Books Ahoy !

I am a bookworm – this is not a particular new or startling revelation to anyone who knows me. This particular love affair was fanned by my father who has a fetish for collecting things – books are one of these things :-) Over the years I have read a lot of books… I read comics and novels and magazines and newspapers. I read encyclopedias and almanacs and a whole lot of Readers Digest – I love their condensed books. I am the type of guy who will read the backs of cans or the small print in advertisements while waiting in lines :-)

Once I left college and entered the software industry – I became fascinated by the internet and awed  by the amount of information that was available. As my life became more and more nomadic (I was a software consultant) I found it difficult to carry around books (stupid international travel regulations restricting baggage to 30Kgs !) and buying books everywhere I went, while tempting, was way too expensive. Instead the addictive power of Google and broadband connections drew me to the flickering glow of the computer/laptop monitor.

Then suddenly blogging and RSS became mainstream and all of a sudden I was facing information overload. Bombarded by news items, article, opinions, rants, podcasts (I think podcasts a brilliant for certain situations – more here) and video blogging – there weren’t simply weren’t enough hours in the day to keep up!  I started feeling the computer and the broadband connection becoming a leash tethering me the glowing screen. I missed being able to lie on my back and or curling up on a couch with a book.  I bought a laptop and then a PDA (this was back before the iPod and way before smart-phones). Neither were satisfactory solutions – the laptop was too cumbersome, I was scared of dropping it and the battery life sucked. The PDA had more potential but had neither a big enough screen nor satisfactory software.

Last year I moved back home to Trivandrum (Kerala, India) – I looked at all the shelves lined with familiar classics from my childhood and promptly started reading them again (the lack of a reliable broadband internet connection played a part as well I admit). I found some of my colleagues at work shared my love for books and got recommendations, which I blended with my own list of books I wanted to read.   Then I went to the local bookstore and bought some books (actually I bought a whole lot of books) :-)

It feels good to be back reading books – I have broadband but it is not un-limited so I am more picky in what I use it for (software and media downloads mostly). I think I manage to grasp and read more using a book – I think the fact that unlike the computer there are no distractions or options helps one focus more and get deeper into the experience.

The price of books in India is a pleasant surprise compared to international book prices :-) There are few hard-covers and the books aren’t published using high quality paper but I can live with that. The only thing I miss is access to some of the comics/graphic novels I had when I was in America :-( I have heard of  the Kindle from Amazon and I think it’s brilliant – it is however – still a long way away from replacing a books.

PS: I have signed up for an online bookshelf called Readernaut check it out – you can signup if your are interested :-)

PPS: I am on Shelfari as well

Advertisements

Google hunkers down

So the Google machine is finally slowing down a bit… With the economic recession and slowing revenue growth – Google is no longer the darling tech stock that it once was. The blitzkrieg approach is showing signs of the strain and Google has been taking a long hard look at it’s core business and has started shedding some of it’s fat.

It started out with cutting the famed perks – the free food and fancy services, then it moved to cutting down the contractors and then they let go about a 100 employees.

In addition to the personnel and perks – Google has also started shutting down some of it’s products – here are some that are reaching or have reached their EOL (End of Life)

