29 December 2009

Status quo and the future of privacy


Most of us have no idea how much others can find about us, our personal lives, hobbies, interest or profession. The week is an introspective view of certain technologies that have made it possible to find our electronic foot prints in the modern times. Protecting one’s anonymity is a game that one can never win completely once and for all.

Even to those skeptics who claim that they have taken all possible measures to protect their privacy by not indulging in social networking online and limiting their communications to close circle of family and friends, it might be a rude shock to know how simple it is easy to track them electronically.

Mobile tracking

Consider the common mobile phone, which is an electronic device just meant to make and receive calls. Let us not even introduce the mini-computer like abilities that modern phones are capable of at this point. It is almost impossible to purchase a new mobile connection without revealing other personal identity information connected to their real life.

Once these details are provided to the mobile-service provider, it is possible to track every conversation and all exchange of calls with contacts. Several national and political scandals have come to limelight just because of this traceability of telephone calls.

Card-based footprints

Those who have the habit of swiping cards at hotels and shopping malls, are little aware that their shopping habits and preferred brands and services are traceable. Many retailers retain this information in a database and comb this often to prepare your profile and later target promotions and specific marketing communications customised for you.

Even the fast food center near your house knows your exact location and your favourite item. Some companies have gone to the extent of gathering geo-positioning data from your mobile phone calls and precisely tell us where you are ordering from. Data brokers with weak systems have been targeted by hackers and in the end result it is the customer’s who pay the price for privacy violations.

Camera conscious

Consider choosing a personal visit to a shopping mall or a restaurant to avoid being tracked electronically. The myriads of globes handing on the roof could be live cameras recording your moves, and storing them is large data drives. At any point these videos could be played back, zooming close at your face enough to recognise that it is the real you.

If masking our telephone calls is difficult then covering up your online activity is almost impossible. All Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to maintain records about their users and dish them out completely when requirement by law-enforcement agencies.

In social media sites like the facebook and twitter, it’s certainly nice to share information and photographs and even mobile contacts. But all these platforms are public platforms and the chances that they could be technically compromised makes your data there sensitive.

Archived anonymous

Those tech geeks who pride themselves in the use of anonymiser software to erase their online trails have little to celebrate. Technically anonymisers must be tracking and archiving your website visits. For law enforcement purposes they may be forced to reveal these data. It could also be possible that decoy anonymisers are planted by government agencies to trap people who use these and frame cases with valid proof. It’s only possible that your own ISP may not have to online voyages, but this is electronically archived in some server out there.

Profiling through data

As citizens, immigrants or even as visitors, the extent of surveillance we undergo is quite sizeable. The data so far collected about is resides as digital data somewhere. It is up to technologies such as search engines, semantic webs, geo-positioning systems and data-mining software to make meaningful relations between these disparate data about you and me from various sources and eventually create a complete profile about us that we are even conscious of.

Imagine how much Google knows about you, from the way you search, the emails you exchange, the documents you place in their clouds, the blogs you maintain with blogger, your customised news profile, the videos you watch on youtube and the places you have traversed on Google maps. Haven’t we told Google enough about us, that scares us about their intrusion into our privacy circles if ever required?

Change is inevitable

Let us consider adoption of technology as a generation of change and find ways to adapt our lives with these interventions. Privacy is now more of a relative matter where the naïve and innocent are victimised without remedy for protection. We are aware of people whose email accounts have been hacked in causing embarrassment and a permanent haunt for all the resulting exposure of mails and contacts.

It a natural phenomena that the more we network and communicate, either with or without technology, we tend to share our personal details of varying degree. Rethinking privacy, it is now for us draw a new line, one beyond which, privacy violation affects us personally, emotionally or economically.

In a digital lifestyle, the electronic trail we leave behind certainly a prime factor to be considered in this direction. Perhaps in the era where identification and authorisation happen through biometric more naturally and automatically (for example holding a door handle can authenticate and authorise you for entry) then there will be no need to panic about privacy.

This article is meant to be more of thought provoking than to chastise privacy protection measures through products or policies, emphasising on our readiness to taken actions. Your view points are welcome through comments.

22 December 2009

Making of the Avatar – Technology milestones


The recently released movie ‘Avatar’ has left its viewers spell-bound by the visualization and rendering of a remote world populated by natives who live in harmony with the bio-luminescent natural world around them. Avatar is a major technological milestone in the marvel of film-making technology.

Is there a reason why the ‘Avatar’ is touted as the greatest Sci-Fi films of all time in 3D, and there also must exist an understanding of the estimated production budget of 237million $ in making it. Most viewers have exclaimed at Pandora’s landscape and its diverse life-forms both plants and animals species. The technological mix of real actors and computer-generated images has been brilliantly executed that we hardly seem to notice a difference.

Through Digital Oman, let us explore the sophistication in film making that has made it possible to present the ‘Avatar, leaving us in complete obscurity of what is real versus what is generated and how it has been achieved.

Characterizations
The humans colonize the virgin land of Pandora, ironically in the search of a rare material called the ‘Unobtainium’. Here they wage a war against the local inhabitants called the Na’vi, who have exceptional sensory skills in understanding the ecological balance of their extraordinary world and its animal and plant species.

Through a genetic program that combines the DNA of the humanoids and that of the Na’vi, hybrid humanoids called the ‘Avatar’ are reared to penetrate into the Na’vi community and learn their secrets. The Na’vi and the Avatar are computer generated 3dimensional characters, 3meters tall with bio-luminescent blue skin and incredible strength and acumen.

CGI characters
Both the Na’vi and the Avatars are computer-generated imagery (CGI) that is digitally manipulated by originals artists who portray their characters in a studio environment. In addition 3D computer graphics software are used to simulate the imaginary landscapes of the land of Pandora.

The Na’vi and the Avatars characters created with CGI were seamlessly integrated, along with real actors in studio settings into live action scenes. The primitive version of this setting was achieved through stop-motion animation where character-models were moved frame-by-frame and individually photographed to show the illusion of continuous motion.

Digital 3D technology
While hitherto cameras did exist to make 3-D films, the making of the Avatar has resulted in the invention of an agile 3-D camera system for 3 dimensional cinematography. James Cameron the director of the ‘Avatar’ used his own Reality Camera System that employs two high-definition cameras in a single camera body to create depth perception in 3-D.

This camera rig is significantly lighter and the two camera lenses can dynamically converge on a focal point with the help of a computer, which is crucial for sweeping camera moves and action sequences.

While the movie’s 2-D version can be seen even in an ordinary theatre the 3D version requires special 3D projection facilities and the audience are also required to wear polarized glasses for viewing in 3D. Those who wish to understand the complete process of making a3-D films from camera to projection and viewing can read more about it at http://tinyurl.com/yly4jgk.

3-D Animation
The models of the Avatar and the Na’vi are sculpted in varying levels of details just like a puppet with several movable joints and parts. These joints or movable part may even be finer facial muscles that cause a smile or smirk and not just bendable hands and legs.

Now these joints or movable parts can be managed through various controllers manually or those driven by computer software that feeds in motion inputs. Now 3D animation combines computer generated images along with these models and programmed movement to create live action.

For example the talking lion of the movie ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ had over 740 controllers just for facial expressions. Similarly the 2005 version of the King Kong Gorilla owed its realistic human-like expressions, to these inputs taken from the real expressions of the actor Andy Serkis.
Well if 3D is going to be the future of movies, now the question comes as to how to generate these animation inputs that have to be very realistic. The answer lies in the ‘performance capture’ technology.

Performance capture
The CGI characters need to act and behave like real actors and this has been made possible by the ‘performance capture’ technology. Through this technique, inputs taken from real human actions of ‘Sam Worthington’ and ‘Zoe Saldanha’ in the studio settings are fed as input for computer animations of ‘Jake Sully’ and ‘Neytiri’ respectively.

