Pushing the PC Industry Forward

or, What I’d do if I were Microsoft.

I was looking at Seagate’s new 4TB drive, which is supported out of the box by OS X and Linux, but to use it with Windows, your version of Windows must:

  1. support the GUID Partition Table.
  2. support EFI.
  3. be a 64-bit version of Windows.
Why does the PC industry complicate things so much? Why should even a geek like me have to learn all this arcana just to use a damn external disk to store their stuff?

Apple, for instance, hasn’t shipped a 32-bit CPU in years (excluding iOS, obviously). Is there anything the PC industry can learn from Apple?

Which doesn’t mean as cutting-edge and expensive as Apple, but not as trailing edge as it is today. We’re not talking about putting Thunderbolt ports in all laptops; just about removing VGA ports. If a newer generation of technology isn’t more expensive than the previous one, or is only more expensive by less than a dollar (excluding economies of scale), get OEMs to adopt it. How? By charging $50 per Windows license on the older generation of hardware.

Give OEMs a couple of years to adopt newer generation technology. Don’t force them to adopt new technology immediately, since it raises costs, but make sure they do so at least after two years. For example, there’s no excuse to use BIOS anymore — Apple has been using EFI for some 5 years now.

So charge OEMs a $50 penalty for using older generation hardware, and pay that money back to them as free Windows licenses for better hardware. Here’s a partial list of technology Microsoft should penalize OEMs for shipping:
  1. A 32-bit version of Windows (offer all 32-bit Windows users a free upgrade to 64-bit Windows).
  2. BIOS rather than EFI.
  3. a VGA port, unless there’s also a DisplayPort (or HDMI or DVI or Thunderbolt) port that supports the same or higher resolution.
  4. a 100mbps or slower Ethernet port
  5. 802.11b/g rather than n
(I’m sure we can come up with other examples.)

Similarly, require that apps distributed using the Windows Store must:
  1. fully support ARM
  2. fully support 64-bit Windows, if they support x86.
It will be interesting if Microsoft uses its power in PC market to simplify and improve things overall for users.

Life at Sathya Sai University

Since Sathya Sai Baba has been in the news recently, I wanted to share some thoughts regarding life at Sathya Sai University, in case you, or someone you know, is considering attending. With Baba’s death, I doubt many people will want to study at his university. In fact, I don’t think it made sense to study there even when he was alive.

If you’re unfamiliar, the university aims to provide secular and spiritual education together as one package. Unfortunately, it does a bad job at both unless, of course, you happen to completely agree with Baba and the way of life they teach. But, again, that’s practically the only benefit while the costs are tremendous.

The problem with the university, which is residential-only, is that it’s a bad place to learn stuff, and more generally a bad place to live or grow. The first thing anyone needs to learn is opportunity, which is highly restricted here. I studied computer science, and we were allowed practically no access to the Internet, and having a laptop of your own was frowned upon. Why? Because, to hear the authorities say it, students misuse it by watching movies. Oh, the horror! The problem comes from their idea of discipline, that no student should do anything they disapprove of. Watching movies, or listening to music, is considered immoral. This is like the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. You can’t take an entrance exam for a course offered at another university because, who knows what you’ll do when you’re out of campus? Oh, by the way, students are allowed to leave campus only once in six months, and sometimes not for a year. This place is not just a metaphorical prison, but also a literal one. If word gets around that Swami’s students (as Baba is referred to) are watching movies, what will people think?

So the knee-jerk reaction is to suppress anything and everything that might look bad, no matter the human cost to the victims. You’d have a depressing life if you were to live in a way that no one disagrees with, but that’s what they try to enforce here. So, no laptops, no listening to music, and no cell phones. No one stopped to ask what the basic purpose of a university is, if you can’t learn. If you can’t talk to your folks back home, well, you’re supposed to learn detachment, anyway. I’m not kidding. This is surprisingly childish, and it’s ironic that the authorities are more immature than the students they are nominally looking over.

The authorities are not the only ones looking over students’ shoulders. They recruit “spies” among the students to do some of the dirty work for them. Again, I’m not kidding. This is like a mini-CIA. Great to watch a movie about, I’m sure, but a toxic environment in which to actually live and grow.

