Monday, March 28, 2011

Yahoo Messenger Usability Riff

We are used to software behaving badly. Whether it is the "blue-screen-of-death" in Microsoft Windows, or the atrocious usability of the Apple iTunes product, or the myriad JavaScript errors encountered on Web pages, it is pain we endure with fortitude.

However, when the threshold of patience is low, the frustration just comes boiling to the fore.

Consider this screen. I got this when I tried to log in to the Yahoo Messenger client on Windows. It says "There was a problem signing you in to Yahoo! Messenger" because, ostensibly, "Our system is currently very busy." and that I should be considerate enough to "Please try again a little bit later."
Ok, so this is not very good since I need to be logged in to Yahoo Messenger, but I can appreciate the service telling me it is very, very, very busy. Fair enough.

But, I now scan the row of buttons below this message, and I start to scratch my balding pate, and make a Scooby Doo-ish huh sound. The message clearly states that it could not sign me in because it is "very busy". And I did enter my username and password, didn't I? So, firstly, why is it showing me the "New User..." button? Will signing in as a new user somehow make the system less busy? Or is it telling me that it does not like my current user id, and that it will strive to do better if only I were to present a different user id to it? Hmm... looks like the service is a little moody here.
How about the second button? "Forgot Password...". Sir, did you not just tell me, a line above, that the system is "very busy"? You didn't tell me that I had entered a wrong username or password, did you? You mean you don't know what the problem is? Or, that you think it is ok to display a standard list of buttons, no matter what the issue may really be? Your user-interface designers thought that consistency is better than usability? Or there was a budget crunch and they could not get the translations for new strings to display on these buttons? Or, you thought that somehow "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" is a better approach?

In the world of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and just about everything that is out there trying to be "social" and "friendly", you believe this Web 0.1 approach is going to fly? Yes, of course. Throw in a sad smiley and it will make things ok. Yes, we are living in the world of 1999, aren't we? Maybe an animated smiley?

And yes, one more thing that is wrong with this dialog - it is a modal dialog - if I need to go change my proxy settings, or type in a different username, or password, I first have to dismiss this modal dialog. Another usability misstep.

Sigh. There is so much to like at Yahoo! Yet somehow they have accepted an abysmally low level of mediocrity in everything they do.
Helpful is good.
Helpful and witty is also good, though sometimes annoying.
Helpful and useful is the ideal.
Mildly helpful and utterly confusing is not what you should aim for - which this dialog above does.

Some suggestions:


© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Medium Maximization

From Dan Ariely's blog, comes this interesting post on the theory of "medium maximization"Behavioral finance lesson – frequent flyer points?: "

In response to a reader's email on his clients tending to select a financial retail custodian on the basis of which offered more frequent flyer miles, which is an odd way to be sure of making such critical decisions, Dan Ariely offers this interesting concept to explain how people make decisions...
This phenomenon is what we call “medium maximization.”
The basic idea is that often people focus on near term concrete goals (such as frequent flyer miles), and while trying to maximize these immediate and clear goals they forget or discount the real reason for their actions — which in your case is maximizing their financial outcome. (For a great paper on medium maximization see this paper by Chris Hsee)
Why do people engage is such medium maximizations? Because it is easy. It gives people a clear direction for behavior — and just having something measurable within reach can redirect our motivation. Another reason for the efficacy of medium maximization is that such immediate and concrete goals by which to measure ourselves against give us a sense of progression ….

Abstract: A medium--for example, points or money--is a token people receive as the immediate reward of their effort. It has no value in and of itself, but it can be traded for a desired outcome. Experiments demonstrate that, when people are faced with options entailing different outcomes, the presence of a medium can alter what option they choose. This effect occurs because the medium presents an illusion of advantage to an otherwise not so advantageous option, an illusion of certainty to an otherwise uncertain option, or an illusion of linearity to an otherwise concave effort-outcome return relationship. This work has implications for how points influence consumer choice and how money influences human behavior. Copyright 2003 by the University of Chicago.
When applying such a concept to the area of employment, do people sometimes decide to join a company based on the company providing free soft-drinks. Sure it is a perquisite, a convenience, but certainly not one on which an employment decision should be made.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles

3 stars
The Hound of the Baskervilles

(my review on, all my reviews)
A Sherlock Holmes classic is brought to life in comic form. Despite the rich graphics and illustrations, poor editing and less than stellar drawings make it only an average result.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most popular of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's long stories. A murder mystery, a love story, a tale of revenge, of an inheritance and its pursuit, of supernatural angles, and more. There was even a commercially successful Hindi movie "inspired" from the novel, Bees Saal Baad.

This graphic comic is a let down. For several reasons.
Firstly, the story telling is disjointed. It just does not flow smoothly. Converting a novel into a comic form is not as easy as it may sound, and this comic fails to tell the story in a manner that you can understand it easily.
Secondly, some of the drawings are a bit clunky, to use the word. Especially when depicting action scenes, the persons drawn do not seem very realistic or accurate...

