Vamshidhar Kommineni

December 24, 2006

Live Maps features: Pushpins, Drawing and Area Marking

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 1:32 am

I’d like to use an example to illustrate some of the features of Live Maps and how it goes well beyond just mapping and driving directions.

Let’s say I want to show you how to get from the Pike Place Market to the Space Needle in Seattle.

Normally, I would search for Pike Place Market, the Space needle, ask for driving directions (using the "Drive to…" and "Drive From…" links on the places of interest) and end up with something like this:

Driving directions from Pike Place to Space Needle

That’s useful in itself and a fairly well implemented feature. But what I really want to do is direct you from the parking garage in Pike Place to parking for the Space needle while taking you on 4th Avenue (there’s a ton of construction on Western, and it can be a bit slower than taking 4th). So I can use the nifty pushpins feature (second from the left in the screenshot below) to mark the parking locations along with the attractions:

Pushpins with parking

I then use the drawing feature (third from the left on the screenshot above) on the scratch pad to end up with the route on the same map:

Parking and correct route marked

You’ll notice that a nice feature of the drawing tools is that it shows distance on the route that you are drawing. Very useful for marking things like hiking/biking/jogging trails as well as measuring in city distances.

Finally, I’d like to mark the boundaries of the Seattle Center for you to wander around and see what else is in the Space needle complex other than the Needle itself. For this I use the "Mark an area on the map" to outline a region and fill it in, which leads me to the final link that I will email to you:

A trip from Pike Place to the Seattle Center

Obviously, I’ve over complicated the example above to some extent. The final link takes less than a minute for me to generate. Combined with the Bird’s eye view feature (I wrote about this earlier) or the 3D view feature, you could literally drive the entire route prior to getting there. I could also save this link as a "Collection" to share with other people looking for similar information. I’ll leave the collections feature for a different post.

The utility of these 3 features is quite good. I can add arbitrary push pins all over the map (to indicate locations for an apartment hunt for instance), draw routes (bike paths come to mind as a useful thing) or outline regions (outlining neighborhoods, zip codes, school district boundaries, etc.). Collections using these features can be extend local knowledge of an area to people fairly easily.

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December 21, 2006

Microsoft Robotics Studio

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 6:53 am

About a week ago, Microsoft announced the release of Microsoft Robotics Studio:

The logic behind the release is interesting, i.e. that Robotics is in the same place today as software was 30 years ago and Microsoft is trying to consolidate the software efforts with a consistent programming model and IDE. I have mixed feelings on that. On the one hand, we use "robot-like" stuff all over the place, from the obvious heavy manufacturing industries like car production to your homes (the Roomba vacuum for instance). I have no doubt that the proliferation on the consumer end will continue to happen, but I’m not sure how much the studio will help it. It probably won’t hinder it, but I think this is still very much the early research/hobbyist phase rather than an attempt to monetize and productize on Microsoft’s part.

It looks very interesting though, it’s free for personal use and at the very least it’s a nice incentive to buy a Lego Mindstorms NXT kit and futz around with it. Though that’s really just an excuse to buy more electronic toys :)

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December 20, 2006

Live Maps Bird's Eye feature rocks!

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 1:06 am

There was much publicity and excitement about the high detail oblique imagery that is exclusive to Virtual Earth, Live Local, Live Maps (http://maps.live.com). I loved the imagery when it came out and it was head and shoulders above any other satellite imagery offered at the time. However there were two limitations:

  1. Regions with bird’s eye imagery were very limited
  2. Navigation in bird’s eye view was really hard. Rather than the smooth scrolling in the aerial, road or hybrid views, the interface was more than a bit clunky requiring clicking on tiles to move from region to region.

I’m happy to report that both of these issues have been largely addressed:

  1. Coverage is dramatically enhanced.
    Regions in the US that have bird’s eye imagery
    Regions in Europe that have bird’s eye imagery
  2. There is a temporary fix ("Pseudo Panning") to allow nearly smooth panning of bird’s eye imagery. The interface is still a bit unwieldy, but way better than the old interface. Turns out this is actually a hard problem. Read about the details straight from a dev’s keyboard.  