Motion capture is a technique by which live actions of real actors are recorded to be the inputs that control and manipulate a digital 3D character model. When it goes beyond simple hand, legs, head and body movements to capture subtle facial expressions and finger gestures, then this is called as total performance capture.

Imagine Sam’s fearful expression being shown on his avatar, when he encounters Pandora’s wild life and Zoe’s gentle touch of her pet – ikran the Banshee, captured as Gigabytes of data per second of action through their skull caps and leotards covered in sensors.

Sam and Zoe work in an empty studio amidst grids so that their performance could be recorded by sensor-based digital capture systems. Later they are replayed on to the models of Jake and Neytiri. Read more from the director’s interview with the BusinessWeek at http://tinyurl.com/ypfh82.

Pandora the mythical Utopia
Pandora is a distant moon civilized by the Na’vi amid its exotic luminescent living forms. Knowing very well that 3ft and hanging mountains can’t be real, it is impossible to dissect what could be real from sets and what is animated in the entire movie. The studio shoots are done in a 16K Sq.ft film set with a green paint on its inside walls.

While most actions takes place in this set-up Pandora, the action scenes are shot amidst a computer-generated lush jungle environment in New Zealand with real actors, robotic animals and plant species. James Cameron’s stereoscopic cameras that each use a pair of lenses built to mimic human eyes capture images with a sense of depth. The mix happens later in digital studios where shoots are merged and appropriate sound effects are added.

Key message
Despite the splendid visuals and simple screen-play, James Cameron - the writer-director-producer of Avatar has a key message in general: ‘Pandora as a world that harbors treasures and resources almost beyond price and just as the original Pandora’s Box wrought devastation on those who would use it for their own gain, so too this world may destroy not just the Na’vi’s home, but ours as well’.

14 December 2009

Technology changes word meanings

Who said technology is just for geeks? For all the rest of us who love having some fun, there is so much of humour in technical jargon that sometimes crosses the thin-line to be even called weird. This week under Digital Oman, lets get light-hearted with the mood of the good weather and have fun knowing some technical jargon that we have confronted and mastered.

The fundamental favourite potato chips have been adapted into technology terminology for the basic unit of processing element in computers. Compressed silicone cylinders are slices it to thin wafers, and etched with intricate circuitry to work as the fundamental technical component that processes all inputs fed into computers. A set of such ‘chips’ are combined to form the elaborate integrated circuit-board or the IC, hence the name IC Chip. You can now ‘boot’ (kick) not just people if warranted but also computers, meaning you power it on and start loading the operating system software.

There are several terms that have been used casually, encoded by the software sector which has stayed on to mean entirely different things in the context of technology. For example a ‘Window’ was something that gives us a glimpse of the outer world from inside your office or home. But today it signifies the technology industry’s leading product developed by the Microsoft. Windows consists of a desktop client and server versions of software which bundle several utility and productivity tools as a suite.

The age old A is for ‘Apple’ - the fruit, and now it’s for Apple - a company that has made several products including laptops, desktop computers and the adorable iPhones under this single famous name with elegance and style which come at a special price. A ‘cell’ as a biological unit of living organism is now the ‘box’ where a column and a row intersect, in a spreadsheet. Again ‘memory’ is made up of chips that temporarily hold data or instructions in a computer.

A ‘Zombie’ which sounds almost like an African tribe is technically speaking, a computer that has been taken over by hacker and using special software he/she can remotely use the computer even for malicious purposes. The infecting software creates a ‘back-door’ (not the door at the back of a building) for the hacker who then injects malicious software through this open door, right into a zombie computer. Currently millions of home / office computers have been turned into zombies by powerful hackers. Famous websites like the Yahoo and the Amazon were once taken down by data or instruction floods sent from such a network of zombie computers.

Even the youngest child we come across, would recognise the ‘Mickey’ as the mouse is Disney’s cartoon series and he is the funniest mouse on earth. Most of us who know that a ‘mouse’ could also be the small input device we work with to operate our computer, wouldn’t know the fact that a unit of our mouse movement in called a Mickey.

Honey pot is something we normally dig-in to add a dash of honey to our favourite breakfast cereals. But in the weird world of technology a ‘honeypot’ is a decoy computer, (with seemingly important files) in a network that is connected to the Internet to allure hackers. Such honeypots play an important role in enhancing the security within a computer network, by giving a better understanding of how malware and hackers leech on to potentially useful files by gaining access through unlawful means.

A blob in the common world meant a giant drop of any odd liquid or gooey flesh, but in the world of technology it has a completely different meaning. A ‘blob’ is a binary large object which is a sizeable chunk of binary data collected and stored as a single entity in a database management system.

A mash-up is a food delicacy prepared with boiled potatoes, butter and cream. But in the world of software applications, a mash-up is a new breed of web-based applications that combines two entirely different web-services to create a new, potentially more useful service for users. For example, a ‘mash-up’ of Google maps and weather data can give a realistic image forecast of current weather of a given location. To make it more useful, a geo-sensitive mobile devices that can connect to the Internet can be set with the ‘push’ technology (Yes ‘push’ as in push data) to receive live weather alerts.

Anyone heard of the ‘id10t’ error? Few of us in the technology world know that this is a code name for errors caused by an in-experienced user (or simply ‘idiot’) who doesn’t know that he is actually the cause of the error. Such terms are normally coined at technical support environments which later spread to wider use.

Squat is simply a very good exercise prescribed to strengthen one’s thigh and calf muscles. But in the cyber world a ‘Cyber-Squat’ is a legal offense where by a user register a website name of a famous person or an organisation first and then negotiates a price for giving it away to the rightful person.

The innocent looking abbreviation ‘SLP’ normally used in SMS or chat messages to indicate ‘sleep’, morphs in the world of technology into a complex communication protocol called the ‘Service Location Protocol’.

A packet is what we know to cover products and make it more attractive and safe enough to be transported. But in technical terms any data traffic in a network is split into uniform sized chunks with its own header and trailers labels and each of these chunks is termed a ‘packet’. Even the Internet routes a set of such packets randomly to its destination where they are correctly assembled and decoded into a coherent message.

A sparc may sound like a unit of fire, but it is indeed the name of a processor series that was developed by the SUN Microsystems, based on a ‘Scalable Processor Architecture’ model. A ‘web’ is not only that which is spun by spiders but it is also the mesh of computers that span the globe, exchanging information and enabling communications. The adventure of riding a wave, in the Internet parlance means ‘surf’ or browse the Internet.

A ‘bridge’ is built normally over a water-body to enable traffic across and interestingly in network terminology, a bridge is device which connects multiple network segments at the innermost data layers. ‘Overflow’ doesn’t happen only in the case of liquids but it can also happen when there is no longer enough memory to hold the data that is sent in.

A’ tag’ that normally labels instructions or the price of items has also entered the world to technology. It is now used by web-developers to created itemised contents for the web-pages with relevant key-words that help search engines like Google or Bing to bring out the relevant pages when these key-words are searched for.

Triggers’ are not just found in guns but they are also liberally found in software modules that fire off or activate other pieces of code when certain programmed condition occur. Even when code errors occur programmed triggers spark off generating error codes.

One would normally expect a handle, to mean the ones encountered in a vessel of a door or a piece of equipment. In technical jargon, a ‘handle’ is a screen name used in online chat rooms or other social media so as to protect one’s identity and yet give a unique name. Usually hackers are known to have creative handles such as ‘darkWater’, ‘LockerGnome’, ‘rootSucker’, etc.