It appears that several of the key persons behind this series are Indians. They surely would have grown up reading the ever popular Amar Chitra Katha series of comics. Converting novels, stories, and adventures into a seamless and very good comic narrative is something the people at Amar Chitra Katha were able to do, with a remarkable degree of success. There are valuable lessons to be learned from that series.

At the end of it all, this is not a comic or perhaps a series I would recommend to children to get acquainted with classics. A pity. The intent seems genuine, and the effort seems considerable. The end result however disappoints.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Kabini and Jungle Lodges

The Kabini river originates in the district of Wayanad, in the state of Kerala. It flows for only a few kilometers in Kerala, forms the border for some 12 kms for the states of Kerala and Karnataka, and then enters the state of Karnataka. It joins with the Cauvery river in Karnataka, and finally flows into the Bay of Bengal. This is paraphrased from

Jungle Lodges, Kabini on Google Maps:

View Larger Map

Why is this description of the Kabini river important in the context of this post? Because the Kabini reservoir separates the Nagarhole National Park from the Bandipur National Park. Ok, so what is the Kabini reservoir? It is a reservoir on the Kabini river in the HD Kote taluk of the Mysore district, and submerges an area in excess of 15,000 acres.

There are several places to stay in Bandipur and Kabini; some of the better known places are and
(If these deep links do not work you should try the home page of these sites and then try navigating to the appropriate page. Sites sometimes undergo redesigns, and consequently some links stop working. It is generally considered a good practice to redirect a visitor to the most appropriate page in such a case, or at least to redirect the user to the home page of the site. Presenting the user with a "Page Not Found" error is the least acceptable response. Anyway.)

You could also choose to stay in the nearby towns of Mysore, Nanjangud, or Gundalpet. The parks are between an hour and two hours drive from these places. The best option however is to pick one of the places inside the park itself. Driving distance from Bangalore to the Bandipur National Park is approximately 240 kms, and depending on when you start your journey, can take between five and seven hours. The earlier you get out of Bangalore the better, since the morning traffic can add upto an extra hour to your drive. Once outside Bangalore, after you have hit the Bangalore-Mysore highway, the traffic does thin out considerably, and the towns you pass on the way, Bidadi, Ramnagaram, Channapatna, Maddur, Mandya, Srirangapatna, add little to the traffic. You are in and out of each town in a few minutes, except for Mandya, that can take as much as half an hour to drive through, and since you anyway will not speed through these towns, the time taken increases only slightly.

As to the resorts, Orange County is probably the most expensive of all, with prices touching Rs 30,000 per night during the peak season and New Year's Eve, and dropping by more than half, to a still stiff 14k thereafter. This is the per-room, per-night tariff, based on double-occupancy. Look at it this way - spending a weekend at this place could set you back by close to fifty grand - even with the greatly appreciated US dollar, that is still $1000 for two nights. The only explanation for these rates lies in its proximity to Bangalore. With golf carts to ferry your luggage from the car to the rooms, with private plunge pools, with a jacuzzi, the focus is on luxury. One could argue the wisdom of driving into a resort located in a forest and then spending the time there cooped inside a hot tub of bubbling water, but that may be what defines luxury, for some people. In economics, you could describe this as a very effective form of inefficient price discrimination and price discovery. Inefficient because you are still not charging a different price for every individual, based on their ability and willingness to pay. Such a form of price discrimination is actually illegal for the most part, because you never know when the discrimination on the basis of economics and not on account of other factors that could qualify for racial discrimination.
A luxury brand is built by establishing a sense of exclusivity, and maintaining an uncompromisingly high price point. The gentry would not take kindly to spending princely sums of money if it transpired that the exclusivity was temporal, and that the hoi polloi were granted admission during the lean season. Luxury is also built by restricting quantity, which also explains why these resorts have only a dozen or so rooms.

Jungle Lodges and Resorts, sometimes also called the Kabini River Lodge, used to be the hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Mysore. It is situated by the banks of the Kabini river, in Kharapur, near the Nagarhole National Park (also called the Rajiv Gandhi National Park). Colonial style bungalows have been converted into spacious double-bed rooms, with an attached bathroom with all the modern amenities you could hope for in the middle of a jungle. These include heated water, a bath, and a WC, with running water! No television. No air-conditioning. The ceiling fan operates quietly. A small refrigerator is provided. The dining hall is some twenty feet from the Kabini river, or literally speaking, a stone's throw, and you can watch the boats and coracles go by on the river. If you were to throw a stone, and while the chances are slim, you may well end up hitting a crocodile. There are lots of them in the river, which is why swimming in the river is not considered a good idea, if you are a human. The food is served warm, and heated over charcoals. A netting serves to keep out flying insects and mosquitoes, and to be doubly sure in the evenings, there are electric mosquito repellents plugged in.

