Tuesday Oct 31, 2006

The Lessons of Flickr

Financial Times has a short story about the lessons of Flickr as a startup and "the rise of a new kind of Internet entrepreneur."

Dependence on outside funding seems to be waning, open-source tools lower "barriers to entry for aspiring web entrepreneurs," "start-ups do not need to break the bank to create an IT infrastructure," blogs and other social networks provide efficient out-bound marketing, and "the latest generation of internet entrepreneurs have plenty of exit options available."

Evidence under Coercion

Here is a recent report on laws suspending habeas corpus: Demetri Sevastopulo and Daniel Dombey, "ICRC concerned over new US terror law," Financial Times, October 19, 2006. On the history of the law, see here. Leaving aside the very important moral questions involved and given the doubtful nature of evidence attained by coercion and the associated questions regarding its admissibility, others have also questioned its purpose and validity.

Open Source -- Buy vs. Build

To use open source software within the IT operations of a business should not necessarily involve a buy vs. build (TCE) decision for every IT division of every firm.

Many companies, including Sun Microsystems Inc., now offer open source software for that very purpose, i.e. for IT operations.

Financial Times, has an article today, exploring the issue from the buy vs. build (some call it "buy vs. make") perspective, particularly for small business. "Simple-to-install combinations of open source products for the smaller business" seem to be the key to doing business with open source in that particular market segment.

We begin talking of installation patterns.

It is odd, but now, with hardware and software prices bottoming, installation, i.e. the human choices that are made to create a usable deployment, represent the highest cost of system start-up.

Monday Oct 30, 2006

Films For Bostonians

Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosts a showing of Iranian films from November 10 to December 3, 2006. (Thanks go to the East Coast colleague who pointed me to the film festival at MFA.)

I highly recommend "Cease Fire," a film made by director Tahmineh Milani only last year. It is really a man vs. woman farce complete with a character who is seeking a sex transformation surgery. (Yes, they make movies like that in the Islamic Republic of Iran.) I should add that "Cease Fire" falls far short of the usual films Iranian directors have dished to international film festivals but it is a great example of Iranian pop films which rarely make it abroad. "Cease Fire" has broken all previous box-office records in Iran. Of course, that is nothing to compare with the numbers from Ballywood or Hollywood.

America's Best Young Entrepreneurs

Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Sumaya Kazi has been selected as one of America's Best Young Entrepreneurs by BusinessWeek for her work on an online media company she runs during her off hours outside of Sun "to spotlight and connect young minority professionals with each other and with the non-profit world": The Cultural Connect.

Sunday Oct 29, 2006

You're Not Alone Even When You Are

When we act within a community and participate in its practices, this participation is not just about collaboration but also involves political and competitive elements. Such participation, while shaping the practices of the community, will go beyond them to create meaning in all kinds of contexts. As Etienne Wenger notes in his Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, "participation is not something we turn on and off" depending on the time of the day or the place where we happen to be. Community participation makes us who we are.

From this perspective, our engagement with the world is social, even when it does not clearly involve interaction with others. Being in a hotel room by yourself preparing a set of slides for a presentation next morning may not seem like a particularly social event, yet its meaning is fundamentally social. Not only is the audience there with you as you attempt to make your points understandable to them, but your colleagues are there too, looking over your shoulder, as it were, representing for you your sense of accountability to the professional standards of your community. A child doing homework, a doctor making a decision, a traveler reading a book--all these activities implicitly involve other people who may not be present. The meanings of what we do are always social. By "social" I do not refer just to family dinners, company picnics, school dances, and church socials. Even drastic isolation--as in solitary confinement, monastic seclusion, or writing--is given meaning through social participation. The concept of participation is meant to capture this profoundly social character of our experience of life.

For more on work by Wenger and Jean Lave, see here.

The Master Said ...

So, were the Confucian Analects off the mark when we read the following?

(VII.23)  The Master said, "Heaven is author of the virtue that is in me. What can Huan T'ui do to me?"

(VII.25)  The Master instructs under four heads: culture, moral conduct, doing one's best and being trustworthy in what one says.

(VII.26)  The Master said, "I have no hope of meeting a sage. I would be content if I met somone who is a gentleman"

(VII.17) The Master said, "Grant me a few more years so that I may study at the age of fifty and I shall be free from major errors."

(VII.20) The Master said, "I was not born with knowledge but, being fond of antiquity, I am quick to seek it."