RAM and DOS which could be normally be names of people in a particular community, double up as ‘Random Access Memory’ and ‘Disk Operating System’ in the digital realms. Biological virus cause illness to living beings, while rogue software ‘virus’ infect and take down even powerful computers that are not adequately protected. Similarly a ‘bug’ is an insect in the real world while it means an error in software programming parlance or a technical flaw in a hardware solution.

Twitter’ – a sound that birds make is now a social networking website and a conference among this community of members is called a ‘chirp’ - another bird call. The scary ‘trolls’ online are infamous online chat users who introduce disturbing links, mimic other users’ posts and profiles even engage on verbal wars with others online members.

As time moves on we come across new terms and old words with new meanings and learn to adapt to their new meaning by repeated use. It only takes a good weather day to sit back relaxed and think retrospectively as to how these common words once meant something so simple in our lives, have been very much complicated by technology. Until we meet again, boot your windows, run your mouse and keep surfing the web.

25 November 2009

Google Wave Primer 101

This week let us try to understand Google Wave – a new collaborative tool from Google Inc., that has opened door for developers to extend its capabilities encouraging the open-source community. The wave is collaborative communication platform that can be used by several users involved in a single project or creating a document in real-time. Users, who have an invite, must find other users in your network who are also on wave and include them into your wave contacts list.

Google wave is a powerful conversational tool, once you have your community of friends on it and there is a common task to be accomplished interactively. It is possible to combine emails, wikis, web chat, and project management into one platform to serve a community of users who interact using rich media.
According to Google, ‘GoogleWave is: … an online tool for real-time communication and collaboration. A wave can be both a conversation and a document where people can discuss and work together using richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.’

Wave users
Google wave is a community tool and hence for it to be a live experience you need a bunch of wave users who connect with you. Wave users who can currently wave belong to four different categories: Those who signed up very early via a request form, those with a developer preview of wave, Google Apps paid users and others who were invited by someone already using Wave.
In its beta test, GoogleWave was released only to selected developers. Subsequently a preview release from Google was initially offered to 100,000 users. Only those invited directly by Google have the option to recommend invite other users of their choice to join the wave. The GoogleWave code is open source, to foster innovation and adoption amongst developers and those who have developer’s access to wave can read the design guidelines and developer’s guide at http://code.google.com/apis/wave/ and request their access to sandbox.


Joining the Wave
Login to your wave link and by default your Google account identity will also be your identity at the googlewave.com. Wave needs installation of Chrome web browser or the Chrome browser plug-in to support other web browsers. After launching the Wave, start experimenting with the ‘Contacts’ panel, find your googlewave friends and add them to your contacts. For instance search and include me with my google wave id mentioned at the end of this article.

In the ‘Inbox’ panel, there are a set of waves that you are invited to by default. The first recommended wave is the one about your own profile. Click on it to enter edit mode, update details and your profile picture so this is what your friends see when they include you into their contact list. Another wave by Dr. Wave includes embedded video to give a preview of the basic features of wave and orients new users to various parts of the user interface.

Just by clicking on a ‘New Wave’ you create your first wave. Then add any one user from your contact into your new wave by clicking on the ‘+’ sign. If that user is live online then a ‘green dot’ appears on their profile. You then click on the + sign to invite your GoogleWave contacts to join your wave.

User Interface
A wave is like a thread of conversations including all embedded elements, users and files. Here are some common terms to familiarise with the Wave interface. The main screen is made of four panels: Navigation, Inbox, Contacts and Wave. Each of these can be reduced and docked right on top are by clicking on the ‘Minimise’ button on the panel box.

Navigation panel includes items such as the inbox, sent items, settings, trash, search and folder options. The ‘inbox panel’ shows all waves you are part of including the one you create or the ones you are invited to. If you do not wish to be interrupted by certain waves, and instead want to concentrate on few, then you can ‘Mute’ the other waves. The ‘contacts panel’ can be used to search for known googlewave contacts, so you could add them to your list. The ‘Wave panel’ shows components of the currently selected wave and also has other control button to play the current wave (just as if replay option) or even start a new wave.

Jargon buster
Like every new technology, Google wave has a set of jargon that one must understand to begin with. The smallest unit of element in a wave conversation is called a ‘Blip’. It’s like a single line of a chat conversation or a single post in the facebook or twitter. Any user invited into a wave can post a blip. They can also respond to blips of other users with other blips. A group of such blips about a single issue within a topic is called a ‘wavelet’. A group of wavelets then make a single ‘wave’. Each blip can include text, links, calendar, image, file, video, map or poll. Each wave or wavelet or blip can be played, copied, edited or even deleted. Look out for control buttons that appear, once you select a particular ‘blip’.

Blips can also be considered as part of a document if the wave is used for developing one, in a collaborative manner. So the members now become co-authors and so can edit their blip content and even keep some of their blips unpublished (until ready). Because all conversations are shared, Wave could also be considered as a type of Wiki because anyone within the team can add and edit information to a conversation.

Blips can be tagged with keywords which will work like labels or meta-tags. One can search through waves by these keywords, activity, history, contacts, and also use wild card characters in search just as in Google search commands. Each blip can also have an extension: which works like an application within the wave environment. They can play within wave and help you to enrich your interactivity.

There are two types of extensions: Gadgets and Robots. Robots are automated interactive elements which can also bring in information from other sources outside Google platforms. Gadgets are like applications built on Google platform: for example a GoogleMap is an extension allowing location maps to be embedded into blips. What makes wave much more exciting is that the entire Wave or its sections could be embedded on any website or blog as a plug-in.

Using wave for events
Consider using a wave to organise a MeetUp party treating it as a unified thread on communication for this purpose. One user initiates a wave and invites user audience into the wave to discuss the plans. There can be wavelets for menu, venue, volunteers, attendees, sponsors, etc. Members can comment on any of the discussions in the wave and all users can view these replies and respond with suggestion in real-time. They could post blips with several elements including polls, maps, documents, links, video, etc to make relevant updates.

The menu wavelet has a set is items that are put together by a set user blips. As for the venue, there could be a Google map embedded into a blip showing the exact location. Attendees’ wavelet may consist of a poll, where people signup and all others can see the status instantly. Each member invited into the wave can comment or rewrite any blip and also post their blip.
For example the exact location or route to a meeting point and certain decisions based on opinion of the members can be collected in a transparent manner using the poll. As the wave works in real-time, and live transmits as users type, participants on a wave can have faster conversations, see edits and interact with extensions in real-time.

In case of editing a document wave, a group of people can communicate and collaborate on a single communication platform - adding, editing and deleting text, images and video simultaneously making it live, shared-document. Interestingly all changes are recorded and they can be relayed by any team member at any time. This playback lets anyone rewind the wave to see who said what and when and how the entire wave worked towards the final version.

Potential for greater impact
Although the potentials for utilizing this platform for productivity are limitless, the success of its adoption will be at its best when businesses create potential applications of this on their platform and tailor it for their internal communications.

The wave is just in its nascent stages and by opening doors for developers to create applications through API interfaces, this product will eventually mature to a comprehensive application. Just like any other interactive networking technology, the power of the wave can only be felt when a large part of the community uses the product. What Google wave users want out of this tool is stability, speed and a friendly user interface. For those who want to experience wave with me, include me as your contact (Sendsangita@googlewave.com) and then we can wave together.

