Vamshidhar Kommineni

August 22, 2007

Rob Short on "Behind The Code"

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 7:49 pm

Behind the Code OR

Rob Short is a VP (and a Distinguished Engineer) at Microsoft and one of the people in COSD (Core Operating Systems Division, my old group that works on the guts of Windows) I have a great deal of respect for. Like Peter Spiro, he’s another old line DEC hand with many years at DEC before moving to Microsoft with Dave Cutler to work on NT. The things that were interesting in the talk was his personal history, and how he went from being a technician/tester for DEC in Ireland to working on seminal projects like the VAX 780, Dave’s DEC West team & NT and contributing a great deal to modern computing as we know it.

He has some interesting brief anecdotes of encounters with famous tech people over the years, including the meeting where Dave & him met with Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Nathan Myhrvold to discuss building an OS at MS, and a later meeting with Andy Grove where they showed off the prototype hardware they were building along with NT.

Another interesting segment (for me anyway) was the length of time he spent talking about OCA (the system that analyzes customer blue screens sent to Microsoft) & mentioning Vince Orgovan. I worked on the team that worked on OCA data and a parallel system for user mode data, and it was interesting to see that he had taken such a deep interest in it.

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August 20, 2007

Live ID SDK for third party sites (& the fight to host your identity)

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 11:04 am

Saw this go by in my link bag of emails today:

Live ID SDK 1.0 Download

Live ID SDK Documentation

Of course, we wouldn’t be Microsoft if we didn’t have a long name for it: “Windows Live ID Web Authentication 1.0 SDK” :)

Kidding aside, this is a very interesting move that is necessary for Microsoft. Authentication & Identity is one of the few large problems that needs to be solved for the Web. The current notion of everyone having their own sign-on mechanism is simply untenable. Things wrong with it are:

  • Terrible experience for users: How many accounts and passwords do I need to remember? And every site uses slightly different username rules or password rules.  
  • Poor protection of a customer’s identity: Every site now has a chance to lose their customer’s information to malicious hackers. Even if common code libraries are used, they may not be kept patched as vulnerabilities are discovered. Also, making users remember a lot of user/password combinations leads to very low strength passwords that may be easily cracked without security holes in the underlying implementation.

And why do companies like Microsoft, Google, Ebay, Amazon or Yahoo care about this? One answer: “Stickiness”. Next to where you maintain your  data (email, photos, etc.) and your “social network” (for old fogies like me: it’s my Messenger buddy list in IM or email address book; for the new kids, it is Facebook/MySpace style profiles), the notion of who you are on the web is the stickiest piece of information. Build a good enough platform and get enough third parties (i.e. web sites) to build on your platform, and you’ve got a very good customer value scenario as well as a good analytics scenario for serving relevant ads.

It’s why Google went from the simple Search based model to adding on Gmail/Gtalk/Picasa/Checkout, etc based on Google user accounts. I would argue that the value to them is having you be a sticky user of their platform (your identity is tied into them as is your data), and being able to track how you use their services in order to build a better profile of you. The fact that they provide a good email, chat or photo sharing services is simply the value proposition to us as the customer to store our data and identity there versus storing it elsewhere.

Microsoft tried this many years ago with Passport, but weren’t successful for a number of non-technical reasons (at least as I understand it from an outsider’s perspective, I have no insight into that team). Their new effort seems much better, at least from skimming through the SDK and seeing how easy they’re trying to make it for web service developers. For starters, they’ve released the code library to do authentication in Perl, Python, Ruby, PHP & Java in addition to which is a huge step forward in terms of language/web dev platform interoperability. They’re also pitching it as a chance for sites to leverage the huge user base that MSN/Live Messenger & Hotmail provide, which is the right thing to do, since the most valuable thing in any of these platforms is the user base that uses it.  

Check out the documentation for the SDK and see what you think about it or where the general identity issue is headed. An alternative to a company driven identity platform is OpenID, which any company can implement support for. It’s an interesting alternative, but a very big loss of control for any of the big web platform companies. Microsoft seems to be taking the lead here, with a commitment to support OpenID 2.0 in Vista with CardSpace. I don’t know the details of this any more than you do.

Note: I’m almost certainly confusing a bunch of specific concepts together in this post, like identity vs authentication, etc. I tried to write this post purely from the 10,000 foot level for customers or companies, rather than use a very good semantic framework.