I’ve followed the Virtual Earth team on their internal feedback alias with great interest, and they are among my favorite Microsoft teams for how fast and well they are executing. I hope they continue to do so. I’ll have to do a couple more posts about my other favorite features on Live Maps (collections, drawing, etc.)

Check out Bird’s Eye Tourist for some neat Bird’s Eye view images.

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IE Inline Search

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 12:22 am

Via Omar’s blog:

Very cool and simple plugin that improves greatly on the Find in page (Ctrl+F) functionality built into IE. Definitely one of the must have IE7 plugins. Straightforward find next and find previous without a modal dialog and the ability to highlight all occurrences in the page.

Inline Search Plugin Page

It’s also on IE’s recommended plugins list

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December 11, 2006

MSDN Wiki

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 10:23 am

Via Soma’s blog:

MSDN released the RC of a way to add on "Community Content" (essentially a wiki) to official msdn pages. Currently, the articles cannot be edited directly (probably a good thing), but additions/corrections, etc. can be added at the end of the article. I think this is pretty cool and should serve to quickly add examples, correct errors, point users to better pages for more information, etc.

The MSDN Wiki Blog

The MSDN2 site with wiki content enabled
You can tell which pages that allow additions by this little icon on the top bar (with rating, printer friendly version, etc.):

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December 3, 2006

Book Review: The Best Software Writing I

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 11:57 pm

4 stars (if you’re interested in software)

Book Cover IllustrationWell, I guess this is my first book review, mostly because I have to return the book to the Microsoft library tomorrow. It’s a collection of essays that I read over the last few weeks so I actually need to refer to it to write my review.

As an aside, Microsoft has an excellent library for employees, where they have good books (software, business, career, etc.), magazines (the regular popular ones like the Economist, Time, etc.) and online resources (IEEE Explore, Factiva, WSJ, etc.). Best of all, the library is self service and open 24 hours for browsing or borrowing. The only downside, but probably a necessary one is their recall policy. In order to get books out of the grubby hands of serial borrowers like me, they recall the book after 6 weeks with two emails about 10 days part and then a third email which copies your boss. At which point, my exasperated boss has to trudge over for the nth time and say "Return the damn book, for crying out loud" :).

If you don’t want to wade through the rest of this post, you will definitely find at least a few interesting articles if you do anything related to computer science and particularly CS as applied in software companies. All the articles in the book are available online and linked below so you can pick and choose what to read. I’m looking forward to the next compilation of essays.

Thanks to this chap, I don’t have to link to the articles in the book that are available online and will happily plagiarize from that site. If the links go dead, at least the articles are preserved for posterity in the book. And I would still buy or borrow the book for Joel’s notes as well as the ease of reading the dead tree version. Indented notes below are mine:

