Sunday, September 21, 2008

MPEG4 and the TV end-game

About a decade ago, digital TV came out of the research labs into product development sites. It brought forth promises of better picture quality, modern TV applications and improved bandwidth usage. Over the years, it expanded to offer living-room consumption all forms of modern media - from digital cameras, to home PCs to the internet. Where do we go from here ?

Digital TV is all about "Content" - which, in this context, means "audio-visual, or related" content. Content quality, content presentation, content protection, content storage, content consumption, content rating, content revenues, content related sundries (like ads, recommenders, ..) ..all this jargon filled up mind-space. And gave birth to technology and products and revenues.

Just a decade ago, the state-of-the-art TVs were huge and bulky (CRT) behemoths, they managed to receive analog signals and at best, tried to iron out the jerks of transmission systems. They offered little in terms of non audio-visual information (teletext, with it's limited presence, has been an atavistic, if, at times, useful, application).

Today's TVs are slim, hang on a wall like a picture, diligently decode digitized audio-visual information, splash accurate EPGs, show pictures from cameras, playback MP3s from PCs and run youtube from the internet, all this while being fully compliant to a complex set of myriad DRM systems and subtle regional differences in standards.

The last decade has seen a slew of new technologies and features being introduced. From basic "standard definition" to Full HD, from jerky, poor contrast LCDs to smooth, rich LCDs, from power hungry panels to power efficient panels, from blotchy graphics to rich, smooth animations, from low performance wired connectivity to high performance wireless connectivity ...the list of innovations is impressive and long. The big question however is "What next" ?

MPEG4 decode, Flash playback, DRM systems, Internet connectivity will all become mainstream TV features in 2009/2010.

Is the end-game for TV around the corner? Or, is it the end of the big innovation wave?

Let's presume it is the latter ...Yes, there will be innovations in neighbouring spaces (and these will push their way in) - web 2.0 and 3.0 will spread, game consoles will evolve - both performance machines like PS3 and "human" machines like Wii, new display technologies will happen (OLED, e-ink, ..), new broadcast and consumption methods will happen (mobile, broadband)..all these represent a "horizontal expansion" in the Tv space - there are few reasons, if any, to beleive that we will see a "vertical expansion" (or a fundamental shift) of any significant size in the coming 5 years.

Innovation has been the magic mantra preventing commoditisation taking over the industry. As the innovation wave settles down the path of the "long tail", commoditisation will take over. Vertically integrated operations will thrive from economies of scale. This could include, apart from the traditional vertical intergration of set-makers and key-component makers, the intergration between set-makers and service providers. The world of mobile phones has proven that service integration overcomes the need for single handed brand-building while increasing market share and revenues, and decreasing prices with amazing speed and regularity.

So, is it merely the end of the big innovation wave - or the begining of the end-game ?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Hundred days (of no solitude)

Almost a decade ago, I first visited this island-nation. Not knowing what to expect - and precisely for that reason - I ventured out from the glitter of Changi to see the world outside. I was impressed, but not enough, so I took my connection flight out and continued with my life elsewhere. My mental diary got an entry - Singapore - ticked off with the remark - been there, done that.

A few months ago, I stepped out of the glitter of Changi again, still not knowing what to expect. A lot of things had changed in the interim for me personally. But the city itself didn't look phenomenally different. The hustle and bustle, the endless sale seasons, the din of little India, the bi-syllabic chatter, and of course the constant-ness of weather, remain. At work, my previous observations still stay valid - people are always on the run - although the direction is often unknown. In some cases, they are running hard, but on a treadmill. After a hundred days here, I'm convinced that Singapore is not merely a noun - there is a verb lurking in there, trying hard to make it's presence known. Now is that good or bad, I dont know. The "character" of a city (and the people it holds) is probably as much noun as verb. Sometimes I wonder if this city will ever stop to look at the lillies, or will simply race into whatever, wherever...

Is it only the city ? Am I not on the run too ? And what kind of a run is it ? Running to, or running away, and why? No, I'm not really running. There is probably a gypsy in me - hesitant to grow roots, un-reluctant to pack and move. Also, surely I am more noun than verb(Isn't that the reason why I find it a bit of a challenge to come to terms with this place ?). Maybe it is wanderlust...but I wonder if that is but the topping and the filling is boredom - or is it the other way? Boredom is probably not the right word - reasoning it out will take a number of words - large enough to merit a blog by itself...Anyway, packing, moving, unpacking, settling down have gone smooth. Singapore is the melting pot of asia, and we melt-in. For now.

tat twam asi

Friday, June 13, 2008

The small of God things

If ever one needs a mental punching bag, one of the most tempting options is the debate on faith vs. atheism. In this article, Jug Suriya tries his punches on this bag, from both sides, and ends up a bit bruised. Triggered by some apparent research on the relation between of belief (or lack of it) and intelligence, longevity etc..Jug tries landing various punches on the believers and the non-believers, mostly the non-believers.

