Saturday, July 28, 2007

The magic of Hindi, GIMP, and some free time

GIMP is an image manipulation utility that you can download and use for free. I can't get over how powerful it is. Especially when you add in the ability to type in Hindi, and then perform all the usual transforms with it. Imagine if the truck-painters in India get the idea that they can use GIMP to generate their fancy logos.

I'm reading a book called "Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional", by Akkana Peck. It assumes zero knowledge of digital imaging, and patiently explains basic topics like additive colors, transparencies, layers. It is very helpful for a lay person like me who has little idea of the basics. I'm glad the book talks about these, instead of being a laundry list of what all the various tools do. Every chapter covers a single topic, which might cover many GIMP tools. At the end of the chapter, there is a project putting together the ideas of the chapter into a single task. True to its name, it ends with a chapter on writing GIMP plug-ins and scripting in GIMP.

Overall, the book is arranged very well. While I'm reading it cover-to-cover, I think it is just as good to randomly flip pages and see all the pretty pictures, and learn how to make them. The entire book is printed in crisp, glossy paper. And it has plenty of pictures of examples, and GIMP screenshots so you can follow the instructions easily. Considering that GIMP costs you nothing, $40 for a book+software is very good value for money. (The book itself doesn't come with GIMP. It is easier, and better to download the latest version from the GIMP website.)

I highly recommend the book. It covers the latest GIMP versions (2.2 and 2.4), and has a lot of information. It is helpful for both digital photography enthusiasts who want to touch up their pictures, and digital artists and tinkerers who want to play with GIMP to splash some paint around.

Feel free to use the two images above as you see fit. Better still, download GIMP and you can make much better pictures than the ones I did.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The train wreck that is Windows Vista

There is little doubt that Windows Vista has abysmal adoption. Earlier this year, many computer vendors brought back the Windows XP option with new computers. Even today, you can get Windows XP on laptops and desktops from Lenovo and Dell. You can check with your favorite vendor, and most probably, they'll ship Windows XP.

Now there's this: the Acer president criticizing Vista.

This is a sign of the times. At first, poor adoption was limited to the tech-savvy, it has now grown to the non tech-savvy, as well as business partners of Microsoft. Despite what Microsoft may claim, the fact that most major vendors continue to offer XP as an option speaks poorly of Microsoft's new OS.

It is no surprise that businesses are going to wait a long time before deploying Vista as well.

Even though Microsoft continues to make money whether XP or Vista is sold, it is a very poor sign when your aging, five year old OS is doing better than your latest OS. Remember, we're talking about a purely software company, not a hardware or service company. And also remember that they had five years to develop this software. And that Windows and Office are the only two product lines that make Microsoft money. I hope you're still comfortable holding Microsoft stock after reading that.

I might not know much about developing software, but this group took five years to develop something. At the very least it should be better than what they already had.

A few points come to mind:
  1. Complacence: This mirrors the Firefox -- Internet Explorer story. When Internet Explorer captured too much of the market, they grew complacent. What Firefox did to Internet Explorer is being done to Vista by Windows XP (and Mac OS, and Linux).
  2. Talk is Cheap: No amount of marketing can sell crap. My dentist (and he is a venerable 60 year old) is not a computer geek. In his words, " can put lipstick on a pig, but nobody's going to buy it..." He was talking about Windows Vista. Techy customers are quite jaded when it comes to the numerous Microsoft announcements, especially after years of product announcements that are just talk. Now even the lay customers are seeing through the hype.
  3. DRM: It is difficult to say how much this is a backlash against DRM, but clearly it plays a part. Vista drivers have to rewritten from scratch because of the DRM. As a result, XP has better hardware support than Vista. And techy customers loath the Vista DRM.
  4. Vendors' Misfortune: For hardware vendors, the only non-Microsoft option is Linux. Apple is absolute about refusing to let OS X run on non-Apple hardware: it is even enforced in the Mac OS X EULA. So for hardware vendors Windows XP and Linux are the only options. Dell already sells machines pre-installed with Ubuntu, and if you have noticed, their Ubuntu product lines are increasing.
  5. Microsoft Lacks Options: Unlike the Windows ME debacle, Microsoft doesn't have a second OS line that it can rely on. Windows ME was also a train wreck, but it took less time to develop. When Microsoft realized that it was a disaster, they were able to repackage the NT kernel in Windows XP. Right now, I am not aware of a second product line that can take this slack. In effect, vendors falling back on Window XP shows that everyone is looking for the second line. Windows XP is now saving two train-wrecks worth of customers: Windows ME and Windows Vista.

