Saturday, February 20, 2016

Love Forever @ Rajpath by Kalpana Mishra

Why do I call a book, a good book?  Because it is about 300 odd pages and large enough to keep you engrossed for a week? Do I call it a good read because it makes you turn the pages and never let you put it down? Well, I think, the good thing about a book should be that it deals with various emotions…all imaginable, of battles fought within, and things that the author manages to leave you feeling, like, you know the characters inside-out and understand them.  Yes, for me, a good book should let you place yourself in the character’s shoes.

Kalpana Mishra’s first attempt at fiction, “Love Forever@Rajpath” is one such book, where you feel empathetic towards the characters all along. The characters are you, me and everyone.  They speak our language, they think just like us, and they are fallible too… The story is about two people, Shalini a Sindhi Girl and Kartik, her collegue with Bihari Roots and the love that blossoms between them.  The book is about their relationships, their life, set in the background of the Government Sector.  It is very much set in the contemporary India.  The story do has a filmi set up with the Boy meets Girl, both fight with each other, and then make up only to fall in love with each other finally.  However, the filminess ends there itself. 

The story takes a different turn when Kartik suddenly goes missing and Shalini digs out some dark realities about Zabaria Shaadi, where the boys are kidnapped and forcibly married. Shalini, who till now, was scared to go out of Delhi in the group study tour manages the courage to go all alone to a remote village in Bihar to rescue her love.

The sketching of the characters were amazing, and the main protagonist, Shalini’s life, on which the story is woven, is the reason, why I stay hooked onto the book.  The other characters are also exciting and they add to the book in amazing ways.  The book is a huge metaphor that juxtaposes the old values with modern ones. Love, honesty, family affections, the Government setup and as mentioned before, the contemporary Delhi interwoven with rural Bihar.   

Having read the book, I could highlight some USPs of the book, being the plot itself, which is a first of the kind, having set up with a Government background, the backdrops of Zabaria Shaadi custom in Bihar.  The language and the flow of the book is simple for a first time reader and at the same time is captivating enough to keep the avid reader engrossed.
To sum up, I would call the attempt a bold one, imaginative and, I am sure, one would love to read it.  The book is definitely odd, but a good kinda odd. This author will only start to climb upwards from now on.  A great first attempt.  I would give the book 4.5 out of 5.  A must buy for Delhiites and a must buy for the younger generation who are hooked onto Chetan Bhagat’s and Ravinder Singh’s sterotypes.  

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The King is Dead, Long Live the King as The Force Awakens

I have never been a great fan of the Star Wars Fanchisee.  However, I must admit that I have seen all the six episodes either on DVD or on Theatres, sometimes accompanying my friends, or at other times, watching these movies when I had nothing better to do.  I must also admit that the First three Star Wars trilogies (surprisingly, they are numbered as Episode 4, 5, 6), as the following editions were prequels.  If I think I am confusing anyone here, then here is the chronological list of full six episodes of Star Wars which were released prior to this 2015 edition. 

(a)          Star Wars
(b)          Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back
(c)           Star Wars – The Return of the Jedi
(d)          Star Wars – The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
(e)          Star Wars – Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
(f)           Star Wars – The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III). 

Anyways, I must admit that the initial three versions of the movie were a real fun, with George Lucas directing them and which featured Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford etc.  However, may things changed after the trilogy as Alec Guinness died and Harrison Ford moved on to feature in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones Series and more earthy characters.   The franchise was dead!

However Lucas tried to revive it by directing the prequels, but they were not comparable to the originals and was such a bore.  Sometime in between, I read that Lucas had sold the rights of his movie to Disney-Pixar, which has then engaged JJ Abrams, who is an expert in reviving franchises.  He has tried to bring in elements of the original trilogy by bringing in Harrison Ford, bringing in a lot of references to the Episodes 4 to 6 and has now called his new movie – The Force Awakens – as the Episode VII. 

Coming back to the instant, let me tell you, the movie is invigorating with 3D Effects and is comparable to the effects seen in The Avatar.  Harrison Ford continues to mesmerize and he is the soul of the film as he returns as Han Solo.  The surprise entry of Han Solo when you least expect it and references to the father-son duel of the Episode 4 and the treachery has been brought back adding to the spice of the movie.  Daisy Ridley as Rey, the Scavenger is a pleasure to watch and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the Dark Warrior heading the Storm-troopers, is also exhilarating.  The light saber duels are captivating and so are some of the locales, while the Droid BB-8 will make you giggle here and there.  In all, a must watch movie for this generation and for the old one alike, who may like some nostalgia.    The King is Dead, Long live the King.  