The Reciter

A very young friend of mine has pointed me to this online reciter of The Quran (قران کریم). Reciter version 2.0 uses Flash technology and has been produced by IANA, Islamic Assembly of North America. (Click on the "Reciter" link right below the "Reciter 2.0" banner ad to get the pop-up window of the best integrated online recitation of The Quran I've seen so far.)

Besides recitation, reading and repetition of each surah, it provides color coding of each ayah, as it is being recited. It also provides translations and tafsir for each ayah. The tool has integrated translations in English, French, German, Turkish, Indonesian and Malayu. After a translation has been selected on a translation panel, clicking an ayah will produce a pop-up with the appropriate translation.

The attention the tool pays to the art of interpretation, tafsir, deserves note. Four major books of tafsir, including ones by Tabari, Kortobi, Gelaleen and Ibn Katheer are available, all in Arabic. They are also activated based on the selected ayah. (I'd like to add a few points about Tabari. He was born in the same city as my maternal grandmother in 838 CE and bears a last name similar to hers, Tabaristani. He travelled to Baghdad to teach at the Baghdad University in the 9th century CE. His book of history, whose volumes take up at least 2 yards of bookshelf, has been translated into English. He died in Baghdad in 923 CE. I found and read the translation of the first volume of his book of history and the first two books of his tafsir on the bookshelves in Berkeley while studying philosophy there.)

The free online Reciter--again, you get to it by clicking "Reciter" under the banner ad--allows the user to choose among multiple reciters. The reciters included in the current version of the tool are: Ibrahim Al-Akhdar, Abdulbaste Abdulsamad, Abdullah Basfar, Ali Al-Hodaifi, Mohammed Ayoub and Mahmood Al-Hosari. As is traditional, each reciter has a particular recitation intonation. Pauses after an ayah can be adjusted to allow for repetition.

Saturday Oct 28, 2006

Nature of Innovation

Check out Eric von Hippel's books on innovation. They are available on line and worth a read. In his Democratizing Innovation, I just finished chapter 7 ("Innovation Communities") which contians a very lucid discussion of open source software innovation communities as well as physical products innovation communities such as the ones set up by Saul Griffith for people interested in user initiatied design and manufacture of kitesurfing equipment. (See also this Wired article on Squid Labs.)

Friday Oct 27, 2006

Modes of Perception

Some scientisms claim that there's no truth out in the world to be found and that we simply have some descriptions, in science, of what is going on, at any given time during the course of the evolution of science as a human activity. While this claim has its proponents, it does not quite jive with the reality of human existential experience, a good part of which seems to be summed up in understanding the truth of what is out there.

Although proponents of various scientisms may deny such existential experience, all human beings seem to experience it given some level of maturity and emotional preparation. So, in philosophical discourse, some philosophers are keen on talking of prephilosophical understanding or perception. For example, in the preface to his The Tasks of Philosophy, Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

For the last three hundred years the project of explaining human thought and action in natural scientific terms has been an increasingly influential aspect of the distinctively modern mind. The sciences to which appeal has been made have undergone large changes. But the philosophical questions posed by that project have remained remarkably the same. So Hegel's critique of the claims advanced by the pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is still to the point. And in “Hegel on faces and skulls” I conclude that Hegel provided us with good reasons for rejecting the view that human attitudes and actions are explicable by causal generalizations of the kind provided by the relevant natural sciences, in our day neurophysiology and biochemistry. In “What is a human body?” I argue further that we all of us have and cannot but have a prephilosophical understanding of the human body that is incompatible with treating its movements as wholly explicable in natural scientific terms. This understanding is presupposed by, among other things, those interpretative practices that make it possible for us to understand and to respond to what others say and do. So that in and by our everyday lives we are committed to a denial of the basic assumptions of much contemporary scientific naturalism.

This kind of view is not unique to McIntyre or the strand of Western philosophy to which he belongs.

Very recently and quite accidentally I got hold of a translation of a theosophical treatise prepared by a Berkeley scholar of Islam and Persian which opens up and addresses the same question.

A series of special modes of perception exist in man's being that are rooted in themselves, arise from the very stuff of man's nature, and do not owe their emergence to any external factor. Among these perceptions are the sense of commitment to trust, justice, veracity and honesty.