Fact is belief is not rational and atheism, going by it's own standard practices, is not complete, consistent and cannot answer all the questions. And so, both of them are sitting ducks - for quacks on both sides to have a go at, and cry foul when they fail.

Often, it is cool strategy to not take sides, and let the battles go on, and when the end is apparent, sing songs about the emerging victor while being gracious towards the near vanquished. However, on the divine debate, the end is no where near. (Doomsday proponents, irrespective of which side of the divine debate they might be, will need to contend that the doomsday, if it ever happened, is likely the end of the earth - or something larger - but not necessarily the end of the divine debate. An idea can exist in nothingness.)

Given this fact that the divine debate is not likely to end sometime soon, sitting on the fence (like Jug) is likely to give you a sore bottom rather than strategic advantage. So, I'd take a side - the side of rationality, the side of intelligence, as against that of "intelligent design".

The believers often call into question the theory of evolution, citing the "million monkeys on a million keyboards, producing the works of Shakespeare" etc to cite that the universe is a carefully constructed entity, following principles that we often fail to understand, and is driven (as is every creature, living or not, within the universe) to a destiny as ordained by the omni-potent intelligent designer.

Methinks this is a lot of gibberish. Often one hears that "Belief begins where science ends" - fact is this statement implies the following:

a) Science has certain ends - but this is a temporal phenomenon. These limits of science are constantly pushed by mankind and never before have the limits been pushed as far away as they have been in the last 50 years. As Alvin Toffler, in a completely different context explains, 99% of all that we know has been discovered/invented in the last century. Given a few more centuries, who knows where the new limits of science will be?

b) Often, modern limits of science is far beyond the comprehension of most commoners. 99% of university graduates do not understand what a positron is. Nor do they understand what exactly is DNA. But the common man believes in the existence of DNA because he is aware of the applications related to it. Note that the common man does not need to understand DNA to believe in its existence. Applications drive belief. For pieces of science that have no immediate application value to the common man, they don't stand a chance of acceptance. This simply means that belief begins where demonstrated science ends. As time progresses, belief will be pushed farther away....

c) Looking at the million monkeys theory: For people who claim that the earth is not a result of order emerging from chaos, may I ask why is there no order - "earth-like" or otherwise on the moon or the mars? Modern biology has progressed far beyond Darwinism and succeeds in explaining (for the patient, intelligent, hard-working student) the theory of emergence - of emergent phenomenon - of how order emerges from chaos in case after case...There are scientists who, for various reasons, would like to take the route of mathematical induction (= supreme global generalisation of a concept based on a couple of local observations) and define grand theories of the universe. This is probably far-fetched for even a few hardcore scientists to accept. And the common-man, limited by lack of deep understanding, is confused by the disagreements between the knowledgeable. That apart, the theory of emergence is a honest theory, which can only grow in the years to come and will push the envelope of reason into the far recess of faith.

A nice way to end this is with an attempt to translate a part of a DVG kagga:
Devearembudenu kaggattaleya gaviye?
Naavarilaaradara ottu hesare?
---> transates to
Is God a dark, black cave?
Is it the name we give to all that we dont know?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Fuelling debate

The alchemists are giving the black gold a makeover- turning it to platinum or uranium or some such numbingly expensive substance. And for this substance-addicted societies in the west and the emerging ones of the east, the northward migration of the fuel prices is a subject of intense concern.

Swaminathan Aiyar (SA) writes in the STOI (admittedly one of my fav hunting grounds) that, amongst others, India is subsidizing the OPEC. Let's start with this point. India refuses to have an open market for fuel - for fear of uncontrolled prices and consequent impact on election results. Indian politicians prefer to take a seemingly virtuous position by subsidizing fuel in the interest of the weaker sections of the society. SA argues - with no underpinning - that the beneficiaries of the subsidy are indeed the rich - and hence there is no virtue in the subsidy. This is clearly is weak argument - and not merely for lack of underpinning. Fuel prices have a direct impact on the entire economy. On the face of it, a person using 100 liters of petrol a month benefits more (from the subsidy) than a person using 5. But look at the holistic picture- the entire country relies on goods and services which include a factor of fuel prices in their costs. Poorer people have little headroom in their monthly balance sheets. The richer you are, the more maneuverability you have with respect to your expenses.
SA further argues that if India stopped subsidizing fuel, then like with other goods, the law of demand and supply with catchup and soon there will be lesser demand. This claim requires serious underpinning. With other commodities, say onions, if the prices soar high, the market can correct itself - due to decreasing demand, but more so, due to improved yields, better rain cycles etc etc. In other words, the production of onions can be controlled by human intervention assuming cooperation of the divine. Note also that we can survive without onions. Also, onions donot impact a number of other commodities we use in our lives. Fuel is clearly a different type of commodity - one that fails to fit in the oversimplified laws of economics that SA tries to apply to commodities in general. Lets examine why.
a) We are no where close to finding an alternative to fossil fuels. All talk of green fuels, sustainability etc is just that - No more than 5% of human energy requirements are met by these green options. [The rest are met by a combination of fossil and nuclear sources]. So, human intervention in finding a technical alternative has not yet yielded results. Regarding human intervention for discovering new oil fields, this seems to be happening, but due to a combination of reasons (including the ones that follow), there is no let down of prices. The simple rationale is that fossil fuels are limited resources, and we will run out some time. The only discussion is when.
b) Fuel is an infrastructure commodity. Increase in fuel prices imply higher infrastructure costs, and this affects the entire economy - unlike increase in prices of standalone commodities.
The laws of supply and demand would still apply to fuel, but then one needs to make provisions for a number of special factors in the case of fuel - especially the TINA factor.

