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How I Killed DesiPundit

You may no longer remember but in another life, I was the founder and administrator for DesiPundit, an aggregator of wonderful and insightful blog posts made by Indians, resident or otherwise. I shut it down couple of years ago by simply stating that it was time [1]. Obviously, lot of people were disappointed but with declining blogging habits, it was on borrowed time anyway; at least in its current avatar then.

I liked to ‘blame’ Facebook and Twitter for its demise. While it was mostly true since it took people away to easily accessible publishing platforms with a much wider and quicker-reacting audience, it was a cop-out. Although I officially shut it down on June 20, 2010, the interest in running it and finding source material started waning much before that. However, now that I’ve had time to think about it and understand what motivates most people to share or publish online, there are couple of reasons that happened much earlier that ultimately led to its shutdown.

1. Launching Indic sections

I initially launched DesiPundit for only English blogs because well, that’s what I read. But eventually, given how widespread I was told the Indic blogging scene was, I invited several Indic bloggers to recommend posts on DesiPundit from their Indic circles. Although the people I invited were excellent bloggers, I had only read their English posts. Since I didn’t read those Indic posts, I had no idea of whether those posts met DesiPundit standards because I didn’t read them. But more importantly, the Indic sections did not get as much traffic as I thought it would. Probably I made the erroneous assumption that the Indic blogosphere was much larger than the English one or that they simply were not interested in DesiPundit.

The larger issue was that of lack of focus. Instead of focusing on English blogs, I tried to overreach and try to encapsulate all of blogging in India. I should’ve simply let Indic blogs chart their own territory and curators. Similarly, adding eminent topical bloggers like Baradwaj Rangan and Ashutosh Jogalekar for cinema and science respectively took away from the basic function of curation. I should’ve continued linking to their best posts, like we always did. I’m sure they were pissed when I shut down DesiPundit causing them to look for new homes for their blogs.

This reason has more to do with losing focus and less to do with choosing to have Indic sections. Adding anything other than the core function of the site was a mistake. It wasn’t even like we were experiencing exponential readership growth. The readership was always steady and as I feared, restricted to the same set of people on all networks. I failed to heed the advice of do what you do best instead of trying to do everything.

2. Changing the basic curation model

Just a year before DesiPundit shut down, I completely overhauled the way posts were linked on DesiPundit. Instead of a curation model, we switched to a network model wherein I invited notable bloggers and asked them to self-select their posts to feature on DesiPundit. This was partly borne out of lack of time on my part, increasingly reduced linking by other contributors, and the tendency of linking to a regular list of blogs over and over again. So after some brainstorming, I came upon the brilliant idea which in hindsight was a stupid idea that why not let those blogs chose their best posts.

In theory, those bloggers would highlight their best posts and we’ll have effectively outsourced our curating jobs to those bloggers. We would periodically add or remove bloggers from our list and DesiPundit would be effectively on auto-pilot. But in practice, it fell apart quickly. Bloggers had to use the specially-created DesiPundit category [2] on their blogs for the posts to appear on DesiPundit [3]. Some forgot to do it and some did it so often and for almost every post they wrote that it eventually broke the system. There was plenty of clutter and definitely not the Best of the India blogosphere it was originally seen as.

I also failed to understand the basic human tendency of being appreciated comes from outside. You want someone else to pick your post and call it good enough to feature on their site instead of you “blowing your own horn”. Also, some notable bloggers refused to join the network and for good reasons, now that I see it. The really good ones didn’t link to their posts as often and given their healthy direct readership on their blogs, they couldn’t have cared less.

In the end, I should’ve had more confidence in my selection and curation. That’s what people came to DesiPundit for when I first started. I should’ve linked to fewer posts if I had less time instead of outsourcing to ensure regular flow. Else, I should’ve kept the list of contributors to the minimum. Some were great, some not so much. Plenty left and I think a lot of bloggers were DesiPundit contributors at some point of time in their blogging life. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go down.

Closing Down

So effectively after the change #2 and Twitter and Facebook gaining widespread usage circa 2009, DesiPundit effectively wasn’t the place to go to read India-centric stories let alone interesting ones. All the outrage was easily done on Twitter with easy to retweet tweets and one-click likes on Facebook. Fewer people wrote long treatises and even fewer people commented on the ones that got written. People no longer started blogging first but instead got Twitter or Facebook accounts. In fact, a majority of the ones that earlier blogged prolifically quit rendering my RSS feed to a ghost town [4]. So in a way, shutting down DesiPundit wasn’t that difficult of a choice. After all, I wasn’t going to continue paying hosting fees for a website that wasn’t being updated or at least to the level I expected it to.

I would’ve avoided those rookie mistakes if I was more invested in making something of DesiPundit but I was wrapping up my PhD at that time and starting my new job that took up far more time than grad school so it wasn’t exactly on the top of my list. Life happened. DesiPundit didn’t exactly die. It just faded away. Not always a bad thing. I still am in touch with plenty of people I met via DesiPundit so all’s not lost. And I still retain the domain name so hey, who knows, it may just come back someday.

Footnotes:
  1. Technically, it exists as a Tumblr blog but I haven’t updated it since February so technically dead []
  2. I’m using it right now for this post []
  3. I experimented and used some nifty RSS tools to get that working so it was fun doing that []
  4. That way, the death of Google Reader was less of a blow. []

Obligatory DesiPundit Obituary

It was time.

eBooks on the iPad

Guest Post by Ash

A big reason that I bought the iPad was so I could read e-books. A lot of people who are on the fence about getting the iPad and have talked to me about how I like mine, seem to be confused about how to buy, read and store e-books on the iPad. The many iPad reviews on tech blogs also haven’t gone into this much. I hope this post helps iPad owners and iPad fence-sitters learn about using the iPad as an e-reader.

In essence, the iPad reads any and all e-books in the ePub format. The high-resolution, LED-backlit screen makes for crisp text, rich illustrations and vivid colors. There are a number of apps out there that can be used to read eBooks. Here are the most popular.

iBooks
The iBooks app is developed by Apple and is their much publicized e-book reader. Through the iBooks app, you can buy books from the Apple iBookstore (accessible through the iBooks app on the iPad and through iTunes on your Mac or PC). You can also buy a book from pretty much anywhere else e.g. Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Powell’s ebooks etc and read it in iBooks.

A big plus for the iBooks app is that it reads DRM-free books. So you don’t have to necessarily buy books. You can search and download e-books from sites like esnips, rapidshare, filestube etc. This is great if you want to read pulp fiction, but not necessarily buy and own potboilers. That how I get my bodice-rippers, i.e. romance novels (as an aside, romance fiction is the largest share of the consumer market, 13.5 percent in 2008).

iBooks Store iTunes Books Sync

To add a book you’ve bought online or obtained in some other fashion, follow the steps below:

  1. You buy a book online and save it to your PC or Mac.
  2. If the book is not in an ePub format but in some other ebook format like .lit or even .pdf, convert it to ePub using free converters (like Calibre).
  3. Open iTunes and add it to your library. The book will now show up under the “Books” section of your library.
  4. Connect your iPad to your computer.
  5. When the iPad shows up on your iTunes library,  click on its books section, and select the sync button. The iPad will now sync with your iTunes library and books in your iTunes library will transfer to your iPad library (you have the option to sync all books, or sync selected books). Done!