  • Ken Arnold – Style Is Substance 
    • Good article suggesting that coding style should be enforced through the language and that white space should matter (ala Python).
  • Leon Bambrick – Award for the Silliest User Interface: Windows Search
    • A one page comic on why Windows Search (in XP) sucks. I agree. The search functionality in Vista is much better :).
  • Michael Bean – The Pitfalls of Outsourcing Programmers
    • A great article on why any company shouldn’t outsource it’s core competency (in the case of a software company, outsourcing software development). Of course global development teams are a different idea and shouldn’t be clubbed together with simple outsourcing.
  • Rory Blyth – Excel as a Database
    • Funny comic on how people end up with crazy Excel spreadsheets. I’ve been subject to the receiving end of some of these spreadsheets as well
  • Adam Bosworth – ICSOC04 Talk
    • On the virtues of keeping things simple in the design of "Web 2.0" software. Adam is always fun to read and this talk is no exception. Sadly, it seems like he hasn’t written anything new on his blog for about a year now (unless I can’t find where he moved his blog to).
  • Danah Boyd – Autistic Social Software
  • Raymond Chen – Why Not Just Block the Apps That Rely on Undocumented Behavior?
    • The one and only Raymond Chen on why app compat matters to Microsoft. Good read. I was fortunate enough to work under the dev manager (Cornel Lupu) who came up with the notion and implementation of shims (a mostly internal technology to ensure app compat in an elegant way), so I can certainly appreciate it.
  • Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi – Kicking the Llama
    • You have to see the comic to appreciate it :)
  • Cory Doctorow – Save Canada’s Internet from WIPO
  • ea_spouse – EA: The Human Story
    • This article has been much discussed and quoted and possibly even led to some changes at EA (though I wouldn’t know). A human and family perspective and a good lesson on why you shouldn’t burn out your best people by putting them in crunch mode all the time.
  • Bruce Eckel – Strong Typing vs. Strong Testing
    • Why lazy type checking is not such a bad thing and good unit tests and automation matter much more
  • Paul Ford – Processing Processing
    • Good read. Hard to describe the article, but a good read nevertheless
  • Paul Graham – Great Hackers
    • Paul Graham is a really good writer and I enjoyed reading most of the articles on his site. This essay is about great hackers, how to recognize them, how to nourish them, etc.
  • John Gruber – The Location Field is the New Command Line
    • Thoughts on why the web as an application environment (software as a service to use the current buzzwords to describe it) is becoming popular.
  • Gregor Hohpe – Starbucks Does Not Use Two-Phase Commit
    • A fun little article comparing the Starbucks order process to software concepts
  • Ron Jeffries – Passion
  • Eric Johnson – C++ — The Forgotten Trojan Horse
    • A great read on how C++ conquered C with nary a fight.
  • Eric Lippert – How Many Microsoft Employees Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?
    • A good read on what it takes to ship (vs code) a "simple feature". The other takes on the problem that Eric links to are also good reads
  • Michael "Rands" Lopp – What to do when you’re screwed
    • A really good article from a good writer on some of the perils and lessons of life as a software dev manager.
  • Larry Osterman – Larry’s Rules of Software Engineering #2: Measuring Testers by Test Metrics Doesn’t
    • Our very own Larry Osterman. I couldn’t agree more on the post and I’ve sadly seen evidence of it as well. Good testers are worth their weight in gold. Do not weigh them down with stupid metrics that are easy to game as well as being besides the point of shipping quality software
  • Mary Poppendieck – Team Compensation (pdf)
    • Some interesting thoughts on compensation for engineers, particularly the ills of ranking software engineers on a curve. This has been a topic of much debate at Microsoft and other places over the last year or so, and remains a very relevant issue.
  • Rick Schaut – Mac Word 6.0
  • Clay Shirky – A Group is its Own Worst Enemy
  • Clay Shirky – Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software
    • Good articles on desiring social software. The first one in particular is interesting.
  • Eric Sink – Closing the Gap Part 1, Part 2
  • Eric Sink – Hazards of Hiring
    • Eric is another good write that I’ll have to start reading. His articles above about small ISVs and issues related to hiring people in small companies are very good. I like his definitions of "The Sales Guy" and programmers vs developers (though I tend to think of the latter as developers vs engineers, since by default everyone who writes code at Microsoft is titled a developer)
  • Aaron Swartz – PowerPoint Remix
    • A humorous take on why PowerPoint is bad. I wholeheartedly agree that PowerPoint is misused many millions of times a day. It’s worth reading this Edward Tufte deconstruction as well. I’m curious enough that I ordered Tufte’s essay on the issue.
  • why the lucky stiff – A Quick (and Hopefully Painless) Ride Through Ruby (with Cartoon Foxes)
    • I don’t know much about Ruby as a programming language, but the article was certainly a fun way to a learn a bit about. The cartoons are priceless.

