Archive for May, 2013

Time of The Season For …

May 27, 2013 1 comment

Alphonso Mangoes

As quoters of scripture go, it’s tough to beat The Byrds, who told us “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)”.  Actually, they were quoting Pete Seeger, who was quoting Ecclesiastes, but I’m willing to call Seeger as much a prophet as any of the original old-timers.

If you can’t recognize it from the pic above, the season here in Pune – to which I’ve just returned – has turned to mangos.  The two above are Alphonsos – after Duke
Afonso de Albuquerque
, the founder of Portugeuse Goa – just bought by myself today from Hypermarket.  I purchased three of these and after peeling and wolfing down the first, the two remaining siblings were a knife’s edge away from a similar fate when it occurred to me to document … well, their fruity goodness.

And boy, are they good.  Sweet, creamy, rich, they are like ice cream – in fact I can’t imagine why anyone would ever have mango ice cream if they could have one of these instead.  At the market I saw gift boxes of a dozen such mangos – this weekend it’s a mango-fest for me.

Behind this simple indulgence there is considerable drama.  While some mangos are sold direct by farmers, who are trying to maximize their prices, the vast majority go through APMC (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) facilities.  APMCs are state-established marketing boards that establish actual markets where produce may be sold.  I’m not sure exactly how these work – there definitely seem to be some protections afforded growers when they bring produce to the APMC markets – but like so much here there is considerable corruption, and generally the wholesalers band together to keep commodity prices low.  There are many middlemen and ancillary trades involved, and each one needs their cut, as Wal-Mart is finding out.  Farmers further get the sharp end of the stick, for example because of a freak hailstorm – the storm caused a premature drop of the mangos and a flood on the market.  My mangos were priced at Rs. 120 the kg.; my 3 mangos cost Rs. 98.  The price a farmer actually gets is about Rs. 1-2 per mango.

Farmers also have to contend with bad weather and a pest called ‘Thrips’ which attacks mango trees.  For all this, the profit in mangos is still considerable, relatively speaking.  Among the things farmers try to increase their return is artificial ripening, which is performed by adding calcium carbide to the mango crates.  Despite fines of up to Rs. 10 lakh (about $18,800) the practice still persists.  Finally, one cooperative of mango farmers here is going online to sell mangos direct.

I’ll leave it to my readers with bents towards economics and/or social justice to ponder on solutions.  For my part it is time to dispatch my two remaining examples of Duke Alphonso’s legacy.  If you didn’t catch it, the title of this post is also a 60’s rock quote –  I’ll leave you all to watch that while I dine on pure, Maharashtran tastiness.

Categories: Expat life, Food

On The Road Again

May 24, 2013 1 comment

Wilson FarmsMangos








Been an excellent visit back in the USA, one of the first places I went was Wilson Farms, a favorite local market of ours.  Back in Pune it is a prime time for mangos, I understand.  Here in Massachusetts, our mangos come from Mexico and run about $3.50 – or Rs. 190 – the kg.  We certainly have ample  fresh veg back in India, but it is hard to find the variety of a place like Wilson Farms.

A good visit, with productive meetings at the Littleton lab, picking up daughter Alex from SUNY New Paltz, playing golf with friend Tom, and generally re-acquainting myself with my USA home.  Tonight we dined on beefsteak, accompanied with 2005 Chateauneuf du Pape Chante-Perdrix, followed by a brief stroll outside to survey the grounds at 75 Hillside, and finally watching a movie in the library:

2005 Chateauneuf du Pape Chant Perdrix

75 HillsideMy library


Tomorrow, leave at 5 am or so for a British Airways flight at 8:15 am to London, thence to Mumbai and from their back home to Pune, arriving 11 am or so Saturday.  See you all on the flip-side …

Categories: Sundries

ESPN & Net Neutrality

May 14, 2013 Comments off


Stories going round today about a putative ESPN deal to pay wireless providers so that access to ESPN content is essentially free. puts it this way:




The defenders of “competition” and a “free market” have it all wrong. The pay-for-unlimited-bandwidth option actually restricts competition. That up-and-coming app developer with the cool new video streaming product who can’t afford to pay off AT&T or Comcast or Verizon ends up losing out. Entities with access to capital get a preferred position on our phones.

On the other side, there’s, who sounds a free-market-based warning:

You get the point.  Wouldn’t it be pretty darn terrific if Internet companies could be treated just like regular companies, allowing them to ”discriminate” or prioritize their services as consumers demand?