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August 17, 2007

Peter Spiro on “Behind The Code”

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 8:32 pm

Microsoft recently started doing this interview series called Behind the Code where they interview key architects at Microsoft in a more free-wheeling fashion about their lives, how they got to working on computers, what drives them, etc. Kind of like Charlie Rose interviewing techie people. They’re up to about 8 interviews now. Their official blurb is:

Occasionally the office of the CTO, David Vaskevitch, sits down with some of Microsoft’s most influential technical employees to capture their stories. Instead of examining specific technologies, BTC takes a closer look at the person, the career and what it takes to produce world-class software.

Anyway, I recently watched a talk online on Peter Spiro (one of the architects behind WinFS and considered to be a very colorful personality): OR

Peter is a Technical Fellow at Microsoft, and it was pretty interesting to listen to him. Particularly about his early years with a degree in forestry and "not getting a real job until 30". It’s also interesting to see him talking about the early days of SQL development at Microsoft. Things like having a small team with very little process and the importance of building teams of people in order to execute on software projects. The talk is well worth watching for his insights into people and team building alone. Other gems include his point about long lived software needing to be a set of subsystems and providing enough infrastructure and contracts between subsystems to allow swapping them out over releases.

In the Q & A afterwards, he made some very relevant points as well:

  • It’s all about the people. People skills are very important in technical organizations and will continue to serve people well
  • Being someone who fights against "the system" and tries to induce change is important
  • Finding the right technical leaders who then influence all the other people that they manage is one of the hardest things about building a software company
  • We don’t train new graduates well enough in the software business

The only weird thing about the video is the jarring edits to keep it under time. There are some abrupt transition points that could have been handled better.

Funnily enough, he reminds me of a Professor from UIUC, Steve Lumetta, both in the way he talks and the way he looks (People who know Steve will know what I mean :). Steve would like Peter too, they probably would get along famously on their shared admiration for DEC. The amount of joy in their work and the technical acumen they bring to the table inspires me to continue learning and become better at what I do.

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May 7, 2007

Blog All You Want

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 12:53 pm

From Bugbash :) 

Blog All You Want

Bugbash used to be an MS internal comic by Hans Bjordahl and was the highlight (for me anyway) of our internal newsletter. Perfect comics, many of them tailored for and mocking general engineering practices and customs (our version of Dilbert). It was refreshing that the irreverence was tolerated and most people I know at MS are huge fans of Bugbash. Unfortunately, the author decided to take a break from doing the comic. But we get to enjoy them again as he releases the archive on the web, one comic each week

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April 25, 2007

Book review: The Box (How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger)

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 6:55 am

3 stars

Ever looked at a modern city’s ports and wondered about those gigantic cranes or the logistics chain that they were a part of? Or wondered how we went from a world of stevedores/longshoremen and manual unloading to the gigantic container ships and nearly automated loading and unloading? Or better yet, how goods get so cheaply from the world’s manufacturing facilities in China to the US, Europe and other places?

These are the questions the book addresses. It does so by focusing on the humble containers at the root of all this process and retelling their history over the last 50 years or so. If we didn’t have a global standard for shipping container sizes, none of the infrastructure built around them like container ships, cranes, ports, rail cars, truck trailers and others would be possible.

The book shapes the story of the shipping container around one man Malcolm McLean who is widely regarded as the person who first used containers and built a shipping business around them. The book does a good job of detailing the history of the container including the initial struggles, the opposition of the longshoremen’s labor unions and the rise and fall of ports as they bet (or did not bet) on the economies of scale that were brought about by the container. One does get a sense by reading the book of how much of our global economy we owe to the changes brought about by containers.

So why only 3 stars? For one, I think the subject matter is interesting only to a narrow cross section of the population. Second, the book does drag quite a bit in places. The author does a great job of making the matter accessible, but he could have gone further. A certain pedantic nature does creep into the book and I felt some of the material could have been edited out of the book to trade off readability at the cost of scholarly completeness.

