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Python on S60 Jul. 29th, 2009 @ 10:31 am

As part of the afore-mentioned down time, I've also been spending some time messing around with Python on Symbian OS. I bought a Nokia E71 last year with the hope of writing some apps for it (well, that was the ostensible reason :) I finally got 'round to doing some hackery now.

One of the surprising things I've found is that lack of a stop-clock/timer by default on the Nokia phones. Or maybe, I never found it. In any case, I decided to code one myself in Python. Being a script junkie (Perl being my choice of poison), I'd always wanted to check out Python, and its functional programming features. I didn't get to use much of the functionality of the language, but it was a fun effort nonetheless.

You can get the app I created here. Dependencies include Python for S60 v.1.4.5, and an extension to it called Miso, which provides access to some of the underlying hardware - I used the phone vibrator in my code, as notifications. I've included the following files in the archive -

timer.0.2_v0_2_0.sis - The actual application. Bluetooth it to your phone, and install.
timer.py - the source, if you want to mock my coding :D

You will require a S60 Edition 3, feature pack 1, device at least to run the app.

What does the app do? Two things - a timer feature, where you can set the number of minutes you want it to count down, at the end of which, the app will buzz once. Second, a stop-clock type feature, where you set the total number of minutes to count up to, and every two minutes the app buzzes. The buzz-interval is currently hard-coded, though making that user configurable shouldn't be a big deal. You can also pause, resume and completely halt a running timer/stop-clock.

Let me know if it works for you, and of course, feel free to mess with the source.

Mobile app development - Quite fun actually. The Python API's are fairly extensive, from what I see, and one should be able to write some fun stuff for these devices. I'm not a software engineer, so I couldn't compare the effort involved to developing on other platforms. However, some general observations - Nokia needs to make getting information easier! There are at least 3 websites where one can get information on the Python for S60 implementation. Though, it seems that forum.nokia.com is the go-to place, this is not very obvious for first-timers. You can also check out this wiki. Documentation, too, is fairly extensive, but it was only after a fair amount of hunting that I found this. Finally, I use Emacs for my code development, but I'm sure that Eclipse would be better for programming larger projects.

Cross-posted at AMusings

Readings Jul. 25th, 2009 @ 12:21 am
Thanks to a vast amount of 'down-time' I've been enjoying, I've managed to catch up on some reading over the past month-and-a-half. The books I've read, and recommendations...

1. Fools Gold by Gillian Tett. See my review for a reco.

2. The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith.

Galbraith was a professor of Economics at Harvard University, and also JFK's ambassador to India, in the early '60's. This book is his analysis of why the great stock market crash of 1929 occurred, and why it might have led to the Great Depression. One tends to think of Economics as the 'dismal science', but Prof. Galbraith managed to create a surprisingly entertaining book, that takes a somewhat  skeptical look at the major players involved in the enormous boom and bust of the late '20's. Highly recommended.

3. The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov

I had previously only read Foundation, and this time I managed to finish (nearly) the entire series. I say nearly, because there is another book - "Forward The Foundation", that was published posthumously. If you're a SciFi junkie, then the Foundation Series is familiar ground. If not, then these might be the books to get you hooked.

4. Slaughter House 5, by Kurt Vonnegut

A searing indictment of the futility of war. Vonnegut creates a tremendously funny and impossibly poignant story, to describe the pointless nature of war. I don't think I get all of what he says - and I'll probably read it again soon.

5. 1984, by George Orwell

There are so many words, images and thoughts that this book has given to the world, it's a little embarrassing to note that I hadn't read it before now. This is the definitive classic on the nature of the human condition under a totalitarian regime. The destruction of all that is human, and the creation of a shell that will mindlessly support the Party above all else, is a deeply distressing story. At the end, I could only feel utter despondency that there was no way out of the labyrinth for Winston Smith, the protagonist. Even though parts of the story are somewhat expected, one tends to end up rooting, and hoping the best, for Winston and Julia, his lover. This book should be part of school curricula, just to ensure that there is a healthy skepticism of the government of the day, and to not give them any more power than they need; Heh, considering the HRD ministry in India, it'll never happen of course. If ever there was a stronger argument for anarchism, I haven't found it yet. A must read.

6. Cocktail Time, by P.G. Wodehouse

This is the first Ickenham book that I've managed to get through, being more of a Jeeves and Psmith man. The story is a little formulaic for Wodehouse - the usual lovers entanglements, financial rockiness among the British Upper Classes, myriad confusions and cockups - all tied together sort of satisfyingly at the end. Not great, but a happy read nonetheless. Recommended lazy-Sunday-afternoon reading :)

Cross-posted at AMusings.