17 November 2009

Muscat MeetUp - 2nd Edition


Date: 18th November 2009 (Wednesday)
Place: Copper Chimney Restaurent behind the Central Bank of Oman, Opp Ominvest Building
Time: 8pm onwards
Occasion: Oman National Day - Surprise Quiz Session!
Fee: 3.5 OMR per head
TwitterTag: #MuscatMeetUp
Location MAP Menu
Attendees
alucard187, Amioh, arun4, baderhinai, blue_chi , bluice4, conceptoo, justnimit, lasiaf, lovesh_1, maithams, Makorani, Muawiyah1983, muscati, padmajamenon, raideraid, rekhabaala, sangitasridhar, ShruthiBalan, Shweman, varun_kv, otheroman, deepsweets, almadanianlas, asunaina, GazelleR, otheroman (+1), fatmanoor, NasserALOmairi , julieraj123, AsiaNasib

Special thanks
Finance & Registration - Faisal & Bader & Maithams
Quiz - Blu_chi, Varun and Sangeetha

Picures
PadmajaMenon's pictures
Maithams's pictures

11 October 2009

Roundup – 1st MuscatTweetMeet

To begin with, despite the name Twestival this gathering was a meetUp of several twitter users of Oman held for the very first time in this magnitude.

In its true spirit #muscattwestival had no VIP, no stage, no speeches, no marketing but just loads of fun. All twitter-tweets regarding this event appear under hash tags #muscattwestival.

In an optimistic note, the turn out and the enthusiasm of OmanTweeters for this meetUp was so high that Muscat could organise a twestival by 2010 coinciding with the global event for a charitable cause.

Invites
#muscattwestival was just a casual gathering nevertheless still me, muscati and kishorcariappa took the lead to coordinate. An online invite was posted at Twtvite to maintain a transparent score-board of attendees: anyone can see who confirmed and who would try to make it for the gathering. The venue at Barista café - Al Masa Mall was exclusively reserved for the event from 7pm-8pm on the 8th of October 2009.

The date, place and time were decided by all tweeps in a democratic manner through tweets and responses. Daily updates of confirmations were posted in Digital Oman blog and tweets from me. shafeekmk blogged about #muscattwestival encouraging his readers to attend but just couldn’t make it to the event.

In addition blue_chi posted about the event in his

blog. shweman managed to enjoy the second half of the meetUp and was glad she could make it. marypaulose and bluice4 caught up with commitments in the last minute and sent their regrets for not attending. omanair marked social media history in Oman by becoming the 1st corporate twitter user to attend the #muscattwestival.

Branding
Just as muscati and kishorcariappa suggested Initially #muscattwestival started as a casual meet but due to its significance as the first kick-off in Oman and the number of confirmed attendees, sort of a logo was created by my son 45vvA7h. The simple design included a twitter bird image with a blue speech-bubble saying Tweet Meet Oman in white letters. I got this image screen-printed as a simple banner and also arranged for stickers to be pasted onto raffle gifts that pooled in the last minute.

Event agenda
The only agenda of #muscattwestival was to have no-agenda. Yes, it was meant to be a casual meetUp over coffee for socialising with fellow-tweeps and networking. However, it was necessary to know who had attended the meetUp and put a face to the tweep names. Raffle took 1/3rd of the scheduled time of 2hrs as several contributions came in the last minute. Tweeps took turn choosing the winners and over 20 gifts including gift vouchers, books, flash memories etc were distributed. But from 7pm to 8pm the tweeps had free time to network exclusively.

Sponsors
Officially no upfront fee was collected but in order to motivate tweeps to attend I came up with the idea of gift bags for all participants. eOman (where I work) instantly gave away 25 eOman gift hampers containing T-shirt, cap, car shade, mug and a pen in support of this event. They also donated flash memories which went for the raffle box. Later rekhabaala courteously added exclusive cook books published by UMS – Al M’ara for all tweeps.

As a last minute surprise omanair attended the #muscattwestival along with cartons of T-shirts, caps and key chains. The goodies-bag was open for any tweep’s contributions, say in the form of their corporate gifts.

muscati and kishorcariappa donated gift coupons from borders and centre point respectively. TI3GIB all the way from UK, gave away his copy of ‘Lost Symbol’ by Dan Brown through Makorani. Tweeps 7shr and raideraid from Nawras brought a few more caps, T-shirts and the Omani blogger team members gifted key chains bearing their new logo. Barista our free-venue sponsor also gave away discount coupons for the tweeps.

Registration

Full of vigor, padmajamenon meticulously managed registrations helped generously by varun__kv. They had tough time matching twitter ids to names to the real people who turned up. It was fun to watch them interrogating almost everyone except me verifying their eligibility but alas landed up registering everyone who turned up for #muscattwestival even without prior online confirmations in the true spirit of the event.

Raffle baffle
kishorcariappa and arun4 started the raffle uncertain of the proceedings but later got more confident and involved most tweeps around into the process. Fumbling with the gifts, I forgot to drop my slip into the raffle bowl while Alucard187 was the only tweep chosen to pick a winner and in all sincerity picked his own name winning the gift. Tweeps giving and receiving the gifts became instant celebrities smiling wide, for several cameras in front of them clicking incessantly.

Live tweets
Although the venue was Wi-Fi enabled, tweeps were so excited about the event that not much of action was fed into twitter live. Exceptionally Maithams, sbtm77 and raideraid managed to live tweet during the event. One of Maithams live-tweet reads “Just finished the raffle at #muscattwestival. Now ordering coffee 4 a nice sit down talk”.

Photography
Although posing for photos was a concern for many tweeps early on, later during the event almost everyone caught on with the spirit of having group snaps. More than 6 cameras went clickety-click all the while but blue_chi’s group snap set in timer mode perhaps captured almost all attendees in one single shot.

Here are a couple of links where tweeps have posted #muscattwestival photographs:

Blue_Chi article in GlobalVoices

Blue_Chi Photos on FaceBook
Maitham's photos
Makorani's photos
Muawiyah's photos
Sangeetha’s photos

Update:

  1. Oman makes its entry into the Arab Social media world thanks to spotonpr. Here is a tweet by them about our event: Bookmarked your MuscatTweetMeet story & will soon appear here . :)

07 October 2009

1st MuscatTweetMeet - Just 1 more day 2go!

1day b4 D-Day - Over 30 tweeps attending and 7 more may join us!

Entry still open for all tweeps! Pl. confirm at http://twtvite.com/1tcxup/1 with Twitter Login.


No agenda - No marketing - No stages or speeches - Just pure socialising fun!

Lot of gifts pooled by tweeps - Don't miss your lot!

Register to enter Raffle Draw & collect yr Barista discount coupons.

Generous donors kindly drop your gifts in to raffle kitty box - they will be customised :)

Chance to have yourself photographed with Birdie :)














01 October 2009

1st Muscat Tweet Meet

Who is coming to 1st Muscat TweetMeet? Only 3 more days 2 go!
About 25 TWEEPS confirmed to attend and another 8 more likely....................






Don't Miss: Surprise goodies on 1st come 1st serve basis!

15 September 2009

Laptops and netbooks make waves

Use of laptops and notebook computers is on the rise mainly due to their mobility and ease of use. In addition the presence of Wi-Fi wireless networks access even in the malls and coffee shops has attracted laptop-touting customers to surf the net and exchange mails while sipping their coffee. Laptops aka Notebooks have matured in terms of capabilities and specifications to execute most common functionalities normally performed by their desktop counterparts.

From a different perspective these mobile devices are eco-friendly in terms of power consumption and they are also good space savers be it at office or home. As an estimate, a normal laptop uses 20-90 watts when compared to 100-800 watts required by desktops.
According to iSuppli Corporation, Notebook PC shipments rose almost 40 percent in the Q3 2008 compared to the same period of 2007 to reach 38.6 million units.

This is the first time that sale of laptops has exceeded that of personal computers. On the other side, desktop PC shipments declined by 1.3 percent for the same period to 38.5 million units. Although this was predicted by industry experts, it was not about to materialize until 2011. Almost 4yrs ahead, it has come true, demonstrating the rising trend towards such smaller computing devices.

