firefox 1.0 (but is scheduled to be fixed thereafter). I wish the Firefox devs would reconsider, it’s never a good idea to render one of your biggest booster sites badly.
That said, workarounds exist: hit Ctrl+ followed by Ctrl- to reset the display. Or download the latest Mozilla trunk builds. Or (gasp) use IE, it works great with Slashdot.
India’s new Broadband Policy is finally out. NIXI (it says) will finally mandate proper intra-India routing. Outdoor Wifi is allowed ‘in principle’. A basic minimum defintion of broadband has been made — a 256kbps always-on connection. Access providers can partner to utilize and improve available copper for DSL-grade lines. Cable TV providers can provide broadband. DTH providers can provide ‘receive-only’ Internet service (whatever that means). Good progress. The only question in my mind is–
How the hell can Indian citizens demonstrate technological leadership when it needs to look at its government in askance to implement something as non-earth-shaking as broadband-based business plans? Why do we need a Soviet-era policy document that prescribes 256kbps when we have huge amounts of unlit fiber capacity in this country? Why does the government have to mandate basic technical measures like the NIXI?
In my mind, the answer is, we’re too used to following to see the opportunity to lead.
The Business Standard writes: “Your favourite car [and] laptop [are] cheaper in New York than in New Delhi.” No kidding. The India-is-cheap meme holds true only as long as you talk about human services. For anything else, it’s not. Pizzas are cheaper in Sofia, microwaves are cheaper in Taiwan, laptops are cheaper in the US, and even relatively highly-taxed England puts India to shame when you compare prices for automobiles and non-grey-market RAM.
For cheaper-to-import items like RAM, cellphones and laptops, the unusually high prices — in a country where the cost of retailing is much lower — can be blamed on the mindset of Indian retailers.
Still thinking along supply-driven market lines, they sell globally substandard items at “affordable Indian prices” and are astonished when they see demand is not high — and why should it be, given that all but the most desperate customers can see what’s on offer isn’t good value for money? Why would one buy, say, 3 megapixel digital cameras for INR 6500-8000 when one can get 4 megapixel cameras for this price abroad? Yet, Indian vendors insist on pricing 4 megapixel cameras at over INR 15000.
To confound things, they sell globally entry-level items at 2X+ markups, thus ensuring that value-conscious buyers stay away or shop abroad. Most egregious example: the $300 Bose noise cancellation headphones cost INR 23000 ($500) at the Bose store in Madras.
For bigger-ticket items, the lack of end-to-end local manufacturing is probably the biggest bottleneck in price reduction. You’d think the big players would build local capacity in a country that has the potential to be a huge market. Think again. The article quotes a GM manager whining about the high duties and “distance” from manufacturing hubs like Mexico. Well, whatcha doin’ importing stuff from Mexico for cars in India? Oh wait, this is the Chevrolet Optra (Suzuki Forenza in the US, Daewoo Nubira in Europe) we’re talking about, and supply-driven markets again indicate that GM can safely pitch it as a luxury family sedan to impoverished Indians; after all you have to earn something like 44X of India’s per capita income to be able to afford one. Hence, especially given that India’s rich are numerous enough for GM to meet their low sales targets, there is no real incentive for them to optimize on price.
I am not going to expect India’s marketplace to improve anytime soon: red tape on the government’s side and lack of a genuine desire to give a good deal to the customer on vendors’ side together conspire to make sure that India is years away from being a consumer nirvana like the US or even China.
I am not an economist; these are my off-the-cuff observations on a Saturday night. Feel free to
flame correct me in the comments.
Foresight Institute has appointed Dr. Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, to lead the think tank’s Nanotechnology Prize Steering Committee. The leading think tank and public interest organization focusing on nanotechnology, Foresight Institute established the Feynman Grand Prize in 1996 to motivate scientists and engineers to design and construct a functioning nanoscale robotic arm with specific performance characteristics.
I’m a little sceptical of prizes in nanotech because unlike space (with its huge — especially as you get to geosynchronous and beyond — initial investments, unknown potential for return and potential years before breakeven) nanotech is generally understood to be much more commercially lucrative and has lower initial investments. There is also no dearth of academic and commercial research in the subject worldwide. Hence the prize does not quite add as much value here as it in the case of the X Prize. Failed attempts at winning the Feynman Prize will also not be (discounting gray goo scenarios) as potentially spectacular as failed rocketry/plane-launch attempts, thus possibly affecting public interest, but that’s another story.
On the other hand, most of this research is materials-oriented work (such as nanofibers in your pants), and a robotic arm that performs as well as simple bacteria is still a BHAG, so perhaps some good will come out of this.
Got some new books to read over the weekend:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: like many in engineering and science-related fields, I can relate to Christopher, the mathematically talented but socially inept protagonist of this tale. The best bit about Mark Haddon’s writing is that at no time did the book start to pall, it retained its Chapter One zest even during moments that lesser writers would have ruined with pathos — which, of course, meant that I read it in one swell foop and lost the better part of a night’s sleep in the process (Dang, Joel Spolsky had warned people about this).