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“RIM: Not Enterprise/Government Ready”

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 12:56 am

Last week was the second time RIM put its customers at risk. This time, however, these customers found themselves disconnected without explanation for an extended period of time. The lack of notification, the lack of accountability, and the lack of any real evidence the core problems have been addressed make RIM unacceptable as a large enterprise, […]

Source: RIM: Not Enterprise/Government Ready

Another good post about the RIM/Blackberry outage that explicitly addresses the issue of availability and the trust that users, corporations and governments have put into RIM. I talked about this in an earlier post as well

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Post to Windows Live Writer from Sharp Reader

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 12:50 am

Windows Live Writer (WLW) is definitely my favorite blogging client and I’ve moved back to Sharp Reader from Outlook (stopping at Google Reader and RSS Bandit on the way, but more on that in a different post) as my main RSS reader. I was looking around for a way to post directly from Sharp Reader to WLW when I found this page about Sharp Reader plugins:

Which led me to the IBlogExtension standard:

which led me here and finally to here:

Though developed for RSS Bandit, the plugin works like a charm with Sharp Reader saving me a bunch of time when I want to post about something I’ve read. A few nifty things here:

  • The IBlogExtension standard that different RSS readers including Sharp Reader chose to respect
  • Steve Kaschimer for implementing the plugin and making the code available so I muck about with a private copy if I wanted to
  • Actually being able to find this stuff because of persisted blog posts (one of the main uses of blog posts in my opinion is the creation and persistence of user knowledge)
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April 19, 2007

Visual Studio Advertising

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 11:46 am

Via Microsoft Watch, here’s a banner ad for Visual Studio Express Edition that apparently was on the main Microsoft site:

Inspired Gates

Along with the Battlestar Galactica ad, that’s one marketing group in MS that is actually coming up with cool advertising ideas. Kudos to them (whoever they are).

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April 18, 2007

Daily Show and Colbert Report on XBox Live

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 9:29 am

Nice. You can’t be a "real" content provider for the younger demographic until you have the Daily Show and Colbert Report as part of your portfolio of shows. To a lesser extent, Battlestar Galactica is another important show to have for distribution.

$2/show (160 Microsoft point) for each show (the same as iTunes if I remember correctly) but with better resolution (one area where the XBox Video marketplace has shined since inception) that looks just fine on a large HDTV. I noticed the first episodes go up last night on the Video Marketplace.

The XBox 360 is a credible competitor to Apple TV while allowing you to do much more. The other player in this space is Tivo + Amazon Unbox.

It’s early days yet in the TV & Internet convergence space and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of changes in the on demand TV and movies space over the next few years. It’ll be a fun ride.

One of the things that needs to be sorted out is the business model for TV shows. $2/show is much too expensive especially for the 16 shows/month of the Daily Show. One should be able to work out a "season pass" for the Daily Show for $5-10 a month to make it really compelling.

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Scalability of web services

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 6:55 am

In a very timely fashion, here are two Slashdot posts about the fragility of our networked existence:

Blackberry network is down

Turbo Tax melts down on Tax day

I’ve never used Blackberry but have always wondered about the scalability given that corporate email gets routed through their central servers to cell phone providers. I think there is still communication with a centralized environment in the case of their BES servers. A costly lesson learned about keeping your environment decentralized and scalable. I’m not an expert, but I think getting mail on your Windows Mobile phone from Exchange server doesn’t suffer from the same centralization problem (I could be wrong, I’m just an end user and have no idea about the architecture).

The other one is going to cost Turbo Tax a lot of customers and result in a bunch of negative PR (and probably some fun postmortem meetings behind the scenes). Don’t get me wrong; I love Turbo Tax. I’ve used it to do my taxes since 1999 and can’t imagine the dark days when people were forced to navigate tax forms before they came along and simplified it. Sure, you can blame the customers who waited till the last evening to submit their taxes, but customers will be customers (and they’re always right). Turbo Tax is a very state heavy web application (lots of data going back and forth from a central data store), so depending on how it is architected, there are going to be some painful choke points. That’s one system I’d love to learn more about.

Failures like these are why good design is critical in the "Web 2.0" world. Designing a web service for fault tolerance and scalability are hard problems. It’s also why services like Amazon’s S3 and EC2 make for a very compelling scenario. Imagine infrastructure, fault tolerance and scalability on the cheap with all the heavy lifting done by teams of people that understand how to design these systems without everyone putting up a web property having to provision and deal with the problems themselves.

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March 26, 2007

Scoping Software to make sure it ships

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 10:25 am

Raymond Chen (one of a small set of Microsoft bloggers I follow regularly and someone who I have a great deal of respect for as a dev) wrote this article a few weeks ago:

You don’t know what you do until you know what you don’t do

I do believe this is an essential part of software development, right from an individual dev’s commitments all the way to large projects (like Windows).