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TED Talks

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 9:52 am

One last link sent by my friend (Pranava), and the most useful. Here’s what TED has to say about itself. At last check, the talks you can view and download from the site include Al Gore, Larry Brilliant, Steven Levitt, Malcolm Gladwell, Burt Rutan, Ray Kurzweil and many more. Treat yourself and spend some time watching the talks here rather than watching TV :)

http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/

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A tribute to nerdy love

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 12:56 am

I swear I didn’t find this myself; it was emailed to me by a friend :):

Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)

This is a pretty funny song by a group called Klein four (what Klein four really is in math), that have a whole album of their songs for sale. If you understand what they’re talking about with reference to the math in the song, you might be a nerd :)

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December 1, 2006

Agassi again

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 11:25 pm

I made an old post raving about Agassi at his retirement. One of my friends pointed out this article in the SI:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/magazine/08/30/agassi0717/index.html

It’s a great read if you like Agassi at all. Much nicer than the usual SI articles. I hope they keep it up on the site for a while.

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Zune a complete failure?

Filed under: Microsoft — Vamshi @ 1:04 am

Well, at least the Chicago Sun Times thinks so. From the article:

"Avoid, is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that’s so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity…Microsoft’s colossal blunder was to knock the user out of that question and put the music industry in its place. Result: The Zune will be dead and gone within six months. Good riddance."

This article has in turn garnered a lot of press including being slashdotted (naturally). It’s interesting that the author doesn’t write about the device capabilities or pros/cons in a balanced fashion. He sees fit to rant and rail in a fashion befitting a blog rather than a (semi) respected newspaper. I particularly love the last statement. I would love to see us maintain a commitment to improving and have this guy and others like him eat crow over the next few years. Even the Zune, which people have seen fit to write off, has one interesting ace up it’s sleeve: upgradable firmware and a willingness from the team behind it to add new features. I believe that stuff that is missing can and will be added over time.

A more balanced review of the Zune is here:

http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,1558,2061973,00.asp

By the way, to offer a non-Microsoft choice, I also really like the Sansa e200 series of players, particularly if you’re looking for a smaller player for working out and such. The iRiver Clix is another interesting player. And I don’t really hate iPods. I think they’re well designed devices with a typical (good) Apple eye for design. The only turnoff for me is the lack of subscription based music. I listen to a lot of random bands that I usually hear first on KEXP, without necessarily wanting the commitment of buying all the music.

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November 30, 2006

Legal immigrants and Green Cards

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 12:12 am

Yahoo news has an unusually spot on article about the plight of legal immigrants applying for permanent residency:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20061129/pl_nm/usa_greencard_dc

This is a pertinent issue for every legal immigrant in this country (including me) who wants to potentially immigrate to the country. Without a green card the following things are true:

  • Switching jobs resets the process (until a late stage in the process), so this limits career mobility for people. I am lucky in that I can switch what I do completely while still under the umbrella of Microsoft, but not everyone is so lucky
  • Your spouse who may be qualified to work (teacher, social worker, etc.) but will not independently qualify for an H1-B work sponsorship will be unable to work till the green card comes through
  • Issues around out of state/in state residency for things like university tuition
  • Your are still qualified as a non-immigrant for most of this process, so you have to go through a whole stack of legal hassles to maintain your legal status.

And of course, getting a green card is the first step towards becoming a naturalized citizen of your adopted country. I’ve lived in the US for most of my adult life (been here since I was 17) and I’m still 5-7 years (depending on how this mess is sorted out) away from permanent residency and another 6 years after that from becoming a citizen. During the past 8 years, I’ve lived here, formed life long friendships, paid my taxes, social security and medicare (even though I don’t get to use the last two without being a citizen, but no matter, I consider that a worthy social burden) and for the most part come to regard the US as my second homeland.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs both personally and I think in a larger sense for the country. For better or worse, what makes the United States so special is that it has always been a nation of immigrants working to make their lives better and in doing so benefiting the country as a whole. The fact that skilled workers from across the world want to come to the US to live and work is a huge competitive advantage. I fear that if this situation continues and working situation and opportunities improve in the largest skilled labor sources (India and China), this competitive advantage will be eroded. More people will chose to move back home or not even come to the US for higher education. That’s a not good outcome for the country.