Keynsian software? Jul. 8th, 2009 @ 12:43 pm
From the New Indian Express, techies expressing their disappointment in Pranobda's budget - "...the budget failed to address their [s/w engineers] primary concern - to create jobs, like the increase in NREGS ... which will create direct jobs"

To which I say Bravo! We could recreate Windows, and then fill it in again. Idiots!

Fool's Gold Reviewed Jun. 30th, 2009 @ 05:14 pm

“As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance,”
Charles Prince, CEO, Citigroup, 2007.

In a sense that one, pithy, statement neatly sums up the tragedy of the financial meltdown that we've witnessed over the past two years. Having lived, quite literally, through the penning of a new chapter of History, the first assessments of what went wrong during the Summer and Fall of 2008 are emerging. Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett, assistant editor at the Financial Times, is one such example. I managed to corral Pramod's (signed!) copy of the book, before he returned to the UK.

After having read so much about the crisis over the past couple of years (The Economist, FT, WSJ, NYT, the list is endless), I was under the impression that there wouldn't be much new to learn from this book. Having taken just two days to run through it, you can guess that I was totally off the mark! The book provides an interesting vantage point to understand the crisis - from the offices of J. P. Morgan, the commercial bank, where much of the technology that helped to create the Credit Crunch was itself invented. At a gross level, the book is not so much about the implications and the motivations of the bankers whose rapacious greed has radically reshaped the financial system, but focused more intently on those "Financial weapons of mass destruction," credit derivatives.

In order to understand a new technology, it is usually useful to understand the historical motivations of the designers of the technology - the problem they hoped to solve, their approach to solving it, the compromises they made in finding a solution. Fool's Gold provides this perspective in spades. The notion of credit derivatives emerged at J. P. Morgan in the mid-nineties. The idea was to create a derivative instrument that helped to push risk off of J. P. Morgan's balance sheet to someone else who was willing to take on the risk of holding the debt on their books. The team designed such a product for corporate debt instruments, which proved very successful. Essentially, they created a Credit Default Swap. However, the swaps were legally complicated and cumbersome, and since they needed to be concluded anew between two parties separately for each new swap contract, the J. P. Morgan team came up with a way of "industrializing" the swap creation process - the Collateralized Debt Obligation. Gillian Tett expertly takes the reader through the process by which these instruments were engineered. This is the book that you should read to understand the financial technology that lead to todays malaise.

What the J. P. Morgan team found when they tried to use the same technology to sell mortgage risk, was that it was impossible to justify the ratings of the CDS contracts, given the lack of data to accurately assess the behavior of the contract under distress. Given this, J. P. Morgan sold only one mortgage-backed CDS contract, and decided to stay away from the whole mortgage-backed security (MBS) market. However, this didn't prevent other people from taking this idea and running wild with it. In fact, J. P. Morgan could be said to be mildly culpable, since, while they were happy to disseminate their creation to the wider financial world, they did not accurately portray the risks involved in the creation and selling of MBS's, despite knowing them. And this is probably the greatest weakness in this excellent book - J. P. Morgan comes out too easily as a bit of a shining knight. A little more skepticism of their motivations might've been useful - but then again, that might just be me fluttering in the prevailing wind, given the current disgust with bankers.

Where this book falls short is the overt focus on J. P. Morgan. I hope that this is but a first installment in a series of books assessing the credit crunch. The questions that I would love to read Ms. Tett explain, in any subsequent books, include -

1. What was the role of the ratings agencies, in all of this? They come out unscathed in Fool's Gold - which I find implausible. How did they manage to rate tranches of instruments like CDO-squared and CDO's of Mezzanine ABS, as essentially risk-free, when they clearly weren't? What of their incentive structure - why is it that the people paying the ratings agencies are the companies issuing the debt instruments, and not the buyers of the debt?

2. Why was there no clearing house or exchange created for credit derivatives? Why were most of these instruments being created and transacted between two parties in the dark? Especially since, increasingly, these instruments are being sold to uninformed investors?

3. The incentive structure for bankers - what made them get down and dirty, just because others were too? Why did they have to dance the dance? What happened to their rationality, in the face of gross market distortions?

4. Why were more and more complex instruments created, without the implications of these instruments being fully understood? Why was there an almost stupidly evangelical faith in mathematical models?

Of course, not all of these questions can be answered in one book. But, I hope that this is just a beginning by Ms. Tett, for she has the ability to explain complex financial mumbo-jumbo in rather simple terms. At the end of the book, one is left craving more information on the policy drama of September and October of 2008 - for instance, why Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail, but AIG not (all within a few hours of each other) isn't touched upon at all. Having said that, this is still a very powerful, cogent, account of the beginnings of the most recent chapter in History, and one that must be read to get a foundation on which to understand the wider implications of the Credit Crunch. Highly Recommended.

Cross-posted at AMusings.

