postheadericon TECH TALK: If Only Human Development Progressed Like Software Development

Last time I reviewed the latest in tech for Mac users, the newly released OSX Lion operating system from Apple, so this time I wanted to write something for PC users. This column is all about the oldest in consumer operating systems: Microsoft DOS.

Today DOS celebrated its 30th birthday. It was bought for $25,000 USD from a company selling a bit of code that they called the Quick and Dirty Operating System (QDOS), and that code was written in just two months way eback in 1980.

A year later that code would become the standard for the IBM PC Operating System, and was the underpinning for the first version of Microsoft Windows. The rest is history - and the computing world has never been the same since.

At the time, I had just started working at IBM, fresh out of school, and still remember my fascination with the 5 1/4” floppy disk. Once inserted, that disk brought up DOS on a monochrome monitor with a blinking green cursor.  Oh the joy of typing in “copy myfile lpt1” and watching in wonder as your plain black & white text zapped out over a noisy dot-matrix printer that was the size of small refrigerator. Back then it took much less to excite folks then with today’s iCrowd.

I bring this up as I recently read that Nepal has one of the youngest populations on the planet, with a median age of 21. So most of you reading this are probably wondering what the heck I’m going on about... monochrome, command line, floppy disks, typing...

But short of sounding like a SLC history exam, let me just say that in the olden days, tech was just as exciting as it is today, sans touch displays, swipes and wipes, and music players the size of your wrist-watch.

You would be amazed by how much fun we could have with a disk that held 720kb in total, which is probably about the size of your last email. In that space, we could calculate our mortgage rate and maybe play a game of pong - whoohoo! But today, with 1,389 times more space, we are hard pressed to hold all our baby photos, home movies, and CVs with cover letters on our one-terabyte hard drives.

So as I flipped open the lid on my Windows 7 system this morning, I was struck by how far computers have come in just 30 short years (but not necessarily people). A watched a screen that rivals my own eyeballs and that can produce more colors than I could ever possibly see. My web-browsing program opened in the blink of an eye, instead of waiting 5 minutes on a blinking cursor.

Considering where computers were 30 years ago, today’s computing environment is nothing short of a miracle. Or so I thought until I started reading some online comments on the news of the day.
But a friend did tweet me something tasteful: a new iPad app called PADD was just released that turns your tablet or phone into a device that was seen first in a 1987 episode on the set of Star Trek (The Next Generation). The creators of the series placed this device in the year 2376, but in reality we have the working model in 2011. It seems, if one uses Star Trek and other Sci-Fi visualizations as a gauge, we are far far ahead of schedule.

But where are we going so fast? One has to wonder...

In the 30 years since DOS was introduced, poverty has not been reduced for most of the world's population, in fact, in a recent World Bank Development Report, it is estimated that 1.5 billion people are worse off then before. And not one low-income country (suffering from on-going violence) has achieved a single Millennium Development Goal.

So ends this birthday celebration of Microsoft DOS, which was an initial effort worth $25,000 USD, and has allowed a single company to now profit an estimated $74,000,000 USD each day of the year. Progress? You tell me.
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postheadericon Something about Lion’s new versioning that could rock your world...

Ever try to save a file and get an error because you have it open in another application? Well, with Apple’s new versioning architecture (only found in Mac OSX 10.7), all that nonsense may soon go away.

As a raw example of how the new file structuring works to achieve this goal, here is file open in both Preview and Acrobat Pro X, where we are going to edit the Acrobat Pro X file (right side) and we have opened up the same file in Apple Preview (left side):
Any changes made and saved in Acrobat Pro X (in this case, a page rotate of 180°) is immediately reflected in Preview, where before, an error would have occurred. You cannot save to an open file in previous incarnations of OSX, or any other file system that I know of. 

So instead, we get this: 
Again, if you try this in same procedure in OSX 10.6 or earlier, you would get an error telling you that the file test.pdf is in use or left open. 

The system-wide implications for the future are mind-boggling for workflows that use one application to create / edit / modify content, and another another to assemble the final result. Apple  now has a way of doing so without a complicated linking strategy (for example,  as in Adobe’s InDesign application, which links files to produce pages). 

An example of where Apple has already put this strategy into play can be found in the new FinalCut Pro X, optimized for Lion. In the example below, we are importing a Photoshop file, editing and saving the Photoshop file while FCPX is open (added a 50% red fill), and seeing the changes reflected back to FCPX in realtime:
The previous release (Final Cut Pro 7) requires a "reconnect media" click, or this case, a complete re-import of the content to make things right (many, many clicks).