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November 28, 2006

Microfinance and Kiva.org

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 9:50 pm

Microfinance is the current hot topic of the day what with Mohammed Yunus winning the Nobel peace prize and all. I watched his interviews on Jon Stewart (a few weeks ago) and Charlie Rose (recently). Here’s what he had to say about Microfinance and other related topics:

  • Microfinance is loans without collateral or guarantees for the poor that cannot afford them
  • This is a social & sustainable business, i.e. not a charity but not one that earns money either
  • Grameen bank only operates in rural areas in Bangladesh since the government does not allow it in the cities
  • Poverty is created by the system and poor people only lack the opportunity to rid themselves of it (which Grameen bank and microcredit in general provides)
  • Eradication of poverty is possible. He states that Bangladesh is on track to halve poverty there from 1990-2015
  • Globalization can be good or bad. He believes it is currently bad and corporations and richer countries are taking advantage of the poorer countries ("financial colonization" is the word he used). It needs to be reformed to benefit both  parties more equally

Interesting stuff. In addition to what he said, here’s why I think microfinance can and does work better than charitable handouts:

  • It puts an onus on people to repay the loans and be responsible for them
  • Working to pay off their loans in small amounts in turn boosts their self esteem and encourages them to be ingenious. I think this is a deeply ingrained trait in most human beings regardless of race or socio-economic status
  • It educates them about money management for their future endeavors, which is the most important lesson for any small business, regardless of size
  • A prospering small business owner in turn benefits their family and people around them (the irony of trickle-down economics actually working :)
  • From a giver’s point of view, it allows the same pool of money to circulate many times and benefit many people

This isn’t to say that charity is not necessary. There are many circumstances where it is vital. Humanitarian aid in times of war, famine and natural disaster will always be needed. Emphasis on basic nutrition, healthcare and education will also have to be funded without expectation of immediate returns. But I do think microfinance is interesting and is having a big impact around the world, and will continue to do so.

Coincidentally, I watched a really cool program on Frontline World (full segment available as well) a few weeks ago about Kiva.org. These folks took the idea of microcredit and tried to establish a more direct connection between lenders and borrowers. Working with partner agencies (starting in Uganda, and now in 11 countries). Using the web, they simplified the process of lending for individuals and exposed borrowers and their aspirations to the widest possible audience. They are also very low overhead, with nothing going towards administrative charges for them (you can donate separately for this). Even PayPal chips in with free transaction processing when you lend through their site. I think this is a great idea, and it seems to be working really well. Most loan applications on Kiva seem to be filled within days, and they just crossed 1 million dollars in money lent. I do have some reservations about their system (mostly around lack of transparency), but I’ll reserve that for a different post.

The work being done by Kiva inspired me to put my money where my mouth is (that’s a first :). I lent $500 to 10 different borrowers (my Kiva page) and I’m going to see how the idea pans out. If I lose the money, I’ll regard it as a charitable contribution and leave it at that. If not, I’ll get to re-circulate the money as it is repaid. I’ll revisit the issues in a few months and if things are looking good, I’ll put more money into the system on a regular basis.

Check out Kiva, if that’s the only thing you click on in this post.

Kiva - loans that change lives

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November 26, 2006

Book Reviews

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 11:00 am

Glancing over the posts I’ve made over the last couple of months, I seem to be getting decent coverage of my interest in technology and movies. However, I don’t have any coverage of the hobbies nearest and dearest to my heart, reading and photography. The lack of photography posts is out of sheer laziness and lack of a good digital workflow which I’m trying to remedy (the workflow, the laziness is pretty much terminal). Books I was holding back on because I wasn’t sure how they would fit in to the site and what form the reviews would take. I think I’ve made up my mind and want to use this to lay out my review methodology similar to the Movie Review intro.

Why read books?