The real problem is that you are given no room to figure out what principles and practices you want to live your life by. When you’re in college, you’re figuring out how you want to live your office, and that requires some amount of freedom. It’s intellectually and emotionally crippling to be denied that freedom, just as it would be physically crippling if you were forced to not leave your crib as you grow.

Without that freedom, essential to life, this place is an intellectual prison. They have certain approved kinds of music, approved plays (spiritual, most of the time), and so forth. The university claims to produce well-rounded people, and it does — if you have no tastes or preferences of your own.

Another lesson is not to combine secular education and spiritual “education”. (The quotes are there because we don’t all agree that watching a movie is a moral problem, to say the least.) When you combine them, you’re not good at either. I didn’t grow spiritually in any way at all.

And you can’t question anything. The place expects mindless compliance rather than a healthy give-and-take. You’re not allowed to question the “elders”, because Baba says you should respect your elders. Baba’s philosophy is sometimes like something out of Monty Python. Everyone knows that when a group, in any society, gets unconditional respect, they tend to become undeserving of that respect. One example is a professor who’d give eloquent lectures on controlling your senses and not giving in to temptation and so forth, but who had pictures of naked girls on his laptop. And was, how shall we put it, “interested” in one of his (male) students. Another didn’t bother to lecture for almost one month straight. We can’t blindly respect elders because not all of them are deserving of our respect. In fact, it’s funny to mandate respect. You can respect someone only if you think they have something to teach you by the way they live their life. Otherwise you’ll only get lip service.

So students learn not to speak up for what they believe in, assuming they still have beliefs of their own that haven’t yet been vacuumed out by the system. Students learn to agree with the authorities on their face, and then do whatever they want behind their backs, to the extent they don’t get caught. Is that the kind of training you want to give?

For example, we had a role-playing situation where you’re supposed to pretend you’re working at a company, and your boss is berating your subordinate for something he didn’t actually do. What would you do in that situation? Most people said they’d keep quiet, and tell the subordinate later, in private, that it was not his fault. I wouldn’t like to have such a boss, but it’s exactly this kind of spineless people this place tends to produce.

Students are not the only ones infantilized. After I finished my first semester chemistry course and started the second, the professor for the first scolded me for asking too many questions in the semester that ended. Why didn’t he say anything while the first semester was in progress? Because the prof for the second sem scolded him for allowing me to get into the habit of asking too many questions. It’s odd for a grown man to behave that way, but nobody in this place has the freedom to think for themselves. Not to mention that faulting a student for asking questions would be hilarious if it weren’t so crushing and humiliating. As the second semester progressed, the new professor would ignore me, sometimes not even allowing a single question during the one-hour lecture. He’d just ignore me, which in addition to being humiliating, encouraged me to stop learning. That’s probably the worst thing you can do to a student — kill the drive to learn. This person presumably didn’t stop to think why he’s here, and what his purpose as a professor is. Dr. Sundareshan would have been more useful to society had he taken up a job delivering pizza.

If no one — neither the inmates nor the authorities — thinks for themselves, how else can the place turn out except as a mental prison that crushes the spirit?

Anyway, from that point on, I’d just mug up the stuff, regurgitate it during the exams, and move on. The exams anyway just tested mindless memorization rather than thinking. Later, I discovered that the head of the CS department didn’t know how to shut down a Linux server (“punch the power button!”) or didn’t know the faintest thing about the topic of a dissertation on which he was nominally guiding a student (me). I bet he wouldn’t know a virtual machine from a vending machine. He did have some comments on how I should format the report, though.

So, if Sathya Sai university sucked as a place to learn stuff, and was a downright oppressive place to live, did it at least provide the spiritual education that it claims to? Unfortunately, Baba’s teachings (to use a charitable word) are full of contradictions and not worth the paper they’re printed on. They are frequently disempowering and regressive, almost Talibanistic, for example, when he says that children who don’t respect their elders are better off dead.

