Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I forget, therefore I am

Let me confess in an understatement: I am not known for my ability to remember. I think I have what could be described as 'working memory' ('RAM' in geek-speak) and very less of the 'long term memory' (the hard-disk type). It is therefore fascinating for me to hear some of my friends rattle out the titles of the books (and even chapter captions!) they studied in 5th grade!

I have been trying to find out more about the way our brain stores information for a long time and have stumbled across many interesting insights. Disclaimers: I'm no neuro-scientist and no one claims to have completely unlocked the mysteries of the mind.

The first insight is that perfect memory is nearly impossible. Its something like this: Imagine our sense organs are digital transducers and that to each frame of sight, sound, smell and touch captured, the brain does some DSP and attaches contexts. These contexts act like keys that could be cross-linked to other such similar contexts. In the cyber-world, a simplistic equivalent would be intelligent tag-labels that could be attached to each piece of media on the web. And like the tag-clouds or page-ranking on the web, the brain keeps analyzing and attaching weights to these keys. I guess each person normally has the ability to assimilate only a certain maximum number of such keys in the top of the stack. Therefore, keys which have a lower relative weight might get pushed way down to a point that they become non-addressable. Thus, to recall information that has been stored in the brain that has its keys obscured in a huge bin of decrepit keys might be really difficult (though for arguments sake- not entirely impossible).

Techniques that claim to improve memory (eg: mnemonics) actually attempt to attach contexts with higher weight to chunks of information that might otherwise considered mundane- providing easier proxy addresses in a way.

There are exceptions though. Savants with Eidic Memory. There are certain differently talented people whose brains are mysteriously wired to have near perfect or photographic memories. The interesting part is that perfect memory is not as good as it seems (getting perfect scores in all tests sounds pretty cool though). Interesting read (long story) : Autism's First Child. The ability of human beings to forget is an inherent 'ability' and not a weakness. As human beings, we need to be able to forget, forgive and move on. If I had the ability to remember everything, I would probably be stuck in a rut and caught in an endless loop of ecstasy or despair- depending on the nature of some immediate trigger. That would be one extreme of being extremely 'experienced', where previous slightly negative experiences would posture our current actions through 'safe' and non-risky paths. It could kill the adventurer, the risk taker, the para-jumper and the entrepreneur in a person, it could kill the appetite for trying again after repeated failures. Imagine losing something very precious and not being able to forget about it! It would be like having a thousand phantom limbs.

That brings me to an inherent flaw in most computing solution designs. Most computers, networks, devices and robots are designed for perfect memory- more so because the cost of storage is decreasing drastically day by day and its easier to just keep adding up. So if I snap a photograph on my smartphone today and sync it up to my web album- that image is there to stay- forever. If that snap were a part of a bot's learning algorithm, it would be as retrievable a hundred years down as it is now. Google, for instance, will remember all my correspondences, my web interactions and profile for a very long time. I think there is an opportunity in trying to adopt into software systems, human-like methods for forgetting information.

Social web could also benefit a lot by trying to mimic human forgetting systems to tune their privacy settings. Google for instance today stores one's search memory for only N months- now thats a crude way to forget, it must be a lot smarter in what it needs to conveniently forget. A system designed to thus conveniently forget will meet both privacy concerns (to an extent) as well as being functional in a more 'human' way.

Thats the end of my rhetoric that brings me back to me. In conclusion, I do believe, that my ability to forget defines me, my thoughts and my deeds as much as it uniquely defines you! I guess the machines too would follow our forgetfulness in due course :)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Time and Chance

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not [always] to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11


Monday, August 09, 2010

ThinkContacts Thought Initiated Call Proto

Here's an interesting prototype application by Mirko Perkusich, based on the NeuroSky kit that I had blogged earlier about. I guess this is for real!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Triple Honors for Eko - mBillionth, NASSCOM and PCQuest

Its been well over two years since Eko was born; One and half years since it started its journey with the State Bank of India.

Eko today has a great team in place, good partners and most importantly- around 70,000 customers who have transacted over Rs. 25 crore through SBI-EKO Customer Service Points- friendly next door grocers. Slowly but steadily, some of the fundamental principles that its founders believed in, are being validated through positive growth, satisfied customers and transaction numbers.

The journey has been tough- but well worth it! It gives me immense pleasure to share three top honors Eko has just won.