Some of the things to do while at the Kabini lodge are take a boat or coracle ride in the river Kabini, a jungle safari through the forest, which is a part of the Rajiv Gandhi National Park (also called the Nagarhole National Park), and take a short elephant ride. These national parks are all contiguous, and form part of the Nilgiris biosphere reserve - Bandipur, Nagarhole (RGNP) in Karnataka, Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu, and Wayanad forest in Kerala (see on Google Maps and read more on Wikipedia). The elephant ride is dependent on the availability of elephants, as you would have guessed, and that is why it is called an elephant ride, because you get to ride on the elephant, so it is more a matter of luck than not. These elephants are not kept in captivity, but released into the forest every day after the morning. When these elephants return in the morning, it is at that point that the forest authorities know if elephant rides are going to be available or not.

The jungle safari takes a couple of hours. Part of the reason is that it takes about half an hour to get from the resort to the entrance of the forest. This again is partly due to the distance, and partly due to the condition of the forest roads, as you can surmise from a cursory inspection of some of the photos. Since only forest vehicles are allowed inside the park, it is somewhat clear that the need to keep the roads in pristine condition is somewhat less pressing than elsewhere. Secondly you may also question the need for roads inside a forest that allow for high speed driving.
You first drive through the buffer zone of the forest before entering the proper forest. Inside the forest the condition of the roads is better. Why? Because there are no tar roads there. Instead, mud roads serve for the jeeps and vans to travel on. This is actually better because the ride is smoother because of the mud, and is less potholed. It is said that the best time to spot wildlife is in the early morning or late afternoon. Because during the day the animals are usually resting under the shade of the trees and flora.

The best part of the year to spot wildlife is actually in the summers. Why? Simple. During the summer months most of the water holes have dried up, and only a few large ponds and water bodies have any water left. Which means that animals have to necessarily come to these places to drink. Therefore you are likelier to spot wildlife here. The other reason is that the heat of the summer months dries up most of the undergrowth and shrubs in the forest, leaving you with a clearer view of the forest. Animals are less likely to remain hidden during that season. Of course, the summer months will also see the scorching sun and high temperatures. The proper thing to do would be to spend the afternoons inside, or in the shade, doing pretty much nothing. You could find a tree with lots of shade to lie under, sip a nimbu-pani, read a book, and leave the BlackBerry inside the room, switched off. Unless it is required, per the customs of showing off and appearing to be busy, to fiddle with the device, appear to be checking and responding to emails that no one cares to see your reply till after your vacation. Maybe not even then. Unless, of course, you are playing Angry Birds. In which case you are excused.

Park yourself outside your room, sit on one of these cane chairs, and watch the day go by in the warm glow of the setting sun. Maybe sip a cup of Nilgiris tea or Coorg coffee.

Before you start complaining about the state of the road, remember that it will keep any vehicle from speeding, won't it? Eh. Didn't think about that, did you? The truth is that the environment does not get anywhere close its fair share of funds from the local, state, or national governments, which is a pity and shame. Once these forests are gone, they are gone. They will not come back. We can build roads and buildings, but we have not figured out a way to build forests. Not dead forests, bereft of wildlife, of lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, and herbivores, but live forests. No sir - we still do not know how to bring back dead forests to life, so let's do what we can to keep the ones we have alive and healthy.

Swirling swoosh of clouds on an overcast day, boating in the Kabini reservoir and lake.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Third class in Indian railways

Third class in Indian railwaysThird class in Indian railways by Mahatma Gandhi

4 stars

Third class in Indian railways
This is a collection of six essays written by Mahatma Gandhi after his return to India from South Africa. The essays are, with one exception, a description of Gandhiji's philosophy and thinking. The lone exception is the eponymous chapter, "Third Class In Indian Railways", which, as the title suggests, is a mini-travelogue of his travels and travails on the trains in India at the time.
The chapters are:
  1. Third Class In Indian Railways
  2. Vernacular as Media of Instruction
  3. Swadeshi
  4. Ahimsa
  5. The Moral Basis of Co-operation
  6. National Dress
As can be seen, chapters two through six spell out the substantive part of Gandhiji's political, personal, and social  philosophy that were to drive India's independence struggle agenda and vision. Even after his death, his ideals have inspired transformative movements in such places as South Africa, Poland, United States, and more recently in Egypt.

Gandhiji's style of writing reflects at times his innate sense of humour. Most of it is evident in the first chapter, when he struggles for the right and strong words to describe the squalid state of rail travel at the time. Some comments could well apply in today's times, unfortunately.