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Meet my new Personal Assistant

Jen Taylor, who voice powers Cortana
Meet Cortana, my new personal Assistant.  Cortana is simply an Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered software which takes its name from Cortana, an AI character from Microsoft’s Halo Series of Games.  The Software, a voice enabled personal digital assistant, integrated with the Bing Search in the Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 series, learns and adapts by tracking your phone and its usage. 

Cortana is much more than a voice search that Bing provides and she is programmed like a real-life personal assistant.  Cortana is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now.  She is voice-powered by Jen Taylor, the same voice actress that powered Cortana in the various Halo Games. 

Cortana Start Screen
Like Siri and Google, Cortana can take notes, dictate message can set alarms and throws up reminders and alerts and can do web searches and manipulate system settings as you dictate her.  But what really sets Cortana apart is its endless ability to strike up casual conversations with users, which can at times be quite funny and sassy.  We (Me and two of my colleagues, who own an iPhone and a Google Nexus) did do a reality check, command by command between the three voice assistants, and I am proud to say, at the end of the test that Cortana did hold herself against Siri and Google in a remarkable fashion and my colleagues too were quite impressed by her abilities. 

Sample some of the “Chit Chats” that Cortana was subjected and her replies thereon:-

Cortana's Reply to 'Who are you?'

I ask                       : Who are you?
Cortana               :In short, I am your personal Assistant, I try to make things easier to do on your Phone. 

I ask                       : Set an alarm tomorrow at 9! 
Cortana               :Your 9.00 am alarm is now on!

I ask                       : Cancel my Alarm!
Cortana               :Tap the alarm you want to turn off.
(Cortana is contextual, and it threw up the list of alarms so that I can cancel one)

I ask                       : Who is your daddy?
Cortana               :Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates, No Big deal! 

I ask                       : Can you Dance?
Cortana               :I am still practicing my moves.  Check back after Beta.

I ask                       : I am Lonely!
Cortana               :Keep talking to me then, Chief! 

I ask                       : I am bored!
Cortana               :Ask me more questions then!

I ask                       : I am tired!
Cortana               :I’ll set a nap alarm if you tell me when to wake up. 

I ask                       : Tell me a joke!
Cortana               :Two antennas got married The ceremony dragged on but the reception was excellent!
(if you ask cortana certain questions over and over again, she comes up with a different answer, like this one above)

I ask                       : Facebook, what’s up with Antony?
(Cortana initiates a report of ‘Antony’s’ recent facebook activity. 

Cortana can link your reminder to a place (location based) or a person (people based) and cortana will pop up with a reminder, the moment you reach the particular location or when the person calls you. Sample this :-
I say : The next time I talk to ‘Mom’, remind me to ask her about what medicines she want
Cortana identified ‘Mom’ with the ‘Surname’ I had saved against her phone no, and when she called, reminded me with the text “ask her about what medicines she want”. 

In all, Cortana is a very very useful digital personal assistant to have on your smartphone.  In the head to head comparison, Cortana fared better on most occassions with Siri coming close to acknowledging our voice commands.  Google Now was merely a Voice search and nothing more and never came back with any AI.   

One drawback which Cortana had, was that while Google Now could be activated through pure voice command (only in flagship and high-end Android Phones though), Siri and Cortana needed manual intervention and is not completely hands free. One needs to use one’s hands to 'turn her on'.   

In the People based reminder example I listed above, all three Voice Assistants were particular about the phraseology and if I had pronounced the sentence with words in a different order, the command were not recognised.  But I believe, this is something that will evolve over time as more AI would come to these softwares. 

While Cortana is still in its Beta and is only months old, Siri and Google Now has been in the market for almost two years now , but still Cortana holds its fort against its formidable rivals.  If Cortana is awesome this much now, I can only wait for the day when she comes out of her Beta and become fully functional.  Wow! That’d indeed give Apple and Google a run for their money. 