1. The mBillionth award in the m-Business category.
"The m-Billionth Award South Asia 2010 is first of its kind in the region recognising and felicitating mobile innovations, applications and content services delivery. It is to honour excellence in mobile communications across South Asia spread over 9 core categories. The m-Billionth Award is designed as an annual South Asia’s leading mobile content’s award platform towards larger regional Mobile Congress in media and policy advocacy."

2. NASSCOM emerge 50, 2010.
"With EMERGE 50, we have a sharp focus – in the process we have been able to spotlight some really good companies, that were hitherto unnoticed. Plus with the level of detail that we go into with each company has helped us build an excellent dataset – covering funding, cash flows, employees, markets and specializations – for over 200 companies. This has really helped us get a sense of trends in this space."

3. PC Quest, Best IT Implementation of the year. Maximum Social Impact
"Nobody can deny the relevance of IT for enabling business growth today. It has become a crucial part of every organization. However, this achievement didn't come so easily. It required a lot of passion, many sleepless nights, and fire in the belly. Unfortunately, despite all the benefits it brought for the organization, the IT heads and their teams remained behind the scenes. They were the unsung heroes.
To change all that, PCQuest instituted the Best IT Implementation awards seven years ago in 2004. They were created with the sole objective of setting up a platform for recognizing the gut-crunching efforts put up by the IT departments across Indian organizations."

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Neural interfaces again. TED and Emotiv

Neural interface is something I've been upbeat about over quite a few blog posts so far.
The world is still a far way from B2BC, but I'm sure we'll get there soon.
Here's another addition to this topic, this time thanks to TED and Emotiv. Emotiv, like NeuroSky, about which I had blogged sometime in September 2008 provides developer kits to further this interface:

On a different note, some solutions are better simply because they are much simpler.
Check out Pranav Mistry's Mouseless - priceless!


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The 1TB Hard Disk with TV Out, HDMI and Internet! iOmega Screenplay Director

I'm a techie, I love gadgets and hope you do too. I've always wanted an external hard-drive to which I could backup all my neatly categorized photographs, sound files and other important stuff that I cared about. DVD backup was good and all the online photo-sharing sites did their job pretty well but a solid piece of hardware to hold all of your software always sounds more satisfying.

Couple of months ago, on a trip back from Mumbai, I spent some time window shopping at the Tata Croma electronics outlet inside the airport terminal. Thats where my eyes landed on a little red carton which on first glance looked like any other USB based external hard-disk.

Curiously, it had a remote control and the box said that I could hook it up straight to my TV! It sported HDMI/ TV Out and supported most multimedia formats.

But heres the best part: the thing about external HDs is that they need to be hooked up to your laptops with messy USB cables. We've all wished there was a better way and staring right back at me was a box that claimed it had done exactly that!

Its called the Iomega® ScreenPlay™ Director HD Media Player and heres what it looks like:

While I couldn't buy that piece right then and there, I made it a point to visit the Croma outlet in Delhi recently and bought it for around 10K INR (thats ~$200 USD) - more out of curiosity than necessity.

So I now have 
- a 1TB  shiny black box, 
- which has a remote control, 
- has a component TV out which connects to the back of my TV (my TV does not have an HDMI port :( ), 
- has a few USB ports to which I can connect pen-drives (and WiFi dongles!) and their like,
- has a LAN port which I connected straight to one of the LAN ports on my WiFi router.

I power on the system and it takes a few minutes (yes- that definitely calls for an improvement) to boot up. I turn on my WiFi enabled laptop. Lo and behold, I can browse wirelessly to my external hard-disk. Look ma, no wires (almost)!

I replicated my folders and files on the Screenplay, which took a reasonable amount of time. Then I turned on my TV and used the remote (now I have a three remotes to juggle!). The navigation was smooth, but it took a couple of seconds for Screenplay to load up directories. Well now I could literally browse through all my files using a remote control on my regular TV- pretty neat!

One added bonus was its internet connectivity. There is a menu item called 'Online Media'. Clicking it enables me to read straight off blogs, listen on SHOUTCast radio or even view YouTube videos and Torrents straight off my TV. However, thanks to my measly 256 kbps connection and the not-so-good buffering system, the pauses in between the YouTube videos were a bit irritating (another department for improvement).

Google just recently announced their intent of entering the TV space by coming up with an Andriod driven set-top box? Google TV which does this and a lot, lot more is scheduled sometime later this year. It would sure be interesting to see where this is going... hmm, not many screens left for google to colonize!