Net Neutrality hogties the whole ecosystem – from the network providers on down to the content, app, service and device makers.  Man, what a waste of a policy lever based on nothing more than fear.  We pay for “discrimination” / priority in every segment of our economy, like the mail, the airlines, shopping clubs, hot lanes, etc.  It makes these services better.

I’m not so sure about this particular case and net-neutrality.  By way of analogy, if ESPN put its content on thumbdrives and then courier-ed those to peoples’ houses, the result would be the same, people get the content for free.  It would be goofy, but no one would protest; why then do people get exercised over a virtual method of doing the same thing?

Note that the proposed deal has nothing to do with priority – users don’t receive the ESPN content faster or cleaner than any other content, they just receive it for free.

Yes, I get that we want to separate content-providers and network-providers, and that there is a risk of a kind of "McDonald-zation" of internet content — i.e. mega-providers with money to pay for priority lock out worthwhile content from small providers who don’t have that money.  But to take the McDonald’s idea one step further – McDonald’s and its kin monopolize many key locations across the US, like highways rest stops, airports, malls, etc., yet independent restaurants have not been wiped out.  They are under pressure, but surely no one thinks independent eateries are going away – in fact people are willing to pay more to eat at an indie restaurant.  The real problem that indie eateries have is not access – it is marketing.  So, coming back to’s comments, net neutrality will never help that “up-and-coming app developer” – that guy’s problem is not access to his app, it is marketing his app, which no amount of net-neutrality will ever do for him.

My net on this particular net-neutrality kerfuffle: Assuming access to all other content is unchanged, I don’t see the logic in trying to stop ESPN from paying peoples’ phone bills.  On ESPN’s prospects for success with this strategy, I suspect people will quickly conclude the content is worth what they are paying for it.

Categories: Technology

Next Stop … Beans & Cods

May 10, 2013 Comments off


Tomorrow, Kim, Morgan and myself head back to the place you see above – Boston, of course – a 10-day visit for me, about a 2-month stay for them.  The pic is a puzzle we have on our TV-area table, a gift from good friend Kathy B. when I went on assignment.  I’m afraid all I did with it was start sorting the pieces.  When Kim arrived in January, puzzle-mistress that she is, it was put together in a about a week.  Just for context, sitting somewhere around East Boston, I would say, I’ve put a can of Kingfisher, kind of the Narragansett of India.

Anyway, many an evening here we look at the puzzle and say, “Let’s go to that spot when we get back”.  Soon we’ll be doing just that.

An odd reflection, if you don’t mind … I have a habit – when in a good mood that is – of humming, or even mumbling, popular songs as I go through my day or as I walk from meeting to meeting.  Last few weeks a lot of that has been Why Do Fools Fall In Love?  Can’t tell you why that song in particular.  But as the trip approaches I find myself inevitably switching to Back in the USSR.

You don’t know how lucky you are, boys … see you soon.

Categories: Expat life

Silver lining … or not?

May 8, 2013 5 comments

Cape Cod clouds

Ars Technica relates how Adobe’s Creative Suite – Photoshop, Dreamweaver, InDesign and others – is “moving to the cloud”.  As Adobe says here:

Creative Cloud changes everything.

We believe the creative process can be better. New, more connected tools. Fonts, files, and projects always in sync. Your creative community just a click away. It’s all coming to Creative Cloud this June.

The technical net of this is:

  • The apps themselves are unchanged.  Your Photoshop filters still run on your hopped-up 8-core Alienware overclock job.
  • The way you pay is subscription.  For $19 a month you get 1 app, 20 GB storage, and some access to the “cloud services”.  There are bundled deals of multiple products, a complete bundle is $600 per year, actually somewhat less than the $699 for a boxed license to Photoshop alone.
  • Don’t know what the services all are yet … seems to focus on assets like fonts, templates, etc.

Response seems mixed.  Looking through the Ars Technica comments there is a positive contingent, as represented by “Korgoth”:

Korgoth Wise, Aged Ars Veteran

for people without a couple grand to get all the tools. Not everyone has $2500 lying around, but most can manage $50 in a month.
Cost wise it might work out to be more in the long term, but it does offer some extras over the boxed version; and allows more people to afford it.

But a lot of folks on the other side observe that this is really a massive price increase, as bluntly described by “Voix des Airs”:

Voix des Airs, Ars Scholae Palatinae

Absolutely not. I upgrade software when the developer provides me a compelling reason to do so. Features that make it worthwhile for me to upgrade. I positively do not want to pay a subscription for a stream of "upgrades" that might be of no value to me.
Screw you Adobe. This dude will not abide.