That might seem like an odd or stupid question, but is probably relevant given how little people read in our society today. I’ve been guilty of this as well when things get busy at work. We don’t really want to put aside a few hours to read a good book. I’ve heard arguments ranging from "I get all my information from the net, why should I read?" to "It’s not a productive use of my time". So here is my personal list about why I read books:

  • Because books are a medium that can transport you to a world of your own imagination. Books have the power to impact, the power to heal, the power to make us laugh or just to escape for a few hours
  • Because I’m rarely as happy as when I’m cuddled up with a good book
  • Because I’ve always read books for relaxation since I was a kid. I guess it’s one of many things I have to thank my parents for
  • Because I gain knowledge from them. That’s an obvious one, but it’s hard to imagine that before the printing press, books were really expensive and reading and education were the realm of the rich. 
  • Because I gain perspective from them. Other than the factual knowledge based books, it is very illuminating to read the perspectives of others such as opinion based works, biographies, etc. Perspective can really only be gained from observation/doing and reading in my opinion, and the latter is a valuable complement to the former

Why review books?

  • For me to more easily keep track of what books I’ve read and what my opinion on them was
  • To more easily offer recommendations of what to read to my friends, something I tend to do often (whether it’s solicited or not :)
  • To practice my writing and outlining skills

How will the books be reviewed?

The reviews will range from short 1-2 paragraph summaries to longer 1 page outlines of the book. I’ll default to the 5 stars used by Amazon so the reviews can easily transfer there. My assignment of the stars (Amazon’s in brackets) is as follows:

  • 0 stars – Reading this book will lower your IQ, I guarantee it (Really, really hated it)
  • 1 star   – Reading this book will kill as many brain cells as drinking a case of beer (Hated it)
  • 2 stars – Meh…Read it if you have too much spare time on your hands (Don’t like it)
  • 3 stars – Readable, and you should consider reading it if the subject/plot interests you (It’s OK)
  • 4 stars – Definitely read this book at some point (I like it)
  • 5 stars – Run, don’t walk (preferably to your nearest Indie bookstore, but Amazon will do in a pinch) and buy the book. You will cherish it (I love it)

I don’t anticipate handing out too many 0 star reviews, but we’ll see :).

Frontline: Living Old

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 2:31 am

Frontline did a great piece recently called Living Old. The program is still available online in it’s entirety in case you want to watch it or if any of the issues below touches a nerve with you. The program isn’t strong on facts or possible solutions as some of Frontline’s programs are, but it does force you to think about a set of issues that most of us have to deal with at some point. Some of the things the program talks about are:

  • ~20 % (~70 million) of the people in the US will be over the age of 65 by 2030. In 2000 that number was ~35 million
  • The number of trained geriatricians in the US is woefully small
  • Care is very expensive and going to get more expensive. An example they gave was of a physician whose children could not care for him who pays about $150,000/yr for 24/7 care
  • More than 60% of people older than 85 go to a nursing home
  • People forced to deal with their own mortality as they grow older (A touching scene of an old man with lung cancer where he cannot be operated on because of his age and has to measure his days)
  • Decisions faced by children as they struggle with making choices for their parents over years and years
  • The moral debate about giving people the choice to cease treatment and die vs prolonging life regardless of the cost to quality of living

I think this is a very important debate for all of us that have to deal with the inevitability of aging parents and some day with our own frailty. The parents issue is complicated for everyone who leads the kind of crazy lives we do and can’t take the time to care for their parents for years. Particularly for people like me who live more than 9000 miles away from home, this is a difficult and scary future to contemplate. A simple thing like visiting them regularly is not straightforward.

Even the issue of something like nursing home care isn’t cut and dry. Most families can’t afford to look after their elderly parents full time, yet the guilt of abandoning your parents to an institution is a difficult cross to bear. I’d like to think today that this is an easy choice for me to make and that I would gladly take my parents in if they ever wanted to live with me. However, this is viewed through the current prism of my life when I don’t actually have to make that decision. Thankfully, my parents are still relatively young and in good health (heck, they’re more active and in better health than I am :).