Now, heres what appeals to the 'developer' regions of my brain about the Screenplay Director: the software is GPLd. So, I could  download the source-code off this link and improvise (that is... time permitting). Cool!

Theres definitely much scope for improvement overall. But certainly a good start and a price point that is not too much of a premium from an ordinary-dumb-1TB-external-hard-disk-drive. Certainly opens up a lot of avenues for innovation. Overall, I'd score it 3 stars out of 5 and a bonus half star for innovation.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Eko in Financial Express

We had a great coverage on the Financial Express, Open Forum page today.
Do read the article (e-paper layout) Human ATMs by Sarika Malhotra.

Update: Corrected the url. Alternative web layout link

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Sachet Story


Every honcho worth his salt, dealing with rural retail in India, swears by the sachet story and ensures that atleast a slide in the corporate presentation is dedicated to it.

For my lack of better imagination; imagine if every book on a say, 'Engineering Mathematics' started with the same dedication page

This book is dedicated
Ms. Sa-Che'

- such is the magnitude of influence of this one word on the way folks (us at Eko included) try to position a product for the not-urban India. The Sachet Story in short, is nothing short of a hyper-polygonal love story (some of our Bollywood movies are still stuck with the triangular variety!), with a whole army of heroes trying to woo 'ol Miss Sachet with whatever they could fling at her.

Chapter 1. Its Born!

To the uninitiated, this is how, they say, it all began (courtesy, a slide shared by Dr. Amit Rangnekar):
Case: Chic Shampoo- Rural Revolution

This essentially says that sometime in the '80 or the '90s  a relatively unknown player called CavinKare, literally pulled the carpet under the entire group of global giants trying to sell their shampoos in India by understanding the simple fact that theres only as much as a customer could ever pay. If one could sell something at that price then it required nothing more than a nudge or a light tickle to persuade them to buy that something. So, they sold shampoo in tea-bag sized packets at 90p and then at 50p and viola- Sachet was born!

Chapter 2. Thats extinct!

Cut! Flashback two decades. Thats me, sweating under a groaning fan, frantically trying to coax the very last hint of black ink out of my fountain pen while the school bell rings and the teacher non-nonchalantly snatches the answer sheets, right underneath my pen's nib, before it could stutter its last dying words. No amount of cursing or praying would make any difference now. Except, maybe it did make a difference :). Well... then came a pen we simply knew as 'Reynolds'. Out went the nib and the ink-pen and the ink well; the 'pencil box' had new international tenants. I could buy a few Reynolds for the price of one ink-pen and the best part was that it democratized and simplified the process of writing. That Reynolds was the first 'sachetization' to have hit most of 'us'. While true connoisseurs did cry foul for reducing the sublime art of writing to its basal nothings; the venerable ink pen was extinct. I must admit though... its been years since I have written more than two straight sentences with any pen; who 'writes' these days anyways!?

Chapter 3. Its Plastic!

If there is anything that has contributed to the growth of the sachet industry, its the advent of plastics. Till the cheap plastics came about, it was neither economical, nor practical to pack gooey dollops of liquids, gels and what nots into gulp sized units and print glossy true-color portraits of dames showing off their photo-shopped long hair. And plastic remains its bane, especially in most emerging countries. While these engines of mass consumption went on an overdrive, generating all forms of consumables in plastic avatars, they stuck a moniker - 'disposable' on them, without having the faintest clue on how to manage their disposal.

Oh, and add to this the fact that somewhere along the path of evolution, after the elaborate drainage systems of Mohejo-daro and Harappa that made it stand out as civilizations, most of us Indians have lost the gene that should have kicked in when throwing trash in public places- its so easy to blame the genes and get away with it ;).

Chapter 4. The Bad

And, TaDa! even our animals seem to have taken to plastics- just that their intestines don't take as kindly to it and they end up dying a slow death.

If only plastic packaging were portrayed as not disposable by default, but as a re-usable novelty! True, this has something to do with the packaging industry on the whole, the sachet industry should not be the prime culprit - but definitely an accomplice.

What if all plastic using companies had to ensure by law, that they also had to buy used plastics back from the customers through the same channel that they sold their goods! ...Nothing more than wishful thinking. Sure, some companies are making token efforts as a part of their CSR programs- but we know that something like this will succeed only if it is a commercial program- an integral part of the product life-cycle.