When you disconnect your iPad, the books you added will now show up inside your iBooks app. The iBooks library can be viewed as a simple sortable list or as books on a bookshelf.

iBooks Library iBooks Book Shelf

You tap the right or left side of the screen to move to the next or previous page. You turn a page slowly by dragging from right to left. You can go to a different part of the book by visiting the table of contents and tapping a chapter.  The portrait view shows a single page of the book, the landscape view shows two pages. You can touch and hold any word to look it up in the built-in dictionary or Wikipedia, or you can search for it throughout the book and on the web. You can use the Bookmarking feature to highlight text and refer to it later. You can also use VoiceOver (the screen reader in iPad) so it can read you the contents of any page.When you’re finished reading, iBooks bookmarks where you left off.

iBooks Table of Contents iBooks Portrait Mode iBooks Landscape Mode

The advantage of book syncing over iTunes is that you can store your entire library of eBooks in the iTunes library on your Mac or PC, and only keep those books you’re currently reading, or want quick access too, on your iPad. The one improvement I’d like to see in this area is syncing over the cloud i.e. syncing your iPad to the iTunes on your computer over wireless internet so you can transfer books to and fro without necessarily connecting the iPad to the computer.

Kindle
Through the Kindle app, you can purchase eBooks from Amazon, as well as access eBooks that you may have already purchased through Amazon. I cant say much more about this app as I haven’t used it since I don’t have a Kindle Store account.The advantage of the Kindle app over the iPad app is that Amazon appears to have the best prices and the best range of new books vs. the Apple store.

You can change the font color, font size and background color. You tap on either side of the screen, or flick, to turn pages. You can add bookmarks, notes and highlights by tapping and holding a word. You can change the font color, font size and background color. A plus for this app is that Amazon Whispersync automatically syncs your last page read, bookmarks, notes and highlights across all your devices, so you can pick up right where you left off no matter what device you’re reading on.

Wattpad
Wattpad is an eBook community where people upload novels, short stories, fan fiction, poetry, essays and more. They’re either material written by the uploaders themselves or material downloaded/obtained from elsewhere. The Wattpad app lets you search their material by genre, keyword or wattcode (a unique code assigned to each of their files which is useful if you’ve found the file on the Wattpad website and want to access it on the iPad). Once you’ve found the book on the Wattpad app, you can read it and/or save it to your Wattpad library.

As with all other eReader apps, you can change the font type, font size, font color & background color. You also have an orientation lock, which prevents it from switching between landscape and portrait if you tilt it slightly. You tap the right or left side of the screen to move to the next or previous page. While reading the book, you can turn on auto-scrolling where Wattpad automatically scrolls through the text, from top to bottom. You can adjust the speed of this automatic scrolling. I don’t like this app much because the text is all formatted the same, which makes the material feel less like a book.

Wattpad Search Wattpad Library Wattpad

Stanza
Stanza is another great app for reading eBooks on the iPhone and iPod Touch. However, they haven’t come out with a iPad app yet. I’ll update this post with my take once the app is released.

Nook
Barnes & Nobles has announced that they are designing a new B&N eReader for iPad. Again, I’ll update this post with my take once the app is released.

Apple iPad – First Impressions

There was no standing in line outside the Apple store but merely waiting for the guy in brown on Saturday morning. We had the UPS shipment release authorization signed and clipped outside the door in case he made an early morning call. But he sauntered up to the front door and was slightly puzzled to see the door open before he knocked and also to see two people at the door for a small light package. The Apple iPad had arrived.

I had pre-ordered the absolute base 16GB WiFi-only device online on March 12th as a gift for Ash on her birthday. We cut through the box eagerly resisting the temptation for an unboxing video although I did share some pictures of our glee on Twitter. Ash had downloaded a few iPad-specific apps to her iTunes yesterday. Since it is Ash’s iPad (she makes it a point to cite it as often as she can to keep my prying hands away from staking any claim), we synced it to her iTunes. As with all Apple products, the iPad doesn’t come with any instruction manual and all the instructions are on a single piece of paper that basically says, attach iPad to computer, sync to iTunes, and follow the instructions onscreen. The iPad synced perfectly, copying the apps for the iPad and the ones for her iPod Touch. If you’ve used an iPhone or an iPod Touch, the rest is easy and exactly the same. You can drag upto six apps to the bottom menubar and the rest are aligned neatly on each screen spaced out more than that on the iPhone.

Your first impression is wonderment at the screen quality (9.7″ 1024×768 resolution). Also, it isn’t as heavy as I thought it would be (tech specs says a pound and a half) and definitely less than some hardcover books I’ve read. The display is crisp and clear. Colors render perfectly and are just right in terms of brightness and contrast. The touch screen is highly responsive and probably much more sensitive to the touch as compared to the iPhone. And it is lightening fast. Absolutely no delay in opening apps or switching to the next screen although in some apps, I did notice a delay in switching from the portrait mode to landscape. The screen lock button on the side not included during Job’s keynote address is a welcome relief and much-needed when you are reading lying down. Safari browsing too is fast and smooth. You can zoom in with the same pinch-in pinch-out gesture and double-tapping on a non-link section of a website zooms in to that section.

Ash has not yet loaded any music or photos but she downloaded an app for wallpapers called Backgrounds HD which displayed photos perfectly in all their glory. Accessing Flickr (no iPad-specific app yet) through Safari also displayed my pictures with no distortion in color or sharpness. The music from Pandora was crystal clear and loud enough to hear from across the room. You can hook it up to your speakers to get much better output. The GMail interface for the iPad released earlier this week is excellent and takes full advantage of the screen orientations. Typing on the onscreen keyboard was surprisingly easy although it is much better in the landscape mode. However it is much easier if you are a finger-typist because I found myself trying to hit the spacebar with my thumbs as I do on the regular keyboards. The settings, as I said, are the same as the iPhone so in fact Apple’s claim that 40-70 million people who already use an iPhone or an iPod Touch will have no learning curve is quite true. You find yourself using the iPad as efficiently as if you have been using it for a long time. The WiFi-only model has some kind of geo-location feature that let apps use your current location. I understand that it uses WiFi triangulation as opposed to GPS that a 3G-equipped iPad will use.

The best part about the iPad, as with the iPhone and iPod Touch are the apps. Right now, there are not as many apps for the iPad specifically as they are for the iPhone. Sure, you can use them on your iPad but the experience is unsatisfactory. However, the ones which are made for the iPad are mind-blowing; some of which include NetFlix, Tweetdeck, iBooks, Feeddler, USA Today, Pandora among others (screenshots displayed below). I’m sure app developers are scrambling to upgrade their apps for the iPad and hundreds are being added as you read this. The apps that I eagerly await and bought the iPad (for Ash, of course) for are the magazine apps. There are plenty of prototypes and sample apps from Conde Nast that appear to maximize the potential of the iPad.

