Friday, April 29, 2005


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From FC

I love reading Fast Company. Here's some good excerpts:

An article on leadership entitled Borrrrring!:
    Under legendary acting teacher Jacques Lecoq, founder of École Jacques Lecoq, Gaulier learned a secret: You can achieve any great vision that you have of yourself -- if your work gives you pleasure

    < snip >

    "So does one need to go to drama school to learn how to do all this?" I ask Gaulier. No, he says: "Life is a school. Experience teaches you many things. But often, we learn the wrong things from our experiences.

    "A lot of events make us contract," he continues. "We learn how to play smaller and smaller roles. A woman may come to think that she is stupid because she has made a few bad decisions. Her voice grows quieter, and she becomes less trusting. Her effectiveness diminishes without her knowing why. Others see that she is performing the role of the frightened creature, but she doesn't see that.

From Climbing Back Up The Mountain:
    To attract such knowledgeable employees and keep them happy, EMS offers flexible work plans with sabbatical-like stretches of vacation time. Several years ago, Bradbury took a year off from EMS to go climbing in the Himalayas. Recently, his assistant manager spent a month rock climbing in Thailand. Such liberties aren't just for management-track employees: After a year, any full-timer can cut out for 90 days' unpaid leave. It's just another part of Manzer's plan to get EMS back on the side of the angels.

Think EMS needs someone to write distributed systems code for them?

From Are All Consultants Corrupt?:
    I don't want my tombstone to read, "He did tolerable stuff for tolerable people because they paid him." I'm not that much of a whore. Do I do it occasionally? Sure. I'm no more noble than anyone else. But that's not the issue. The issue is, Is that your life? Why would you want to spend your life doing stuff that you can just tolerate, working for people you don't like? Especially when you realize that you can make more money doing work that engages your passions. The only sensible business rule is, Life is too short to work for idiots.

From The Call of the Anti-Extreme Job:

    At JLT, which supplies rugged laptop computers for extreme conditions, Einck leaves by 5:10 p.m. almost every evening -- and he expects his 15 employees to follow.
    Einck admits his company could sell more computers if his people worked longer. But at what cost? Last year, JLT's revenue rose more than 50%, to almost $10 million. Any more than that, he says, would have exhausted workers and taxed morale. As it is, "being able to have dinner with my kids and put them to bed is huge," says general manager Lisa Ridley, a mother of two. "Does it makes you more loyal? Absolutely."

From Soul Proprietor:

    "Have you ever seen the movie with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino called Heat?" he continues. "De Niro is the bad guy, and Pacino is the good guy. And at one point, De Niro says to Pacino something like, 'One of the things that lets me do what I do is, there's nothing in my life that I won't walk out on in a matter of seconds. Nothing. So if you're going to chase me, and if there's something in your life that you're not willing to walk out on in a few seconds, you're going to lose.' That's what it's like to be an entrepreneur."

update: I didn't finish reading all the stuff I wanted to. Here's some more.

From Natural Leader:

    But we have a love-hate relationship with success and failure -- that is, we love success and we hate failure. That's more of an adult phenomenon, by the way. When little kids are first starting to walk and to pick up and drop things, they're fine. There's no judgment associated with those things. Everything's an experiment to them. But by the time people get to be adults, they have almost no tolerance for failure. And that is a very, very dangerous context to have if you want to be a lifelong learner, because the only way to learn is through failure. That's another one of those "aha" moments: when you realize that people work in organizations that religiously try to reduce the risk of failure, when the only way to grow is through experimentation, practice, and risk.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

human history

Check out National Geographic's Genographic Atlas

a bit of inspiration

The Man Who Planted Trees is an amazing feel-good essay with a pretty self explanatory title.

On a related note, there have been vigils to prevent the felling of trees in Bangalore. Go here to find out more.

I heard about the vigils this past Saturday at a festival called Bhoomi Jathre which is an all night music festival hosted by Fireflies, an eco-ashram outside Bangalore. I can't seem to find organized info about when they're held though.

