Update Previous: Hardware, Software and Human Beings

Consider this. You’ve been gifted a new iPad 2 for Christmas last year. Just a couple of months later, Apple comes out with its new iPad model, with a better screen, a better camera and supposedly more oomph under the cover. Feel cheated?

You buy the first edition of a revolutionary car model from your favorite car manufacturer, only to realize in a few months time that the company has recalled all units for a faulty brake pedal wiring. None of the editions of that car model produced after that incident have this fault. What’s more, they even have more goodies packed in with a sleeker design. Feel left out?

That’s the thing with hardware. You buy something and you are stuck with it, for good or for worse. You can’t update hardware, you can just get a new one and forget about the old stuff.

Thankfully, that’s not the stuff with software, or else it would be a real shame if you’d have to throw away a beautifully working solution once there was a new version announced for the machine’s operating system, or the most used app on your Android or iOS phone, your bank’s web application, or your favorite online car racing game. There’s always the specter of compatibility with the existing system though, and its not always smooth sailing on that front.

How does this phenomenon affect us humans personally? It swings both ways, and therein lies the rub.

You break a bone in your hand, or have a heart surgery, and you ideally want the medical update to mend your body in such a way that it feels as if nothing was ever wrong. Just like in the case of hardware, that rarely happens. Scars remain, unless of course you go for some cosmetic surgery. Now consider that you have a splintered relationship with a friend or a family member. Life is strange, and after a few years you bump into this person at a shopping mall or at an airport lounge, get chatting and have a genuine chance to mend ways with him or her. Its up to you whether you want this update to work or not. Compatibility remains an issue, mental scars are tough to wipe off altogether, but you do have a chance to make them less relevant in the new scheme of things.

Some food for thought?


The best person for the job

Quite frankly, its not you. Neither its me.

The best tennis player in the world is somewhere in Somalia, scrounging for food and squandering away his true stamina and talent for want of opportunity. While my country, India, is lamenting about not being able to secure medals in the Olympics, the best archer in the world is living somewhere in its tribal hinterland. These people just haven’t been discovered yet.

The best young talent in the domain of car racing is somewhere in Afghanistan, dodging bombs and the remnants of a bloody civil war, whiling away his childhood playing with toys and excelling in mock car races with his friends.

You are not the best teacher in the world. Your college or your university just hasn’t come across that person yet.

You are not the best software developer or architect in the world. Your boss or your client just hasn’t stumbled upon the best person for your job yet, and the day he will he’ll happily swap you for him.

You’re not even the best spouse for your husband or wife. If he or she had waited longer each one would have found a better, and maybe a more ‘perfect’ partner.

In a world so varied in geography, economy and history, success and fame are a function of ability and being at the right place at the right time. Everything after that is just chance, and how you capitalize on it. This is the best tool I’ve ever encountered to help me keep my feet grounded at all times.

The Japan Odyssey

The Japan Odyssey

The last couple of days of the year are upon us, and what do we tend to do as we near the end of December? We evaluate how the year has treated us based on our own criteria. When I sit down for this task, among other memories I recall two big events that occurred this year: My wedding and the subsequent tour of Japan in October. This is not a blog post about “What is Japan”, but an account of some of the totally unique experiences me and my wife enjoyed among the people of the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

The Japanese geography test

Having researched and prepared for the tour for nearly 3 months, you would expect that you’ve left no stone unturned. Its the inherent nature of travel, though, that the unexpected can be definitely expected! We landed at the Narita International Airport near Tokyo late evening on a Thursday and took the train to Shinjuku where our hotel was located. The route to the hotel from the station had been chalked out on Google Maps and had been studied well during the tour preparation stage, so even though we failed to purchase a network data connection for my cellphone there wasn’t much reason for alarm. I’ve been good with geography all my life and people have lauded me sometimes for my sense of direction. Still, there comes a time in life when you’re rendered speechless even while holding a dictionary in your hand. My time had come!

It was about 8:00 PM when we alighted the train and walked up to the road, looked around and….. BLANK. We stood there under the Japanese Anime neon signs flashing all around us, with absolutely no idea which direction to take. We asked around, but when a couple of persons pointed to two opposite directions, it was time to get real serious. There was a Japanese police station, or ‘Koban’ as they are known locally, nearby. My wife’s knowledge of the Japanese language came in handy here. The cop inside got out his maps, fussed over the postal address we were spelling out to him, and later pointed to a street after giving some route instructions. We walked along the street, towing our baggages behind us, with elation in our hearts for being in Japan and trepidation in our minds for our present state of being ‘lost’. The maps along the road were terrific though, and the ‘You are here’ arrows brought down the levels of trepidation slowly.