  1. Google Notebook – some of my friends really liked this one and it was good with the Firefox extension but after Google Docs and now the To-Do list in GMail it started getting less relevant. The main problem for me was – without the extension – it was just another to-do list web-site I had to remember to go to and often I needed the list when I was not anywhere near a net connection (yes – I admit it I don’t have a cell phone with a data plan).
  2. Google Video –  This one is obvious. When they bought You-Tube the writing was on the wall for Google Video and with the incorporation of video search using the universal search interface it was made even less relevant. Google has disabled the uploading of videos but is still allowing the search and viewing of existing videos. The pity is that Google Video did not have file upload limits the way You-Tube does which allowed for the upload and dissemination of some great presentations and learning videos.
  3. Jaiku – This is not going away completely – as I understand it, Googlers are planning to re-factor the code to use the Google App Engine and then release the source code.
  4. Google Catalog Search – It was started as a showcase of OCR technology. Now with Google Book Search incorporating the technology and the Google Search Wiki it’s not as relevant to Google I guess.
  5. Dodgeball – This is again an obvious one. It was a start-up purporting to provide networking and communication services to people in the same geographical areas. Google bought it but never did anything further with it and the founders of the company finally quit Google in disgust.
  6. GrandCentral – This one is still there but it has been inactive for a long while. I think the problem with GrandCentral is the lack of a clear monetization strategy that fits into Google’s business model advertising.  Besides – GTalk has video chat and voice now which might be the direction Google is taking. Recent indications only serve to reinforce this theory.
  7. Lively – This was Google’s foray into the arena of virtual worlds. I am not really a big fan of the virtual worlds concept (I think it’s way too early and limiting – it needs ubiquitous access to virtual reality hardware for the concept to make sense)  so I largely ignored this one. It seemed so did a large number of people so it’s dead. The announcement came last November itself.

All these are good steps and they portray a company that is mature enough to realize that sometimes tough steps need to be taken and pragmatic enough to take them.

Google has had an image as a naive, starry eyed dreamer – these steps will puncture that image. But, then I would rather have Google surviving the hard times at the expense of it’s naive image than it failing because of it. In the end the company makes great software and there are too many people – myself included who use it’s software every day and would miss it if it were to go away.

I can live with a few less Google Products if I can continue to get the ones that I use everyday ;-)

Of podcasts…

I have to commute to work – this in itself is not uncommon and is not the point of the post. It is what I discovered to do with my time during my commute that I wanted to share. Initially I tried the various radio stations, and settled on National Public Radio station in Atlanta – 901 FM – WABE. It had the news and some fine western classical and the advertising was limited (or easier to tune out :-) ). Then it began its biannual fund-drive and I realized I needed something else during those week. That brings us to the topic of this post – Podcasts.

I had a heard a lot about podcasts – in fact they have been around so long that predictions of their demise have started coming up. I had downloaded and listened to a couple sometime back and I liked the concept. For awhile – I dallied with the thought doing it myself… Yeah – I know I can barely post enough for a blog and here I am thinking about podcasting – the arrogance of the man :-) . Then video blogs (vlogs) came along and I decided didn’t want really want to compete with svelte and sexy actresses pretending they knew what they were talking about ;-)  – but I digress …

So I started looking for some nice podcasts to listen to while on my commute. I have some favorites which I thought I’d put up post on…

  • Comedy – I decided to start out with something light and fun. I have a penchant for British humor and gave this one a try and liked it – Sowerby and Luff. Another one which is a very leftist American political comedy is NPR’s – Wait Wait Dont tell Me… – this is very topical and will make sense only if you are aware of the day to day dealings of American politics. Finally for geeky humor try – Ask a Ninja (this is a video podcast – so its not strictly commute friendly unless you are a passenger :-))
  • Philosophy – I have an audiobook of the seminal work of Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • Life in general – Another great podcast I found on NPR is – WNYC – RadioLab
  • Internet and life online – This is a category I created for those of us who trawl the internet. We monitor it using blogs and RSS readers. We go to sites like Slashdot and Digg and take the pulse. There are podcasts for people like us – in fact they are video podcasts – but they can just as easily be simply listened to – Diggnation, Geekbrief.tv, and TWIT.tv (This week in technology)
  • .NET Technology – DotNETRocks – This is a great podcast for keeping in touch with the happenings in the world of Microsoft (which if you have looked at of late is exploding in size and scope of the developer offerings).

Two – Oh Humor

I saw this great video (I don’t know much about the hosting website so it may be taken down in a few days) –

glumbert.com – Supermarket 2.0

It’s about applying the latest cool Web-Two-O- Ism’s to a Supermarket so we have – Tagging, Ajax, Commenting, Wish lists, RSS Feeds, etc.
My favorites are the parodies on – Pandora style recommendations and Amazon style selling items that other people who bought the same stuff also bought.