Before he enters the realm of science and knowledge with all its concerns, man is able to perceive certain truths by means of these innate perceptions. But after entering the sphere of science and philosophy and filling his brain with various proofs and deductions, he may forget his natural and innate perceptions or begin to doubt them. It is for this reason that when man moves beyond his innate nature to delineate a belief, differences begin to appear.

...The roots of innate feeling in the disposition of man are so deep and, at the same time, so clear and evident that if a person purges his mind and his spirit both of religious concepts and of anti-religious thoughts and then looks at himself and at the world of being, he will clearly see that he is moving in a certain direction together with the whole caravan of being. Without any desire or will on his part, he begins his life at a certain point, and again without willing it, he advances toward another point, one which is unknown to him. The same reality can be observed in all natural creatures, operating in a precise and orderly way.

Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari, Lessons on Islamic Doctrine (translated by Hamid Algar)

For other writings by Hamid Algar, see here.

Cartoon for the Weekend

Several years ago, I bought a DVD of cartoons called Best of the Best: Especially for Kids. In it, there is a cartoon music video based on Albert Wade Hemsworth's 1949 song "Blackfly". Hemsworth, a career draftsman for Canadian National Railway Co., wrote many classical Candadian folk songs. Since a certain young child at my home has rediscovered this cartoon collection, I've been wondering if anyone had posted the cartoon music video. A quick search on YouTube resulted in the following, which can actually be synchronized with the actually DVD.

You may also want to visit National Film Board's web site in memoriam of Hemsworth.

Innovation Communities and Open Source Software

For a brief but a very useful history of open source software, see chapter 7 ("Innovation Communities") of Eric von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation (also available online) under Creative Commons ("Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0") license. Von Hippel underlines the user-based innovation communities and presents open source communities as a prime example.

Thursday Oct 26, 2006

Web Bombardment

Cyber"life" has taken new turns and, in this election season, a web phrase seems to be gaining currency: "google bombing."

Wednesday Oct 25, 2006

Talking of the Master

  When writing about Kayhan Kalhor earlier, I hadn't expected to see another interview with him so soon.

In his interview
with The World, he discusses his recent work with Erdal Erzincan.

Tuesday Oct 24, 2006

Municipal Wireless Service

When Philadelphia decided to go wireless, there was much controversy with some carriers questioning the move. (See also this New York Times article.) Now, AT&T is involved in helping bring municipal wireless to Springfield, Ill and Riverside, Calif. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article on municipal wireless, contracts are taking about six months to negotiate with cities and about six to twelve months to roll out in cities the size of Tempe, Ariz. (If you have an online subscription, you might also want to view this WSJ report on wireless technologies.)

As municipal wireless systems are rolled out, ideas about how to use such networks at the urban level will multiply. It is anybody's guess whether any useful ideas will be harvested. Most probably, without citizen involvement, such harvests may bear less tasty fruit. In a sense, as the municipal wireless network becomes part of our urban fabric, the form and texture will depend on citizen involvement. (How much more effective would such networks have been if we actually had a good public transaportation system broadly available everywhere in California!)

The WSJ article also notes that, in Tempe, "[t]he police department now loves the system, which also has become a surprise hit with the town's traffic engineers." The cities are interested in bringing free or cheap wireless service to the citizens and in new urban applications while the companies involved need a business model that leaves them something to sustain and justify their business.

(Here, I should also thank the Silicon Valley-China Wireless Technology Association's president and my friend, Wen Pai Lu, who invited me to the 2006 Annual SVCWireless Conference: "Mobile Life: The Road to Freedom." This gave me an opportunity to hear representatives from a group of companies and city officials involved in municipal wireless roll-outs discuss their first-hand experience in defining the relevant business models.)

Monday Oct 23, 2006

Financial Institutions and Transaction Costs

Today's Wall Street Journal carries a report about how Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has unleashed a close look at the costs of Sarbanes-Oxly to financial markets and institutions (Deborah Solomon, WSJ Oct. 23, 2006, "Paulson Pulls for U.S. Markets"):

Treasury Secretary Paulson is focusing much of his attention on making U.S. financial markets more competitive, backing rule changes endorsed by the private sector and raising hopes that he will ease part of Sarbanes-Oxley.