A laptop is basically a miniature personal computer capable of being placed on the lap of an individual making it more personal and a better fit for mobility. IBM’s SCAMP project (Special Computer APL Machine Portable), demonstrated in 1973, resulted in the IBM 5100 as the first commercially available portable computer, officially released in September 1975. These were such small enough to be portable with their CRT screens and did not have a battery. IBM 5100 was soon followed by the Epson HX20 and a few other models from Tandy/RadioShack and HP. This Epson model had LCD screen, rechargeable battery and an integrated printer alone weighing 1.6 Kgs.

NASA pioneered the research for laptops for special military ground operations and developed the first laptop with flip screen and keyboard like the modern laptops in 1982. Constant enhancements have been made to laptop designs to include touchpad, track-point buttons and biometric key pad along with the functional keys in the keyboard. Similarly improved screen resolutions, inclusion of speakers and web-cameras, better battery life, high-capacity hard drives and floppy/CD/DVD drive attachments have added on to the muscle power of modern day laptops.

Although older laptops were usually heavier, the current laptops weigh a mere 1.4 to 5.4 Kgs. Modern laptops can have a docking station to provide instant supply of power and extended connectivity with a wide range and types of ports built-in to the dock for attaching peripheral devices. Few later models feature touch-screen display along with handwriting recognition or graphics drawing capability.

Netbooks

A netbook is a smaller version of a laptop and incidentally they are also priced cheaper. While most people buy netbooks to surf the web and work with email, they can also perform other functions such as word processing, spreadsheet work and the like.

Netbooks come in different screen size: the 7 inches ones with a screens, and it’s important to think about how big a screen you need. The smallest netbook has a 7 inches display screen at a resolution of 800 x 480. Its keyboards are merely 80 percent of normal laptop screens and way too small for many to be used comfortably.

Next come the netbooks with 8.9 inches screens at a resolution of 1024 x 600. The largest netbook screens are 10.2 inches and they also run at 1024 x 600 resolutions. Based on their basic purpose the netbook’s battery life can be as short as 2 hours but the users find this quite adequate for their quick net-related work. Netbook applications are designed to start up quickly, load documents quickly, and use low amounts of storage and RAM. The choice of the operating system comes to focus here as this decides which one can perform better on minimal hardware configurations.

Be it a laptop or a netbook, it is a personal matter of choice. While the use laptops have been widely accepted when compared to netbooks, it is a matter of time while the netbooks tout DVD drives and longer battery life before being much in demand.

24 June 2009

Twittering social media expands!

The new social media tool that has witnessed a high rate of penetration is also attracting new ways of branding and marketing. According to the Time magazine ‘Twitter is on its way to becoming the next killer app’ and according an independent estimate, its growth rate is 1382%.

Twitter, the micro-blogging platform is a free networking website where people answer one simple question: What are you doing now. The popularity of this tool in a social and commercial context has even called for a conference on this theme. The 140 Characters Conference, a two-day conference exploring topics related to Twitter in New York, scheduled in June this year.

What it twitter

Twitter is a social networking website where one can register free and connects to other similar tweeters. It is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers called posts or tweets. Interestingly you can post any number tweets each day but each tweet must be only 140 characters long. Twitter is a free micro-blogging service more like the online counterpart of SMS communications.

Jack Dorsey was inspired by implementations of instant messaging and developed twitter in 2006. Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams co-founded the company Obvious which later spun off Twitter Incorporations with Evan being the CEO. Making twitter accessible through mobile phones is a main reason behind its explosive adoption.

All your tweets can be read by anyone in your network and they can even reply back to your tweets. A word or phrase can be prefixed with a #, for e.g. #travel to hashtag twitter messages. These tags are useful to surf up in searches based a key words. A nice way to start is to watch a video about Twitter at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddO9idmax0o. Once you register, find who else from your family and friends are on twitter (other than the author of course). Many sites like thewww.twitterImage.com provide twitter background images to begin creating your branded page.

According Nielsen Online, over 10 million users are on Twitter as of Feb2009 with about 5-9 thousand new accounts being opened every day. Out of these over 70% are active and the remaining are relatively new or unengaged users. Interestingly 70% of Twitter users joined in 2008 and the network is constantly widening. Although on an average each user has about 70 followers, only 35% of twitter users have less than 10 followers revealing that it is very closely and widely networked community.

Tweeting software

It is possible to post tweets via the http://www.twitter.com/ website or use mobile phone clients such as TweetDeck or PocketTweets . Twitter also provides easy-to-learn APIs for developers to build their own applications for twitter. The Google desktop widget also sports a Twitter gadget. Tweets can be displayed on most blogs and websites using plugin code. Being sleek and simple twittering is everyone’s cup of tea both to read and to post.

An application named StreamGraph shows the latest 1000 tweets which contain the search word typed into the text box at the top. You can also enter a Twitter ID preceded by the '@' symbol to see the latest tweets from that user. Newbie on twitter are recommended to read the Twitter dictionary at http://twictionary.pbworks.com/ to understand tweet culture and learn the language of this micro-community.

What you can with twitter

Now with just 140 words, the users of the twitter community have managed to keep in touch on the go and have managed to use it more innovatively too. You can respond to your friend’s tweets in real time and all this is visible to users who follow your account.

Users can also search for other twitter users from the same community or with a common interest and follow them. Users can also be blocked and this happens when spammers use twitter accounts to widen their distribution. According to a review, web interfaced applications of twitter are more popular with 48.1% of user using it. This is followed by desktop clients of 21.8% and mobile interface users of about 17.9%.

Twitter as a personalised communication platform continues to inspire business community andn the new solution named Twibs is a basically a directory of businesses using Twitter to communicate with consumers, peers, and tastemakers. The transformation of branding and marketing using this social media cannot be ignored by businesses who are looking at online media with budget constraints. Twibs is currently tracking roughly 4,500 brands on Twitter as well as associated promotions that they're running within the popular micro community.

Who uses twitter

Twitter universe includes not only common users but also business organisations, marketers, colleges / universities, broadcasters, news services, radio stations, weather bureaus and even some government organisations. Professionals like writers, photographers, musicians, music groups and some celebrities have also been bitten by the twitter bug.

Celebrity clones, fakers and minor celebrities seem more active on this platform for obvious reasons. The government of US, UK and Australia use twitter while celebrities like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, 10 DowningStreet, Shashi Tharoor, Neil Diamond, Demi Moore, Queen Rania are also on twitter. In Oman, several bloggers use twitter and the community is fast expanding with blackberry users who tweet via mobile clients.
Interesting applications

Deskptop clients such as Tweetdeck feature twitter functionality right on the desktop. It helps to upload pics to Twitpic and shortens your URLs (via bit.ly). Through blip.fm which is like Twitter for music, and you can share tracks with other users in real time.

Twitvid enables video sharing (upto 1GB or 20 mins) while Filetwt does the same for file sharing (up to 20 MB) with your friends. Twazzup let you query tweets and Tweetstats provides like, how often do you actually tweet, how often do you @reply, trends of individual accounts etc. and puts them into visual charts and graphs for better understanding.

Spy master is a twitter-based online social game, where you use your twitter account to sign up. All fellow spies in this game are your twitterers. Twitter notifications are the real keys to the game. For doing all of these various tasks, you get in-game fake money, points to level-up to become a better spymaster. On failing in assassination attempts or other tasks, you can get injured and lose money. The activities within the spymaster can set up to automatically tweet out when you do them. This game can get people addicted, annoyed or be overwhelmed.