As a dev, the more experienced (and hopefully wiser) you get, the more you realize that achieving success and satisfaction is as much about realizing what you can do in the given timeframe, and firmly saying "No" to every other feature request (and trust me, everyone always comes up with feature requests, particularly at feature review meetings after you’ve finished the feature).

For a startup or a small dev team, success on a new product/feature depends a lot on restricting feature creep and resisting the temptation to solve world hunger ("We’re not just building a simplified code editor, we’re going to build a platform to replace Word…"). I think OneNote and Windows Live Writer are two relatively recent MS products that I’ve used that have consciously evaded this trap and delivered elegant, focused and usable pieces of software.

For a large team, lacking a central vision and concrete customer scenarios can lead to lengthy delays and products that don’t necessarily have a coherent story at release time. This isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits of bottom up feature teams, but they need to be tied together with a central feature plan. And you can’t do that unless you reject some features (postpone to future releases, cut, etc.) with a "No".

I’ve seen the first and third above in operation personally. While I haven’t experienced the case of a startup team yet, I suspect it applies just as much there.

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Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 10:04 am

Brandon Paddock, who works at Microsoft has written this extremely nifty tool for Vista’s start menu that brings back much of the shortcut functionality that was available in MSN desktop search. For instance being able to type "w Microsoft" into the start menu to launch a browser and go to the Wikipedia article on Microsoft. Or my favorite: "sudo cmd" to launch an elevated command prompt (works with other binaries as well of course).

The latest version (0.4.5) adds update checking functionality so you can stay up to date with the extremely quick releases that Brandon has been putting out over the last month or so. Check it out; any techie user will appreciate the added flexibility of the keyboard extensions.

Start++ Wiki Page

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January 25, 2007

Bill Gates on the Daily Show on January 29

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 10:54 am

From :

"Comedy Central confirmed Wednesday that Gates will be the guest on the popular "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Monday night, the eve of Windows Vista’s launch."

It’s just one more measure of Jon’s increasing popularity and influence among the late night shows. I’m sure he’s going to have some interesting things to say beyond just talking about Vista :)

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January 24, 2007

The Inner Life of a Cell

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 10:36 am

One of my friends forwarded me this beautiful video yesterday:

The Inner Life of a Cell

Very cool, and nice use of animation to illustrate a biological process. The site the video comes from has an explanation of the video. From there:

"…the animation illustrates unseen molecular mechanisms and the ones they trigger, specifically how white blood cells sense and respond to their surroundings and external stimuli…"

And about the accuracy of the animation:

"…that meant sacrificing literal accuracy for visual effect. “What we did in some cases, with the full support of the Harvard team, was subtly change the way things work,” Liebler says. “The reality is that all that stuff that’s going on in each cell is so tightly packed together that if we were to put every detail into every shot, you wouldn’t be able to see the forest for the trees or know what you were even looking at. One of the most common things we did, then, was to strip it apart and add space where there isn’t really that much space…”

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January 23, 2007

Data Centers for everyone!

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 10:06 am

Well, at least for Microsoft and Google. This announcement was made on Thursday about Microsoft building a $550 million data center in San Antonio, Texas. Local news in San Antonio covers it. Don Dodge has some interesting commentary on data centers coinciding with the announcement. It made Slashdot as well. A number of things in this space are interesting:

  • Google and Microsoft are in an escalating race to build out data centers which probably won’t let up anytime soon
  • The capital costs of these data centers is immense and puts them out of reach of most startup companies (though Amazon’s EC2 and S3 might provide an early preview of how smaller companies lease space in these larger data centers)
  • Placement of data centers is primarily motivated by cost of electricity, land cost and (to a lesser extent) by their proximity to fiber
  • The depreciation on these data centers is staggering. Consider that most of the hardware that gets put in them will be obsolete in 3 years and possibly need replacing. As hardware and power optimal data center design improves, the data centers themselves might need to be refurbished to stay in service
  • This new breed of data centers will slowly require distributed services (or more likely, their underlying software infrastructure) to be truly aware of geography of data (rather than simple redundancy/co-location of copies of data) and result in big changes

Other data center news:

Google in North & South Carolina: 1, 2, 3

Microsoft in Quincy, Washington: 1

Google in Dalles, Oregon: 1

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January 3, 2007

New group at Microsoft

Filed under: About — Vamshi @ 12:01 am

After 3 awesome years at Microsoft in the Windows Feedback and Reliability Team, I am moving to a different team. I made the decision over the last couple of months with a great deal of deliberation, because I love my old team and have many fond memories of working there and the people I worked with. In the end, I felt that the opportunities and people that I get to work with in the new team were too good to pass up without at least trying my hand at it.