The iPad has lead to reactions in the extreme and drawbacks such as no Flash (websites are converting rapidly to HTML5) or no multitasking are hurled at the device in deriding it. Strangely price, a perennial complaint against Apple, isn’t mentioned much these days. There are arguments to be made for Apple’s decisions in excluding the above two features; latter of which is rumored to be included in the next OS upgrade although Andy Ihnatko makes an attempt to defend the status quo on a technical basis. Apps like Feeddler (for your RSS feeds; syncs to Google Reader) and Tweetdeck open external links within the app making exiting the app and opening Safari redundant. This first-impressions review is not aimed at making those arguments. It is merely to show off our latest gadget for which we have a perfect fit in our household. Personally, I see the logic in Job’s contention that the iPad fits perfectly between a laptop and the iPhone. There is a place and reason for the existence of all three devices depending on your usage although some are arguing that the laptop is now dead (and desktop is alive once again). Most apps available for all three offer syncing abilities over the cloud which I consider as the future of computing at least in countries that have reliable and ubiquitous Internet connectivity. If you are not an Apple enthusiast or don’t have a need for such a device, the iPad is not meant for you. And that is fine. It is still a free world out there and you are not compelled to buy anything against your will. Netbooks are fairly popular and in a free market, both shall co-exist in peace. No judgments made either ways </disclaimer>.

The screenshots below are self-explanatory and show different features and apps as seen on the iPad.

Raising Kids in an Atheist Household

I have been a recovering Hindu for a while now although my parents are still grappling with my atheist avatar and still consider it as a passing phase. I refuse to participate in any religious rites but rarely involve myself in heated religion debates. Although my dad claims to be a nastik [1], he is anything but. Any religious rites that any astrologer will suggest is dutifully carried out without question. When my parents visited us last year, he asked my wife if we celebrate any Indian festivals. She replied, not really. He then proceeded to sneak in one of his judgmental remarks by adding, so there is no occasion for joy? I could simply shake my head in disbelief and bite my tongue to avoid yet another showdown that others have come to expect when we meet. But his remark also made me think – are there any festivals or joyous occasions that atheists can celebrate without invoking any reference of god?

In contemporary India or America, religious festivals are largely community or family events that have little deference to actual religious rites. I’m an avowed atheist and my wife is at best an agnostic. By no measure, we are a religious couple so we hardly expect to raise our kid(s) in any particular religious environment. At the same time, we wouldn’t like them to shy away from our cultural heritage and other community or familial events that would bring much joy to their lives. Consider this post to be more of an open discussion rather than narrating a set of diktats.

Since we are Indians living in America, our kid(s) have the added advantage of celebrating twice the number of festivals. But at the same time, I would like to stay away from the purely religious ones. With the exception of Laxmi Pujan, Diwali is hardly a religious festival and my childhood memories are dominated by sweets and firecrackers. Similarly, Holi is hardly the worship of the bonfire but mostly about the joy of playing with water balloons, pichkaris, and colors. On this side of the pond, Christmas although central to the Christian faith has long departed from remembering the birth of Jesus Christ (Fox News tries to remind us every year in vain) and instead focuses on Santa Claus and the number of gifts he is supposed to bring depending on how good you have been. Easter is more about chocolate eggs and bunnies than about Christ rising again. As you grow older, St. Patricks’ Day is about partying and getting wasted. Thanksgiving doesn’t even have a religion-centric origin and focuses on enjoying a hearty meal with family and friends while watching football.

The only exception would be Ganesh Chaturthi where the entire aim of the festival is to worship a clay idol for 1.5 to 10 days; that is something that I never intend on doing although it is a hundred-year-old tradition in my family. Thankfully my dad has one more son to whom I have gladly passed on the baton of continuing the tradition. I like to think the transition has been smooth and acceptable to all parties concerned.

This thought experiment started out trying to think of festivals and events that we as a family could celebrate without bowing down to an entity that I’m sure doesn’t exist and to my surprise, I found plenty. After my kid(s) grow up, they are free to make up their mind about the existence of god but I, like other religious parents, am going to pass on my beliefs except in my case, they are of atheism. We have images and idols of Hindu gods in our home but none of them are worshipped and merely serve as art pieces. At the same time, I would not like to deprive them of any community or family involvement. I wouldn’t want them to not celebrate any festival that isolates them from their friends or family members. The more I think about it, the festivals that most kids enjoy hardly have any direct religious connotations. In fact, the favorite festival for kids, Halloween is in fact a pagan ritual that many Christian kids enjoy and allowed to do so by their otherwise evangelical parents (kids get free candy so how can they stop them?) We shall have no religious rites or ceremonies that goes against my belief system but merely focus on the joyous times that festivals are supposed to be. There shall be no folding of hands or visiting temples alhough I’m aware that this might hamper our acceptance in the desi community stateside. This is not to say that I’m repulsed by Hindu mythology. On the contrary, I find it quite fascinating and the potential for story-telling is endless and it contains several moral lessons as well. But I draw the line at idolizing any characters and worshipping them.

Do any of you either as parents or future parents have grappled with this dilemma? How do you deal with it? What festivals do you celebrate and how? Or for that matter, have you ever given it a thought or merely shrugged your shoulders and accepted it as it comes?

Footnotes:
  1. Indian term for atheist []

Indian Movie Review Aggregators

I am a big fan of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. Rotten Tomatoes offers you an average rating of new releases based on weighted ratings by movie critics in the business. You can rest assured that any movie garnering less than 50% on the Tomatometer is not worth your time at least in the theater. IMDB on the other hand is more of a compendium of movies with user ratings and fun discussions in the forums. The Trivia and Goofs are my favorite topics in any movie page.

Both Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB is heavily tilted toward Hollywood movies although the latter has records for all movies, including Bollywood. There are only a handful of Bollywood/Indian movie critics which is surprising given the number of movies we churn out and even among those critics, the reputable ones (like Roger Ebert kinds) are even rare [1]. I do my little movie review thing on this blog but it is merely a reflection of my uneducated personal taste. In spite of low number of movie critics, I have always felt that there is a demand for movie reviews aggregators which give you a quick snapshot of movie ratings. Coincidentally two such sites popped up at around the same time and both are impressive efforts.

Review-Schview

Review Schview

Designed and managed by Chugs, the resident web designer for Indian blogs (including DesiPundit) has created this ultra-simplistic reviews aggregator for latest releases. He collates ratings from 28 movie critics and averages their ratings. He uses a scale of 1- 100 and translates five-star ratings and descriptions to arrive at his score. The movie critics include ones from official newspapers and dedicated movie bloggers (WOGMA, Passion for Cinema, etc.).

As he tells us in his FAQ and disclaimer, he started this site for fun, is not comprehensive, and doesn’t use any weighting mechanism for reputable critics (says, he is bad at Math). An impressive effort that gives you a quick score of the movie reviews presented in a simple design inspired by Josef Müller Brockmann. Since it is a personal venture, I’m not sure how long it will last considering Chugs currently hosts it on a sub-domain of his personal design site instead of a dedicated domain. I understand that reading reviews every week and updating the site can get tiresome especially if he is plans to do it on his own but I hope this site lasts longer than I expect it to.

ReviewGang

ReviewGang

ReviewGang also started as a fun project (most cool sites do) by Manu. Compared to Chug’s site, this meta-review site is more comprehensive and even uses weighting to adjust ratings by notable movie critics. In addition to presenting an aggregated score of movie critics on a 10-star scale, it also allows users to create profiles and rate (and review) movies displayed via a separate Viewer’s Rating. I exchanged couple of emails with Manu and he intends to create an Indian version of IMDB while promising to stay away from junk gossip content as seen on Zoom TV even if it costs him pageviews.

