*** MOVED ***

NOTE: I have merged the contents of this blog with my web-site. I will not be updating this blog any more.



I received a mass-mailed letter this week from the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) asking me to join it. The ACM is an organisation of computer scientists and professionals. It publishes several magazines, journals and newsletters related to computer science and engineering. It organises conferences, has several Special Interest Groups (SIGs), conducts programming competitions and provides a network for seeking jobs. The ACM Bangalore chapter in particular has been quite active in recent times.


Electronic Book Readers

As I have lamented before, I do not have access to a well-stocked and conveniently-located library here in Bangalore that lends books at reasonable rates. The alternative of buying all the books that I want to read is not just an expensive proposition - I also do not have enough space in my home to stock all such books. For some time now, I have been eyeing electronic book readers as a solution to this problem. It looks like I will very soon (but not quite yet) be able to get such a device at an affordable price.

Besides saving lots of space and providing unprecedented portability, electronic books also have some additional advantages over ordinary books:

  • There are lots of freely-available electronic books. For example, Project Gutenberg provides electronic versions of thousands of classic books.

  • You can easily make backup copies of (non-DRM-crippled) electronic books. This is unlike ordinary books, which can get damaged, lost or stolen.

  • It is much easier to search through an electronic book.

  • It is easier to enlarge the font of an electronic book or have the text read out by a text-to-speech software to help the visually-impaired folks.

  • You save trees from being cut to produce paper.

  • Electronic books should be cheaper than ordinary books since the publisher can very easily produce as many copies of such books as it wants.

  • The Internet makes it much faster to deliver an electronic book than an ordinary book, when you order them through an on-line retailer. You also save on the shipping costs.

  • Since software is usually used to write and typeset books these days, electronic books can be produced with no additional effort.

Of course, electronic books will never quite have the "feel" of ordinary books. Some of us also love the different smells of different books. An electronic book reader is quite delicate and more expensive when compared to an ordinary book. Unless an electronic book is in an open format like plain-text, HTML or PDF, it is quite possible that future electronic book readers will not be able to read it. Some publishers intentionally cripple electronic books with DRM making it more difficult to do things that are otherwise quite simple to do with an ordinary book (for example, share it with a friend). Many of the electronic books are unreasonably priced compared to the corresponding paper versions in spite of the fact that it is far cheaper to produce and distribute an electronic version of a book.

All this aside, there has been a huge downside of electronic books till recently - reading electronic books has not been as comfortable as reading ordinary books for most people. It is quite straining on the eyes to read lots of text on a computer monitor or on the tiny LCD screens of smart-phones and PDAs. It is also difficult to read such text in bright light. Even the dedicated electronic book readers have suffered from this problem. You can print out an electronic book to ordinary paper, but this is either too expensive or not feasible for most people.

This has now changed due to the availability of "electronic paper" displays. These displays look just like ordinary paper and are therefore quite easy on the eyes. They only use power when the displayed image needs to be changed and thus can run on a battery charge for much longer periods than LCD displays. Though the technology has been around since the 1970s, it has only recently become commercially viable. There are now several electronic book readers based on this display technology and judging by the reviews of these devices, we might just have passed an inflection point in the history of electronic books.

Here are some of the electronic book reader devices based on electronic paper technology currently available in the market, along with their prices as advertised at the moment:

  1. Kindle, by Amazon, $400 (Ars Technica review of the Kindle)

  2. PRS-505, by Sony, $300 (Ars Technica review of the PRS-505)

  3. Iliad, by iRex, $784 (Ars Technica review of the Iliad)

  4. Cybook, by Bookeen, $480

  5. Hanlin, by Jinke, $300

  6. BEBOOK, by Endless Ideas, $400

  7. SoriBOOK, by Diginaru, $400

Ars Technica usually provides in-depth and unbiased reviews and therefore I have also linked to a review of a device on Ars Technica wherever available. MobileRead has a comparison-matrix of electronic book reader devices. You can also find a lot of nice videos on YouTube that show most of these devices in action, giving you a feel for these devices that is very difficult to get by just reading the reviews.

For example, here is a little video review of the Amazon Kindle:

Of these devices, the Amazon Kindle seems to have the best overall package in terms of price, connectivity and availability of electronic books. I like its integration with Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia. I also like its ability to look up the definition of a word in the integrated dictionary. Unfortunately, it also looks like the ugliest of the lot with some rather weird design choices in my opinion. It also cannot natively display PDF files. Amazon should release a newer version of the Kindle that rectifies these mistakes. Some of these devices, including the Kindle, are also unnecessarily saddled with DRM. Many of them have features that are of doubtful utility in an electronic book reader (for example, an MP3 player or a web browser with severely limited features).

Electronic paper still has some way to go before it can become an acceptable replacement for ordinary paper. The resolution of electronic paper still doesn't seem to be anywhere as good as ordinary paper. It cannot display colours other than black and white (or shades of grey), which is all right for ordinary text and figures but not for colourful photographs. The most troublesome aspect seems to be the manner in which the display is redrawn - there is a slight pause, followed by the blackening of the display followed by the final image. Depending on the person, this can either be very irritating or barely noticeable while turning pages.

