The Lotus Notes Formula Language

A month ago, I mentioned that I had become a huge fan of IBM’s Lotus Notes, which we use all the time for absolutely everything at IBM. If I could run ssh sessions from within Notes, I’d use it for my development work too! (I’m going to ask some of the Notes design guys here if that’s planned for Hannover!)

Here’s an entry about Lotus’ Formula Language from the redoubtable Alan Lepofsky. This is simply amazing! I’m going to give this a try starting today!

If any of you guys have any doubts whatsoever about why Notes is such a wildly successful product, just go through Alan’s blog. This is a treasure trove of Notes tips, tricks and advice!

Arvind Thiagarajan – a most interesting tale!

Rediff.com has an interesting article about Arvind Thiagarajan, a 25-year-old Indian entrepreneur who, having come up with a revolutionary (I know that word is overused, but really!) technique for lossless data compression, went on to found MatrixView, a company “specializing in providing data compression and optimization solutions” for medical imaging . Two things stand out. One, the technique was so simple and straightforward that the scientific community was astounded to the point of being sceptical. Two, he set up a company whose products fell into a niche area dominated by imaging giants with huge research budgets and with expansive patent portfolios, with a technique whose own patent is still pending. That takes guts.

Most admirable. What isn’t is the reaction of the typical Rediff reader to this news article, instantly dismissing it as a “hoax”. But here’s another angle on this issue.

Sci-Fi Story I – The Brainwave

I wrote two little tales sometime in the past week, as part of a fun event that India Software Labs Pune organized, as part of the Science-Fiction story-writing competition. Now that the event is all over and done with, I thought it might be time for my vast reader population (please, please note that I’m always sarcastic!) to be offered the pleasure of reading these entries.

So here they are. The one that immediately follows, is my favourite (among the two), but the other one (in the previous post) won first prize! Enjoy!

The Brainwave

Gazing out onto the waterlogged area around Nariman Point, Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner Ramnath Borkar was not a happy man. And nor would you be, dear reader, if you had Borkar’s job. It seemed to him that just about everything around him was falling apart.

You see, Mumbai had been lashed with the most fierce of monsoons. The last time Borkar remembered seeing such fury was ten years ago in 2005, when he was in college. But this was at least twice as bad. Big promises had been made then, innumerable committees had been formed, but the infrastructure remained right the way it was. This year, there were no roads discernible in Mumbai. Your guess as to where the roads actually were under the water, was as good as that of the stranded citizen beside you. It would take months to drain away the water, since over the last ten years, the water table had risen – the city had “sunk” with respect to the sea. So here he was, reliving the monsoon of a decade past. Then he was in college, just another Mumbaikar. Today he was the Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, its de facto CEO. After the Mumbai Administration Act of 2009, the metropolis had been made a Special Administrative Region, with the BMC having full autonomy – and responsibility – for its functioning. An enviable job, you might think. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and no head in the city was uneasier than that of Ramnath Borkar.

The Opposition in the BMC had savaged the Government over charges of kickbacks over purchases from Indo-British Machinery, or IBM. The BMC had bought machines worth Rs. 1000 crore, a full 10% of its annual budget, as part of the Shanghai Human/Infrastructure Turnaround project, now in its 5th year, with its aim (still!) to turn the city into Shanghai. (That, dear reader, also gave him the most uncoveted title of Chairman of S.H.I.T.) These massive machines, a revolution in mechanical engineering, were capable of moving huge amounts of earth. Projects that took a dozen years could now be completed in a year’s time. The other large purchase, also from IBM, was a bunch of wall-building machines. Together, they were supposed to bring the S.H.I.T. project to a close, finally. Then came the sale of IBM’s heavy machinery unit to a Chinese firm named LenovEarth, and that was all it took for the Opposition to be up in arms against the purchase. “A sell-out to the Chinese!” “The Government knew of the deal all along!” and other such accusations had now put his political future on the line.