Another time, he called the Internet a waste-paper basket, because apparently someone had told him that there’s some stuff on the Internet that’s not compatible with his opinions. Sorry, Baba, but the Internet is one of the great innovations of our time, and if you don’t understand that, you’re just a moron rather than a guru who can guide people to enlightenment. I mean, wouldn’t you expect that if god were to descend onto the earth, he’d at least know what the Internet is?

Good-bye, Baba. The world is better off without you or your university.

Footnote: All this doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful to Baba and the university for providing me free education for many years. I am — deeply. I thought a lot about whether it would be appropriate for me to just walk away after benefitting so much from their generosity. I ultimately concluded that since I decided this is not a good college, donating to them isn’t the best thing I could do, though I did donate a moderate amount. Instead, I plan to donate to other worthy causes at the appropriate times. But no question about it — I do want to give back to the world.

None of which changes the fact that going to this college is not worth the cost, intellectual and emotional. Years after graduating from this college, I’m still uncomfortable with people, distrustful of groups, and in general not as happy as I would be if I went to another college.

Navigating the Peak Oil Challenge

If you’re not familiar with it, peak oil refers to the the point where oil production falls below supply, leading to sky-rocketing oil prices, and since oil is the underpinning of modern society, a worldwide disaster — basic institutions of society would break down, there will be food shortage, violence, endemic riots, etc. If peak oil hasn’t happened yet, it’s expected to, within a couple of years.

A more optimistic thesis is that we will adapt. After decades of accepting something as fact, we build society around that, and get so used to it that we don’t see alternatives. Well, there are,  and lots of them. It’s possible to live in a different way, which is not necessarily worse, unless you refuse to adapt.

The first casualty of peak oil is obviously suburbia. There will be smaller houses (why do you need a 4000 sq ft home, anyway?) and smaller lawns separating the houses. We will not waste space in the vertical dimension — a lot of us will be living in apartments.

Next comes transport. Once again, people who cannot live without their SUV might as well stop reading now. If you refuse to adapt, you will go through hell.

We’ll be living close to our place of work. The days of living 20 or 30 miles away just because you can will be over. Of course, both the husband and wife may not be able to live close to their place of work, but at least one should be able to.

We may do more things online, like working from home more often, downloading an e-book and reading it on an e-ink display rather than buying a book. A lot of learning may happen online in addition to at university.

Today’s cars are very inefficient, using only 1% of the energy to transport the driver. So we will start using lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. For example, the Tata Nano weighs just 600 kg. Bajaj claims to be bringing out a car that gives a mileage of 30 km per liter. There are smaller, lighter proposals, like the personal transportation pod:

EMBARGOGMSegway18.jpg

Not to mention the classic Segway. Or the motorbike. Yes, these are less safe, but people in countries like India use them for decades and do just fine. This is not even considering newer technology like carbon fiber composites which are light and strong. If fuel becomes exceedingly expensive, lot of people will reconsider their stand on safety, and realize that it’s a tradeoff, and use a lighter vehicle, or a motorbike.

Finally there’s the humble bicycle. A lot of us may save fuel and be healthy by biking. The world now has more obese people than under-nourished ones. That is sad. Peak oil may fix that.

When we go out of town, we may take a bus or train rather than a car or flight. Maybe ground-effect vehicles will be popular, since they are more fuel-efficient than planes.

If you live in an apartment, it may have fewer or no lifts, and you’ll take the stairs instead. Guess what? You will be healthier. We are pampered to the point of ill-health.

Agriculture uses a large amount of oil, both for machinery and for things like fertilizers. And meat requires an order of magnitude more land, and hence energy input. So meat may become an expensive delicacy, which may also make us healthier. Even among vegetarian foods, some are more efficient at capturing solar energy. Maybe we will eat more of those. Or we will use human waste instead of fertilizers to improve crop yield, as is done in Shanghai.

Instead of using an air conditioner or heating, we can move to places where the weather is more temperate. I was reading an article about the abundant availability of wind power in central USA, where few people live. May more will, if it means much smaller energy bills and more money and resources to do other things in life.

There’s so much scope for optimization in virtually every facet of life. Take something as simple as balcony handrails. Maybe we will use designs that minimize the amount of metal needed for the same amount of protection. Maybe handrails will be designed by solving an equation for this. Or, if there are two choices that are more or less the same aesthetically, you will prefer the one that’s cheaper.