I’ll be working in CSE ( As the project, team and role are defined, evolve and is made public, I’ll be able to comment on it. Suffice it to say that I’m really excited about the possibilities.

Most of the people I’ll be working with and for don’t have an Internet presence (though they’re great people and I could spend some time writing about the achievements of the ones I know), except for Matt Pietrek (well known for his work on Bounds Checker). I also now work for Amitabh Srivastava (of course as a Corp. VP, he’s my bosses’ bosses’ boss, but still :). Amitabh’s a person I have immense respect for and is one of the few VPs I know that is uber technical as well as very accessible. Some information about Amitabh, here and here (the earlier link is more up to date)

December 31, 2006

The appropriateness of posting certain content on a blog

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 11:57 am

Dare has an interesting post entitled "The Year the blog died" about the tradeoffs and decisions you have to face when you chose to speak your mind about both personal issues and work related stuff. I’ve only been writing on this blog for a few months  and about 50 posts, but I’ve already run into some of the same issues internally (thankfully nobody reads the blog, so I haven’t had to face any external criticism). Granted, I’ll probably never face the same pressure Dare faces in his personal postings (he’s the son of Olesegun Obasanjo, the current President of Nigeria), nor in his professional posts (having no readership helps in that regard :), but this spurred me to talk about some of the guidelines I apply (or should apply) for myself with the blog:

  • The blog is primarily a personal one rather than a Microsoft focused one (hence not hosted on msdn)
  • Certain personal issues that I might regret making public are best left unsaid. This is a bit of a tight rope act since I have no idea ahead of time what’s harmful (I might think something isn’t harmful, but my extended family might disagree)
  • Personally or professionally, don’t use the blog for venting. That is best left to a group of close friends rather than a public forum which might be taken out of context much later
  • Don’t be too harshly critical of people or products unless it will actually lead to constructive change. This is an issue I have outside the blog as well. I speak the truth somewhat bluntly at times and it tends to put people off. If it isn’t going to change anything, I have nothing to gain by burning a bridge
  • I will blog about technology and Microsoft since they are big parts of my life, but have to do so with some discretion
  • Specifically for Microsoft (or any other company that I might work at), surface glaring product issues to the internal feedback forum or my internal corpnet blog, where things might get attended to. I certainly know certain groups at Microsoft are pretty badly broken, but at the same time, it does the groups and individuals that do care about their product and respond a disservice not to give them the opportunity to fix their issues.
  • Write the blog for myself rather than an audience, but at the same time keep intensely personal topics inside my head or in a private journal

It’s a tough act in many ways, especially if you’re trying to maintain your integrity and always be honest. As the quote Dare attributes to Jeff Simmermon says:

"Writing under family-friendly corporate constraints is a necessary but curious clusterfuck in the best conditions. Sometimes it’s like reaching deep within your soul and pulling out a basket of kittens, then quietly drowning it in a river."

December 30, 2006

The New York Times: The Good, The Bad, and the hope for the future

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 12:01 pm

Let me start this off by saying that I’m a little biased because I love the New York Times. It is one of the few remaining bastions of quality unbiased reporting and thoughtful op-ed pieces. I’ve gotten the paper version of the New York Times on the weekends for a couple of years now and read the newspaper on the web for more than 8 years. That said, I have a few opinions on where the newspaper does a good job and where it can improve:

The Good

  • As mentioned earlier, great reporting. It’s a newspaper that’s actually a pleasure to read and not filled with regionally focused human interest drivel. Good coverage of international issues as well
  • Great op-ed pieces. Most of the opinion writers (Frank Rich, Friedman, David Brooks, Paul Krugman, and yes even Maureen Dowd) have something interesting to say.
  • The Week in Review and the NY Times Magazine on Sunday. The former is a nice summary of events of significance, both national and international and the latter has a great selection of articles that I look forward to each weekend.
  • They are trying to make their web front-end better. Some of my problems are with it, but at least they are trying and deserve some credit for it.
  • The Times Reader. If you haven’t tried, it’s an awesome product. Free while it’s in Beta (and I hope it stays that way). Requires the Windows Presentation Foundation (included by default on Vista and can be downloaded for XP). Makes reading the newspaper on a PC much more practical. This is what I use to read the paper from Monday to Friday