The logic here is, if I buy PS for $699 now, and say I can use it productively for 4 years, under the new scheme that would cost me $960.  I guess if I really cared about the latest-and-greatest, I’d go for cloud, but I think for 90% of users, PS already has more than they ever need, so what’s the value of these “continuous improvements”?

    I guess I don’t get Adobe’s rationale.  I get they want more money, and constantly flowing money.  But, surely they know a great many customers will use the same reasoning as Voix des Airs?  Why don’t they keep the boxed model and offer the cloud as an option? 

      I gotta believe that tons of users will use this inflection point as opportunity to look at a free alternative, like GIMP.
      If you follow this stuff you probably know that Microsoft is already in the same place Adobe is now going to, with Office 365: $100 per year for rights to install Office on 5 computers, plus 20 GB SkyDrive storage.  Unlike the Adobe thing, the MS thing is a good deal.

    Thoughts?  Rental software good, or bad?

    Categories: Technology

    How is this possible?

    May 4, 2013 3 comments


    This picture is from a bookstore in our local mall here in Pune.  Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a big stack of them in the highest-traffic part of the store.  Just out of frame is a similar stack of The Devil Wears Prada.

    I’m not sure what to write in this post.  Mein Kampf is sold in the USA, and probably more copies are bought there every year than in India; WikiPedia says 15,000 copies per year, vs. 100,000 copies sold in 7 years, as described in this article from the Daily Beast.  India is 3-4x more populous than the US, but the people with income enough to consider buying something like this are far, far fewer than in the US.  I think relative to number of people able to buy such a book, it is far more popular in India than in the US.

    Back in 2002 the Times of India reported on a survey where Indian college students were given a list of famous leaders and asked to select which would be best for India.  Mahatma Gandhi was the the choice of 23% – Adolph Hitler was chosen by 17%, more than chose Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela.  How could that be?  Even more dismaying is this quote in as article from Telegraph UK discussing the popularity of Mein Kampf with Indian business students:

    "Students are increasingly coming in asking for it and we’re happy to sell it to them," said Sohin Lakhani, owner of Mumbai-based Embassy books who reprints Mein Kampf every quarter and shrugs off any moral issues in publishing the book.

    "They see it as a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".

    The best thing I can say on this, we need Mel Brooks in India.  From an interview with Der Spiegel:

    SPIEGEL: Can you also get your revenge on him by using comedy?

    Brooks: Yes, absolutely. Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. In doing so, we should remember that Hitler did have some talents. He was able to fool an entire population into letting him be their leader. However, this role was basically a few numbers too great for him –- but he simply covered over this deficiency.

    So, watch this and rob the mustachioed wall-painter of his posthumous power:

    Categories: Expat life

    Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

    May 4, 2013 3 comments


    My job is building software.  Of course I use technology every day, for work, education and entertainment.  I like to think, at least,  that I’m pretty good at building and using this stuff.

    But, for all that, I have a strong luddite streak; maybe folks got that from my post on Summly.  I use Facebook but I am intensely suspicious of it.  Of the 100 or so apps on my smartphone, I rarely use anything beyond Maps and Alarm Clock.  An app like Foursquare – which bills itself as helping  “… you and your friends find great places and make the most of your visits” – is to me a bizarre surrender of privacy and security for no return whatsoever.  Yet these and other “innovations” have constant command of the business and technology limelight and, despite their dubious value propositions, are all making money in very large buckets indeed.  Why the heck is this?

    Evgeny Morozov apparently shares my curmudgeonly suspicions.  His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, while flawed in several ways, captures in one word the cognitive dissonance of the distinctive Silicon Valley brand of improvement through technology:

    Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.  I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.

    So what is solutionism?  Morozov relates how researchers in Japan are prototyping “augmented reality” for cooking.  In this system, cameras are mounted in the ceiling and walls of your kitchen then, for example, if you are about to filet a fish, the system visually senses your intent and projects light indicators to guide you through the activity – for example with projected laser lines that indicate where to cut into the fish.

    Or how about this: Bin-Cam, a system with a camera mounted inside your trash bins that records a snap every time you open and close the lid, then passes on the image to a pool of human evaluators who in turn count your recyclables, wasted food, etc. to derive a “score” for your trash.  The ultimate aim is you and your neighbors will compete for badges over who has the most eco-friendly trash.