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell is large, dense book written in a dry, almost pre-Dickensian style. Yet the six chapters I’ve read so far have been riveting, more so than portions of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. You may have heard this book described as “Harry Potter for adults” or even (rolls eyes) “a cross between Tolkien and Austen” (as a recommendation I saw pasted to a board in Madras’ Landmark bookshop put it), but it isn’t– it is fantasy, but it has its own distinctive voice and pace. Definitely a promising read.
Though I have been skeptical about current approaches for rich net apps, I’ve been looking at Macromedia’s Flex and Laszlo for some time to see if they come up to scratch. Of late, both have been in the news — Laszlo because they open-sourced their app server, and Flex because Macromedia announced its giving away the software to qualified non-commercial users for $9. This is all good, however, neither of these two quite leave me satisfied.
Both currently compile to Flash. Flex (I believe) is wedded to it. Laszlo, while theoretically target-independent, currently supports only Flash. Flash is known to be fast (even though non-Windows implementations have typically been a tad slow) and is used widely for ads, animations and short games; however looking through simple demos like the Amazon store shows that the the UI is far more sluggish than a standard HTML interface.
Also, both approaches currently are lousy, accessibility-wise. Even considering the work done by Macromedia to improve accessibility in Flash 7, I cannot imagine Amazon converting every page on its store to this format (and if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point implementing the order/checkout process in Flash, since that would mean subjecting shoppers to two different interfaces).
Then there are the developmental hurdles of declarative programming (not necessarily a bad thing; but it is unfamiliar to many developers and needs a good WYSIWYG IDE to be productive) and a costly application server sitting between your data and your users. And what does all this buy you? Why, Drag and drop! Data binding! Platform Independent Fonts! Sigh — supposedly obsolete IE has handled all of this since version 5, and has 85% of the browser market. The Mozilla crew is catching up, and the WHAT-WG process will ensure Safari and Opera do, too.
I can understand there may be a market for these products among those who need rich net apps right now, but those looking at this from a strategic point of view would do well to either target IE only, or wait for XAML (which is going to be baked into IE in Longhorn), or work with other browser vendors and the WHAT-WG to ensure that Web Forms 2.0 ships ASAP (and withstand a diversity of UIs as browser vendors work to iron bugs out of their Web Forms implementation, as they did with CSS, for a while).
Bottom line: upgrading the browser results in a far superior user experience than hacking together kludges on the server that execute on the client via plugins. And because of this, Flex and Laszlo, while attractive, look like products whose windows of opportunity are closing — fast.
Update Oct 12: Dr Dreff comments; he says Rich Internet Apps (RIAs) have a future without MS — he specifically mentions Apple — and MS never ships on time anyway. True, but Safari developers have been active on Web Forms 2.0, and his points do not invalidate my proposition that delivering your entire UI through a “presentation server” and requiring a plug-in to view it has no future when HTML itself can be extended to support modern UI niceties like drag/drop, fonts and autocomplete. In fact, if Adam Bosworth’s Caching Framework ever sees the light of day, it could, in conjunction with a modern widget set, revolutionize the way web apps are done — web users can finally get the same experience current Lotus Notes users do when they work with their apps offline.
I’ve been meaning to move from Blogger to Wordpress for some time now. So I finally rolled up my sleeves, opened up a guide, and ran the Wordpress install. Even with the guide, it was easy, the biggest piece of work being tweaking Blogger settings in order to import old Blogger content. That didn’t take much time either. 700+ posts spread over 4 years, imported without a hitch — great going! Awesome work from the Wordpress folks.
Wordpress in its default configuration generates every page dynamically, something I wish to avoid. Until I take a good look at the Staticize plugin, I’m going to stick with this hacked-up arrangement that caches my main page and RSS feed. I’ll be tweaking the site frequently in the next few days, so excuse the dust for a while!
47 years to the day after Sputnik, SpaceShipOne touches down in Mojave and wins the X-Prize. Though the prize is no longer in contention, others, such as the Da Vinci Project, plan to follow, making the dream of regular, cheap non-government spaceflight many more steps closer to reality.
To place what has happened today in context, the Mercury missions in the early 60s cost $1.5 billion in 1994 dollars. SpaceShipOne’s flight, on the other hand, cost just under $25 million.
On the X-Prize webcast, I’m listening to Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation who’s talking about how one spaceship is not enough, how real space travel will depend on having a fleet of ships, each with competing designs offer the public increasingly lower costs. Right on. In fact, to keep the spirit of competition in space alive, the Foundation is planning an annual spaceflight grand prix called the X-Prize Cup that should become to space vehicles what the F1 Grand Prix circuit is to automobiles.