Google’s latest move – Universal Search

I have been noticing some subtle and not so subtle changes happening over at Google for the past few days now. Google’s personalized home page has been renamed to iGoogle – search results has started appearing subtly different with new groupings and they had started putting more links in the classic Google Home Page. To illustrate what I mean check out this search for Jon Stewart – notice the bar showing all the different searches.

I was initially thinking, that this was simply another refining of the search experience and I thought I’d blog about it when I when I saw this announcement at the Google blog.
They have done, what – despite the looks of it – is a pretty big revamp…

Its called Universal Search – and it promises to be a merging between textual search and rich media search that should rock the search engine world and put even more distance between Google and Yahoo (Microsoft is still a distant third IMO). They are calling it the first move in pretty big re-design of their search engine, with a goal towards providing a universal search across all types of content – web, news, images, books, video, blogs, etc. This implies that now not only does your search entries return results for relevant web-links but also relevant new stories, books, blog entries and if relevant videos. From the UI point of view the user sees a white vertical navigation bar that groups the results by category. Vertical search companies better watch out – if Google can pull this off they are in trouble.

It finally reveals the strategy behind Google’s purchase of YouTube – more fodder for the search monster :-) Apparently not enough though since Google has also announced that their video search is going to search against the collections of other properties also.

Another major product or rather a new area is Google experimental. This is an area where new enhancements to the Google Search page is available for people to try out. I especially like the timeline feature and the keyboard shortcuts feature.

References :-
Search Engine Land
Google 2.0: Google Universal Search
Techmeme
http://www.techmeme.com/070517/p2#a070517p2

Firebug – a web developer’s swiss army knife

On of the most frustrating things for me as a web developer has been the browser. Not only did every type of web browser have their own way of interpreting everything – debugging client side code, be it java-script, CSS or HTML was a repetitive and primitive method of trial and error, trying to narrow down the problem code.
So imagine my delight when I first encountered Mozilla Firefox and the web-developer extension made by Chris Pedrick. HTML and CSS was so much easier with this tool that there was no comparison.
The Firebug firefox extension started off where the web-developer extension left off and took client side coding – IMHO, to the next level. Not only can you do highlight the HTML structure of you page, you can do real-time debugging of java-script (complete with breakpoints and watches).
One of the cool things about this tool is the fact that you can actually use a lite version in browsers other than Mozilla Firefox like Opera and IE by including it as a library in your HTML page as shown here.
Firebug hit version 1.0 a few days back and its creator Joe Hewitt demoed it to the Yahoo User Interface team (video). I would advise you to download the video and view it when you have about an hour to spend – there is so much to see !! For those who would prefer to read about it an overview is available on Dr Dobbs Journal which can be viewed on-line here.

Yahoo’s Web 2.0 Makeover

Yahoo! has always prided itself as being… well, a Yahoo.
Starting out as a hobby project in the early days when the Internet was still an uncool geek hobby, Yahoo transformed into the most visited website in the world . From its beginnings as a directory for websites Yahoo has grown with the Internet to become a whole on-line ecosystem.
However, with the meteoric rise of Google, Yahoo has competition. It is no longer the coolest website on the block. One of the things Google has been leveraging have been their geek credentials. The company (Google) has positioned itself as a programmer friendly, innovative company and one of the cornerstones of this effort is the opening up of its API.
In response Yahoo has gone on a major makeover effort. It changed its entire look including the Yahoo home page, Yahoo email, Yahoo maps and Yahoo search. It has added new services like Yahoo Music, Yahoo Video and Yahoo 360, and acquired great sites like Flickr and Del.icio.us.
But the biggest thing in my opinion is the Yahoo Developer site. What I really liked about this is not so much the fact that they opened it up as the approach they took with it.
Instead of simply publishing their API and a few examples, the Yahoo development team took the effort to create good documentation, including patterns, best practices etc. They went ahead and added a blog, allowing their developers to post on the site, which gives it the accessible image. Yahoo went the extra mile and that shows through. The latest API they have opened up is Yahoo authentication. Lets see how the developer community responds to this – I can only see more web 2.0 goodness from this development. Let the pretenders to the throne watch out for the Yahoo! is ready…

Return of the Yahoo

I have been wanting to talk about Yahoo and their aggressive pursuit of Google in the Internet space for awhile. The biggest manifestation of this has been their courting of developers to leverage their ecosystem. But this is big – this IMHO puts them abreast if not ahead of Google right now.