Japanese Koban

After realizing that we might be walking around in circles, we again enquired with a young couple about the route. The lady brought out her iPhone and after confirming our fears about waking in circles, guided us towards what she thought would take us to the destination. Another round of “Arigatou Gozaimasu”  (“Thank you very much”) with the customary bow ensued and we set out along the new route, with the lady saying “Genki de ne” (“Take care of yourselves”) as we left. We eventually reached the hotel at 10:00 PM. The walk which should have taken us 20 mins, took 2 hours! It wasn’t as if the hotel brand was less popular, it has a worldwide chain of studio-apartment hotels after all, but probably in a big city and a tourist hub like Tokyo not everyone knows every place by heart. Japanese people help a lot though, a fact of life that manifested itself many times during our stay there.

The Shibuya road crossing

Its odd to include a simple road crossing in the list of must-see places in a city, but that’s just what Japan is about. Its astonishing. Nearly all the clips available in various TV documentaries about the Japanese people walking on the road (Tokyo being one of the most densely populated cities in the world) have been shot at this place in Shibuya. This video will tell you why (note the sheer amount of people crossing the streets at a time):

Tales of the people, by the people

Being an Indian I am fairly used to westerners often mentioning about the welcoming nature of the people of my motherland. When you go to Japan and interact with the local populace for any amount of time, you know you’re dealing with a level. The warmth of the Japanese will floor you. Almost all the people we met knew about India and many had visited parts of the country, Taj Mahal in Agra, Qutb Minar in Delhi and other major tourist places in Mumbai and Rajasthan being the most popular.

Everywhere we went the Japanese themselves came forward to strike a conversation. Of the incidences I remember fondly is one where a young lady went out of her way to help us with a public telephone at the Utsunomiya train station, another one where a lady at a bus stop in Kyoto checked on us if everything was fine (“Daijoubu desu ka?”) when she saw us fidgeting with some coins for the bus fare, an elderly lady we met on an elevator at the Kyoto train station who after enquiring which country we originated from wished us good luck during our stay in Japan, and another one in a Hiroshima tram who chatted with us for a long time and even knocked on the window after she got down at her stop to wish us goodbye. Then there was this elderly lady at the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, whom we just cannot forget. After conversing with my wife for a while and finding out that she was an Indian, she was so pleased that she gave my wife a tight hug!

Perhaps the best experience was that of an attendant at the main Tokyo train (JR) station. This was during our last final train journey there, from Tokyo to Narita International Airport. My wife purchased the tickets and we started making our way through the crowd towards the platform, when suddenly this attendant scampered towards us, again through some fairly heavy crowd, and caught us just in time. Panting heavily, she explained that she had made a mistake with the original tickets and exchanged them with the correct ones. The mistake, as it turned out, was a tiny one, and it would’ve in no way affected our journey to Narita Airport. However, to the Japanese it wasn’t the ‘right thing’ and this lady took all the trouble to run this 200m sprint to rectify her mistake. Both me and my wife were absolutely speechless and while she was apologizing by saying “Gomennasai” (“Sorry”) about a million times, we couldn’t thank her enough! It was the most sincere bow I had done while saying “Arigatou Gozaimasu” (“Thank You”) during the entire tour.

Practicing English

Japanese people are a proud and hardworking lot, that’s what I had heard from childhood and can now personally attest to it. Their urge to learn English and be proficient in it is something that stands out. During a visit to the Kyoto train station we came across a few groups of school kids who had taken up speaking English to visiting foreigners as an assignment. Starting with questions like “What is your name?” and “What game do you like?”, the interaction would quickly switch to a round of ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors‘. The little paper cranes they used to give us at the end of the interview would feel like prizes!

School children at Kyoto JR station, practicing their English language skills

We encountered similarly enthusiastic individuals at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where a volunteer explained us the entire history related to the place and the A-bomb dropped there during WWII with the passion to rival that of a fanatic and the knowledge to rival that of a National Geographic Channel documentary. On the sidelines, I must admit that the Japanese make wonderful museums.

