Book review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History is a solid read I picked up last month thanks to ShopSavvy. The book walks us through a very detailed history of the Allied effort in the later half of the Second World War to preserve, protect and retrieve arts of work stolen by the invading Nazis in Occupied Western Europe.

Its a small window into a part of the war, of which I have only had glimpses before. But it makes for some fascinating reading. Its not really a book for beginner World War 2 students, I think, since it makes for some slow and possibly fragmented reading. A collection of connected essays tied together by original letters from the Allied officers, its strength lies in its narrative which tracks the pieces of art and the efforts of the officers rather than the bigger, strategic picture of the Second World War. A lot of good books tend to dive into the more glamorous side-stories at the expense of the main theme of the essay.

It was a little heavy going at first as I wrapped my mind around the number of people involved and the sudden shifts (sometimes over time) that kept throwing me off - till I realized the main theme was the tracking of the actual artifacts NOT the people. That is definitely an aspect of the war which has been missing for some time. The focus of any popular war book has lain in the narrative of tactical and strategic themes, supplemented by  personal narratives be it The Longest Day or Is Paris Burning? Where this book differs in is the focus is on pieces of art, which capture your imagination and have you rooting for their safety and recovery.

Definitely worth a read. Plus for some reason the hard cover is really, really cheap on Amazon.


Buzzes, location and privacy

Google launched Buzz more than a week ago. Having had that time to actually use it, before I start excoriating it, I have to admit major disappointment, bar a few really cool surprises.

Buzz is an obvious knockoff of Friendfeed - with a slight twist. The general idea is, of course, the aggregation of inputs from different sites - famously, twitter and Google Reader - into a unified stream. FriendFeed does the same thing, but the twist is Gmail Integration. Waves notwithstanding, email still remains the most popular way of communicating with others. And of course a ready made user base for pushing your latest offering is a temptaion no one can resist - even the always-do-gooders.

The primary problem - described as an EPIC fail - was the fact that sharing was turned on automagically with some of your contacts, giving rise to problems like the 'ex who can now stalk me by looking at my already public feeds and known friends' and the 'business partners who must have no insight into my personal life and no idea that I work for the competition as well' problems. Eric Schmidt, ceo @ google, had famously said about using Google products, 'Don't do stuff you want to keep private' and thats seems to have permeated the very essence of Buzz. I am not convinced this loss of privacy amounts to much. Let me clarify - The idea of exposing email addresses of people commenting was probably not the best, it opens up spam traps and what not. And I still think that for a lot of people having no control or having control hidden behind 3+ mouse clicks (where Buzz put its controls) is not very convenient. I see that as a failure of the design, not of the general intent though.

That said, I am not sure I would be too much concerned about this. Social media is a different ball game - you want your profile publicized as much as possible. True, google didn't get it correct, but here's the problem - start with a clean slate like Google Wave did and you have no idea what to do. By giving you the option - first by auto-add and then later, by auto-suggest - on whom to add from your known contacts is definitely a great way to start networking. I personally do not care about losing that privacy and staying within the confines of some sort of closed garden. I cannot justify this anymore or less - privacy is a deeply private issue and everyone has differing interpretaitons of how "private" privacy on the internet really is or should be.

In any case, thats not what gets me excited about Buzz. One of the main draws is the pubsubhubbub implementation backing Buzz. I had speculated sometime back on what the killer app to the Google backed protocol would be and was a little disappointed that there wasn't any more than RSS publishing to it. And bang - Google comes up with Activity streams and inbuilt support for multiple blogging engines. Any time you publish a post, you can almost immediately see it in your Buzz listings. Thats fantastic! Wave is a synchronous collaboration platform, but Buzz is its async sibling, without the bells and whistles of course. It's "almost" real time which for most of us works for the bigger part of our online interactions. Google released some apis for using Buzz, but its more like a pubsubhubbub how-to guide for Buzz streams. What I am waiting for is the part they haven't released yet - read/write support for your own streams with authentication and the salmon protocol and of course with pubsubhubbub. This is the beginning of the push-button web and the closest most of us ever get to real-time updates in our lifetimes.

The killer though can be explained in 3 words - location, location and location. I have an Android 1.6 based phone and Buzz was only available through the Google Maps for Mobile 4.0 release. Thats how I started off and boy,oh,boy is location integration with Google Services awesome! I am in Philadelphia and I buzz about visiting the Liberty Bell - et voila, someone gives me a virtual guide to the bell. I am out at work and am able to view buzzes on people offering instant information on doctors, restaurants, gas stations - anything you want to know about in your neighborhood. And once that is offered, you can search for it, read comments on it, reviews about it - anything the internet can offer you about this place. The best part is all of this information can be (at some point of time, I hope) attached to a public buzz based on keywords and be made available anytime. The flip side is of course, search engine ads (its not just Google, every search engine does it. Ads are their bread and butter.) and not having seen how bad ads can get on the phone, lets wait and see. But location is the killer Buzz feature - if you don't have location enabled you are missing out on something really big.