Currently, you can also see movie trailers of upcoming releases in addition to reading movie synopsis and reviews (direct links for full reviews are provided). ReviewGang presents movie reviewers in three distinct categories – Critics, Editors, and Users. If you run a movie blog and review movies regularly, you can be promoted from a user to an editor. As a user, you can also continue rating and reviewing movies on the site and accumulate points and be promoted to an Editor if you amass 250 points. I’m not sure if Editor ratings are included among the Critics ratings or the Viewers ratings.

The easy and quick access to movie reviews by critics, editors, and users is great. So is the access to movie trailers that we often have to Google for. The FAQ could be better with detailed explanation of the process and backend mechanisms for transparency sake. I wonder if enabling comments on user reviews would generate meaningful discussion or should a separate forum like on IMDB exist purely for throwing around random ideas about the movie (goofs, trivia, or maybe even gossip). As I have cautioned Manu via email, he better beware of ‘feature creep’ as he works toward making ReviewGang into an IMDB for India.

Both sites are impressive in terms of design and content. Although ReviewGang by admission seeks to be more comprehensive, I’m not sure Review-Schview intends to go down that path ever. Chugs and Manu could even collaborate and pool their resources toward a even better site. Or maybe the competition will keep both on their toes. As these sites get popular, they may have to guard against fraud, especially on ReviewGang since it incorporates a user feature. I hope to see both these sites maintain their dead-simple interface and yet offer more.

Footnotes:
  1. Everyone will agree that Baradwaj Rangan is one of those rare movie critics who can boast of a solid reputation in the blogosphere []

Twitter Enables Conversations So Organize It Better

Twitter has emerged as the latest katta [1] or the place where casual conversations occur on a daily basis. Thanks to Twitter’s default settings, my conversation with @cgawker will only be seen in timelines of people who follow both of us and at times, they join in. Just like @parags did today. We had a great time discussing Karnala fort [2] and other forts worth hiking in Maharashtra. This conversation started simply when @cgawker noticed Karnala’s obvious resemblance to certain anatomical details (image that inspired it). Similarly, earlier in the day, @cgawker and I had another unrelated conversation with @twilightfairy about a wedding procession in her gated residential community and @rehabc chimed in too with everyone ultimately ended up ranting on homeowner associations’ weird policies.

By the way, this isn’t a daily summation of my Twitter conversation but I wanted to highlight the richness of conversations that happen on Twitter everyday. It isn’t one of those mediums where the stereotypical criticism of ‘who wants to read what you had for breakfast’ applies [3]. But more often than not, Twitter’s linear structure fails to capture these conversations. These conversations may seem trivial but often contain tons of information. Consider a conversation thread that starts with someone’s tweeting about the awesome dinner he had at a Malvani restaurant [4] and instantly people chime in with places where they have had excellent Malvani cuisine as well. This thread in entirety replete with entree suggestions, parking tips, locations, etc. would be a treasure trove for someone who missed this conversation just because it was happening while he was asleep.

Twitter recently attempted to collate this information by allowing you to select your location for displaying local trending topics instead of global ones. This lets you focus your attention of what is happening in your vicinity and thus maybe directly useful to you. But often, useful information is not always local and like the conversations above, it may simply be of nostalgic value if not tangible. Thanks to Twitter’s open and flexible API, there have been several tools that have attempted to isolate relevant information.

Sparse.ly

Sparse.ly (formerly Flocking.me) displays trends within people you are following so you are spared the noise of what the rest of the world is talking about. You can also search for specific keywords within your friends tweets. Further, you also have a choice of seeing where your friends are tweeting from on Google Maps. If you are not following one of those prolific tweeters like say, Scoble but instead have him on a Twitter list, you can even see the trending topics within that list and search for keywords also within that list. I have a list called Tech Pundits where I follow a bunch of technology gurus but since they are constantly tweeting, I don’t want them to flood my timeline. I check my list occasionally for important updates but Sparse.ly helps me minimize that to just once a day. I can see the trending topics in the Tech Pundits list or search for specific information I have been looking for and I’ve saved precious hours [5]. I wish Sparse.ly had a choice for selecting the timeline for the trends as Cadmus (see below) has.

Cadmus

Cadmus is an invaluable app for catching up on conversations that I was talking about earlier (via). As you see, my conversations with twilightfairy and cgawker have floated to the top with all the tweets contained as a chronological thread that you can go back and catch up on or even click the links you may have missed. This nested replies within popular tweets (accessible by clicking the little thought bubble below each topic) is one of my favorite features. You don’t have to be a part of the conversation for it to show up on your page but it will only show tweets and conversations between people that you are following. This may be a noise-eliminating feature but some may see it as a bug if you want to follow conversations between the persons whom you are following and their followers.

Additionally, you can select different timelines for seeing which conversations were ‘hot’ in that time period. As with Sparse.ly, you can see personal trending topics in your timeline although I’m not sure why the two are different [6]. The corresponding RTs for individual tweets are also archived under Related Posts. Finally, Cadmus also imports RSS feeds [7] and displays trending posts in the same interface including any links or RTs to the post by your followers. You can directly tweet any post extracted from your RSS feed list by clicking the Share button. I just hope Cadmus maintains its simple interface and doesn’t go the HootSuite way of adding every possible feature.

These two tools in combination are perfect for catching up on activity on your Twitter timeline if you have been away for a day or two. Not only do they collate conversations that are integral to Twitter but also make searching much more efficient. After all, hasn’t Google taught us that all the information in the world is useless if you have no way to organize and search through it?

Footnotes:
  1. a Bombay term for college hangout spot []
  2. A bird sanctuary near an old fort on the Bombay-Goa Highway []
  3. Although such people and tweets exist too but you always have the choice of not following them rather than ranting about them. []
  4. When I was in Bombay circa 1990s, Goa Portuguesa and Sindhudurg were great places to get Malvani food []
  5. yes, sometimes you don’t have to know everything the instant it happens []
  6. Hashtags seem to be missing from Sparse.ly list []
  7. You can export your OPML file from Google Reader and import it to Cadmus []

Harishchandrachi Factory – Review

Ever since I read that India’s foreign film entry for the Oscar was a small Marathi movie about India’s first movie, I wanted to see it as soon as possible. The uber cool movie poster and the chatter around the movie made it sound even more interesting. But niche movies like these especially non-South Indian regional movies never make it to these shores. Luckily I am thankful to Sampada for discovering a copy of the movie from sources that shall not be revealed.

The golden era of Marathi movies is unfortunately behind us and movies in recent times have been slapstick comedies (Banva Banvi, Fekka Fekki, etc.) or melodramatic tearjerkers (Maherchi Saadi); none of which can be considered good cinema. Dearth of talent is not an issue because many character actors in Bollywood movies or TV shows are Marathi. The Marathi theater scene is rich and vibrant, or at least was when I was in India ten years ago. In that context, Harishchandrachi Factory is a delightful surprise which warms the cockles of your heart; something that all Nicholas Spark movies try too hard to do. As Sampada notes, the movie documents the crazy quest of Dhundiraj Phalke in discovering and understanding the new medium of moving pictures on a screen. The sense of wonderment among people when they first see moving pictures is akin to when a child sees anything in this world for the first time. I say crazy quest because even Phalke’s friends drug and drag him to Thane’s mental hospital after his obsession with cinema. It would only take a madman to understand and delve into the untapped potential of this mode of communication.

