Visiting Jigsaw Renaissance – a maker space in Seattle

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Lion, Sameer, Dan, Budi, Danny Lion, Sameer, Dan, Budi and Danny

I had been planning to do this for a while and finally got around to visiting Jigsaw Renaissance which is a maker space in Seattle. They have recently moved into a really cool historical building and Lion gave us a fun tour of all the spaces and the very interesting basement. The building owners are giving out spaces to artists and creative types and we ran into many people who already call it home. Amidst brainstorming ways to drill holes to make grid beam sticks efficiently and an incentive system to promote community engagement, and learning we had a great time.

If you want to make something, or want to learn how to make something or just want to see what people in your city are interested in making you should visit Jigsaw Renaissance and connect with others who can teach, inspire and encourage you.

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Facebook: stop worrying about sharing, live your life, leave the rest to us

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Facebook launched the Like button 18 months ago and it has had a huge impact on how people browse and share information and form associations with other entities. Within days websites had integrated Facebook social plugins which made it super easy to feed stuff back to Facebook and share with your friends in a frictionless way. Though Facebook started collecting information about every webpage you went to as long as there was any social plugin on that page, you still had to take an additional step to decide if something was worth sharing with your friends or else they would never see it. Let’s take an example:

I visit the NYT webpage and read a couple of stories, say A and B. I then decide that story A is worth sharing and hit the “Recommend” button and it gets posted to my feed. My friend arrives on NYT and sees the headline for story B. He doesn’t know that I checked it out as well but he is interested in it and even clicks on it but he never shares it either. Then a third friend is now on NYT trying to decide what she should read. Given the old scenario, only story A would be recommended to her. The information about story B and two friends interacting with it has been lost.

Maybe it’s lost of for a good reason – it probably wasn’t worth sharing. One could argue it keeps the signal to noise ratio high. But the best way to deal with information overload is generating more information, not less. With enough training data, and meta information like time spent and other derived engagement metrics it won’t be too hard to use that lost information to come up with even better suggestions.

A week at work as a FUSE Labs PM

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I am a Program Manager at FUSE Labs. If you were to ask me “What does a PM at FUSE Labs do?”, my short answer would be: whatever it takes to rapidly innovate on an idea and bring it to fruition. This often demands a very fluid set of tasks that span different skills. As PMs move along a project they also move along a spectrum of things to do. Often, while straddling multiple projects, there’s opportunity to exhibit a full spectrum within a very short time. In a recent week I ended up doing just that. This snapshot of that week is an illustrative example of what a PM does at FUSE Labs:


Monday
Spec writing. Formulate a development plan for a new project including goals, scenarios, implementation details, evaluation plan and schedule.

Tuesday
Demo a project at a public event. This one, specifically, is where I demo Project Montage at the Hacks/Hackers event in Seattle.

Wednesday
I get down and dirty with HTML5 and Jquery as I code away on the project most of this day. The project would benefit from some additional development resources.

Thursday
Conduct discount usability study to identify usability issues in a project under development. I am formally trained as a User Experience Researcher and I am always looking for ways to get useful and timely evaluation in the cheapest way possible.

Friday
I receive a “Ship it” badge as a recognition for another project that was completed and brought to market in the past.

So in summary, my week = spec + demo + coding + usability study + recognition. This, actually, might be different for a different PM depending on their background, passion and project. In general, folks at FUSE are very versatile and multi-talented which makes the workplace a lot of fun!


When iTunes lies: Finding the right Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Massive Attack song

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In 1990, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with Michael Brook and released an album called Mustt Mustt. [You might know Michael Brook as the guy who invented the Infinite Guitar which was used for the haunting notes on U2’s With or Without You] It combined a traditional Qawalli style song with guitar and produced a new kind of sound. The title song of that album was a big hit and inspired Massive Attack to remix it. This remix of the song became a smash hit and reached an even wider audience.

I was unaware of this song until 1996 when it was used in a Coca Cola commercial during the Cricket World Cup. It was an interesting ad and the sound went really well with it.