The elephant in the room is Facebook, of course. They have come out with a supposedly "titanic"email solution which everyone talks about, their rear-prodding XMPP-based IM solution which nobody uses and their growing interest in location and mobile technology.

Yes, I know it is useless to be updated on people's locations, with their corny status updates and useless tips. That is the failing of almost all things social now. The best you can do is put a status update about you using the restroom and finding no toilet paper. But, consider todays web applications - anytime you want to find out  the next assignment your professor has put up, you have to go to a website, click on the links and possibly click through to the next assignment. With these "almost" real time solutions, you have it on a phone based or a desktop client. Now replace 'assignments' with weather, sports, travel information and add location in the mix and what an exciting future that is for us consumers. The social ecosystem that Buzz is building can lead to more and I hope, better web applications.

Buzz is just a short step into this future. The design is awful, which convinces me it is not going to be the final vehicle or even the most popular one. But the magnitude of Gmail users - an automatic recruit base for Buzz makes me confident Buzz will lead the way.


Jeans and Veer - a quick note.

A quick note: lots of people on the internets have been complaining about Salman Khan wearing jeans in Veer. Well, a little wikipedia and it turns out jeans have been around since the Renaissance and were popularized  'old'world-wide in the 19th century. This does not in any way imply, the Veer character is the Levi Strauss of India, but just a gentle reminder - just because they are old people, does not mean they were not fashionable.

Bootnote: Salman Khan can haz wikipedia.

Note: I haven't seen the movie yet, but I do plan on seeing it.


The iPad

Yes, I know - what a lame brand name. But not as lame as some of the stuff flying around the internets for the past week since the release of the iPad concept. Most people seem to have quite happily started bitching about a "concept" device without touching or in some cases even seeing the iPad. People have been busy drawing bullet points calling out things they can't see on the device, issuing challenges on behalf of other one-horse devices and moan and roll their eyes. Again, all mostly without seeing the device or justifying why they groan. On a personal note, I will probably never buy the device in its first iteration - the 3G connectivity price is way too much for me and I find the lack of a front-face camera a stumbling block.

I wanted to go over each and every point one at a time and tackle them. But for one that is a reactive post and secondly, it has been done elsewhere by better writers. John Gruber is someone I just started following, but he has been a great source of insightful reading. Here, here and here. Robert Scoble , who I personally think is a prick and a flame-baiter, had probably the most insightful software post here, but Alex Payne - who I had never heard about - had the best philosophical take ever.

Here's a list of required reading before anyone judges the iPad to be the worst thing since IE6 (nothing is more evil than IE6 - not even Col. Miles Quaritch):

Jim Stogdill applied the automobile analogy which will stick forever with the iPad, by calling it the iPrius.
Rob Foster at NorthTemple spoke about how this would bring a mobile computing device to the early learner.
Dan Moren at macworld spoke out for all non-techies who were waiting in the wings for a non-geek computer.
Andy Ihnatko had the best post on how it felt to *actually* hold the chimera at SunTimes.
Fraser Speirs hit out at all techies crying out on losing their background apps by reminding them *what* they should be aiming for - real world people who use their apps.
Milind Alvares attempts to reconcile our traditional idea of multitasking with the Apple paradigm.

What these voices are mostly perceived as, if you read the comments, is elitist - apple fanbois with time and money on their hands attempting to justify the unjustifiable. Except Payne - most people missed his point completely and got into tangential debates about usb port missing or multitasking not running or some other such iPad specific "fail".

But that perception is a big blindside on part of the larger tech community. Alex Payne is right when he says the iPad is the future of computing - the tinkerer's death and an artificial boundary on our creativity. Yes, someone will probably hack the iPad and run linux on top of it, but an open community that supports, say, Debian, will never ever rise for the iPad and the future that will be its legacy - there just won't be enough people to care because neither the iPhone OS or its API is open for n00bs. It is a walled garden. You would have to spend effort and time on playing the cat and mouse game of hack and rehack with Apple, which no one has. That is what is truly troubling, the fascination of most of the geekdom on perceived utility points rather than this Matrix-style dystopia. By making a difference between "user-friendly" and "open" apple has thrown open the doors to a future where openness is made a irrelevant, secondary goal. Openness is the driving force behind so many improvements and innovations that shape our daily tech interactions, its importance cannot be understated.