And the icing on the cake was the embarrassing bankruptcy of his son-in-law, Ramesh Usgaokar. What had made his daughter choose such a dim-wit was beyond his imagination. A 5-watt bulb was much brighter than he was. Entrepreneur, she had described him. Bah! He couldn’t even spell the word! The fool had grand plans of building a Hovercraft industry. For the teeming fishermen’s community in and around Mumbai. He had set up gargantuan manufacturing plants, arguing that “economy of scale” would make his hovercrafts so cheap, everyone could buy them! “Mera sapna, sabka apna!” was his slogan – even that wasn’t original! Hovercrafts?!?! What was the peanut-brain thinking?! Consequently, then, had come the inevitable failure, and bankruptcy. And he, Ramnath Borkar, was supposed to bail him out.

No, sir, things were not looking up for the Commissioner. Flooded roads. Next-gen building machinery. Hovercrafts. The words circled around him like vultures, spelling doom. Flooded roads. Next-gen building machinery. Hovercrafts. How was he going to get out of this? Flooded roads. Next-gen building machinery. Hovercrafts.

DING!!!

Brainwave! He knew what would save him! Save his Government! Save the city! Oh, and save the damn-fool of a son-in-law too!

All of his problems had fallen together, like pieces of a jigsaw, to form the perfect solution! Sunshine broke onto Borkar’s face! He considered running naked out onto the streets, a la Archimedes, screaming “Eureka!”, so elated was he, but decided hastily against it. He didn’t want a fresh attack from the Opposition about a lunatic Commissioner, especially if they had footage on National Television to prove it.

With alacrity, he convened a meeting of his cabinet. And outlined his plan to them. As they listened to their boss, a dozen sunshines broke onto a dozen faces of a dozen ministers!

Exactly one year later, Ramnath Borkar was a hero. The stuff legends are made of. Every single honour had been conferred upon him, national and international. He was scheduled to visit tens of universities the world over to address courses on Urban Administration. A Chinese delegation had met him only yesterday; they wanted to start a project to make Shanghai into another Mumbai. And today was the day, one year after that historic cabinet meeting, when he was ready to show his master plan for Mumbai to the world. From atop the Commissioner’s official vehicle, Hovercraft One, he began his speech:

“Bhaiyon aur Behenon!

Today we mark the completion of the Venice In Mumbai Project! We have dumped our transportation problems of the past century, into the dust-bin of history, where they belong! With our Hovercrafts, we can now cruise down our Waterways without any worries of traffic jams or delays! Indeed, who needs roads when we have our waterways? Who needs cars when we have hovercrafts?

Indeed, by replacing all of our roads with waterways, and cars with hovercrafts, we have achieved fuel and transportation efficiency other cities can only dream of! We have created Tomorrow’s Venice!

These enormous walls around the city are testimony to our expertise in infrastructure building. These are the edifices which will keep water flooded onto our roads, maintaining our waterways. We must thank IBM/LenovEarth for their EarthMovers and WallBuilders, without which we would never have been able to complete this undertaking in the short time span that we did!”

He looked across at the Opposition. There they were, looking black as thunder, unable to digest the fact that IBM had become the most admired company in India, and that Ramnath Borkar was reponsible for it. Then he glanced at his dim-wit son-in-law, waving a little foolishly to the assembled crowd. He had become rich beyond his wildest dreams, and he hadn’t a clue as to what had made it happen. Perhaps someday, some angel Up There would tell him it was his father-in-law. He concluded,

“Finally, I present before you Ramesh Usgaokar, Entrepreneur of the Year for 2016, whose company has built the hovercrafts that we all use. He has, singlehandedly, given birth to the Hovercraft manufacturing industry in the country!”

Sci-Fi Story II – Lotus MindNotes!

Srikanth Dev looked at the vast gathering of people in front of him. It was in this huge hall in the Leela in Mumbai, that the launch of IBM’s most revolutionary product yet, was being held. Perhaps the most revolutionary product ever. And it was he who was going to preside over the occasion. He felt a sense of immense pride mingled with great excitement. After all, it was his magnum opus, the culmination of years and years of hard work, the occasion he had lived the last twelve years for. He was, after all, the lead design architect for the product, the first IBM product that involved the medical community as much as it did the technology community. Doctors, neuroscientists, programmers, designers had all worked side-by-side for the past decade in the most secretive of locations to build this revolution.