Courtesy : Windows Phone 8.1 Help Site provided me these ideas as to what questions I should ask Cortana.  And I am still subjecting Cortana to more questions. So watch this space for more exciting conversations...

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sectarian Strife in the Middle East : What it is all about

Of late, Newspapers are choke-full about the Civil Strife in Iraq and every one come across the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. News has been breaking every other day that the Extremist Group ISIS is claiming territory after territory in Iraq and is fast advancing towards the Capital Baghdad.  Some Papers name the group as ISIS and some others as ISIL. As a frequent commentator on various threads on the issue and with my some-what little knowledge about the internal politics of Iraq, thanks to two of my media friends who hail from that region, my other friends in my social networking circle have been asking me as to what the confusion is all about regarding the name of the Extremist Group.  Simply speaking, they wanted to know whether ISIS and ISIL are same and if same, then as to why they are called differently by different sections of the Media

Through this post, I am attempting to clear the confusion of many, through the limited knowledge I have about this.  The articles I read in Reuters and Le Monde Diplomatique, through my friends has been of immense help to me in understanding the issue here. 

In Arabic, the Extremist group is known as Al-dawa-Al-Islamiya-Al-Iraq-wa-al-Sham or simply the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Al-Sham.  ISIS actually refers to Islamic State of Iran and Syria.Al-Sham refers to the region stretching from Southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt, including Lebanon, parts of Israel, the Palestine, and of course Jordan.  The group is headed by Abu Bak'r al'Baghdadi and the stated goal of the Group is to restore the Islamic State or the ‘Caliphate’ in this entire area.  The standard term for this broad territory - otherwise known as Al-Sham -  is the “Levant”.  And hence the Acronym ‘ISIL’ which stand forIslamic State of Iraq and Levant.The current crisis is triggered by the extremists belonging to Sunni Iraqis and the Sunni Syrians who are against the Bashar regime and though the group mainly refers itself to Iraq and Syria (and hence ISIS), the Syria here,  may actually refer to Greater Syria (which is what Al-Sham is all about) and hence the group is sometimes called as ISIL.  

The Civil Strife has its roots in the idea called Baathism, which Saddam propagated during his lifetime.  Baathism is based on the principles of Arab Nationalism, Pan Arabianism and Arab Socialism.  It is a secular ideology and it may be remembered that Saddam Hussein was largely Secularevenduring his dictatorial reign.    As on today, there are two versions of Baathismi.e the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which has its presence in many Middle East Countries, and is now ruling Syria, with Bashar-al-Assad as its head and the Baghdad based Baath Party, which ruled Iraq and was decimated during the US Invasion of Iraq. 

Some insight into the current Iraq Crisis
Presently, the Middle East is split between a pro-Saudi political block and a pro-Iranian political block.  It is rumoured that US itself funded the ISIS for a brief while as it was fighting against the pro-IranBashar-al-Assad regime of Syria.  US itself was trying to contain Iran at that point of time.  The Syrian Civil war was all about the majority Sunni Muslims pitted against the brutal Shia Dictator Al-Assad, who had the active support of the Shia’ite Iran regime. 

The present conflict is further complicated by the other regional players like Saudi Arabia which is again a Sunni Majority Country and where Shias are in a minority.  Saudi Arabia is lucky not to have seen any sectarian strife as the whole country is ruled by the strong authoritarian Royal regime.  Iraq is actually a diverse country made up of three distinct groups – Shias on the South, Sunnis on the West and Kurds on the North.  During the Saddam’s regime, the comparatively minority group Sunnis ruled the minority Kurds and the majority Shias.  After the US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Saddam regime, the US propped up a Shia regime which also had the active support of the Shia’ite Iran. 

What I think on the contrary is that, the entire Civil Strife has its origins in the famous Arab Spring.  It triggered everything as the people of the region rose against their dictators but sadly, their revolution was since been hijacked by the religious fanatics looking to create a domination of Islamic fundamentalism.     The ISIS, or ISIL (whichever way we call it) is looking to re-create the Caliphate or a greater Islamic region comprises the Sunni fighters, once defunct but now realigning Iraqi Baath’ists and Jihadist Al Qaeda fighters.  The Kurds too have joined the fight as they had always believed that they were deprived of their rights and territories as also their claim to the Oil wells in their region during the Saddam regime.  After the US invasion, even though the Kurdish areas have been designated as autonomous regions with their own prime minister, they still want their piece of cake.ISIL's objective is common :  overthrow the Shia regimes of both Al-Assad as well as the Iraqi government, and restoration of the Islamic State, thereby reducing the dominion of the Western powers. They may be actively funded by the Saudi royals too, as the Saudis have a huge stake in the region.  