The music festival, by the way, was a lot of fun. I wasn't sure what to expect; the description made me think of Anjuna Beach in Goa, but then I figured there probablyn't wouldn't be too much chemical consumption while listening to indian classical music at an eco-ashram. It was a nice mix of both. Some great organic food stalls, indian classical music, jazz, traditional/fusion dance, art exhibitions. I wanted to scan tickets to keep as a momento, but I left them in my short pockets and they got obliterated in the washing machine.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


So yesterday evening I decided to take Sindya out for a nice dinner; we went to this restaurant called 'Jolly Nawab' at the Windsor Manner hotel. Dinner was great; I had lamb chops marinated in pomengranate juice - extrmeley tender and tasty.

On the way back to Jaynagar (actually, on RV road right around 25th - 30th cross) at about 11:40pm, there were a couple of cops standing around asking people to slow down. One cop asked me if I'd had anything to drink. Since I'd had only a single beer with dinner, I felt I had nothing to hide and answered truthfully. He asked me to pull over and take a breathalizer.

At this point, I was actually feeling really good about the whole thing; there are too many people driving drunk on Bangalore streets and I'm glad that they stop people and check for alcohol.

So anyways, I blow into the instrument once, and the percentage show up as zero; so they ask me to blow again. It still doesn't show up so they ask me how much I had. I tell them that I've only had one beer two or three hours ago when we started dinner (long dinner). Then they ask to me blow once more. At this point, I'm getting a little irritated but oblige anyway.

Finally (since nothing showed up again), the cop is like:
"Okay. three hundred rupee fine!" I was shocked.
"But there's no percentage!"
"If there is a percentage, the fine is a thousand rupees!"
"No. I'm not paying. I've only had one beer, and I'm below the allowed percentage!"

At which point I just turned around and walked back towards the car and drove off. I really wish I knew Kannada so I could yell at the guy. I forgot to get his name so on the way back I actually slowed down, asked him his name ("Kale Gowda", supposedly), thanked him, and drove off.

Oh well, India will be India. I wouldn't really call it extortion, because when I told him I wasn't going to pay, he just kind of let it go. But what is it that incents people like him to ask for bribes? Part one is that they're probably not paid a lot. But neither are cops most places in the world.

A few months ago I heard someone from speak about how they'd been able to significantly increase the income tax collection by making processes transparent, and incenting tax officials to not take bribes and collect fair tax from everyone. Having worked firsthand with income tax officials (known to be the most corrupt of the government departments) from all over the state, he still believed that all of these guys were basically good people who were in a system that incented them towards corrupt practices. That was heartening because I thought I was being completely naiive in the "everyone is basically good" view. Yet here was someone who had worked with hundreds of people first hand and seen them change as a result of a better system.

So part of it is the financial incentives. But I think more than that is the respect. If everyone thinks you're corrupt, you're not going to tarnish your image by taking one more bribe since it's expected of you. I think Bangalore desperately needs someone who can take the police force and turn it around. A great leader, a great PR person, and a great CEO. Any takers?


Sindya just wrote an article about the tsunami which really moved me.

Friday, April 15, 2005

My own concierge.

Guido writes about a concierge service. It reminded me that I had wanted to post about this for a while.

Our office folks are pretty cool about constantly doing little stuff to keep people happy at work. Since fruits are extremely cheap in India, they've started stocking the fridge with grapes and watermellons. Every evening at around 3pm they cut the watermellons and everyone in the office slowly congregates around the fridge area to slurp on red, juicy watermellons. that's usually also when you grab a paper cup and scoop out a cup full of grapes to take back to your desk. In the late morning (around 11am-ish), someone comes around with cups of chaas (buttermilk). Oh, and we have a caterer serve a full buffet lunch on the terrace every afternoon.

Everyone who visits from the US is surprised by all this because we're a pretty frugal company in general. But then you consider that our lunch costs the company about $0.70 per day per person (where each person, including me, is costing the company a fraction of what they would in the US) and then it doesn't sound so bad afterall.

