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tales from the woods

Monday, September 29, 2003

Communication II: Death of the dialog.

Today, i write this post on my computer. I click a button when i'm done, and magically, it gets published to a billboard that the whole world can see! Hey, it gets better. Not only can the world see my communication, it can even interact with it. Is that the coolest thing since dry ice or what? Add to that the ability to talk to anyone anywhere, the power to keep abreast with world news on an hourly basis, and the ability to access any kind of information at any time, and we begin to understand the progress that we've made.

Strangely enough, the problem that we face today is not a lack of information but an excess of it. Today, we're constantly bombarded by more information than we can possibly handle. Our adaptation to this assault is that we now sift through information rather than probe it. A high level understanding of a topic is often considered sufficient. For details, we can always refer to google, can't we? At the same time, the transfer of information (communication) rather than it's scrutiny and application becomes more important. It is the death of the dialog.

A dialog that we used to have with others or with ourselves. A dialog that helped us relate to the information that we received, and convert it into something meaningful. Simply the act of discussing an idea or a thought helps us define it in our own way. We discuss it with others if we're extroverts or simply discuss it with ourselves if we're introverts. It is the time lapse between communication that's important. Reduce this time and you also reduce the power to understand.

Even in today's complex and hyper-hectic life, i get the feeling that most of this complexity and sense of urgency is of our own making. Today, we're expected to reply to emails, SMSes, cell phone calls, pager calls almost instantly after we receive them. Considering that most of these gadgets never leave our persons, most of our work or our communication has actually degenerated to become a set of reactions rather than actions. Instant decisions have become the order of the day.

Are all these never ending emergencies really emergencies? Are we simply scared of slowing down? I don't know many of these answers. In fact, many of these arguments are also subjective and may not even apply to all. What i do know is that i will not let the pace of my life be dictated by technology. Communication is a form of art that allows us to interact with our environment. Let me rephrase that. Art is a form of communication that allows us to have a dialog with our environment. Simply creating a better paint brush does not ensure a better painting.

Friday, September 26, 2003

It's been a while...

It's been a while since i've posted. The reason for it is another story for another day. Co-incidentally it's also been a while since my mobile phone has rung/vibrated. It seems to have died of old age. Life is definitely peaceful without cellphones. The modern human need to be perpetually connected is taken care by my office where i seem to be spending three quarters of my life anyway. They give me telephones and a computer with a broadband inertnet connection. They also give me free dialup accounts/DSL connections to enable me to stay connected in the one quarter of non-connectedness. There seems to be an unspoken conviction in most people that connectedness == contentedness.

Suddenly, we're beginning to be concerned about the bandwidth of our human interactions. Do we tick off a checklist of gadgets before we leave home/office every day? Do we have an electronic address book of all our possible acquaintances at all times? Do we typically make over 3 phone calls before we meet someone on a date: once to let them know that we've left the house, the second to let them know that our ETA is 5 minutes, and the third 5 minutes later? In spite of all this faaltoogiri, do we still start off conversations with old school/college friends accusing each other of not "keeping in touch"?

There can be several reasons why this need suddenly become such a powerful factor in our lives. The first argument is simply that technology has now enabled us to communicate better. Let's try and challenge the basic assumption here. Yes, the tools to communicate have become ubiquitous and more efficient/inexpensive. Has that however made our communication "better"? I think not.

My reasoning is that humans attach value to things only based on it's scarcity/availability. If diamonds were found on every street, their worth would be the same as ordinary stones. (Of course, it doesn't lessen the inherent property of a diamond but we're talking about perceived value here, not inherent value.) Hence, when communcation was scarce and expensive, communication was highly efficient. It was meaningful, crisp and usually achieved the same goals as it does nowadays. On a corporate level, communication over snail mail would be restricted to important annoucements and would be only sent to the employees who are affected. On an individual level, letter writing was an art form in itself. A person receiving a telegram would also know that it was something important. In those days, communication was expensive but effective.

In today's world, communication has become more of an end rather than the means. We keep in touch with each other just for the sake of keeping in touch. The very strengths on which modern communication has become popular, namely ubiquity and cost will be it's downfall. To be continued...