The Indian Cricket focused Coca Cola ad (1:04)

After I saw the ad, I tried to find out what this song was called (no SoundHounds or Shazams back then). Eventually I found the song through a friend who let me “borrow” the MP3. The file name on the song I got said ‘Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Mustt Mustt (Massive Attack Remix).mp3″. I had no idea that Massive Attack was actually a band and assumed it was some fancy name given to the remix. But I enjoyed the song and …

Religious stereotypes visualized using Web Seer

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Blame it on the Voices covered a venn diagram published by reddit user prateekmi2 today which shows the search terms that people use for different religions on Google search. It exposes the different words associated with different religions and the common words are equally interesting.

venn diagram

Web Seer is another visualization tool built specifically for comparing and contrasting google search suggestions for two different search terms. I decided to augment the venn diagram above with the web seer visualization – it’s just another way to present the same information.

As you can see from the visualization, “stupid” is the most frequent word used on Google to complete the sentence “Why are muslims so …” that is also used to complete the sentence “Why are christians so …”. Other common words for both religions are “intolerant” and “hateful”. On the extremes,the words associated with Muslims are “angry” and “violent” while those associated with Christians are “judgmental” and “mean”.

muslims christians

Contrasted with the unique words associated with Muslims, those associated with Jews are “cheap”, “successful” and “smart”. However, the interesting common word for both Muslims and Jews implies “Why are Muslims and Jews so hated?”

muslim jews

According to this visualization, there is nothing in common between words associated with Jews and Christians, however, the original Venn diagram above found the word “annoying” to be common enough.

jews christians

Extra

India is a democratic country with separation of church and state. However, though it’s dominantly Hindu it still hosts one of the largest Muslim populations in the world in terms of absolute numbers. I was curious to see how the two religions compare on Google. There were zero search suggestions for the term “Why are Hindus so …” so for this case I shortened the search terms to “Why are Hindu” and “Why are Muslim”. Unfortunately, there were no words commonly associated with the two religions but it was interesting to see Hindus’ discontent with the movie Avatar and the color of the depictions of their gods.

muslims hindus

Are people really moving into Seattle?

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Forbes recently published a visualization based on IRS data which shows where Americans moved between 2008 and 2009. You click on the city name that you are interested in and it shows you a dense sets of lines showing migration paths. Red lines show that there was a net number of people moving out whereas black lines show a net number of people moving in. It’s interesting to look at, but really really hard to read, and almost useless due to that. But that’s a different story.

Screen shot 2010-06-18 at 9.12.08 PM

I found it interesting to compare this data with the temperature heatmap of that day. We have had an awfully cold spring but this heatmap really drives in the point. That week, the Pacific Northwest was the coldest region in the country! Makes one wonder, if people really are moving to Seattle in hordes, do they really know what they are getting into?

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I average 4 dreams a night – what’s the shape of your sleep?

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Every night, we surrender ourselves to the most enigmatic aspects of our reality – sleep. We voluntarily (or involuntarily) enter this dormant state of being for 1/3rd of our life, each time waking up hours later to face the remaining 2/3rd of of the day.

What exactly happens when we are unconscious? You can always go to a sleep lab and have all sorts of machines monitoring your brain frequencies and other vitals so that you can learn more about how you sleep. But if you want the convenience of doing it yourself, you can try this $0.99 app for the iPhone called Sleep Cycle.

The setup

You start Sleep Cycle, leave it running, and place the iPhone face down on the mattress, somewhere near your head area. SleepCycle uses the accelerometer in an iPhone to detect motion as you sleep. This motion is interpreted as a proxy for how active your brain is at that time. When you wake up the next day, you can see a graph of your sleep activity the past night.

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Certain levels of activity are associated with different stages of sleep. Lowest activity corresponds to deep slumber when we have no dreams. Some activity corresponds to the stage of Rapid Eye Movement when we have all of our dreams. And high activity corresponds to light sleep – the kind that leaves you tired when you wake up.