Harishchandrachi Factory Movie Review

Unlike Shwaas, the other Marathi Oscar-selected movie from India, the mood in Harishchandrachi Factory is always upbeat and optimistic even when Phalke has to resort to selling his worldly possessions and going near-blind. Phalke’s infectious enthusians and belief in this medium never gets him down even when he faces overwhelming criticism from his friends who beseech him to tend to his household duties. The movie underscores the importance of the unflinching support of his family in his crazy quest with his wife even letting him go to London when she is pregnant with their third child. Or his 12-year-old son not thinking much of his father shooting an important outdoor scene while being knocked unconscious. The movie also emphasizes the inescapable truth of the role of art patrons who believe in his dream and provide him with monetary support. Getting ten thousand rupees (nearly a million in today’s value) to travel to London in those times was definitely a huge risk by any standards. I love how serendipitous acquaintances like the fellow Maharashtrian restaurant owner help Phalke inch a little closer to his dream. It helps us in understanding that no matter how dedicated or obsessed a man is, he still needs the occasional help from others. As a man, Phalke was progressive for his times. He insisted that his wife also learn the technical aspects of filmmaking (mixing chemicals, processing prints, etc.). Counter to tradition, he contemplated asking women to play the female roles in his first movie and even searched high and low for willing actors. The scenes showing him searching for women in red light districts and the subsequent reactions to his actions by others is hilarious. Men practicing and playing female roles provides plenty of comic moments.

Nitin Desai’s set design and general ambiance of the movie is subdued and well suited to the movie where characters are more important than their environments (think anti-SLB’s-Devdas). While relying on simple minimalist set designs, he also gives us an insight into the times. The occasional tram that goes rambling by, the continued fascination yet sense of comfort that people have for trains, or even the casual mention of Bombay’s bucolic past (“I’ve heard that Dadar is a jungle”).

Surprisingly, the Englishmen in the movie aren’t portrayed as tyrants but in fact, as respectful and appreciative of talent. Right from the projectionist in the Bombay tent to the members of the London Film Society, Phalke is encouraged and assisted by the Englishmen and owes acquiring his camera to their benevolences. I’m sure Phalke must have faced some racial pushback but the movie doesn’t touch upon those thereby maintaining the upbeat feel. Earlier in the movie, even the English police officer who is watching his magic show laced with calls for independence from British merely smiles and even comes up to congratulate him for his magic show.

The movie not only highlight’s Phalke’s love for the movies but also emphasizes the entrepreneur in him. He believes that movies are not only an art form but also a sound business that should make money. To boost interest and dispel superstitions (e.g. when you take a photo, it sucks the life out of people), he uses innovative advertising to bring people to the theater. He attracts not only Indians but also the British. His movies make a splash in England leading to offers to stay on but he senses the opportunity to develop an industry in India. As a filmmaker, he was way ahead of his time and his understanding of the medium astute. This is best seen in his experiment with a growing plant that no photo or live performance could ever demonstrate. Distinguishing this new medium from popular theater performances made his moviemaking last beyond the fad years and well after the charm wore off. The movie is as much about Phalke the man as it is about his quest to make India’s first movie.

Although it is a Marathi movie, even non-Maharashtrians will enjoy it thanks to easy-to-understand subtitles and humor (subtitles are adequate). It avoids the slapstick humor of popular Marathi cinema and veers away from emotional melodrama. Moviemaking and love of cinema is central to the plot and all characters revolve around this singular quest to bring the now-world’s largest movie industry to India. I just wish we had more filmmakers who shared Dhundiraj Phalke’s passion for movies today. Watch Harishchandrachi Factory to discover what love of movies really is all about.

The Scary Republican Base

When I am asked to define my political leanings, I often say, I’m a moderate and when asked to elaborate (because frankly, being a moderate depends on the times you live in) I say fiscal conservative and social liberal. At least in the United States, these two characteristics define the two major political parties with the Republicans claiming to be fiscally conservative and Democrats claiming to be socially liberal. Now at least in the fiscal sense, we have seen neither party can be appropriately called conservative. Democrats have had their pet spending projects and Republicans not only dare not touch Medicare and Social Security but in fact tend to inflate (Medicare Part D) its already-large share in the budget.

The other characteristic somewhat differentiates the two parties and that’s why I tend to often support the Democrats. Why? Because, as any Congress voter in India will tell you, the other side is batshit insane. Some may say, the people that make up the Republican base are not crazy but its leaders are. They are the ones who define the agenda by pandering to a lunatic fringe just to garner some publicity case in point, Michelle Bachmann. But then what if the leaders are indeed preaching to the choir that is xenophobic and ignorant to begin with?

That is why this poll conducted by Daily Kos/Research 2000 surveying Republicans only is scary and exemplifies why I could never identify with such people. This past election showed us that Republicans in fact do not constitute half of the American population irrespective of the fact that there are only two political parties. So these self-identified Republicans may in fact only represent say, 20% of the total population. Nevertheless, the views of the supporters of a major political party in the United States is something to be wary of. You should scroll through all the responses but sample some responses and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Now for Republicans, no longer is it necessary to bug your opponent’s office and lie about it or have an intern blow you and then lie about it to impeach a President. All you have to do is be black and labeled a socialist (63%) to be impeached (39%). In fact, more Republicans want him impeached than not. And Obama has been in office for like what, little over a year. These are going to be four long years for these poor souls. I mention the black part not because I want to stir racial emotions but because 31% believe Obama is a racist who hates white people. Yup, the biracial kid who had a white mom and was raised by his white grandparents hates his people. Heck, 36% of them don’t even believe he was born in the U.S. and 22% more are unsure and 55% are not sure if ACORN helped steal his election. The really scary part – 53% of Republicans believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama. Yup, the same one who couldn’t tell us what she read.

Talking about social and civil liberties, forget gay marriage (77% disapprove), these Republicans don’t even want gays to receive state or federal benefits (68%), not teach in public schools (73%), and not serve in the military (55%). The Republicans don’t even want (59%) the illegal immigrant who are willing to pay a fine and learn English to continue living in the country. I’m not sure what they want to do to them; rounding them up and sending them packing is not only unrealistic but fiscally irrational. The response that takes the cake is when asked if public schools students should be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world, 77% said yes. Nearly 67% believe that only Jesus shows the way to heaven and these same people talk about Islam offering the unhinged solution to salvation.

No wonder you have reason to be afraid if such irrational thought is pervasive among a significant section of the population. I hope better sense prevails and these folks never get to elect anyone to national office.

Customizing Daily Links Post

Few days ago, I wrote about setting up daily blog posting schedule for your Delicious links to keep your blog active and to share interesting links that your blog readers might otherwise miss. Several bloggers including Dina and Maitri either do or used to implement this feature. Some bloggers choose to display their Delicious links in the sidebar or on a separate page but experience tells me that since these links do not go in your feed, they are soon ignored or never even seen by most readers. If some readers want a bookmarks-free feed, you can always assign your bookmarks post to only one category, like I do, and create a customized feed with that category excluded.