TweetChannels

Twitter users can set up channels and members of this channels cann send tweets which will aggregate under the channel. Thematic channels have some interesting contents as users of these cahnnels have creative as well as a wider range of tweets of interest. Find your favourite channels and join the same or create one for your networked community. TweetChannel is another simple example of how something simple is creating or leading to increasingly complex behaviour.

TweetUp is an offline meeting of people who have met and organized on Twitter, and they’re a great way to both find local Twitter users. It’s time for readers to start tweeting and let’s meet at a Tweetup and take Twitter-based networking to the next level.

09 June 2009

Demystifying CAPTCHA & RECAPTCHA


Human Interaction Proof: Captcha and reCaptcha

A common joke about the Internet goes on like this: “Anything can be anyone on the Internet” or like “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Dog”. These seemingly humorous but realistic views are based on the fact that anyone can have an online identity that they wish to have, far apart from reality. An average aged man can pretend to be a teen interested in online games and enter a chat room where teens engage in candid conversations.

The same applies to obtaining profiles in social networking website and email addresses. There is no need to declare one’s real world identity and there are no verifications to whatever details are submitted.

Anonymity online

This has been used by Spammers who create false accounts top to send spam emails and some programmed software-bots can indulge in visits to increase site traffic artificially. Hackers may also tempt you with free malware to encourage you to download these and share your contacts.

Spam emails are operated software programs that login automatically without any human intervention and these accounts are increasingly misused. The only means to avert this situation is to restrict based on human interaction which requires a confirmed proof that it is a human sitting at the keyboard interacting.


Gotcha a Captcha

In order to avoid such automatic login by spurious methods, a simple text-based solution is commonly used. This system called the CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) displays specific set of a meaning less word rendered in a skewed graphic style as an image.

The most common form of CAPTCHA is an image of several distorted letters. The visitor identifies and types the correct series of letters in the form. If these letters match the ones in the distorted image, then the visitor has passed the test and proceeds to the requested service page. For visually impaired users, there are alternative versions that use audio versions of Captcha.

This method has been quite successful in eliminating malware programs in signing into thousands of accounts automatically. Certain techniques used to create CAPTCHA are complex, and so software is less likely to identify the characters or remove any background noise created purposefully.

Server-side programming

For those webmasters or web-developers who wish only legitimate humans to enter their login forms, scripts are available for download and they need to be installed in their web server. Once properly placed these scripts will activate the code and generate a Captcha before proceeding with the rendering of the web page or form. Only when the user correctly identifies the Captcha, the server presents the requested web form for further action in the website.

It is important for a webmaster to test his Captcha generating software in his server system randomly as the graphic rendered sometimes has too much noise or distortion that even humans find it difficult to decipher. Yet another common problem is that normally Captcha images come is smaller sizes and magnifying them is not possible. This makes it difficult for readers with short vision ailments.

Techniques such as overlapping characters or free-style connected characters are used to make Captcha harder to crack using software. Use of shades, background prints and other resizing distortion techniques are also sometimes implemented.

In the recent times, malwares are floating around the net misusing the Captcha. On infected machines they pop-up text saying something like “if you don't solve this captcha within three minutes then your machine will shut down” and reader are warned not to respond to such messages; just close the pop-up message box.

Microsoft’s Asirra


Microsoft has its own version of Captcha called the Asirra which implements HIP (Human Interactive Proof) using pets. ASIRRA stands for (Animal Species Image Recognition for Restricting Access) where images of animals are displayed and users are required to identify the species. To prevent brute-force attack on repeated images, Microsoft has partnered with a website (www.petfinder.com) for homeless pets containing over 2million images of pet animals. Here randomly selected animal pictures are presented to identify the species. Log on to http://tinyurl.com/ltch5w to test Asirra in your website.


Project Gutenberg


While the Captcha project aims to test humans and computers apart, scientific research at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), USA uses this simple human effort in recognising letters in totally different context. Some of you readers would remember reading about project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/.


Project Gutenberg aims to produce free electronic books through digitisation of old books by tens of thousands of volunteers. Thousand of books and newspapers are being scanned using robotic devices and using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, their electronic text-based versions have been created. Currently this project site at has a collection of over 28,000 free books as per their Online Book Catalogue and a grand total of over 100,000 titles available through Project Gutenberg Partners, Affiliates and Resources.


CMU’s ReCaptcha


For the newer books, the OCR technique is about 90% accurate, but this drops to as low as 60% for older texts, which often contain fonts that are blurry and less uniform. Again robotic suction cups flip pages for scanning and this sometimes induces letter distortions.


CMU’s ReCaptcha project takes words from old books and newspapers that optical character reading software has marked as unreadable by computers. By deciphering these words, users are helping to complete the conversion of old texts to digital form. As millions of Captcha are correctly recognised by real humans worldwide, valuable knowledge is being created for free exchange worldwide.


ReCaptcha for your websites


CMU’s ReCaptcha can also help digitize the text of books while protecting websites from bots attempting to access restricted areas. Recaptcha supplies subscribing websites with images of words that optical character recognition (OCR) software has been unable to read. The subscribing websites (whose purposes are generally unrelated to the book digitization project) present these images for humans to decipher as CAPTCHA words, as part of their normal validation procedures.


They then return the results to the ten-second increments, millions of hours of a most precious resource: human brain cycles. service, which sends the results to the digitization projects. This provides about the equivalent of 160 books per day, or 12,000 man-hours per day of free labour for a valuable cause to the global community.


ReCaptcha is acclaimed to deliver over 30 million images every day and currently in the process of digitizing text from the Internet Archive and the archives of the New York Times. Apart from free mail-service sites, even social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon support this project.


For users who wish to protect their email addresses from being captured by spammers, a mail ID hide ReCaptcha comes to rescue. Using this utility your sent emails are encrypted and shielded with a Mailhide API key. Anyone wishing to see your mail Id is challenged with a Captcha which can be only solved by humans and not automated programs of spammers. For more details log on to http://mailhide.recaptcha.net/. This is the miracle of harvesting in ten-second increments, millions of hours of a most precious resource: human brain cycles and using for a more worthy cause.

03 June 2009

What a COVER!


What makes the cover of the New Yorker magazine dated 1st June 2009 so very special?

This cover image is drawn using 'Brushes' software entirely on the iPhone: of course using his fingers!!!

Jorge Colombo did this fete standing outside Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square, Newyork.








Here is also a video how he used his finger to get the touches. Another interesting application 'Brushes Viewer' enables one to record the entire drawing process as seen in this video. iLove... iPhone ........ now iDraw!


31 May 2009

Summer splash - Google Wave

Thanks 'TimesMan' for this hot tip! Heard of the Google Wave?

A whole new wave to aggregate content and network community and ride the communication waves: This new product from the Google stable after 2yrs of secret brewing is out for developers to taste.

According to the developers, "A "wave" is equal parts conversation and document, where people can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more".

Google Wave keynote presentation



11th Commandment for Google Fraternity:

There shall be one more addiction: to aggregate Contacts, Mails, Feeds, Chats, Pictures all in a single platform!!! {{:-)

Read more about the wave on their blog!

12 May 2009

Hot Technologies for Digital Lifestyle - Part 1

Digital Lifestyle has transcended beyond the phones, television and computers and has entered our daily lifestyle gadgets and applications. These are extracts from my guest speech this weekend for ISACA (Information System Audit and Control Association).

Some of you might look at these technologies with awe, while other skeptics might scorn....but experiments across the world will go on driven by human curiosity and creativity! As I always quote "Technology is a double edged sword: Learn to balance it".