Sleep graphs

I have been monitoring my sleep this way for a couple of months now. I have noticed that on average I seem to have 4 instances of REM like activity levels. Does that mean I have as many distinct dreams each night? Most research points out that this is in fact close to the average number of dreams humans have. However, I rarely remember my dreams; so this is insightful for me to understand that my brain is being creative while I am unconscious 🙂

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And then there are some days where I have interesting variations. For example, the two graphs below are quit extreme when compared to each other. According to the first one I plunged straight into deep sleep as soon as I lied down. But within an hour I was almost awake. I stayed in the high activity area dipping twice to catch 2-3 quick dreams but was pretty much sleeping lightly for the rest of the night. I am guessing it’s one of those nights when your dreams take input from what’s actually happening outside and distorts it into a fantasy dream world experience. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I dreamt that night so I have no way of validating this.

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The one on the right, however, suggests that I stayed in deep sleep for most of the night. I only had a dream around 5:00 am before going back to deep sleep. Is this one of the nights where I actually remember what I dreamt since there was only one? I am not sure because I really couldn’t remember what I dreamt.

Waking up at the “right” time

If you look closely at all the graphs there is one thing in common to almost all of them. They all end on an uptick in my sleep graph – did you notice that? This is no co-incidence. This is the second feature in this app which makes it an awesome alarm clock. You set the time you want to wake up and then use the app as described earlier. Around 30 minutes before your wake up time the app starts looking for increase in activity. As soon as it notices your body’s activity level going up, it triggers the alarm even if it’s 10s of minutes before your desired wake up time. The theory is that if you are woken up at a time when your body is naturally trending towards being active then you wake up feeling more active and less groggy.

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I am not sure I can say for certain that this helped me – it’s really hard to notice difference in grogginess – and I am never super happy to wake up 🙂 And that’s the other problem with the app – there’s no snooze button. So if I don’t want to wake up, I have to quit the app to shut the alarm. Then it stops recording consequent activity, though, so the graphs are not true to the actual time you wake up in case you snoozed.

Augmented mindfulness

At SXSW this year, Robert Fabricant of Frogg Design described Augmented Mindfulness. It’s the idea of collecting information about yourself, processing it, reporting it and then reflecting on it to effect change in yourself.

Augmented Mindfulness.jpg

Sleep Cycle is a great app for the curious and I highly recommend trying it out. However, this data can’t be exported, nor can it be analyzed or visualized in other ways. So it’s limited in how much it can help you in making deeper insights into yourself. It would be great if I could correlate this data with other data about me. For example, I could look at my tweets or social updates of the preceding day to analyze my sentiment and derive my mood and then find correlations with my sleep patterns and how I was feeling that day. Or I could compare it with the food I ate that day that I capture in my food journal.

My Fitbit finally got delivered today. It also lets you monitor your sleep and helps you reflect on your data. It will be interesting to compare how the data differs across the two systems. I will find out soon!

 

 

Mumbai or Bombay? Doesn’t matter. You’re probably saying it wrong anyway

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I was born and grew up in Bombay and I moved to the US a little less than 4 years ago. I have noticed many people here unsure about the correct name for the city. If you are not from India, and are reading this, then you have probably also had that question sometime in your mind: What’s the correct name, is it Mumbai, or is it Bombay?

First of all, if you have asked the question above, then pat yourself on the back because not everyone even knows those are two names for the same city. Secondly, don’t blame yourself for not being quite sure what’s the right thing to say because the answer to the question is not so straight forward. It may require a quick dive into the history of the country to understand the context behind it.

Bombay city in Bombay State

You might know that India was ruled by the British for 150 years until they finally left in 1947. But that sentence is misleading because India as a country was formed *after* the British left! Before and during the British occupation, there wasn’t as much a country of India as it was a combination of provinces and kingdoms neighboring each other within a geographical area demarcated by water on three sides and the Himalayas on the fourth. There had been periods in its history when most of the regions had come under a common ruler, but for all practical purposes, it was always a fragmented region of loosely connected autonomous territories with different languages and customs.

When the British left, the newly formed government of India faced the task of integrating the 600+ princely states into the idea of a single nation. Using a combination of force and negotiation, this largely succeeded, but not all regions could be integrated completely as there were many forces along regional, linguistic and religious lines that saw the borders and sovereignty of regions in different lights (The most famous one was the Kingdom of Kashmir)

One such region was the state of Bombay. Yes, it used to be the name of a state, with Bombay city as it’s capital (like New York, NY). Though the state covered a very large region that included Gujarati speaking people, the burgeoning city of Bombay was situated within a dominantly Marathi speaking population. In the years after India’s independence, there was an increase in sentiment within the Marathi speaking population to claim it’s own identity around a region that included the city of Bombay.