Friday, July 20, 2007

हिन्दी का मज़ा कुछ और ही है

क्या मजे हैं। आजकल हिन्दी में कहानियां मिल जाती हैं। यह कहानी मैंने पहले नहीं देखी थी।

यह मेरे नए उबुन्टू का कमाल है । उबुन्टू मुफ़्त में मिलता है, और आप भी इसे इस्तमाल कर सकते हैं।

हो सके तो हिन्दी में जवाब दीजिए।

This is nice. We can find Hindi stories online. I hadn't seen this site before.

This is all because of my new Ubuntu installation. Ubuntu is free for download and use.

Please try to leave comments in Hindi.

Guitar with a begging bowl

I've been learning how to play the guitar for a few months now. At first, I used a book called Mel Bay's Complete Method for Modern Guitar. It is a huge tome. If you are unfamiliar with sheet music, it is considered remarkable progress when you can cover three pages a week. So at 320 pages, it is enough material for me to practice for many years. However, the book has one major flaw: there is no recording to listen to. When I started learning, that was a big failing. I needed to hear if I was playing the music correctly. Since I had no teacher, I was responsible for checking whether I was correct, and this was hard to do if I didn't know what correct was meant to be.

So I did what any logical person would do: Buy yet another tome. (Actually, I also joined guitar classes) The new tome is called Hal Leonard's Guitar Method, the Complete Edition. This is a set of three separate books, and it comes with three CDs with full recordings of nearly all the music written in the book. It is an impressive book, and the CDs help immensely in figuring out right from wrong.

But there's something wrong.

Both books are filled with what is best described as crap music. One of the songs that I'm working on, for instance, is completely lacking in imagination and power. This song is partly religious, so I don't want to name it. Let's just call it "Juju in the valley", and save everyone a lot of grief. So Juju in the Valley is a crap song. The kind that nearly everyone can agree is not music any more than clanging pots and pans is music. It is not something I enjoy playing, though I enjoy the sense of accomplishment after I can play it. My wife heard that song, and her first comment was, "This song is best played with a begging bowl in front of you." For those of you who have not suffered in Bombay local trains, this is a reference to the tonal quality of the beggars in the trains. And this song was being played on a top dollar, electric guitar, with the best possible strings money could buy (I'm cheap, but so are the best possible strings). Oh, and the amp is killer too.

No wonder it doesn't pay to learn music. In one his comedy routines, Eddie Izzard made fun of learning music when he was a child. As a child, his incentive in learning music was to get popular, and be a heart throb among women. So understandably, he was looking to play sexy songs. Instead, he was forced to play complete rubbish, kind of like the mess I'm in. I can't possibly imagine playing "Juju in the valley" in polite company. I'd be ridiculed. That is an understatement. I'd probably be shot.

It could be that such songs are the only things that new guitarists (like me) can play. It is possible, but I highly doubt it. The opening riff to "Wish you were here" by Pink Floyd is absolutely super easy. As a matter of fact, one of the students in my guitar class picked it up all by himself. So did I. It is easier than this particular piece I'm trying. It has more impact, and more class. It is certainly within the "sexy songs" category. A lot of rock music has repeating chord patterns. They're easy. Ask any budding guitarist, and he'll tell you the three chords G C D, and how much damage you can do to listeners ears if you just know those three. There's even a video online by a group that plays just three chords, and covers a variety of early and recent rock.