The delicious daily blog posting feature is extremely limited and almost un-customizable. You can neither edit the post titles nor style your links. Tags are included by default and add clutter not to mention distraction, from the main link. Also, all except private links are streamed into the daily blog posting. Also, nowadays lots of link sharing happens on Twitter and you want to capture those links too (Pinboard does).

WordPress is extremely flexible and like “there is an app for that”, there is a plugin for that too. I found Postalicious, an awesome plugin that customizes almost everything about the process.

It is based on the pseudo-cron functionality introduced in WordPress 2.1 to schedule automatic hourly updates with the help of the SimplePie Core plugin. After activating the plugin, you only need to set up your preferences and then click on either the “Activate Hourly Updates” or “Update Now” buttons. “Activate Daily Updates” will schedule automatic updates every hour and fetch any new bookmarks you have added. The “Update Now” button retrieves any new bookmarks found when you click it [source]

Import Options

Screen shot 2010-01-29 at 2.29.11 PM.png

As you see in the screenshot, Postalicious lets you extract links from several sources including Delicious. Since I switched to Pinboard last week, I choose the Yahoo Pipes option, which the plugin author tells me, will work for any RSS feed but if you are inclined, you can also use the power of Pipes to modify your incoming content. I also use the feed for the tag ‘pb’ so that I can choose which links I want to share on my blog (hence the #pb links you see on my tweets). All I have to do is to include the ‘pb’ tag (can be anything) along with other tags when I bookmark the link at Pinboard.

Specifying Options

Postalicious Options

The Options feature is when Postalicious shines. You can specify not only the number of bookmarks you need to create a post but also at what time you want it to be posted. I hate to publish a post with merely 2-3 links and I rather wait to publish until the end of the day so as to capture all my links for the day. One of the impressive features of the plugin is that if the post is not ready for publication, Postalicious creates a draft with the pending bookmarks which you can publish any time or wait for Postalicious to publish it when it meets your publishing settings. It creates a draft as soon as it detects new bookmarks, schedules the post as soon as it hits the minimum bookmarks target, keeps adding links to the scheduled post with every hourly update, and then publishes the post at the specified time. If there aren’t sufficient bookmarks in a day to meet your minimum mark then it collates the links over a period of time. If you keep the maximum number of bookmarks as zero then Postalicious keeps adding new bookmarks to either your draft or your published post depending upon your settings. If you specify an upper limit, then it simply creates a new post.

Styling Post Templates

Postalicious Templates

Another important feature over the Delicious counterpart is the ability to style your posts. You can specify not only the post titles but also use CSS to change how the bookmarks are displayed. Postalicious offers several default placeholder values that you can enter for displaying certain fields like date, title, and description. If you are displaying excerpts, you can even specify the generic contents of the excerpts that accompany your link posts.

Minor Customization

Now for the minor quibbles. For some unknown reason, the plugin acted a bit weird on my blog. The hourly updates worked just fine. Even the draft was created with the bookmarks it extracted from the feed but as soon as the minimum bookmarks target was reached, it published the post ahead of schedule. Several emails with Pablo Gomez, the plugin author who was thankfully extremely responsive, later, we figured out a fix. I edited the plugin file to change the updates to daily instead of hourly. This also meant lesser load on the server and it fixed my problem. If you too want to change the update frequency, simply deactivate hourly updates, go to wp_postalicious.php in the wp-content/plugins folder and replace line 166 which should read:

wp_schedule_event($crontime, 'hourly', 'nd_hourly_update');

with:

wp_schedule_event($crontime, 'daily', 'nd_hourly_update');

and then just reactivate the automatic updates. Notice that Postalicious will still say “hourly” everywhere, but the updates should be daily after this change.

But you still don’t know at what time exactly in the day it will trigger the update. If you want the daily updates to happen at a particular time, say 11:30pm, then deactivate the hourly updates and make the following changes again to the wp_postalicious.php file in the lines just above the code mentioned above:

$crontime = time() + 120;
// Set the time to the next hour.
// $crontime += (60 - date('i',$crontime))*60 - date('s',$crontime);

Pablo tells me, the two-minute buffer (120) is to avoid WordPress going crazy by trying to immediately update after saving the plugin file. Now reactivate the ‘hourly updates’ only at the time you want it to check it daily. So if you do it at 11:15pm, then the updates will happen daily at 11:17pm. Be sure to set the time of publishing after this time, say at 11:30pm. Otherwise your bookmarks for the day will be published the next day. If everything goes according to plan then, bookmarks will be imported and a post with your bookmarks will be created for publication at your set time. Strangely, my problem with the hourly updates did not repeat with the daily updates fix and it duly created a scheduled post ready for publication instead of publishing it right away.

If you are an avid bookmarker and a lapsed blogger, this plugin will keep your blog alive. Happy linking.

Pinboard – Bookmarking Service

I uninstalled my Delicious add-on in Firefox today but I’m still bookmarking more than ever. In fact, I’ve made sharing links an integral part of this blog now. I’m using a brand new service, Pinboard to store and manage all my online bookmarks. Founded by Maciej Ceglowski, a former engineer at Yahoo’s Brickhouse and Peter Gadjokov, co-founder of del.icio.us. Their decision to start Pinboard stemmed from the stasis that Delicious finds itself in after being bought over by Yahoo. After MyBlogLog, also a Yahoo acquisition, was shut down, I was afraid of losing my bookmarks that I’ve been collecting since 2003. Although a paid service, Pinboard is not only the closest option to Delicious’ still-robust service but also takes it further by adding option of archiving the links you share on Twitter as well as your unread items on Instapaper. These two features were enough for me to consider switching to Pinboard.

First, the payment aspect. We are used to getting things for free on the Internet but there is no such thing as a free lunch and along comes the cost of spam, slow upgrade, non-existent customer service, etc. Pinboard follows a unique pricing structure. The price is decided by using a simple formula – number of current users * $0.001 so earlier you join, the less you pay. The early adopters are thereby rewarded which is counter-intuitive to most tech products where price for new users is always lower as the product get popular. I paid $5.68 and as of now, the price for new users is $6.13. For me, it has been worth the price and if you think about it, it is as much as an iPhone app.

As you see, the interface is simple, text-based, and elegant without too much clutter. All the important tabs are right at the top. To make the transition easier from Delicious, it allows you to import all your bookmarks and the transfer is seamless and near-instant depending upon the size of your archive. The Starred are your like your bookmark favorites for easy retrieval. The Tweets tab archives all the tweets from your Twitter account so you don’t have to worry about Twitter deleting your older tweets. The tags are on your right and the links are in chronological order on your left with links in blue, description in grey, and tags in orange. It also shows the source of the link i.e. if it was via Twitter or Delicious.

Screen shot 2010-01-25 at 6.32.20 PM.png

The Settings page provides an overview of the true strengths of Pinboard. As I mentioned, it allows you to monitor a Twitter account and extract any links that are posted (a big plus for me). Any text accompanying the link is used as the description and any hashtags are used as tags. So you never have to go hunting for that link you shared on Twitter last morning buried beneath all your tweets and @replies since then. It also adds your Twitter favorites if you don’t want to retweet or re-link a particular URL. Monitoring your Instapaper account allows Pinboard to extract all those items that you have marked as unread and tags them as such. Further, you can share via email as well with the subject as the title and URL, description, and tags on separate lines in the body of the email.