    So, what problems are these things solving?  Morozov’s contention is these sorts of “innovations” are both arbitrary and hurtful.  Can anyone believe the augmented kitchen reality will lead to better-cut fish?  What we as users need to do is just what our ancestors did: Learn how to actually cook.  Bin-cam can have worse consequences.  Recycling and waste are real problems, but by declaring this trivial “solution” we actually move ourselves further away from doing what needs to be done, like enacting market-drivers and regulations that generate real improvement.

    Solutionism comes together with Morozov’s other bête noir, “The Internet”, when he critiques liquid democracy.  In a nutshell liquid democracy purports to generate better public decisions through delegation of votes to “experts”.  Should we have a carbon tax?  Don’t ask me, I know little about carbon and even less on taxes.  With liquid democracy what I would do is delegate my vote on the matter to someone who is such an expert. Suppose the next issue is access to emergency contraception.  All I need to do is delegate to another, appropriately qualified expert.  And so on.  (Note to future self: If this dorky idea ever gets enacted in the USA, delegate everything to Paul Krugman.)

    Morozov’s point – which seems evident to me – is that the “openess” of the “the Intertnet” does not somehow make everything that happens on it  good, and that we can’t take the problems that thinkers and writers from Socrates to Voltaire to Churchill to Oakeshott all have pondered over and just “make an app for that”.  Morozov writes:

    Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human  freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well.  if we don’t find the streng5th and the courage to escape the silicon mentality that fuels much of the current quest for technological perfection, we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster (if not moribund) cultural institutions that don’t take risks and only care about their financial bottom lines, and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable.

    I said there were flaws in the book.  One is that Morozov is really a philosopher and as such likes to quote and reference other philosophers – a lot of them; the book includes 55 pages of citations.  He also comes across as really grumpy and tees off on harmless tech P-R phenomena like Clay Shirky and the TED Conference.  Shirky has little cause to complain, though, here’s the #2 hit I got when I Googled Clay Shirky:


    I guess Google doesn’t like Shirky either.

    Denizen’s of “the Internet” have mostly harsh woods to offer on this book.  Tim Wu writes:

    “To Save Everything, Click Here” is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.

    Slashdot has a review that focuses on the kitchen augmented reality thing, striving mightily to show how “the Internet” really can teach you how to cook, if only we could incentivize authors to write better directions.  Maybe badges for authors … you see where this is going?

    There’s a lot more ground Morozov covers – like how algorithms used by Amazon, Google and Facebook are obviously designed for maximum revenue generation, and not for our collective, transparent benefit – or how lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, while mostly harmless, also trivialize the productive flaws of human memory and tradition.  Some of that is valid observation, some just grumpiness, less of which would have benefited the book.

    In closing, while few people have ever heard the word solutionism, a great many intuitively get the point – which you can see in parodies like this:


    Technology mocking itself – a good sign.  Maybe I should make an app for that … ?

    Categories: Books, Technology

    Programming Worms

    May 3, 2013 2 comments

    No, not as in malware – a program that replicates itself as it moves from machine to machine – but as in an actual dirt-loving, squirming-about, icky-spaghetti worm.

    This link comes off of Boing Boing.  The project is called OpenWorm, and it self-describes as:

    OpenWorm is an open source project dedicated to creating the world’s first virtual organism in a computer, a C.elegans nematode. We plan to achieve this goal by 1) bringing together highly motivated scientists and engineers 2) pushing away all the red tape 3) fostering growth of a completely open computational biology community.

    So, its not building a real worm – a virtual worm.  The worm they are hoping to replicate – Caenorhabditis elegans – is a nematode worm about 1 mm long; there’s about 1,000 cells in each one of these tiny critters.

    How is this being done?  Hard to say.  The project milestones are here … here’s an example:

    Muscle Cell model output closely matches that of real data

    We will show that we have built a model of C. elegans muscle cell that matches data recorded from the nematode muscle cell. In part, we will use techniques of model optimization to fill in gaps in the model parameter space (deduce unmeasured parameters). The main technical challenge is tuning muscle cell passive properties and building a larger data set (more cell recordings). Mike Vella will take the lead on this.


    Do we need virtual worms?  No, not as such – but we need these types of projects, that’s is what science is, right?  There’s too much of the attitude these days that all R & D needs to be dedicated to obvious needs.  I for one think we need more scientia gratia scientiae.

    Categories: Technology Tags: ,