So why aren't there common three chord songs in my guitar book? Why must I search online for guitar tabs to simple songs? More importantly, why aren't simple tunes in my book? Simple tunes of the "earn me groupies" variety?

The point boils down to copyright, as always. The composers own the tunes, and you cannot reproduce them without their permission. Years ago, when Eric Clapton played riffs originally played by Robert Johnson, he was celebrated. Today, any other musician will be persecuted. Just as well that Eric Clapton made his music in the 70s. Today he'd be a homeless bum. If you've heard any Robert Johnson, you can tell that the two artists are very different. Buying one Eric Clapton album doesn't mean you won't buy any by Robert Johnson. Blues and Jazz grew out of a collaborative art form. Since not many recordings were present in the early days of jazz (till Okey records, and other companies started selling jazz), the musicians played live. They revelled in playing together. Louis Armstrong played often with other musicians, a lot of whom copied his ideas, and improved them. To be fair, Louis himself built on a strong tradition of jazz that started in New Orleans, and he was building on the work of others. It was completely normal for him to play what someone else did, but embellish it in his own way. This sold records of both artists. Without this, there is no art. There is no jazz.

Today, the existing laws prohibit even sharing the information required to play a song. I cannot tell you how Eric Clapton played wonderful tonight. I cannot tell you the entire lyrics. For those who remember OLGA, the OnLine Guitar Archive, this is how you play wonderful tonight. Notice how the lyrics are missing. If the lyrics were there, this site would be ordered to take them down. Sheet music? Forget it. You have to pay for that. So a new guitarist like me tries, and tries, till there is some resemblance between my playing and Clapton's. Of course, it is is easy to play the song like he plays. The magic is in playing it exactly as he played it, or even playing it better. Without sheet music, a new musician finds it very hard to play the song exactly. Sheet music is available, for a discount price of about $25 per musician per book. And sheet music covers the full songs. I've gone through books of sheet music of guitar legends. It is worthwhile only to an established musician. For students, entire songs are difficult and time consuming. Even the Hal Leonard "Blues" book is good, but it only starts making sense after you've got a concept of sixteenth notes. So you are forced to plow through three books of Juju in his damn valley. The only reason guitar instruction books don't put bits and pieces of good songs is because those songs have composers who still have rights on the songs. Even after years and years of anyone wanting to play the song in public. There are no Louis Armstrong cover bands, but it is still illegal to learn from his playing. Even if a person takes the time to write down the sheet music and puts it up online, it would be illegal.

Recently, the composer's guild forced a guitar teacher to take down videos he had posted online. In these videos, he showed you how to play music by some current bands. The videos were available free of charge, and the teacher saw this as a way of boosting his clientele. He also sold DVDs with this material, so his videos could be interpreted as commercial. Even so, the loss to budding guitarists has been great. The videos were simple, honest, and had a very personal touch that is missing in other productions. A comparison to a similar video created by a true artist is instructive. I once watched a video (on legal DVD, thank you) by the guitarist Buddy Guy, where he explained some of his chops. The instructional quality was near zero. It was impossible to follow, it came with no sheet music, and the entire DVD was worthless to a new musician. I learnt no new guitar tricks from it. Compared to that, these amateur videos made by a guitar teacher were crisp, and clear. Even though there wasn't sheet music, he covered simple topics, and got you to play "sexy songs". Eddie would have been proud. Eddie would have continued learning to play.

For the full answer, I'd recommend you read Larry Lessig's absolutely brilliant book: Free Culture. No matter what you think you know about the music business, or the RIAA, please read the book. The entire book is available for download (in many languages) at the link in this paragraph.

With the recent extension of copyright terms, the world is moving to a place where we cannot learn how Louis Armstrong played a lot of his music. We cannot record a guitar solo on top of his trumpet. He learnt from people around him, and built on their work. We cannot do the same. Even though with a $400 computer, I can record my guitar tunes alongside his trumpet, I cannot share it with you. Even if I put a 30 second Louis Armstrong trumpet solo alongside my guitar playing, I cannot put it up online. Go figure.