Coming back to the original subject of this post; the office signed up with a similar concierge service to the one Guido mentioned, called Les Concierges. They actually send one person to come sit at our office every day for 2 hours. If anyone has any odd jobs they need done they go talk to the person, give them a small advance, and get a receipt. A few days later they'll come back with what you need. My watch died the other day, and the rechargeable battery for my camera has stopped recharging. So I gave them both and asked them to look into things. A few days later they came back to say that they went to the Timex showroom and tried replacing the battery but that the watch still didn't work. Additionally, they went to a couple of Panasonic showrooms to look for rechargeable batteries but couldn't find them.

I would never had had time to leave work, battle the Bangalore traffic, and get this stuff done. They take care of getting all sorts of official government documents (involves standing in long lines), booking tickets for trains/planes/etc., and a bunch of other cool things. They have some funny ones but I don't have the booklet with me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


I hadn't seen this kick-ass feature on flickr that lets you add a note to your photograph which shows up when you mouse-over it. Here's an example of it in action. How cool is that?
I love all the rich UI's that people are building.

By the way, with all the talk about ajax, one really cool feature would be an auto-save for any large text boxes (like when I'm blogging or emailing). That way if I lose connectivity, accedentally close my browser window, or anything else, I don't have to worry about losing my data. Does anyone already do this?

more gmail

I got this email from a buddy:
    on the gmail login page they now have a continuously increasing, running counter of the max storage space allocated to each account. I've seen running counts like this for "interest paid" on savings account by a given bank which is straight forward since the number simply grows as a function of the interest rate.

    What could google be doing that allows the storage space to continue growing a small, but constant rate? When they recently increased from 1gb to 2gb i saw some vaguely worded press release that basically said "we have better technology/methods" for storing information rather than "we bought a bunch more servers"

That's a great question. I hadn't even thought about that. I kind of just assumed that it was a marketting gimmick implying that they are adding capacity. I thought maybe they're doing it at a predictable enough rate that they can just put a counter there for advertising. kind of how McDonald's has the 'number of burgers served' counter.

'Compression' would be an obvious but incomplete answer. Compression of historical data is actually tricky. You face this speed/space tradeoff when you compress, but just saying that you'll compress 'old' data doesn't work because data often goes through cycles of being relevant (think of your bank statements where, at tax time, you may need to go back one year in time). Maybe they've figured out better ways of predicting what data you're interested in, so that they can afford to compress some data a lot, some data a little, some data not at all.
Mail is also a huge revenue generator for them and for people placing ads. Maybe they're good enough at managing their system that the incremental cost of adding storage is less than the predicted incremental ad revenue they're getting (but that answer still boils down to 'more servers').

What else? If you owned all of the email servers in the entire world, maybe you could afford to store a single copy of every email message and just show it to all the people who are meant to receive that email. I doubt Google has reached that critical mass yet. But maybe they do this
with large attachments (since I figure you're only going to send a 300mb file to someone with a gmail account). That means they're actually storing less data. Actually, come to think of it, I think this is quite likely since the google file system would probably make it very very easy to do that.
    What could google be doing that allows the storage space to continue growing a small, but constant rate?

None of the answers I have address the question of whether that counter means something more than a general prediction of their overall capacity growth (e.g. 200 GB worth of disk per day) combined with the average account usage (e.g. if they have 1tb of capacity and 100 users, they could actually advertise an account limit of more than 10GB if the average usage is much less - just as long as they're constantly forecasting their demand. Also known as overprovisioning.).

What do you think? What is the significance (if any) of the counter?

Thanks, Sood, for a great question to start my day.

making people's lives better

FC has an article about Progressive Insurance; their feed had a quote that caught my eye:
    "If you want to improve something, start measuring it"

Because I work on figuring out how to measure and improve large distributed systems. But the line that I really like from the article is
    "We're not in the business of auto insurance. We're in the business of reducing the human trauma and economic costs of automobile accidents -- in effective and profitable ways."