Separate to the parental issue is the one of what you would chose to do if you were ever in a state where you were so afflicted with frailty and dementia that you were completely dependent on somebody else for care. There are polar extremes to this choice which are expressed in the program ranging from not wanting to live at the point at which you cease being yourself (in some sense) to always wanting to live, no matter what and cherishing the gift of life. Once again, this is a hard issue to debate because it is too easy to reach a conclusion when you’re not facing the situation. I’ve long said that I wouldn’t want to prolong my life in this manner even if I were to reach that state at an earlier age due to injury or illness. But can I really stick to that if the circumstances were to transpire?

I would suggest watching the program, and to think about the issues that you face in this regard;I know it forced me to (of course I’m directing this at my audience of 0 :). Here are some links that are available on the PBS site as well:

Frontline programReport from the President’s council on Bioethics (long, but good)

What are we going to do with Dad? (If you’re only going to read one article, read this one)

Lingering longer, who will care?

Longer lives reveal the ties that bind us

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Movie Review: Firewall

Filed under: Movies — Vamshi @ 1:37 am

Rating: 3 stars
Link to Ebert’s review
Link to Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregation
Link to IMDB

Harrison Ford is getting a little bit too old for these kinds of movies…Ford as action hero works in Fugitive, Air Force One and even Clear and Present Danger, but his time as one is coming to an end. He looks old, bored and like he’s going through the motions in this movie.

The plot is about a vice president of computer security for a Seattle based bank named Jack. A group of enterprising thieves (led by Paul Bettany) spend way too much time learning about Jack’s family; why the movie needed to spend time explaining the son’s peanut allergy is beyond me. I guess it’s supposed to chill me to the bone that they know so much about Jack’s family, but it mostly bored me. Having learned about his family, they kidnap it in order to force Jack to steal $10,000 from each of the banks top 10,000 accounts, totaling $100 million. How very considerate of these modern day Robin Hood gang to only steal from the rich. Some writer had a field day coming up with that plot point. Of course, computers being computers, things go haywire requiring Jack to come up with clever schemes involving fax machines and iPods.

The electronic shenanigans are followed by the requisite amount of grimacing from Ford, and of course it wouldn’t be an action movie if he didn’t turn things around in his favor and single handedly kill all his family’s captors to rescue them (even when the sensible thing would have been to wait for the cops to show up :).

The other interesting thing about this movie is how it rains in Seattle from the moment the kidnapping begins to the end of the scene out near Duvall. Pretty interesting choice by the director. Of course, the funny thing is that it rarely rains that hard in Seattle, and mostly just drizzles. But I’m happy, the movie furthers the secret agenda of all Seattleites to let outsiders believe that it rains all the time, so we can have the pristine Northwest to ourselves :)

Despite my criticism above, I gave the movie 3 stars because it is a competent thriller. Yes it is formulaic and at no point do you feel compelled by the story, but it does do everything right in terms of being a decent action movie. We shouldn’t be looking for explanations or logic in these kinds of movies, and it is a fun and not entirely unprofitable way to spend a couple of hours on the couch.

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November 25, 2006

Movie Review: Volver

Filed under: Movies — Vamshi @ 10:37 pm

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

I watched this movie in the "LandMark Egyptian" theater, which plays Indie movies. It’s a surprisingly good theater with decent acoustics. I recommend that people in Seattle check it out (not least because they play a great selection of movies). Here is what Landmark’s says about the theater:

"1 Screen. Built in 1915. Operated by Landmark since 1989. The Egyptian Theatre is located on Capitol Hill near Downtown Seattle and features a wide array of independent film, foreign language cinema, documentaries and restored classics. It was originally built as a large Masonic Temple, with offices, a main auditorium, and a smaller auditorium. In the 1970s, the Masons used the large auditorium as a wrestling arena to earn extra money. In the early 1980s it became the home of the Seattle International Film Festival, at which point the founders of the Festival moved in and gave the theatre its current Egyptian décor. The Egyptian continues to host SIFF, the largest film festival in North America."