With our volunteer-guide Akemi Kitagawa san at the A-Bomb Dome inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Train travel

Even though the people of Japan ensured that our tour remained unforgettable, the real highlight for me personally was their travel system, especially the network of trains, whether intra-city or inter-city. Home to the world-renowned Shinkansen (Bullet Train), their efficiency, punctuality, range, frequency and the sheer quantity of the trains will hold you in awe. They aren’t cheap, mind you, but the infrastructure is in place. It makes traveling to a city 200km away as easy as going to your local convenience store. The Japan Rail (JR) Pass proved to be one of the most important documents during the length of the tour.

Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at Tokyo station

Another little touch that I liked was the way the timers on the traffic signals for pedestrians were marked. There were two bars on the top of the ‘walking-man’ which got shorter and shorter as time progressed. In a country where computer and handheld gaming is a religion in itself, this might have symbolized the ‘life’ becoming lesser and lesser as the playtime goes on.

Pedestrian crossing timer bars on a traffic signal in Tokyo

Learning to cook

Even a tepid traveler would acknowledge the variety and the uniqueness of the Japanese cuisine. Though there are other factors involved, its not for nothing that the Michelin Guide has awarded Japanese cities more Michelin stars than the rest of the world combined. Our fascination with it led us to do a cooking class in Kyoto with Taro Saeki san at his home in Kyoto. It was also an opportunity for us to see a traditional Japanese home from inside and converse with the family. Preparing the dishes was fun, and even today a simple mention of the cooking class reminds us of their delicious taste. Not surprisingly, Taro san with his wife, Yoshiko san and his sweet little daughter Haruko san were charming hosts. At the end of the class it felt as if I had made a permanent friend in Japan.

Cooking class in Kyoto with Taro san

Dinner at Ginza

Pleasant encounters with locals didn’t end there. We also had a dinner at the Sony Building in Ginza (Tokyo) with Hiroko Miyata san, a former student of my wife during some of her French language classes. We were joined by another of my wife’s friends who is on a scholarship in Japan, and together we had a great time. The chocolate cookies that Hiroko had brought with her were toothsome to say the least.

Dinner at Ginza

Shinto, Buddhism, Technology

If you say that Japan has only two main religions viz. Shinto and Buddhism, you would be doing a great injustice to the country, for it has another religion: Technology. Perhaps this third religion is one that transgresses the boundaries of the earlier two main traditional religions and unites everyone.

Buddhism: Gate at the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)

In one sweeping view you can capture a beautifully adorned Shinto shrine or a Buddhist pagoda made of wood as well as a spectacularly lit modern tower or a state-of-the-art railway station made from iron and steel.

Technology: Kyoto JR Station

Japan’s accomplishments in the realm of electronics are already phenomenal, and the effect can be seen in the hi-tech cellular phones in the hands almost every person walking on the street. The quality of the services offered on them has been miles ahead of the rest of the world for some time now. Places like ‘The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation’ (Miraikan) at Odaiba in Tokyo, housing Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO, and areas like Akihabara and Ginza are a ‘must-visit’ for science and technology buffs.

Kobe’s surprises

Being a port city, and a huge one at that, you would expect Kobe to have a good maritime infrastructure. It also has a huge open space in Meriken Park which looks spectacular at night. However, it was visiting the Earthquake Memorial Museum that was a one of a kind experience. The recreations of the Great Hanshin Earthquake on that horrific morning in January 1995, made using a light and sound show, were amazingly lifelike and quite scary. Practical explanations of why and how earthquakes occur were very informative. To top it all, they even had a 3-D theatre in there. It was easily the best 3-D movie viewing experience we’ve had till date.

Earthquake Museum in Kobe

Now, would normal fire hydrant covers ever grab your attention? Probably not. But when they are adorned by designs depicting the city’s history and culture, they certainly would, won’t they?

Man-hole covers in Kobe

It must be said here that in the past Japan has been on the receiving end of many devastating earthquakes and resulting tidal waves along its long coastline. No wonder they are called ‘Tsunamis’, a Japanese name. Our trip was just seven months after the massive earthquake in March off the Tōhoku region and the deadly Tsunami which wiped out much of the city of Sendai and almost caused a nuclear fallout at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Still there was absolutely no amount of anxiety or fear amongst the Japanese people, probably because over the years they’ve perfected the art of starting from scratch and rebounding to the no. 1 spot among contemporaries in almost all sectors.