So in summary, while the new versioning strategy has many users up in arms because the workflow for manipulating files has changed (see this Apple Discussion), perhaps a deeper analysis is need. Above are just a few examples of  how Apple is changing the way we think of files, once discreet entities - but now something more fluid - without even telling us.

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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: Impermanence and the Nepali

While the origin of the sand-filled hourglass is not known, the expression “the sands of time” can be correlated to the advent of this once useful device. In Nepali, the expression “bhole bhole” can be likened to the flipping of the hourglass over and over again until your zipper or ripped umbrella is repaired by your local tailor.

In Nepal, it’s often said that “time stands still,” but this is inaccurate; time does not follow a linear path here, and then stop at certain intervals, but instead, time dances forward and backward. Children complete their studies under candlelight as they did in the 1700’s, yet they are dressed in the latest hip-hop fashions of the 2010’s. To write this article, I have the latest in computer hardware and software available, but for only 3 seasons out of the year, as during the 4th there is no electricity to turn any of this high tech on.

Nepal’s forth season, which I have renamed the Electric season instead of the Monsoon season, is one of my favorites for many reasons. Obviously, during this season on the Nepali calendar, I can write till the cows come home, without worry of a sudden power loss. I can also take a shower anytime of the day, indoors or out. The water tank below the floor is actually overfull during this time of year – even flooding the ground floor on occasion, reminding me that the glass is often far more then half full, and not just half empty.

Other little philosophies (such as “is the glass full or not”) are prominent in our culture. Take for example the very foundation of Buddhism: impermanence. We all know that a major source of our unhappiness comes from the notion that situations are permanent.

Today there is food on the table, so tomorrow our rice bowls will be full. Today there is electricity on the line, so tomorrow we can expect the same. Today there is political stability, so tomorrow we can predict smooth sailing. Today the price of milk powder is Nrs. 200, so next week the budget will be enough.

For those of us that embrace Chaos Theory, it’s easy to understand how the flapping of one generator’s exhaust cover, can collapse the Prithvi Highway between here and Mugling – otherwise known as the “Diesel Butterfly Effect.” So it’s no long stretch to understand why I can’t write this article in December, but can do easily now, powered by this summer season of rain. You see, we can have no permanent power, as the very ground on which we live is shifting like the sands of the turned hourglass.

The soil (and one could say soul) of Nepal is also shifting in nature. The very earth we would love to proclaim solid, is anything but. And Nepal is the perfect environment to now experience paradise not yet covered by a parking lot. In the words of Joni Mitchel:

Don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you've got ‘Til it's gone They paved paradise And put up a parking lot

Our parking lots, if they exist at all, are washed away every summer, and are perhaps why we (as Nepalese) can see more clearly what the Buddha meant by his last words:

All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.

So every year, a man comes to fill the potholes in my galli only to be washed away by year next. This rinse and repeat cycle is repeated until, well, not forever - if we are to believe the words of the Buddha or the equations of Benoît Mandelbrot. 
 You see, impermanence is not predictable, and does not run like clockwork. A time may come when the paradise we may not appreciate today as existing in Nepal, is covered by a parking lot for a good many lifetimes to come.

Fulltime electricity from hydroelectric may also come, if enough shifting ground is solidified into concrete and solid stone. Modernization of the entire country could come about soon enough as well, but at what eventual cost? What pent-up theoretical dam would burst then, damning all that live downstream?

It’s these little philosophies that keep us intrigued with the world we live in, and as long as we can see them for what they are: musings of a day already passed, an hourglass already turned, we can better face the future – a future as uncertain as the soil on which we stand today.

Published in The Republica - A collaboration with the New York Times - on July 23rd 2011
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postheadericon TECH TALK: Lions, Tigers and Mail Oh My!

“Lions, tigers and bears oh my” is a reference to my favorite film of all time, The Wizard of OZ. It’s a film that’s not so popular in Nepal, although with it’s tag line “There’s no place like home,” I am always surprised that so many Nepalese have not yet adopted this classic as their own. But what has this to do with Tech you ask? The Lion has arrived, that’s what.

Apple’s newest incarnation of its famed operating system, OSX, is now for sale on the App Store for just $29.99 USD, and is downloaded and installed just like any other app. Tagged “Lion” (as opposed to the current version called Snow Leopard), this incarnation of large cat is billed as the “The World’s Most Advanced Desktop Operating System Advances Even Further,” and this review answers your question, “Does it really now?”

First, I’ve been using an advanced copy on all of my Macs for several weeks now, and I am glad to report that the upgrade is rock solid, no problems whatsoever with the new version. However, many of your favorite apps running fine right now in Snow Leopard, may need minor updating to run smoothly in Lion. And then there may be an app or two that just won’t run at all. For a list of these problem apps, just go to to check out apps known to work well, somewhat, or not at all.