Pinboard founders understand that in spite of their service, transition can be difficult and you may still want to continue using Delicious. You can keep using Delicious and let Pinboard monitor your account so that it pulls in any new links you post there and sync it every three hours. So this way, if Delicious turns belly-up one day, you can seamlessly move to Pinboard (and if Pinboard croaks first, you can always export your data out in XML format but remember you’ve paid for it so the chances are slim). I was using Delicious for a while after I paid for Pinboard but have made the jump now. You get generic bookmarklets that let you tag any URL in any browser easily and the pop-up/new-window box are as fast as Delicious and come equipped with similar features i.e. selected text as description and tag suggestions including popular tags for your link.

Since this blog is now heavily oriented toward sharing daily bookmarks from my web jaunts, I had set up the Daily Blog Posting feature within Delicious. Using a plugin and public XML feeds offered by Pinboard, I’ve easily replicated that feature (more on that in a future post). In fact, it is much more customizable (no tags at the end of each link). I’m still tweaking the frequency and styling so you may see a spurt of bookmark posts but it will eventually settle down.Alternatively, you could simply subscribe to my Pinboard bookmarks

In conclusion, Pinboard is a nifty, reliable, and fast bookmarking service. It not only equals Delicious but surpasses it in many aspects by understanding the current nature of the web. The best part is the direct line to the founders via Pinboard’s Google Groups listserv where the developers respond to your major questions and minor quibbles almost instantly and as with any community around a startup, the user group is quite active (extension for Chrome is already out). So if you forgo your latte for one day, you can rest in peace knowing your bookmarks are secure. Join me at Pinboard.

Help! I’m an elite blogger in a dark room

[T]he next time I see attacks on journalists from pseudonymous bloggers who complain that the journos are only trying to get TRPs (i.e. reach a mass audience), I will wonder: just who do you guys represent? Are you speaking on behalf of viewers and readers? Or are you just another anonymous elite that feels emboldened to pass judgement on the rest of the world from the darkness of your rooms?

[Source: Medium Term]. This diatribe against blogger and Twitter by Indian media personality Vir Sanghvi has been making the rounds of well, blogs and Twitter. The premise of the column or rather, blog post is so weak that bloggers whom Sanghvi holds in low esteem have instantly and effectively fisked it. Sometimes, I think India journalists are waking up to the benefits of link bait and have taken a leaf from the Politico playbook (in tempting Drudge). The beauty of blogging as Sanghvi may or may not understand, is that if other ‘elite’ bloggers like Amit Varma, Rohit, and Lekhni have already refuted not just the underlying arguments in the column blog post but also every major line that supports those arguments, then all I have to do is to link to them. Nevertheless, I’ll rant on. By the way, you are right, my blogging room is indeed dark and I’m waiting for my Google Adsense check to buy new CFLs. Pseudonymous as I am, most of my readers are well aware of my identity, or rather they like to think so.

As Lekhni points out, if TRPs are in fact the ultimate objective of journalism and mainstream media, I’m awaiting extensive coverage of ND Tiwari’s sex-capades [YouTube link]. In fact, a Bigg Boss season with Vir Sanghvi, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami, etc. would be a sure shot winner at the idiot box office. Mr. Sanghvi, get on it please and mention my pseudonym in the opening (not rolling) credits for the idea. Heck, we’ll even start a fire and film the crowds outside and the rescue helicopters. I’m told they make for great TRPs even though it may be ethically wrong and detrimental to the people trapped inside. And for the love of FSM, why is ‘elite’ such a favorite insult? I have been called elite by elite TED-attending bloggers and I always thank them for bestowing a honor that no Indibloggie ever did. Remind me to send the Team of Ordinary Navy Seals when you get kidnapped by the Taliban. If you mean arrogant and out of touch, please say so and hit yourself on the head once for making an ironical (or would it be tragic?) statement.

Now as a attention-seeking lazy blogger, I hope this blog spot gets noticed by your non-elite self and linked by your peers. We all can enjoy higher TRPs then or as we call them on the interwebs, hits. Light up my Mint (and Google Analytics) because we bloggers are like this only too.

iPhone – Indispensable for Travel

Our recent trip to San Francisco was the first one equipped with the iPhone. We decided to get the iPhone after the towing truck guy fleeced us on our trip to Galveston. And now we can safely say that the iPhone is an indispensable part of our future travel plans. It was immensely useful during our trip and in fact, enhanced our experience. I assume this would be true of any smartphone.

San Francisco Streetscape

San Francisco is a public transit-friendly city to begin with and given its proximity to Silicon Valley, is also home to tech professionals and enthusiasts. That means, there is no dearth of apps for the iPhone. We downloaded quite a few free ones that provided basic information on maps, train & bus schedules but even if you didn’t have any apps, the basic features of the iPhone couple of web-friendly websites for the city are adequate. The iBart app gave us the exact arrival times of trains when you punched in two points in its system including the travel time. Similarly, the Next Muni website is awesome (when it works). It gives you the arrival times of the cable cars or buses on your route provided you know where you are.

The default Maps app on the iPhone is handy to figure out where you are located by activating the Current Location feature. This feature also live-tracks you as you are traveling in a bus or a cable car in order to help you figure out how far your destination is. It’s actually fun but you rather not be transfixed at your screen otherwise you are missing out on the sights as you travel and likely to be mistaken as a snob on Nob Hill. The food apps, Yelp and Urbanspoon are extremely useful in looking up places to eat near your current locations and the corresponding reviews let you avoid a potential health hazard. It also prevent you from impulsively dashing into the first place you see when in fact, the place around the corner is rated highly. We discovered Shangri-La, a Nepalese restaurant, and XOX Truffles, a coffee shop using these apps.

There were two times when we were absolutely relieved to have access to the Internet. Once was when we were checking up a bus route back to the Palace of Fine Arts from the Golden Gate Bridge. We had hiked all the way from the Marina to the Golden Gate through Crissy Field and were in no condition to walk back. The Next Muni website gave us the exact time and location of the bus that would take us back. (We highly recommend buying the 1-3 day pass if you are using public transit in San Francisco. It pays off easily since each trip is $5 if you buy individual tickets.) The second time was when our flight was canceled at the airport and the only way we found out was when Ash checked her email to get a notification from Expedia. We were quickly able to look up rental cars in Dallas to see that none were available helping us decide to postpone our flight back by a day instead of being on constant standby. We looked up a hotel nearby, called it up and asked for the shuttle service. Without the iPhone, it would’ve be virtually impossible looking up a phone on a chaotic airport on Christmas Eve.

If you have been contemplating getting a smartphone, go ahead and buy it. It is definitely worth it when you are traveling and with unreliable flight schedules, it can be your savior. Having an iPhone makes carrying a laptop redundant provided you’ve enough memory on your SD cards and get reliable 3G coverage from your provider (We didn’t have any infamous AT&T coverage issues). Other apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr help you stay in touch with your social network while you are traveling but I recommend not posting or using it too much for obvious reasons. Since I use an iPhone, I recommend it but am sure users of other smartphones have similar tales.