Lotus MindNotes.

The first thought-based release of IBM’s Lotus Notes.

He cast his mind back twelve long years, to 2005. Fresh out of college, a year into IBM, he had proposed an idea so revolutionary, even the guys up at Watson Research had laughed and dismissed it. Quantum computers, they said, were more probable than what he was proposing. But he had persevered, worked long hours after his normal day was done, spoken to people from the collaboration software industry, the imaging community, medical scientists who worked on the cutting edge of neurological research, and had come up with an earth-shattering proposal – that Lotus Notes could be installed into peoples’ brains. Thought, he proposed, would be the user interface of the future. And Notes would be the first product that would showcase this. He also showed that it could be done. Not right then, but in ten years’ time surely.

Email, he stated, was at its core a representation of ideas in text. The very idea of thought to text conversion on one end and text to thought on the other, seemed terribly inefficient. Why couldn’t human beings simply transfer thoughts? If we could create a central thought server, we could simply “think out” the email, and “think about” the person(s) to send the email too, and Bang! Instantaneous email. That had led to the creation of the ThoughtDomino team. They had got working models of his “thought server” vision in five years’ time. Srikanth remembered the first time he had been invited to try out a pre-beta version of ThoughtDomino. He had simply thought “Hello World!”, and thought of the neuroscientist in front of him, and almost instantaneously, the doctor had smiled and repeated quietly, “Hello, World!”. The doctor had “received” his message perfectly! That was when he knew that they could Do It!

Next on the agenda was SameThought, the successor to Sametime. Conversations between two or more individuals could simply be carried out by thinking about them. There was no need to type out sentences, and read them from the screen. SameThought was simply a real-time exchange of thoughts. How superbly elegant! With the ThoughtDomino infrastructure in place already, SameThought was a cinch. The team up at India Research had a working prototype in two years’ time.

Then began the final march towards MindNotes. The release date was fixed internally as Christmas Eve, 2015. The plan was to release MindNotes/ThoughtDomino exactly ten years after Srikanth had first proposed the idea. But 2012 had been a horrible year for the team, one that pushed the release date back by two years. It had involved the MindCalendar component. The idea was that a reminder set in the MindCalendar would trigger a “memory popup”, like a thought that suddenly popped up in the user’s mind. The memory popup worked fine, except that it “overwrote” the thoughts that were in the user’s mind at the instant the reminder popped up. That had resulted in chaos for the test subjects, who were left with random gaps in their memory…. the FDA in the U.S. had stalled the development for months on end. Until the John Hopkins team had come up with a “multi-nerve-path” workaround. This was kind of like multithreading in the brain, where the popup and the existing thought process followed two different nerve paths. MindNotes had galloped full steam towards the path to completion ever since!

Today was Christmas Eve, 2017. The day after Srikanth’s 35th birthday. At 35, he was hailed as a genius, a miracle worker, both in the medical and the technology communities. He was etched into history forever! Now he began his introductory address. Every single one of the audience: the Chairman of IBM, the Prime Minister of India, the IBM top brass, the press, the entire crew of MindNotes/ThoughtDomino – had a copy of MindNotes in their brains. For today’s address, therefore, the spoken word would be unnecessary. He took a deep breath, and thought:

“Ladies and Gentlemen….!”

Suggested reading: The Economist

I’ve probably mentioned the online edition of The Economist sometime back. Well, I’ve become a regular reader since, and I strongly recommend it to all of you. Current affairs, Business, Strategy, Technology and even Politics, all on one site. I’d also recommend the Country-specific sections, for instance, the one on India here.

For a start, here’s what I’m reading right now:

Another year, another scandal – the Parmalat aftermath.
Bogus fears send the Chinese packing – CNOOC’s failed bid for Unocal.
Tiger in front – a comparative study of the Indian and Chinese reform paths.
Together at last – a feature on Indo-US relations.

Finally, check out the City-specific sections – for instance, the one on Mumbai.