People who claim that peak oil will lead to a drastic fall in standard of living are blind to the innumerable opportunities staring us in the face, for doing things will less energy.

And if resource depletion leads to less stuff , that may be good. Maybe we will derive deeper happiness than is possible from accumulation of objects.

Finally, if the worst case happens, since a large fraction of the world’s population is in just two countries — India and China — less energy and other resources may mean that these two countries go down the tubes, while the rest of the world is more or less okay. What are the politicians thinking? When there’s limited resources, you can have a small population that gets of them per capita, and thus have a high standard of living, or a larger one at subsistence level. If some countries fail to learn this lesson, they will go down the drain while the rest of the world is in better shape.

Peak oil may result in a very different society but, if you adapt, it may not mean a lower quality of life.

Nokia — Masters of Incompetence

After waiting an year to get a replacement for Nokia’s defective battery, and making a couple of dozen calls and talking to drones who promise to call back but never do, you have to wonder why many companies are so broken. Do they try to measure their customer service dickheads’ performance by the number of calls they take per hour? Maybe people decide what product to buy based on features and price but not customer service? If so, we get what we deserve.

There has to be an opportunity to build a business that doesn’t suck. I wonder why no one’s taking it. Which was the last company you heard of who billed themselves as not sucking?

Railways Reloaded

Let’s say you wanted to wanted to make the Indian Railways more efficient. How would you do that? Here are some ideas:

Market Pricing

Price tickets based on demand rather than first-come, first-served. This is just the market principle and is more economically efficient. So tickets on busy days would cost more. People who want to travel cheap can choose an alternate day. The Railways has something like this in the name of Tatkal, where you can pay an extra fee for higher priority. Make that more fine-grained, and allow all seats to be priced based on demand. You should be able to book a ticket anytime for travel on any day, for a price.

The Railways, being a bureaucracy, won’t be able to decide these fares. So let them outsource that to the market — have the Railways sell seats in bulk to retailers (online and traditional) who will price them according to demand and share the profit with the railways.

Some of this extra money could be used to upgrade facilities or subsidize fares for the cheapest travel class.

Longer Trains

When there’s too much demand on a certain day, add extra coaches that will overshoot the platform length, and give people an option to board them. Something like “Sorry, all on-platform seats are taken. Would you like to take a coach off the platform?” Or, even if a few on-platform seats are available but in demand and expensive, some people may want to save money and take an off-platform seat.

This may be shocking to westerners, but in a poor country like India, many people would like that, rather than traveling packed like goats or sitting on top of the train in extreme cases. Basically, this amounts to saying travelers can choose worse service for less money, and that is a good thing.

The software can be smart, since railway stations can be of different lengths. Say the normal train length is 18 coaches — that’s guaranteed to be on platform at every station. But if I’m going from Bangalore to Hyderabad, both of which can accommodate 24 coach trains, I would like to be given this information so that I can make my trip while boarding and alighting on platform.

The ideal being that you can book your ticket just 24 hours before the train starts, or even, in some cases, go to the platform and then book your ticket. The railways already has a wait list, so it’s easy to issue as many tickets as people want and, whenever the length of the wait list exceeds the coach capacity, add another coach (and another engine if needed).

In addition to allowing more people to travel on busy days, allowing the market to make trains longer than usual could mean fewer trains overall, which translates to fewer time wasted to contention when there are a lot of trains and limited number of tracks. Not to mention that longer trains on busy days relieves pressure on roads, where traffic can sometimes grind to a halt for hours.

Longer trains also give people the option of taking an off-platform seat in a faster train and saving a couple of hours compared to an on-platform seat in a slower train. And that is really good — some people value time over convenience, and others not. Let everyone make whatever choice is best for them.

Distribution of coaches across travel classes can also be outsourced. If a train has to have 18 coaches, say, how many of them should be second class, how many AC 3-tier, how many AC 2-tier and so forth? If an AC coach costs x% more than an ordinary one, and there are enough people willing to pay for the upgrade, then the train should have one more AC coach and one fewer ordinary one. Basically the railways can leave this decision to the market. Allocate coaches to maximize profit per train.