In all, Iraq is staring at a three-way split along the ethnic lines with probably the Kurds standing to gain the most as they will be declaring Independence. Some of the biggest oil fields are also in this area and the Kurds definitely stand to gain from it.  


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Game of Glorious Uncertainties

What an amazing Test Match it was! For some time, It looked like Aussie would reach the target, seeing the way, Warner and Rogers were going after the bowling, but the batting collapse, triggered by Swann and then Broad and Bresnan was incredible.  Aussies were left short of the target by 74 runs.  The match brought out all the unpredictability of the Cricket as a game we are used to.   Test Cricket is certainly a game of glorious uncertainties. 

From 109 for the loss of one wicket, Stuart Broad brought down the Aussies with a Six wicket haul in 45 deliveries, conceding just 20 Runs on the way.  This is classic bowling lessons for any budding Seam Bowler.  Pitch the Ball up, Keep it Straight and find some side-ways movement in between. It’s as simple as that!!!

But, before, the collapse was triggered by some fine piece of bowling from Greame Swann and Tim Bresnan.  Swann had accounted for Rogers and Khwaja and then came the magical moment of the test match.  Alastair Cook, asked Swann to take back his Sweaters from the Umpire as he handed the ball to Tim Bresnan.  Till now, Bresnan has been quite harmless with his seamers and the Cricket Pundits sitting on the Commentary Box wondered why Cook is doing this foolishness.  But at times, a good captain is kept apart by that instinctive decision, which can then, change the course of the match. 

At that point, if England had any chances of winning the match, then it would have been through the champion off-spinner who had just accounted for the first innings centurion and a sturdy looking Usman Khwaja. But it was not to be, as Cook and Bresnan came on top.  The English fielding unit which got expanded while Warner was going hammer and tongs got contracted again as they closed in on with every wicket.  

Glorious Uncertainties Indeed!!!  

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Brand New Tabbed Inbox of GMail

It was indeed a surprise for me, when Google activated the new brand new Inbox on my Mail, the Tabbed Inbox.  Rolled out gradually for users, this new feature promises to give more control over the different types of mails we receive in our inbox. 

As of now, this feature has been activated only for a select few of the Gmail users, and I am privileged enough to say that I have been one of them.  You’ll come to know when this feature is activated by visiting the Settings -> Inbox -> Configure Inbox.  There apart from the various types of inbox views available like Priority Inbox, Classic View etc, you will get to see Tabbed Inbox too.  As with the others, you can always go back to the Classic View, in case it doesn’t appeal to you. 

When you click Configure Inbox, you will be asked which optional tabs you will want. All the e-mails you receive will then be automatically categorized by a ‘Google algorithm’ which is intelligent enough, and placed in the appropriate tab for an easy retrieval. 

As of now, 5 default tabs are available and I don’t have any idea, as to whether Google will give me the option of adding my own customized tabs, akin to the labels/filters that I have. I don’t have an idea either as to whether Google will add more categories in the days to come or whether I will have the option to define my own tabs.  However, as of now, the 5 default labels that are available are as follows :- 

·         Primary, which is for messages from your friends, and family, or rather you can say, messages from your most frequently contacted

·         Promotions, which is for the emails containing Discounts, offers and deals

·         Social – which is for emails from social networking sites, their notifications etc. 

·         Updates – other alert emails including that from Banks etc, including bills and statements

·         Forums – emails from your mailing lists and groups. 

When you activate the Tabbed Inbox, you get the option of including the starred emails to the Primary Tab.  Google even gives you a preview of your own inbox, segregated to various tabs, before you even activate the same (Very Thoughtful of Google, I must say). 

You also get the option to drag an email from one tab to another and all similar emails in future are accordingly arranged and filed in the respective tab.  So even if, you think, a particular email has landed on a wrong tab, just drag it to the relevant tab once, and Gmail will save your preference for the future.  Each tab will notify you about the number of emails unread in each through a numbered indicator. 