The major changes this time around, from OSX versions 10.6.8 (last update to Snow Leopard) to 10.7 (initial release of Lion) are listed on the Apple website in great detail, but after using the new features for a few weeks now, I can tell you which changes matter the most...

First, the much-touted Launchpad is a cruel joke. Launchpad is nothing more then a view of your applications resembling the view of apps you get on your iPhone or iPad. A large display of app icons that you can swipe left and right through, and even organize into “folders” by just dragging one icon onto another. This is the common method of organizing apps on most modern smartphones, but seems quite out of place on the desktop of a laptop or full-blown PC. Lauchpad is a novelty, and I suspect won’t make you give up your Dock or Menu Bar anytime soon.

Likewise with the other new and improved interface features, all now accessed via multi-touch gestures, or “swipes” from your trackpad or gestures-enabled input device (Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad, etc.) – here you have more novelty: Mission Control combines the old “Spaces” feature with “Expose” so you can easily create custom desktops on the fly, and these are viewed by just doing a reverse three finger pinch. Ok, that’s great for demos and showing off, but I’ve yet to see a user put these alternative ways of dealing with a desktop into daily practice.

On the app level, Lion does do some useful things. For example, now many apps opened can easily switch into full screen mode, instantly hiding everything but the app itself – in just one click. However, this new feature seems to work best with Apple apps, and does not work with many others, for example, no help there with MS Office apps or with Adobe Creative Suite apps, which has it’s own method of going full screen.

One new feature that I really appreciate is Resume, where apps pick up right where they left off after being closed and then reopened. We are used to this with our newer web browsers, where after rebooting for example, the webpages that you were viewing are still there after the boot - now, even apps like Pages or Word works just like that. However, once again, some apps like Adobe’s do not cooperate.

But the big plus in my book is the improvement to Mail, which has been reworked in a gorgeous and useful way. I don’t know about you, but I live in my mail app, and it’s central to my personal as well as my business life, so improvements here get noticed. No longer is Apple Mail pure funk, as the new Mail has a side-by-side widescreen view of your mailboxes and messages, with bookmarks, favorites, and a threaded message display unrivaled in the industry, to include Gmail and Outlook. This new look is called Conversations, and shows the progression of email threads in a managed chain, with inline graphics and attachments. In short, marvelous.

Well, there are about 242 more new features, like Auto Save and Versions, but I’ll let you explore those on your own. However, in closing, let me say that while Lion does not really roar with innovation and new whiz-bang features, there are several new meows that deserve your attention, and will set the standard in OS operability. So whether you are using some older cat on a Mac, or Windows 7 on a PC, watch for these new features that are bound to be in all future incarnations of operating systems.
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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: The Amazing Nepali Cold Store

There is the mundane that often amazes us, and makes our appreciation for the once ordinary even deeper. Take for example the simple family store that has dominated the marketplace well before we even had a written language used to scrawl out signboards.

Family-owned shops have been feeding their families, friends and neighbours for centuries – through complex distribution systems managed without the luxury of iPads, barcodes, or any of the other electronic accounting tools we see at play in the big-box wheeling and dealings of the Tesco.

Take the Nepali Cold Store - iconic in villages, small cities and in the capital alike, owned by the Shrestas, Chetris, Rias, and Rajaks – these are shops where people you know run them. A cousin-brother perhaps, an old school chum, a friend of your wife’s sister’s husband - you may even be related to the guy who sells you eggs in the morning, no?

Simple these stores, with no flashing and talking motion-sensor activated advertisements hung on the aisles to attract your attention to a “sale” or an in-store coupon dispenser. The Nepali Cold Store has none of those glitzy promos, or even shopping aisles.

Instead, we have a no-nonsense merchant sitting behind a large display dispensing all the daily necessities – along with some amazing niceties: chocolates from London, olives from Spain, table wine from France and fresh cheese in the round. Bandh-forbidding, we have fresh bread and 26 types of biscuits next to 7 flavors of Wai-Wai atop bags of fresh rice next to jugs of golden sunflower oil. Three-in-one coffees from Thailand next to fresh tea leaves from Illam, but we think nothing of that as we take a moment to decide on what flavor of cornflake to get – the banana, honey, or strawberry?

We are shoulder to shoulder with our neighbours who may be delivering the dal, as well as with the school kid who just wants a sweet. We take home our curd in clay pots...

These are not scenes ever shot for an action film or ones that ever make the nightly news, as shopping at the cold store is neither glamorous nor terribly exciting. It is simply commerce in the raw. You provide the rupees and the shopkeeper provides the goods, packed and handed to you personally by the owner/operator of that business – usually with a bit of chitchat before and after the sale.