The Bad

  • Web frontend to the newspaper, while decent, can be much better. Layout can be improved and articles made more discoverable.
  • The Times Reader can be improved. Let me access "yesterday’s newspaper" to make a more newspaper like experience. I hope this will continue to be improved since it is in Beta and under active development
  • The Alerts system. It may have a limited set of user scenarios, but I think it’s mostly useless for the rest of the population.
  • The notion of requiring a login to read most articles. I’ve been resigned to it for many years, but it turns most people off using the site regularly. Doesn’t work that well in multi-PC scenarios as well (reading the Times from kiosks while traveling for instance)
  • The whole "Times Select" concept is broken. Related to my next point. I’d love to see numbers on how many people have Times Select subscriptions without the dead tree newspaper delivery option and what percentage of the dead tree subscribers actually bother to use the features of Times Select. I suspect both numbers are rather low relative to the investment made by the newspaper on this feature
  • And my biggest gripe: Creating a walled garden of content. Everything in the NYT archive is not accessible unless you pay for it (Times Select customers get to read 100 articles for free each month). Once again I think the alternative (described in the next section) will provide more revenue than the ridiculous notion that casual readers will pay $3.95 per article (last time I checked). The non-discoverability of the rich archive behind this pay-per-article scheme only hurts the New York Times business.

The Hope for the Future

My fundamental thesis is that the New York Times is all about content. Rich reporting and editorial content. And under the current asinine system, probably 98% of that content is hidden behind their paid article walled garden. The revenue loss from opening up this archive will be more than offset by monetization through advertising on the dramatically increased page views. Given that, my suggestions for improvement (if anyone is even listening) would be:

  • Get rid of the login for reading articles. This just reduces the number of visitors to the site and any user data being mined behind the login is probably not being put to that much use anyway.
  • Stop charging for articles and open up the NYT archive to public reading. This will encourage the rest of the Web to link to the New York Times in the secure knowledge that the articles will always be available. Incidentally this will also improve incoming links to the site from Live Search, Google, Yahoo, etc. since the Times will now be an authoritative source of information on search terms.
  • Create a community of users around articles ala Amazon with ratings, favorite articles, user created collections of good articles on a topic, etc. Again this is enabled when you don’t have a walled garden. This user community will be fanatically devoted to the site and will drive more readers to it.
  • Give dead tree and "Select" subscribers meaningful value add-ons like "Save this article" (not unlike me saving a clipping from a newspaper). No walled garden = valuable collections of articles for subscribers that they will cherish and hang on to. Other features might be "Save a copy of this article as PDF", "Email the full text to a friend", etc.
  • Simplify the web site navigation with a well laid out and navigable tree of sections. Use RSS feeds aggressively on the sections to enable people to create their own "Alerts" in a simpler way
  • Continue investing in the Times Reader and alternative newspaper delivery mechanisms (to mobile devices for instance). This is the future of the New York Times (and every other newspaper). They’ve made a great first step, and they need to continue working on things. As I hope they’ve realized, they don’t need to compromise on advertising delivery in the new mediums (the Times Reader has a great way of displaying ads natively in the reader in a way that doesn’t annoy me).
  • Take more risks in the technology space. The BBC is a stellar example of a stodgy, old company that is using the web in creative ways including providing episodes online, value added commentary, etc. PBS does an excellent job as well. Learn from these sites and push the envelope.

The above suggestions have to go hand in hand with continuing to invest in what makes the newspaper great of course, i.e. investment in their reporting staff who produce the quality content. But the Times has plenty of experience here and I doubt that they will screw up in that respect.

I do recognize that the New York Times is a for profit organization. While the above suggestions might look like I’m asking them to give everything away, that’s not the reality of it. I believe that if they make effective use of advertising on the Web and mobile devices, they will make more revenue this way.

<Addressed to my readership of 0 people :)>

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December 27, 2006

Book Review: Next

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 7:46 pm

2 stars

Great concept but very flawed execution is my one line summary.