Bombay city in Maharashtra State

To cut a long story short, after many ups and downs, finally in the year 1960, Bombay state was split into two states: Maharashtra and Gujarat. Bombay city, the former capital of Bombay state, was now the state capital of the newly formed Maharashtra state.

Present political map showing Gujarat and Maharashtra state

And thus began the tension between a cosmopolitan, pluralist,  trading city being integrated into a new state formed under linguistic lines. Though the two new states were clearly defined along linguistic lines, it was hard to draw any lines within Bombay city which housed people from all over the country and from all religions and languages. There were tensions among the entitlement felt by Marathi speakers whose state this now was, and that felt by the other local residents of the city who didn’t understand why anything should change for them in the city they have always called home.

The world referred to the city as Bombay, the Marathi speakers always referred to it with the colloquial name Mumbai, while Hindi speakers from North India referred to it as Bumbai.

As is usually the case in any separatist or self-determination movement, there were political groups on different sides of the movement driven by a divided population. The dominant party in post-independence India was the Congress which had Gandhi and Nehru in its fold. But in the decades leading to the 90s, there was a surge in regional parties that addressed the sentiments of the local populations. The Shiv Sena, with a mainly xenophobic agenda against non-Marathi migrants to the city of Bombay started gaining prominence among the Marathi speaking population. Their name literally means Army of Shiv(aji) and they were known to use violence and force in pushing their ideology. The Marathi population itself was divided in its support for the party. Some could relate to the idea of respect for Marathi culture, but they didn’t find themselves aligned with the use of force and violence. Others were not comfortable with migrants of other communities raking in wealth and power and gaining prominence while they were unable to adapt to the change in this fast growing city. They sympathized with a political party which wielded power on their behalf and painted a picture of a glorious Marathi state and a glorious Marathi city of Mumbai where Marathis get preferential treatment in every sphere. During the infamous communal riots in Bombay in 1992, the chief of the Shiv Sena commandeered his footsmen to kill Muslims in the city and sent a clear message that his party was there to look after the Marathi population and to drive out “foreigners” and “intruders”.

Mumbai city in Mahrashtra State

On the rise of such a sentiment, coupled with many other political factors, in the year 1995, the Shiv Sena won the State elections and came into power. The first item on their agenda was to officially rename the city from Bombay to Mumbai, a symbolic gesture to claim the city for the Marathi population. There was some rhetoric added on to justify the change – the British left India 50 years ago, why should we still use the name they gave us?  But the message was clear:  Bombay belongs to the Marathi population and migrants from South India, North India and non-Hindu religions are unwelcome. This was also followed by a mass renaming of public places to honor, Chattrapati Shivaji a historic Marathi king. Victoria Terminus was renamed to Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. Sahar Airport was renamed to Chattrapati Shivaji Airport. The Prince of Wales museum was renamed to Chttrapati Shivai Museum. All business were required to display their names in English characters and in Marathi. Non-complying business were raided and vandalized.

The city was divided in its reaction. Some felt that the city had lost a huge part of it’s heritage, while some found it to be the culmination of decades of the pro-Marathi self-determination movement. There were oppositions and public protests. There were some small victories – the people were able to stop the Shiv Sena from repainting the city transport buses to match the color of their political flag. But the name stayed on.

So is it Bombay or Mumbai?

Most liberal Indians still prefer calling it Bombay. They are not opposed to the new name, but they don’t like the pro-violence, xenophobic political parties and the agendas behind the name change. However, it’s used interchangeable – it’s almost a factor of the the language you are speaking in which decides what name you use. Personally, if I speak in Hindi, I will always certainly use the word Bombay. If I am speaking in Marathi, Gujarati or Kutchi I will always use the word Mumbai. But when I am speaking in English, I end up using Bombay. And this is in part because it just flows naturally and also because of the incorrect way Mumbai is pronounced by most speakers of English:

Bombay is pronounced as Bomb-(b)ay which almost everyone gets right

In Hindi, it is pronounced as Bumbu(t)-ee, most non-Indians wouldn’t know this pronunciation exists

In Marathi, it is pronounced as Moombu(t)-ee

However, most English speakers pronounce it as “Moombye“. This is not how the Shiv Sena wants you to say it.