They're not selling just another product or service; they're selling a way to make people's lives better. And they're thinking about their business that way. Customer focus doesn't just mean making your product easier to use. It means thinking about how your product makes your customer's lives better. I think that's the only reason they were able to think of the kinds of changes described in the article.
Creating Passionate Users is a great place to read more about this.

Friday, April 08, 2005


I've been hearing a lot lately about the power of the Ruby on Rails framework. I decided that I'm going to create a website and learn ruby and rails in the process.

I've decided to host with textdrive because they support rails. I found textdrive by browsing around some tags on and trying to find the most popular links. Not terribly scientific; I'll let you know my experience with textdrive soon.

First off, there are a bunch of good tutorials on how to get started with rails; even some that specifically address setup on a mac.

My main reason for blogging the experience was that I had problems with the setup. So here's some tips:

  • After you've installed ruby, it may not be enough to set your path so that your new version (1.8.x) of ruby is found by default. Instead,
    mv /usr/bin/ruby
    out of the way, and
    ln -s /usr/local/bin/ruby /usr/bin/ruby

  • When installing gem,
    sudo ruby setup.rb all
    - make sure you add the all parameter. Some of the docs don't include it and then you get complaints from the setup util.

I also couldn't remember how to get apache up and running. O'Reilly has a good series on web serving from a mac.

So far so good. I got through most of the rails tutorial and have a lame site running on my mac. I figured I take a detour though and read up a little bit on ruby.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Here's an amazing quote from an FC blog post. Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the X prize foundation answers "why prizes?" :

A prize is typically not intended for incumbent players.
They know it can't be done.

Also; I hadn't heard of this soft drink called "Jones soda" but it seems to be big in Canada. After reading this interview with the founder, I really want to know more.

A cool article about for-profit and not-for-profit organizations collaborating on a project; in this case to produce a better mosquito bed-net.

Instead of doing my daily blog reading, what I really should be doing is figuring out how I'm going to file my US tax returns from India. I'm hoping that I'll just be able to do it all online. I hate taxes. If I ever become an international man of mystery I'm going to make sure that my deal includes someone being personally responsible for filing all of my taxes.

update I hadn't heard of doors of perception but the little bit that I read about it in the past 5 minutes sounds intriguing. They just had a conference in Delhi last week. I have to know more.

distributed systems

The work I do is focused on distributed systems. More specifically, on keeping very large, extremely complex distributed systems healthy. This includes collecting metrics, knowing what values of each metric implies a (potential) problem, and figuring out how to respond. In part, one tries to eliminate as many outages as possible. Once you've done your bit there, you try to reduce the time to recovery as much as possible both by building systems that can heal, and by giving humans as much useful information as possible so that when they get woken up at 2am, they waste as little time as possible. And you have to do all of this while not actually screwing up the system that you're trying to manage.

I'm pretty passionate about this area; even though I often complain about being burnt out at work.

I used to maintain a blog on the company intranet pointing to the papers I was reading, as well as some thoughts about how those ideas may affect our work. We solve some pretty huge problems and run an extremely complex distributed system; the blog was internal because I found it difficult to write something meaningful without mentioning internal projects/tools/concepts/ideas.

I recently read one person's attempt at drafting some guidelines on corporate blogging and now I'm tempted to spin off a blog devoted only to distributed systems; obviously with content fit for public consumption.

I'm still mulling over the idea; I'm not sure how meaningful my content can be while not revealing company jewels. Especially since I'm not some famous industry guru or academic.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Kayaking and prawn-stuffed-papad

At 7:25pm last Friday I was still typing away like crazy; trying to commit some last minute code changes.
7:30pm: eat curd rice
8:20pm: on the bus to Dandeli. I was literally jumping with excitement.

We got to Dandeli on Saturday morning. The Karnataka state government run Jungle Lodges and Resorts is an amazing chain - doesn't seem at all like a public sector undertaking. At around 11 am we were off to the river for kayaking lessons. The first drill was to get in the kayak, flip yourself over, and pull out of the kayak. The next drill was to do the same thing with a 'skirt' on. A skirt looks like a skirt, but the bottom of it water-seals the opening to the kayak so that water doesn't go in when you flip upside down. It also means that you have to pull the skirt off when you're upside down and underwater before you can get out of the kayak. A little scary at first.

