Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Maxwell's Demon experiment

Somehow, there has been very little exposure on the net about a really nice experiment that is an attempt at an actual realisation of a Maxwell's Demon scenario that we all learn in our undergrad years, and how to extract energy from the system using information about it.

A popular exposition is here where I first noticed it. The original Nature article is here (subscription required). If you don't have a subscription to Nature, look at the free arXiv version here.

You might want to see this Abstruse Goose :-)

Monday, November 22, 2010

App Store and Marketplace

I am horrified to find that my last few posts were so serious, I find myself almost going into depression reading them. So here is an about-turn -- and on something that's loads of fun -- Apps from the App Store of Apple, and Apps from Google Android's Marketplace. Android phones and the iPhone are the two smart phones of the future (sorry, Nokia and Blackberry guys, you are history, even the new N8 again with Symbian can't stand up to either of the above two in the marketplace IMHO). The iPhone App store has some 250,000 apps as of last count and the Google Marketplace has far 'less choice', close to a mere 100,000 ! It's a measure of our expectations that these days a mere 100,000 apps are not considered good enough.

Few people around me have smart phones with smart apps -- why is that, I wonder? Laziness, techno-challenged abilities,... So, in this and the next post, I will give a few apps which I have found very useful, funky or just plain interesting. I start with the Android Marketplace since I have an Android phone (Motorola Droid or Milestone) and in the next post will discuss some Apps for the iPod Touch (I don't have the iPhone so some 'only for the iPhone' Apps will be missing). I know that many places, including the New York Times give lists of useful Apps, (for example here is Pogue's recent list) but many of them are less than useful in India. For example, Urbanspoon does not work in India (it gives a list of nearby restaurants, depending on your GPS enabled position) or live updates of Traffic conditions. Here we don't even get updates on new roads or one way streets!

So here goes (I am leaving out standard Navigation Software and stuff like Google Latitude which comes pre-bundled. These, by the way, are great fun and you should check them out at Google and get them if they aren't on your phone already). These are not in any particular order but I have tried to give the most useful ones first.

GPS Test: This is used with your GPS receiver built in the phone. It shows graphically all the satellites with which your phone is communicating, the signal strength, your Lat and Long and Elevation, speed of movement and your exact location on Earth (in case you didn't know that!). It also has a built in compass. However you can also download the stand-alone

Compass: This is a compass (:-)) and allows you to set the ring outside to align with whatever direction you find convenient. It doesn't do much else but is very useful as a compass. It work with or without GPS and also can point to the true North. It allows navigation using the compass points and allows you to make short notes.

Scientific Calculator: Android comes with an ordinary calculator (with some basic scientific functions but it's very clunky) but there are many scientific calculators in the Marketplace.

Google Sky:Hold your phone above your head and based on your GPS location and the date and time, Google Sky will show you the relevant part of the sky -- identifying the stars, the constellations, the planets, and other heavenly bodies. Of course it works during the day too since a view of the sky is not necessary!

The Weather channel: Get the weather in different parts of the world. Useful when travelling and about as reliable as the standard weather sites :-)

Google Goggles and Layar: This is truly a great piece of software. Point your camera at a book or DVD, or some landmarks like say the Qutb Minar, or some artwork, bar codes, business frontages and they will try to match it with their database and identify it. It works almost perfectly with book covers and artwork (particularly Western Art), a little less well with buildings in India unless they are really well known and fairly well with logos (the Coco Cola logo works instantly of course!). Layar allows you to switch on various layers which will tell you whether you are near some restaurant or spa or some park. It can work without the GPS but of course works really well when it is turned on.

Convert:This converts anything to anything else (of the same type) -- area, distance, speed, thermo electric units whatever. It even converts currency but you need your GPRS on for that purpose.

Taskos: This is a standard task reminder -- it could be birthdays (though I would use the calendar for that which is pre-bundled) but usually it's to keep a list of pending tasks with notes which you could look at and tick off -- of course you can prioritize them, set up alerts and all that.

Sound Hound: Truly a great piece of software. It identifies music. Turn it on, hold the phone in front of the music source and in about a minute it identifies the song and the players. I have even tried it in a restaurant with a lot of ambient noise and it has identified the background music. It identified the second movement from Beethoven's 6th, (no surprise that) but it even got the orchestra and the conductor right - that was impressive. The free version only allows five identifications per month, the unlimited version costs $5 -- well worth it in my opinion.

Internet radio: I listen to a lot of internet radio stations in my office, off my desktop. In fact some station or other is always on. However, this allows you to catch internet radio on your phone through your GPRS connection (3G is needed, 2G tends to break too often). The advantage? You can have it on in your car while driving. Connect the phone ear phone jack to the AUX input of your car audio system and you are done. Far more choice than the local somewhat mindless FM stations here. (Yes, you will pay 3G GPRS charges but BSNL charges very little). The two software I use are TuneIn Radio and Public Radio Live Stream but there are countless others.

Bar Code Scanner: Scans bar codes both the linear and the 2d ones (called QR codes) using the camera. Useful to get more information from a product label than just the price.

Send Contact: An incredible gap in the Android software is the ability to send a contact details to another contact. Even simple basic phones have a way to send, for example vcf cards (business cards) but not the Android. But fear not -- there is 'Send Contact' which does all this and I am told Android 2.2 will come with this feature (but surely it should have been there in version 0.1 !)