The region of Maharashtra has a great cultural history and has produced some of the best thinkers, saints and philosophers and has highly evolved poetry, prose and the arts. True Maharashtrians are rightfully proud of their heritage while being forward looking and in favor of peaceful evolution of society. They are not stuck on the spelling used to label their city nor are they threatened by an increasingly flattening world. So, you can say what you want, the only people you will offend are the Shiv Sena and it’s hard-line followers who don’t like you anyway. Others, the Bombayites or the Mumbaikars, are more accepting of people from other places, other religions (and other accents) and wouldn’t mind one bit whatever you say.

To put this in a larger context, here are the important dates in the history of the city:

1534 – Bombay islands were captured by the Portuguese.
1661 – The islands were gifted in the dowry to Charles II of England.
1668 – Charles II gave the islands to the East Indian Company on lease.
1708 – Bombay became the H.Q. of the East India Company.
1862 – The islands were merged to shape one stretch.
1869 – Suez Canal was opened and Bombay developed as an international port.
1947 – Bombay was declared the capital of Bombay state.
1960 – Bombay was made the capital of Maharashtra.
1995 – The name was changed to Mumbai

Allergic to your cat? Rub some dirt on it

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I have had several cats when I was in India and never had any allergies to them. So when we decided to get one here in the US allergies were the last thing on my mind. But as soon as we got the cat home, my nose started running and I couldn’t stop sneezing. We ruled out other things and quickly realized that I was in fact allergic to the kitty. I was also able to trace back similar outbreaks in the past to previous encounters with cats which I had earlier ignored.

We really wanted a cat, so giving it back was not an acceptable option. Nor could I go around popping a pill everyday or wearing a mask around home. So we started doing research into exactly what causes these allergies and what’s the best way to cope with them.

I was surprised to find out that cat hair has nothing directly to do with allergies. It’s actually the dander. And where does dander come from? It’s the cat’s saliva! When a cat licks itself, the saliva left behind on her body dries up into tiny microscopic particles and becomes airborne. These dander particles contain proteins that come from the saliva and it’s these proteins that cause an allergic reaction in people.

I found out different ways people cope with cat allergies. Some take monthly injections which help them suppress the allergic reactions. Some get air purifiers which remove allergens from the air. I also learnt that bathing a cat once a week keeps the dander low. Besides these, there seemed like not much one could do. I started looking at air purifiers which wouldn’t blow a hole in the pocket. We also bathed the cat. I was also beginning to look into anti-allergy treatments.

I don’t know how but I stumbled upon this product Earth’s Balance Dander Free for Cats. It claimed that all I needed to do was spray it on the cat once every few days and I should be allergy free. It sounded like snake oil and I was very skeptical. But before spending $100+ on an air purifier, it seemed reasonable to try out a $10 product and see it it worked.

And it worked! As soon as we sprayed it on our cat, I was allergy free. No more sneezing, no more runny nose, no watery eyes. It was happening, I could hold the cat and play with it and not worry about the disruptive reactions.

What’s really in the product? This brings us back to the original title of the post. Apparently, the only active ingredient in the spray is bacteria normally found in dirt. Yes, you heard that right. The product is nothing but a clear water suspension of dirt bacteria.

happy owner and kitty cat

How does it work? Well, this bacteria can neutralize the protein found in the dander which removes the irritant in it making the dander harmless. A sharp reader will notice the opening statement in this post –  “I have had several cats when I was in India with no allergies”. Have you made the connection yet? There’s more dirt in India –  cats get exposed to more dirt and their dander is automatically neutralized! No wonder I was never allergic to any cats in India. It’s this sterile environment in the US which causes problems

I used it every few days on the cat for the first few times. Now it’s been two weeks since she was last sprayed and I still don’t have any allergic reactions to the cat.  So if you have been on the fence about getting a cat due to allergies, I highly recommend trying this product.

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