Krishna, Vikas, Anand, and I did about 2 hours of paddling, capsizing, and attempting rolling, and then took off for lunch. After an amazing Rs. 17 lunch at a local joint, we decided to split up; Anand and Krishna headed back to do a safari and drink some beer; Vikas and I went back for another kayaking session.

Our guide, Kumar, took us paddling down the river to check out the rapids from afar and I was *sooo* pissed that I didn't know how to roll (capsize and then bring myself upright again) my kayak because doing the rapid looked really tempting. He said that I was paddling well enough that if I wanted to try it ("you just have to be able to paddle straight and hard, and have a strong heart. You're paddling okay, but...") - of COURSE I had to try it! I paddled like crazy and made it through the rapid without capsizing. Then, like an idiot, I turned to give him a hi-five with my paddle. At which point I capsized. Since we were out of the rapids, it wasn't a big deal.

Going through the rapid pretty much made the entire trip complete. We tried for another 20-30 minutes to learn the rolls and I never got the hang of it. But I had been longing kayak through white water for a long time so I came away satisfied. I'll be back to the Kali river soon for a few days of lessons.

Sunday morning was spent rafting. Although the rapids were quite tame in a raft, we had a bunch of fun. Our guide kept throwing us out of the raft, and we eventually started picking on people in other rafts as well. I went on a safari in the evening and didn't see a single thing. Oh. we did see a rooster and the eyes of some deer gleaming in our safari-guide's searchlight. I do highly recommend a Jungle Lodges vacation though - they really take care of you.

Monday morning we took a 6am, 4 hour taxi-ride from the hotel to Goa. After unloading at CSM on Baga, we went straight to the beach and ordered some beer and prawn-stuffed-papad. I was a little worried that the papad wouldn't taste as good as I remembered it but I was wrong. It was phenomenal. Twenty drinks, five prawn-stuffed-papads, three prawn-curry-rices, one goan spiced sausage, one pork vindaloo, six hippie-beads, three henna tatoos, three massages, three beach-chairs, and seven hours later, we were down approximately Rs. 1700. I love Goa.

We didn't party that night; though I woke up and 2am and walked into town to check out the action and found it all at 2-3 bars in Baga. Somehow, chilling, eating, drinking, sleeping are more than enough fun for me. On Tuesday morning, Krishna and I rented a scooter and drove around some of the quieter beaches north of Goa. They were very scenic but none had quite the variety of food that Baga did. We came back and hit the beach again and proceeded to gorge ourselves again.

At 7:30pm we finally said goodbye to Baga and caught a bus back home. They have this concept of an 'A/C sleeper Volvo luxury bus' which sounds amazing. The sleeper part is wierd. Instead of having rows of four seats with an aisle in the middle, you have double-decker beds such that you get about 8 people sleeping in the space where you could have seated 12 (each bed is about 3 rows long; you still have 2 beds, then an aisle, and then another two beds, and you have two levels of those). It's pretty damn wierd if you have to sleep next to someone because there's just about 48 inches of width to each bed. I had to get cushy with Krishna, and Anand got luck and got an entire double bed to himself. Anyways, I was back at work at 10am with a tan, a tattoo, and a bushy beard (I'm not in a hurry to get rid of any of them).

I'm definitely going back to Dandeli for a weekend of pure kayaking.

Update:Here're some pictures I uploaded - from Krishna's camera.

Friday, April 01, 2005

niches, microbrands.

Through a long series of clicks (isn't that how it always is?) I got to this dude Thomas Mahon's blog. He's a tailor on Saville Row. Why would you want to get a suit stiched from him? He answers here. How much will it cost you? Try here. Where can you find him? Well, you could fly to London, like many of his customers, or you could wait for him to come to a city near you.

Damn. I have no idea what services I could render to convince people to fly half way around the world to meet me, but I hope I figure out soon.