In a way, I thought, this was an extension to the labels/filter combination that Gmail had provided us earlier.  Where the labels were completely customizable and user defined, Tabs have been relying on Google’s intelligent algorithm to a large extent rather than user intervention to categorize emails.  In fact, if you see this feature on your Smartphone, the UI looks exactly similar to the label/filter that you see on your phone.  The good thing is, as is the case with most other Google products, this feature too, learns as you progress and the experience of using this feature can only get better and better with time. 

Now, just to check the claims of Google, I asked one of my close friends to send me a promotional mail which she received from her e-mail ID.  I figured, the mail would land on the ‘Promotions’ Tab, but instead it went straight to my ‘Primary’ inbox.  So was that an anti-climax? Or did Google, wearing my hat, and thought, even if it was a promotional e-mail, I would give a priority because of the source of the source of the e-mail? You judge yourself? Rather, I hope the algorithm will learn itself and would give me a better experience as it learns from my usage.

Some other drawbacks which I found after enabling this feature was that when you activate the Tabbed Inbox, the Multiple Inbox feature gets disabled automatically.  So if you have e-mail forwarding enabled from another Gmail account with the Multiple Inbox feature, opting for this feature would then make a mess of your inbox.  Also, I would have loved this feature if Google had given me the option of customizing the tabs, or adding my own, or even giving me the option to define what all email should go to which all tabs. Absence of this feature, means, at least to me, that the feature is just a cosmetic facelift, bereft of any utility. 

At the end of the day, it was neither a cool new way of e-mailing, nor the design was very enriching.  And, I doubt, many will find this feature rather confusing and unreliable too. 




Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Minor Irritants in Lumia 620

This is the third in the series of the Lumia 620 Articles, and after the first two, I think, I now need to chart out a few shortcomings, too, in an, otherwise, a wonderful product.  Yes, of course, as with any product.. that too, one that is built around an evolving eco-system, there will be minor irritants too.  I wouldn't rather call them as shortcomings, for I believe, Microsoft will address these issues in the coming updates to the software. 

One such goof-up is the inability of this Smartphone to attach multiple documents and pdfs while e-mailing.  Right now, I can only attach multiple photos and there is no way I can attach a document.  All I can do is to share a particular document through SkyDrive, but that limits the number to just one.  Maybe, Microsoft has brought this product out keeping the Young Generation in mind, and basically as a gadget with augments your Social Networking and not typically as a Business Phone.  May be that is the reason why Lumia Phones are not competing itself with Blackberries.   

Another issue that puzzled related to Storage.  When I check the amount of memory that the phone has used up, I am bewildered by a category called ‘Other’ apart from the usual ‘Photos’, Apps, System etc.  So Typically, out of the 7.2 Gb of Phone Storage that youget, 1.9 Gb is taken up by the System itself, and after ‘Photos’, ‘Apps’ etc, one finds this ‘Other’ takes up around 1 Gb typically.  A little research, told me that this 'Other' storage could be anything like your Temporary Internet Files, your cache data, the data related to to profile pics, the updates etc, considering that the People, Photo and Office Hub is constantly looking for and fetching data from Social Networking Sites.  This could also be the app data that the app store for you.  So the more the number of apps you have on your Phone, the more this ‘Other’ Storage is. 

To my horror, I found out that this ‘Other’ storage keeps on building itself up as you install more and more apps and the major irritant has been that there is no way to manage this ‘other’ storage, like to delete these and free up this space. 

Why this will become such a big Irritant is because, sooner or later, this storage will inflate itself up to a point wherein I won’t be able to install any apps or run any games as the Phone will start saying ‘no more space’.

Lack of FM Radio can be called as a shortcoming, though; it is not of much concern to me.                I, personally, don't follow FM Music, and the phone gives you the flexibility to have expandable storage upto 64 Gb, so you call fill your memory card with all sort of songs and videos and reduces your dependence to FM Radio Stations.

Yes, these are minor glitches and I have already wrote to Microsoft, along with many other users about these issues and I have been promised that the future updates of the WP 8 OS will take care of them.  Infact, this is how a new product evolves and develops and let us give the benefit of doubt to Microsoft here.  
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