Friday, September 05, 2003

a spitting image

Today, in office, i wanted to measure a certain distance (say 10 cm.)
Since i didn't have a scale handy, i tried googling for the image of a scale that i could print to paper and use like a normal scale(really!). I couldn't find a single image that was in true-scale. Why? I think there's potential in a image-bank site that specializes in true-scale images.

Another thing: If i do publish true-scale images, there is potential for the image to get distorted with scaling. What i mean is, if it's originally a 200x200 image, it can be resized with photoshop or even when displaying it in a html page.
My question is: Is there any way that while creating the original image, we give it say a background pattern from which we could make out that the image is distorted? In other words, can we simply look at any distorted image and clearly say that it's been distorted?

Let's break this down into 3 cases:-
1. An image is either stretched or compressed horizontally only.
2. An image is either stretched or compressed vertically only.
3. An image is either stretched or compressed in equal proportions in both the horizontal and vertical directions. In other words, the image is scaled.

Common sense tells me that the first 2 cases should be much easier to detect than the third. A gut feel also tells me that it IS possible to detect the first 2 cases. For example, a face clearly looks distorted when stretched horizontally or vertically. But then, a tree may not. So, what is it in a face that enables us to determine reasonable mutations in it's proportion? Is it symmetry? Or is it our expertise in human faces (we stare at them for pretty much our entire lives)? Or is it something else like an innate sense of proportion itself?

This problem now defines itself as a problem in understanding human congnitive ability. Since i'm a layman in this field, i can only use my common sense to try and solve this problem. A simplistic solution that occurs to me is using a pattern of 45 degree angled lines (say diamonds) as the image background. If the image is distorted horizontally, the angle would change. Since we're reasonably accurate at judging a 45 degree angle, we should be able to determine if the image has been stretched. We could even use circles instead of diamonds. Does this solution make sense?

There should be more and better ways to solve this problem, but it's not coming to me right now. Let me know if you can think of something too.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

elephant storms

I came across this interesting article that talks about the weight of clouds! It seems that a small, humble cumulus cloud weighs.. hold your breath.. 550 tons! Blow this up to a big rain cloud and it's weight goes up to millions of tons! No wonder Chief VitalStatistics was always afraid that the sky would fall down on his head one day.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Jobs in 2003

A friend forwarded this URL to me about a job opening for an American tech company. The funny thing is, even after reading it, i can't figure out if the employer is indeed a tough guy or just a phony. It's pretty interesting reading, so check it out.

Google censoring

Wired hosted this article a few days ago about google getting sucked into RIAA's fight. It was a very inocuous little article and the content just mentions that following a court ruling in favour of RIAA, Sharman networks (the owner of Kazaa has asked google to "delist" 15 sites that are in violation of the DMCA).

For those who don't follow internet wars, DMCA is this new law passed in the USofA that gives a stupidly wide range of copy protection to companies or individuals with intellectual property. The RIAA, or the recording industry has succesfully used the DMCA to put file-swapping networks such as Napster out of business.. blah blah. What's interesting though is the ease with which Google has succumbed to these delistings. Remember, we're no longer talking about a search engine but virtually the face of the internet. It's fast, it's accurate, and most importantly, it's become the de-facto way to access information on the internet. The question to be asked here is, do they now wield enough power to effectively control (or screen, if you will) the internet?

Conversely, do they now have a *moral* obligation to list all search results in an unbiased manner? No matter how offending or illegal the content?? Historically speaking, google has been sterling in it's unbiasedness. It seems to give one hope that the trellis of modern day infociety is beyond reproach in it's fairness and accuracy. However, this requires that it be supported by the law in it's effort. Would google risk a lawsuit by questioning the delist list of sites that another site has submitted. Maybe not. If so, then what prevents a site from screwing up their competitors this way? How different are we then from the Medieval ages when the common man would not be give access to books or libraries. I only hope that these flash-in-the-pan incidents do not become a future trend.

Jivha just pointed out that he had posted an article on exactly the same topic earlier. Since i didn't gain inspiration from his previous work: Bappi Lahiri style, it's quite a remarkable co-incidence! It's also deliciously ironic as my post on copyright violation might actually be a copyright violation of Jivha's article, according to the DMCA ;-)
To add, his article is very well written too, and can be found here.