Mundane, yet incredibly so in this day and age of 7-Elevens with automatic doors that swish open at alarming rates and then chime an odd defining tone, and inside so brightly lit that you feel like a goat in the headlamps not knowing which way to turn for your Pepsi and chips.

At the Nepali Cold Store you are never greeted by an elderly senior smiling and handing you a flyer that shows not only that beans are on sale but 52” LED TVs as well. Let’s call them the “hot” stores, these are the Best Buys and the WalMarts and the CVS’es of the world that require a shopping cart the size of your motorbike to navigate through, even if it’s just a tin of tuna fish you are after, and not a new chain-saw or discounted designer jeans.

The Nepali Cold Store has retained an old world atmosphere as musty as any museum or shed behind your barn. The floors are not waxed nightly, and the staff hardly exceeds one. Yet shopping is effortless as there was no need to find a close-in parking spot requiring coins fed into a meter. You just step outside your gate, and that is as far as you have to go.

My very first shopping experience in a Cold Store was in a small upstate New York village called Fishkill. The year: 1961. The Coca-Cola signboard was hand-edited to read “Joes Groceries: Where the Beer Is Always Cold And The Coffee Hot.” I was sent by my mother to get a jar of baby food for my little sister, and a can of tuna as well as a loaf of bread. I wasn’t sent with any money, as Joe knew my entire family and had known me since I was in Pampers. He simply recorded the transaction (about a dollar) into his ledger he kept inside the case of candy bars, mosquito repellent, and shampoo with conditioners.

Essentially, that first cold store is no different in style and character as the store in which I bought my Cheeseballs and Coke Light today, only the name on this store reads Jamuna Store, Dhobighat. The floors are stone and the light is dim, but there is that same book of credits with hash marks representing the paid-in-fulls under the counter. So another dollar was added there, again under my name and with a chat from someone who knows my entire family - even my dog Krypto.

Joe’s Groceries hasn’t sold a beer or anything else since 1984, as most cold stores in America are history, replaced by cold chains run by megacorps. So perhaps it’s these ordinary things that existed back then (and manage to thrive today) that capture our attention, as they remind us of a time when life was simple, direct, and to the point: 1kg of butter please.

So the next time we find ourselves complaining that the Internet is down and “dawggonit I left my shopping-list app on my smartphone at home,” just think “Nepali Cold Store” and your mind will ease... “See here sir, I’ll have one ½ kg of that cheese.”
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postheadericon TECH TALK: Captured by CAPTCHA

You know these things, called CAPTCHAs, that are found anywhere a website wants to make sure you are a real human being reading the page, and not some computer bot trying to login, create an account, make a post, or in short, gain access to something it shouldn’t.

They are clearly identifiable by being a box full of near indecipherable letters forming words that don’t (yet) exist. CAPTCHAs baffle and irritate me at the same time, and clicking the little speaker to have another computer bot try and pronounce the non-words just makes matters worse.

 But in talking to web developers and doing a bit of research, I’ve found out why you see so many CAPTCHAs on websites these days, and why these mini-word puzzles are getting harder and harder for us mortals to figure out. It seems we can safely blame this inconvenience on spammers, and yes, an army of Asian slaves being paid to solve CAPTCHAs for their unscrupulous employers.

The same folks who email you a plea from an Angolan widow trying to send you 1 million USD (if you only provide your online bank account # and password) are the same folks that send you Viagra adverts, private-part enhancements, and weight-loss links every single day – filling up your Gmail junk box with thousands of worthless emails a month – are also hiring Indians, Sri-Lankans, Bangladeshis and perhaps even Nepalis to help them do their bidding.

According to a Commtouch report, in the first quarter of 2010, there were over 18 billion spam messages sent every day. And I’m sure you feel that the majority of those messages came directly to you. I know I do. This spam contains bogus pharmaceutical adverts, phishing scams and in general, crap that wastes all of our time. From a worldwide point of view, this activity costs the global citizenry over $50 billon USD per year in lost productivity. 50 billion...

But in order for these spammers-scammers to operate, they basically need two things nowadays: fresh email addresses (as old ones get blacklisted quickly) and fresh human eyeballs to decrypt the CAPTCHAs needed to get tens of thousands new email addresses each year.

Here is how it works: a spammer will acquire or write a program that crawls the web looking for free email sources, and then automatically creates an account to be used to send us this trash. But these spambots can’t easily break through the CAPTCHA barriers put in place by most all email providers like Google and Yahoo. But poor Asians willing to crack these CAPTCHAs are being employed to provide solutions for the CAPTCHAs, helping the spammer get what they need - a hoard of fresh email addresses.