I invite you to send me your favourites for either the iPhone/iPod touch or an Android phone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyclone and weather forcasting

About 10 days ago we were warned that Cyclone Jal would hit North TN and South Andhra Coast. While the cyclone turned out to be a damp squib, what I found surprising is the extremely sloppy weather forecasting. As many people pointed out, the centre of the cyclone was already above Chennai sometime on Sunday 7th November afternoon. This was clear from the satellite picture. However the weather office kept predicting that the cyclone would cross the coast Sunday night. How could there be so much discrepancy? Or was the outline of the country wrongly superimposed on the cloud map.

Moreover consider the weather forecast. Here are a couple of samples.

Under its influence, rain/thundershower would occur at most places with heavy to very heavy falls at a few places and isolated extremely heavy falls (≥25 cm) over north Tamil Nadu and Puducherry during next 24 hours and at most places with isolated heavy to very heavy falls over Rayalaseema and South Coastal Andhra Pradesh during the same period.

Rain/thundershowers at most places with heavy to very heavy falls at a few places would occur over South Interior and Coastal Karnataka during next 48 hours. Isolated extremely heavy falls would also occur over south Interior Karnataka during next 24 hours


Apart from the completely arbitrary use of lower and upper case, it seems to me that the IMD has a simple algorithm of concatenation of phrases. These are of two kinds a) (light, moderate, heavy, very heavy, extremely heavy, isolated extremely heavy) rain and b) (few, some, many, most) places. Combine one phrase from a) and another from b) and you have got a prediction, even though in actual content it leaves the hapless residents in those places totally at sea (regrettably sometimes literally).

Surely Mausam Bhavan and our own Chennai weather forecasting stations under S. R. Ramanan are capable of somewhat more precise forecasting? A lot of it appears to be lazy thinking. If you say isolated rain in some areas, moderate in a few, heavy in isolated pockets, you have covered most possibilities and nobody can accuse you of having got it wrong. I think our weather men could try a little harder in this day and age.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi

Today is Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru's 121 birth anniversary, celebrated in India as Children's Day. Nehru's moral position on many international issues were a cause of much irritation with India amongst the Western Powers who felt India's Prime Minister spent far too much of his time pontificating. Whatever be the truth behind those sentiments, there is no doubt that India's moral standing in the world, particularly amongst the newly independent or soon to be independent countries of Africa and Asia owes much to Nehru's uncompromising stand on freedom and democracy.

Aung San, the celebrated Burmese nationalist and freedom fighter, like many others of his ilk, was a close friend and admirer of Nehru. Today, Nehru's birthday, I cannot help feeling that he would have been deeply overjoyed that his friend Aung San's uncompromising daughter had been released from house arrest after a total of about 15 years. Nehru spent over 10 years in jail and became Prime Minister of an independent India at the age of 59. Aung San Suu Kyi is today 65, somewhat older than Nehru when he became Prime Minister, but considerably younger than Nelson Mandela when he was freed. Nehru's encouragement and blessings, had he been alive, would have been with her, as she continues to fight the corrupt and despotic military regime in her country. Unfortunately, present day India, as Shashi Tharoor put it (see my last post) no longer has the soul to consider this an important event. Not a single statement has emerged from the bureaucratic mandarins of the External Affairs Ministry.

A set of pictures and a couple of videos can be seen at the New York Times website.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Burma, China, India and all that

It almost seems mandatory, given the press coverage of the Obama visit, to say something about it. However, rather than talk of Michelle Obama's Koli dance, I would like to speak about something that I have talked of before -- the military dictatorship in Burma. When I first wrote about it, some commentors asked why I was passing up on China -- equally a dictatorship, if not a military one, albeit with a far better record of governance (sans democracy) and economic growth for its population. (Well, I didn't quite ignore the issue but wrote a post on it but that is not the point here). I would like to quote President Obama too on this, in his speech to the Indian Parliament
Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community — especially leaders like the United States and India — to condemn it. If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries. It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It’s staying true to our democratic principles. It’s giving meaning to the human rights that we say are universal.
Nicolas Kristof, one of the few Op-Ed columnists of the New York Times worth reading, comments on this on his blog. Since this is not part of his usual Op-Ed column, it hasn't found much exposure. I quote from the end of his piece
The truth is that the world needs developing countries as leaders on political and humanitarian issues, and India would be a natural. The U.S. and other developed countries can’t play that role, because we’re regarded as heavy-handed imperialists with secret agendas. China can’t play that role because it’s too authoritarian and is regarded with growing suspicion in Southeast Asia. Brazil can play it to some degree, and should, and so can South Africa. But India would be a natural leader as the conscience of the developing world, and it would be hugely important if it would speak out more forcefully about abuses in countries like Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe. Given its experience and place in the world, India has credibility and moral and political capital, and it should use them.
I don't know how much credibility and moral capital we have, but if we do, we should indeed use it rather than pussyfooting on these issues. However, the question that was posed to me in my earlier post remains and is applicable equally to President Obama and Nicolas Kristof -- why is China getting a free pass in the comity of nations, despite its autocratic political system? The answer does not need a rocket scientist -- its the money, stupid. Nobody can afford to ignore China's economic might, but if we are going to bring in moral and political arguments, there is no excuse for letting China off the hook.

Update:See also Shashi Tharoor's article in the Times of India.