Experimenting with HDR Processing

Lately, I have been experimenting with HDR photography. High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a post-processing photography technique that allows for “a greater dynamic range of luminances between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than standard digital imaging techniques” [source]. This technique works great in bringing out the details and can be used in variety of light conditions. It best works on streetscapes and landscapes; you wouldn’t want to HDR people if you wish to still remain friends with them. HDR images do not always appear realistic but assume a surrealistic artistic feel yet look believable. The technique in creating an HDR image is first actually creating the HDR version which is kind of like, a negative for the final image, and then tone mapping that image to get the final result.

Although it sounds complex and makes you believe you need an illuminating engineering degree to create a HDR image, it is anything but. The basic steps are shooting three images with different exposures; one perfectly exposed, another underexposed, and another overexposed and merging the three. It is preferable to shoot in manual mode and shoot +/- 2 f-stops to acquire three images. If your camera is equipped with auto bracketing, this is done easily otherwise you’ve to manually adjust the exposures.

Thanks to Supremus who has been doing this much long than I have, I learned that you can do the over/under-exposure shots within Lightroom/Aperture/Photoshop instead of doing it in the field. I would still recommend using both techniques to see which results you like best although theoretically they should be the same. If you are shooting three images with a manual setting, use a tripod to avoid misaligned images and adjust exposure settings quickly to keep all three images as similar as possible with the exception of exposure. Supremus also pointed me out to an awesome stand-alone HDR & Tone Mapping tool that makes creating HDR images a walk in the park – PhotoMatix Pro – that imports your images and does the grunt work for you.

Whatever technique you use, once you start creating HDR images, you’ll be hooked and tempted to look at every landscape or streetscape photo through the HDR lens. Use it judiciously. Check out the HDR groups on Flickr for well executed ideas. I’m sharing the first attempts of my HDR foray below. The first two used three images I shot in the field and the other two are using one image with exposures adjusted in Aperture:

Pier 39 HDR

From Pier 39, San Francisco

Golden Gate Foliage HDR

The Golden Gate behind the hills

Golden Gate Fort Point HDR

The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – The Vintage Look

Lombard HDR

Lombard Street, San Francisco

I hope to see your HDR photos if you go out and shoot some. If you’ve already been dabbling in HDR, feel free to offer any tips or better still, flaunt your photos.

TV Shows on DVD via Netflix – Part I

We have now switched completely to watching TV shows on Netflix barring the occasional movie. This allows us not only to watch acclaimed TV shows following critical acclaim but also savor them at our leisure. We highly recommend this format if you were late to the party and missed great shows because you were busy getting your Masters or PhD and thereby couldn’t afford HBO or Showtime subscriptions. Premium cable channels are more likely to host better shows than network TV because they don’t have the same restrictions (censorship, mass appeal, etc.) as the latter; so cable shows feature more in this list although surprisingly quite a few network shows make the cut too.

We have watched nearly a dozen shows this way and are currently subscribed to couple more. I had planned on writing on each series as we concluded but I found it better to start watching another show rather than write about the previous one. Anyway, this is my attempt at briefly reviewing some shows that we’ve enjoyed:

Rome

HBO (mini-series)

This part-fictional historical drama is set in the times of Julius Caesar at the height of the Roman Empire. Although it takes liberties with historical fact and often credits two minor characters (central characters in the series) Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, with major events, the political machinations and devious nature of human character makes for great drama. Mark Anthony is not exactly the virtuous man that our history books and Lend Me Your Ears recitals make him out to be but in context, he seems much more plausible. The show not only focuses on the larger political scandals including the assassination of Caesar but also the private lives of the common man that include soldiers and traders.

Historians may find umpteen faults and tear their hair out at anomalies but it makes for excellent television. You find yourself torn between choosing an alleged benevolent dictator over squabbling senators that also allegedly assert the will of the people in one of the world’s first republic. But it is not for the faint-hearted and definitely PG-17 if not R-rated for depiction of nudity and gore. If Rome was any indication, we definitely didn’t live the simple life in days of the yore. It packs a lot in 22 episodes over 2 seasons so be prepared to be overwhelmed.

The West Wing

NBC (1999-2006)

This show must have been the solitary beacon of hope during the Bush year for liberals. Although the multi-Emmy-winning show aired last in 2006, we never watched it live. In brief, the show is based on the behind-the-scenes of the White House with Josiah Barlett (Martin Sheen) as a Democratic President supported ably by his inspired staff. If you think, this is merely another of those political shows with rhetoric and jingoistic bluster, then you are mistaken. Written by Aaron Sorkin (and Lawrence O’Donnell), the show is a quirky comedy that not only highlights the struggles of the most powerful administration in the world but also captures the essence of enormous impact their decisions have on our lives.

The realism and unique style of shooting (talk as you walk through the hallways of the White House) makes it an unique experience especially for a network show. We as viewers get close to all characters which not surprisingly are all inspired by idealism. The woman characters including the first lady are strong and not mere figureheads; other characters are the Press Secretary (and then the Chief of Staff), Deputy National Security Advisor, Congresswomen, political consultants, etc. The male characters are strong yet bumbling and quirky compared to their female counterparts.

One of the strangest coincidence of the final seasons of the show was how much it resembled the soon-to-follow Obama-McCain campaign with a nuclear disaster instead of an economic collapse. The race on the show, of course, was much closer than in reality. Although idealism is sprinkled liberally (pun intended) and there is a clear distinction between the ‘other’ devious party, the show is scripted well and keeps you engrossed. It is like the ray of sunshine in the dark reality of real-world politics. We were genuinely sad we saw the final episode.

Sports Night

ABC (1998-2000)

This little-known show that was abruptly cut short by ABC was recommended on Twitter for being Sorkin’s precursor to The West Wing. The show focuses on the behind-the-scenes (a Sorkin speciality, I guess) of a TV sports show; much like Sports Center (Sorkin attempted it again in Studio 60 on teh Sunset Strip) Sorkin specializes in feel-good TV where all his characters are extremely nice people; might sound unrealistic but it makes us feel good and probably one of the reason why most people watch TV. But all sap and no story or characters, you’ll tire of it pretty quick. Sports Night fortunately walks that fine line but only just. It is not as strong as The West Wing but it holds its own and shows you the early years of Sorkin (in fact, he ditched Sports Night after he started working on The West Wing)

The show again has couple of central characters that include the sports show’s hosts and its producer. The look behind how a television show operates, the occasional goofs, fighting off the network in face of falling ratings, the struggle to show interesting stories vs. stories that people will actually watch. We never actually are introduced to a vast majority of the people working on the show but are given insights on the geeky know-it-all new recruit, the fact-finders, and producers who actually make any television show happen. Largely a comedy, the drama elements are provided by the romantic off-n-on connections between the show’s main anchor and the producer, the two neurotic and nerdy researchers, and the second anchor’s fluctuating relationships with other women not on the show. This show first featured Sorkin’s Walk and Talk speciality that he later employed in The West Wing which is more interesting because of the rapid dialogue delivery laced with sharp humor that you’ll miss if you blink.

This show was cancelled by the network and the final episode managed to sneak in a jab to ABC – Anybody who can’t make money off of Sports Night should get out of the money-making business – which is sad because it was far better than most of the shows we see on TV today. Although we weren’t as enthusiastic about this show as we were for The West Wing, it is definitely worth a watch especially if you are a general sports fan.

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Coming up next – Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, Freaks and Geeks, Firefly, Arrested Development, Lost, and Mad Men.

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