GPS-enabled inhaler

•Asthma inhaler with built-in GPS tracking
•It features Assisted GPS, a GSM modem, integral antennas, an embedded microprocessor, and an internal rechargeable lithium ion battery.
•Reports data from anywhere in the U.S. to the research center using 3G GPRS
•Track possible danger zones that trigger asthma attacks

Tech fashion




•Vibe necklace picks up a variety of biometric signals that can be picked up by other wearers of the necklace

•Wireless, stick-on sensors as part of jewelry in the second picture

•Touch her to reveal her Tattoos, the longer and warmer, the more bold is her tattoo!



21 March 2009

Women empowerment in a Digital Society


A Digital Society is one which is economically strengthened with digital products, technologies, solutions and capabilities, nurtured by a thick matrix of digital technologies for communication and collaboration.


This society laden with tools and devices to break the barriers of distance and time has given a panacea to women who seek to reach out and utilize their knowledge and skills without compromising their privacy and security.


Information and Communication Technologies have benefitted women in many ways. Vast archives of information available on the Internet are now at a click’s reach and in some countries at very affordable prices. The number of IT professionals and users has been growing over the years, and increasingly women have taken serious interest in IT-enabled services. It is more common to see women working in banks, airline reservation systems, call centers, software development centers, etc.


One of the Millennium Development Goals of the UN is to promote gender equality and empower women. This can be achieved by increasing literacy rate among women especially through primary and secondary education. This target also addresses issues related to empowerment of women in rural areas and increase job opportunities for women who are more commonly found to be trapped in insecure and low-paid positions. Progress in achieving these goals varies largely between different regions and technology can serve as an effective facilitator in achieving this target. Technology can spread the cause of education wider through modern communication means and it can get engagingly interactive through multimedia.


In the academic scenario of Oman, the enrolment of girls is equally balanced in computing and information technology related higher education programs. The acumen of women in logic can be effectively applied to computing profession and more specifically software and system development. There are quite a few pioneering IT teachers / lecturers as well as programmers and operators in Oman. Yet the numbers significantly low. Women are as well suited as men, and on some aspects more suited, to work in the new organizational and IT environment where the emphasis is on building relationships and on seeing different connections between people and technology. In countries like Singapore where the government’s focus is on using IT for national development, over 55% of the workers in the IT sector are women. This is indicative of the potentials of women in technology as a national skilled work force contributing actively economically and socially.


The next few decades will see a large number of women on the Internet, creating content as well as exchanging expertise. Women power is yet to be tapped in this context and several educational institutions and training centers have a key role to play in this direction. The government of Oman in its part has recognized this as a focus group and is putting in plans targeting women for IT training as well as provision of computing equipments with a subsidy.


There are efforts taken through the Omani Woman’s Association, to empower Omani women with hands on skill in IT through formal training. The Women in Technology (WIT) program organised by the Omani Women’s Association - Muscat (OWAM) for MENA region, funded by the US Department of State and managed by IIE through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), aims to promote economic reforms and the empowerment of women in the region. WIT program aims to train 10,000 women by 2010 and induct them into mainstream workforce.


The program delivers IT training through Microsoft's Unlimited Potential (UP) curriculum along with Professional Development workshops to improve women’s standard of living and quality of life by building their knowledge and skills and to eliminate illiteracy in information technology (IT). Microsoft's Unlimited Potential (UP) curriculum is designed to narrow the digital divide and aid global workforce development by providing access and training opportunities for communities underserved by technology including women.


The WIT program project centers of OWAM at Muscat, Musanna, Sohar, Ibra, Ibri, Taqa, Salalah, Rustaq, Saham, Buraimi and Khaburah are equipped with computers, some of which have been donated through the Microsoft Authorised Refurbishment program and about 40,000 RO worth Microsoft software has been donated to the OWAM. Through cooperative efforts, about 1350 Omani women have commendably been certified as IT literates through the WIT program in just 2yrs. The WIT program gives preference to young unemployed graduates and members of low-income families and includes scholarships to deserving students.


Omani women have been pursuing higher levels of IT literacy through formal training programs offered at educational centers and through private study. Many of them own prestigious vendor certifications and are placed in highly specialized technical positions. But there is much more to invest in terms of faith, time and resources to bring the true potential of women in the field of technology. Women in general are creative and with the imaginative mind can engage successfully in the field of web design, graphics and multimedia as well as education technology. Very limited opportunities are currently available in such exclusive studies or vocational training and they are also unaffordable for many.


As the saying goes, ‘when we educate a girl, we educate her whole family' is a clue to the realization of the Digital Society of Oman.

The Art & Science of Emails - Continued


Most corporate communications have shifted to the electronic highway and emails are fast replacing the traditional snail mails and faxes. Digital Oman explains the art of science of email communications in an effort to maximise efficiency without having unforeseen encounters with those at the receiving end.

Last week we touched upon the importance of simplicity of email addresses as well as the content of the emails. The etiquette of when to ‘Cc’ (Courtesy Copy), ‘Bcc’ (Blind Copy) and when not to was also discussed briefly. This week lets talk about de-cluttering and re-structuring content.

Cut the clutter


Email can never be heard and so avoid using pun / abbreviations that you expect your receiver to understand readily. Even if there is no instant solution, it is a courtesy to acknowledge the email and agree on a reasonable time to respond. Hold on to your emotions and stressful life style but avoid emotionally charged statements and stick to the facts. Do not add a smily J as punctuation if you don’t mean fun. Instead of piling up emails, it is interesting to respond in a timely manner and gain positive reputation.

Fonts and size


Most email clients have a default font size and style which can be customised. Use it well and set your signature as a template with appropriate contact details to avoid typing it each time. Again use font colours, bold and italics with discretion only if absolutely necessary. Adding a background banners loads the size of the email and so this can be avoided. Instead a small image say the corporate logo, can be added to the signature template.

Effective responses


Compose your response only after re-reading the entire thread in your incoming email and sometimes related responses from others as well. This way you can seal several issues concerned with a single response. Sort the inbox by title when addressing a message with a lot of responses. It is also possible to slot out email sorting time so that it doesn’t interrupt normal work.

Detach attachment


As a god practice save your attachment in the hard disk and delete it from the email and now you have a very thin email sitting in your inbox. This way you can store your emails and still keep a lean mail box. While forwarding emails, think twice about keeping the original attachment or altering it. The same applies for forwarded mail subject lines. Certainly no one likes to see FW: FW: FW:………… trails.

Security alert

Never record any personal or login information in your emails as they are transmitted without encryption and may land up in the wrong hands. Under no circumstances, open any unexpected attachment from unknown sender. Curb cyber world traffic by not forwarding any chain mails or spam emails. The same applies to hoax emails, which might cause misunderstanding or panic.

Never click on a link in a spam or hoax email or respond from your email address. This way, you are inadvertently signing into the spam mail generator’s mailing list. Just delete the spam emails and don’t even bother to ‘Unsubscribe’. For those spam emails not filtered by your server, add the email address to ‘block sender’ list.

Greeting vs. marketing


Emails sent as greetings on special occasions or as congratulatory notes must never carry any marketing message in it. The prudent customer is aware of the business proposition mixing up in the message and doesn’t take it as a well-intended greet. An employee on leaving a company sends a general email from a new email address wishing all business contacts good luck and leaving a very nice thanks note along with the key message the he/she has moved on to a new job. This is indeed a good idea to keep the contact lists alive. Use of words ‘thanks’, ‘please’, ‘enjoy’, ‘appreciate’ are known to have that magical touch of willing support. Again review your emails whether they deserve the ‘High Priority’ or ‘Low Priority’ flags being set along with appropriately.

Summarise


Often business meetings tend to be lengthy testing people’s attention spans. In such cases all points agreed for action in the meeting can be effectively summarised with expected date of action in a simple follow-up email to all attendees. This could also be used for the next meeting call as a check list of progress.