The copyright extension was only in the US. India still has a 60 year copyright term, which is noteworthy. But through WIPO and WTO, even Indians will be denied access to ancient music. Really, Louis Armstrong is ancient music. Even Americans don't care about it. So why not allow new musicians to learn from this? Where's the harm?

There are some glimmers of hope, like the Internet Archive. But we all need to contribute to it. We need to make sure that we don't just turn into passive consumers of music. In as much as learning music should be fun, and about creating new types of sounds, we should encourage it. We can learn from Jazz, and Blues, and play it alongside Indian music and Indian instruments.

And as Aruna Subramanian and Neeru Paharia, show in their lovely song, we're better if we are allowed to.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Online companies: lacking professionalism

This is what I came across when looking at the website of Indian Airlines, now just called Indian. Jokes about their name aside, they have the most ridiculous email reply team. There are six domains. Count them. Six separate domains at which you can mail them.

This is bad for a variety of reasons:
  1. Phishing. What happens if you get mail from a domain called Well, it is official Indian Airlines mail, but it sure doesn't look like it. Making six domains responsible for getting in touch with customers makes it very difficult to get customers to identify phishing attacks, since you don't even have to spoof the email sender for the customer to take your mail seriously.
  2. Branding. Six domains clearly makes it hazy which website to go to.
  3. Confusing for the customer. If you have a query, do you expect the customer to look up this giant table? Or would you rather point them to a mailbox, so that it gets routed internally, and someone from the company responds?
  4. Impossible to remember: Who thought up iacshq? Why not ialccsqhwo? How impossibly complicated can one make a helpline email address?

Yahoo Canada messes up!

Here is what Yahoo Canada had on their Mail sign up page.

The caption is "Quick! Find email from an old flame". The stock image is of a disturbingly little girl. Someone at Yahoo clarify what their target Yahoo Canada Mail audience is, because I don't match it anymore.

I checked, and Luckily, both are devoid of this picture.

Why are we poor?

Last year, Tim Harford wrote a lovely article called "Why Poor Countries Are Poor". I just came across it today, (the magic of the Internet) and found it a gripping read. It talks about the crushing poverty in Cameroon, Africa, and tries to go behind the scenes to get to the cause of the poverty. It is a lovely read.
Even if you might dispute his analysis of what causes poverty, I was shocked at how so many of the situations were similar to ones that I had seen in India. I have grown up in many parts of India, and the setup in Cameroon sounds sadly familiar.

  1. Terrible roads. I remember the awful roads in Dehradun, or more recently, the absolutely terrible roads in Gorakhpur and Lucknow. The typical government response is to either patch the roads with low quality tar that wears off after the first rains, or to claim lack of funds as a reason for not doing anything. While Bangalore might have decent road quality, the overall road network is shoddy.
  2. Thugs exacting money. In Bombay, street vendors used to pay a hafta: a weekly dole to ensure that the local thug (partnering with the local police and politician) did not destroy his shack, or break his legs. An acquaintance of mine in Delhi was recently threatened by the local thug into parting with a plot of land, adjacent to his house!
  3. Libraries. Anyone in India seen a functioning local library?
I admit that a lot of these have changed for the better. Dehradun roads had improved since I left them, and some roads were being worked on before we left. After the civic council in Bombay passed some sorts of hawking regulation, hawkers and street vendors have some limited legal status.

Yet, we need to acknowledge that we do have these problems. We need to admit that no city in India has a functioning public library. People in UP need to ask where are the schools and roads. People in Bihar need to ask why the local economy is so broken that nearly all their labor goes elsewhere, to work as taxi drivers, or dhobis.

The sadder fact is that complaining about this stuff is not seen as the right thing to do. We are told that India is a poor country, and cannot have all the facilities available in richer countries. Or that "This is how it is in India". I have heard that phrase so often, I've lost count.

We look at the West so often, we forget to look at parts of India that look almost exactly like Douala.