The UK Register reports that these spam slaves get paid about $4 USD per day to do the deed, with many of these computer sweatshops being located in India. Working conditions are thought to be tough, but instead of operating dangerous equipment, the workers sit all day behind a cheap LCD monitor. This human bot technique has proved very successful, and is the main reason why no tech giant, to include Microsoft, has been able to stop the flood of spam that threatens to drown the Internet into uselessness within the next few years.

And this already untenable situation is about to get worse. The number of IPv4 addresses is said to be near exhaustion (over 4.3 billion). An IP address is what makes all our activities on the Internet possible, since every mobile phone, computer, or server needs one or more. A new protocol, IPv6, is being rolled out that will keep those addresses coming, but has less spam-protection built into the architecture - for example, blacklisting of spammer-used addresses is not possible in IPv6 as with IPv4.

Which may mean an ever more need for CAPTCHA sweatshops, unless computer scientists find another way to defeat spammers–scammers soon. But news from email providers does not bode well for a reduction of spam (or spam sweatshops) anytime soon: Gmail reported that the percentage of spam-to-real email jumped over 2.6% in just one month this year. And the majority of this spam jump was in support of new porno sites.

Personally, I find the entire situation disturbing, and just another indication that as a global society, we are in a state of decline – despite the great advances in technology in the past 50 years or so. We can send robots to Mars, but can’t stop spambots from deluging our inboxes with advertising for penis enlargements. It’s a sorry and sordid state of Internet affairs.
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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: On Livestock and People

I was leaving my gate the other day, with my working dog Krypto out front on a short lead, and a passing elderly woman smiled at me and pointed at my 40kg Alsatian and commented, “Such a good friend.”

I was immediately struck by this women’s simple observation, as I am often struck by the wisdom of Nepali women. Women here know the value of livestock and working animals, and I’ve tried to train my dog as so many villagers have trained their cows and goats...with a simple whistle or flick of a hand their animals change direction or head for home, or do whatever needs to be done - just like a willing friend would do.

When I got back from my walk, I was back at work editing a film for a local NGO, all about teenage Maoists and where they are today. There was one story in the film about a young man who joined up during the conflict and left his remote Humla home for two years, leaving behind father, mother, six sisters, and two cows.

The cows were about the only asset that the family owned, and the young man tells us in this film that while he was off doing cultural events for the maobadi, the mama cow went out to get a drink in the high country pond, but on the way back, slipped and fell to her death. This left the family milkless, and the baby calf motherless.

I was struck how the entire family cried as the event was recounted, even one baby sister not more then 6 months old bawling away. The loss amounted to “22,000” rupees, which for this family was a fortune - and one impossible to recoup.

Living in the high hills is difficult, where land is more vertical then horizontal and crops struggle to even sprout. There are no health posts or any other services near by, and whenever I see or hear about the lives of those Nepalis living like this, my heart goes out to those folks that struggle so hard to survive – much more so then we have to here in the capital city.

In the film I was working on, it was so obvious that the motherless calf was indeed “a good friend” for the struggling family, and perhaps the families major source of food and income. It peered into the camera from inside it’s stall attached to the hill home, and with large sad eyes told a story of his own as this calf was nuzzled by one of the young sisters, grateful for any banana peels offered.

In just a few frames I was reminded of the important bond between working animal and human, or as some would see it, between animal gods and mere mortals. Without them, many of us could not survive.

My next film project, interestingly enough, also has scenes of working animals, although they are not as comfortable as Lakshmi is in Humla. These are the pack animals of the Everest region, which in this film appear to be Yak-like, and humping gas cylinders up the side of a mountain in a snowstorm. Loaded with at least two cylinders each, plus other portage of every description, these animals are also lifelines for the people living in the most remote areas on earth. Without them there would be very little heat or anything to eat for the brave Nepalese who have no choice but to make due atop a pile of rock 5,000 meters high.

There is one shot in this film where the concerned herd leader, a grizzled old man (but perhaps only 45), inspects his convoy’s footing at a very perilous point along the path. His face says it all: if one falls, so do I.

This intrinsic bond between Nepali and animal is just another reminder for me, sitting back in my Kathmandu office with iMacs and iPhones and fresh organic coffee brewing, that there is a much tougher life outside the valley... where people and animals are struggling to survive on the most meager of resources.

Yet we all seem to want the same: better lives for our children, and long and healthy lives for the animals that work with us in the struggle. This prayer goes out to them all: may all beings be happy.
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I'm retired, and I walk my dog... a lot.

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