I mean c’mon – these guys have essentially put out their user data and asked other applications to leverage them. It’s a big deal because it essentially allows third parties to leverage the HUGE number of users that Yahoo has. To learn more about what I am talking about go here.

That’s it for now – I’ll let Jeremy and Dan from Yahoo enlighten you further, but I plan to update this post in due time…

Update: I was planning to expand on Yahoo authentication when I realized that while I have talked about Google and their services, I have not really talked about Yahoo in the same vein. So I have gone ahead and corrected this imbalance with this post. Check it out and leave comments :-)

Sharing information trails

Over the course of my browsing and blog watching I come across several really cool (IMHO) products and tools.

In the early days I used to bookmark them, but that didn’t work when I bought a laptop and started working on more than one computer :-) So I developed this complicated system of exporting and importing bookmarks till I discovered USB drives and that Mozilla Firefox could be made portable. But speed concerns and the realization that USB drives have limited write cycles drove me to looking for an on-line solution.

I used Yahoo bookmarks for awhile (now they have upgraded the tool and call it Yahoo My Web) but then I discovered Del.icio.us and I was hooked. I have used Del.icio.us since January last year and its only got better. It is, IMHO the preeminent social bookmarking tool out there, not only because of its clean spare interface but also because of it’s creativity. My Del.icio.us links are available on this blog on the right side below the pictures.

However Del.icio.us is blocked by the firewall at work and a friend of mine was asking me for ideas to share links with people, so I started looking again. I saw this tool (called Trailfire) today that looks particularly promising. Whats different about this website (other than fact that it can be accessed from work :-)) is that you can make comments and annotations about a set of web pages and create “a trail” about a particular topic – for e.g.: TiddlyWiki Trail

Update: Well, the powers that be at work finally decided that Del.icio.us is a legitimate and useful website after all and unblocked it a few weeks back. I have however continued to use Trailfire. I many ways I think it is a great complement to Del.icio.us. While Del.icio.us is great for quick bookmarking and for searching, its rather hard to put together a montage of links based on a theme like Trailfire. Trailfire has become my preferred tool when I want to bundle a set of links based on a particular topic. It makes it really easy and intuitive to share these links with other people, while also adding your own comments as to the content, relevance etc of each link.

Googlenaut — The online blitzkrieg

From a company that basically started out as a by-product of the research in data mining and web search, done by a couple of Stanford students – Google has grown extremely fast. After conquering the web-search arena, it has in quick succession expanded into other major areas of the Internet. With a goal to be the index of the worlds information – Google has expanded into other areas of the on-line world with an almost frightening speed. In my mind it started out with Google News, then Gmail, Google Maps,Froogle, Google Toolbar and Google Desktop. Now the products are coming out furious pace – Google Earth, Google Finance, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Local, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Spreadsheets, Google Pack… They have not been shy in acquiring products either – Blogger, Orkut, Picasa to name some…
Despite the seeming explosion of product launches, however, Google always seems to bring something different or better into its products that set it apart. Sometimes they miss -eg Froogle, Google Accelerator – but more often they revolutionize the domain they are in. Gmail with the 1GB mail limit and viral advertising, Google Maps with its AJAX implementation and open API or Google Desktop with its speed in searching users computer hard drives.

They (Google) have created a portal for their products in their home page – You can create a personalised version of the Google home page that includes many of their on-line products… I just realised as I am writing this – Google is the modern, cooler version of Yahoo!!

Hm-mm…. Yahoo has been on a re-designing spree lately – maybe I should check it out… But that’s for another post.