Does this mean that when the railways builds new coaches, it should construct more AC coaches? Once again, resource allocation can be left to the market — instead of the railways buying any coach, let it lease them from third parties who actually own them. So when the railways needs a coach for a train, it will lease it from the cheapest coach provider for that class of coach. And if a certain class, say AC, is in great demand, the lease rates will rise, and coach providers will build more coaches of that class. That way, the decision of how many coaches to build for each class is done by the market instead of the railway bureaucrats.

Another fact of life currently is that one has to choose between a fast train that stops at fewer stations and a slow train that stops at many stations. But does it make economic sense to add another engine so that we can eat our cake and have it too?

I’m sure there are many other ways to improve things… if only someone took an interest.

ATMs — Tragedy of the Commons?

Till a few months back, in India, banks used to charge a substantial fee for using an ATM card in an ATM of a different bank. But now the banking regulator in India brought this fee down to a neglible amount. Could this result in banks not investing much in ATMs because the benefit will be spread across all banks but the cost will be borne only by the bank setting up the ATM — a classic tragedy of the commons? We’ll know in a few years.

How To Have a Good Vacation

My cousin and I were doing a post-mortem of my last vacation and why it was not as much fun as the previous one. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Too Grown-up: Preserve the child in you. Reject the convention that if your age is greater than X, you have to act all grown-up and dignified and serious. Do silly things. Play with water. Who cares how you appear? Be spontaneous, be alive, be happy!
  2. Camera: At the risk of exaggeration, I think cameras should be destroyed. You pay more attention to preserving a moment than enjoying it first-hand in real life. I think our lives are full of distractions and activities that we forgot to enjoy ourselves without defining it as an activity (“photography”). Out with the camera.
  3. Over-scheduling: Don’t schedule too many events, like visits to relatives. Keep a lot of time free to spend with your loved ones. You’re not on a diplomatic mission. Tell people you’re not going to visit them, and leave a substantial amount of time free.

Half a Car Will Do

Warren Buffet’s fractional ownership firm NetJets is entering the Indian market. This set me thinking, why should fractional ownership be limited to airplanes? Can we have fractional ownership for, say, cars? Many of us go to and from office in office cars and need personal vehicle only once in a week or less. Here’s the idea: every apartment complex provides a bunch of cars that tenants can use. There’s no driver. You just take the keys when you go out, and are charged by the hour. When you return the car, you’re expected to leave as much fuel in the tank as there was when you took the car. If there’s more, you’re paid for the difference; if less, you pay. Basically it’s like a private car that you own for X hours and pay accordingly. Every apartment complex in India has a bunch of parked cars almost all the time. This is a waste. Just as airlines maximize profits by keeping planes in the sky as long as possible, it’s better to have fewer cars that are on the road more of the time.

How do we deal with contention, when lots of people want to go out? Reserve a vehicle the previous day. That way you can plan a trip assuming car availability. But what if everyone wants to reserve a car for Friday evening? The answer is bidding, as in a market economy. If bid prices become too high, that’s the logical time to add another vehicle. Or only some subset of the people in the apartment can buy the additional vehicle. Why should every vehicle be (partially) owned by everyone? Some smaller group of people who don’t mind paying more can buy an additional vehicle of their own that only they can use, for instance.

This is not a personal car, but an interesting midpoint between a taxi and a private dedicated car. Not only does it come cheaper, but it also has other benefits of its own. For instance, an apartment can maintain cars of different sizes. Sometimes a small, cheap car is ideal. At other times, you may want a more comfortable car, say if you’re driving for a long time. Or a bigger vehicle, if it’s an extended family trip. Why should each person or family have only one car?

More possibilities open up — apartments can buy cars that last for a long while. If the car is used enough, it makes financial sense to pay 40% more for a car that runs for twice as many kilometers. This is a good remedy to planned obselescence.

Also for people who can’t afford a dedicated car, this makes more financial sense — students, people of lower income groups, people just starting work, etc.

Take it one step up — the city can maintain a bunch of vehicles that people pay per use. This may not work in all countries. But I’m keen to see apartments that have shared cars, for now.

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