Refreshments sold to the passengers were dirty-looking, handed by dirtier hands, coming out of filthy receptacles and weighed in equally unattractive scales. These were previously sampled by millions of flies... [Highlight Loc. 26-28]

Passengers have no benches or not enough to sit on. They squat on dirty floors and eat dirty food. They are permitted to throw the leavings of their food and spit where they like, sit how they like and smoke everywhere. The closets attached to these places defy description. I have not the power adequately to describe them without committing a breach of the laws of decent speech. [Highlight Loc. 36-47]

On Indian trains alone passengers smoke with impunity in all carriages irrespective of the presence of the fair sex and irrespective of the protest of non-smokers. And this, notwithstanding a bye-law which prevents a passenger from smoking without the permission of his fellows in the compartment which is not allotted to smokers. [Highlight Loc. 52-54]

When talking about Swadeshi, Gandhiji cleverly brings in the issue religion as being an integral part of swadeshi. At the time of his writing, his aim was at the proselyting efforts of missionaries, while acknowledging the often stellar role played by these missionaries in performing much-appreciated social services.

Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote. Thus, as for religion, in order to satisfy the requirements of the definition, I must restrict myself to my ancestral religion. [Highlight Loc. 103-5]

...will not the great missionary bodies of India, to whom she owes a deep debt of gratitude for what they have done and are doing, do still better and serve the spirit of Christianity better by dropping the goal of proselytising while continuing their philanthropic work? [Highlight Loc. 116-18]
Seeing how the political narrative in India today sees religion and politics divorced from each other on the face of it, yet tightly locked in the most unholy of alliances, Gandhiji would have been pained no doubt.

I do not believe that religion has nothing to do with politics. The latter divorced from religion is like a corpse only fit to be buried. [Highlight Loc. 131-32]

I am not sure I would see tea in such a negative light as the Mahatma does. Coffee has been a staple ingredient of the Indian, South Indian for sure, diet for a few centuries, but then again, credit (or discredit) for its spread must again go to the English. I wonder how he would have taken the even more insidious spread of cola beverages in India...
Lord Curzon set the fashion for tea-drinking. And that pernicious drug now bids fair to overwhelm the nation. It has already undermined the digestive apparatus of hundreds of thousands of men and women... [Highlight Loc. 173-75]

Third class in Indian railways


© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Tea Estates, Wayanad

Wayanad is a sort of a hidden treasure as a tourist destination, known to the intrepid traveler, and to people in the south, but the other tourist destinations of Kerala overshadow this district, viz. the beaches of Kovalam and the backwaters.

I had posted on our travel to Wayanad (where we stayed, Wayanad Chain Tree, and the Eddakal caves).
There are several things to do in Wayanad, and one place to visit is the Soochipara Falls (wikipedia link). This post is not about the falls. Maybe in another post. This post is about the gorgeous green tea estates you pass during your drive to the falls and the gorgeous roads.

Despite getting the second highest rainfall in India, the district of Wayanad has perhaps the best state highways I have driven on in India. The roads of Tamil Nadu are also excellent, but the roads in Wayanad were quite unbelievable. Very well-paved, without potholes, with lane markings, well marked curves, and with information signs all along the way. A pleasure to drive on.

On the drive to the falls, you will see lush green tea estates on either side of the road. Stop by and smell the tea leaves, or take photos. Lots and lots of photos.

When it comes to tea, Darjeeling and Nilgiris are the first names that come to mind. As it turns out Wayanad is one of five places in India where tea plantations can be found (5 Places to Visit India Tea Plantations). Darjeeling in West Bengal, Assam, Nilgiris (mostly Coonoor) in Tamil Nadu, Munnar in Tamil Nadu, and Wayanad in Kerala. This may lead you to believe that the district of Wayanad grows a lot of tea. Not really. Going by the numbers published by the Tea Board of India for the calendar year 2007, India grew 980 million kgs of tea, of which North India accounted for 764 million kgs and South India for 221 kgs. Wayanad contributed a relatively small figure of 13.3 million kgs. Nothing to sneeze at. By comparison, the Nilgiris account for 127 million kgs, and Dibrugarh in Assam a whopping 225 million.

The late afternoon sun lends a very warm glow to the entire vista

While you can certainly whizz past these tea plantations at 60kmph, it would be a shame to do so. Rather, drive a little slowly, stop enough and often, get off the car, step out, take in the beauty, the scenery, and capture the moments for posterity.

The photographs that follow were taken in the evening, near sunset, and very near the Soojipara falls. The road here is almost single-lane, and not in that great shape. It continues for about two kms, till it merges with the state highway, which, as I said, is a pleasure to drive on.

For some reason, I attract the curious gazes of onlookers every time I stop the car in the middle of basically nowhere to take photos. Been happening for the longest time. I don't carry a fancy camera, nor do I drive a fancy car. It must be me then. There's something about Abhinav I guess. Something good I hope.

A never ending carpet of green, as far as the eye can see.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.