Chapter 5. The Ugly

Well, if that was the bad, now comes the ugly. Trust me, this one IS ugly. Try this. Walk ten paces in any direction on any road in Delhi (or any place in North India), look down. I can bet you will find at-least one every odd yard. This innocuous package is called 'Pan Masala'. (The scorpion in the pic is not a part of some fancy kickass branding- thats the mandatory warning sign these have to carry)

Paan, I read has been around since ages. It is a betel-leaf wrap with areca-nut, lime and motley spices inside 'em- supposed to be chewed as mouth fresheners post meals. Somewhere down our colonial past, tobacco was added to the list of ingredients.

Commercial Paan Masala was a recent development, where a Rs.5000 crore+ industry has sprung up with various combinations of pan ingredients. The sachetization wave was readily adopted by these manufacturers and it has resulted in their sales shooting straight up. One variety of pan masala was particularly potent- the one with tobacco as an ingredient. It has now been established that pan masala is as addictive as cocaine. In its sachet form, this ended up as the only cheap thrill- that the entire bottom of the pyramid here had access to. This sachet is more ubiquitous than any other, especially in North India. From kids begging on the streets to migrant drivers ferrying their bosses in their posh cars on the streets of Delhi - ALL have a few sachets stashed in their pockets. It either helps them forget their hunger and pain or has become a plain addictive habit that they just cant kick.

Used packets are simply discarded everywhere- literally everywhere. Another unsightly addition to the plastic mess we've landed ourselves in.

The web is strewn with stats, figures and facts on this topic. Do read this one when you get time:
Chewing Pan Masala and/or Betel Quid–Fashionable Attributes and/or Cancer Menaces? G. Gandhi, R. Kaur and S. Sharma

In conclusion

The sachet story is a pretty dramatic one. A simple bi-syllabic word that has touched a few billion lives in a few good ways and a few bad ones. One conclusion is unambiguous- Sachet has redefined the word consumption- forever.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner visits Eko

It was an eventful day for Eko. Timothy Geithner (wiki) today visited an Eko SBI CSP (Customer Service Point) and spent time there interacting with the customers, retailers and staff understanding how Eko is trying to change the way banking is done in India.

(Pic courtesy: Purva Gupta, Eko.)

Heres some coverage by Reuters, a string of images on WSJ, Economic TimesYahoo News.

Also, do check out our facebook presence, and get updated with the latest at Eko.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

How our brains are tuned to the pentatonic scale- Bobby McFerrin

I am no musician, but based on what I understand, a musical scale is an arrangement of a set of notes (pitches/ frequencies) within an octave (a mathematically repeatable range). Most of us have heard about the Heptatonic scale with seven pitches. It seems that the Pentatonic scale with five pitches is something that we are naturally attuned to (even a child inherently finds it easier to understand).

Most TED videos are really cool. They have added a section called the 'Best of the Web' and this one featuring Bobby McFerrin is simply amazing. Most of us know of Bobby McFerrin through his wonderful song 'Don't worry, be happy' (click on this wiki link to read more about this song's Indian connection) with a video featuring Robbin Williams, which won the Song of the Year Grammy in 1989. In the following video, he demonstrates how natural the pentatonic scale is to the human mind.

The following is the YouTube video:


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Washing Machine Sans Power

Thanks to the bollywood movie 3 idiots, grassroots innovation in India has been brought to the limelight. The HoneyBee Network has been a pretty successful attempt at aggregating such innovations in India.

One such innovation was the pedal powered washing machine by Remya Jose (who's also a Keralite  :) ),

As anyone who has tried washing clothes on their own, without the machine, would acknowledge - it is a pain and a sheer waste of time and energy that could perhaps be put to better use. For many who have the time and do not mind a 'workout'- washing by hand still remains a lucrative option. However, gauging by the attempts made at simplifying this chore, I guess no one would mind a quick and cheap alternative.

I also chanced upon another product called 'cyclean' though it had nothing to do with India, I came across the link through Rahul Brown's blog post.

The latest design I have come across was through BoingBoing and has inspired this blog post by its simplicity (though I cannot vouch for its effectiveness). Its called Swirl. Forgiving their attempts at stereotyping the developing world through their website, I kinda like concept. Its a marriage between the well known and elegantly simple Q-Drum (a jerry can which can be rolled on the ground) and a washing machine drum. The following is the result:

It actually tries to make washing clothes fun!
So, whats your wash flavor- electric, pedaled, rolled or kicked about?