So, is there a solution to the fuel problem? A number of approaches are possible, but lacking a crystal ball, there can be no guarantees of success. But, there are a number of hurdles and the biggest is the acceptance of the problem - or the size of it. This should be the subject for another blog, unless I can relegate it to the impossibly small margin :-).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Engineering terror

On Shashi Tharoor's article in ToI dated March 30, 2008

ST refers to a research by Oxford academicians Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog that points to a link between engineers and terrorists, implying that engineers are more susceptible (than people of other educational background) to the influence of radicalism.

IMHO, this is being naive. That engineers are part of recent terrorist outfits is beyond doubt. How else could it be? Terrorism needs exacting engineering acumen. And it has the wherewithal to get it. But should one therefore conclude that it is engineering education (or attitudes) that pushes people over the thin line between construction and destruction?

Fact is, it takes engineers to construct or destruct. And therefore, engineers become sitting ducks for the likes of Gambetta and Hertog. Just how many farmers or lawyers or bakers or dentists or accountants or historians or archeologists does Al Qaida employ? Zilch. And therefore, all these other professions are so noble. And Brutus is an honorable man.

The researchers seem to imply the following: Engineers are the ever-vulnerable species, waiting to be hooked willingly into a terrorist network that allows them all the engineering freedom they would ever need. Terrorism throws up the most challenging engineering problems which no self-respecting engineer would turn his back on. Worse, an engineering turned terrorist starts a viral marketing session infecting other (innocent) fellow engineers with the the lethal doze of terrorism and then it continues all over again.

The following questions beg for answers:
a) The research seems to ignore government sponsored wars. One man's war is another's terrorism. The governments, by far, employ far more engineers than do terror outfits. If engineers are seen as vulnerable to the advances of radicalism, what should one conclude from the huge number of engineers that work in defense departments of governments the world over? Look beyond the mere 25 years of terrorism history and you will see an engineer behind every man-made catastrophe - the atom bomb, the holocaust gas chambers..all the way back to the gun powder. Engineers of all shades have not been deciding for what and how their skill is employed. They offer their services to a master who decides to bomb a city or crash the twin towers. In all cases, the motivations behind the masters decisions can always be questioned. Academicians are expected to be unbiased and see the simple truth in this argument.

b) ST argues that engineering creates a one-sided view of the world, where there can be no two solutions to a problem. Shashi, you couldn't be further away from truth. Engineering never implies a single solution to a problem. Engineering is all about thinking out of the box and offering several solutions(Management is about evaluating these solutions and choosing from them). Lets take a simple example - traffic problem in Indian cities. Engineers would come up with 4 different solutions and let someone else decide. Studying humanities is not the only way to understand or appreciate multiple perspectives. Humanities could well be Shashi's favorite way. But there are several others, and probably better ones too.

c) ST states that ignorance and lack of imagination cause violence. And Shashi is naive. The war-on-terror is not due to lack of imagination or ignorance. On the contrary, there is clear agenda (ex-diplomats will hate to admit) and a clearer objective behind the war. No, that does not include the removal of Saddam or Bin Laden for their inhuman acts. The real reason for the war is in the bottom lines of the engineering firms behind the war. Unless you are crippled by ignorance or lack imagination (most likely due to an extended course in humanities while being completely unaware of the commerce departments), you will recognise this simple truth. Money talks. Others, who merely talk, dont matter.

ST concludes with a recommendation for making humanities a compulsory part of engineering education. Good idea. As an engineering student, I missed it. Yes, I did more than compensate for it by spending as much (if not more) time on reading literature as engineering texts. However, one needs to understand that the world of engineering is growing at a rapid rate and professors can not keep pace with the change. Adding humanities to the curriculum cannot be at the cost of engineering education, especially because engineering is already a great way to understand multiple perspectives and broaden ones horizon. A study in humanities, I must admit, will hardly bring any further benefit.