Barcamp Bangalore 3

I attended Barcamp Bangalore 3 today, held at IIM Bangalore. I reached early and saw the place getting organized in a ad-hoc manner. Initially there was chaos, and gradually order emerged. It was very interesting to see how the whole thing got organized with just a handful of volunteers. The event was well attended, with I think an attendance of well over 300 people. Kudos to the organizers!

There were a number of interesting sessions arranged around the broad themes of Mobiles, Society, Internet and Demo/Training. I felt that the mobile room by far attracted the largest crowds. Randy Wang kicked off the society room with a talk about Digital Study Hall. Thereafter, I spent most of my time in the mobile room. some of those that I attended and liked:

  • Impact of Camera phones by Wwigo people — The key takeaway was that mobiles with cameras are becoming ubiquitous and there are interesting applications going to become prevalent. Some pointers are in the area of (1) scanning barcodes and finding more information about products, (2) Citizenship Journalism and many others. The form factor of the UI is a severe limitation. Privacy concerns abound and also to whom does the rights of a picture belong (subject or shooter). They showed a demo of their product Wwigo which lets you use your camera phone as a web cam with your PC.
  • Activ Mobs — This was by far the most exciting demo I attended. The idea is Yahoo! groups ported to mobiles. They let users create small groups (which they call mobs) using mobile phones and let people message all their friends at once with a single SMS. The utility is obvious and the product is already a hit with the target crowd (18-25) with more than 10k users and 25k SMSs sent every day. They are still trying to figure out their revenue story and find investors, but the concept is cool, and can spread like a virus. I tried it out and they have some kinks due to overloading, but hopefully the service will only get better with time.

They talked about their learning in the last 4 months that the service is up. For one, they add Activ-Tip when the message is less than 100 chars, and have found that people actually read them. That could help them monetize it by replacing the Activ Tip by an (context-sensitive) advertisement. Secondly, it is difficult to enforce a format/grammar on the users since it is difficult to remember commands and syntax. Thirdly, which is a really interesting concept — instead of providing a web-interface which is completely different from their mobile interface, they are building a command-builder UI which lets the users easy build commands on the screen and submit online (with suitalbe help/directions). This will not only help in usability, but also help the users to remember the commands.

They also described their stack – Linux, Kennel, MySQL, Ruby, and a web server.

Good luck to these guys (Akshat, Sidu and Vidit)!

  • mChek – mChek is a mobile payment solution which is currently live in Delhi. Airtel customers can pay their bills through their credit card using mChek as a gateway. It is good to see such gateways being set up since that is going to spur mobile commerce and more services being sold through mobiles. They use SMS + USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Data) to register and make payments. They claim that the USSD provides them an advantage over the other players such as Pay Mate and is also more secure (since USSD is not saved in sent items). They are certified by VISA. However, there were some issues raised about security in the light of the PIN and credit card number being sent in clear text.
  • Zook – This is a mobile search solution on both SMS and GPRS. They have tried to keep extremely structured data in their databases which the query against the users question and display results, unlike Google/Yahoo!/MSN mobile search which essentiallly try to mimic their usage of unstructured data as on the web. They currently only focus on a few categories (ringtones/wallpapers/flights/restaurants/events etc.) due to the restriction of having structured data. Another choice they have made is to prompt the user with more users in case they can not find exact solution. For instance, if you such for Pizza, they might come back to ask you if you are looking for Pizza in Bangalore? and even names of localities such as Koramangla. They feel that this interaction differentiates them from other providers. They also have the option of the users contributing to their knowledge base, but I would not buy this poing until they can demonstrate its efficacy with large number of users.
  • Socio-Net – This was about Social Networks becoming pervasive in future. Social Networks will evolve to become intelligent with personalization, intelligent minig of information, and closer integration with other applications, unlock collaboration and become drivers of many of our current applications. I feel that social networks have been in existence long before (LDAP, IM, Amazon, mailing lists) they became branded so, and what we are going to see is the defintion of Social-Networking applied to it. The reason I call Amazon a social network is because they are implicitly adding ‘friend‘-edges between people who bought the same book and doing collaborative filtering on it. There is need for more research in the area with many interesting applications possible (Mechanical Turk, Community Customer Support). There was a (rather) long discussion about entreprises having social networks so that employees spend time on their own social networks rather than external sites like Orkut. While I am all for leveraging social networks in an enterprise setting, I would not subscribe to providing a company social network like on which employees can spend time. That is legalizing time pass :-) There can be better models.