These devices seem to be almost, but not quite, there. I think I will wait for the next generation of such devices before I buy one for myself.



I went with great enthusiasm this 10th of May to the nearest polling booth to cast my vote in the current elections here, only to discover that I could not vote since my name was not present in the voters' list. This was despite the fact that I had a valid Electoral Photographic Identity Card (EPIC) issued just a couple of years ago. My name just does not appear in the revised voters' list that was drawn after the recent delimitation of constituencies in Karnataka. I had to come back home disappointed.

When you consider the incredibly small impact that a single vote has on the outcome of an election, you might be tempted to ask "Why vote?". Given that the Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal (S) are realistically the only parties that will be able to form a government in Karnataka and given their utterly shameless behaviour to grab power the last time round, it is natural for us to be dejected or at best feel apathetic towards this election. Some of us just don't want to take the trouble of going to a polling booth, standing in a queue and casting a vote.

However, democracy is how we have chosen to be governed in this country and voting in an election is the very least we can do to make sure it works as intended. The effect of a single vote might be negligible but the cumulative effect is considerable and is for the greater good of the society. It then feels like a shameful subversion of the democratic process when the names of willing and eligible voters go missing from the electoral rolls and they are thus disenfranchised.

Anyone even slightly familiar with a voters' list in India would agree that there are usually a lot of appalling mistakes in it. It is not uncommon to find a lot of people missing from a voters' list despite having valid EPICs and a lot of people who have long since died still lingering on in the list. Many people have had their names misspelt or their addresses mangled. For example, the last EPIC that I had managed to get everything about me (except my photograph and my sex) wrong in one way or another - it had incorrect entries for my name, my father's name, my address, my date of birth, etc. So I was not completely surprised to find my name missing from the voters' list, but I was surely disappointed.

Update (2009-04-22): This article in The Times of India offers a possible explanation for the mystery of vanishing names from the electoral rolls.


Dr Dobb's Journal

I have had a subscription of the print edition of Dr Dobb's Journal (DDJ) for a little over six months now. This renewed relationship with my favourite professional magazine has been a mixed experience so far.

I first came across DDJ in the IIT Kanpur Library about 15 years ago. For someone interested in computer programming, it was a fantastic magazine. Along with BYTE (published only on-line after 1998), which was a fantastic magazine for people interested in microcomputers, it became regular reading for me at the library. I used to read new issues as soon as they became available in the library and would try to read as many of the old issues as I could lay my hands on (the library used to have bound volumes of old issues of these magazines dating back several years). The early issues provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of the personal computer.

When I started my career as a software engineer, I tried to subscribe to DDJ myself. At about Rs 3,000, the annual cost of the subscription at the time was a bit too much for me. This situation did not improve for several years after that. I had to console myself by ordering "Dr Dobb's CD Release 6", a CD that contained electronic versions of all the DDJ issues from January 1988 to June 1998.

When I noticed recently that the print issues of DDJ were available internationally at just $30 (about Rs 1,200) a year, I jumped at the opportunity to order a subscription for myself. Even though an electronic edition of an issue is immediately made available to subscribers, I always prefer to read the "dead-tree" (print) edition when possible. I eagerly waited for my copy of the print edition to arrive in my mailbox. I was setting myself up for frustration.

My copy of the November 2007 issue of DDJ arrived two and a half months after it was announced! To top that, the December 2007 issue did not arrive at all. To add insult to injury, my email to them inquiring about this problem was rejected by their "Barracuda Spam Firewall" with a terse message stating that "Message content rejected". As if to then really irritate me, they sent a letter in January 2008 asking me to renew my subscription ten months before it was set to expire!

Fortunately for me, the situation improved considerably from January 2008 and the issues started arriving regularly and well in time (as was the case many years ago, an issue of DDJ arrives about a fortnight before the corresponding month - for example, the issue for May 2008 was delivered in mid-April).

The first thing I noticed about these issues was that they were really thin - they seem to be about one-third the thickness of the old issues of DDJ from what I remember. Could that be the reason for the drop in prices? The second thing I noticed in the initial issues was that many of the articles were about web development and other such things in which I do not have that much interest. Was it going to be like this for the rest of the year?

Once again, fortunately for me, the more recent issues have featured some really nice articles. Articles like "Fast String Search on Multicore Processors" and "Detecting Bugs in Safety-Critical Code", for example, provide insights into areas beyond the realm of run-of-the-mill software development. Herb Sutter's "Effective Concurrency" is a really nice column. The issues for April 2008 (Algorithms) and for May 2008 (Programming Languages) in particular were quintessential DDJ.

Most elements of DDJ have not changed much over the years. The articles still have the same feel to them and most of the advertisements for software products are still embarrassingly corny. The PC-lint Bug of the Month series of advertisements are still there, though they are about C++ instead of C as a reflection of the changing times.

So would I still recommend this magazine to a programmer in India? Yes, definitely. Even with the cost of international shipping included, this magazine costs the same or less than comparable Indian magazines (such as they are) and the quality and the depth of the articles is usually much better.