Breathtaking beauty

Visiting at the start of the fall season meant that we were able to witness the changing color of the leaves, and the sights that greeted us at places like Hakone and Nikko were magnificent.

Tree leaves changing their color at Nikko

The sight of Mount Fuji (‘Fuji san’) was the icing on the cake as far as the Hakone trip went.

Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background (Hakone, Japan)

I think the best way to round of this article is a four minute video of some of the pictures captured during the tour. So here goes:

God and ‘The Departed’ of 2011

God, as most preachers would have us believe, created the world we live in. Corollary: He also created the persons in it as well as the stage for them to showcase their skills and talents. So far so good.

Somewhere down the line, He must have started relishing His product, and would have had thoughts about acquiring some more share in His venture. We humans, the pompous and shrewd souls that we are, would have none of it. Result? Well, the aforementioned preachers would also have us believe that God always has the last laugh. In any case, He always had one ‘dead’ly trick up His sleeve.

Death itself.

Now, He must have thought of dropping the axe on one particular year itself. 2011. Any special reason? Personally, I feel He must have been very annoyed with the way we humans treated the 2012 Armageddon stuff. “Very cheeky”, He must have said. He would have wanted to start his own enterprise, so He must have shortlisted a few people to recruit from the various domains – Cinema, Music, Art, Technology, Sports etc. – across various countries in the world.

Quite to our horror, He did succeed.

God Writing

Well, now that He has, lets have a look at His prospects in each domain. If He plans to start a movie, He is in august company. He has evergreen actors like Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand and true glamor divas like Elizabeth Taylor. He would be able to rope in legendary musicians like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Shrinivas Khale. Good singing voices wouldn’t be hard to find either, with the likes of Jagjit Singh, Bhupendra Hazarika and Amy Winehouse roaming nearby.

An art gallery amongst the pantheon of the Gods would be most sought after. Surely now He can call upon M.F. Hussain to create one!

In the same pantheon, there will always be a few Gods who will be forward thinking and wanting to live at the cutting edge of technology. They will find pleasure in the company of Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie. The charisma, the intensity, the vision and the simplicity they would factor in is bound to gratify the Gods themselves. Perhaps now they would even have a heavenly version of Pixar and a movie named ‘Earth, Inc’.

Sports isn’t just for us humans, it is surely a thing of the Gods too. They can now bank upon some good advice from Mansoor Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi for starting a sporting enterprise. With terrific gladiators like Joe Frazier, Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli around, thrill and entertainment is guaranteed.

This list obviously omits a lot of other names, who by themselves have it in them to give God a shot in the arm in His endeavor.

Would all this really happen? No one can be sure because no one has ever returned from up there. Perhaps the departed of 2011 will find God less critical and more encouraging than us Earthly humans. Perhaps the change of perspective will propel them to even greater deeds. Will that affect the world we live in, for good? Yes, but only if we take inspiration from their lives and work to put a dent in God’s own universe!

Love of music, intent of search, blessing of technology

Indian mobile service and internet provider, Airtel, recently launched their new advertisement –

I came across this advertisement today while watching TV and was instantly drawn in by its concept, as well as the haunting piano notes in the background. No sooner than I began wondering who could have written such a beautiful piece of music, I thought of the Shazam application on my new Android phone, which listens to a particular song, discovers its roots and then tags it with the original album name, song / music writer and the genre (lyrics too in case of songs). I just couldn’t wait to find out! I turned ON the application and waited for it to show me the results. About 10 seconds later, it told me that the solo piano piece was written by Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi, and features in his album ‘I Giorni’ (The Days).

Now, I could hardly wait to hear the full song. I logged on to YouTube and searched for the album. As expected, YouTube’s search engine didn’t disappoint and provided me with the video I was looking for –

As you’ll probably agree, its one of the most beautiful pieces of music one can ever compose and play on the piano. It tends to bring out all the wonderful memories and true emotions in your heart, and makes you want to cry every time you listen to it.

For me this was an ode not just to the charming world of instrumental music, but also to ‘search technology’ which, within a matter of seconds found me the original song and took me to another realm altogether!

Wonderful feedback received from a student

Yesterday was my last lecture of this year’s sessions at the Fergusson College here in Pune for the Mobile Computing subject. A Kenyan national from among the class, himself a teacher back in his mother country, wanted to mark the moment by clicking a picture of us. Its just the sort of thing I like as well. Later in the day he sent me a wonderfully worded feedback e-mail, which I have copied below.