At this point, I pretty much read Crichton and Grisham out of force of habit than anything else. Both authors make good reading for a flight or an afternoon of vegetating on the couch. I bought the book on impulse to do the latter since I’m taking a few days off from work. I used to think that Crichton was better because he at least introduced a new concept in every book rather than the same legal drama rehashed like Grisham. The quality of writing in this book is making me rethink that.

What’s good about this book is the concept of dealing with genetics, particularly genetic patents, ownership of tissue cultures and the general corruption of the scientific community by corporate interests. Crichton has definitely done his research as indicated by the decent Bibliography. Unfortunately, the bibliography and the Author’s note at the end are the best parts of the book.

The actual plot is a mish mash involving too many characters, none of them with enough character development. Characters like the rich billionaire who brings the transgenic parrot to the US are completely besides the point and randomly strewn throughout the book. Crichton wants to write a thriller, but can’t focus enough for it to actually be gripping. And he can’t resist the temptation to drop every reference around the subject into a contrived little vignette or story in the middle of the book. Where’s a good editor when you need one?

The other thing that really annoyed me was the length of each chapter and the amount of context switches involved. The 415 pages are split into 95 chapters and a prologue. I’m pretty sure the prologue at 16 pages is the longest chapter in the book (though I didn’t have the patience to go back and look through each chapter). Does Crichton think this is avant garde writing at its best? Or does he imagine that in our ADD age, the audience needs to be context switched every 2-4 pages or they won’t finish reading the book?

Even at his worst, Crichton is somewhat readable, which is why the book still gets 2 stars. But if you want to read his best work, pick up his non-fiction works, Case of Need and Travels for thoughtful, analytical books by an author who could write entertaining books while still being clear and readable. Sadly, it seems Crichton has forgotten (or has no need for) those skills.

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December 26, 2006

Movie Review: Children of Men

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vamshi @ 10:21 pm

Rating: 4 stars
Link to Ebert’s review
Link to Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregation
Link to IMDB

How would the world be if there was no possibility of survival for the human race within a finite period of time? This is the essential question posed by Children of Men. The year is 2027 and no human being has been born on the planet since 2009. Why this is the case is not explained, nor is it really central to the movie. The movie centers around the question above and uses a single pregnant woman (an illegal immigrant in Britain) trying to find passage to the "Human Project" (another organization that receives scant explanation except as end goal) and the people who would help her get there vs the people who would use for political ends as the drivers of the plot.

This is a good movie with the cinematography being the highlight. It is directed by Alfonso Cuaron (he of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and camera work is done by Emmanuel Lubezki (who has some impressive cinematography to his credit). In contrast to the rich, lush colors of The New World (also shot by Lubezki), this is a gray, post apocalyptic world made more so by the palette of colors used and the many hand held shots that work well rather than irritate. You have to see it to appreciate it.

The other central thread in the movie is that of immigration policies. In the movie’s world, Britain has survived after a fashion amidst a crumbling world by isolating itself, closing its borders and gathering up all illegal immigrants ("fugies", short for fugitives). This is obviously a subject close to the director’s heart and chillingly depicted in the rounding up of fugies into cages and housed in "refugee camps" in appalling conditions. It forces you to ask yourself the questions about where we are in our current society (the attitudes towards Mexican immigrants in the US or Muslim immigrants in Europe) and where we are headed. In a sly reference to our society, the British government organization that operates the illegal immigrant internment camps is called Homeland Security.

<Warning: spoiler alert> Two scenes in this movie elevate it to 4 stars from 3.5 and make it a must watch. The depiction of the ghetto in which the fugies are housed is almost a future imagined version of the Jewish ghettos as they must have been in World War II. It looks and feels like the descriptions and depictions from the countless World War II books and movies, and is a frightening window into how such atrocities might be committed again in the "civilized" world. The other scene is the long tracking shot involving the baby being carried out past the both the rebel fighters and the government soldiers. Observe the use of sound and the human expressions in this scene.

Another interesting thing I found is how the hero of the movie, Clive Owen (an always underrated actor) never picks up a gun in the entire movie. Not once amidst all the shooting and killing.

This isn’t a perfect movie and the plot does wander at times and leaves too many things unexplained. But it is one of the year’s best movies nevertheless. Watch the movie in the theater if possible for dramatic effect. The turnout was surprisingly good for Christmas evening yesterday.

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