The Free and Open source software movements which followed the hacker culture are the real reason why we have a world wide web today. This is a feat which would not have been possible in walled gardens, the likes of which are dangled to us by Apple. Suppose Apple did give us USB ports and multitasking and a camera - what the? Do we give up on being open since the SDK offers everything? Are we to be satisfied with the "run a script on a server and STFU" school of thought? I hope not. By creating their private sandbox, Apple will effectively draw away people from a open web based world to one where you buy an app for everything - effectively killing all reason for people to play with technologies and come up with newer and better innovations in the web world.

Is this a very bleak picture? I don't think so because the iPad is an awesome device for a concept. It's conception prods rear in so many ways, I wouldn't be able to count them. Think on-the-go video conferencing, business tools which recognise handwriting on a blank slate, no keyboards or mice, streaming audio and video at the flick of a button or the motion of a finger - its every sci-fi movie and its not in 24 1/2 century. I remember the pain of teaching my mom how to use a mouse - its difficult for a novice. Imagine me telling her, here download this app for a shopping market, type in (or voice in) your requirements and people will come deliver. At the same time you can have iTunes on and be updated on Dad's location all at the same time (for the last time, multitasking works on the iPhone OS, just not for 3rd party apps). There is literally no barrier for adoption - everything requires a flick of the finger.

It is irrelevant whether the iPad succeeds as a product - Apple posted a 3.38 billion USD profit. They will still make money on the hardware and the loss of the iPad will be no big deal. But their vision of the future is probably Apple's legacy to the world. This is the future of computing devices - a low barrier, no brains involved approach which will find acceptance with the masses.

Whether this future remains open or not is what matters the most, not 16:9 aspect ratio. For that buy a TV.

Miep Gies and against the cult of personality

As the world came to slowly wake up to the catastrophe, that is the Haiti earthquake, another page in history was slowly flipped over and became a boot note. In the midst of all the misery in the West, Miep Gies passed away on January 11th. For the idealist in me, this was one of the hardest pieces of news to hear this year.

As every one else, I read about the Gies family in Anne Frank's diary. For the first time reader, the focal point is the teen girl who was wiped out in the Holocaust with most of her family and we treat the others in the book as scenery. That was the case with me as well. But, as time went by, my thoughts would drift to the Gieses and other ordinary people like them, who did the most extraordinary of things. My favorite two books which tackled people like these in the Second World War are 'Is Paris Burning' and 'Citizen Soldier'. The two books can't be further apart - indeed in his book, Stephen Ambrose pointedly criticizes LaPierre and Collins on their selection of heroes - but the theme is same : ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, both in uniform and out of it.

I happened to remember this in one of my conversations about 8 years ago with Hemant and Satish. The topic was Hemant's fascination with Alexander the Great and his Persian campaign. In one battle, so the story goes, Alexander was injured in a battle to capture a city on a river-bank - the details are vague. What is legend, is that the injured Alexander was rowed to the middle of the river so men on the beachhead and at the embarkation point, could see him raise his sword in a victorious, but bleeding arm which inspired them to victory.  Hemant raved at this as the epitome of leadership and achievement - how can you beat a world conquerer who led men from his death bed?

I had a very weak comeback - Frederic Joliot Curie, the Nobel Laureate mixing Molotov cocktails  for the liberation of Paris from the Nazi Occupation, while being shelled by tanks. Hemant was suitably unimpressed by my inability to justify why this seemingly mundane task merited any comparison with a leader, who with his personality changed the face of the earth. I was stumped - I knew I was right, but why? I wasn't able to explain it for almost 10 years.

Then Miep Gies died. And in all the tributes to her, was this one thing which was my epiphany: 

 " I am not a hero, People sometimes call me a hero, I don't like it.  Because people should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you.  I myself am just a fairly common person.  I simply had no choice.  I could foresee many, many sleepless nights, and a life filled with regret if I would refuse to help the Franks, and this was not the kind of life I was looking forward to."

The emphasis is mine. People should never think that they have to be above ordinary to help those who need them and do the right thing. They shouldn't wait upon a leader to guide them, nor hope a "personality" will come to solve our problems. Too many times, too many things - irrelevant or otherwise - are left at the mercy of one person's thoughts and ideas. The community spirit which drives innovation and nurtures creativity is stamped out to be molded in one person's image. Every day I shudder at the idea of all those common people, who willingly assist social outcasts, stopping themselves from caring for people.

And that there is why I know Hemant was wrong and Joliot-Curie's willingness to sacrifice everything for his country makes him a bigger hero than a world conqueror, who tried to ride on the wings of his personality to godhood. Without one forceful leader, we might lose out on a victory; but without these heroes, we might as well lose our humanity.