Here, we face a classical transaction cost economics problem.  Too much regulation can become a strait-jacket and increase the cost of doing business. It can create unnecessary friction and slow the markets. Not enough regulation can reduce confidence in the workings of the market, leading to similar problems. Except, now, the cost of business increases in order to boost confidence through insurance, persuation or other efforts. Let me demonstrate this by considering a minimum state of regulation: Imagine a market where there are no governing weight or size standards. Such standards provide the most rudimentary regulations governments usually adopt but they possess a wonderful facilitating effect in creating and supporting robust markets, and of course by themselves, they are often insufficient as a regulatory environment.

The lesson: Coming up with good regulatory policies can be a very tricky business. Regulations can put an economy in dire straits or cause it to thrive. What matters is that regulations keep reducing transaction costs but, in a very strange way, such costs are also related to other social effects such as confidence that one's efforts will not go unrewarded and that one's ownership will be protected by law.

It is the job of the regulatory specialist (often an economist with a legal background or a lawyer with an economic background) to strike the right balance. It is amazing how important that balance can be.

(For a transaction cost economics view of the evolution of economic and social structures, see Douglass North's works.)

Upgrading to Firefox 1.5 on Mac OS-X (PowerPC)

I just upgraded to Firefox 1.5 on Mac OS-X (10.4) running on a Power PC iMac. The upgrade was quite painless. I only needed to change permission on the existing Firefox app. Since app data is under "~/Library/..." little else needed to be done to preserve bookmarks and other user data.  The new app seems much more stable.

Sunday Oct 22, 2006

Invention Show

Check out the inventions competing at The British Invention Show.

Saturday Oct 21, 2006

A Poetry That Demands Its Own Music

I've written about classical Persian music in an earlier entry. Having just seen the first half of a DVD depicting the production of a Persian classical music concert, I ended up doing a search on one of the performers and ran into an interesting NPR interview with the master kamancheh player, Kayhan Kalhor. If you're interested in ancient Persian poetry and music (e.g. Rumi and others), I recommend listening to this interview, which also contains commentary on a piece of classical Persian music.

A good way to get an audio-visual experience of classical Persian music is to attend a concert. In the area where I live, Stanford University and UC Berkeley have traditionally carried these concerts for the last 15 years or so despite general sanctions against Iran, which have been in effect for the last 26 years. In 2002, the masters travelled to multiple U.S. cities for their performance. I do not recall any performances in the last year and don't know when there will be one in the Bay Area again, anytime soon. (Getting your hands on the Hamnava ba Bam DVD could be your next best substitute to attending a concert. The copy I have can be played easily on an iMac or an EMEA-region DVD player.)

Some samples of classical Persian singing, performed by Homayoon Shajarian (Muhammad Reza Shajarian's son) can be found here.

Friday Oct 20, 2006

Celebrations to Come

This calendar year (2006), Halloween (originally a Celtic festival of the dead), Day-of-the-Dead (Día de los Muertos), Diwali (celebrating the return of Ram) and Eid-ul-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan) occur in very close proximity of each other.

In our area, the Mission District in San Francisco puts up quite a show for Día de los Muertos. As a much younger man, I was very fascinated by this Native American celebration, perhaps because it occurs in the present-day U.S., a place were one is rarely reminded of the fact that everyone will one day die. (See Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death and this BusinessWeek review of her book.) I have attended the Mission District event multiple times and would recommend it. It may also be worth visiting some traditional memorial exhibitions put up in the Native American and Aztec traditions for the recently dead. (I reported on one of these for our local school paper many years ago and found it very enlightening.)

A friend from our India Engineer Center tells me that Diwali and Eid-ul-Fitr holidays in India are coming back to back this year. Diwali occurs around this time of the year. Its exact day of occurence depends on the phases of the moon, coming when the moon goes "dark" just prior to the new moon. For a Diwali calendar, you may consult here. This calendar gives Diwali dates for 2007, 2008, and all the way to 2019. For good causes to give to in India, see here. If you know of local celebrations feel free to leave a comment.

Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It occurs when the new moon is seen. Ramadan calendar depends on location because it is based on sighting of the moon. (Local time tables need to be consulted for Ramadan. In our area, two good sources can be found here and here.) It may surprise some people but the sighting of a new moon has dependencies on our location on earth and other factors, including atmospheric ones. Do not expect Eid-ul-Fitr to remain in its place on the Solar calendar. Ramadan is a lunar month based on a 12-month lunar year. The 12-month lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the 12-"month" solar year.

All these festivals remind us that there's always a dying and a rebirth, and that in the spiral, nothing stays the same except for its own being.



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