Overall, some great ideas and it was great fun!


C not the most efficient Programming Language?

My friend sent me this blog post which claims that C is not the most efficient programming language. The basis of the author’s claim is that in most modern computing systems careful hand-crafted optimizations are difficult to do and one has to rely on the prowess of the compiler to produce efficient executables. C, which enables complex pointer arithmetic, makes it very difficult for the compiler to do some optimizations because its free-flowing memory access pattern leads to complications in doing alias analysis. This essentially means that it is difficult to figure out if two pointers can point to the same region in memory in C. If we can figure out that the memory foot prints of two pointers are disjoint, the compiler might be able to step in and do some efficient optimizations, which it is unable to do.

The post makes for interesting reading. The author speaks about an experiment with the implementation of an LCS algorithm on OCaml, C and other languages and claims that OCaml outperformed C.

Food for thought indeed. However, I was not sure if employing good pointer aliasing analysis algorithms in his simple case and performing better optimizations would have enabled C to outperform. His one example may not be representative of all programs and there are too many other variables that have not been studied.

And the IT capital of India is …

Bangalore certainly. Where else can you find this?


Found this on the sign board of a shop on Sampige Road, Malleswaram, Bangalore. Click to the image to see the full version.

We don’t count cents. We count coms. Silicon Valley beware!

The Dust and The Noise … I’m Lovin’ It

First reaction after a long haul-flight — Wow, there are so many people in here :)

Over the past couple of weeks — I have observed silent sidewalks and empty elevators. Redmond is a exceptionally serene place — all roads have mowed lawns on either side with green grass glittering in the (very rare) sunshine, rows upon rows of fairy-tale wooden houses along a lake, vehicles of all shapes and sizes moving obediently, trees and leaves of all hues and a rare snow-fall. What really gets to me is that there is nobody using the sidewalks, the order and marshalling of every object, the silence on the roads, a stupid TV murmuring when you get home. It gets to me — what utter waste!

So, you can imagine, as soon as I got back, I could not wait to go and walk around the market in Malleswaram. A sea of people walking on the roads (sorry, no sidewalks), shops bulging with people, fragrances of dahlias mixing with sweat and squalour wafting around, garlands and vegetables overflowing from the wooden carts, a temple bang in the middle of the entrance of the lane with a priest alert on duty to boot, noises of all kinds — cars sqealing, men mongering, women bargaining, children chattering, the bazaar sounds — music to the classically trained Indian ears (or perhaps the right phrase is trained classic Indian ears), cars zapping around putting back your trust that driving is a skill and not a routine. Sometimes their zeal gets to them like the autorickshaw which almost stamped my feet and woke me up from my American-Cross-The-Road-On-White-Sign dream).

It’s good to see people around, hear the noises, experience India. Ah, I feel alive again!

A Humbling Experience

It is a humbling experience to meet people who are really great. And it is easy to differentiate them from the fakers. It is like the traditional rich and the noveau-riche.

The quality that separates them is that the really great don’t talk about themselves but rather listen to what the other has to say, even if (s)he might just be starting his/her baby steps. They try to find value in what somebody achieves, rather than compare them with their own colossal achievements and dismiss them as a fly on the wall. They make an effort to be good listeners — I think that is the real mark of greatness just as true power is in not exercising it.

On the other hand, the impostor is pompous, garrulous about his own little achievements, giving a huge persona to his diminutive stature, not realizing that it is really their smallness that gets reflected every time they try to wax eloquent about their minuscule achievements.

True, greatness lies in humility. I feel privileged to have met Tony Hoare, Butler Lampson and Leslie Lamport.

Holi Aali Re

As Holi comes to town, here is a video which will refresh you at first and then make you think.

Hope your life is full of colours in this coming year. Happy Holi :)

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