Mobile! Jun. 26th, 2009 @ 12:08 pm
I've always wanted a mobile internet connection, but I always assumed that it would be completely rubbish on GPRS. But, I finally sprang for airtel's GPRS connection, and while it's definitely not the fastest connection, it is a very liberating experience. So here I am waiting for my grandmom to finish her work at the bank, and I, for a change, have something to mess around with. Heh, I can still ponder the potential juiciness of 3G though.
Other entries
» Skim
I'm a murderer. Well, let me change that to inadvertent assassin. You see, I like to make notes on and annotate papers that I read. And since much of my life is consumed reading research papers, I print papers rather indiscriminately (of course, the fact that my office has a laser printer doesn't hurt. But, that changes tomorrow). That's a whole lot of trees dead across the world. I didn't mean to kill them, but it was inevitable.

So you can see that the solution would be simple enough - notes and annotations in PDF's and PS's. For some reason Adobe refuses to add this feature of their basic Acrobat Reader. Anyway, for a while now, I've ditched Adobe and its Stalinist attitude for Skim, a free PDF reader and note taker for Mac OS X. Skim is far, far more refined and user friendly than Acrobat Reader. Notes can be added anywhere, floating or anchored, through out the text. You can also highlight, underline, strike-out and circle interesting text. There is also a search function to sift through your notes (which can grow exponentially). All in all an extremely useful application.

Occasionally I also find myself reading PDF's in Linux (I have a virtual machine set up to run simulations, but that's another post), and I've found Okular to be nearly just as good. Not as refined as Skim, but very, very useful nonetheless.

» New Blogs
I've started cross-posting to a new WordPress blog called Entropium, with the hope of eventually moving my blogging there. I've been blown away by WP's blogging tools, the interface and general ease of use. However, the primary motivation for setting up there is because I've also started a more technical blog called Minimal Descriptions. Since I will be starting my Ph.D. studies this Fall (contingent on a student visa), I'll be posting most of what I'm currently reading and trying to understand, to have a constant feel for writing formally. Expect mildly stilted language :) The reason for choosing WP is its nice integration of LaTex and bibTex, since I expect to be typing stuff with equations and citations.

» Politics Au Naturale

You remember Hank, the guy from Me, Myself and Irene? No, not the trooper, the other guy with the ginormous...rage. Well, take him, add some politics, some government, some news hacks, toady civil servants, gutless politicians and loads of hilariously compromising positions, and you get the BBC comedy series The Thick of It, an utterly fantastic satirical political comedy.

This is probably the most hilarious comedy I've ever watched. Good comedy always has tons of narcissism, jealousy, self-centeredness and simple bloody mindedness - think George Costanza, Larry David and Basil Fawlty. By God, does The Thick of It have it! This series is so funny it's painful, and so painful to watch, it's funny. Armando Ianucci, the creator of the series, has the characters, the situations, the jokes, everything just spot on. I like mockumentary-type comedies like The Office, but this one takes the cake. The main character is the shamelessly manipulative, thoroughly cynical Malcolm Tucker, based on Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former Director of Communications and Strategy. Through out the series, Malcolm intimidates the politico's and the babu's equally, to manipulate government policy to where he thinks it should go, damn the consequences. At the receiving end, usually, is the Secretary of State for the Department of Social Affairs (DoSA, haha), Hugh Abbott, who is the epitome of ministerial narcissism, interminably insecure about this position in the cabinet. Case in point, this roasting by Malcolm for giving an interview to the Daily Mail without informing Malcolm,

As you can see, the language is unhindered. And it all fits perfectly and in a strange way not gratuitous. For instance, Jamie, Malcolm's assistant, excuses himself to get past a bystanding cleaning lady, after a marathon swear session. Having said that, I wouldn't watch this in Starbucks, over free internet, without headphones.

This is definitely not "Yes Minister". It's so much better. And there's a movie out now, called In The Loop, directed and written by Armando Ianucci. Sadly, I don't think we'll ever see it here in India. Oh, and while I'm plugging it, The Thick of It is on YouTube right now, all the episodes :)

» Ghettoize, I say!
I think Pramod Mutalik and his merry band have it right. They are correct, we need to ghettoize our nation. Damn it, how dare we all, of different religions and denominations, mix together destroying the purity of our souls? But, I think they don't go far enough. Oh no, not by a mile. Let's go the whole hog while we're at it, I say. Let's ghettoize ourselves into one man islands. I live my life, and you, you mind your own business. It seems the only logical end, no?
» Gotcha!
After a day pondering it I finally figured out what I found totally strange about "Jai Ho", the song during the credits in Danny Boyle's film, "Slumdog Millionaire" - the characters don't sing it to each other! They just...dance. This is wrong! Heresy! And this is why hamara Baalyvood is better I say - we know how to put our mouths where our feet are at.

Anyhow, here's the song for your enjoy-maadi...

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