On to the movie itself. This is Pedro Almodovar’s latest movie (in Spanish, with English subtitles) and in my opinion one of his best so far. The movie deals with 4 women spread across 3 generations and a 5th whose life is entangled with the family. This is a movie about women. The one male actor of consequence in the movie (Paco, the husband of Raimunda, the main character in the movie) is killed early in the movie in a way I won’t reveal so as to not spoil the movie, and some part of the movie deals with the consequences of his killing and the cover up that follows. What strikes you though is how much Almodovar cares about women. The way he captures all the women in the movie, young and old clearly shows that.

Another thing that comes across really well is the depiction of life in the village. One wonders whether life in Spanish villages is still like this or whether this is an expression of the place Almodovar grew up in. The parallels to life in Indian families and Indian villages is also interesting (mostly my observation, I doubt the director is actually trying to draw any parallels)

There is much like to about this movie that is hard to put into words without giving too much away. It is a gentle movie full of feeling but delivered in a light-hearted way with plenty of humor and comedy. Many relationships between women are explored, including that between a dead mother and her children, mother and child in the face of difficulty, sisters that have a close bond, sisters that don’t and more.

Penelope Cruz plays the role of Raimunda, and is a refreshing surprise. Who knew she had acting chops? You certainly couldn’t tell from her slew of badly acted English movies. In this movie, she excels at her role and together with Carmen Maura produces a great movie. Blanca Portillo who plays Agustina also does a good job

Well worth watching either in the theater or on DVD.

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November 22, 2006

SOAP and WSDL explained

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 3:45 pm

On Pete Lacey’s blog via Dare Obasanjo:

The S stands for Simple

This is a great article that lays out the weirdness behind SOAP, WSDL and other "simple" web service APIs in a very funny dialogue between a dev and a "SOAP guy". My head hurts every time I look at the weirdness of SOAP. Thankfully, I don’t have to do this for my day job, just when I’m poking around at various web APIs (Amazon, Smugmug, etc.) for personal coding projects.

Websites and outage for maintenance

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 12:57 am

Went to visit Netflix to add a movie to my queue before it slipped out of my mind again and encountered this at 12:50 am:

The Netflix web site is temporarily unavailable due to scheduled maintenance.

It is anticipated that the site will be available again at 1:30 AM Pacific time.

We apologize for any inconvenience this causes you.

Please visit us again soon.

It’s amazing that large websites like Netflix need to and can take their sites down for maintenance. Netflix can probably afford to do this because they are a US only site (I think, but their site is down, so I can’t verify :) and 12:50 am is pretty much dead of the night across the US (except Hawaii, but no one ever takes poor Hawaii into account). To me, it indicates how far we still have to go in providing real high availability systems to everyone.

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November 21, 2006

Bangalore to Bengalooru…sheesh

Filed under: India — Vamshi @ 12:42 am

It appears (NYTimes, registration required) that Bangalore is eager to follow in the footsteps of Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta). What next, are we going to rename Hyderabad to Bhagyanagaram?

The renaming fad in India is getting out of hand. Do we really need the original names of our cities to feel that they are our cities? We have perfectly serviceable (if somewhat Anglicized) names for cities that have been in use for decades or more and now we feel the reason to rename them and confuse the heck out of everyone.

Don’t even get me started on renaming airports after the favorite local politician/historical figure of the day (witness Hyderabad’s own airport name changes or that of Bombay’s international terminal)

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Yahoo hates Peanut Butter?

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 12:17 am

Brad Garlinghouse, a VP over at Yahoo, published an internal document that’s made it onto the Internet about the ills of Yahoo and what can be done to correct them. The peanut butter reference is about being spread too thin across too many productsand lacking focus in them.

The memo is a great read and well laid out. I think every tech company, once it finishes going through it’s growing phase faces this issue. Having a coherent and focused product strategy with full employee engagement is the key to success at any company including Microsoft.

However, I’m not so sure about the solutions he proposes. Headcount reductions can be very, very bad for morale of the rest of the people, and you’re never really sure whether you’re getting rid of the right people (not mention the collateral damage of your best people leaving rather than being subjected to later layoffs)

Full text of the memo (WSJ)

TechMeme on the memo

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