Hidden cues


To address a person correctly, see how they sign their email and use the same name; do not create your own abbreviations or friendly version to avoid annoying the receiver. Email etiquette applies not only to your clients but your colleagues as well. Even if you boiling with rage, tone down and send a ‘gentle reminder’ calling for immediate action.

Confirmations

Most often we are left clueless whether our email has reached its destination. Many a times these emails may sit in the inbox or the Spam filter without being read by the receiver while we awaits responses. To save us from these hazels there are a few automated setting like the ‘Delivery receipt’ and ‘read receipt’.

For example when you compose your email in the Microsoft Outlook, click on Message Option and activate these settings requesting a confirmation for delivery/read. So once the activity is completed, a confirmation message is displayed automatically in your email client window. Interestingly the replies to this particular email message can also be redirected to another alternative email address.


Emailing culture is here to stay and grow and being literate in this aspect helps to maintain good relationships utilising the swiftness of email communications. If readers have any pleasant or even unpleasant email experiences, you are welcome to share them with me. Etiquette is an ever evolving practice and the art of refining this culture can be mastered over time with a little bit of effort.

25 February 2009

The art and science of email


The knowledge era includes exchange of communications through electronic media including the telephones, Internet, Emails, Instant messaging systems and video/voice conferences. Personal and corporate communications are increasingly shifting from the fax mode to the email mode and many individuals have been drawn into the email-culture without induction or formal training.


In result, unforeseen incidents create a recoil effect without the offender realising his mistakes and the resulting damage spoils relationships not only between individuals but also their organisations. Digital Oman walks through the art and science of email communications bringing out the various etiquettes involved.

It’s your choice
In no way can emails replace a face-to-face communication, if the task on hand is to communicate clearly and get the receiver’s acknowledgment. So if you choose to email, then reconsider your choice or complement your email with a supplementary follow-up phone call later.

Email address
To begin with email address can be friendly and easily memorable. In the excitement of associating every name and location details, some email addresses are as complicated as the passwords are meant to be. The idea is ‘Keep it Simple and Short’. It is possible to group certain emails, to avoid selecting or typing the address individually. Grouping could be based on close family, friends, colleagues or even department staff. To avoid sending the email accidentally before completing / reviewing it, enter the address after you have satisfactorily read through the email.

Copying
Considering the flood of text on the digital highway, trim your emails in length and certainly avoid trailing messages in the case of forwarded emails. In a corporate scenario, this is more important because the trail of email messages at the end reveal the inside story and internal discussions to the recipient who may be your client.

Again when you receive an email copied to others, use your discretion to click ‘Reply to All’ only when you think others need to know of your email response. If you want someone to be aware of the discrete email exchanges then use the ‘Bcc’ option (Blind copy) instead of carrying a whole bunch of addresses in the ‘To’ or the ‘Cc’ section (Courtesy copy). In general parlance ‘To’ address indicates action while the ‘Cc’ denotes for information. In case you receive an email not meant for you reply back courteously to the sender that you received it by mistake and it is needless to copy anyone one else in this message.

Subject line
The subject can be effectively used to highlight the context or even the purpose or main intent of action. When replying to emails, do not alter the subject as most email clients archive them into threads based on this line. Indicate action response required for the email. For example it could Info (meaning for information), review, approve, attend, request, invite, etc. The priority setting as ‘High’ or ‘Low’ can be combined for timely responses.

Tone
Creativity is for arts and linguistic articulacy is for literature and so email as an effective communication can be written in simple straightforward language. Do run a spell check before you click the ‘send’ button or else you will miss reading some unintended jokes made by your very own spelling mistakes. When you email a friend, if it on business then do include a formal salutation, greeting and a note of thanks. Use of capital letters indicates shouting and so avoid using them.

In case you need to catch the reader’s attention on certain text use highlight, bold or underline aesthetically. Even change of fonts colours can be useful to retain the info in the reader’s mind say for example in an email invite, date, place and time can be shown in a different font colour / size.

Auto-responder
Most email services have a auto-response setting to respond to your inbox messages. While it is not necessary to respond to every incoming email with a received-confirmation, planning vacations and long-absence certainly means indicating this with an auto-responder message.

Matter matters
The content of the email must be succinct and preferably on only a single main issue. If there are different messages, then choose to send them in different emails with an appropriate subject line. Emails need not be essays and longer emails are normally postponed for action later due to people’s psychology. Grammar and spellings must be followed and email clients can be set to automatic ‘spell check’ mode before sending an email.

In general the main subject content could be kept within 60% of the right side window frame to avoid scrolling (when Preview pane is activated). So take up one matter and express it in a couple of lines including expected action from the receiver. Use bullet list if there are several issues for action or response. Numbering these can make it easy for people to respond based the action items and in replies you can also use highlights.

According to research reading from screen is more difficult than reading from paper and so structure your content into short paragraphs with spaces in between. Some details can be listed out or tabulated.

16 February 2009

Simpler user Interface to technology

Had the keyboard not been as simple as the typewriter, very few elite scientists would be using the computers even now. The basic phones have their power packed applications which are activated through very few buttons and a minimal keyboard.

So ‘User Interface; defines how simple the system is easy to use and this in turn creates the momentum for the use this technology.

In a knowledge society, access to information and the tools required to manipulate it are made available to all. People who access this information are capable of putting to good use in an appropriate manner. In order for many people to use a technology, it must meet the demand and skill levels of a very average user.

The media used to process knowledge has gone way beyond the pen and paper era. Modern machines can receive their inputs through human-friendly interactive interfaces. When it comes to such interfaces, usability is the key feature to focus and this also combined with ‘ergonomic’ – the human factors engineering of how people using technology to do their work can be affected. Ergonomics stemming from the Greek word ‘ergon’ meaning work, and ‘nomoi’ meaning natural laws), is the science of refining the design of products / technologies to optimize them for human use.

As more and more computer related work load human lives, the products like the mouse, keyboards and even computer desks and tables are used for extended periods of time unlike before. Any of these products if not designed ergonomically, people using them can suffer from stress, musculoskeletal disorders or even injuries. This is the reason behind screens that can be tilted and chairs that can be angled to suit the user’s physical profile. Let us see how advancements in devices like mouse and keyboards to make them more ergonomic – the human factor.

Take the example of the time feature in the video recorders. Most VCRs display the time 12.00 blinking non-stop, revealing the fact that the system to set it to current time is often so complicated that the user chooses to ignore the setting and live with the blinks.

In a similar manner website of product literature or even devices if not designed with adequate consideration to human factor, they well not serve their purpose. In essence usability of a device means the following:
- how quick and effortlessly it is learnable
- how efficient it is in getting the work done
- how memorable is the process of using it
- how error-free it is in its interface
- how satisfied does the user feel after using it intuitively

Any system socially acceptable, physically and psychologically usable, develop widespread acceptance and increased usage. The innovative multi-touch screens just as in the Apple iPhone / iTouch and the Microsoft Surface - tabletop system are truly changing our old habits of mouse and keyboard clicks to more natural interactive experience with gestures, touch, grab and swipe. The question of affordable reach can be answered only as time goes on.

As the site of the week on the topic of usable interfaces, let us visit a website which you can navigate by just moving your mouse to the position but not necessarily clicking it. Try to use the flash website of the Institute of Interactive Research website at http://www.dontclick.it/ where you never have to click your mouse to browse as an experimental project. Don’t just stop at the home page; enter the experimental site and give you valuable feedback. Enjoy the mouse boot camps and the mouse movement recorder.

The next level of interactivity between humans and computer can become only more natural through natural language speech recognition engines and thought-activated menu of commands. Until then lets play with the mice, clickety-click our keyboards also practice healthy computing.