“I have received the pictures. At least they will remind me of the only committed teacher I have had in Pune. I really appreciate your pedagogical skills. You are a talented teacher. I can say this authoritatively because I am also a teacher by profession and I understand what it entails for one to be able to deliver information effectively.

Mobile Computing is too wide but you tried to make it manageable.

Again thanks a lot. May God bless the work of your hands.”

It is the best compliment I have received so far about my teaching endeavor, and I was absolutely speechless for minute or so after reading it. 🙂

I feel that its probably the best feedback a teacher can ever receive, and its importance and lasting impact is far greater than any financial reward. I’ve always tried to be honest in giving the audience the best idea about a topic based on the knowledge and experience I’ve had at that point, in as entertaining a way as possible, and it feels really good when someone recognizes and appreciates the effort. Though there are a LOT of areas where I can still improve, I will definitely cherish this feedback for the rest of my life. 🙂

Can software ever be 100% tested?

By now everyone would have at least heard of the longest match in Tennis history that was played at this year’s Wimbledon between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. As unearthly as their will, effort, and stamina sounds, the match was also a very good example of an earthly peculiarity – ‘errors in software applications’.

Wimbledon Scoreboard (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

During that legendary final set, the stadium scoreboard went kaput after displaying ’47-47′. So the stunned spectators as well as the weary chair umpire had to rely only on manual records of the game score for the never-ending set.

Why? Well, nobody at IBM had thought that two supposedly sane individuals would ever reach that figure, let alone cross it! Not only that, even the online scoreboard reset itself after displaying ’50-50′! Were the programmers wrong? Now, that’s a tricky question.

For any amount of budget, there has to be a limit until where software applications, like automatic scoring systems, can be tested. You can either trust a wise man who magically comes up with certain values, or base your limits on certain empirical data, the fact is that these limits cannot be infinity. Software testers are paid their wages to put the application through the paces. Yes, there are fixed rules and conditions (test cases) to satisfy, but hardcore testers pride themselves in thinking of innovative conditions where the application might break. All this is added to the already exhaustive list of test scenarios, but how exhaustive can ‘exhaustive’ be! There will always be certain cases and non-conventional types of inputs where even the best pieces of softwares will crack.

The impact of this might not sound as catastrophic in a Tennis match scenario, but consider this happening to a near-perfect auto-pilot application in the aircraft you might be boarding during your business trip next week, or to a highly secure online-banking and money-transfer application which your bank uses to handle multi-million dollar transactions. The knowledge of some recent unsolved aircraft accidents and some computer hacking incidences is enough to realize the severity of the issue. A bit ruffled now, are you?

The point is not to get hysterical about the state of affairs, but to remain alert. Always look at the odds of these things happening, e.g. the ratio of air-accidents to the amount of aircraft taking off and landing on airports all over the world on any given day, or the ratio of banking-frauds to the total amount of money being handled online every hour. There are hundreds of thousands of people working in the software field which are dedicated towards producing secure and highly-reliable pieces of software, be it for the microwave oven in your kitchen or the International Space Station (ISS) flying many miles above you.

Many would remember the recent controversies and product recalls by the auto major Toyota regarding the software (embedded firmware) in its hi-tech cars. As more features are added to existing systems and software gets more and more complex, the chances of it behaving erratically even after months of thorough testing increases! Also, not every issue that occurs is easily reproducible back at the factory. Not everybody in this world is a software developer and so not everybody actually understands this fact. The thing we all have to remember before starting the blame-game when some untoward incident happens is that nothing can be 100% secure; that’s a myth. People work day and night to iron out any known (and imaginatively unknown) issues and test cases, which, let me tell you, can run into thousands. There is always scope for improvement which, like it or not, takes time. Neither can companies stop selling cars until that time, nor can airlines stop flying the aircraft in their arsenal until every possible glitch is resolved.

The 2035 edition of the Audi RSQ Sport Coupe (Image courtesy: PopularMechanics.com)

We humans aren’t perfect, then how can we expect the machines we make to be so; unless of course they are made by a Positronic brain, as mentioned in Issac Asimov‘s sci-fi classic ‘I, Robot‘!

The best analogy I can think of is that of a letter by Pete Docter, the director of the highly successful Pixar movies ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (2001) and ‘Up‘ (2009), where he had quoted Pixar’s John Lasseter. He had said – “Pixar films don’t get finished, they just get released.” I think the same logic applies to the world of software applications!